“Master, why did you keep me with you all those years?”
“Nicky, you’re focusing on inconsequential things again.”
He stood quickly as he growled. “It’s important to me!”
Ashley stood as well, then began to walk away. “We’ll train again tomorrow.”
The sapphire demons, Minako, and Ashley sat around a table as Howie plotted a route on a map.
“Is it really worth your time to go to Topazuseihou?” Ashley sneered.
“The more demons the better,” Nick interjected.
Ashley shook his head. “Sometimes more is a liability.”
Nick clenched his fist. “Then why did you keep me with you?”
“It’s only trivial…”
Ashley stood outside the inn and leaned against the wall.
Nick and Minako approached him as they walked toward the door. “Master…”
Ashley averted his eyes.
Ashley put up his flat palm before walking back into the inn. “Nicky, it’s frivolous.”
“Master!” Nick followed him
On and on the pattern of asking and being denied answers continued. The longer Madeline was gone, the more suspicious and frustrated Nick became as time seemed to stand still. After finalizing their planned route to the mountains, Howie and Kevin had left for the evening, but the other three sapphire demons, Minako, and Ashley remained sitting in the tavern.
Ashley crossed his arms. “Madeline has been gone for some time. Is it possible the other Ruby demons aren’t out there?”
“I’m sure they’re out there!” Minako smiled warmly. “We just have to keep moving forward, like Madeline does, so that we’re ready to go when she gets back.”
Ashley snorted. “Is it worth it to find them? Other people are a liability.”
“How can you say that about your friends?” AJ clenched his fist.
“They were traveling companions because of Madeline, nothing more.”
Brian blinked and shook his head. “Unbelievable…”
Nick slammed his hand against the table. “Then why keep me with you for so long if you despise having other people around!”
He clenched his hand into a fist as he growled. “Don’t tell me it’s not important again!”
Ashley turned away from him and pinched his lips together.
“Master, I was always loyal to you more than anything! Why don’t you trust me?!” As Nick shouted, his face flushed and his nostril flared.
"Nicky, it's none of your concern..."
Nick glowered at him as he stood. "I need to know why you kept me with you all those years, what you know about me. You’re letting me go into a war unprepared!” He lowered his fist and snarled, before glancing at the ground. “But I can't be stuck here anymore… We all need to go forward together! You need to tell me so I can help them!"
"Stay with her." Nick cupped Brian and AJ's shoulders, then walked away from the table.
Brian quickly stood, then hurried after him. “Nick, wait!”
Ashley crossed his arms and glanced at Minako and AJ. "Seems he does not trust me either."
"Should he?" Minako cocked her head as she focused on his face.
"He's only asking you for something simple, he wants to know about your history. Why would you keep something like that from him?"
"You think so highly of yourself, meddling in the discussions of others." His brow furrowed as he narrowed his eyes.
"I only want what will make Nick happy and I’ll do anything I can to see him smile. Your time together is really important to him, but his past is so jumbled in his head and you’re the only one who knows what’s real and what isn’t…”
“He still doesn’t remember his powers?”
Minako put her hand on his shoulder. “You do know what they are!”
“Vaguely…” He glanced at her.
“You’ve seen them?”
“He’d be really excited to hear that!”
Ashley fixed his gaze on the floor beneath them.
“You’re afraid of how he will react? He’s stronger than he used to be.” Minako put her hands in her lap. “When we first met, he was always shouting like that. He never talked about what he was thinking or feeling…” She shook her head. “Except the first time we met, but I don’t think even he knew what he was saying then…” She smiled warmly. “The more time we spent together, the more he would talk about his worries or his struggles. He also started to accept that he might never know his whole past, but he did think of you warmly even though he chose his future.”
Ashley raised his head, a whisper of a smile crossing his face.
“But we’re about to go against the emerald demons again and we barely survived the last time. Howie, Brian, and AJ all died. Nick needs to know what his powers are because he knows even the smallest thing can make a difference, so something that monumental could ensure our victory. Ashley...”
Ashley pressed his lips together as he glanced away from her again. “I’ll tell you. Then you can tell him.”
