Howie patted their shoulders. “Brian and AJ, we are glad you are not injured.”
Kevin turned to Minako. “What happened? Where is Justin?”
Minako lowered her head and gripped her waist tightly. “He made a cut in the ground and took Renee away and…” A few tears dropped down her cheeks. “Where is Nick? Is he safe?”
Kevin put his hand on her shoulder. “We will find him.”
“He wasn’t in his dressing room?”
Kevin removed his hand and shook his head.
Howie patted her shoulder. “Let us retrace our steps.”
They began walking back toward the hall with the equipment pallets.
It’s quiet… I haven’t heard those footsteps in a while… Should I get out? Has anyone else found our security yet? Is everyone okay?
What if they’re not… Should I stay?
He heard footsteps padding by again.
That’s not Justin’s boots… That’s… He peered out from under the pallet. She’s in the black dress again…
He gripped his chest and grunted again. It hurts…
She put her hands to her face. “I’m worried about Renee and you… I hope you’re okay...”
Worried about me? Why would she be worried about me?
Eight more feet joined her. Nick stared up at them. Three of them have wings, horns, and tails?! Why are my friends monsters?!
“Where else could he be?” Brian asked.
Are they looking for Justin?
Minako clenched her fist to her heart. “Poor Nick…”
Nick gripped his chest again and made the same sound. Why? They’re looking for me...
AJ scanned the hall. “Did you hear that?”
Kevin shook his head. “It’s completely empty back here other than the equipment.”
AJ shook his head. “No, I heard something.” He scanned the hall again, then kneeled down. “I definitely heard something…” He pressed his hands, knees, and face against the ground and peered under the equipment pallet. “Nick! You’re okay!”
Nick flinched and shrank back.
AJ reached his hand toward him and scraped it across the floor. “Come out, it’s okay! It’s just us!”
Nick flinched again and crawled backward, away from AJ’s reach.
Howie kneeled next to AJ and peered under the pallet. “Nick, we know this is odd, but we promise that it is safe.”
Nick grimaced, but nodded and crawled backward. “Okay, Howie…” You look the most like yourself… I’ll trust you... He slowly rose from under the pallet and stood between it and the wall.
Minako quickly stepped around it and reached toward him. “Nick…”
He gripped his chest, grunted, and backed away from her. It hurts... “Stop." He backed against the wall and rested his hands on it. “I don't know why my friends became these gargoyles, but I don't want to be one.”
She shut her eyes as tears fell down her cheeks. “I'm sorry…”
He glanced at the ground. Crying for me… It hurts… “Just change them back and leave me alone.”
Minako put her hands to her face. “You must think I’ve betrayed you… selfishly left you in one place and now trying to rip you from another one.” She wiped her tears with the palms of her hands. “You’ve been calling me in my dreams for so long, I just assumed you were incomplete without me. Maybe it's just me…”
Nick’s face turned pale as he sank to the ground. His hand shook as he put it to his forehead, then his fingers brushed the small beads of sweat. He pulled his hand away and cupped his hands together, staring at them both before pawing at the space in front of him. “It’s always so dark.”
Minako slowly ran her hands down her face and stared down at him in concern.
His hands twitched a little as he folded the tips of his fingers like claws, before pawing at the air in front of him again. “I claw at the darkness and call out ‘Minako,’ but no one ever answers... No matter how loud I’m screaming...”
Minako sank to her knees and held her hands to her heart as she stared at them. “It’s so far away… but I always asked the voice…” She put her fist at her mouth and glanced back at Nick. “No... it’s your voice… I always asked it ‘Who are you’ or ‘where are you,’ but no one ever appeared. No matter how loud I called...”
Nick fiddled with the small, gold ring on his hand. “I’ve been feeling awake and asleep all at once… and very broken.”
Minako gripped the gold ring on her right hand as well. “I always promised if that voice reached out a hand that I would grab it.”
Nick glanced up at her. “If someone answered… I swore I would never let them go…”
Minako stood. “I won't pretend to know the challenges we’ll face, but I’m here.” She took another step toward him and reached out her hand, “And I’m not afraid, so you shouldn't be either.”
Nick reached up to grab her hand as he shook his head. “This is crazy… But I… I thought maybe I needed to meet you…”
Minako pulled him up from the ground. “Nick…”
He gripped his chest with the other hand and winced. “I was here once earlier this year, that day we were at that radio station… I was late… I woke up with that necklace… And then I stopped at some high school because I felt so drawn to it… I had no idea why… I thought that was crazy too...” He pulled the necklace with the sapphire gem from his sweatshirt pocket. “But I ran into a girl who touched this and jolted my memory... That’s when the dream started.” He thrust it toward Minako. “That was you, wasn't it? That time, we were together and could have answered each other. We could have stayed together…” He shut his eyes. “Take it back!”
