He glanced at Minako as she gripped his hand with one hand and rubbed at her eyes with the other. When she yawned, he smiled. Minako… Even when I was comparing myself to darkness, you were always comparing me to light. I want to be the way you see me. And to be that, I have to go forward and get stronger. I can’t trade you for them, especially when they don’t exist in the world anymore. I chose you a long time ago anyway. I know you promised to accept all of me, but…
“Good morning, Nick and Minako.” AJ smiled excitedly as he slowed his pace in front of them.
“AJ…” Minako mumbled as she smiled.
Nick chuckled. “I never pegged you as a morning person.”
AJ continued smiling as he stretched. “It seemed like it would be a good day. And sleeping under the stars reminded me of growing up in Rubiihoppou, so I slept pretty easily.” He frowned. “You look like you didn’t though.”
Minako leaned against him and yawned again as she tightened her grip on his hand.
“Brian and I kept our usual arrangement.”
“I have a funny story that might cheer you up this morning.” AJ’s frown turned into a quick smile.
“When I was first learning to control my powers, I kept seeing this dog run by our camp. It always looked really happy, so I thought it would be fun to be a dog too.”
Minako reached up to AJ’s head and patted it. “Cute puppy.” She then nuzzled back against Nick’s bicep. “Cute puppy…”
“Our priestess is not a morning person.” AJ laughed.
“No.” Nick smiled. “I used to think she was because she always woke up before me. But she’s not, I was just so on edge from always being worried about being safe when I slept, that when I was finally safe, I was exhausted…” He frowned. “It’s starting to feel like that again…”
“So this happy dog… I decided I was ready to shapeshift on my own so that I could go running and play with it.”
Nick smirked. “You weren’t ready.”
AJ grinned broadly. “I was not ready. When the old man finally found me, it took hours for me to be able to turn back. I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to change back, I think it only made it worse.” He laughed.
Nick furrowed his brow. “That sounds terrifying.”
“It’s funny to think back on it now, because even after I changed back, I still had a muzzle and a fuzzy tail.”
“For how long?”
A brief smile quirked on Nick’s lips.
“I think I have to show you so you understand.” He smiled and ran his fingers along one of his hoop earrings before pulling on it. A puff of pale smoke surrounded his face and tail. He brushed it away, revealing a dog muzzle and a furry dog tail.
Minako reached out to pet AJ’s tail as she giggled into the crook of Nick’s arm.
Nick glanced at her, then back at AJ’s dog muzzle and tail, before lowering his head and covering his face with his hand.
His bright laugh sprang out from beneath his hand.
“See? It becomes funny over time.”
Nick’s cheeks flushed lightly. “It’s a little your story and a little of a story Minako told me yesterday. She said that when I’m sleeping and happy, my tail wags.”
AJ turned back to the dog tail and it responded with a few wags.
Minako giggled again, then Nick laughed loudly again. AJ began laughing again as well.
“That did cheer me up.” Nick smiled broadly.
AJ pulled on his earring again. When the smoke cleared, his face and tail returned to normal.
Minako slumped against Nick’s arm as she walked. He smiled gently as he stopped, then supported her back with one arm while bending down and holding the other behind her thighs as he picked her up. As she nuzzled into his chest and shut her eyes again, his smile grew.
Nick glanced back at AJ as he began walking again. “Do you ever worry that you’ll lose yourself when you shapeshift?”
“No.” AJ shrugged as he smiled. “Not now anyway. When I was first learning how to control it, it was terrifying thinking that I could make a mistake and never come back, like that time.” He fell into step beside Nick and put his hand to Nick’s free shoulder. “I wasn’t that confident in myself when I was younger, I was just someone small in a group of strangers. But when you’re physically becoming something else and changing yourself, you have to be very confident in who is under the transformation. If you’re not, you can lose yourself.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
AJ crossed his arms loosely. “I won’t lie to you and say it’s easy. It isn’t. Back then, I decided that the person I was going to be confident in was the one who existed day to day and I decided to ignore the part of me that was waiting for all of you.” He smirked. “Which is fine, except one day, you stumbled into that decision and bled on it.”