“I’ll listen to anything, but…” She put her hand on his shoulder again. “I really think you should tell him yourself. It’s his story, but it’s your shared history.”
“He will believe it from you.”
Minako knitted her brows. “Why would he tell you that you’re lying? What are you going to say?”
Ashley eyed AJ. “And him?”
Minako stood and hesitantly offered her hand to Ashley. “Come with me.”
Ashley took her hand and stood. AJ stood as well.
Minako wrapped her arm around AJ’s shoulders and leaned against his ear, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Thank you for worrying. We’ll be over there. Stay close though.”
AJ nodded, fixing his gaze on her as she walked across the room with Ashley. He sat back down after they sat at a table across the room.
Brian sat back down at the table, but continued to stare down the hall over his shoulder.
AJ turned to face him. “Brian… Is Nick okay?”
Brian shook his head. “He said he was mad and wanted some space.” He turned toward the table where Minako and Ashley were sitting. “Is Minako?”
AJ glanced at the table to see Minako’s face blanching as she held her hands close to her chest, gripping her ring tightly. She stared intently at Ashley with wide eyes.
“I’m going to go help her.” AJ stood quickly.
Brian stood and put his hand on AJ’s shoulder. “I know Nick asked us to stay with her. But doesn’t he need this more?”
“I hate this.” AJ lowered his head. “I hate that it’s better for Nick if we don’t help her. I hate that we’re leaving her alone with that jerk. I hate that he’s ignoring Nick’s wishes.” He growled. “Mostly, I hate how condescending he is to us for being friends. Like caring for each other is some sort of weakness.”
“Your heart is in the right place.” Brian shook his head as he pulled his hand back. “The more demons we meet, the more I worry that they’re all like Nick in the beginning… scared and alone...”
“I was so worried about myself back then too. I felt so lost being separated from all of you.” AJ smiled. “But right away, Minako welcomed me with open arms and I knew it was okay to trust you all, like I trusted Joseph. I wonder if the other demons would be more like us if they had that…” He glanced at the ground. “I’d actually like to find him if we’re not assuming the emerald demons would all ally with Justin…”
Brian pat AJ’s shoulder. “I think we should try. If we can make finding Madeline’s sister a priority, we can make finding Joseph a priority too. If you trust him, I’ll trust him.”
A loud clatter rang across the room and they turned toward the noise to see Minako standing next to the table while her chair laid on the floor. She quickly raised a shaking hand and slapped Ashley across the cheek.
“Minako!” AJ and Brian ran over to the table.
“Sapphire priestess, you will regret this.” Ashley gripped his cheek as he growled and stood from his chair.
“You need to tell him!”
“Or what?” He clenched his hands and they pulsed with energy.
“Or nothing! You need to tell him! How could you keep that from him?!”
Ashley’s hands began glowing with red light. “It will destroy him.”
“He’s stronger now! He can handle it! But the longer you keep it from him, it will destroy your relationship!”
“Admit it, you’re only worried about the alliance!”
“Of course not! You were all he had for so long, his whole past! He already told you it’s hard for him to keep going forward, so let him go forward and accept the consequences for your choices! He wants to go forward with you too, unless you let this come between you!”
Ashley closed his hands into fists, causing the red glow to dissipate. “Then you tell him.”
Minako stepped back and held her hands tightly to her chest.
“Haven’t you promised to tell him anything? Tell him.”
“You’re hoping I’ll soften the news.”
“I won’t. He’d be heartbroken if it came from me. You’ll tell him.”
“Is this an ultimatum?”
“It’s not, there are no other choices. Tell Nick the truth and be ready for whatever happens next. You’re in charge of your destiny.”
Ashley growled, but glanced at Brian. “Where did you follow him to?”
Brian motioned down the hall. “Back to the room.”
Minako turned to AJ and Brian as they began following Ashley. “Thank you for coming to help me. I’m really fine.”
Brian stood between Minako and the wall, while AJ wedged himself between Minako and Ashley. As they walked, AJ and Brian alternated between eyeing Ashley and glancing at each other. AJ fiddled with his sleeve, then glanced at Minako. He opened his mouth to speak as they reached the room, but closed it as Minako focused on the door.
