Pandora's Box by nicksgal
Past Featured StorySummary:

A demon shrouded in only darkness. A curse that no one could break. An evil strong enough to be sealed by God. A coveted box full of secrets. What will be lost, gained, and remembered when the box is finally opened?


Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys, Fanfiction > Music > NSYNC Characters: AJ, Brian, Chris, Group, Howie, JC, Joey, Justin, Kevin, Lance, Nick, Other
Genres: Action, Adventure, Alternate Universe, Fantasy, Romance, Supernatural
Warnings: Death, Graphic Violence
Challenges:
Series: The Legendary Pandora
Chapters: 51 Completed: Yes Word count: 187975 Read: 49565 Published: 02/14/06 Updated: 03/29/08
Story Notes:
A note from January 2021: *COMPLETED* If you read this version of "Pandora's Box" you will get the entire story. In conjunction with the release of "Pandora's Necklace," I edited the entire story and posted the last updated chapters on 01/27. Though I won't lie to you, I'm doing a quick cursory edit now that the whole thing is completed, so the most minuscule things may change! Enjoy!

1. Chapter One: Awaken by nicksgal

2. Chapter Two: The Hidden Demon by nicksgal

3. Chapter Three: Within The Darkness by nicksgal

4. Chapter Four: Breathless by nicksgal

5. Chapter Five: Sorceress by nicksgal

6. Chapter Six: The Legendary Pandora by nicksgal

7. Chapter Seven: The Demon King by nicksgal

8. Chapter Eight: A Demon and A Dog by nicksgal

9. Chapter Nine: The Oracle of Safaiananpou by nicksgal

10. Chapter Ten: Heart of Warmth by nicksgal

11. Chapter Eleven: To Emeradotouhou by nicksgal

12. Chapter Twelve: Disappear by nicksgal

13. Chapter Thirteen: The Emerald Priestess by nicksgal

14. Chapter Fourteen: Shattered by nicksgal

15. Chapter Fifteen: Protection by nicksgal

16. Chapter Sixteen: The Demon Priest by nicksgal

17. Chapter Seventeen: Something Precious by nicksgal

18. Chapter Eighteen: The Gate Guardian by nicksgal

19. Chapter Nineteen: The Rose of Death by nicksgal

20. Chapter Twenty: Requiem by nicksgal

21. Chapter Twenty-One: Stranger by nicksgal

22. Chapter Twenty-Two: Battle Royal by nicksgal

23. Chapter Twenty-Three: Connected by nicksgal

24. Chapter Twenty-Four: The Endless Ice of Rubiihoppou by nicksgal

25. Chapter Twenty-Five: Deep Scars by nicksgal

26. Chapter Twenty-Six: Ruby Eyes by nicksgal

27. Chapter Twenty-Seven: Knot of Love by nicksgal

28. Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Final Demon by nicksgal

29. Chapter Twenty-Nine: Demonic Heart by nicksgal

30. Chapter Thirty: Invitation by nicksgal

31. Chapter Thirty-One: To The Castle by nicksgal

32. Chapter Thirty-Two: Stone Soldier by nicksgal

33. Chapter Thirty-Three: Abyss by nicksgal

34. Chapter Thirty-Four: Weapons Master by nicksgal

35. Chapter Thirty-Five: Vine Wielder by nicksgal

36. Chapter Thirty-Six: Pale Spirit by nicksgal

37. Chapter Thirty-Seven: Renee by nicksgal

38. Chapter Thirty-Eight: Seer by nicksgal

39. Chapter Thirty-Nine: Ruthless by nicksgal

40. Chapter Forty: Sinful Savior by nicksgal

41. Chapter Forty-One: Wavering by nicksgal

42. Chapter Forty-Two: Camaraderie by nicksgal

43. Chapter Forty-Three: Wishes by nicksgal

44. Chapter Forty-Four: Disciple by nicksgal

45. Chapter Forty-Five: God by nicksgal

46. Chapter Forty-Six: Chaos by nicksgal

47. Chapter Forty-Seven: Sorry by nicksgal

48. Chapter Forty-Eight: Denouement by nicksgal

49. Chapter Forty-Nine: Nozomeru by nicksgal

50. Chapter Fifty: Incomplete by nicksgal

51. Awards by nicksgal

Chapter One: Awaken by nicksgal
Author's Notes:

Thank you to everyone who has decided to take the time to read this story. I know it is not the average fan fiction, but please treat it kindly. I hope that in the end, everyone can find something important hidden within this story.

In the beginning, God sealed all the evils into one box. Famine, war, hate… All of these, and many more, inhabited that box together. The first woman, Pandora, had discovered the secret hiding place of Heaven’s box and took it within her hands. Some said it was a solid gold box hidden in the mountains, others that it was intricately carved mahogany in a hidden palace, still others that it was a sealed treasure chest deep in some ocean grotto. Either way, the box intrigued Pandora. It had no lock, only the will of Heaven kept it closed, but Pandora’s will was stronger, and she was able to open it. From within the box, all the evils of the world dispersed. Famine, war, hate… All these, and many more, were reborn in the world. Pandora had earned her death, but… there was one last redemption for her and the world. Inside the box, one light still lingered, the light of hope. And as that light remained in the box, one day the hearts of men would be able to conquer all evil and light the world with the torch called hope.

~*~



BAM! A girl grabbed her head as she lifted it wearily from a desk. Her light brown hair fell in cascades around her face as she raised her head and let out a shrill squeak. She tightened her grip on her head, wincing quickly and muttering some random nonsense beneath her breath amidst a few more high pitched squeaks.

A cheerful, feminine laugh rang through her ears. “Slept in class again, Minako?” A blond girl held a small black book bag out to the babbling underachiever.

Minako still held her head within her hands. Her large brown eyes narrowed as she growled. “Shut up.” Finally regaining her composure, Minako stood up from her seat and brushed her hair back behind her shoulders. She then adjusted the light pink bow at her chest, so that the bow hung loosely from her middy blouse. And finally, she pushed her white knee high socks down toward her ankles and the straps of her black patent shoes. She then clapped her hands before reaching for the book bag the other girl held out patiently. “Okay! Let’s go!”

The blonde haired girl giggled once more as she ran her fingers against the strands of her hair pulled back by bright red barrettes. “Is this special for today only, or do you do this every day when I’m not looking anymore?” She was about the same height as Minako with slightly shorter hair and a rounded face. Her outfit resembled the original condition of Minako’s, as they were school uniforms. She placed her fingers around the straps of her backpack and resituated the weight on her back.

Minako stuck her tongue out at the blonde haired girl. “Only for you, Renee.”

Renee giggled again and rolled her eyes. “How lucky, I’m the only one that gets subjected to your slob-like ways.”

Minako put her hands on her hips and whined,” If you keep laughing, we’ll never get to go!!!!” She slung the book bag over her shoulder and continued to whine, “And I’m not a slob…”

Her giggles continued. “Because I can’t laugh and walk at the same time?” She gave a quick wink. “And your unkempt bow tells me otherwise…”

She clenched her fist. “Well excuse me for not liking tight things around my neck!” She shook her head quickly. “No, just… I want to get there quickly…”

“Because Damien is hot?”

“No!!!!!! I wanna see the show!!!! I paid good money!!!!”

Renee put her hand to her face. “You’d think that with all the time we lived here, we’d have gone more often...” She removed her hand from her face. “And besides, it’s not like it was so expensive…”

Minako grabbed Renee’s hand and began running. “Look, I don’t care! This is no time to contemplate! That and my mom will be so sad that I’m missing her favorite shows!”

Renee laughed as she followed Minako’s quickened pace. “I think you’ll live for one day.”

“But… My mom was buying angel food cake!”

Renee shook her head. “It’s a wonder you’re not overweight.”

“I have a dancer’s body… It’s such a curse.” She nodded her head in a straightforward manner.

Renee clenched her fist. “Don’t say that with a straight face, Minako!!”

“Green isn’t a very flattering color on you, Renee,” Minako mused, a sickeningly huge grin covering her face.

“Arrogance doesn’t fit you well either,” Renee scoffed.

“What color is arrogance anyway?”

“Brown.”

“You’re mean, Renee!!!”

"Just telling the truth."

"Mean!!"

Renee laughed again as they continued running down the crowded street.

Cars sped by at lightning speeds on the road next to them. They pushed their way through the crowded sidewalk, only half mindful of the rushed people beside them. Overhead, the buildings loomed to impossible heights, making them seem almost small and meaningless within their own world. The increasing cloudiness of the day enveloped the busy streets.

“Do you think it will rain, Renee?” Minako held her hands in front of her and briefly examined the sky.

Renee smirked. “So you can ponder the weather, but I can’t laugh?”

Minako gasped. “That’s right! We’ll be late!”

Renee sighed and shook her head derisively. “You need to work on that focusing problem of yours…”

“It’s not a focusing problem!”

“My mistake, studying problem.” Renee winked.

Minako clenched her fist around her book bag. “I don’t have a studying problem!”

Renee winked again. “You’re right, it’s a disorder.”

“A disorder is worse than a problem!” Minako fumed as she ran past Renee.

Renee laughed as she reached her hand out to Minako. “Wait, wait. It was a joke!”

“Then at least make it funny!” Minako pouted. “You’re cruel, Renee!”

Renee continued laughing. “Sorry, sorry.”

“And don’t apologize if you’re not sorry, Renee!”

“Sorry…”

“You are not!”

Renee continued laughing as they ran down the street.

Even in the rain, their bright world shined brilliantly. It was a world where any sadness and darkness was buried far away from the surface and its inhabitants lived in a world of unending light. Though, in the end, that existence seemed somewhat unfulfilling. There are people who look forward to those sad, dark, and unfortunate days in the rain because brightness is dull without complimentary darkness.

~*~



After what seemed like an endless run, the studio finally stood before them. It was a bright, energetic room overlooking the square below. So many times, they had looked up to it, but had never actually been inside. It was a dream come true for them, like many others who had stood before the magnificence of this place. It was a place where happiness lit up the world in an instant. The audience had begun to gather on the tiered steps. They were two of fifty guests that day, finally realizing a long kept dream.

“We get to be on TV!!!” Renee squealed. “On TRL!!!!”

The two girls clasped hands and began to jump up and down. Their squeals were shining beams of sun on the otherwise gloomy day outside the window. Even as the fog settled the streets, their sunbeams broke through the darkness. They scrambled quickly to their seats, before the best spots were taken.

The show went as normally, the crowd cheered and the colorful, enticing videos flashed across the screen. As the show began, Minako's heart had been elated, almost to impossible heights, but it sank deeper and deeper into the ground as it progressed. Would it be buried six feet under in her lingering disappointment? What am I waiting for? There's something missing… But what? I can’t remember any more. Aren’t I happy? To finally be on the TRL stage? But there’s something from very long ago that I wanted… She put her hand to her head, letting out a low breath. Something from long ago? What exactly is it that my heart is missing?

The studio swirled into darkness. Minako’s face grew pale. Everyone around her was still cheering and smiling, even Renee. Don’t they notice this empty feeling swallowing them? She lowered her head and turned slowly to face Renee’s smiling face. “Renee…” Minako whispered.

Renee turned to face Minako. She reached her hand to Minako's arm. “Why are you so pale?” She blinked suddenly and her body shuddered forcefully. “I just felt really empty, like something was missing… Strange…”

“Me too.” Minako lowered her gaze. “What is it?”

Renee's eyes darted back and forth, looking at both sides of the room. She put her hand to her forehead. “I don’t remember, but there's something that should be here… from before… Something very important… It almost seems like it’s crying about being lost. What an ominous feeling…”

Minako put her hands on the step. It almost seemed to be cracking slowly beneath her. “Renee…” She reached her hand toward her friend’s arm.

Renee lowered her head; her eyebrows pinched as she smiled regretfully. “Minako, sorry… I want to remember… But… I don’t know…”

“Don’t apologize when you don’t have to…” Minako lowered her head and pulled her hand back.

Renee laughed quietly. “You’re right… I always forget… Sorry…”

Minako clenched her hand into a fist. Why is this place filled with such ominous darkness? Why do we remember such an odd and impending feeling? She looked down to the step. Why? Why does it feel like unending darkness is consuming this place? And, why do I feel like it’s pulling me under?

The step shattered underneath Minako. All that existed in the world seemed to be an endless void of darkness. She plunged into the void, an ominous river of blackness. She unclenched her fist and lashed her hand toward Renee, who still sat on the step. “RENEE!!!!!!!!!!”

Renee thrust her hand out, only a few moments too late. Minako had slipped from her grasp into the unending darkness of their ominous incomprehensible memories. She stood quickly. “Minako!!!” She put her hand to her head as she collapsed back to her seat. The darkness vanished and she was back within the world of the cheering crowd and the imagery of musicians. She folded her hands across her lap, then whispered, "What was that strange vision? Minako… Where on earth did you go?" She shut her eyes. "No… Where on earth could you go?"

~*~



Renee ran out onto the street. She whipped her head from side to side. Minako… Where are you? She lowered her head. That vision… Was it a dream, or… was it something more important? She clenched her fist. No one else had seen that unending black world, I’m sure of it. If they had, they wouldn’t have been cheering with such fervor afterwards. Maybe I’ve just gone insane… Minako probably slipped past me in the rush to leave. She would be at home, sadly asking her mother what happened on TV and if she could have some of the cake. She laughed to herself. That’s exactly what Minako would do.

She gasped quickly and raised her hands to her heart. Minako… If… If she’s just at her house then why is this immense sad feeling washing over my heart? She lowered her head. Minako who watches soap operas and laughs with her mother… Minako who never has a sad thought in her head, even over troublesome subjects like her grades. Renee clenched her fist again. Minako… Where are you suffering all alone? Is it… somewhere in the world I can never reach? What a cruel thing… I want to be with you… I want to hold you close and keep that darkness from consuming you. That black void… It must have been some dark world of only nightmares… Renee held her hand to her face. Minako… Hold on to your hope… I will be there as soon as I can… Somehow…

But how on earth do you get to a place that doesn't exist anywhere?

~*~



Minako stirred and opened her eyes slowly. Darkness? She moved her fingers slowly, almost laboriously. Where? Renee? Is this TRL? She shifted her eyes to her hair lying limply on the ground almost as if it were dead. She lifted her head slowly, raising her hand to her forehead as she sat up. Everywhere's a black canvas. It’s nothing like our world. It’s completely empty... Where is this? She blinked as her eyes continued to adjust to the dim lighting. This place is like an empty prison. Am I the only person in this world of unending darkness?

At that moment, a pair of wide, bright, yellowish pupils stared back at her. “Another soul has joined us, how unfortunate to awaken…”

Minako scooted backward and gaped. “Who’s there? Where are we?”

As her eyes adjusted to the lighting fully, she could make out the figure for the first time. Her darkened hair hung limply in front of her face, it was almost as black as the room surrounding them. Her clothing was dirty and torn, her face was yellowed and worn. How long has this girl been here? How long has she suffered all alone in this world of unending darkness? No… There seemed to be hundreds of those same yellowed eyes glowing back at her… How many girls live in this unending void?

“I should ask you the same question.” Her solemn voice and eyes were almost as hollow as the darkness.

“What is this place?” Minako asked, tears forming in her eyes. The creatures before her seemed broken and almost faceless. Had the pure blackness of the world done this to them or was it something else? Could darkness really harm a person so much that they changed?

Her shadowed hands rose to her heart; for that moment in time, the expression on her face seemed almost angelic. “All of us slept in a beautiful dream. They wanted us to forget, but we remembered… And now we suffer…”

“Beautiful… dream?” Minako lowered her gaze.

“A world of only light and happiness… There was never any hurt or despair. It was a world without darkness and suffering… But…” She clenched her fist. “Fragmented memories pulled us into darkness… Memories we never had…” She lowered her head. “Memories of only sadness…”

“Sad memories of what?”

“Before…”

“What happened before?” Minako clenched her hands to her heart. That ominous feeling at TRL… “Something… that didn’t exist in the world…”

“I do not know… But I remember that there was something…” She shut her eyes. “I dreamed that I was searching for something, from so long ago… What was it? Where was it? But… When I woke up, I was here. And this is where I have been ever since… Searching for something that existed only in my heart…”

“Is this a nightmare?” Minako’s voice shivered, an echo of the rest of her body. Something that can't be found… Something that doesn't exist anywhere on earth… Something that makes my entire body cry out to it…

“Wouldn’t that be nice? Then we could wake up to find everything like before.”

“Why are you still waiting here?”

“There is a legend of a great power sealed in a box. That power is the key to our existence. But… It seems that power was sealed away because it was evil. It’s unfortunate we depend on it more than anything.” She buried her face in her knees as she held them to her chest.

So much sadness fills this place. The creatures here are suffering. I can only clearly see this one figure shrouded in shadow, but all those other sad eyes are staring at me.

She raised her head once more. “But… There is a woman… Pandora… She can save us…”

“Pandora?” Minako moved her hands from her heart, blinking her eyes. A woman who can save everyone?

“Deep within her heart, Pandora knows the location of the box. She can light up the world with the torch called hope.” She turned her head slowly. “When she opens the box, we will all be saved from the monster and the evil of the world will vanish.”

“Evil and monsters? What’s going on here?”

The figure shook her head. “Only Pandora knows… Perhaps… Perhaps you are her?”

“No… I’m Minako…” Her voice quivered. Why can’t I help? Why is there only one powerful woman who could save the world from this unending darkness and monsters?

“No… I suppose you couldn’t be Pandora… Pandora can understand the vague memories that only whisper in our hearts.”

“What do I do?” Minako’s hands shook violently. Where is Renee? She’d been there with me and felt the emptiness with me, but… Where is she now? Minako shivered as tears began forming in the corners of her eyes. Renee… Where on earth are you? What do I do without you here? Renee…

The figure vanished within the shadows. The piercing, yellow eyes glimmered for a moment, then vanished into the dark abyss. Her low voice called to Minako through the blackness. “There is nothing you can do… Only Pandora holds the torch of hope.”

Pandora… A woman who carried a torch of hope to light the world… Minako huddled against the wall and shivered. The lights of the eyes no longer lighted this world… A world of only darkness… It was terrifying… “Renee…” Tears dropped from her eyes and burst violently on the ground like a rainstorm. Where in the world am I? Can you find me in this darkness? Renee…
Chapter Two: The Hidden Demon by nicksgal
Minako jolted her head. Did I doze off in this terrible place? If so, why aren’t I back with Renee? If this place is only a nightmare, then sleeping should let me go back home… back to the beautiful dream world, our world… Even if it wasn’t real, it was bright and happy… Warm sun and unlimited possibilities in the sky... And… I had Renee. Not like this place. It’s cold like Siberia with no light in front of my eyes. Maybe the blizzard outside is too blinding. Maybe I’ve found refuge in a cave where only insects skitter across the floor among the remains of the long deceased, frozen time capsules in this barren winter wonderland. But worst of all, I’m alone. I miss the warmth and comfort of being with someone, anyone… She shivered again and hugged her knees. Is this what it means to be lonely? Renee… She buried her head in her knees. Please… Come find me, Renee…

A clicking and scraping noise resounded in her ears. Minako’s heart did a backflip in her chest. Someone or something is coming. Her legs trembled violently as she gripped the wall tightly with her hand. She finally managed to stand and backed toward the wall on her unstable feet until she was absorbed in its shadow. Closer and closer, the clicking and scraping grew louder. Who exists in this world outside of this ominous cage? She tried to cover her breath in the shadow as well, but it would not allow her to hide. Her heart pounded like the crashing waves of the ocean. Even if I can hide my breath, the footsteps could definitely hear my heart crying from the darkness. Doom approached, it was silent like death. Minako clenched her eyes shut tightly, hoping to further shield herself from the ominous footsteps. But… I have to know… She opened her eyes slowly. Just who do these footsteps belong to? Who else could exist within this world? And… especially outside of this suffocating cage? Who was strong enough to overcome the impending darkness? Didn’t they say that there were monsters here? Is this a monster?

“Well…” He smirked, crossing his arms across his chest. The chains attached to the cuffs decorating his wrists danced lightly against his torso. “It seems to me that we have some new company…”

Minako’s eyes grew wide as she cupped her hand to her mouth, desperately trying not to cry, scream, or vomit. It’s terrible! No, horrifying!

He was a tall man. His solemn, yet twisted happy face seemed tired, worn, alone, and slightly unhinged. Before the rest of his facial features came into view, his crystalline blue eyes pierced through the darkness. Whatever light managed to exist in this place reflected off his fair hair. But did all of this make him a man? A few inconsistencies with that theory existed. If he was indeed an average man, why did horns sit nestled among his fair hair? And why did his hands and feet end in claws? His whip-like tail seemed to wag in delight and the limply resting large, flesh colored wings on his back were impossible to ignore.

Was he even human? Demons who were half-man, half-beast, and decorated in chains beckoned the world’s misguided souls to the depths of their fiery abyss. They were composite creatures, born from the sinful souls of the misguided man. And yet, to live in this blackened abyss, was he more sinful than any mere man? Still, his demonic characteristics were more than composite, they were almost mystical, resembling a legendary dragon. But those composite demons - minions of the fiery abyss - did not possess wings at all. Wings belonged to the angels of Heaven. The strongest of all the demons, after all, was the devil called Lucifer, an angel that had fallen from Heaven for his sinful heart. And then, to further pull himself from God, he pierced his own wrists with chains to destroy his wings and then he became a composite monster, the torso of a man with broken wings and the hind legs and horns of a goat.

Wings and chains… I’ve seen them in books before, creatures of the underworld... Minako backed away from him slowly. This terrible satanic minion probably has his way with girls like me… before he eats them for breakfast.

His clawed hands fingered the lock on the door and the chains rang against the bars. His claws were like keys, the lock opened with ease. He stepped into the cage that contained the girls.

I’m not sure how many of them are in this cage, but I remember the infinite pairs of gleaming, yellow eyes that always watched me through the darkness. All of them now hid in the shadows and I’m left alone, standing up to their monster. The girls have made me Saint George and chosen me to fight their dragon. Minako continued to step away from the door as the metronome within her heart kept setting its tempo even faster.

The creature now stood within the prison, towering over all of its inhabitants as the giant monster who would reign above their city. “You just got here, didn’t you?” he asked Minako, reaching his clawed hand toward her wrist.

Minako pulled her arm back quickly, but his claws were lightning quick and he latched onto her arm before she could rescue it. Minako pulled at her arm endlessly, but it was a worthless attempt, the creature would not loosen the vice of his grip.

Minako’s hands trembled as she stood face to face with him, wrapping her free fingers around her wrist as she continued to pull on it. “Where is this place? Why do you keep these girls imprisoned here? Is your world so unappetizing that you would trap women from another world for your pleasure?”

The creature’s eyes were blood red as he tightened his grip on her arm. It was as if he intended to squeeze her blood from her arm like it was wine to accompany his supper. He turned his head and threw her arm back toward her in disgust.

Minako clenched it with her free hand and took one more step back.

“Do you… Do you really see me as that kind of monster?” He growled quietly. “I’m trapped here too, you know…” He looked upward and wrapped himself in his arms. “There was such light and warmth in the world, wrapped tightly in God’s embrace, a star in his endless sky. I shined so brightly, and it was heaven. But...” His eyes narrowed as his expression grew cold and his fist clenched as he bore his fangs. “But it was a lie! Shunned by God’s love, turned away from the warmth and light and the endless stretch of Heaven… To be a monster, to inhabit the darkness, all alone… Was this my fate all along? To be embraced so warmly, so lovingly, to be brought so far up, that I would fall even farther, even faster?” He snarled. “I hear all of you! Endlessly, you speak of hope for something you remember. Sealed in a box by God? How pathetic! You love evil, then no wonder you’re all here in this nightmare! Pandora, your savior, will she really come to rescue you? Why would she come down here to this stark, black hell to rescue the Devil’s consorts? You’re all pathetic!” He began to laugh, low at first, but it grew louder and more maniacal.

Minako’s heart leaped into her throat. She swallowed hard to return it to its rightful home. It still was not enough. To feel so loved, to be so full… To lose it all in one moment and be left with nothing. How selfish of me for sobbing about being away from Renee. He may have been a demon, but he lost all his warmth, love, and all his memories of why he was shunned in such a way. They all had… Everyone here, they had some sort of memory, very distant and clouded in the white hell blizzard surrounding them; as they were interned deeper in the blizzard, their memories of the golden dream world slipped further away from them. But unlike this demon, they clung to a far off light. Whether it existed here or not, they knew it existed somewhere and that it would save them. Pandora, the woman who held high the torch lit with hope would save them.

“Ummm…” Minako reached toward the demon, but her hand fell short as he stepped back toward the bars of the cage.

His claws brushed against the metal bars of the prison, a quiet ringing resounded in their ears. He lowered his head. “It’s not… It’s not that you’re pathetic… But… But after all these years, your hope never wavered, your faith stood so strong…” His claws gripped the bars as he turned back to them, to Minako. “I wish… I wish I were still like you, so full of hope and belief in the light of Pandora…”

Minako lowered her head. “Don’t wish to be like me… I’m the newest one here, remember?” Minako crossed her arms and wrapped her hands around her elbows. “I still can’t handle being away from Renee or my own world…”

He cocked his eyebrow. “You really did just arrive?”

Minako nodded her head. “Do you normally come to visit this cage?”

“I don’t…” he murmured, “The light…”

Minako raised her head. “The light?”

He turned his head toward the bars slowly, his expression changing to that of an almost helpless loneliness. “Stolen from the loving arms of God, cold and lonely in the darkness, I was promised the beautiful priestess Pandora... All the demons from all the kingdoms were. Four priestesses would emerge in the midst of this tragedy, one for Rubiihoppou, one for Emeradotouhou, one for Topazuseihou, and one for Safaiananpou. She would bring with her the location of the box, hidden deep within her heart. And she would find all her demons.” His grip loosened, as if he was too weak to grab hold of the safety of the bars, his pride’s strength faltering. “I waited every day for her, so she could place me back into the welcoming arms of God. I waited every day…”

Minako clasped her hands to her heart. “It’s okay to feel scared when you’re lonely… Being lonely is hard for everyone… Nobody likes it...” She took a hesitant step and reached her hand toward him.

He lowered his head and clenched his hands around the bars tightly. “Don’t you dare pity me! I’m not that frail to feel scared or lonely!”

“But… You’re all alone…” Another step.

“Being alone and being lonely are different. People who are lonely don’t have the strength to stand. I’m standing, why can’t they?”

Minako stopped and lowered her gaze, examining the room. People who did not have the strength to stand… All the inhabitants of this room were like that… aside from me and this demon who stood and gripped the metallic bars of the cage. Is it possible to be lonely and still have faith and hope? Or is this a façade? She clenched her fist. “Then give them the strength to stand! Aren’t they all here so one of them can be Pandora? Choose one!” She swept her arm out across the cage.

He shook his head. “None who ever appeared within this prison fit her qualifications…”

“All of them have hope for the future. Isn’t Pandora the one who carries the torch of hope?” Another step.

His shoulders seemed to sink as he tightened his grip on the bars again. “The women called Pandora are more than mere mortals… Carrying a torch of hope for everyone is more difficult than carrying it for yourself alone…”

“Is it the name, then?” Another.

“No… That would be too simple. A name is merely an identification for something…”

“So choose one and name her Pandora… That’s how it works, right?” Another.

“We give her the title Pandora because she is already the one who should receive such a title… Calling another such a name would only anger the true Pandora…”

“And you said she is supposed to be beautiful, surely any woman here is as beautiful as she should be…” Another.

“Does beauty make a person into what they truly are?”

Minako lowered her head. People are what they are because of who they are… Outside factors may give them some advantages… But… People grow using what they are already made of… She lowered her head.

“Her heart… emanates warmth…” His voice shook.

Minako raised her head. Someone who holds the torch called hope… She must be strong enough to light it on her own.

He turned back toward her, his eyes filled with tears as though his heart was afraid to move forward or stay back. He lowered his head, but glanced up at her face. So pretty, yet already showing the suffering of this desolate hell of darkness. He clenched his eyes shut quickly. I can’t look at her face, it’s pitiful and heartbreaking.

Minako reached her arms toward him and pulled him closely within her embrace. “It’s okay… I know you’ll be alright.”

He started to shrink back, but his knees began to drop from under him as he crumpled in her arms. So fragile and weak, a china glass doll with the physique of a demon.

This creature is a demon… Right? And if that’s true, why do I feel such heartbreak toward him? It’s like a knife in my heart. Why is my heart crumbling as his tough exterior shatters on the floor? Minako tightened her grip on his frame. Is his heart made of glass too? Wouldn’t that hurt him? I can do that, at least… I can keep him from shattering. “I’ve been selfish...” Her eyes began to fill with tears. “I was miserable here, ripped away from Renee... I thought I was suffering. But… You’ve waited down here all these years, praying for a priestess who won’t come. Is she just too wrapped up in the dream we have all awakened from? I’m not sure, but… but it seems unfair for her to leave you down here when you need her more than you will admit.”

He looked up at her with his weak eyes, even as his head began to fall back toward the ground. “She doesn’t exist…” His voice shook. “She doesn’t... exist… anywhere in the world!”

“No!” Minako tightened her grip. “You’ve been alone all these years… Waiting down here in the depths of darkness for someone who’s supposed to save you… If you knew she didn’t exist, why would you wait? Her heart is sleeping, silently, waiting for the moment she needs to be here… I know it! I know she’ll come, so… so don’t think she doesn’t care about you… and everyone…” The tears began falling lightly down her face.

A slight smile crossed his face as his voice broke. “So… much… faith… If only… I could… be so strong… But… but I… don’t know… what to do… anymore…”

Minako held him closer in her embrace as the tears continued to fall from her eyes. “You’re not so weak… I would have given up long ago. No… even now I feel like my heart is breaking… But, even if it’s hidden, your faith has clearly never faltered… That is such enormous strength…”

He tried turning his head from her, but his weakness overcame him and his eyes remained fixed on her face. This girl... is that type of person. It’s too much… a person like that… A kind person... I feel sorry for her. Kind people are clung to, they’re sought out, and taken advantage of… By people… and creatures… like me… That is why… That's why I avoided the women here… and left them alone… I don’t want them to be involved especially when I’m just their monster… I can do it on my own… Yes, I’ll keep running on my own… He lowered his head and attempted to raise his hand to his face… Tears… I don’t have to be understood… I don’t care if they’re scared of me… If they hate me... Or, if I’m alone… He ran his arm lightly across his face. I promised myself I would never cry, but… I’m sorry…

He thrust his arms around her body, knocking her backwards to the ground with the weight of his body and chains. He buried his face in her chest.

I’m sorry… I’m going to cling to you. I’m really... powerless on my own… I lied… I’m so weak… He shut his eyes as a few lone tears streamed down his face. “I… I don’t know… what… to do anymore… I… just… don’t know… I can’t… do anything… on my own… By myself…”

Minako wrapped him tightly within her arms as she sat up. “I know there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely… But… Being by yourself is scary… Being alone… is a very frightening way to live…”

His head fell downward from the strain of trying to sit up with her. I can’t… I can’t stand up… on my own… with my own power… His eyes began to close in fatigue, as his grip around her body weakened. “How warm… Your embrace is… so much… like a current… flowing through me…” His breathing was shallow. “My name…”

“What?” Minako compensated for his weakening grip by tightening her own as much as she was able to.

“Pandora… the priestess… she knows… knows my name… Maybe not… on the surface… But… but… her heart… will react to it…”

Minako ran her hand across the back of his head, trying to calm his restlessness.

“Nickolas…”

Minako pulled her hand back from his head as it trembled. Her heart jumped into her throat. Somewhere, so long ago, I remember that name deep in my heart… ”Nickolas… No… Nick...”

His mouth uttered the last words he could manage before his weak body gave out. “Nick?”

It rang through her ears like the last whisper of a long forgotten history, trying to be rediscovered. The priestess Pandora knew the names of the demons in her heart… Pandora… The woman who held high the torch bearing the light of hope… She was a selfish girl who was unable to awaken from the beautiful dream in which she lived… Her true name wasn’t Pandora at all, it was Minako.

End Notes:
This is the chapter where the country names first appear, so let’s go over how to pronounce them as approximately as possible in English. Hope these help!

Safaiananpou ("Sapphire South"; pronounced sah-feye-ah-nah-n-poh with the final “oh” held)

Emeradotouhou ("Emerald East"; pronounced ay-may-rah-doh-toh-hoh with the final two “oh” held; see below for more information on pronouncing r sounds)

Topazuseihou ("Topaz West"; pronounced toh-pah-zoo-say-hoh with the “ay” and final “oh” held)

Rubiihoppou ("Ruby North"; pronounced roo-bee-hoh-poh with the “ee,” “p,” and final “oh” held; additionally, the initial r is more of a soft r sound -- an alveolar flap -- similar in execution to how American English speakers would form the double t in “better” or a Spanish r without the trill)

While we’re here, our main gal’s name is pronounced “Mee-nah-koh” (though she and Nick tell you that later)
Chapter Three: Within The Darkness by nicksgal
The ominous darkness lingered in the air. After all these years, it was stagnant and cold. It arose from the shadows for the sole purpose of stealing life. Death was the so-called light of darkness. It was this reason alone that the beautiful creatures - who may even be revered as gods - were pale and sickly with gleaming yellow eyes; the darkness had stolen their humanity. Were all who lingered there turned into demons by the darkness?

The darkness itself seemed to reflect the heart that the demon Nick had acquired. It was so like creatures to be shaped by their habitats. And yet, he seemed to be hard, rigid, and unyielding. Was the environment affected, instead, by his own heart? Was that the reason it had become such a desolate, lonely place where only death and darkness existed? And what of hope, the only light that retained a person’s heart and spirit? Where was it now? The very fuel of light, of life, was so misguided, so lost that it was missing in the depths. But, it existed somewhere, hiding, all alone. And somewhere there was a power that could restore it to everyone there. Wasn’t the demon dwelling in the darkness another entity entirely? He hid there, perhaps by no choice of his own, waiting and praying for his other life. Hope would restore it. All alone, he was merely existing and waiting to be found for as long as he could remember. Finally, the Priestess Pandora had arrived to rescue his heart.

But what exactly was the Priestess Pandora?

Minako opened her eyes wearily. The darkness must have swallowed all the strength in the room, because she found herself on the floor with her head leaned over the demon.

The demon, Nick, rested his head in her lap. Curled in a ball with his tail wrapped around him and his wings folded down, he resembled a child. He slept so peacefully and looked angelic, despite his otherwise supposedly grotesque appearance. Though his face had been so hard and unforgiving, she now saw it with a new perspective. His features were not as rigid as before, and were actually quite soft. His eyelashes rested lightly on his cheeks as his eyes were calmly closed. His eyes had been so intense, but now he seemed to find peace in his rest. His face had been so pale and sickly, but now his cheeks seemed to pink. His lips, which were much fuller than Minako had noticed, actually curved into a slight smile. His tousled hair fell around his face lightly. Did he find peace in knowing he was protected? Even as the stale air loomed around him, she held his heart in her hands. It was safe there, even its glass would not shatter.

Minako smiled at his peaceful face. Could hope be restored to him from its hiding place? Before, he had spoken of his disheartened feelings toward the priestess Pandora and all the others for their faith, because he believed everything to be a lost cause. But now it seems like hope is returning to him because I’m here. Maybe his hope was never really lost. Even if it was hiding, is there still hope in all people?

She closed her eyes. Pandora was the guardian who lit the torch called hope. And, as Nick had said, the names of the demons are resting in my heart. They seem very faint and hidden just beneath the surface, but they’re there in a very small, fragile whisper. They’re calling to me, but it doesn’t seem real...

She put her hand to her heart. That stinging feeling… It’s almost more painful than a cut or stab. It lingered sadly… Like it’s something very close to my own person... Am I like those characters in the movies that die in one realm and are reborn in another one? Have I suffered with these demons before? Or, was I born to suffer with them? It feels strange wanting to break down into tears for a creature I’ve never met. Still… for a demon he seems… very human…

She pulled him closer and pet his head gently. He stirred and his feet fluttered slightly.

What’s the difference between a demon and a human? Is it appearance alone? Or is it something even more vital? Does a demon possess a different kind of heart from humans? And Pandora… Is she a demon herself? It almost seems like she would have to be something sinister to associate herself with creatures that live and breathe darkness. But do they really do that?

Minako lifted her hand lightly and Nick’s eyes opened slowly.

He blinked as though he were in a daze, as if it were the first time he had slept so soundly in a long while. He moved his head so that his weary eyes could look into hers. Those baby blues of his were the ocean of his troubles. Every pain, suffering, longing, and wish rested in that ocean. None of these fell to the depths of the abyss, instead floating on the surface. The emotions that had capsized were happiness and faith, but at least his faith began to rise to the surface once more. How was it that such heavy emotions could float on the surface of his eyes and his heart? His ice cold stare was beginning to melt.

Do they tell him that his eyes look sad and cold?

His weary eyes still blinked, as though they stared into nothingness even as he looked at her.

“I’m sorry…” Her voice dropped in her concern. “Did I wake you?”

His voice wavered. “No…” He turned his head away from her slowly. “I’ve been thinking….”

“Yes?”

“Pandora… why… were you crying for me?”

“Why?”

“Was it pity?”

Minako turned her head from him, quickly shutting her eyes.

“It’s… okay if that’s the reason…”

She turned back to him and opened her eyes slowly, then rested her hand back on his head. “It was more like… I couldn’t imagine being so utterly alone… And it broke my heart…”

“Isn’t that pity…?”

“It’s more like… empathy.”

“Is that a special kind of pity?”

“No… It’s like a mutual understanding.” Minako smiled as she patted his head. She giggled as his tail whipped back and forth. “Just like a puppy.”

As Nick watched her laugh, the smile disappeared from his face. Though he frowned, the anger and hardness did not return, but he blinked his eyes and cocked an eyebrow.

Minako covered her mouth with her hand and pulled her other hand from his head.

Nick glanced away. “Was I… here all night…?”

“I don’t remember falling asleep, but I guess you must have been…”

He closed his eyes again. “Oh…”

She lowered her hand into her lap, then ran her fingers through his hair. “Do… Do those chains hurt your wrists?”

Nick opened his eyes and raised one hand slowly to look at the cuff. The metal clinked against the ground as he moved his hand. “They’ve… always been there…”

“They’re not too tight?”

“They fit fine…”

“But wouldn’t you be more comfortable without them?”

“I’ve always worn them… I don’t think it would be any different…”

“How long is always?”

“It’s… been a long time…”

Minako pulled one hand up to her face again. “Do… Do you…”

He stared up at her with his glassy eyes again as he blinked.

“Do you hate me?”

“Why?”

“I left you here all alone. I was…”

“You let me lay in your lap… Just like a child… and not a monster...” He curled his knees into his chest. “I wasn’t all alone here…”

“No… All these years…”

He closed his eyes. “I heard… a long time ago a Priestess appeared in Rubiihoppou. She was condescending and hurtful to the demons she claimed to protect. Their hearts shattered because of her cruel treatment…”

Minako lowered her hand. “You… think I’m like her…”

“It's been a long time… But here you are, staying with me...”

“Do you resent me?”

“I don’t understand that word…”

“It’s being bitterly angry, like a hurting hate.”

He frowned. “I already said I didn’t hate you…”

“It’s a little different than that...”

He fiddled with one of the chains on the ground. “I don’t like emotions… They’re too complicated.”

She laughed. “I don’t think anyone really likes them.”

“It’s difficult…” He looked up at her with those pained, child-like eyes.

More than anything, I want to reach out and grab him and hold him close. I’m not sure which is stronger, my urge to hug him because of his sadness or my urge to cry at the overwhelming sadness of this place. Her lip trembled.

He inhaled quickly, then pressed his lips together. “Ummm… Do you miss it?”

Minako shook her head and focused on his face. “It?”

“That dream you woke up from…”

She glanced away. “I…” A few tears began forming in the corners of her eyes as she lowered her head.

Nick cocked his head. “Do you pity it?”

She raised her hand to the corner of her eye to wipe away her tears. “Pity… no…”

“But you’re crying…”

“Do you only ever see them crying when they pity you?”

Nick clenched his hand lightly, gripping the dirt at the bottom of the cage as he glanced away from her. “They always called me a ‘sad creature’ or a monster and pulled back from me… Then they looked back with tears in their eyes…” He released the tension in his hand. “Am I so pathetic that I must be pitied constantly?”

Minako put her hand to his head. “You’re not pathetic. You’ve been trying to be strong for so long. Being sad doesn’t make you pathetic or a monster...”

He glanced back at her as his shoulders tensed, but he said nothing.

“What’s the difference between humans and demons? I’ve been wondering...”

“Humans hate demons…”

“But… Humans hate other humans too… That’s why there are wars, right?”

“I don’t like them… They’re too cold…”

“The priestesses?”

“They’re a bit different… More like us…”

“Us?”

“Demons… They’re more like demons…”

“Why?”

“They’re also bound by chains… Different from ours, but… They’re still bound…”

“Chains?”

Nick curled himself into an even tighter ball. “Chains are for binding people, so they have to follow orders.”

“Orders?”

“People who are free do what they like can leave and move and run from the things they don’t like.” He sighed. “They aren’t trapped.”

“Trapped how?”

“Here… Trapped here in the darkness…”

“Does it… hurt?”

“No. Not me… But… it’s really, very lonely…”

“But you said that…” She lowered her head. Maybe it's better to not bring that up.

“I can’t… I can’t tell them it terrifies me… Then they’ll die…”

“I don’t understand…”

“They… die... here…”

She pressed her lips together. “And if they’ll die, why are you telling me?”

“You’re a lot stronger than them… That’s what Pandora is…”

“Pandora is what?”

“She’s a concentration of strength.” He closed his eyes again.

She ran her hand through his hair. “Nick…”

He opened his eyes slowly as tears fell out of them.

She put her hand to his cheek lightly, trying to catch his tears.

He clenched his fist weakly at his chest. “Hearing that name…”

Minako lowered her head. “I’m sorry… It’s ‘Nickolas,’ isn’t it?”

He closed his eyes and swallowed. “No, it’s fine… It’s painful to hear, but… It makes me happy…”

“Nick…” She put her hand on his head, then ran her fingers through his hair.

He swallowed againas he gripped a fold in her skirt. “I’ve been waiting… I’ve always been waiting…”

All alone… in the darkness… It sounded like a sad fairy tale.

He laughed quietly. “I must sound extremely pitiable right now…”

“No... Nick… what is your greatest wish?”

“I… want it back… What else could I want besides the box?”

She smiled. “If you got that, then what would you want?”

He opened his eyes slowly “I would want… to leave this place and see the world...” He frowned as his eyebrows pinched together. “But… I can’t go anywhere…”

“Those chains are broken… They can’t bind you to one place, can they?”

“They mark me as unfit… and unwanted…” He closed his eyes again. “There are invisible binds, bindings stronger than any visible ones could be….”

“Do you want to be free?”

“I…. don’t understand…”

“You want to leave this place, right?”

He opened his eyes, revealing the glassy look in them again. “Yes…”

“I’ll help you do that.”

He sat up briskly, his eyes wide as life returned to them. “How?! How can you do that?!”

She pointed to his chains and smiled. “I’ll help you remove your chains. Then you won’t be bound to this place or anyone but yourself anymore.”

“Remove them?”

She lowered her head. “It means leaving behind everything you know, though… It might be hard to move without them if they’ve been there so long though.”

He shook his head in disbelief. “Can you do that?”

“I don’t like the idea of anyone being bound to something they don’t want…” She turned back with a smile. “So it’s worth a try, right?”

Nick nodded and held his arm out. The chain clinked against the ground.

Minako pulled a bobby pin from her ribbon, the hanging strands fell loosely from their own weight.

“Hold still, alright?”

Nick gave her a sharp nod.

She thrust the bobby pin into the locking mechanism and gripped the cuff at his wrist tightly. It seemed to be different from most other locks, in that the intricate pattern of the grooves refused to snap under pressure. Minako lowered her head and shut her eyes. Why? Why is this so difficult? She tightened the grip of her other hand on the cuff. Break… Please break…

There were a few clinking sounds.

Minako opened her eyes slowly. All four of the metal cuffs and their chains had shattered and lay on the ground around Nick.

He gaped at the shards of metal.

Minako raised her hand to her head. “They just… broke…”

Nick raised his hand to his face and examined his bare wrist. He turned it weakly. It was gone. After all these years, they had finally broken. He turned to his second wrist, they had all broken. I’ve spent all these years trapped in a cage, always changing but never really changing at all... I’ve always been bound by something I could never see, even after the day the chains finally broke from the wall. Even after that day, the cuffs still bound me in an existence of chains. No matter how hard I tried to go forward, they always pulled me back and held me prisoner. He clenched his fist. It feels as though an enormous weight has been lifted... Is this what being free feels like?

Minako smiled. “I guess I could keep my promise after all.”

Nick grabbed her wrist.

She blinked. What?

Nick pulled her in toward his chest and wrapped his arms around her body tightly.

“Nick?” She felt her pulse race as she inhaled sharply.

“Thank you.” Tears began to stream down his cheeks. “Thank you…”

Minako rested her head against his shoulder as tears formed in her eyes. “Of course… it’s fine…”

Nick closed his eyes. “Being forced to stay in this desolate, lonely place… It’s frightening. It’s… really very frightening…”

“Don’t worry… You’re free now… You can go anywhere...” The tears began to stream down her cheeks. “It’s the least I could do… So you didn’t hate me…”

“Hate you?”

“After all this time…”

“How can I hate you when my heart is filling up with warmth?” He leaned his head on hers as his calm breath whispered by her ear.

Minako felt her chest grow hotter as her heart thudded inside it. He can’t see me... Thank goodness...

“No one has ever shown me such kindness… I was so very alone…” He opened his eyes. “But, it’s strange to me… I’ve never felt so at peace…” He loosened his embrace and pulled back, examining her face as he gripped her shoulders.

She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she lowered her head, but glanced up at him with her eyes.

He bowed his head as his cheeks flushed, then pulled his trembling hands from her shoulders before quickly turning his back to her.

Minako reached her hand toward him, but he pulled away as he stood up rapidly - albeit clumsily - and clamored through the metal gate.

Her hand fell in her lap as she listened to his footsteps pounding the stone floor. It wasn’t enough. Even though I broke his chains and pulled him free from this den of misery, it's still not enough. Her heart sank. He said he didn’t hate me, but then he ran away so quickly… He must have lied. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest, but not like before. That was the first time a man has held me that way… He’s a man, right? Does it really matter if he's a demon or a human? I can’t focus on that… Especially if he hates me...

She pulled her knees to her chest and rested her head on them. Even though I’m supposed to be Pandora, I haven’t really helped him at all… Chained or unchained, he’s still missing what was sealed inside the box. And, unfortunately, breaking those chains didn’t immediately give it back to him. Will he still hate me as long as it’s missing? Maybe that's the only way to solve everything… Maybe I can get him to forgive me if I agree to go with him and get that box.

She lowered her head. “Renee… Why do I even care if he hates me or not? If I could just go home to you... I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore… I could just forget…” She buried her head against her knees. “It would be nice if I could just forget…”

The darkness swelled around the room, once more concealing all those around her. The gleaming yellow eyes were the light in her fog of misery. In a way, it was almost that much sadder than it had been before.

How could a mere box be more important than being imprisoned in a cage? How could it be more important than a person’s freedom? Things like that seemed more important than a mere box. Did being Pandora mean something more than just bringing together the demons? Was the box actually the key to fulfilling their wishes?

And Pandora’s duty… To light the torch called hope… How exactly do you go about lighting something unseen like that? It has to be a different kind of torch from a normal one, you can’t just start a fire and light it up. Did the torch of hope have something to do with the box? Were they really the same thing? Or were they more different from each other than I can imagine? Does it have something to do with the quality of the human heart? Maybe the way to light the torch is through kindness. And if it’s kindness, then maybe Nick won’t hate me anymore.

“Renee… do you think that’s the way I can get out of this world and go home?” She raised her head a little. “Yes, I think that’s why I’m still here…. Because he's still holding on to this idea of me...”
Chapter Four: Breathless by nicksgal
Outside was a pink and orange pastel paradise. The sun seemed to kiss the earth and the rock as it slowly rose into the sky. The ground below him lit up in sparkling colors of various hues and tones. It was a world of only brightness that illuminated the jagged rocks above and beneath him. He sat on a flattened rock ledge that jutted out from the mountain just slightly above the entrance to the cave. He raised his clawed hand to his face, shielding his eyes from the light. He laughed quietly. “I had no idea the world was this intensely light…”

He peered down at the cave entrance. This is a place of only shadows and darkness. The stale air has been overused. Maybe that’s the reason they were dying, because no one could feasibly live in that world. But was it only the darkness that was suffocating them? Or was it me?

He glanced back toward the rising sun. So bright… Has the world always been this way? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much light or felt this much warmth, even with God… It seems incredibly bleak and cold here, like a place where no one was allowed to survive. He hugged his knees lightly. Wasn’t the entire world shrouded in darkness like that?

He lifted his wrist again and stared at its emptiness in the light. Pandora…

“Do you want to be free?”

Does being free mean you can go wherever you want? Even… Even leaving this cave? Can I finally see the world beyond the small and dark universe I live in? Is that what being free meant? That anyone could stand on their own two feet? Or is freedom something greater than that?

He rested his hand back on his knees and lowered his head to his knees as well. Why is she trying so hard? For a monster... Is it really possible to rescue me from this stagnant place? When I’ve been here for so long… And more than that… why does she want to do it so badly? What good does it do her if I can run away from this place?

Her face flashed through his mind and he saw her tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she lowered her head. When she glanced back up at him, her eyes seemed bigger in the dark and her face flushed.

His pulse raced as he squeezed his knees. I… don’t hate her… No… I could never hate her… Even though… He shut his eyes as he held a hand to his chest. It’s warm...

He raised his head slowly as he opened his mouth. A very small, but clear tone emanated from his lips. Tears began falling from his eyes and he closed his mouth quickly, then raised one hand to his face to wipe away his tears before lowering his head back to his knees.

So sad that it makes even me cry… What was it that was taken from me? Was it something different from my freedom? Is it… really what I’ve always wanted most? He raised his head and leaned back on his hands. I wanted… to always be near the light of God… I wanted something loving… and warm… A light that would always hold me close and never let go… A light that would give me the strength to stand and fight… His lips formed a quiet smile. A light that can create miracles…

That was all that I ever really wanted… That’s not an impossible wish, is it? Can anything grant that wish? A light that creates miracles… That must be impossible… But… Maybe…

Maybe the box can create that sort of miracle?

The box was created by God with his holy sealing powers… and a priestess must retrieve it… If that is the case, then maybe the box can create that miracle… Created by holy power and obtained by holy powers… It must have that power… But…. Can I get any of that power for my wish?

He held his knees tightly. I don’t… I don’t actually want to go with her to try and see if the others are alive… because… There isn’t a place in this intensely light world for someone like me… I really… I really do belong to the darkness… Someone like me… someone who is weak and small… someone like that deserves to be in the darkness… only in the darkness…

But… if she’s going to get the box… Then… then maybe I can borrow some of that miracle creating holy power and get my wish… If that’s the case, then maybe I have to go with her… His lips curved into a smile. And I think… I think that maybe if she was willing to break my chains… He raised his wrist to his eyes. Then I’m sure that she will definitely give me some of that power to create my own miracle…

~*~



Minako stood facing the outside of the cage. She wrapped her fingers around the bars. What lies beyond this chained hell? I have no idea, but… my heart longs for the outside… Even if the world is only filled with stale darkness… Even if death is waiting for me in the darkness… Whatever difficult and ominous future lies before me… It’s better than the present… So, I… So I have to get out of here…

The cold metal of the bars pierced her hands as shivers pricked her skin. Her heart shuddered and hid against her spine. Even if the bars were small slivers, the room closed in on her and all the inhabitants there. She gasped for breath as she tightened the grip of her fingers around the bars. She clung for them, as if holding them would pull her out of this nightmare.

Somewhere, far beyond the darkness, Renee is waiting for me… In my heart, I have no doubts about that… Renee must have searched every inch of the studio and every corner of Times Square to find me… She lowered her head. Would anyone guess where I am?

This world… The horned boy with wings… Did they exist in reality? Or was it a dream? The withered souls in the cage claimed that my reality was a dream… And this ominous dream was a reality… Her fingers shook as they gripped the bars. How? How could it be that everything that was normal, happy, and bright was a lie? Did reality only exist in the darkness? What kind of a reality is that? Minako held the bars tighter and lowered her head as tears began falling from her eyes.

Without Renee… I feel so lost….

The darkness clouded her sight. Everywhere I turn, there’s no pocket of light in the shadow. The darkness filled her throat and choked her. Tears welled in her eyes as the hands of darkness closed tightly around her throat. The stale air will claim me and then what will become of everyone? I’m supposed to rescue them, right? She laughed quietly. I can’t do that if I die… She put her hand to her head, how stupid am I?

There was a clicking sound.

That noise…

The sound grew closer.

She gasped. I recognize that sound now, even without the scraping… Footsteps… His footsteps...

Even though the inhabitants of the caged room had spent the night with him when he was the curled child nestling in the warmth of the priestess, they still feared him. As Minako struggled to breathe, the other girls backed into the corners of darkness.

She turned to face them. So… they recognize those footsteps too…

In those corners, they could conceal themselves entirely from the demon.

She shut her eyes. Why are they such cowards? He has a gentle kindness that can overcome the darkness… Minako crumpled to her knees as the darkness finally overtook her. Her jaw shook as she sniffed back her tears. Why… Why am I so weak? Why? She forced a large breath down her throat.

The clicking sound stopped. “Pandora…” His voice sounded cold.

She managed to lift her head, if only briefly, to look into Nick’s eyes.

His eyes narrowed as he glanced at her, but faced back toward the way he came from. His face reflected the coldness in his voice and his lips curled into a smirk. “Well, Pandora… The darkness has grown stale since you appeared...”

Minako struggled to breathe. “Why…”

Nick’s eyes shifted to the opposite direction. “Only God and the Devil know.” He turned back to her. “Death… is approaching.”

Minako gripped the bars tighter, they were her safety, the only thing in this desolate hell that gave her life. Her breath shortened as she struggled to speak. “Why…”

Nick turned to face her fully and the smirk faded from his lips as his eyes became gentle.

Her body trembled in the darkness as it was engulfed by the stale air. Whatever breathable air existed escaped her lips and hid in the shadows amongst the other girls. Her hair clung to her face, equally frightened of the darkness.

Is this the powerful priestess? She doesn’t seem like one… I’ve heard the story of the Priestess from Rubiihoppou. Her strength overpowered the demons there and her heart crushed their hopes… Their wishes… Her strength was selfish… But this priestess… Even as her body and soul crumples, she stands up to me. She faces me. Is her strength from her heart?

He knelt to her level. If I can reach out to her, then maybe she will regain her strength. We’re trapped together in this prison of darkness: me, the priestess, and all the others… If I can reach out to her, then maybe she can push the darkness away from them all by lighting the torch of hope…

The bars, though solid metal, looked as though they would shatter under the weight of her hands, as though her fingers were one thousand times stronger and the bars were merely dust.

“Not… enough…”

Nick put his hand on the bars. “Pandora…”

She stared straight into his eyes “Why… Why do… you… torture us? We’re… so weak…”

“Torture?” Nick frowned and wrapped his hands around hers. I’m not… Can I transfer any of my newfound strength to her? Somewhere in my heart, whatever little light still exists, maybe I can give it to her, and then I can complete her. Maybe she just needs some light to ignite the torch… Maybe it’s impossible to do alone… I’ll give her that for my miracle… It’s a small price to ignite the darkness...

“This hell… it’s killing us… Right now… You… are the… strongest… creature… alive… End this… Let… me… out… and… every…one… else… too…”

Nick pulled her hands through the bars and cradled them close to his heart. Just a little light to ignite the miracle... “The Priestesses will descend upon this earth as the shining light within the darkness. In their hearts, they hold the secret of the box, the box that God hid, but the Devil protects. They will find it, because in their hearts, they know the names of the demons… the demons that desire the box. They will lead us to it, and we will prosper.” He looked into her eyes. “That is Pandora’s true duty…”

“Why… is…” Minako began to cough. Her voice was strained as she struggled to breathe… “box… so… im…portant…”

Nick’s face hardened as he gripped her hands tightly, crushing her small fingers beneath his grip. “I want it back.”

Minako shut her eyes and tried to pull away, but Nick had immense power over her. Her arms grew limp as her struggle ceased beneath his tight grip.

“I want it back, more than anything.” His voice grew raspy as he growled. “No one else can have it! It belongs to me!”

“What… did… they… take? What… is it… that’s… missing?”

“It’s been so long, that even I don’t remember its true form or shape, but my power… my life… is sealed inside that box.”

“Your… life inside… a box?”

Nick glanced away from her. “You may think you are the weakest ones in this world, but even now I am dying… If it’s not returned, then I know I will die. It is… a part of my body…”

“How… long…?”

“A year… A decade… Always… Never… Now... Nothing in life is certain…”

“Nothing?”

“But… Even if I can only live a short time… No, whether or not I live for only a short time, it is still mine. God… God had no right to take it!” Nick released Minako’s hands and stood up, causing her to collapse on the ground.

He clenched his fists and they began flickering with a sapphire light. “GOD HAD NO RIGHT!” His tail stood upright and even his wings began to flare out. Nick grabbed the bars and as he clenched his fists, the sapphire glow flared and the bars shattered beneath his grip.

“Pale… blue… light? Why?”

The bars that shattered like glass no longer sealed the cage. Nick stood before the open cage, his face hard and cold again. His body lost the ease it possessed earlier and it regained its rigid quality. The soft heart within the demon had become consumed with his rage, hate, and bloodlust for God -- the man who trapped him in the stagnant darkness and stole what was most precious from him. “If you’re weak in that cage, you should get out, Pandora… You will find the other demons, you will find the box, and then you will return what was stolen from me. That is your purpose in this world.”

Minako gripped the dirt as she stood on her trembling legs. Her knees shook beneath her. Dirt sprinkled from within her hands and her whole body trembled from weakness. She began backing into the darkness, still gripping at the grains of dirt for support.

“You refuse me?”

“Everyone… Everyone… else… You… will… let… them… go… too… I… won’t… go… without… them… Got it?”

“I have finally found you, Pandora. They are free to leave as they wish. You are the only one I want…”

Minako released the dirt and put her hands to her heart. Her legs shook violently. The only one… you want… Her hands shook. That embrace…

“Pandora… Come to me…”

Minako stepped back as she searched the darkness for the glowing yellow eyes. Some of the pale-skinned, life-drained girls emerged from within the darkness. Minako stumbled toward Nick, her body was becoming too weak to support her own weight. “Come… out… He’s… letting… you… go…” Though she could see some of the girls through the stagnant darkness, their yellow eyes would not respond to her pleading. “Come… out… Hurry… Please…”

“We’re… not leaving.” A single voice called out from the darkness. The yellow eyes seemed to nod in agreement with the voice, but all of them stayed in the shadow of the stagnant darkness.

Minako’s knees shook as they pulled her back to the ground. She shut her eyes and clenched her fists with all her remaining strength. “You… can’t… stay… here… You… have… have… to… come…”

“No,” the single voice responded firmly, “We’re staying here. This world is not like the dream we awakened from. We don’t like it. It is too dark… too frightening and it is filled with rotten people. We do not want to see it, so we won’t leave.”

“IF YOU STAY HERE YOU’LL DIE!!!!!!!!!”

“That is… okay…”

“But… you’ll…” Minako’s last ounce of strength had failed her. She toppled to the ground. Even if I can’t save myself, please in this one moment I want to save all of them. But this darkness is consuming me… this darkness where death hides. How could the others think it protects them? It’s the silent murderer among us. With her hair and arms lying limp on the ground, Minako resembled a small doll.

Nick leaned down and put his hand to her face. She’s so peaceful looking… even if she released all her power… He wrapped his arms around her body and stood. "Pandora..."

The yellowed eyes stared up at Nick as they shook almost pleadingly.

Though there were hundreds of them, Nick towered over them in the darkness. He glanced down and looked into the yellow spotlights they created “Your lives are your own. Live them out where you choose. Pandora wants your freedom, so I will grant it if I really even have that power. There are no more bars, there is no more cage. Come and go as you please. Even if you won’t leave, you are your own caretakers now…” Nick held Minako’s limp body in his arms, close to his chest and the warmth of his heart. “I almost have the only thing that I ever wanted.”

“Make sure she lives…” A sole voice called to Nick from the darkness.

“Whichever eye lit lamps call out to me now, you can find peace in knowing that I will not let Pandora die. The priestess who lifts up the hell-creatures should never be allowed to close her eyes. She will give me the light that creates miracles, so I will protect her life with my own hands. That is… the only promise I can keep…”

“Find peace,” a chorus of yellowed eyes called out to him. He was center stage within the spotlight of their prayers.

Nick tightened his grip on Minako and exited the darkness. His clawed feet made the familiar clicking sound of his footsteps.

I won’t tell them this, but it’s because you were kind… If you hadn’t broken my chains, I would never have seen that world of light outside this world of only darkness. And I wouldn’t be able to leave now… I feel a little bad taking advantage of all the kindness you’ve already shown me, but… He swallowed. My stomach is rippling. He held her closer to his chest. I must be nervous about this journey. He glanced down at her. But you only exist to retrieve the box, right? And if that’s all you exist for, then I don’t mind borrowing that holy power to create my own miracle… Some day… when I already have my strength back… I promise I’ll try to thank you… Until then… I’ll protect your holy power with whatever I do have so you can create my miracle. Is that okay… Pandora?

He would escape the stagnant dead air with his life, and so would Minako. They would regain their strength in time. In his arms, Nick carried the goddess of hope. In her heart she carried everyone’s dreams and one day she would be strong enough to light the torch called hope and rescue them all from darkness. Nick’s grip grew stronger each moment, he knew better than anyone else that a very special kind of strength was necessary, because hope was the most fragile glass.
Chapter Five: Sorceress by nicksgal
There was only darkness and a clicking sound. The seconds passed, every moment, something seemed to draw nearer. The clicking continued.

An alarm? Was it time to get up already? Minako clenched her eyes tightly. I want to befriend the darkness instead of waking up. The moment I open my eyes, the dream will fade into light and become only a sun-exposed picture. If that happened, how will I remember it? I‘ll hold it in her hands for years to come, only a flash of yellow and red, covering what used to be an intricate image. That flash of color will never be enough, even though it hurts to breathe, and even though the darkness clouds my sight and wants to take my life, I want to hold it in my two hands. When I open my eyes, it will slip from my fingers and shatter. I will lose the warmth I feel. And Nick… what will happen to Nick if I wake up? Will he find the box?

The clicking continued still.

As she struggled to hold the darkness, a bright light entered her nightmare. This warmth on my cheeks. Did the darkness claim me? No... this light seems to come from Heaven itself, beckoning me away from the demons and darkness. The bright hand that reaches toward me has called me back. Renee is on the other side with open arms. Minako opened her eyes slowly, hoping to find herself embraced by the arms of Renee. What she found was not the welcoming arms of the light-breathing angel Renee, but a continuation of her desolate nightmare.

“Where…?” Minako’s weary body only allowed one word to escape her lips in her disorientation. She blinked her eyes quickly.

Nick held her closer and stared off into the distance. Even in the light, the desolate darkness shrouded that land. He walked down an endlessly bleak path, which seemed to stretch endlessly and kiss the horizon. The brown, desolate land whispered, but lacked greenery to brush against. The earth was stained and defiled, blood gave sustenance to this land and the red rivers flowing through the ground gave a swift death to any living creature. Very little grew in this desolate land, except for one special plant. Everywhere, the stained earth sprouted tanned, sun-dried bones and corpses. This valley of death provided nourishment for only the vilest creatures like crows and vultures who were too weak to hunt the strong and preyed upon the scattered bones growing from the earth. They were the pickpockets of the putrid landscape. The place reeked of rotting and decaying flesh. Everywhere, it smelled like death and the stench choked anyone who breathed, clogging their throat. Had the other girls been right? Even though the darkness tortured them, was it safer than this world? Even though stale air filled the darkness, it did not choke its victims quite like the smell here. No, this was entirely different, it was a brand new land of death-filled nightmares.

Nick’s face twisted in horror, an expression he had never felt. The most hideous creature in the world is me... But this place… How strange and different it is from my desolate darkness. I was king of that frightening black, but here… even the king of darkness is terrified. This rancid land, the rank smell of flesh, the rivers of blood, I had no idea that such a world existed.

Minako had believed the darkness was hell, but this valley of death was truly hell.

He let in a quick gasp -- it was shrill, an exclamation of both awe and fear. “I have no idea…”

Minako blinked, looking up at Nick, instead of the vast wasteland before her. “Have you never been outside the darkness?”

“It always seemed like a prison for the abandoned of God, but even the desolate darkness is tame compared to this gruesome place. Was the darkness a sanctuary?”

“Were they right? The outside world is too scary, too violent, and too lonely for anyone. Maybe… we should have stayed with them…”

“No,” Nick let out a low growl, “I want it back. Nothing will stop me, no matter how rancid and foul... It belongs to me!” Nick stood tall, his wings stretched, he began to walk through the valley of death. What lay beyond it was a mystery. All he had ever known was infinite darkness, but the darkness lay behind him and he traveled onward into the light.

~*~



The ominous darkness seemed to disperse as Minako and Nick reached a large walled city. The white alabaster walls loomed over their heads, growing toward the sky. The world of light was so much more complex than the world of darkness. Here, darkness did not cloud sight. As far as the eye could see, there was some new lit corridor to explore. As they entered the walled city, Nick shrank back as though he was terrified of its cacophony. People lined the crowded streets like an ocean. Everywhere Nick turned, there were crowds, blurred flashes of color, and smells to behold. The wafting smells of warm food tantalized his tongue, the loose dirt smelled dusty and bitter, the throngs of people were overwhelming. His wonder belonged to a child, stepping into the world for the first time. He walked farther into the walled city and Minako followed closely behind him. As his feet hit the ground, they stirred up dust and dirt. Even the smallest intricacies of this city seemed amazing, but what amazed him was mundane for the citizens of this walled city. They, instead, were amazed... no... frightened by the horned boy with a tail, wings, and claws. Though his wings fell in resting position, his great demonic aura shone through plainly. The shrieks of the people echoed through the city, so shrill that they could freeze blood. Nick turned in fear, what had scared them so badly? He stepped back, dust clouded his feet.

“Monster!!!!!” a woman shrieked, pointing toward him.

“M-monster?” Nick’s jaw dropped in alarm.

“The devils are attacking the city!!!!” another voice cried.

“Devils?” Nick whipped his head around wildly.

Is there another monster here or do they mean me?

Fleshy fruit and vegetables began flying through the air and hit their target straight on, the juices oozing down Nick’s face and body like blood. As it hit his eyes it stung like acid. He put out his hands, in a plea for the citizens to stop their torment, but all they saw were his clenched claws. To them he was a monster, the Devil’s minion. He stepped back, hoping to run from this place, but he had no chance. Spears surrounded him. The army of the walled city stood before him, intending his death, and even Minako’s by chance. Nick pushed her out of the way and she landed in the dirt with a thud. The dirt clung to her clothes, attracted by the juice that covered her as well.

Minako struggled to rise from the ground. Her voice struggled painfully as well, “Nick!!!!”

Nick growled. Spears from every side. The metal glistened in the light, they were precious stones of death. How luminous their luster was, but in a moment, the beautiful death stones would be defiled with his blood. In all my years alone, waiting, searching in the darkness, I had felt hate. Theirs, but the strongest, most violent hate I had ever known was my own. But, this hate is new. The juice stings my eyes, so I only smell their anger. It feels like the blood on the valley of death, baking and simmering in the sunlight. But something’s tainted this blood. Nick licked the fruit juice from his lips, this tainted blood, maybe I deserve it, maybe if I’m a monster, I should want it. The anger and fear of this city, it can be mine in an instant. He raised his hands to eyes, hoping to clear the acid from them. His claws glistened like the beautiful death jewels in the hands of the army. The soldiers moved the spears nearer to his neck, as though his movement were a threat. It was clear that they intended to make a necklace of precious death jewels, chained together with his blood. Through his clouded eyes, Nick saw the glistening lights of death and a flash of flesh so fast, that he stepped back and trembled.

“STOP!”

The cry rang through the ears of the walled city. The guards pulled back their shining death jewels. The maiden he had pushed aside guarded the hideous creature before them. Her hair fell against her shoulders and stuck to her cheeks. Minako held her arms outstretched. I will protect Nick, even if I’m his shield, because I owe him for all the time he spent waiting for me in the horrid darkness.

One of the guards pushed the tip of his spear toward her. It brushed her neck slightly, leaving a small gash. Blood dripped from it like red rain and formed dewdrops on her skin. “Move Maiden, unless you wish to die with the beast.”

Minako’s lips shook as a low growl formed in her throat. Beast? How could they! These people, they have no idea about suffering and pain. They live in this walled city together in harmony and the towering walls protecting them. They only know safety. The terror of the darkness... And even the world outside... is an endless mystery.

“She must be a spy.” “A spy in cohorts with demons? Even the other nations would kill them.” “She protects him unwaveringly, she must be a demon too.” “Look at those weird clothes.” “He’s right.” “Such a bewitching demon, she could have fooled me.”

The chatter of the crowd reached the ears of the soldiers, Minako, and Nick. Demon? I'm not a demon. And strange clothes? For the first time, she noticed the dress of the people. Long, simple robes and dresses, cloth pants, tunics tied at the waist… What was this place? They wore shoes with thongs or simple shoes without soles, laces, or buckles. And the colors were mundane: blacks, browns, grays, tans, whites, and creams. Even Nick, she had never noticed in the dark, wore a black mid thigh-length tunic with tattered sleeves that tied at the waist with a cream ribbon and tattered, black pants. But he hadn’t accused me of being a demon, or even thought I was out of place. He must have known I was a foreigner of some sort. Does this mean that the Priestess Pandora comes from another world entirely?

The guard drew his spear closer to Minako’s neck. “Are their outbursts true? Are you a demon in cohorts with this devil? If it is a lie, Maiden, move quickly and your life will be spared.”

Minako’s hands shook with rage. When I accused him of being a monster who ate women, that must have made him so angry, just like now... Her blood grew hot, and she could feel it rising throughout her body. This elevated anger consumed her system. Another growl escaped from her lips. “Do not call him a devil… Suffering doesn’t make someone a devil!” Minako’s eyes seemed to seeth red as her body trembled in rage. Who do I direct my anger towards? Everyone here is guilty of their misconceptions. Minako began to raise her hand toward the guard who pointed his spear at her when a trumpet sounded. The people before her dropped to their knees, the dirt rose around them all, clouding Minako’s sight of what approached. There was soft pounding on the ground, almost like the earth’s heartbeat. In this desolate city, it was dying. In the desolate world outside, it was already dead.

“You lesser soldiers are insolent, bow before his Majesty.” A decorated soldier on a horse stood beside the guards. His eyes narrowed in frustration -- the only part of his face revealed from behind his helmet. The metal of his armor glistened in the sunlight, almost like the spears of these guards, but much more regally. It was not a death metal, it was polished like silver and shone like the sun, a shining beacon of light in the darkness of this desolate city. A carriage stopped behind him. The outside was a bright blue, almost like a jewel, and the open window had curtains of the same color. The carriage was ornamented with gold and towered over the citizens. It was a moving throne for someone who deserved reverence, sitting regally in their splendor.

All of the soldiers bowed at the command of the soldier on horseback, except the one who held his spear toward Minako, still ready to kill her in an instant. The dust formed around them again, clouding Nick’s already blurred sight. The eyes of the decorated soldier narrowed again as he stared at the guard who still stood, disobeying his order. “Explain your disobedience or face death.”

The remaining guard stood before him, unwavering, “Forgive my actions, but it is to protect our city. These demons entered unwelcome and sought to kill our city and king. They are spies from a neighboring land. They have clearly been hired by our enemies.”

“Lower your spear and bow to his Majesty.” The guard followed instructions as the decorated soldier dismounted his horse. He stood before the guard and removed a sword from his sheath. Although it was a weapon, it shone in the same manner as his armor -- a beautiful weapon of light, a blade of Heaven whose strike brought a swift and peaceful death to those it touched. He aimed it for Minako’s neck, but not near enough to touch her. “Explain yourself, Maiden, I would not wish to add another gash to your beautiful neck.”

As Minako opened her mouth, Nick’s voice struggled, “Do not speak, Priestess, it will only bring us under more suspicion.”

"Priestess?" the decorated soldier raised an eyebrow.

Minako drew back from the decorated soldier, who then turned his attention to Nick. “Of course, it would be improper to ask the woman. Explain yourself, then, and perhaps your lives will be spared.”

Nick cleared his throat and tried to look into the eyes of the man before him, though he could not see clearly and the figure was only a shining mass of metal with the deep, proud voice of a man. “Do not assume us to be spies, or foreigners, I assure you that is a false assumption. We are from the outskirts of Safaiananpou, and only chanced upon this city in our journey.”

“You do not know of the city in which you stand?”

“To be honest, we have never left our city, so we are unfamiliar with most of Safaiananpou.”

City? It was a prison-like cave of darkness on the outskirts of a death valley. No one, save the God forsaken and imprisoned maidens, would set foot in that place.

The soldier let out a low laugh, “You claim to be from Safaiananpou, but do not realize when you stand in its capital, Aohouseki. That statement represents treason or is the words of a foreigner.”

“I assure you it is the truth. A man who has never set foot outside of his home would not know what exists in the world beyond it.”

The soldier aimed his sword at Nick’s neck, “Your statement is suspicious. Tell the truth or you will lose your head.”

“It’s no lie!” Minako’s shrill voice escaped her mouth. In her fear of Nick’s imminent death, her words escaped her, despite his pleas.

Nick’s hand twitched. Both our lives will shatter in an instant. “Do not speak, Priestess…” He managed a faint whisper. No one needs to hear besides her anyway.

The soldier turned toward her, “And I should believe you, Maiden? Your dress tells me that you are a foreigner.”

“I am, yes. I found myself in his city one day, a place of darkness, no one could live there. Other girls and I found ourselves trapped, unable to return to our home, but… Nick took care of us and we’re looking for something precious that was stolen from him. It is…”

“Don’t say another word,” Nick growled, choking on his words, “They don’t need to hear it!”

“But Nick, maybe they can help us!” Minako swallowed, “The item that was stolen, I don’t know what it is, but… But somewhere it is sealed in a box! We are looking for it! That box is very important to everyone and I’m supposed to find it!”

“Don’t say another word!!!!” Nick’s shaky voice pierced the silence that followed Minako’s explanation. “They don’t deserve to know!”

Minako turned to face him, “Nick…”

The soldier pointed the sword back at Nick’s throat. “You may want to end your outburst. Even if you are a native, you are still a demon.” He turned to Minako, “And you, Maiden, have no right to speak either because you are a foreigner.”

“A box?” A male voice wafted quietly from inside the carriage.

The soldier turned to him, “Your Majesty?”

Minako stepped forward, her legs shook beneath her. “Your Majesty… You know about the box? Where is it? Tell me, please… I am… I am Pandora and the only one who can open it…” Her response was met with silence. “Your Majesty…”

“Pandora…” the voice in the carriage responded.

The soldier grabbed Minako by the hair and pulled her back.

She let out a small shriek.

"Priestess!" Nick shouted.

The soldier pointed the sword at her neck as he held her hair tightly. The beautifully glinting blade moved closer toward her, as if the weapon itself desired her death.

Minako made a small whimper.

The soldier sneered, “A foreigner cannot speak to His Majesty so informally. You will pay for your conduct with your life!”

Minako whimpered once more and shut her eyes tightly. If I can’t see it, if I try hard enough, I can rescue myself from this nightmare. If I can wake up and scream, then hopefully I can find myself back with Renee, back in the warm light of reality.

Nick pulled her back toward him, as his hands shook and his eyes widened with rage. If she died, who would find what was stolen from me? As much as I didn’t want anyone to know, even her, I need her to find it. How pathetic of me, cowering in the darkness, afraid to ever leave that desolate place... I know what I am... This town doesn't need to accuse me of being a monster, I already know... I am no foreigner or native, I am just a creature who was meant to be sealed into the darkness. But the Priestess Pandora, she gave me hope. I believed her when she promised to help me find what was stolen from me. She swore to find the box, and I want to believe her desperately. How can they kill a woman who was afraid of me and yet still pulled me close? I didn’t deserve her kindness, but she gave it to me anyway. How could they? How can they kill the only person who ever treated me so kindly!?! Nick held Minako close in his arms, but they burned as he pulled her closer. Was this death, or…? He blinked his eyes as they filled with droplets. The acid cleared from his face, and though his eyes still burned, he saw Minako’s form. It glowed with the brightest blue light he had ever beheld. The color of the carriage shone on her, blazing around her form. Nick drew in a breath, “Pandora…”

Minako opened her eyes and saw her hands glowing bright blue. What is this? She turned to Nick and reached her hand toward his own. Her eyes grew wide as her hand disappeared from her view. The murmurs of the crowd reached her ears.

The soldier stepped back in alarm. The whole city was ablaze with fear and disorder. Everyone stared in wonder and fear as Minako glowed with blue light and began to disappear before their eyes.

“Your Majesty!” he cried, “This woman is no foreigner! She is a demon sorceress!”

The voice wafted from inside the carriage, “Do you intend to kill her?”

Nick drew in a breath. My power is not as fantastic, and even non-existent compared to this aura around her. And even if this power distracted everyone from me, the true demon, they intended to kill her. I am the demon and she is a priestess. No, not just a priestess, the Priestess who is fabled to lead the demons to the box and save Safaiananpou from its terrible fate. How could they kill her? Everyone’s lives depend on her! Even though her skin blazed with the blue fire, Nick pulled her closer to him, the dancing sparks creating gashes across his arms, hands, and face. It stings like one thousand blades piercing my skin. The gashes they created started overflowing with blood. Despite the injuries, he held her close. I won’t give in to the pain. I will protect her. My heart is shaking… “Don’t… leave me…” His voice struggled. “Stay…”

Her fiery blue glow subsided. Her body grew limp in his arms, no longer disappearing, but strained from trying. Her eyes were closed into the darkness. Am I her strength now? Maybe her soul has escaped, but her body is still here and it should draw her soul back. I hope...

“What has happened?” the regal voice called.

The soldier caught his breath, still drawing away from Minako. “The foreigner’s sorcery has subsided.”

“Place them in the dungeon.”

The glistening death jewels surrounded Nick and Minako once more. In his panic, tears formed in the corners of his eyes.

End Notes:
The capital city Aohouseki (Ah-oh-hoh-seh-kee with the second “oh” held) translates roughly as "blue jewel."
Chapter Six: The Legendary Pandora by nicksgal
Darkness… Everywhere… No, in the corner, a pocket of light… Closer, closer… Minako ran toward the light in the darkness, her heart struggling with each step. Everywhere I turn, the darkness overpowers me, my soul is weak in comparison. The supposed savior let the darkness consume me. Was this the power of the Devil? They say he lived in the darkness, calling the hearts of the wicked with his black, desolate hell. But God was the light, and called the good in the same way. It’s like I’m between the two, so close to both I can feel the warmth and cold all at once. Did the Devil have the power to trap me within this vast hell of darkness? His hands were the darkness, his body consumed all the light, purity, and good in the world. But… He could not close his hands completely and a pocket of light shone from between them. Does God have the power to save me with that light? If only… If only I can reach that light, then I will be free from this terror. But the Devil controlled her strength, the faster she ran, the farther the pocket in his hands became. She dropped to her knees in despair and exhaustion. There was no way out. As her knees collapsed beneath her, the light ran toward her and consumed her entirely causing her heart and body to shine with bright light.

The light cleared and she stood in the courtyard of her school. Cars rushed past the iron gate in blurs of colors, the girls wore pink skirts, and the sun shone brightly on the grass, shrubs, and walkways in the courtyard as the building and large bell tower loomed above it. This is the regular world! My world! Minako turned rapidly and caught blonde, bobbing hair out of the corner of her eye. “R-RENEE!!!!!!!” Minako ran toward her with her arms open, waiting to receive Renee’s warmth.

Renee turned and smiled gently, “Who are you?”

Minako’s eyes grew wide as she reached for Renee. Those words echoed in her mind as the darkness consumed her once more.

Who are you?

“RENEE!!!”

“This is not the place to be sleeping.”

Minako opened her eyes quickly. Her hands grasped Nick’s leg tightly, her knuckles turning white.

He stared down at her with disdain and looked into her eyes with a cold, unfeeling stare.

Minako released her fingers and quickly sat up next to him. She gazed down at her hands as she folded them in her lap while she and Nick returned to silence. They sat on the dusty ground surrounded by cage bars and backed into a grotto-like space carved from the earth. It was similar to the darkness Nick came from, but smaller and more brightly lit.

“Hey…”

Minako looked up. “Hm?”

Nick turned away for a moment, “I know I said earlier that Pandora is not a name, but merely a continuation of the title ‘Priestess’…”

Minako blinked her eyes and frowned in confusion.

“What… what I mean is... what is your name then? I keep calling you ‘Pandora’ and 'Priestess' but…”

“Minako.”

Nick turned back to her, “What?”

“My name is Minako. Minako Mikagi.”

“Mee-Nah-Koh-Mee-Kah-Gee?”

Minako nodded and smiled, “I should tell you mine... It is only fair after knowing yours.”

“Thank you, Minakomikagi.”

“Um… What?”

“It is Minakomikagi, right?”

“No… My name is Minako, but my last name is Mikagi.”

“Last name?”

Minako smiled, nodding, “Many years ago, my ancestors took the name Mikagi for their family, and everyone born since has carried a piece of that name.”

“Minako Mikagi…”

“Yes, that’s right!” she smiled.

Nick pulled Minako’s hands close to him and held them in the warmth of his chest. “I’m glad you’re safe… Minako...”

Minako shut her eyes. An ocean swept through her heart and washed away the darkness. Being in this prison, this brand new darkness, is terrifying, but I feel more complete... less alone… with you here... She looked up into Nick’s eyes. For the first time, she saw a gentle smile spread across his lips. It’s very sweet and genuine when this demon smiles. As his pain and suffering melts away and his menacing face vanishes, I can see inside. Behind his tough exterior, he’s just a boy, a lonely boy searching for something precious.

“Nick…” Minako turned from him briefly, her cheeks turning pink. She took a forceful swallow, opened her eyes, and turned back to him. “We can’t stay here… I won’t stay here. We’ll find that box and… I will make sure that what belongs to you is returned.”

Nick’s eyes shifted across the darkness, very little was clear in this abandoned place, but it held more light than his previous residence. One soldier had been assigned to watch and he had forgotten his post. In the darkness, he leaned against the stone wall beneath a torch. His body was limp, but his expression was at ease. In his rest, he found safety from the darkness. “Now…”

“Now?”

“It has to be now, or it will be never.” Nick put his hand to the lock on the cage and shut his eyes. His expression hardened as his wings struck out from his body. A windy flash of pale blue light pushed aside the darkness. The ruler of this hell was Nick. Anyone who ignored this would be a fool. “Step back.”

“Can you really break it?”

“Metal is glass, it shatters effortlessly.” Nick tightened his grip on the lock and it began cracking. The gashes in the metal became deeper and in an instant, the metal fragments hit the floor with a ring like small bells.

Minako stared in amazement. How? How can metal be so fragile? Just what is this demon capable of?

“Now.”

Minako looked up at him with wide eyes.

Nick pushed his hand toward her like an offering of hope, “Hurry.” Minako took his hand, and they leapt through the darkness. Somewhere, a pocket of light would open for them.

~*~



The endless steps spiraled toward heaven, but they eventually found a resting point in a brightly-lit corridor. The palace loomed all around them. The corridor they entered into had curved, lofted ceilings. Paintings covered the bright blue walls with golden trim. The corridor seemed to go on for miles in this same fashion: endless portraits on blue walls covered in ornate gold.

Nick let out a low chuckle, “What splendor His Majesty lives in.”

“Down this hallway!” a low voice called beyond the corridor. Though it seemed endless, there was no doubt a person could find their way through it.

Nick backed against a wall, hiding in the shadows. They’re not familiar with the darkness like me, so maybe it can conceal me here. Do these guards even know darkness in their city of light? My heart is barely beating, like a faint and quiet breath.

Minako’s heart pounded in her ears. Stop… it’s so loud, they’ll definitely find us. Minako shut her eyes for a moment. If I only see darkness, can I become the darkness and make it quiet?.

“This is the only place we will find them!”

Nick’s heart leapt as he heard these words. Closer and closer, the voices echoed less in this endless and light corridor. The end was drawing near. Nick swallowed. I don’t have any more choices. He pulled Minako away from the voices and ran. If we can find a way out of this endless maze of corridors, then we can escape from the king and the prison he held for us.

“There they are!”

Nick turned briefly and saw the king’s guards behind them. He gripped Minako’s hand loosely and continued to run at top speed. Even if they were highly trained, I’ve run from the darkness as long as I can remember, and nothing is as swift as the black hell I’d escaped from. Nick rounded a corner, an end to the endless corridor. As he proceeded down an identical corridor, hands snatched Minako from his grasp.

Minako struggled to breathe as the hands covered her eyes and mouth, then pulled her further into infinite darkness.

Nick continued to run, not feeling the weight lift from his hand. Even though they’re chasing me, I can’t turn back, I can’t stop. If we can escape, Minako and I can find the box. We have to escape!

“Get him!”

Nick stopped abruptly and turned frantically. Him? Where was Minako? Gone… Nick clenched his eyes shut and started running again. Good. As long as she’s far away, nothing can harm her. And even if I never leave this new prison, it’s okay if she can find the box for me, and maybe… Maybe I can get it back anyway. If I can be the decoy, then Minako will definitely carry out her promise. The goal of this chase is no longer to escape, but to lead the guards away. Nick grinned, it was to become a game of cat and mouse, except, the mouse only participated for the thrill of the chase.

The guards continued to chase Nick through the endless corridors. How long would it take the mouse to reach his goal?

~*~



Minako found herself in darkness, deeper than before. It almost eerily resembled the cave in which she had found Nick. Minako looked around. I thought someone pulled me in here, but… there’s no one in sight. Even though the room was clouded, the faint form of a large stone balcony with an altar could be seen. Beneath the balcony, an ornate, golden empty basin filled most of the floor below. Some sort of tapestry hung on the wall behind the basin. Minako walked toward the edge of the balcony and saw stairs leading down to the basin. She walked down, passed the basin, and reached toward the tapestry. She ran her fingers over it lightly as a gentle light began to warm her. She turned around briskly to find a figure standing on the balcony and the basin behind her lit with a blue flame. The figure was covered in a cream cloak that shone like silk. Their firm hands held a strand of crystal blue beads, the color was so deep and the beads shone so brilliantly next to the fire that they must have been precious stones. Although the cloak covered the figure’s head, the fire shone on their face and the few strands of brown hair that peered from beneath the cloak sparkled.

“Do you know what that tapestry is?” The cloak clouded the figure’s voice, but it still resounded through the room.

Minako turned back to the tapestry. An elegant woman with a shapely figure and beautiful flowing hair emerged from within a box. Delicate ribbons flowed around her body and she shone with the brightest blue glow. Five stars surrounded her and glowed with the same gorgeous blue light. At the top of the tapestry sat a glowing, red sphere with five smaller glowing red spheres surrounding it. At the left and right were two such configurations of spheres, except one was yellow and the other green, respectively.

Minako pondered for a moment, “Is this a tapestry of the four corners of heaven?”

The figure laughed briefly, “Would the maiden be so lucky to be worshipped in such a regard.”

Minako stared up at the figure, her eyes filled with wonder.

The figure looked down, seeming to stare within the fire, and continued, “Though the world is often unaware, its very existence is ruled by demons. These are the four demon constellations of the heavens: Shishi, Futago, Ite, and Tenbin. Each of these constellations shines through a stone, which in turn lights and rules one of the countries in the world. In the beginning, man ruled these countries and held his claim to them without opposition. Then, the demons emerged. Full of hatred and vengeance to the ancestors of the humans, they took reign of the countries and made themselves kings and authorities. Long ago, the humans say, the demons were merely tortured men, however the ages have passed so long, that no difference can be determined. Most demons have become gradually accustomed to hiding their grotesque features, which would otherwise frighten humans. Horns, claws, wings, tails… All of these become hidden. Of the demons captured today, only one was aware of this ability.”

“I’m not a demon!” Minako shrieked. She imagined the figure staring at her in contempt, then confusion. Sweat began dripping from Minako’s face, “I mean… I’m just an innocent passer-by…” Minako laughed nervously.

“So you were indeed among that party?”

“You… won’t turn me in?”

“No. In fact, you are quite intriguing…”

Minako let out a sigh of relief, missing the end of the figure’s statement. “Then… what happened in the legend?”

“Of course,” the figure replied warmly.

It’s like they’re smiling beneath the hood of the cloak.

“Humans once believed demons were the consorts of the devil, but in truth, they were bred from the constellations. Demons are the progeny of the sky. Most humans, of course, still believe they were brought forth from the wicked souls of men. In ancient times and even now, demons are feared, but in the end, who is really a demon? The monstrous looking demons or the monstrous behaving humans?”

Nick...

“There is a special legend concerning the cardinal demons of each country. These are the ones who protect its purpose. Safaiananpou, this country, was meant to be the country that bore the scales, essentially, assimilating all the countries and maintaining peace within the resulting country. These cardinal demons were brought together at birth and something was extracted from each of them. Or so the legend is told…”

“Extracted? That means…” It hurts… Nick’s desperate, lonely, angered cry…

“Even if I would live, it is still mine. God… God had no right to take it!”

Tears streamed down Minako’s face.

“Maiden?”

“That means stolen!” Minako dropped to her knees and gripped the basin. How could they? “This… This kingdom… It orchestrates theft?”

The figure looked down at her, “Be assured, Maiden, it did no such thing. This is only the legend as it has been passed down here. There are many different versions. This version continues as follows: to the demon most desperate, a maiden appears. She is the beautiful priestess that the ancients named ‘Pandora.’ What was extracted from the demons was sealed in a box. Pandora shall bring them together and produce the box. Upon receiving the sealed powers back, the demons will unite and fulfill the duty of their nation. Each has been given a purpose and a priestess, and the will of everyone depends on her. Pandora is a foreigner of vast beauty and power and within her heart, she knows the names of the cardinal demons. She is the savior of each land.”

“This country stole from Nick! On purpose! How could it?!”

“Maiden?”

Minako’s eyes narrowed and she clenched her fist as she stood and stared up at the cloaked figure in disdain. “It’s this country’s fault. If it hadn’t stolen from Nick, I wouldn’t be here. He would be happy and I could remain in Renee’s arms.”

“Renee?”

Minako gave the same scornful look to the cloaked figure. “My best friend and I were separated when tragedy struck this awful dying place. She’s in our country, while I rot here with legends of demons and tales of boxes.”

“Your country? You are a foreigner?” The figure raised their hand to their chin and recollected, “No… You dress strangely, even for a foreigner. Your world must be completely different.”

“Of course it is! I would rather die than be trapped any longer in this desolate world! I want Renee!!!” Minako began to cry, tears streamed violently down her face. So swift and hard, that they may have cut her cheeks, “But… I promised Nick I would return the box to him. If you know where it is, I want it now.”

“Poor Maiden, you have not heard a word of this legend.” The cloaked figure now stood beside her, Minako stepped back in surprise and hit the wall behind her. A worn latch fell from its guard and Minako fell to the ground.

As the dust around her settled, she noticed daylight behind her. After crawling out of the hole, she jumped up and batted the dirt from her clothes. The cloaked figure appeared before her. Her anger intensified. “Get away from me! You took me into the darkness and made me listen to an outrageously stupid story! If you are in cohorts with the king, tell him this, ‘I want that box. Give it to me now. Whatever is sealed in it belongs to Nick and he has no right to keep it.’ Tell him quickly, I won’t wait here anymore!”

The cloaked figure was silent, then chuckled slightly. “This is how you view our country…”

“There is the sorceress!”

Minako turned quickly, soldiers ran toward her, followed by more carrying a prisoner. The poor soul was bound at the wrists, was it a dangerous criminal? The soldiers surrounded Minako and grabbed her forcefully. She glared at them as one rose a spear to her neck. “You will not manage to escape again.”

“Get your hands off of me!” Minako growled.

“Minako!!!” Minako looked up to see the second group of soldiers approaching. The voice seemed familiar, and at closer inspection their prisoner was a horned demon with wings. They had captured Nick.

“Nick!”

“You didn’t run away?!”

“But the box!”

The soldier pointed the spear closer to Minako’s neck. “Is this ridiculous box all you care about? Shut your mouth or you will no longer be able to speak.”

Minako gasped and swallowed.

Nick growled, “Touch Minako and I will kill you!”

Nick’s soldiers kicked him in the back. He fell toward the ground and landed on his knees as their laughter rang through the air.

The soldier tightened his grip on Minako as she struggled to get toward Nick.

"NICK!!!"

Nick glowed with pale blue light and growled, "Touch Minako... and I... WILL KILL YOU!!!" The ropes around his wrists ripped and splintered as the blue glow intensified.

“Enough!” The soldiers looked up quickly at the crystal male voice that pierced their laughter. The forceful soldier that held Minako between his arms like a vice let go on command. The soldiers dropped to their knees.

Minako ran to Nick and wrapped her arms around him tightly. I’m a little angry that you forced me on your quest for a mere box, but… You protected me in this dreadful town, rescued me from the desolate darkness, and the way you smiled at me and held me... "Nick! I was worried about you... So worried..."

“Minako… Stupid, I thought you ran…”

“No… Not without you. Let’s go get your box from the king...”

“We apologize, we do not have it.”

Minako and Nick both looked up, their eyes following the path of the crystal voice. The man who stood before them had taken the place of the cloaked figure. His stance was proud, though his stature was small. He wore a beautiful blue silk robe with lace and other fine ornaments, even gold buttons. A blue crown rested on his head, resembling a flattened surface perched on a circular brim. The flat top had delicate blue beads dangling around his dark hair and in front of his dark eyes. In his hand, he held the lightly colored cloak. He smiled at Nick and Minako graciously with his kind brown eyes. Nick dropped to his knees quickly. Minako stood in disbelief.

“But… The cloaked figure in the dark room…”

“We apologize for our intrusion,” the king smiled once more, “We wanted to know if you were indeed Pandora. But, do not worry, you and the cardinal demon you have produced will find sanctuary in our palace.”

Minako’s eyes grew wide in surprise as she looked at Nick and then back at the king. He welcomed her and a demon into this palace with open arms? What sort of hierarchy was this? The king smiled warmly again as Minako dropped to her knees.

End Notes:
This chapter mentioned the constellations associated with each country. While they aren't actually demon constellations, they are real constellations:

Shishi (shee-shee): Leo
Futago (foo-tah-goh): Gemini
Ite (ee-tay): Sagittarius
Tenbin (tay-n-bee-n): Libra
Chapter Seven: The Demon King by nicksgal
Minako and Nick stood in the center of the expansive throne room. A crowd kneeled behind them, comprising mostly officials, guards, and inhabitants of the palace - such as the king’s inner seraglio, and maybe a few servants that managed to peak in at an opportune time - but a few commoners were nestled among them. The walls were the same crystalline blue of the corridors, the carriage, and the king. The ornate gold sparkled as the sun shone into the room. Atop a short flight of stairs sat the sparkling throne of the king, the seat of God’s son. And because it was the seat for God’s beloved, it was the only place inside the palace that was open to the outside world. The light that sparkled within the room seemed to be from Heaven itself, as though it was God that ordained the succession of this king.

Nick sat on his knees with his hands tucked into the opposite arms’ sleeves. He bowed as a sign of respect, but his heart seemed to hide from the light. His expression was sadder than it had been these past few hours.

Minako blinked as she rested her hands on her knees, her seated position was similar to Nick’s stance.

How strange it must be for a creature who has known nothing but darkness to suddenly be bathed in light. No… Not strange, frightening… What is sunlight? It reflects to everyone from the Heavens. Does God bring it? Of course. Why? It is a blessing to all these people in his hopes that they can live peaceful lives. Sunlight is a wish for life? Yes, and peace. And darkness… Is that a wish for death? No… Maybe not… death… More likely, a wish for devastation and destruction. Is that how Nick’s heart felt? Devastated? Destroyed? Left all alone in the darkness, while another man… A king, but even so… The light of God still smiled directly upon him. Why does one receive love in abundance when the other is shunned indefinitely? Who decides which receives such feelings? Is it God? If so… The method is really unfair.

Minako’s face fell, her eyes felt overcome by impending tears. Nick...

The king bowed his head slightly. “We apologize for our intrusion. We did not mean to frighten you. We only found it strange that two demons would travel to the capital of Aohouseki.”

Nick bowed deeper, “It was unintentional, Your Majesty.”

The king seemed to smile, “We also wanted to disprove our council’s assertion that you were sorcerers…”

Minako lowered her head. So, that strange light is seen as a form of sorcery… I guess it would seem strange… even in my own world… She looked up to the open ceiling. Renee… I want to see you…. How many days has it been in our world? Is everyone worried? Do you miss me too? She looked to the king’s throne, “Does that mean you’ll let us go?”

The king smiled, “Of course, our intention was not to execute you.”

Minako breathed a sigh of relief. Then Nick and I can keep searching for the box, and then I can go home. Isn’t that good news, Renee?