“That wasn’t my--”
“It was mine. I heard her calling and kept walking. I buried that longing in that moment because I thought I would never feel it.” He chuckled. “You quickly let me know that I couldn’t make that choice.”
Nick hung his head.
He tightened his crossed arms. “I’m glad you did, but I felt like I didn’t have time to become confident in myself again.” He tightened his crossed arms. “That’s what I hated the most in that castle. I was suddenly confronted with a part of myself that I had ignored for so long and I wasn’t able to reconcile it before I was thrust into that journey.” AJ stared up at the sun. “All those old feelings sprung up so quickly and I wanted to be useful, but it was hard for me to use my powers because I wasn’t feeling confident in myself. If I wasn’t allowed to be the person I had chosen to be without all of you, then who was I?”
“I feel the same way, but the opposite. With my past staring at my face, can I still be the person I chose to be with all of you?”
AJ smiled. “You can, but it takes time and a willingness to accept all the parts of yourself, good or bad. Then you need to decide how they interact with each other and if you can keep going as you have been or if you need to change things.”
Nick glanced up at him.
“That’s my caution for you, I guess. Don’t spend so much of your time focused on keeping now the same and making the parts of yourself fit together with the path you’ve been envisioning for yourself. Focus on the pieces connecting the way they should.”
A small smile crossed Nick’s face as he looked down at Minako snuggled in his arms. “Minako already said that she’ll accept me and continue to love me no matter what.”
AJ stared at the forest beneath the mountainous path. “I hope it’s that easy.” He glanced at Madeline, then back to Nick and Minako. “But, I’m sure Minako genuinely means that and will do her best.” He cupped Nick’s shoulder again. “In the castle, Minako’s belief in me was what kept me going and gave me the strength to believe in myself again. I’m sorry to have taken some of that from you.”
“Howie reminded me yesterday that we all have our own feelings for Minako for our own reasons.” He frowned. “I was always surprised that Renee thought having another person in Minako’s heart meant that there wasn’t room for her in it. But I guess I understand now because... I also felt that same way at first, I just didn’t want to admit it.” He smiled warmly as he held her closer to his chest. “Once I was ready to accept that she had parts of herself and her heart from before she met me, I just had to hope that I’d left enough of a permanent mark that there wouldn’t be an after me.”
AJ smiled warmly as well. “I wonder if she feels the same way and that’s the reason she said she would always accept you.” He chuckled. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t think there’s an after you for her. When we were first brought back, she was worried about Renee, but she kept asking for you.”
Nick looked down at her again. Minako…
“It was interesting that she was so worried about her, actually. I wonder if they ever talked about what happened here. Probably not if they forgot too. I wonder if there’s part of her that’s still mad at Renee or if she’s already forgiven her.”
“I don’t know…” He laughed faintly. “It wouldn’t surprise me if she forgot, remembered the instant she broke free from forgetting, then forgave her in that moment without regrets.” He held her closer to his chest. “I don’t think there’s an after her for me either, no matter what before her was like. I don’t have a family to go back to and it’s clear that Ashley wasn’t the family I thought, but I also chose her a long time ago. So… I guess I’ll always be a Sapphire demon in love with his Priestess.”
AJ shook his head and laughed. “You’re really convinced you’ll never break.”
“I promised. I’ll try anything I can for all of you.”
At that moment, the ground beneath them rattled and rumbled. AJ and Nick stared at the ground, then each other; Nick cocked his head and AJ cocked one brow. Ahead, the other demons and Madeline’s bewildered stares mirrored their perplexion. Nick gripped Minako tightly as he scanned the ground again. It’s shaking, but everything seems fine... He scanned the treeline beneath them. They’re still standing... He began scanning the mountain above them and flinched when he caught sight of a large rock hurtling toward them.
