Within this last chamber of the catacombs, there’s only mist and shadow. He chuckled darkly. It’s a triumphant return to everything I was before. His fists continued to shake and he swallowed forcefully. My pulse is racing. I’m excited and ready to step in here and fight for all of you. The longer we walk, the surer I am that I can pull myself from the dim glimmer of doubt. I want to face this fear, but it’s not the suffocating darkness I’m afraid of anymore. I was reared in the darkness, I can shoulder that here. I can keep running forward, no matter how hard it becomes. Was I ever really afraid of it?
He hesitated, then started walking into the murky room. His footsteps echoed in the silence as he exhaled and held his chest proudly. If I feel afraid, I will walk forward with my heart held high, the one that wants to protect her and stay with all of them. I was never afraid of the darkness, my whole existence was meaningless. I forgot what the void from my memories felt like a long time ago, even though I knew it was there. But now that I’ve been surrounded by warmth and support, instead of just surrounded and alone, I can’t go back. For the first time, I can treasure living and fear dying. I’m afraid of that loneliness and the void that being ripped from them would create. If we’re separated, will I just go back to the darkness? Will losing you hurtle me back into the lonely void? Would I have to wait for you for eternity or would you disappear forever? Would I have to wait for a new Pandora? I’d rather wait for you forever than wait for a new one if either of those things are even possible at all...
This darkness is endless… I thought I would definitely be able to see through it and walk through it, but it’s murky and suffocating. No, through the mist, there’s a lone light… Ruby eyes…
“This scent…” The voice waded through the murky darkness.
Nick took a hesitant step backward. This creature within the darkness is only smelling the fresher air from outside the room, it’s only reacting to being able to breath through the murky mist. He scanned the room. No, there’s a brightness filling this room. It’s something different than the fresh air...
As the chamber lit on all sides, the lifeless footsteps emerged from the slowly illuminated murky darkness. Its muffled steps became increasingly louder until they ceased when the shadowy source of the ruby glow stopped in front of Nick and cupped its clawed hand to his face.
Nick flinched and tried to back away, but the creature with the glowing eyes tightened its grip upon his face.
Why is it touching me? What is this? It must be one of the other demons, but that stone soldier never came this close! His heart shuddered as he scanned the figure from feet to head.
No shoes covered the claws upon its feet, tattered black pants rose to the ends of the black tunic at its mid-thigh, separated at the waist with a cream ribbon. The long, straight sleeves of the tunic ended at the creature’s wrists, giving free movement to its clawed hands. Its enormous wings rose from its back in full splendor as its whip like tail trailed behind its body. Its horns protruded from among the strands of its fair hair and its fangs dripped spit as its soulless, glowing eyes stared into Nick’s own. His lips curved into a snarl, but he almost seemed to smile. “This scent and those pained childish eyes…”
Nick gaped as he flinched and tried to pull back again.
The clawed hand tightened upon his cheek, creating small streams of scarlet down Nick’s jaw.
“You…” Nick choked back a forceful swallow.
My heart is ripping me apart from the inside, trying to burst out of my chest. The murky darkness is running through every hair on my body. I can’t feel my fingers. It’s so loud in here. His knees buckled and he swayed, but caught his balance. He raised his shaking hand to his chest. It stings… I can’t… Am I even breathing? No, I am breathing, it’s so loud… It’s all I hear now, my heart and my breath. If I try to move, will my heart shatter on the ground?
“I thought I lost you within the darkness….”
Nick’s eyebrows pinched at the bridge of his nose. Stop being concerned about me… I don’t need this… He choked and swallowed forcefully. All alone… Within the darkness…
The ruby eyed demon removed its hand from Nick’s face, then thrust Nick into his embrace. “In the end, even I failed to find you.”
Nick’s voice wavered as he choked on a breath. “Master.”
“Don’t fall for it! It’s an illusion!”
Brian? No… Nothing in this castle is an illusion… There’s no more illusion demons… This is definitely my Master coming to save me from the dark… We’re back in the dark… He’ll get us all out… Nick’s shoulders slumped into the demon’s embrace. His arm is moving, Master… Nick turned to face the demon’s arm.
The ruby eyed demon held his hand out toward Brian. A bright, ruby glow emanated from it and shot toward Brian.