The king laced his fingers. “Even so… Maiden, do you remember the legend you heard in our shrine room?”

“Legend?”

The king nodded, “The legend of the Priestess Pandora…”

“I just remember that God created demons, so they’re not bad people, but…”

A few mummers could be heard from the crowd. The king seemed to stare beyond Minako and Nick, then the murmuring ceased.

Minako lowered her head. They would be seen as evil if they destroyed cities, wouldn’t they? But Nick has protected me so much… And he saved me from that dark place… He’s been very kind to me… And… he held me very gently… His smile... She felt her cheeks grow warm and a few tears fell down her cheeks. She blinked them away and looked back up at the king, “But I knew that already…”

The king looked at her with his kind eyes, before glancing at Nick. He then glanced back at Minako as he leaned forward slightly, “We have cause to believe you are the legendary Pandora.”

Minako lowered her head as the tears she held back began streaming down her cheeks, “There’s nothing legendary about me…”

Nick turned to her slightly, “Minako…”

“I always do badly on my exams… I can never finish my homework by myself… I’m always late for class… And I eat too many sweets… And watch silly television shows… I like to spend time with my friends more than I like to study…” She raised a hand to her face, “I’m really just a small, unimportant human being… I’m not good of anything in particular and… I can’t do anything worthwhile…”

Nick’s face dropped in concern, “Minako…”

“Maiden… The legendary priestess is a human being filled with love and kindness… She only needs to understand the human condition and welcome the cardinal demons into her open arms.”

She put her hands to her heart. “Welcome them… with open arms…” I did that with Nick already...

“Maiden, do you understand the full extent of the duty of the Priestess Pandora?”

“Not entirely…” Minako confessed, “All I really know is that I need to get a box that was sealed away…”

“The Priestess Pandora who appears within this realm is supposed to save Safaiananpou. By outsiders, she is often called Safaia Pandora, or Pandora of the sapphires. This marks her special duty to Safaiananpou alone.”

“Save Safaiananpou? Is… there really something that terrible happening to it?” She put her hand to her mouth. I had no idea… This walled city seems so peaceful…
The king turned his head. “There is a great threat from our neighboring nation, Emeradotouhou. War is ensuing.”

“War?” Minako’s eyes grew wide.

The king nodded. “They are in economic depression. We have sent diplomats, but their king refuses them. Or, rather, he claims they were never sent. He is jealous of our prosperity and rule of peace… So you can see the situation we are in at this moment…”

Minako put her hand to her head. The royal “we” is it? It was almost nauseating…

“However, Pandora can rescue Safaiananpou from this fate. She is a woman from another world who can coexist with the cardinal demons. They do not trust humans, but they will gladly hold on to Pandora, because she is their beloved partner.”

“Why… Why don’t they trust humans?”

“I don’t like them… They’re too cold…”

Minako turned to him briefly. Nick….

“It seems they were mistreated… even tortured by them…”

Minako’s heart shuddered in pain. Was this what Nick had to live with? Did he always live in fear that they would hurt him? All alone in the darkness, he was safe… But there was no doubt. The display in town confirmed it. Most people who saw what they deemed to be a monster would run for their lives. But these townspeople had hurled objects as Nick, hoping he would be the one to run. It was too cruel… It was too cruel to treat the kindhearted Nick that way… She swallowed as she lowered her head. “And the box… Who sealed the box? And why?”

The king rested his chin on his hands, his fingers still interlaced, “That is a conundrum…”

Repeat that again, please… With about half the syllables… Your manner of speaking is even worse than Renee’s… and I don’t understand her half the time either… Minako put a hand to her head as a blank expression crossed her face.

The king chuckled to himself, “Such an odd woman… We are unsure who sealed the box. Why they did it is even less clear… Perhaps it was feared the cardinal demons would take advantage of their powers and reign over the world in perpetual chaos. But regardless of who or why, immensely important powers were sealed within the box.”

“What happens when I retrieve the box?”

“The powers of the demons will be released and God will grant the Priestess three wishes.”

“Three… wishes…”

The king nodded.

Minako clenched her fist lightly as she stood, “Any three wishes?”

The king nodded once more.

“Three wishes…” Minako’s thoughts flew like missiles, each about to crash if she could not contain them. A smile spread across her face. Three wishes… I could go to any college I want. Ooh, or have my pick of all the men. Gourmet meals every day with delicious sweets for dessert! A mansion full of clothes! No more homework in school! Or passing grades! Any television show I wanted to watch at any time!

The king chuckled to himself once more, “Has it crossed your mind yet that you could even rule the world?”

Minako blinked. But most importantly… I could return Nick to the loving arms of God. I… I want him to be bathed in only light… “I’ll do it!” Minako clenched her fists. “I’ll do it! You can count on me!” A large grin spread across her face, “I’ll become the Priestess Pandora in the realm of sapphires and save Safaiananpou!”

Nick put his hand to his face, “I feel sorry for the world once she gets that box… She’d be a terrible God…”

The king stood abruptly. “Everyone!”

Nick flinched briefly and tucked his hands back into his sleeves. He then bowed deeply once more.

The king thrust his arm out, “This young woman has accepted her position as the Priestess Pandora! She has vowed to save Safaiananpou!”

The entire room bowed deeply to Minako, even Nick. “We thank you, Safaiananpou Pandora. Please save our country.”

Minako stepped back slightly, “Nick…”

And the king himself bowed to her as well. “We thank you, Priestess.”

Minako turned to him and blinked. What have I gotten myself into? These people are treating me like some kind of goddess… But I don’t have any sort of special power… I’m just a student… She shut her eyes. The Priestess Pandora… I had had no idea that this woman was above the law… No… that she was closer to God than the king…

From that moment, her mission seemed a larger task than she imagined. But there was no backing out. She would perform her duty without fail. Peace would certainly come to Safaiananpou because they had a priestess that truly loved them.

~*~



The congregation had been dismissed and as ordered by the king, only Minako and Nick remained with him. The three of them had walked through the corridors to a chamber within the king’s inner rooms that resembled a study. The walls were lined with shelves of scrolls and books and decorated with large maps of the country and the other territories. A large table sat in the middle of a raised platform. Nick leaned against the door frame. Minako sat on the floor next to the table where the king sat. The king had pulled out a scroll and was studying it immensely.

“The Priestess must set out and find the cardinal demons… That is the only way to gain the box and its powers…”

“Find?” Minako stood and leaned over his shoulder. What was this? Hide and Seek? “Can’t they just come to me?”

The king shook his head, “According to this scroll, passed down from the Heavens to the first king of our dynasty, that is the duty of the Priestess. If she does not find them herself, their powers shall be weakened.”

“How? How am I supposed to find them? It seems impossible...”

“If it were impossible, then you would still be looking for all five, would you not?”

Minako turned to Nick and raised her hands to her heart, “That’s different… Nick… Nick found me…”

“But, how did you know he was indeed a cardinal demon?”

Minako lowered her head, “You told me he was…”

The king shook his head, “Are you certain that is all?”

Minako closed her eyes, “I was… afraid… afraid of being all alone…” Tears started falling down her face.

Nick turned toward her, “Minako…”

Minako put her hand to her face. “No… the tears keep coming no matter what I do…”

Nick stepped forward and reached out to her, “Minako…”

Minako lowered her head, “And…”

“I… I don’t know… what… to do anymore… I… just… don’t know… I can’t… do anything… on my own… By myself…”

“I know there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely… But… Being by yourself is scary… Being alone… is a very frightening way to live…”

“How warm… Your embrace is… so much… like a current… flowing through me… My name…”

“What?”

“Pandora… the priestess… she knows… knows my name… Maybe not… on the surface… But… but… her heart… will react to it… Nickolas…”

“Nickolas… No... Nick…”

“Nick?”


Somewhere, so long ago, I remember that name deep in my heart…. Nickolas… "No… Nick…"

Nick stepped backward, an alarmed expression crossing his face.

She wiped a few stray tears, “He told me his name was ‘Nickolas’ and my heart seemed to shake its head and say, ‘No… his name is Nick…’ But…” Nick…

“Nick…”

“Hearing that name…”

“I’m sorry… It’s ‘Nickolas,’ isn’t it?”

“No, it’s fine…” He swallowed, “It’s painful to hear, but… It makes me happy…”

“Nick…”

“I’ve been waiting… I’ve always been waiting…”


“But when I thought that… My heart shook and my body cried out in pain… It was like my memories knew something secret… Something so secret that even I didn’t know it myself…”

“Pandora knows the names of the cardinal demons.”

“But I…”

“The way your heart called to you… That is a distinct quality that only Pandora possesses.”

“And I use that to find the demons?”

The king nodded.

Minako looked up at him, “So I have to go around asking everyone their names?” She grumbled in annoyance, “Isn’t there an easier way? Do the demons have some sort of marks on their bodies? Or do they all have some common trait? If I yell ‘ollie ollie oxen free’ will they come out?”

The king shook his head. “It is not that simple. That is why you need to find them.”

Minako walked over to Nick briskly and stopped an inch in front of his face. “It has to be easier than that.” Minako examined Nick’s foot. “No mark there.” She proceeded to pull up his other foot.

“Hey! Let go!”

“No mark there either!” Minako began pulling at Nick’s clothing randomly, such as pulling apart the neck of his tunic or lifting his pant legs, as she inspected every inch of his skin. In the bright sunlight, it appeared pale and sickly. All the years in the darkness had made him weak in appearance, fueled only by his rage and distrust.

Nick shouted each time she pulled at a piece of his clothing. “Quit it! Let go! Stop, it’s cold! STOP IT! HEY! MI-NA-KO…” Nick growled as his wings shot from their resting position. His eyes narrowed and his teeth protruded as fangs. Even as light shined on them, his eyes glowed almost pale blue. He lashed out his claws and pulled Minako up by only her shirt’s collar.

Minako covered her eyes. His strength was unnatural… Obviously it was wrong to say it was inhuman, but… Was he going to shatter her just like the lock in the dungeon and the bars on the cage?

“I am not your personal one-man harem…” Nick growled, “Don’t assume I am so easily swayed into action…”

Minako blushed violently as he set her back on the ground gently. The people, or rather demons, here certainly did not understand subtlety.

The king gave them both a blank stare, “If you two are quite finished…”

Minako nodded. She was still stunned. Even while looking at the king, she glanced back at Nick as he proceeded to put his clothing back together. Did he have barbells back in his cave? His muscles were toned despite his pale skin… Minako hit her head. Barbells wouldn’t exist here… She groaned. I need to stop thinking of him that way… He’s only some demon that’s using me to retrieve a box and that’s all. When this is all over, I’m going to return to Renee and go back to life as usual. I’ll go to school… And get ready for college… Everything will be just like it was before… I’ll have to forget him… It’s the only way things can be… It’s best not to get involved… Even though he...

Nick looked at her staring at him. He turned his head away as he retied the ribbon at his waist. She’s not being subtle at all… Why does she… always stare at me like that? Like she wants to say something, but won’t...

“Would we be a cardinal demon?” The voice rang through Minako’s and Nick’s thoughts.

Minako and Nick turned toward the king. His chin rested on his hands as the scroll lay across the table.

“Your Majesty…” Minako started as she walked toward him, “Why would you think such a thing?”

Nick grumbled, “I feel like I’ve been insulted.”

The king blinked, “You do not know?”

“Know what?” Minako blinked.

“In her defense, she doesn’t know much to begin with.” Nick walked toward her and knocked his fist against Minako’s head lightly.

She turned to him slightly, “Nick… That’s mean…”

Nick gave her a small smile. “But you said…”

Minako could not help blushing at his smile.

The king put his head down slightly, shaking it as he did. “The royal family is descended from demons. Therefore, we are descended from demons.”

Nick stepped back in alarm. A clan of demons held the most trusted position in all the country, no in the entire world? He crossed his arms and grimaced. What a disadvantage it is to be born as a shunned, darkness-dwelling demon.

Minako walked toward the king again and put her hand on his shoulder, “Your Majesty, what is your name? If you are one of the box-seeking demons, I should know it in the depths of my heart, like you said…”

The king chuckled slightly, “Our name, certainly that is something we have not heard in quite some time.”

Nick groaned a little. Our name? What is this? Shut up and say your name. Our name… ahem, my name is Nick. Why can’t you speak in the singular? He put his hand to his head. On second thought, royalty is really annoying….

The king smiled slightly, “Well, our parents called us Howard.”

Minako thought for a moment, searching her mind. Howard? Howard? Such an unusual name… Howard? She clamped her eyes shut. There in the darkness, something resonated. It was so much like, but… How… Howie… A sudden shock pierced through her. Howie… Howie… She dropped to her knees and held her sides, afraid she would burst if she loosened her grip. The thought stuck her so sharply, her whole body cried out in pain.

“Minako!” Nick ran toward her and kneeled down. “What’s hurting?”

Tears began to stream down Minako’s face, “How…” she choked on the words.

“How? I don’t know.” Nick pulled her closer to him and put one hand on her head. “It’s okay to cry if it hurts.”

“Howie,” Minako called through her tears, “Howie.”

The king stood up as well, “Howie?”

Minako smiled slightly, “Thank goodness, outside of the darkness, they’re easy to find…”

Nick stared up at the king, “You mean… His Majesty… He is… one of the demons?” Nick blinked in surprise.

Minako’s smile grew, “Your Majesty, may I call you Howie? It’s a very nice nickname.”

A smile slowly spread across the king’s face. It has been so long since we have heard our own name, but to be given this nickname… Howie... That is such joy. Slight tears began to form in his eyes. Our body is encased in light. Is this true happiness? “Yes…” His smile grew, “Yes… Call us… Howie.”
Chapter Eight: A Demon and A Dog by nicksgal
The wind playfully tossed Minako’s hair. She smiled and stretched her arms as she stood outside the palace. The beautiful blue estate loomed above her and stretched across the grounds, the sapphire walls of the numerous connected buildings were like beacons to the sky. The main building in front featured thatched windows, a sloped roof, and was wrapped by an open veranda that nestled against the palace gardens. The beautiful scenery of the palace’s vibrant gardens, ponds, bridges, and pathways surrounded and stretched out before her until it reached the white walls that cradled the estate, the shining city just beyond them Its shimmering walls really did seem like peaceful and protecting entities. Safaiananpou really was a beautiful place away from the darkness and death she had found when she arrived. Maybe that was the key to protecting this nation… By making the rest of the world just like this peaceful walled city. “It really is good to be alive.” She smiled. “I’m really lucky to get to see this pretty place…”

Nick placed parcels on a horse carefully, as not to frighten it. The horse brushed its nose against Nick’s hand. A grin spread across his face. It’s strange, humans only notice the outer appearance of a person, or demon… Animals respond to their hearts. Nick sighed. If only everyone could see what lay inside the heart and not the appearance… But what good would that do me? In my heart lies only darkness, death, despair… What goodness is there to find? People who only saw darkness and misery only knew darkness and misery…

“Nick!!”

The sweet voice roused Nick from his thoughts. He looked up, a bit startled.

Minako waved and jogged toward him. Her feet hit the ground softly and stirred up the dirt from it.

Nick chuckled to himself. She was just like the horse… She saw my ugly face, called me a monster at first glance, but seconds later, she pulled me close and held me in her arms. That was true safety… In her heart she held a very precious light. It was faint in the darkness, but out in the beautiful world, it shone so brightly. As her determination to find the box grew, so did the precious light. In that light, something was forming, something important…

“Nick!” she smiled gleefully as she jumped and landed in front of him. “Isn’t it pretty?” She held out her hand -- a white and yellow flower rested inside.

Nick reached his hand out. The petals were soft as silk and the color was vibrant like the sun. It seemed as if the colors of the flower reflected on his face. Nick averted his eyes for a moment. It was almost blinding, but his gaze was drawn back, slowly, to the smile of Minako. It was almost as radiant as the flower she held in her hands. Nick cupped her fingers. Such a bright and warm light… “Minako…”

“Pandora! Nick!” A crystal voice called from behind them.

Nick startled and clutched her hand for a moment, before turning briskly.

Minako smiled again as she turned around, pulling her hand from Nick’s grasp, “Howie, hello! Please, call me Minako.”

“That is improper, Pandora,” the king smiled slightly.

Minako glanced to the side quickly and put a hand to her heart, “Then, is it improper for me to address His Majesty so informally?”

Howie chuckled, “You really are an odd woman, Pandora. We do not mind your nickname, in fact, it pleases us greatly.”

Minako’s face lit up, “Really? I’m so happy, Howie!” She threw her arms around the king and jostled him slightly, but he could not help but smile.

Nick turned away. The warm arms of Pandora? Were they enough to allow the loneliest man in the kingdom to smile with such ease? Maybe… maybe that depended on who the loneliest man in the kingdom was… He closed his eyes briefly. A bright and warm light… He opened them as a smile crossed his face. A bright and warm light… Nick began placing the last parcels on the horse. He shut his eyes tightly as her light giggle resounded through the air. His Majesty had grown so attached to her already… And she’s the cause of His Majesty’s kindness toward me… It didn’t seem right to receive kindness by association, but… What else was there? Darkness… Pain… A small glimmer of hope… I’m undeserving… A sigh fell from his lips. To be surrounded and be completely alone… That is the fate of the demon born in the darkness. A very sad fate…

“Are you sure you can’t come with us, Howie?” Minako asked sadly, pulling on his arm slightly.

“We are afraid Safaiananpou needs us more… Though we greatly wish to accompany the Priestess. Perhaps, in a lighter situation…” The king looked down slightly.

“Cheer up, Howie,” Minako smiled, letting go of his arm, “Nick and I will come back soon with the other three demons. And then we’ll all go get the box together.”

“We await your return, but first…” Howie rummaged through the layers of his robes and produced a gleaming ball. It was not quite glass, not quite gem, but it shone brilliantly as it reflected the sun. Minako’s form rested within it as she stared in wonder at the glass gem. “In Pandora’s hands, this will prove useful in locating the missing cardinal demons.”

“So… there is an easier way to find them?” Minako clenched her fists happily and gave him a bright smile, “I’m really lucky!!” Minako took the orb from the king. As it passed into her hands it shone in the same blue as the palace and the king, it was truly a sapphire orb. A character appeared within the orb. “Throne…” Minako read as it disappeared and another character took its place, “Capital…” Minako stared at it in confusion, “I get it! The throne in the capital! That means… that means the king!” She smiled.

Nick turned to her and blinked.

Minako smiled and turned back toward Nick. “Nick!”

“Minako?” He blinked again.

She held the orb toward Nick and it shone with a bright blue aura once more. “To hide…” She tightened her grip on the orb, “Darkness…” So… Nick really is the demon hiding in the darkness…. It’s… It’s so sad…. Minako pulled the orb toward herself and held it tightly in her arms. Her thoughts were racing. “I see… they’re clues to find the demons.”

The king smiled, “Though the cardinal demons may not have markings, as you near one, this orb will provide you with clues about the demon themselves or their location.” He smiled, “So it is similar to having a marking but much less intrusive.”

“Thank you!” Minako smiled gleefully as she wrapped her arms around Howie’s neck, “This is almost as good as looking for people with markings.”

The king chuckled to himself.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come too, Howie?” Minako removed her arms from his neck.

Howie turned his head, “We apologize, Pandora…” He smiled, “That flower?”

Minako looked down at her wrist, “I made a bracelet out of it! Isn’t it pretty?”

Howie smiled, “It belongs in your hair.” He untied it from her wrist, and then carefully put it in her hair.

Minako blushed, “Howie…”

He gave her a smile, “There. That is more befitting of a priestess.”

Minako blushed once more. Why is he making me blush? Don’t I… She lowered her head.

Nick had finished placing the parcels on to the horse. It gave a low neigh as Nick patted its back. Nick turned to Minako and the king, “Minako, let’s get going.”

Minako nodded, “Okay, Nick!” She grasped one of the king’s hands, “Thank you, Howie! We’ll be back soon!”

Nick gripped her waist and placed her on the horse’s back, then mounted once she was safely astride the horse. He pulled the reins quickly. The animal reared and then began trotting.

“Bye bye, Howie!!!” She waved, “We’ll bring the others for sure!!! Don’t worry!!”

~*~

The darkness surrounded the countryside. Though very little was visible within its grasp, it was not the stale, death-giving darkness. In fact, it was almost peaceful. All was silent, except for the crackling of the blazing fire. As Nick pushed more kindling into its grasp, it flickered across his face, performing a beautiful dance. The world was motionless, time had stopped. Nick pushed a few more kindling pieces into the fire, then leaned back on his hands. It really is peaceful… It’s strange… The light from the fire continued to dance across his face. He stared into the fire intently for a few moments, and then looked up slowly.

Minako sat opposite him, holding the orb tightly between her fingers as she gave it a small shake. “Mmm… It’s still not reacting…” The orb reflected the fire and sparkled along with it, copying its dance in entirety.

Nick drew back as he caught another glisten echoing the fire. Between Minako’s lightly dancing strands of hair sat the flower she had shown him that morning.

Minako looked up to see Nick staring intently.

She put her hand up to the flower, “Oh… Howie put it in there for me this morning while you prepared the horse.” She smiled, “He said it looked better in my hair than on my wrist… I think so too…” She blushed momentarily. Her voice grew quiet, “Don’t you think so…?”

Nick turned his head slightly, “I guess…” It’s very bright… and warm…

Minako shook the orb again, “Ehhh…. Just like I thought… It isn’t responding to anything… I guess the other demons aren’t anywhere near here.” She looked up at Nick with kind eyes, “I’m sorry we had to stop for the night…”

Nick blinked slightly.

The fire danced playfully across her face, but the orb was shadowed as she pulled it close to her chest. In the darkness, it seemed dead.

Nick shifted his knee closer to his chest and studied her in silence.

“The darkness is a curse,” Minako sighed, “We could still be searching for the other demons…” She set the orb on the ground, “This is going to be a long trip, isn’t it? I wonder how far away they all are? Do you think we’ll travel really far?”

The darkness is a curse…

The words pierced Nick’s heart. Of course I think so, but… She was not made from the darkness, not like me… All she knows of the darkness is me… no my heart. So, I’m only a burden… I only interrupt what she shares with His Majesty… She told him that we would return soon, but the darkness is keeping her. No, I’m keeping her. His Majesty shines with the glow of sapphires, I’m merely the sickened soul in the darkness. His Majesty is a demon and yet his face is so tranquil and inviting… I am cursed with this wretched form… Sharp, spear-like claws, hideous peach wings, and a grimace of death. His Majesty is the majestic ruler of all the land, and I am just the hidden demon in the darkness… Blessed… Cursed… Beautiful… Ugly… Loved… Feared… Nick glared at the flower in her hair and let out a low growl.

Minako blinked, “I mean… I guess it would be better to rest, there’s not much we could do if we stayed awake all night.” She laughed, “And then in the morning, we’ll be perfectly rested and ready to go, right?” She gave him a large smile.

“That flower…”

“It’s pretty isn’t it?”

“Why… did he touch it…?”

“Well, I had it tied to my wrist and he said it belonged in my hair if I was a priestess… So he helped me move it… You were busy and…” She smiled, “It’s safer up there, isn’t it?”

“Why did God bless him?”

Minako let out a little gasp, “You shouldn’t treat Howie so poorly. He can’t sway God! It’s out of his control. Things are the way they’re supposed to be…” She lowered her head, “Like our meeting…”

Nick’s eyes narrowed.

Minako reached out her hand to him and let out a little giggle, “Don’t tell me you’re jealous of His Majesty because of me! That’s really cute!”

Nick turned his head away.

Minako laughed, “Turn back! Let me see you blush! I want to see!”

Nick batted her hand away, “Don’t be so stupid. You get excited over nothing.”

A small smile spread on Minako’s lips, “Anyway, don’t let it bother you so much… There’s nothing going on between us… Howie is Howie and I’m just Minako… And you know, His Majesty may have been given wealth, power, and respect… But there are things that make you special too… Lots of things…” Her smile grew larger.

Nick snorted, “And what’s better than wealth, power, and respect?” He sneered, “Don’t whine to me about how His Majesty is so lonely because he’s a king. He’s still surrounded by plenty of people. He just chooses to be lonely. Don’t talk like you know everything…”

Minako held the orb a little tighter, “Well… I was going to say that you can smash metal with your bare hands… And your strength is immeasurable!”

Nick spat and gave her a sideways glance, “So physical power trumps political power… Don’t make me laugh. You’re ridiculous. You only talk about ridiculous things!”

Minako turned her head slightly, “Maybe… But, what’s most important is that you have a strong heart… You are a very kind and warm person… I’m sure of that. And as long as there’s kindness in the world, then we can make all our wishes come true, right?”

Nick let out a forced breath, “Kindness doesn’t get you anything.”

“But, it brings people toward you… And people can’t do anything by themselves…” She smiled, “It takes the support of their wonderful friends to make them strong, right?

He smirked and gave a sardonic chuckle, “And what good is having a good heart when your face drives people away after one glance?” He stared her straight in the face, “What good is that, huh? Can people help you be strong if they run away at the sight of your face?!?”

“Underneath that first layer, you have a pretty face… with such a nice, genuine smile…” She smiled and blushed a little, “It’s really very warm and… comforting…” She lowered her head slightly, “If you’d only let people see that part of you… then you…”

Nick stood abruptly. His eyes narrowed, “What good would that do? I have claws, wings, horns… I have a tail! Huh? What good will that do? I even innocently walk into a city and they throw fruit at me and run away from me! ‘Smile,’ you say?” He chuckled sardonically again. “They’re afraid I’ll eat them if I even move my lips or hands!” He clenched his fist, “Even when I wouldn’t think of hurting them… They still think I’m vicious! What good would smiling do?! They’d just see my fangs!”

Minako turned her head and curled her legs underneath her. “Your kind heart draws people toward you… His Majesty has a cold heart…” Her eyes dropped on to the orb as she picked it back up, “People are drawn to him because they are loyal to their country or they are afraid or they want power… Those kinds of people aren’t genuine… They don’t really want to be near him because he is Howie… They want to be near him because he is a king…” She raised her gaze slightly, “Everyone wants people who love them for who they are… Not what they have…” She loosened her grip on the orb a little, “Back home, I have my best friend Renee. She’s not very rich or very popular... She always makes me study… And she teases me when I’m clumsy… And she always apologizes when she isn’t really sorry, but… But… But, she cares about me for who I am… Isn’t that better?”

Nick turned his head, “You’re saying I want to avoid the people who call on His Majesty all the time? Aren’t you just being selfish? It must be nice to have people hanging all over you… And to have people look at you without screaming… He’s a demon, so what makes him so much better? Just because he’s the king… Shouldn’t they hate him equally?!? I felt their hate, it burns… Their icy stares are numbing… But they love him more than anything… Just because he’s the king, they…”

“That’s not love!” Minako protested.

Nick turned back to her, his shoulders twitching slightly and his eyes widening

“His Majesty can’t have real love, because people aren’t drawn to his heart! But your heart is so pure! It’s so kind! And so full of love!”

Nick spat again and sneered, “So pure that it drives everyone away? So kind that it makes people scream? So full of love that it lives in darkness?! Get your facts straight before you try to make a point!”

“People are drawn to your heart! I know they are!”

Nick growled and clenched his fist, “Didn’t you hear me, I said…”

“Can’t you tell, Nick?! I’m falling in love with you!” Her tears fell on the orb in droplets like a rainstorm in her lap.

He sat on the grass across from her again. “Did you hit your head?”

Minako sniffed and tried to wipe up her tears with the back of her hand, “No… I’m fine… I just…”

“You really are a stupid woman…” his voice snarled

“What?” Minako shuddered and the orb slipped through her fingers.

“Being around His Majesty gave you a big head… Everyone calling you “your eminence” and catering to your every whim…” He snarled, “Did you forget what you are? You are the creature who will locate the box for the demons! Some sort of dog who can track it. That’s all you are!”

Minako’s eyes began to narrow, “A… dog…?”

Nick laughed disdainfully, “Of course. When you find the box, do whatever you please. Go back to your world, marry His Majesty, die… Do whatever you want once you get me the box. That’s how little you mean in this world.”

“That’s how little I…”

His eyes grew cold, “Even if you died, no one would care as long as you got the box!”

Minako lowered her head, “Even if…” The orb fell from her grip.

Nick laughed sardonically again, “Now you see how worthless you are. His Majesty should know better than to cater to you so carelessly.”

Minako’s hands began to shake from rage, “So, your kindness was a ruse…”

Nick turned to her, a smirk spread across his face, “Is that what you need to hear? The truth?”

Her voice shook, “Tell me the truth…”

“Fine, the simple truth. Yes, I was only kind to you… Only protected you… because only you know where to find my box.” His lips curled in a snarl, “Love? Don’t be ridiculous.”

Minako’s voice shook with rage, “All for your stupid box!”

“Yes, the box is all I ever cared about.”

She stood up quickly, her fists clenched in anger as she glared at Nick. Her blood boiled and a growl escaped her lips, “It was a lie…”

Nick snorted, “Who lied? I never said anything to make you think I cared about you. You really are a stupid woman.”

“I’m going back!”

“To His Majesty? How will you explain not having the others, hm?”

“Don’t be so self-centered! I’m going back home! I’m never coming back! I don’t care if you never find that box!” Her eyes shook in rage as she glared at Nick. Renee…

“Minako!!!!”

Minako’s eyes grew wide. Renee? Is that you?

“Minako!! Come home!!”

I thought so! It is Renee! Renee!!!

“Minako!!! Everyone’s worried!!!! Come home!!!”

I’m coming, Renee!!!

“Minako!!!”


“Home, huh? Well… I’m sure the people there don’t care if you die either… You were right, you really are worthless…”

“So…. That is how you feel…” She clenched her fist. In her anger, Minako’s body blazed with the sapphire fire it had burned with in the capital. “If you find it on your own, I commend your tenacity.”

Nick blinked. Where Minako had stood moments before, there was only darkness. It was not the stale, life stealing darkness from his home, but something worse… This darkness kidnapped hope. Nick put his hand to his head, it was boiling. The darkness clouded his vision as he collapsed to the ground.

Nick’s eyes squinted as he tried to see through his blurred vision, “The light… my miracle…” He shut his eyes under the strain.

There was nothing but darkness everywhere… She had taken the brief pocket of God’s light away with her.
Chapter Nine: The Oracle of Safaiananpou by nicksgal
Darkness… Everywhere… Am I clouded by the pocket in the Devil’s hands again? Minako stirred. My head is hot… Did I faint? What happened? My heart had been ablaze with rage, but… I can’t grasp my memory… She opened her eyes. What is this? This pale blue room… The computer in the corner… Shelves lined with books… Stacks of CDs… She turned slightly. Such comfortable sheets… Minako gasped and sat up. The world where everyone dressed strangely didn’t have CDs! So this… This is my world!

Minako jumped out of bed quickly and trembled on her feet. She caught her balance and ran to the living room. She put her hands to her heart as she picked up the telephone. All that anger and sadness was only a dream, thank goodness. The phone rang and rang, and then the line clicked.

“Hello?

Minako smiled, “Mrs. Smithson, hi! Can I please talk to Renee?”

“Minako?” the voice on the line replied.

Minako nodded, “Yes, it’s me.”

“Where is my daughter?”

“What?” Minako gasped.

“Isn’t she still with you?”

“Umm… No…” Minako gasped in shock once more, “She didn’t go home!?!”

“No…” Mrs. Smithson replied sadly.

“Don’t worry Mrs. Smithson! I’m going out to look for her right now!”

Minako hung up the phone hurriedly. Renee? Where was she? It wasn’t like her to stay out all night… But more than that…

“Minako!!!!”

Renee? Is that you?

“Minako!! Come home!!”

I thought so! It is Renee! Renee!!!

“Minako!!! Everyone’s worried!!!! Come home!!!”

I’m coming, Renee!!!

“Minako!!!”


There’s no mistake… That was Renee calling me. So… she helped me come back here… Minako raised her hand to her face. But… If Renee helped me come back here, then where did she go? Even I’m not important enough for Renee to keep from going home, or at least calling her mom… Something came up… Something important must have come up!

Minako ran to the door, “Renee! I’ll find you! I swear it!”

~*~

Minako ran down the darkened street, buildings looming above her. Renee… Is this how you felt when I disappeared? Minako put her hands to her heart. This immensely sad feeling… She lowered her head. Did you feel this too? When I was all alone in that world of darkness… My heart felt like it was going to burst… I was afraid I was suffering all alone… I was afraid of being lonely…

Tears began streaming down Minako’s cheeks.

I was… so afraid of being lonely….

Renee… Did you feel that too? That ripping pain in your chest? It’s heartbreaking… So, if I’m feeling this now, then you… Are you suffering too? Renee?

“Minako?”

Minako blinked and her tears stopped for a few moments. Renee? Renee? Was that you?

“Your body’s shaking just like you’re crying… Minako…”

Minako turned around, “Renee! I thought it was you!”

The two girls standing before Minako blinked. One with long blonde hair and one with short black hair, both wearing the same uniform as Minako.

The long haired blonde turned to the black haired girl, “Since when do I sound like Renee, Sarah?”

Sarah shrugged, “I had no idea you sounded like her, Meg.”

“Meg? Sarah?”

Meg took in a gasp, “Minako! You really were crying!”

Minako put her hand to her face, “It’s…”

Sarah put her hand on Minako’s shoulder, “Wait here! I’ll get you a soda from the bodega! Is cola okay?”

Minako nodded her head slowly. “Yeah…”

Sarah ran back the direction she and Meg had come from.

Minako turned her head slightly, “Where did you two come from?”

Meg pointed to a bus bench, “Let’s sit there, okay?”

Minako nodded and sat. “But…”

Meg smiled as she sat down, “We were just studying for the AP history midterm at the library.” She shook her head, “I was a bit surprised you and Renee skipped off to TRL even though the test is on Friday. The teacher said we all need to study hard to pass and be ready for the AP exam in a couple months, right?”

Minako lowered her head, “Come on, Meg… You know as well as I do that Renee doesn’t need to study…”

Meg smiled, “That may be true, but with a friend like you, you’d think she’d make sure to watch out for you better. Right?”

Tears started forming in Minako’s eyes again. Watch out for me better?

“Minako!!!!”

Renee? Is that you?

“Minako!! Come home!!”

I thought so! It is Renee! Renee!!!

“Minako!!! Everyone’s worried!!!! Come home!!!”

I’m coming, Renee!!!

“Minako!!!”


Renee… I want to find you… You were watching out for me so carefully when I was trapped in that world…. Every time I felt lonely or sad… you were calling out to me, weren’t you? A brief smile crossed Minako’s face. And when I really wanted to come back here… You called out to me so much that I could hear you…That loneliness I felt… It must have been heartbreaking…. I’m sorry… Renee… I promise… I promise I’ll find you, Renee… I absolutely promise… The tears started streaming down Minako’s face again.

“What’s this, Meg?”

Meg looked up, “What do you mean, Sarah? We were just talking about the history midterm…”

Sarah shook her head, “You know Minako’s no good at studying… That sort of thing upsets her…”

Minako let out a small laugh, “It’s fine… It’s nothing like that…” She looked up at them with her smile, which seemed a bit forced at that moment. “I know I’m at least a little stupid, but… I’d like to think I’ve grown up enough that I don’t cry over exams anymore…”

Meg patted Minako’s back, “That’s because Renee makes you study all the time these days, isn’t it?”

Minako’s fake smile faded a bit as her head dropped a little, “It’s true, we study, study, study… But I don’t get any better…” Minako shook her head lightly, “But that’s my fault… Not Renee’s… If I were any good at studying… I’d be as smart as she is now…”

Sarah smiled and held out the soda to Minako, “You can’t help it, we can’t all be as smart as Renee, you know? You’re trying, and that’s what’s important, right?” She smiled, “Here, your cola.”

Minako took it in her hand and smiled, “Thank you.”

Sarah smiled and sat down on the bench beside Minako, “Now… Why were you crying when we saw you on the street?”

Minako lowered her head, “Actually…. I was in trouble a while ago…”

Meg gasped, “In trouble? What happened?”

Minako shook her head, “No, I’m fine now…”

Sarah put her hand to her chest, “You really surprised me, Minako…”

Minako closed her eyes, “But… Renee helped me out back then… It meant a lot to me at such an important time, but…” She opened her eyes slowly, they were filled with sadness. “But now Renee’s gone missing…”

The other two girls stood quickly, “Missing?!?!”

Minako put her hands to her face, “And I can’t find her no matter how hard I look…. I’m worried it hurts for her to be all alone…” She lowered her head, “I’m so worried she’s sad while she’s alone…” Tears streamed down her face. Renee… Are you in pain? It has to hurt to be all alone… Renee…

Meg put her hand on Minako’s shoulder, “Renee is missing?!”

Minako nodded.

Sarah put her hand on Minako’s other shoulder, “For how long?!”

Minako shook her head, “I don’t know… I got home from TRL and I must have fallen asleep… I called her house and her mom said she hadn’t come home yet…”

Meg put her hand to her face, “That’s not like Renee….”

Sarah clenched her fist, “This is a problem! We have to find her!”

Minako nodded.

Meg turned to Sarah, “But we didn’t see her at the library…”

Sarah shook her head, “No…” She crossed her arms, “What if she went to a new library?”

Meg raised an eyebrow, “That’s really inconvenient…”

Sarah lowered her head, “Then… where else would she go?”

Meg shook her head, “I don’t know…”

Minako lowered her head. Renee… She gripped the edge of the bench’s seat. This is taking too long… I have to find her… She stood slowly. Renee… Don’t worry, I’ll keep my promise for sure…

Meg and Sarah turned back to Minako, “We’ll split up!!! We’ll find Renee no matter what!!!”

Minako’s eyes widened, “Really?”

Meg and Sarah smiled, “Of course! That’s why we’re friends, right?”

Minako smiled, “Yeah. Let’s go!”

The other two girls nodded.

Minako ran off in the direction she had been going. “Thanks you guys! I’ll see you soon!”

“Bye!”

~*~

Minako grabbed on to a telephone pole and breathed heavily. The darkness of the evening surrounded her as she tried to breathe. It was a cool night, and the stars shone brightly through the enormously tall buildings, but… Renee was nowhere to be found… Renee… Tears formed in her eyes. No matter where I look… I can’t find you… Could it be that…? Did you go to that other world too? Minako let a few tears slide down her cheeks as she let out a forceful laugh, “Renee… Where are you? You didn’t get drunk and go to some wild party, did you? You must have… That’s it! It’s not like you, but… I’m sure that’s it…” That’s better than you going to that other world...

“You know your friend is not like that…”

Minako whipped her head from side to side. The darkness was desolate…

“She took your place…”

“What do you mean?!?”

“Your anger and hatred forced your heart into a rage that allowed you to leave that world…”

“No! Renee helped me! Renee called me back!”

“It would be nice if leaving that world were so easy…”

“Wait… You… You know I was there?!” Minako stood up straight and put her hand on the pole. “Is Renee there now?!”

“A woman was needed in that world… You left… So your friend was stolen…”

“Why?”

“She too knows the secret of this world…”

“The demon world?”

“No… The real world…”

“And what is that?”

“It is a lie.”

Minako’s heart shook in sadness. Her memories came flooding back. His Majesty, Howie… The deep darkness with all the other girls… The priestess Pandora… Safaiananpou… The box… Nick… She clenched her eyes tightly as tears formed in the corners. Nick…

“I see… It is still painful…”

“Is…” Minako tried to speak through the tears that choked her, “Is… Renee in… that darkness…”

“No.”

Minako put her hands to her heart. Thank goodness… Renee was not a prisoner of the darkness. Then, she at least had a chance at staying safe. Then… Then I can save her…

“She… is nowhere near Safaiananpou.”

“What? What else is in that world besides Safaiananpou?”

“There are four countries… Safaiananpou, Rubiihoppou, Topazuseihou, and Emeradotouhou.”

“Then… She is in one of the other countries?”

“Yes.”

“Can I get her out?”

The voice stopped resonating in Minako’s head.

Minako clenched her fist, “Can I?”

“No…”

Minako gasped and shut her eyes tightly, choking on her tears.

“Her destiny will overtake her.”

“Destiny?”

“Her path… is very different from yours…”

“Can I go back? Can I go back to that world…?” She clenched her fist, “I want to go back!”

“Your heart… Is it really unbreakable?”

Minako turned her head slightly, “Of course not. But Renee… Renee means more to me than anyone!” She lowered her head, “After she worked so hard to bring me back… Even sacrificing herself… If I let her down, then what? What kind of person am I?” Tears streamed down Minako’s cheeks.

“You… want to go back?”

Minako nodded as her shoulders shook in sadness, “Yes… I want to go back.”

“Come to me… Come to me…”

A beautiful blonde woman with her hair up in intricate loops appeared before Minako wearing a long, flowing, blue, silk gown. She held her arms outstretched. Even though her eyes were closed, she beckoned Minako. “Come with me…”

Minako stepped toward her. The woman wrapped her arms around Minako. She was beautiful, very beautiful. Had the priestess Pandora lived before? Was this her true form? The two maidens were consumed in bright blue light, the sapphires sparkling in the moonlight.

~*~

The throne room loomed around Nick as he bowed before the king.

“She disappeared?…” the king seemed to growl, but his heart weighed heavily in his chest.

“I apologize,” Nick answered solemnly. He shut his eyes tightly, her words were still a knife through his chest.

"If you find it on your own, I commend your tenacity…"

How can I be so stupid? Did I really mean what I said? I sneered at her and laughed when she called me kind and His Majesty selfish and cold… Who else would ever say that? Who else would ever accept me so openly into that warm and kind light? Who else…

The king sat down on his throne once again and let out a sigh as he put his hand to his head, “It cannot be your fault, Nick. Perhaps she decided not to be Pandora any longer… Our situation is difficult… And she seemed to be lonely despite her smile…”

Nick took in a gulp of air. It can’t be my fault? It must be…

“Can’t you tell, Nick?! I’m falling in love with you!”

His hands shook. If only… If only…

A bright light filled the room. The eyes of everyone except Nick and the king grew wide as they stared at the gleaming blue light.

The king stared up at the light, “What is that?”

Nick turned slightly as his eyes grew wide and he gasped quietly. That… blue light…

The king stood up once more. “Guards! Raise your arms!”

The glow subsided and the beautiful blonde maiden appeared, holding Minako within her arms. The guards raised their spears toward them. The blonde maiden opened her eyes to reveal blue orbs like sapphires. The weapons dropped to the ground.

“What breed of demon is this!?” a soldier shouted.

The king stepped forward once more. “Who are you woman? Answer us!”

Nick’s voice shook violently, “Mi… na… ko…” Nick rose from his bow awkwardly and ran toward the blonde maiden and Minako.

The blonde maiden turned to Nick and raised her hand, blue light emanated from it. “Do not come near her, Demon. You only seek to destroy. I will destroy you first.”

“Let Minako go!” Nick clenched his fists.

The king’s hands twitched slightly, “Minako… She returned… She does want to be our priestess…” Tears welled in his eyes, “Maiden, did you rescue the Priestess or kidnap her?” He let his tears fall down his cheeks, “No, it does not matter. Return her to us.”

The maiden smiled, “I neither kidnapped nor rescued her, Your Majesty. I merely returned her to you from her own world.”

“She returned to her own world?” the king stumbled on the words.

Nick choked. So… she did go back… But, now she’s returned… Did she forgive me? “Mi… na -”

The maiden rose her hand toward Nick once more, “Speak her name and you will regret your existence.”

Nick chuckled, “That is laughable. My existence is meaningless. The demon hidden in the darkness is pitiable.” His eyes narrowed, “Though I don’t see why I should mention this…” He lowered his head. Because… Because everyone already knows that…

“Is your existence null?” the maiden smirked, “I know very well what your existence is and you betrayed it with your foolish words. Atone. Then you may hold her in your arms.”

“You would have me say something I don’t believe in?”

“You do not even understand what it means, do you?”

Nick chuckled, “Of course not. I was born alone, I will die alone. My heart is worthless.” Because I am weak… Because I have always been alone…

“You are a cardinal demon, or did you forget? You exist for this country and the girl who becomes Pandora. That is your true existence.”

Nick stifled laughter then smirked, “And that means that I must agree to something I don’t believe in? You’re amusing, to say the least.”

“Nick!” The king’s crystal voice pierced through the air.

Nick and the maiden turned to the king.

“We are curious, what else happened before you returned to us?”

Nick bowed, “It is of little importance, Your Majesty.”

“You will answer your king!”

Nick stammered for the words. What am I supposed to say? Whatever I answered would surely get me killed.

“He cannot answer you.” Nick and the king turned to the maiden, who still clutched Minako’s limp body. “He does not understand the situation himself.”

Nick clenched his fists, “What’s there not to understand!?”

“You said yourself, you were born alone. You have had no one. No demon… No human… The only emotions you understand are your own and they are weak and brittle, almost childlike from disuse…”

Nick growled, “What does that matter?!”

“It is the reason your heart fumbled in the darkness. Only a dog searching for a box? Your reasoning is pitiful and meaningless.” She shut her eyes for a moment, “You are correct, the demon hidden in the darkness is to be pitied… He cannot face his heart’s evolution. That is the true reason to pity him.”

“Evolution?” Nick scoffed, “You’re speaking nonsense!”

“That light in your heart…”

“It’s renewed hope in the belief that it will be returned to me! It’s my belief in my miracle!”

“You are incorrect…”

“I know my own heart!”

“Your hope was never missing, only misplaced… Yes, it returned with vigor, but… Would your hope cause you to smile at her kindness? Does your want of that miracle make you look at her any more than before?”

Nick stepped back, his hands shaking. “Shut up… Don’t say anymore…”

The maiden pulled her free hand back toward her. Like metal to a magnet, she drew Nick to her. She pulled him close enough that only he would hear her whisper. “Would it cause you to run toward her when I returned her here? That warmth in your heart is clearly love.”

Nick’s voice shook, “Love…”

“You would not know on your own, of course, your small heart cannot grasp the concept. But… You will return her declarations without spite. Not now… I will not force you to confess your heart to a crowd of people. But… You will confess it soon, or you will lose what is precious to you.”

Nick’s eyes grew downcast, “What is precious to me was already stolen. That’s… that’s why I want my miracle…”

“When we lose what is precious, our heart creates a void. It is only human, and demon, nature to fill that void with something, or someone, else that is precious to us.”

Nick’s heart did a somersault. To fill a void with something… No… Someone just as precious… Minako…

The maiden smiled.

Minako began to stir in her arms. Darkness… Everywhere, no, a pocket of light… Such warmth… and a beautiful glow in my soul… Minako opened her eyes slowly. The world was a blanket of white, for that brief moment, it was hazy and nothing more. Then the blue light off the walls sparkled down to her face. She smiled. “Howie?”

“Pandora!” The king stepped forward, almost departing from his elevated throne to the floor of the common people before him.

Minako smiled, “I’m so glad…”

“Do not step forward, Your Majesty,” the blonde maiden commanded, “There is a matter we must discuss first.”

The king stopped just before the first step. “Maiden, what is it you seek to tell us?”

The maiden let out a small laugh, “Surely, you would recognize me, Your Highness.”

“We are afraid not.”

“Then you were not instructed well as a prince.” The maiden was surrounded by a blue glow, “I am the oracle of Safaiananpou… Britney…”

Minako gasped, “The oracle of Safaiananpou?!”

Britney nodded, “Normally, if your Priestess decided to relinquish her duties, I would not return her, or, for that matter, have ever gone looking for her, even if she changed her mind. However… I felt my sister in Emeradotouhou stirring.”

The king blinked, “Stirring?”

“They may have found their Priestess…”

Minako put her hand to her mouth, “Can you picture the girl they took? Does she have short blonde hair with red barrettes?! Is she smart? Does she study too much?”

Britney turned her head, “I am… not certain… I cannot see the realm of Emeradotouhou… The future is clouded…”

Minako shut her eyes. Her destiny is different from mine… Renee… She clenched her fist. “Howie…”

The king blinked and looked at her, “Pandora?”

“I apologize, Howie… I must put the search for the cardinal demons on hold. There is something important I must do…”

Britney smiled slightly, “I see… The Priestess has set her mind down a narrow path…”

“Howie, give me a horse! I’m going to Emeradotouhou!”
Chapter Ten: Heart of Warmth by nicksgal
The lady’s maid bowed deeply as she shut the door while holding Minako’s school uniform in her hands. Minako backed up and sat on the bed behind her, turning and examining her surroundings. Its walls shone with the same blue and gold as the rest of the great house. The polished wood of the furniture gleamed as it reflected the gold trimming of the room and the golden details of each individual piece. The canopy rising above the bed was slightly worn and seemed like a relic from an even more ancient time. The air here was stagnant. Not quite like the cave Nick had brought her from, but… She shut her eyes and buried her face in her hands. The bell sleeves of her sapphire dress hung loosely around her elbows. Nick…

~*~

Howie sank back on his throne. “Pandora… You wish to desert us?”

Minako clenched her fists weekly, “Howie… No… But, I…” She shook her head, “I can’t tell you with all these people watching.”

Howie nodded, putting his hand to his head as he rose the other arm toward the entrance of the throne room and gave a dismissive wave. “Leave us.”

The nobles and councilmen began leaving the room, though the guards remained.

“All of you.” Howie’s voice boomed across the room.

The guards bowed and held their weapons high. Nick began slinking behind them.

Howie put his hand up. “Stop. Cardinal demons, Oracles, and Priestesses will stay.”

Nick froze.

Howie turned his hand and curled his fingers, beckoning them. “Each of you will come closer.”

Nick tiptoed closer to the throne and sat on his knees, resting his hands in his opposite sleeves. Britney followed his action and sat before the king. Minako remained standing between them.

Howie motioned his hand toward the other two and nodded, “Pandora, sit.”

Minako backed up and sat between Nick and Britney.

“Minako…” Nick whispered.

Minako turned to look at him briefly, her eyes brimming with tears, before turning back to Howie.

“Pandora, you are forsaking us?”

Minako lowered her head, “Howie, no. I don’t want to leave you for Emeradotouhou… I promised you that I would help you.”

Howie lowered his head as well, “But then you returned to your own world.”

Minako looked up to him, the tears streaming down her cheeks. “I didn’t know I could go back. It hurt so much to be here and my friend Renee called me back. That was all I’d been wanting…” She wrapped her fingers around the folds of her skirt. “But when I was back, she wasn’t…” Minako lowered her head. “I had to come back for her.”

Howie stood. “And Safaiananpou?”

Minako looked up into his eyes again. “But when I came back and saw your worried face… I made you a promise that I would help you and ran away the first time I could. That’s not like me, I’m so sorry.”

“Pandora…” Howie’s sad eyes smiled.

“No matter how sad or angry I feel… No matter how hard it is… I will always keep my promise, Howie.” She looked at her hands again.

Nick turned toward her quietly. It was me… I drove her away. And His Majesty was so quick to forgive me. Can he sense that? Can she? “Minako…”

Minako’s shoulders tensed, but she did not turn to look at him this time.

Howie sat again. “And yet, you still wish to travel to Emeradotouhou?”

Minako clenched her hands into fists. “Because Renee is here too… Because I went back. And I can’t let her feel sad or angry or do anything that’s hard for her…” She looked back up at him after glancing at Britney. “There’s an oracle there too… Are there also demons?”

Britney turned to her. “Pandora…”

“In that room with the tapestry, you said there were lots of demons and Nick told me that there were already priestesses… But Emeradotouhou didn't have one yet, I don’t think… But they have demons that want one?”

“All cardinal demons desire a priestess.” Britney patted her shoulder, “To them, it is fortunate that she took your place.”

“She can’t be there, especially because of me. I have to go save her and fast.” Minako stood, her hands still clenched. “And I promise you that after I help her, I will come back and I will find the other cardinal demons so that you can all still have the box.”

Howie lowered his head, “The Oracle is correct, you have chosen a narrow path.”

Minako lowered her head, “You’re worried I will get hurt and won’t be able to get the box? I know it’s more important than me, but I promised.”

Nick’s head sank.

Howie shook his head, “No, time moves swiftly. We worry you are ill prepared for unforeseen outcomes.”

Minako shook her head as well, “I made Renee a promise to always hold her close, to always be together. So I will do whatever it takes to keep it no matter what happens to me or if she doesn’t want me around… She knows I always mean what I say.”

“Pandora…” “Minako…” Both demons stared at her. One directly, the other from the corners of his eyes. One proud and confident, the other a whisper. One looking toward the future, the other toward the past.

Howie nodded, “We will provide you a horse. Nick will accompany you in our place.”

Nick’s shoulders tensed.

Minako glanced at him briefly before turning back to the king. “Howie, I’ll be fine and he shouldn’t have to worry about this. It doesn’t have anything to do with the box or the promise I made to you.”

Howie turned away briefly, “Then, we implore you to wait until tomorrow.”

Minako nodded, “Okay, I will wait until tomorrow.”

~*~

How could I have been so stupid? Even now, when I should be worrying about Renee, I’m only thinking of him. Nick… He kept saying I made him happy, so why did he say he only used me for the box? Am I really some sort of dog who only exists to sniff it out? Why did he hold me so close and smile at me so kindly if I wasn’t a person to him? Why did he treat me so gently? Am I really just a means to an end? She leaned on her knees. I shouldn’t have fallen for him so quickly. That was my mistake.

A knock sounded at the door. Minako’s heart leaped in surprise. She shook her head. It’s probably just that handmaid with my clothing. “Yes?” she asked politely.

“Minako?” a male voice asked quietly.

Minako’s heart shuddered, “Nick…”

“Yes, I…”

Minako buried her face in her knees again, “Go away.”

“Minako…”

“I’m not looking for the box until after I bring Renee back. We’ll talk after that.”

“That’s not what I wanted to talk to you about…”

Minako looked up from her knees. Not the box? Then what?

“Can I come in?”

Minako looked toward the door.

“I’m coming in.” The door opened slowly. Nick stood in its frame, his broad shoulders and proud stance silhouetted within the door, a truly formidable demon until he lowered his head and his form deflated, “You’re still angry.”

Minako turned away from him.

“You must hate me…”

She buried her head against her knees again. “I’m glad we’ve reached an agreement. Go.”

Nick clenched his fist, “I won’t go. You have to listen to me--”

“I don’t!”

He stepped back and flinched. “You’re right. You don’t…” He put his hand to his head. “I never say the right thing…”

Minako looked up.

“Just… listen to me… Please.” Nick trotted over to the bed and sat beside her. “Will you?”

Minako turned away from him again. “I know you’re impatient, but this is important to me.”

Nick looked away from her, “Don’t act like that…”

“Aren’t I just a dog? A box retriever? What do you care, as long as you get your box?”

Nick put his hands in his lap. “I really do only say the wrong things… I guess I should start with ‘I’m sorry’.”

Minako snorted. “You’re only saying that because Howie wants us to stay together. I told him, you didn’t need to think about me at all. You’re welcome!”

Nick put his hand to his head, “Just… Just let me explain, then you can yell at me all you want.”

Minako crossed her arms, “Fine.”

“I'm sorry… I was always alone, no family, no one to talk to... I’m sure I was born alone… Probably right there in the darkness all alone… A monster… Then those maidens started appearing, saying how they woke up from a splendid dream to a world full of darkness and nightmares…” Nick swallowed, “It hurt… They only saw me and the darkness, so was I the nightmare or was the darkness? Maybe both... I’d never been that surrounded before, but I only felt more alone.”

Minako let her hands fall against her knees.

“I don’t remember much from before the darkness, but there was once... I must have heard about Pandora. That story I told you, I don’t know how I heard it…” He looked up. “There was only one of them at first, I thought, maybe she was Pandora, but she didn’t recognize my name… When I told her I was Nickolas, she called me a ‘sad creature.’ When more of them appeared, they said the same thing, ‘sad creature,’ ‘pathetic creature,’ ‘monster’... Pandora was supposed to be special, she was supposed to know I was more than a monster…” Nick swallowed again, “Until then, I’d been all alone. Was I always in that darkness? If I knew about Pandora, there must have been some time I wasn’t there, but then, what did I do? Why was I imprisoned… chained… alone… What had I done wrong to God? Why was I sent away and forgotten?”

Minako reached out to touch his shoulder.

Nick shrank back under her touch. “You…”

“I meant what I said back then, being alone is a frightening way to live and I really was sorry that you spent so long waiting for me. I didn’t know…”

Nick untensed his shoulders. “When you appeared, you suddenly filled me with light. And you called me Nick… You knew me… But more than knowing me, you listened to me and comforted me and helped me…” He brushed his hair back from his forehead. “Then we came here and you said I had a good heart…”

Minako blushed as she removed her hand from his shoulder, then used it to brush her hair behind her ear.

“I yelled at you, I’m sorry… I was surprised, but… hearing someone say that really did make me so happy…” Nick chuckled a little, “I really am pathetic… I’m like a small child, trying to grasp things for the first time. I must have learned these things once, but I fumble with my emotions… I just didn’t understand. No one had ever told me that they loved me…”

Minako lowered her head. “I just… The way you held me…”

Nick pulled Minako to him and held her tightly in his embrace, “I mistook the warmth in my heart for hope… Hope to get my powers back or hope to return to my life outside of the darkness, whatever that was, but… I was wrong. Whenever you were with me, I was so happy, my heart radiated heat… When you smiled, I wanted to smile… I always thought I was hideous, those girls saw me as a monster, but… You held me close and told me everything would be okay…” He folded his wings loosely around her.

Minako looked up at him, her cheeks continuing to darken.

“The truth is when you were gone, my heart almost shattered… I didn’t know what to do… I thought… I thought I would break…” Nick held Minako to his chest, tears began falling from his eyes. They landed on her face like the first rainstorm of spring. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you… When you went away, I realized that I really did want you near me…” His tears fell harder and hit her face like hail.

“Nick…”

His voice shook violently, “You… said that… I could…” He choked for a moment, “could… finish… Please…” Nick shut his eyes, hoping the tears would dissolve, but they refused to vanish. They were the first rainstorm in spring that never wanted to end. His arms continued to grip her tightly. “I don’t… know if… I’m happy… or sad right… now…” He choked through his tears once again and struggled to breathe evenly, “But… I want you… to stay… close to me… I want… to hear… you breathe… And see… you smile… Forever…” Nick laughed a little and smiled through his tears, “I’m still fumbling… I didn’t know… Minako… I’m sorry… You're not like a dog… a box retriever at all... Stay with me...”

Minako stared up at him and blinked. She felt like she had stopped breathing, her heart beat wildly and frantically -- the beat of a dance pop tune.

Nick took a few deep breaths to calm his nerves, then leaned toward her, his gentle smile growing, “Will you?”

Minako blinked once more. She couldn’t speak, every time she tried to form words, she choked -- her mouth refused to release them.

Nick put a hand behind her head and pulled her face toward his, then rested his forehead on hers. “I only thought of you while you were gone, not the box at all… So if you stay...” He brushed his hand against her hair. “I’ll do anything I can to see you smile at me again.”

Minako lowered her head, trying to hide her scarlet cheeks.

Nick pulled away. “I understand… You’re still mad.” He released his wings and arms from around her before standing.

“Nick…” she mumbled.

He lowered his head. “Please stay safe in Emeradotouhou and…” He turned away, “I’ll keep trying to find a way to show you how sorry I am when you come back…” He reached toward the door.

Minako stood quickly, leaping clumsily toward the door. She wrapped her arms around Nick’s chest and buried her face against his back.

He cupped her hands in his fingers. She’s crying again… Crying for me? “Minako… Do you want me to stay?”

Minako tightened her grip around his chest and blinked away her tears as she nodded hesitantly.

“Yes?” He gently pulled out of her grip, then turned to face her.

Minako stared up at him, then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close to her again.

“Minako?”

She brushed her hand through his hair, stood on her tiptoes, and pressed a kiss to his lips.

Nick stared at her, eyes wide in surprise as his hands flinched slightly. “Minako…” his voice wavered.

She stared into his eyes, they were beautiful blue sapphires, more gorgeous than the oracle’s. They looked so content, but below that they still shone sadly.

He held her cheek and closed his eyes as he pulled her in for another kiss. “Minako…”

She tightened her grip on his neck and met his lips for a short kiss again. “Nick… I’ll stay with you. I still...”

“You’re still falling in love with me?” He fiddled with a strand of her hair.

“I don’t know…” She glanced at the ground.

“I hope so.” He smiled, “I want to try to become closer to you.”

Minako glanced back at him, “You do?”

Nick pulled her back as he wrapped his arms around her waist. His wings folded around her as well. “You have always been looking inside of me, calling me kind and gentle. I want to stop being afraid and be those things instead.”

She touched his cheek, “But you are those things already. You just have to let yourself be them instead of worrying whether or not you’re a monster.”

He smiled broadly, “I think, the more time I spend with you, the more I can do that. But also, I want to be able to see inside of you too. Even more than the brightness inside you, I want to learn about your world and care about things you care about. I decided that I don’t want us to only be near each other because of the box. I want to stay with you too.” He leaned his head on her shoulder.

She ran her hand through the hair at his neck. “Are you worried I’ll be like the Rubiihoppou priestess? Condescending?”

Nick straightened and shook his head, “No, you’re too warm and bright for that... But if there’s legends about us, I want them to say we took care of each other…” He brushed her hair behind her ear, “I want to take care of you.”

She leaned her head on his chest. “Can I take care of you too?”

Nick nuzzled into her neck and whispered, “Please?”

Minako leaned her head on his. “But you have to make me a promise and you have to keep it.”

Nick stepped backward as he held her arms. “Okay…”

“When you’re upset, tell me. I want to help you.” She pulled her hands into her chest, “And it hurt when you called me mean names…”

Nick embraced her tightly again, “I’m sorry. I won’t say things like that to you ever again. I’ll learn how to be better.”

Minako smiled. “Thank you.” She gripped his hand and pulled him back toward the bed, then sat before patting the space next to her.

Nick sat as well and crossed his arms. “Are you sure you want to go alone to Emeradotouhou?”

Minako pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them before leaning her head on her knees. “I have to protect Renee and bring her back here. I have to go alone.”

He uncrossed one arm and ran his hand through her hair, “Then is there anything I can do before you leave?”

“Just stay here with me.”

Nick pulled her close. “Like this?”

Minako leaned her head on his chest and closed her eyes.

Nick leaned down and kissed her cheek, “Or like this?”

She lifted her head and kissed his lips gently. He ran his thumb along her cheek and returned her kiss. The gold in the room continued to sparkle, continuously lit by the light in their hearts. The next morning, Minako would leave the safety of Safaiananpou and enter the unknown darkness. Nick tightened his grip on her, trying to fill her heart with safety before she left. Her promises reverberated through her thoughts. In words, she had already agreed to fulfill two promises: one to Renee to always be beside her and one to the sapphire demons to find their precious box. Just now in her heart, she had made a third, to stay with Nick. Was it possible to keep the first two or were they mutually exclusive? Was it possible to keep the third if she completed the first two? How much longer could she continue to make promises before she was unable to keep them?
Chapter Eleven: To Emeradotouhou by nicksgal
Minako stood in the great courtyard of the palace, a light wind rustling her pink skirt and the pink bow at her neck. The world around her shone brightly in a plethora of colors reflected by the large and numerous ponds: green grass, vibrant flowers in warm and cool colors, the rough brown bark of trees and shining green leaves. All these beautiful plants reflected nicely against the massive and expansive, shining sapphire palace. She stared up at the sun surrounded by clouds. What does it mean that the world seemed bright, but was still shadowed?

“There is so much darkness…” a male voice interrupted her thoughts.

“A terrible omen…” a female voice agreed.

Minako turned around and faced the king and the oracle. Their faces were shadowed with doubt.

“What is?”

“The sun does not shine on your journey…” Britney placed her hands to her heart, “A threat approaches.”

“What kind of threat?”

Britney shook her head, “If only I could see through the impending darkness…”

The king folded his hands, “If only we could accompany you Pandora.”

Minako smiled, “Don’t worry, Howie. I’m going to get Renee, so I’ll be fine. I will make sure we both come back safely. You’ll love her, she’s so cute.”

“We would feel safer if you would allow Nick to accompany you…” the king paused.

Minako smiled, “Don’t worry. I’ll be alright.”

“We insist.”

Britney nodded, “To go to an enemy nation alone is…”

“Dangerous?” the king offered.

“Suicide.”

Minako smiled again, “You’re all so kind, but I’ll be fine.” She clenched her fist, “I’m determined to get back Renee. Nothing will separate us, even another nation.”

Britney shifted her eyes sadly, “It is… not the nation that is threatening…”

The king nodded, “As you know, Emeradotouhou also possesses a set of cardinal demons.”

“And their priestess has to locate them, right? But, there hasn’t been another priestess yet, so… I’ll go save Renee first.”

“It is not so simple…” Britney reached her hands out to Minako, “If my sister in Emeradotouhou is stirring, then they may have already located Pandora of the emeralds… And it is likely to be your companion.”

Minako smiled, “Don’t worry. I’ll be-”

“You will take Nick,” the king interjected.

“Howie…?”

“You cannot go alone. We have decided that Nick must also journey to Emeradotouhou.”

Minako lowered her eyes, “You… don’t think I’m strong enough, Howie?”

He held her in a tight embrace, “Of course we believe you are strong, but we want to protect you. In our place, we will send Nick.”

“Where am I going?”

The three turned to face Nick. He blinked. I’m already included in the conversation… Are they sending me somewhere else while Minako is gone? What can I do to find the others or the box without her?

The king bowed slightly, “Nick, please accompany Pandora to Emeradotouhou on our behalf.”

“Ah… y-yes, of course,” Nick stammered.

“Then it is settled,” the king laughed joyously.

Minako glared at him a little. Why did Nick have to go? I won't fail. I have to rescue Renee. Renee is depending on me. Only me. She clenched her fist a little as Britney produced an orb.

“Here…” she handed it to Minako, “This is to replace the one that incinerated. It works in the same manner and is no more or less effective than the first.”

Minako nodded, “Thank you, but I don’t think I’ll find any sapphire demons in the other country. And what if it gets destroyed?”

“We will ensure there is a third.” Howie bowed.

Nick held his hand to Minako as he steadied the waiting horse. “Are you ready?”

Minako hesitated, “But you…”

Nick lowered his head, “I know... But he decreed it and maybe he’ll get mad if we ignore him...” He extended his hand toward her, “So…”

Minako nodded and embraced Howie. “We’ll be back soon, I promise.”

The horse trotted lightly in place as Britney put a cloak over Minako’s shoulders.

“What’s this?” Minako questioned.

“Until you leave the city,” Britney smiled. “A sapphire nation can’t see you fleeing for its enemy.” She pulled out a second cloak for Nick. “Especially with one of its savior demons.”

Nick swung the cloak over his head and shoulders, “Can this really disguise us that well?

Britney brushed her hand over his hood, “You can barely tell that you’re a demon.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Thanks?”

“No one will suspect a thing.” She winked.

Nick patted the horse and extended his hand again. “Minako?”

Minako gave him a small smile and took his hand gingerly as she let him lead her toward the horse. He placed her hand on its neck, before placing his hands at her waist and delicately lifting her onto its back. He then mounted the horse himself. He pressed his foot to the horse’s side to begin it’s cantor, then waved as they began moving away from the palace.

“Is she safe with him?” the king questioned.

Britney smiled, “He will protect her. Of that, I have no doubt.”

~*~

The day drug on. In the mid-afternoon heat, the sun still refused to shine. Minako frowned slightly as she leaned against his back. A terrible omen, huh?… Is Renee in danger? Or are we? It seems like my promise is shadowed in uncertainty. Will I be able to find Renee and bring her back safely? Will Nick and I be able to return to Howie? Will Ibe able to stay with Nick? And now that he’s here, will he be able to stay with me and stay safe?

“Minako…” Nick’s whisper pierced through her worry.

“Yes?” she gripped his waist more tightly, but pulled away her head and shoulders as she sat up.

The wind whispered between them, blowing Nick’s hood from his face. His blond hair shined even without the sun. “Incase you didn’t think so, I wasn’t playing around. I meant what I said.”

“I know.”

“I know you didn’t want me to come, so I thought… Maybe you weren’t sure...”

“I didn’t want to trouble everyone…” she leaned her head against his shoulder, “Renee is only my worry… I’m the one who promised to stay with her and I’m the one who brought her here by going back to our world… Also, I couldn’t let you and Howie get hurt because of me and nothing that had to do with the box...”

“If you’re worried about her…” Nick paused and sucked in his lips, grasping for the words, “Well, I guess I’m worried too. If keeping her safe will make you smile, I’ll do anything I can to keep her safe.”

Minako smiled, “Thank you. But, if she is in Emeradotouhou, isn’t that bad? For her, of course… But I mean for you?”

Nick bit his lip, “I don’t know…” He chuckled slightly, “I don’t know much of anything. Emeradotouhou, is it a terrible place? I’m not sure. I mean, the weather must be worse since it’s a little further north, but… I have no idea. And that’s okay…” He smiled, “Thanks to you, I’ll get to see it. Then I can decide on my own if it’s dangerous.”

Minako held him tighter, “But you’re a sapphire demon… Wouldn’t going to Emeradotouhou be painful?”

“More painful than longing for warmth in the lonely darkness? More painful than being alone as long as I can remember? More painful than seeing you hurting?” He shook his head. “There isn’t anything worse than those things.”

Minako shut her eyes and smiled as she ran her hand along his abdomen and leaned her head against his back again, “I suppose not…”

“Minako…” He took a deep breath, then smiled, “I promise you, as long as I’m here with you, we will make it back to Safaiananpou safely.”

They rode in silence for a moment as the ominous darkness hovered over them.

“How much longer until we reach Emeradotouhou?” Minako opened her eyes slowly

“His Majesty said it would take about two days. We’re not using the main road, so the trip is a bit longer…”

Minako shut her eyes again. Renee only had to wait one more day. One more day until we are reunited. One more day until I can apologize for dragging her here by mistake.

Nick held the reins with one hand and patted the horse’s neck. “Minako, our last trip, we set up camp. Did you want to do that again or would you like to try to find someplace to stay?”

She rested her head on his back. “It doesn’t matter. You decide.”

Nick bit his lip and turned back to her slightly. “Minako…”

“You keep saying my name, why?”

He smiled sheepishly and put a hand to the back of his head, “Just making sure you’re still there, I guess...” He bit his lip again. “Tell me a story about Renee.”

“Nick?”

“Your heart is like the sky, shadowed. I can tell that you’re more worried than you’re saying… So, instead of only worrying, maybe it’s okay to think about her and talk about her by telling me a story. How you met or the last time you saw her or your favorite memory or anything you want, really…”

Minako’s small laugh whispered against his back as she ran her hand along his chest. “Renee and I first met when we were in elementary school. She was always very quiet in our class, but there was one day we were working on a math strategy that I didn’t understand at all and she saw me struggling and helped.” She chuckled louder, a slight smirk crossing her face, “Then the next day, a boy in our class was picking on her, so I pushed him. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”

Nick chuckled, “You pushed someone for being mean to your friend?”

Her smirk grew, “Well, you’ve seen me angry when I feel hurt, it’s worse than that when it’s someone I care about.”

He grinned broadly, “You’re a formidable opponent, Minako. What else?”

Minako shook her head, “Your turn. It’s more fun if we take turns.” She looked at the dense trees surrounding them. We seem to be the only two people in existence. Was the world always this empty? “I told you a story about when I was younger… Now you tell me.”

“I’ll try.” He gripped the reins tightly, “Anything in particular you want to know?”

“If you were always in the darkness, how did you learn how to ride a horse?”

Nick ran his fingers across the horse’s mane as he squinted. “I… I think a long time ago, I used to travel places with an older demon...”

“Your father?”

He shook his head, “No… I don’t remember my family… Someone else who took me in after my family wasn’t with me...” He frowned, “But before the darkness… I don’t remember…”

“Nick…”

“But it seems like my body remembers how to ride a horse, even if I don’t remember… I’m sorry...”

“You don’t have to apologize for that.” I wonder how much the darkness poisoned his mind. If he went back, would he forget me? “One more question though…”

He smirked. “I thought the rules were you tell one story, then I tell one story, then it’s your turn again because it’s more fun.”

Minako smiled and sat up, “Okay. What do you want to know?”

Nick thought momentarily. “You care a lot about others. You defended Renee when you first met her, you calmed my heart when you first met me, but you always say you’re nothing. That can’t be true… tell me one of your talents.”

Minako shook her head, “I’m not anything worthwhile, I don’t have any talents, really… But I guess, it’s what you said, understanding others and helping them bring out their best no matter what they’re feeling. That seems like a weak answer… It’s not even really about me...”

He glanced back at her over his shoulder. “Minako, it’s not weak at all… At the beginning, I noticed right away, everything you do comes from your kindness. I know you’re worried about being Pandora because she’s supposed to be pure strength. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a physical strength, maybe your kindness can be the spark for that strength?”

“See? You’re kind and gentle after all.” She smiled. “My turn…”

“Minako, I really don’t remember…”

“You have wings, so I’m assuming you can fly. How do you know how to ride a horse if you could just fly?”

Nick was silent for a moment as he pulled the horse’s reins and walked it in a circle until it came to a stop.

“Unless you can’t fly?”

Nick’s shoulders shook.

Minako gripped his chest, “Nick… Are you…?”

It was quiet at first, but rather than the crying she expected, she was interrupted by his laughter. As he continued to laugh, he leaned his head down and the sound grew louder, purer, and more joyful.

As his laughter subsided, he turned to examine their surroundings. He pressed his foot to the horse’s side lightly and led it a few more paces toward a tree beside a small stream. He dismounted from the horse and tied its reins to a low branch so it was secure, but able to reach the water. He removed the cloak from his body and laid it across the horse's back, then wrapped his hands around Minako’s waist and lowered her gently from the horse.

“Nick?”

He pressed a kiss to her forehead and chuckled again. “Of all the things you could ask, I wasn’t expecting that.”

“So you can fly?”

Nick smiled at her with a wide grin, his fangs glinting, as he tightened his grip on her waist.

“Nick?”

He picked her up so that her feet dangled above the ground, then started running away from the horse. He flapped his wings and leaped into the air. As he continued to rise, he flapped his wings harder until they were above the treetops.

Minako gasped, shut her eyes tightly, and flung her arms around his neck as her hood fell from her head, “Nick!”

His smile grew wider as he pulled her closer to his abdomen and chest. “I promised to take care of you. You’re safe.” He gently soared back and forth above the path and trees.

She opened her eyes but still clung to his neck tightly. As her cloak whipped open in the wind, Minako turned her head to see the world around them. The treetops were a distant green beneath them, the stream their horse rested at was a faint line. The landscape stretched beyond them in all directions and it seemed as though they could touch the clouds. She giggled and reached a hand out as though she was trying to push a cloud away from the sunlight. She beamed at him. “Nick, this is amazing!”

Nick continued to smile at her with an awed gentleness in his eyes. He cradled her head and shoulders as he flipped in the air and glided back to the ground. He landed gently on his feet next to the stream, still holding Minako closely. His smile still broad, he leaned his head toward her, but loosened his embrace. “You’re amazing. For something this normal to feel incredible…”

Minako clutched his shoulders and closed the distance between their faces, meeting his lips with hers as she closed her eyes. His eyes fluttered shut as she deepened the kiss with the exhilaration from their flight, her lips and fingertips buzzing with an excited energy. Nick clutched her waist with one hand and the tips of her shoulder blades with the other, as though the harder he gripped, the more he could close the space between them. The world around them faded into the clouds, a hazy glow, starkly contrasting their focus on it moments ago -- only the other existed in the world.

Minako pulled back, breathless. “You’re amazing...”

Nick surged forward to meet her lips again. He pulled her back into the hazy glow, his fiery touch igniting each place his hands grazed over. She stumbled backward as she gripped his tunic tightly. He gently pushed her back against a tree as he nipped at her neck. She pulled his lips back to hers, kissing him urgently.

After a few more moments, Nick pulled back, resting his head on her forehead. He took in a few quick gasps for air. “Minako, I…” he trailed off into silence.

She brushed her lips on his gently, “Thank you for sharing that with me instead of just answering my question.”

He closed his eyes and nodded, “Anything for you.”

~*~

Even though the sun had been shadowed all day, the darkness swept in more rapidly than usual. Nick tied the horse to a post beside the inn. He patted its nose gently.

Minako held her hands to her heart. “Is it okay to stay here? Will the same thing happen as when we first got to the capital?”

Nick nodded as he pulled the hood back over his head, “It should be fine. Apparently I barely look like a demon this way.” His smile was broad despite his biting tone.

Minako cupped his cheek with her hand and smiled. “You’ll have to stop smiling then. Your fangs give you away.”

Nick leaned closer to her as he readjusted the hood on her head, “Then they’ll know, because when you smile, I have to smile too.” The bite of his smile became only gentle.

She smiled back at him gently, her eyes gleaming like her smile.

He lightly ran his hands along her collar and shoulders where the hood met the body of the cloak. “Minako, I…” he trailed off again.

She quickly pulled him into a tight hug.

“Minako…” His hands hung limply by her shoulders.

“Let’s go get our room and some food.” She pulled back from him just as quickly, but brushed his hand with hers and lowered it to her side.

“O-okay…” He gripped her hand lightly and followed her into the inn.

They stopped at a low counter where an innkeeper sat and sat as well. Nick slid a pile of coins across the counter, catching the innkeeper’s eye as he did so. “One room. Also we left our horse outside.”

The innkeeper paused until Nick removed his hand from the coins. He picked one up suspiciously and eyed it closely before placing it back in the pile and cupping the coins. “I believe I may have a room available. Do you need a meal as well?”

“Yes.”

The innkeeper stood and beckoned them to follow. He tiptoed through the building past many doors until he reached the far end of the building. He slid open the door to a very small room with only one mat made up with crisp linens and bare walls on all sides. “Is this acceptable?”

Nick averted his eyes. “Yes.”

The innkeeper nodded and moved aside, allowing Nick to enter the room. He eyed Minako as she stood by the door, then gripped her wrist lightly and lowered his voice to a whisper. “If you need assistance, Maiden, come find me. Your food will be dropped off shortly.”

Minako stared after him before turning into the room. “That was weird, Nick…”

Nick shook his head and slid the hood back. “Demons are bad for business.”

“Is that why? But the cloak...”

He sat on the ground cross legged as he stretched his arms and rolled his shoulders. “He saw my claws when I passed him the money. He probably thought I kidnapped you.”

Minako clenched her hands into fists and turned back toward the door. “That’s terrible!”

Nick shrugged. “I told you, humans hate demons and demons hate humans. We’re too different and humans won’t take the time to understand.”

She turned back to him, but lowered her head. “Even though I became Pandora, I’m still a human. I know you said Pandora is different…” She glanced at him.

He looked up at her with the same gentle smile he showed her over and over again. “You would be different no matter if you were Pandora or not.”

Minako raised her head, stepped back, and put her hands to her heart. “Nick…”

His smile brightened and he started to stand up.

There was a quick rap at the door. “Food.”

Minako turned toward the door, “I’ll get it, you can keep sitting.” She slid the door back open and saw a tray sitting on the floor. She glanced back at Nick’s warm smile as he crossed his legs again. She turned quickly, frowned, and shut the door lightly before walking back down the hall. As she neared the main entrance, she caught sight of the innkeeper. “Excuse me,” she called quietly as she reached him and put her hand on his shoulder.

He turned around quickly, startled. “Oh, Maiden, it is you.”

“I actually do need assistance.”

“A different room?”

She shook her head, “No. That’s fine…” Minako rose her hands to her chest timidly, “Is there any party here that is travelling to Emeradotouhou?”

The innkeeper blinked, “Why would you want to go there?”

Minako lowered her head. “It’s not ideal, but it’s a last minute emergency…”

The innkeeper frowned, but nodded, “I see… There is one man travelling to Emeradotouhou, he is a trader. He will leave here very early, but… I’ll see if I can get him to take you along.”

Minako clasped her hands, “Thank you! I would appreciate it so much!”

He put his hand to her shoulder, “Wait outside your room, I will ask him quickly.”

Minako nodded and turned back down the hall. She put her hand to her forehead. I wanted to go alone, so none of them would be brought into my troubles, but… Howie had insisted that Nick come. And I didn’t feel like I could say no… And when we were traveling here, I was really glad that he was with me. But… He’s smiling so gently and kindly… He’s worrying about me… And he’s letting me in… Bit by bit… Into his arms and maybe his heart... I’m going to Emeradotouhou, the nation of emeralds… Is that painful to the demons in Safaiananpou? Can emerald and sapphire demons coexist? Or do they exist at the expense of the other? Minako bit her lip. A long time ago… A priestess had appeared in Rubiihoppou, she was condescending… But… What happened to her and the cardinal demons there? What about Topazuseihou? It sounds like they already had a priestess too… I wonder what she was like... The demons in Safaiananpou decided to claim me, but… What about Emeradotouhou? Will Renee become their priestess if I can’t find her in time? Would Renee and I become enemies if she became their priestess? I can’t let him go… Not if he could get hurt. Not when he’s been… She glanced up at the sound of footsteps.

The innkeeper reappeared at the end of the hall. He gave her a short nod. “Just before sunrise.”

Minako nodded as he disappeared back down the hallway again. She picked up the tray with the food and leaned against the wall. Just before sunrise I will leave, Nick will be safe, and I will get Renee back. Just before sunrise…
Chapter Twelve: Disappear by nicksgal
Minako stared at the ceiling as the darkness surrounded the room. Before Nick came into my life, darkness was only darkness. Now I’m constantly comparing whether a darkness is better or worse than the darkness I found him in. It isn’t stagnant, but this darkness was also brimming with worry. Will Nick stay safe? Will Renee? Have the emerald demons already found her? Can I? She turned her head toward one of the walls.

Nick had originally fallen asleep sitting up against the wall with his arms and legs crossed, but now lay on the floor, curled in a tight ball. His tail circled his legs and his wings wrapped his shoulders and waist. His breathing was calm.

Minako uncovered herself and crawled over to him. His breathing has gotten so easy since we left the darkness. Does he feel safer out in the world where there’s sunlight and night or is it from being near me? Or maybe both? She brushed her hand through his hair. Nick… She shut her eyes quickly. Yesterday, he kept trying to tell me something and I kept interrupting him when he paused…

Nick pulled back, resting his head on her forehead. He took in a few quick gasps for air. “Minako, I…” he trailed off into silence.

She brushed her lips on his gently, “Thank you for sharing that with me instead of just answering my question.”

He closed his eyes and nodded, “Anything for you.”


I wonder if they were the same thing.

He lightly ran his hands along her collar and shoulders where the hood met the body of the cloak. “Minako, I…” he trailed off again.

She quickly pulled him into a tight hug.

“Minako…” His hands hung limply by her shoulders.

“Let’s go get our room and some food.” She pulled back from him just as quickly, but brushed his hand with hers and lowered it to her side.

“O-okay…” He gripped her hand lightly and followed her into the inn.


She opened her eyes and put one hand to her chest as she ran her other hand through his hair again. Is he falling in love with me too? Does he know I was lying when I said I didn’t know? And is it even love I felt… No… feel? I thought I could forget him after he said those mean things, but even going back to my world, I thought about him almost as much as Renee… And then he held me again the same way and told me he couldn’t forget me either. She put her fingers to her lips. And his kiss… I wonder if he would kiss me without me kissing him first?

Nick sneezed and curled into a tighter ball, his legs twitching briefly. His wings fluttered slightly in response and his hair fell in front of his eyes.

Minako leaned back before brushing his hair out of his eyes. How will he feel when he wakes up and sees that I’m gone? Will he be angry? Sad? Annoyed? Worried? Will he understand why I left? If he’s falling in love with me, will he still love me? I can’t… I can’t let him get hurt… If Emeradotouhou is dangerous for them at all, then I don’t want him to go there… Somewhere his kind and gentle smile could disappear… My heart would break...

A brief glimmer of light shone under the door.

She turned to it, then back to Nick. She ran her hand through his hair one more time as she pressed a light kiss to his lips. “Bye, Nick,” she whispered. “Stay safe…”

She stood and slid the door carefully, grabbing her cloak before walking into the hall. She glanced at Nick one more time before closing the door and walking down the hall toward the main room. A different man sat behind the counter and a second man stood next to the open door.

He stepped forward, “Are you the maiden hoping to travel to Emeradotouhou?”

Minako nodded.

“You’re just in time. I only have a few more things to add to my cart.”

Minako stared back down the hallway, though she couldn’t see the room they had stayed in. What will Nick do when he wakes up? Will he return to Howie? Will he wait for me here? If only I could tell him that I’ll be safe... What will be the safest thing for him to do? Will he still speak to me when I come back? Will he still hold me? Will he kiss me? What if he follows me? And then he gets hurt? Would he forgive me then? She put her head in her hands.

“Miss?”

Minako opened her eyes. The trader stood in front of her smiling warmly.

She smiled back, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to trouble you.”

He laughed, “It’s no trouble at all. Though, I can’t understand why you would want to go to Emeradotouhou… The economy is terrible and the people aren’t much better…”

She lowered her head, “It was very last minute…”

“You’re helping her escape a demon,” the man behind the counter hissed.

The trader raised an eyebrow. “Escaping a demon? Miss?”

Minako shook her head, “No, that’s not the reason, but…”

He raised his hand. “I don’t mean to pry. Anyway, I’m ready to leave. Do you have travel papers?”

Minako shook her head as she exited the inn.

“Without travel papers, I can either take you most of the way and let you out before the gate, but you will have to find your own way into the country. Or, you could try to hide in my merchandise, but they will definitely check it and I may not be allowed to cross either.”

Minako shook her head, “I don’t want to be an inconvenience. As close as you are willing to get me is fine.” She pulled the cloak over her head.

He nodded and headed back toward his cart. He offered Minako his hand and helped her into the front seat. She adjusted her hood over her head and around her face as he walked around the front, checking its connection to his horse and giving the steed a pat. He then climbed into the other side of the seat and flicked the horse’s reins. As the horse trotted away from the inn Minako turned back to look at it, one last time… Sayonara, Nick. Please stay safe…

~*~

Nick stirred and kicked his feet lightly. His wings fluttered over his body as his tail whipped back and forth. He blinked slowly and caught the sunlight streaming under the door to the room. Today won’t be gloomy like yesterday if it’s bright in here. A smile crossed his lips as he uncurled his tail and gazed up at the ceiling. He touched his lips briefly, then ran his hand through his hair. Was that a dream? I thought maybe Minako gave me a kiss while I was sleeping and touched my head.

Yesterday, she…

His smile still broad, he leaned toward her, “You’re amazing. For something this normal to feel incredible…”

Minako clutched his shoulders and closed the distance between their faces, meeting his lips with hers as she closed her eyes.


And when we arrived here…

Nick nodded as he pulled the hood back over his head, “It should be fine. Apparently I barely look like a demon this way.” His smile was broad despite his biting tone.

Minako cupped his cheek with her hand and smiled. “You’ll have to stop smiling then. Your fangs give you away.”

Nick leaned closer to her as he readjusted the hood on her head, “Then they’ll know, because when you smile, I have to smile too.” The bite of his smile became only gentle.

She smiled back at him gently, her eyes gleaming like her smile.


He touched his lips again. I wanted to tell her… After I apologized to her... she held me… I felt so safe and warm… I never wanted her to let me go. Was that how she felt when I held her? My heart felt like it jumped into my throat and like it would burst out of my chest, but it made me happy. Then she kissed me… And I… I wanted her for only me... He shut his eyes. She has been caring about me all this time… But I was so mean to her… And I didn’t tell her when she told me... Am I too late? Would she listen if I told her now?

He stretched out his limbs. The floor is cold. I hope she slept well. Did she think it was kind that I gave her the bed? His eyes shifted toward the bed. Is she awake yet? Does she wake up early? Does she sleep late? What does she look like when she sleeps? An angel? Do I wake her?

He sat up, then crawled over to the bed and pulled the cover lightly. He expected the sheet to slide off the bed, but instead it pulled tight and flat.

He stood quickly. “Minako?”

He whipped his head from side to side. In this small room, there’s nowhere to hide. Where could she have gone? Is she with the horse? Or is she...

Nick hurriedly grabbed the few belongings they had brought, slung his cloak over his body, and rushed down the hallways of the inn and into the main room.

A different man sat behind the counter focused on a ledger, but lifted his head at the sound of the footsteps, then stood quickly as Nick ran into the room. He pointed toward him, “I heard about you.”

Nick looked around hurriedly as he ran. Minako…

“Stop!”

Nick froze and turned to the second innkeeper.

The innkeeper sneered at him.

Nick put his hand to his head, running it through his hair and against his horns. Nick stared at the innkeeper in surprise. “My hood…”

The innkeeper spat, “Get out, demon.”

He pointed to the cloak. “Have you seen a girl in a similar cloak?...”

The innkeeper stood quickly and pointed to the door, “Get out, demon! This establishment does not allow your kind here!”

Nick backed toward the door as he pulled the hood over his head.

He stopped outside the door and paced back and forth. Not just my fangs, Minako… He backed against the wall and slid down, hiding his face in his hands and leaning his head on his knees. I forget myself with you… I’ve just worried about being Nick, but... Humans absolutely hate demons. Pandora begrudgingly accepts her connection to them. And you… It’s like you don’t even see it? That can’t be true… Maybe you just see me for who I am…

“Minako…” Why did you leave without me? We would have stayed safe together. I wasn’t worried about Emeradotouhou or their demons. But I was worried about you... And now who will take care of you?

He stood quickly and growled. Why did she leave me? What if she doesn’t… He clenched his fist and slammed it against the wall. Minako...

“May I be of assistance?” a sweet voice questioned him.

Nick turned around quickly and faced a man. His jaw was square and his blue eyes shone brightly as he smiled. He wore a white colored, upper-thigh length tunic with a blue ribbon at the waist over blue pants. Tall white boots rose to his shins and blue gloves covered his hands. A straw hat covered his head and in one gloved hand he held a staff with a circular top -- rings hung from the bottom of the circle and the inner piping was covered with sapphire gems. Beads hung around his neck and a blue cape was clasped over his shoulders with sapphire gems at the collar.

Nick growled, baring his fangs, “Mind your own business…” His hood sat bunched around his collar, revealing his pale horns again.

The man stepped closer to Nick, causing Nick to flinch and step back into the wall.

He reached toward him and touched Nick’s shoulder, “Your heart seems troubled…”

Nick threw the man’s hand off his arm as he ducked away from him, “Don’t touch me!”

The man bowed his head, “There is… something amiss… with your heart.”

Nick continued to growl as he crossed his arms, “You say heart, but you mean body.” He snorted, “Are you sure you aren’t making assumptions because I am a demon?”

The man lifted his head cautiously, “Religion does not see a body, only a heart and yours is… erratic.”

Nick growled and clenched his fist, “Don’t assume anything…”

“A young woman…” His eyes flashed.

Nick turned quickly and slammed his fist against the wall again, “Damnit Minako! You leave me alone for strangers to attack me!”

The priest put up his hands in defense, “I will not attack you. I approached you because you looked troubled as you sat against the wall, like a small frightened child.”

Nick looked away quickly, “That was…” He looked down, “I’m looking for someone… And the inn...”

“The young woman?”

Nick clenched his fist, “You seem to know a lot about us… Did he send you to keep an eye on us? Or are you with them?!”

The man clenched his staff, “I apologize, I am unsure what you are accusing me of…”

Nick began pacing back and forth again. Where did she go? Why did she leave? Is she safe?

“A foreigner?” The voice pierced his thoughts.

Nick paused and dropped his hands. “Her? Yes… She is from somewhere far away...”

“Strange lightly colored clothing?”

Nick nodded and pointed to his chest. “With a bow here? Or a cloak just like this, I guess…”

The man nodded his head. “Both.” He eyed Nick curiously, “She left this morning.”

Nick’s eyes grew wide in surprise as he turned and hit the wall again. “She… LEFT!?! ALONE?!?”

The man shook his head as he dropped his staff. He then stepped forward and gripped Nick’s shoulders.

Nick turned, quickly slipping from his grip and pulled his fists closer to his chest, ready to fight, “Don’t touch me!”

“I saw the innkeeper berate you for no reason other than being a demon. However, if you continue to hit his building, he will have a reason.” The man grabbed Nick’s shoulders again and pulled him closer to a tree. As soon as there was distance between Nick and the building, he removed his hands. “Hit that tree if you would like to lash out at something.”

Nick growled and clenched his fists tightly.

The man backed up and retrieved his staff, “As to your previous question, she was not alone. A man was with her.”

Nick let out another deep growl and hit the tree behind him. “She left with another man!?!”

The man smirked, “I see, it is unrequited love…”

“IT’S NOT UNREQUITED!”

The man smiled, “Then why are you so worried? If she loves you, she wouldn’t have left you for another man.”

Nick lowered his head, “It’s not…” Did she leave... because I didn’t tell her? Am I... too late?

The man nodded, “I see. There are words left unsaid between you.” He gave Nick’s shoulder a pat. “You’ll just have to find her again and speak with her.”

Nick looked up. “Did you hear where she was going?”

The man put a hand to his face, “Hmmm… Well, the trader was headed for the eastern empire of Emeradotouhou. So somewhere between here and there, I suppose.”

Nick’s eyes and nostrils flared in anger as a deep growl escaped his throat and his fangs curved over his bottom lip. He hit the tree behind him rapidly and repeatedly with his fist. “She went by herself? How could she?!” Nick sank to his knees and elbows then he slammed his fist into the ground several times, “STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!” He ran his fingers into his hair, “I promised I would take care of her… Our sacred promise to each other and I… let her go alone? How could I? How could I?!” He punctuated the last question with another hard slam of his fist.

“Clearly she deceived you.” He shook his head, “A sacred promise… as if such a thing existed.”

Nick’s hands shook in rage. He gripped the tree and stood, then turned to the man, fists still shaking, “Listen you…”

“I will go with you to Emeradotouhou!” the man smiled.

“What?” Nick scowled and stepped backward, “I’m not incapable…”

“To ensure her return,” he smiled, “If she is upset with you, surely a third party would smooth the situation.”

“Who said anything about her being upset?!” he clenched his fists tightly.

“Well she did leave you without warning.”

“She’s… not… upset!” His hands continued to shake, but he lowered his head. Could you not see past our fight? Was there something more I could have done to show you? Something more I could have said? Minako...

The man clapped Nick’s shoulder. “Lead me to your horse, Nick! Quickly! Let’s retrieve the young maiden!”

Nick growled, “Who’s in charge here?” He froze and flinched, “Also, how did you know I have a horse? And that my name is Nick?!”

The man smiled once more and laughed awkwardly, “My mistake. I saw you arrive yesterday and heard the young woman call you it. Are you ready to depart?”

Nick nodded bewilderedly and pointed toward the side of the inn. The priest jaunted over to it.

Once he was gone, Nick bashed the tree with his fist one more time and growled. Minako… What are you thinking? It’s too dangerous and I… If you’re hurt, my heart will break. Are you trying to hurt me? Or are you trying to save me? I don’t need to be saved… Minako… You shouldn’t have gone to Emeradotouhou alone. When I see you… He clenched his eyes shut and lowered his head. What will I do when I see you? I’m angry that you left, but… More than anything… I want to see you again and hold you close… Then, if it’s not too late, I want to tell you that when you held me I wanted it to be forever. I’ll kiss you before you can kiss me. And more than asking you to stay with me, more than promising you to take care of each other, I’m going to tell you… He felt his heart hammering in his chest and clenched his fist to his heart. It’s loud…

The man returned leading two horses by the reins, “Is this one your horse?”

Nick looked up at him. “Oh, you’re back… Yes, that is my horse…” He eyed him curiously. “Is that one yours?”

The man nodded. “Shall we?” He handed Nick the reins before mounting his own horse.

Nick pet the horse’s nose before mounting it quickly. He stared to the sky and shielded his eyes from it. Before I left that dark place, the light was only a thing I dreamed about and vaguely remembered. The day is bright, but I can’t feel the warmth, even though I know it’s there. It feels like a fragile imitation of the light I’m really longing for, a shadowed warmth. When I first met her, I really thought that I would be happy with only a fragment of her light to help me find my miracle. That’s not true anymore. I don’t want that… A fragment will never be enough. But if she lets me, I want to be warmed by her light constantly and eternally no matter what hardships we’ll face. Minako... In Emeradotouhou, I’ll tell you.
Chapter Thirteen: The Emerald Priestess by nicksgal
They rode in silence for what seemed like eternity. The trees on the path blurred together in a sea of green and brown and the other plant life whispered into nothing. The sun shone brilliantly above them, but was never bright enough to penetrate Nick’s thoughts. The same chorus of questions repeated itself in his mind. Why did you leave without me? Could you not see past our fight? Was there something more I could have done to show you? Something more I could have said? What are you thinking? Are you trying to hurt me? Or are you trying to save me? What will I do when I see you? Am I too late? Would you listen if I told you?

The other man peered at him curiously as he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it and turned back to the road.

Over and over again they continued in this pattern of questioning and punctuated silence.

Finally, Nick glanced over at him. “You want to say something…”

The other man chuckled. “Lost in your thoughts?”

Nick turned back to the path ahead of him without answering. His eyes seemed blank again as though he returned to his unending questions.

“You’re thinking about the young woman?”

Nick slowed his horse and let out a short cough as his eyes narrowed, “Who are you? I don’t know you.”

“In due time.”

“This is ridiculous! It seems like you’re trying to become my companion, but you won’t even tell me who you are!”

The man smiled, “In due time.”

Nick let out a low growl, “What does that even mean?! Do you want something from me?! Or do you want something from Minako?!”

