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.
“No…” Kevin turned to him slowly, “This will be my battle.”
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.
Kevin growled again as he pulled against the vines, sapphire light flicking against his skin. “Don’t interfere!”
“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--”
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!!”