Within the darkness, Nick cradled her in his arms as he sobbed into her chest. “Minako…” He laboriously wrapped his wings around her body, shielding her from the darkness and hiding his face. “Minako… I’m sorry… My promise…” I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you… Why am I weaker than the dark?
Only silence… You’re supposed to curl your fingers around my hand and tell me that I’m the strongest, that I’m brave, that I tried really hard, that I’m gentle and kind. Even if your eyes were closed, you’d still be smiling up at me as you touched my forehead and pushed my hair back. But your lips are breathless and your hands are immobile… I’m holding your fingers tightly, but they’re freezing… The warmth and brightness that always surrounds you feels like it’s dimming.
The other four sapphire demons knelt beside him.
Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Nick…”
Nick flinched under Brian’s touch, then began hyperventilating as he sobbed.
“Nick…” Brian pulled his hand back and frowned, then turned to Kevin. “Kevin…”
Kevin put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, Brian said your wounds reopened.”
Nick raised his head. Tears continued to stream down his cheeks. He hiccupped, then took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “But… Minako…” He clenched his eyes shut, forcing his tears to cascade down his cheeks.
Kevin pulled his hand back and pressed his lips into a thin line as he glanced down at Minako. “I did what I could, but if I could really heal her the way you want, I would have done it already.” He glanced back at him. “Nick--”
Nick’s wings unfurled in glamorous splendor as his stare bore through Kevin.
“Nick?” Brian gripped Nick’s shoulder again.
Nick brushed Brian’s hand from his shoulder before hugging Minako quickly, then set her on the ground. In one swift motion, he shifted so that his feet were flat on the ground, then he pushed off the ground with his hands. As he stood, his knees shook, but he pressed the balls of his feet into the ground forcefully, willing himself to balance. His jaw clenched as he glanced at the opening to the next part of the castle.
Brian stood as quickly as he was able. “Nick!”
Nick clenched his fist, his stare hard and blistering. “This is God’s castle. God… owes me one wish!”
“God?!” AJ gaped as he clenched his fists.
Nick narrowed his eyes as his clenched hand shook. “God who ripped me from his arms and placed me in the suffocating darkness… God who stole my memories… God who sealed the one thing most precious to me in a box! God… The Devil among Devils… He won’t… He won’t take anything else from me!” Nick flapped his unfurled wings, wincing at the sudden burst of pain in his left wing. I can’t let it hurt! I have to protect Minako! He growled and began running toward the open doorway.
A figure drenched in green descended in front of him and blocked his path.“Why are you the one to run toward God?” The voice was harsh and cold.
Nick growled. “Emerald General…”
He cackled. “Did you think we would never get here?”
“How like the aggressor nation, to follow in the footsteps of worthy warriors, but claim they are victors!” Nick spat.
“Why not reap the benefits if another has opened the gate for you?” Justin smirked.
Nick growled again and clenched his fists.
“And as the highest ranked, I shall go first.”
“Stand aside!” Howie flanked Nick’s side.
Howie pulled his sword from his scabbard. “Did you not use rank as a means for entry?”
“And what of it?” Justin growled.
“Then surely we are the first to enter.” Howie smirked.
Justin pulled his sword as well and pointed the tip toward Howie. “Is that a challenge, Your Sapphire Highness?”
Howie thrust his sword forward so that it touched the tip of Justin’s blade. “Indeed.” He glanced at Nick and nodded quickly.
Nick gaped. Howie, you’ll always stand beside me valiantly. Thank you. He nodded as well, then dug his foot into the ground. He flapped his wings a few times then sprang into the air and vaulted over the emerald general’s head. As he glided through the corridor, his body sloped to the left side. He groaned and growled. I have to land! He fluttered to the ground and winced as his feet touched the ground, then he began running through the unending darkness. This is the end! It has to be! On the other side of this endless corridor, God is waiting! I’m sure of it!
Nick came to the end of the corridor and stopped at the large door looming before him. He clenched his fists tightly and they began to glow sapphire. He growled and punched the door causing it to burst explosively. Wood shards poured from the ceiling, revealing a pitch-black room.
Nick snarled. This is darkness unlike anything I’ve seen before. Even in the unending darkness of this castle and my suffocating darkness, there was always a glimmer of light. Or is it that darkness seems brighter because I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in it? If I should be able to see through it, why is this darkness empty and unyielding?
“You came to me, my dear, sweet Nickolas?” The raspy voice floated across the darkness, followed by the flickering of glowing ruby eyes.
Nick growled as his clenched fists shook.
“You destroy my door and have no words to share with me, my darling Nickolas?”
“I’m not your darling anything.” Nick snarled.
“Who would put someone precious in a place where they could only suffer?” Nick glared at the sightless, glowing eyes as the sapphire light flicked across his fists.