Minako gently pushed it back toward Nick. “I needed it once, but I only kept it safe for you to have. It was always yours.”
“Why would I wear this?”
Minako smiled. “You wouldn't. You kept it buried very deep inside.” She picked up the chain and put it over Nick's head. “But you wanted me to wear it where everyone could see it, so they knew that you gave all of it to me.”
“Why? It’s just a necklace...” He gripped it and his hands shook. “Minako… I…”
Minako stared up at him, then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer to her.
She brushed her hand through his hair, stood on her tiptoes, and grabbed his cheeks, then pressed a kiss to his lips.
The sapphire gem began to glow. The brighter it glowed, the more the sapphire light encased Nick and Minako until they completely disappeared in its gleam. It continued to spread across the arena, and for a brief moment, the entire world was sapphire. But as the world lost its sapphire glow, the details of their surroundings came into view. The walls of the venue became crumbled stone and splintered wood. The high ceilings transformed into the open air. And the tiled floor was replaced with moss, grass, and dirt. The ghost of a once mighty building loomed above them.
Minako stepped back from Nick and removed her hands from his face.
Nestled in his fair hair were his two horns. His small fangs gleamed with his smile. His pale, fleshy wings rested at his back against his sapphire tunic as his whip-like tail emerged from his white pants, wagging in calm delight. Nick pulled her into his embrace, cradling her with his arms and wings. “Minako…” He whispered as he used his clawed hand to pull her head back toward his own. He rested his forehead against hers for a moment before drawing her lips into another kiss.
Minako wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled deeper into the kiss.
“If you two are finished…” A gruff voice cleared its throat.
Minako and Nick turned to see Kevin, Brian, Howie, and AJ standing with them among the ruins.
Nick cocked his head. “Where are we?”
Brian tapped his staff against a few of the crumbled, moss-covered stones. “This place is in shambles, but it feels clean and pure.”
“It makes me feel uneasy…” AJ shifted from foot to foot.
Nick bent down and rubbed his hand in the dirt. Patches of small flowers grew around them. “From nothing comes everything…” He stood abruptly. “The castle beyond the clouds!”
"We're at the castle again?" Brian crossed his arms. "But the miasma…"
"Minako purified it."
Howie rested his hand on Nick's shoulder. "We three were gone. You will have to inform us."
"Minako…" Nick bit back a sob and looked away from her.
Minako lowered her head and frowned. "In the end, what I really wanted… it didn't seem impossible, but… it didn't seem like the right choice…" She laced her fingers into Nick's hand and gripped it tightly. "If everyone was trusting me, I had to make the right wishes for all of them, for all of you like I promised..."
Brian touched Minako’s shoulder gently. “Didn’t you plan on staying?”
Minako put her free hand to her chest and clenched her fist. “When the three of you died… Renee earned the box because all of the emerald demons were returned to God…” She shook her head, “No, he tricked her… And I…”
In the shadowed room, Renee hesitated as her hands shook, then walked toward the cloaked figure and the altar where the box sat nestled between the anguished faces of the Rubiihoppou and Topazuseihou priestesses. When she reached it, she placed her trembling hands on the altar. “My heart is shaking...”
“It is the box’s acceptance.”
Renee reached her hands toward the box, but crumpled as a hot blast hit her back. She landed on the ground and blood splattered across her face.
The cloaked figure hissed. “I thought you were out of commission, Sapphire Pandora.”
Renee’s hands shook as she raised them to her chest. “Minako… You’re the blood and fire?”
Minako grabbed her forearm, slowing the bleeding from the gash across it. She turned back over her shoulder. “Renee…”
A blank expression crossed Renee’s face. “Why?”
“Why? We’re best friends, aren’t we?”
Renee lowered her head. "After everything… Stupid…”
Minako turned back to God and growled. “Why are you still tricking us? This battle is over. The emerald demons are dead! We win this battle royal!”
“Is that what you really believe?” God cackled quietly. “Do you not wonder why the other two Priestesses are chained in this room still?”
Minako lowered her head as she tightened her grip on her forearm, as her hand glowed, the blood seemed to disappear. “They battled each other and lost…”
“What a sad fairy tale that makes!” The cackle grew louder. “Of course you realize that the only victor is me!” He shot another blast from his hand, knocking Renee against the altar.
“Renee was turned to stone, just like the other anguished Priestesses… And you were all gone… I was so angry and scared, but…” She put her free hand to her face and covered her sob. “Then I was alone in the dark, just like in the beginning... Nick and Kevin kept calling for me, but I couldn't reach them, I could barely hear them… I tried so hard… But I was stuck until you all encouraged me and I realized that if I kept you in my heart, I could do anything.” She wiped her hand across her eyes and stared up at Brian as she squeezed Nick’s hand. “I got the box and met the real emperor of the Heavens. Then I…”
“Nozomemasu.” Minako began to glow with the bright silver light.