She slid it open slowly. “Nick…”
He stood in front of the window, running his claws against the wall. In the space between them, the three mats lined the floor. Against the wall beside the door, Brian’s staff rested lightly on their overcoats and other sparse belongings.
Nick turned, a gentle, but subdued smile on his face. “Minako?” After scanning the other three, he frowned and bit his lip. “Master…”
Minako gave Ashley a small push into the room.
He walked across the room and sat against the wall next to where Nick stood, then patted the floor. “You were right, Nicky. You were always loyal to me. I can’t torture you because I died and you found new companions.”
Nick furrowed his brow. “You were important to me too.”
Ashley smirked, then chuckled. “Were…”
Nick turned back toward Minako and smiled. “Minako… Thank you for talking to him. Whatever you said… thank you.”
Minako fixed her gaze on his face as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, gripping the strand tightly as she pulled her hand away.
Nick lowered his head and sank to the floor. “He already told you...” He glanced at the ground and grimaced. “Were we right?”
Minako rushed across the room and knelt beside him. “Nick… you...” She cupped his shoulder and held her hand against his chest. “Do you want us to stay or go?”
“No. Stay. In case I need you…” He gripped his fingers in her hair and held the back of her head as he pressed his lips together. “But… We promised, no secrets between all of us. Kevin and Howie should be here too.” He glanced at the door.
“I’ll go get them.” AJ backed out of the door, but glanced at Ashley with narrowed eyes as he left.
“You really want all of them to hear this story? Your priestess--”
Nick clenched his fist as he gritted his teeth. “Wife.”
Ashley chuckled derisively and shook her head. “She was pale and slapped me. Your companions had to step in and stop me from incinerating her.”
“Master!” Nick pulled Minako against his chest and held his arms tightly around her shoulders.
“Can your companions really handle this?”
Brian grabbed his staff from the wall and struck it against the ground. “We’re here for Nick, whatever he needs!”
“Thank you for always standing by me.” He smiled warmly at Brian, then leaned his head on Minako’s shoulder, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Thank you.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck tightly.
“Master…” He turned back to Ashley as he bit his lip. “I’ve deserved the truth from you. I wish you told me when I asked.” He swallowed, then held eye contact with Ashley as he elevated his chin. “We make decisions together. Knowing this part of my past can help us find my powers and continue to get stronger together.”
“Why do you trust them so much?”
“I woke up in the darkness with nothing, surrounded by people who only called me a monster. But when Minako appeared, she was a bright light in the darkness. She listened to me, believed in me, and tried to help me in any way she could.” He smiled warmly. “And then we went on this journey where we grew together. And then we met Howie, Brian, Kevin, and AJ. And we all grew together as we overcame obstacles. We supported each other and fought hardships together. Even when we were fighting for the box… It wasn’t for the box at all, it was to continue to be together. It was hell, but they’re all worth hell to me.”
“Nick…” a gruff voice interjected.
Nick glanced at the door and smiled broadly. “Kevin… I’m glad we were still together in the end.”
Kevin smiled. “Me too.”
He bit his lip. “Brian, Howie, and AJ… I’m glad we’re back together now.”
“Me too.” “Us as well.” “Same.” They responded in unison.
“Master, I’m ready.”
Minako grabbed his hand. “Nick it’s…”
He glanced at her, but his eyes gleamed as he held his head high. “I thought so… I’m still ready.”
Kevin shut the door as the other three demons took seats against the free walls; Howie sat on his knees beside the mats, AJ sat cross-legged across from him, and Brian sat cross-legged beside the door and the overcoats. Kevin sat on his knees at the other side of the door from Brian.
Ashley set his hands in his lap as he pursed his lips. “Nicky… What do you know about demonic powers?”
Nick shrugged. “Demons have them.”
Howie put up a flat palm. “If you would allow us to explain, Nick. Demonic powers are strengthened and bequeathed through the generations of each demon clan.”
“Our powers come from our families?” Nick bit his lip as he fixed his gaze on Howie.
