Kevin stood from their table, pushing his chair backward. "Howie, Nick, Madeline, you've returned." He gestured to the third demon. "And you found--"
Minako jumped from her seat. "You're back! I'm glad you're safe!" She embraced Howie.
Ashley shrank back.
Minako turned from Howie and wrapped her arms around Nick’s neck.
“Minako…” He smiled as he returned her embrace, wrapping his arms around her waist.
She put her hand to Nick's cheek and ran her thumb across it. "You have a scratch…" She gripped his collar with her other hand and pulled it closer as she examined it. "And your tunic is ripped. Are you…"
Nick placed his hand at the back of her head and stroked her hair. "I'm fine. I promise."
She pressed a kiss to his cheek then turned to Madeline, her grip remaining on Nick. "Are you okay, Madeline?"
Madeline raised her eyebrows as she gingerly touched her wrist. "I'm also fine."
Minako stared at her wrist intently before turning toward Ashley. "And you must be Nick's Master! He actually wore the same outfit when I first met him." She reached her hand toward him and smiled brightly. "I'm Minako. I’m so excited to meet you!"
Ashley sneered. "Madeline. A word." He turned and headed across the tavern.
"Sorry." Madeline shrugged her shoulders and followed him.
Ashley stopped near a section of empty and secluded tables and pulled Madeline close. “I do not trust her,” he whispered, “We have only just met and she already treats me so informally.”
“She’s… very friendly. And she and Nicky are very close; I’m sure she’s heard a lot about you.”
Ashley turned back toward the table where the sapphire demons and priestess stood speaking.
Nick and Minako continued to embrace each other. As she ran her hand through his hair, he leaned his head on hers. Minako smiled at him, eyed Ashley and Madeline briefly, then returned her gaze to Nick.
Madeline clenched her fist. “Are you suspicious of her because she’s being nice to him?”
“Humans aren’t that kind to demons,” he hissed.
Madeline frowned, then crossed her arms as she turned away. “Then what am I? Am I not a human?”
Ashley shook his head. “You know Pandoras are different, Madeline.”
Her eyebrows pinched together and her lip quivered for a moment before she turned back to him and scrunched her nose. “Then why are you suspicious of her? She’s Pandora!”
Ashley touched her shoulder. “You’re Pandora. She’s a child.”
Madeline pushed his hand from her shoulder. “We’re the same age Ashley! She succeeded in getting the box after we failed! She’s Pandora!” She pivoted on her heel to walk away from him.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her back. “Madeline!”
Madeline pulled her hand away. “We died! You have to accept that even though we’re back, he kept going without you! She’s Pandora and he’s completely devoted to her! People change!”
“If you want to focus on him, that’s fine! You had him around longer than you had me!” She clenched her fist and stomped her foot. “But you never listen! We’re back together and you’re only focused on her and Nicky! Don’t I matter to you?!”
“Madeline… You’re shouting.”
“I’m mad at you! How can you be suspicious about things that are the same for her and me?!”
“I know you…”
“You should at least trust Nicky!” She stormed back to the main table.
Ashley stood staring after her for a moment, then followed her reluctantly.
Minako and Nick turned toward them. Minako frowned. “Madeline, are you--”
Madeline stomped past them. “I’m going for a walk.”
Minako turned back to Nick and smiled. “You catch up with your Master, I’ll go check on her.” They shared a quick kiss and embraced each other tightly, before Minako rushed out after Madeline.
Nick’s gaze followed her out the door as he beamed; once she disappeared from view, he turned back to Ashley. “Master, you’re still fighting?”
Ashley crossed his arms and turned away. His voice was cross. “Some things should stay the same.”
Howie sat back at the table. “Ruby demon, are you the planner that Ruby Pandora mentioned from your party?”
Ashley whirled back toward him and sneered. “Why do you ask?”
“The alliance Nick mentioned--”
“Why should Ruby demons be allied with Sapphire demons?”
Kevin sat next to Howie as well. “Isn’t the best argument that the enemy of our enemy is our friend?” He crossed his arms. “The emerald general has brought us all back, so we will need to ally against him in order to return to the other world or choose to stay here once he is no longer a threat.”
AJ and Brian sat as well.
Howie put his hand to his head. “Nick, you know it distresses us when you hover.” He turned to Ashley. “If you are the planner Ruby Pandora mentioned, we would appreciate your input. While she makes attempts, she is woefully unprepared on our plans.”