“Nothing really.”

“We don’t have anything to give you anyway!” Nick gave the reins a quick pull before walking his horse in circles until it eventually stopped. “It’s ridiculous that you insist on following me!”

The man copied his action and stopped as well, “You looked like you needed assistance getting to Emeradotouhou.”

“I don’t!”

“Do you know what direction to go?”

“I’ll find it!”

“You’re letting your worry cloud your judgement. Can you really find her just by traveling forward?”

Nick growled, “Not if you keep wasting my time!”

“Then what do you propose?”

Nick put his head in hand, “Leave!”

“Is there another option?”

“Stop distracting me!” Nick pressed the horse’s side with his foot again to go back into a trot.

The other man followed suit. He turned to Nick again as he caught up to his horse. “Where are you traveling from?”

Nick rolled his eyes, “Is this your way of saying ignoring you isn’t an option?”

The other man sped up his horse, “If we’re going to be companions, we should at least know a little about each other.”

“And your name?”

“In time.”

Nick ran his hand over his face and groaned, “Ugh, fine… Somewhere in Safaiananpou… The capital, I think...”

The other man smiled. “How is Aohouseki these days?

Nick paused for a moment, “Annoying? Full of rules?”

He laughed. “I take it you’ve gotten involved with some people you don’t particularly care for.”

Nick stared ahead with a wistful smile on his face, “They’re not… all bad…”

“What’s in Emeradotouhou?” The other man asked quickly.

Nick gripped the reins, “Minako… Someone she knows is there, but she doesn’t think she should be…”

“Two strangely dressed foreigners at the same time?” He lowered his head and whispered, “This is worse than I thought…”

Nick turned to him, “Yeah, she thinks she got dragged here by accident…” He frowned, “Are you okay?”

He waved his hand and smiled at him, “Fine, fine. It seems no matter what I ask you, the young woman is on your mind and in your words…”

Nick lowered his head, “We… I guess... my life is very different from before I met her… Everything is tied up in the things she does…”

“Is that good or bad?”

Nick gripped the reins, “Neither… Both…” He lowered his head, “It depends on what happens when I get there, I guess… What she says or does when I...” he trailed off.

He started to speak again, but stopped himself.

Nick turned back to him. “You said you saw her leave this morning… How early was that?”

He looked to the sky, “Just as the sun was rising.”

“Do you think we can catch up to her?”

He pursed his lips, “It probably takes longer with the cart, but they also left a few hours before us… Perhaps if we quicken our pace…”

Nick pressed his feet against the horse’s sides, cueing the horse to quicken to a gallop.

The man shook his head and chuckled, “Seems the time for speaking is over.” He also cued his horse to begin galloping so he could keep pace with Nick.

~*~

The cart creaked and groaned as it traveled down the road. Minako ran her hand along her forehead lightly. Her worries from yesterday had multiplied and were battling in her heart. Can I find and rescue Renee? Will Nick forgive me for leaving on my own? Can I stay with both of them at the same time? She lowered her head. This part of the trip seems longer when I’m alone with my thoughts. Yesterday… Nick made me feel so warm, I almost forgot that I was so worried… A large, rectangular, emerald gate with an arched entrance loomed in the distance. It shone as brightly as the palace in Safaiananpou, but it was a cold brilliance. The air was stagnant and unfeeling. Minako’s hands shook as she tried to conceal her breath. “The eastern country is cold, isn’t it?" She smiled faintly.

The trader nodded, “Rubiihoppou is much colder, especially once you get to the mountains.” He smiled, “You really are from the south, aren’t you? A northerner from Safaiananpou probably wouldn’t notice a temperature change.”

Minako shifted in her seat. Was Aohouseki in the south? Just how far had they traveled from Nick’s darkness?

“Anyway…” he continued, “This isn’t the main gate, so it should be easier for you to get in, even without papers.”

Minako bowed, “Thank you for helping me.”

“It’s no problem at all.” He pulled the reins, slowing his horse to a stop. “This is as far as I’ll be associated with you.

Minako nodded. “Thank you, this is enough. I appreciate all of your help.”

He smiled as Minako hopped down from the cart. “If you need a ride back down south and we cross paths, let me know.”

Minako smiled and waved, “Goodbye.”

The trader waved as he flicked the horse’s reins, starting the creaking motion of his cart once more.

Minako began trudging toward the gate. Renee… Don’t worry, we’ll be together again soon. We’ll stay together and no matter what has happened to you here, you’ll be safe in Safaiananpou. Minako put her hands to her heart. Very soon… She stared up at the sky. The darkness was not hovering that day, a good omen? That means I will find Renee safely, thank goodness. She then lowered her head. Was Nick looking up at the same sunny sky? Please be safe in Safaiananpou too, Nick...

“Stop!”

Minako froze and examined her surroundings. The gate loomed over her head and all around, it was surrounded by a thick wall. To her left, four soldiers examined the trader’s cart and wares. Directly in front of her, two soldiers thrust their spears toward her neck. “Show us your papers.”

“P-papers…” Minako stammered nervously. She knew entering would be easier with papers, but what surprised her more was the soldiers’ initial instinct toward violence.

“If you are crossing a border, you need papers. Produce them.”

Minako put her hand on her head, causing her hood to fall from her face. The trader had said she would not need papers. Had the security increased since he had last been there? What was the reason for that? How can I cross when the choice is papers or violence? That’s right! Pandora! “Don’t you know who I am?”

“A foreigner?”

Minako smiled, “Correct! Please take me to the king!”

“A foreigner can’t demand to see the king. State your business!” The soldiers held their spears increasingly closer to her neck.

“Don’t you know?” Minako scoffed, “I’m Pandora, the emerald priestess.”

“Emerald priestess?” They stared at each other in confusion.

Minako nodded, “Yes, yes. That’s the truth.” She crossed her arms condescendingly, “What an insult that lowly soldiers such as yourselves have never heard of me! Lead me to His Majesty at once!”

“What is this?” a male voice cut through Minako’s impromptu monologue.

Minako and the soldiers turned toward the voice just beyond the gate. The soldiers then dropped to their knees. Within the large, stone walls, a tall man sat astride a horse. He wore glistening, angular, metallic armor with emerald plating and a beautiful emerald cape. His head and face were covered with a full helmet with a green plume jutting from the top, but his blue eyes pierced through a wide slit across the bridge of the nose. Minako stepped back in alarm, her cloak blowing in the wind, revealing her pink skirt beneath.

“General!” one of the soldier’s voices burst, “Do you know of the emerald priestess?”

The general looked down on the three of them, “Emerald priestess…”

The second soldier nodded, “This woman claims to be her!”

The general dismounted from the horse in one leap and strode toward Minako. He held up an armoured hand and touched her face as he examined her. “She certainly is… a foreigner…” He shook his head, “But far too young to be Pandora.”

“Too young, general?” the soldiers questioned.

The general nodded, “Indeed. The Pandora who arose in Rubiihoppou was a bewitching beauty who haunted demons and men alike. This is a child.”

Minako clenched her fist, “A child, you say? I am most certainly Pandora of the emeralds!”

“Maiden,” he replied dryly, “For you to be convinced you are Pandora and, yet, appear alone is intriguing…”

Minako stepped toward him, “I have arrived before my demon companion to further the glory of Emeradotouhou.” Not true, but… Will that convince him to keep them from killing me?

The general smirked, “Interesting… Very well, come with me to the emperor.”

Minako turned her head, “Would your king have gained that many lands to become an emperor already?” Ugh… is this what the Rubiihoppou Pandora sounded like? She must have been a monster.

“Our empire is mighty, with or without you, stupid woman.”

Stupid woman?... Minako’s heart trembled.

“You really are a stupid woman…”

Those words… He said they were a lie! So why? Why do they still shatter my heart?

“Let me pass! I’m looking for someone!” The male shout interrupted her thoughts.

Minako turned quickly. In the trader’s previous place at the gate, Nick tried to push through the second set of soldiers. His fangs curved over his lips as he snarled.

The general peered over Minako’s head. “It seems a lesser demon has forgotten his standing in the world.” He placed his hand on Minako’s shoulder, then turned to the soldiers next to her. “No matter. See to that disturbance.”

Minako’s hand trembled. If I cried out to him, he would be at my side immediately, but… Renee. She turned her head. Forgive me, Nick, it seems like this may be the only way...

She raised her head toward the general, “You’re right, that was callous. Take me to your emperor.”

The general smirked, “I see you have chosen a mighty alliance, Maiden.” He gripped Minako by the wrist as he pulled her toward his horse.

The soldiers turned toward him, “General…”

He waved his hand dismissively toward the soldiers around Nick, their spears now drawn and aimed at his neck. “As I said, see to that disturbance.” He gripped Minako’s waist and placed her on his horse.

The two soldiers rushed over to where Nick still struggled to pass the first pair of soldiers with drawn spears. He turned toward the newcomers, catching sight of Minako on the horse over their shoulders.

Nick’s hand shook as he reached it out to her, “Minako!!!! Bring her back!!!” The guards aimed their spears closer to Nick’s neck, one even dropped his blood on his skin like beautiful red rain. “MINAKO!!!!”

The general shook his head and remounted his horse, giving it a quick cue before galloping away from the gate.

“MINAKO!!!!” Nick howled as the guards continued to struggle against his pushing and gripping.

The man who had accompanied Nick wrapped his arms around Nick’s chest and pulled him back toward the Safaiananpou side of the gate. “Sorry gentlemen,” he smiled, “My friend is easily excitable. We will be leaving now and return with our misplaced papers.” Though he struggled, he managed to pull Nick away from the gate and shield them behind a group of trees. He released his grip from around Nick’s chest and breathed heavily. “Can’t you put in a bit more effort for the task at hand? We were attempting to enter the country.”

Nick clenched his fist, “Minako… She must have heard me… Why didn’t she call out?”

“She’s moving up in the ranks!” the man smiled, “First a trader, now a general. I’m impressed. She certainly works fast.”

Nick punched a tree, “Minako!” He growled.

The man placed his hand on Nick’s shoulder, “That was unkind of me to joke. But you must have known we weren’t getting into the country without papers and definitely not by creating a ruckus.” He shook his head, “Just what were you planning?”

Nick struck the tree again, “Minako going alone was never part of the plan!”

He shook his head, “It seems she had a plan and made it safely. Could it be that you were never part of the plan?”

Nick’s eyes glowed an intense sapphire color.

“Is something the matter?”

“How dare they…” He clenched his claws, “How dare they!!!!!” Nick’s wings sprung free from their resting position, looking almost elegant as they silhouetted his frame in front of the sun. Nick’s fangs poured from his mouth and his eyes continued to glow, the unseeing sapphires of rage. Nick ran back toward the gate, leaped off one foot, and sprung into the air. His wings flapped as he soared above the gate, crossing the border into Emeradotouhou and its capital city.

The man who had accompanied him smiled as he watched Nick’s form disappear above the gate. He chuckled to himself as he put his hand to the top of his blue cape, “It looks like the masquerade is over. I hope he appreciates my true identity...”

~*~

Minako walked through the corridors of the palace. It resembled the palace of Safaiananpou, except it possessed emerald and silver tones rather than sapphire and gold and the gardens weren’t quite as luxurious. The general pushed open a set of beautifully gilded doors and thrust Minako into the throne room. She gasped at the beautiful intricate silver paneling of the room. It truly was a beautiful palace, despite being different from the one she was familiar with, except that the beautiful paneling was blocked by hordes of soldiers lining the walls. At the far end of the room, stairs rose to meet a fine emerald throne. A bearded man dressed similarly to the king in Safaiananpou sat upon it, though his eyes lacked Howie’s kindness.

The emperor smiled, “Justin, it is so good to see you have returned.”

Minako grabbed her chest and struggled to breathe. It hurts… it hurts… Her heart was clenched tightly. When she heard the names of her cardinal demons, it was painful, but a sad, longing sort of painful. This pain was far more intense, like being stabbed.

The emperor blinked, “Who is this maiden?”

The general removed his helmet, revealing his blue eyes and blonde hair. Horns protruded from between the strands of his hair. He lowered the helmet to his chest and cradled it in the crook of his elbow. “She claims to be Pandora of the emeralds.”

Minako stepped back. The general was… a demon? That was impossible! How could anyone trust him? Shouldn’t he be shunned, ridiculed… tortured… Was it only Nick? Were the other demons well respected? Why? Why was Nick tortured?

“Pandora of the emeralds?” the emperor questioned.

“But we cannot be sure. She could indeed be Pandora of the sapphires.”

“The pitiful king there did find a priestess, didn’t he? Of all the nations, Emeradotouhou is the last to receive a Priestess. Ours must be undeniably strong to wait this long.”

Minako growled. Pitiful… Howie is definitely not pitiful.

“There is another young woman I would like to show you…” the general turned to some soldiers stationed at the other side of the room and gave them a quick nod.

The soldiers parted and a young woman walked through them. Her steps were slow and labored as her legs shook. Minako looked at her, examining her from the feet up. Black shoes… White socks… A pink skirt… And a middy blouse with a pink bow at the chest… Her hair was blonde and held back in red barrettes. Minako stared into the girl’s wide, fearful blue eyes.

“Renee?” Minako blinked.

The blonde girl let out a little gasp. Her voice shook as her eyes overflowed with tears, “Minako…”

“Renee!!!!!” Minako bounded toward her best friend with arms outstretched.

The two girls embraced, smiling. At last, at last… They held each other tightly. As long as neither let go, they would never be apart. Tears slid down Renee’s cheeks as she pulled Minako closer to her. She wailed and hiccuped through her violent tears. But her smile revealed her intense relief to be back with her friend once more.

A few tears streamed down Minako’s face, “I was so worried. When I went back to our world, I couldn’t find you. I had to come back, to save you. We should… never be apart.” Minako smiled, “But don’t worry. We’re together again. Nothing will change that…” She held Renee close, “We’re going back to Safaiananpou together. Everyone will love you…”

Renee wiped her tears a little, “You came back to save me?” She gripped Minako tighter, “I knew you would!”

The general’s eyes narrowed, “Safaiananpou…” He unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward Minako, “Then you really are Pandora of the sapphires!”

Minako backed away from Renee and clenched her eyes shut. No…

“Stop it, Justin!” Renee interjected.


Minako gripped her chest again. It hurts...

“Priestess?”

“I’m not your priestess!” Renee growled, “Minako came back for me! I’m going with her to Safaiananpou!”

“But priestess…”

“I’M NOT YOUR PRIESTESS!!!!!!”

“I see.” The general returned his sword to its sheath. “If only you would reconsider…”

“NO!”

Minako lashed her hand out and grabbed Renee’s hand. She quickly pulled her between the soldiers who had guarded her only moments before. The soldiers trembled, unsure how to react.

The emerald king stood, “Justin! You have let the enemy into our empire! Do something!” he bellowed.

The general growled and pointed toward the corridor the girls had escaped through, “Do not harm Lady Renee, but kill the Priestess of Safaiananpou!”

As the girls ran through the corridors, the emerald and silver walls mixed together into a blur. Minako turned back to Renee. I’m part of another desperate chase, but at least Renee is with me and she’s safe. Minako smiled and Renee smiled back weakly. Now I can see her happy smile surrounding and shining on me again.
Chapter Fourteen: Shattered by nicksgal
Renee came to an abrupt stop and quickly pulled Minako back and into a darkened room. They cowered behind the slightly ajar door, watching as the soldiers rushed by only moments later. Minako let out a sigh of relief as she lightly pushed it closed and leaned against it.

The sound of footsteps broke through the silence and she looked up to see Renee descending a staircase. “Renee?”

Renee turned around and smiled, “Yes?”

Minako smiled, “Nothing…”

The door suddenly shook and rattled with an intense banging sound. Minako stepped back in alarm. The soldiers are back and are trying to knock down the door! What do we do?

Renee turned around quickly and ran back up the staircase. “What is it?” Her hands shook.

Minako’s hands shook as well as she rested them against the door, “I don’t know…”

“Open the door, Minako…” a voice growled, “I know you’re there, I can smell you…” A scraping sound came from the other side of the door.

Minako’s heart leapt into her throat, “Nick…” He did follow her. He wasn't safe at all… What happens now? Especially if we’re all caught...

The voice growled, “Who do you think?” The door banged again, "Open it!" The scraping sound continued.

She leaned her head against the door. “You’re not mad… Are you?”

“I’m mad as hell!” He spat, “But we can talk about that later… After I...”

Minako opened the door slowly, catching sight of Nick’s glaring blue eyes in the crevice between the door and the wall. She bowed her head down, “I’m sorry… I shouldn't have left without saying anything...”

Nick snorted, “Good.” His face then softened as he lowered his head. His eyebrows and shoulders both relaxed. His lips formed a small, concerned smile as he grabbed her hands and pulled them toward him, “You’re not… hurt are you?”

Minako looked up at him slightly, “No...”

Nick thrust his arms around her, “You scared me to death! Why did you leave without me?! Did I do something to upset you?”

Minako blinked back tears and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, “No, of course not! I’m sorry… I didn’t want you to get hurt… I was worried about what would happen to you here, but…” She shut her eyes and turned her head, but still leaned into his chest, “But most importantly I had to come on my own… Because I needed to rescue…”

Nick kissed her head lightly, “Don’t be silly. I told you yesterday, your worries are my worries and your problems are my problems. I’ll help you if it’s important to you, even if it could be hard for me.”

Tears streamed down Minako’s cheeks, “I’m… sorry…”

Nick held her tightly, “It’s okay. Minako, I…” He gripped her shoulders and stepped back to look at her face. But then, over her hunched shoulders, he noticed the blonde girl standing behind her on the edge of the staircase. He met her eyes with his -- they were wide and glassy with tears. He released Minako from his embrace and faced the other girl fully. “You’re Renee… Aren’t you?”

Renee clenched her eyes shut and nodded. The tears fell down her cheeks.

He smiled and reached out his hand, “I’m Nick, don’t be afraid, Renee. I’m not so scary.”

“It’s fine,” she responded dryly.

He laughed a little, "Minako says I'm really kind and gentle even though I look frightening."

“Get out…” she whispered.

“What?”

“GET OUT!” she shrieked.

A sickening green glow surrounded Nick as he was flung from the doorway and hit the wall across from it. He slumped to the floor. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth as he spoke weakly, “Minako…”

Minako’s hands shook violently as she put them to her face, “Nick!”

“Forget him,” Renee barked.

Minako turned to Renee quickly, “What are you talking about?”

“You came here to save me.”

“Yes, but… I…” She started walking toward her.

“Liar…” she snarled.

“Renee?” Minako continued to walk and reached toward her.

“Minako… get out… now…” Nick’s voice shook and grew raspy as he struggled to stand.

Renee began to glow with bright green light, similar to the one that had surrounded Nick. She clenched her fists and clenched her eyes shut. “LIAR!!!!!!!!!!!!” The door slammed shut behind Minako as a bright fire lit a silver basin beneath the balcony they were standing on.

Minako backed toward the door. “Renee…”

Renee’s fist shook, “You bitch… I should have known better…”

“Renee… That’s not…”

“YOU BITCH!” Tears streamed down her face as she shouted.

Minako hit the wall behind her and shrieked in pain.

“Justin told me… He said you didn’t care about me… But I refused to listen…” She clenched her fist and shook her head.

“Renee…” Minako winced.

“All those days I waited for you… I was sure you would come…”

Minako stood up on shaking legs. “I did come for you…”

Renee’s eyes narrowed, “No…”

“No? It’s the truth…”

“YOU LYING WHORE!” Renee glowed with the green light again.

Minako slammed into the wall once more. Blood trickled from her lips, a river of pain.

She thrust her hand to the side as she unclenched her fist. “You lied to me! I heard you calling from the dark! I felt you suffering and I cried out for you until my voice was hoarse! I wanted you to come back safely! But when I called for you the last time, I ended up here!” Her shrieking voice reached a shrill pitch as tears continued to stream down her cheeks. “You never called for me!! You never came to find me!! And when you showed up here, I thought maybe you came back to get me! But you didn’t!! You came back for… for… that sickening creature!!”

Minako struggled to get up, “I did call for you! I tried! But he isn’t sickening! I love him!”

Renee smirked a little as she ran the back of her hand across her face and took several deep breaths until her voice was even again, “Thought so…” She let out a low chuckle, “In fact I knew it…” She began to laugh wickedly and loudly, “Just as Justin said, coming to me was merely a ruse…”

“No… Renee…” Minako coughed and a few drops of blood fell into her hand as she continued trying to stand up, “I felt you screaming in the dark! I came back for you! I would never--”

“DON’T DECEIVE ME!!!!” Renee pointed at her, green light shooting from her finger.

Gashes appeared on Minako’s skin. She shivered as blood streamed from the cuts and fell to the floor, her body crying out in pain.

Renee turned her back to Minako and faced the altar behind her. “Do you know what that tapestry is?…” Just like in Safaiananpou, the tapestry depicted a woman with a shapely figure covered in ribbons and long flowing hair rising from a box. Unlike in Safaiananpou, she glowed green and was surrounded by green glittering stars.

“The… priestess… Pandora… her… demons... and… the… b-box…” Minako struggled to breathe as she coughed up more blood. It trickled down her chin and landed on her skirt.

Renee turned back to Minako and strode toward her, “Those sickening demons taught you well, didn’t they…”

“Renee…” Minako’s voice shook.

Renee leaned down and grabbed a chunk of Minako’s hair, “Let me tell you something...” Renee pulled her hair tightly, “YOU WILL NEVER FIND THE BOX, YOU TRAITOROUS BITCH!”

Tears fell from Minako’s eyes and she choked as they flowed down her cheeks, “Stop it Renee… We’re best friends… Stop…”

Renee smirked, “Best friends, huh?” Her eyes narrowed as she let go of Minako’s hair, “You whore… You came here for a demon… WHO ARE YOU TO SAY THAT TO ME!?!” She smacked Minako’s cheek. Minako’s head hit the wall forcefully and she slumped down. Renee stood up, “Is that too much for you? Stand up.”

“Renee…” Minako choked.

Renee kicked her, “Stand up, bitch!”

“Renee…”

Renee sneered, “So… you won’t let me exact my revenge.” She laughed under her breath, “That won’t do at all… JUSTIN!”

Minako looked up and saw the general emerge from the darkness of the stairs. His eyes gleamed in the firelight.

Renee crossed her arms, “Make her suffer.”

The general bowed, “Of course, Lady Renee.” He began walking up the stairs and toward Minako.

“Was… this… always… your… plan… Renee…” Minako choked on the words as tears streamed from her eyes.

Renee laughed, “Why would it be? I’m not the bitch who betrays her friends.” Her laughing grew louder.

Minako swallowed. No... No! This is not Renee. Who is this?! I have no idea, but… It’s not Renee. She clenched her eyes shut. Her warm arms that always held me close and protected me… Her loving smile… Her happy laughter… Her sparkling eyes… Will I never see them again? Minako’s hands shook. “Renee…” She tried to stand, her legs shaking violently. She gripped the wall once she finally stood. “Renee…” She darted past the general and latched her arms around Renee. Renee let out a gasp. They were best friends… They should never be apart… They should always hold each other close… They should stop each other’s pain… They should laugh and smile… They should always be together! “RENEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Renee shut her eyes, “Minako…” She grabbed Minako’s arm forcibly and threw her against the wall, “GET OFF OF ME!”

Minako slumped to the ground and put her hands to her face as tears streamed down her cheeks. Why… Why? WHY?!?

Renee brushed her uniform, “Justin, finish her off, please.”

Justin bowed. “Of course, Lady Renee.”

Renee grumbled, “I’ll never get this blood out…”

~*~

Nick’s eyes shook as he struggled to open them. I’m numb... There’s only darkness... Is this death? This is the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced... Even that darkness is more pleasant than this stinging and burning darkness...

“It seems we’re locked out…”

Nick’s eyes shot open. The man who had followed him was standing in front of the door. His blue cape was missing and in its place wings flared from his back. Where his hat had covered his head, horns sat nestled in his hair. His gloved hands were unsheathed, revealing his claws.

“You’re... a demon?!” Nick questioned.

He chuckled, “I realize a demon priest is a bit… unusual, but it cannot be helped.” He leaned down toward Nick. “Are you alright?”

Nick tried to stand up. His legs shook violently as he gripped the wall for balance. He laughed darkly, “Sure, fine.”

The demon reached out his hand to help steady Nick, then turned back to the door, “Is the young woman in there?”

Nick coughed and a trail of blood trickled down his chin. “I can’t get in…” he choked, “I was even thrown out…”

The other man laced his fingers together, except his pointer fingers, which he held straight up. He placed his hands against his nose. “Let’s see what I can do…” A blue light sprang from him and tapped against the door. “Hm… blocked...”

Nick growled and clenched his fists, “How come I couldn’t protect her? That woman… Her rage intensified to a level I couldn’t withstand… Am I… Am I that weak?”

The other man shut his eyes, “Of course not. But this is the emerald palace, you just can’t compare to their strength here.” His lips parted and he began to speak inaudible words.

Nick gasped, “What… What are you!?”

The man vanished before Nick was able to interject his question. Nick clenched his fist. All the powerful people in here and I… I can't even protect the girl that I… He growled. I have to protect her, so I can tell her...

~*~

The general held Minako high above the ground with his hand wrapped around her neck and collar. “Did you learn your lesson, sapphire priestess?”

Minako’s blood fell to the ground in droplets and splattered. In that room alone, it was raining blood into already deep rivers of blood. Minako could barely breathe, but her heart refused to waver. “Renee…”

“You are an insolent woman, priestess,” the general dropped her from his grasp as he rose his leg. It slammed against her like a rocket and sent her flying toward the wall.

Mere moments before she slammed into the wall, a pair of hands appeared and caught her gently. “Who…?” Minako choked.

The man who had accompanied Nick breathed a sigh of relief, “One moment more and she could be dead. Thank goodness.”

“You appeared out of nowhere…” Minako caught her breath, “So amazing… What is your name?”

“Brian.”

Minako smiled weakly, “My heart cries out for you, but… it does not feel painful at all right now… But I’m sure… you’re… one of my demons… Brian...”

Brian nodded, “I knew that already from when I was a child. I actually became a priest so I could travel across Safaiananpou and find you.”

“I’m… so... glad… you… found… me....”

The general growled, “How did you get in here, you stinking sapphire demon!?”

Brian lowered his head, “Priestess, let’s go…”

Minako weakly raised a hand, “Renee… Not without…” Her hand dropped and she became limp in Brian’s arms, her eyes closed and her head drooping.

The door behind them started to creak and crack. Renee, the general, and Brian turned toward it. It shattered in an instant and wood shards poured from the ceiling.

“Wood… is even flimsier than metal…” the intense sapphire eyes glowed in the darkness.

“What are you?!” the general demanded.

The figure growled and stepped onto the balcony. Nick turned toward Brian and Minako. He snarled “You hurt Minako?”

The general smirked, “It seems her demons do not know their place either.”

“You hurt Minako!” Nick leapt from the darkness. His wings were stretched to their full length and his claws struck out at the general. In response, the general rose his leg and kicked Nick’s side with the force of a missile, flinging Nick backwards. His foot hit the wall and he propelled himself forward. His fangs dripped blood and spit. He let out a growl as he neared the general and thrust a punch into his cheek, knocking him backward.

The general laughed as he began standing, but Nick rammed his shoulder into him and knocked him over the balcony’s wall. Nick hopped over the wall as well toward the basin below.

The battle was intense as the demons fell toward the next level. Like the brawl of two tigers, each demon lashed out his fangs and claws. The general raked his claws against Nick’s face, causing blood to pour from his cheek. Nick dug the claws on his feet into the general’s abdomen. Neither relented, neither drew back. It really was a gorgeous battle. Nick cracked his claws and raked them across the general’s eye. It gushed blood, but the general refused to relent. He grabbed Nick’s arm with his claws and thrust it away from his face. Nick growled. The general then thrust his claws into Nick’s abdomen as they fell to the ground Nick coughed up blood. Nick latched on tightly to the general’s arm as he winced in pain and tried to pull it out as he kicked him. Each time he pulled, the general thrust his hand deeper into Nick’s abdomen, blood dripping down his forearm. They were like two knights engaged in a death joust. No matter what it took, no matter how painful, they tread forward to the finale. The room reeked of blood, the smell was nauseating and almost putrid. It seemed as though the two demons were rotting before them, their corpses slowly decaying into a mass of unrequited anger and lust for revenge.

Renee tried to run down the stairs, but as she neared the bottom, she gagged and dropped to her knees. Her body shook violently as she was overcome with the rancid smell. Death… Death everywhere… The scent is so sickening, I want to vomit. Sweat poured down her cheeks as she trembled.

Brian held Minako close to his chest. Since her body had gone cold, she could not witness Renee’s panic stricken face or Nick’s bloody body. She seemed peaceful, even though blood poured from her own body. The rancid smell was even affecting Brian, despite being a demon himself. He had spent a great deal of energy collapsing the ward surrounding the shrine room in the emerald palace, so he had little left to protect himself. He lifted Minako closer to his face to cover the scent, but the stench was unbearable.

A miasma of blood had filled the room, it was noxious. Despite this, even as the two demons choked at the foul stench, they refused to let go and refused to give in. They took flight, hoping to put the other off balance, and continued to claw and thrash at each other. The general sank his claws deeper into Nick’s abdomen. Nick thrust his claws into the general’s arm. But rather than pulling the arm, he pulled himself toward the general and gouged his fangs into his enemy’s neck. Nick then gripped the general’s other arm and twisted it toward his back. He released his grip on the arm within his abdomen and slammed his fist into the general’s claws, forcing the general’s own claws into his back. The general flinched backward in pain, beginning to pull his hand out from within Nick’s abdomen. At the sudden force, both demons plummeted toward the ground. Nick wrapped his tail around the general’s waist and quickly dug his clawed feet into the general’s sides as he flipped him downward to break his fall. Nick winced in pain, as did the general. As they landed in a heap, the general’s head smacked against the floor.

Nick removed his claws from the general’s arm then unwrapped his tail and pulled out his feet. With his remaining strength, he gripped both hands tightly on to the arm the general had thrust into his abdomen. Nick winced in pain as he pulled the general’s arm from inside him. Nick fell backwards on his hands as he struggled to breathe. He sat in a pool of blood, like a tender piece of meat marinating in red wine. The noxious stench surrounded him completely. He choked and coughed up more blood as he looked up toward Brian. “So… what… are… you?”

Brian coughed at the nauseating smell. “You can still talk after all that?! And you’re worried about me?!” He ran toward the wall surrounding the balcony.

Nick coughed blood into his hand, “It’s… pain...ful… But… I… had… to… pro--” he choked on his blood again, “--tect… her…” He raised the hand toward the wall.

Brian gripped Minako tightly as he climbed onto the wall, then jumped down, landing beside the basin with a thud. He bowed and coughed again, “For your valiance, Sapphire Cardinal Demon Nick, I will hide nothing. My name is Brian. I am a priest, a barrier demon, and one of the other cardinal demons from Safaiananpou. I chanced upon you two in my travels and knew I needed to join your travel party.”

“Cardinal… demon…” Nick coughed as a weak smile spread across his face, “Mi…na…ko… hear… that… We… have… one… more…” Blood dripped down Nick’s face and on to his already bloody clothes. He frowned. “Hey… Mi…na…ko… Are...n’t… you… glad…?” Nick’s beaten and bloody face began to reflect the panic in his heart. “Mi...na...ko…”

Brian held Minako tightly, “She collapsed, I think she was in a lot of pain…”

His words gave Nick a small reassurance, but his face still appeared panicked. He coughed again and forced a weak smile, “If… I… could… pro…tect… her… then… it’s… okay…” Nick breathed heavily as he stood up on shaking legs, “If… I… take… care… of… her… it’s… okay…”

Brian gasped, “Should you stand?! Won’t you die?!”

Nick took in a few more heavy breaths as his voice grew raspy, “I… am… a… card…inal… de…mon… I… can’t… die…”

“Is that really true?” Brian looked at him sadly and turned to the general that Nick had battered, “And him?”

“If… he… is… like… us… he… won’t… die… ei...ther…”

Brian gazed at the ceiling. “Can you fly?”

Nick flapped his wings and wobbled a little, “Barely…”

Brian bit his lip. “We can catch a cart out of town and head back to Safaiananpou to treat your wounds, but that might take longer...”

“Don’t… worry… I’ll… fly...”

Brian flapped his wings and clutched Minako under his chest, “Okay. Let’s go.”

Nick turned toward Renee as she sat on the stairs. She clutched her stomach and vomited. She struggled to breathe as well. “Re...nee…”

She looked up at Nick with tears in her eyes. Her body shook violently.

Nick held out his bloody hand. “We’re… go...ing… to… Sa...fai...a...nan...pou… now… Come… with… us…”

Renee growled as she held her shaking body.

“Hur…ry… grab… my… hand…”

“You’re an idiot…” Renee’s voice shook, “I hate all of you…”

“You… don’t… need… to… be… the… priest...ess..." Nick coughed up blood again, “Mi…na…ko… will… for…give… you…”

Renee sneered, “She’ll forgive me… That’s priceless…” Renee’s body shook particularly violently and she vomited again.

“Nick!” Brian interjected, “Let’s go back! Quickly!”

Nick nodded.

Brian flapped his wings once more and pushed off the ground with his foot. He shot through the ceiling like a bird through a cloud. Pieces of wood landed on the ground around Nick’s feet.

Nick looked at Renee one more time, then toward the ceiling. He looked back at her and reached his hand toward her again, “Re...nee…”

She let out a low growl and hid her face in her arms and knees.

Nick frowned, then flapped his wings and pushed off the ground with his foot. His actions were weaker than Brian’s, but he managed to exit through the hole Brian had created.

Renee was left in the room with the bleeding body of the general. She grabbed her sides once more and vomited again. The noxious, rancid smell was beginning to subside in the once beautiful shrine in the palace of the emeralds.

Their fates were set in motion, Minako and Renee would tread different paths. But, these paths were fated to intertwine as the blood of each boiled. To protect those they loved… To obtain the box… Because they had both been betrayed…
Chapter Fifteen: Protection by nicksgal
Brian and Nick flew just above the treetops. Brian gripped Minako tightly, his wings flapping strongly. Nick trailed behind them, his wings flapping laboriously and sporadically. Brian glanced back toward Nick, then to the ground, before motioning his descent to Nick. Brian glided to a stop and gently landed in a grove of trees a great distance from the palace, the gate, and the civilization of Emeradotouhou, but still deep in the heart of the country. Nick’s wings flapped jerkily as he landed on shaking legs. Brian set Minako down lightly next to a tree and sat next to her calmly. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with fresh air. Nick collapsed to his knees and breathed in heavily. He knew he was dropping blood every second, but he was just too numb, he could not feel any pain. He crawled toward the closest tree and leaned against it, catching his breath. His eyes opened and shut slowly as he breathed in the pure air.

“Don’t close your eyes,” Brian told him as he stood up.

Nick chuckled, “Why… is… that…?”

“With wounds like that, you could die if you sleep,” Brian told him very seriously.

Nick chuckled again, “Do… you… really… think… I’d… die… so… easily…?”

“We’re safer here, but not entirely safe yet.” He scanned the trees around them, “You need to recover at least a little bit so we can get somewhere safer quickly.”

Nick raised the knee on his uninjured right side and rested his hand on it, “I’ll… try…”

Brian shook his head. “I saw a river back there. I can catch some fish and we’ll start a fire, okay?”

Nick smiled faintly, “Sure…”

Brian left hurriedly through an empty path, a small separation in the grove. If I don’t return quickly, my companions could die. There has to be a power strong enough to heal them, but I don’t have it. Does anyone? And can we find it in time?

Nick watched him disappear through the opening and his breathing calmed. He closed his eyes fully and leaned his head back against the tree as he exhaled a large breath. That general… His power was immense… The demons of Emeradotouhou were very different from the demons of Safaiananpou… Much more powerful… Or they seemed that way compared to me. Even Brian seemed incredibly powerful. Am I the only weak one?

Nick heard a small groan and opened his eyes as quickly as his strength would allow. Minako’s small body shook as she struggled to open her eyes. Nick breathed another sigh of relief. She's okay, thank goodness. I can still tell her... He braced himself on the tree and stood up, gripping the tree as he pulled himself up against it. He tightened his grip as he took his first step. His walking was slow and labored, but he managed to drag his beaten body to Minako before collapsing beside her. He pulled her into his arms, leaning on her head briefly before reclining back against the tree behind him. He held her body tightly, gripping her waist and shoulders within his strong grasp. If I hold her tightly, she will stay with me. We’ll go to the next place together. Whether that’s Safaiananpou… or even death...

Minako opened her eyes slowly, and for a moment, they retained an unseeing clear coloring. As her vision came into focus, she saw the green trees and grass surrounding her, but also a little blackness. This isn’t the shrine room… My heart’s beating wildly, but it feels safe and warm… Like I’m being surrounded by warmth and protection... She lifted her hand slowly. Arms? She gripped the arms as she looked up to see Nick’s smiling bloody face. She gasped as tears began to fall from her eyes. “Nick…”

Nick chuckled, “It’s… fine…”

Minako sobbed as she lifted her hand to Nick’s face, touching the dried blood on his bruised cheek and running her finger over the raised slits in his skin.

“Are… you… o...kay...?”

“I wanted… to protect you… I was worried that if you came to Emeradotouhou that it would be painful for you….” The tears poured down Minako’s face chipping away at some of the dried blood on her face. “I was right.”

“But… you… got… hurt…”

“So did you…”

“I... wan...ted… to… take… care… of… you…” He pulled her closer under his chin, “Our… pro...mise…”

Minako wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned against his chest. “I wanted to take care of you too… Our promise... I should have told you… I thought the best way I could take care of you was if you didn’t come...”

Nick winced, but hid the expression by leaning on her head as he ran his hand through her hair, “Just… tell… me… I’ll… go… any...where… for… you... do… any...thing… for... you…”

She tightened her grip, “Our promise really did mean something to me!”

Nick winced again as he lifted his head, then weakly grasped her chin and lifted her face so he could see it, “Mi...na...ko… I…”

“Nick…”

Nick leaned down and kissed Minako’s lips hard and urgently. Her eyes fluttered shut as she met his lips with the same urgency. He gripped her waist tightly, but held her face gently. His touch and kiss were consuming, with the same fiery whisper against her skin. She pulled back and took in a gasping breath as she ran her fingers along his cheeks. Her touch sparked and soothed his skin all at once as he met her lips again in a heated passion. She grasped at the folds of his tunic at his chest and raised her hand toward his neck, threading her fingers through his hair. The more she tightened her fingers around him and pulled on his clothing and hair, the closer he pulled her to his chest and lips. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest as he nipped at her bottom lip. She nipped lightly at his neck as he ran his fingers through her hair. She pulled away from him for a moment as she gripped his shoulder tightly. Instead of meeting her lips again, he clasped her in a tight embrace against his chest and the uninjured side of his abdomen.

“Nick…”

“Promise me… you won’t… leave me…”

Tears formed in Minako’s eyes. She held Nick’s neck and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. She pulled him toward her again. “No… Never again…” She caressed Nick’s lips lightly with her own.

Nick pulled her closer to him. He kissed her lips shortly and pulled up her hand from his neck, lacing his fingers in hers. “Stay with me… forever…”

She gave him a gentle kiss. “I’ll stay… Stay with me too…”

“Anything… for you…” He ran his thumb across her cheek, “Minako… I…”

She pressed another gentle kiss to his lips.

His lips curved into a small smile as he responded with a similarly gentle kiss. He pulled back from her, his eyes roving her face with the same brightness as his smile.

She took in a quick breath and leaned back towards him. Instead of resting his forehead on hers or pressing a kiss to her lips, he pressed a kiss to her forehead, then pulled back with the same serene smile.

“Nick?”

“Minako… I... love you.”

“Nick…” She blinked, but smiled.

“You’ve always… seen me… for who I am…” He pulled her close to his chest again, “You make me… want to try… to be more… and to be… who you’re sure…. I am....”

She tightened her hold on his hand.

“And you are… so loyal… and brave… kind… and… comforting… You’re always… thinking of others... and surrounded… in this… bright light…” He leaned his head on her forehead, “I love you… Did I… tell you too late?”

Minako shook her head as she ran her fingers against his collar bone, “Me too… I love you too… Your gentleness… and your strength of heart… your drive to protect everything you care about… Your willingness to try anything...”

“Minako…” He kissed her hand that intertwined his fingers, then her neck, then her lips. Minako tightened her grip on his shoulder. Nick winced a little in pain and pulled back his lips, unable to hide his expression.

Minako loosened her grip as her tears fell from her eyes. “I’m… so sorry…” She moved her hand to his neck. “How did you…?”

Nick let out a small growl. “The Emerald general. I couldn’t let him… hurt you… Not when I… had to tell you...” He kissed her lips briefly.

Minako pulled Nick closer to her and held his neck tightly. She embraced him as she nestled into his chest. “Don’t put yourself in senseless danger like that! What would I do without you…?”

“I won’t… I’ll do anything… you ask....” He kissed her lips gently again. This warm glow.... Does Minako have healing powers? It's like my pain is washing away, bathed in light. Is this your strength, Minako? Can your light fix my heart and my body? “Hold… me… forever...” he whispered in her ear.

“I’ll never let you go…”

Nick held her tightly and wrapped his wings around her back. He pulled her lips toward his and caressed them softly. They held each other close and protected each other with their warm arms. The glow that surrounded them echoed their promise, their loyalty, their love. It was a whisper of all the words they’d said and a beacon toward all the words they would say. It was their promise and wish for forever lightly gleaming and close enough to touch.

~*~

The small, brightly colored fish leaped from the water and into Brian’s hands. The water in Emeradotouhou seemed to feature a green tint that made it appear less beautiful, clear, and pure than the water in Safaiananpou. The fish that did leap from the water were greatly appreciated, even if they sparkled with the same green hues. However, the majority of them stayed beneath the surface looking up at Brian in contempt. I was hoping to bring many fish to the priestess and Nick, but it’s proving troublesome. Somehow, even the fish here are disgusted by the demons from Safaiananpou. Brian leaned over his current catch. Their fins and scales glistened in the sunlight in bright colors of silver. Brian smiled, perhaps fish were not so prejudiced, but everything in this country seemed like it should be poison. In that shrine room, a dedication to the sanctity of all things emerald, of course they had insurmountable strength. But even out here, was a single blade of grass or a single tree stronger than a sapphire demon simply for the sake of being green? Were the emerald demons more powerful here even outside that shrine room? Where did their untouchable power stop? Still… Something’s amiss.

The great warrior that Nick had battled… He overpowered Nick in every way possible, he even thrust his fist through his abdomen, but… In the end, he fell harder and faster than Nick and he was the one who was wounded the greatest. Why? And how? Nick doesn’t seem that strong. Where were his demonic powers? He eventually broke through the wall, but only after I made it through. His only fighting techniques seemed to be punching and kicking things until they broke. Was Nick really weak? Or was there something more important than strength? Somehow, Nick completed that fight and survived until this moment... Brian shot his hand like a bullet and grabbed another fish as it danced across the surface of the river. Brian put the fish into his hat with the others. What kind of demon was Nick? Supposedly he was a cardinal demon, but fist fighting isn’t a demonic power. He was also a silly creature. He wore tattered clothing, but no shoes. The simplest grievances made him punch walls, furrow his brow, and lash out uncontrollably. He would shout furiously, but also often appeared timid… Was it possible to be strong and weak, brave and timid, whole and broken all at once? And what exactly were they to each other? Could a priestess really exist who held her demons so closely? Could a priestess really exist who inspired her demons to be her champions without reservations?

“General!” a male voice exclaimed.

Brian gasped and turned his head quickly. At the top of the hill stood the green drenched general of Emeradotouhou. Brian ducked his head. The river was concealed by the hill, and as long as the general did not step forward, Brian could hide in the comfort of the emerald grass and river. He chuckled to himself, since when did the color of emerald provide a camouflaging tool for the safety of a sapphire demon?

“General!” another male voice exclaimed.

The general growled, “Those wounds… I covered him in them…” He grabbed his side and winced in pain, “How could he weaken and immobilize me? And then escape?”

“General!” the first male voice, a soldier, exclaimed as he grabbed the general’s arm.

The general shoved him away with the strength he could muster, then winced in pain. “He couldn’t have gone far… Not with the newest orifice I gave him...” His eyes narrowed as he growled, “I’ll kill him!”

“Justin!” a female voice rang out.

The general turned to face the woman who appeared before him, the blonde woman dressed similarly to the sapphire priestess. Brian’s eyes narrowed, this was the emerald priestess. What kind of priestess was she? The way Nick addressed her, like an old companion… That couldn’t be right...

“I see you have recovered, priestess,” the general smiled slightly.

“Of course I have, I’m not hurt at all!” Renee shook her head, “But you are injured terribly. We must return to the palace!” She grabbed his shoulder.

The general shook her off lightly. “It’s fine. The wretched sapphire demons couldn’t have gone far, they were too injured to stand. You want revenge against her, don’t you? The woman who betrayed you for a gaggle of worthless demons?”

“Of course,” Renee spat, “But what’s more important is…”

“Then as you wish, Lady Renee, I will see them destroyed!”

Renee gasped, “Justin! Wait! Your wounds…”

Justin clenched his fist, “That demon…” He snorted, “Can I even call him that? His weakness knows no bounds…” Justin tightened his fist, “He will pay for the crime he committed against me!”

Renee grabbed his shoulder, “Don’t! Justin! Please!”

Justin shoved her off more forcefully, “Don’t interfere Lady Renee.” He stepped forward, and paused, “Very close by, I sense a powerful spirit. Intertwined… They cannot be far… They made a poor choice in healing themselves here.”

Brian gasped and grabbed the fish hurriedly. He ducked and ran as though he were running from death, the gruesome creature that followed him. If he stopped, or even turned back, it would snatch him within its fingers and everything would end. Brian managed to bring most of his fish with him, but a few had dropped along the way, hopefully they were not a trail for the general. He reached the grove of trees, the haven from death. He entered the grove and set his fish-filled hat on the ground gently. His pale horns glistened in the sun as he then proceeded to untie the ribbon from his waist. He lay it outstretched over the fish to protect them until they were ready to eat. The emerald general implied it too, that everything was poison…

“Nick…” Brian started. He quickly turned to where he had left Nick lying against the trunk of a tree. Gone… Gone! Nick had vanished, had death stolen him? Had the general already appeared here? Brian then noticed the puddles of blood splattered across the ground like the tracks of an animal. As he scanned the clearing, Brian’s eyes fell on the embracing figures of Nick and the priestess. Instead of the labored and numb struggle he had left them in, the grove now radiated calm. Nestled in each other’s arms, the priestess enclosed within the demon’s broad wings, the eyes of both had closed, but their breathing had reached a steady pace. Both the priestess and the demon were beginning to heal, some of Nick’s small gashes even seemed smaller. A warm glow surrounded them as though they were transferring their life force to each other, trying to replenish their hearts. Then, the spirit the general had sensed… Brian gasped again. If the general had already sensed them, he must be headed toward us at such a rapid speed.

Brian clenched his fist. No… No, I can’t let that happen to my priestess or my new companion. Brian lifted his hands together and rested them against his nose once more. His lips began to chant a dancing, silent sutra. The general will not enter, not when my companions are trying to heal their beaten bodies! Brian opened his eyes quickly and they glowed with an intense sapphire color as an aura of similar coloring burst around him. I will create my own ward, the general will never enter! If I believe in my companions, if I try to protect their strength, if I never give up my determination, then my will can create an unbreakable barrier. The barrier of the emerald demons was only as strong as emerald. It lasted as long as nothing penetrated it, then it would shatter. My barriers are only as strong as a sapphire, similar to the strength of an emerald. But if my willpower controls my barrier, then I can create a diamond barrier, something unbreakable. Even the strongest demon could never enter! The sapphire aura swirled around him like he was the sun at the center of the galaxy. The flames flew out from his body and formed glistening bars, a cage around the sapphire demons. As he called his powers, the cage solidified with a perfect aura that nothing would enter, hardening it like a shield. The general will never find us and my companions can heal their beaten bodies. Time is all they need, and in order to give it to them, I will sacrifice myself and weaken my own heart if that could make even the smallest difference. I will not let the general hurt them, even if it means that I will be hurt by the general. What is more important than strength? Nick showed me that there must be something.... Yes… In this moment, my heart is focused on my will to protect them. If only I concentrate on that, surely I can be stronger than any emerald demon, even in their own country. A light is forming in my heart and growing stronger as I concentrate on my barrier, the light of hope. I’m sure we will all survive this bloody battle in Emeradotouhou.
Chapter Sixteen: The Demon Priest by nicksgal
“I see you have recovered, priestess,” the general smiled slightly, a cross between genuine care and a smirk.

“Of course I have, I’m not hurt at all!” Renee shook her head and clenched her fists, “But you are injured terribly. We must return to the palace!” She grabbed his shoulder.

The general shook her off lightly. “It’s fine. The wretched sapphire demons couldn’t have gone far, they were too injured to stand.” He let out a low laugh and clenched his fist, “You want revenge against her, don’t you? The woman who betrayed you for a gaggle of worthless demons?”

“Of course,” Renee spat, “But what’s more important is…”

“Then as you wish, Lady Renee, I will see them destroyed!” He spread his arms wide.

Renee gasped, “Justin! Wait! Your wounds…”

Justin clenched his fist again, “That demon…” He snorted, “Can I even call him that? His weakness knows no bounds…” Justin tightened his fist, “He will pay for the crime he committed against me!”

Renee grabbed his shoulder, “Don’t! Justin! Please!”

Justin shoved her off more forcefully, “Don’t interfere Lady Renee.” He stepped forward, and paused, “Very close by, I sense a powerful spirit. Intertwined… They cannot be far… They made a poor choice in healing themselves here.” Emeradotouhou will be their death sentence. Their first mistake was staying close to the palace. Their second was not making sure that I was dead.

“Justin! Justin!” Renee trudged after the general as he laboriously made his way toward the scent of the spirits of the Safaiananpou demons.

I am the determined hunter. I will catch my prey no matter the cost, even at the risk of injuring himself again. More important than my body, maybe more than my life… is revenge. His blood boiled and his heart shook bitterly. Whenever I think of the way that… that disgusting, pitiful excuse for a demon had defiled and shamed me. I am the general of Emeradotouhou. My head stands above all except the emperor and my power is rivaled only by the emperor and the newly appointed Emeradotouhou Pandora. I am highly respected, a powerful demon who can wield most weapons, but even they are unnecessary due to my vast strength. I am a proud demon -- I stand fearless against my enemy. I am a tiger -- I have no equal. I command armies and bring enemy nations to their knees. That sickening creature did not deserve to be called a demon. His blows were mere whispers. His heart really was pitiful. He fumbled alone in the darkness, trying to discover what it meant to be a demon. Did he not understand strength and superiority? He cowered beneath everyone, he let his head hang in shame and despair. He could shatter wood, but that was also pitiful. To shatter a door took all his strength. A true demon only needed one icy blast from their fist. And the way he called out to the despicable priestess, treating her as though she were more than a means to an end. If that creature was not a demon, what was he? Too sickening to be a human, too weak to be a demon. If one is not mortal or demon, then one is nothing. The general laughed to himself, the pitiful sickening creature merely got lucky. He is the rat in the tiger’s soup. Such trivial, pitiful means of retaliating will quickly shatter.

Renee dropped to her knees behind him and breathed heavily.

Justin turned his head slightly, “Is this too difficult for you, Lady Renee?”

Renee let out a breath, “Of course not.”

Justin turned to face her and bent down slightly, “If you must return to the palace…”

Renee scoffed at him, “If I must return to the palace? You are the one covered in blood.”

Justin stood up, “It is my duty to protect you. In order to ensure that, you must return to the palace and rest. Meanwhile, those rats must be destroyed.”

“They can wait. How strong can they get?” Renee laughed, “She can’t stand up to me. And you could have taken out those demons one, two, three.”

He nodded quickly, “That is true. They are already weak and this land will poison them.” Justin continued walking. His boots brushed across the emerald grass lying along the path. “Can you not stand up?”

“Of course not!” Renee growled.

“Take her back to the palace.” The soldiers that had been following the general and the priestess had finally caught up to them. They saluted and grabbed the priestess from her sitting position, preparing to leave the general to deal with the enemy.

Renee struggled from their grips, “Justin! You’re the one who’s injured!”

His eyes narrowed, “This is my revenge… Don’t interfere.” He sneered, “I will take care of those rats for you. Safaiananpou will never find the box. Then, you will find the other emerald demons and we will conquer this land.”

Renee clenched her fist. Is petty revenge the only thing that is important to these demons? Of course I want Minako to suffer, but… In the end, the box is most important. It can grant my wishes. More than defeating Minako, more than assuming the duty they had thrust upon me, I want those wishes to be fulfilled. Once we find the box and claim it, I will escape this stinking hell and return to my world -- that is my most important wish. Revenge, however satisfying he found it, is only a distraction. She shut her eyes and a low growl escaped her throat. She turned haughtily and tried to venture back toward the palace, though she stumbled. The soldiers followed quickly behind her, catching her before she fell.

The general continued walking forward. In an instant, a powerful spirit struck his heart sharply, like a knife. The pain grew more intense as he drew nearer to it. This spirit must be the life force of my enemy. He chuckled to himself again. It seems they heal so quickly… But to heal is an angelic power, not a demonic one. Perhaps that is the pitiful demon’s weakness, he’s an angel that fell from God’s grasp. If that is so, then he can never hope to compare to my demonic power. That demon will always be a shadow. Hope, love, joy, companionship… All are meaningless. Only blood and power matter. Any other ideal that is held close to the heart is only the weak grasping for something they can never have, thinking those things brought them power. The only path to true contentment is by sacrificing the hope and happiness of others. Those that have none can never be betrayed. He chuckled again. I certainly taught Lady Renee that well, didn’t I? Pandora of the sapphires is now her enemy. They are destined to battle and whatever is sealed in the box will be all the sweeter when I finally obtain it. The secret hidden in the box will be purified with their blood and tears. It will be made beautiful and powerful with their suffering.

The general entered a brief clearing in the otherwise dense trees. The grove of trees radiated with that shining energy growing just beyond it. So… This is where the pitiful Safaiananpou demons are hiding themselves. So like the weak, to hide in plain sight and give away their position with uncontrolled light. How pitiful. A grin spread across his face as his eyes narrowed. Soon, soon I can savor their sweet blood on my lips. Soon, soon I will exact my revenge. The demons will die from their wounds and the priestess… I will keep her in the palace dungeon and torture her. Lady Renee will see to that. Her suffering will be insurmountable. His smile grew as he entered the clearing. I can feel the strong spirit. As he neared, its intensity grew. Are they trying to protect themselves? He laughed. A simple barrier cannot prevent me from exacting my revenge. He reached the grove, a narrow entryway lay in front of him. He reached out his tall booted leg to step within the grove.

“NO!” a voice cried out, clear as a bird’s song. The general was pushed back from the grove with a burst of sapphire power that resembled a mighty gust of wind and then knocked to the ground.

The general grumbled. If not for these wounds, such a blast would have never affected me. He stood up, brushing himself off. That demon… That pitiful demon wounded not only my body, but also my pride. He dared unleash such powerful demonic energy and conceal himself while I healed in Midorihouseki? How dare he and the other pitiful Safaiananpou demon believe that they could stop the great emerald general! My power surpasses them in all imaginable ways! He stepped toward the clearing again, putting all of his life force within his foot. My powerful step will shatter this barrier.

“NO!” the voice cried with more force. The general was knocked backward by a similar burst of power again.

The general stood once more, a fierce growl rising in his throat. The hidden demons attempt to mock me, just like before. That sickening creature had gashed my eye with its hideous claws, bit me with its infected fangs, and knocked me to the ground with his own claws. He snarled. That sickening creature merely got lucky, the great emerald general is not to be taken lightly. He rose his hand to the invisible barrier and a green light emanated from it. He laughed, “Sapphire demons, I’m coming for you. No barrier will stop me.”

“NO!” the voice cried once more.

The general joined his hands together to combat the gusting wind. It flowed right past him, as though he were an unmovable fortress in the midst of the windstorm. The wind will not crumble the fortress, instead, the fortress will direct the wind as though the wind is subservient to the fortress. The green light flowing from his hands glowed brighter and increased in its strength and luminosity.

“An emerald demon will not break this barrier,” the voice growled, “You will not enter!”

The general let out a low laugh, “The type of demon does not matter. It is the strength of the demon that will combat the barrier.”

“There is something more important than brute strength!”

“Of course,” he sneered, “That is the suffering you will receive once the barrier is down.”

The barrier began to glow with tendrils of sparkling blue light and shot toward the general with one sharp, icy blast. If the intended target was hit, there would be no need to fear his assault. If the target was missed, then everyone inside could be put into grave danger. The icy blast pierced the general’s chest. He grew numb as the clear vision in his right eye blurred. He dropped to his knees and collapsed in the clearing.

“Justin!” Renee called as she ran toward the fallen general.

“Lady Renee…” his voice shook, “I thought you went back…”

Renee shook her head, “Your wounds were too serious, you needed to go back too. You can’t even stand!” She grabbed his shoulder and looked up to the grove. “Is that where she and her demons are hiding?”

The general’s voice continued to struggle under the strain of the shot. “There is a powerful barrier surrounding it… Even my strength cannot break through in this emerald nation.”

Renee shook her head, “Forget it. We’ll find them again.”

The soldiers who had followed Renee back picked up the general and then the entire party retreated toward the palace. Something more important than strength… The general chuckled. That mysterious power would be a sight indeed if it existed. His hands grew weak as they lay limp at his sides. His body was beginning to shut down. It seems that I do need to retreat this once. A few days rest, then I will sweeten my lips with the blood of the sapphire demons.

~*~

Brian let out a breath and collapsed to his knees as he gripped his chest. My powers are tumbling around the grove like a light snowfall. He inhaled deeply, trying to suck them back in, willing them to return to his body with his breath. Are they gone forever or merely drained? Were defensive powers never meant to be used offensively? How can I recharge? Perhaps that’s why Nick shows no powers… Maybe he also needed to recharge from some time before I’d met him. Has the priestess seen his true strength? The emerald demon and emerald priestess seem to be distracted for now, that will let my friends heal for a while longer. But how long will the general be out of commision? Brian wiped his brow with his arm and sat back. Nick seemed to incapacitate him in the shrine, and yet, even those serious injuries did not deter the emerald general. Would my added blows be enough to buy us the time that we need? Or will we still have to hurry?

Brian turned back toward his companions. They are safe for now, but… something has to be done… Nick is still bleeding from his gaping abdomen and now my own strength is spent. The emerald priestess seemed to find power through her emotions, but… Does the sapphire priestess have any strength at all? Will she be able to find the power to wound the emerald general if we can’t? And that chance would only exist if she woke up at all. He blinked as he continued to stare at Nick and Minako. It’s strange to see a priestess intertwined with a demon. A priestess is holy, a creature of light, and a demon is the Devil’s consort, a creature of darkness… Do the two together facilitate balance? Light and darkness intertwined seems to symbolize wholeness… After all, no one mortal, demon, or angel is only good or only bad. Though some possessed more characteristics of one or the other, no one, save God and the Devil, could be truly good or truly evil. Together, this light and darkness seems to create a healing power through their bodies causing them to radiate with a strong light. Is it the light or the connection that healed them? I do know that it must be something very important, something vital. Nick’s wounds are beginning to heal with that vital power and shining light. Some of the smaller cuts seem to vanish before my sight. Even the gaping hole in his abdomen seems to be healing, slowly.

Brian chuckled. Perhaps Nick is correct, maybe even a gaping hole in his body would not kill him. But if not this, then what will it take to lose all of his strength and vivacity? All creatures in this world desire death, demons especially. But perhaps… Perhaps there is something more important than death, and that gave him the strength to overcome death. Is it the same thing that is beyond strength? What power could be beyond strength and beyond death? And did he always possess it? Or had Pandora brought it with her from her world?

Brian took in one last breath and managed to stand on stable legs. When they awoke, we would all need their strength so we can make a plan. Brian began meandering around the grove collecting any dry wood he could find, large pieces and small pieces. He also picked up small dried grasses and leaves. He placed all these things next to his hat and gathered more materials. If I can make sure that they ate, then we can all keep going. Survival took over the gnawing pain in his chest. Can I be the difference in our journey? Is this the point that will decide who was stronger, sapphire or emerald? He gathered the flattest and broadest sticks from his collection and arranged them in a pile. He took some of his dried grasses, leaves, and small twigs into his hands and rolled them into a ball. As he rolled, he pulled and pinched them, making the ball rough. He placed the ball beside his foot and grabbed a rough but small stick and began rolling it between his hands as he pushed it down against one of the flatter pieces of wood. Would this fire create a spark that ignited our journey? Would this be the catalyst for all things? Am I doing enough to help all of us survive? He rolled the stick between his hands as quickly and tightly as he was able. Light… please light…

The tip of the stick ignited in a burst. The small flame produced a few embers at the tip of the stick. Brian touched it to the dried ball of grasses and leaves and folded a few of the embers inside. The small ball of dried foliage burst into a small flame. He nestled it into the dried broad sticks and added more small grasses and leaves for kindling. He tended to the fire as the flames burned larger and brighter. He smiled as the warmth bathed his face. Not a spark, a blaze of hope… I feel the renewed vigor in my heart. The warmth is filling my veins and spreading through my body. He wiggled his fingers gingerly, this is… He let out the breath he didn’t know he had been holding. My strength and power is returning.

He stood carefully and drug his hat over to the fire. He picked through the sticks for long lean ones and poked them through each fish. He held the skewers over the fire, flames and smoke licking each fish lightly. He smiled as the scent hit his nose -- his stomach growled in response. He peered into the fire as he turned each skewer lightly. Time is all we need now...

He heard a small groan from across the grove and raised his head from the flames. The other demon is about to awaken.

End Notes:
End Notes: Emeradotouhou’s capital city Midorihouseki (Mee-doh-ree-hou-seh-kee with the second “oh” held; it also has the previously mentioned soft r sound) translates roughly as "green jewel."
Chapter Seventeen: Something Precious by nicksgal
Nick opened his eyes slowly. The world around him was hazy, merely a sea of green. Is this an emerald hell? He blinked his eyes, trying to calm the haze. It’s like all the green coloring is draining my strength and life force... Will I eventually become a green decayed body? Images of the first landscape he saw passed through his mind. The rotting field where only tanned bones grew... That land was putrid and horrific, but in some ways better than this bright hell of green things. Is the land in Safaiananpou blue? I’d never been outside the darkness long enough to notice. He chuckled to himself. Apparently only two colors exist in this world: black, the shadows, and emerald, hell. That’s all I know. I’ve been told that sapphire, topaz, and ruby exist also, but… What’s a topaz? What’s a ruby? These words are familiar, but I don’t know why... And what’s sapphire? Is it His Majesty who rules the lands? Is it the demons who call it home, like Brian? Is it Minako, its supposed savior?

“So… You’re awake?” a male voice questioned.

Nick blinked and turned his head. The blonde haired man with pale horns protruding from the strands of his hair smiled toward Nick. He then turned back to the cackling fire he was attending.

“Brian?” Nick questioned.

Brian nodded, “Of course…” Brian poked the fire once more, then turned back toward Nick, “You didn’t think I was the emerald general, did you?”

Nick leaned his head back against the tree trunk. “Well, no…”

Brian chuckled, “Is it possible to be so gruesome?”

Nick shook his head, “I don’t know… I just didn’t recognize you without the hat.”

Brian smiled, “Of course. What’s a priest without his hat?” He started laughing, then turned to Nick more seriously. “Are you hungry?”

Nick blinked, “Am I hungry?”

“Yes, that’s what I asked...” Brian blinked, “You don’t sound sure… You do eat, right?”

Nick nodded as he gripped Minako tightly. He took in a sharp breath as he picked her up and trudged over to Brian. He lay Minako on the ground so she could continue to sleep peacefully and sat down jerkily as though he was collapsing. “I don’t eat much, but…”

Brian handed Nick one of the fish he had cooked. It was crisp, as was the stick that protruded from it. Nick smiled and began eating slowly.

“Why not?” Brian questioned, grabbing a fish of his own.

Nick chuckled, “Where I come from, there was never a lot to eat. The darkness isn’t home to many things...” He lowered his head, “You asked earlier where I was traveling from… The truth is, I don’t really know… The capital is an okay place to say since that’s the last place we were, but it’s not really true…”

Brian took a bite from his meal and nodded slowly. “You know… I come from the western side of Safaiananpou, next to Topazuseihou. There are a lot of mountains in that area. It’s a very nice, quiet part of the country. People are very friendly, but we always kept to ourselves…” Brian lay one hand across his knees, “The mountains are beautiful though. They shine with a brilliant blue color all through the night, and all during the day they are a brilliant gold.” He laughed, “There’s a legend that in order to keep peace, the countries of Safaiananpou and Topazuseihou signed a treaty that ensured the mountains would change color half way through each day and then change back the next day.” He chuckled some more, “Of course I never believed it…” He turned to Nick, “Tell me about where you’re from.”

Mountains… I haven’t been there, where Brian says he’s from, but I know that word… Mountain... Why? Nick shook his head and finished his fish as he shrugged, “It was somewhere high up and forgotten… And always dark... I lived and breathed darkness for as long as I know. I can’t remember anything except the stale smell of the darkness. Minako keeps asking, but I don’t remember my family at all... I vaguely remember an older demon, not family, but… It still feels like I was always alone…” Nick frowned, swallowed, and then peered into the fire.

Brian handed him another fish, “Here. There’s plenty.”

Nick shook his head, “You and Minako need to eat...”

Brian pushed it closer to him. “I made sure there was plenty. You practically swallowed that first one whole. Keep eating, as much as you want.”

Nick took it, but continued to frown. “It seems strange to me that His Majesty is one of us, but beloved and respected… It seems strange that you found a profession and get to travel all these places… And then there is the general of Emeradotouhou who has soldiers at his call… All of you seem so respected and happy… You have memories of more than the darkness…” Nick looked up at Brian and half smiled. His eyes, however, were like puddles of water, reflecting the loneliness of his heart, “How nice it must be to be lucky like that…”

Brian chuckled, continuing to eat, “Perhaps, you’re the true lucky one. Pandora came to you.”

Nick took another bite, swallowed, then smiled, “That’s true… I’m very happy that Minako came to me. Because of her, I’ve met so many wonderful people, breathed different air, saw different sights... I’m so glad… I’m so glad because I feel myself becoming something stronger than I used to be, someone worthy of existing... Before there was only darkness… But Minako bathes me in only light. It feels… safe and warm...”

“You keep saying ‘Minako,’ do you mean Pandora?” Brian questioned.

Nick nodded, “In her world, she received the name Minako Mikagi and she said she wanted to be called Minako... I guess, they don’t call her Pandora there.”

“How strange…” Brian paused, “Pandora is Pandora. Do they not view her as a savior?”

Nick glanced at her with his typical gentle smile, “I’m sure she’d share her light with everyone… but I guess not…”

“That is a disappointment…” Brian paused, “She could probably rescue both our worlds from darkness.”

Nick glanced at Brian briefly, “Wouldn’t that be nice? Worlds without darkness that were forever bathed in the light of the priestess Pandora…”

Brian chuckled, “It may be a far off dream, but Pandora can make it so with her wishes. Our savior...”

Nick gazed into the fire. I don’t want her to be a savior… I only want her to hold me in her light for a little longer and stay with me… Only me... “Names are interesting… I remember being called Nickolas, but she called me Nick when I told her my name… And it broke my heart to hear it, but it made me really happy. So I thought that it might make her happy too if I stopped calling her Priestess and called her Minako instead.” He smiled up at him, “I’m sure it would make her happy if you called her Minako too.”

Brian shook his head, “It was strange… I’m always called Brian, but… like you said, hearing her say it broke my heart and made me happy all at once. But I couldn’t call Pandora anything else… Our priestess…”

Minako stirred as her brown eyes found clarity. The conversation of the two demons flicked against her face like the light of the flames. She pushed herself off the ground with her hands and slid across the grass to lean on Nick’s uninjured side.

“So good to see you up, Pandora,” Brian smiled.

Minako smiled and gave a small wave in reply as she blinked, still not quite awake enough to speak. Brian held a fish out for her.

“To eat?” Minako questioned.

“It’s good for you,” Brian smiled, “There’s plenty!”

“It’s the first thing you’ve eaten since yesterday...” Nick chimed in.

Minako twirled it in her hand, “It’s looking at me…”

“There are stranger things you can eat….” Nick smiled.

“Says the demon who ate grass,” Minako shook her head.

Nick shrugged, “My stomach was injured. It’s like herbs.”

Minako smiled at him incredulously, “You’re surprised? Our first night with Howie, you ate all of your dinner, a whole second helping, and half of mine.”

Nick blinked, “You don’t waste food, Minako…”

Brian chuckled, “So you do eat?”

Minako leaned her head on Nick’s shoulder and fluffed the hair at his forehead, “Okay, but you don’t keep eating until you get sick.”

He smiled and touched her cheek gently. “I won’t… But it’s good. You’re hurt. Eat.”

Brian glanced at Minako, then at Nick’s bare feet and tattered pants, before silently handing him another fish.

Nick took the fish and smiled at her, “I’ll eat with you.”

Minako frowned “Okay… I am hungry, but...” She held her nose and took a large bite.

Nick blinked, “Is that how you eat this?” He mimicked Minako and took a bite.

Brian laughed, “Not that I’m aware of.”

Minako moved the stick from her mouth and laughed. “I don’t normally like fish. The smell makes me feel sick...”

Nick pointed to the grass and smiled as he took another bite.

Minako shook her head, “It’s not just like medicine, Nick.”

Brian laughed heartily

Minako smiled, “Do other people get to do this here? It’s fun....”

“Do what?” Nick took another bite.

“Sit out here in the sunlight with friends while eating fish…” she leaned back on her hands and gazed toward the sky, “I don’t like fish normally, but… Here it’s kind of nice… To smile and laugh… To relax...”

Brian bit his lip for a moment and stared upward toward the sky, following Minako’s gaze. The world did seem peaceful, too peaceful for the emerald country.

Minako smiled as she turned her eyes toward Brian. “Brian?”

“That’s difficult to say,” Brian answered, “None of the countries are really at peace, so it’s difficult to confirm people could potentially enjoy these comforts… And if they could, it would seem like they would be too afraid of the state of these war ravaged countries… among other things...”

Minako nodded and turned back to the fish in her hand, “I guess that makes sense...”

Brian turned to her, “I’ve heard that Pandora gets three wishes if she obtains and opens the box. What would you wish for, Pandora?”

Minako put her hand to her face and stared back at the sky, “I want Safaiananpou to have peace and I want Renee back… Other than that, I haven’t really considered it…” She shook her head, “That’s not true... The last one, I think I’d ask for something for Nick...”

Nick turned to her in surprise. “For me?”

She smiled, “In the beginning, I only wanted to go back to Renee and our world. And that still seems possible… but harder…” She lowered her head, “But all these things I’ve experienced and seen only happened because I came to you and we left that darkness. Anything to make you smile.” She put her hand on his cheek and rubbed her thumb against it as she smiled . “So when Howie said I could wish for anything, I wanted you to have that last wish if I can, for anything you want.”

Nick blinked, but then his lips curved into a gentle smile. He shook his head and ran his hand through her hair, “You hold on to it, in case you need it. Anything I want is already in the box or…” He pulled her closer and leaned his head on hers, “Or you already gave it to me…”

“Nick…” She pressed a small kiss to his cheek, then beamed at him.

Brian coughed lightly. “There was one other thing, Pandora…”

Minako turned to him with a smile, “Brian?”

“Somehow, we must escape Emeradotouhou. It’s too dangerous for us to stay here. We can’t use the gate we came in, because I’m sure the emerald general has soldiers out looking for us, but… There is one hidden gate that lies between Safaiananpou and Emeradotouhou that is virtually empty.”

Minako sat up straight and blinked, “How come no one uses it?”

“In order to pass, your heart must be judged.”

She leaned forward, “How?”

Brian put his hand to his chin thoughtfully. “They say it is weighed for its purity.”

“To judge your sins…?” Minako blinked as she took another bite from the fish, forgetting her aversion to the smell.

Brian nodded and shrugged, “Something of that manner. It is also said that a woman must accompany you, so most of the travelers don’t use it regardless in case that requirement is true.”

“They’re afraid of their impure hearts?”

Brian shook his head, “Travelling during these times is dangerous. Most people would not set foot outside their own town.” Brian leaned back on his hands, “Traders are usually the only ones who travel in their own country, let alone through the others.”

“Why did you leave your city?” Minako questioned, then turned to Nick briefly, then quickly back to Brian, “I know why we left, but why did you?”

Brian chuckled a little, “Well, in this time when people search desperately for something constant, the clergy is needed in vast areas.”

Minako smiled, “Then you’re a priest?”

Brian nodded, “Yes, I am a priest. In this world, there is something missing and everyone wants something to fill that void…” Brian fingered the beads at his neck, “Religion is a good choice, don’t you think?”

Minako held on to her knees and rested her head on top of them, she smiled a little. “There is something missing… Something everyone is searching for desperately… In my world, I think that there was something we treasured a long time ago…”

Brian rested his chin on his hands and stared intently at Minako as she spoke. It was like reading a book for the first time, just when all its secrets were about to be revealed. What was her world like? What did the people do? What did they want? What did they dream about? Was it a world of only darkness? Death? War? Destruction? Or did the people there experience happiness? And love? Did they get to have hope? Were they filled with light? Nick turned toward her also. She rarely said anything about where she came from. All I know is that a girl from her world is named Renee and Minako desires to be with her desperately. And that the women from that world all dressed alike in strange lightly colored clothes, apparently…

Minako took in a breath, “It was something that always made us smile… There is light, but when I went back it was cold… It’s heartbreaking that it disappeared and no one even remembers it… Something we all long for… More than anything…” She raised her head and smiled again, “I suppose it is like our box. Something we can’t remember got sealed away and we’re all searching for it desperately.”

Brian blinked, “In your world… Something got sealed away too?”

Minako nodded.

“Do you know where it is?”

Minako shook her head as her eyes grew downcast, “It’s hidden somewhere, maybe not in our world at all… Someone is hiding it from us… But, maybe… Maybe it doesn’t want to be found…”

Nick frowned, “Why would you say that?”

“When I was little, I got lost once. My mom searched for me all over town. I wanted her to find me, so I searched for her too. We finally found each other, because we were both looking for each other…” Minako stared up at the sky, “If something or someone really wants to be found, it's searching for you just as desperately as you’re searching for it…”

“An item can’t go looking for you though,” Brian shook his head, “Our box does not have legs or a voice.”

Minako laughed a little, “No, I suppose it doesn’t… But if you really are searching for something desperately, it seems to call out to you, I guess it's like it wants you to find it.”

Nick frowned again. Calling desperately… “What about the box?” He leaned over, “Aren’t we searching for that desperately? Does it call us?”

Minako shook her head, “I don’t know… When I imagine the box, all I see is red…”

Nick blinked, “Why ‘red’?”

Minako turned her head slightly, “I don’t know… I know it’s not the color, maybe it’s something red… Like blood?”

Brian put his hands to his face and pondered, “So whenever you imagine the box, you picture death…?”

Minako shook her head, “Blood isn’t the only red thing. Apples are red, cars are red… Almost anything can be red... Maybe blood makes the most sense if this search is hard… And because there’s already--”

“C-cars?!” Nick interjected, “What’s a car?”

Minako laughed, “It’s a machine. In my world people use it to go places. It’s like a cart, I guess… Except it runs on its own and isn’t pulled by a horse.”

Brian blinked, “Your world must be full of sorcerers… Everything is so… animated.”

Minako laughed, “No, no. Technology just got better.”

Nick put his head in his hands and groaned. Carts that ran on their own? They were red? Technology? What was this weird place Minako came from? The sorcerers there must have been extremely powerful! He felt a sharp pain in his head and winced as he opened and closed his eyes slowly, trying to regain control of his body.

Minako continued to laugh, “I’m sorry, this is too much for you, isn’t it?”

Nick blinked and took a breath, “No, I’m okay… But speaking of sorcery…” He reached into his tunic and handed Minako the orb. He smiled, “Most of our stuff is gone, but I saved this for you.”

Minako smiled as she grasped the orb and she pointed it toward Brian. It gleamed with sapphire light. “Shield… and…” The waited for the next character to appear, “To travel…” She smiled, “You are who you say.”

Brian laughed. “Is this some sort of demon locator device?”

Minako nodded. The orb suddenly sparkled with bright light as a new character appeared on its surface. Both demons leaned over to read it with her. “To heal…” Minako blinked, “Scale…” The glowing subsided.

“Scale?” Nick questioned.

Brian gasped, “If that’s some sort of demon locator, then it must mean the demon is at the gate crossing where the heart is weighed!”

Minako held the orb close, “The fourth cardinal demon is located in the direction we’re headed?!”

Brian stood and nodded, reaching for his hat. “But they may leave shortly… We’ll have to hurry!”

Minako stared up at the darkening sky. “But, it’s almost night…”

Brian doused the fire with the remnants of the fish’s water in his hat and turned his head from them. “I didn’t want to tell you… I was afraid you would worry…” Brian clenched his free hand into a fist, “The general found out we were hiding here…”

Minako gasped.

“I put up a ward to protect us, and I managed to wound him, but…” Brian swallowed, “But if we do stay here until morning, we could get killed. I’m weakened from the ward and Nick is still wounded… As are you, Pandora...”

Minako put her hands to her face. That fearsome general, his blows were like ice… He was so strong and his eyes were filled with only hatred… Minako’s hands shook. He found us? And Brian was hurt too…

Nick stood up as well. “Then we have no choice. We’ll have to leave now.”

Brian turned to him, “Can you manage?”

Nick nodded, “I’ve had most of the day to rest and the food really helped me a lot. Thank you, Brian.”

Brian beamed. “I’m glad I could help.”

Minako stood up, “It’s okay, if we have to leave, we should! Besides, the first character for the demon was ‘to heal’ so that means that he may be a doctor! He can help both of you get better!”

Nick nodded and unfurled his wings. They trembled slightly as they flapped.

“Is it really safer to fly?” Brian questioned, clutching his staff and putting his hat on his head.

“Safer?” Nick asked, “I don’t know, but we’ll get there faster.”

Brian nodded and flapped his wings as well. He used his foot for leverage and launched himself from the ground. He looked down on Nick and Minako, “I happen to know the way to the gate from the air, so we should get there in no time!”

Nick nodded and grabbed Minako’s waist.

“Hang on!” Minako exclaimed, “Are you sure you can carry me?!”

He tightened his grip on her waist and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Let’s go!” He used his foot for leverage as well and pushed off the ground. The rest really had helped. It’s easier to fly now and I can lift Minako and speak. He held Minako close as he followed Brian toward the gate where the heart was forced into judgement. Even as the darkness crowded around them, the stars began to shine in the black sky. They were the lights to guide them away from the city.
Chapter Eighteen: The Gate Guardian by nicksgal
Brian and Nick landed gently on the ground, though Nick took in a sharp breath. Nick tightened his grip on Minako’s waist before setting her down. He gripped his abdomen lightly as he grimaced. Minako gripped his shoulders and pulled him close. He took another sharp breath, but still beamed down at her. He pressed a light kiss to her forehead as he gazed over her head. He gasped and turned her quickly so she could see as well.

The land that stretched before them seemed to sparkle lightly in a plethora of hues. Beneath their feet, it was the sickening green of Emeradotouhou. Directly across from them, the ground shone with a golden yellow. To the north, a deep, brooding blood red… And to the south, a calm and tranquil blue. Was this the point where all four lands converged? Separately, they covered the spectrum of feelings: peace, fear, pain, wonder… Together, they swelled into a visual symphony of connectedness. Minako stepped back and gasped. A large tholos towered before them and almost seemed to touch the sky, its ring of columns supporting the tall domed roof. Each inch of its surface sparkled like a diamond among the sea of gemstones, its luminosity was incredible. Nestled in between the columns, it had four arched gates, one pointed toward each of the stretches of color. At the very top of the dome, a sparkling statue of an angel reached toward heaven with one hand and held a bright silver scale in the other. Minako’s eyes reflected the sparkling tholos as she stared up at the statue. It was like nothing she had ever witnessed before, so beautiful, almost lifelike… The wings seemed to reach out to all sides and the body was intricately sculpted. It was a vision of heaven. Minako stepped forward and reached out a hand to touch the sparkling diamond tholos when a flash of light appeared before her.

“Step no further,” a male voice commanded, “Your heart must be judged!”

Minako blinked quickly and stepped back clumsily, somehow the statue stood on the ground in front of her? She shook her head, that was impossible. She looked to the top of the structure… The statue was missing? Was he the statue? Was it even a statue at all?

The man before her chuckled, “I was almost stone-like, wasn’t I?”

Minako nodded, “You… were standing on top of the gazebo?”

“Gazebo?” the man questioned, “This is a tholos and a gate.”

Brian nodded, “I told you, I brought you to the gate. Its circular columns connect all four countries to each other.”

Nick gasped, “This is amazing…” He pulled up some grass, “This is emerald...”

“What are you doing?” the gate guardian asked crossly.

Nick pointed to the left, “That’s sapphire?” To the right, “Ruby?” And across, “Topaz?”

The gate guardian blinked, “Yes… This is the crossroads between the kingdoms, the corners where they intersect. All who appear here must let their heart be judged. I felt you approach.” He held the scale toward Minako, “You first maiden!”

Minako nodded, stepping forward.

“You face me without fear, Maiden? Interesting.” The gate guardian reached out his hand toward Minako’s chest. Minako opened her mouth to protest, but his hand was like silver lightning. He tore her heart from inside her chest and set it on the scale.

Nick and Brian gasped as Minako struggled to breathe and sank to her knees.

“Minako!” Nick exclaimed, rushing toward her with his arms outstretched, ready to pull her into his embrace.

The gate guardian put out his hand, “No. No one may touch her until her heart has been weighed. It may become corrupted with your heart’s contents.”

Nick held his hands toward her for a moment, then stepped back and clenched his hands into fists. He put a fist to his chest. I love you, but… can my heart of darkness corrupt you? What can I do?

The gate guardian stared intently at the scale. Minako’s heart began to glow with pure blue light. The gate guardian smiled as the scale began shining brightly and tipping. The side containing Minako’s heart rose as the empty side of the scale dropped drastically. “It has been a long time since I have weighed the heart of a priestess,” the gate guardian smiled. “Sapphire Pandora… You finally exist in this world?” He nodded and removed the heart from the scale, leaned down, and gently placed it back into Minako’s chest. A brief glow of blue light emanated from his fingertips “Forgive me for my intrusion, Pandora. You are pure and may cross my gate…”

She took in a deep breath and smiled. “Thank you for letting me through.”

The gate guardian gave her a brief nod.

She stepped onto the raised platform of the tholos and reached out to touch its sparkling diamond stone. It’s beautiful.

Brian stepped forward to follow Minako through the gate while Nick reached his hands out again and clamored toward the steps. The gate guardian quickly put the scale in front of him, jolting Nick to a stop. Brian hesitated. “Only she may pass. Your hearts must be weighed.”

“She is our companion,” Brian frowned, “We must all go together to return to Safaiananpou.”

“We have to see His Majesty!” Nick interjected.

The gate guardian sneered, “You refuse to be weighed? Your story is weak and unbelievable, seeking a king after departing one country... Then you must be sinners.” He smirked, “However, there is a way out of this predicament… Sacrifice the priestess, then you may pass.”

“SACRIFICE!?!” Nick stepped back in alarm.

“Yes,” the gate guardian nodded, “A pure maiden’s blood cures all sins.”

Nick clenched his fist. “Listen, you…”

Brian put his arm in front of Nick and turned to the gate guardian. “What he means to say is that we cannot sacrifice her. She is our treasured companion. If we sacrificed her, then we really would be steeped in sins.”

The gate guardian lowered his head and the scale, “You may pass.”

“WHAT?!” Nick exclaimed in confusion, “You try to scare us half to death, then you just let us pass!?!”

The gate guardian nodded, “Yes, in truth, this scale only judges the hearts of women.”

Brian pondered, “Then the requirement to bring a woman…”

“A man’s heart can be judged by whether or not he will sacrifice a woman for his own gain.”

Nick tried to clench his fists, but his frustration prevented him from fully closing his hands as they shook and pulsed, “WHAT SORT OF MAN WOULD KILL A WOMAN FOR HIS OWN GAIN!?!” Nick began coughing up blood as he shouted.

“You’re wounded…” the gate guardian reached his hand out toward Nick.

Nick coughed up more blood as he backed away. “Don’t touch me! I’m not done yelling at you!!”

Minako ran from the tholos, leaped down the stairs, and wrapped Nick in her arms. “Nick!”

Nick gripped his abdomen, “I’m fine! But this monster wanted us to kill you!! Ask him where the fourth one went and if he crossed!” He clenched his fist as he coughed again, blood trickling down his chin, “Let’s go or I’ll kill him!!”

Minako squeezed Nick tighter. Could our fourth demon have come here and been unable to cross? Or was there a woman with him that he refused to sacrifice… She shut her eyes quickly.

“Sapphire Pandora… You finally exist in this world?”

Or… She pulled the orb from her side, it glowed bright sapphire light. She held it gently toward the gate guardian. “To heal…” she whispered, “Scale…”

Brian turned toward her and gasped, “Is he one of us? That demon locator device was right!”

Minako nodded, “He reacts to the orb, so he must be…” She reached out to the gate guardian and for the first time noticed the glowing pale horns on his head peering through his black hair. “You’re a demon?” she questioned. She felt Nick relax for a moment in her arms.

The gate guardian turned to her. His green eyes pierced through her as he nodded, “I was a doctor before, but… My power to heal is actually demonic… The king placed me here to judge hearts and keep me away from humans… The other nations consented to reduce the strain of their armies to guard this place.”

Minako’s face lit up, “Are you from Safaiananpou?”

“How did you know?”

Minako released her hands from Nick’s body, then stepped forward, pointed to herself, and held out the glowing orb. “I’m Pandora from Safaiananpou, as you said. I’m on a quest to gather my cardinal demons then go find the box. If you’re from Safaiananpou, tell me your name!”

“But you came from Emeradotouhou…”

Minako nodded and clenched her free hand into a fist, “There was someone I was trying to save but… She got forced to be the emerald priestess… If I can get my demons and the box… Then we’ll return peace to this world… together…” She lowered her head.

“The emerald Pandora finally exists in this world as well?”

Minako looked up at him, “Please tell me your name. The orb reacts to you, but I guess I don’t know if it only reacts to sapphire cardinal demons or all demons… I have to be sure…”

“My name…” the gate demon started.

A loud cough interrupted him. As he turned to the cough quickly, the fierce coughing increased. Nick lay on the floor convulsing as blood dripped from his mouth onto the ground. He clenched his eyes tightly as the pain consumed him. He shook violently and his wings flapped erratically as he trembled. He curled into himself, arms wrapped tightly around his abdomen as he tried to take in deep breaths.

“Nick!” Minako dropped the orb and ran to his side. She touched his head lightly and reached toward his back. When his body continued to shake, she pulled her hands back, clenching one into a fist and raising the other to her face.

“Nick!” Brian exclaimed. He started moving toward him, but then also dropped to his knees.

Minako stared at both of them in horror. No… They couldn’t die… If they died, I would… She raised both of her hands to her face and gasped in terror, tears beginning to stream down her face.

The gate demon put a hand on her shoulder, “Priestess… How were they wounded?”

Minako’s voice shook as she tried to speak through her tears. “The general in Emeradotouhou fought with Nick and they both came out with devastating wounds. He tried to attack us again, but Brian used all his strength to protect us… They gave their hearts to protect me from that great green devil general… And then we hurried here to escape him before...”

The gate demon nodded and leaned down toward Nick. A blue glow emanated from his hand as he held it above Nick and ripped his tunic from his chest, exposing the puncture in his side. He applied pressure to Nick’s chest, then pressed the other hand to various parts of Nick’s body, the blue glow spilling from both hands. The blood began to vanish from Nick’s chin, his cuts and scrapes dried and shrunk, even the gaping hole in his abdomen closed as the gate demon held his hand to Nick’s back and then swept it to his stomach, circling the wound several times in this manner. All the blood and tears on his clothing vanished as well.

As the gate demon released his hands, Nick lay on the ground, still curled into a ball as though he were sleeping peacefully. His convulsions had stopped and all that remained was peaceful quiet.

The gate demon then stood and turned to Brian, kneeling in front of him. He gripped Brian’s shoulders lightly, his hands still radiating the blue glow. He placed one hand at Brian’s chest and the other at his forehead, holding the pressure there. A great sapphire aura surrounded Brian, like the glowing bars of a cage, as he opened his eyes and looked into the calm, green eyes of the demon. Brian smiled peacefully as he stood up, the sapphire aura retreating back into his body.

“Thank you, but… Pandora is also injured.”

The gate demon stood and turned to her. His eyes grew serious as he looked into Minako’s brown, trembling eyes. “Where are you hurt?”

Minako gripped Nick tightly, but used one hand to point to her shoulder, leg, and stomach. “But it’s nothing… Compared to their injuries… Thank you for helping my friends...” her voice shook.

The gate demon nodded and leaned down toward her as he released the sapphire light from his hand once more. He pressed his hand against her chest as he gripped each place she had indicated. He stared into her shaking eyes as he held her shoulder last, “Kevin…”

“What?” Minako questioned.

“You asked for my name,” the gate demon answered. “My name is Kevin.” He closed his hand and smiled as the glow shrunk and disappeared, “You should feel better now.”

“Kevin...” Minako grabbed her arms and dropped to her knees, shivering in pain.

Brian gasped and stepped toward her, “You said she was better!”

Kevin touched his heart and winced, “I thought--”

“So… You really are one of us…” Nick’s voice weakly broke Kevin’s speech.

Brian and Kevin turned to him in shock.

Nick uncurled his body and sat up weakly with a groan as he held his hand over his abdomen. “She reacts that way when the cardinal demons appear and tell her their names. She’s not in physical pain at all… It’s only her heart crying out for us.” He pulled her within his arms and ran his hand along her hair, leaning his head on hers before pressing a kiss to her head.

Minako let go of her arms and gripped Nick’s hands as she opened her eyes, “Thank goodness… the more I find, the more my heart hurts…” She nodded at Nick, then the two stood. Her legs shook as she held onto him tightly.

Nick patted his abdomen, “Good as new, even the tunic…” He smiled, “Thanks doctor.” He slung his tunic back over his shoulders before returning his hands to Minako’s shoulders.

Brian blinked, “How many left?”

“There are five, right?” Minako asked.

Brian nodded.

“Then, only one,” she turned to Kevin, “Assuming you’ll come with us, of course.”

Kevin blinked, “Come with you… But the gate…”

Minako smiled, “You’ll be happier with us! Do you know the legend of Pandora?”

“Of course,” he smiled, “I was even fortunate enough to meet the Priestesses from Topazuseihou and Rubiihoppou.”

Minako gasped, “You… met them?!”

Kevin nodded, “It was a long time ago, but… They were both headed back to Rubiihoppou. Apparently, God had taken the box there for its final resting place.”

Minako pondered, “So the reason I see red when I imagine the box…”

Kevin shook his head, “It’s not merely red, it’s ruby.”

Minako nodded, “The box, what happened to it?”

“Both failed, so… the box must remain in Rubiihoppou.” Kevin motioned to the red land that lay next to them.

Minako brushed herself off, “Let’s contact Howie. We’ll go to Rubiihoppou together.”

Nick blinked, “What about the last one?”

Minako shook her head, “I don’t know, but… Renee and I are now enemies. She’ll also be headed toward the box. I want to get there first and hopefully we’ll find him on the way.”

Brian blinked, “Where is ‘Howie’? And what about your meeting with His Majesty?”

“In the capital…. But he’ll be fine if we have the meeting here.”

“The other demon is the king?!” Brian and Kevin gasped.

Minako nodded, “He is! Brian, is there any way to contact him from here?”

“Do you have a mirror?”

Kevin handed him the silver scale, “This should work just as well.”

Brian nodded and began chanting. Blue aura swirled around him then flowed into the scale’s basin, spilling out of it lightly. Howie’s image emerged from the sapphire glow.

“Wow!” Minako gasped, “It looks just like him!”

“Pandora?” the image questioned.

Minako jumped back in shock, “OHMYGOD! It is him!”

“Pandora?”

Minako stepped back toward the basin. “Howie…” she smiled.

“Pandora, are you well?”

Minako pulled Nick next to her side quickly, “Nick and I are okay!” She then tilted the basin toward Brian and Kevin. “And we found two more demons!”

Brian smiled sheepishly and waved. Kevin nodded.

“The gate guardian?”

Minako pulled the basin back toward her, “Come meet us! We’re going to get the box in Rubiihoppou.”

“What about the fifth one?” the king questioned, “And… your friend?”

Minako’s eyes became downcast, “The demons in Emeradotouhou recruited her as their priestess… They have a general there who is really dangerous, he’s one of the emerald demons… He attacked us...”

The king’s eyes grew sad as well, “We see…”

“Can you come to us? We’ll figure out what to do about the fifth one, but… We need to go quickly.”

The king drew in a breath, “If you feel it is best and necessary, Pandora, then we must accompany you.”

Minako smiled, “I’m so glad. This way, we’ll get the box before them without fail.”

Britney’s head appeared in the basin next to the king, she smiled. “I’m so glad. Two more demons! Can I give you a hint?”

Minako nodded, smiling widely, “Oh, yes please! I’m so glad.”

“Your course of action is best. I believe you will find the final cardinal demon within the borders of Rubiihoppou.”

“Really?!!” Minako exclaimed.

Britney nodded, “Yes. I feel a strong sapphire aura there.”

Minako hugged on to Nick, “Thank goodness! Howie, how quickly can you get here?”

Howie lowered his head, “Excuse us for a moment, Pandora.”

Britney put her hands together, “I will help His Majesty transfer his aura to you shortly. However, I must warn you… You may be close to gathering all five of the demons, but the priestess of the emeralds is heading toward you quickly, I feel my sister seeping into Rubiihoppou. Her final demon may be with yours.”

“Renee already has four demons?”

Britney nodded, “Be wary… Your paths are destined to cross and they are blood stained.”

Minako nodded and clenched her fist, “I understand. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Britney nodded and shut her eyes, “Even in the face of danger, your heart is strong and unwavering. This will serve you well, Pandora. His Majesty will be with you if you call out to him…”

Minako shut her eyes and prayed in her heart. She pictured his smiling face, his deep blue robes, his kind eyes. She called to Howie with all her might, hands clenched to her chest.

Nick lowered his head and gripped her waist. He shut his eyes and leaned his head on hers. Your Majesty...

Her heart burst with a quick beat and she opened her eyes. The blue smoky aura returned to Brian as Kevin pulled back the scale. In the emptiness it left behind, a blue figure was slowly taking shape in a column of light. As the light dissipated, the king appeared before them.

“Howie!” Minako exclaimed, leaping from Nick’s embrace and wrapping her arms around him. Brian and Kevin bowed low. Nick stepped back in surprise, then bowed as well.

Howie shook his head as Minako released him from her embrace. “There is no need to bow any longer, Nick... And we are among companions here, so though we are only now meeting, do not bow to us. We also prefer that you call us Howie as well.”

“If that is your preference, Your Majesty… er… Howie…” Brian blinked and turned to Minako, “Then I suppose we must call you by name as well?”

Minako giggled and smiled, “Of course! Let’s all be friends and we’ll call each other by name! Minako, Nick, Howie, Brian, and Kevin are off on their adventure to find the fifth demon and the box!” She pointed toward the red country that lay before them as she continued to giggle, “Onward and forward to Rubiihoppou!”

No matter what, I have to put on a happy face before we reach the box. Like the land before us, my future is stained red. That’s fine… I will rescue Renee, I will obtain the box, and everything will return to the way it was… Renee and I will be friends again. Nick will get back what was stolen from him and maybe even with Renee back, I can stay with him... That’s my greatest wish... The future looked hopeful, even though all their hearts would be stained before its conclusion.
Chapter Nineteen: The Rose of Death by nicksgal
The great ruby landscape stretched before their future. It was a land of glistening beauty, red as roses, but also reminiscent of death. The ruby land seemed to be doused in blood, a true land of horror. What had happened to the demons of Rubiihoppou? To their priestess? They were a mystery. The Rubiihoppou priestess was condescending… Kevin had met them once… Had they been able to reach the box? Could she even unseal it? And what about Topazuseihou? Did their demons arise at the same time? Did their priestess? Were the two girls competing for the box? Then did both fail? The entire box was shrouded in a fog of mystery. Where was it? Why was it hidden in the first place? And why were its contents sealed? Were they dangerous? Were they something to fear? Minako grasped the nearest column of the gate and drew in a breath.

“The rose of death…” Brian stood beside her with his arms crossed and nodded.

“A rose… of death?” Minako questioned.

Brian nodded, “Such a beautiful land, but only the demons can see it stained with blood. The death and sorrow in this land is… undeniable…”

“But the box is there, so we need to go.”

“So it would seem…”

Minako unlatched her hands from the column and turned to Brian as she clenched one fist. “We’ll go there together. No matter how far, no matter how hard we struggle, we have to go.”

Brian chuckled, “Of course you are right, Pandora… Minako...”