“Each demon from a clan will have a similar set of powers, though not exactly alike.” Howie glanced at Ashley as he set his hands on his knees.
“So whatever my powers are, my family has them too?” Nick furrowed his brow as he stared back at Ashley, then frowned as he shook his head. “But, I don’t remember being taught them…”
Ashley stood and paced in front of Nick. “You weren’t. Being taught is one way to learn, the simplest… The other is more complicated. What did Madeline tell you about my powers?”
“You always had whatever power we needed.” Nick bit his lip. “I remember that too… lots of very different powers… but you usually just used your hands and feet…”
Ashley crossed his arms, but continued to pace. “My clan’s power is to absorb and use the powers of other demon clans. However, it is notoriously difficult for any demon in our clan, you have to see and know the powers already. That’s why I prefer fighting with my own physical strength; it gives me control.”
Nick ran his hands through his hair. “So you were in Safaiananpou to--”
Ashley sat crossed legged again, his arms still crossed. “To seek out new powers, yes. I routinely moved among the countries to find new demons and new powers prior to Madeline arriving. Unfortunately, that particular visit coincided with Emeradotouhou’s siege.”
As Ashley ran through the wooded area closest to the capital, his footsteps punctured small twigs beneath his feet; in the distance behind him, the faint sound of clanking armor caused him to hurry his pace as his breath quickened. He brushed to foliage next to him and felt a void inside, then parted the vines and plunged into darkness. He ran through the darkness until a bright patch caught his eye. After pushing aside a second set of vines, he entered a clearing. Trees and grass surrounded him on all sides, but in the center sat a small, dilapidated house with a rotting door -- either abandoned or a secret.
“A hidden house… Not people... What sort of demons live here?”
He crept to the house and peered into the small window. A demon woman cradled two babies as two other young children played on the floor. A large male demon entered from an adjacent room and embraced the two young children as they stood up to greet him.
“A den of demons…” Ashley frowned, then turned back toward the foliage and caught an armored hand brushing away the vines. “This family… They’re clearly poor. Do I lead them away? Or do I see what kind of powers they have?” He smirked.
Two soldiers entered the clearing, grinning broadly as they began scanning it. The first soldier smirked. “This must be where that demon is hiding. What do you think he’s keeping inside?”
“Other demons?” He motioned toward the house.
They laughed boisterously as they approached the house.
Ashley shut his eyes and his body shimmered with a pale light, then he slipped through the window as his body began disappearing.
The soldiers rammed the door open, causing it to swing loosely. The two men spoke in low tones about gold and treasures; the older demons denied any riches, instead bargaining for the lives of their children. The soldiers drew their swords and after a brief struggle, the only living demon in the house was Ashley.
The soldiers laughed jovially and exited the small house; Ashley began climbing from the window at the same time. A cheerful whistle filled the air of the clearing and all three of them scanned the path, catching sight of a small, blond demon wearing a tan tunic and carrying a small parcel down the dirt path.
Nick flinched, then stood quickly and dropped Minako’s hand. His hands shook as he tried clenching them. “You… watched them slaughter my family... and you did nothing…”
“Nicky…” Ashley pressed his lips into a thin line.
He whirled to face Ashley as he snarled. “Don’t ‘Nicky’ me! You led them right to my family and let them die! Why?!”
“Nicky…” Ashley examined his sleeve. “You know the world is cruel. Sometimes you need to take drastic measures to ensure your own survival. I did not know these demons. I did not know you then either…”
“I grew up without a family because of you!” Nick continued to bare his teeth.
“Nicky, I’m not your enemy. Your enemies then and now are Emeradotouhou’s soldiers. They’re the ones who killed your family and tortured you.”
Minako and AJ stood. Minako rested her hand on Nick’s shoulder and AJ stepped hesitantly toward him as he spoke. “Nick was tortured? Nick…”
“AJ it’s…” Nick glanced at the ground, but his gaze seemed unfocused and distant. “I vaguely remember that… When we were first in Rubiihoppou and that soldier was attacking that small child that led us to you… In the end, we found you, but… that made me so angry because… I remembered how painful it was being attacked by soldiers… How frightening they were...” He swallowed.