Brian coughed as he slammed against the wall. Minako ran to him quickly, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
A lone stream of scarlet trickled down Brian’s chin and he choked as he began to speak. “That creature is an illusion… Rescue Nick…”
Master… No… those are my...
The ruby eyed demon tightened his embrace on Nick.
Nick exhaled a deep, calm breath as he shut his eyes. So comfortable and warm... It’s like a dream from before time began. Something so distantly familiar… You can’t be an illusion… Was that an illusion? Is it just you and me? Have I been in the darkness this whole time? Have I been making up all of these horrors? Did you finally rescue me? I screamed and begged for so long, I thought that it would never happen...
“Were you afraid all alone within the darkness, Nicky?”
“No…” I can barely hear my own voice. Has it been swallowed in the darkness? Now that you’re here, I’m finally safe. Finally...
“Let him go!”
Who’s voice is that? Another illusion? Did I make up all those maidens in the dark? Was I so desperate for someone to join me that I made up something that feels like joy? Master… Why did you take so long?
“Stop smirking at me and let him go!”
Smirking? Who is…It’s small, but I recognize this voice... Is this voice talking about me? “This voice…”
“It is merely the darkness calling you back.”
“No… The darkness is only quiet and screaming...” Nick’s voice sounded like a smile. “It’s something… kind… Something… warm… and bright...” I know it… I know this voice… But who?
“That is merely an illusion.”
“Nick, I love you exactly as you are!”
Nick… Is Nick me? Someone loves me as I am? “Nick… As I am...”
“No… warm and bright...” I know this voice… Warm and bright… Full of love...
“I’ll wish to become a demon if that would help!”
Minako! “No!” Nick’s eyes regained their focus as he forcefully pulled himself back from the embrace of the ruby demon. He grabbed the tattered collar of the demon’s tunic. “They aren’t empty words!” He growled. “They’re the only words I need to hear!”
“Nick!” Minako started running toward him.
Nick turned to face her and smiled broadly. “You reminded me, Minako, that I came here to fight for you and our friends! Brian are you okay?! Can you stand?!” He glanced back at the ruby demon as he spoke.
Brian gripped the wall and stood shakily. “I am.”
Nick clenched his hands into fists. “Good! Protect Minako no matter what!” He whirled back around to face the ruby eyed demon and growled again. “How dare you impersonate my master and trick me!”
“Impersonate…” The ruby eyed demon smirked maniacally. “Why would I do such a thing to you, Nicky?”
Nick gasped and stepped backward again. “Then… you are…”
“Master, as you called.” The ruby demon outstretched its arms again and walked toward Nick.
Nick stepped back again, then sank to his knees. Master… You’re trapped in this castle… What can I do? Can I defeat you? He turned toward Minako and Brian as he inhaled shakily.
Brian thrust his staff into the ground and leaned on it as he gripped his chest.
Minako clenched her fists and started walking toward Nick and the ruby demon. “Master?! What does that mean?!”
The ruby eyed demon turned to her. “Just as it sounds… In his youth, I taught Nicky everything he knows.”
Minako gaped and stepped back.
Minako… Don’t come any closer. Let Brian protect you! Nick pushed his hands into the ground, trying to steady himself. It doesn’t matter if I can defeat you, I have to try for them.
“Your reaction tells me that you understand…” The ruby eyed demon licked his lips. “Now tell me, who are you? You have a lot of courage walking toward me.”
Minako raised her shaking hands to her heart as she continued walking toward them. She whispered something inaudible, then closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. When she opened them, she exhaled deeply and stopped in front of him, exuding calm. “I am the sapphire priestess.”
The ruby eyes of the demon narrowed as they flickered and danced. “Sapphire priestess…” His claws began cracking and pulsing.
Minako stepped back, her hands trembled wildly.
Minako! Nick pushed off the ground. His knees rattled as he steadied himself, then he began sprinting toward her. Minako! Go back to Brian! You have to hear my voice! “Minako!”
The ruby demon raised both his hands, forming a bright scarlet orb that he shot from them.
Minako crossed her arms over her face. The blast thrust her toward Brian and the wall. She shrieked as she collapsed on the ground.