Minako smiled for a moment, but then frowned and put her hand to her heart, “It’s difficult for me to even imagine how much we’ll struggle, but… Obviously it’s something that is extremely important. What it means to live… To die… To struggle from a cage… Is this what the others felt? Is this what Renee feels? All these intense feelings of what it means to continue forward, is that what it means to be a priestess?”

Brian smiled and shook his head, “I don’t really know, though I sometimes grapple with similar questions of existence. I think all demons spend some time worrying about where they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.” He shrugged, “But it seems pointless to turn back now. There’s only one demon left, right?”

Minako nodded.

“Then we can’t leave him alone.” Brian smiled as he put his hand on her shoulder.

“How horrible it must be, to feel you are part of something greater and then never be assimilated…” a male voice broke in.

Minako and Brian turned around to face the calm, green eyes and smiling face of Kevin. Minako stepped back a little in alarm, and quickly shut her eyes.

Kevin took in a breath, “To search for your purpose and to die without enacting it must be very painful…” He put his hand to his bare chest and smirked at Minako’s shaking hands over her face, “I apologize for the inconvenience, but I will change now. If a fully clothed demon is frightening… I cannot imagine my circumstances… I am sorry I did not attend to it sooner.” He chuckled quietly.

Minako nodded and turned away quickly, hands still covering her eyes. His body was that of a statue, but embarrassing to look at in his minimal, flowing clothing. These were some of the most forward men she had ever met. Kevin disappeared down the winding path of a spiral staircase in the center of the tholos. Minako took a deep breath and turned back toward the red valley.

“So…” she started.

Brian blinked and turned to follow her gaze, “Yes?”

“Is it right to call you men?” she turned to him, “What’s the difference between a demon and a human? Nick always just tells me that they hate each other.”

Brian shook his head, “If only it were that simple… Humans are the progeny of the earth, demons are the progeny of the sky. Humans only know what it means to be grounded, to stand on their own two feet. To be a demon, means to reach for the stars, to forever grasp at the unattainable.”

Minako turned back to Rubiihoppou. Her eyes grew downcast. “That seems almost sad.”

Brian gave her a warm smile, “It’s impossible to be sad when you know nothing except what you’ve experienced. We will never understand what it means to be human, as you will never understand what it means to be a demon. The two do not coincide.”

“But Nick… Then… why is he sad?”

“He was exposed to something other than his darkness. If the women from your world had not woken up, then he would not have seen a void in his existence. And more than that, you rescued him from the darkness and filled his world with more.” Brian smiled as he turned his head toward the tholos, “Is there a void now?”

Minako followed Brian’s gaze, her eyes landing on Nick. He leaned against a column across the gate as he stared at the shadow of Safaiananpou, the sparkling serene and sapphire darkness that stretched for miles across the horizon. His crossed arms rose and fell steadily with his chest as he breathed. His eyes followed the darkness across the landscape, as though he was never letting it escape his sight. But then, he took a deep breath, leaned his head back against the column, and shut his eyes.

Minako blinked as a few droplets formed in the corners of her eyes. Was there a void now? When I first met him, he never breathed so easily. His heart had been cold and his eyes were stained with anger, hatred, and fear. Now his face had begun to soften and the ice that constantly surrounded him began to melt. He’s different from before. But… is he happy now? Had he filled the void in his heart? The void had originated from the empty space in his heart. He had lost something precious and with no way to fill it, he had turned to the darkness to console him. Was it filled now? Was he happier to have all of them with him? She smiled as Kevin reemerged.

“Well, Nick,” Kevin smiled, “It seems we are opposites…”

Nick turned to face him. It was true. Kevin wore a short white tunic with white pants. A sapphire sash was tied around his waist and he wore sapphire shoes. He heavily contrasted with Nick’s stark black clothing.

“You really do resemble an angel,” Brian began laughing. He stopped momentarily and pondered, “Therefore Nick is… the Devil’s consort.” Brian laughed again.

Nick growled, “I’m not some common whore…”

“I’m sorry, that was mean of me to joke.” Brian continued to laugh as Howie walked over to Nick. He held out a pile toward him.

“What’s this?” Nick questioned.

“The Oracle felt your clothing was improper for protecting Pandora in this next journey, so we procured a new set to bring to you.”

Nick blinked. Howie was not dressed normally either. He wore a sapphire calf-length tunic over cream colored pants. His shoes were also sapphire colored and the ribbon was also cream colored. His hair was tied back into a ponytail with a small cream ribbon.

Nick pulled an item from the top of a pile and held it out. Its sides were curved and a hole stopped the top from being completely covered. “What’s this?” he questioned, slipping it over his hand, “A hand warmer?” He removed it from his hand and put it to his ear, “An ear warmer?” he put it on top of his head and smiled, “A hat.”

Minako giggled quietly as she crossed the gate to stand at his side, “It’s a shoe, Nick.”

“Shoe?” Nick questioned.

Minako nodded and held out her foot toward him, placing her hand on his shoulder to steady her balance, “It goes on your foot.” She pointed to her own shoe.

Nick looked down at his bare feet and blinked. The claws rested lightly on the ground and the heels lifted from it slightly -- he stood with perfect balance. “Why?” he questioned.

“That’s just what they’re made for.” She smiled as she removed her hand from his shoulder.

“Isn’t it uncomfortable?”

“No.”

Nick pulled it from his head and stared at it intently. It looks uncomfortable. It looks like it will swallow my feet whole.

Minako and the other demons blinked as they stared at his confused look.

Nick picked up both shoes and quickly handed them back to Howie. “I don’t mind the clothing, thanks, my pants were a little tattered to begin with… But I’ll pass on these foot coverings.”

Howie took the shoes and nodded, “I suppose it’s what you’re most comfortable with, but… the country of Rubiihoppou is cold and its capital is much farther north than that of Emeradotouhou, can you handle the freeze without something to cover your feet?”

Nick untied the cream ribbon from his waist, “The coldest thing in the world is darkness. Other than that, things like heat and cold don’t affect me.” Nick began to remove his tunic, his pale, muscular form emerged from beneath the fabric. Minako blushed violently and turned her head.

Kevin put a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Perhaps it would be better if you followed me.” Kevin motioned toward the spiral staircase he had descended down earlier.

Nick blinked, “Oh, but I’m--”

A brief smile broke Kevin’s serious demeanor, “Not for you, I know you’re fine. But… Ruby is not a flattering color on our sapphire priestess.”

Nick turned to Minako and his lips slowly curled into a warm smile. “Of course you’re right. If only her cheeks were sparkled with sapphires, then she would resemble a goddess.”

Nick and Kevin descended down the staircase. Minako turned to look, if only for a moment, as they disappeared from sight. If only we were alone… I would have liked it if held me in his strong arms. Never being alone was almost the most important thing to me. Before when I only had Renee, I was sure we were destined to be together forever and always hold each other close… But now, this mysterious world has reversed everything and Renee is a mirror image of herself. Hateful, vengeful, maniacal… She wants suffering and death… and sadness… If she saw me now, she would know that her wish came true, that my heart is filled with only sadness and nothing else. Or it would be if I only had Renee… except I have Nick now… There is still someone who can hold me close in their arms and help me forget all my sadness. I’m still surrounded by friends and there is someone who loves me as much as Renee. But… this world is not my world. In the end, the other priestesses died and I may follow in their footsteps. And, if I live, will I be sent back to my own world? The demons sought the box, claiming it as their lone treasure and the key to their lives. But the box is also a curse, it will kill our friendship. Minako turned back to Rubiihoppou and looked over the fields of the rose of death. The box is there, shrouded in blood, but I have made up my mind. Neither God nor the Devil will keep me from the box. My wishes are set. First and foremost, I will wish for the peace of the demon world and the happiness of everyone to keep my promise to Howie. Second, I will wish that Renee and I are friends again and that Renee is returned to our world to keep my promise to her. Third… and most importantly… I will wish to become a woman within this world to let Nick have my wish, even though he said he doesn’t want to wish for anything. Then, none of us will be separated and I can keep my promise to Nick to stay with him. Minako put her hands to her heart as the sounds of footsteps roused her from her thoughts and she turned quickly to see Nick and Kevin ascending the staircase.

Kevin smiled as he gestured to Nick, “He looks like a whole new demon, doesn’t he?”

Minako cocked her head a little. Did he? True, his pants are no longer tattered and he looks so much nicer in sapphire than in black, but his gentle smile is the same.

“Minako…” Nick smiled, running his hands down his abdomen and smoothing the tunic, “Does it look alright…?”

Minako nodded shyly. He wore a sapphire tunic that ended at his upper-thigh over white pants. The tunic was tied with a white ribbon and fastened across the left side of his collarbone and chest with three black knot clasps that lead to a high collar wrapped tightly across his neck.

Brian chuckled slightly, “What took you so long?”

Kevin shook his head, “Apparently, he’s never worn clothing with clasps.”

Minako smiled. Nick had once told me that he began life alone and had expected to end it alone. That he had never known another living soul existed, but when they began appearing before him, he had to learn about the world. That he had always tried his best to gain knowledge and an understanding of devices, places, and his own emotions in that dark space. The more time we spend together, the less sure I am that he only knew darkness, but... while the other three demons chuckle at the idea of not understanding what a clasp is, I’m sure that to Nick the achievement is more important than anything.

Nick looked down quietly, then lifted his head slowly toward Safaiananpou again. His serious eyes gazed across the darkened glowing land and his blue orbs reflected its image. Minako wrapped her arms around his shoulder and pulled his arm close to her. Nick turned to her quickly, flinching slightly, but then smiled warmly and relaxed within her touch.

Minako smiled, “Why are you looking back now?”

Nick turned back to Safaiananpou, “I left my home, I’ve seen more than the darkness, I even discarded my clothing. There are people who speak to me as if I’m more than just the demon hiding in the darkness… And you...” he shut his eyes, “It just seems like a dream.” He opened his eyes slowly, “But if it were only a dream, I would feel only sadness when I closed my eyes, but I don’t… I’m actually really happy... So, I don’t want to forget it. Who I am… Where I came from… It’s all a part of me. I’m never allowed to forget the pathetic creature I was.”

Minako held his arm tighter, “You’re not pathetic… Not at all… Everyone starts from somewhere, but now that you’ve realized that there is something more powerful than the darkness you can breathe the air of higher places.”

Nick turned to her, his eyes wide, “Something more powerful than darkness… What is it…?”

Minako smiled, “You tell me, it’s making you happy.”

Nick let out a cheerful laugh.

The other demons turned to them and gaped at Nick’s action. There was something that could chase away the darkness that shrouded the heart of those in despair. There was something that could wipe the sadness from his face. Something very powerful could cause the lonely to smile, what was it?

Minako smiled, “Don’t just stand there staring, let’s go to Rubiihoppou.”

Howie smiled as well, “Pandora is correct, we shall begin this journey.”

Brian and Kevin followed Howie’s exit through the gateway to Rubiihoppou. They began to traverse the blood red land in the darkness, the box seemed closer to their reach than before. Minako continued to smile and proceeded to follow them.

“Come on Nick,” she called, “let’s go get the last one and the box.”

Nick latched his arms around her and pulled her back toward him. Minako blinked as Nick tightened his grip and rested his head on hers. “Nick…”

Nick’s steady breathing brushed against her cheek as he shut his eyes, “Just a little longer…”

Minako closed her eyes as Nick kissed her cheek softly. A small smile crossed his lips.

“Minako…”

“Yes?” she gripped his hands.

He kissed her cheek again. “Incase you didn’t think so, I wasn’t playing around. I meant what I said.”

Minako turned to face him and brushed her hand against his cheek lightly as she smiled brightly, “Nick, of course I believed you. I just wish you didn’t get so hurt before you told me.”

He lowered his head, “I tried to tell you before… After we flew for the first time and when we were at the inn… And in the emerald palace too, actually… But I could never get the words out…” He tightened his grip around her, “I was worried that you wouldn’t return my feelings… I guess, even now, I worry that if I don’t tell you, it will be like it never happened.”

Minako hugged him tightly, “You can tell me as many times as you want, but I will always return your feelings. So you can be more confident in them.”

He leaned down and kissed her gently. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He pulled her into a series of gentle kisses that seared her lips with his warm breath as he smiled.

Minako smiled into his smile as well.

He ran his hand on the back of her head. “I can feel your worry. I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but I tried as hard as I could to get Renee to come with us, probably longer than was safe for me.” He leaned against her head, “But she wouldn’t come with us, I’m so sorry…”

Minako pulled him closer to her, “Thank you.” Tears streamed down her cheeks.

Nick pulled back and frowned as he raised his hand to her face, catching her tears with his finger. “Minako…”

She smiled up at him, “I’m sad, but… I’m also happy that you’re working so hard to make sure I’m happy.” She lowered her head, “I wish I could do things for you too…”

Nick kissed her forehead, “You’ve done plenty of things for me to make sure I’m happy.” He smiled down at her. “I promise.”

Minako’s smile grew wider as she looked up at his face.

Nick’s smile grew as well. There was something more powerful than the darkness… Minako’s smile would light up their journey through the bloodstained country of Rubiihoppou.
Chapter Twenty: Requiem by nicksgal
She leaned against the wide frame of a window as she sat on a wide ledge beneath it, staring out into the endless emerald darkness past the veranda. The breeze rushed past the blonde strands of her bangs, whipping them across her face. She had removed her red barrettes, an old pair with silver butterfly ornaments, and held them in her hand. She clenched her fist tightly around them. I can’t stand to look at them. Their loving faces, their intricate clasps, and their wandering silver glisten, I hate them. I hate everything about them. They’re covered in the stain of Minako’s fingers and her invisible love. She opened her hand and stared at them again. What love? She doesn’t love me, she runs for the first other thing that shows her an ounce of kindness that isn’t me. Doesn’t she know that these creatures are leeches? They only want us around for what we can do for them. They should be bowing at our feet. They can’t keep existing without us. At least yours apparently pretend to be kind friends when they leech off you. She chuckled quietly to herself. Betraying women cannot expect to give or receive so much love, especially when love itself is a tainted brew of lies. She clenched her fist tightly around the barrettes once more as the sound of a visitor’s stride caught her attention. She turned briskly to face the interior of the emerald palace. The blue eyes of the general stared back at her. They were intense, full of hatred and anger, but a twinge of pain rested within them.

“Justin…” Renee turned her head away from him once more as she steadied herself on the ledge she sat on. “I see your wounds have already healed.”

The general snorted, “That damned demon, he believes he outsmarted me.”

Renee scoffed as she sneered at the image of Minako cradling his shoulders within her mind, “Apparently, he had a more precious reason for fighting.” She began to laugh, “That certainly gave him a false power, pretending to battle for her love. How ridiculous.”

The general clenched his fist, “He will lose that power very shortly. I will follow them and claim his life myself. Perhaps I’ll make him watch me kill her first, then his loss will be filled with suffering.”

Renee snorted and turned back to him, “Oh, and what makes you so certain of victory?”

The general turned his back to the priestess, a slow smirk crossed his lips as the wind rushed past his face. “He is pitiful, don’t you think?”

“Pitiful?”

“His power is so small, he fought me with his fists. A cardinal demon who has no real worth, who refused to fight me with his powers.” The general scowled, “Clearly, he only beat me by chance. He wasn’t worth more than my own fists.”

Renee shut her eyes, “Worthless, huh? But he beat you?” Worthless… A blurred image of Minako’s crying, worried face crossed her mind. Her tears looked so sweet as he held her hands, smiled gently at her, held her close, kissed her face...

“But he isn’t sickening! I love him!”

To love someone worthless… it must be difficult. Yet, she cried out when I called him a creature, held him closely, apologized to him… These creatures don’t deserve apologies, especially worthless ones... But then… if he is worthless… What does that make me? After I worked so hard to get her back, Minako used coming to save me as a ruse to return to that worthless demon. She had chosen something worthless over me. Then, am I below worthlessness? What’s below worthlessness? Nothingness?

The general lowered his head slightly as he turned back to Renee. “You don’t care for him, do you? Rubbing his victory in my face...” He shook his head incredulously, “There are plenty of emerald demons you can live out young maiden fantasies with. To desire something worthless at first sight... How weak.”

“Why would you believe in idiocy like that?!” Renee snapped. At that moment, the feeling came back in her cheeks. For the first time since Minako had first appeared, she noticed the streams of tears pouring down them. They flowed from the mouth of the river at her eyes, then past the hill of her cheeks, down a waterfall to land on her skirt. It was a never-ending river of tears. She put her hand to her mouth. Why am I crying? For her? She’s dead to me!

“Or is it…” the general paused and smirked, “That you do not really hate Pandora of the Sapphires?”

“SHUT UP!!!!” Renee’s hand was a rod, it gave only one blow, but a very powerful one. Her tears stopped abruptly as she gave the general an icy stare.

He returned her gaze intensely, but said nothing.

Renee clenched her eyes shut and leapt from the ledge. She landed on her feet and then ran quickly toward the nearest entry into the endless winding corridors of the palace. It was as though a sea of fire stood behind her--there was no reason to turn back.

The general smirked, “So… I am the enemy now, Lady Renee.”

~*~

The sweet smell of rain wafted through the open window as the passing wind fluttered the silk curtains behind her. She fingered them lightly as the blonde strands of her hair brushed against her face. It’s like the world is crying with me. The world was completely dark now. The room was empty except for her own body sitting on the ledge of the window and the ornate and opulent furniture in the dark. Low tables, canopied beds, mirrors… Only inanimate things. Emptiness… and darkness… Is that me now? She stared out at the clouded moon. The rain fell from the slowly moving clouds, almost seeming like brief splashes in a lake. If the sky was a lake, then the clouds were boats sailing across the lake and the moon was her face, nestled within the boats. She closed her eyes briefly and imagined the calm waves drifting beside her and sang a quiet song about a lake and boats drifting into eternity.

“A requiem for your lost love…” a quiet, feminine voice wafted through the air.

Renee turned around quickly, startled by the sudden intrusion into her dark and empty solitude. To her surprise, she faced a slender woman with blonde hair in an intricate bun. She wore a long, emerald gown with sheer sleeves.

“Who are you?” Renee recoiled and pressed against the curtains, trying to send her soul out the window.

“Justin attempted to introduce us earlier,” she smiled, “But it seemed as though you were in pain then…” She recollected the song Renee had been quietly singing only moments before, “Not that it seems the situation has changed since.”

Renee’s eyes narrowed as she glared at the woman, “Don’t assume anything about me!” Renee jumped from the ledge as her voice reached a heightened pitch, “DON’T ASSUME ANYTHING!!!!”

A smile spread across the woman’s face, “They misplaced you. I thought the priestess of Rubiihoppou was known for her temper.”

“You’re mocking me!” She tried to run from the room, but the woman stopped her.

“Certainly not the passive Topazuseihou priestess either.” She smiled, “Perhaps brooding though… Maybe more sensitive than she’s willing to admit.”

Renee turned her head quickly and scoffed, “Do you think you can change the subject so easily? I’m none of those things!” She sat back down on the ledge and took several deep breaths, trying to force calm back into her voice and expression. “Hey… Who are you anyway?”

“Christina.”

“Are you a demon?”

“No… I am the emerald oracle.”

“Oracle… One who serves a deity, especially as a medium for prophecies.”

Christina smiled, “You certainly are intelligent. Perhaps that is why you are the priestess… It would do well for one of them to be intelligent and have the ability to solve problems.”

Renee gripped the curtain again. “Stop insulting me and then trying to praise me. I know what I am…”

Christina frowned. “I apologize. I thought perhaps you needed reassurance before completing your duties, especially in light of the other priestess’s journey...”

“Where is Minako?” Renee interrupted Christina with a solemn tone.

Christina blinked and turned to the priestess resting upon the window, “What was that?”

Renee turned to face her. Her eyes narrowed and a small grimace spread across her face. A chill filled the air. “Where is Minako?”

Christina’s eyes gained an almost pained look. For a moment, they resembled glass. “I feel my sister seeping into Rubiihoppou.”

Renee turned back to the window, “Where is Rubiihoppou?”

Christina put her hand to her face as she crossed her arms, “You certainly are intelligent… But, no one has told you of the origins of your quest?”

“Of course not. Justin is more concerned with those other creatures these days rather than the creatures that should be here with him.”

Christina took a seat beside Renee and took in a breath. “The past was ruled by an age when the anguished cries of men filed the land and their blood gave it sustenance. Within this age lies the origins of the era of the warring states.”

“Who won in the end? Which clan is the supreme ruler?”

The wind brushed past Christina’s shadowed face. “None.”

Renee turned to face the window, “So… They are all equally weak,” she let out a small, low laugh, “That’s pathetic.”

“There was no need. God quelled that conflict with the demons.”

Renee pictured the tall, blonde general. He was merciless and arrogant. And of course, he was happiest when his hands were stained with blood, it was as if the mere scent aroused him. She chuckled to herself, “Demons bringing peace… You must be joking.”

Christina’s eyes flashed emerald, “There is no need to joke.” She turned toward the rain clouded sky, “Demons were born from the sky to be saviors. God placed them on earth and into the royal palaces in order to usher in an age of peace. But, even their peace could not last forever. In fact, it was merely a peaceful interlude in the era of the warring states. The people feared them, then the land blazed with fire and stank of rotting corpses once more. The demons were tortured and killed one after the other… However…” she turned to Renee, “They learned how to live off the blood and suffering of others. The demons who were created to bring peace, brought only death, destruction, judgement, blood, and darkness. I doubt there are any demon clans who still hold power in any country.”

Renee shrugged, “It doesn’t really seem out of character. Demons are supposed to be ruthless murdering machines, after all. That’s what they’re all like, constantly covered in someone else’s blood.”

“Not when they were created for peace. When they were created for peace, they should have brought mercy, justice, change, light, and life.” Christina clasped her hands, “God was infuriated. He gathered the four maidens and requested of them the most potent sutra.”

“Maidens?” Renee frowned, “You mean the priestesses.”

“Certainly not. The priestesses did not exist then.”

Renee narrowed her eyes, “Then, do you mean oracles and not maidens? What are you?”

Christina’s eyes briefly flashed emerald, but she ignored Renee’s question. “The maidens did as they were told and chanted the powerful binding spell.”

The wind blew across Renee’s face as her eyes grew wide. Staring directly at Christina, she could feel her heart pounding. The wind whispered in her ears, almost seeming to chant the binding sutra. Her chest grew tight as her breathing slowed.

“The sutra, this spell, created a means to seal the vicious power of the demons… It created the Holy box!”

“The Holy box… You mean Pandora’s Box!”

A wistful smile spread across Christina’s lips as she closed her eyes slowly. “No one priestess has laid claim to the box, so it is merely the box of the priestesses’ dreams. How bold of the emerald nation to call it Pandora’s Box.” She opened her eyes and faced Renee directly, “The priestesses were then created to subdue the weakened demons. In return for her service, the one who did claim the box would receive three wishes. And at that moment, God would reclaim his demons and do with them as he willed.”

“What about the other three priestesses?!?!” Renee jumped from the ledge suddenly and turned back to Christina, “What happens to them?!?!”

Christina’s face became shadowed by the billowing curtains as she stood silently before the emerald priestess.

Renee’s shocked face slowly became stained red as she clenched her fists. She opened one slowly as it trembled and rose it to the shadowed cheek of the oracle. The trembling wind broke the endless silence. “TELL ME!!!!”

Christina’s eyes narrowed as she stepped back. “The quest for the box is an endless battle where the priestesses test their strengths and face their combatants with their wills. The strongest among them is the only one to survive.”

Renee let out a low maniacal laugh, “In other words… Might makes right. The weakest die.” Her laughter grew louder and filled the room with its eerie rumble. “So… All four of us will come together to fight for the box.”

“No.”

Renee’s laughter ceased. “No… But, you said…”

“For all four to come together is impossible.”

“Why?!” Renee barked, “Are the other priestesses cowards?!”

“The priestesses of Rubiihoppou and Topazuseihou are dead.”

Renee shrunk back, “Dead? What? WHY?!”

Christina turned her head. “They arose… some years before you and the Safaiananpou priestess were prepared to accept your duties and descend into this world. They met in combat and a vicious battle ensued between both priestess and their demons. In the end, neither claimed the box.”

“How did they die?” Renee’s voice trembled.

“It is… unclear…” Christina’s voice wavered as well, “All demons lay stained in blood. Both priestesses lost their will to fight. Thus, the other oracles were sealed… All who could recount the terrible ordeal have had their lives stolen and buried in the years since.”

Renee stared at the floor, a turbulent storm began rising in her heart. “Then, to be a priestess means the certainty of death.” She sat back on the ledge and stared out into the rain, “Minako is a coward, she will not chase after that box when she is fraternizing with those creatures. So then, we have no reason to meet. I can take my time.”

“You are alone in that thinking.”

Renee growled and turned back to the oracle.

“As we speak, she is in Rubiihoppou. Do you forget? I told you that I felt my sister seeping into Rubihoppou, a country my sapphire sister should not be in.”

Renee laughed, “Heh. There is nothing in that country.”

“You are mistaken. Rubiihoppou, the northern country of blood and ice, is the location where the priestesses took their hearts and thrust them at each other.”

“Their battle means nothing.”

“It was the location of their battle because it is the location of the Holy box.”

Renee stood abruptly. “Then she is chasing after the box!” Renee sneered and sat back down, “There is no need to worry, she cannot achieve much with only two demons.”

“My sister’s power is growing in reach. There are four and it appears they are nearing the fifth if she can seep into Rubiihoppou.”

Renee blinked, “Then she will get the box first… She will not suffer at all when I only have Justin beside me…”

“Justin must have told you the method to procure the demons. If not him, then the emerald monarch.” She thrust her hand toward the open window and the rain, “Leave this sanctuary of sadness, become strong, and find them.”

Renee clenched her fist as she let out a low growl and narrowed her eyes. Minako has stained my heart with darkness. She… must suffer. If she doesn’t suffer, then my existence is null. She already placed me below worthlessness. “What an impossible task! Find them? You say that as though they are easy to find.”

“When you remain shrouded in shadows, nothing is easy to find unless it finds you. When you shine light on your search, things become illuminated.”

Renee gripped the curtains. “Ridiculous. I’m not going on some adventure to find the creatures who are keeping me from my home. I don’t want to see her again.”

Christina sat on the ledge again, “As you know, the priestess who claims the box receives any three wishes that are in God’s power to grant. Perhaps returning to your home is one you can request.”

Renee clenched her hand around the curtain, “What a ridiculous thing to say! Of course I will return home in the end!” It is not enough. If I become part of this world, then those wishes will have to be enough. “Can God’s power permeate my world?”

“I suppose…”

Then I can wish for assurance on my college choices… “Do they need to be kind wishes?”

“It is unclear…”

Minako… If we are to meet in the end, our destiny is to die. You need to feel as much pain and sorrow as possible… Your blood has to be spilled on the floor… Since you’re searching for your creatures, you obviously believe that you should live and that I am supposed to die in agony, forever alone in this hell. That I should be the one who succumbs to fate and destiny while you will live and return to our world alone. She clenched her fist. “No. I will not let her.”

Christina frowned, “Priestess?”

Renee began to glow with emerald light. As her anger reached its peak, she emitted a large flash of emerald aura, “I WILL NOT LET HER!!!!!!”

Renee fell from the window and collapsed on the ground. Demons… I will call you that instead of creatures... Do you hear my heartbeat here in the dark? I’m not able to go and find you, but... If you follow its sound… then I will repay you… with my own blood…
Chapter Twenty-One: Stranger by nicksgal
Renee opened her eyes slowly. The world around her resembled a blizzard -- everywhere she looked, there was only hazy, white light. Is this the light of death? Or is it beckoning me back to my own world in a beacon of white flurries? If I run toward it, will everything be finished? On the other side of this nightmare, is Minako waiting for me? Waiting for me with open arms... Minako…

“But he isn’t sickening! I love him!”

She shuddered and choked as though she were wounded and coughing blood. Her voice… It’s a knife in my heart making the blood fall from my mouth and trickle down my chin. She gripped the thick linens on the bed, her hand trembling. She will never be waiting for me on the other side of this nightmare... She will never be waiting for me with open arms… Why would she abandon me? Why would she choose a creature over me? What does a creature have that I don’t? If it was so easy for her to forget me, why can’t I forget her? She turned her head slowly. “Minako…” she whispered beneath her breath.

“Your Eminence.” A faint voice sighed in relief.

The color began to slowly return to Renee’s vision. A hazy and shadowy blond figure with blue eyes smiled at her. “Christina…?” Renee asked weakly.

The strange figure turned its head quickly and blushed, “No…”

Renee coughed and covered her face with her hand. The pounding of boots came closer, making the sound her shocked heart would surely make outside of her chest.

“Ah, Lady Renee,” the voice seemed to smile contemptuously.

Renee sat up. “Justin! What happened?!”

“I am not sure. I just returned from a military meeting and was told you had been bedridden.” Justin ran a cloth along his sword, the metal glistening with blood as he wiped it clean. He then flipped back his cape and returned his sword to its sheath.

Renee’s eyes narrowed, “A meeting, hmm?”

Justin’s expression remained unflinching while his voice was monotonous, “Of course.”

Renee frowned and scanned the room. “Where is Christina?”

The strange figure spoke up with a quiet, shy voice. “She stepped out for a moment.”

Renee put her feet on the floor and attempted to get up from the bed, “I’m going to see her.” Renee’s heart shuddered and her body began to tremble.

The shadowy figure put out their hands, “Your Eminence, please. You must rest.”

Renee put her hand to her head. Minako must have reached Rubiihoppou by now… Had the other demons heard my plea? Where were they? Was calling for them enough? Four… The number I need… And the number Minako already had… So there’s finally something Minako found that will make her work like an ant… She’s traveled to at least three of the four countries and has already found and tamed all but one of her sickening creatures… Why is this what she tries hard for? “Justin…”

“Yes, Lady Renee?”

Renee gripped the linens. “Where are the others? Why… why won’t they come to me?”

Justin turned from her and headed back toward the open door. His boots hit the ground like hammers. “I am sure they are headed this way, Lady Renee. If you are really concerned about finding them, you are always allowed to leave and find them yourself.”

Renee stood up quickly, “JUSTIN!!!!!!” A sharp pain stabbed her side. She winced as she reached her hand toward it, “WHY ARE YOU LEAVING, JUSTIN! WHY?!?!?!?!”

“I have business to attend to. Recover and then leave this palace if you are concerned.” The door shut behind him. It rang through Renee’s ears like a shot.

Tears began falling from Renee’s eyes. “JUSTIN!!!!!!” Renee began coughing once more and she raised her hand to her mouth. When she removed it, it was covered in red stains. She fell back to the bed as her body convulsed. Justin… am I just a tool to you here? Aren’t the demons supposed to follow my wishes? Aren’t the demons supposed to be the tools? Yet, you come and go as you please. Justin… She shut her eyes, blinking back her tears.

The shadowy figure took in a quick pained breath, as though Renee’s suffering was hurting it. “Your Eminence…”

Renee opened her eyes slowly and watched the figure nearing her face. With her vision clear, she saw that the figure was actually a man and only resembled Christina in hair and eye color. “Who?”

“Forgive my intrusion, Your Eminence…” he whispered, parting his lips slowly. He put one hand behind Renee’s head and placed the other around her waist. Their lips met.

Renee’s eyes shot open. This man… is kissing me! Me! Pandora of the Emeralds! How dare he! Renee clenched her eyes shut for a moment as her body trembled with rage. Her hand shot towards the man’s face.

The blond man breathed heavily as he released his hold on the priestess. “Your Eminence… has the pain disappeared?” He smiled.

Renee blinked. My coughing did stop… My body has stopped trembling… “What… What are you?” Renee stammered.

The man collapsed on top of Renee. “Forgive me, Your Eminence… I am… too… weak…”

Renee took in a fast breath. This man’s body is stiff and still. She raised her hand to his head. Warm… So, he has a fever… Renee wrapped her arm around the man’s back and tried to sit up. Renee breathed heavily. I’m stuck... It’s no good… Someone help...

“Mi…kagi…” a few tears fell from the man’s eyes.

Mikagi… Renee put her hand to her face and felt her own tears falling down her cheeks. I’m crying too... Mikagi… This man is thinking of someone named Mikagi… Renee shut her eyes quickly, trying to blink away her tears. Minako… The last time Minako came down with a fever was two weeks before final exams last semester. She was absent for two days and I didn’t see her for four. Our other friends don’t really talk to me without her… I sat by myself at lunch those two days. Minako… Her tears began to fall harder. She’s always leaving me all alone. Whenever I need you, you’re nowhere to be found. Not in our world… Not here! You’re always replacing me with other people! You bitch! You bitch! You bi--

“Your Eminence… How can such a beautiful maiden cry tears like daggers?”

Renee felt a hand on her face. That’s the man? He’s awake?

He smiled and his teeth glistened, revealing his fangs, “Thank you, Your Eminence. My fever has receded.”

Renee let out a high pitched shriek and slapped him again.

The man frowned, “Please don’t scream so loudly, Your Eminence. I never meant to alarm you.” His wings draped around his shoulders.

“BUT YOU’RE AN INCUBUS!!” Renee wrapped her arms around her chest, “Where did the blond man go?”

The man pointed to himself.

Renee turned bright red, “WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!?!”

The man bowed his head. “I apologize, Your Eminence. I am what I am… I suppose…”

“GET OUT!”

“Your Eminence…”

“GET OUT!!”

He reached his hand out toward Renee, “Your Eminence…”

She slapped him quickly, “GET OUT, PERVERT!!”

“Priestess…” A quiet female voice interrupted the silence that followed the crack of her hand.

Renee flinched backward forcefully. “WHO’S THERE!?!” She tumbled from the bed and landed on the floor, shutting her eyes quickly as she winced.

“Priestess…” the voice began to laugh, “Oh dear, I was afraid this would happen. But I had hoped to return by now…”

Renee opened her eyes, “Christina…” She began to growl, “Where were you earlier?!?!”

Christina walked around the bed and leaned over Renee. She put her hand to her own forehead. “How should I explain this…”

Renee tapped her fingers as she sat up, “I’m waiting…”

“You grew enraged at the thought of Pandora of the sapphires and released a spark of aura. The surge of power weakened you and you collapsed.”

“Collapsed?”

Christina nodded, “I returned you to your quarters, then this man appeared, staggering and covered in blood…”

The man turned his head away from Renee.

“I cared for him and bandaged his wounds… Then while we were speaking, I mentioned that the Priestess was suffering and he begged to help.”

“But he’s a pervert!” Renee glared at the man, “An incubus who kisses strangers!”

The man bowed, “No, Your Eminence, I am just a demon, not an incubus. That was merely my demonic power.”

“Demonic power?”

He nodded, “Yes. I apologize for my rudeness, Your Eminence. I am Lance, a cardinal demon of Emeradotouhou.”

Renee blinked, “A cardinal demon? One of my demons?”

Lance bowed as he folded his wings against his back, “Yes, Your Eminence.”

Renee turned to Christina, “That still doesn’t explain why you were gone…”

Christina smiled, “Yes, well, as you can see, his clothing is quite tattered and stained… So I went to obtain a second set of clothing for him.”

Renee glared at Lance, “From sneaking into women’s bedrooms?”

Lance frowned, “Of course not, Your Eminence.”

Christina handed the clothing pile to him.

Lance bowed and stood up from the bed. “I must take my leave of you for a moment, forgive me, Your Eminence.”

Renee pointed to the door, “Go.”

Lance exited out the door. Renee let out a sigh of relief and stood up on her shaking legs. She sat on the bed and put her hand to her head. A demon appeared here? How? Did it feel me calling it? Did that actually work? Was it because I promised them my blood in exchange for their service? Will I have to keep that promise? Will I need to leave this palace?

Christina sat on the bed and folded her hands in her lap, “Priestess.”

Renee gazed up at her.

“I believe that surge of aura you released called your demons to you. That means you still may be able to gather them and head toward Rubiihoppou, where Pandora of the sapphires is waiting…”

Renee lowered her eyes. “Yes… Our destinies are sealed together with blood, aren’t they?” She stood up. “I’m sorry… I’d like to be alone for a moment…”

Christina smiled, “Of course.”

Renee held her waist and trudged out of the room.

~*~

Renee kneeled over a pond in the garden. The emerald palace loomed around her up to its sloped roofs. The veranda that wrapped around this pond opened behind her with a staircase that led down to where she leaned over the water. Her reflection rippled back at her. She dropped a rock into it, letting it fall like a teardrop and erasing her image. The ripples crashed against the shore, the water fought the dirt to gain its freedom and failed. Renee closed her eyes. Is this what the battle for the box will be like? Constantly struggling and never really being free? Always trapped together? Soil filled with water and water filled with soil? Constantly mixing and struggling? She picked up another rock and skipped it against the pond. Are we only small droplets in this world? Momentary fragments, then nothing… She sat down next to the pond again and leaned on her knees.

“I thought I would find you here, Your Eminence,” a male voice smiled.

Renee shrunk back as she looked into Lance’s smiling face. “You again, incubus,” she sneered.

“Be fair,” Lance pouted, “That’s the power I was given to protect you.”

Renee grew annoyed, “And how exactly does kissing me help me?”

Lance opened his mouth quickly and grew silent.

Renee narrowed her eyes, “Thought so…”

Lance grabbed Renee’s shoulder, “You were hurting. I gave you some of my powers so you could heal. I promise it will help you!”

Renee pulled Lance’s hand from her shoulder and leaned away from him, “I’m sure it will…” She turned her head quickly.

Lance sat down beside her, “So… You’re skipping rocks into a pond? I did that once… My record was forty rocks. What about you?”

“Oh… I haven’t been counting…”

“I was… really sad that day…” Lance smiled shortly, “Anyone who skips rocks by themselves, must be very sad…”

Renee skipped another rock into the pond, “I guess…” She stared at the ripples it left behind. Is that what this world is? Only sadness for everyone here? How can they survive? “By the way… Who is Mikagi?… Is it a person or a demon?”

Lance lowered his head, “He’s a human…”

Renee turned to him, “Do you… love him?…”

“I suppose I must to a point, not romantically, but...” Lance leaned back on his hands, “He was my best friend…” He turned to Renee, “Why do you ask?”

“You said his name while you were… Overcome by your fever…”

“Oh… I suppose that would be sensible…”

“Why?”

“He... died this morning...”

Renee lowered her head. “Oh… I see…”

They sat in silence for a moment, both staring at the pond. Lance picked up a stone and skipped it across the water.

“It seems almost unreal… But…”

“But?”

“It’s as though my heart has been ripped out.”

Renee’s eyes filled with tears as she sat back. Your heart ripped out...

Lance turned to her and gave her a weak smile, “Don’t cry for me, Your Eminence. You shouldn’t concern yourself with my problems… Especially when you have your own sadness...”

Tears streamed down Renee’s cheeks. Lance blinked as tears began to stream down his cheeks as well. Renee pulled him close to her and held him in her arms.

“Your Eminence?”

“It’s okay…” It’s nice to see that these creatures can cry… That they… feel things… That they aren’t only cold and merciless killers… Is it as lonely as I am?

Lance embraced Renee as well. “We were always together… We laughed… And smiled… We always held each other close… And stopped each other’s pain…” Lance choked on the words, “We were best friends… We should never have to be apart…” Lance’s tears fell down his cheeks violently.

Renee choked at these words. Best friends… should never have to be apart? It feels like my body is slowly filling up with holes. In my mind, it’s like I can’t see her anymore the way I remember her… I can’t see all the time she spent with me… Instead, she’s always with that sickening demon… Their tear filled, joyful faces… Touching each other… Worried for each other… Treating it like it has feelings… Does it have feelings? She glanced at Lance. This one has feelings... Maybe it’s only Justin that doesn’t have feelings...

Justin… That pained expression on Minako’s face as Justin pelted her with his foot and his fist… But that demon broke down the door for her and jumped into battle with someone like Justin for her… And then it…

“Re...nee… We’re… go...ing… to… Sa...fai...a...nan...pou… now… Come… with… us…”

It fought Justin for her and then it still wanted me to go with them after I told him to hurt her… Why? I guess it didn’t know then, but I’m sure she’s told it what really happened before it came in the room by now… Minako… I remember your smile without seeing that creature… I was so excited to see you when you finally appeared here… Why would you leave me for a demon?

My body is in constant agony, my heart is restless… I’m all alone… But if I thought that if I kept trying, that I could erase you from my mind, forget you, but… Your face is haunting… I know that I’m awake, but this world is almost like a dream, it haunts my every thought and action… My heart is shattered in two, somewhere between reality and illusion… I keep praying that it can be repaired, but… Everywhere I go, I see your face. When I close my eyes, somehow I still feel your presence. My tears are endless. I’m incomplete.

“Death is… this unforgiving poison…”

If I keep going like this, will we end up dead? Can I handle being dead? Can I handle you being dead? Minako...

Lance pulled up her chin, “Your Eminence… Why do you cry for me?”

Renee opened her eyes slowly, her tears were overflowing.

Lance smiled slightly as he wiped his hand across his face, “No… You understand my feelings.” He pulled her closely to him. “Your Eminence…”

Renee clutched on to Lance’s shoulders tightly and wrapped her fingers around the folds in his tunic. Please… Let time stop… Please… I can’t keep going like this… What if… what if these demons are really comforting? What if they make it less painful to be here? Is that why you picked it, Minako? Will it be less painful for me if I pick one? She gripped Lance’s cheek and pressed a kiss to his lips.

Lance leaned toward Renee and brushed her lips with his own, holding her tightly in his embrace and surrounding her with his wings.

She pulled back from him, but still leaned into his embrace. It’s not… It’s not what I was hoping… It didn’t suddenly make all this pain stop… They’re not seductive incubi… They’re just creatures... Minako, you really did make the choice to pick a creature over me… Why? We’ve always been together and that creature only just appeared. Why am I worse than a worseless creature? The sky grew dark around them and it began to rain. Renee’s eyes were like the sky and her tears were the violent downpour.

“Your Eminence?”

Renee pulled out of his embrace. “You said your powers would help me heal! Why aren’t they helping?!”

Lance frowned. “It takes some time, but… They can help expedite healing your body and give a little strength to your spirit, but not your heart, Your Eminence…” He tightened his embrace again, “You don’t seem like you need healing, you seem like you need a companion.”

“What a ridiculous thing to say! I don’t need a companion, Lance!” She gripped her hand at her chest. It hurts when I say your name… Why? “Why is this hurting?”

Lance loosened his embrace as he winced and gripped his chest. “It is… how we know that we are connected. Your heart calls out our true names and our hearts call back…”

“When does it stop?” She sobbed. Did it hurt when I said Justin’s name? Has it always hurt? Does it still hurt?

Lance tightened his arms around her again. “I don’t know. We’ll make it through this together, Your Eminence.”

Renee continued to sob and gripped Lance’s tunic. Together?
Chapter Twenty-Two: Battle Royal by nicksgal
Renee pinned back her hair with two jeweled combs. She touched the mirror and ran her hand over her reflection. This woman looks like a priestess, like the goddess I’m supposed to be... Her uniform had been soaked in the rain, so she had changed into a long green dress with wide sleeves and a high collar. The dress was pinned down the center with clasps. She batted the dangling emerald jewels on the combs lightly and smiled. I don’t feel like her, but… It’s all pretty...

Christina stood behind her, holding an overcoat. “I am glad to see you are feeling better, Pandora.” She smiled, “And more than that, that you are finally prepared to venture outside the palace.”

“Yes,” Renee smiled wistfully, “I decided that it was time to find the other three demons. Justin was right, I’m concerned about it, and the best way to solve a problem is to take care of it yourself.”

“Will you be safe?”

“Of course. Lance is going with me.”

“And Justin?”

Renee glanced away, “He won’t need to come until everyone is ready to travel to Rubiihoppou. I will find the others without him. It’s my job as priestess...”

“Is that okay?”

Renee snorted, “I’m sure he’s much happier with that course of action. He can continue with his meetings for the Emperor without worrying about me.”

“Your Eminence?” the male voice interrupted their conversation.

Renee turned toward the door and smiled, “Lance.”

Lance smiled as well. His emerald tunic sparkled, contrasting heavily with his black pants and black sash.

Christina smiled, “Then I suppose we shall meet again, Priestess.”

Renee smiled, “Yes.”

Christina waved and smiled cheerfully as Renee and Lance exited the room and continued down the emerald corridor toward the exit of the palace’s main building.

Lance coughed as they strode through the gardens in front of the palace.

Renee turned to him, “Oh. Are you feeling well?”

“Ah. Yes. I’m fine…” Lance stammered, “It’s just that you look very beautiful, Your Eminence.”

Renee smiled as she smoothed down the dress, “Thank you. I miss my school uniform a little though...”

Lance gave her a warm smile, “Why don’t you show that face more often? It looks the best on you.”

Renee began to blush.

“Ruby, however, certainly does not.” Lance began to laugh.

Renee growled, “Stop making fun of me!” She hit Lance’s arm quickly. “I thought we were friends!”

Lance winced and took hold of his arm.

“Oh…” Renee reached out to him. “Are you okay?”

Lance smiled once more, “No, it’s nothing, Your Eminence.”

Renee lowered her head, “Is it… still hurting from yesterday?”

Lance rubbed his arm lightly, “It’s fine…”

They stepped out of the palace and into the sunlight. Away from the formal fortress that was the palace grounds, the capital of Emeradotouhou was a bustling marketplace. Everywhere she looked were small shops and stalls selling food, clothing, and all sorts of trinkets. Renee smiled and grabbed on to Lance’s arm.

“It’s like a tiny mall…”

“Mall?”

Renee smiled, “It has lots of shops! They can be in a big building or just different stores in the same street complex.”

“Care to buy a necklace for the maiden?”

Lance and Renee turned to the direction of the voice. An old woman sat on the ground with a large golden box filled with rows of jewelry. Her tired face smiled warmly.

Renee smiled, “Oh… How pretty.”

Lance kneeled down and pulled up a necklace, “I’ll buy her this.”

The old woman smiled, “Thank you, kind sir.

“Lance… You don’t…”

Lance handed the old woman a few coins and stood up. He unclasped the necklace and laid it across Renee’s chest. “But, don’t you think it suits you quite well, Your Eminence…?”

Renee put her hand on the delicate gold chain. The charm that hung from it was a small golden tiger holding an emerald sphere in its mouth. Renee turned her head quickly. “Thank you…” she stammered.

Lance pulled Renee toward him, “Your Eminence…”

Renee’s hands trembled. “Lance… Why?”

“STOP! COME BACK YOU THIEF!”

Lance and Renee jumped out of each other’s embrace. A brunette man in a gray tunic sprinted past them. Parts of his tunic were torn and stained red.

Lance’s eyes narrowed and began to glow emerald. “STOP!” he commanded.

The man in the tunic continued to run, either he had not heard Lance or had chosen to ignore him.

Lance’s wings shot out and he sprinted after the man in the gray tunic and tackled him. “STOP!!” his voice rang out.

The man in the gray tunic growled and pulled on a chunk of Lance’s hair. “What are you doing demon, get off of me! Are you some sort of crusader for justice?”

Lance’s eyes continued to glow with the sickening green haze, “YOU WILL NOT ESCAPE!! NOT UNTIL YOU HAVE GIVEN YOUR LIFE FOR HIS!!”

“What are you talking about?!”

Renee’s hand shook as she raised it to her mouth, this man… This man had… Even outside of the military camps, even away from Justin’s nightmarish war, this land is full of death and people who kill to keep from being killed. Is no one remorseful here?

The man in the gray tunic grabbed Lance’s sides and flung him backward. As Lance lay sprawled on the ground, the man in the gray tunic stood up. He brushed off his hands and reached for the loaf of bread he had been holding. “I see… You are one of those men in the rice field I attacked yesterday.” He laughed.

Lance sat up, his face stained with blood and tears as he growled. “How can you… How can you… HOW CAN YOU LAUGH WHEN MIKAGI IS DEAD?!”

“Oh… One of them has died…” He sneered, then began to laugh harder.

Lance’s eyes glowed bright green once more. His fangs spilled from his mouth and his wings unfurled again. He put his hands together and formed a glowing ball of emerald light.

The man in the gray tunic stepped backward. “What is this!?!”

Lance shot the emerald bomb toward him. The man in the gray tunic clenched his fists as the orb exploded and surrounded him.

Lance narrowed his eyes. “The murderer is dead.”

As the light began to subside, a male figure appeared through the smoke. The hunched form of the man in the gray tunic rose as he released his wings.

Lance gasped, “You are a demon?!”

The man in the gray tunic scowled, “Being a thief is bad enough, now you’ve forced me to reveal my true self!” He raised his hands and the sky darkened overhead. Hail began tumbling from the sky.

The air became crisp around them, then swirled with wind. The demon in the gray tunic turned his head quickly. An arrow shot past his face and landed only inches from him. His eyes grew wide for a moment, staring at the object of his near-demise.

“Christopher!!!” a male voice rang through the icy air. “The next one will pierce your heart!”

Lance and the demon in the gray tunic, Christopher, turned toward the direction of the voice. A man with a white tunic and black pants stood on the sloped roof of a nearby building. His trembling hands steadied a second arrow against his bow.

“I heard you had returned to town! This time I will kill you!!” He pulled back on the fletching making the bow’s string taut.

Christopher growled, “Damn! It looks like the bounty hunter, Joshua, is back!”

Lance’s eyes glowed more intensely as he clenched his hands into fists, “STAY OUT! THIS IS MY CONQUEST!!!!”

Joshua jumped from the building, his tunic flapping freely in the air and his wings spread from his back. He landed in a crouched position before rising to his full stature. He aimed the arrow right in Christopher’ face. “Move one more inch and I will shoot.”

Lance formed another energy orb within his hands. “GET AWAY!” He shot one at Christopher, then formed a second and shot it at Joshua.

Christopher leaped from the center of the blast. Joshua stood his ground and shot an arrow toward Lance, bursting apart the energy blast. Lance caught the arrow’s shaft and snapped it in half. Christopher landed a few feet away, then jumped toward the other two demons again and kicked both of them in the abdomen. Joshua released his arrows randomly, hoping his unrecognizable targets would end up being Christopher or Lance at this close range.

Renee dropped to her knees as the battle royal raged around her. I already know that Lance is a cardinal demon, but… Christopher… Joshua… She held her chest tightly. It’s difficult to breathe. She took several quick breaths and wrapped her arms around her chest and shoulders. Their names… It feels like I might die... Is this the end for me? Before I even see Minako again? Do I even want to see her? Maybe I do… This feels like the end and I’m only thinking of her… What did Lance say yesterday?

“What a ridiculous thing to say! I don’t need a companion, Lance!” She gripped her hand at her chest. It hurts when I say your name… Why? “Why is this hurting?”

Lance loosened his embrace as he winced and gripped his chest. “It is… how we know that we are connected. Your heart calls out our true names and our hearts call back…”

“When does it stop?” She sobbed. Did it hurt when I said Justin’s name? Has it always hurt? Does it still hurt?

Lance tightened his arms around her again. “I don’t know. We’ll make it through this together, Your Eminence.”


Not just when I say your names… When I hear them… Is my heart calling out to Christopher and Joshua specifically? She fell to the ground. It wants me to call out to them… It wants me to call out Chris and JC… I can’t! If I call them by these different names, it means I’m accepting that they have a place in my heart! I can’t! What have they done for me?! These creatures! If I call them by these other names…

“But he isn’t sickening! I love him!”

If I accept these other names in my heart, is that when the demons start taking away the pain? But Lance… Lance seems like the right name. It’s the one I felt inside. And Justin too… Did Justin’s name even hurt my heart? Was I already hurting too much to notice? That other creature…

“You’re Renee… Aren’t you? I’m Nick, don’t be afraid, Renee. I’m not so scary.”

Is that other creature even called Nick? Or is that the name Minako wanted to call it? Maybe the pain stops when we accept their place in our heart and they accept our place in theirs… When they decide that they want to be called by the name in the priestesses’ hearts… If I called them by those other names, would they…

“If… I… could… pro…tect… her… then… it’s… okay… If… I… take… care… of… her… it’s… okay…”

Do you love your other demons like that, Minako? Are you all involved together? Did you replace me with a gaggle of creatures or is it just that one? Why is that one so special? I don’t think… I don’t think I can accept them in my heart, even if it would end my pain. They’ve done nothing for me! Justin treats me like a plaything, so I can’t accept him… These ones are strangers… And Lance… Maybe Lance, but… No matter what, I have to stop their fighting. Even if I won’t call them those other names, I still need them to beat you. You have to lose, Minako... She stood slowly and began to drag herself toward the three demons.

Lance was the first to notice Renee’s wheezing and struggling body. The emerald glow in his eyes ceased and he folded his wings against his back and ran toward her. “Your Eminence!”

Renee shut her eyes and clenched her hands tightly, “Please… All of you… STOP FIGHTING YOUR COMRADES!!!!!!!”

Christopher and Joshua turned to face her.

“What’s this, woman?” Christopher sneered. “Comrades? As if a bounty hunter and weak ki user deserve to be my comrades!”

Lance’s face began to fill with rage. He snarled. “You mean to tell me… That this murderer is supposed to be my ally!” Lance turned to him and growled, then clenched his fist. “I refuse!” He spread his hands again and formed another energy ball between them. He shot it toward Christopher.

Christopher dodged, and shot an ice shard toward Lance.

Joshua lowered his head, “This is my bounty, ki user!” He raised an arrow and shot it toward Lance.

Lance gripped the shaft and snapped it again.

Christopher grabbed his bread from the ground, "Seeing as you have both spared my life, I will forgive you…” He began backing away from them.

“STOP!” Renee’s voice rang through their ears. “No one is going anywhere. NONE OF YOU WILL LEAVE! LANCE! CHRISTOPHER! JOSHUA!” She clenched her fist. I can’t accept them with those other names… This will have to do…

Lance, Christopher, and Joshua sank to their knees and gripped their chests.

“STOP FIGHTING!”

The sound of hooves pounded in the distance like a metronome. Renee stepped back as a figure on horseback rode toward her and pulled the reins of its horse, forcing it to come to a stop. “Your Eminence, the General has requested you at the palace.”

She looked up at him. “Good! Captain, he has ordered these two demons to the palace as well.”

The captain bowed. “Understood, Your Eminence.”

Two more men on horseback rode up to him. He motioned to Christopher and Joshua, “Bind them and present them to the General.”

They dismounted and began binding the two demons.

“What is the meaning of this, woman?!” Christopher growled, “I will tear you apart!”

“I am not some common criminal!” Joshua growled as well.

Renee pulled Lance from the ground. “Let’s go back to the palace, Lance. They’ll meet us there.”

Lance glanced back at them, “Your Eminence?”

Renee clenched her jaw, “It will be fine.”

~*~

Renee leaned against the wide frame of the window and hugged her knees to her chest. She tapped the dangling emerald jewels of her barrets lightly as she stared across the room. Lance sat beside her on the wide frame. Christopher and Joshua sat on the ground eyeing each other suspiciously.

The echo of Justin’s metallic footsteps banged against the silence moments before he entered the room with Christina attached to his arm. He brushed back his cape as he removed his helmet.

“General…” Lance bowed.

Justin nodded. “Thank you for accompanying Lady Renee out of the palace. It is good to see her putting effort into her duties instead of focusing on the sapphire pests.” He turned to her and smiled, “Lady Renee, it seems you have found two more cardinal demons in Emeradotouhou.”

“It was hardly difficult, Justin.” Renee scoffed.

Christopher growled, “Hold on a moment. Comrades and cardinal demons? What is the meaning of this imprisonment?”

Joshua smirked, “Seems I have been seeking a bounty on one of our country’s saviors.” He chuckled, “Emeradotouhou must be desperate to ally with a criminal.”

Christopher sneered, “Tell the king to provide for his people if he expects me to save him!”

“Perhaps the king would save you if your life were worthwhile at all. There were only four cardinal demons in Topazuseihou, so clearly numbers aren’t important.”

Christopher’s nostrils flared as he growled and clenched his hand.

“Enough!” Justin bellowed. “You serve the Empire! Your petty squabbles are meaningless.”

Christopher and Joshua flinched, then froze. Lance shrank back into the window frame.

Renee rested her head on her knees and mumbled to herself. “I have the same number of demons as Minako, now she can’t win based only on amount...”

“Your Eminence?” Lance turned toward her. Minako… Was this the woman she had cried for? She seems too bitter to cry for her… But...

Renee turned and hung her legs off the window frame. “Listen!” She barked. “We need to go to Rubiihoppou! This isn’t the time to fight among yourselves! For now, all your strength must go into defeating the pitiful demons of Safaiananpou!”

Lance frowned, “Your Eminence… We will battle the demons of Safaiananpou?”

Renee growled, “It is your destiny!” A smirk slowly spread across her lips, “Then… I will destroy Minako…” She crossed her arms, “And you can kill each other afterward if you would like.”

Justin smirked and walked toward her as he clapped his hands, “A fine statement from a Priestess of war. We are destined to defeat those cockroaches.”

Christina stepped forward as well, “Priestess, I sense a strong emerald aura in Rubiihoppou. I believe the final demon may be on your way to the box’s location.”

Renee frowned, “You look concerned. Just tell me why directly instead of dancing around it.”

Christina frowned, “I already warned you that I felt my sister seeping into Rubiihoppou. Her powers would be stronger there if there were cardinal demons there. It is possible that this last emerald demon and this last sapphire demon are in close proximity to each other.”

Renee averted her gaze. “I see… with Minako’s demon…”

Justin crossed his arms and smirked, “It seems you will meet the traitorous sapphire priestess sooner than you had thought… Have you truly become a lady of war?”

Renee clenched her fist, “I will meet her head on with my will. The only one to obtain the box will be me.”

Justin reached his hand toward her, “Lady Renee, let us destroy the pitiful demons and priestess together.”

Renee nodded and took his hand.

He gripped it briefly, then dropped his hold. “I will send for your paladin and return shortly. We will use the overpass and travel directly to Rubiihoppou.”

“Justin!!!!” Renee reached her hand back toward him.

“Soon, Lady Renee.” He turned and exited the room, his footsteps echoing in the corridors.

Christina followed after him as the other three demons in the room stared at their exit.

Renee sat back on the window’s wide frame. Justin, you’re always leaving me, but you’re still controlling all of us... Soon, we will be beside each other on this journey and I will show you who is in charge. She clenched her fist. Minako and I are destined to meet quickly. Good. The sooner she’s destroyed, the sooner I will receive my wishes. And the sooner Justin will understand that I am powerful. Wish number one, I will return to my own world. Wish number two, I will get into my top choice college. Wish number three, I will become a God and rule over this world of pitiful creatures. Minako can’t stop me. My power will be the invincible force that makes Minako, the creatures, and the world suffer.
Chapter Twenty-Three: Connected by nicksgal
As they traveled further north, the air surrounding them grew denser and colder. The overwhelming green in Emeradotouhou became frosted and frozen. Rubiihoppou, however, wasn’t overwhelmingly red like they expected, sickening brown and frigid white seemed like more appropriate descriptors of the landscape. While they had started their journey bunched together, they began to settle into a routine. Brian led the way, a candle within the ominous black. His staff was their shining lantern -- its glow illuminated his face and the face of Howie as well, who followed closely behind him. Howie clenched his hand tightly around the handle of the sheathed sword at his waist -- he prayed it would be their esteemed protector. Kevin followed them, holding the scale from the gate closely to his heart. He prayed that Brian’s wards were enough to protect it, but knew that he might have to take matters within his own hands. Nick and Minako lagged behind, each tightly gripping the other’s hand as they walked.

Minako started swinging her arm as they walked, humming cheerfully to herself as she inattentively stared at their surroundings.

“Minako?” Nick glanced at their swinging hands before turning to her.

She straightened her arm, “I’ll stop, sorry.” She smiled, “I’m just… happy that we’re all together.”

Nick bit his lip. “And Renee?”

Minako frowned, “I’m still worried and confused, but I’m trying to focus on the part that’s happy so we enjoy our walk and you worry less.”

“I won’t--” Nick bit his lip again, “You’re right. I worry more when you’re sad.” He glanced at the ground in front of them. “I just want to see your smile.”

She leaned on his shoulder as she smiled, “Just being with you is enough.”

He sighed in relief then put his arm around her shoulders, “You tell me a story, I tell you a story cheered you up last time. Should we do that?”

“Okay.” She beamed, “It could be fun to find out more about our friends that way too.”

“Do they even want to join?”

Minako grinned, “I’ll make them. Watch!” She ducked out of his embrace and ran up to Howie, wrapping him in a tight hug. “Howie, we missed you! What were you doing without us around?”

“Pandora…” Howie slowed his pace so she could walk beside him.

Nick froze, completely stunned as he stared at her. Apparently you will make them...

“Minako… He’s a king… What do you think he does?” Brian chuckled.

“Talks to his citizens and keeps everyone safe and happy.” She smiled and hugged Howie again.

Howie chuckled as he patted Minako’s head, “It is slightly more complicated than that, Pandora, but that is certainly part of it.”

Kevin frowned as he fell into step beside Howie, “Your Majesty, I apologize for overstepping, but aren’t you grossly underrepresenting the military aspects of your duties?"

"Kevin, we insist that you call us Howie as well. But yes, you are correct foreign policy does consume much of our duties these days." He patted Minako's shoulder warmly, "However, we do our utmost to ensure that our citizens are prosperous."

Minako lowered her head as she let go of his shoulders, "I know, Howie…" Her shoulders slumped as she bit her lip.

Nick jogged to catch up with them and grabbed Minako’s hand tightly. He frowned, his eyes brimming with concern.

"Safaiananpou seems safe, but it's not completely safe… When Nick and I first started walking, one of the first things I remember seeing was an old battlefield… And Brian told us that it's really not safe for people who live here to be away from their homes. It's very sad to think about..." She looked up at Howie and smiled gently as she squeezed Nick’s hand, "But I thought that if it made me sad to think about that, then it must make you very sad because you have to think about it for yourself, but you also have to make sure that everyone in Safaiananpou isn't constantly thinking about it or worrying about it."

"Pandora…"

"And I told you that I would do anything I could to help, but it might take a little while, at least until we get the box." She used her free hand to grip Howie’s hand, "So I thought maybe you'd want to tell us about other things besides wars."

Nick gave her hand a quick squeeze as he smiled at her warmly. You’re always kind and comforting, not just to me, but to everyone... Maybe it’s okay to share your brightness with others who need it…

Howie smiled broadly then ran his hand on his chin, “Perhaps we can find a tale that aligns with your vision for the monarchy…”

Maybe there’s enough for me even if everyone shares it…

He let go of Minako’s hand and raised his finger in the air, “Ah! While you and Nick were away we received a report of missing livestock. While most were found in various fields, a kitten proved rather elusive. It was eventually found at the palace near the quarters you had been using. A lady’s maid called out that it was a kitten, however, one of the nobles thought it was Nick yelling at you and remarked that he was ‘rather rude to shout at Her Eminence’.”

Minako squeezed Nick’s hand as she giggled.

Nick continued to smile at her gently. Wait… a kitten… He frowned in confusion, “I wouldn’t yell at Minako…”

Minako leaned against him and continued to laugh. Brian also began laughing heartily. Howie and Kevin began laughing shortly afterward.

Nick crossed his arms, “...Anymore…” He hunched his shoulders and mumbled, “Also why would I call her a kitten?”


The others continued to laugh loudly until Howie cleared his throat.

“The kitten, of course, was returned to its residence with esteemed honors and deemed a savior from mice.”

Minako continued giggling. “I’m glad you found the priestess of cats, Howie.”

He chuckled again.

“Kevin…” Nick mumbled as he slowed his pace.

Kevin raised one of his eyebrows and stopped, “Yes, Nick?”

“What do you do when there’s not anyone at the gate? Or is it really busy?”

Kevin crossed his arms and frowned, “It’s not busy… I was actually surprised to see the three of you.” He chuckled, “And then to find out we were companions and that I could use my healing powers again… It was a welcome change.”

Nick reached to grab Minako’s hand again and began swinging his arm absentmindedly once she fell back into step with him. “So what do you do with your time?”

He smiled, “In addition to using demonic healing methods, I am trained in human healing methods, so I like to practice making medicines and salves.”

“Salves?” Minako cocked her head.

“Medicinal ointments.” He reached into his tunic and pulled out a small container then pulled off its lid. “They help soothe wounds as they heal and disinfect.” He held it out to Minako and Nick.

Minako sniffed it hesitantly as Nick tore his hand from hers and hurriedly covered his nose and mouth with both hands as he hunched into himself.

“Yes, it’s quite potent if you’re not used to it,” Kevin chuckled as he closed the container again.

“It’s not that bad,” Minako frowned, “What’s in there? Honey?”

He smiled, “Beeswax and honey are two of the main ingredients, Minako, very perceptive. Demons have a keen sense of smell compared to humans, so what you’re smelling is the combination of the ingredients with the stronger scents more detectable. What Nick’s smelling is the combination of ingredients, the individual ingredients, and possibly traces of my scent from making it.”

Minako continued to frown, her gaze fixed on Kevin, “Do you all smell different from each other?”

He nodded as he put the container back inside his tunic, “A little. Demons with different powers will smell different. The more similar two demons are, the more they smell the same.”

“Do people have special smells too?”

Kevin put his hand to his chin, “It’s difficult to say… Perhaps...”

Nick coughed, then gulped air as he grabbed Minako’s hand again.

Kevin smiled, “Brian, you must be quite busy as a priest. What do you do with your time? Or Howie?”

Minako gasped quietly and grinned excitedly at Nick.

He put his head in his hand and laughed quietly.

Howie smiled, “We enjoy swordplay and literary tales.”

Brian turned back to them and grinned, “I am very busy with rites and rituals during my travels, but my family often played kemari when I was younger.”

“What’s that, Brian? Some kind of game?” Nick shoulders perked up as he leaned toward him.

“Teams keep a ball in the air for as long as possible without using their hands.”

“That sounds like fun.” He smiled.

“Minako? Nick?” Brian asked.

Minako pursed her lips, “I watch a lot of TV, but you wouldn’t know what that is… I guess theatre is similar? Music and dancing?”

Nick shrugged, “This? But all of those things sound fun. I can’t wait to try them. Except for making that medicine… unless it smells less...” He bit his lip.

Kevin laughed, “If you’d like to try it, we can make something with less ingredients to start.”

Nick beamed, “Sure.”

Minako tightened her grip on his hand again and smiled up at him.

Nick slowed his pace again and smiled down at her as he whispered, “You’re happy because you got them to play?”

Minako shook her head and leaned against him, “Because you’re smiling about something other than me. We have wonderful friends.”

Nick glanced at them, “Yeah, they’re nice.” He smiled, “What should we do once we stop for the night?”

Minako laughed to herself, “Whatever you want, kitten.”

Nick stared at her bewilderedly, “Why would you call me a kitten?”

She grinned, “It’s funny.”

Nick shook his head and chuckled as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, then pressed a kiss to her forehead, “If you say so.”

Minako smiled up at him. “Is it my turn to ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

Minako gripped his hand at her shoulder, “What do I smell like?”

Nick leaned his head on hers. “Normal.”

“What does normal smell like?”

Nick shrugged, “Just… normal? Warm?”

~*~

Calm and tranquil...

~*~

The sun shone brightly as a light breeze blew. The air was mild, compared to the biting choke she normally experienced. Shouldn’t it be worse the further north we go? Is it because my health is improving? Or is it because the demons are standing beside me now? That can’t be it. I haven’t really accepted them... Or it would stop hurting to be here… I know very little about them. What are their pasts? Likes? Dislikes? Fears? I know that one is a bloodthirsty general who is happiest when his hands are stained with the pain of others. But, he is also strong and courageous. And the incubus… No, that’s only part of his ki powers… He’s probably the most upstanding of them all, always kind and loving. He gave his heart so openly, even to me… Even when I treated him really terribly in the beginning... It must be nice to be so pure and vibrant. The other two are much more mysterious. A thief and a bounty hunter. What are their powers? It seemed like maybe ice and wind? What are their characteristics aside from their raging tempers? And who is the missing demon? Does his heart resemble Lance? Or Justin? Or somewhere between the two?

The soldiers carrying the paladin trudged on the overpass to Rubiihoppou -- an endless trail of the desolate ice of a million forgotten teardrops. The general sat high on his horse, the outer pedestal among them, flanking the prestige of the emerald priestess. The horse’s hooves tread lightly against the soft ground.

The general turned toward the paladin and the shadowed face of the priestess. “Lady Renee…” he started.

“Justin…” Renee’s quiet voice drifted from the paladin.

“Let us stop for the day. I’d like to ask a favor…”

“We’re making good time, let’s keep going.”

“Lady Renee…”

“I will listen to your request, just not now.” Her voice was a biting, icy wind.

The general gave his horse a swift kick and sped down the path to the head of the promenade from Emeradotouhou.

Renee sat in silence smoothing her pink skirt, her face shadowed. A favor… Of what sort… And… why? What kind of favor could he possibly want from me when he thinks he’s in charge of me?

“Your Eminence…” Lance started.

Renee turned to him and gave a weak and fake smile, “Yes?”

“What sort of favor do you think it is?”

Renee leaned back and sighed, “I have no idea. He’s powerful without me, so what could I possibly do for him?”

Lance leaned back as well. “I see…” He turned to her, “Your Eminence, I don’t mean to intrude, but what do you intend to use your wishes for? Maybe there’s something I can help with now so that you can use your wishes for other things...”

Renee smiled, “I want to go home and go to an Ivy League university next year. That’s the most important of my priorities.”

“Ivy League university?”

Renee chuckled briefly, “Of course, you wouldn’t know what that is… It’s a group of eight school on the East Coast in my world, they’re the best of them all.”

“What does that mean for you, Your Eminence?”

“People will respect and love me.”

“The right kind of people?”

The air grew cold and dead. The interior of the paladin darkened. It was a silent mausoleum, open to everyone and yet still sealed. Renee lowered her head. The right kind of people? Does that matter? Your heart is much more pure and vibrant than mine... If you keep associating with me Lance, I will crush it. A slow smirk spread across her face, “Doesn’t matter.”

Lance turned his head toward the window of the paladin. The emerald green ground is becoming icy and dead, just like her expressions. The air is cold enough to hold every breath. He took in one quickly and turned back to Renee. “You can really tell that we’re in Rubiihoppou, Your Eminence.”

Renee frowned and turned away from Lance, “It doesn’t look red to me, I still see green.”

“No, I just meant the weather.”

Renee sneered, “It was just as cold in Emeradotouhou.”

“And your friend…”

“It’s just as cold every-- What?”

Lance turned away from her.

“What did you say?!”

Lance clenched his eyes shut, the sweat dripped from his nose.

“Lance…”

He swallowed, “Your Eminence…”

“WHY DO YOU MENTION THAT BITCH!?!”

“But you…”

“NO!! HOW DARE YOU MENTION HER!!!!!!”

“But I watched your heart break for her…. The priestess of the sapphires… In the garden… And in the town...”

Renee slapped Lance, her icy hatred reflecting the climate of Rubiihoppou. “DON’T!! DON’T EVER MENTION HER AGAIN!!!!”

Lance shrank back, “Your Eminence, I…”

“Do you love me?”

“What?”

“You love me, don’t you?”

“Well, I…”

Renee fingered Lance’s chin as a slow smirk spread across her face, “Lance… If anyone were to love me… They would never mention my enemy…” She tightened her grip on his chin, “What sort of idiot would confuse animosity with friendship? None, right?” Renee smiled, “You’re not an idiot… Are you?”

Lance turned away, bowing his head down, “No, Your Eminence.”

Renee released her hold on his face and turned back to the window. She began singing her quiet song about a lake and boats drifting into eternity.

Lance’s hand shook as he pulled her back toward him. Tears stained her flushed face. “Your Eminence…”

~*~

Her bottom lip quivered.

~*~

Her feet stood frozen as a cold breeze whispered across her face, playfully tossing her hair into the icy void. The air was chilled and the world was dead, sealed for all eternity in a casket of ice. She put her hand to her mouth and let out a short puff of air. The smokiness of her breath surrounded her hand and disappeared into a quiet stillness, but the silence was screaming.

He stopped and turned back to her. Minako… She was so cheerful at the beginning of our journey, but ever since we stopped on the road yesterday, she’s been silent. What can I do to make her smile again? Or even just speak… He took in a breath, blowing it on to his hand. As he breathed, his white ribbon fell and rose lightly at the left side of his waist. He put his hand to his head, shutting his blue eyes, “Minako… Are you still cold?”

Only the silence responded.

“Minako…”

Nothing.

He trotted back toward her as he slipped the overcoat from his arms. He gently placed it over her shoulders, shielding her from the icy chill of the world. “Feel better?” he smiled, then put his fist to his mouth again and let out a clouded breath. “If you lift your arms, I’ll help you put it on over yours.”

Minako slowly looked up into his eyes and for the first time he saw the rivers of ice flooding from her eyes.

He threw his arms around her and thrust her into his chest. “Minako!”

“It’s strange…” Minako choked as she put her hand to her face, “The tears won’t stop…”

Nick let out a short puff of ice from his shivering lips. “Minako…”

“They just started for no reason…” She attempted a brief smile, but then sobbed loudly.

Nick brushed a thumb across her cheek, his hand was the dam for the icy rivers. He pressed a quick kiss to her forehead and held her closely, sealing his icy breath with her soft skin. She shut her eyes tightly and gripped her fingers around the folds of his tunic.

He rested his head on hers. “It’s okay to cry when you’re hurting. I will always be here to hold you and dry your tears.”

She nestled into his chest.

He ran his hand across the back of her head, “Is this about the box or Renee?”

She shut her eyes. “A little of both, but…” She choked back her tears again, “But ever since we left Emeradotouhou, my heart’s been hurting…”

“Minako…”

“I’ve been trying to ignore it, but… It’s like when I went back to my world and my chest hurt constantly…” She gripped the folds of his tunic tighter, “Is it me? Am I worried about us or Renee? Or maybe… Maybe Renee is worried and it’s burning in my chest… Is she calling me this time?”

“When you went back…”

“When we first left the capital and we stopped for the night… I heard Renee calling to me and I followed her voice, but then she was gone… I couldn’t hear her anymore… But I felt… this gnawing pain in my chest…”

He clenched her shoulders tighter.

“And when I found her again, it went away… I thought things were going to get better, but…”

“Minako…”

“Since we left, it’s gnawing again…” She looked up at him and gave him a small smile, “But when you’re near me, it calms just a little… And the quiet doesn’t seem so loud...”

He ran his hand on her chin.

She put her hands to her face, “But when we’re walking in this endless cold, it’s deafening...”

He pulled her close to his chest, “I’ll stay close… I’ll do anything I can so that you keep smiling.”

She curled into his chest, “Hearing your heartbeat is enough…” She looked up at him and leaned toward him.

He pulled her chin toward him and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.

~*~

A heart full of warmth…

~*~

She held her hand to her chest tightly, it was as though her eyes saw only darkness. Why is it warm when it’s so cold here? It’s like my heart is filling with sunshine...

“Your Eminence…”

Renee lowered her breath, “It’s hot… Is the fifth one close… or… is she?” She narrowed her eyes as the air surrounding her chilled. Can I still feel you here? Are you calling me through the cold and dark?

End Notes:
Howie’s story at the beginning of the chapter is funny, but gets funnier with more knowledge! Kitten in Japanese is koneko (koh-nay-koh, essentially “child cat”) which you could potentially mishear as Minako, especially when a certain someone is prone to shouting out one of those things (not naming names here).
Chapter Twenty-Four: The Endless Ice of Rubiihoppou by nicksgal
The icy path of nothingness seemed to twist and turn wildly in a path of endless darkness. It resembled being lost in the wilderness while the world was bound in white blizzards. After entering, there was no recollection of the beginning, but it was clear that the journey was too far to turn around. The end was equally shadowed, but more mysterious. What lay ahead? Which path was correct? The winding road back that decayed with each step? Or the endless road forward, shadowed in mystery? Neither choice seemed especially beneficial... However, to continue forward meant a destination would eventually be reached. The wind had fangs and howled at the endless moon of darkness. It snarled and devoured their already trembling hands, stained red from its teeth. Through the engulfing darkness and biting wind, l they continued forward. To them, its snarling lips seemed a façade and its stinging bite merely an illusion. As before, Brian led the group, followed by Howie, and finally Kevin. To the three of them, Minako and Nick seemed eternities apart, but in reality were only a short distance behind. Nick wrapped an arm around Minako’s small frame, even as he used the other to encompass his own breath as it trembled wildly. Since that moment, Minako had only gazed downward, her eyes never saw the icy path before them. Nick frowned. Had her heart stopped?

“Minako…” he started.

She slowly blinked her eyes, and nothing else, as she gripped the overcoat tighter. It hung limply over her shoulders.

Nick turned his head away and shut his eyes. It hadn’t stopped… It had shattered.

“I thought we’d never see them,” Brian’s voice penetrated Nick’s thoughts with a relieved sigh.

Nick was forced to shake himself from his troubles and follow Brian’s gaze. The light was almost blinding, attacking from all directions.

Brian took in a quick breath, “So… This is the capital of Rubiihoppou.”

Howie released his grip on his sword and put his hand into a hidden pocket of his tunic. “So this is the northern capital, Akahouseki. We must make note of it in our journal.” He produced a small stack of papers from his tunic.

“What might those papers be for, Howie?” Kevin inquired.

He handed the papers to Kevin, “These are travel papers affixed with the seal of Safaiananpou.”

Brian smiled, “So we may pass through gates as we please?”

Howie nodded, “Correct.”

Kevin chuckled to himself, “It must be nice to be able to grant passage papers as you wish.”

“But of course,” Howie smiled graciously and gestured toward the gate.

Brian froze.

“What seems to be the matter?” Kevin questioned.

Brian pointed a gloved hand in the direction of the gate. A screaming child kneeled inches from a guard who held his spear outstretched. The tip was stained in blood.

Howie stepped back in surprise, “Attacking a child is… barbaric.”

Nick removed his arm from Minako’s shoulders, his clouded eyes focusing on the child as his surroundings blurred. He began hyperventilating loudly.

The other three turned back to face Nick. Minako still stood motionless beside him.

Nick’s fists were clenched, his cheeks dripping wet with sweat, the bewildered expression on his face carried only fear. He continued to hyperventilate. In the darkness… A small, fair-haired child convulsing violently at the end of a sword.

“Worthless scum of the earth. They're better off dead.”

In the darkness, that small child’s body clenched toward itself until the moment it let out a piercing shriek, then there was only darkness. Nick placed his hand to his head lightly, covering his eyes as his wings flared from his back. He slowly removed his hand, revealing that his eyes glowed with a deep sapphire tint. His lips began to curl up as his fangs protruded from them. His clouded eyes were expressionless, his lips were merciless. His claws cracked as they folded in upon themselves.

A shrill cry shattered the cold darkness.

The guard pulled his spear from the howling child and turned. The child collapsed on the ground.

There was a sudden flash of shadow, then the guard reached for his throat, choking in agony, as a broad hand surrounded his neck. His vocal cords seemed to snap with the increasing pressure, almost like tightly wound strings being plucked and split.

“Do you consider yourself a strong man?” a snarling voice smirked.

The guard struggled to breathe.

“Is it brave for the strong to prey upon the weak? Perhaps you are a monster!”

The hand loosened its grip on the guard’s neck and tossed his now limp body against the wall of the gate. A pale tongue reached out to the stained, sharp fingers and licked them slowly, savoring each drop that cascaded down the hand. His eyes gleamed as he turned toward the guard, looking up and down his rag like body. He gave a short maniacal laugh, “How delicious… It is so defiled.” He turned suddenly to the small child, “But… How precious this blood is… And left to a monster...” He bent toward the ground, reaching his blood stained hand toward the small child.

A pair of hands grasped the child suddenly. His glowing eyes met the cascading long, flowing strands of brown hair.

“Woman…” he growled and raised his hand toward her.

Her hand shot out and grasped his own, forcing his sightless eyes to look at her face and her tear-filled brown eyes staring back at him. “Nick…”

He folded his hand upon hers and put his free hand to his face. As he removed it slowly, he revealed that the sapphire glow had subsided from his eyes. “Minako…” His voice broke as his hand lost its grip on hers. He fell to his knees, then collapsed on the ground.

~*~

Minako sat at a small wooden table with the small child on her lap. His black hair had been wrapped into a bun and his tan tunic had been soiled with dirt and blood. His red pants were decorated in a similar fashion. He sucked on a small spoon, but was silent. Howie sat next to Minako, his hands lightly folded. Across from them sat Brian and Kevin. Brian laced his fingers and rested his chin on top of them.

“That was quite a display…” he paused, “It almost reminded me of him.” Brian’s eyes narrowed. “We should have done more, but it happened so quickly…”

Minako lowered her head. Was Brian imagining the emerald general as he pelted his claws into Nick? That must have been painful to watch... I can’t forget how much his hands and feet hurt either...

“His body took a great deal of shock,” Kevin nodded, “But what concerns me most is the complete shift in personality…”

Minako frowned, “You’re both acting like Nick is our enemy. He didn’t really hurt anyone.”

“But that guard…” Brian lowered his head, “He was someone. Not anyone we knew, but he was someone... If it weren’t for Kevin...”

Kevin crossed his arms, “It’s fine. He was still breathing, I just expedited his healing.”

“Actually,” Howie furrowed his brow, “This could look terribly in the eyes of Rubiihoppou’s dignitaries. Nick is, after all, one of Safaiananpou’s demons. This does not bode well, healed or not.”

“But Nick…” Minako held the child closely. “Nick has such a gentle heart… I’ve always felt it…”

“I think his heart is wavering.” Brian responded calmly.

“Wavering?” Kevin questioned.

“Right,” Brian nodded, “He said he always lived in the darkness, but… I find that almost impossible. Clearly, to be a demon in this day and age means he was born. Perhaps his past is seeping from the darkness of his heart.”

“But he…” Minako started.

Brian raised his palm toward her. “Consider it please, Minako. He is a cardinal demon, yet, his only powers to speak of are his unfaltering will and his brute strength. Unless you’ve seen differently?”

Minako shook her head.

Brian frowned, “Those things may be enough for a demon of smaller stature, but cardinal demons should all have extraordinary powers, much stronger than ordinary demons.” He put his hand to his chin, “So… This leads me to wonder what we are actually dealing with.”

“Can’t you accept Nick as he is?!” A few tears fell down her cheeks as she tightened her grip on the child.

“When we were still a prince, there was a siege on the capital…” Howie started.

The other three turned to him.

Howie stared at the table intently, “In this confrontation, our father and the majority of the nobles were brutally killed. But, the invaders were not yet satisfied, so they turned to the townspeople. Our armies managed to quell the siege, however, throughout the night, we heard their blood curdling screams of terror from beyond the keep…”

Minako put her hand to her face, her eyes began to well with tears.

“The next morning, our advisor, the few remaining nobles, and us began a promenade through the city to give our father a proper burial. In a poor district of the city, there was a gaping crater in the ground amongst half desecrated buildings…”

“Demonic power…” Brian put his hand to his chin.

“That is likely,” Howie agreed, “Though we cannot be certain as to whom this power belonged. As we are sure you both recall this siege as well, you will remember that it was at a time when each cardinal demon still existed. It is possible it was a demon from any of the four countries.”

“This happened before any of the priestesses descended?” Minako covered her mouth, her eyes wide.

Kevin frowned, “But you were still a prince… That was a long time ago... Are you saying that Nick would have been far too small to produce such a colossal crater, regardless of what his powers actually are?”

“Precisely.” Howie nodded.

“Who were the attackers?” Minako frowned.

“Emeradotouhou.” Howie’s expression grew solemn.

“They always have been the aggressor nation…” Brian crossed his arms.

“Even back then?” Minako reached toward him.

“Of course.” Brian nodded and patted her hand.

Minako lowered her head and glanced away from them. “So… What should we do? Now that we’re in Rubiihoppou I mean…”

Kevin crossed his arms as well, “We were told that the fifth demon was in the capital, so we’ll eventually find him, I imagine.”

“Should we split up and search for him?” Brian crossed his arms again.

“Perhaps rest should be our top priority.” Howie folded his hands in his lap, “Let all of us discuss this in the morning once Nick has returned.”

Minako put her hand to her head and stood up, still holding the small child closely in her arms.

Brian stood as well and put his arm on her shoulder with a frown.

“I’m tired… I’ll see you all tomorrow…” The bustle of the laughing, eating, and drinking men surrounding us is overwhelming... Their quiet suspicions aren’t any better... This floor to ceiling wood is nauseating… I have to leave... She left the inn’s pub and trotted down the hall toward the entrance, then set the boy on the ground.

“So… Don’t you think you should be going home?” She kneeled down to his level.

The boy shook his head.

“What about your parents? Won’t they worry?”

He shook his head.

Minako held him close, a few tears rolled down her cheeks. He’s so innocent and loving… Just like Nick. A small, wonderful child... A gentle and kind man… How could they think he’s anything else?

The boy wrapped his small arms around her neck and shut his eyes wistfully.

“You won’t talk to me, I understand. I’m only a stranger… But I’m glad you’re safe.”

The boy said nothing, but tightened his grip on her neck.

“You can stay with us for the night, if you’d like…”

The boy nodded his head.

Minako picked him up once more and headed down the hallway. It seemed endless. Like in Safaiananpou, the innkeepers had found the demons to be frightening and suspicious, so they placed them as far from the other customers as they could manage. Minako found the furthest door at the end of the hallway and opened it slowly. There were three mats made up with crisp linens, but not much else was in the sparse room except for a window at the far end. Nick, Minako, and Brian’s overcoats lay jumbled in a pile by the door with the orb nestled on top of them. She placed the child on the mat closest to the door and wrapped him in the linens snugly. He gave her a short hug as his eyes fell under their own weight. His breathing was light as he shut his eyes. Nick had rescued him from the horror of the day’s previous events, and hopefully he would not remember them.

Memories… Is that what had made Nick become that angry creature? You couldn’t see any of us for who we were, except… When I called your name, you came back to yourself... Is that because I’m the priestess or is it because I’m Minako? If we hadn’t held each other close, could I have still helped you? Or does holding you close mean nothing? Is it only part of my priestess powers? Would loving you have made zero difference? Nick… Will it happen again? Will there be a time I can’t call you back? When you called me ‘woman’… I was worried about that child, but… I wanted to see your gentleness and kindness... Will there be a time when you’ll never see me for me?

Minako tiptoed to the farthest mat under the window. Unlike his normal, curled and balled sleeping posture, he resembled a corpse. The only sign of life in him was his chest rising and falling with his breath. She sat on her knees and leaned against them at the edge of the mat. She ran her fingers across Nick’s forehead and through his hair before kissing his cheek lightly. I just want to see your gentleness and kindness… I want you to see me… This isn’t you...

Nick stirred slightly and mumbled, “Minako…”

“It’s okay,” she whispered, “Go back to sleep.” She continued to run her fingers through his hair, her breath caught in her throat.

He shifted under the linens, turning on his side, though his eyes remained closed. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

She began to smile, you’re coming back… “No, I’m fine.”

He curled knees into his chest. “Or any of the others?”

This is you… “No, they’re fine.”

“I’m glad…” He opened his eyes slowly, then stared at her sadly, “That boy…”

“He’s okay, he’s sleeping in that first bed…” She frowned as she continued to run her fingers through his hair.

Nick reached his hand to her cheek, his face pinched with worry, “You’re upset… Did I do something?”

She glanced away from him. “You don’t remember?”

He put his hand to his head, “I remember that boy was getting attacked and in my mind, I saw this other child being attacked… I couldn’t let that happen… I got so angry, but then… Nothing…” He wrinkled his nose, but relaxed as he smiled at her, “Then you said my name…”

Minako held her clenched hand to her chest.

“Minako…” He braced his hands on the mat and winced as he sat up. “What did I…”

She brushed back the hair at his forehead. “You attacked the guard… You called him a monster for hurting the boy…”

“I… attacked someone?” He pulled the linens from his body and tried to stand up, but collapsed back to the mat.

“He shouldn’t have hurt the boy, but… You turned into this angry shell of yourself who only wanted to fight…” she looked away from him.

He frowned and sat up again. “Minako…”

She lowered her head. “I didn’t think you could be like that… Forget us… Forget yourself… And attack someone...”

He reached his hand toward her then pulled it back to himself. Attack? A monster who attacks people? I don’t want to be that… Did my powers come out to protect me? Is that what they’re like? Horrifying? Is there only more of that sealed in the box? I never wanted that… I just wanted to be better than I was… Is this how I get stronger? I don’t want to be like this…

Minako clenched her hands together in her lap, “Kevin helped him, he was okay… But you…”

He gripped her hands, “Minako… I don’t want to be that. Whatever I can do to never be that again, that’s what I want! Help me…”

She looked up at him, “Nick…”

“Help me…”

She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into a tight hug then smoothed back his hair. He returned her embrace and leaned his head on hers.

Minako held the back of his head gently. “I’m here… You’re safe…”

He tightened his grip on her waist. Please keep me in your light. If that’s what I’ll be… I’d rather have you and never be stronger...

“Nick…” Minako ran her hand through his hair again, “What was your mother like? Or your father?”

He frowned. “I don’t even remember if I have a mother or a father…”

“Of course you do… You were born, right?”

“I already told you I don’t remember my family… Why do you want to know?”

“I was just wondering…” She shut her eyes, “Something Howie said about a crater...”

“A crater?” Nick pulled back, still frowning.

Minako shook her head, “I don’t know either… Sorry to bring it up again...”

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You seem tired...”

“I guess… We’ve been walking for days.” She slumped in his arms.

“Come to bed then…” He ran his hand on her cheek.

“But Nick… you’re hurting... I can sleep in that one… Or I’ll sit with you while you rest if you want...”

Nick wrapped his arm around Minako’s back and pulled her closer to him again. He ran his finger on her cheek again, then kissed her lips gently. “Stay with me… Your arms are so warm… And I can feel your heartbeat… It makes me feel calm...”

Minako kissed Nick’s lips lightly as she leaned into him.

He pulled her toward the mat and then pulled the linens back over them. She lay beside him and rested her head on his shoulder, wrapping her arms around his neck. Nick held her cheek and kissed her as he raised his hand to her hair. He fondled it lightly as he brushed it behind her ear, smiling gently. Her eyelashes fell lightly on her cheeks and her breathing was soft and warm against his skin as she snuggled against him.

“Minako…”

“Hmm…?”

“Are you feeling better?”

“Yes… I’m fine, I just…” She opened her eyes again and stared into his eyes. “I don’t know if it’s only Renee or… something else...”

“Minako?”

“Have you ever wanted something you couldn’t have? That’s what it feels like… It hurts…”

“Every day…” He shut his eyes and leaned his head on hers.

“Nick?” She brushed his cheek with her thumb.

He smiled and ran his hand through her hair as he pulled her closer to him. “I had that feeling every day… Until the moment I met you.”

A small smile spread across Minako’s lips.

Nick’s smile brightened. “I’m glad I can still see that…” he closed his eyes lightly, “I was afraid your heart had shattered…”

Minako grasped his hand near her head, “No… Not as long as I have you… You’re keeping it safe...” She ran her hand on his cheek, “I’m glad you’re still smiling too.”

Nick smiled again and clenched her hand tightly. Their hearts lit up the room as though it were bathed in the morning sunlight.

End Notes:
The capital city Akahouseki (Ah-kah-hoh-seh-kee with the second “oh” held) translates roughly as "red jewel."
Chapter Twenty-Five: Deep Scars by nicksgal
The paladin of the emerald demons came to an abrupt stop amid the cold and dark night in Rubiihoppou. Renee turned to Lance quickly. “What’s happening?”

Lance shook his head and shrugged.

They heard a small cough and turned toward the window. Joshua stood on the other side, averting his eyes away from the blonde priestess. “I beg your pardon, Pandora,” he coughed once more, “The general has ordered that we stop for the night.”

Renee turned to Lance quickly, then back to Joshua and the endless icy dark. She nodded, “That sounds reasonable.”

Joshua set his hand within Renee’s reach as an offer to help her from the paladin. Renee took hold of his hand, which he set upon his shoulder. Joshua then lifted Renee from the paladin and set her on the ground. Her first step was shaky, as she had sat within the paladin for what seemed to her to be ages. Lance followed her exit and jumped from the paladin, landing on the ground as though he had cat-like reflexes. Joshua motioned the two of them to follow him down a path through the nearby rice paddies.

Renee looked around the area surrounding the rice paddies. Even outside of the paladin, there was nothing but darkness. “Where are Justin and Christopher?”

Joshua let out another cough, “Yes, the general and the thief went ahead of us, Pandora. They left you in the care of myself and the ki user.”

Lance turned his head from Joshua quickly as he scowled.

Joshua helped Renee toward the rice patties.

“How far do we have to go?” she questioned.

“The camp where we will be resting is about a mile from here, but there is no other path to it, so we must go by foot. Your paladin could not make it through the rice paddies.”

Renee frowned. The rice paddies had the consistency of a warm, thick soup with stalks growing up through the shallow water. Walking through the sloshing water makes me feel nauseous. I don’t even like rice...The smell is overpowering. I can’t even see where I’m going… Just the demons and the paddies directly in front of us… Everything else is dark. I can’t see the mountains Rubiihoppou is supposedly famous for, the billowing blades of yellowed grass that should surround these paddies, the extensive rivers, or any other characteristic landmarks that Rubiihoppou is supposed to hold. They’re all a mystery to my almost sightless eyes. Even if I could see the world surrounding me, the stench of the paddies is too much for me to concentrate on much else. She turned to Lance quickly. “Lance…”

He turned back with a smile, “Yes, Your Eminence?”

“Didn’t you used to live near a place like this?”

Lance’s eyes fell to the murky ground, “Near a rice field…”

“Lance?”

“We lived and worked in the rice paddies,” Lance smiled, “It was the happiest place in the world.”

Renee looked down, disgusted by the water at her feet. “Then… How are you doing now?”

Lance turned his head away from her and looked ahead, “Mikagi would be kneeling just in front of us, the sleeves of his blue tunic rolled up above his elbows, his straw hat pulled down over his eyes…” Lance smiled, “I could call his name… And he would give me the grandest smile… Just like that day…”

~*~

The sky was a serene blue, a welcome calm even in the land where the trees and water glowed emerald. A calm breeze rushed past the rice paddies. Four men worked calmly in the field, pulling each stalk from the glistening water below them, their feet would grow wet with the passing hours. Among these four men, one wore a blue tunic with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

“Mikagi!” a male voice called.

The man in the blue tunic tilted his straw hat up, so that his green eyes could be seen beneath its brim. He smiled for a moment as the sloshing of feet across the paddy grew louder.

The blonde man in the pale green tunic who had called his name stopped for a moment, resting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He lifted his head and smiled, “Good morning, Mikagi.”

Mikagi only shook his head, “You overslept again, didn’t you Lance?”

Lance turned his head quickly, “It doesn’t happen that often.”

“Only every other day.”

“It wasn’t that long!”

“There’s always tomorrow.”

The two men laughed. They pulled the stalks from the water together, their pile growing larger with each passing hour. As the midday sun rose over their heads, Mikagi removed his straw hat from his head and wiped his brow with his arm. As he let out a breath, attempting to combat the heat, a cold wind began blowing.

“That was nice timing,” Mikagi smiled.

Lance smiled for a moment, but his smile turned into a grimace as he felt a strike against his back and his knees buckled.

“Lance!” Mikagi kneeled and caught him before he collapsed.

“Mikagi…” Lance winced.

Mikagi pulled the offending object from Lance’s back. “Ice?”

Lance held on to Mikagi’s arm as the two stood up from the rice paddy that continued to freeze around their feet with each passing second.

“Where are you?!” Mikagi demanded, “Show yourself!”

The low sound of laughter filled the air.

“Show yourself now!”

A barrage of ice poured from the sky like a hailstorm of arrows aimed straight toward the two men.

“Mikagi!” Lance grabbed on to him tightly.

“Get down!” Mikagi thrust Lance to the ground quickly, burying him beneath the water.

The water that should have been tranquilly warm was frigid. I’m falling asleep... Beneath the water, his vision was clouded by the stalks and rice seeds littering the vast expanse of murky frozen water. His breath slowed and he began to choke. He opened his eyes briefly and saw that he was surrounded by a red cloud. Lance used the last of his strength to pull himself to the surface of the water. “Mikagi!!!” He exclaimed. He felt a tight grip on his hand and scanned from his hand to the hand gripping it, “Mikagi!!!”

“Lance…” Mikagi struggled to breathe as blood continued to pool in the water. In his attempt to rescue Lance, he had been shot in the back with several ice shards.

Lance’s eyes began to glow emerald as the wings shot from his back. Lance’s breathing grew heavy as he pulled Mikagi from the water and tripped on the frozen pond the paddy had become. He trudged across the frozen and icy water, eventually managing to make his way to solid ground, then he began running toward the nearest house.

“Lance… Don’t… Don’t become… that…” Mikagi struggled to breathe, “Lance…” His breath gave out and his body grew limp in Lance’s arms.

Lance let out a ferocious cry as the life in his eyes was consumed by the emerald glow. He lay the lifeless body of his friend on the ground and ran down the path in search of the fiend that had attacked their small village, their small paddy, and his best friend. A mix of his own blood and Mikagi’s blood fell down his front and back, mixing with his tears streaming down his cheeks. After the ice vanished, a heavy rainstorm lit up the sky like bright lights glinting in the distance. It washed the blood down his cheeks. He let out another ferocious cry as he searched for the life force of the murderer. But at that same moment, a sharp pain consumed his heart and he collapsed to his knees. The true emerald power is calling for me and her heart is crying. I have to… He fell to the ground.