“AJ! Nick!” Brian shouted.
AJ and Nick sprinted toward them as Brian began chanting his barrier spell. It enclosed around the group moments after they flanked him.
AJ let out a sigh of relief. “That was close.”
The rock struck the barrier, but bounced off and settled on the path.
“It’s fine.” Ashley’s dry tone mimicked his slight scowl.
“Reflexes.” She muttered under her breath as she stood. “Oh, is Minako okay? I didn’t see her run in...”
Nick nodded and hefted her in his arms lightly. “She’s fine.”
“I wish I could nap while someone carried me.” Madeline crossed her arms.
“No.” Ashley replied in the same derisive tone.
“Brian, is this near or far from your home?” Kevin leaned against the edge of the barrier and scanned the mountain above them.
“We’re pretty close, just a little longer that way.” He motioned south.
“Is this area prone to rock slides?”
The ground shook again as another massive rock tumbled down the mountain.
“Not really. Things happen sometimes, of course, but obviously we wouldn’t have created a home in a place that would test our barriers so frequently.”
Kevin frowned. “What do you suppose it is?”
Howie stood beside Kevin and followed his gaze up the side of the mountain. “It is likely this phenomenon is caused by demons if rock slides are atypical.”
Madeline gasped then ran to the side of the barrier beside them. “Ashley, Jacob, what if it’s Erik?!”
“Why would Erik be in Safaiananpou?” Jacob frowned.
“Why would Nicky be in Rubiihoppou? Let’s just go see!”
Howie turned to survey the area around them. “Brian, is this area safe for flight?”
“Perfectly safe. But we should all be ready to dodge any of the rocks.”
Howie nodded, closed his eyes tightly, and drew his sword. A gust of wind surrounded him as his wings flared from his back and his horns sprouted amongst his hair. He opened his eyes and they shone a brilliant sapphire for a moment.
Madeline stepped back and held her splayed hand over her mouth. “You have wings just like the rest of them?”
“But you don’t.” Ashley picked her up quickly and gripped her waist. “Hold on.”
Nick pressed a gentle kiss to Minako’s forehead. “Time to wake up.”
“Are we there?” Minako mumbled.
“No, but there’s a rock slide, so we’re going to fly. I’d feel safer if you held on.”
Minako gripped at his tunic and crawled her arm around his neck lightly.
She groaned quietly and uncurled herself from between his arms as she raised her head.
He kissed her lips gently, then set her on the ground. “Sorry I had to wake you up.”
She rubbed her eyes, then wrapped her arms around his neck as he picked her up by the waist. She leaned her head against his while wrapping her legs around his waist. Nick laughed quietly as he tightened his embrace.
“Everyone ready?” Brian glanced at each of them, catching their nods, then whispered a second spell. The barrier dissipated around them as the other demons began flapping their wings, and took to the sky.
Nick bit his lip as he maneuvered away from a tumbling rock.
“You look worried.” Minako brushed her hand across the back of his head.
“I just hope this is an odd, but regular rock slide and not a demon like Howie thinks.”
“If it’s a demon, it’s probably scared or hurt.”
“And dangerous in that state… But I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”
As they scaled the mountain, the rocks continued to scatter and roll beneath them, shaking the mountain and rattling the paths through it. Brian gestured to the last path beneath them and the rock face above it. “No rocks slides from above!” He began his descent.
Nick quickly followed him and the other demons also hesitantly began their descent.
When Nick and Brian landed, they began scanning the path and rock face for the source of the rocks. The ground remained eerily still. Brian shrugged and Nick began setting Minako down. The ground began shaking again, scattering small rocks scattered along the path. Nick tightened his grip on Minako as he and Brian sprung from the ground again; the other demons glided away from the mountain.
“Where are they coming from?” Brian continued scanning the mountain and he clutched his staff tightly.
Minako leaned over Nick’s shoulder and pointed., “Look, up ahead over there! That little cave has lots of rocks right in front of the opening!”