“Minako!” Wait for me! I’m coming!
Brian gripped Minako’s shoulders as he kneeled beside her.
Nick skidded to a stop and clenched his fists tightly. Brian’s doing what I asked! My job is you! He turned and thrust his foot toward the ruby eyed demon’s abdomen.
The ruby eyed demon jumped back and dodged the blow. A smirk spread across his face. “So, you can still fight?”
Nick growled. “Don’t touch her!”
“You’re worried about her?” The ruby eyed demon scoffed. “She left you alone all those years.”
“She came and saved me from the darkness!”
“After sleeping all those years you waited for her!”
“You’re wrong!” Nick thrust his foot toward the demon again.
He jumped back, dodging the blow. “Then you’re saying that she willingly refused you?”
Nick clenched his fists and thrust another kick toward the demon, it finally made contact with his abdomen. “She came now! That’s what matters!”
The ruby eyed demon scowled and jabbed toward Nick’s face. “Did the darkness make you weak?”
Nick dodged then jabbed back. “Of course not! But being out of it made me stronger.”
The ruby eyed demon cackled as he dodged the jab. “Did you forget? I taught you how to fight!”
Nick growled and clenched his fist. That’s right… He did teach me how to fight… That means I can be predicted easily. How can I win? I’ll just have to be faster!
Nick jabbed toward the demon’s face again.
He blocked, then jabbed back.
Nick threw a hook, which the demon blocked, but Nick kicked him in the same moment. He smirked when it landed. “I can fight, Master.”
The demon smirked as well, then parried with several successive jabs. Nick blocked some, but some also hit their marks.
Nick glanced at Minako as he blocked and tried to counter the jabs with jabs of his own. She rushed forward hoping that a Master would be a wonderful soul. But, all these years in living death had transformed him. He used to have a gentle smile and eyes, but they’re both cold. This sinister demon is not like my Master!
The ruby demon hit Nick’s jaw with an uppercut. “Never be distracted when face to face with your opponent.”
Nick growled and threw a hook toward the demon’s face.
He caught it, smirked, then kicked Nick’s abdomen swiftly. “The darkness weakened you after all!”
Nick clenched his abdomen with crossed arms and curled in on himself as he bared his teeth.
The ruby eyed demon’s foot had torn a gash into the fabric of his tunic, revealing Minako’s pink ribbon poking between the bandages. Though as it soaked up Nick’s blood, it had turned a deep crimson color.
Nick clenched his eyes shut. Stained… Defiled…
“I’ll wish to become a demon if that would help!”
It made me so happy to hear that you would do anything like that for me. That you’re only still trying to get the box because I asked and so our friends can open it and get everything back. I don’t even care about the box anymore! If you asked, I would leave this castle now and never worry about getting the box again! He clenched his hands into fists while they still wrapped his abdomen. But being a demon is horrifying… The world is cruel… Can I protect you from that? Can I protect you from me when I’m that untamed monster? If…. If you were to become a demon… Is that what my foul darkness would do to your heart? For you, I have to find a way to fight back! Even in the darkness… somehow there has to be a way!
The ruby eyed demon swiftly kicked Nick’s abdomen again and flung him across the room.
Nick landed on the ground next to Minako and Brian. A scarlet stream cascaded down his chin. He groaned as he turned and struggled to prop himself up with his elbows Minako… I’m going to...
“Can you not rise? Even in the darkness where you were left to grow?”
Nick choked and swallowed. Who… who can grow in the suffocating darkness?
“Nick!” Brian grabbed Nick’s shoulders.
Nick turned to him. “Brian…”
Nick turned toward her and exhaled a shaky breath. How long was I holding that for you? You’re okay... “Minako…” His voice wavered
“Nick…” Her voice wavered as well, but she gripped his hand tightly and laced her fingers through his.
Nick exhaled again, his shaky breaths becoming calm. My heart is racing again. You’re always so gentle, warm, and bright… You’re always so worried about me when you’re hurting too… I’d give anything to only see you smile. You don’t belong in this suffocating darkness...
Minako gripped Nick’s hand tighter as she grasped Brian’s shoulder and struggled to stand.