~*~

Lance looked to the murky ground on which they were walking. “I’m so happy that it hasn’t iced over, but… I’m so afraid I will look ahead and it will be stained with blood…” He turned back to Renee, “I hadn’t seen anything except a piece of his gray tunic… That man, Christopher,” he snarled, “He had to be the one… I would never forget his laugh… Or his ice...”

“It is no wonder a bounty has been placed on his head…” Joshua remarked.

“Whatever bounty they’ve given him is not nearly enough!” Lance snarled, “To be a thief is one thing, but to be a murderer… That damn bastard!”

Renee latched on to Lance’s arm.

“Your Eminence…”

“I know it seems difficult, but you need to accept him… We are all comrades here…”

“Only for you, Your Eminence… In no other way are we comrades.” Lance averted his eyes, “Though I am a little surprised to hear you say that, knowing how you feel about comrades…”

“Lance…” Renee clenched her hand into a fist. How could he say that to me? I didn’t hurt anyone… I’m the one who has been hurt! I told him not to talk about her!

Joshua pointed ahead of them on the path, “There we are, our campsite for the night.”

Renee followed his gaze to see the blazing lights of campfires and the ground littered with poorly pitched tents. Renee stopped and stood motionless in the rice paddy. Her knees shook as she took in several large gulps of air.

“Your Eminence?”

“No…” Renee wrung her hands.

“Pandora?”

“This can’t be the place…” She bit her nails and hid behind Lance.

Lance grabbed Renee’s hand and led her forward toward the campsite, “To get to our final battle, we must all walk forward.”

Renee gripped his tunic tightly with her free hand. They stepped out of the paddy and on to the solid ground. Christopher waited at the edge of the tents to welcome them. He grinned, “I’m so happy you made it, Priestess.”

Lance brushed past him and continued walking into the camp. Joshua followed behind him as well. The first tent in their path was a rather large one, from which the great general’s large, metal boots emerged.

“Lady Renee…” he smiled.

Renee released her grip on Lance’s arm and ran to Justin. She gripped on to his armor as tightly as she could.

“Come join me in my tent, Lady Renee.” Justin smiled, then turned to Christopher, “Please show the others where you will be staying.”

Christopher nodded and proceeded to walk into the opposite direction. He beckoned Lance and Joshua to follow him, which both did reluctantly. Lance glanced back at Renee quietly.

Renee turned quickly, “Lance…”

“I will bring him to you when we have finished speaking,” Justin put his hand to her shoulder, “I have a proposition to make to you.”

Renee released her grip on her armor, “Proposition?”

Justin began walking back into the tent, “I tried to discuss it earlier, but you refused to stop.”

“But why here?” Her hand shook as she bit her nails again.

“I have free passage to any of our military camps regardless of my reason,” he sat in a chair near a small table. Otherwise, the tent was bare aside from a mat rolled in the corner, “Besides, you cannot possibly blame me for that, can you? If you recall, it is that woman’s fault. And you are safe with me.”

“I know that.” She looked away from him.

“Now…” Justin crossed one leg over the other, “Would you kindly hear my request?”

“What is it?” She crossed her arms.

“When Pandora obtains the box, she receives three wishes, correct?”

“You know that’s true.”

“Save the final one for me.”

“Justin?”

“Haven’t I always been beside you? Helping you throughout every moment of your time here? Don’t I deserve your final wish?”

Renee turned her head and bit her thumbnail, “I suppose, but…”

“Don’t tell me that you would wish to regain your relationship with that woman?”

How could he suggest that?! She clenched her fist. “NO!” She averted her eyes to the ground, “No… You can have it, Justin. It’s all yours.”

A smirk spread across his face, “I knew you would agree…” He opened the door flap on the tent once more. “I will go call for Lance, since you seem to have formed a bond with him…”

“Where are you staying?”

“I have this private tent. I am a general after all.”

“Justin!”

“Yes?”

“No, it’s nothing. I’ll be fine as long as Lance is with me.”

“I assure you, Lady Renee, you will be safe in this camp.” Justin smiled and exited the tent.

Renee pulled her knees to her chest. The wind seems colder against my skin. Is it because we are in Rubiihoppou, the country of ice? Or…? Tears began forming in her eyes. That day… I’d felt Minako calling me. My heart felt like it was in such turmoil and pain… Like she was screaming for me... I’d reached out to her, but then… There was a flash of green light…

~*~

Before her stretched rows upon rows of faded tents. Some were very large, but most were quite small. While there were several campfires, very few of them had been lit. The few campfires that were lit had pots hanging over them as though it was almost time for a meal. It seemed to be a campsite of sorts. Everywhere she turned, men in armor wandered the premises. Each part of their uniforms were emerald, from the armor to the tunics and even their emerald boots. A few horses had been tied to trees. She stared at the bustle of the world in amazement. Where were the cars? The planes? And if this was a military establishment, where were the flags and decorated generals? And why did the soldiers wear armor? She shuddered.

“Minako?” she called, “Minako, where are you?”

She was met by only silence.

“Minako?”

Arms wrapped tightly around her neck.

“Who’s there?” Renee choked, her blonde hair hitting against her face.

“Minako,” a male voice responded.

“But… Minako is a girl…” Renee struggled to breathe and pry herself from her captor. She thrust her elbows against his sides repeatedly until he released her. She turned around quickly to see that three men in green armor had surrounded her. “Who are you?”

“We are soldiers in Emeradotouhou’s army,” one man smiled.

A second bowed, “Minako sent us to bring you to her, she is at the capital.”

“The capital?” Renee questioned.

“Yes,” the third smiled, “Our general will see to it that you get to see her.”

Renee held her hands together tightly. Minako is at the capital… Then, I have to go there to see her. “Okay…” she stumbled on her words, “Take me to the capital then…”

The first soldier smiled, “We will lead you to the general’s tent and you can wait for him. He is away on business at the moment, but he should be back shortly.”

Renee nodded. The first man began walking and she followed him without hesitation. The second followed at her side and the third followed behind her. Renee began to walk with a bit of a skip. Soon I’ll be able to see Minako again. That day at TRL… she suddenly disappeared into darkness… Renee clenched her fist. I’d been so worthless… When she reached for me, I couldn’t even keep my grip on my best friend’s hand. And then I searched for her everywhere, but she had disappeared. Where? And why? I’d pondered those questions my entire way home and then I finally heard her voice that evening… . That evening, I’d heard her heart crying and screaming words like “dog” and “box”… Then it shuddered with pure anger and I called her as hard as I could, then nothing… And now I’m here in this strange place, but... Together… We will be together soon and then I can fix my best friend’s tattered heart if she’s hurting... Piece by piece.

The first soldier opened the flap on a large tent and motioned Renee to enter. She entered, followed by the three soldiers. Darkness seemed to cover the tent and seep in from all sides. It had a table with one chair and a mat rolled up in the corner, but little else.

“When will the general come to get me?” she questioned.

“He won’t.”

“What?”

Two of the men knocked Renee to the ground. She tried to struggle free from their grips, but they were too strong. The other soldier began removing his armor.

“What are you doing?” Renee cried, “Let me go!”

“She isn’t at the capital…”

“Let me go! I have to see Minako!!”

“She won’t be waiting for you at the capital…”

“She’ll be there! She’ll wait for me!” Renee attempted to thrash her arms, hoping to escape, “Let me go!!!”

“She told me to give you a message…” the man kneeled over Renee, “‘Goodbye… From now on, I can’t protect you…’”

“No!! No!!! Minako!!! Minako!!!”

The soldier grabbed Renee’s head and gave her a short kiss. Renee clenched her eyes shut tightly.

“No!!!! NO!!!!!”

“Don’t struggle!” the soldier held her down as well.

“MINAKO!!!!!!!!!!!!” Renee felt an icy slap on her cheek and her world began going black. “MINAKO!!!!!!!!!!!”

~*~

Renee put her hand to her face. She hadn’t been in the capital… They had said so… That she had been somewhere nearby… But, she refused to rescue me… No matter how loud I called her... But Justin… Justin had rescued me… The only other part of that I remember...

“Out!” a male voice bellowed.

Tears streamed down Renee’s face. How could she? How could she still call us friends? How could she do that now? When she left me here… At least I tried looking for her. All Minako had done was lie and run off after that disgusting creature! That shadow of a man! Renee held her knees to her chest tightly. Minako… how could she? Even after that, I still believed she would come… I still believed in her… But, she never came. Every day, Justin reminded me of what she had done, but I still believed that she was going to come… But no.... She had left me to suffer all alone. That bitch! That lying bitch!

“Your Eminence?”

Renee looked up quickly to see Lance’s smiling face. “Lance…”

Lance sat down next to her, “Why are you crying? Everything will be fine…” Lance held Renee tightly in his arms.

Yes… You’re right Lance... Everything will be fine… The moment Minako is dead.
Chapter Twenty-Six: Ruby Eyes by nicksgal
The brief sunlight shimmered into the room in slow blinking waves. Outside it must have been brilliant, but the cold inside had dampened its beauty. The walls glittered as the sunlight danced across them, but they were merely the empty wood of the inn. Everywhere, in every crevice, the warmth was sucked from the new light. The linens on the beds had been pulled back into place, except for those of the bed nearest to the window. Minako shivered as she curled up inside the crisp linens.

“Minako…” a voice whispered.

Minako’s reply was muffled beneath the linens.

“Minako…” the whisper seemed to smile gently.

Minako buried herself deeper beneath the linens. It’s completely dark here, the sun won’t wake me up or that voice… But it’s warm against my skin, like hot breath or fiery touch. Nick... She jumped quickly, flipping the linens from her face.

The sound of warm laughter filled her ears. “Did you really think you could stay like that all day?”

She turned toward the window to face him. Nick leaned on his elbow, resting his cheek on his fist. His wings rested lightly against his back as the most serene smile crossed his face. He ran his hand on her shoulder. “Did you sleep well?” His smile brightened as he sat up.

Minako reached for him with her hand and he cupped it tightly with his own. “Nick…”

Nick pulled her into his embrace and clutched her tightly within his arms. His grip resembled that of a vice, so strong andimmobile.

Minako took a sharp breath. I might stop breathing… “Nick…”

“One last time…”

She gripped his shoulders tightly. “Last?! Where are you going?!”

“Now? Nowhere. It’s just…” He turned his head from her quickly as he frowned.

She tightened her grip on his shoulders and ran her hand on his cheek. He turned back to her. His blue eyes seemed to penetrate into her soul.

“I turned into something malicious… I could kill anyone with these hands… Even you...” He lowered his gaze, “So I want to make sure that I can burn this feeling into my mind and remember it so that I can do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“You wouldn’t want to kill me Nick… I probably taste terrible…”

He let out a small chuckle, then pressed a gentle kiss to her lips, “You taste fine. Not for eating though.”

Minako’s cheeks turned a deep pink as her heart beat quickly.

Nick held her tightly again, running his hands on her shoulders, “But also… I want to remember you this way because... you heard what everyone’s been saying… The other two priestesses and their demons died…”

“I know… When they tried to get the box, but…”

He frowned as he ran his hand through her hair. “Now that we’re in Rubiihoppou, we may never see each other again…” Nick clutched the back of her head and pulled her toward him, kissing her lips more forcefully. She gripped his shoulders tighter as she leaned into his kiss, but he pulled back instead of wrapping his arms around her. “I’ll do my best, but… this might be our goodbye…” Nick released his hold on her, pulled the linens from his legs, and stood up from the bed.

“Nick…” she reached after him.

“I’ll get your overcoat. The others are probably still waiting for us outside.”

She put her clenched hand to her face. It shouldn’t end this way… It isn’t supposed to end this way… She pushed the linens from her legs and stood from the bed quickly, then ran toward the door. Nick stood after bending down to pick up their overcoats. She wrapped her arms around his chest tightly.

“Minako…”

“Nick... If this is our goodbye, then I wish I could have been more useful for you…”

“No… You made me very happy… That’s enough...”

“But you’re a man… And I’m a woman… Wouldn’t you have been happier then?”

Nick took a hard swallow, “Minako…” He felt her tears upon his back and the warmth of her body against him. He dropped the overcoats on the ground and stepped out of her embrace to face her. He gripped her hands tightly and took another hard swallow.

She pulled her hand from his and reached up to his cheek. "Nick…"

He grabbed her waist and pulled her into his arms again, giving her a tight squeeze before closing his eyes and putting his hand behind her head to pull her into a kiss. Minako shut her eyes tightly and wrapped her arms around his neck, meeting his lips forcefully and closing the distance between them. He gripped her hair at the back of her head and tightened his grip on her waist. She moved a hand to his chest and gripped his tunic tightly.

Nick… Your hands, your lips, your warmth… I want them surrounding me all the time… Nick… There can’t be a goodbye! Our promise… I can’t hear anything except your heartbeat and mine… I want to stay this way… Just us… She tightened her grip on his tunic and pulled him closer to her.

Minako… I have to remember your warm voice and touch, your bright smile and eyes, the way you always pull at my clothing and wrap my shoulders in your entire arm. Stay with me… Even if things are more difficult… Just stay... He held her chin with his hand and ran his thumb along her cheek. Your soft skin and your… tears… He pulled back and ran his thumb on her cheek again, stopping to catch a few of her tears. “Minako…”

She choked back her tears. “Nick… Why does it have to be this way? Why does being a priestess mean only death? Why does our future have to be stained with blood? I don’t want to say goodbye! I only want to be with you!” Her cries had reached a feverish pitch.

Nick shut his eyes tightly and pulled her tightly into his arms once more. He cradled her waist and head. “I don’t know, Minako! I don’t know! We fought like hell to get here! Why doesn’t that matter? Is this the only way fate goes for all demons and priestesses, everyone dies?! I hate it!” Nick held her tighter against his chest, “But you need to know, even if I die, I’m so happy… Because I got to meet you… Because I got to be with you! Right now, I’m scared like hell! The thought of dying makes me feel sick! I don’t want to lose you! That’s why I’m even more scared that we won’t die… That you’ll be able to open the box, then I’ll get back what I wanted, but… But then God will send you back to your world without me!” Tears began to fall down Nick’s cheeks as well, “I’m scared like hell that you’re going away! And I can’t lose you! I don’t even know that I want the box anymore if it means that you’ll leave me!”

“I don’t want to leave you Nick! I love you! Even if I die, I’ll never leave without you!” She clutched his tunic and shoulder tightly.

He tightened his grip. “Minako, I love you. Maybe... if we die… It’s okay… Then maybe… Maybe we can go together to a new world. We’ll never have to be in two different worlds ever again...”

“Nick…” Minako clenched on to both of Nick’s shoulders tightly, “I’ll never leave you… Never…” Tears still streamed down her cheeks.

Nick shut his eyes as he leaned toward her and pressed a kiss to her lips. Minako gripped his shoulder, but felt a sudden pull on her skirt. She looked down to see the small child gripping on the folds of her skirt. She sniffed back her tears and smiled down at him, then pressed a light kiss to Nick’s lips. Nick opened his eyes as Minako lifted the child into her arms.

“Thank God!”

Minako and Nick turned to the door. Brian stood within its frame with a worried expression on his face.

“Brian?” Nick questioned.

Brian breathed heavily, “We were waiting outside, but didn’t see you! We thought you’d both already left!”

“No…” Minako turned her head quickly, hiding her tears, “We were always here…”

“Come quickly!” Brian beckoned, “We found something you need to see!”

~*~

Outside, the cold wind was overpowering, even greater than the howling storm that existed within their hearts. Brian led them to the stone monument where Howie and Kevin waited. Nestled in the slope of a hill, a set of stone stairs ascended to a stone gate made of two columns and two horizontal beams at the top that extended slightly further than the columns. After entering the gate, a walkway lined with stone lanterns led to a marble monument depicting a woman nestled within a wide building with a sloped roof. The entire square felt empty and devoid of life, as though it was a relic from a forgotten age. Yet, its detailed carving had not weathered with time, as though it had been built only weeks before. Minako laid her hand on the smooth sides of the figure -- they glistened with her touch.

Nick stood beside her, holding the small child in his arms, while simultaneously blowing air on his fist, trying to keep himself from catching cold. “So…” he let out a long breath, “This is her?”

Minako was transfixed by the statue’s face, serene and peaceful. The woman’s long flowing hair had been tied in ribbons throughout and she wore an elegant dress with long flowing sleeves and a high collar. She knelt at a large stone altar which displayed a golden box. Flowers and other ornaments had also been placed on the altar beside the box and she held a ruby lion in her outstretched hands.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been so many years, yet the jewel in her hands has not been stolen…” Kevin gazed in wonder.

“Why isn’t she holding the box?” Minako questioned, turning to Brian.

“Unfortunately… I cannot read the ancient scriptures on this statue…” He placed his palms together and gave a brief bow.

“Is it a dedication?” Minako cocked her head.

“This is a shrine, not a dedication…” Howie bowed to the statue as well.

“A shrine?” Minako furrowed her brow, but gave a small bow like Brian and Howie.

“It represents the burial place of the Ruby priestess,” Brian answered solemnly, head still lowered.

Kevin and Nick bowed as well.

Howie ran his finger along the text, “It reads, ‘May her ruby light stretch forever across the land, bringing with her the light of hope. Through her light, God grants us life and prosperity. In descending upon our land, she gave us these gifts. In death, she rescued this land from destruction.’” He lifted his head, “In other words, they believed the priestess to be a sacrifice to God.”

“A sacrifice?!” Minako’s eyes grew wide.

“Do not sound so surprised, Pandora,” a voice wafted through the shrine, “You yourself said that to be a priestess means only death…”

Minako looked around wildly. Who is this? A ruby demon?

“That golden box may represent her ashes, Pandora… But the only priestess I see is you…”

Nick set the small child down and gripped Minako’s shoulders tightly, “Who’s there?! Show yourself!!”

“So the hidden demon has come out of hiding…”

Nick growled as he continued to scan the shrine, “Where are you?!”

A cloaked figure faded into view from behind the statue’s arms and its hand gripped Nick’s face tightly, “My dear, sweet, Nickolas…” Its masculine voice was raspy.

Nick swallowed deeply. These nails are as long as my claws… The voice is raspy like it comes from the shadows.... Hidden in the darkness, somewhere… This voice…

Howie pulled his sword from the scabbard at his waist, “Step back intruder!”

The hooded figure turned toward him, revealing a pair of glowing red eyes, “No, it is you who intruded on this resting place!” It released Nick’s face and raised the freed hand toward Howie, shooting a bright beam of energy at him.

Howie was thrust from the statue and hit one of the stone lanterns along the walkway.

“Howie!!!” Minako shrieked and tried to run toward Howie, but Nick pulled her back quickly.

Brian picked up the small child as he and Kevin rushed to Howie’s aid. The cloaked figure turned his attention back to Nick and Minako.

“Priestess… Who sent you to Rubiihoppou to tread on the grave of a woman you have never met in a country you should have never gone to?”

Minako backed against Nick, “We came for our last companion and the box…”

“Do you think you can truly recover that box?” It sneered, “Companion? You are like Lilith, a maiden consorting with demons…” He reached his hand toward her.

“Don’t call her that! She is as pure as maidens come!” Nick pushed the cloaked man away from Minako then tightly wrapped his forearms around her shoulders and chest.

Minako gripped his arms gently.

The cloaked man turned back to Nick, his glowing red eyes sightless, but seething. “My precious pet, Nickolas… Before the others, I felt your presence returning here…”

“Returning?” Nick frowned.

“I felt the cold blooded cry once again… The lust for another being’s blood…”

“I didn’t…” Nick’s hands shook.

“You do not remember why I created that special place just for you, my darling Nickolas?”

“Stop it…” Nick’s voice trembled. Trapped in the darkness...

The figure reached its hand out to Nick’s cheek again and ran its nails down the length of his jaw. Slits appeared in the scrapes they left behind and Nick’s blood began pouring from them. It gripped Nick’s chin and spoke gently. “Would you like to go back, my dear pet?”

“Stop…” Nick’s voice shook violently. I can’t go back there...

“You were safe there, my darling Nickolas…”

Safe? Nothing in the darkness is safe… It’s living death… Stop... Nick choked on the words, no sound would come from his mouth. His entire body trembled as he tightened his grip on Minako.

“Nothing could hurt you… No one could see your gruesome form… You were the king of your own private castle…”

Nick’s head slumped as his knees started to buckle.

“Stop it!!” Minako shrieked.

The cloaked figure’s hand blazed with bright light. It growled as its glowing red eyes glanced down at Minako. “Priestess… What is the meaning of your insolence?!”

“Don’t hurt Nick any more!!” Minako gripped Nick’s hands tightly.

Nick leaned on her shoulder. His hands shook erratically.

“Nick…” The figure released its grip on Nick’s face and reached toward Minako, “You would call my darling Nickolas by such a gruesome name…” It gripped Minako’s shoulders, “How dare you!!!!” Bright light began glowing from his hands. Minako let out a shrill scream.

The coloring returned to Nick’s face and he jolted. “Minako!” He tried to pull her from the cloaked figure’s grip.

“Nick!!” Her shriek cracked.

The cloaked man released his hold on Minako’s shoulders and pressed his glowing hand to Nick’s previously injured left abdomen.

Nick shuddered and dropped to his knees.

Minako swayed unsteadily, but started turning toward him. “Ni--”

The cloaked figure pulled her back and shot a bright beam at her chest, thrusting her into the air and against the stone lanterns on the opposite side of the walkway from Howie.

“Minako!!” Nick grunted and winced as he tried to stand quickly. As his knees began buckling, he took a sharp breath and clutched his abdomen as he struggled to stand upright.

The cloaked figure turned back to Nick, the red glow of its eyes boiling. “My precious pet, Nickolas… How could you?! I gave you everything you could ever hope for and you betrayed me! You left the safety I gave you and set out into the world--”

“How could I…” Nick began clenching his claws, they cracked and pulsed as they shook.

“I gave you everything!”

“You gave me nothing…” He let out a low growl.

“You would be nothing without me!”

Nick clenched his shaking fists tightly, his eyes wide and his nostrils flaring, “How could you...”

“I made you!”

“MINAKO!!!” Nick howled as his wings shot from his back like bullets. His fangs poured over his lips and his eyes glowed and burned with a bright sapphire light. He clenched his fists tightly and his claws cracked against each other as his tail whipped from side to side. His fangs dripped spit as he snarled.

“There you are, my darling Nickolas… Let your anger consume you!”

Brian and Kevin held on to Howie tightly as they helped him to stand. The child gripped Brian’s pant leg. The three demons looked up to the sky to see the sun shrouded and blocked by a darkened disk, its rays creating a ring around it.

“The sky is being blanketed by night!!” Brian shouted.

“This is an ill omen…” Howie’s voice shook.

“Will we all perish?!” Kevin exclaimed.

The red glowing eyes turned and smirked at them, “You will be the first…” He turned back to Nick, “My sweet Nickolas… Destroy them!” He lashed a finger toward them.

Nick shakily stepped toward them, one foot after the other, closing the distance between them. His spit dripped on the ground with each step. In the darkness of the eclipse, his sightless eyes were a beacon illuminating his hunched devilish form. Those blazing and seething eyes saw neither friend nor foe, only shadow. Nick took one last step forward and stood at the outset of the walkway and the lanterns. He paused before raising a hand to his comrades.

“Don’t…” Her weak voice whispered in the wind.

Nick froze.

“My precious Nickolas, destroy them!”

“Nick!”

Nick turned and cocked his head at the voice, his sightless eyes seeming to scan the shrine.

“Do as I say!”

“Don’t do it, Nick!” Minako’s bloody arms and hands gripped the stone lantern. Her clothing was stained red from gashes in her arms and legs. Her hair blew in the light wind, shining briefly in the darkness. She began walking toward Nick, her blood falling to the ground in droplets with each step. As she walked, she stretched out her hands toward Nick.

He snarled and drew back.

Minako continued to walk toward him. I can’t let you be this! You asked me to help you! I have to help you! Once she reached him, she gripped his shoulders tightly and stared into his sightless glowing eyes, “I love you, Nick.”

“Don’t be confused by her whims, my darling Nickolas! Kill!”

“Don’t… Nick… You didn’t want to become that…” She ran her fingers through the hair at his forehead.

The blazing glow began to subside from Nick’s eyes.

The cloaked figure growled, “Maiden… Interfere and die!”

She tightened her grip on Nick’s shoulder and gripped his cheek, running her thumb over the gashes, “Nick… I love you. Exactly as you are.” She pressed a gentle kiss to his lips.

The cloaked figure shot a blast of light from within his hands. It hit Minako in the back with the speed of a bullet. She gasped, her eyes wide as her fingers loosened their grip on Nick’s body and she began falling backward toward the ground. Her lips parted slowly as she coughed up blood, a stream fell down her chin.

“MINAKO!!” The other three demons let out fearsome screams, almost as loudly as Nick’s previous screams as they started running toward them.

Nick’s eyes, whose fiery glow had almost disappeared, widened and began glowing and searing volatilely. His claws cracked and pulsed against each other once more.

“Yes, my dear, sweet Nickolas, feel the anger and kill them!”

Nick thrust out his clawed hand and caught Minako before she fell to the ground. He wrapped his hand around her back and stomach and held her tightly in his arm as he kneeled down toward her, then clenched her tightly in both arms. While he held her tightly with both arms, his fangs began to shrink back into his mouth as he opened it. A low and raspy tone began creeping from his mouth. As he clutched her, he shut his eyes tightly and the sound intensified, increased in pitch, and grew stronger.

“My precious, Nickolas! Stop now! I will chain you back into the darkness!” The cloaked figure clenched its hand into a fist.

The sound continued to reverberate through the shrine and the cloaked figure covered its ears.

Brian, Kevin, and Howie hunched and covered their ears as well.

Minako slowly blinked open her eyes. “Nick…” From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the figure covering his ears and turned to it. “Why would you keep us from the box? What sort of foul creature are you? You’re saying awful things to Nick while calling him kind names! Who are you?!”

The cloaked figure faded from their sight.

“Where?” She scanned the shrine.

“Know this, Priestess…” The voice echoed through the shrine. “You will never hold the box. Each one of you will die…”

Minako made a quiet gasp and closed her eyes as she swallowed forcefully. She then turned back to Nick and wrapped her arms around his neck as she leaned against his chest. “Nick… I love you…”

Nick closed his mouth, stopping the sound. He swallowed, then opened his eyes, revealing that the sapphire glow had vanished. He tightened his grip on her, his voice shaking, “Minako…” Blood trickled down his cheek and chin as he gave her a weak smile before collapsing to the ground on top of her. The darkness that had covered the world disappeared, and for that moment in time, the sun shone the brightest in Rubiihoppou.
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Knot of Love by nicksgal
Rubiihoppou held a deep secret. Unbeknownst to many of its citizens, the land they believed to be protected by the aura of their priestess was actually cursed, but only the demons could see the blood red haze hanging in the air or smell its foul scent that had lingered since her death. Rubies were supposedly the symbol of fortune, yet, it was only a place of misery and death. Long before the rise of the priestesses, it had been a land with surprisingly warm summers, but no longer. Now, it was merely a land of blood and ice. Breath froze on the lips of the living as they struggled for warmth and huddled tightly together, praying the ice would stop blowing, stop biting at their hands, and release them from its prison. Yet, this invisible haze kept them from finding peace and sealed their hearts in utter turmoil. This was the secret of Rubiihoppou.

After Nick had collapsed at the priestess’ shrine, Kevin carried Nick’s battered body to a large clearing up the hill from the shrine. Brian carried Minako. As Kevin had been able to heal Howie’s wounds amidst the battle, he was able to carry the small child as he followed closely behind them. The clearing’s icy habitat had a few small trees and one enormous fir tree. During the era of the warring states, the trees had been burned for weapons and forts, but this tree remained untouched, withstanding the test of time. Neither man, the weather, nor fire could destroy it, making it seem unbreakable. The other trees grew in its looming and mighty shadow. Kevin leaned Nick against the tree while Brian laid Minako on the ground near it. Kevin pressed his hands against each other momentarily until they began glowing, then he held one to Minako’s chest and ran the other over the injured areas of her body. She began glowing a bright sapphire color.

“Is that normal?” Brian questioned, leaning over him.

“No,” Kevin answered, focused on his work, “But I imagine she is calling out to the final demon.”

“It seems we are at a crucial moment…” Howie frowned.

“Howie?” Brian questioned.

Howie put his hand to his chin, “What concerns us the most is the presence of that cloaked figure…”

“Its eyes were glowing red…” Brian nodded, “Very similarly to Nick’s...”

“It seemed determined to keep us from the box at all costs.”

“It could be the lingering spirit of a Rubiihoppou demon, after all, he wasn’t thrilled about us being at the shrine.”

“True…” Howie glanced at Nick, “But what seemed more crucial was its treatment of Nick…”

Brian glanced at Nick as well, “That’s true also… Its knowledge of Nick seemed to surpass ours… Though the way it spoke to him... ”

“They seemed to have some sort of prior relationship…” Kevin frowned, “But you’re right, the way it addressed him was odd… Like a lover or a pet?”

Brian kneeled next to Kevin and Minako, “I’m also worried about that sound that came from his throat. How did he produce such a tone? And why did it hurt us? Was it related to his powers?” He put his hand to Minako’s face, “But also, how was Minako able to stop him from being so monstrous?”

Kevin removed his hand from Minako’s chest and brushed his hands together lightly, “Finished.”

A lone tear trickled down Minako’s cheek.

Brian turned to Kevin quickly, his worry staining his face.

Kevin stood, “I can heal her body thoroughly… Her heart is her own matter.”

“What about Nick?” Brian quickly stood as well.

“I cannot use my powers for a time,” Kevin answered. “It has been more difficult to access them since you all appeared at the gate, so he’ll have to wait.” Kevin began walking toward the slope of the hill, “Besides, from what you tell me, his will is strong enough to survive a blow through the abdomen for several hours and Minako likely cannot. In the meantime, we all need something to eat.”

Brian nodded. “Right.” he bowed quickly, “Howie, we will go get some food. You stay here and rest.”

Howie smiled, “We are able to join, our wounds are nothing.” He began standing.

“Please rest. We can handle this!” Brian ran toward Kevin and both headed toward the top of the hill.

Howie pondered for a moment then turned to the small child, “Actually, it would be much simpler if we were to go into town to procure food. Do you agree?”

The child nodded quickly and eagerly.

Howie smiled, “Then it’s settled. Let us return to the town and purchase food.” He picked up the child, stood, and headed back in the direction of the town.

Nestled in trees, the clearing was empty except for the unconscious Minako, the ailing Nick, and the enormous fir tree.

~*~

The crackle of the fire danced across his ears and alerted him that something may be amiss. He slowly opened his eyes. In the clear sky, the sun shone brightly. The slope of an empty green hill stretched before him. He flinched as he took in the scenery.

“Don’t seem so shocked,” a male voice laughed, “No one will attack you here.”

He peered into the fire and the smiling face of the blonde haired, blue eyed demon in front of him. This isn’t my… “Where is this?” he frowned, tears forming at the corners of his eyes.

“You don’t remember anything, do you, young one?” the demon asked.

He shook his head desperately, the tears streaming down his cheeks. He tried to bite them back as he lowered his head and sniffled.

“Well,” the demon chuckled, “Perhaps that is for the best…”

He felt the cold bark against his back and looked up to see a towering fir tree.

“They say this tree is magic, that it heals the hearts of the ailing… Anything terrible is wiped from their memories and their mind,” the demon chuckled, “Sounds silly, doesn’t it? A magic tree...”

“No…” he paused, gripping the tree as he stood on shaking legs, “You were that demon, weren’t you? You found me… And saved me...”

The demon said nothing and simply turned back to the fire he had been tending.

“You are… I know it…” he turned toward the tree and looked up to its looming top. It’s like it’s kissing the sky. “I think this tree brings you everything that’s wonderful… Maybe that’s its magic...”

The demon chuckled once more, “Well then, someday you’d better come back here and tell me what it brings you then…”

~*~

He jolted awake. There’s no fire, no smiling demon… I’m alone… No, Minako’s lying next to me.... He winced at the pain in his side and gripped the bark behind him. No good… Can’t stand... He rubbed his hand across the smooth bark and leaned his head against the tree as he stared up at its top. This is... that tree from my memory… But who was I? The young one? The adult? He chuckled to himself. Of course I know the answer… Even now, it’s still too tall and wide for me. He felt hot tears coming to his eyes and streaming down his cheeks. Master... He began to laugh as he touched the tree and shook his head. “Didn’t you stop doing this a long time ago, Nick?” He sniffled up some more of his tears and shut his eyes, “When did you become so pathetic again?”

There was a small groan. “You’re not pathetic…” Nick felt warm arms wrap around his shoulders. “You’ve never been pathetic…”

Nick brought his arms back to his chest and winced before wrapping his arms around her and opening his eyes. “Minako…”

She leaned against his chest and put her fist to her heart, “It still hurts…”

Nick smiled down at her gently, “Didn’t Kevin heal you?” He winced again, “He must have, I feel like I’ve been hit with that statue…” He laughed a little as he grimaced and moved Minako slightly so that she leaned on his right side more than his left.

Minako looked up at him, “Nick, do you know the difference between fighting and fleeing?”

Nick grinned, “Sure I do, the letter ‘L’.”

Minako blinked, “What?” She put her hand to her head, “Nick… Be serious… I’m trying to be serious…”

He winced, then started laughing.

Minako shook her head, “All that pain is making you unreasonable…” She frowned, “Are you okay?”

Nick smiled and kissed her cheek, “Too late for the pain to make me unreasonable, you already did. It hurts, but I’ll be fine.” He exhaled and looked up toward the top of the tree again, “You said the difference between fight and flight, right?”

She nestled into his side again, “I said fighting and fleeing, but that’s close enough…”

He looked back at her and smirked, “Well, obviously I don’t know. Do you want to let me in on this secret?”

Minako smiled and rubbed her hand on his cheek, “In both you’re running, but in one, you run the opposite direction of your problems… I think that’s being pathetic. You’re not like that at all.”

“I hid in the darkness all those years…”

“That wasn’t your fault and... Maybe not as long as you think. That cloaked figure said…”

Nick turned his head as he furrowed his brow and frowned, “I heard it. I don’t know what that was about.” He clenched his fist and punched the cold ground, “Acting like it knows everything about me!”

Minako grabbed the hand he had punched into the ground and cradled it. She gave it a gentle kiss, then stroked it. “You’re right, it was weird… But what I mean to say is, you aren’t pathetic at all because... Even though it’s probably the reason for most of your problems, you run head first into all of them.”

“So the reason I’m so miserable is my own stupidity?” He began laughing and shook his head, “Serves me right, I guess…”

“I didn’t mean that…” Minako frowned.

Nick kissed her cheek again, “It’s okay. I know you meant that I face my problems without worrying... That makes me brave. Right?”

“Yeah…” Minako smiled, “But, even more than that, you’ve come so far from the darkness you were hidden in. That’s good, right?”

“I guess…” Nick leaned back against the tree, “People always talk about how fearsome the demons are and all the terrible powers they have, but I just don’t see it… Are we really that terrible and fearsome?”

“Just because a power is terrible, doesn’t necessarily mean whoever has it is… And maybe strong powers aren’t enough to make anyone strong...”

“So you think we’re all weak?” Nick shook his head.

“Not you or Brian or Kevin or Howie... But if you have such strong powers inside you, then your body, the container for those powers, has to be able to hold such immense power… So you have to be as strong as that power inside you...”

“So the reason I can smash metal is because of all the power inside me?” He chuckled, “I wonder what it is…”

“Nick?”

He shook his head, “I don’t know… The things Brian and Kevin can do… I can’t do anything like that… Maybe there’s nothing strong in me…”

Minako wrapped her arms around his neck quickly, “You are strong. In your heart. Maybe physical strength isn’t real strength… Or at least not the only strength… Just like having people follow your every whim doesn’t mean you have a good heart...”

Nick leaned on her head.

“Nick?”

“I don’t know… I mean, I thought so but… Then you loved me instead…”

“I know, I’m fickle,” Minako laughed.

Nick wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer to him, his breath brushing across her ear, “Not at all...” He smiled and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.

Minako smiled as she leaned into his kiss.

He pulled back with the same gentle expression on his face, “So, tell me… What is strength then?”

“Well, don’t we grow strong with each step we take? I don’t think anybody can begin strong, they have to become strong.”

He smiled broadly, “Well, I’ve taken lots of steps, so that must mean I’m stronger than anyone could imagine.”

Minako nodded and nestled between his neck and shoulder, “Definitely. You’re the strongest person I know.”

Nick brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, “You always say what I want to hear.” He gripped her cheek and pulled her in for a kiss.

Minako smiled as she settled into his embrace and ran her hand through his hair, meeting his lips with the same gentleness.

He wrapped his wings around her as he held her tightly to his chest as he brushed her lips again. This is like Emeradotouhou, I feel completely bathed in your warmth. He pulled her closer and continued kissing her fervently. This is all I wanted… Always in this light… Minako… I didn’t want to be… He grimaced and pulled his arm away from her waist as he gripped his abdomen.

“Nick?” She pulled back and gripped his hand at her cheek.

He shook his head and pulled her closer to him again. “I’m fine.”

Minako held his head gently and bit her lip as she stared up at him, her eyes gleaming.

He chuckled, then licked his lips before leaning in and meeting her lips in a fiery embrace again. He gripped her waist tightly, then pulled back quickly with a wince again.

Minako gripped his shoulder and frowned, “Nick...”

Nick gripped his abdomen, then pulled his hand away and put it in front of them, “It stings… But it’s not bleeding, so… That’s good?”

“That cloaked figure…”

Nick shook his head, “I don’t know… I don’t remember any of it really, just you telling me that I didn’t want to become ‘that’… And I didn’t, but…” He bit his lip, “Why did it happen again?”

“I don’t know…” Minako paused and pulled her hand from his shoulder, “You asked me to help you yesterday and I tried my best, but--”

Nick gripped her hand tightly and stared into her eyes, “You did everything you could. That’s the only other thing I remember... you saying you love me exactly as I am and kissing me. I told you, I will do my best to always see you…” He turned his head away from her, “I’m sorry…”

Minako tightened her grip on his hand, “If you remember my voice and my kiss, then don’t apologize. You did your best too.”

Nick smiled and leaned back against the tree. “Do you see this tree?”

Minako looked up at it, “It’s tall… Much taller than the other ones...”

“I remember it… I’ve been at this tree before…”

“Nick, this is different from the darkness!” She gripped his shoulders and smiled excitedly.

“I know… I don’t know why I remember it… It was big then and it just keeps getting taller and taller... I think it used to be the only tree… I got told once that it’s magic, that it heals hearts and wipes horrible things from your mind…”

Minako frowned, “You remember a lot of weirdly specific things… Lots of things about the priestesses and now this tree in Rubiihoppou when you’re from Safaiananpou…”

He shook his head, “I don’t know… That older demon I told you about… I was here with him… ‘Master’ is the name I remember…”

Minako ran her thumb on his cheek, “Like an owner? Or do you mean teacher?”

Nick bit his lip, “I think I mean teacher… He called the tree magic for the healing, but I thought maybe it was magic because it brought you wonderful things… Back then I had him, but now…” He gripped her cheek and parted his lips as he leaned toward her.

“And what did it bring you, Nick?” a male voice chuckled.

Nick flinched and pulled back his hand as he and Minako looked up to see Brian and Kevin standing above them smiling.

Nick relaxed back into Minako’s touch and smiled up at them, “That’s my secret…”

Kevin looked around, “Where’s Howie?”

Nick scanned the clearing, then pointed over Minako’s shoulder. The other three turned to face the bottom of the hill and saw Howie carrying the small child up the hill as they both held some cloth bundles.

“I see that Nick and Pandora have recovered!” Howie called.

“I’m glad you’re okay!” Brian called back, “Where did you find food?”

Howie set the child and the bundles on the ground, “We purchased these.”

Brian shook his head and turned to Kevin, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

“I have no money, so I typically find food.”

Brian nodded and pulled through his tunic, “I do, but I’m used to foraging and finding food, so I forgot...” He chuckled.

The small child ambled over to Minako and Nick, then sat in her lap. Minako smiled and gave the child a hug. Nick ran his hand through Minako’s hair, then leaned his head on hers and wrapped his arms around her tightly.

Howie smiled as he looked down at them, “The two of you resemble proud parents…”

Minako began to blush and hid her head against Nick’s shoulder.

Nick pressed a light kiss to her head, but still smiled, “Don’t tease her, Howie…”

Brian kneeled down next to them and put his hand on Nick’s shoulder, “I know you’re both worried about our current situation and the future…”

Nick leaned against Minako’s head again, but glanced at Brian as he frowned, “So you heard that…”

Minako gripped Nick’s sleeve, but still kept her face hidden.

“Briefly.”

Nick glanced away. In the end, we’ll probably be worlds apart… Why can’t we just be in the same world? Always wrapped in her light...

“You know…” Brian ran his hand along his chin, “You both seem to be of the correct age…”

“Correct age? For what?” Minako turned back to face him and gripped his sleeve.

“Get married,” Brian smiled and touched her shoulder.

Nick lifted his head and cocked an eyebrow as he stared at Brian.

“What?” Minako pulled her hand back and stared up at Nick.

“They say, even when lovers are separated, they can still feel each others’ happiness and sorrow…” Brian smiled, “So maybe you can use those feelings to find each other if that happens.”

“Minako?” Nick looked down at her, his gentle smile spreading on his lips.

She ran her hand on his cheek. “I do… want to stay with you.”

He nodded and pulled her closer. “Me too… I want to stay with you too…”

“If you would like, I’ll preside.”

“And what does His Majesty think of this?” Kevin smirked.

“None of our subjects need permission for marriage,” Howie shook his head and smiled, “However, if having our opinion pleases you both, you have our consent.”

Brian stood and smiled. “Nick, may I borrow your sash?”

Nick nodded and put his hand against Minako’s back.

Minako gripped the child as she stood up. “What do you need me to do, Brian?”

Brian shook his head and smiled, “Nothing at the moment. We’ll take care of this.” He began digging through his tunic.

Nick gripped the tree and groaned as he braced himself against it.

Minako set the child down and grabbed Nick’s arm. “Are you okay? I’m sure you can keep sitting.”

He shook his head and stood up, wincing as he did. He smiled, and grabbed her hand, “I can stand for you.” He began untying the sash from his waist, then held it out to Brian.

Brian took it, then turned to Howie, “I hate to ask, but would you--”

Howie put up his hand, “No need to apologize, Brian, we would be pleased to gather anything you need.”

Brian set a small jug on the ground. “Tea… Unless you already brought some with the food.”

Howie pulled a canister from a small satchel at his waist and handed it to Brian, “Of course.”

Brian began tying some papers to his staff. “Nick, do you have the traditional gifts to present to your betrothed and her family? I suppose that’s us in this case.”

Nick gripped Minako’s hands and leaned his forehead against hers. “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to give you…”

Minako brushed his hair back, “That’s okay, I don’t need anything.”

He grabbed her hand again and smiled, “Except… My whole heart. It’s always yours.”

She flung her arms around his neck, “Me too! You can have mine forever.”

Brian chuckled as he sat his staff down and picked up the jug. He removed the stopper as he walked over to Nick and Minako. He began pouring drops over Nick and Minako’s heads and shoulders. “Minako, your shoes…”

Minako bent down and slipped off her shoes. “Socks too?”

Brian nodded as he poured some of the liquid on to Nick’s feet. “Wash those.” Once Minako removed her socks, he poured some of the liquid on her feet as well.

They both began cleaning their feet as Brian put the stopper back in the jug and placed it back in his tunic. He smiled, “Now you are ready to take your next steps together. Sit.”

Nick groaned as he sat on his knees and gripped his abdomen. Minako held his arm tightly.

Kevin laid out the food that Howie had bought in front of them and began pouring the tea. Brian tied a knot in the center of Nick’s sash, then tied one end around Nick’s left wrist and the other around Minako’s left wrist. Howie pulled a small envelope from his tunic and laid it in front of them as well.

“Howie?” Minako touched his arm.

“For prosperity.” He nodded as he sat beside Minako.

Kevin set the tea cup in front of them, then sat beside Nick. The child sat on Howie’s lap.

Minako turned to him, “Is this why they call marriage ‘tying the knot’?”

Brian smiled, “Perhaps… This is to symbolize the couple joining their hearts into one.” He motioned to the cup. “Take three sips each, first Nick, then Minako, and continue in that manner. While you drink, I’ll speak.”

Nick picked up the cup and took a sip, then handed it to Minako. She cupped his hand and took a sip, then pushed it back toward him. He smiled and held her cheek, running his thumb along it. Then he removed his hand and gripped her hand on the cup as he took a sip. They continued to pass the cup in this manner as Brian spoke.

Brian shook his staff over their heads. “With these offerings, may this union be blessed with fortune and an abundance of all things. May our wishes push aside the evils and surround them with love and hope.”

Nick sat the cup on the ground after Minako took her last sip.

Brian sat in front of them. “Is there anything you would like to tell each other?”

Nick brushed a strand of her hair behind her ear, “I’ll always give everything I have and everything I am to you…”

Minako cupped his hand at her face and beamed at him. She laughed quietly, “Saying ‘me too’ doesn’t seem like enough… but I can’t think of anything else... That was beautiful.” She ran her hand through his hair. “Oh!” She let go of his hand and reached into her pocket, then held out two small gold rings. “From Safaiananpou.”

“Rings?”

“I just thought they were pretty when I saw them, but rings are an important part of wedding ceremonies where I come from.”

Nick smiled at her gently, “I’m touched to participate in a tradition from your world. Why rings?”

“They’re circles, so they represent endlessness. Kind of like our promise...”

Nick’s smile broadened as he gripped both her hands, “I’ll wear it forever.”

Minako handed him one of the rings. “You’re supposed to put it on this finger.” She pointed to the ring finger on her left hand.

Nick held her hand gently and slid the ring on.

She picked up his left hand and slid the second ring on his finger, then laced her fingers through his and smiled, “Then we get to kiss because we just got married.”

“Okay!” Nick pulled her closer by the waist, his fangs glinting like his excitement.

Minako started giggling and covered her mouth with her hand. Nick stared at her blankly, then started laughing as well.

Brian laughed as well, “This seems more appropriate for you two.”

Kevin and Howie chuckled as well.

Nick ran his hand through her hair and pressed a quick kiss to her lips as he smiled. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” She pressed a kiss to his lips as well.

“Hey!” a voice called.

They all turned toward the direction of the voice, but the small child quickly crawled out of Howie’s lap and started running toward it.

Minako stood up quickly. “Wait! Do you recognize that voice?” She grabbed Nick’s hand and pulled him up.

Nick groaned and winced as he stood, then gripped his abdomen.

Minako laced her fingers through his and pulled him toward the child.

“Minako!” He jogged after her.

“We have to get him to come back!”

“Minako! Wait!”

Minako and Nick reached the edge of the clearing where the child had stopped and gripped the black pants of a brunette demon in a bright red tunic with clasps across the chest and abdomen.

Minako reached out her arms quickly, “Give him back!”

“Who are you?” the man questioned as he picked up the child.

“Give him back!” Minako walked toward the demon.

“Who are you?” Nick growled.

“Alexander,” the demon answered, then looked at the child, “I thought I felt you calling me. I’m glad I found you. Let’s get back.”

Minako dropped to her knees and began convulsing violently.

“Minako!” Nick kneeled down and gripped her shoulders tightly.

As Alexander walked away, the child reached toward Minako and Nick with a longing look.

Minako struggled to get up and reached her hand toward them. “Come… back…” Minako struggled to breathe, “Come… back…”

Alexander disappeared into the distance with the small child.

Minako clenched her hands into fists, “AJ, I CALLED YOU!!! COME BACK, AJ!!!”
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Final Demon by nicksgal
Minako lay on the cold ground, her hands still shaking weakly as she reached toward the bushes and trees where the child and the demon had disappeared. Just within reach… He had been just within reach and I let him escape… The very last one… AJ... Tears poured down Minako’s cheeks. “Come back…” she whispered, “Come back… AJ...”

Nick held her shoulders as his eyes brimmed with concern. As we near more of us, her convulsions get more violent. The very last one is filling her heart with pain and shattering it on the ground. If only he had listened to her, then we could be headed toward the box, toward the end of this nightmare. And her heart would be safe. Nick started to pull Minako into his arms, but as he reached his arms toward her, he felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. He winced and put his hand to it. He pulled the hand up slowly -- it was stained a dark red. He took a deep swallow and sat down next to her, then let out a small growl. This wound… That last battle had reopened it… Nick narrowed his eyes. That great demon general and that cloaked figure, how dare they haunt me…

“Nick!” Brian ran toward them, then skidded to a stop. Howie and Kevin followed closely behind him.

Nick looked up at them and put his hand to his chest. It’s no good… I’m not getting enough air.... He put his hand back to the open wound and winced again as he attempted to breathe deeply. Maybe they won’t notice.

“What happened?!” Brian kneeled next to them and gripped Nick’s shoulder.

Nick winced again, “The child… returned to his home… with the… last one…”

“The last what?” Howie questioned as he kneeled down as well.

“Our demon…” Nick took a hard swallow, “He was… right here…” Nick clenched his abdomen tightly. “We were… almost together…”

Kevin kneeled down, “Move your hand Nick.”

Nick laughed, “It’s just… a little scratch… I’ll… be fine…”

Kevin grabbed hold of Nick’s hand forcefully, the fresh blood dripped down his wrist and splattered on the ground. “Just a scratch?” Kevin scoffed as he dropped the bloody hand into Nick’s lap, his stern stare piercing through Nick’s heart.

“Kevin?” Brian questioned.

Kevin wiped his hand on the ground, smearing the blood on the grass. He then reached into his tunic and pulled a cloth and the salve from inside. He let out a short sigh as he wiped his hand, “I’m not sure what to do… Leaving Nick this way is a liability, but… If I try to use my power too quickly, it may put me out of commission in addition to not healing Nick properly…” He put the cloth and salve away, then crossed his arms, “So either way we may be at an inconvenience….”

Nick pulled Minako into his lap and leaned on her head as he slowly untied the ribbon from her wrist. He then untied it from his own wrist and held it in his hand as he tried to stand while holding Minako tightly. His legs shook and he groaned as he grabbed his abdomen.

“Nick!” Brian gripped Nick’s shoulders.

Nick snorted, “Don’t worry… about it… I’ve had worse…” He embraced Minako tightly, “Minako… I’ll go… and get… him… for you...”

Minako gripped his tunic. “But Nick… You’re...”
He wrapped the sash around his waist and tied it into a knot, wincing as it brushed against his abdomen. “I’m fine…” He pressed a quick kiss to her forehead, “I’ll… be back… soon…”

Minako wrapped her arms around his neck, “Nick…”

Nick pulled away and disappeared into the shrubbery, “Be safe…”

Minako put her hand to her face as tears began to stream from her eyes. “Why? Why couldn’t I get AJ to stay? And Nick….”

Brian pulled Minako toward him and held her closely to his chest, “Is he noble or just stupid?”

“What should we do?” Kevin asked, brushing his pants lightly as he stood up. “It seems he’s not an invalid, but…”

Howie smiled. “As he is insistent, perhaps we all allow him to perform this task on his priestess’ behalf. At least until the moment it seems too much time has passed.”

The three men stared after Nick as Minako continued to cry in Brian’s arms.

~*~

No joy smiled on the land of Rubiihoppou, it was filled with only frigid ice and the forgotten hearts of man. The blood that ran through the other countries like rivers was frozen solid amongst the crevices in the ground. Yet here, the bright open air tents were lit with the bright lights of the fires blazing as smoke rose through holes at the top of the cloth roofs. The sound of laughter filled the air completely. Outside this bright camp, the sky was dark and the air was cold. The camp seemed to be a façade, only an illusion in the icy hell around it. Meanwhile, within the walls of the camp, the outer reaches of the country seemed to be the illusion. It seemed as though there were no bloody battles anywhere. In one of the larger tents, laughter rang loudly in the early evening as. The men sat in a circle surrounding AJ, the demon in the bright red tunic and black pants.

“They were attached with a ribbon,” he laughed. “So young. That human sorceress must have bound him into a life of servitude!” He mimicked the wedding ceremony by holding out a limp wrist and kissing the backside of his hand.

The men laughed with him.

“Then what happened, Alexander?” one gleefully asked.

He sat on the ground and flopped backwards. “She fell to her knees and shook all over,” AJ laughed as he lay on the ground, “It was quite the lap dance!”

The men laughed again.

“I want some of what he’s getting!” a man called.

Alexander stood up, laughing, and walked back towards the chair in which he had sat previously.

The small child occupied it for him, watching his display with empty eyes.

AJ stopped momentarily, “You don’t think that it’s true?”

The small child shook his head and stared at the ground.

AJ picked him up before sitting down, then held him in his arms. He grinned to his eager audience, “But that wasn’t even the funniest part… I’ve saved the best for last.”

“Well, what was it?” another man eagerly asked.

AJ grinned and pulled on one of his earrings. A pale smoke surrounded him briefly, but when it subsided, he was an exact copy of Minako’s appearance, minus his large hoop earrings. “Take a look at her,” he gestured the length of his body and laughed.

The child stared up at him in wide surprise, then wrapped his small hand around the folds of the skirt.

The men stared wildly at the clothing AJ wore in his borrowed form. The light color surprised them, the short skirt excited them, and the bow at her neck made them laugh in joyous spirit.

AJ chuckled again as the curtain door of the tent opened.

“Minako…” a bewildered voice struggled to breathe.

A few of the men stood up and called to the owner of the voice. “Hey are you alright?” “Do you need a doctor?” “Is he a soldier?”

AJ stood and stepped back cautiously, holding the child carefully in his arms. The demon from before… He will see through this charade in an instant…

Nick smiled as he held his abdomen tightly, “I’m so glad… You found the child…” His expression fell momentarily, “But… When did you… leave the camp? I told… you to stay…”

“I was worried…” AJ replied, his voice was identical to Minako’s, “You left so long ago… and… how could I leave him all alone with that man?” He hugged the child tightly.

“Except… you know… we need him… To find… the box…”

“Box?”

“We’re… almost… there… We’ll… get it… Before the… emerald… demons…”

The other men in the room looked at each other suspiciously. Emerald demons? Why on earth were they hunting demons from the aggressor nation?

“I don’t want to look for the box anymore… I don’t need it…”

“Minako…”

“It isn’t important to me any more.”

“That’s true…” Nick managed a weak smile and started walking toward AJ’s illusion, “It was… the only thing… that was… important… to me…” He laughed a little, “But I don’t… remember… what was… sealed in… it anyway… And now… I have you...”

“You have me?” AJ stood and stepped back as he frowned.

“Yes… We’re married… So if… the box… isn’t important… anymore… you don’t… have to be… the priestess… any more… We can… just… live together… forever…”

“Marriage?”

Nick gripped AJ’s shoulders, “I love you...”

“About that…” AJ pulled out of his grip, “I don’t think we should be married anymore…”

“What?”

“I decided I want to stay here. I like this place better than anything.”

Nick reached out again. “Then… we’ll stay… here… As long as… you’re happy…”

AJ ducked away from his hand. “Really I just want to stay here, because it’s far away from you.”

“What? Minako...” He pulled his hand back.

Alexander hugged the child closely, “You’re only an invalid, a shadow of a man. Who would want you?”

Nick froze and flinched.

“Who would ever marry a gruesome demon like you?” Alexander’s eyes narrowed.

Nick backed away from him toward the entrance to the tent.

“But, what’s most important is that you have a strong heart… You are a very kind and warm person…”

He dropped to his knees.

“You’re amazing...”

Nick put his hand to his mouth.

"I’m sorry… I didn’t want you to get hurt… I was worried about what would happen to you here, but…”

Nick coughed into his hand.

“Me too… I love you too… Your gentleness… and your strength of heart… your drive to protect everything you care about… Your willingness to try anything...”

The blood streamed from his palm and down his wrist.

“Don’t put yourself in senseless danger like that! What would I do without you…?”

Nick tried to take in a deep breath as he choked back tears.

“I wanted you to have that last wish if I can, for anything you want.”

Despite his efforts, the tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Nick… I’ll never leave you… Never…”

Nick coughed again.

“Nick… I love you. Exactly as you are.”

Nick’s hand shook as he held it to his mouth, trying to stop the streams of blood and tears.

“They’re circles, so they represent endlessness. Kind of like our promise...”

His blood and tears fell on the ground in droplets.

AJ began laughing, “You really are an invalid, aren’t you? How weak…”

“Nick… I heard your voice….”

AJ looked toward the entrance of the tent to see a slim hand pushing back the entrance flap slowly.

The true Minako stood in the entrance to the tent, a solid vision identical to AJ’s façade. “Nick!” Her hands flew to her mouth in disbelief as she looked down at Nick’s shaking body next to her feet. She dropped to the ground and held Nick’s shaking body in her arms. She began sobbing, “You took too long… I was worried… Kevin should have healed you… It would have been okay if Kevin healed you…”

“Fraud…” Nick choked.

“What?” Minako blinked as she put her hand to her face and wiped her tears.

“One… of you… is a… fraud…” He removed his shaking hand from his mouth and struggled to sit up. His bloodstained hand continued to drip on the carpet.

Minako saw his tear-stained face for the first time and held his shoulders tightly. “Why are you crying? We got married… We’ll find the box… Kevin can heal you…”

Nick gripped her shoulders and leaned against her chest, “Minako…”

“You really married a demon?!” AJ sat in the chair behind him, “Did you hit your head?!”

Minako looked up and gasped. “Mirror?” She clenched her hand lightly against Nick’s shoulder, “Why is there a mirror?”

Nick gripped the ground as he tried to stand. “You…” he growled.

AJ smirked, “Looks like this game is over…”

The small child gave a faint smile and patted one of AJ’s earrings. AJ gripped it, then the pale smoke formed around him again.

“What?” Minako asked, clenching her fist tighter.

From the pale smoke, AJ emerged in his true form.

“AJ!” Minako reached her hand toward him.

“Not so loud…” he hushed her as he gripped his chest.

Nick’s eyes narrowed as he finally stood on his shaking legs, pulling Minako up with him. “Let’s… leave…”

“But we need him to get the box…” Minako blinked. “What about your wishes? Everyone’s wishes?”

“Topazuseihou… only had… four demons… We… don’t… need him…” Nick attempted to push Minako from the tent.

“Nick!”

Brian, Kevin, and Howie forced their way into the tent.

Brian grabbed Nick’s shoulders quickly, “I knew we should have come with you! What were you thinking running off like that?! You’re wounded!! Are you trying to kill yourself?!”

“Brian…”

Kevin pushed Brian away lightly, “That’s enough Brian.” He held out his hand, “Nick, we’re just going to have to try this and hope for the best…” A blue glow emanated from his hands as he pressed one to Nick’s chest and held the other over various body parts. Nick’s minor cuts and scrapes healed within moments. The only wounds left were the gashes in his cheek and the wound in his abdomen. While both were smaller, they both continued to bleed. Kevin began to breathe heavily as he pulled his hand from Nick’s chest and clenched both hands into fists, snuffing out the sapphire glow.

Nick coughed again and dropped to his knees.

Minako rose her shaking hands to her mouth. “Nick… Kevin…”

Kevin shook his head as he held his hand to his chest, “It’s no good… I need bandages!” He shouted as he scanned the tent, looking for someone to help him.

One of the men finally jumped up hurriedly and ran from the tent.

Nick began coughing violently, streams of blood splattered from his mouth.

“Nick!” Minako exclaimed and sank to her knees as she gripped his shoulders.

Nick put his hand to his throat and struggled to get air in, “It’s… no good… I… can’t breathe… Why?...” Nick coughed again.

Minako grabbed his shoulders tightly, “CPR! I’ll give you CPR!”

Kevin blinked in confusion, “CPR?”

“Lay down! Hurry up and lay down!”

Nick managed to lie down, but began coughing again as he did.

“Turn your head! Turn your head! You’ll choke!”

Nick turned his head, but a stream of blood trickled down his lips.

Minako began to attempt to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation, but Nick pulled her down to his chest.

He held her tightly within his arms. “Minako…”

“Let me go! You’ll die!” Minako flailed her arms and legs a bit. She kicked the ground a few times as tears started to fall down her cheeks. This is just like a temper tantrum… When did I become so weak that I’m throwing a temper tantrum?

Nick started laughing weakly, “I can’t… help it… I see you… leaning over me… with your lips… parted… And I just want… to hold you….” He smiled weakly, “Isn’t that… stupid?”

Minako stopped kicking and held on to his chest tightly, “No Nick… It’s not stupid at all…” Tears continued to stream down her cheeks. “Not at all…”

“I brought the bandages!” the man from the tent yelled, holding a long strip of muslin wrapping in his hand.

Kevin turned and smiled at the man. He took the bandage into his own hand. He then turned to Nick and Minako. “Minako, you’ll have to get up if you want me to bind his wound.” He gently kneeled beside Nick, then pulled the salve from his tunic. “However, I am willing to accept your assistance with the clasps at Nick’s collar and back.”

Nick released his hold on Minako, allowing her to sit up. She brushed her bloody shirt as she held Nick’s hand, then unbuttoned his clasps at his chest. Kevin untied the sash from Nick’s waist and grabbed his hand to pull him up. Minako undid the clasps at Nick’s shoulders, then helped Kevin remove Nick’s tunic from his shoulders and arms, causing it to fall lightly at his waist.

Kevin pulled it to the side before applying the salve to Nick’s abdomen wound and then to his cheek. Kevin let out a laugh, “I haven’t had a nurse in a long time.”

Minako gave a small smile, “I do what I can…” She gave Nick’s hand a light squeeze.

Nick clenched Minako’s hand and stared at her face intently. A faint blush crossed his cheeks. It really is like I’m an invalid… It’s embarrassing to seem this weak...

Kevin stretched the cloth and ripped it into pieces, then created several layers over Nick’s abdomen wound. He then held a longer piece of cloth against Nick’s waist, then placed it over the wound and his stomach. At his opposite hip, he passed it to Minako to wind around Nick’s back. They continued winding the cloth around Nick’s abdomen until the initial layers over the wound were secure. Kevin then tied the two loose ends of the cloth together. He then took in a breath as he wiped his hands with his cloth, before applying his salve to his own hands. He placed his supplies back into his tunic along with the linen, then wiped his brow with the back of his hand, “Finished. I haven’t done that kind of medical aid in a long time…”

Nick looked down at the wrappings and moved his hand toward them.

Kevin grabbed Nick’s hand away quickly, pulling Nick toward him. His thick eyebrows narrowed against his eyes as he stared straight into Nick’s eyes. Their faces were only inches from each other. “Touch it and die.” He released Nick quickly, tossing Nick’s hand into his lap.

Nick blinked in surprise, but nodded his head slowly.

Kevin sat back and sighed. “We’d better gather our things before we continue… Can you stand?”

Nick gave a weak nod, “Yeah… I think so…” He began to pull his tunic back around his shoulders. He winced a little as the fabric brushed over the abdomen wound.

Minako steadied his back and redid the clasps above his wings.

Kevin grasped Brian’s hand to secure his balance and stood slowly. “We can all go eat now.”

Nick looked up at him. He laboriously redid the clasps at his collarbone. “Eat?”

“You need to eat something. It’s important to get your strength back while you recover. You also haven’t eaten since our food ran out on the road.” Kevin wiped his arm across his brow again. “Then get some rest and stay with our Priestess. Minako, make sure he actually rests.” He pointed to Minako, and then turned back to Nick. “Those are doctor’s orders. We need you at your best. Understood?”

Nick smiled weakly, “Yeah…” He wrapped his ribbon around his waist, tying it in a loose knot.

Kevin lowered his head, “Let’s get going then.”

Howie gave a short nod and started to open the tent flap.

“Wait…” a male voice called.

Howie pulled his hand back as he turned around. The three demons faced the man who had brought the bandages. He wore a long black tunic over tan pants. The ribbon at his waist was also tan in coloring. His brown hair fell lightly in front of his brown eyes.

“Yes?” Kevin asked.

“Maybe it would be better if you all spent the night here, if his wounds are so bad…” He turned to AJ “Don’t you think, Alex?”

AJ snorted.

The man in the black tunic gave him a quick, sharp look.

AJ sighed as he put his hand behind his head, “Guess so… I’m at least partly to blame… so… we’ll find someplace for you to stay here… At least until tomorrow...”

Kevin gave him a small smile, “Thank you.”

“I’ll show you to an open tent… or two…” the man in the black tunic smiled.

Kevin and Brian pulled on Nick’s arms to help him stand without putting too much strain on his abdomen. Nick still let out a groan. Howie offered his hand to Minako and she stood up lightly. The five of them exited the tent in a bunch.

The man in the black tunic followed them outside the tent.

AJ pulled him aside by the shoulder as he followed him out of the tent, “Is this such a good idea, Joseph? They’re demons… No, cardinal demons… It’s clear from their talk of the box and that doctor’s glowing hands.”

“So are we…” Joseph replied.

He clenched his fist, “I didn’t think the box was still calling priestesses after those other two were here. Plus, we don’t know which country they’re from… It could be a problem.”

“You know the priestesses use strange names to address us. And she called you ‘AJ,’ not Alexander! But she didn’t call me anything strange! Of course you know what country they're from…”

AJ crossed his arms, “I don’t like it…”

“We can’t have a wounded man running back to wherever they came from… It’s just not right…”

AJ glanced away, “Do you really want me to leave?”

“Alex…”

AJ turned his head quickly as he crossed his arms, “Fine…” He brushed the flap aside and walked back into the large tent.

Joseph frowned as he shook his head and walked toward Minako and the sapphire demons.
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Demonic Heart by nicksgal
Outside the large common tent, there were several rows of much smaller ones. Each tent’s plain tan coloring stood out among the night’s darkness. Joseph led the sapphire demons along the rows and stopped at a small pair of tents separated from the others by a large tree. He smiled, “We all usually stay up as a group into the early hours of the morning… But if you are all weary, and even wounded, maybe it’s best if you were out here… These should be out of the way of the commotion.”

“Your kindness is appreciated,” Howie smiled.

Joseph pointed in the other direction, “I’ll head back to the main tent to get some mats, blankets, food, and firewood. You all just get yourself situated.” He began walking in the direction he had pointed.

Brian turned to Kevin and Howie, “I’ll go run back and get our things from the clearing. Howie, I hate to ask for another favor, but...”

Howie laughed kindly, “Not at all, we were just about to offer our assistance. His kindness is indeed quite an odd thing to see in a foreign country.”

Brian nodded, and then turned to Kevin, “You should rest… That way when your powers have healed, you can help Nick right away…”

Kevin shook his head, “I’ll help Howie. A little labor won’t weaken my powers.”

“If you’re sure…” Brian crossed his arms slightly, “I just don’t know if it’s a good idea…”

Kevin smiled and patted Brian’s shoulder, “You worry too much… I’ll be fine.” Kevin removed his hand quickly, then he and Howie then followed after Joseph.

Brian began to leave as well, but a small hand pulled his hand. He turned quickly and stared into Minako’s concerned eyes.

“What should I do?” she asked.

Brian smiled, “Stay here with Nick. Pick whichever tent you would like. The three of us will stay in the other one.” He laughed, “At least, those were the doctor’s orders.”

Minako nodded, “Okay. I’ll stay here… If you’re sure I can’t help...”

Brian gripped her shoulders gently, “You are helping. I’ll be back soon!” He turned and ran back in the direction of the clearing with the large tree.

Minako turned back to Nick. He leaned against the tree that shaded the two tents as he fixed the knot he had tied in his sash. He wrapped the sash slightly higher than his abdomen wound, before tying it again, making sure the knot was closer to his right side. He held his hand above his abdomen and let out a small grunt as he exhaled.

“Do you want to pick one of the tents?” she asked quietly.

Nick looked up at her, but then averted his eyes quickly, “I’ll wait… Kevin probably wants something specific… He seems like a stickler for that sort of thing…”

Minako nodded and absentmindedly played with her finger nails, “That’s true… But he’s just trying to make sure you’re healthy...”

There was silence.

She glanced at Nick’s shadowed face. His responses are… so small… I wish he’d just tell me... She put her hand to her heart and closed it into a fist, “You’re not mad… are you?”

Nick let out a low growl as he crossed his arms. “How else should I feel?”

She lowered her head. “At me… I mean…”

Nick turned back to her slowly, frowning. “At you…” He shook his head and walked over to her, then smiled as he gripped her shoulders, “No… Of course not… Why would I ever be mad at you?”

Minako looked down at her hands as she continued to fiddle with them, “It’s just… Did he say something mean to you while he was pretending to be me?”

He shook his head. “It’s fine. You didn’t say any of those things…”

“So he did say something! Whatever it is, it’s not true! I love you...” Tears fell down her cheeks as she clenched her hands into fists and stared up at him. “But I still wanted him to come even after all that… No wonder you’re mad...” She turned her head away and held one of her fists to her heart.

Nick brushed a strand of her hair behind her ear, “I love you. It’s okay if you want him to come with us, so we can get the box. There’s not four of us, there’s five of us…” He frowned, “He just doesn’t know us yet, so maybe he thinks it’s odd...”

Minako unclenched her fist at her side and touched his cheek. “I know I promised to help you find it… I’ll do anything for you, but I don’t even want the wishes other than to keep my promise to Howie… I just want you...” She blinked back the tears that formed in her eyes.

Nick wrapped her in his arms and leaned his head on hers. “Me too.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead then pulled back. “Actually, I… It’s… I’m just embarrassed…”

She frowned. “Nick?”

He rested his arms around her waist. “I want to take good care of you, but I can’t like this…” He glanced away from her, “Needing a doctor in front of all those people… And I let him trick me by looking like you and distracting me with terrible things…” He glanced back, then tightened his arms around her as he stared into her eyes, “I told you I would always do my best to see you, but…”

She brushed her hand on his cheek, “You were hurting… You weren’t thinking straight…”

“Minako…” He gripped her hand.

“I brought some water.”

Minako and Nick turned toward the voice and saw Joseph holding a vat of water. He smiled as he held the vat toward them, “I thought you would want to clean up.”

Minako smiled as she pulled her hand from Nick’s cheek, “Thank you.”

Howie and Kevin stood behind him. Howie held two mats under his arms and Kevin carried two bowls of food.

Kevin pointed toward the tents, “Howie, if you could, please lay those down in the tent closest to the tree. And Joseph, you can set the water vat in there for now as well.”

Howie smiled and did as he was told. Joseph followed him.

Kevin then turned to Minako and Nick, “Here’s some food. Once we get a fire started, you can have more if you’re hungry. Eat as soon as possible, understand? Getting your strength back is most important.” He held the bowls out to Minako.

Minako released herself from Nick’s embrace and grabbed the bowls from Kevin.

Joseph smiled as he and Howie emerged from the tent. “Let’s get some firewood for that fire.”

The three men left in the opposite direction once again.

Minako held one of the bowls out to Nick. “Food?”

Nick grabbed it, then walked into the tent and groaned as he sat on one of the woven straw mats. He crossed his legs and set the bowl on the ground.

Minako followed him in and set the second bowl on the ground next to him, then pulled the second mat closer to him and smoothed out the wrinkles before sitting down with her knees close to her chest. She hugged her knees as she passed her bowl to Nick. “Eat up!”

“What about you?” Nick took the bowl and frowned.

“I’ll eat when the others start up the fire…”

He passed it back to her, “Just eat with me…”

“But Kevin said…”

He thrust the bowl into her face, “Eat.”

She took it back, “Okay… But if you’re still hungry, you should have mine...”

He nodded, “If you don’t finish it first.” He frowned as he picked up the bowl next to him. “Sorry… This isn’t the feast you deserve after getting married…” He lowered his head, “I hope it’s okay…”

Minako touched his cheek again, “No… It’s fine… As long as I have you.” She began laughing, “My mom would kill me if she knew we eloped.”

“Eloped?”

“Just ran off and got married without telling anyone...” She laughed again, “She’d say ‘You’re too young to get married!’ Then she’d ask you about your intentions and we’d all fight…”…”

“Why?” Nick took a slurp of the stew.

“I ran off far away from home and got married to someone she’s never met who’s years older than me…” Minako put her head in her hands, “Brian just said it could help us find each other if we got separated and I wanted that more than anything…” She looked up and smiled at him, “To be with you...”

“Me too!” Nick set down the bowl and grabbed her shoulders, “And you’re a perfect bride!” Nick paused for a moment, “Actually… Maybe too old, more than too young…”

“Too old?” Minako gripped his hands, “Why?”

Nick glanced down. “This is still an age of war… Four countries may have emerged victorious… But you can barely call it that…” He laced his fingers in hers, “All our nations, and all the satellite nations, are still warring with each other… So they need troops… and women need to create soldiers... The more the better as soon as possible...”

Minako pulled her hand back, “That’s sexist and barbaric!”

Nick frowned, “I said something wrong again…” He picked up her hand again and chuckled as he laced his fingers through hers, “When it’s only you and I, words just kind of spill out…”

Minako blushed and covered her face with her other hand, “Like telling me why women exist here?”

“That… or earlier when I admitted that I was embarrassed… Or when I apologized when you came back… Or when you first appeared here… I feel like I can tell you anything, so sometimes I don’t think about what I’m saying before I say it…”

Minako put her hand on his knee. “Then let’s talk about something besides war or fighting or the box or our friends…” She leaned closer to him and smiled. “Anything you want.”

He grabbed her chin and grinned, his fangs gleaming, “I love you. But we don’t need to talk about that…”

“I love you too.” She brushed his hair back at his forehead. “You’re sweating…” She frowned.

He placed his hand above his wound, “It hurts, but I’m trying to ignore it…” He bit his lip.

“Can I help? I’m not a doctor, but… Maybe I can at least help you cool down...” She crawled over to the vat of water and pulled a cloth from it, wringing it out over the vat. She sat back down next to him and wiped his face with the wet cloth as she gripped his shoulder. “Is that better?” She smiled.

“Minako…” His cheeks started to flush.

She frowned, “It’s probably not just your face that’s sweaty though… I’ll help you clean up, what do you want to talk about?” She started undoing the clasps at his collarbone.

Nick bit his lip, “Umm… What did you want to do when we get back to Safaiananpou?”

“The town around the palace is really fun, it has lots of interesting things. There was fun food… Will you come with me when we go back? What do you want to do?” She sat behind him and undid the clasps at his back.

He glanced away from her and brushed his hair back from his forehead, “Of course I’ll go with you. What do I want to do?” He glanced back at her and smiled, “Anything you want… Maybe… build a house…”

She pulled his tunic from his shoulders and it slid down his arms and back before settling around his waist. She began wiping his upper back and shoulders with the cloth. “Why build?”

He set his hands in his lap. “Just to be outside… Do something with my hands… Make it perfect for you…”

She pressed a kiss to his cheek and leaned over his shoulder to wipe his chest. “As long as you’re there, it’s perfect.” She smiled, “How about after it’s built?”

“I…”

Minako frowned. “Hang on… I can’t see and don’t want to get your bandages wet…” She moved in front of him and started cleaning his stomach above the bandages. She looked up at him again and smiled, “So, after it’s built? What else did you want to do? Anything you used to think was fun that you remember? Or something the others mentioned?”

Nick grabbed her wrist and smiled at her gently.

Minako dropped the cloth. “Nick?”

Nick wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her toward him. He brushed his lips against hers lightly. “Minako…”

She brushed her hand through his hair again and wrapped her arm around his neck as she pulled him in for another kiss. He held her head gently with one hand as he tightened his grip on her waist, kissing her fervently and urgently. She ran her hand up his chest, then gripped his shoulder tightly. He lowered her to the mat beneath them and ran his hand through her hair. She pulled his shoulder closer to her and bent her knee, he then gripped her leg as he pulled back and settled one of his knees between her legs. He loomed over her, almost resembling the sky as his pale wings stretched over them.

“Nick…” Minako blushed and reached for him again.

His breath caught in his throat. My heart’s beating so fast… “Keep saying my name…”

Minako hooked her fingers in the hair at the back of his neck. “Nick…”

Nick took in a sharp breath as he ran his hand on her cheek, then pulled her in for another fervent kiss. He ran his hand down her neck, to her chest, and fiddled with her bow. He pulled back, “Can I?...”

Minako nodded urgently, “Yes...” She pulled him back into a series of searing kisses.

He began to untie the bow at her chest then continued with the buttons on her blouse. Minako gripped his shoulder and pressed fiery kisses to his cheek, neck, and shoulder.

“Minako…”

She arched her back and pulled him closer to her. He took in another sharp breath and met her lips urgently.

“Priestess?” a male voice called outside the tent.

Minako pulled away from Nick briefly, “Nick…”

“Ignore him…” Nick whispered as he pulled her back toward him again and grinned, “What should I do to keep your mind off of it?”

“Priestess!” the voice called again.

Minako pulled Nick closer and pressed a light kiss to his forehead. “Since he keeps calling, I’ll just see what he wants and come right back.” She kissed Nick’s lips lightly and ran her fingers through his hair. “I promise. You just rest while you wait for me.”

Nick sighed and brushed his hand on her cheek. “Okay…” He laid back on the mat with a groan and started fiddling with his sash.

Minako refastened the buttons on her blouse quickly, “Stop frowning, I’ll be right back.”

Nick flashed her a wide, but clearly fake, grin.

Minako laughed as she exited the tent and stood in front of AJ.

He held out two overcoats and a small parcel. The fire the others had built danced lightly across his face and for the first moment, she saw his glittering horns nestled amongst his brown hair. He only looked at her briefly, refusing to look into her eyes fully. “Your friends wanted you to have these. Did I interrupt something?”

“Oh.” Minako pulled on the loose tails of her bow. She lowered her head as she took the overcoats and the parcel from him. How embarrassing...

He gave her a quick salute and started to walk away, “Well, see ya.”

“Wait!” Minako grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.

He turned around briskly.

“Why won’t you come with us? It’s what you really want, right?” She gave him a small smile.

He smirked, “I’m only out here for my profession, no treasure hunting.”

“So you do know who we are?” Minako frowned.

AJ crossed his arms and glanced away from her as he snorted, “What about it?”

“Then you should know… It’s not treasure hunting! You should know that! Don’t you even want it back?!” She grabbed his hand tightly.

He pulled his hand away quickly. “Want what back? During these troubled times of war, I help bring smiles to people’s faces. I’m a performer, beloved by all. What more could I want?!”

She looked down, “There’s something missing…”

“What?” He snorted again, “Something missing… how foolish sounding.”

“There’s something that was taken from you all… Don’t you want it too?!” She put her hands to her heart, “Isn’t it important to you?! Isn’t it something extremely precious?!”

“There’s nothing else I want.” He shook his head and turned away again.

She reached her hand out to his shoulder, “You just heard the others call me ‘Priestess’… Even… even if you know who we are… You don’t know me...”

“It didn’t seem right to call you by that other word…” His lips curved into a smile.

“‘Minako’? It’s all right… That’s my name,” she gave him a small laugh, “I gave them permission… I don’t see why you can’t…” She smiled.

“Other than the fact that I’m a complete stranger…”

“Of course you aren’t a stranger! You’re AJ!” She clenched her fist.

He winced and gripped his chest.

Minako put her hands to her heart, “I am the priestess of Safaiananpou. I have been charged with the task of retrieving the Holy box with my demons in tow. I can find my demons because my heart remembers their names from so long ago… My heart calls out to your name ‘Alexander’ but it responds to me with ‘AJ’… And it made Nick and Howie really happy to be called those names instead of Nickolas and Howard, so I thought it would make you happy too...”

“Is that… my name to you, Pandora?”

“So you really do know?”

AJ turned his head quickly, “You were supposed to come so long ago… But now it’s too late! The others are dead, the box…”

She put her hand to his shoulder once more, “No… The other four are here, and more than that… The demons from Emeradotouhou are nearing us each moment. We came to Rubiihoppou because the box was left here… Come with us to get it! It’s what you must want most!”

“Who are you to say what I want?” He clenched his fists as his lips curled into a weak snarl and pulled away from her, “You’re asking me to tread a narrow path, Pandora… But you’ve done nothing for me! Where were you during the battles where the ground was stained red and the corpses surrounded you even in Safaiananpou?!”

Minako turned her head, “I’m sorry… You’re right… I was stupid back then… So ordinary… I thought the worst thing I’d ever have to worry about was a test… I had no idea people were suffering all around me…” She turned back to him, “I was selfish… I had Renee so… What else mattered? I could live in that illusionary world where I was happy…”

“The people you were supposed to be saving were suffering and dying! Doesn’t that matter?!” He grabbed her shoulders tightly and shook her forcefully.

“Of course it matters. And so do you.” Minako held her hands to her heart and closed her eyes as she smiled, “I met Nick first… He was so kind and gentle… Howie was powerful and wise… Brian was intelligent and almost magical… Kevin stood strong and he was compassionate… And then there’s you…” She opened her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re like yet but… I’m here to find out.”

He let go of her quickly and gave her a small push. “Why do you want the box? What good will it do you?”

She caught her balance and looked up to him with pained eyes, “AJ…” She smiled, “I have wishes of course, but I made a promise to Howie… And Nick needed it so badly… He wants it still, no matter what he says… So I’m going to bring it to him, then he can take back what belongs to him and still have one of my wishes if he decides he wants it.”

“That’s your reason for getting the box?” He turned his head quickly and muttered under his breath, “But the old man said…”

Minako smiled and touched his shoulder again, “If you come with us, I’ll return whatever was stolen from you too and do anything I can to help you. It’s what I’m here for, right?”

AJ turned his head quickly. “You can’t be her,” he scoffed.

“What?”

“If you were Pandora… You would care nothing for us!” AJ raised his hand quickly. “Pandora cares nothing for her demons!!”

Minako caught his wrist, “Why are you afraid? I want to help you!”

“Pandora would never marry one of her demons! She would never spout nonsense of returning their property to them or helping them! Pandora only wants her wishes!” He pulled his hand away.

Minako stepped back and sank to her knees. Then she covered her face with her hands. “You’re right! I am selfish! As much as I want to give the contents of the box back to everyone, I want things too! I want to stay with Nick! And I know that might not be possible if we get the box, but… But it’s so important to everyone else that I have to keep trying!” She wiped a few tears from her cheeks, “And there was someone I love very much who was tortured by this… I want her back!” She stared up at him with a very weak smile, , “So as much as I want to return everything to all of you… I’m selfish too… I can’t help it, I’m human… Not the strong goddess Pandora is supposed to be…”

AJ gaped at her, then shook his head and kneeled down as he reached his hand out to her.

Minako started to reach her hand toward his as well.

“JUSTIN!” a sharp female voice called.

Minako shrank back from AJ’s hand, her hand shaking. The great demon general and Renee!

“Priestess? Why is your expression… Why is it suddenly different?” AJ frowned.

“I would never forget the scent of his blood… It’s close!” The voice of the demon general bellowed.

Minako put her hand to her face. Renee… Renee is here! What can I say to her? What can we do?

“What’s going on?” a quieter male voice asked.

She turned her head toward the voice and faced Nick. He had emerged from the tent and was redoing the clasps at his chest. “Nick!”

“I heard a yell, are you--” He pulled her up then touched her cheek gently.

Minako clenched her hands tightly around his shoulders. “They--”

“Priestess? What’s...”

“Minako?” He frowned, “Oh your bow...”

“He’s here… No… They both are…”

“Who?” He tied her bow quickly.

“JUSTIN!” the female voice called again.

“No!” Nick pulled his hands back, then clenched his fist. He turned and came face to face with the great emerald general.

“I knew I’d smelled you,” the emerald general smirked.

“You…” Nick growled.

Renee emerged from behind Justin with Lance closely at her heels. She shrank back quickly. “Minako!” She let out a low growl, “I see you are consorting with your demons again…”

Howie, Brian, and Kevin emerged from the adjacent tent.

“What’s going on?” Kevin asked.

Brian narrowed his eyes, “You!”

AJ turned to Howie and stuttered, “Then these are…”

“They must be the emerald demons…” He lowered his head. “We finally see them in the flesh…”

Justin drew his sword from the sheath at his side. “How I’ve waited for this day… You foul pest…”

Nick smirked and cracked his claws, “Same here.”

Justin tightened the grip on his sword, “You will never make a mockery of me ever again!”

“You talk a big game, why don’t you show me!”

Justin sneered, “Don’t act so mighty! You are merely a shadow!” Justin leaped into the air toward Nick.

“Nick!” Minako reached toward him.

Nick gripped her hand, then pressed a quick kiss to her cheek, “Stay behind Brian!” He cracked his claws again, the metal on his ring gleamed with the light of the moon. “When I slaughter him, we’ll go in search of the box!” Nick leaped into the air as well.

“Justin!” Renee shrieked.

Both girls stepped back and covered their eyes, awaiting the moment that both demons would beat each other bloody once more.
Chapter Thirty: Invitation by nicksgal
The air was cold as it whipped around them. The world was consumed in the blackness of night. The stars seemed to hide in the shadows that shrouded them. The pale flaps on the two tents rustled back and forth in the wind. The branches of the tree creaked with the breeze. They stood on opposite sides of the tree’s shadow. The five sapphire demons stood closely together in a bunch. The five emerald demons stood in a line, resembling a military arrangement. The majority of them goggled in disbelief, but the two taller blonds were only cold and reserved. The taller of the two, the one who seemed to have the weaker powers, held the sapphire priestess tightly in his arms. The ribbon at his waist swayed in the same motion as the priestesses’ hair as the wind brushed against it. The other blond smirked wickedly. The emerald priestess stood behind him, cowering and growling all at once. The opposing demons seemed formidable to her, but it was their priestess that she hated. The cold wind blew across their faces in preparation for the confrontation.

Justin drew his sword from the sheath at his side. “How I’ve waited for this day… You foul pest…”

Nick smirked and cracked his claws, “Same here…”

Justin tightened the grip on his sword, “You will never make a mockery of me ever again!”

“You talk a big game, why don’t you show me!”

Justin sneered, “Don’t act so mighty! You are merely a shadow!” Justin leaped into the air toward Nick.

“Nick!” Minako reached toward him.

Nick gripped her hand, then pressed a quick kiss to her cheek, “Stay behind Brian!” He cracked his claws again, the metal on his ring gleamed with the light of the moon. “When I slaughter him, we’ll go in search of the box!” Nick leaped into the air as well.

“Justin!” Renee shrieked.

“Do not act so insolent you cur!” Justin rose his sword.

“No one would know better than you!” Nick spread his claws.

The two men met in the air. Nick raked his claws through Justin’s side. Justin attempted to sever Nick’s arm at his shoulder, but Nick managed to dodge at the last second, creating only a large gash at his joint. Nick stretched out his leg and hit the large tree with his foot, bouncing back toward Justin who had landed on the ground near Minako and the sapphire demons.

“What’s the matter, ‘great demon general’, is a blade the only way to ensure your victory?”

“Don’t say that!” a female voice screamed.

Nick landed on the ground quickly, missing his intended target. “Minako…?” He looked toward her, but she stood next to Brian shaking her head. Nick turned around quickly. Renee stood in front of the emerald demons, clenching her fists.

“Of course Justin is strong! He gave you terrible wounds! That’s how we found you! You’re so weak that you can’t heal yourself!”

“Renee!”

Renee turned to her quickly and sneered, “I’ll handle you in a moment, bitch! Right now I’m talking to this disgusting creature!”

Minako reached her hand out to Renee. “Please, if you’ll just listen…!”

Brian pulled Minako back as she tried to run toward Renee.

Renee ignored her plea and turned back to Nick, “Admit it! You’re weak!”

Nick began laughing disdainfully as he turned back to Justin and punched his cheek, knocking him to the ground.

Renee clenched her fists tighter, “Why are you laughing?”

Nick sneered as he turned back to her, “What have you seen of the world, Renee?”

“Plenty! It’s hell on earth!”

Nick laughed harder as he stepped on Justin’s hand and pulled his sword from his grasp, “What gives you the right to say that?”

“I’ve traveled from Emeradotouhou to Rubiihoppou! I’ve seen the military and war!”

Nick continued to laugh as he started walking toward her, “So seeing means experiencing?” He smirked at her scornfully, “Shut up.” He stabbed Justin’s sword into the ground.

Renee growled, “What?”

Lance put his hand to his chest and pushed the other emerald demons aside, “Let me handle this, Your Eminence.”

“Leave your demons out of this, Renee, I’m talking to you.” Nick stopped and crossed his arms, “If you want to prove your strength, then you’ll listen.”

Renee growled, “You know nothing about me!”

“True,” he nodded as he started walking toward her, “I have been told many things about you, but as far as I can tell, they’re all false.”

Renee loosened her fists. What?

Nick turned his head to glance back at Brian and Minako, “But, what right do I have to say anything? The last time we met, you merely sat on the ground convulsing from the scent of blood. I thought you were weak.”

“I’m not weak!”

He turned back to her and clenched his hand into a fist, “Weak compared to your comrade who stood reaching her arms out to you until the moment she collapsed.”

“You’re biased!”

He glanced back at Minako with a gentle smile. “You’re right… I probably have no right to discuss this particular subject…” He shook his head and faced Renee again. “But I will say this. Your view of the world is narrow. I believed in your heart from the first moment that I heard her voice shake for the blonde haired girl in red barrettes, but… Even I have lost faith. Me, who wanted to believe in you so badly for her sake… Enough is enough.” He started walking toward her again as he untied the sash at his waist.

Renee growled.

“You have seen nothing of the world. Where are your blood and tears? You fought like hell? Don’t give me those lies. We battled you and your ruthless general who would be happy to tear our limbs from us and lick whatever blood came running from them…” Nick began undoing the clasps from his collar as he continued to walk.

Renee backed away, “Are you trying to give me an injustice? My demons will rip you apart…”

Nick slipped his tunic from his shoulders and wrapped it into a ball with the sash before throwing it to Minako. She caught it and held it tightly in her hands. The blood from the gash at Nick’s shoulder ran down the side of his chest. He brushed it lightly with his hand and licked it from his fingers. “Not everything is about you, Renee… That was a precious gift, so I won’t see it damaged any more. The blood on it is plenty.”

“You… licked your own blood. What are you?”

“Don’t change the subject Renee… I’m trying to show you what hell is…”

Renee backed up again, “Don’t come any closer…”

Nick stopped and held his hand against his abdomen, “See this wound, even the bandages won’t help it. It hurt like hell then, and even now it's still bleeding. But, I overcame that.” Nick frowned, “Even when we tried to heal ourselves your general came after us like we were his prize catch in the forest. Thanks to Brian’s barrier, we were protected, but… for how long? Didn’t you wonder why we left?”

Renee growled.

“Poor Renee, you wanted to hurt her, didn’t you?” Nick clenched his fist, “Because for some reason, you want to put others through hell for your own sick gain! Even now she’s crying for you!”

Renee sneered and turned away, but she glanced at Minako. While she held Nick’s tunic tightly to her face, streams of tears were still visible on her cheeks.

“You chased us here to this land of ice covered in a miasma of blood! We fought the ice and something worse than death! A creature who was far stronger than your general could ever be! All this for a box!”

“You want the box more than she does! You demons just want what belongs to you! You don’t deserve that box, the priestess does! She’s the one who gets the wishes! You’re just tools!”

“Is that what you think?” Nick put his hand on Renee’s shoulder, “She wants it for me, but… One of her wishes would be for you… Can’t her heart be large enough for both of us?”

“Don’t touch me…” Renee growled, “Don’t tell me your lies!”

“Remove your hand, cretin…”

Nick turned to face Justin’s sneering voice. He held the tip of his sword at Minako’s neck.

“Minako…” Nick clenched Renee’s shoulder tightly. She distracted me.

“Remove your hand… Or I will strike as well.”

Nick growled, “Coward… You would kill her for something so petty…” Nick clenched his free hand tightly, “Don’t touch her!!”

Justin smirked, his eyes fixed on Nick, “Hmm… Once again, I seem to have hit a nerve… What powers will you use to destroy me this time?”

While he was distracted, Minako dropped Nick’s tunic and started backing away from Justin. AJ gasped and pulled on his earring, mimicking Minako once more. He then picked up Nick’s tunic, pushed her out of the way, and took Minako’s place in front of the general. Minako tried running toward Nick, but Howie pulled her back toward the tents, out of sight of both Justin and Nick.

Nick’s wings shot from his back and his fangs spilled from his mouth. His eyes glowed with the intense sapphire color as he cracked his claws. His eyes were sightless, yet, still focused on Justin and the sword he held pointed at AJ’s illusionary Minako. The emerald demons stared in wonder at the monster that stood before them.

“So, then his former self is indeed the shadow of a demon…” Justin smirked, “But I doubt it is a formidable one…”

Nick growled and cracked his claws once more. Justin smirked and shoved AJ’s imitation of Minako to the ground. He lunged toward Nick, the blade of his sword shining in the pale light of the moon. Nick grinned maniacally, his fangs gleaming like Justin’s sword. He wrapped his fingers around Justin’s blade and shoved his other fist into the side of Justin’s abdomen. Blood streamed from the wound. Nick removed his hand with a quick pull and began licking the blood from his fingers. In his surprise, Justin drew back from his parry with Nick. Nick looked at the hand he had used to hold Justin’s sword. Blood streamed from a gash in his palm, he slowly licked it as well. His lips curled up, and while his lips resembled a snarl, his sightless eyes seemed to smile.

“Justin!” a male voice called.

Both Justin and Nick turned to the direction of the voice. Joshua stood with his legs spread apart for balance. He steadied an arrow against his bow, aiming at Nick. Nick didn’t react and stood perfectly still staring at Joshua with unfaltering confidence.

Joshua pulled back the string on his bow, “This one will hit your heart!” He released the arrow from the bow. A rush of wind came with its perfect aim.

Nick reached out his hand and caught the arrow, crushing the shaft as he tightened his grip.

Joshua stepped back in alarm, “What… What is he?!”

Lance clenched his fists, “I’ll do it!” His skin began to shine.

Christopher pushed him aside, “Leave this to the warriors, ki user!”

Lance growled.

The wind blew around Christopher as he tightened his fists, the air grew colder, the night darker. Hundreds of ice shards rained from the sky. Howie grabbed Minako tightly, then pushed her into the entrance of the tents. Brian laced his fingers, then raised his staff, surrounding the other three sapphire demons and their priestess in a barrier.

Nick let out a low laugh as he pressed his foot into the ground and sprung up like a cannon. He began kicking the ice shards away from his body, sending the shards in various directions, including back toward Christopher and Renee. Lance quickly wrapped his arms around Renee to shield her from the attack. Christopher dropped to his knees as his shoulders shook and the barrage of ice shards raining from the sky ceased. The barrier around the sapphire demons fell. Nick began laughing maniacally.

Lance turned to Nick and growled, “How dare you…”

Nick landed on the ground a few inches from Lance then delivered a swift kick to Lance’s abdomen. Lance fell to his knees. Nick turned to Renee.

Renee stepped backward and put up her hands. “Don’t come any closer…”

Nick took a step forward for each step Renee took backward.

“Not another step…” Her voice shook violently.

Nick reached his hand toward her and grasped her neck with his claws.

“JUSTIN!!” Renee shrieked as her voice cracked violently.

Justin pulled AJ from the ground and held him tightly in his grasp, his sword poised at his neck. “I told you before, demon, drop her.”

Nick began laughing and tightened his grip on Renee’s neck as he pulled her from the ground.

Renee flailed her arms, trying to remove his hand.

Justin growled and turned to AJ’s illusion of Minako. “Die, Sapphire Priestess…”

“STOP!!” a feminine voice rang through the wind.

Justin turned to face the voice. The true Minako had pushed past Howie and was running toward Nick with tears streaming down her cheeks.

“NICK!!!!” she reached her hands toward him.

Justin growled and dropped AJ to the ground, “A decoy…?” He turned and hurried in the direction of Minako and Nick.

Minako threw her arms around Nick’s chest, her tears falling on his bare back. “Nick! You didn’t want to be this again! Let Renee go!”

A hushed silence fell over the emerald demons. Again?

The sapphire glow in his eyes subsided.

Minako let go of his back and forced herself between Nick and Renee. She smiled and put her hand to his face, “I love you… Just the way you’ve always been…” She pressed a kiss to his lips and gripped his outstretched arm, “You’re perfect exactly as you are!”

Renee struggled to breathe, but the black surrounding her began filling with color again as the vibrations of a soothing voice penetrated the darkness.

“…For both of us…”

Renee opened her eyes slowly as she felt the weight on her neck being lifted. As her vision became clear, she found herself staring into Nick’s blue eyes without the sapphire glow.

Blood streamed down the side of his face from a gash in his forehead, but he smiled gently, “See… It’s large enough for both of us…”

Renee let out a growl. How dare he tell me lies and smile like an idiot! At that moment she felt claws digging into her neck again, she coughed and reached her hands to her throat again before being flung to the ground. She looked up at Nick who had held her tightly only moments before. His arms were wrapped tightly around Minako, but his face was strained into a grimace. A long object protruded from his back and clawed hands wrapped around the handle at the top. Renee’s stare followed the hands to a pair of arms attached to a torso covered in metal. Justin! Justin had stabbed him!

“Nick!!” Minako shrieked.

Nick winced and leaned his head against hers. . He began laughing quietly and took in a sharp breath, “It’s alright… I’ve had worse…”

Minako gripped his chest tightly.

“Nick! Allow us to assist!”