Nick and Ashley both sat, leaning back against their chairs with their arms crossed.
AJ shook his head. “Uncanny…”
Nick turned toward Ashley. “Master…”
Ashley put his hand to his chin and shook his head as his arms remained crossed. “Nicky, finish your thoughts without pausing. It seemed like you were past this.”
“Are you well?”
He laughed sardonically. “You’re concerned I’m still injured after dying?”
Nick lowered his head and placed his hands in his lap. “Of course, how foolish of me…”
Ashley peered at him out of the corner of his eye. “So, sometimes you are the same as when you were a child…”
Nick stared at the floor as he fiddled with his sash. His mouth opened slightly and his fixed gaze was glassy.
Brian narrowed his eyes at Ashley, then smiled as he put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, why don’t you tell Ashley about our plans.”
Nick blinked, sat up, and turned back to Ashley. “Right. You met Howie in the clearing.” He motioned to the other three demons in turn. “This is Kevin, AJ, and Brian.”
The other three demons briefly nodded toward him.
Ashley chuckled. “Such strange names for demons… Howie… AJ...”
AJ clenched his fist.
Nick rapped his claws against the table as he gathered some of Howie’s charts. “Like I said, they’re the names Minako’s heart called out when we first met and the ones we prefer amongst each other.”
Nick pulled the map of Rubiihoppou toward him. “We came back to retrace our steps from the mountain and see if any of the other cardinal demons were reborn. It looks like we were right.” He frowned as he tapped the map. “So if you could tell us where you reappeared, we can figure out our next plan.”
Ashley shook his head. “The castle, but that was months ago.”
Howie leaned forward. “You were awakened months ago?”
He nodded. “I reawakened in the castle and escaped as quickly as I could. Something was following me... Since then, I have been going to various places in Rubiihoppou looking for the other demons or Madeline.” He smirked. “Though I was surprised to see her with you, Nicky.”
Kevin rubbed his hand on his chin. “I wonder how long Madeline was in Rubiihoppou looking for any of the Ruby demons before deciding to go back to the gate?”
Brian turned toward Howie. “Does that mean that everyone reawakened at the castle?”
Howie placed his elbows on the table, then leaned on his tented fingers. “That would seem logical as it was the last place we all were.”
AJ frowned. “So somehow Justin came back here before searching for us? Or did he find everyone in the other world?”
Nick clenched his fist and snarled. “Or both. How did he get back here? And that potion? What does he want with us?”
Brian patted Nick’s shoulder. “We’ll figure it out.”
Nick shook his head. “What do we focus on next?”
Howie frowned. “With the confirmation that there is at least one other priestess and one other cardinal demon here, it does seem likely that all the priestesses and demons have returned to this world.” He pulled the map of Rubiihoppou back toward him. “Though, while it also seems everyone reappeared in Rubiihoppou, it was before we arrived.”
AJ crossed his arms, then raised the palm of his hand to his forehead. He leaned on it as he exhaled. “They could be anywhere by now…”
Kevin frowned. “I wonder if Madeline still has the ability to call to her demons or would that power disappear with the box gone?”
Howie shook his head. “The powers of other Pandoras may be more mysterious than Minako’s powers, but that is worth including in our strategy.”
Nick leaned his elbows on the table. “She wanted to find her sister. Do we go to Topazuseihou?”
Brian grinned. “If we did, we could stop by my home and spend some time training. That could help us get stronger.”
AJ patted Brian’s shoulder. “That would be helpful!”
Ashley leaned back in his chair. His eyes narrowed as he pressed his lips together. “Who is in charge of your group?”
The five demons turned to him.
Nick cocked his head. “No one…”
Ashley gave him an incredulous look. “Any decision you make, you all have discussions like this and consult everyone’s opinions?”
AJ narrowed his eyebrows at him. “Of course.”
“And you worry about how your priestess feels before deciding?”
Kevin crossed his arms. “Of course.”
He chuckled. “And now that you have accepted Madeline into your group, you consider her wishes?”
Brian frowned. “Of course.”
He smirked. “And should I accept this alliance, you would also consider my wishes?”
Howie rested his hands on the table. “Of course.”
Ashley shook his head and laughed. “How weak. Were you always this weak or only after your priestess finally descended?”
Nick clenched his fist and glanced at the floor. “Master, did it really make you happy to be silent about your own feelings and constantly tell others what to do?”