Is this what true weakness is? To fight so desperately for something and not be able to stand? Are we flailing in the darkness? How long can we do that and survive? If living means struggling and battling, are we accepting defeat? Are we headed in a downward spiral toward eternal death and darkness? Minako… I can’t let you… He clenched his eyes shut.
Nick’s eyes shot open. Her voice is broken and cracking, but she’s trying everything she can. I have to stand for her… I have to protect her! Minako! Stop!
“Sapphire Pandora, you dare raise from defeat to speak to me…” The ruby eyed demon growled.
“Don’t…” Her voice wavered again as she continued walking toward the demon.
“‘Don’t…’ How weak.” He snarled and smirked.
Nick clenched Brian’s shoulder as his legs shook. I have to stand! I have to protect you! He pushed off Brian’s shoulder and started walking toward her, grimacing as he walked.
Minako clenched her fists as a bright sapphire light began emanating around her. “Don’t call any of us weak, but especially not Nick! He fought so hard in the darkness!” Tears started streaming down her cheeks. “How can his teacher treat him so cruelly? Why would someone he loves so much hurt him that way?!”
The ruby glow of the demon’s eyes flared as he growled and raised his hands. “Sleeping priestesses have no right to speak in a battle between demons!” He released a sword shaped blast of ruby aura from his hands that pierced Minako through the heart.
Her eyes flared open and her hands trembled as she tried to raise them to her chest, but she fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.
Nick gritted his teeth, but ran toward her. “Minako!” He collapsed to his knees next to her and shook her shoulder. “Minako?” He cradled her in his arms, his breath quickening. “Minako…” She can’t hear me, she’s not breathing, she’s so still, she’s freezing, she’s not responding to me, she’s not smiling at me, she’s not worrying about me… “Minako…” His voice hitched and he swallowed quickly. “Minako…” There’s no kindness, there’s no honeyed voice, there’s no gentle touch, there’s no sparkling eyes, there’s no gleaming smile, there’s no warmth, there’s no brightness… “Minako…” Tears started streaming down his face. “Minako… get up… I can’t…” I can’t keep going without you… You’re all my strength… He shut his eyes tightly. “Minako… get up… please…”
The ruby eyed demon cackled. “The darkness never made you weak, it was Pandora of the Sapphires!”
Nick inhaled deeply, but shakily as he clutched her tightly. He exhaled and removed his arms from around her as he pushed back on his heels. His hands and knees shook violently as he struggled to stand. He swayed, but caught himself on Brian’s shoulder. “Brian…” He whispered.
The ruby eyed demon growled.
Nick opened his eyes. They flickered and danced with sapphire light. He stepped shakily toward the ruby demon as his claws pulsed. “Why?”
“Why?” The ruby demon smirked and crossed his arms. “You speak only nonsense, Nicky.”
Nick raised his hand to his face and clenched it into a fist. It continued to shake. “She did nothing to you!”
The ruby demon uncrossed his arms quickly. “She did everything to you!”
Nick’s voice shook as he took several similarly shaky slow breaths. “Master… All those years I was alone in the darkness… Waiting for you or waiting for her… And she rescued me!”
The ruby eyed demon chuckled darkly. “Rescued? Do you truly believe that?”
Nick slowly lowered his fist to his side as the sapphire glow in his eyes intensified. “Of course! It’s so unlike you…”
“Taking away the warmth and brightness… Killing the only one I love!!” Nick growled and his fangs emerged from his pale lips, dripping spit down their curves. His wings shot from their resting position and into their full splendorous glory. His eyes flashed open and became sightless as they were consumed within the sapphire light. His growl became a shattering shriek.
The ruby eyed demon took a step back and gaped. “Nicky…”
Nick breathed rapidly through his flared nostrils, but the sound was inaudible. Danger. Must live.
Nick sightless sapphire eyes glowed at him sinisterly. Monster. Dangerous monster. Kill the monster. Must live. Danger. He began walking toward him, but remained silent.
“Do you say nothing?”
He froze. Though his eyes remained sightless, he turned toward the sound. Nick… I know that… Nick is… He squinted. Figures in the doorway. Pale light… Angels...
He began walking toward them. Darkness… Angels? His sightless eyes scanned the room. He inhaled a loud breath. No… It’s radiant over there… Protect Minako! “Minako…” Radiant and dazzling… You called the angels… Wait… He started walking toward them in slow, laborious steps.