Nick turned over his shoulder and saw Howie standing only a few feet from him, holding out his sword. Nick nodded. Howie tossed the sword toward Nick. It flipped in the air before Nick caught it nimbly and thrust it into Justin’s side, one of the few places his body was not covered in armor.

Justin growled and gripped his side, “You…”

Nick growled as well, “How cowardly of you to wield a weapon and wear armor in a fight amongst demons!” Nick pulled the sword from Justin’s side. Nick’s hand trembled as he tried to hold the sword’s grip tightly, sweat and blood pouring down his face.

Minako tightened her grip on him and flailed her hand across his back. I have to help! She managed to grasp the blade of the sword. I have to help! She gripped it tightly and flailed her other hand until she caught the other side of the sword, then began to pull on it with her entire strength, struggling against the pain welling in her hand.

“Minako… Don’t…” Nick tightened his grip around her as he held Howie’s sword tightly.

Minako’s breathing became labored as she smiled at Nick, “I’d rather cut off my hand than see you die…” She tightened her grip on the blade, “So I’ll pull it out no matter what!” Her hand began glowing with an intense blue light and she ripped the sword from Nick’s back. She held the blade in her shaking hand, but then dropped it to the ground.

Justin took hold of the sword again and gripped it tightly, “I’ll kill you…” his voice shook, “YOU WON’T LIVE DESPICABLE DEMON!!!!!!!”

Nick tightened his grip around Minako, a faint sapphire glow flickering on his skin. “I’ll protect you!”

Rain began to pour from the sky increasing the darkness of the bleak night. The once visible moon was blotted out by the overpowering darkness. Everyone looked up to see the rumbling clouds above them.

At that moment, giant, glowing red orbs appeared in the sky and a booming voice sighed, “Such a wonderful burst of power…”

Minako clenched her bloody hand and growled, her eyes seething, “You…”

The voice seemed to laugh, “Priestess… Why that look? Do you plan to murder me with your eyes? Do not forget, the one who torments my darling Nickolas is you… Not me.”

Minako clenched her fist tighter, “What’s the point of all this killing?! This bloodshed?! Why do we need to fight?! Just give one of us the box and everything will be okay!!”

“I cannot do that…”

“Why not?!!”

“Every heart has different wishes… And besides that, only one of you has a complete set of demons…”

Minako turned to Renee. She sat on the ground, covering her face with her hands, hiding from the gruesome eyes in the sky.

“I invite you to my castle, Pandora of the Sapphires… And you as well, Pandora of the Emeralds… That is, once you find your last demon…”

“Your castle?! Is that where the box is?!” Minako shouted toward the sky.

“Perhaps…”

“Where do we go?! Tell me!!”

“My invitation extends no place or time, simply come at your convenience…”

Minako growled, “Just tell me where!!”

“If you have overcome your other obstacles… Why not partake in one more?”

“WE’RE DYING TRYING TO GET TO YOU!!!!”

“I would never let my demons die…”

“BUT THE OTHERS--”

A great stream of rain landed on Minako’s face. The glowing eyes had disappeared from the sky leaving only the thunder and rain to pour and crash on the demons and the two priestesses standing beneath the large tree, shadowed by its branches. Renee sat on the ground, covering her eyes tightly with her wrapped arms. Minako choked as she tried to hold back her tears while gripping Nick tightly with her bloody, shaking hand. Nick held Howie’s sword limply in one hand, and clutched onto Minako with the other. The blood that poured down his face washed away each moment with the streams of rain. Justin stood behind them, staring up at the ominous sky, his clothing darkening with the rain and his blood. Though his gaze remained unwavering, his sword rested limply in his grasp.

AJ pulled on his earring quickly and regained his true form. He coughed. “I have no right to add my opinion, but it seems to me that we ought to head toward this castle if we have an invitation…”

Brian clenched his staff tightly. “Yes… The box is within our grasp.”

“What about their wounds?” Howie asked.

“I’ll handle that on the way,” Kevin answered grimly, “I think I can heal the Priestess and Nick by now… Or at least one of them...”

Nick held Minako close and turned to walk toward the others.

Justin raised his sword, his gaze seething, “I will not let you leave alive…”

Nick released his grip on Minako momentarily and clenched his now free hand. He shot it forward with a burst of speed and punched Justin in the jaw, his ring left a small gash in his cheek. Nick growled, “What’s the point of all your killing?! Sapphire demons, emerald demons, what does that matter?! We all have something sealed in that box! Why are we enemies?!”

Justin clenched his sword tightly, “Because we are emerald and sapphire demons!”

“What is it you care about? The box or power? Maybe that answer will help you find what you’re looking for!” Nick held Minako’s shoulders tightly as they walked toward the others.

When they reached them, Minako gripped Brian’s tunic tightly, “Can you transport us closer to the castle?”

Brian lowered his head, “I can try.” Brian laced his fingers together, then raised his staff and punctured the ground. A blue orb began surrounding them.

Minako looked in the direction of the emerald demons. Why do we have to be enemies? Nick’s right… We all want the same thing…

“You…” Justin growled.

A slim hand touched his shoulder, “Let them go…”

Justin turned quickly, “Lady Renee!”

Renee turned her head, “We’ll meet them soon enough… at the castle.” She looked at Minako’s glassy eyes, “That’s when I’ll deal with you, bitch!”

The blue orb began disappearing.

“I’ll be waiting…” Minako’s faint voice called back.

Renee turned her head quickly.

“I’ll be waiting…”

Lance stood on shaking legs, “What will you do, Your Eminence?”

Renee clenched her fist, “Justin, could you follow them? Would you remember their scent?”

“Of course, Lady Renee. That despicable demon is, after all, dripping with blood…”

“Good.”

The tents rustled and they turned to face them as Joseph’s pale face emerged. He held his hand to his face. Only moments before, I heard Alex’s faint voice.

“Don’t forget, Joseph… Don’t forget our friendship…”

His hand shook.

Renee sneered, “Who do you think you are, intruding on our conversation?” She walked forward and put her hand to his face. His pale wings lay loose against his back. “Why are you scared… Aren’t you a demon?” She removed her hand and turned to Justin, “Kill him.”

“Don’t!”

Renee turned quickly, “Lance?”

Lance held his palms together, “I sense his life force! He is one of us!”

“One of us?” Renee asked. She touched his face lightly once more, “What is your name?”

“Jo… Joseph…” his voice shook. Alex had remembered… They were demons on opposite sides…

“Joseph…” Renee smiled. She then choked and gripped her chest tightly. Truly… He’s the last…

Joseph gripped his chest as well.

“Your Eminence…”

Renee regained her composure and turned to Lance, “So he is!” She then turned to Justin, “Have you lost the scent?”

“No, Lady Renee…”

“Follow it! We have an invitation to accept!”

The five demons and their priestess disappeared into the night. The future resembled the sky, dark and bleak. A miasma of blood covered the world and their destinies as they traveled to the castle of the great glowing red eyes. What would they find there? And who would claim the Holy box?
Chapter Thirty-One: To The Castle by nicksgal
At the northernmost point of Rubiihoppou sat its treacherous and mighty ruby mountain, Ketsuyama. Even in the blinding white, it seemed to be a stairway from Heaven for God to reach the mortals living in the barren wilderness and icy tundra of the earth. The sapphire demons rested on a hidden slab of rock in a narrow grotto and stared at the perilous and looming path in front of them, attempting to traverse the peak with their minds. Below them, the wind blew snow across the rock, chafing and corroding the surface of the mountain. Above them, the freezing snow fell from the eons of rock that loomed to the sky. Within that grotto, they were safe from the merciless, harsh weather. Kevin kneeled and held Minako’s hand tightly as he examined it. Nick leaned his head on her shoulder, groaning as his adrenaline subsided. Howie, Brian, and AJ crouched beside them.

“No!” Minako jerked her hand back.

“No?” Kevin frowned.

Minako held it tightly with her other hand and shook her head. “Heal Nick first! He’s hurting!”

“But… If you bleed too much…”

“It’s okay!”

“We’re stronger...”

“It’s okay,” she smiled, tears forming in her eyes. “Don’t let Nick hurt anymore.”

Kevin turned to Nick and raised his hand over him as he pressed the other to his chest. As they emanated a deep sapphire light, the blood dripping down Nick’s face ceased, then the gashes in his cheek began disappearing. Eventually, Nick’s strained face began to relax. Kevin smiled as he hovered his hand over, around, and between Nick’s abdomen, back, and shoulder. Then he clenched his hand into a fist and removed the other from Nick’s chest, as he leaned back and exhaled, “Stop being so reckless, understood?”

AJ handed Nick his tunic, then backed away from Kevin.

Nick smirked as he pulled it over his shoulders, “I can’t make any promises.”

Kevin narrowed his eyes as his nostrils flared, then shut them quickly and shook his head. When he opened his eyes, he turned to Minako. “I’ll heal you now.”

Minako smiled and shook her head, “No, don’t waste your powers on me. We’re about to go to the castle! I’ll be fine with just a bandage, it’s stopped bleeding already, see?” She held it up to Kevin, but closed it quickly when he reached for it again. She winced.

Kevin shook his head as he pulled his salve and the leftover bandages from his tunic, “You’re a terrible liar. Both of you need to stop minimizing things.”

Minako turned to Brian as she hesitantly held her hand back toward Kevin, “Do you think you can get us any closer to the castle?”

Kevin began applying the salve to her hand.

Brian glanced away from her and shook his head as he frowned,his eyes drooping in concern. “No, my power isn’t that strong. This is as far as I can take us. There’s also a miasma surrounding this castle, I don’t think I’m strong enough to break it…”

“A miasma? Of what?” Minako frowned as well.

Brian shook his head again as he stared up the mountain, “I’m not sure, but it feels dangerous and empty all at once.”

Minako lowered her head.

AJ put a hand on her shoulder, “Hey. Cheer up. The path looks like it’s an even ascent, so we won’t have to actually climb the mountain.”

Howie nodded, “And it is fortuitous that Brian could bring us to this point rather than having to ascend on foot.”

Minako smiled and nodded, “Yeah… Thank you, Brian. You’re always taking good care of us.” Her hand flinched as Kevin put pressure on her palm.

Brian smiled, ”Of course.”

Kevin applied a few layers of the bandage, then began wrapping several more layers. After tying the loose ends, he gave her a pat on the back of her hand. “I’m finished. But, the next time you want to grab a sword, you should call one of us instead.”

Minako lowered her head again, “Yeah… Thank you for taking such good care of us, too, Kevin.”

Kevin made a small grunt as he nodded.

AJ stood slowly, “I hate to act like I’m the boss here, but… Let’s get going toward the castle. It’s probably a day hike at least and, well… The sooner we get there, the sooner we get the box. Right?” He smiled.

Howie, Brian, and Kevin turned to Minako.

“Yeah,” she smiled, “Let’s go. If Nick’s better, I’m ready.”

Nick patted his abdomen and nodded. The other three stood and then the four men began heading toward the grotto’s exit to the mountain’s icy path. Minako pulled her knees to her chest and leaned her head on them as she wrapped her arms around them.

Nick ran his hand along her hair and pressed a kiss to her head. When she glanced up at him, he smiled and stood as well, “Let’s go, Minako.” He held out his hand.

Minako leaned her head against her knees again and said nothing.

Nick kneeled back down and grabbed her shoulder. “Hey, we’re almost to the castle. Everything will be okay. We’re together...” Nick bit his lip, “It’s what Kevin said, isn’t it?”

“Yes… And no…”

He sat back down beside her and pulled her into his arms, “You really did want to call one of them. Were you afraid the general would pull the sword out and stab one of us?”

Tears began to stream down Minako’s cheeks.

Nick held her tightly, “Don’t worry. You’re trying to protect all of us so badly, but you’re missing the point…”

“What else is the point? I need you all to return the box to all of you. I can’t help if you’re not...” She covered her face with her hands as she trailed off.

Nick pulled her hand away and laced his fingers in hers as he lifted her chin, staring into her tear filled eyes. “Minako, we exist only for you…”

“What?”

“I shouldn’t speak for them… Me at least… I’m sure I exist only for you.” He bit his lip again and pulled her into his lap. “That’s why I’m scared to death. You came from a complete other world and I was never really living until the moment I met you… I spent my whole life waiting for Pandora, and now that I’ve found you, I’m finally someone who should exist… I’m finally alive… When you leave, we might not… I probably won’t... be alive any more…”

“But, you were alive before I came here… For decades! You’ve always mattered! You always deserved to exist!” She gripped his tunic at his chest.

Nick smiled weakly and ran his fingers through her hair, “I never said how long for sure. Decades… It could be more, it could be less… I’m pretty much a clean slate, you know?”

She gripped his cheek. “Nick… But your memories… I know you don’t remember your family, but...”

He frowned, “I have amnesia… That’s what Kevin called it...”

“But the priestesses and the tree…”

“Of course there’s bits and pieces, but…” he smiled, “I’m sure you knew.” He turned his head, “Kevin and I discussed it when we were traveling here…”

~*~

At the outset of their journey, the area of Rubiihoppou closest to the border resembled the lush green vibrancy of the more southern countries. A light breeze rustled the leaves of the trees that Howie and Brian leaned against while deep in slumber. At the center of the mock campsite, a small fire crackled and danced across Nick and Kevin’s faces. Nick ran his hand lightly through Minako’s hair while she slept in his lap, curled into a small ball.

“So, you’re remembering things you didn’t before?” Kevin asked.

Nick nodded and frowned, “Not a lot, but…” He bit his lip.

Kevin folded his hands in his lap and leaned forward, “How much since I healed you?”

“Only bits and pieces…” Nick frowned as he fiddled with Minako’s hair. “There are small things that will trigger something, but… It’s not a lot…”

“Like the gate?”

“I remember it shining like silver. There were tall demons and a tall woman with light hair…”

“And their faces?”

Nick shook his head, “Nothing else.” He stared at the sky as he continued to fiddle with Minako’s hair, “Of course, there were fragments before… But, nothing like now… No clear pictures, just things like unattached words or shapes or colors… Not much else…”

“Words?”

Nick nodded, “Mountain… Brian mentioned gold and blue mountains once and I’d like to see that.” He smiled, then frowned, “But even back when he said it, I recognized that word before we met you… Why would I recognize ‘mountain’? I don’t think I’ve been to one...”

Kevin frowned, “Anything else?”

Nick put his hands to his heart, “Just the priestesses… The countries… The box… God… That Pandora would know my name when she found me...”

“So that when you met Pandora you would know what to tell her… I wonder if you made yourself remember those things.” Kevin ran his hand along his chin. “It sounds like you have selective amnesia. A great deal of your memory probably centers around one particularly painful moment or several. I’m surprised you’re so chipper if you made yourself forget.”

Nick smiled and looked to the sky, “I didn’t use to be that way… I was sad, scared, and angry when I was all alone. I spent most of my time trying to figure out why I lived in that dark and dank place wearing chains… The best I could come up with was that I was a shame to God, being a demon and all…” He frowned. “It was really confusing at first seeing that other demons existed out here without those chains, but…” His gentle smile gleamed as he stared at her and ran his fingers through her hair, “But as Minako and I traveled together, she constantly showed me that I deserved to be away from that place, that I was worthwhile. She called me gentle and kind, brave and strong. She just made the world that much brighter as she surrounded me in her warmth and brightness. Then she brought me to all of you and then all of you treated me like I was worthwhile too. And now we can all be surrounded in that warmth and brightness...”

Kevin chuckled, “You really adore her, don’t you?”

“Adore?”

Kevin smiled, “It’s a deep love and respect… Or maybe worship?”

Nick stared at the sky again, “Maybe… Everybody says Pandoras are supposed to be goddesses…” He shook his head, “I don’t want to worship her, though, she’s not really that legendary Goddess. But I do... cherish her. I’ll do anything I can to protect her and that feeling grows more and more as time goes.” He chuckled and stared back at Kevin, “I used to care more about the box. It was all I thought about because I thought that maybe my memories were sealed in it. Then, when I got it, I could wish for a miracle and I could return to whatever my life used to be after everything was done. I dreamed that I could be surrounded in light and out of the darkness...” He smiled down at her again and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, “But, I’m surrounded by the warmth and brightness that I wanted right now and we’ve spent so much time together that I’ve made new memories. So I decided that I only want to be with her now and my old memories aren’t important any more.”

Kevin frowned and put his hand on Nick’s shoulder, “But if you do get your memories back and you’re someone different from this--”

Nick shook his head, “Doesn’t matter. My new memories matter more.”

~*~

Minako’s tears poured down her cheeks as she flung her arms around his neck tightly.

He gently cradled her head as he tightened his arm around her waist, then kissed her temple. “See? It’s important that we’re okay, but it’s important that you’re okay too. You will always be more important than the box.”

She gripped his cheek again, “You too. You’re most important to me.”

Nick pressed a hard, but tender kiss to her lips as he held her tightly to his chest. She held his shoulders tightly in response. He then stood up and pulled her up with him, steadying her as he did. He drew back his lips, then ran his hand through her hair. “Let’s go to the others, they’re probably worried. And the sooner we get to the box, the sooner we can figure out what to do afterward.”

Minako responded with a small, but determined nod.

Nick gave her a short kiss, then released his embrace. He gripped her hand tightly as he led her toward the entrance into the blinding snow where the others were patiently waiting for them to continue up the mountain.

~*~

The mountain loomed above them. It was a giant stairway to the castle of the glowing red eyes, the castle that Minako and her demons had disappeared to. Renee stared at its obscured top hidden within the clouds. It was only a few hours from our previous location, but those hours will cost us when it comes to catching up to them. Renee held her hands in front of her mouth, trying to catch her warm breath within them, then turned to Justin quickly.

“Are you sure this is where they are?”

He nodded, “Yes, Lady Renee. Ketsuyama, the blood mountain surrounded by death and mystery.”

“It took forever to get here! Is there a quicker way to the top?”

“No.”

“How do we climb this mountain then?! We’ll never catch up!”

“If you please, Priestess…” Joseph interrupted them meekly, “There is a hidden path to the top of the mountain. I can take you.” He pointed toward a nook in the base of the mountain.

Renee followed his gaze and smiled, “Yes, thank you, Joseph. That’s wonderful.”

Joseph squeezed through the narrow crevice and beckoned the other emerald demons to follow him. Inside, the crevice’s stone walls were blanketed by ice. Stalactites dripped pools of water to the ground of the tunnel. Several stalagmites rose from the path to join the stalactites. It may have been a comfort from the harsh wind, but it was damp and endlessly dark. Lance summoned a small, glowing orb to his hand, lighting their way as the emerald demons started down the narrow path. Renee grabbed Lance’s free hand quickly and shivered.

Joseph pointed ahead of him, “At the end, the path emerges on the mountain, so be careful, it will get very cold.”

Renee scanned the dim tunnel. How long have we been walking on this bleak path? It seems like ages. In this shadowed world, time stands still as it hides from the sun. Is the weather always bad in Rubiihoppou? This is suffocating... She held her shoulder and continued to clench Lance’s hand. Justin flanked her, pushing to the front of the group. Joshua and Christopher brought up the rear. Water from the ceiling continued to drip on them as they walked. Christopher shivered.

“Aren’t you comfortable in this type of environment, thief?” Joshua sneered.

Christopher shivered again, “It’s too dark for me to take pleasure in the ice.”

“We’re here.” Joseph eventually announced.

They emerged through a second crevice and into a small grotto. At the entrance, snow poured from the mountain, but inside, the cold rocky ground remained untouched. Justin inhaled and put his hand on the wall.

“What is it?” Renee asked.

“The smell of the blood is strongest here. But after that, I can’t smell it.”

Renee growled, “Did they magically heal themselves? How?”

“Wait. There is a faint smell of blood, but it is very faint…”

“No need to worry about scents.” Lance closed his hand, consuming the bright light, and pointed ahead. “These tracks on the ground must belong to them.”

Renee stared at the tracks. While most of them resembled shoe prints, a set of large clawed prints walked alongside them. That grotesque creature that Minako claimed to love wasn’t wearing shoes. These are fresh. Renee smiled, “We must be close!” She began to scan the path with her eyes and her elation began to sink. This is endless! Just how far is the castle from this cave?

Joshua leaned against the wall with crossed arms as he surveyed the grotto and the path beyond. “My guess is that they appeared here with that priest’s power and have been climbing the mountain while we were just trying to come to it.”

Renee clenched her fists. “This is so frustrating! Just how long is this path anyway?!”

Lance frowned. “If we don’t hurry, Your Eminence, the snow will wipe the prints away, and we’ll lose sight of their path.”

“But--”

Justin smirked. “Perhaps Lance has an intelligent idea for once. We must leave while the path is still navigable.”

Renee clenched her fists. Minako… Why are you making it so hard to reach you? Why do you keep trying for those creatures? Your demons are unbelievably weak. They can only protect themselves with weak barriers. And yet, you are winning. What do those creatures have that I don’t? Why are you treating them like they matter at all?

“Priestess…” Joseph tip toed toward her and put his hand on her shoulder.

Renee turned to him, “What?”

“This may not be a comfort, but this castle likely has traps to guard it. If we’re second, the other demons will spring them for us and we’ll be safe.”

Renee gasped. Of course! Minako, you can still suffer more. That’s what you get for going first, you suffer. A smirk spread across her face.

Justin took his usual spot at the lead of the party, then started up the icy path. Ahead of them, the sapphire demons would battle whatever horrors awaited in the castle for them.

Joseph hung back and clenched his fists. “Alex…” he whispered.

~*~

The storm was blinding, a furious blizzard of ice and snow. They shielded their faces from the encompassing white world, but the cold still stung their eyes. They cradled their shoulders trying to mask the paralyzing cold. Yet, even against its bitter sting, they moved forward.

“How long has it been?” Minako whispered to Nick as she huddled against his chest.

“Too long.” He rose his fist to his lips, blowing a warm breath that was quickly snuffed by the cold.

“Up ahead!” Brian called, shining his sun like scepter in the distance and illuminating the peak of the mountain.

It finally stood before them, the castle. It seemed old in appearance, desecrated, rotted, and decayed next to the palaces in the other countries, a beautiful and haunting ghost of bygone times. The moat surrounding it had frozen over and fused to the tall wall surrounding the compound. The keep and several towers could be seen looming over the outer wall. Despite the decay of time, the castle remained untouched by the blizzard that surrounded them.

Brian stopped abruptly at the edge of the frozen moat.

Minako huddled against him, “Brian?”

“This is the miasma.” He tapped it with his staff, and the miasma responded with electric sparks, “It’s a barrier of some sort, but not like mine.”

“Can you break it?” Nick frowned.

Brian shook his head, “I’m not strong enough… It’s made of something strange...”

At that moment, the barrier rippled in front of them, seeming to create a passage into the castle. They stared at each other with dread.

“We did receive an invitation…” AJ held out his hand, motioning the others to enter.

Brian led the way through the opening. Once all six were inside, the entrance faded.

Nick breathed on his hand again, the warmth actually reaching his skin. “From in here, it barely feels like we’re on top of a blizzarding mountain…”

The grounds of the castle compound were littered with the decayed and rotting remains of patches of pine trees and likely once lush gardens overgrown with weeds. These surrounded the scattered stone remains of the foundations of building compounds and gates. Several holes were nestled in the ground of the barren garden that once held tranquil ponds. Beyond the desolate gardens, a large, sloped stone foundation loomed above them, the only structure fully intact, though the stone was draped in ivy and moss. Towering above that, sat the five story castle’s keep -- the last sanctuary from impending infiltration. Nestled within the stone foundation was a final gate featuring a sloped stone roof and surrounded by four stone columns. Between the columns, listless half-open chipped and rotting wood doors barred the gate and weakly protected this bastion of refuge. Everywhere, the castle smelled of death and decay.

Kevin kneeled and picked up a yellowed flower, then clenched it tightly. He narrowed his eyes and scanned the overgrown gardens. “No one’s been in here for years.”

He stood, then they walked through the decayed gardens, searching for an entrance to the castle.

“Brian, do you have thoughts on the makeup of this miasma?” Howie scanned their surroundings as well.

Brian looked around aimlessly, “I have no idea.” He covered his nose with his arm, “But it reeks of death everywhere.”

Once they reached the front face of the castle, the half-opened doors creaked on their hinges, opening to their full width. “Enter, Sapphire demons…” the rumbling voice called, “I hate to invite guests who refuse to accept an invitation…”

Kevin eyed the doors suspiciously.

“I feel like we’re walking on twigs…” AJ stared at the others and then the doors as he adjusted his collar.

“That’s because we probably are.” Nick held the back of his neck as he cocked his head and pursed his lips. “They’re all over the ground…”

Kevin put his hand to his forehead and made a quiet grunt, “Nick… He means that it might be a trap.”

The five men continued scanning the doors, the garden, the blizzard outside, and each other. Meanwhile, Minako stared intently at the castle’s keep that loomed above them. On the top floor beneath the sloped roof, the gating surrounding the veranda was decorated by five winged and horned creatures that resembled the five men standing beside her. She gripped and pulled on Nick’s sleeve and pointed toward them. “Look at the pretty gargoyles, Nick! You guys!”

Nick turned quickly and put his hand on her shoulder as he squinted to follow her gaze. AJ cocked his head as he crossed his arms. Howie rose his hand to his mouth and shuddered, his face blanching. Brian walked closer toward the castle and stared up at it.

“Howie?” Kevin put his hand on his shoulder and frowned.

Howie moved his shaking hand slowly, “We do not mean to dampen Pandora’s spirit…”

“Dampen? Why?” Minako questioned.

“We are concerned that judging by the age of this castle, the accuracy of sculpting would not match their features.”

“The features?” Brian pursed his lips and turned back toward Howie

AJ put his hand to his chin, stroking his facial hair. “Come to think of it, don’t most gargoyles look like dogs or horses or cats or something?”

“These are men, or at least, nearly human.” Kevin crossed his arms, his eyebrows narrowing.

“These are hardly humans.” Howie shook his head, “These are clearly demons. And the features on that one are identical to the first king of our dynasty…”

Nick bit his lip, “Demons were brought from the sky to bring order to the warring states… They were made kings of the great lands…” Nick’s eyes grew wide as a realization washed over him. “Howie, that’s really true? All the countries used to be ruled by demons?!”

Howie nodded, “Indeed, though it seems Safaiananpou may be the last nation with demon lineage in the monarchy.”

“So they look like the first kings of the great nations?” Minako frowned as she fiddled with Nick’s sleeve, “Don’t understand why there’s five though if there’s only four countries…”

Howie stared back up at the gargoyles as he lowered his head, “Worse than that, We fear that they are the first kings descended to earth.”

“Then…” Brian froze and gripped his staff tightly, “We might be walking into our own tomb.”

AJ turned and quickly walked back toward the edge of the barrier, “I’ll see you all at the bottom of the mountain!” He started running and tried to cross into the blizzard, but the barrier flung him to the ground. Sparks shot from his body as he landed.

“AJ!” Minako ran toward him, then kneeled beside him and gripped his shoulders.

AJ sat up slowly and growled as he clutched his head.

Kevin clenched his fist and snarled, “I thought so, it is a trap.”

Minako’s hands shook violently as she clutched AJ, “Then… The box isn’t here?”

Brian scanned the grounds again, “It probably is here. We’d have no reason to come if it wasn’t. But, it looks like there’s a price on admission to this castle. When we lose, we get turned into ornaments as well…”

Nick strode over to Minako and AJ, then helped pull them from the ground. “It’ll be fine. If they were the first kings, then they’ve been dead a really long time… Let’s wait to worry until we see the others.”

“The others?” Brian frowned.

Nick clenched Minako’s hand tightly, “If the box is here, and we think that dead demons are turned to stone, then the demons from Rubiihoppou and Topazuseihou are ornaments in here somewhere...” He started pulling Minako toward the entrance, “And we’re already here, so we can worry or we can go forward.”

Nick pushed aside the swinging doors and the others tentatively followed him. As usual, Brian led the group, followed by Howie, then Kevin, then AJ. With high suspicions, tightly strung nerves, and suffocating fear, the ensuing darkness became their path. A misstep surely meant death, if not an eternity as a stone monument -- the embodiment of their looming worries. Yet Nick’s words rang in their ears: worry or go forward.

End Notes:
As mentioned in the chapter, Ketsuyama (Kay-tsoo-yah-mah; the “tsoo” sound is a close approximation to if you elided together “eight” and “suits” in English, isolating the sound made when the /t/ in “eight” and the “su” in “suits” are combined) translates roughly as "blood mountain."
Chapter Thirty-Two: Stone Soldier by nicksgal
The stagnant, musty, and murky darkness enveloped them as they entered the castle. However, in the same instant, the looming darkness burst in the brightness of a sea of glowing candlelight. The bare room held only the candles and ancient suits of armor piled high like palace guards. The walls, floor and ceiling retained their freshness, unstained by time, the blinding blizzard, or the miasma surrounding the castle. The dark stone matched the sloped stone foundation of the outside. While the dead world surrounding it had once been alive, this inner sanctum held a cold sterility that continued to spread down the dark and narrow hallway in front of them. The darkness seemed to engulf the rest of the path for eternity.

“It seems I’ve led us down a narrow path…” Nick scowled.

“What else could we have done?” Brian gripped his staff and sighed, “It’s clear that we were trapped from the moment we got our invitation, with or without the box.”

Minako put her hands to her heart. If the box is here, where is it? Is it waiting somewhere deep within the chasms of darkness? It’s like it’s sealed and hidden in a tomb from everyone except for brave treasure hunters. Am I a treasure hunter? Am I brave enough? If we can find it, then I can restore everything that was taken from them. My wishes haven’t changed, I still want all the same things for everyone I love. The demons have suffered too much… Renee has suffered too much. It’s time for everything to end. Minako shut her eyes quickly. Can I depend on their powers here? Or maybe they can depend on whatever small power I have. Darkness and the color red shroud the box… No. I know for sure this time... It’s not only red, it’s definitely blood. My sisters came to this place ages ago, then struggled and fought their way down the same narrow path only to suffer and die. They were revered sacrifices for protecting their countries, but Emeradotouhou continued to attack them ruthlessly. They were cursed, but we’ll all have peace soon. Renee is coming to this castle and I’m supposed to fight her until only one of us wins. Maybe even if she wins, the conquered countries can still have peace… That’s not true. I saw her eyes, there wasn’t any wavering, concern, or Renee left in them at all. If the Renee I know is gone, then I will fight her. I’ve been trying not to spill anyone’s blood... I’ve been trying to only give her love because I love her… But it’s too late, I can’t only love her now, she made that clear. Minako clenched her hand into a fist. I’ll wait for her and I’ll fight back.

“Minako…” Nick’s worry penetrated her thoughts.

She turned to face him.

He bit his lip and furrowed his brow as he gripped her hand tightly. “Do you sense it anywhere?”

“Not here…” she glanced away from him, but gripped his hand back. “But it feels like it’s very close.”

He smiled, “Then let’s keep going. Brian, why don’t you lead the way.”

“Because you’re scared, Nick?” He chuckled.

“Because you’re like a candle! You’re always leading!”

Minako frowned. Can Nick keep us safe in the darkness if he really had been raised there? This darkness seems different than Nick’s stagnant and cold darkness, it’s more ominous and threatening.

Brian started walking down the cold and sterile hallway. The others followed him in their typical order. Minako put her hands to her heart again. What can our powers do here? Brian can’t use his transportation power, but can he still use his barrier powers and sutras? Kevin can always use his powers to heal us, but what if too many of us get hurt? What can AJ’s shapeshifting powers do? Howie has his sword, but his powers are just as mysterious as Nick’s powers… And Nick has his strength and his determination, but what else is inside him? When he became that other Nick, his power increased enormously, but what are his demonic powers? Could he use them if he needed to?

Amnesia… Did his powers disappear with his memories? Kevin called it selective amnesia… What happened that Nick forgot the reason he was in the darkness? What happened to make him forget everything about his childhood or his powers? Maybe the reason it always hurts him so much when I’m sad is because his heart already shattered. How did he pick up the pieces? It’s hard keeping my heart together. Renee…

Hatred consumed her. What else can I do besides fight her? What could I have said? Renee refuses to listen to reason... I don’t have any more choices. How can I love someone who refuses to be loved? It’s hard to hate her no matter how much it hurts, no matter how long I cry. It’s endless pain and suffering… But we’ve been together too long for me to really hate her. She clenched her free hand tightly. I really thought love was enough, but I’ll need the Holy box’s powers to rescue Renee from the darkness... That foul demon always stands by her side and taints her. She always clings to him and calls out his name while he smirks and draws blood. Are Nick and I any better? We’ve been together almost every moment since the beginning, holding each other tightly, making promises to each other, worrying about the future, crying together, and smiling together… Maybe Renee and I are both corrupted... Can our hearts only hold one love?

“This is endless…” Nick’s empty voice rang through her thoughts.

Minako gripped his hand tighter as she glanced at him, then leaned against his shoulder.

He wrapped his arm around her and clenched his other fist, “It’s just trying to lose us in this maze!”

“It’s a straight path, how can it be a maze?” AJ rubbed his chin.

“But all we’re doing is walking… If he wanted to get rid of us wouldn’t he…” Nick began mumbling.

AJ turned to Minako and smiled as he kept pace with her, “I’m still not sure what you see in him…”

Minako managed a weak smile despite her otherwise ominous thoughts, “There’s plenty of great things about him.” She patted Nick’s arm.

“WATCH WHERE YOU’RE STEPPING!” Nick shouted.

“What?” Brian froze and turned back toward him.

Kevin and Howie turned as well. Howie frowned and pursed his lips as he reached for his sword. Kevin reached his hand back and touched Nick’s shoulder.

Nick’s hands began to shake as he stopped walking. “I don’t… know…” He laughed weakly, “That just came from nowhere… Must be… my imagination acting up…” He brushed his hair back with his hands. “I’m fine. Let’s keep going.” He grabbed Minako’s hand and pulled her forward as he started walking.

Brian, Howie and Kevin turned back around and started walking again.

“And his good points are coming out, when?” AJ laughed.

“All the time,” Minako beamed. That sudden outburst, though… Wait… What was that word he said he remembered from before Kevin healed him? Mountain? “Nick!” Minako pulled his hand back as she tried to catch up with him, but her foot caught a lip in the floor and she started falling.

“Minako, it’s okay...” He turned to smile at her, but grabbed her arm quickly and pulled her toward him, keeping her upright. “Are you okay? Be careful!” He frowned as he pulled her against his chest.

“N-Nick…” AJ stammered.

Minako laughed, “It’s really dark, I didn’t see it.”

“P-Priestess…”

“Keep holding my hand and I’ll keep you safe.” Nick smiled.

“D-Doctor…”

Minako gripped Nick’s cheek and brushed her thumb against it, “Okay.”

“P-Priest…”

Nick smiled warmly and gave Minako a kiss.

“Y-Your Majesty…”

“What, AJ?!” they all turned to face him.

AJ jumped back from surprise, but pointed wordlessly in the direction of the entrance at stone slabs falling from the ceiling.

The slabs either featured a face of stone spikes or a smooth side. As they dropped, they alternated between the two faces. First the spikes would point toward them, then the smooth face, then spiked, then smooth. At that moment, a new slab began to fall.

He turned back to them. “Umm… Why are we just standing here staring at them?”

Everyone flinched as they gaped at each other, but quickly jolted back to attention. Brian, Howie, and Kevin turned and sprinted from the falling slabs. Nick grabbed Minako’s hand and forcefully pulled her away from the slabs. She stumbled, but caught her hand on his back. AJ ran after them. A glowing light appeared ahead of them inside an arched doorway.

“There’s a room up ahead!” Brian shouted back, “Maybe that’s where the box is!”

The first three made it to the looming arch within moments. The walls rumbled around them, then a slab fell between them, trapping AJ, Nick, and Minako.

“Minako!” “Pandora!” they heard the faint cry of the others.

AJ put his hand to his head, “So… It makes no difference to them whether we live or die…” He clenched his fist and growled.

“It matters!” Nick exclaimed.

“Nick! AJ!”

Nick gestured to the slab, “See.”

“The spikes…” Minako pointed behind them.

Nick and AJ turned to see a spiked slab slowly sliding across the ground toward them. The ground creaked, cracked, and shook beneath the slab.

Nick clenched his fist and growled, “Kevin told me not to do anything reckless!” He smirked and began laughing, “I guess I’ll have to apologize because it’s a promise I can’t keep after all!” Nick slammed his fist into the inward pointing spikes. Blood began streaming down his hand as small cracks began to form on the face of the slab before it shattered.

Much to their surprise, a slab with a smooth face had fallen while they were trapped.

Nick clenched his fist and let out a growl, “This is getting frustrating!!” He kicked the offending slab and it also shattered.

The walls shook around them, but they could see the others standing inside the arch. However, a slabbed creaked and moaned against the tip of the arch as it began descending. Above them, another slab also tried to shake free from the ceiling.

“Hurry!” Brian screamed, “You can make it!”

AJ sprinted ahead then cowered behind Kevin after he made it through the arch.

“Go, Minako!” Nick shouted.

Minako turned back to him, “Nick!”

“I’ll follow you and protect you from the ones behind us! Go!” Nick gave her a rapid push and she started running toward the arch, but stumbled a few feet from the door and fell. Nick started to run toward her, but Brian pulled her into the room. Nick let out a sigh of relief and smiled. He glanced at the stone slab behind him that inched closer each moment as it nipped at his heels. He stared ahead at the slab covering half the arch.

“It’s too far down.” He growled, but waved to the others with his hand, “Stand back!!” He began sprinting as fast as he could.

“NICK!!!” Minako shrieked and reached her hand through the doorway.

Kevin and Howie disappeared into the room. AJ skittered across the floor as he cowered behind them. Brian pulled Minako away from the door.

“NICK!!!”

“Minako, it’s going to be okay!” Brian struggled as he kept trying to pry her from the door.

“I’ll make it! I promise! Trust Brian!” Nick shouted

Brian finally pried Minako from the doorway and they disappeared into the room.

Nick dropped into a slide, clearing the arch moments before the slab fell to the ground and locked them inside. Nick put his hand to his chest and gulped air.

“NICK!!!” Minako shrieked as she tore from Brian’s grasp and ran toward Nick. She dropped to her knees and sobbed as she thrust her arms around his shoulders.

Nick wrapped his arms around her tightly, “I know, it was a close call. But I told you I’d make it.”

Kevin shook his head as he ran his hand on his forehead, “Nick, you do realize the consequence for your reckless behavior is death, right?”

“Why would I die now, when I’ve only begun to live?” Nick smiled.

Minako pulled Nick closer to her.

Nick held her closely and ran his hand through her hair, “I’m really fine, I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“Don’t cry, Priestess!” AJ smiled, “We can’t die before we get to the box!”

Minako buried her head in Nick’s chest.

“Not the rest of us…” Nick replied dryly, “Though you might…”

AJ cowered behind Kevin again. Kevin ran his hand down his cheek to his chin as he stepped toward Nick. He paused and shook his head as he let out an exasperated sigh. Instead of speaking, he scanned their surroundings quickly. The long room was empty except for the candles lining the walls.

“What is concerning you?” Howie asked.

“Don’t you hear it?”

Howie glanced at the ground. It shook as a few small stones bounced against it and rolled by their feet.

“Footsteps…” Kevin furrowed his brow.

“Who would enter my chamber?” A distant voice rattled through the silence.

Had their host finally come to call on them?

Nick stood slowly, still holding Minako tightly. He squeezed her for a moment, then released her and started walking toward the back of the room.

“You don’t know what it is!” AJ hissed.

Nick took another step forward toward the empty center of the room. “We’re the Sapphire demons. We’re here to claim the box.” He scanned the room again, “Where are you?!”

“Sapphire demons… Didn’t they all die in the brutal wars?”

“No… We’re very much alive.”

A pair of glowing red eyes appeared as dust and dirt began to fill the room. “Let me see your face…”

Nick stepped back, but the dusty dirt stroked against his face. Nick clenched his eyes shut and flinched away. It’s like a windy day or a ghost… But also warm like a hand...

“Nicky…”

Nick choked and pulled backward. Nicky… He put his hand to his head and clenched his eyes shut. It stings. There’s too much dust… Tears lapped down his cheeks. No... Nicky… Is my heart breaking? It’s not the same kind of pain as when Minako called me Nick, but… It feels like something I should know...

“Nick!!” Minako ran to him and wrapped her arms around him. “Who’s there?” Her voice shook, “Stop hurting him! He doesn’t remember!”

“Doesn’t remember…”

Minako held Nick close to her, “It’s okay Nick! It’s okay if you don’t know!”

“Woman,” the voice sneered, “Who are you?”

Minako continued to hold Nick closely, but remained silent.

“Come to me woman!”

She turned toward the bellow. In the barren room, a figure clad in blood red armor stood within the smoky dirt. His chest plate, abdomen plate, back plate, and shoulder plates were all spherical. The plates surrounding his upper thighs resembled ovals. Large wings towered from his back and clawed hands held a bloody sword.

“A demon?” Minako clenched Nick tighter as she gaped at the creature.

“Woman!” the demon sneered.

“Stay beside Nick, Pandora!” Howie pulled his sword from its scabbard.

“Pandora…”

“Howie?” Brian gripped his staff, holding it at attention.

“The armor is Rubiihoppou’s, but it is the armor they wore during the siege!”

The ruby eyes flickered and danced as the demon smirked, “You are one of the remaining Priestesses? How do I know that you are not truly the Pandora of Emeradotouhou? They would be the type to trick and kidnap Nicky...”

Trick and kidnap? Nick’s hands shook as he gripped his head. These are my...

Minako’s hands shook as she tightened her grip on Nick, but she stared at the ground, avoiding the glowing eyes of the armored soldier. “Pandora of the emeralds… She and I were separated by this world of killing and death. She became cold and unfeeling, she isn’t the friend I remember… Her demons are cold and calculating, happy to spill the blood of others. I tried to give her my whole heart, but apparently I’m the one who broke and betrayed her...” Minako’s tear filled stare bored through the demon, “So now we have to fight and die.”

The soldier stepped toward her, “You sleep and call this world a horror?!”

The room rattled again as rocks shot from the wall toward the sapphire demons. Brian quickly raised a barrier around the four closest to the wall, but the rocks slammed against Nick and Minako, knocking them backward. Nick crumpled to the ground in a heap as Minako hit the wall behind her, then fell to the ground. Cuts ran down her arms and legs as her tears fell from her eyes. Why? This feels like the cold and dark shrine room in Emeradotouhou’s palace. It hurt, but Renee only watched as the general thrust me into the walls. This demon is a blood red embodiment of him! I tried so hard to reach out to her and hold her safely! But it was too late and her heart was already closed and emptied of love! My love is a waste to her, but... She glanced at the other sapphire demons in Brian’s barrier, then at Nick trembling on the ground, clutching his head and hyperventilating. But it’s not to them! Minako stood on shaking legs. “Why?!” She held her shaking hands close to her heart as she clutched them together, “Why are you hurting us?!” She began walking back toward the soldier, “We never attacked your country or started a war! I only… I only came to help them get back the box!”

“‘Where is the Sapphire Pandora?’ ‘She is sleeping…’ ‘Why won’t she come?’ ‘She is selfish…’ ‘Will she rescue me?’ ‘No…’ So many times he asked… Betrayer!” The demon soldier slid the blade of his sword through his hand, wiping the dried and aged blood from it as he replaced it with fresh blood from his hand.

Nick wrapped his arms around his shoulders and curled into a tight ball as he continued to tremble. Where is the Sapphire Pandora? I’ve asked that question so many times in the deep darkness. Why did she refuse to come? Did God love her too much to send her down? Why does this demon know that?

Minako continued walking forward slowly as blood dripped down her arms and legs. She winced, “I’m going to help my friends...”

The soldier smirked, “Friends? Selfish priestesses do not deserve the box, whether they are Sapphire or Emerald. Both slept while there was hell. Pitiful demons will die.”

Minako continued to walk toward him, “You’re angry because we slept while you fought for your life in this castle? I’m sorry we’re a decade late to your battle, Ruby Cardinal Demon!”

Brian gasped as he disintegrated his barrier, “Ruby cardinal demon!” He turned toward the blocked door, “Then that deathly miasma surrounding this place is a barrier made from the anger in your souls! Minako!” He started running toward her.

The soldier pointed his sword toward Minako, “Move, Priestess. I will savor killing you last for sleeping!” He swept his sword up and brought it down with a clean slice. The ground began cracking and shot rocks toward Minako and the sapphire demons. One rock knocked Brian back, but most of the rocks hit Minako and thrust her against the wall. Blood trickled down her cheeks and limbs as she sunk to the floor.

“Why do you still stand in my way, Priestess?” the soldier growled.

Minako’s eyes filled with tears, “Don’t… Don’t kill… my friends…”

The soldier’s eyes seared as he slashed his sword through the air, shooting more rocks toward Minako and slamming her against the wall again.

“Minako!” “Priestess!” “Pandora!” They shouted simultaneously.

Nick flinched on the ground. Minako… He gripped his head and sat up shakily. He scanned the room and his eyes fell on her trembling body as she tried to stand. “Minako!” He crawled to her and thrust his arms around her, pulling her to his chest.

The soldier raised his sword again. “Now Priestess, if you are willing to wait patiently for your turn, let me destroy your demons.” He pointed the sword toward Nick, “I’ll start with the traitor!”

“Nick…” she clutched his shoulders.

Nick pulled them up, his legs shaking as he struggled to stand. “Minako… I won’t die… I’ll protect you.”

“Nick…”

He pulled her to his chest and his skin began flickering sapphire, “He won’t hurt you any more! I promise!”

“All traitors must die!” the soldier shrieked as he sliced the air with his sword again.

“NICK!” Her cry pierced the silence as a cloud of dirt surrounded Nick, Minako, and the soldier.

“We have to help him! He’s already hurt!” AJ shouted as he tried to run toward them, but Kevin pulled him back.

A drop of blood fell to the floor as the dust cleared.

The soldier laughed, “The traitor is no more!”

Nick opened his eyes as he steadied his hands against the ground, then brushed the dirt from his face, smearing blood on his forehead and cheeks. “It’s only a scratch…” he smiled, “See? I’ll protect you, Minako.”

“Nick…” Her voice smiled, but shook weakly.

Nick flinched. Why is her voice coming from above me? He thrust his hands against the ground and stood weakly, but pulled her into his arms like a gust. Her legs trembled as she stepped back into his arms, her breathing was shallow, but she gripped his hands tightly.

Nick growled, but his voice shook violently. “You dared to stain me with my beloved’s blood…” He started to crack his claws as his eyes began to glow sapphire.

“Nick…” Minako turned and brushed her hand through his hair.

The glowing subsided. “Minako…” He pulled her close again.

“Don’t become that! I’ll protect you and our future.” She gripped his cheek tightly. “I won’t let him force out your memories! You have to live! And I will too.”

“PRIESTESS!!! WHY WON’T YOU DIE?!?!”

The room rattled as rocks shot from the walls and flew toward them. Minako pulled from Nick’s embrace and pushed him to the ground moments before the rocks began to form a casing around her.

Nick clenched his fist and tried to stand. “I’ll get you out! I’ll protect you!”

She glanced down at him and brushed his cheek, “Nick… I’m going to protect you with my power… I promise… I’ll be okay… Let me protect you!” She released her hold on his cheek and held her arms tightly against her body.

“Minako!!” Nick thrust his hand toward her as the rocks sealed her entire body, like a beautiful sculpture in the otherwise empty room.

The soldier laughed maniacally, “Your Priestess is a statue now! This will be the tomb for you all!” He swung his sword and rocks began shooting from the walls again.

“Nick! I’ll make a barrier, come back to us!” Brian’s voice rang through the dust and rubble.

Nick clenched his fists, “No!! I’m going to fight! I promised!” He smashed one of the rocks with his fist. He glanced back at Brian and the barrier, then exhaled a pent up breath before running toward the soldier. “Why destroy us? We’re not the emerald demons! We’re not here for blood!”

“No one should have the box. If we failed, so too should the others belonging to the worthless priestesses who refused to descend.” The soldier swung his sword again.

“They were only waiting! They’ve descended now!” Nick shattered several rocks as he continued running toward him.

“How long will you go on battling me? Your friends have given up, your priestess is sealed. You, traitor, are the only one who still stands to attack.”

“Forever! I’ll fight forever! Because Minako was willing to protect me!”

“Will she rescue me?”

She will always rescue me!

Minako’s sculpted body began glowing a bright sapphire color. The soldier stepped back in alarm as the statue shattered and rocks burst from her body.

“Nick, stop... I’m keeping you safe...” Minako held her arms toward him as she walked toward him shakily.

Nick skidded to a stop, then turned and ran back toward her. “Minako!”

The room rattled as it filled with musty dirt again, knocking Nick and Minako to their knees. Nick growled as he whipped his head back toward the soldier to see that he was covered in a pile of rubble. Nick snarled, pushed himself from the ground and ran toward the pile. Once he reached it, he began lifting and throwing rocks from the soldier’s body. The rocks emanated a ruby glow, then exploded, hurtling Nick backward. He landed on the ground next to Minako and let out a yelp as he tried to pull himself up on his hands. In the pile’s place, the soldier’s form had become a stone statue.

Minako reached toward it weakly, “Ruby Cardinal Demon… He really did join the kings above the entrance…”

Nick struggled to sit, then flung his hand over his mouth, “Brian was right, when we lose--” He bit back a choked breath,

Minako flung her arms around his neck and pulled him toward her chest, “I promise! I won’t let it turn my friends to stone!”
Chapter Thirty-Three: Abyss by nicksgal
The stone walls in the vast and empty rooms surrounded them. Some of the candles still flickered on the walls, but many had fallen to the ground, exhaling only wisps of smoke. At one edge of the room stood their sole companion, a statue of a once mighty demonic ghost encased in stone. He was the picture of a gallant soldier: decorated in armor, wings flaring from his back, and claws tightly clenching a sword. The ruby glow had subsided from his eyes, making him seem calm and docile, hardly an enemy at all. Minako held Nick closely to her chest. His erratic breathing slowly calmed while his hands stopped shaking as he wrapped his arms around her. They were each others’ safe haven as their anxious hearts beat loudly.

“Why?” His voice shook when he finally spoke.

Minako gripped her fingers in his hair and pulled him closer.

“Why do we have to die?!”

“I won’t let you die, Nick.” She leaned her head on his.

The others walked carefully toward the soldier’s statue. Brian held his staff tightly as he put his hand to the soldier’s face and bowed his head.

Is death the true path for all demons? Weren’t they brought to earth as saviors? Yet they continued to be killed by humans that did not understand their true worth or true purpose. If God treasured them so highly as saviors, why did he refuse to protect them? And worse yet, why would he cage and imprison them in this castle? The souls of the departed demons begging for freedom comprised the miasma of death that surrounded this place. Why imprison them and deny them death for this long? Why force them to battle for the box if they were all meant to die? What was the true role of the priestesses in ushering in their deaths?

“Brian?” Kevin placed his hand on his shoulder and furrowed his brow.

“Why does his heart still linger?”

Howie frowned as he fiddled with the hilt of his sword. “Perhaps the castle is meant to hold his body…”

Brian pulled a sutra from his tunic, “Then I’ll free his spirit.” Brian bowed and held his laced fingers to the bridge of his nose, still clutching his staff. Then he separated then and lowered the talisman toward the statue as he shut his eyes. His fingers blazed as the paper ignited and burned. Brian dropped the paper quickly and stepped back from the statue. A pile of ashes formed on the ground beneath him.

“Brian!” Kevin pulled his hand toward him.

Brian chuckled and shook his hand and he pulled it from Kevin’s grasp, “No, it’s alright. I only got singed…” He frowned and grasped his staff tightly, “But our host isn’t playing any games! It wants to keep them. No, it wants to keep all of us!”

Kevin crossed his arms. “Why?”

Brian shook his head, “I don’t know… In fact, I’m beginning to wonder what our purpose really is. We were all taught to believe that all demons descended from those kings sitting above the entrance to his desecrated castle who were brought to earth for peace. Yet humans will kill our comrades and call it blood for the sake of blood whether or not we actually spilled any. And then the demons who failed to claim the box are robbed from death and forced to live as ghosts and stone abominations. Are all demons here denied death?” Brian clenched his fist, “Then what will become of us? If we fail, are we merely chained statues as well? And if we don’t, what happens then?!”

“Priestess…” AJ’s shaking voice wafted between them.

They turned to face AJ who stood motionless and stared at Minako and Nick dripping with blood as they held each other tightly, as though they were each other’s lifelines. If they came too close to death, they would pull each other back from the edges of hell.

“AJ?” Howie grasped his shoulder.

“She’s not like I imagined at all…” he shut his eyes and rubbed his hand on the back of his neck as he shook his head, “Why would she let herself bleed when she has us to use as a shield…”

“True…” Kevin chuckled, “It seems Pandoras usually looks down their noses at the demons…”

AJ laughed nervously, “I’ve never heard stories of them laughing or crying… Only sitting like regal princesses, being carried by their minions and barking orders…”

“The emerald priestess certainly plays her part well then.” Howie frowned.

“Howie?” Kevin rubbed his chin.

“While Brian and Nick are most experienced with her actions, our brief meeting paints her similarly to the others. Merely speaking without acting.”

AJ clenched his fist, “We got a defective Priestess!”

“Perhaps…” Howie smiled, “But perhaps that fact is good fortune for all of us.”

“Then what will happen to us, Howie?” Brian crossed his arms

“It is unclear. Perhaps it is our destiny to never know that answer.”

“Howie?” Kevin touched his shoulder.

“We all came here in search of something precious, what has been sealed in the box and hidden from us since the moment of our births. Perhaps to unseal something that Holy, a sacrifice is necessary. Yet, Pandora cannot die, she must obtain her wishes. That leaves the demons at her side…”

“But she wouldn’t kill us… Would she?” AJ’s face paled.

Brian clenched his staff tightly.

“Don’t… Don’t kill… my friends…”

He smiled, “She’s referred to us as ‘friends’ on many occasions, though I do not understand the meaning of it, it seems stronger than comrades or companions. The emerald priestess also seems to be a dear friend and up until this moment, she has refused to fight her.”

“‘Friends’, huh?” AJ smiled weakly. Joseph has been my companion for so many years. Even though we were from different countries, we formed a common bond. Is that what the Priestess means by being friends? Except it’s stronger?

Steps away from their conversation, Minako and Nick continued to hold each other closely. Tears fell from Nick’s eyes as he slowly reached his hand to dry them. Minako wiped them from his cheeks then wrapped her fingers around his hand.

“Minako…” He stared up into her eyes, his breathing quick and irregular.

“Nick… It’s okay to cry, I’m here.” She gave him a weak smile and chuckled, “I’ve never gotten to tell you that before, it’s always the other way around… You’re always so strong...”

He gripped her hand as he buried his face in her chest and lowered his voice to a whisper. “My heart’s beating like crazy… I’m so scared…”

“I’ll protect you, you don’t have to be afraid of dying.” She laced her fingers through his.

“Is death supposed to be frightening? It’s not really death I’m afraid of… It’s… not living...” Nick choked back his tears, but they still spilled down his cheeks. “More than anything I want to live… Without my memories there was only darkness, but… you gave me only light.”

“Nick…” She held him tightly and repeatedly brushed her fingers up the back of his head.

“Life was meaningless before… I was reckless… Living or dying didn’t matter to me when I felt worthless… But you gave me a reason to live and without that reason…” Nick gripped her waist with his arm tightly. “Don’t fight anymore…”

“But, I’ll--”

“Don’t fight anymore. Every time I see you hurt, it fills me with rage and worry…” He lifted his head and stared into her eyes. His own eyes were glassy, but hard with determination. “I know that you’re willing to die to protect me, but I’d die every time over losing you.”

“Nick…” Minako held his neck tightly, “I won’t die, don’t die either.”

“I won’t. Stay with me…”

“I will always stay with you.”

Nick sat up weakly and pulled her toward his chest, then held her cheek as he pressed a hard kiss to her lips.

Minako shut her eyes tightly and gripped her fingers into his hair as she continued to kiss him deeply. Even if he is a demon… Even if he has horns, wings, and a tail… Even if his gentle touch is from his claws… I love him more than anything! More than anything else, our time together is my most precious memory. And more than that, it’s Nick’s whole world outside the darkness! We have to share these precious memories forever! No matter what happens!

“This must be for the door!”

Minako and Nick pulled apart, sharing a warm glance before turning toward AJ. His hand gripped the handle of a lever.

“Does anyone else see another door?”

The other three demons continued to tap and examine various places in the room as Nick gripped Minako tightly. He pulled them both up, though they both clutched each other as their legs shifted for balance. Nick scanned the tomb-like room, but his eyes fixed on the closed arch. Only one way in and out. If we could open it, that path would lead back to the entrance. Did this tomb have any hidden exits for the deceased retainers to escape after entombing?

The other three demons shook their heads and started walking back toward AJ and the lever.

“Can’t see anything, so pull it! We’ll be right there!” Nick put his hand on Minako’s back gently.

AJ pulled the lever down forcefully. No passageway opened and no hidden entrance appeared. They all looked around the room aimlessly, scanning for any small motion they missed. Minako gripped Nick’s shoulders.

“Nothing…” Nick frowned, “Do you see anything?”

The ground beneath the two of them began shaking.

Brian gripped his staff tightly and began running toward the two of them. “Move! Come stand with us!”

Minako shut her eyes tightly, “Another earthquake?”

Nick held her tightly, “I’ll protect you forever!”

The floor slid from underneath Minako and Nick as they took the plunge into the abyss.

“Minako! Nick!” Brian began sprinting.

There was a flash of light colored claws as Nick gripped the ground just past the edge of the opening.

Brian thrust his staff out toward Nick’s hand as he neared them. “Grab on!”

“Can’t… It’s too high…”

“Then flap your wings and get some height!”

Brian heard a faint laugh, “Can’t…”

He gazed into the abyss as he closed the distance between them. Nick’s wings lay limply against his back as he clutched Minako tightly. When the rocks had emitted the ruby glow, then exploded and knocked Nick backward… Were his wings injured? Brian leaned down and reached his hand toward Nick’s. “Hurry, grab on…”

Nick’s claws began sliding across the ground, leaving deep gashes in the stone.

“I won’t let you!” He thrust his hand toward Nick just as his hand jerked from the stone. He held on to Nick tightly. “You can’t die!” Brian struggled against the weight pulling on his hand. “I may be a priest, revered even as a demon, but… I always respected you more…” Brian struggled to keep his grip on Nick’s hand as his feet slid forward. He stepped back forcefully and pulled. “So don’t die!”

Nick’s hand began to slip from Brian’s grip.

Brian tightened his grip, “Don’t let go! Hang on!” Brian fell to his knees and began sliding toward the abyss even as he tried pulling them back.

“Priest! I’ll push the lever back! I’ll push it back!” AJ thrust the lever upright.

Howie and Kevin began running toward the hole.

“Don’t…” Brian’s voice was strained as he continued pulling, “Don’t do that!”

The floor began to rattle back across the opening. As they spoke, it was closing and tearing Minako and Nick from Brian’s grasp.

Brian’s hands began to shake. No matter how hard I pull, I’m losing my grip. This is the only choice. Brian stopped pulling on Nick’s hand and focused his remaining strength into gripping Nick’s hand as tightly as he could. The rest of his body went limp and began sliding toward the abyss. With the last fraction of his strength, he gripped his staff tightly and turned to the other three demons, “Bye.”

“WAIT!!!!” AJ screamed. He released his hold on the lever and started running toward them as well.

Brian’s body tumbled into the abyss moments before the floor shut with a crack of the stones against each other.

AJ dropped to his knees and his hands shook violently. “No…” We were all supposed to get the box. “No…” Brian protected us from the rocks with his barriers without hesitation. Nick’s strength and determination were unfathomable. Our priestess loved all of them, and even me, with her whole heart. “No!” He covered his face with his hands.

Kevin pulled AJ from the ground, “Get a grip on yourself!”

“But they fell and probably died!” AJ choked back tears.

Kevin’s hands shook as they gripped AJ’s shoulders. Tears fell from his eyes as well. “Don’t you think I know that?!”

AJ reached back toward the lever weakly, even as Kevin gripped his shoulders tightly. “If we put it back… We can go with them…”

“The abyss remains closed!” Howie’s voice shook slightly, but retained its regal command.

“But the Priestess… We have to always stay with her…” AJ choked on his tears, “We’re friends! I don’t know what that means but I know it’s good she called us her friends! Minako!”

“In life and death, Pandora and the demons call to each other.” Howie put his hand to his heart, “Pandora… No… Minako would never die. Her spirit is far too strong. We will continue on for her sake.”

“But Nick was with her… She wouldn’t care if Nick was with her!”

Kevin gripped AJ’s shoulders, then let go. “No… Howie is right. The minute Pandora died our hearts would shatter. It is faint, but I’m sure she is calling to us now.”

Howie put his hand to the wall, “Then we three must continue forward. If they are alive, we will be allowed to meet again.” He tapped the wall, “This feels hollow.” He pulled his sword from its scabbard, “Stand back, we do not want to injure you both.”

AJ continued to cry and clenched his fists as he moved to stand behind Kevin.

Howie’s sword emitted a faint sapphire glow that brushed against the wall and created an explosion. On the other side of the shattered ruble lay a new dark and stagnant path lit by a few brief candles. It was an endless road of dim stone.

“We have to go with them…” AJ choked, “We can’t leave them… It’s safe where they are… Nothing can hurt them…” He tried to run toward the lever, but Kevin pulled him back.

Kevin glared at AJ, then punched his cheek, sending a shudder down AJ’s spine as he gripped his cheek. Kevin blinked, almost willing his tears to stop. When he opened them, his gaze was boiling. “We all want to go with them! But we can’t! We may no longer have Brian’s wards to protect us and what lies ahead may be far worse than what we’ve encountered, but we can’t give up! While Brian’s barrier protected us, Minako was willing to sacrifice herself to protect us! For her sake, we have to keep moving forward!”

“For Minako we will battle the ruthless darkness.” Howie stared down the ominous path, “There is no other choice. As Nick said, we three can worry or go forward.”

The three men entered the next path through the gap Howie’s sword had created. Like before, it was a road of endless stagnant darkness without twists or turns, without doors, without any indication of an end. What lay ahead was a mystery, but forward was the only path. Would another demon arise? Would they find the location of the box? Their friends had been set on an equally ominous path that reeked of only darkness. Both paths brimmed with the worry of their ultimate purpose. Would they struggle endlessly inside their glass cage? Always moving forward without hope of escape. To live was to be thrown into the endless ocean. With no land or means of escape in sight, struggling would be pointless. Yet, to struggle was merely natural instinct. To struggle meant that something was being tried, no matter what pointless conclusion was reached. But struggling only endured for so long. Eventually weak from all its struggles, the body would give out to eternal darkness. That was the place of death, an end to the eternal struggle. To struggle meant to live.

At that moment, the figure with the ruby eyes held them tightly in its hand, its second chess game. He pitted them against each other on the black and white board for their future. To the demons, the priestesses were their queens. Nick seemed to be the obvious choice for a king, a demon their priestess swore to protect. Yet he viewed himself as a white knight, devoted to his bright lady. The emerald demons were less clear, perhaps Justin filled that role. Though again, he likely saw himself as a black knight. As an actual monarch, Howie could have also filled the king role for the sapphire demons, but perhaps Howie was a bishop with Brian. Kevin fluctuated between bishop and knight. AJ could be either as well. But in the end, speculating on their roles in a chess game was meaningless, because in its hands they were merely pawns pitted against each other in a ruthless game of killing for a mere box. The object itself had little importance, but it was what it stood for that mattered to them, what it held inside its shadowy form. It was a coveted grail, something they had all sought since the moment of their births.

It was said all demons had fallen victim to its curse, that they had all had something precious extracted from them. But what was most precious to demons that needed to be extracted? Was Nick correct in claiming it held his memories? Was Howie’s sealed item the peace he sought for his country? Was it Kevin’s desire for respect between demons and humans? Or perhaps Brian’s desire for freedom from the cage? Or was it AJ’s wish for happiness among companions? And then there were the other demons. Justin clearly desired power, but the motivations of the others were murky. What did the other Emeradotouhou demons desire? What had the Rubiihoppou demons desired? And the Topazuseihou demons? Were the contents of the box subjective? Or did they follow the heart of the Priestess? If Minako claimed the box, would they all receive what they desired most?

Minako was a mystery, clearly different from all the others. They had only cared for themselves, looking down upon their demons. The priestesses came from a different world, so there must have been some reason each particular girl was chosen for the duty. Was it that they had the largest hidden desires to awaken from what the maidens called a beautiful dream? Or was it because they were the ones with latent powers? Minako had, after all, released herself from an encasing of rock by emitting a sapphire glow. And yet, the girls had all regretted their acceptance as the priestess. The demons were grotesque, violent, and reeked of death. Even still, Minako always smiled, pulled them close, and laughed and cried with them. Though the individual demons carried their own traits, they were more alike than different, especially once they were examined as an entity. Their powers were similar: spiritual attacks, physical attacks, or elemental attacks. They each wielded their weapons, whether associated with their powers or professions. They each had their goals and fervent desires. They all lusted after the box in the depths of their hearts. Yet despite the similarities, the priestesses had sneered at them and called them creatures. Minako had asked once how they were different from men, aside from physical appearance. Yet, in the end, she dropped the reference to their appearance altogether and referred to them by their qualities and as her friends.

The priestesses were chosen for individual strengths, yet as a whole, they were also more alike than different. Even still, Minako seemed different. She had, after all, reversed Nick’s change into that demonic form simply by holding him close and telling him that she loved him. Was that the source of Minako’s strength? Was hers the power of kindness? Until the very last moment, she had pleaded with Renee for time to repair their friendship. It was only in the end that she had decided it was a meaningless path. During their travels, Minako’s strength was growing beyond the imaginable. She had always been the one Nick pushed aside so that he could stand and protect her and he had always been the one to pull her close and dry her tears. Yet, here in this cage, she was the one who dripped in blood and ran forward with the determination to fight. She had pulled Nick close and told him not to worry about his memories or fear death. It was Nick, after all, whose voice shook as he reiterated how much he wanted to live. Secretly, they all shared his wish. Deep within their desires, they all wanted to live. In a world filled with death and destruction, they all wanted peace. Even if life was about struggling, they all wanted to end their battles without an end to struggling, but an end of suffering. They all wanted to live.

Ahead on the path, another archway loomed and led to another dimly lit room. Howie held his sword closely, but turned to the others. “Shall we three go forward?”

They nodded.

“Yes,” he smiled, “We three are sapphire demons so we must always continue forward with our heads held high.”
Chapter Thirty-Four: Weapons Master by nicksgal
At first glance, the room shared its appearance with the previous room: dark, long, cracked and yellowed stone with ominous air that reeked of death. They stood huddled together near the entrance. The first room and the endless stagnant path had taught them that this castle should not be taken lightly, that a trap could spring at any moment. They were especially wary as a trap had split their forces in half. Despite their fear for the traps, the fear that drove them was their memory of the contents of the previous room. It had seemed empty, but that was merely a ruse. Hidden inside was an equally dark pair of glowing red eyes, though it had been another demon and not the cloaked figure who could bat them away with only a sweep of his hand. Why did it seem as though that cloaked figure was the master of all demons? It grinned with arrogance as it towered above them, slit gashes into Nick’s cheeks, and tossed their priestess against a wall with ease.

Compared to those horrors, the glowing eyes of the previous room were much less fearsome. And yet, even against something less horrifying, they had cowered in fear. Only Nick had been willing to stand against him, and yet, the one who had fought him so valiantly was Minako. Their priestess seemed like more of an illusion than anything in this world, even the long dead soldier. The priestesses did not stand up to the demons unless they were supposed to be companions. Before the other demons, they cowered in fear because the priestesses were meant to battle each other, not the demons. Yet Minako had stood her ground against a demon, even as blood streamed down her violently shaking body. Was that the meaning of friendship? To stand strong against the impossible when losing was inevitable? Was that love?

A small clatter interrupted the silence. Howie clenched the grip of his sword tightly. Their first impression was misguided, there was something else in this room. After scanning the room again, Howie noticed the faint glimmer of mounting ornaments covering the walls that cradled various weapons. It was a soldier’s dream, the gleaming metal ornaments were the spotlights for a show of strength. However, one set of mounting ornaments was ominously empty.

Howie frowned as he took a hesitant step into the room. “Come out. We know you are there.”

Even the brief light of the candles and the air were unresponsive, as though the room was dead. The castle was an enormous crypt. It was possible to enter it while living, but certainly almost everyone within was deceased. Perhaps a crypt was the incorrect house for the dead, as it would house only one sect, the ruby demons. Yet, the bodies of the first kings had been perched above the doorway and the topaz demons had also died within the castle’s walls. In reality it was likely a catacomb, especially as the remains here were non descript and virtually undifferentiated from each other.

Howie scanned the room again as he took a second hesitant step. “Your silence does not threaten us. Show yourself.”

The silence gave no response to Howie’s words, but a glowing pair of yellowed eyes emerged from within the darkness. It was as though a fire had risen in the room and caught the glint of the weapons.

Howie pulled his sword toward his chest. It seems that the dead have ears. If I had kept prodding, would the eyes have revealed their master? He caught a new gleam of metal as he scanned. There is no time to ponder. He dug his foot into the ground quickly to project himself into the air.

The unfamiliar metal, however, reacted quicker than his reflexes. As he descended back toward the ground, he felt a jab of pain in his side. He clenched his sword tightly as he touched his hand to the throbbing area, then raised the hand to his eyes. The room is too dim to tell, despite the candlelight and glowing metal ornaments, but my hand must be stained with blood. He winced as a smile crossed his face. No harm done. It is the duty of a king to bleed for his country and my position as a cardinal demon is chief to all the roles I play for my country. He clenched his stained hand tightly as he tightened the grip of his right hand on the hilt of his sword and began whispering inaudibly. He then placed his stained hand on the blade of his sword as he shut his eyes. His hand and the sword began to glow with a brilliant sapphire color. The glow spread across the sword and into his fingertips then slowly encased his entire body. His lips fell silent as he tightened his grip on the sword.

“Your Majesty...” AJ reached his hand toward him as he started walking forward.

Kevin pulled him back quickly. AJ flinched and gaped at him..

“Don’t falter his concentration.” Kevin’s serious tone permeated the shadows, even as his face was shadowed.

AJ nodded and stepped back beside Kevin.

Howie rose his sword slowly and thrust it toward his wounded side. The blades of two swords resonated together like bells.

“How low.” Howie growled, “To strike us twice in the same manner is barbaric.” Howie thrust his hand toward the second sword and grabbed it. Its lightning blade was caught in his grip. “Would you choose to move your weapon? Our blood would spill onto your fingers from the blade.” He smirked, “Then should you grab another weapon, we would see it immediately through the stain.”

Smoke wrapped around the hilt of the weapon tightly, as though it were forging a figure. As the smoke flowed from the hilt, clawed hands took its place, then the smoke flowed up the arms and began molding a figure. Once it dissipated, the blade-like shape of the soldier’s yellow armor covered its body similarly to Rubiihoppou’s spherical armor. The glowing yellow eyes lit up the room and they sneered while gripping the hilt of the sword tighter.

“Just as we thought, a commander specializing in weaponry.”

“How old is this armor, Your Majesty? A decade?”

The figure growled as he ducked beneath Howie’s arm, then pulled the tip of the sword from his grip and lunged toward AJ and Kevin.

Howie pivoted quickly and hit the sword with his own, then caught the ornate designs on the hilts within one another. The straight spikes of the figure’s sword found escape impossible from within the bejeweled spirals of Howie’s sword as he pulled the sword back toward him.

“Are we not your enemy?” he smirked as the figure turned to face him and let out a low growl. “Lay one hand on them and this swordplay will end quickly.”

“Swordplay?” the figure sneered. “Does a king really think he can defeat a weapons expert?”

“So, he speaks...”

The figure growled once more.

Howie reached beneath his tunic and pulled a dagger from beside his thigh that was identical to the first, only smaller. Howie aimed the sword at the neck of the figure. “Your concern should be skill rather than rank. We have been trained in all manners of sword combat.”

The figure growled and released his hold on his sword. His wings unfurled, then he propelled into the air. His steel boots hit a ledge above the sapphire demons with a small ring. He kneeled on the ledge and stared down at Howie as he crossed his arms across his lap and let his clawed fingers hang limply. “Sword combat? Is that all?” He sneered, “Sword combat is meaningless when there are other weapons.”

Howie pulled the soldier’s sword from the hilt of his own. He eyed the craftsmanship of the blade carefully. “Perhaps, but mastery of a sword is still superior to all other weaponry skills. The strongest and most prestigious men in all the countries use swords. The ritual of combat is dependent on a sword.”

The figured smirked once more, “For a man who sits only on his throne, your knowledge, or perhaps your arrogance, is extensive.”

Howie tightened his grip on the sword with the spiked hilt and smirked as well. “Perhaps it is our arrogance, but you concur with us.” Howie held up the sword, “Your weapon must never hit the ground.” He tossed the weapon toward the figure with ease as the hilt was made of a softer metal.

He caught the blade then pulled it across his lap and continued to stare down at Howie.

Howie held his blade tightly and turned to AJ and Kevin. “We will take this next battle with this Topaz commander who has waited patiently for a decade. Meanwhile, you two must prepare the exit to the next battle.”

“So this demon is from Topazuseihou?” Kevin crossed his arms.

Howie’s eyes narrowed as he nodded, “Yes, it seems that this castle has trapped both sects of demons.”

“Meaning, Your Majesty?”

“It seems ultimate fate has appeared clearly before us.” Howie clenched his sword. “But, we will not die, so neither of you should either.” His blade began to glow sapphire once more. “As long as we breathe, Minako awaits victory.”

Kevin clapped Howie’s shoulder. “Then we must always continue forward.”

Howie nodded and pulled his blade near his face. A gust of wind surrounded him as he shut his eyes and gripped the hilt tightly. As his entire form was encased within the wind, the brief candlelight in the room flickered against the wind instead of glinting against the metal ornaments.

The Topazuseihou demon shielded his eyes and raised his sword, holding the flat face of the blade toward the wind. Instead of hitting him directly, the wind diverged into two paths from the sword’s blade and swept to his sides. The Topazuseihou demon shut his eyes as he struggled against the force of the divine breeze. Just as the candles flickered, his power seemed to be flickering as well. As he gripped the ledge, the power of the wind subsided. The Topazuseihou demon opened his eyes and lowered his sword as he peered at the king below him.

In place of the elegant man, a true demon stood below him. Long wings rose from his back, horns sat nestled among his hair, fangs curved over his lips, and claws gripped the hilt of the sword. But it was clearly the same man, he wore the same sapphire calf-length tunic, the same cream pants, the same cream ribbon pulled his long hair back from his face. The sword gripped in his claws retained its bejeweled, spiral hilt. However, the sword and the man now exuded demonic energy as his eyes glowed a brilliant sapphire color. His eyes were not the soulless glowing orbs of the Rubiihoppou and Topazuseihou demons they had met in the castle, nor were they Nick’s snarling, sightless demonic eyes. Instead, only his chocolate irises glowed sapphire. In the dead, the glowing eyes of their Priestess’ star meant that they were soulless, immobile, and deceased, clinging to life only through their association to her. In the living, it meant no mastery of the demonic powers, slaves to an emotional trigger ripping their demonic hearts from within them. While Howie’s powers lay dormant, he had detailed knowledge of them. In fact, the very notion that he could conceal his true form meant that he held unmatched mastery over his powers.

Howie clenched his sword tightly as he stared into the glowing eyes of the Topazuseihou demon, trying to penetrate his soul. A smirk spread across his face and his fangs protruded from his mouth as he spoke. “Should we rise to you or will you descend to us?”

The topaz demon growled and arched his back as he stood his wings unfurling and flapping in the remnants of the wind. As he rose from his hunched position, a smirk spread across his face. “Come.” His wings flapped once more as he tightened his grip on his sword, “Come show me how the royals are taught to use their precious swords.”

Howie flapped his wings and used his foot to propel himself upwards once more. As Howie ascended toward the topaz demon, the topaz demon jumped from the ledge. Howie’s eyes simmered as he stared at the falling demon.

“As a testament to your supposed skills, we will fight in midair!” the topaz demon announced.

At that moment, the two men had reached the same height and the blades of their swords clanged against each other. The ringing of bells echoed off the weapons covering the walls. Moment by moment, deep gashes appeared in the skin of both demons and blood poured from them like tears as though a storm brewed droplets of red rain that hit the ground. This was the soundtrack of their battle. The sound of piercing skin, the swords resonating with each other, and the blood red rain. Outside the room, however faint, this sound was likely heard quite clearly.

While the sound of the battle echoed through the stagnant halls and the blood red rain showered on the spectators below, the Topaz demon’s soulless eyes reflected the unseen heart of their battle. His glowing yellow eyes simmered with the anger in his heart. Death and failure stained his soul black like the Ruby demon in the previous room. They had no care for the quality of the priestess’ hearts, only their powers, and only cared about the suffering the others gave them. After all, true to form, they were bred to be cold and conniving. In the eyes of the sapphire demons, Minako was different. Her heart was warm and her kindness resounded like small bells. Though the sound was weak at first, the vibrations and ringing grew stronger each moment, like the friendship and love she offered them without hesitation. It seemed her heart was large enough to encase the entire world. But, these demons refused to recognize this. Their only concern was that her heart had slept while they had suffered alongside their priestesses. There was no denying that the world was at least a bit more peaceful now than it had been previously. Though the countries were still at war, it was not constant. Armies still littered the land, but they were assigned to enforce borders as opposed to expanding them. The peace of the land was directly reflected by the sapphire cardinal demons, none of them were soldiers. Yet, they could still battle. While humans had proclaimed demons were created to fight, they had all been happiest at peace. To be a demon, meant to be constantly wishing, not fighting. To be a cardinal demon meant to be constantly reaching for something beyond their grasp.

The fighting had escalated to a point where both men had critical hits on their bodies. Howie thrust his sword toward the topaz demon’s side, which the demon countered with his own sword. Though his movement was equivalent in speed to Howie’s, the motion was angular and when the swords hit, his sword was knocked from his grasp and fell against the wall. The topaz demon began to descend toward his sword. Howie caught his neck quickly with his own sword.

“Remember what we said, your sword must never hit the ground.”

The topaz demon let out a low growl, then spread his clawed hand. Another sword began glowing and removed itself from its ornamented mountings and he summoned it to his hand and clenched the grip. The two demons began fighting again. Time and again, Howie would get his sword within inches of critical points on the topaz demon’s body, but the other demon would always block it with an angular motion, sending his weapon flying. He would then instantly retrieve another and continue fighting. The clanging of swords against each other and the clack of the swords against the wall resembled a beat.

Howie growled. The quiet resonating of the weapons seems like a familiar sound. I have heard it many times, though only once in great detail inside a shrine. When father had died, the priests began chanting a low-pitched sound. This is similar to that requiem! Howie drew his sword close to himself, “This battle must cease!”

The topaz demon growled, “I will not stop until you are dead! It is my duty!”

“Do not be stubborn!” Howie growled and began to descend to the ground.

“Don’t back down now, Your Majesty!” In his sudden fit of rage, the topaz demon swept toward Howie.

“Stop! Stop!”

The topaz demon coughed up blood. Howie's sword had been thrust into the side of his abdomen in the haste of his own attack. A slow stream trickled down his chin as his eyes began closing slowly. “Why?”

Howie’s claws clenched his sword tightly, “When the requiem sounds, it means someone is already dead, or that God knows someone will die.”

The yellow glow of the topaz demon’s eyes became faint. As the blood continued to stream down his chin, droplets formed in his eyes. “Why?”

Howie thrust his arms toward the topaz demon quickly, but the demon fell from his grasp. The demon’s limp body fell toward the pile of swords on the ground. Once he fell into their pile, the lifeless swords jumped and pinned him against the wall causing rubble to tumble from it and pile around the limp body. The pile of rubble glowed a bright topaz color, then shot in the opposite direction. From the launch, two items appeared. From its origin, a stone statue of the Topazuseihou demon and at its conclusion, the exit.

Howie landed on the stone ground softly. He shut his eyes then glowed sapphire, his wings disappeared along with his fangs, horns, and claws. He gripped his sword tightly as he returned it to its scabbard. When he opened his eyes, he revealed that the sapphire glow had subsided. His eyes narrowed as he clenched his fist tightly. “Why is the only purpose of the box needless killing and suffering?! Does searching for the box mean only death and imprisonment?!” Howie growled, “Even in death, there is no rest! No peace! What sort of monster would play with eternal death like a toy!”

AJ and Kevin stepped toward Howie.

“Your Majesty....”

Howie stared down the empty corridor. “I won’t let you turn my friends into part of your collection!”
Chapter Thirty-Five: Vine Wielder by nicksgal
Another statue, another open corridor. The end of their journey mocked them as death waited at every corner. It was similar to before, but felt more ominous as they journeyed on. The pale, brief light had dimmed and the air had grown colder. It was an inescapable winding path toward death, almost like a mausoleum where God played a requiem for the dead. Every room the sapphire demons had entered, they exited victorious, but was it difficult to win in a battle against a creature that was merely an illusion of life and death? They had all been robbed of death and a fog of immortality hung over the castle. This immortality differed from pictorial representations of its myth: scantily clad muscular gods and buxom goddesses lounging beside golden fountains with chalices in their hands or the fabled fountain of youth. It was immortality only in the sense that death could never be reached, yet the deceased could never return to life. A death that seemed merciless or cursed. Undying and unliving, but also sealed and imprisoned. The brief candles led them on that path of sealed death. In their deepest fears, they were the next to escape life, but never reach death and instead spend each moment waiting.

They had existed in that manner before. Not alive, not dead, only waiting -- like eternal sleep with wide open eyes. Life only begins with a reason for living. To the cardinal demons, what reason did they have to live? Life means struggling and suffering, but struggle only begins with action. Until the moment each Pandora descended, the demons had no heartfelt wish to live, they merely wished to exist and live without a purpose. But after meeting her and falling victim to her whims, the wishes of the demons changed, especially the sapphire demons. Why would they wish for anything other than life when her whims were actually to serve them? They struggled in their hearts against their fates and against the requiem that guided them toward the inner sanctum of the mausoleum where they would face their imminent, continual waiting death. Live gained its meaning from death, but death lost its meaning from immortal death. Each thing gains meaning by ending. Even when their life had been given a purpose that they could finally grasp with their fingers and hold on to, was it the fear of death that suddenly made their purpose that much more meaningful? Or was it that their purpose had finally given them life? And to what lengths did they cherish their purpose? They held it tightly as a reason for living, a reason to breathe and continue forward each moment. But, was death an answer for its protection? Was sacrifice inevitable to protect something they cherished with everything they had?

The inner sanctum was shrouded in mystery. Each moment they drew closer, there was only light or only darkness. They stood in purgatory waiting for uncertain life or uncertain death. Endlessly waiting, praying, and grasping tightly to the dreams they had just begun to hold. Bathed in light or bathed in darkness, they could shatter. Their clawed hands held their dreams gently, glass balls that could burst in a moment from the scraping of their claws. Yet, this castle seemed to be the Devil’s hands, prying their dreams from them and leaving them with only shards. When they had yet to live, they would have brushed up their shattered hearts and started over. Now they would merely drop to their knees and grasp each shard in panic, trying to piece the remains back together in their last moments before death. In the end, it was inevitable. The priestesses of legend were unable to reside in the demon world if they obtained the coveted box. The realms could not mix. She was of her own world, like they were of theirs. And when she returned, or left as the picture may have seemed, their hearts would shatter as they were ripped from their bodies, regardless of how much they struggled. To be with the priestess gave them a reason for living. To be without her snatched that purpose from them. In the end, their hearts would shatter regardless of victory or loss because they would no longer have a reason to live.

Endless corridors, dim candlelight, dark corners, this was the only world they had ever known. Even the sunlight seemed artificial. Their hearts were created from the ashes of their predecessors, brought to life to continue the endless battle between God and the Devil. The hearts of men feared the darkness, yet their battle was unending. Their hearts were in perpetual war, and thus, they failed to grasp their plummet into the vast darkness. Their anguished cries only fueled their descent. The demons were supposed to combat this horror, but only inflamed it. To this end, they were viewed as monsters, not saviors. Alone, in the darkness, the struggle was perpetual and unending. To the demons that he had created, God was merely a fragmentary figure, almost imaginary in his existence. The darkness controlling Devil seemed much more solid and real. Did that mean the darkness controlled everything? When the hearts of men were blood-stained and they spilled the blood of their comrades and enemies alike, was that what it meant to be shrouded in darkness? The mausoleum surrounding them seemed almost peaceful compared to the world outside. This frosted mountain was a sanctuary from the blood and anguish, but perhaps it was that false sense of security that made it that much worse.

“It’s so faint…” AJ’s eyes were downcast as he fiddled with one of his large golden hoops. “Her heartbeat…”

“Faint or strong, it continues to beat,” Howie pursed his lips. “Is that not enough?”

“We should have realized…” AJ’s voice cracked as he glanced at Howie, his eyes brimming with tears.

“Nick, stop…” she held her arms out and stepped toward him, her legs still shaking and bleeding, “I’m keeping you safe...” The streams of blood fell down her legs and fell in small drops upon the ground, splattering back and scattering across her shoes.

Nick skidded to a stop, then turned and ran back toward her. “Minako!”

The room rattled as it filled with musty dirt again, knocking Nick and Minako to their knees. Nick growled as he whipped his head back toward the soldier to see that a jumbled pile of jagged rocks covered their combatant completely. Nick snarled, pushed himself from the ground, and ran toward the demon. He quickly lifted and threw the stones from its body.

While he struggled, the stones began to emanate a ruby glow and exploded into a stream of rocks that hit various parts of his body. A small shard sliced his cheek, another hit his abdomen, and one very large shard impaled his left wing. The force of these shards hurtled him backwards and he hit the ground with a clatter, landing near Minako’s weak body. He let out a yelp as he tried to pull himself up on his hands. His left wing fell limp beside his shoulder.

“Ruby Cardinal Demon…” her voice cracked as she reached toward the statue. “He really did join the kings above the entrance…”

The jagged rocks had covered the body completely creating a perfect stone replica. Nick struggled to sit, then flung his hand over his mouth, “When we lose--” He bit back a choked breath.

Minako flung her arms around his neck and pulled him toward her chest. Tears streamed down her cheeks as her arms trembled. “I promise! I won’t let it turn my friends to stone!”


A hush fell over the sapphire demons.

Kevin furrowed his brow and clenched his hand into a fist. It shook as his fingers tensed to match his already tense face. He drove his fist into the nearest stone slab, his knuckles cracked and blood splattered against the slab. When he pulled his hand back, no trace of injury remained on his fingers. He growled

“Doctor?” AJ gulped, then swallowed.

Kevin growled and his small fangs protruded from his lips, “It feels like we’re leaving them to drown in the depths of darkness.”

The deep catacombs of the castle lay beneath their narrow path, a place where creatures survived by absorbing darkness. Without light, were they dying in that tainted darkness? Their priestess’ heartbeat felt faint, struggling for life instead of laughing and smiling with them. Still, feeling her heartbeat showed them that she desired to live.

Howie cleared his throat, “We three may be unable to follow them, but we still feel their heartbeats. Those beats may be soft and slow as they drown in the darkness, but for even the smallest beat, we must continue forward.”

“But, Your Majesty.”

A low rumbling shook their feet and the three demons turned toward the low sound. Just ahead of them, a wrought iron gate rose from the ground.

“Another invitation?” Kevin furrowed his brow and crossed his arms.

“It would appear so.” Howie fingered the pommel of his sword.

Kevin stepped forward toward the entrance.

“Wait, Doctor!”

“No…” Kevin turned to him slowly, “This will be my battle.”

“But Doctor--”

Kevin grabbed AJ’s wrist with his claws, the tips punctured his skin. AJ winced and glanced away from Kevin.

Kevin’s eyes glowed with a deep sapphire tint as he growled. “I didn’t keep them from drowning in the darkness! I couldn’t help them! I will help them now.” Kevin tossed AJ’s arm and turned toward the gate. “I will follow Nick’s example and go forward. I will fight this enemy. Stand back and watch.”

He strode into the room, his proud stance gave off the air of a distinguished soldier marching into combat for duty over life or death. To live would be a blessing, but dying would be just as honorable. Though not soldiers by profession, the sapphire demons did resemble them while they fought for their lives and their country within this castle. To mere soldiers, life and death were only a coincidence or a circumstance, but not fate. To cardinal demons life and death were meaningless. With the departure of their priestess all of them would be thrust back into stagnant and imprisoned existence whether they lived or died, back into eternal waiting.

As his shoes pounded the ground, he brought sound and movement into the quiet stillness. More than a soldier or a demon, he was God-like as he shaped the world and brought life into the void. He pushed through the stale air at the entrance and into the room. It was a dank and murky room overgrown with decaying plants and moss. Kevin continued to bring life to the room with his echoing footsteps, then stopped in the center and clenched his fists tightly, calling up to the shadowed, vaulted ceiling. “Demon! Show yourself!”

Within the shadows, something began to move. Kevin jumped backward and scanned the room for the source. He then felt a pinch at his arm and pulled it back to see that a vine had snaked its way around his forearm and attached its spines into his wrist. Kevin attempted to reach for it, but felt the same thorny pinch on his other arm. He growled. “Who’s there?”

In the air, a faint figure in a black tunic and pants emerged from the shadows, resembling Nick’s previous clothing, but was accented by a deep green sash and shoes. The demon’s wings fluttered softly as he floated to the ground, clenching thorny vines in his fists. Its sightless ruby eyes sneered.

“Doctor!”

Kevin growled again as he pulled against the vines, sapphire light flicking against his skin. “Don’t interfere!”

“But--”

“Absolutely not!”

“Doctor?” The red glow disappeared momentarily, but the pull on the thorny vines tightened. “A doctor who flickers with sapphire light?” The sightless glow returned, smirking and simmering. “You are the gate guardian, but you have left your post? Your suffering should be endless.” The vines in his hands grew offshoots and slinked across the ground.

Kevin began jumping backward, attempting to avoid the approaching vines. Though his steps quickened with each moment, he eventually backed against the wall.

The vine wielder laughed, “How will you escape against a wall?” The vines that snaked across the floor wrapped around Kevin’s ankles, then all four vines began taking root in the wall. “The vines are bursting with new life in those small cracks!” The demon continued to smirk as he grasped all four vines in his left hand, then clenched his right hand and pulled it toward his chest. A new vine shot from the wall and snaked across Kevin’s waist, chest, and neck. The demon tightened his fist, “Now do you realize why you should have remained at your post, Sapphire demon?”

Kevin coughed as he pulled and struggled against the tight wrap of the vines. “Why do you hate us? What did we do to you?”

“What?” the demon laughed maniacally, “‘What’ indeed!” His eyes narrowed as he growled, “Don’t you remember the brutal wars last decade? How our priestess and the Topaz priestess came amidst the fray and tried to restore order to the world while your priestess slept and hid from all the terror! Do you remember that?!” He snarled, “How dare you continue to breathe because your priestess was a coward!”

Kevin choked, “And the Emerald priestess?”

“The Emerald priestess…” The demon snarled and snapped his hand toward his chest, tightening the vines around Kevin’s limbs. “Her demons must suffer after that country so brutally attacked everyone!”

“She approaches this castle. Battle with her if she is your true enemy.”

The demon growled, “I will not rest until each of the sleeping demons is dead!”

A new vine shot from the wall and pierced Kevin through the back, emerging from his abdomen and snaking around his body. Blood shot from Kevin’s mouth and his gaze became blank.

“KEVIN!!” AJ stretched out his hand as he began sprinting toward him.

“Didn’t I tell you not to interfere?” The deep voice was raspy, but undeniably belonged to Kevin.

AJ stepped back in shock.

“Continue to search for the exit.” Kevin blinked his eyes slowly. His fangs protruded from his lips and his claws pulsed. When he opened his eyes, his green irises had a sapphire tint.

“What?!” the demon stepped back, eyes wide in alarm.

Kevin clenched his fists, “Ruby demon… Do you think I would live all these years, only to die now?! What sort of soldier would I be for my Priestess?!” The vines shot from his body and fell limp against the wall. His wounds burst with a bright sapphire light and healed instantly.

The demon continued to back toward the wall, “So it seems that my vines weren’t enough to hold you.” He held his palm out and blew on it lightly. A woven net made of vines and hemp flew toward Kevin in a flurry of leaves.

Kevin leaped into the air and away from the trap. “Don’t toy with me.”

A small gash appeared on the cheek of the ruby demon. He let out a low growl and shot yet another vine toward Kevin.

Kevin thrust out his arm, allowing the vine to spiral around it. He arched his clawed finger and drew a line down his bicep and through the fibers of the vine.

The ruby demon shrieked in pain as the same wound appeared on his body, dripping blood down his forearm. He tried to clench his fingers to call another vine, but found his arm was immobile.

Kevin landed next to AJ and Howie. AJ stepped back in surprise, “Kevin… You…?”

“I merely cut the tendons in his arm.” Kevin scanned the room. “Howie, have you found an exit?”

Howie shook his head. “It seems only the victor is allowed to find the exits in this castle.”
Kevin reached toward him, but a new vine pulled him into the wall. Kevin growled as the vine began slithering around his neck.

“How dare you paralyze my arm!” The Ruby demon shrieked and snarled, “I’ll kill you!!” Small cuts appeared on his mobile arm and wrist, as well as his neck. A vine shot from his hand toward Kevin’s abdomen.

Kevin’s skin flickered sapphire as it tried repairing his wounds. His voice shook as he tried to pull from the vines, “Don’t--”

“DIE!!”

“DON’T!!”

The vine shot through Kevin’s abdomen and snaked its roots into the wall. Kevin clenched his eyes tightly, but they shot open, revealing a bright sapphire blaze.

A shadowy web of vines appeared around the demon as he was thrust into the wall. He let out a small choke, “Why?”

Kevin shut his eyes tightly, blinking the sapphire glow away..

The shadowy vines ripped from the wall and pulled the fragmented stones with them.

Kevin shook off withered vines and ran toward the ruby demon as his wounds glowed with the same bright sapphire light. AJ and Howie began running as well, but Kevin turned to them hurriedly with a horrified look on his face, “Don’t come a step closer!”

The rubble emitted a ruby glow and shattered. The fragments flew toward the sapphire demons. AJ pulled his hoop earring and formed a large shield with his wings, then stood in front of Howie. Kevin crossed his arms and raised them in front of his face, though the force of the rocks still knocked him backward. In place of the vine clad figure was another stone statue and a second iron gate slowly opening behind the statue.

Kevin growled as he sat up, then punched the ground. “But they are our comrades! What more must we lose?!”

AJ’s shield vanished in a puff of smoke, then he and Howie walked over to Kevin and placed their hands on his shoulders.

Kevin growled again. “I won’t let it take my friends!!”
Chapter Thirty-Six: Pale Spirit by nicksgal
The rank stench of death overpowered them and began draining their souls. The impenetrable miasma of death surrounding the castle felt unbearable inside its walls. The stagnant air held them tightly in its grasp like a chained prison within their private tomb, as though their caskets had been closed while they continued to breathe. What was an entrance? What was an exit? The castle was more like a labyrinth that changed shape with each moment and merely followed a shifting path of winding corridors. Did the rooms housing the demons only exist in their imaginations? Were they merely stranded on a path to nowhere? These questions plagued their hearts. They had encountered three demons and each had perished. Were they weak? Had their strength been destroyed in the battle for the box? Were they unfulfilled and suffering without their sealed hopes and dreams? The world only associated the box with evil and darkness. Minako always imagined it stained red. The demons alone knew something precious had been taken from them and sealed within it. Whether or not it was a symbol of death, darkness, or evil to anyone else, it was their light of hope. And Pandora was their precious guardian.

On many occasions, it had been said that the cardinal demons were special. At its birth, each demon lost something from within, but otherwise they had little in common. The ordinary demons were small, weak creatures, easily crushed by the endless battle of mankind. Their strength came from training and dedication. They held only one strong desire, the desire to survive just one more day. Blood for blood was how the humans and demons interacted, the only way they understood. To be a cardinal demon differed greatly, for them blood for blood only existed in the minds of ruthless soldiers. Humans and demons were different commodities. Humans sprang forth from the earth while the cardinal demons were born from the sky. Cardinal demons existed in a perpetual state of limbo, never living, never dying, only waiting. What reason did they have to desire blood for blood when they had nothing to gain and nothing to lose from fighting? Their strength sprung forth from their own hearts and minds. Even in their endless destiny of waiting, they controlled it on their own. Or, at least, in their eyes they knew they answered only to God who had abandoned them.

Without God, they became their own masters and their desires went unanswered. Their light of hope had been stolen and their duty to protect had been ignored. They turned to their priestess for her guidance, in the hopes that their own precious light would rest within their hands once more and they could fulfill their true purpose. It was something they had coveted since before they could remember. More than life, more than death -- things that all demons desired in one form or another -- they wanted the box and their precious hope. Was Nick correct that they never lived a day until they met their own precious Pandora? Her bright light was like a beacon from God, always smiling upon them from the heavens. She was the key to the box, to their precious hopes. Life or death was meaningless. But more than anything, they hoped to gain their own precious reason to live beyond the box: the ability to fulfil their true purpose.

A knotted and rotting wooden gate stood before them, charred black from fire and warped from water. AJ had run ahead, but froze at the damaged door.

“AJ?” Howie stopped beside him.