Nick and Brian turned to face the small grotto which glowed with bursts of red light.
“Ashley, it has to be Erik!” Madeline shouted.
The ground shook again as rocks shot from the grotto, then began rolling down the side of the mountain.
“We have to get him!” Madeline shouted.
“Absolutely not! He’s dangerous!”
Nick glanced at Ashley and Madeline, then back to Brian, then to Kevin, and finally down at Minako. He swallowed forcefully several times, then chewed his lip.
“You think it’s the first demon we met in the castle?”
Nick swallowed and continued chewing on his lip.
“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. A cloud of smoke billowed across their faces and he coughed as the dust entered his throat. 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 quickly. If I can rescue him, he won’t become a statue! He quickly lifted and threw the stones from its body. If this even helps a little, I have to rescue him!
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, making blood flow down the curves of his face. Another hit his abdomen, tearing his tunic and slicing open his haunting wound. His tunic quickly stained red, turning his sapphire clothing into purple clothing. 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. The stone that had impaled his wing hit the ground behind him as other cascading stones fell and surrounded him. He let out a yelp as he tried to pull himself up on his hands. His left wing fell limp as he tried to flap both.
Nick tightened his embrace on her. “I’ll protect you, I promise!”
“We have to help him!”
I don’t want to put Brian at risk… That hurt like hell last time. But I can always keep her safe… He might remember me, and then Minako... “Do you think you can use any of Brian’s power once we’re close?”
“I can try!”
“Brian! Kevin!” Nick shouted at them as he lowered himself to the ground again.
“Nick, stop being reckless!” Kevin shouted, but still descended toward the path.
Once the four of them landed, Brian rose his staff and whispered his inaudible spell as he surrounded them in a barrier. The rocks bounced off the sides as they continued to shoot from the grotto. “What are you planning to do Nick?”
“This is just like what happened to me in the clearing and that first time you fought with Justin, Brian. Kevin can definitely fix it!” Nick frowned. “But if Erik and the stone soldier from the castle are the same, it’s very dangerous and painful. I can’t let either of you get close to that.” He swallowed. “Erik should recognize me by scent, but strange demons might seem threatening...”
“And Minako?” Kevin furrowed his brow.
“Madeline could probably help the most, but Ashley’s ignoring her. There’s not enough time to argue with him if Erik is like Brian or me. Minako’s a priestess too and she used to be able to make those tiny barriers like Brian. In a pinch, it should work!”
Kevin crossed his arms and frowned. “It’s difficult to argue when you’ve actually thought about it. If you get hurt, I’ll heal you two first.”
Nick pressed his lips into a thin line. “Minako, then Erik. Me last.”
Brian pulled two sutras from his tunic. He whispered a spell and one rippled with a bright sheen, which he handed to Minako. “This will help you.” He whispered again and the second sutra ignited with a sapphire flame. “Meanwhile, if you are about to get hurt, I will not hesitate to rescue you.”
“Understood.” Nick nodded and began inching toward the edge of the barrier.
Brian tightened his grip on his staff as another rock struck the barrier. When they quieted for a moment, he released his grip and a small hole appeared. Minako and Nick pushed it open and burst through before Brian quickly closed the gap again.
As the ground rumbled and rocks shot from the grotto again, Nick ducked and dodged them while holding an arm across Minako’s face and around her shoulders. “Almost there, be ready. I’ll count to three.” He dodged a few more rocks as they entered the grotto. “One… Two… Three!”
Minako held the sutra to her heart, then thrust it into the air; a bright barrier sprung up around them and the demon convulsing at their feet. When the demon glowed with another burst of red light and the grotto shook, causing rocks to break from the mountain, but instead of shooting from the grotto, the rocks rolled off the small barrier and fell to the ground around them.
Nick set Minako on the ground and she held the sutra to her heart as she leaned down beside the demon. “You probably don’t remember us, but we’re here to help!”