“I would never let you suffer. You were safe, my precious pet.”
Nick’s fists shook. “Calling me a pet, but you still seal my memories and try to take away what’s most precious to me!”
The glowing eyes seemed to smirk. “I had no idea mere pets could have memories or their own precious thing.”
“You are not what you claim to be.”
“You are no God.” Nick snarled.
“So, you remembered, did you?”
“God would not steal my precious happiness!” Nick began running toward the glowing eyes.
Blasts of light began illuminating the darkness. “Do you mean to say that God does not control life and death?”
Nick dodged the blasts as he ran. “God would never hurt his precious Pandora!”
“Precious is she? To me?” God laughed heartily.“Did you truly forget what actually happened back then, my sweet Nickolas?” The eyes smirked. “Perhaps this will help you recollect…”
A hand appeared beside the glowing red eyes. Within moments, the darkened room lit with a rush of sweeping molten blaze simmering across dim candles, instantly illuminating the shadows in a burst of primordial flame.
Nick took a step backward and gaped.
In place of the pitch-black nothing, the cavernous room engulfed him. The vast space between him and God also stretched between him and each wall. Each wall towered above him lined with limitless rows of black boxes. The looming walls eventually arched and met a vaulted ceiling. The robed figure sat with his legs crossed and gripped the ornately carved arms of a pitch-black iron throne decorated with weaving metal vines. The throne perched above a short set of stairs surrounded by massive candelabras.
“What do you think, my darling pet, Nickolas?”
“Are those… What are those?!” Nick stammered.
“Of course, you would not remember that battle. Only your elders entered and fought.” The robed figure emerged from what little remained of the shadows. “You were shunned by them and by the horrid creature you called your master!”
Inside the castle lay an unending world of horrors beyond imagining filled with only traps and darkness. A bleak world of utter nothingness lay behind and ahead of them. However, one final doorway opened before them, leading toward a blackened world of unknown chaos.
A short, blond teenager clenched his fists and clenched his eyes shut. “I… I…” He stammered. “I want to go too, Master!”
“It’s dangerous, Nicky.” The shadowed figure’s voice was gruff and brief.
“But I’m strong enough to fight beside you, Master! We can win together!”
“No.” His voice was firm, but emotionless.
The taller, shadowed figures walked through the inviting doorway, then the door slammed shut and severed the opening between him and the others.
“Master!!” He slammed on the door with both fists. “Master!!”
The robed figure put its hand to its hood momentarily. “There is one casket that I think may interest you again...”
“Casket? Again? What do you mean?!” Nick growled.
The robed figure extended its hand from its side and curled its fingers, as though it reached toward one particular casket and pulled it from the wall.
Nick eyed the caskets closest to him. Slumbering bodies resided within the slender boxes: some almost fully formed, some in pieces, some faint glimmers of light shaped like a person. Nick clenched his fists and turned back to the robed figure. “Casket… Are you saying these bodies are dead to this world?!”
The robed figure’s voice seemed to smirk. “Would you like to see the casket I am presenting you with?” In the distance, one of the caskets gleamed with a brief light.
Nick stepped back and growled.
“My precious Nickolas, I am merely trying to do a service for you. Will you refuse my trust?”
Nick growled and ran toward the casket, his left side seemed to limp beneath the strain of his wounds. He stumbled to the ground as he ran, his body collapsing each moment, yet, he continuously pulled himself up as he ran and reached toward the casket.
“Can you not stand, sweet pet?”
“Let me give you some assistance.” The robed figure extended his hand toward the casket once more, curling his fingers more forcefully. The blackened box cascaded from its shelf and hurtled into Nick. He crumpled beneath its weight and fell to the ground.
“Is that all your strength?”
Nick pushed the casket away from his weak, limp body before examining its contents. He placed his hand atop the clear casing of the lid. Upon peering inside, his eyes grew wide and his heart raced. The innards of the box emitted a faint sapphire glow. Nick’s voice lowered in pitch. “Is this… Safaiananpou?”
“Perhaps…” God chuckled. “But in an entirely different way, it is hardly that at all.”
Nick frowned and ran his claws against the clear casing. For Safaiananpou? And not for Safaiananpou? What does that mean? This casket is filled with sapphire light…
The bursts of faint sapphire light slowly gathered into the shape of a person. Nick scraped his claws against the clear casing and clenched his eyes shut. It’s like my heart is shuddering. This isn’t any person… Tears spilled down his cheeks. He opened his eyes and growled as he clenched his fist. This is the only person who matters! “You’ve already trapped her here! Is this where you hid her all those years?!”
“If it’s interesting to you again, how can I hide it, sweet Nickolas?”