Nick gasped and clutched her tighter. “Minako!”
Minako thrust the box forward. “Break the seal on the Emperor of Heaven and seal this illusionary God!” She clenched her eyes tightly. Brian, Howie, AJ… Give us strength….
The cloaked figure smirked. “Can your small soul really defeat me?”
Minako’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the box. “You’re right, in the beginning I was small… But I came here and someone else needed me! I learned what it means to be really important to someone… no, to all my close friends!” She opened her eyes, her stare boring through the cloaked figure. “They’re depending on me! So I won’t give up! Even if it shreds my soul!”
Nick growled. “Minako, you can’t! You can’t let your soul get shredded!!”
Minako lowered her head again. “Believe in me, Nick! I’m going to do my best! Even if it hurts!”
“Of course I do, but I won’t let that happen!”
She held the box farther from her body. “BE SEALED!!
“And the false God vanished… So everything could actually be safe... I wanted to stay... I really wanted to stay, but I knew… Nick and Kevin said they didn’t want to be demons anymore and I knew we all had to go back… So I...”
Minako raised her head, but a few tears streamed down her cheeks. “I know…” Of course I want the same thing as you, but I know where you all really belong and that would fulfill that wish… But I’ll also keep my promise to Howie… “Nozomemasu.” Minako glowed with silver light once more.
“Minako!” Kevin reached for her.
“Minako! We can do this outside! The castle is falling apart!”
Minako tightened her grip on the box. “Bring peace to Safaiananpou and all lands, thus releasing the cardinal demons from their duties and sending their souls on their true paths!” She clenched her eyes shut again. Please… Not Nick… Not yet…
Kevin looked at his hands -- they were becoming transparent as they glowed a bright sapphire. He gasped. “Minako! I don’t understand…”
Minako opened her eyes, letting the tears spill from them. “Safaiananpou is safe and your life is yours… So you can go back to where you should be.…”
“Back? I don’t understand…”
Minako smiled, despite the tears falling on her cheeks. “Be happy…”
“And it was hard, but… We all needed to be released… Even...”
“Nozomemasu.” Her voice was only a whisper as she glowed silver light a third time. Renee… For you...
“No! Minako!” His hands tensed as he reached for the box. “NO!!!”
“Release all the priestesses back to their true lives by erasing their memories, ensuring only peace for these lands.”
He thrust his arms back around her and pulled her into his chest. “WHY?! YOU PROMISED WE WOULD BE TOGETHER!! YOU PROMISED!!” He tightened his grip around her, tensing his arms and balling his hands into fists. “I WON’T LET YOU GO!! I’M GOING WITH YOU TO YOUR WORLD!!”
Minako hiccupped and sobbed as she dropped the box back in her lap. “Nick… but--”
“NO! I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE!!” His voice softened as he cupped her head and stared into her eyes. “Except… you…”
“It was hard, but… I made the wishes that needed to be wished… for everyone and not just me… Like I said I would...”
Brian exhaled deeply, his face was a mix of a smile and relief. "You made the right choice. Your wishes were for everyone." He cupped her shoulder tightly with his hand. "You became so strong and made the selfless choices."
Nick loosened his grip on her hand and backed away.
Minako turned from Brian and frowned, her eyes brimming with tears again.
AJ turned to him. “Nick…”
His face paled again. “Everyone… disappeared and I was still here…” He clenched his fist to his heart. “I…” I can’t tell them...
He dropped to his elbows. “Minako…” I’m glad… I’m glad you rescued everyone like you said… But… But… He slammed his fist into the ground. It’s so damn lonely!!! It’s so damn lonely… I want… to see you... But if I can’t… I want to be where everyone else is! Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Please let me go there… PLEASE!!”
It hurts and stings! He wrapped his arms around his shoulders tightly, then his hands began glowing a bright sapphire light as they became transparent. Nick lowered his head. I want to see you… Let me go there… even if it means that I have to disappear… His teardrops continued to fall on the ground. It’s better this way… For someone who’s lost everything to lose themselves too…
He wrapped his wings around his body as he continued to disappear, then raised his face to the sky. “If I can’t see you… At least… let me go to them too… Minako…” The tears fell from his eyes as he vanished.
He lowered his head, hunching his shoulders. “I’m glad we were all together in the other world… And somehow, you found us, Minako… I’m glad…”
“What do we do now?” AJ asked. “We’re back here, but why?”
Howie crossed his arms. “It seems finding Justin again may be our most important task.”
Kevin crossed his arms as well. “So we’ll need to go to Emeradotouhou…”
Minako lowered her head. “Renee…”
Nick snapped back his posture and grabbed Minako’s shoulder as he clenched his fist. “She’s not safe? We should go quickly!”
Brian gripped his staff and shook his head. “Our last journey, we went quickly and everyone was hurt many times… Maybe this time we should head back to Safaiananpou and regroup.”