Angels… Warm and bright… Sapphire light… Angels? You’re surrounding her with sapphire light… Why? Protect Minako! He stopped in front of them. Angels, you’re frozen…
Rather than angels, the bright sapphire glow actually came from the other four sapphire demons. Brian and Kevin kneeled beside Minako while Kevin held his glowing hands to her chest. Howie and AJ stood against the wall. They gaped as Nick stood beside them with his eyes consumed in sapphire light.
“Nick…” Brian reached his hand toward him.
Nick’s head sank. Nick… I know that… Nick is… This voice… it’s…
Brian stood weakly and gripped Nick’s shoulder.
“Brian!” AJ tried to pull him back, but Brian brushed him away.
This voice… it’s… Brian… I know that… Brian is… Nick lifted his head. Tears poured from his sightless eyes. “Angels…” His voice hitched as he reached for Brian’s shoulder.
Kevin folded Minako’s hands across her chest, then gazed up at Nick. “You don’t see our darkness, Nick?”
Nick pulled his shaking hand back from Brian and raised it to his head. This voice… it’s… Nick… I know that… Nick is…
Brian frowned and pulled his hand away from Nick’s shoulder. “Nick?”
Nick… I know that… Nick is…
Howie stood and gripped Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, continue to recognize us. We have the utmost faith in you.”
This voice… it’s… Nick… I know that… Nick is…
Brian glanced across the room at the ruby demon stalking toward them. He laced his hands together and raised them to his face. A bright barrier sprung around the sapphire demons.
AJ grabbed Brian’s shoulders. “But, Brian! What if Nick--”
Brian clenched his staff tightly and slammed it into the ground. “We have to believe in Nick! He’s our companion, not our enemy!”
Howie clenched Nick’s shoulder. “We know we are not Minako, but we do believe in you, Nick!”
Nick… I know that… Nick is… Protect Minako! “Minako…” His wings crumpled against his back as he sank to his knees, then ran his hand through her hair. “Minako…”
Kevin picked up one of Minako’s hands and held it out to Nick. “Nick, you know her? You see her?”
Nick’s hand trembled as he reached for her hand, then laced his fingers through hers. Protect Minako! “I promised… I would always see her… Her warmth and brightness... Angels… Don’t take her…” He clenched her hand tightly as his hand still shook. Nick is...
AJ sank to his knees beside him. “Nick! We’re not taking her! We--”
Protect Minako! “I promised… Minako… Angels… Don’t take her…” Nick pulled her into his arms and cradled her body. Nick is… Nick is me! I promised to protect Minako! He hunched over her and tightened his embrace around her. As his wings flared behind him, a warm glow surrounded them and a low, choked sound came from within his throat. His fangs began to subside as the sound intensified, increased in pitch, and grew stronger. The warm glow surrounding him became a flaming and flaring sapphire light.
The sapphire demons hunched and covered their ears as the blazing sapphire light burst Brian’s barrier that surrounded them. The colossal light engulfed the room as the sound reverberated through it.
The ruby eyed demon raised his shaking hands to his ears and began shrieking as he dropped to his knees. The sapphire light boiled around him and his body slowly became statuary, beginning with his limbs and moving in toward his torso and face.
When Brian’s barrier had burst, the emerald demons and their priestess had also appeared in the room as though the light and sound had called them. The flaring sapphire light danced across their faces as they sheltered in the arched entrance of the staircase. They also hunched and covered their ears.
Justin growled. “This sound…”
Renee gasped and smiled as the warmth of the light and song washed over her. “This is such a clear voice…”
The gated door behind the ruby demon’s statue shattered as the sapphire light bounced off of it. The sapphire glow surrounding the room waned and shrank back toward Nick.
The warm glow surrounding his body dimmed as he opened his tear-filled eyes. Rather than the consuming sapphire glow, only his blue irises remained. “Minako…” He tightened his embrace as he pulled her toward his chest and buried his head in her chest. “Minako….” Her immobile body, her breathless lips, her closed eyes, her absent smile... But the warmth and bright light is still surrounding her, even within this suffocating darkness… “Minako…”