Ashley stared at him in silence.
“Did it really make you happy to have a relationship with Madeline where you constantly fought?”
Ashley frowned, but said nothing.
Nick shook his head, then fixed his gaze on Ashley. “Because… I grew to be like that because you were like that... and I hated it.” He rested his hands on the table. “Being surrounded and being alone is no way to live and my world became safer and warmer when I let other people matter to me. Being strong is more than beating anything that comes your way. We’re all stronger together and Minako is very important to us because we are all friends.” Nick put his hand on Ashley’s shoulder. “Madeline is ready to be that for you, I think she always has been. And we are ready to let you join us too. Your world can be so much brighter too.”
Ashley snorted and brushed off Nick’s hand as he stood. He stared at him for one moment before turning and exiting the tavern.
The other four demons turned to Nick.
Nick chuckled quietly. “It’s fine. It’s like talking to myself in the beginning. I wouldn’t have listened either.” He shook his head and exhaled before leaning his elbows on the table again. “So when Minako and Madeline return, do we ask Madeline to try calling the other Ruby demons?”
AJ shook his head, but grinned. “You’re something else, Nick. I liked Brian’s suggestion to go train in the mountains.”
Brian nodded. “And it would be kind to help Madeline find her sister sooner rather than later.”
“What do we do about Ashley?” Kevin furrowed his brow.
Nick shrugged. “Not depend on him for now.”
Howie began scrawling some notes on his charts. “We hope that Minako’s conversation is more productive.”
Minako ran from the inn and out to the open square. The capital was a sea of people bustling, flowing, and cresting from point to point in the square. She scanned the crowd, all faceless citizens of Rubiihoppou. Where is Madeline? We’re in her country now, so where does she go when she wants to escape from the ruby demons? Is it always the same place? Where did I feel her the most when we were here before?
She turned toward the shrine and clenched her first to her heart. The first place we met the false god, the first time Nick was truly lost in his demonic form, the first place he and I came to when we left the mountain, the first place I really met and felt you before I actually met you. She started running toward the shrine. I wonder what this was when you were alive. Is it a place you spent a lot of time? Did it mean something to you? Or Ashley? Or both of you? Was he your Nick? Is it the first place you appeared in this world?
She continued to run up the stairs, but slowed her pace as she entered the shrine. The statue loomed above her with its outstretched arms, and beneath them sat the breathing Ruby Priestess.
Madeline turned at the sound of the footsteps. “Minako…”
Minako stepped toward her. “I’m not who you were hoping for, am I?”
Madeline shook her head. “I wasn’t hoping for anyone.”
“Can I join you?”
Minako sat on her knees next to Madeline, her sleeves falling around her elbows.
Madeline chuckled. “You’re not what I expected from a priestess.”
Minako smiled. “I feel like people’s opinions of me were defined by you, but I think we’re a little different. You’re a very strong-willed woman who paved her own way.”
Madeline shook her head. “You’re too nice. I know what they say. But I don’t see it...” She reached her hand out, seeming to touch the statue as she stared up at it. “This woman looks like a serene angel, like that bewitching beauty they talk about, not the condescending torturer though...”
“You’re more than that.”
“Has Nick talked about me or just Ashley?”
Minako frowned. “A little about both of you… Except... he’s been struggling with his memories for some time, so it’s not detailed stories, just bits and pieces.” She smiled. “But, he did say he feels like you are a sibling.”
Madeline smiled as she shut her eyes. “I tease him, but I really did enjoy having him around when Bri and I were on opposite sides… It was like having a substitute… No… A second sibling when I really needed one.”
“Are you and Bri okay now?”
“Last spring we both woke up one day and it felt like it had been forever since we saw each other, but we didn’t know why…” She smiled as she opened her eyes. “But the first thing we did was hug each other. I was so happy to be able to hug her.”
Minako put her hand on Madeline’s hand. “We’ll find her, I promise.”
“I just want her to be able to go back to high school, graduate, and keep working toward her dreams. She should get all those wonderful things. I just hope she’s safe.”
Minako nodded and squeezed Madeline’s hand.
“Your friend too, right?”
Minako smiled weakly. “I want to get Renee right now, I always do… But if she’s with Justin, that would be dangerous to jump right in. Nick, Brian, and I barely made it out alive the last time we went to Emeradotouhou and I can’t let that happen to them again.”