AJ crossed his arms. “I’m exhausted… Can we stop for the night before we go? Brian, do you think you can transport us back to town instead of walking?”
Brian laughed. “I think if we can get back to that cave, then I can probably get us down.”
AJ clenched his fist excitedly. “Let’s go!”
Kevin turned to Howie, Nick, and Minako. “Do you agree?”
Howie nodded. “We can retrieve our charts and plan for battle.”
“Minako…” Nick turned toward her.
Minako lowered her head. “Anything you all want, I’ll do.”
AJ began walking away from the castle, followed by Brian, Kevin, and Howie.
Nick began walking, but froze when Minako didn’t move. He turned back and gripped her hand. “Minako, let’s go with the others.”
She looked down at her feet and the ground.
Nick shook his head and smiled. “You’re always so quiet here in Rubiihoppou, but we’ll get through it together again. Come on.” He turned and tried to walk.
She held Nick's hand back, her fingers tight around the tips of his.
He turned back to her. "Minako?"
"I want to talk to you… But not here when they’re waiting for us… later… when we get where we're stopping."
He nodded. “Me too… When we get there...” He gripped her hand tighter and began walking again, she followed behind him.
Nestled beneath the mountain, the city of Akahouseki was calmer than their last visit. The sun shone brightly and the cold was only a whisper. Had the cold surrounding it been an illusion created by the sadness surrounding the box or were the summers actually warm? The air also seemed fresher outside the biting cold and the miasma. At the shrine, the ruby lion in the hands of the statue seemed to glimmer brighter than before. Nick leaned against the side of the statue of the priestess while Minako paced in front of him and the statue’s outstretched hands.
He smiled and turned to the statue. “Do you think there’s one of these in Safaiananpou now?” He ran his hand on the statue’s sleeve. “You would probably look even more beautiful. I wonder if they would put ribbons in your hair...”
Minako continued to pace.
He turned back to her. "Minako… Say something..."
She looked at him briefly, but continued to pace. "You must hate me…"
"Why?" He frowned. “I will never hate you.”
She buried her head in her hands. "I didn't keep our promise… The only one I didn’t keep… I really did want to stay, but I didn’t wish for that... And then I made two very selfish requests when I had the box, even though I didn’t wish for what I promised... I'm not strong at all like Brian said."
"You want me to tell you that you made the best choice…"
Minako stopped pacing and faced him directly.
Nick lowered his head. "Of course I wanted you to stay. When you said you would become a demon to stay with me, my heart had never been so full. I would have left that castle right then if you had asked. Box or no box."
He ran his hand through his hair. "But you didn't have all the information you needed to make a decision and it wasn't just me who was depending on you... Everyone was depending on you to make wishes that would help them. And not just us, but all the priestesses, all the demons, Safaiananpou, all the countries… Of course that illusionary God needed to disappear..."
She started walking toward him.
"But it hurt so much!" He choked back a few tears.
"It hurt so much that you left me all alone in the end! Why couldn’t I disappear with everyone else? Why couldn’t we disappear together?" He ran his hand through his hair. "And it was almost worse than the stagnant darkness... because I never thought purified light would feel that way..."
Minako lowered her head.
He wiped his cheek with his thumb. "I didn't care if you made selfless or selfish choices, but why were you selfish to me?" He frowned, but still held his arms open, ready to embrace her.
Minako ran toward him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders and neck. "I'm sorry! I didn't want to leave you alone! I didn't want me to be alone either! What would I do without you?!"
He held her waist tightly and leaned his head on hers. "You should have stayed…" He gripped her hand closest to his face and stared directly into her eyes. “Our promise…”
"The whole time, I begged for a miracle to find you again. In this world, in that world, in any world." She gripped his hand. "Refusing to let you go and then forgetting you afterward was probably most selfish. Even our dream was telling me that..."
“Yes.” Nick leaned his forehead against hers. "Why couldn’t you find me sooner?"
Tears streamed down Minako's cheeks. "I came as soon as I could. What can I do?"
"Every night in my dreams, I was panicking. And every day was just normal. I hated it…" He closed his eyes and pulled her closer. "I don't have an answer… I just… I really did want to stay with you…"
Minako leaned her head on his shoulder.
He brushed his thumb against her cheek, catching her tears. "I hope you know that I’m glad we’re together again and I’m glad you found me, no matter how long it took. It still hurts, but of course I still love you... And I don't want you to only feel guilty. I guess, our promise… Stay with me… That’s what I want, the only thing I want. We can figure out what to do next together…"
Minako tightened her grip on his shoulders. "I still love you too. Is there something I can do right now?"
Nick pulled her closer. "I just... want to be like this for a little longer…"
Minako buried her head in his chest as he wrapped his wings around her body. They both stood motionless and intertwined.