Nick growled. “Liar!” He began running toward God again.
“People in this world exist here as limitless energy until the moment they are needed. No heart, no form, no voice. Only energy. If she felt she was needed sooner, she would have come out the first time you tried.”
“She was always needed! More than just me, more than Safaiananpou, the world needed her! Why would you keep her here for so long?”
“What could mere children do back then?”
“That was when I had powers to help her!” Nick stopped at the foot of the stairs, then stormed up them toward God. “Give her back!”
The cloaked figure stood. “My precious, Nickolas?”
Nick reached the top of the stairs and clenched its cloak in his hands. “Give her back!”
The glowing ruby eyes seemed to smirk. “Give me an item in return.”
Nick lowered his head and chuckled darkly as he let go of the cloak. “That’s laughable that you think I have anything.”
“No… You have something I want.”
Nick hit his chest with a splayed hand and clenched the other. “Anything! If you think I have something I can give, I’ll give it for her!”
The robed figure smirked, then uncurled its fingers, revealing a small vial of clear, bubbling liquid.
Nick narrowed his eyes. “And what should I do with that?”
Nick pressed his lips together, then frowned. “What is it?”
“That is none of your concern, darling Nickolas. Unless, you want your precious love to remain energy...”
Nick growled and snatched the vial from the figure’s hand. “I’ll drink it.” He held it up to his eyes and stared at the vial as he pursed his lips.
“Well…” The robed figure held out its hand, palm up, as though prodding Nick to continue.
Nick spun the top from the liquid. He sniffed it. It’s bubbling, but it doesn’t smell like anything. He grit his teeth, it could be harmless like water or very dangerous… Minako… He took a deep breath, then quickly downed the liquid. Minako… I will pay this sacrifice so you return to me. Darkness flashed brightly in his eyes and he clenched his fist around the vial, shattering it. He raised a shaking hand to his head as his vision went blurry. Can’t… He stumbled and fell backward off the platform, landing in a heap at the foot of the stairs. He gagged and grabbed his throat.
The robed figure smirked. “Your imprudence ends now.”
Nick wrapped his hands around his throat, gagging loudly. What is happening? I’m not dead, so what does it want? He began coughing violently, then a large sapphire orb sprang from his mouth and rang as it hit the ground near his knees. It continued to ring as its golden chain hit the ground. Nick snatched it from the ground and held it to his chest in his tightly balled hands. He opened them slowly to stare at it. The golden chain was threaded with a few solitary pearls and a large sapphire gem at the bottom affixed to a golden wing shaped backing a little wider than the sternoclavicular joint. Nick balled his hands again and clutched it to his chest. I have to keep this safe! It’s not...
“Give it to me!” God began descending down the stairs from the raised perch.
Nick shrank back, his tightly clenched claws turning white. He forced himself to his feet and began running back toward the door.
“Give it to me!” It shot blasts of light toward Nick.
One hit him in the back and he tripped. He fell to the ground forcefully and the necklace launched from his grasp and landed several feet away from him in the shadow of the empty door. He scrambled toward it on his hands and knees. He coughed and a small stream of clear liquid trailed from the corner of his mouth. He clenched his abdomen and reached his shaking hand toward the necklace as he toppled back to the ground.
Nick froze and gazed across the ground to see a small hand grabbing the bright sapphire jewel.
“This feels like...”
Nick took a shaky breath, then tried to move his lips. A faint stream of liquid continued to trail down the crevice in the corner of his mouth, but his lips were faint icicles frozen in the cold, shallow darkness. He clenched the ground tightly and pushed himself up to his knees, then pressed his feet against the ground, forcing himself to stand. His left wing hung limply beside his shoulder. His face glistened with sweat, plastering his hair to his face. He winced as he began running. The darkness seemed like a million miles wide. Moments felt like they strung into hours prolonged by the sickening silence. He collapsed to his knees with outstretched arms in front of the remnants of the door.
Ruffles of pink ribbon seemed to rain from the sky.
Minako! Nick took a deep breath and pulled her tighter into his embrace as he clenched his eyes shut. So warm and bright... Tears fell lightly down his cheeks as he opened his eyes slowly. He pulled a hand from her waist and cupped her cheek. His lips continued to shake as he parted them, but there was no sound. Minako! His hand shook at her cheek as a choked gurgle escaped his lips. He blinked, causing his tears to cascade down his cheeks.
“Nick...” She gripped the chain of the necklace tightly as she reached up to his forehead and brushed his hair back.
He clenched his eyes shut as tears started streaming down his cheeks again. This was all I wanted… I only wanted you… All your warmth and brightness… I don’t even need the box anymore if I have you! He opened his mouth quickly, but the feverous shaking of his lips continued and he still emitted no sound. He opened his eyes slowly and glanced at the ground, then pulled Minako tightly to his chest.