Madeline gripped her hand. “You care a lot about them… We’ll definitely help her.” She looked back up at the statue. “Is there one of these in Safaiananpou?”
Minako shook her head and chuckled. “Nick wondered the same thing when we first got back here, but we didn’t see one. Time’s a little different here, but I don’t think it’s been long enough…”
“It’s weird to see yourself like this… I never really felt like I could be this… I was just trying to get home, trying to get back my sister… And I just kept becoming this horrible person the longer we were here… And somehow Ashley still seemed to love me…” She shook her head. “But we’re still fighting all the time… So did he really ever love me?”
“Did you think so?”
Madeline shrugged. “I guess…”
Minako smiled warmly. “Then he did.”
Madeline lowered her head, but peeked at Minako from the corner of her eye. “Do you feel like you became horrible?”
Minako looked up at the statue and frowned. “I don’t think I’m like this either. Are any of us really important enough to be immortalized as statues?” She folded her hands in her lap. “I’m still not sure I should have been Pandora… I was just… really insignificant and small.”
Madeline scooted closer to her. “Me too.” She laughed. “I only agreed to do it because I thought it would get me home… But then I met Ashley and I just wanted to be around him. He wasn’t even the first demon I met… It was actually Erik! What about you?”
“I wanted to go home, but… I did it to help Nick.” She put her hand to her heart. “He was really hurting and I promised him when I met him that I would help him get the box. I thought I would be able to give him one of my wishes and he would be really happy.”
Madeline shook her head. “You’re not what I expected at all. Does Nicky know that?”
“He does. He told me he didn’t want it because we had our promise. In the end, I couldn’t use my wishes the way I originally planned. Even though I wanted to stay with him, it wouldn’t have been right; there were so many more people depending on me than Nick.”
Madeline smiled, but shook her head again. “Who are you Minako? You save your wishes for your demons, call them your friends, say you wanted to stay with them, and then in the end, you used your wishes for all of us.”
Minako fixed her gaze on the statue. “Just Minako. Being here taught me what it really meant to be there for the people I cared about.”
Madeline grabbed her hand. “Nicky always asked if you would come save him. He’s… really different from when I knew him. He has this unflinching strength and sage wisdom that I would have never expected. Did you do that? Did you make him stronger?”
Minako laughed. “Unflinching strength… that’s the nice way to say it. Kevin always says he doesn’t consider consequences.” Minako smiled as she fiddled with her ring. “But he was always kind and gentle, even when I first met him… He cares so deeply about helping and protecting others. And I think that he doesn’t want to let anything go unsaid if he thinks it can help. His heart is very strong.” She turned back to her. “But he spent so long thinking he was a monster or that he was unwanted, that he buried all those wonderful things about himself.”
“So you saved him?”
Minako smiled at her ring. “Maybe he saved me. All I did was support him and believe in him. The longer we’ve been walking together, I’ve felt more like I could depend on other people to become stronger and that I could be whoever I wanted and still be someone worth knowing. And during that time, he’s grown to confidently believe that he’s worthwhile and strong beyond physical strength.”
Madeline lowered her head. “Can we be friends? Nicky said that you always show people how much you believe in them and trust them. The more you and I talk, the more I realize that he’s right. I think I can be less horrible if I have someone to support me like that, who also trusts me to support them with whatever I have… I hope that person can be you.”
“Of course, Madeline, I would love to be your friend. We’ll get through this together and support each other. It’s not every day you get to spend time with another Pandora here.” She smiled.
Madeline looked up and beamed at her, then leaned her head on Minako’s shoulder.
The two girls sat with their hands clenched in the shadow of the statue, the ideal priestess. In the outside world, there was only one way to be a priestess, they were all judged by the actions of the others. In the beginning, Madeline’s actions had overshadowed Minako’s. Even the sapphire demons had wondered if a kind priestess could be a strong enough priestess to retrieve the box. But somewhere along their journey, they decided that maybe kindness was a strength beyond their preconceived ideas. In their inner circle, the priestesses and cardinal demons knew that there were many ways to be a priestess: perseverance, faith, intelligence, or kindness. They all seemed to be drawn in by the kindness of the Sapphire Pandora, but did that make her path the one correct way? Or would they be able to combine their perseverance and kindness to become something stronger? Were they more than their supposed powers and strengths? If they combined their powers, could they find the power beyond strength?