“It was wrong of me…” AJ clenched his fist as his voice shook.

“You--” Kevin flanked AJ’s other side.

AJ quickly turned toward them. “How could I back down from my duty as a soldier?!” He put his hand to his head, lacing his fingers through his hair and forming a fist. “I wanted to stop fighting! I wanted to concede!” He removed his hand and slammed it against the door. “But everyone else was willing to fight with their own life!”

Howie put his hand on AJ's shoulder “There are times when everyone wants to give in and stop fighting for the things they believe are most precious, even at the risk of losing what is precious.”

AJ growled as he removed his hand from his hair. “All my life, I’d fought so hard to prove that I was more than a demon. To prove that I had dreams and hopes outside of who I was. I wanted to show everyone that I could bring them happiness!” He clenched his fist. “But all that time I was only running away! Trying to be anything, but a cardinal demon! When I should have known and I should have tried harder!”

“AJ--” Kevin started.

“Even when I said and did horrible things, she was willing to die for me! And even then, I only wanted to run away!” AJ slammed his fist into the door. “How could I be so weak!!”

The wooden door slipped on its hinges and opened inward toward the waiting, bleak room.

“Then prove you are a soldier and enter.” An airy voice called through the darkness.

The sapphire demons froze, their shoulders taut.

“Well…”

AJ swallowed hard as he felt his pulse race and the hairs stand up at the base of his neck. He held his breath as his entire body tensed. Can I answer this battle with the same determination as His Majesty and Kevin? Could I be as brave as Minako? My pride as a soldier now rests on my response.

“AJ--” Both Howie and Kevin held their hands on his shoulders.

AJ swallowed again. “This is my turn to prove my worth as a soldier. Even now, I’m scared as hell to fight, but everyone else ran forward without regrets!” His tense body began to relax and his chest seemed to inflate with confidence as he spoke. “For Minako who called me her friend, I refuse to lose!”

The three demons shared determined nods.

AJ clenched his fist tightly and walked through the rotting doors with his head held high. Though his knees shook with each step, he refused to slouch or shiver. His forever wandering eyes only stared forward, focused only upon his goal and nothing else. His shaking steps reached the center of the dimly lit room. It seemed especially dank, putrid, and rotted compared to the others, more primordial than ancient. AJ bowed his head and exhaled a shaky breath. “Well then…” He raised his head slowly, his eyes narrow. “This is my chance to prove my worth as a soldier. One will win and the other will lose in a test of will, that is the meaning behind a battle!” He clenched his fist lightly. “Strength and weakness is only a matter of confidence!”

A shadowy form appeared on the floor. “Confidence?” It let out a low laugh. “Being a soldier is merely about ruthlessness.”

AJ’s lips curved into a smirk. “Is it ruthless to hide in the shadows?”

The shadow lifted from the ground and rose. Its pale yellow boots appeared first, followed by its pale white pants and pale white tunic, tied around his waist with a pale yellow sash. Its wings flared from its back.

AJ shrank back slowly. “An ethereal figure…”

“Does that disturb you?” The figure darted forward and he wrapped his fingers around the contours of AJ’s face. “Are you afraid of death?”

A shudder went down AJ’s spine. The confidence he had worked so hard to muster faltered.

“Your silence speaks volumes.” The shadowy voice hissed against AJ’s skin. The shadow’s breath was cold, like he was dead, like he was nothing.

AJ shut his eyes as sweat poured down his face. It’s like a ghost, warm and cold all at once. Is this demon there or not there? He swallowed and blinked several times, then opened his eyes slowly. Gone! The ethereal creature had disappeared! AJ whipped his head from side to side. As he scanned the room erratically, something heavy hit his ribs and flung him back against the wall behind him. He hit the ground, then slowly pushed himself up on his forearms. Blood trickled down his chin from the corner of his mouth. He licked his lips to pull it back in, the coppery taste burning against his tongue. “Where did he--”

Kevin clenched his fist. “AJ! Be confident!”

AJ glanced toward him, his shoulders shaking.

“Stand up!”

AJ reached backward and put his hand against the wall, then pulled himself up on his weak legs. He clenched his eyes shut and growled. How could I let this demon freeze me in fright? I came into this room determined to prove my worth as a soldier, but I’m losing. In a battle won by confidence, mine is fleeting. If my heart is weak, is skill enough? He stepped forward cautiously, his knees shaking, but a second heavy blow thrust him toward the wall again. His shoulders slumped and hunched his back as his head dropped toward the ground. Where are these blasts coming from? This figure is shrouded in nothingness.

Tears streamed down his face. I’m no match for it or my companions… Even Nick can go ballistic and become strong. Even when I’m full of confidence, I’m not as strong as Nick when he’s an untamed monster... He choked back his tears. I can’t call myself a soldier while I lie on the ground... Minako… You must see me as a nuisance… A demon absorbed in his own wishes and not a soldier for his priestess... But more than I’ve let you down as a soldier, you’re probably more angry that you called me a friend and I still can’t fight for you… I’m still not quite sure of the difference between a friend and a companion or a friend and a comrade, but I know that it means you care about me deeply… How can I let you down when you care about me for more than my duty as a soldier?

“AJ!” Howie began running toward him.

Kevin clenched his fist again, then ran after Howie. “Stand up!”

AJ looked up at them, his eyes were hollow like the abyss.

Kevin forcefully pulled him up with shaking hands. His nostrils flared as he bore his fangs. “Is this the only way you know how to fight?! Aren’t you angry that you gave up so carelessly?!”

AJ choked back his tears again, as he stood limply in Kevin’s grip.

“AJ, while confidence is an important piece of mentality in a battle, more than confidence, you must stand beside your reason for fighting with valor.”

AJ blinked back his tears, his expressionless eyes fixed on Howie.

“At the end of this journey, there is something we have all been searching for desperately. And our priestess has shown that she will lay down her life for ours so that we may hold it again.” Howie smiled warmly. “If you are searching for a reason, perhaps it can be this.”

AJ blinked away the last of his tears and color slowly returned to his eyes and face. He gripped Kevin’s forearms as he steadied his shaking knees. Minako… Is it alright with you that I’m such a weak soldier? AJ shut his eyes and calm radiated from his skin. “I feel something warm...” He inhaled quickly. Now that I feel this warmth, I feel the bitter chill in this room. I couldn’t find it before, it didn’t matter if my eyes were open or closed. This ice cold entity, living and dead, something and nothing. It’s racing toward me!

AJ pushed Kevin and Howie away from him, then ran his fingers across his gold hoop. He formed a large shield with his wings, then raised his forearms over his face. There’s an icy sting against my arms. He quickly opened his eyes and caught a glimpse of the pale figure, but it disappeared just as quickly. AJ exhaled the breath he had been holding, glanced at Howie and Kevin behind him, then examined his arms. Large gashes had formed across them. He turned toward Howie and Kevin. “Let’s start looking for a possible exit. I will try my best for you, but be ready to fight back if you feel a chill...”

Howie and Kevin nodded determinedly.

He turned back to the center of the room and clenched his fist. They’re alive! Minako must have felt me calling her and gave me that warmth! He smiled, then exhaled. I have to be ready... He felt the cloak of cold drawing toward him and raised both hands to his large golden hoops. As he gripped them, a light ringing resounded around him as a small sapphire glow surrounded him. He disappeared into a puff of smoke that disappeared just as quickly. AJ reappeared with his wings outstretched. His fangs protruded farther from his lips and his claws seemed sharper. His brown irises were tinted in a sapphire color and shined like his gold hoops.

Across the room, Howie and Kevin turned from the wall and floor they had been examining.
As he kneeled over the floor, Kevin leaned back on his heels while knocking lightly. “This is--”

Howie smiled as he leaned against the wall and knocked. “AJ’s true power.”

AJ held his hands close to his heart as his wings flapped quickly and he lightly tapped his foot on the ground. One, two, three, jump! He launched from the ground just as the gust of cold air neared him. He landed a few feet away. His eyes were wide with determination. It’s coming! One, two, three, jump! The cold brushed beneath him, but did not touch him. He and the pale demon followed this continual pattern across the room as AJ led it away from Howie and Kevin and until AJ was backed against the opposite wall.

AJ shut his eyes and pulled on one of his gold hoops. Smoke billowed around his arm, and it reemerged as a sword that he thrust in the direction of the bitter cold. A few drops of bright red blood spilled from the empty air and on to his illusionary sword. As the blood spilled, a patch of flesh briefly appeared in the air. AJ thrust toward the same spot once more, but the flesh and bitter chill vanished. AJ clenched his free fist as smoke billowed around his arm again and it reverted to its normal state. AJ scanned the room again, searching for the cold. Where is it? He leaped from the ground then began drifting back down in the center of the room. Once he landed, the ground began to rattle.

“Earthquake?” Kevin gripped the wall and scanned the room as he stood.

As the ground rattled and shook, small cracks began appearing near AJ’s feet. He stepped back, then whipped his head toward Howie and Kevin. He motioned upward, then leaped from the ground.

Howie and Kevin stared at each other, then clapped the other’s shoulder. They shut their eyes and glowed with the intense sapphire light. Once Howie’s wings reemerged, they also shot toward the ceiling.

AJ glided over to their side of the room moments before a tower of bright blue light shot from the ground and filled the room with a sapphire haze as it exploded through the roof. It cracked against the miasma surrounding the castle, sending electric sparks back down to the crumbling ground below them. This blue pillar? Where did it come from?! Is it another demon or the others?

The room continued to shake as a large object jumped through the pit in the ground and landed at the edge of the room where the ground still had damage, but remained fairly intact. Are we being attacked?! AJ swooped down toward it through the flaring and flashing light. It’s a stone demon. AJ hesitantly reached out his hand and touched its face. It’s not one of the ones we already fought… It feels similar to the one in this room, but different... He pulled his hand back and stared at the flaring sapphire light. Before it appeared here, were Minako, Nick, and Brian fighting this demon directly below us?! I have to keep this pale demon from attacking them! He brushed his fingers against his hoop and disappeared into his smoke and the bursting light.

When the light cleared, AJ’s smoke was gone and two statues rattled at the edge of the room. The pale demon emerged from the emptiness and swooped toward them. It landed and touched the face of one of the statues.

“Another…” Its glowing yellow eyes seemed to droop with concern. “But two others?” His eyes seared and flared. “Shapeshifter! How dare you copy my fallen comrade!” His eyes sparked and burst with an intense yellow glow as he spread his hands, revealing a black orb that crackled with topaz light. He hurtled it at the statues.

At that same moment, AJ’s illusionary statue flickered back into AJ’s true form. AJ pulled his gold hoop from his ear and pulled until it enlarged to form a shimmering golden mirror. He held it close to his face and it swallowed the blast whole. AJ shut his eyes and hid his face as he shook the mirror. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to destroy other demons… But I can’t let you hurt them! This has to end here!”

The orb reappeared from within the mirror and shot back at the demon, piercing his heart as it knocked him against the ground. His body flickered as his topaz glow subsided. For a moment, his body vanished, then reappeared as a statue.

AJ’s smoke surrounded him, then dissipated and he reappeared without the glowing blue irises. He clenched his fists. “Comrades killing comrades! Statue after statue! Is this the existence of all cardinal demons?!” His fists shook as his body tensed. “Blood for blood?! I thought we cared about more than compensation!”

Howie and Kevin landed on the ground next to AJ, then Howie clapped his hand against AJ’s shoulder.

“Death is a blessing and a curse, especially in this castle. Those who wish to live are driven mad with worry, anger, and fright. Those who wish to die are denied their right to an end of suffering.” Howie shut his eyes as a grimace crossed his face. “The other cardinal demons were robbed of their eternal death, in favor of an endless existence removed from life and death.”

“More than anything else, it seems all cardinal demons have been wishing to get to the box and live once it’s unsealed.” Kevin crossed his arms. “Will we even have that possibility with our victory?”

“All this time…” AJ’s fists continued to shake. “We all thought we were living our true lives, the path we carved out for ourselves, but… We were always supposed to live this way, weren’t we? Before anything else, we’re cardinal demons! Does that mean we only get to die?!” AJ bit back the tears forming in his eyes.

The silence hung between them like the shroud around their future. Howie finally broke the silence. “Our priestess is the goddess of our destiny, therefore, it must be Pandora’s decision whether we live or die.” He patted AJ’s shoulder. “Pandora who calls us friends must want us to live. Let us continue forward and continue hoping to reconvene with them.”

“She’s alive! She told me!” AJ’s fists stopped shaking.
Howie and Kevin gaped at him as Howie removed his hand from AJ’s shoulder.

AJ ran his fingers over one of his earrings. “When I was weak, and thought I couldn’t go on, I asked her if she minded if I was a weak soldier. Then I was filled with her warmth, like she believed in me… So I know she’s alive!” He put his hand to his heart and gripped his tunic. “And that bright sapphire light that burst through the floor had to have been Nick or Brian’s powers!”

Kevin swallowed and clenched his fists beneath his crossed arms. “Then we have to keep moving! We have to get to them!”

The room began to rattle again. The ground below them cracked and the ceiling above them began dropping fragments of the roof, the walls seemed to crumble around them. The three demons shot into the air again.

Howie glanced back at them, as he began gliding across the room. “We must find the exit!”

In the endless maze of shattering darkness, they dodged the falling fragments, searching endlessly for the exit. There was no escape in sight. Howie glanced above him to see a large stone falling toward him and quickly pulled his sword from its scabbard. It flashed with an intense burst of light and pushed the stone away, but the force of the explosion flung Howie into the shadowy abyss below them.

“Howie!” Kevin changed direction and shot after him.

AJ glanced at several other rocks crumbling from the ceiling, then followed Kevin into the dark catacombs. Even though it was impenetrable darkness, even though it drew them closer to death, they had to go forward, because their priestess and companions were alive. Her light and their bond could become their candle and shield.
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Renee by nicksgal
While the darkness within the castle was an unending catacomb of silence, the blinding blizzard outside the castle was little better. The endless snow formed a tomb of its own in the ceaseless quiet. The path ahead was shrouded, the path behind was endless, and each inch was enveloped in the brightly blinding darkness. The snow fell like knives within the earth drawing rivers of blood and the cold was the stinging pain that followed. To call it excruciating was an understatement, but Rubiihoppou was like that: abandoned, dark, cold. A land perpetually covered by a mist of fog and snow. The sun never shined on even its capital city, as though it were a place unloved by God. The people of this land clung to it despite the cold and lonely darkness that now shrouded it because they felt their priestess’ sacrifice had rescued them. The cardinal demons clung to this land that stained their hopes and dreams in blood because it was the location of their coveted box. The sapphire demons had made their way here through the countless dangers presented by the unending mountain and accepted the invitation into the castle protected with a miasma of death. They battled the ruthless demons lingering between life and death and emerged victorious. Now, they continued onward into the darkness toward their awaiting tomb. The journey of the emerald demons had slowed their ascent of the mountain and they still traversed the blinding, snowy path even then.

“Your Eminence…” Lance frowned and clenched her hand.

Renee’s head remained still and her gaze remained fixed on the ground. Since the start of our ascent, the air had been too cold, the trip too long, my heart too broken. She clenched her hands near her heart. Regardless of how cold it had become, it’s still the warmest place within my body. She rubbed her hands together trying to return the feeling to them. Her palms were frosted through as though they were encased in ice. They’re like my heart, iced over. Cold and unfeeling, I’m numb to the world, as if I exist in a place where I’m awake, but my world is half asleep. Or is it that my world is awake and I’m half asleep? Throughout this ascent, it’s consumed my mind… Those brown eyes are piercing through my icy heart. I know her expressions by heart. That bright smile over sad, introspective eyes. She was always smiling and her eyes were always sparkling no matter what happened, no matter how much pain she was in. A heart full of life. Renee shut her half seeing eyes. Her smiling face haunts me even with my eyes shut, even within my dreams.

~*~

“Reneeeeee…”

Renee sat at a wooden desk in their classroom. Its white walls, tiled floor, perfectly straight rows of desks lined up one after the other, long brown colored blackboard, and sparse scholastic decor reflected an air of rigid academia. She turned her head slowly toward the brunette in the disheveled uniform slumping over her desk. She frowned and pulled her glasses from her face using the earpiece as she lowered the book she had been reading. “Why are you so sad first thing in the morning, Minako?”

Minako thrust the paper at Renee without looking up.

Renee took the paper from Minako and frowned as she glanced at it. “The SAT? You can redo it…” She examined it for a moment. “Plus, a 1700 isn’t that bad, depending on where you’re trying to go.”

Minako groaned. “Not if we still want to go to the same schools…”

“The national average is about 1600.” She patted Minako’s head. “So you’re about average. Good job.”

Minako groaned again and buried her head in her crossed arms. “You’re mean, Renee. How did you do?”

She laughed, “Sorry.”

Minako sat up and pulled her crossed arms to her chest. “You are not. Stop apologizing when you’re not actually sorry.” She leaned back in her chair. “What was yours?”

“2300.” Renee shrugged.

“Wow! That’s amazing!”

Renee chuckled. “Tell you what, we can retake it together and study for it.” She smiled.

“You want to retake it? Why?” Minako gaped at her and whacked her desk. “That score would get you in just about anywhere!”

Renee grinned. “I feel like I can do better. The only person who can challenge me to do that is myself.”

Minako shook her head, but smiled. “You’re too dedicated… Alright, if you want to challenge yourself, I guess I can take it again for moral support.”

Renee laughed. “Of course you ‘guess,’ Minako!” She patted her shoulder. “We’ll get your score up too.”

~*~

Renee bit back the icy feeling in her eyes. Why? I don’t care about her, she betrayed me! So why am I crying now? My heart is a jumbled mess of memories and feelings. Minako left me all alone in that military camp after I helped her. And when she said she came for me, she still hugged that horrid creature and held him in her arms. She even cried over his pain! What made her love such gruesome creatures?

She slowly lifted her eyes to Lance. I feel at ease with him, but is this the same thing Minako feels? And I want Justin near me, but is that the same thing Minako feels? Renee wrapped her arms around her stomach tightly. How could she want to be with her creatures and treat them like people? Their only purpose is leading the priestess to the Holy box. Therefore, things like love and kindness should be unnecessary for them. But Minako keeps holding them close and showering them with her warm smile, then they respond to her with the same warmth! These creatures don’t do that for me, not like I wanted at all… Not like she…

Renee growled inaudibly. What did those creatures know?! I always dried Minako’s tears and protected her every day when she was sad, angry, or hurt. When Minako needed a white knight, I held my sword high, ready for battle. And when Minako needed help or comfort, I gently held her hand. Those gruesome creatures arrived, thinking that they knew everything and could give everything! But they don’t even care about Minako for Minako! They only hold her close because she’s the priestess who should deliver the box to them! Renee clenched her fists. I really thought I could handle anything because Minako would come here.... I believed every day. That day…

~*~

Her black world began to fill with color. She blinked as her eyes focused to see a tall blond man clad in green armor standing above her holding his metal helmet adorned with an emerald plume. He looked down on Renee with a smile, but harsh eyes.

“What do you want?” Renee’s hands trembled as she sat up.

“I rescued you.” He frowned. “Are you from nearby?”

“New York?”

“They don’t have your manner of dress in the other countries.” He smirked. “You must be from somewhere quite far away.”

Renee frowned. “How far away is New York from here anyway?”

He lowered his hand so that it was within her reach. “Would you like to come with me while you try to get back to New York?”

“But I’m sure that my friend Minako will come to get me. I can feel her calling to me just like before.” Renee put her hands to her heart as she smiled. “She is somewhere close…. Those soldiers said she was in the capital. I wonder if that’s true...

He reached toward her again. “Well, seeing as I am about to return to the capital, perhaps you should remain with me until she comes for you.”

“And you are?”

He laughed. “You don’t know?” He smiled. “No, of course you wouldn’t, maiden. I am a great general of Emeradotouhou, Justin.”

“Great general?” She scoffed. “Isn’t that narcissistic?”

“Perhaps, though all ranks within our military’s empire have earned their prestige.”

Renee stood awkwardly and clumsily in her haste. “If you’re as great as you say, then you can find Minako and bring her to the capital!” Her face lit up brightly as she smiled.

He put his hand to his chin and smirked. “Perhaps that is within my powers. You will join me, then?”

She nodded her head eagerly. “Yes! Let’s go to the capital!”

The next morning as the regiment headed toward the capital, the barren plain at the outskirts of Emeradotouhou echoed a whisper of the previous campsite, only the doused fires remained. Over the two day journey, Renee cradled her weary body and carried on. Soon… This general promised to contact Minako and she will meet me in the capital. Soon...

Once they reached the capital, Justin catered to her every need, provided lady’s maids to wait on her, procured her plenty of food, and gave her a spacious and secluded room. Despite all of this, he never really fulfilled her desires. The only thing she really wanted was Minako’s answer to her note or her appearance at the capital. Days continued to pass without word.

Justin sat on the side of Renee’s plush, canopied bed. She turned to face him weakly, but continued to lay down. “Where is Minako?”

“She must have received my correspondence. Perhaps she does not want to see you.” He lowered his head. “I am sure you recall how she refused to meet you at the campsite and didn’t save you when you first arrived.”

Renee quickly turned back toward the window as she pulled the linens to her chin. “I’m sure she’ll come tomorrow.”

That day turned into the next day, then days turned into weeks and weeks into months, or so it seemed. Yet, every day, Renee continued to assure herself that the next day would be the day. Meanwhile, Justin continued to remind her of Minako’s constant failure to fulfil her wishes as he comforted her. As Renee began to accept that Minako would never come, Justin began telling her the legends of the priestesses and that Renee could be the hope Emeradotouhou longed for.

Justin stood beside the window as Renee sat on its wide ledge. “Lady Renee, there is one other matter we must discuss.”

“What?” Renee snarled.

“I have heard word that a foreigner has appeared in Safaiananpou. If your friend is here, perhaps that is her.”

“What is Safaiananpou?”

“A rival country. They have yet to claim a priestess, so if that foreigner is your friend, perhaps she took the role? After all, destiny is stronger than camaraderie, which is an illusion at best.”

How? How could Minako who always laughed with me and cried with me and worried with me… How could someone who shared everything with me ignore me so brutally? This entire time, she had merely been in another country, yet she refused to make the trip to retrieve me the day I appeared within this gruesome world?! And even more so, she ignored all the correspondence that Justin sent her?! Can it be… Did she let something so petty as a millenniums old rivalry beyond our own control make her decisions? But I’ve been with her longer than that forsaken country!

She clenched her fists. “Justin! If she does not care for me, then I will become your emerald Pandora. I will help find the box!” If Minako decided to abandon me for an enemy nation and forsake our history and friendship, then I will do the same. Renee growled quietly. “It’s all her fault! If she had come for me… none of this would have happened!” Her tears were hot as they streamed down her cheeks.

Justin flashed her a wide smirk. “I have a few duties to complete, but then I will present you to the Emperor and he will officially bestow your role, Lady Renee Pandora of the Emeralds.”

But that day, the day of the momentous decision was also the day Minako finally appeared and showed her cowardly face. In the throne room, she weakly emerged from behind the clusters of guards that always surrounded her to see Minako standing before the king, her brown eyes brimming with emotion.

~*~

She had bounded toward me and embraced me. Tears streamed down both our faces. Maybe… Maybe she was not the sapphire priestess after all… But, that wasn’t true. She promised to take me to Safaiananpou, to save me, to rescue me... Had Justin been wrong? Had he misjudged Minako’s heart? Even after months without return correspondence, it really seemed like she only belonged to me... But, then the gruesome demon appeared, and she shattered my heart. Justin was correct. She had abandoned me for her role as the sapphire priestess.

Renee opened her eyes slowly. Why am I letting her haunt me after everything she’s done to me? Why is she still pretending to love me? Renee quickly shut her eyes again. Those glassy eyes… And her words…

“I’ll be waiting…”

Why would she be serious now when she pretended to love me for so long? Was she toying with me? I was always honest with her! But Minako had become something different from before, a false version of her former self... No, an inferior copy of her former self! Renee clenched her fist once more. How dare she… How dare she!

“Your Eminence…” Lance’s quiet voice broke through Renee’s jumbled thoughts and memories.

She turned to him slowly and a smile spread across his lips.

He smiled back. “I was afraid the cold had gotten to be too much for you.”

“No.” she lowered her head again.

“There.” Justin stopped abruptly, causing Renee to bump into him.

She slowly peered around him. “There?”

The enormous castle loomed above their heads, seemingly frozen in a capsule of time. The rank miasma surrounding it faded for them alone and the old, rotted doors creaked on their hinges as they opened once more.

“Well…” the voice from earlier called to them, “Enter Pandora… You and your demons have traveled too far not to accept your invitation…”

Renee lowered her head and pushed Justin aside to enter the castle. Our host named me specifically, so I should go first. By this time, Minako must have suffered. Now, it’s up to me to charge forward and meet her head on, when our circumstances are fair.

Behind her proud, but weak gait, Justin remained at the front of the line, followed by Lance, then Joshua, then Christopher.

Joseph hesitated as he stared up at the keep and the looming statues resembling the deceased kings. He raised his hands to his heart, then hung his head and hunched his shoulders as he entered the castle.

Justin quickened his pace to walk beside Renee, attempting to regain his position as leader. The scabbard of his sword hit his leg lightly.

Renee turned to him slowly. Her face screwed into an awkward expression as she tried to bite back the tears that longed to stream down her face while suppressing the rage she felt within her heart. “Yes?”

“Do you remember the promise you made to me?”

“I remember making no promise to you.” She scoffed and turned away from him.

“About your last wish…”

“What about it?”

“Won’t you still give it to me?”

“Do you really deserve it?” She sneered. “The box exists so that the priestess can make her wishes, after all.”

“But, it is also true that you need us to get the box.”

“That may be true, but you creatures already have a gift waiting within the box. You don’t need a wish.”

“Creatures are we?” Justin snarled as faint lines appeared between his eyebrows. “It appears that you have changed your mind, then.”

Renee stuck her nose in the air as she continued to walk forward. “Well, maybe you’ll have to prove your worth to me to get your wish. Lance!”

Lance hurried to catch up to them as Justin growled and pushed past Renee as well, resuming his position at the head of the group.

She continued forward into the darkness as she wrapped her arms around her abdomen tightly. Just like before, it was ominous, murky, stagnant, and cold. How does it feel to wander these halls all alone? Even surrounded by them and knowing they could stop almost anything, I’m still terrified. Am I the only one who’s this scared to be here? It makes me feel utterly alone. I wish I could be glamorously lonely, that I could minimize this and still get sympathy… There’s nothing glamorous about being alone, but it’s better than betraying someone I love for a moment of happiness in this twisted place. That fits Minako to a tee… Love the one you’re with if you can’t be with the one you love. Renee sneered as the toe of her shoe collided with a wall. She froze and gaped at the large stone slab standing in front of her. “But… this is the only path!”

“It seems that a trap has been sprung.” Justin smirked

Renee put her hands on her hips as a grimace covered her face. “Well, clearly Minako made it through! Why are you happy about that?!”

“Did she?”

Joshua poised his arrow toward the slab, “Let’s find out…” He pulled back on the fletching, then released the arrow. It hit the slab in the center, shattering it in one strike and revealing a stone with large stone spikes protruding from it directly behind it.

Renee stepped back and gasped loudly, clutching her hands to her chest. These stones had been intended to kill the intruder that set the trap off! Is Minako dead?

Joshua continued to shoot his arrows at the slabs, shattering each one effortlessly. At the end of the corridor, they finally came to fragments of the large stone slabs scattered across the corridor.

Christopher grabbed one from the ground. “It seems that at least a few members of their party fell victim to the trap they sprung…”

Joseph hid his pale face in his hands.

“But they aren’t here, so they must have escaped alive.” Renee frowned and fiddled with her finger nails.

Justin eyed the large slab sealing the arched gateway. “Not necessarily. Perhaps this path does lead somewhere.” He turned to Joshua as he motioned toward the gate.

Joshua nodded and shot his arrow toward the slab. It shattered, scattering stone fragments beneath the gate, but no sign of human or demon remains.

Renee clenched her fists. Once again, Minako had escaped death thanks to her demons. Why were they always protecting her?

The emerald demons entered the room slowly. It was covered in rubble and stone fragments with blood splattered along the floor and on rock shards. The floor has several gashes, large ones with rocks protruding from them and small ones resembling claw marks, especially in the center. A stone statue sat near what appeared to be the shattered door of the exit.

Renee walked over to the statue quickly and ran her hand along its face as she blinked. “Isn’t this a strange place to keep a statue?”

Joseph inhaled sharply before he ran toward the statue.

“Joseph?” Renee questioned.

He stood before the statue and examined the craftsmanship of the face as well as the depiction of the Rubiihoppou armor. He lowered his head and let out another ominous breath. “I thought so…”

Christopher appeared behind him first, followed shortly behind the others. “What is it?”

“This statue was made using the body of a Rubiihoppou demon as a mold.”

“Meaning?” Lance frowned as he gripped Renee’s hand.

Joseph inhaled sharply as he adjusted his collar. “It’s not really a statue at all. When we lose, we get turned to stone.”

Renee gasped and tore her hand from Lance, then ran through the exit. Whoever lost the battle became stone! Does that mean that even I could become a statue?

“Lady Renee!”

Renee shook her head and sprinted through the darkness, fighting her previous fear of the darkness with the adrenaline of her fear towards being encased in stone. Her demons followed close at her heels, but she was still the first to run through the next stone gate and find the weapons room. She froze and her hands trembled. “What is this armory?”

Justin entered the room in awe and quickly strode toward the wall, pulling a long sword into his grasp. He ran his finger across the blade as he examined the blood it drew, then grinned wildly as he wiped the sword and placed it through a holster on his armor before turning to the other emerald demons. “Make yourselves useful, grab a weapon.”

“But… We have our powers…” Christopher furrowed his brow.

“Do it. Show those sapphire pests and any other illusionary demons that you are undeniably strong.”

The other four demons obeyed and each grabbed a sword from the wall, then Justin led the way past the topaz demon and down the next darkened corridor.

Renee held her arms closely to her chest and inhaled rapidly and repeatedly as her heart rate quickened. So, losing means dying... Her hands trembled as her throat tightened. There’s nothing I can do to protect myself from death, I’m terrified. She glanced at Justin as he led them down the dense and murky hallway. This path he’s treading feels like a tomb. Is this a path to death and despair? She choked on the tears she had held back in vain.

The stench of the next room’s rotting flora overpowered Renee, making her gag as she wrapped her arms around her abdomen. Why is my stomach always so weak?

Justin frowned. “This next room also has a statue, but no blood. Did a battle even occur? Perhaps this one is a mere fluke or the remnants of an old battle.” He pushed through the exit and continued walking down the dim corridor.

Renee’s heart continued beating rapidly as they neared the next door, a rotting wooden gate. Lance turned and saw her pale, sweating face, then offered her his hand. She blinked nervously and clenched it tightly.

When they entered the next room, they all shrank back in alarm and clung to the wall. The majority of the room was a gaping hole leading down to the catacombs of the castle, though a small and unstable path wound around the edge. Blood lined the weak and crumbling walls, supported by the shattered floor and ceiling. Two statues sat across the hole, one upright and the other prone on the ground. Renee gasped again and latched on to Lance’s arm.

“Where’s the exit? Down can’t possibly be the only way to go...” Joshua growled as he scanned the room.

“There.” Justin pointed to a pile of rubble near a weak and open wall across the gaping hole. He chuckled sardonically. “And the sapphire demons must have fallen to their deaths.”

Renee’s hand trembled as she removed it from Lance and pulled into a fist at her heart. No… All this time, I’ve still been able to feel her… Because she's haunting me… Anger or love, she survived that fatal fall and her heart is still beating and calling to me… Renee growled. How can even a fall to her death refuse to kill her?

Justin glanced at Renee. “You think she’s still alive?”

Renee gave him a low nod.

“Well… Dead or alive, we will be victorious.” He clenched his fist, then pulled his cape toward his chest, allowing his wings to unfurl. He pushed off the weak ground with his foot and glided toward the exit.

Joshua, Joseph, and Christopher followed shortly afterward. Lance held Renee’s waist tightly as his wings unfurled as well.

“Lance…”

“It’s okay, I won’t let you fall.” He smiled and tightened his grip.

“No… How… how do you think the battle will turn out?” She stammered and lowered her head.

His smile brightened. “You’ll win of course. I won’t let you get turned to stone.”

Renee gripped his tunic tightly as he shot from the weak ground. Yes… It has to be Minako that gets turned to stone. Her eyes narrowed as her hands trembled, her lips snarling. Wait for me, Minako, let me be the one to hand you your demise instead of this castle.
Chapter Thirty-Eight: Seer by nicksgal
The world was shrouded in nothingness, only pitch black darkness as far as the eye could see. It was death in the form of a peaceful and eternal dream, yet seeing nothing with eyes wide open could also be a horrid nightmare. This darkness was stale and cold, the kind that pierced through a soul causing heart wrenching tears. All alone in the darkness… But perhaps it was better to live in a perpetual dark world of death and never experience any other pain or suffering, to be completely numb to the world. Life and death, light and darkness, what did any of that matter? To see nothing, hear nothing, experience nothing in a world of eternal, ethereal bliss was peace. Perhaps it was better to never open your heavy eyelids again.

The world was more of a nightmare than death. So many cold and unfeeling hearts… The undead appearing in the form of soldiers… The seemingly alive became statues frozen in time. The world was a quiet, private suffering for everyone. In their hearts, they wanted only to live and struggle, but they were also afraid. The path forward was an eternal shadow of darkness. What was scarier than the unknown? Nothing. The unknown meant that anything could happen. The unknown meant that the world could end in an instant without warning or hope of rescue. Life was fickle. Those who appreciated it the most were always the first to die, while those who were reckless could survive anything they undertook. But, if the castle of nightmares stole their lives, then there was nothing to be done. The dead could never rise. If only one were to slumber forever, then the pain of the survivors would be eternal. In this castle, it was better to live and suffer your own private nightmare, than to die and make everyone else share it.

Brian groaned as his eyes fully opened. He blinked several times as he stared into the unending black. Skulls and bones littered the dark abyss they had fallen into. He put his hands on the ground and tried to sit up, but his arms trembled and shook as he did. Okay… Standing is definitely out of the question. He pushed off his arms one more time and finally managed to sit upright then scanned the blackness around him. Aside from the skeleton fragments, this room is virtually empty… He exhaled as his heart’s beating normalized.

Minako lay on top of Nick about a foot away and they both stirred as well. Minako moved her hand first and began feeling around the dark, touching the ground and pounding her palm on bone fragments. She paused as she gripped a larger round object and shrieked, then bolted upright as she jerked her hand away and knocked it against Nick’s horns. She put her hand to her chest and exhaled several times.

Brian chuckled to himself.

Nick groaned as well, then blinked several times as he scanned their black abyss. He groaned again as he tried sitting up, then reached out and grabbed her hand from her chest. “Minako…” His voice was raspy and weak as he spoke. He thrust his arms around her and pulled her tightly to his chest. “Minako!”

She sobbed loudly and buried her face in his chest as she gripped at the folds in his tunic.

“Minako?” He pulled her closer and cupped her head, then ran his fingers through her hair.

She sniffed back her tears. “No… I’m just really glad… Really, really glad…”

Nick leaned his head on hers as he sniffed back tears as well. “Me too.”

Those two… Brian smiled, but he felt his heart sinking. Being alive is joyful, but this castle is intended to tear us apart. The traps and the illusionary demons batter and destroy us. Can we escape with our lives? Will we ever find the box? Are Howie, Kevin, and AJ okay? He gripped the beads around his neck, then wiped his palms on his pants.

“Brian? Are you okay?” Minako’s voice penetrated his thoughts.

He smiled gently. Thank you for worrying about me too, Minako. I can’t see your facial expressions in the dark, so you probably can’t see mine either. I should speak to you. “I’m fine, Minako. I’m glad you and Nick are too.”

Minako clenched Nick’s tunic tightly with her fingers as she pulled back from him. “Where… are we?”

Nick patted her back lightly. “This suffocating darkness reminds me of where I was… But all the bones were outside… The worst parts of both.” His fangs glinted as he bit his lip.

Brian scanned their surroundings. “This seems to be the catacombs of the castle. It could just be underground tunnels… But it’s likely it’s also a burial chamber...” He tapped some of the scattered bones with his staff.

“A burial chamber?” Minako buried her head into Nick’s chest again.

Nick ran his hand through her hair again.

Brian lowered his hands into his lap. “That aside… What do you both want to do? The others are probably long gone, and besides that… It doesn’t seem like there’s a way back up anyway.”

“Putting all that aside…”

Brian chuckled. “Are you trying to mimic me, Nick?”

Nick fangs glinted briefly, but disappeared and his voice became serious. “All three of us are wounded. Can we keep going?”

Brian put his hand to his chin. “That does pose a problem…”

“But we have to get to the box…” Minako pulled back from Nick’s embrace again.

Brian crossed his arms and nodded. “Then there’s that…” He pursed his lips. Our problems keep compounding...

Minako lowered her head, averting her gaze. “And are the others alive?”

Nick smiled, then pressed a kiss to her forehead. “If we’re alive, they have to be too.”

Minako nodded her head, her broad smile gleaming in the darkness. “Then, we have no choice! If they’re alive, we have to meet them. Instead of worrying, let’s go forward!”

Nick inhaled audibly, but did not exhale as his gaze remained fixed on her.

Minako’s voice was quiet. “Did I… say something wrong, Nick?”

Brian chuckled. So naive and genuine with each other… “It sounds like he’s surprised, but absolutely adores that you’re repeating him.”

Minako turned to Brian and blinked rapidly, but Nick slouched and hung his head.

Brian laughed. “It seems that I’ve embarrassed him.”

Nick growled, piercing the silence. “Stop teasing me, Brian.”

Brian smiled as he gripped his staff. Always full of zeal. He pressed the base of his staff against the ground again and forced himself to push off of it until he was standing upright. “You’re right, let’s go forward instead.” Brian shut his eyes and stretched his hands apart. A glowing sphere appeared in his hand. Even though Kevin’s healing powers are what we really need, hopefully my barriers and sutras can at least light our way. He pulled out a sutra and began whispering in a low voice. “Away from me, but hold the shield. Bind and light the way.” He placed the sapphire orb in the center ring of his staff and affixed the sutra to it. The pitch black cavern became dimly lit as it filled with sapphire light.

Minako smiled brightly as she stared up at him. “Brian… You still have your powers. I thought… It took everything you had to save us.”

Brian shook his head as he exhaled. “No, but… I wish I could have done more… Like pulled you both up or made a barrier that could have cushioned our fall.”

Minako used Nick’s shoulders to push herself up, her knees wobbled for a moment, but she steadied herself, then reached down for Nick. He groaned as he set his feet flat on the ground, then grabbed her hand as he used the other to push off the ground. He groaned again as he stood and gripped his abdomen.

Minako brushed Nick’s cheek with her thumb, then walked over to Brian and put her hand on his shoulder. “No… What’s important is that you came after us and tried your hardest, despite the circumstances.” She smiled again.

Brian smiled as well. “Minako… I would do anything for you.” He put his hand behind his head, “My feelings aren’t quite like Nick’s at all, but… you still mean everything to me.”

“Did none of you live a day without me?”

Brian chuckled and rubbed the back of his head. “It’s not like that… Not at all for me.” He paused. I have to consider my word choice carefully. I don’t want to make you feel disheartened... “I lived many days without you. Being a cardinal demon is important to me, but it’s not the only thing I have. Plus, Nick would be upset if I said you did mean everything to me in the same way.” He grinned.

Nick clenched his fist and growled again as he hunched his shoulders.

“I’ll stop.” Brian smiled. He glanced at the ground as he gripped his beads again, trying to calm the tightness in his chest. He took a long breath and looked back at Minako. “I lived many days without you, but you gave me a very precious gift that I had never received before… So the only way I can think to return the favor is to protect you with my entire heart.”

“I gave you a gift?” Minako frowned.

Brian nodded. Was that too cryptic? Will you understand and feel my meaning if I don’t tell you directly?

Minako crossed her arms and put her fist to her chin as she furrowed her brow. She alternated between pursing her lips and chewing on them.

Brian smiled warmly. I’ve confused you, I’m sorry to put that puzzled expression on your face. If only you knew the power of your friendship, Minako. He lowered his head momentarily, concealing the bright smile on his face. I don’t want you to think that I’m judging you. “Well… Shall we go forward?”

Minako shook her head and straightened her shoulders as she inhaled, then grabbed Nick’s hand. “It’s like Nick said, let’s keep going instead of worrying!”

Brian glanced at Nick and flashed him a wide grin. “Who knew that you could say something so inspiring.”

Nick growled and clenched his fist again. “Stop teasing me! I do have my moments! And you said that you respected me!”

“We all know our situation is… dire. Seeing both of your spirited reactions makes it seem less insurmountable for me. But, I’m not being fair when you keep asking and I ignore you.”

Nick froze and for one quick moment he raised his eyebrows and caught Brian’s gaze with protuberant eyes. As quickly as he did it, he averted his eyes from Brian’s gaze, though he did unclench his hands and wiggle his fingers.

Brian began to lead the small party through the corridor, though he did glance back at Nick and smile broadly. It wasn’t a lie, Nick. I would be proud to admit it to you as many times as you’d like. You and I are very different…

You are always only yourself, meanwhile, I learned long ago how to conceal my demonic appearance with mortal objects. It’s not that my power is weak, I just can’t conceal my power the way Howie does. I wouldn’t be able to perform spells, use my sutras, do divinations, or any other priestly duties. So instead of appearing human, I must wrap my wings around my shoulders and cover them with a cloak, place gloves upon my hands, and adorn my head with a hat to hide my horns. I can’t really hide my fangs, but I’ve hidden the part of me that enjoys jokes when I’m traveling. I’m happy to have that again. With those minor adjustments, I am suddenly well respected and loved. Aside from the common struggles of growing up during the warring states era and the few minor struggles that come with daily life, my existence is a relatively simple one.

But you came from a background you had no memory of, existed without a profession or loved ones until this moment, and woke up to find yourself sealed away in the darkness. Anyone else would be insane. But, you’re almost peaceful, you even flinch less than when we met. You’ve risen up from these unfortunate circumstances and grown into the type of person that’s capable of giving and receiving love despite your shortcomings. You still don’t seem to have mastery over your powers, and even transform into a gruesome creature when they do awaken. Yet at the same time, you’ve accepted the idea that your memories are fleeting and that it’s unlikely you’ll ever regain them. Instead, you’ve chosen to only focus on the future.

There are really two kinds of people… The weak, who only focus on the past, forever yearning to change their mistakes and rewrite history. And the strong, who accept the things they can’t change, and instead, desire to move forward with their heads held high. You’re the latter, Nick, someone who can rise up from their circumstances and carve out their own destiny. And for that, despite your shortcomings as a cardinal demon, perhaps you are the strongest of all of us. Because you can walk into any situation without regret and reappear stronger than you were before.

“Brian…” Minako’s quiet voice interrupted his thoughts.

Brian glanced back at her.

Minako and Nick were walking slowly with their hands clenched tightly together. Minako patted Nick’s chest as he held his hand over his abdomen and grimaced.

I’m glad you can both support each other to keep going forward no matter how dangerous it becomes. He smiled warmly. “Yes, Minako?”

Minako clenched her free hand into a loose fist and held it to her heart. “No, I just… I don’t know what I gave you, but… Thank you.” She smiled brightly.

Brian’s smile illuminated the darkness. “When this is all over, I’ll tell you.” He turned his head from her slowly and scanned the path in front of him again. “But… For now, it’s my motivation…” He lowered his head, but then turned back to her. “If I told you, part of me is afraid it would no longer be genuine… But, I think that with you, at least, it’s genuine regardless.”

Minako continued to smile at him, even though she held her fist to her chin again.

Brian chuckled as he turned back toward the path. Sorry that I confused you, Minako. I’ll tell you soon. He froze. At the end of this path, there’s a new opening…

“Brian?” Nick asked.

Brian pointed to it. “A new room…”

Minako and Nick followed his gaze and stared up at it.

“Let me…” Nick released Minako’s hand and took a step forward to stand beside Brian.

Brian thrust his staff in front of him.

Nick flinched and stepped backward. “Brian…”

“You’re still injured from the last battle when you did try to fight. And I… I couldn’t pull either of you up… That’s the only reason I’m hurt.” Brian clenched his fingers around the crisp metal of his staff, his knuckles turned white as he tightened his grip. “So now I must prove my worth!”

“But Brian…” Minako put her hand on Brian’s shoulder.

He gave her a warm smile. “In my heart, Nick’s bravery is still superior to mine. So I must follow his example and tread forward with pride.”

“Brian…” Nick frowned as he clenched his fist.

Brian continued to smile, but his heart raced. “This is my choice alone. I already convinced myself that I must tread this path.”

Nick clapped his shoulder. “Whatever you need, we’ll follow your lead.”

Minako pulled her hand back and held her fist at her heart, but nodded hesitantly.

Brian gave them a thumbs up with his free hand as he continued down the path with his head held high like a dignified soldier marching into battle. What a strange thing to call a priest. Do Holy men of peace wage battles? Still, for Minako, our sapphire priestess, I would run into any battle or participate in any war. Why? Of course I know that the weak need protecting, but I hadn’t fought the emerald general. I only protected her physically weak body. Nick had defended her honor then and many times throughout our journey. Nick always ran headlong toward battle and declared that he would protect her. Was it only due to love? Or did he immediately recognize the light radiating from within her heart? Was he so drawn to her kindness that he became the first beneficiary of her heart’s warm embrace?

In the beginning, I think we all feared that her heart was too weak, like those of the other priestesses. They possessed the type of hearts that embraced only their own destiny and thought nothing of the others who stood right beside them, did nothing to support the demons at their sides. All demons knew of the bewitching and condescending Ruby priestess. Tales also traveled about the Topaz priestess whose demons tried to obtain a stronger priestess by sacrificing a demon. It seems they did not succeed, but I wonder if that’s a well known tale away from the western parts of Safaiananpou. And then there’s the Emerald priestess, Minako’s beloved friend, who only looked upon others with narrow eyes and a morose scowl. But Minako…

The first moment I met her, she apologized for not feeling pain when she recognized my name. Even when she was suffering, she worried more about me. And she’d fought her hardest to convince the emerald priestess that she still loved her more than anything. I wonder if in the beginning her heart was more like the other priestesses… And yet, the first time we spoke, she intended to let Nick have one of her wishes. And now she’s trying to use her own powers to protect us. Maybe her heart has gotten stronger over time, more balanced. But it seems she’s always wanted to hold our hearts within hers.

The cardinal demons are supposed to have one special power that awakens when their priestess obtains the box. Safaiananpou is to be the country of balance. What that actually means is unclear. Perhaps once the era of the warring states was settled, the countries would become one and Safaianapou would be the diplomatic leader. Rubiihoppou, the country of the king, seemed poised to become the political power. Topazuseihou, the warrior, would control the military. And Emeradotouhou, the double, who despite their current problems, could become the economic power. From that moment, an era of peace would be ushered in, knocking down the barriers created by the era of warring states. If all of that could be created through a battle on my part, then I am more than happy to become a warrior for my country and to keep my promise to my priestess.

As he entered the dark and murky room, the small, glowing orb on his staff began to light it up. However, a shudder went down his spine and he stopped abruptly. He sucked in his lips, recoiling at the bitter taste when he licked them.

“Brian?” Minako put her hand on Brian’s shoulder.

Brian tore his sutra from his staff, snatching the brief sapphire light from the room. He held his staff aloft and gave it a small twirl, surrounding them with a barrier.

Nick stepped forward beside Brian. “Something dangerous?”

A bright beam of yellow light struck the orb as though it answered Nick’s question.

“A shield…” A rasping voice floated across the room.

Brian held his staff tightly. Another demon with spiritual power? “Who’s there?!”

The figure appeared before them in his complete topaz splendor. He wore a bright yellow calf-length tunic over white pants with a bright orange sash tied at his waist. His wings flowed behind him gracefully like a ribbon as he descended from the ceiling.

“So, they’re not all soldiers...” Nick scanned the room.

“I am a seer. You do know what that is, don’t you Priest?” He landed on the ground gently.

Brian snarled. “I suppose you have some vision about our destiny to share with us?”

The demon held out his hand toward the barrier with his palm up. “Yes, come Pandora. Would you care to see the path of your future?”

Brian shot his arm in front of Minako. “Don’t try, it’s a trap.”

“You mock my power?”

Brian’s trembling hand gripped his staff tightly enough to turn his knuckles white. “Of course I mock your power! How can you claim to predict the future when each single event changes it?”

The topaz demon crossed his arms. The glow in his eyes flickered and danced. “Then change my future, saintly demon. Fight. Unless all sleeping demons are weak.”

Nick growled and clenched his fists.

Brian lowered his staff. What kind of power does a seer have? Nothing simple that Nick’s fists could solve, especially if he’s ready to jump in right now. Fighting him is probably dangerous for everyone except me. But I can’t fight him from within this barrier. I have to make sure Nick and Minako are safe first, though. He pulled a sutra from inside his tunic and began whispering as he clenched his hand into a fist. “Away from me, but hold the shield. Protect and seal.”

He placed the glowing sutra between his sash and tunic, then released the grip of two fingers on his staff. The barrier around them began to ripple, then Brian stepped through. Once he stood outside the barrier, he clenched his hand around his staff again.

Nick ran toward the barrier’s edge and began pounding on it as he shouted something inaudible. Minako rushed to him and gripped his shoulders.

Brian glanced back, then eyed the topaz demon again. Sorry Nick, it’s better this way. “Topaz demon, I am a soldier to protect my companions!”

“A man of peace is a soldier!” The demon cackled.

“I won’t let you touch them!”

The demon faded into a topaz light, only its cackled remained floating along the silence.

Brian pulled another sutra from his tunic and began whispering again as he clenched his eyes shut. “Away from me, but keep the shield. Pierce and shackle!” The sutra began glowing as he opened his eyes. I will protect them without fail. No more demons will harm them. Brian coughed, choking on his bitter spit as he thrust his staff into the ground and crumpled against it. He raised his free hand to his chest. Something has struck me…

The sutra in his hand ignited in a quick burst and he flicked it away. “A shackle… That won’t do.”

Brian raised a shaking hand to his face. That’s… that’s not me… Something is in here with me.

“Astute, Priest. Though I’m surprised you can still control your hand.”

That’s my voice, but that’s not me!

“Can they hear me in there, or is it only you? Let’s make sure they can hear…” He rummaged around the tunic, then patted the sutra between his sash and the tunic. His hand trembled erratically. “Found it. Allow me, Priest.” He tore the sutra, then crumpled against his staff again.

The barrier around Minako and Nick burst. Nick’s hand flailed as it struck empty air and he frowned.

“Brian!” Minako ran toward him with her arms outstretched.

Minako, no! Brian reached his trembling hand out to her as he turned back toward her.

“So kind, Priest.” He sneered, then let Brian’s own shaking voice escape his mouth. “Minako…”

She pulled him into a tight embrace. “Brian! You’re hurt!”

He wrapped his free hand around her neck and began to choke her. “What sort of Pandora runs toward her demons when they make a sacrifice for her?”

Minako gagged. “Brian…”

“Minako!” Nick ran after her, his hands balled into fists.

Brian smirked again. “Weak and useless Pandora, crying over her demons.” He tossed her against the ground and her body went limp.

Minako! It’s not me!

Nick dropped to his knees next to her and gripped her shoulders, then glared up at Brian with flaring nostrils as he snarled.

Nick! It’s not me!

Nick growled as his claws cracked and pulsed. His wings began flaring from his back.

“Nick! I would never hurt Minako!” Brian’s voice rang clear.

Nick flinched and froze as he gaped at Brian.

Brian smirked. “Priest, you ruined the fun. Show me your powers, other cardinal demon.”

Nick quickly and repeatedly glanced between Minako and Brian as he began hyperventilating. His claws began cracking and pulsing again.

Nick, no!

Nick sank his head toward his chest as he pulled Minako into his lap as he shut his eyes tightly. The low and raspy tone began reverberating through the room.

Brian put his hands to his ears and closed his eyes as he hunched his shoulders, but the only sound that came out was the topaz demon’s shriek.

This is my chance! As long as I can get through enough to tell him! He struggled to open his eyes against the strain. “Keep going, Nick! Just a little bit longer!” Brian’s own voice rang through the room.

Nick closed his mouth and slowly opened his eyes, staring at Brian with a fixed gaze and his eyebrows pulled to the center.

The topaz demon’s sinister cackle escaped Brian’s throat again. “You’re showing concern for your comrade? How weak!” He thrust his hand against Nick’s wounded abdomen and pierced it with a yellow snap of energy.

Nick’s eyes flashed open, then a grimace appeared on his face as he crumpled to the ground on top of Minako.

Nick!

He cackled again as he kicked Nick away, making him land in a heap a few feet away. “What will you do, Priest? Each time you fight me, I’ll destroy the ones you care for!”

Minako… Nick… Something is touching me! He managed to glance down to see Minako’s hand wrapped around his ankle. She’s bleeding… But…

Despite the gash in her forehead, she smiled up at him weakly.

Her smile and hand are so warm… Minako, whatever you’re trying, keep trying it! I think I feel the others too… His voice wavered, but came out clearly, “Minako… Keep reaching out with that warmth…”

She nodded weakly and shut her eyes. A faint sapphire glow began emanating from her body.

“Priest, you think her little light can save you?” The topaz demon’s sickening voice came from his throat. He cackled again as he raised Brian’s hand to his chest. It began glowing a sickening topaz.

This has to happen! I will protect them! Brian began to glow with a bright sapphire light as his wings flared from underneath his blue cloak. His fangs elongated and his pale blue eyes intensified their coloring. He gripped his staff tightly, his claws brushing the insides of his gloves. “I won’t… I won’t kill myself!” Brian laboriously gained control of his hand and clenched it into a fist, eliminating the topaz glow. He then pulled a sutra from inside his tunic. “I refuse to lose to a seer who uses his power to enter another!”

Brian placed the sutra on his forehead and began chanting a low spell as he pointed his staff toward his chest. “Away from me, a brief shield. Burst and shatter!” An intense blue light wrapped around his body as a similar light filled his staff. He held it tightly with his claws, still directed toward his own body.

“Brian!” Minako’s hand trembled around his ankle.

Minako, I’m sorry! Please forgive me for this! He shook his foot free, then gave her a swift kick away from him as a bright pillar of sapphire light formed around his body. The entire room became illuminated in the bright glow, a haze of blue surrounding him. He gazed up through the glow as it shot toward the ceiling and pierced a hole through it and into the room above them.

“BRIAN!!”

I hear you Minako, I’m doing my best! The large beam of cylindrical sapphire light swirled around him as the sutra at his forehead ignited. He pulled it from his forehead and crushed it in his fist. He held it to his heart and whispered, “Topaz demon?” He paused. No answer. It’s just me in here again.

He tossed the singed sutra to the floor and slammed the base of his staff into the ground. The sapphire light slowly pulled from the hole in the ceiling and settled around him as it subsided from the room. He stared up at the ceiling. “Goodbye Topaz demon.”

He glanced around the room quickly. Both Minako and Nick were struggling to stand. He wiped the sweat from his brow, the anxiousness dripping away from his fingers, then exhaled his pent-up breath.

Minako and Nick’s attention snapped to meet his gaze and they began running toward him.

“Brian!!” Minako stretched her arms out and wrapped him in a tight embrace.

Brian smiled weakly, but his eyebrows dipped in concern. “Sorry… Minako… I had no idea that would happen… Are you hurt?”

Tears streamed down Minako’s cheeks as she shook her head and gave him a large squeeze. “If you’re okay, I’m fine.” She pulled back as Nick stopped beside them.

“Brian…” Nick reached his hand out, but then pulled it back.

“Nick… I’m--”

Nick choked back a few tears and thrust his arms around Brian, pulling him into his chest.

Brian gaped at Nick.

“I’m glad you could unleash your powers and defeat him. As long as you’re okay, everything’s okay.”

Brian inhaled quickly, then a wide smile grew across his face.

Nick pulled back after a few moments, but kept his stare fixed on Brian as he gripped his shoulders. “The others--”

Minako clenched her hand at her heart. “I felt them too.”

“I did as well.” Brian crossed an arm over his chest and gripped Nick’s hand.

Nick clenched his fist. “Our friends are close! Let’s find them! We’re nearing the end now!”

The three of them nodded in agreement and began running toward the exit. They were alive. The others were alive. They would all be reunited soon and they would reach the box together.
Chapter Thirty-Nine: Ruthless by nicksgal
Like all the corridors before, this one was another dark mausoleum or perhaps a morgue with each new turn revealing a body to be identified and discovered. Though, so far, it seemed the sapphire demons were stronger than the long forgotten statues and this made their blood run wild. If the sapphire demons were not yet dead, then they could die at their hands alone. But, what would become of them all when they met? It could never be a friendly battle. Cardinal demons had always been taught that blood for blood’s sake was an unwelcome offence in the eyes of God who had left them all alone. Yet perhaps that offence was viewed differently when the blood being spilled was that of another cardinal demon. In the world of the combat of cardinal demons, blood for blood’s sake was nonexistent because they lived to compete with each other.

Nick had said he had not lived a day until the moment he met Minako, but he had been housed in the suffocating darkness for what he viewed to be his entire life. Brian had laughed at the comment, saying instead that he had lived many days before she had appeared in their world. And AJ had cried about living a life where he only ran away. It seemed that to each demon the meaning of life was very different. Did that mean that for each demon found a different meaning in existence as well? A personal desire to live fueled each demon, but a different force fueled his existence. The force that some called a golden destiny and others deemed a cruel fate: being a cardinal demon. The drive to claim powers sealed within the Holy box. The desire to protect the priestess that would hand them the Holy box. The drive to combat the other demons that would stand in the way of the Holy box. It was the same for all of them, their greatest desire in the world, whether they showed it or not, was to claim the Holy box for themselves.

As the box lay hidden away, that desire only deepened. When things were prominent, everyone took them for granted. The pretty necklace hanging from the ornamented frame of a mirror, the scarlet shoes that accented the scarlet trim of the tunic in the closet, the one person standing beside them every day. Each day, things sitting in their exact place radiated a comfortable warmth at their sight. Then, in one instant, the pretty necklace fell from the mirror into an undiscovered corner of the darkness, one of the scarlet shoes had been taken to an unknown location, and the one person that always stood beside them walked away. They could see their back, they could reach out to them, but in that instant, they could never reach them. In the darkness, they were left alone, to stare at the back of the person they adored, knowing that they would never turn around again. When those things disappeared, they become consuming.

That was the type of darkness the demons felt when they were separated from the Holy box. It was hidden in a place that they could never reach in an unknown and mystifying world. With no memory of what was sealed in the box, their desires became complicated and fervent. What did it hold within it? Hidden power, deep desire, or perpetual longing that they could only cling to desperately in prayer? Their desires came to the primitive distinction between property. The idea that an item could belong to one person and its disappearance meant theft. While cardinal demons were considered to be stronger, even superior to ordinary demons, their existence was structured around primal desires and instincts. Did that make their existence simplistic and unnecessary or merely stripped of any petty grievances normally associated with existence? To be fueled by one desire alone seemed cold and unfeeling.

Upon death, the cardinal demons were turned to stone statues, but were their living counterparts merely ice sculptures among the living? What did it take to melt the eternally darkened heart of a cardinal demon? Was the Holy box enough to satisfy their desires or was there something more important to them? However it was deemed… Cruel fate… Golden destiny… It had thrown the priestesses and the cardinal demons together. It seemed that any of them could escape their destiny, despite the fact that they were all bound by it and trudged forward, regardless of the consequences, regardless of what was shattered in the process. Each of them wanted something from their journey, but if their desires were so incompatible, their hearts would be volatile to each other. What was the one desire cardinal demons and priestesses shared? And more than that, was it even something they could achieve?

Renee stared intently at her feet as they journeyed through the path of endless darkness. Back in New York, I was so sure that missing a day of school was the greatest horror because my books were taken and I had to catch up on missed work while still following daily study habits. Minako always refused to tell me what I had missed until the day I came back. She was always so sure that I really needed the time to rest. At that time, I could have never imagined the unknown dangers and unnumbered hardships of a place like this. I’d never seen two men fight until they were both bloody. I’d never seen men openly carry weapons in busy streets without fear of consequences. I’d never seen citizens of devastated towns attempting to pick up the fragments left behind. And most of all, I’d never imagined that I would see the one person I loved the most betray me and then feign love...

“I’ll be waiting…”

Renee bit back her anger. They’re continuing to haunt me...

“Your Eminence…” Lance touched her shoulder.

Renee wrapped her arms around herself. “It’s cold…”

Lance pulled her closer. “We are surrounded by a catacomb of darkness.”

She tightened her grip on her shoulders. Not just the darkness, not just the castle, not just Rubiihoppou… This whole world. It’s clouded in darkness. Our world was always brighter because Minako’s smile lit it up. But she betrayed me, and now seeing her only makes my world dark... Why is the world not brighter with Minako far away?

In this castle, the demons were acutely aware of the rank stench of death, but in the world outside, they never noticed it. Had they become accustomed to their world smelling exactly like death and decaying bodies? Or was it because this rotting stench was that of their kinsmen? It seemed strange to call them that because the cardinal demons always claimed to fight for their countries with pride. Emerald demons were soldiers. Sapphire demons refused to give in. Truthfully, they were merely words, and nothing else. Emerald, Sapphire, what did it matter which set of demons got the box? The priestesses were actually the sole possessors of the Holy strength of God, the demons only had wishes sealed inside. What did the demons care as long as they received their desires from within its glittering golden sides? Wants and desires, those words must have been foreign concepts to them. Material things held little importance, they only desired basic things like food, a sword, a warm place to stay, perhaps family and companions. Other than Justin’s want of bloodlust, it seemed as though these demons lack nothing, or at least, nothing they mentioned in words.

Yet, Justin had asked me for a wish. What sort of thing was he looking for? He was a general, greatly respected, and wealthy, there must have been little else he desired. He had all of his basic needs fulfilled, right?

“Pandora...” Joshua fell back beside her and Lance.

Renee turned to him with a grimace. Why is he interrupting my precious thoughts with his wavering voice? “What?” Her tone was haughty and sharp.

He gulped and clenched his bow. “Can you sense the box?”

“What am I? A fortune teller?” Renee scoffed and turned back to the path in front of them.

“Actually, one of Pandora’s powers is divination.” Joseph placed a hesitant hand on her shoulder.

“Divination… A premonition about something that is going to happen…” She turned to Joseph. “So you believe it is my duty to tell you what I sense about the precious Holy box?”

Joseph nodded slowly, but stared at the ground and fiddled with his sleeve.

Christopher glanced back, then walked slower to join their conversation.

“Lady Renee…”

She glared back toward Justin walking at the head of the pack. How dare he open his mouth at this moment?

He continued to walk forward, never glancing at her as he spoke. “Your followers have implored your powers as a priestess, perhaps you should respond.”

She growled and laced her fingers. They want a presentation of my powers as though I am unworthy? What claim to superiority do these creatures have? They are inferior to me in every instance of the word. She shut her eyes slowly. Hopefully I can see something without my anger and disgust clouding my judgment. Darkness… Is there only darkness everywhere? No… In the corner… A brightly shining box… If I reach toward it, can I discern its exact location?

She pulled back quickly. A splatter of blood covered it and cascaded down the sides of the previously beautiful golden box, then it suddenly burst into flames.

Fire? Why? I can’t stay, I’m falling deeper into this illusion… I have to… Her hands began shaking and she pulled back from the illusion. Her eyes flashed open and she choked as she ripped her fingers apart from each other.

“Priestess?!” “Pandora?!” The demons surrounding her froze and crowded closer.

“Your Eminence!” Lance thrust both arms around her.

Renee raised her shaking hands to her face. “Darkness… Blood… Fire…” Her body convulsed as she wrapped her arms around it, trying to calm her frantic heart.

“Lance…” Justin stopped and glanced back at him

Lance furrowed his brow, then glanced up at him.

“You are a man of spiritual power, won’t you translate?”

Lance looked down at Renee again, and clenched her tighter, his face covered in concern.

“Forget her for a moment and answer the question.”

Lance slowly released Renee from his embrace, pulling his hands along her arms as he stepped back. Then he laced his fingers and emitted a burst of ki, causing a warm emerald glow to surround him. “The box is surrounded in darkness. The battle for it will be unending and filled with death, but, in the last moment, there is a deep anger and…”

“And?”

The emerald glow subsided and Lance placed his hand on Renee’s shoulder again. “Her Eminence shut her heart to the vision. I do not know its outcome, only that one exists.”

“Lady Renee…”

“No…” Her voice shook.

“As Pandora--”

“No…”

“Your duty--”

“No!!” She ducked under Lance’s hand, then pushed past the three demons surrounding her before dodging Justin and sprinting into the impending darkness.

I was fine before that vision, but now my heart is wracked with pain! Why? Why now? It’s not just a bloody battle, it feels like that blood belongs to someone very important! That fire is piercing my heart! Lance said it was anger… Is it mine? Is someone angry at me? Is someone angry for me? Who does that blood belong to? Who will die? There’s a small part of me that wants to see it still so that I could find out, but even thinking of the blood dripping down the box makes me want to cry… It was such a pure red color… Blood that shines even within the darkness of the catacombs of this castle… No, blood that shines even within the darkness of this world.

Her running slowed when she reached a large archway looming above her. A new entrance? All the previous entrances along the narrow path had led to a battle. Is this a battle for us? Do we have to fight? What is the purpose of having these battles before that culminating battle? We’re only wasting our energy and draining our strength. Minako should suffer, since she’s the only one who followed her priestly duties impeccably. She had gathered her demons on her own by traveling and searching for them. She had delivered them to the castle as asked. She had completed every task to finality and had arrived at the castle using the most convenient of her demons’ powers. She was the ideal priestess, the one that completed each task with precision. She also entered the castle first and that should have been enough to ensure her suffering.

“Your Eminence!!!”

Renee turned back toward him slowly and gazed at him with blackened and empty eyes.

“Your Eminence--”

“Why? Why is the world so dark? Why is there so much death?” She raised a hand to her face as tears began streaming down her cheeks.

Lance wrapped his arms around her. “Your Eminence…” He leaned against her ear, his voice brushed against it in a low whisper. “The sapphire priestess…”

Renee choked back a sob and hid her head in his chest.

Lance leaned his head on hers. “I see… Later then, when this is all over…”

Renee gripped his tunic tightly. When this is all over?

“Lance!” Justin bellowed as he caught up to them.

Lance turned to face him swiftly, but still tightly clenched Renee.

“You have your sword, correct?”

“General--” Lance stared back at Renee.

Justin drew his sword from his scabbard as he furrowed his brow. “I see. I will take this first battle then as I am bound to duty over something so meaningless.”

He walked toward the open archway. With his endless combat experience, marching toward a battle had little meaning to him. New soldiers cowered because life and death hung in the balance of the outcome, yet, to a veteran, this was not frightening. After an endless array of battles, it seemed that they could walk toward death without cares, that their confidence was so unfaltering that they would live even in the wake of loss. Throughout his entire military career, he had only lost a few battles, all were recent and only to the damned demon of the darkness. He paused in the entryway, but continued gazing forward. “Won’t you call me back, Lady Renee?”

There was no answer.

He chuckled under his breath. “You always stare at my back and cry. Have these catacombs and shadows scared you into submission? Will you never cry for me again?” His quiet chuckle became a sardonic laugh. “Of course, the condescending bewitching beauty already appeared in Rubiihoppou. Even the Sapphire priestess seems to have her own weak, but defining characteristics. You, Lady Renee, must be a sham of the others.” He walked into the room, his steel boots echoing against the ground.

Renee’s emotionless and expressionless black eyes stared after his footsteps.

Lance released Renee from his embrace, then pulled her toward the room. The other three demons followed.

As they entered, fire instantly ignited a large ring of colossal candelabras that surrounded the room.

Justin growled. “Demon, show your face.”

An explosion of fire burst in the center of the ring. As it subsided, a black figure emerged from the smoke and soot covered in deep red spherical armor down to his iron boots. He opened his eyes slowly, revealing their dancing red sear. “General, I enjoy your haughty pride.” The glow smirked and flickered.

“Haughty?” Justin chuckled. “I had no idea pride was comparable to arrogance.”

“Comparable and equivalent.” The demon responded with a sadistic grin.

Justin clenched his claws around the grip of his sword. “Let me guess, no one passes without victory.”

“Generally speaking, yes.”

“What if I were to give you a wager?”

“Wager?” The ruby demon licked his lips slowly, his eyes sparking with delight.

“I am certain that our battle would end in your death. Let us pass and you may live.” Justin lowered his sword toward his sheath.

“Is that sword your only weapon?”

“Of course.” Justin smirked.

The ruby demon let out a laugh that began as a low chuckle, but became increasingly maniacal. “A sword against the element fire? Don’t you realize that fire forged your precious sword?”

Justin held it in front of his eyes as he examined its flat face. “True, fire did mold the metal into a tangible form.” He twisted it to examine the sharp edge. “However, can fire truly melt it?”

“Metal is metal, the eternally weak element that is strengthened with aid from fire. Or, do you no longer possess an understanding of the nature of our world when you rely on a sword?”

Justin smirked. “I understand that perfectly…”

“I must admit, I heard the sapphire demons were headed this way and assumed I would get no entertainment from their small and weak fighting style. This should prove amusing.” He licked his lips.

“Are you saying that we are weaker?” Justin held his sword in guard.

“Not comparatively, equally.” He smirked. “But at least you have offered me some amusement before your imminent death.”

Justin chuckled. “Yes, that is indeed my offer.”

“Well? Then battle!” The ruby demon raised his hand and thrust it toward Justin, shooting a stream of fire from his hand and knocking Justin against the wall.

“JUSTIN!!” Renee began running toward him, but Lance pulled her back

“So, she does indeed speak.” He pulled himself from the ground and brushed off his armor at the black gash on his chest. “And I thought she had begun to change her demeanor.”

“You care about me while you’re getting killed?!”

Justin chuckled again. “Killed? Hardly. This is merely a singe.”

“But--”

He pointed to it with the tip of his sword. “That is my own doing.”

Renee clenched her fists, “Don’t--”

“Don’t?” He smirked.

“You don’t have to fight!” Renee’s hands shook. “Only worthless demons need to fight to prove their bravery and use!”

Justin thrust his sword toward the ruby demon, “Thank you, Lady Renee. You are too kind.” He lowered his head slowly and a deep emerald glow surrounded his entire form. His wings unfurled from beneath his deep emerald cape and his clawed hands tightened their grip on the hilt of his sword. He flapped his wings and positioned his booted foot into a springing lunge. He shot from the ground like a catapult and aimed his swing toward the ruby demon.

“A surprise attack?” The ruby demon cackled and shot a fiery blast toward him.

Justin swiftly darted through the fire as though he was the wind, parting the flames. He drove his emerald sword into the ruby demon’s breast plate causing him to cough as blood spurted from his mouth with his spit. Streams of blood poured down his chin as gasped for breath, then collapsed on the ground. As his eyes grew black and heavy, he gripped Justin’s cape and stared up at him. “Too ruthless… Not worthy…”

Justin smirked as he pulled his sword from the demon’s chest. Blood spurted up at him. “Not worthy am I? Which of us is still living?”

“Cardinal demons exist for their precious Pandora…” His hand weakly released Justin’s cape as his body became encased in stone. “That was for you alone…”

Renee put her shaking hands to her face as she gaped at them. They do become statues!

Justin wiped the blood from his sword and thrust it back into its scabbard as his demonic form subsided. He stood in the pool of blood, his pride emanating from him. “That hardly matters.”
Chapter Forty: Sinful Savior by nicksgal
An ominous, stale wind blew through the darkness. Justin stood in the shadowed smoke. His emerald glow subsided momentarily, and then encased both him and his sword in its brilliant shine. He was the beacon of light in the stark black air. His proud stance echoed his proud demeanor.

Blood streamed down the chin of the ruby demon, seeming to form a stream of ruby, sacrificial water. Breathing alone was a laborious task as his body grew heavy and cold. His eyes that endlessly seared with his priestess’ ruby light began to shift into darkness. He stared up at Justin contemptuously as he gripped his cape. “Too ruthless… Not worthy…”

Justin stared down at the body of the fallen demon below him as he pulled his sword from within its chest. His lips curved into a smirk, revealing his fangs from within his mouth. “Not worthy am I? Which of us is still living?”

The ruby demon stared up at him with pity as he released his hold on Justin’s cape. “Cardinal demons exist for their precious Pandora…” He choked as his eyes closed. “That was for you alone…” Rock formed around his body slowly, as though boiling liquid was being poured into a mold until it hardened. Fragment by fragment, his limbs became stiff and motionless.

Renee put her shaking hands to her face and gaped at the two demons in horror. This creature was becoming one of the statues we’d seen in the other rooms. But unlike those statues, his form was not the menacing gargoyle-like guardian statues, but more like a wounded soldier. It seemed as though he were almost peaceful, despite the pain his face showed at the wound within his chest. She buried her head back in Lance’s chest

Justin wiped the blood from his sword and thrust it back into his scabbard. His emerald glow immediately subsided. His lips continued to smirk as he let out a low chuckle, staring down at the stone figure below him. “That hardly matters.” His face grimaced in a harsh, but proud manner as he examined the pool of blood the statue lay in. It splashed against his steel boots as though it were the waves of the ocean. He turned his head slowly, to face her. “Lady Renee…”

“Why?” Her voice shook quietly as she stared at the statue surrounded in the puddle of blood. Her hands trembled as she gripped Lance’s tunic.

Justin began walking toward her, leaving footprints of blood on the ground.

“Why?”

He rested his hand on her shoulder. “Lady Renee, shall we continue toward the box?”

She slapped his hand away quickly. “WHY?!”

He stepped back as a scowl formed across his lips. “Why?” He snorted quietly, “Did your pathetic heart lose its desire for victory?”

Renee pushed Lance away and then turned toward Justin as her eyes began to fill with tears. Her face began to form into a grimace as she stared up at his hard expression and clenched her fists. “My desire for victory is my own business. I want the box for me.” Her eyes seethed, despite the tears that began to drip from them. “And I want to kill Minako only for me, that is separate from the box.” Her grimace faded as she turned back to the statue. “But… But…”

“But?”

“Why must you kill him?!”

“Why?” Justin scoffed. “All those in the way of the box must die.”

“But…” Renee fists shook. “But that is only pointless killing!”

“Hardly. Only one of us could live.”

“Is the box magnetic for death?!”

“Only the unworthy die.”

“But…” Renee choked on her words. “Don’t you care if you die?! The ones that lose are turned to statues!!”

Justin sneered cockily. “I know I won’t lose.”

“The disgusting creature could wound you!!” Her voice cracked as it reached a fevered pitch.

“What?” Justin’s face became harsh and his eyes seared as he snarled. His hand grasped the hilt of his sword. Whether it was anger or instinct, his grasp loosened the sword from the sheath’s hold and began to lightly slide from its encasing.

“That disgusting creature always wins when you battle!!” Renee shrieked again. Her bottom lip quivered as she stared up at him with her menacing eyes.

My heart is shattering no matter how tightly I hold it. I can’t do anything to bite back my anger or tears. The box attracts death. The other priestesses, their demons, and the oracles died. These creatures are offered no rest in eternal death and instead are resurrected to steal the lives of the living, only to be turned to stone. Even gruesome death is a means of escaping the cruelty of the Devil and the shun of God. But even the dead are not offered the peaceful rest of eternity because they pursue the box. Nor are the living offered their own peace. It seems that long ago, the cardinal demons and all the people of this world had given up their happiness for life. And all that while, the priestesses had held on to their illusions, deceiving only their own hearts. In my heart, I still see Minako’s haunting eyes as she cries and whispers.

“I’ll be waiting…”

But my heart is only filled with rage when I see Minako’s haunting image. These creatures have finally awakened my inner warrior as they awaken it in themselves. Yet, in the unending sky, their dreams are fading into tragic tears. Does associating with the box at all mean that desire has to be set aside for a higher calling? What calling is higher than yourself? What fuels someone to throw away their happiness for life? Happiness is, after all, the true purpose of life. People live to fulfill their own desires. Does being a warrior mean that those desires have to be thrown away? Can they be resumed later or is death imminent? Can I grab and hold onto those fleeting desires? At the beginning, they appointed me for this role. Had that appointment sealed my fate? Nothing in any world is predetermined, so can I renounce these duties any time I want? Or now that we’re here, is it too late? The box is of little importance. What I want, more than anything is for my happiness to stay within my grasp. She blinked back her tears and stared at Justin again.

His face carried a disgusting grimace as his eyes had narrowed and his fangs protruded from the corners of his mouth, wrapping around his lower lip. “Defeats me?” he snarled. He tightened his hold on the grip of his sword and drew it from his scabbard. In a swift swing, he lashed it toward her neck. “Do you doubt my powers?”

“You battle with a sword, but he attacks with his bare hands! Yet you can’t defeat him! What if you’re weaker than him?!”

“I can’t defeat him because I am weaker?” Justin growled. “Did you not see his gaping abdomen?!”

“The same wound put you out of commission! Yet he walks across countries!”

Justin growled again and swept the blade across her neck lightly, leaving a small gash.

Lance thrust his arms around Renee and pulled her back, snarling at Justin. The other three demons remained motionless as they gaped at the argument.

Justin pointed his sword toward Lance. “Release her. We are speaking.”

Lance growled. Renee trembled in his embrace.

Justin pulled his sword back and resheathed it. “Fine.” He stepped toward her again. “Do you doubt the ones you worship, Lady Renee?” His eyes grew increasingly hard and cold.

“But all you care about is killing!”

“Do you not understand the state of the world?!” Justin snarled. “Kill or be killed! There is no other way!”

“The devil demons have the same philosophy!”

Justin stepped forward again and grabbed her shoulder tightly, shaking her as the tips of his claws sank into her flesh. “The world is in shambles, everyone must kill to survive! What sort of world do you think this is?!”

Renee turned her head quickly and winced at the pain, her eyes filled with tears as she bit back the urge to scream.

“The world is covered in blood! The innocent must die! Every man carries a sword! Do you not understand?!” His claws sank deeper into her flesh. “A man that willingly lives by the sword is also destined to fight and die by the sword!”

She began to shiver in pain as she choked back her tears. “How can you find life so meaningless?”

“In a world surrounded by death, how is life precious?”

“Because you lived for another day!”

He clenched his free hand. “And you could want to awaken the next morning and be refused the right!”

Renee’s bottom lip shook as she wrapped her fingers around his hand and pushed it away, forcing his claws to rake across her skin and leave deep gashes behind. She threw his hand back toward him, her fingers trembling. “But you still got to live an extra day!” She snarled at him as well. “Babies are constantly born without the chance to live! Children die every day! How can you act as though life is a meaningless toy?! Something you can throw away when so many people want to live!”

“Those that refuse obedience refuse life.” Justin crossed his arms and turned away from her and scanned the room, though his eyes wandered back toward her trembling hands and tear stained face. “Isn’t that the explanation you gave for the death of the Sapphire Priestess? Surely, as a priestess, you could care less that she is our enemy. As you said, you were killing her for only yourself.”

“Betrayal is different!”

“Disobedience… Betrayal… There is no difference when it comes to death. All are viewed as sinners in the eyes of God!”

“Then what are you?! Murder is a cardinal sin!”

“What am I?” Justin began to laugh. It began as merely a low chuckle, but it grew into a sinister cackle. “I am a cardinal demon. I exude sin.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be saviors?!” Renee shrank back and raised her hands to her heart, protecting what small portion had yet to be poisoned.

“What other creature is suited to perform an action of fundamental importance? Only a creature that is fundamentally important.”

“God would not create saviors from sinners!”

“Saviors?” Justin laughed maniacally and turned to face her again as he clenched his fist. “What stupid creature has ever called us saviors?”

“Demons were born from the sky… God placed the demons on earth to bring peace to the shattered land of the warring states. Creatures that bring peace to a war raged world are saviors. They were supposed to bring mercy, justice, change, light, and life… But they only brought death, destruction, judgement, blood, and darkness.”

Justin’s laughter grew, “Saviors who bring mercy and light? We are nothing more than those monsters who bring death and darkness! We are gruesome and domineering agents of the Devil! We were created to perform all the cardinal sins and to house the seven deadly sins within our hearts!”

“Then you deserve to die! Only the priestess should get the box!” Renee gripped Lance’s arm, then quickly released it in the same instant. Are you all like that?

“Only the priestess…” Justin sneered. “Even when the priestess is so weak that her heart cannot accept the true state of the world? Even when she could not possibly understand the meaning of battle?!”

“The box seals your vicious powers!” Her breath began quickening as her knees buckled.

Lance tightened his grip, as though he attempted to hold her up.

Why would Chirstina tell me that the children of God would lead me to victory? They were never like that all… Peaceful creatures who bring things like mercy and light... Demons, devils, what’s the difference? It’s just like I always thought, they’re really the progeny of Hell. Why would everyone always reassure me that they were born from the sky? Maybe they weren’t always those hell creatures… God had abandoned them and then their hearts had grown wicked and cold. Had the idea of killing or being killed driven them mad? What sort of hidden underground have they hid from me? I’ve seen the horrors of the brutality of men and the abandonment of the one person that was supposed to love me, but death and torment are elusive. The capital of Emeradotouhou seemed to be a relatively harmless land of shopping and palaces. I only saw the cardinal demons within it fight and try to kill each other. The world seemed peaceful…

But they described a world of perpetual war and endless rivers of blood. A land where corpses provided sustenance to the earth. A place where the earth sprouted dried and tanned bones, instead of flowers and trees, nestled amongst its dried blades of grass. A world shrouded by shadows even while bathed in sunlight, where rivers of blood flowed across the land. Where crows and other demonic entities became pickpockets amongst the land of putrid and rotting decayed flesh. A horrid land of death filled nightmares with stale air where the weak were slaughtered one moment by the hand of someone that would be slaughtered in the next minute. Where the strong were the executioners and judge at the golden scale of the heavens. Where women existed only to create an unending stream of soldiers and metal was scraped for swords instead of fine jewelry and coins. A world in which its own inhabitants never ventured from their homes for fear of encountering the war plagued world. A world of fear and death.

Was it unending? How could creatures born for peace allow such a world to endure? Was it true, were they merely in existence to provide a target for the hate of mortals? They had claimed torture and death at the hands of those that called them monsters. Had they picked up a sword and learned to use its intricate blade for protection? Or were they merely accepting their role as monsters and killing at the will of the Devil? Kill or be killed? Was that a sound philosophy? Was it that existence that drove their sole desire to exist at all? Was their history as pawns for the hatred of the world the reason they accepted their role as sinners? In the end, was that the reason they chose life over happiness? Because happiness was unattainable? And more than anything, everyone wanted to live.

Justin thrust his hand out and wrapped his claws around her neck tightly. “What could you possibly know about that?” He sneered, “My vicious powers have never left my heart.”

Renee struggled to breathe as a small stream of blood dripped down her chin. “Then your happiness…”

Justin’s sneer became a grimace as he loosened his hand and turned away again. “The item sealed in the box is a precious commodity, not to be confused with power or happiness or any other intangible mortal notion or emotion. The item sealed in the box is the one item that is most important to demons, priestesses, and mortals.”

“What is most important to demons, priestesses, and mortals? Nothing can be important to everyone!” She gasped for air as she clenched Lance’s arms tightly, trying to steady herself.

“There is something that can be so important, however the priestesses wrapped in illusions fail to see it.”

“My world is not illusions!”

Justin turned and stormed back toward her. He grasped her chin lightly. “This is the world. The world is a land of nightmares, death, and darkness. Never call your false notions the world, it defies your right to be a priestess.”

Renee choked back her tears.

Justin towered over her shaking form. Even in his biting anger, he exuded the pride that always followed him, his secondary shadow. In the unending darkness of the room, his eyes glowed in stark contrast, yet his ominous form echoed the shadow that surrounded them. At that moment, he seemed to be the ruler of the world, a God in his own right.

Renee shrank back toward Lance, clutching his arms tightly as the tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Do you cry at that?” Justin sneered. “How unlike you. You know that you have no cares of being our priestess. But that hardly matters. The priestess is the entity that receives the box. As always, she cares only for her own wishes and heart. Life or death for her demons is inconsequential. What does she care?”

“My world is not illusions…” Renee’s broken voice shook.

“Stand on your own!”

Renee bit back her tears as her voice shook again. “My world is not illusions…”

“Weak. Why are you weak?!” Justin growled as he forcefully pulled her away from Lance, grasping her arm tightly within his claws. “Did you forget how she betrayed you?! Did you forget how she failed to contact you?! How she ran off with that damned demon?! Did you forget that?! And you want to go back to the illusionary world with her?!”

“Don’t mention her…” Renee’s voice shook. “Don’t mention her!”

“How can you kill her when you refuse to stand on your own?!” Justin raked his claws across her cheek, leaving deep red gashes within it. “Did you forget what I did for you?!”

“Of course I didn’t! But you can’t kill without mercy or cause!”

“Nothing within this castle is without cause. In a world of death, you must spill blood to keep from getting your blood spilt. Isn’t that what the Sapphire Priestess taught you?!”

Renee narrowed her eyes as she lowered her head. In order to avoid getting hurt, you must hurt others… Yes… Minako had taught me that…

“Lady Renee...”

“We can continue, but do not forget, this is only for me.”

Justin released her arm and she crumpled on the floor.

In the end, what was important was that Minako died. Everything else could be left for another moment.

“Only when you realize the world is a death filled nightmare of darkness.”

Renee gripped the ground as she tried to stand. “No… My world is not an illusion.”
Chapter Forty-One: Wavering by nicksgal
She clenched her fingers tightly around the folds of her skirt as she held her hands to her sides. Kill or be killed… Minako’s life is unimportant, but is that the only way to live that exists in this world? Is it inevitable that keeping your own life means someone else’s death? If the one thing people want the most is life, does that mean they would pursue that goal to whatever conclusion it reached? Does life have to be achieved at the expense of another’s life? After all, life is determined by one’s own will. That alone means that life or death is dependent only upon how much one person desires to live. But, how is it that this world full of death and blood seems only illusionary compared to my world? Yet, the demons claim the opposite. How can a world full of blood, death, and tears be reality?

Even in the deepest darkness of any world, fictional or real, the world itself is basically good. But this world has turned all my notions upside down. I’d had one person who always loved me, places I felt safe, a family that cared about me relatively well… I had my own share of problems, of course, but life has been relatively good. Now I’ve been thrown into a world where only death can solve a problem and where every inhabitant turned toward their sword for protection. Is there no system of laws? No scholars? Where is the order in the world? Is it merely one of those places where each person is above the law? Is that any way to live?

This world does have its emperors and kings, so it seems like it should have laws. And obviously the kings employ the military to protect the order within their country, however, it seems like their only use is protecting order from invaders as they disregard internal discord. Without internal order, they allow men to fight blood brawls in the street because they feel as though ruthless killing is the only way to survive. It’s a false security to build yourself up as the strongest, only to come crashing down in an instant -- a personal lie. That’s no way to live. Are people in this world that weak that they can reassure themselves with false securities about the quality of their hearts? Is there a hidden strength within this world? Something that everyone could grasp if they could reach it with their own two hands? Or is it hopeless? Something that no one can reach?

“You always stare at my back and cry. Have these catacombs and shadows scared you into submission? Will you never cry for me again? Of course, the condescending bewitching beauty already appeared in Rubiihoppou. Even the Sapphire priestess seems to have her own weak, but defining characteristics. You, Lady Renee, must be a sham of the others.”

Is the Holy box the source of all the untapped strength in this world? In a way, it must be. After all, it is the sealing mechanism of the cardinal demons’ vicious powers. Their strength is said to surpass that of any other demon or mortal. So why are their powers sealed if they’re still powerful? Is it that sealed strength that enables the priestess to make her wishes? And if that is true, does all the strength of the world become concentrated within her instead of the demons when she opens it? Is that the reason all the priestesses want the box? So that they could become the strongest person in the world? Once the priestess is the strongest, does the box become a status symbol and nothing more? Maybe if the priestesses only wished for petty, material things, then the demons and the country could reap the benefits of her wishes.

After all, they are the ones seeking the box. And if the box is reserved for the priestess to become strong, then there has to be some reason they want it. They said something very precious to them had been sealed within it, but there’s no guarantee that it will be given back to them. Without guarantees, there must be something about the box that they cherish even more. And what happens to the priestesses in the end? It seems that the losers are disposed of. But what happens to the victor? Will her material wishes satisfy her? Or are they merely worthless imaginings? Is there a way that a priestess can wish for something much more important than her own frivolous desires? And if so, what are those precious things? Life is all about wants and desires, I know that better than anyone, but is there another way? The demons had originally only wanted to live and such a simple wish turned them into murders. Her arms trembled.

“Weak. Why are you weak?! Did you forget how she betrayed you?! Did you forget how she failed to contact you?! How she ran off with that damned demon?! Did you forget that?! And you want to go back to the illusionary world with her?!”

An illusionary world? Is that all my previous existence had been? Meaningless? Lifeless? Imaginary? Is everything a sham? Something that could shatter without a warning or a clue? It seems almost impossible for such a cheerful existence to be a world of mirrors, traps, and illusions. Aren’t there no consequences for wonderful things? It isn’t a world of labyrinths like this castle, merely a world where the ordinary is expected and life is a day by day existence. No thrills, no danger, just safe. Is it impossible for a world to exist like that? Does everything have to be rife with dead ends and hidden entryways? This castle would be easier if it was straightforward. Nothing is as it seems here.

Is my wish a weak material thing? I was always taught to protect myself or solve problems with words. I never thought that I would begin something intending to end it with death. And especially not Minako’s death! She was the one who had always been there for me, never said anything bad about me, and was always willing to lend me a hand or a word or anything. How could everything change so quickly? The kind and supportive Minako has changed, starting from the moment she ignored my screams, compounded by ignoring my correspondence. Never one single reply. Minako was always terrible with thank you letters, but she always responded to me. Why should this be any different? And its urgency should have made her reply quicker, not slower! How had her heart changed so rapidly from the gleeful girl that always smiled and gave her whole heart no matter what?

I feel like I’m completely different from who I used to be, someone inadequate who only falters, who never stands up for myself. No, I’m worse than that... I used to be the girl who sat at the front of class, took notes, and passed every exam that came her way. I could always give a logical solution to an otherwise illogical problem. I was the smart one, but always supportive to my friends. There weren’t many of them, but everyone who looked past my reading glasses and saw a wonderful girl who tried her best for everyone who needed her was able to have a wonderful friend in me. But what am I now? Lost? Alone? Weak, as Justin called me? I am weak… No, I’m worse than weak, I’m really nothing... What was it that despicable creature told me about weakness?

“What have you seen of the world, Renee?”

So much blood and tears…

“What gives you the right to say that?”

Have I not battled? Are my hardships meaningless? Why are all these creatures so sure that their way is right?

“So seeing means experiencing? Shut up.”

How can you say that? I was there before you ever were! You’re only something small in her life!

“Leave your demons out of this, Renee, I’m talking to you. If you want to prove your strength, then you’ll listen.”

You don’t know about my strength… You don’t know about my heart… How dare you judge me!

“True, I have been told many things about you, but as far as I can tell, they’re all false. But, what right do I have to say anything? The last time we met, you merely sat on the ground convulsing from the scent of blood. I thought you were weak.”

Is it true? Is the world larger and worse than I know? Justin also accused me of being weak, just like this creature... Weakness… Emptiness… So, if they all say so, then I must really be a sham, created only from the fleeting strength of the other priestesses… I must be when my supposed comrade and my enemy agree...

“Weak compared to your comrade who stood reaching her arms out to you until the moment she collapsed.”

You lie… Not here… She’s never been my friend here… And she never reached her arms out to me because… Because she had you! I’m nothing to her here! No matter how long we’ve been friends!

“You’re right… I probably have no right to discuss this particular subject… But I will say this. Your view of the world is narrow. I believed in your heart from the first moment that I heard her voice shake for the blonde haired girl in red barrettes, but… Even I have lost faith. Me, who wanted to believe in you so badly for her sake… Enough is enough.”

Narrow… How can you call it that? How else is the world supposed to be viewed by people who have nothing and no one? Only their false hopes… and their past…. How can you expect them to grasp a wide view of a desolate world?

“You have seen nothing of the world. Where are your blood and tears? You fought like hell? Don’t give me those lies. We battled you and your ruthless general who would be happy to tear our limbs from us and lick whatever blood came running from them…”

Ruthless…. Killing for the sake of killing… Were you not raised that way? Kill or be killed… Does that philosophy not exist to you?

“Don’t change the subject Renee… I’m trying to show you what hell is…”

Hell? This world of traps and mirrors… This world is the illusionary world and it is hell. I don’t need your help to find it.

“See this wound, even the bandages won’t help it. It hurt like hell then, and even now it's still bleeding. But, I overcame that. Even when we tried to heal ourselves your general came after us like we were his prize catch in the forest. Thanks to Brian’s barrier, we were protected, but… for how long? Didn’t you wonder why we left?”

Why did they leave? Did they leave because they knew they were going to die… Then, even if you won’t kill or be killed, you understand the philosophy of living and dying… Of finding death at the heart of life… Is that existence painful to you? Killing or being killed…

“Poor Renee, you wanted to hurt her, didn’t you? Because for some reason, you want to put others through hell for your own sick gain! Even now she’s crying for you!”

That is different from life or death for you… You have always been alone, but she left me all alone! I didn’t choose this!

“You chased us here to this land of ice covered in a miasma of blood! We fought the ice and something worse than death! A creature who was far stronger than your general could ever be! All this for a box!”

All for a box… A box? Did you find something more important than the Holy box? What in this world is more important than the source of strength for the entire world? Pandora’s strength is in the box! Don’t you want Pandora’s strength to bless you?

“Is that what you think? She wants it for me, but… One of her wishes would be for you… Can’t her heart be large enough for both of us?”

No… No, because… Because she already made her choice! At a time when I needed her the most… And not just because we were friends, because I was really hurting! But… But she chose a demon over me! A mere creature! Someone who knows nothing of the real world, who lives in an illusionary world of only darkness and preys upon the weak! Is that all I am now? Prey for her demon? Is my existence that meaningless that I am no longer even a fragmentary person? That I am now nothing!

Lance turned to face her as a lone tear trickled down her cheek.

“Your Eminence…”

She glanced up at him as her hands continued to tremble. “Why… is the darkness so cold?”

“It’s empty and there’s no light. Everyone wants to be surrounded in warmth.”

“Why?” She wiped her hand across her cheeks.

“Your Eminence…” He grabbed one of her hands and held it tightly.

“I never thought…” She began laughing quietly as she sniffed up her tears. Why? Why are his words haunting me? He’s merely a worthless creature. But… They’re stinging straight through my heart. Maybe we’re both… searching for something… The same thing? Definitely, we’re both searching for the legendary Holy Box because something very precious to the demons is sealed within it and the priestess that obtains it receives three wishes. Will my wishes give me something precious too? The one thing I desire more than anything? Maybe… Maybe in a very fragmentary way, the Holy Box is the one thing that is most precious to both of us. I wonder what’s in there...

“See… It’s large enough for both of us…”

No… No, that is definitely not the one thing most precious to me… It’s the one thing I definitely don’t want… But if that’s true, why is it running through my memories now?

“Your Eminence…”

She turned to him slowly, catching the faint glimpse of his smile. Is he happy to hear me laughing? It’s a front… I’m not happy, I’m terrified… But maybe it’s better if he thinks I’m actually happy. This castle is a shroud of darkness upon our hearts. Even Lance, who could feign cheer even within his grief, hadn’t smiled until this moment. For that reason… For Lance, maybe I have to pretend that everything is okay. Maybe they’ll all be happier if I can pretend that. This darkness is like poison, even these demons are beginning to show their true, vicious nature.

Is my heart also beginning to falter? Of course it is… The strength I’ve been feigning never came from me, it only came from Justin’s confidence in our victory. I’ve actually always been like that, leaving my heart in the hands of someone else, hoping that they would protect it… Then they always left me. But Minako… Minako had been the one who had never left, who had always held my heart close. She would never say it, but Minako also needed her heart to be held close. Both of our hearts were fragmentary and weak... Maybe that’s the reason we’d clung to each other so desperately.

But this world has changed both of us, turning us both into something new and different. Minako has become a horrible person, untrustworthy and unsuitable for a friend. How could someone so sweet change so suddenly? It’s as though the sun had become the moon and the entire world has been shrouded in darkness. But that’s impossible… Minako doesn’t light the world at all, the sun, the brightest solar star lights the world. She returned Lance’s brief smile, “Lance…”

“Your Eminence?”

“Even in this cold, when you smile… It’s so… nice…”

“Your Eminence…”

And… all I want to do is cry… I’m still thinking of her now… Can I hide that my heart is wavering? I really have to stay resolute...

Lance smiled brighter. “If you think seeing it is nice, then I will always do my best to smile for you.”

Renee shut her eyes quickly. Lance, why are you always supporting a horrible person like me? I can’t keep… I have to say something…

An image flashed through her mind. Another divination? She exhaled and laced her fingers as she focused her heart on that image. A low, flickering flame. That fire from before? No, it’s a very small flame… Almost like a candle… The blurred flame became clear in her eyes. The brief image was a small red candle burning with a white flame and held by a transparent, red cylindrical glass shrouded in only darkness. The lone candle in the darkness… What does that mean? She opened her eyes slowly, as another image flashed through her mind. Those glassy eyes…

“I’ll be waiting…”

She clenched her fist lightly. Why? Why do those eyes haunt my once pleasant dreams? Why? Will I never remember anything else?