“Nicky, they tried to kill you, but you…”
The two soldiers laughed uproariously while one held Nick up by the back of his collar while using his elbow to hold Nick against his chest; Nick clenched his eyes shut and thrashed his arms and legs. “Just like the stupid woman, he would rather have his money than his life.”
Nick’s eyes flashed open as he forced his head back from his captor’s elbow before thrusting it forward again to sink his fangs into the fleshy fabric-draped and unarmored inside. The soldier growled and released his hold on Nick; he fell to the ground in a heap instantly.
The two men drew their swords as Nick convulsed at their feet.
“We are too kind to bargain with demons.” The second soldier smirked arrogantly.
“Worthless scum of the earth. They're better off dead.” The soldier who had held Nick lowered his sword toward Nick’s head.
Nick curled into himself, his pale wings draping around his body as it trembled and in that moment, a deep shadow fell over the earth. The wooded area just beyond them became a murky chasm. Animals lay still and silent. Clouds froze. The breeze whispered away. Darkness seeped in on all sides, paralyzing the two men and sealing all sound. Nick’s wings began to flutter, the only motion in the immobile world. He shrieked, piercing the silent darkness as a blazing ball of bright, blue-tinted white light formed beneath his wings and overtook the shadowed world. For a moment, there was only light and then only devastation. A colossal crater stretched in every direction. The rotting house -- vanished. The wooded grove that had surrounded the rotting house -- incinerated. The two soldiers -- eradicated. The homes on the other side of the grove emerged damaged beyond repair, some with only half their structures intact. And in the middle of the destruction, only Nick’s small body remained -- collapsed and lifeless.
Ashley waved his hand and the pale light around him disappeared, then he strode across the crumbling ground toward Nick. When he reached him, he crossed his arms as he leaned over the still body; a grimace covered his face. “Those soldiers had no idea what they discovered. Why didn’t they fight back? To think, I stumbled into a den of solar demons and we all let mere cattle destroy them. Except this young one...”
He kneeled down and patted Nick’s head. “But this young one clearly hasn’t been trained so his powers can only come out when he is in crisis. But… he is still a solar demon… No… more than that… To create so much devastation at such a young age, this young one is more powerful than I could have imagined… The only cardinal demon I have ever seen.” A broad, but sinister smile crossed his face. “But, if I can coax his powers out for myself, then I can become the strongest cardinal demon.”
Nick stumbled backward against the wall adjacent to the one where he had sat, then slid down to the floor. He put his hand to his heart as he hyperventilated. “H-how… how do you absorb other demons’ powers?”
Ashley lowered his head, but continued to speak calmly and emotionlessly. “Nicky… Your face is so much like when you were a child. Your frightened reaction tells me that you must already know the answer.”
Nick swallowed as his fingers twitched. His face blanched. “You have to kill them?”
The other four cardinal demons stood, ready to strike. Minako rushed to Nick’s side and held his shoulders.
Ashley nodded. “But Nicky, I…”
Nick stood abruptly and clenched his fists, his wings flaring behind him. “No. You let my family be slaughtered, then saved me only to raise me to die so you could grow stronger? Then you reappear and belittle my current relationships? How could you?!”
“But Nicky, your powers never manifested again. And without training… only suffering could bring them out and yet…” Ashley stood as well and began walking toward him. “Losing your family, traveling with me, living the existence of a cardinal demon before your own version of that shared existence… An abyss of suffering, yet somehow the suffering was not enough to make your powers strong, let alone appear at all.”
“My powers… They have… The false God... And my friends… And Minako…” Nick turned to Minako and his hand shook as he cupped her hand at his shoulder. His wings crumpled against his back as he continued to hyperventilate and his gaze darted between her, the other sapphire demons, and Ashley. “I… I have to… I can’t… I’m...” He fixed his gaze on her as his lips and eyebrows pinched, then he turned away from her and started running toward the door. He pushed past Ashley, stopped momentarily to look into the eyes of the other sapphire demons, then shoved open the door and ran into the hallway.