“Your Eminence?”

One small candle all alone in the darkness… Its small light is chasing away the darkness, forcing it back into the corners making it seep away from a dark city. Is that where we are? Inside the lone city of darkness? Abandoned, empty, dead to everything surrounding it. In a way, it resembles Rubiihoppou, cold and lonely… But, it’s a different sort of cold, a different sort of loneliness. It’s the kind of cold that shatters straight through a heart, foregoing the body entirely. A cold that escapes notice until the last moment when a tiny cracking sound arises from the darkness. In that instant, when tears stream down and pound against the crystalline surface like a knife, the heart weakens as the gashes cut through what appeared to be unbreakable. Even broken, its weight is too much and it shatters; the heart is a glass ball of broken dreams. Emptiness… nothingness… In this city where everyone is born to die, everyone is merely a hollow fragmentary creature that becomes a shell or husk.
Chapter Forty-Two: Camaraderie by nicksgal
This dark shadowy city is filled with broken hearts, full of nothingness, full of loneliness. How can a heart survive here when there’s no way out? No way up? Only down… down into the darkness. Then, there’s nothing. No movements, no sounds, only silence remains from before it shattered. Hearts are not made to be diamonds, they can’t survive the pressures of this dark and forgotten city. Here, they are created merely to be fragmentary and shatter so they can continue to fill the nothingness. Loneliness… The kind of utter loneliness where any goodness and light are ripped away. True loneliness, like a knife through shattered hearts and dreams. When a heart shatters, all dreams become hollow forms and float into the distance. Dreams are even more fragile than glass, they can shatter with one word or one action. Even a heart, however fragile its crystalline surface, is stronger than a hollow dream, even in this city of darkness, where it can only shatter. Death… That is the fate of those within the city of darkness.

Renee put her hand to her head as a few tears streamed down her cheeks. Merely fragmentary… She wiped them from her cheeks slowly.

“Your Eminence, is… something wrong?”

She turned to Lance, but averted her gaze as shook her head slowly. “No….” If I tell him about that vision, he would know more about the future, but… Walking into the unknown in the face of death is scary, but how can I tell him that death is imminent? Knowing there is only death ahead would be far worse. How can we walk forward when we know that only death is waiting for us? It’s impossible… This city of darkness is a terrible place to be. She placed her hands over her heart. Crystalline or not, it’s still intact. I have to make sure that Lance’s heart is too.

Lance inhaled quickly and put his hand on her shoulder.

She glanced at him again. “Lance?”

“Another door…” His hand trembled slightly as he pointed ahead of them.

She followed his gaze toward the gated door. It was similar to the one with rotted plants, though it had a few rust colored stains splattered across it.

Lance swallowed and stepped forward.

“Lance!” She grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him back quickly.

He gripped her hand and smiled. “Don’t worry. I will prove to you that I can fight valiantly.”

“You don’t need to prove anything to me. I already know… Let’s just…”

“Walk away without fighting?”

Renee clenched her eyes shut quickly and pulled her hand away. “You knew…”

He turned back to face her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Your Eminence, demons exist to fight for their priestess. What we are, what we always have been, is soldiers blessed by God with the powers of the heavens.” He frowned as he glanced down at the sword nestled between his tunic and the ribbon around his waist. “That being said…” He gripped the hilt and drew the sword with a flash of his claws. He placed one hand under the flat face and let the hilt rest on his palm, then held the sword out to Renee. “Keep this.”

“But… Justin said…”

“Ignore the General’s wishes, Your Eminence. His powers are not my powers. Using a sword denies my right to be a cardinal demon. My powers are my greatest gift.”

Renee grasped the hilt tightly, but it shook with her trembling hands. “But… If your powers…”

Lance smoothed his finger against her cheek. “My powers are infallible.” He gave her a brief smile. “Don’t be discouraged, but please stay safe.”

“Ki user!” Christopher pushed forward next to Renee.

Lance turned to the other demons quickly. “This is our calling, to fight alone to prove our worth before the battle that has surmounted since our births. For all those that died so that we could live, that’s what we battle for!” His eyes narrowed as he focused on Christopher and snarled. “But how could you possibly understand that?”

“Your sword…” Justin turned away from the door and placed his hand on Lance’s shoulder.

“I will fight my way.” Lance scoffed. “A sword makes me weak.” He turned quickly as he clenched his fists and walked toward the gate. It creaked as it slowly rose from the ground. This ancient and sealed battleground only reopened by the hand of God. Death awaited them at each turn. It was the only certain reality.

“Lance!” Renee shrieked, reaching out her hand and running toward him.

He glanced back at her, then shut his eyes and walked through the ascending gate.

The light that emanated from the arched doorway behind him silhouetted him in the darkness. As his feet hit the ground, they illuminated the silence. He stopped in the center of the darkened room and scanned the surrounding blackness.

The other four demons and the priestess entered into the shadows, momentarily blind as their eyes adjusted to the perpetual black of the room.

Lance inhaled and began glowing with a bright green light as he unfurled his wings. His eyes glowed emerald as his fangs sprouted from beneath his lips. The emerald light pressed against the unyielding darkness, brightening the bleak world they had marched into. Life and death, light and darkness, so many conflicting entities existed within this world, and this castle encompassed them all. Lance put his hand to his heart as a figure emerged from the darkness, illuminated in his emerald glow.

Black shoes, white pants, white armor, and a golden ribbon tied around his waist. The armor that was supposed to be pure white, resembling silk or the pale strands of a maiden’s hair, was stained with blood in scattered scratches and drops.

“Such a powerful burst of ki! I almost felt my breath returning.” As he opened his eyes, a sightless topaz glow spilled from them.

Lance clenched his fists tightly and a brief emerald glow surrounded them. “In death, you remain calm… How is that possible?”

“Death is inevitable… In this world, everyone is born to die.”

Renee gasped quietly. The city of darkness… The demons do know about it!

The topaz demon turned to her. “Woman… No, A priestess… A sleeping traitor.”

“Traitor…” Renee flinched and stepped backward

“The priestesses were to awaken at one moment. How is it fair that two continued to sleep while the others were thrust into a battle they could not win?” His sightless eyes narrowed, seeming to flicker and burn. “A selfish act…” He reached toward his back and removed a crossbow from a holster. “Which one?” He aimed the bow at Renee.

“Your Eminence!” Lance whipped his head back toward her.

Renee walked backward until she backed against the wall.

“Which one?” His hands held the bow tightly, his claws penetrating the wooded frame. “The priestess of the sapphires has a higher calling, to die at the hands of God. Because of her merciless demons, the sinister priestess of the emeralds is to die instantly.”

“Why…” Renee growled. “Why is she the one to die at the hands of God?!”

“I see, so it is instant death for the emerald priestess.” The topaz demon inhaled and shot the arrow from the crossbow with a snap.

Lance turned back to the topaz demon and his hands filled with an emerald orb. “Release the priestess from a fight amongst demons!” He released the orb into a stream of light and shattered the arrow before it reached Renee.

The topaz demon growled. “Devoted emerald demon…”

“I thought that was my purpose in life, to be devoted.”

The topaz demon lowered his crossbow, staring directly into Lance’s emerald tinted blue eyes. His sightless topaz eyes were hauntingly hypnotic. His face was contorted, half way between sympathy, wonder, and a knowing smirk. “I commend your devotion, even standing in the face of death. But...” He raised his bow once more. “What I fail to understand is how you stand before that priestess.” He shot a sparking arrow toward Lance and it pierced through his tunic and into his chest.

Lance grasped the arrow weakly, attempting to pull it out. “Emerald or not… A demon must always stand before his priestess. It is our reason for living.”

The topaz demon placed another arrow into the crossbow. “Your reason for living is a poor one. Honorable demons do not stand in front of traitorous humans.”

Lance grunted as his hand vibrated around the arrow and his emerald glow flickered. He glanced back at Renee.

Renee threw Lance’s sword to the ground and reached out to him. “LANCE!”

A small smile crossed Lance’s face.

“Do you smile at death?” The topaz demon smirked. “Allow me to send you there.”

“LANCE!” Renee started running toward him. It’s most important that Lance survives this!

Lance tightened his grip on the arrow. “Don’t worry… I’ll… be okay…”

The topaz demon let another sparking arrow loose from his crossbow.

“LANCE!”

Lance clenched his eyes shut quickly and lowered his head to his chest.

“Stop this!” Joseph growled.

Lance looked up and gaped at Joseph, who stood in front of him with the second arrow clenched in his hand. “Joseph…” He choked. “When did you--”

Joseph crushed the arrow, then held his hand out to Lance. “Later. First, let’s deal with this demon.” His hand began to glow emerald.

Lance pulled the arrow from his chest and the hole filled with an emerald glow. He grabbed his chest as he stood up weakly. “I can fight him myself! Our priestess… Our priestess is depending on my lone strength!”

“You’re wounded! Besides… I learned a long time ago that sometimes it’s easier to accomplish things with help from others! A good companion taught me that.” Joseph smiled, then shut his eyes as an emerald glow began surrounding his body.

“Companion?” Lance choked on the word, then inhaled deeply as the emerald glow surrounded his body again.

When Joseph opened his eyes, they emitted an emerald glow. His wings unfurled as he patted Lance’s shoulder. “Exactly. Good companions help each other.”

“We’re companions?” Lance gripped Joseph’s hand as his eyes glowed again.

“Aren’t we? We’re fighting for a common goal, the victory of our priestess!” He scanned the room, then glanced toward the ceiling with a grim expression. “And no other demon or human being will get in our way!” He rose his fingers to his face and began chanting an inaudible spell.

“Joseph…”

Renee caught Lance’s shoulders. He’s wounded! How could he be wounded? I need Lance to...

Joseph’s voice rippled. “Priestess, don’t interfere. Your life is most important.” Several self-copies emerged from Joseph and began running in a circular motion around the topaz demon.

Renee gaped as she stepped backward. One… Two… Three… I can’t keep counting! There’s too many copies of him! Is Joseph a mimic?

The topaz demon growled as he spoke. “Emerald demon…”

“Joseph…” Lance stepped toward Joseph and reached his hand out.

Both were met with silence. Joseph’s demeanor was an ice cold wind. His only answer was the continued movement of himself and his copies.

Lance lowered his head and glanced at Renee. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “This has to be a diversion. I will accept his hand because we are companions.” He laced his fingers together and raised his hands to his face, then closed his eyes and began chanting another inaudible spell.

The topaz demon stood in the center of Joseph’s copies. He closed his eyes and began pointing the crossbow in various places around the room, then quickly turned to face the wall behind him. As he raised the crossbow, his eyes flashed open and he shot a third sparking arrow toward the stream of forms. An emerald burst of light formed into a focused blast, resembling a sword in shape, and disintegrated the arrow as it rushed toward him. He lowered his bow and gaped at it. The aura sword hit him through the chest and he began collapsing to the ground.

Meanwhile, Lance coughed and began falling to the ground. Joseph’s illusionary copies disappeared, revealing that his true form stood beside Lance. He reached his arms out quickly and pulled him into his arms before he fell.

“LANCE!” Renee grabbed his arm as tears fell down her cheeks.

The topaz demon coughed up blood that flowed down the creases of his lips. “Can you not fight alone?” He coughed once more. “How weak… emerald demons are…”

“You’re wrong.” Joseph growled.

“Wrong?”

“Camaraderie is not weakness. It is a strength to recognize your own weakness and allow someone to help you.”

“Your strength is feeble…” His topaz glow began fading from his form and his eyes. His body burst in yellow sparks as stone encased it.

Joseph gazed down upon him. “Perhaps, but it was our feeble strength that was victorious.”

“LANCE!” Renee tightened her grip on his arm as she sank to the ground.

“He’s still alive, Priestess. Otherwise he would be turning to stone as well.” As his emerald glow subsided, his wings rested against his back. He pulled Renee up from the ground and patted her back. “I promise.”

Justin smirked. “If he had done as I commanded and used the sword, he would not even be wounded.”

“Justin…” Renee let go of Lance and clenched her fists. Her shoulders shook as she raised her head.

“Lady Renee…”

She stood, then whirled to face him. Her pulse raced as her chest constricted. “How can you be so heartless?!”

Justin’s smirk grew. “It was merely a suggestion, Lady Renee.”

Hot tears began forming in the corners of her eyes once more as she snarled.

Joseph knelt, setting Lance on the ground for a moment, then scooped him back into his arms as he stood back up.

“Joseph?” Renee put a shaking hand to her chest, then ran her hand through Lance’s hair.

“He will recover soon, I can assure you of that. Meanwhile, we must continue forward. There must still be demons to fight before we reach the box.”

Behind him, a second gate began to rise and rattled the ground beneath them. Just beyond the gate, the ledge disappeared into darkness.

“Let’s walk forward, Priestess.” He smiled warmly.

Justin brushed past them. “Move.”

“Do you have no heart, Justin?”

Justin stopped at the gate and turned to face her with a maniacal grin. “Lady Renee, isn’t my heart ruthless?” He turned back to the opening beyond the gate. “Our route forward is ending. It seems we can only continue down.”

He began his descent down the stairs and the other demons followed him.

Joseph turned to face Renee as he reached the gate. “Priestess… Are you coming?”

Renee stared at the ground. My heart is full of shock and rage. Justin… Heartless… Lance… Gone… How can I continue? The journey is nearing an end… Does that mean that Minako is waiting at the bottom of these stairs?

“Priestess?”

“Minako…” She clenched her fists tightly, then released them as she gave Joseph a cold and hard stare. “Yes, I’m coming.” She walked toward him with slow, methodical steps. I have to walk forward without Lance supporting me, somehow. I’ll do my best, Lance.

She and Joseph descended the steps together.

Down into the darkness... With each passing moment, they neared the sapphire demons and Minako. Is she still waiting deep in the depths of the darkness? Or has she succumbed to the castle after it shattered her heart? Aren’t we still in the same shadowed fragmentary darkness where hearts are meant only to break? No, that was the city of darkness. Is it different from this castle? But if I’m a broken shell and illusion of who I used to be, surely Minako must be feeling the same way. We’re both in this darkness together… It has to be impossible for one of us to break and the other one to stay whole.

These stairs are endless… Are we walking into our own tomb? In the depths of this castle, the darkness is rushing toward us as though it will eat us alive. Are they nearing the endless catacombs we saw in the room with the hole? Was this darkness created for us? If this is a castle in which demons and priestesses die, we can’t escape alive. Death is imminent.

Justin stood at the foot of the steps. Water cascaded against his boots as he stared up at the others following behind him.

Renee met his glance, then looked at his feet. “Water?”

Justin smirked.

Joshua pushed past him and put his hand upon the limply hanging wooden door.

“So quick to rush into battle, Joshua?” Justin’s smirk grew.

“I will fight. Lance proved that your methods are useless when he fought with his own powers. So now I will prove my powers are worthwhile as well.” Joshua dropped the sword to the floor.

Justin crossed his arms. “Even at the risk of your death?”

“If I am to die protecting our priestess, then I will consider it to be fate.”

Justin responded with only silence and his continuing smirk.

Fate… Is it fate to face death without fear for someone you loved? Renee clenched her hands to her heart. “Joshua…”

Joshua turned from Justin and smiled as he stared up at her. “I hope you witness my glory, Pandora.” He turned away quickly and pushed the door open. The water lapped against his shoes as he was met with only darkness. As he trudged forward, the water’s depth increased.

Somewhere within the unending darkness, there had to be a new demon because this was the only place the stairs led.

“Have you come to greet me?” The voice rippled through the room.

Joshua froze.

“It’s been so long… No one ever reaches my corridors…”

No one had reached his corridors? Not even the sapphire demons? Had they all perished? Renee dropped to her knees in the watery darkness, causing drops to splash against her face.

Joshua turned back to her. “Pandora…”

“Come… Come and battle me, Emerald demon!” He unleashed a blood red glow upon the darkness as his eyes lit up the world.

Joshua stepped back and narrowed his eyes as he grabbed an arrow and his bow from his back. “Prepare yourself!” He unleashed his own emerald glow to combat the darkness. His wings unfurled and his eyes began to shimmer with emerald light . He shot an arrow at the ruby demon, but was stopped by a whirlwind of water. The emerald glow of his eyes subsided momentarily as he gaped at the water demon.

“Keep fighting! Don’t lose hope!” Joseph gripped Lance and started walking toward Joshua.

Joshua inhaled and the emerald glow returned to his eyes. He shot another arrow, only for it to collide with another whirlwind instead of parting it. He clenched his fist around a third arrow and growled as Christopher landed beside him.

“You?!” Joshua snarled.

Christopher spread his hands as his eyes glowed emerald. “In this castle we are comrades, so it looks like we may have to help each other!”

“This is my battle!”

Christopher’s wings unfurled as he shot a stream of ice from his hand and began freezing the whirlwind. “Hit it! Hurry!”

Joshua grumbled, but released an arrow toward the whirlwind, shattering it instantly. He pulled another arrow from his quiver and nodded at Christopher with determination.

Christopher nodded back and raised his hands again.

The world around them began to freeze: the whirlwinds, the ruby demon, even their feet. Christopher and Joshua leapt into the air. Joseph tightened his grip on Lance and jumped from the ground. Justin quickly grabbed Renee and took flight as well.

The ruby demon, however, was wielded to the ground. He raised his hands, but they also began to freeze. He growled.

“Now!” Christopher clenched his hands closed.

Joshua pulled back the fletching and pierced the ice covering the ruby demon’s heart, shattering its body into pieces that slowly turned to stone. His head, the only large piece of his fragmentary body that remained transformed last and the ruby glow disappeared from the room. The demons stood in darkness as another door opened at the opposite side of the room near the top of the wall. The demons flew through the opening and landed in another stairwell.

Justin gingerly set Renee on the ground.

“Down?” She ran her hand along the wall.

Justin nodded.

Joshua turned to Christopher and narrowed his eyes as he offered his hand to him. “Thank you.”

Christopher batted it away and scoffed. “I did it to live and for the Priestess, think nothing of it.”

Joshua scowled.

A shattering shriek pierced through their conversation.

Renee jumped and put her hand to her heart. “What was that?!”

The emerald demons began running down the steps, following the path of the sound they had heard only moments before.

Renee clenched her fist at her heart. Minako… She shook her head and ran down the stone stairs after the demons.
Chapter Forty-Three: Wishes by nicksgal
In the brief moment between the beginning and the end, the darkness seemed to subside as a bright hope lit their path. Their hearts felt they could reach out and touch their comrades fulfilling their deepest desire and making their hearts complete again. Hearts born in loneliness and darkness, longed for the light of being accepted by someone else. Putting your faith and heart within the faith and heart of someone else strengthened belief and created camaraderie, friendship, and love. What did it mean to believe and have unlimited faith in someone else? It created the strength to run forward and embrace life without fearing death while giving all of yourself and expecting nothing in return, but always being repaid in kind. Could light exist alone or was it something only gained by coexisting? Darkness was a path of solitude and loneliness. If light was gained by coexisting, was it stronger than the solitary darkness?

Brian’s illuminated staff led them on their path toward their comrades like a beacon of light across the darkness. Minako and Nick had followed closely behind him, but stopped and clutched each other’s hands as Nick groaned and leaned on the wall for balance.

“Nick?” Brian turned to face him, his eyebrows pinched with worry.

Nick slumped against the wall, then slid to the ground. He winced as he put his hand to his abdomen, then gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut.

“Nick!” Minako kneeled next to him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.

Brian also quickly kneeled beside Nick, thrusting his staff to his side.

Nick swallowed forcefully and gagged as he winced again. He opened his eyes and blinked back tears, then pulled his trembling hand away from his abdomen and held it out between them to reveal its red stain.

Brian clenched his fist. “Why are we separated now? We need Kevin’s healing powers!”

Minako clutched Nick’s other hand tightly enough that her fingernails dug against his skin. My heart’s racing. Brian’s right. We need Kevin! Is there anything I can do, even something small, that can help?

“Minako…” Nick gulped in a breath as he wiped his bloody hand on his pants, then held her cheek and rubbed his thumb against it.

Minako loosened her grip on his hand. You’re always thinking about me, even when you’re hurting. Nick… Let me worry about you!

She untied her bow and pulled it from her blouse, causing the pink ribbon to cascade around her hand. She pulled up on Nick’s tunic until his pale skin emerged from beneath the sapphire fabric, then diligently unwrapped the bandage Kevin had tied around his abdomen until only the layered bandage remained. She folded her ribbon, creating a thick pile of fabric, and layered it over the bandage. She then rewrapped the layers around Nick’s waist and tied the ends. Will that extra layer help? She bit her lip as she stared at him. My heart still feels like it’s screaming.

Nick leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. He winced, then opened them again and fixed his gaze on hers.

With Brian’s staff illuminating your face, I see me in your eyes. My teeth pinched against my lip, my knitted brow, the tears in my eyes making them look like they’re sparkling. I look like I need a hug. Is that why you’re always reaching out for me? She sat back on her heels and reached out to brush the hair back at his forehead. She parted her lips and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Nick…”

Nick wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her into his uninjured right side, then leaned his head on hers after she relaxed beside him.

Brian sat next to Nick’s other side. He set his staff across his lap and leaned over it, resting his wrists against it. “Maybe we should sit here to rest... This is it, we’re almost at the end. This might be the last moment we can spend together in peace.”

“The end… Walking toward our tomb…” Nick frowned and held his hand to his abdomen as he shifted his legs between a few positions, then settled on laying his bent left leg against the ground and bending his right knee toward his chest with his foot flat.

“You’re being pessimistic now?”

“That’s how you’re making it sound.” Nick pressed his lips into a thin line and gave him a stony stare.

Brian narrowed his eyes and frowned. It was as though they were having a private argument within the silence between them.

Minako leaned her head on Nick’s shoulder and gripped Brian’s arm, then gave him a pat. “It’s dangerous, but we’ll win and everything will end up okay.”

Brian cleared his throat. “Your wishes…”

“What about them?”

“I think we discussed this in the beginning…” His stare bore through her. “Has your heart changed since then?”

“I don’t think they changed…” Minako pulled her knees toward her chest. “I want each one of you to get back the most precious thing to you. And I want Safaiananpou to be safe forever. I want Renee to be happy once the box is opened too. And I guess if there’s a way to have all those things and still have a wish for Nick… If he really doesn’t want my wish… Then I want to wish to stay with Nick forever.”

Nick inhaled audibly and held the breath, but his eyes matched the gleam of his smile. He lifted his hand and reached toward her.

“Can you?” Brian frowned and crossed his arms.

Nick flinched his hand back and fixed his gaze on Brian.

“I thought that the wishes of the priestess were limitless…” Why wouldn’t they be?

“I’m not sure and we have no clear answers yet…” Brian rubbed his chin with his hand. “But I find it hard to believe that God would give anyone such limitless power.”

Minako balled her hand into a fist. “Why would the limit have to be on that? I love--”

“I know.” Brian’s shoulders slumped as he pursed his lips. “But, we come from different worlds that are nothing alike.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “More than that, I don’t believe they can mix…”

“I didn’t think you could all go to where I’m from, so I’ll stay here. Maybe I’ll become Kevin’s nurse full time.”

Nick beamed and wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer to his chest.

Brian frowned. “Just like our worlds, demons and humans can’t mix. After claiming the box, your role as priestess ends and you are returned to a mere mortal.”

“Can’t or won’t?” She shook her head, then brushed back Nick’s hair at his forehead again. “It doesn’t matter... I’ll wish to become a demon if that would help!”

“A demon?!” Nick’s voice hitched and he took a deep breath. “Minako… For me?”

She pulled her hand from his hair and cupped his cheek. “Of course I would, I love you!”

Nick cupped the back of her head and pressed a zealous kiss to her lips. “I love you,” he whispered. “Our worlds aren’t compatible, so we’d have to go to an entirely new one…” Nick exhaled deeply.

“Doesn’t matter where, as long as I can be with you.” Minako kissed him again.

“But, Minako… That’s not something you…” He crossed his arms. “Can you really be together?”

Brian doesn’t seem sure… All the other priestesses died, forever longing for the box. If I live, will I get ripped away from them? Are we incompatible except for the brief moment in time when we’re both pursuing the box? As we wander together in search of what is most important to demons and priestesses, are we seeking the knife that separates us? What makes the power in the box so malicious? Does it cut because it’s evil? Or is it merely a power beyond that of God? This journey has been disturbing at best. I never thought I would see so much blood or violence in my senior year of high school. But, I’ve also experienced more love and joy here than I ever have. It seems unfair to say it, but I’ve never felt happier than during these months sealed in this demon world. Even though it’s the best and worst times all at once, maybe that’s making me stronger. And if I’m stronger, maybe I can wish for a power that lets me choose our cleave.

Nick pressed a quick kiss against her lips, then released his hold on her and grunted as he braced himself on the wall to stand back up.

Minako jumped up beside him and pressed her hand against his chest. “Nick!” Her pulse and breath raced.

Nick winced as he put his hand on his abdomen. “I’m fine.” He frowned, then exhaled. A broad smile formed on his lips. “I don’t want to worry, I want to go forward to that place where we can be together. To get there we have to win, so let’s win.”

Minako leaned her head on his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his chest. “Me too.”

Nick embraced her tightly. When she pulled back, he offered his hand to Brian.

Brian frowned. “I don’t know…”

“You said you were repaying a favor to Minako…” Nick pulled his elbow back, then reached out his hand again.

Brian glanced at the ground, but remained still. “I know… But, I don’t want to fight for an impossible wish.”

Minako bent down and smiled at him. “Then don’t.”

He glanced back at her with raised eyebrows.

She continued smiling. “Don’t fight for my wishes. Fight for what was sealed in the box, what was stolen from you. And if that gift still makes you happy, then I hope we can protect each other during whatever’s next.”

Brian glanced at the ground, then smiled. He struck his staff against the ground and leaned on it as he stood. After brushing himself off quickly, he clapped Nick’s shoulder. “Let’s go forward.”

They continued their descent through the tunnels. Lower and lower, as if on an endless downward incline. Was there an end to the catacombs? Or were they merely wandering deeper into their tombs? The darkness was endless death, swallowing what brief light they had begun to hold on to. Was light so fickle that it hid from the darkness? Skittish of the endless void within the castle, light only existed within their own hearts.

Even in the unending darkness, Minako smiled. I’m not sure what gift I gave Brian, but I could tell before that it makes him really happy. And because he’s happy, it makes me smile even though I’m confused. I wonder why it’s so motivating… When Brian fought the seer, I felt him trying to find strength, but I also felt AJ’s small and kind heart, like he was begging me for help and acceptance. It felt like his hope was filling up my whole body and bringing back my feelings… Even if he felt weak, he felt strong to me. And his strength made me want to give back all the strength I had to help him if he needed it. And that made me happy that he thought he needed me.

I’m happy that I can be there for each of them and give them something that they cherish more than anything. Before, only Renee cherished me. Of course I have other friends, but there was no one else I could share all of my thoughts and feelings with in the same way. But now I’ve been able to share pain, tears, success, and joy with my friends here. We’ve fought together and comforted each other. Maybe before, I only had room in my heart to truly love Renee, but now that I’ve spent time walking here, it feels like my heart has grown stronger than I could have imagined. If it’s stronger, can I hold everyone I love in it at the same time? I hope I can because they make me feel safe in this darkness even though I’m hurting. They’re my candle, always filling me with warmth and light as they illuminate the darkness.

She smiled and put her hands to her heart. The box is surrounded by a miasma of blood. Many have fought and died for it, but I refuse to lose. I want to win so that I can retrieve what was stolen from my friends. But now that I’ve seen the horrors in this castle, I also want to avenge everyone who died trying to get it since they also had something sealed within the box. I will help them move on from this castle when I return it and I will not fail. With my friends helping me and all my strength, I’ll be able to fight. My heart has finally moved past that private, pale, cold nightmare and my determination won’t waver. When it’s time to decide whether to fight or flee, I will fight. If it gets hard, I know they’ll all protect me. Since words won’t reach Renee and she can’t feel my love, I’ll meet her face to face. It seems like in this place, words are weak compared to action. And even if I could use every word I know to express how much I love her, it won’t ever be enough. So I’ll keep praying that even in the heat of battle, Renee will feel the strength of my love and return it with hers.

She jerked to a stop as Nick froze and caught his breath in his throat.

Brian held his staff up to the door, illuminating the iron gate sealed with chains.

Minako gripped Nick’s hand tightly. What does it conceal? Were the chains put there to keep intruders out? Or did they exist to keep the contents sealed? Finally, the lone door within the darkness and the last battle for us. Minako inhaled and held her hand to her chest with her fingers splayed wide. “Box?”

Both demons turned to her quickly. “The box is in there?!”

Minako frowned and lowered her head as she shut her eyes. “No… Not in there… But it feels really close by.” She put her hands to her heart and smiled. “For the first time, more than just imagining the blood red surrounding it, I can hear it calling in a faint whisper.”

Brian put his hand on her shoulder. “Can you see our future?”

Minako shook her head. “Even though I can hear it, everything looks black except for the blood red I saw before.”

Nick inhaled audibly as he gaped at her. He then raised his chin and pressed his lips tightly together as he clenched his fist.

“Nick?” Brian turned to him quickly as he pulled his hand back from Minako.

“It’s my turn… Let me knock down these chains…”

“But you’re wounded! I’ll--”

“No!” Nick growled and thrust his hand in front of Brian. “My existence to this moment… My existence from this moment… My whole heart rides on this battle!” He pulled the hand in front of Brian back toward his chest and balled it again, pressing his claws into his palms. “In the deep catacombs of darkness, I felt everyone’s fight and struggle!” He glanced toward the ground and then shut his eyes tightly. “And instead of protecting Minako with everything I had, I got injured!”

“Nick…” Minako squeezed his hand. “But I want to protect you too.”

He laced his fingers through hers and clutched her hand tightly. “That’s fine. I’m not mad about that. I think we’re all stronger together.” He pulled their intertwined hands toward his chest and opened his eyes. They were beginning to flicker with sapphire light.

Minako stepped back. Nick, your eyes… I know you’re mad, but… see me...

Nick’s free fist trembled. “All those years alone in the darkness… I couldn’t do anything! There was no peace I could make for whatever wrongs put me there! No revenge I could exact on my captor! I was helpless!” He growled and tightened the ball of his fist. “And now even with all of you outside the darkness I am still helpless! I don’t even have powers!”

“You can’t be a cardinal demon without powers!” Brian clapped his hand on Nick’s shoulder.

Nick swallowed forcefully as he faced him. “You put your life on the line to protect us with your powers. I have nothing like that, but I’m going to run toward the future where my heart has gained the power to really fight.”

“But your wounds!”

Nick chuckled darkly. “I have no memories, remember? Kevin thinks that something pretty bad happened, so that must mean that I’ve had fatal wounds and still survived.” He swallowed forcefully again. “Let me prove that I am a cardinal demon. This is…” His voice hitched as he glanced at Minako. “This is all I live for.” He gave her a warm smile, but his squinting moist eyes and knitted brows betrayed his air of flaring confidence and anger.

Brian’s eyes narrowed, but he gave Nick a firm nod and said nothing.

Nick turned back to him and nodded, then fixed his gaze back on Minako. He squeezed her hand laced through his as he rose it to his lips. He pressed a kiss to her fingers, then gently lowered her hand and released it. He took two steps forward toward the door and clenched his fists. They began glowing sapphire.

Minako reached her hands toward Nick, but Brian pulled her back before she could speak or touch him. A few scattered tears fell down her cheeks as she pulled her hands back toward her own heart and clenched them tightly. If I call out to you, you’ll come back and hold me in an instant. Can I do that to you now when you want to fight like our friends so badly?

All alone, hidden within the suffocating darkness. Endless torture, a private hell where you didn’t know your captor or the reason for your sentence. Remembering nothing and waking up to see only blackness. Remembering only one flickering, fragmentary hope that depended on one person who refused to meet you. That’s how I found you, in that unending loneliness with no past, no future, and only darkness. You were chained and bound by the torture of waiting for me.

I would have never done that to you if I knew! How could I know? We’re only pawns and playthings for a merciless God. Brian’s probably right, I can’t have the unlimited power to make new worlds for you and I, because I’m not a god and God would never share that. Did the other priestesses think that they could be gods who controlled life or death and light or darkness? Were they hoping to create a world of darkness without hope, where people could only begin to dream for themselves once they fulfilled the dreams of their lords and masters? I won’t let you live in a world like that, a world full of endless tears and blood. I want you to choose your world, not me! If we have the power to create the cleave, I want you to make that wish!
Chapter Forty-Four: Disciple by nicksgal
Nick clenched his fists tightly and shut his eyes. He glowed sapphire for a brief moment as the chains on the door rattled. One… Two… Three knocks then, in an instant, they shattered and fragmentary shards of metal rained from the sky. What was sealed and locked for eternities had been thrust open and a hazy mist emanated from within the room.

Within this last chamber of the catacombs, there’s only mist and shadow. He chuckled darkly. It’s a triumphant return to everything I was before. His fists continued to shake and he swallowed forcefully. My pulse is racing. I’m excited and ready to step in here and fight for all of you. The longer we walk, the surer I am that I can pull myself from the dim glimmer of doubt. I want to face this fear, but it’s not the suffocating darkness I’m afraid of anymore. I was reared in the darkness, I can shoulder that here. I can keep running forward, no matter how hard it becomes. Was I ever really afraid of it?

He hesitated, then started walking into the murky room. His footsteps echoed in the silence as he exhaled and held his chest proudly. If I feel afraid, I will walk forward with my heart held high, the one that wants to protect her and stay with all of them. I was never afraid of the darkness, my whole existence was meaningless. I forgot what the void from my memories felt like a long time ago, even though I knew it was there. But now that I’ve been surrounded by warmth and support, instead of just surrounded and alone, I can’t go back. For the first time, I can treasure living and fear dying. I’m afraid of that loneliness and the void that being ripped from them would create. If we’re separated, will I just go back to the darkness? Will losing you hurtle me back into the lonely void? Would I have to wait for you for eternity or would you disappear forever? Would I have to wait for a new Pandora? I’d rather wait for you forever than wait for a new one if either of those things are even possible at all...

This darkness is endless… I thought I would definitely be able to see through it and walk through it, but it’s murky and suffocating. No, through the mist, there’s a lone light… Ruby eyes…

“This scent…” The voice waded through the murky darkness.

Nick took a hesitant step backward. This creature within the darkness is only smelling the fresher air from outside the room, it’s only reacting to being able to breath through the murky mist. He scanned the room. No, there’s a brightness filling this room. It’s something different than the fresh air...

As the chamber lit on all sides, the lifeless footsteps emerged from the slowly illuminated murky darkness. Its muffled steps became increasingly louder until they ceased when the shadowy source of the ruby glow stopped in front of Nick and cupped its clawed hand to his face.

Nick flinched and tried to back away, but the creature with the glowing eyes tightened its grip upon his face.

Why is it touching me? What is this? It must be one of the other demons, but that stone soldier never came this close! His heart shuddered as he scanned the figure from feet to head.

No shoes covered the claws upon its feet, tattered black pants rose to the ends of the black tunic at its mid-thigh, separated at the waist with a cream ribbon. The long, straight sleeves of the tunic ended at the creature’s wrists, giving free movement to its clawed hands. Its enormous wings rose from its back in full splendor as its whip like tail trailed behind its body. Its horns protruded from among the strands of its fair hair and its fangs dripped spit as its soulless, glowing eyes stared into Nick’s own. His lips curved into a snarl, but he almost seemed to smile. “This scent and those pained childish eyes…”

Nick gaped as he flinched and tried to pull back again.

The clawed hand tightened upon his cheek, creating small streams of scarlet down Nick’s jaw.

“You…” Nick choked back a forceful swallow.

“Nicky…”

My heart is ripping me apart from the inside, trying to burst out of my chest. The murky darkness is running through every hair on my body. I can’t feel my fingers. It’s so loud in here. His knees buckled and he swayed, but caught his balance. He raised his shaking hand to his chest. It stings… I can’t… Am I even breathing? No, I am breathing, it’s so loud… It’s all I hear now, my heart and my breath. If I try to move, will my heart shatter on the ground?

“I thought I lost you within the darkness….”

Nick’s eyebrows pinched at the bridge of his nose. Stop being concerned about me… I don’t need this… He choked and swallowed forcefully. All alone… Within the darkness…

The ruby eyed demon removed its hand from Nick’s face, then thrust Nick into his embrace. “In the end, even I failed to find you.”

Nick’s voice wavered as he choked on a breath. “Master.”

“Don’t fall for it! It’s an illusion!”

Brian? No… Nothing in this castle is an illusion… There’s no more illusion demons… This is definitely my Master coming to save me from the dark… We’re back in the dark… He’ll get us all out… Nick’s shoulders slumped into the demon’s embrace. His arm is moving, Master… Nick turned to face the demon’s arm.

The ruby eyed demon held his hand out toward Brian. A bright, ruby glow emanated from it and shot toward Brian.

Brian coughed as he slammed against the wall. Minako ran to him quickly, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.

A lone stream of scarlet trickled down Brian’s chin and he choked as he began to speak. “That creature is an illusion… Rescue Nick…”

Master… No… those are my...

The ruby eyed demon tightened his embrace on Nick.

Nick exhaled a deep, calm breath as he shut his eyes. So comfortable and warm... It’s like a dream from before time began. Something so distantly familiar… You can’t be an illusion… Was that an illusion? Is it just you and me? Have I been in the darkness this whole time? Have I been making up all of these horrors? Did you finally rescue me? I screamed and begged for so long, I thought that it would never happen...

“Were you afraid all alone within the darkness, Nicky?”

“No…” I can barely hear my own voice. Has it been swallowed in the darkness? Now that you’re here, I’m finally safe. Finally...

“Let him go!”

Who’s voice is that? Another illusion? Did I make up all those maidens in the dark? Was I so desperate for someone to join me that I made up something that feels like joy? Master… Why did you take so long?

“Stop smirking at me and let him go!”

Smirking? Who is…It’s small, but I recognize this voice... Is this voice talking about me? “This voice…”

“It is merely the darkness calling you back.”

“No… The darkness is only quiet and screaming...” Nick’s voice sounded like a smile. “It’s something… kind… Something… warm… and bright...” I know it… I know this voice… But who?

“That is merely an illusion.”

“Nick, I love you exactly as you are!”

Nick… Is Nick me? Someone loves me as I am? “Nick… As I am...”

“Empty words.”

“No… warm and bright...” I know this voice… Warm and bright… Full of love...

“I’ll wish to become a demon if that would help!”

Minako! “No!” Nick’s eyes regained their focus as he forcefully pulled himself back from the embrace of the ruby demon. He grabbed the tattered collar of the demon’s tunic. “They aren’t empty words!” He growled. “They’re the only words I need to hear!”

“Nick!” Minako started running toward him.

Nick turned to face her and smiled broadly. “You reminded me, Minako, that I came here to fight for you and our friends! Brian are you okay?! Can you stand?!” He glanced back at the ruby demon as he spoke.

Brian gripped the wall and stood shakily. “I am.”

Nick clenched his hands into fists. “Good! Protect Minako no matter what!” He whirled back around to face the ruby eyed demon and growled again. “How dare you impersonate my master and trick me!”

“Impersonate…” The ruby eyed demon smirked maniacally. “Why would I do such a thing to you, Nicky?”

Nick gasped and stepped backward again. “Then… you are…”

“Master, as you called.” The ruby demon outstretched its arms again and walked toward Nick.

Nick stepped back again, then sank to his knees. Master… You’re trapped in this castle… What can I do? Can I defeat you? He turned toward Minako and Brian as he inhaled shakily.

Brian thrust his staff into the ground and leaned on it as he gripped his chest.

Minako clenched her fists and started walking toward Nick and the ruby demon. “Master?! What does that mean?!”

The ruby eyed demon turned to her. “Just as it sounds… In his youth, I taught Nicky everything he knows.”

Minako gaped and stepped back.

Minako… Don’t come any closer. Let Brian protect you! Nick pushed his hands into the ground, trying to steady himself. It doesn’t matter if I can defeat you, I have to try for them.

“Your reaction tells me that you understand…” The ruby eyed demon licked his lips. “Now tell me, who are you? You have a lot of courage walking toward me.”

Minako raised her shaking hands to her heart as she continued walking toward them. She whispered something inaudible, then closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. When she opened them, she exhaled deeply and stopped in front of him, exuding calm. “I am the sapphire priestess.”

The ruby eyes of the demon narrowed as they flickered and danced. “Sapphire priestess…” His claws began cracking and pulsing.

Minako stepped back, her hands trembled wildly.

Minako! Nick pushed off the ground. His knees rattled as he steadied himself, then he began sprinting toward her. Minako! Go back to Brian! You have to hear my voice! “Minako!”

The ruby demon raised both his hands, forming a bright scarlet orb that he shot from them.

Minako crossed her arms over her face. The blast thrust her toward Brian and the wall. She shrieked as she collapsed on the ground.

“Minako!” Wait for me! I’m coming!

Brian gripped Minako’s shoulders as he kneeled beside her.

Nick skidded to a stop and clenched his fists tightly. Brian’s doing what I asked! My job is you! He turned and thrust his foot toward the ruby eyed demon’s abdomen.

The ruby eyed demon jumped back and dodged the blow. A smirk spread across his face. “So, you can still fight?”

Nick growled. “Don’t touch her!”

“You’re worried about her?” The ruby eyed demon scoffed. “She left you alone all those years.”

“She came and saved me from the darkness!”

“After sleeping all those years you waited for her!”

“You’re wrong!” Nick thrust his foot toward the demon again.

He jumped back, dodging the blow. “Then you’re saying that she willingly refused you?”

Nick clenched his fists and thrust another kick toward the demon, it finally made contact with his abdomen. “She came now! That’s what matters!”

The ruby eyed demon scowled and jabbed toward Nick’s face. “Did the darkness make you weak?”

Nick dodged then jabbed back. “Of course not! But being out of it made me stronger.”

The ruby eyed demon cackled as he dodged the jab. “Did you forget? I taught you how to fight!”

Nick growled and clenched his fist. That’s right… He did teach me how to fight… That means I can be predicted easily. How can I win? I’ll just have to be faster!

Nick jabbed toward the demon’s face again.

He blocked, then jabbed back.

Nick threw a hook, which the demon blocked, but Nick kicked him in the same moment. He smirked when it landed. “I can fight, Master.”

The demon smirked as well, then parried with several successive jabs. Nick blocked some, but some also hit their marks.

Nick glanced at Minako as he blocked and tried to counter the jabs with jabs of his own. She rushed forward hoping that a Master would be a wonderful soul. But, all these years in living death had transformed him. He used to have a gentle smile and eyes, but they’re both cold. This sinister demon is not like my Master!

The ruby demon hit Nick’s jaw with an uppercut. “Never be distracted when face to face with your opponent.”

Nick growled and threw a hook toward the demon’s face.

He caught it, smirked, then kicked Nick’s abdomen swiftly. “The darkness weakened you after all!”

Nick clenched his abdomen with crossed arms and curled in on himself as he bared his teeth.

The ruby eyed demon’s foot had torn a gash into the fabric of his tunic, revealing Minako’s pink ribbon poking between the bandages. Though as it soaked up Nick’s blood, it had turned a deep crimson color.

Nick clenched his eyes shut. Stained… Defiled…

“I’ll wish to become a demon if that would help!”

It made me so happy to hear that you would do anything like that for me. That you’re only still trying to get the box because I asked and so our friends can open it and get everything back. I don’t even care about the box anymore! If you asked, I would leave this castle now and never worry about getting the box again! He clenched his hands into fists while they still wrapped his abdomen. But being a demon is horrifying… The world is cruel… Can I protect you from that? Can I protect you from me when I’m that untamed monster? If…. If you were to become a demon… Is that what my foul darkness would do to your heart? For you, I have to find a way to fight back! Even in the darkness… somehow there has to be a way!

The ruby eyed demon swiftly kicked Nick’s abdomen again and flung him across the room.

Nick landed on the ground next to Minako and Brian. A scarlet stream cascaded down his chin. He groaned as he turned and struggled to prop himself up with his elbows Minako… I’m going to...

“Can you not rise? Even in the darkness where you were left to grow?”

Nick choked and swallowed. Who… who can grow in the suffocating darkness?

“Nick!” Brian grabbed Nick’s shoulders.

Nick turned to him. “Brian…”

“Nick…”

Nick turned toward her and exhaled a shaky breath. How long was I holding that for you? You’re okay... “Minako…” His voice wavered

“Nick…” Her voice wavered as well, but she gripped his hand tightly and laced her fingers through his.

Nick exhaled again, his shaky breaths becoming calm. My heart is racing again. You’re always so gentle, warm, and bright… You’re always so worried about me when you’re hurting too… I’d give anything to only see you smile. You don’t belong in this suffocating darkness...

Minako gripped Nick’s hand tighter as she grasped Brian’s shoulder and struggled to stand.

Is this what true weakness is? To fight so desperately for something and not be able to stand? Are we flailing in the darkness? How long can we do that and survive? If living means struggling and battling, are we accepting defeat? Are we headed in a downward spiral toward eternal death and darkness? Minako… I can’t let you… He clenched his eyes shut.

“Ruby demon…”

Nick’s eyes shot open. Her voice is broken and cracking, but she’s trying everything she can. I have to stand for her… I have to protect her! Minako! Stop!

“Sapphire Pandora, you dare raise from defeat to speak to me…” The ruby eyed demon growled.

“Don’t…” Her voice wavered again as she continued walking toward the demon.

“‘Don’t…’ How weak.” He snarled and smirked.

Nick clenched Brian’s shoulder as his legs shook. I have to stand! I have to protect you! He pushed off Brian’s shoulder and started walking toward her, grimacing as he walked.

Minako clenched her fists as a bright sapphire light began emanating around her. “Don’t call any of us weak, but especially not Nick! He fought so hard in the darkness!” Tears started streaming down her cheeks. “How can his teacher treat him so cruelly? Why would someone he loves so much hurt him that way?!”

The ruby glow of the demon’s eyes flared as he growled and raised his hands. “Sleeping priestesses have no right to speak in a battle between demons!” He released a sword shaped blast of ruby aura from his hands that pierced Minako through the heart.

Her eyes flared open and her hands trembled as she tried to raise them to her chest, but she fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.

Nick gritted his teeth, but ran toward her. “Minako!” He collapsed to his knees next to her and shook her shoulder. “Minako?” He cradled her in his arms, his breath quickening. “Minako…” She can’t hear me, she’s not breathing, she’s so still, she’s freezing, she’s not responding to me, she’s not smiling at me, she’s not worrying about me… “Minako…” His voice hitched and he swallowed quickly. “Minako…” There’s no kindness, there’s no honeyed voice, there’s no gentle touch, there’s no sparkling eyes, there’s no gleaming smile, there’s no warmth, there’s no brightness… “Minako…” Tears started streaming down his face. “Minako… get up… I can’t…” I can’t keep going without you… You’re all my strength… He shut his eyes tightly. “Minako… get up… please…”

The ruby eyed demon cackled. “The darkness never made you weak, it was Pandora of the Sapphires!”

Nick inhaled deeply, but shakily as he clutched her tightly. He exhaled and removed his arms from around her as he pushed back on his heels. His hands and knees shook violently as he struggled to stand. He swayed, but caught himself on Brian’s shoulder. “Brian…” He whispered.

The ruby eyed demon growled.

Nick opened his eyes. They flickered and danced with sapphire light. He stepped shakily toward the ruby demon as his claws pulsed. “Why?”

“Why?” The ruby demon smirked and crossed his arms. “You speak only nonsense, Nicky.”

Nick raised his hand to his face and clenched it into a fist. It continued to shake. “She did nothing to you!”

The ruby demon uncrossed his arms quickly. “She did everything to you!”

Nick’s voice shook as he took several similarly shaky slow breaths. “Master… All those years I was alone in the darkness… Waiting for you or waiting for her… And she rescued me!”

The ruby eyed demon chuckled darkly. “Rescued? Do you truly believe that?”

Nick slowly lowered his fist to his side as the sapphire glow in his eyes intensified. “Of course! It’s so unlike you…”

“Unlike me?”

“Taking away the warmth and brightness… Killing the only one I love!!” Nick growled and his fangs emerged from his pale lips, dripping spit down their curves. His wings shot from their resting position and into their full splendorous glory. His eyes flashed open and became sightless as they were consumed within the sapphire light. His growl became a shattering shriek.

The ruby eyed demon took a step back and gaped. “Nicky…”

Nick breathed rapidly through his flared nostrils, but the sound was inaudible. Danger. Must live.

“Nicky…”

Nick sightless sapphire eyes glowed at him sinisterly. Monster. Dangerous monster. Kill the monster. Must live. Danger. He began walking toward him, but remained silent.

“Do you say nothing?”

“Nick!!!”

He froze. Though his eyes remained sightless, he turned toward the sound. Nick… I know that… Nick is… He squinted. Figures in the doorway. Pale light… Angels...

He began walking toward them. Darkness… Angels? His sightless eyes scanned the room. He inhaled a loud breath. No… It’s radiant over there… Protect Minako! “Minako…” Radiant and dazzling… You called the angels… Wait… He started walking toward them in slow, laborious steps.

Angels… Warm and bright… Sapphire light… Angels? You’re surrounding her with sapphire light… Why? Protect Minako! He stopped in front of them. Angels, you’re frozen…

Rather than angels, the bright sapphire glow actually came from the other four sapphire demons. Brian and Kevin kneeled beside Minako while Kevin held his glowing hands to her chest. Howie and AJ stood against the wall. They gaped as Nick stood beside them with his eyes consumed in sapphire light.

“Nick…” Brian reached his hand toward him.

Nick’s head sank. Nick… I know that… Nick is… This voice… it’s…

Brian stood weakly and gripped Nick’s shoulder.

“Brian!” AJ tried to pull him back, but Brian brushed him away.

This voice… it’s… Brian… I know that… Brian is… Nick lifted his head. Tears poured from his sightless eyes. “Angels…” His voice hitched as he reached for Brian’s shoulder.

Kevin folded Minako’s hands across her chest, then gazed up at Nick. “You don’t see our darkness, Nick?”

Nick pulled his shaking hand back from Brian and raised it to his head. This voice… it’s… Nick… I know that… Nick is…

Brian frowned and pulled his hand away from Nick’s shoulder. “Nick?”

Nick… I know that… Nick is…

Howie stood and gripped Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, continue to recognize us. We have the utmost faith in you.”

This voice… it’s… Nick… I know that… Nick is…

Brian glanced across the room at the ruby demon stalking toward them. He laced his hands together and raised them to his face. A bright barrier sprung around the sapphire demons.

“Sapphire… Angels…”

AJ grabbed Brian’s shoulders. “But, Brian! What if Nick--”

Brian clenched his staff tightly and slammed it into the ground. “We have to believe in Nick! He’s our companion, not our enemy!”

Howie clenched Nick’s shoulder. “We know we are not Minako, but we do believe in you, Nick!”

Nick… I know that… Nick is… Protect Minako! “Minako…” His wings crumpled against his back as he sank to his knees, then ran his hand through her hair. “Minako…”

Kevin picked up one of Minako’s hands and held it out to Nick. “Nick, you know her? You see her?”

Nick’s hand trembled as he reached for her hand, then laced his fingers through hers. Protect Minako! “I promised… I would always see her… Her warmth and brightness... Angels… Don’t take her…” He clenched her hand tightly as his hand still shook. Nick is...

AJ sank to his knees beside him. “Nick! We’re not taking her! We--”

Protect Minako! “I promised… Minako… Angels… Don’t take her…” Nick pulled her into his arms and cradled her body. Nick is… Nick is me! I promised to protect Minako! He hunched over her and tightened his embrace around her. As his wings flared behind him, a warm glow surrounded them and a low, choked sound came from within his throat. His fangs began to subside as the sound intensified, increased in pitch, and grew stronger. The warm glow surrounding him became a flaming and flaring sapphire light.

The sapphire demons hunched and covered their ears as the blazing sapphire light burst Brian’s barrier that surrounded them. The colossal light engulfed the room as the sound reverberated through it.

The ruby eyed demon raised his shaking hands to his ears and began shrieking as he dropped to his knees. The sapphire light boiled around him and his body slowly became statuary, beginning with his limbs and moving in toward his torso and face.

When Brian’s barrier had burst, the emerald demons and their priestess had also appeared in the room as though the light and sound had called them. The flaring sapphire light danced across their faces as they sheltered in the arched entrance of the staircase. They also hunched and covered their ears.

Justin growled. “This sound…”

Renee gasped and smiled as the warmth of the light and song washed over her. “This is such a clear voice…”

The gated door behind the ruby demon’s statue shattered as the sapphire light bounced off of it. The sapphire glow surrounding the room waned and shrank back toward Nick.

The warm glow surrounding his body dimmed as he opened his tear-filled eyes. Rather than the consuming sapphire glow, only his blue irises remained. “Minako…” He tightened his embrace as he pulled her toward his chest and buried his head in her chest. “Minako….” Her immobile body, her breathless lips, her closed eyes, her absent smile... But the warmth and bright light is still surrounding her, even within this suffocating darkness… “Minako…”
Chapter Forty-Five: God by nicksgal
Decayed darkness, solitary silence, and consuming loneliness filled the fading glow in their hearts. The long road towards the end had come, leaving them to brood within the darkness. There were no more doors and no more demons. The legendary battle was upon them and ushering in the end of their tragedies, but was it really the end they wanted? The empty hole that remained from the last gated door seemed to sparkle in the suffocating darkness. Endless wandering, blood, and tears led them to this point, their bloodstained journey was their sacrifice toward the only goal they sought. However, it seemed impossible now.

Within the darkness, Nick cradled her in his arms as he sobbed into her chest. “Minako…” He laboriously wrapped his wings around her body, shielding her from the darkness and hiding his face. “Minako… I’m sorry… My promise…” I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you… Why am I weaker than the dark?

Only silence… You’re supposed to curl your fingers around my hand and tell me that I’m the strongest, that I’m brave, that I tried really hard, that I’m gentle and kind. Even if your eyes were closed, you’d still be smiling up at me as you touched my forehead and pushed my hair back. But your lips are breathless and your hands are immobile… I’m holding your fingers tightly, but they’re freezing… The warmth and brightness that always surrounds you feels like it’s dimming.

The other four sapphire demons knelt beside him.

Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Nick…”

Nick flinched under Brian’s touch, then began hyperventilating as he sobbed.

“Nick…” Brian pulled his hand back and frowned, then turned to Kevin. “Kevin…”

Kevin put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, Brian said your wounds reopened.”

Nick raised his head. Tears continued to stream down his cheeks. He hiccupped, then took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “But… Minako…” He clenched his eyes shut, forcing his tears to cascade down his cheeks.

Kevin pulled his hand back and pressed his lips into a thin line as he glanced down at Minako. “I did what I could, but if I could really heal her the way you want, I would have done it already.” He glanced back at him. “Nick--”

Nick’s wings unfurled in glamorous splendor as his stare bore through Kevin.

“Nick?” Brian gripped Nick’s shoulder again.

Nick brushed Brian’s hand from his shoulder before hugging Minako quickly, then set her on the ground. In one swift motion, he shifted so that his feet were flat on the ground, then he pushed off the ground with his hands. As he stood, his knees shook, but he pressed the balls of his feet into the ground forcefully, willing himself to balance. His jaw clenched as he glanced at the opening to the next part of the castle.

Brian stood as quickly as he was able. “Nick!”

Nick clenched his fist, his stare hard and blistering. “This is God’s castle. God… owes me one wish!”

“God?!” AJ gaped as he clenched his fists.

Nick narrowed his eyes as his clenched hand shook. “God who ripped me from his arms and placed me in the suffocating darkness… God who stole my memories… God who sealed the one thing most precious to me in a box! God… The Devil among Devils… He won’t… He won’t take anything else from me!” Nick flapped his unfurled wings, wincing at the sudden burst of pain in his left wing. I can’t let it hurt! I have to protect Minako! He growled and began running toward the open doorway.

A figure drenched in green descended in front of him and blocked his path.“Why are you the one to run toward God?” The voice was harsh and cold.

Nick growled. “Emerald General…”

He cackled. “Did you think we would never get here?”

“How like the aggressor nation, to follow in the footsteps of worthy warriors, but claim they are victors!” Nick spat.

“Why not reap the benefits if another has opened the gate for you?” Justin smirked.

Nick growled again and clenched his fists.

“And as the highest ranked, I shall go first.”

“Stand aside!” Howie flanked Nick’s side.

“Howie?”

Howie pulled his sword from his scabbard. “Did you not use rank as a means for entry?”

“And what of it?” Justin growled.

“Then surely we are the first to enter.” Howie smirked.

Justin pulled his sword as well and pointed the tip toward Howie. “Is that a challenge, Your Sapphire Highness?”

Howie thrust his sword forward so that it touched the tip of Justin’s blade. “Indeed.” He glanced at Nick and nodded quickly.

Nick gaped. Howie, you’ll always stand beside me valiantly. Thank you. He nodded as well, then dug his foot into the ground. He flapped his wings a few times then sprang into the air and vaulted over the emerald general’s head. As he glided through the corridor, his body sloped to the left side. He groaned and growled. I have to land! He fluttered to the ground and winced as his feet touched the ground, then he began running through the unending darkness. This is the end! It has to be! On the other side of this endless corridor, God is waiting! I’m sure of it!

Nick came to the end of the corridor and stopped at the large door looming before him. He clenched his fists tightly and they began to glow sapphire. He growled and punched the door causing it to burst explosively. Wood shards poured from the ceiling, revealing a pitch-black room.

Nick snarled. This is darkness unlike anything I’ve seen before. Even in the unending darkness of this castle and my suffocating darkness, there was always a glimmer of light. Or is it that darkness seems brighter because I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in it? If I should be able to see through it, why is this darkness empty and unyielding?

“You came to me, my dear, sweet Nickolas?” The raspy voice floated across the darkness, followed by the flickering of glowing ruby eyes.

Nick growled as his clenched fists shook.

“You destroy my door and have no words to share with me, my darling Nickolas?”

“I’m not your darling anything.” Nick snarled.

“Oh?”

“Who would put someone precious in a place where they could only suffer?” Nick glared at the sightless, glowing eyes as the sapphire light flicked across his fists.

“I would never let you suffer. You were safe, my precious pet.”

Nick’s fists shook. “Calling me a pet, but you still seal my memories and try to take away what’s most precious to me!”

The glowing eyes seemed to smirk. “I had no idea mere pets could have memories or their own precious thing.”

“You are not what you claim to be.”

“Oh?”

“You are no God.” Nick snarled.

“So, you remembered, did you?”

“God would not steal my precious happiness!” Nick began running toward the glowing eyes.

Blasts of light began illuminating the darkness. “Do you mean to say that God does not control life and death?”

Nick dodged the blasts as he ran. “God would never hurt his precious Pandora!”

“Precious is she? To me?” God laughed heartily.“Did you truly forget what actually happened back then, my sweet Nickolas?” The eyes smirked. “Perhaps this will help you recollect…”

Nick growled.

A hand appeared beside the glowing red eyes. Within moments, the darkened room lit with a rush of sweeping molten blaze simmering across dim candles, instantly illuminating the shadows in a burst of primordial flame.

Nick took a step backward and gaped.

In place of the pitch-black nothing, the cavernous room engulfed him. The vast space between him and God also stretched between him and each wall. Each wall towered above him lined with limitless rows of black boxes. The looming walls eventually arched and met a vaulted ceiling. The robed figure sat with his legs crossed and gripped the ornately carved arms of a pitch-black iron throne decorated with weaving metal vines. The throne perched above a short set of stairs surrounded by massive candelabras.

“What do you think, my darling pet, Nickolas?”

“Are those… What are those?!” Nick stammered.

“Of course, you would not remember that battle. Only your elders entered and fought.” The robed figure emerged from what little remained of the shadows. “You were shunned by them and by the horrid creature you called your master!”

“Shunned? No…”

~*~

Inside the castle lay an unending world of horrors beyond imagining filled with only traps and darkness. A bleak world of utter nothingness lay behind and ahead of them. However, one final doorway opened before them, leading toward a blackened world of unknown chaos.

A short, blond teenager clenched his fists and clenched his eyes shut. “I… I…” He stammered. “I want to go too, Master!”

“It’s dangerous, Nicky.” The shadowed figure’s voice was gruff and brief.

“But I’m strong enough to fight beside you, Master! We can win together!”

“No.” His voice was firm, but emotionless.

“Master!!”

The taller, shadowed figures walked through the inviting doorway, then the door slammed shut and severed the opening between him and the others.

“Master!!” He slammed on the door with both fists. “Master!!”

~*~

The robed figure put its hand to its hood momentarily. “There is one casket that I think may interest you again...”

“Casket? Again? What do you mean?!” Nick growled.

The robed figure extended its hand from its side and curled its fingers, as though it reached toward one particular casket and pulled it from the wall.

Nick eyed the caskets closest to him. Slumbering bodies resided within the slender boxes: some almost fully formed, some in pieces, some faint glimmers of light shaped like a person. Nick clenched his fists and turned back to the robed figure. “Casket… Are you saying these bodies are dead to this world?!”

The robed figure’s voice seemed to smirk. “Would you like to see the casket I am presenting you with?” In the distance, one of the caskets gleamed with a brief light.

Nick stepped back and growled.

“My precious Nickolas, I am merely trying to do a service for you. Will you refuse my trust?”

Nick growled and ran toward the casket, his left side seemed to limp beneath the strain of his wounds. He stumbled to the ground as he ran, his body collapsing each moment, yet, he continuously pulled himself up as he ran and reached toward the casket.

“Can you not stand, sweet pet?”

Nick growled.

“Let me give you some assistance.” The robed figure extended his hand toward the casket once more, curling his fingers more forcefully. The blackened box cascaded from its shelf and hurtled into Nick. He crumpled beneath its weight and fell to the ground.

“Is that all your strength?”

Nick pushed the casket away from his weak, limp body before examining its contents. He placed his hand atop the clear casing of the lid. Upon peering inside, his eyes grew wide and his heart raced. The innards of the box emitted a faint sapphire glow. Nick’s voice lowered in pitch. “Is this… Safaiananpou?”

“Perhaps…” God chuckled. “But in an entirely different way, it is hardly that at all.”

Nick frowned and ran his claws against the clear casing. For Safaiananpou? And not for Safaiananpou? What does that mean? This casket is filled with sapphire light…

The bursts of faint sapphire light slowly gathered into the shape of a person. Nick scraped his claws against the clear casing and clenched his eyes shut. It’s like my heart is shuddering. This isn’t any person… Tears spilled down his cheeks. He opened his eyes and growled as he clenched his fist. This is the only person who matters! “You’ve already trapped her here! Is this where you hid her all those years?!”

“If it’s interesting to you again, how can I hide it, sweet Nickolas?”

Nick growled. “Liar!” He began running toward God again.

“People in this world exist here as limitless energy until the moment they are needed. No heart, no form, no voice. Only energy. If she felt she was needed sooner, she would have come out the first time you tried.”

“She was always needed! More than just me, more than Safaiananpou, the world needed her! Why would you keep her here for so long?”

“What could mere children do back then?”

“That was when I had powers to help her!” Nick stopped at the foot of the stairs, then stormed up them toward God. “Give her back!”

The cloaked figure stood. “My precious, Nickolas?”

Nick reached the top of the stairs and clenched its cloak in his hands. “Give her back!”

The glowing ruby eyes seemed to smirk. “Give me an item in return.”

Nick lowered his head and chuckled darkly as he let go of the cloak. “That’s laughable that you think I have anything.”

“No… You have something I want.”

Nick hit his chest with a splayed hand and clenched the other. “Anything! If you think I have something I can give, I’ll give it for her!”

The robed figure smirked, then uncurled its fingers, revealing a small vial of clear, bubbling liquid.

Nick narrowed his eyes. “And what should I do with that?”

“Drink it.”

Nick pressed his lips together, then frowned. “What is it?”

“That is none of your concern, darling Nickolas. Unless, you want your precious love to remain energy...”

Nick growled and snatched the vial from the figure’s hand. “I’ll drink it.” He held it up to his eyes and stared at the vial as he pursed his lips.

“Well…” The robed figure held out its hand, palm up, as though prodding Nick to continue.

Nick spun the top from the liquid. He sniffed it. It’s bubbling, but it doesn’t smell like anything. He grit his teeth, it could be harmless like water or very dangerous… Minako… He took a deep breath, then quickly downed the liquid. Minako… I will pay this sacrifice so you return to me. Darkness flashed brightly in his eyes and he clenched his fist around the vial, shattering it. He raised a shaking hand to his head as his vision went blurry. Can’t… He stumbled and fell backward off the platform, landing in a heap at the foot of the stairs. He gagged and grabbed his throat.

The robed figure smirked. “Your imprudence ends now.”

Nick wrapped his hands around his throat, gagging loudly. What is happening? I’m not dead, so what does it want? He began coughing violently, then a large sapphire orb sprang from his mouth and rang as it hit the ground near his knees. It continued to ring as its golden chain hit the ground. Nick snatched it from the ground and held it to his chest in his tightly balled hands. He opened them slowly to stare at it. The golden chain was threaded with a few solitary pearls and a large sapphire gem at the bottom affixed to a golden wing shaped backing a little wider than the sternoclavicular joint. Nick balled his hands again and clutched it to his chest. I have to keep this safe! It’s not...

“Give it to me!” God began descending down the stairs from the raised perch.

Nick shrank back, his tightly clenched claws turning white. He forced himself to his feet and began running back toward the door.

“Give it to me!” It shot blasts of light toward Nick.

One hit him in the back and he tripped. He fell to the ground forcefully and the necklace launched from his grasp and landed several feet away from him in the shadow of the empty door. He scrambled toward it on his hands and knees. He coughed and a small stream of clear liquid trailed from the corner of his mouth. He clenched his abdomen and reached his shaking hand toward the necklace as he toppled back to the ground.

“Nick!”

Nick froze and gazed across the ground to see a small hand grabbing the bright sapphire jewel.

“This feels like...”

Nick took a shaky breath, then tried to move his lips. A faint stream of liquid continued to trail down the crevice in the corner of his mouth, but his lips were faint icicles frozen in the cold, shallow darkness. He clenched the ground tightly and pushed himself up to his knees, then pressed his feet against the ground, forcing himself to stand. His left wing hung limply beside his shoulder. His face glistened with sweat, plastering his hair to his face. He winced as he began running. The darkness seemed like a million miles wide. Moments felt like they strung into hours prolonged by the sickening silence. He collapsed to his knees with outstretched arms in front of the remnants of the door.

Ruffles of pink ribbon seemed to rain from the sky.

Minako! Nick took a deep breath and pulled her tighter into his embrace as he clenched his eyes shut. So warm and bright... Tears fell lightly down his cheeks as he opened his eyes slowly. He pulled a hand from her waist and cupped her cheek. His lips continued to shake as he parted them, but there was no sound. Minako! His hand shook at her cheek as a choked gurgle escaped his lips. He blinked, causing his tears to cascade down his cheeks.

“Nick...” She gripped the chain of the necklace tightly as she reached up to his forehead and brushed his hair back.

He clenched his eyes shut as tears started streaming down his cheeks again. This was all I wanted… I only wanted you… All your warmth and brightness… I don’t even need the box anymore if I have you! He opened his mouth quickly, but the feverous shaking of his lips continued and he still emitted no sound. He opened his eyes slowly and glanced at the ground, then pulled Minako tightly to his chest.

How can I talk to you if I can’t say anything? How can I tell you everything I want to say with only actions? How can I tell you that my heart was broken? That I couldn’t go on without you? How do I tell you to stop being reckless? I promised to protect you! I would give anything to choke any of that out even if I was sobbing! I love you! He tightened his grip around her. If that was the only thing I could say, then maybe that could convey everything else. I love you! My most precious feeling! The most precious thought in my heart! If there’s even one word to say that, I want to say it!

His lips stopped shaking as he tried to let out even one word, but all that resonated in his throat was a faint gurgling sound. It’s wet against my chest… I never wanted to make you cry… He inhaled deeply, trying to calm his own tears. You know… You know what I want to say… How I want to call your name, to whisper it in your ear… Minako…

She pulled back from his embrace and stared up at him as tears cascaded down her cheeks. She raised her hand to his cheek, brushing away his tears with her thumb.

Your eyes are sparkling like small jeweled stars in the night sky. I want to run through them until we’re far away from here, until we’re somewhere warm and bright. If there’s anything I can do to keep the world from falling down, I’ll do it for you. I’ll switch off the sun, the stars, and the moon if that takes the sad and pained look out of them. Until you got here, we were both running through the darkness alone. This whole time, we’ve both been looking for the one thing that makes existing warm and bright. Then you came here and we both found that safety we’d been looking for. We found that light of being accepted by someone else in each other. But the longer we stay here, our world is shattering. We almost lost each other! It’s like we live encased in glass so God can watch us for amusement. And if we’re no longer amusing, he’ll drop our world and shatter it into a million pieces. Where would we go? How could we fight that? I promise, I’ll find a way to fight any malicious God for you. I won’t let your world shatter.

He pulled her back into his chest and leaned on her head so that his mouth rested beside her ear, filling her world with the faint sound of his deep breathing. A few tears continued to cascade down his cheeks. I would give anything to say only your name and nothing else. One word and my world would be complete. You’re crying again. I’m glad that you can feel my only desire deep within your heart.

“If you are quite finished…” The raspy voice echoed through their ears.

Nick lifted his head and turned over his shoulder to see the cloaked figure standing above them. He gasped and pulled Minako closer to his chest.

“I move the stars for no one. Yet, I moved them for you, to bring back your carnal precious desire.” He extended his hand toward Nick. “Give me the gem.”

“I won’t let him!”

The glowing eyes widened, then narrowed as they stared down at Minako.

“Nick already gave this to me!” She grasped the gem tightly in her fingers and held it closely to her chest. “So if he doesn’t need his heart right now, then I’m going to keep it!”

“Do you dare defy me, Priestess?”

Minako said nothing, but gave him an icy stare.

“You have made a poor choice in defying me, Priestess.”

A second rush of molten blaze overtook the room. While the caskets lining the room from the ground upon which they sat, to the high, arched ceiling were already visible, the second burst of primordial flame revealed statuesque figures nestled beside the pitch-black throne.

Minako gaped and froze.

“This is the fate of those who defy me, Priestess.”

Rather than the peaceful stony faces and calm bodies of the defeated entombed demons, these statues were frozen in agony. Their faces contorted in pain. Their armor was decorated with slash marks. Their limbs twisted at odd angles, if they had limbs at all. Many of their bodies had large punctures in their chests or sides. Unlike the living demons she had come to know and love, these statues seemed to be true monsters.

Minako’s hands shook as she gripped Nick and the necklace tighter.

The cloaked figure smirked. “Priestess… Do the expressions on their faces frighten you? And those of your comrades?”

She glanced at Nick, then peered past him.

A golden altar formed with an intricate pattern of intertwining vines stood nestled behind the throne. Two contorted figures stood on either side of the altar. The heavenly stone corpses were covered in chains with broken and torn wings sprouting from their backs. Their hands reached to each other and covered their faces.

Minako narrowed her eyes. “Fallen angels?”

“How naive to believe they are angels, Priestess.”

Minako hugged Nick tightly, then pulled back from his embrace and stood. She clenched her fist tightly around the necklace, then gripped the chain with both hands and placed it over her head. The gem swung lightly as the chain settled around her neck. She clutched the gem lightly. “No… They’re beautiful priestesses killed in self sacrifice.” She clenched her eyes shut as tears poured down her cheeks. “My jeweled sisters who were destroyed by mutual lust for the box.” She opened her eyes, then blinked several times as she stared at the statues. ”Box?”

Hidden by the ornate gold of the altar and overshadowed by the immense figures of the priestesses, its glint was lost in the cavernous room. It was a small box forged from pure gold and surrounded in a miasma of so many things. A box filled with sadness, anger, war, death, destruction, judgement, blood, and darkness but also with hope, joy, mercy, justice, change, light, and life. Most importantly, it was filled with the one item that was most precious to each demon. A box that was precious to both demons and priestesses, no, a box that was most precious to everyone.

Minako tightened her grip on the gem around her neck. “This is where it was hidden all these years? Shrouded by blood and sadness?”

“They were the ones that hid it within the darkness, spilling their blood upon its golden shine.”

Minako’s hand shook as she took deep breaths to calm it. “It wouldn’t be covered in a miasma of blood without your trials!” She clenched her eyes shut, then opened them quickly. “I’m going to get it for them!”

She clenched the gem as she sprinted past the figure toward the box. My precious friends who had their beautiful loves and precious hopes stolen from them and sealed within this monstrosity for eternity, I won’t let it keep them! I will return everything to your precious hearts. You tossed your dreams aside to battle for our lives, but if they had what was sealed within this box, then maybe you could conquer all your fears hidden within the catacombs of this castle. The tears lapped down her cheeks. My friends… You helped me get here, you believed in me… Let me return my promise to you. Be happy!

She slowed as she reached the altar. The fragmented wings of the fallen priestesses shrouded her face in darkness. As she reached toward the box, the altar began glowing with a pale sapphire light that washed over her body. She shut her eyes and basked in the beautiful warmth of the pale glow. “This is… my power…” She breathed lightly and let the pale, warm light surround her.

Soft, silken fabric draped across her arms and legs. A jingle sounded as a metal weight tapped against her forehead lightly. The light faded, but the warmth glistened in her heart. She held her hand tightly to the gem from Nick as she opened her eyes slowly. The silky white dress and golden headdress painted her as a virginal being, the very epitome of a priestess and sacrifice. While the chain still encircled her neck, the jeweled form of Nick’s heart had welded itself to the silken fabric and created a collar. She lowered her head slowly as she released her fingers from the gilded surface of the altar.

She examined the other priestesses. They were dressed in a similar manner, but their clothing was less virginal, appearing tattered instead to match their broken wings. Satan… His was a tale of shunning God. An angel that fell from the Heavens. In his hatred of God, he pierced his wrists with chains, forcing his wings to shatter. Their wrists… As in the legend of Satan, metal chains hung from their wrists and attached themselves to the obsidian chair. She turned slowly to eye the cloaked figure.

Her voice was ghostly as it shook. “God…”

“So you know my identity then?” The cloaked figure seemed to smirk.

She narrowed her eyes. “A God who lives in only darkness, creates only chaos, and allows his angels to fall… Is that a true God?”

“A God who shuns monsters is not a proper God?”

“God loves all, especially his monsters.”

“You think I do not love my precious monsters?”

She glanced back at Nick. Bound in chains, shattered… She clenched her fist and it shook erratically. “To create them and call them precious loves, then place them in hell for protection? A merciful God would never do that to his demons who are supposed to bring peace!”

“MINAKO!!!”

Minako glanced past God’s cloaked head and her eyes began to fill with tears. They followed me! AJ held Nick’s shoulders tightly as he helped him stand, while Kevin repaired Nick’s body with the healing sapphire glow. Brian’s staff glowed with their precious light as he struck it against the ground. Howie’s hand clenched his sword tightly as he stood with his proud demeanor swirling about him. Nick clenched his hands against his chest as he beamed at them.

Her tears lapped her cheeks. “Howie! Brian! Kevin! AJ!” Her heart leaped toward them before her body. We’re all together! She steadied herself, preparing to run toward them.

“My box, Pandora…”

She blinked back her tears and glanced back at God.

“My Pandora who loves the demons, your duties are fulfilled. You have returned my demons to me and conquered the perilous journey of my castle. Your duty is fulfilled. Take my box and make your wishes.”

Minako turned back to the box and eyed the priestesses beside her. It shouldn’t be this simple. Renee is headed toward this room. Ruby and Topaz had suffered and died at each other’s hands, Renee and I are supposed to do the same.

“Take it.”

Can I just take it without the battle of blood and tears? Did all our previous battles negate the last one? Is it really that simple? Can I just give this to them now?

“Pandora...”

Minako swallowed and reached her hands toward the box. My heart is racing and my insides are crawling. Why am I scared now? She clenched her eyes shut and clamped her hands around the box. This is the end!

“Minako!”

Minako slowly turned her head back to the door.

She had pushed her way through the sapphire demons. Even in the darkness, her blonde hair shimmered. Renee…

God smirked at Minako. “Do you intend to battle or take what I have granted you?”

Tears flowed from Minako’s eyes. Renee… I should fight you and give you everything I have in battle, like our sisters did. This miasma was ours to fight in, the foretold blood stained battle for the box. I promised I would fight you, but… Why is my heart beating so fast? I just want to give this back to them. If I can do that without fighting you, that’s what I want!

She clenched the box tightly and in that instant, a spark shot through her body. Minako shrieked and slumped to the ground, her limbs twitching.

“The box has deemed you unworthy. Despite your journey, you are missing something… Is it the battle?”

Minako’s hands shook. What could I be missing? What did I fail to gain from our battles? Is my… Is my heart still weak? Will I never be strong enough unless we fight? She looked up at the cloaked figure and Renee.

“Emerald Priestess, is the box yours to claim? Or will you fight for it?”

Renee’s icy stare fixed on Minako. She chuckled darkly. “The box is mine without question. But, in your honor, Minako, I will fight you.”

Minako’s eyes began to fill with tears once more.

Renee’s eyes narrowed. “I will fight you for control of the Holy box.”
Chapter Forty-Six: Chaos by nicksgal
In this world of inescapable shadows, light was a brief mirage. The castle guarded by a foul and pungent miasma of death and blood only allowed entrance within the decaying, shattered walls to those it invited. That should have been an ill omen and warning to all who would enter the unending darkness. After their trials, it was unquestionable that the first demonic kings were the stone statues decorating the decaying keep. Death and darkness… A world of souls who were neither alive nor dead and not quite the living dead or the deceased living. Was that the most frightening thing in the world? To die and have no rest? To live and be unable to truly live? Sealed in an eternal limbo where the heart was too dark for God and too light for the Devil. Hopeless. Struck down by fierce blows, without resuscitation from the spark of God and not yet wicked enough to be caressed by the Devil for eternity. Demons who were not wicked, but who were turned to stone, rather than held in the light of their master and king. It was a cruel fate.

Long ago, the demons were shunned by God for their insolence and turned away for their betrayal. Their white and feathered wings disintegrated from their bodies as they fell from the Heavens into a Hell beyond measure. Curiously, it was in that unmeasurable Hell where God also chose to reside. His obsidian throne was nestled among endless rows of black caskets for those who were only waiting to live and those who had wanted nothing but death. The tragic miasma of this place permeated that unending struggle. Corpses and limitless energy that fought the eternal battle to live or die, their tragic hearts yearning for only death in the sacrifice of life or yearning for life in spite of tragic death. To be a demon or a priestess was to uphold this battle for both. To live without living and die without dying. To only exist as an entity or a shell and nothing more. This was the fate that led them to the castle nestled in darkness, entered with only an invitation, proceeding in a downward spiral of only destruction. It was a castle of darkness, but more than that, it was a castle of demise, a castle of only nothingness. It was an end of an end and an end of all things.

“Minako!”

The decaying, contorted bodies and shattered wings of the priestesses masked her face as they loomed above Minako. Renee followed me this whole journey, except a step behind with a slightly more shattered heart. Yet I’m broken and crumpled on the ground. When she stands, she’s a shimmering blonde Goddess. Tears streamed down Minako’s cheeks. “Renee...”

“Minako, stand up.” Her voice was cold and her stare was hard.

Minako rested her hand upon the altar as she tried to breathe deeply. She received a small aftershock from the box’s rejection and winced; she squinted and exhaled, trying to fight the pain. Something’s wrong... I struggled, suffered, and battled. I befriended and protected them, but I’m still unworthy... Is my heart not strong enough after all? I have to keep trying. She stood on her shaking legs. “Renee...”

“I will fight you, Minako.”

Minako’s heart raced as her cheeks grew hot. A sudden rush of fiery bitterness washed over her. “You will?”

Renee smirked. “Yes, me.”

“Not your demons?”

“Didn’t the legend say that the arena where the box is held is where the priestesses armed themselves and fought each other in a battle royal for possession of the Holy box?”

“No.”

“No?” Renee scoffed. “Are you too weak?”

Minako clenched her fist. “It’s more than a battle royal! It is an unending battle of self-sacrifice! Blood for blood! Do you want to be part of that?”

“Living and dying by the sword, is it? Kill or be killed?” Renee smirked.

“It is a battle of wills, not a battle of strength.”

“Whoever has the stronger demons will win.”

Minako clenched Nick’s gem at her chest. “No. Whoever has the stronger heart.”

Renee pushed her way past the demons and began walking toward Minako, her pale pink skirt swaying against her legs. “Then, the winner will be the one who can mercilessly accept the darkness of the world.”

Minako growled. “Can you?”

Renee’s smirk grew larger. “Can you?”

Minako clenched her eyes shut. The one who can mercilessly accept the darkness of this world will be the victor…

“This is still an age of war… Four countries may have emerged victorious… But you can barely call it that… All our nations, and all the satellite nations, are still warring with each other…”

The world’s darkness… This is a world of endless war and suffering. I’ve never seen an actual battle but I have seen the unending rows of soldiers and the aftermath of those battles. This is a world plagued with sins, where the rivers run red with blood. While they only try to survive, men’s hearts are stained with their anguish and their bloodied hands remain unclean. Is there a heart that exists in this world that can shoulder all of that darkness?

She turned to Nick. His hands were still clenched tightly at his chest. I rescued his heart from the darkness, the epitome of what this shadowed world stands steeped in. His heart remains kind and forgiving, instead of cold or broken. Can a demon shoulder the darkness of the world? She turned to the cloaked figure. God… This is a God of darkness. Yet, he forces all that hate and anger upon his demons’ shoulders. He is the master of the world of darkness, controlling it with strings, so his heart shoulders nothing. He even fails to hear the anguished cries emanating from his demons’ hearts. If even God fails to shoulder the darkness, does that mean no one can?

And yet, Renee grinned wickedly and proposed that we should shoulder all of it, embodying that idea of killing or being killed. Is that what our world has come to? Believing in old adages of living by swords and dying for honor when we were raised with different ideals... Is that all we live for? We came from a world where we were individuals even though we were always together, yet now we’re preaching ideals that we don’t even understand, that we’ve barely begun to experience. Is this our fate? Are we supposed to succumb to the world around us without struggling? Is our only role in life to be the priestesses who gather their arms and enter the battle royal? That’s the world’s view of what it means to be a priestess of demons, that we’re made to be thrust into death for being the weakest or the most compassionate. Or... Maybe that’s the key to victory. Maybe a wicked heart can’t contain the darkness of the world. Maybe that duty has to rest on a heart filled with kindness.

She clenched Nick’s gem at her heart. I can compete if kindness is the strength. Renee, let’s see who has the stronger heart. She lowered her head. “Renee, I will win.”

Renee sneered. “Where did this confidence come from?

Minako raised her head. “Even if I die, I will definitely shoulder all the darkness!”

Renee smirked and clenched her fist. “Then I will be the harbinger of your death!” She shut her eyes quickly and shrouded herself in a veil of darkness.

Minako stepped back and gaped. Are you becoming the priestess of darkness? An agent of the Devil… Renee…

The darkness seeped from Renee, revealing her golden headdress and the silken linens covering her skin, though she had no gem at her chest.

“Renee…”

Renee laughed darkly. “Are you surprised?”

“I see the priestess has awakened.” A low voice interrupted their conversation and both girls turned back toward the doorway. The emerald demons gathered beneath the arch.

“General!” Minako growled.

Renee smirked. “Now that our demons are all present, our battle can begin!” She turned to the emerald demons. “Joseph, hand me that sword from your sash.”

“Interesting.” God sneered and began walking back toward the pitch-black throne.

Nick glanced at him, then started trying to walk toward him, but AJ pulled him back. Nick clenched his fist and gnashed his teeth, then whirled on AJ and forcefully poked him in the chest before he started gesturing toward God largely and wildly with his hands. He continued opening his mouth as though he spoke, but no sound came out.

AJ pushed Nick away, then walked over to the emerald demons. “Joseph!”

Joseph lowered his head as he held the sword out. He glanced away toward the ground. “Alex…”

Justin smirked as he grabbed the sword from Joseph and pushed his way through the demons crowded around the entrance.

He glanced at Joseph as he walked toward Renee. “This is no time for past loyalties.”

Joseph nodded as he crossed his arms. “Of course you’re right, but I have one request.”

Justin clenched the sword he had just taken and sneered. “What does your weak heart wish now?”

“Only I can kill him.”

Justin smirked. “Fine. Make it a clean cut.”

AJ clenched his fist and grabbed Joseph’s shoulder. “Joseph, why would you say that past ties are now meaningless?”

Joseph brushed AJ’s hand off and turned away from him. “Our future depends on our ties to the Priestess. Camaraderie is meaningless.”

AJ growled. “Camaraderie…” His eyes began glinting sapphire. “Friendship makes the weak strong… Brings solace to the suffering… Lights up the darkness with our hopes!” His wings unfurled. “Friendship is victory!”

Howie smirked and glanced at Nick. “This is an unlikely scenario where AJ joins the fray first.”

Nick crossed his arms and scowled.

Howie’s eyes began to glow sapphire as well. “It seems it cannot be helped.”

Justin handed Renee the sword and she stopped at the foot of the stairs leading to the throne. She clutched the grip tightly and smirked at Minako. “How nice of them to run into battle for us.”

Minako lowered her head and clenched her fists as she began walking toward Renee. “It is for the box and their own dreams. Not us. Never us.”

Renee tightened her grip on the hilt of the sword and pointed the tip toward Minako. “We are their masters! They battle only for us!”

Minako froze and glanced at the ground. “Has being pampered made you selfish, Renee?”

Renee growled. “What do you care?”

“Carried in a paladin, residing in a suite in the palace, guarded by soldiers… What do you know of the world?” Minako’s voice shook as her eyes welled with tears.

“What have you seen of the world, Renee?”

Renee hunched her shoulders and gripped her chest as she grimaced. She snarled and gripped the hilt of the sword tightly. “It’s a black hell of death and darkness!”

Minako glanced at the ground. How can she call us their masters when she’s so sheltered? “Can you really say that?”

“What gives you the right to say that?”

“I have seen blood stained battlefields! I have wandered through the country plagued by war, covered in death, shrouded by darkness! Stop belittling my experiences, Minako!”

Minako wiped her hand across her tear stained face. I’m not meaning to. My heart is racing. Is making you angry the only way to get you to talk to me? “Since when does seeing something mean that you’re carrying it in your heart?”

“So seeing means experiencing?”

“Why would I want to hold on to a bad memory? Are you sadistic?” Renee stepped backward and snarled.

“Renee, stop arguing with me, I’m not trying to fight with you. I’m trying to fight together with you!”

“Shut up.”

Renee clenched her fist, then grimaced as she clutched her chest. She breathed heavily as she stared back at the demons at the entrance before straightening and turning back to Minako. She chuckled darkly and gripped the sword tightly. “Minako!”

Minako frowned. More than anything, I want to run over and hug you so that you stop hurting, but… I can’t let you hurt them! “Renee…”

Renee thrust the tip of the sword toward Minako. “I won’t run away.”

Minako held the jewel at her chest. I’ll have to find a way to fight you to keep them safe! “Neither will I!”

“But, you need to know, the world is dark because humans are full of darkness. And when darkness increases, those who are wicked get stronger.”

Minako frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You keep claiming that you’re fighting for things like friendship and love, things that are unquestionably good and light. But if you only acknowledge your existence in light, you’re ignoring the darkness.”

Minako gritted her teeth.

Renee released one hand from the hilt of the sword and pointed at Minako. “But look at your shadow!”

Minako glanced behind her, peering at her shadow silhouetted across the floor.

Renee clenched her hand into a fist. “Nothing exists without darkness.” She glanced at the ground. “And it’s hypocritical of you to only preach goodness in this world’s unending cycle of death and betrayal.”

Minako gripped the jewel at her chest. “Stop saying that I betrayed you, I didn’t!” Her eyes welled with tears.

Renee grasped the grip of the sword with both hands. “If you want to pretend to be a god of goodness, I’ll use my power and show everyone this infinite hell of darkness!”

“Renee!” Minako’s knuckles turned white and shook as she tightened her grip on the gem.

Renee rushed toward Minako with the sword ready to strike. “I’ll make you ponder your sins in eternal darkness!”

Minako clenched her fists and shut her eyes. “I won’t die here!”

“My blade says otherwise!” Renee swung her sword.

Metal hit metal.

Renee smirked as she heard the sound. “Did I strike the stone on your heart? Does that kill you and your worthless creature?”

“Emerald Pandora, it is lowly to strike someone who is unarmed.”

Renee pulled back her sword. “You dare let your demons stand in front of you during our fight?!” She lashed forward with the sword again.

Minako opened her eyes as the ringing sound of metal hitting metal echoed around her again. “Howie! You’re...”

Howie’s wings flared through his stained tunic and his clawed hands clenched the grip of his sword as he held it aloft against Renee’s blade. In a swift motion, he parried and knocked Renee backward with the force of his quick blow. She landed on the ground in a heap.

Howie glanced back at Minako. His fangs glinted as he smiled. “We are relieved that we were expedient.”

Minako wiped away her tears, then wrapped her arms around Howie’s abdomen and buried her head against his wings. “Howie! No! What would happen if you died?!”

“Even kings must sacrifice for our Pandora, especially when your opponent attempts to fight you while you are unarmed.”

“No! No one needs to die! We can all live and bring light to the future!”

Howie patted her hand. “This is a world of war. Not everyone is allowed to live. Everyone fights for their lives in hopes that what is important to them is allowed to live. You are important to us.”

“But Howie--”

“Pandora... There are times when death is inevitable. If that is the case, we stand at your side with our sword held high.”

She tightened her grip on his waist. “Don’t die! You don’t need to die!”

Howie pulled from her grasp, then pushed her until her back was against the stairs. He glanced at Renee, then fixed his gaze at Minako again and gripped her shoulders. “Before we resume this battle...” He pulled his dagger from beneath his tunic. “Pandora cannot fight a weapon with words alone. It would be our honor to lend this to you.” He gripped the dagger delicately by the pommel as he held it out to her.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she gripped his hand that remained on her shoulder. “Howie…”

He smiled as he pulled her hand toward the dagger’s grip, then closed her hand around it as he pressed the large knife into her hand. “Do not die in this battle.”

A loud shriek echoed through the room. Howie and Minako turned to it quickly, as did Renee while she struggled to stand. Away from the altar and the box, the other demons had begun battling. Brian had enclosed Kevin and Nick in a barrier with him that most of the emerald demons tried breaking. Kevin sat on the ground and pointed toward each of the emerald demons. Brian nodded and gestured with his hands. Meanwhile, Nick pounded on the barrier with his fists and appeared to be shouting. Outside of the barrier, AJ slumped against the wall and held his shoulder tightly while gnashing his teeth. He winced in pain as his back slid down the wall and his wings fell limply around his body.

“AJ!!” Minako reached out her free hand and started running toward him, but Renee pulled her back toward the stairs.

Minako’s voice cracked. “Renee…”

Renee sneered. “We have already picked our battle partners. No one but Joseph is allowed to touch him. Unless all of you resort to cheap tricks.” Renee pulled Minako’s hands behind her back and held them together tightly.

Minako tried to pull her hands away from Renee’s grasp. “I don’t want to fight him! I want to help him! Let me go, Renee!”

Howie stopped running and whirled back toward Minako and Renee.

Renee smirked as she pulled Minako against her chest, then held the blade of her sword in front of Minako’s neck. “Will you run to him now, King?”

Howie growled as he clutched the grip of his sword. “Is this an attempt to stay our hand?”

Renee’s lip curled. “One move toward anyone, and I will slit her throat.”

Minako struggled against Renee. “Let me go! Renee!”

Howie continued growling as he held his sword at the ready.

Tears streamed down Minako’s face. “AJ!!!! Stand up!!!”

AJ looked up to her with wide eyes. A small stream of blood trickled down his chin from his lips. “Minako…” He began to stand up, but his legs shook as he tried gripping the wall.. “I’m coming… Minako…”

“AJ! No!!” Minako struggled against Renee’s grip, trying to jam her elbows into her sides. Minako’s heart and breath raced as she locked eyes with Howie. “Howie! Help him!””

AJ reached his hand toward her. “Minako...”

“You’re fighting me!” Two demons identical to Joseph flew toward AJ on either side of his body. Both demons swung out a clawed hand as they neared him.

AJ glanced between both demons, then coughed a stream of blood from his mouth as each demon raked their clawed hand across his chest.

“AJ!!!” Minako pulled from Renee’s grip forcefully.

Renee tightened her embrace around Minako, pulling her back against her chest. She moved the blade closer to her neck. “Move again and I’ll kill you.”

Minako repeatedly shoved her elbows into Renee’s sides. “It doesn’t matter if I can help my friends!”

“I’d get the box.”

“They could go forward and create the future of light even without me!”

Renee smirked. “Except I would be breeding a world of darkness.”

“They would make it exist! Even in the dark!” Tears streamed down Minako’s face. This is too much! This castle is a breeding ground for death. No one’s heart is safe from the impending shadows. There’s too much darkness and destruction here. But I have to believe in our future so that it comes true! And believing in them makes me feel strong enough to help!

Renee laughed darkly. “How gullible are you?”

“I’m not gullible! I have faith in my friends!”

Renee wrapped her fingers around Minako’s mouth as she positioned the sword closer to her neck. “That is your weakness.” She gave her a sly smile.

Minako clenched her eyes shut. I’m not weak for believing in you! We’re best friends! Why are you holding me hostage? I just want to help them!

“Minako!”

Minako clenched the gem at her heart. It feels warm, like it’s lighting me up. AJ… Is this you, or Nick, or me? She opened her eyes quickly and turned to face his voice.

AJ grabbed Joseph by the hem of his tunic and pulled him closer. “Don’t battle me, it doesn’t matter who wins! Camaraderie means more than countries! Being in this castle taught me that we really do need to work together to be stronger!”

Joseph slapped his hand away. “Of course I value your companionship, but in this castle our companions need to be the foretold alliances because only one of them can get the box! Camaraderie across countries makes you weak!” He grabbed AJ by the neck of his tunic and pulled him up toward his face, then raked his claws through his chest and abdomen again.

AJ’s wings slumped around his body once more and his knees shook as he stood. “It’s true… I am eternally weak. My heart wavers and stands for nothing… But…”

Joseph loosened the grip of his hand. “But?”

AJ lowered his head. “I was only waiting for an opening. I will always be your companion, no matter how weak it makes me.”

Joseph choked as blood spurted from his mouth. He gripped his chest and wrapped his fingers around AJ’s wrist. “Alex?”

AJ pulled his hand out from Joseph’s chest revealing that he had transformed it into a saber.

Both demons breathed shakily and laboriously.

“Joseph…” AJ coughed again as the blood streamed down his chin. “Are we truly meant to fight? We are companions...”

“It is our destiny…”

“Demons who die for their Priestesses?”

Joseph lowered his head and raised a shaking hand to AJ’s shoulder. “How did you see through my illusion?”

“I couldn’t… It was a perfect illusion. But you released it and I took advantage of that opportunity while she warmed me with her sapphire light.”

“Would you let anyone but me kill you?”

AJ lowered his head and thrust his arm through Joseph’s chest again. “Only I can kill you. I would die any death by your hand.”

Joseph choked as he dropped to the ground. “Alex…”

AJ’s legs shook as he pulled his closed fist toward his chest as his wings fell limply and the sapphire glow in his eyes began to fade. He stared at his blood stained hand and the glowing object within it.

“AJ!!!” Minako’s necklace flared with sapphire light that burst around her in a glinting mass that knocked Renee’s sword from her hand as it hurtled her backward. Minako grabbed Howie’s hand and began running toward AJ.

AJ lowered his head as his fist shook. “I see… This is what becomes of our hearts when we die.”

Renee pulled herself from the ground and growled, then started chasing after Minako.

AJ clenched his fist tighter and growled as well. “Emerald Priestess! Your partner is dead! Do you have no feelings except vengeance?”

Renee froze, then laughed darkly. “Let him die. He is meaningless to me.”

AJ growled. “Then… I will not give this to you!” He held out his bloodstained hand revealing a still, but bloody emerald tinted heart in his hand. AJ cradled it with his other hand. “I won’t let his heart become your power!” He raised both hands to lips and sunk his teeth into Joseph’s heart.

Renee stepped backward and put a splayed hand to her chest. “You say that you care only about camaraderie! How can you eat your friend’s heart?!”

The blood from the heart dripped down AJ’s wrists and lips as tears streamed from his eyes. “If you don’t care if he lives or dies, then I will honor him in death! I’d rather eat it than have you absorb it, because he is my precious partner!”

AJ swallowed the last bit of Joseph’s heart, then his irises returned to their normal brown coloring as he fell to his knees.

“AJ!” Brian’s voice rang out through the room. He ran toward AJ along with Nick and Kevin.

All five of them reached AJ in the same moment and Brian slammed his staff into the ground, forcing the barrier in its center to expand around them.

“AJ!” Minako dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around his chest. “Stand up, it’s okay! Kevin is here!”

AJ’s head slumped against her shoulder. “Minako…” He raised his blood stained hand to her cheek. “Don’t cry…”

Minako gripped