How can I talk to you if I can’t say anything? How can I tell you everything I want to say with only actions? How can I tell you that my heart was broken? That I couldn’t go on without you? How do I tell you to stop being reckless? I promised to protect you! I would give anything to choke any of that out even if I was sobbing! I love you! He tightened his grip around her. If that was the only thing I could say, then maybe that could convey everything else. I love you! My most precious feeling! The most precious thought in my heart! If there’s even one word to say that, I want to say it!
His lips stopped shaking as he tried to let out even one word, but all that resonated in his throat was a faint gurgling sound. It’s wet against my chest… I never wanted to make you cry… He inhaled deeply, trying to calm his own tears. You know… You know what I want to say… How I want to call your name, to whisper it in your ear… Minako…
She pulled back from his embrace and stared up at him as tears cascaded down her cheeks. She raised her hand to his cheek, brushing away his tears with her thumb.
Your eyes are sparkling like small jeweled stars in the night sky. I want to run through them until we’re far away from here, until we’re somewhere warm and bright. If there’s anything I can do to keep the world from falling down, I’ll do it for you. I’ll switch off the sun, the stars, and the moon if that takes the sad and pained look out of them. Until you got here, we were both running through the darkness alone. This whole time, we’ve both been looking for the one thing that makes existing warm and bright. Then you came here and we both found that safety we’d been looking for. We found that light of being accepted by someone else in each other. But the longer we stay here, our world is shattering. We almost lost each other! It’s like we live encased in glass so God can watch us for amusement. And if we’re no longer amusing, he’ll drop our world and shatter it into a million pieces. Where would we go? How could we fight that? I promise, I’ll find a way to fight any malicious God for you. I won’t let your world shatter.
He pulled her back into his chest and leaned on her head so that his mouth rested beside her ear, filling her world with the faint sound of his deep breathing. A few tears continued to cascade down his cheeks. I would give anything to say only your name and nothing else. One word and my world would be complete. You’re crying again. I’m glad that you can feel my only desire deep within your heart.
“If you are quite finished…” The raspy voice echoed through their ears.
Nick lifted his head and turned over his shoulder to see the cloaked figure standing above them. He gasped and pulled Minako closer to his chest.
“I move the stars for no one. Yet, I moved them for you, to bring back your carnal precious desire.” He extended his hand toward Nick. “Give me the gem.”
“I won’t let him!”
The glowing eyes widened, then narrowed as they stared down at Minako.
“Nick already gave this to me!” She grasped the gem tightly in her fingers and held it closely to her chest. “So if he doesn’t need his heart right now, then I’m going to keep it!”
“Do you dare defy me, Priestess?”
Minako said nothing, but gave him an icy stare.
“You have made a poor choice in defying me, Priestess.”
A second rush of molten blaze overtook the room. While the caskets lining the room from the ground upon which they sat, to the high, arched ceiling were already visible, the second burst of primordial flame revealed statuesque figures nestled beside the pitch-black throne.
Minako gaped and froze.
“This is the fate of those who defy me, Priestess.”
Rather than the peaceful stony faces and calm bodies of the defeated entombed demons, these statues were frozen in agony. Their faces contorted in pain. Their armor was decorated with slash marks. Their limbs twisted at odd angles, if they had limbs at all. Many of their bodies had large punctures in their chests or sides. Unlike the living demons she had come to know and love, these statues seemed to be true monsters.
Minako’s hands shook as she gripped Nick and the necklace tighter.
The cloaked figure smirked. “Priestess… Do the expressions on their faces frighten you? And those of your comrades?”
She glanced at Nick, then peered past him.
A golden altar formed with an intricate pattern of intertwining vines stood nestled behind the throne. Two contorted figures stood on either side of the altar. The heavenly stone corpses were covered in chains with broken and torn wings sprouting from their backs. Their hands reached to each other and covered their faces.
Minako narrowed her eyes. “Fallen angels?”
“How naive to believe they are angels, Priestess.”
Minako hugged Nick tightly, then pulled back from his embrace and stood. She clenched her fist tightly around the necklace, then gripped the chain with both hands and placed it over her head. The gem swung lightly as the chain settled around her neck. She clutched the gem lightly. “No… They’re beautiful priestesses killed in self sacrifice.” She clenched her eyes shut as tears poured down her cheeks. “My jeweled sisters who were destroyed by mutual lust for the box.” She opened her eyes, then blinked several times as she stared at the statues. ”Box?”
Hidden by the ornate gold of the altar and overshadowed by the immense figures of the priestesses, its glint was lost in the cavernous room. It was a small box forged from pure gold and surrounded in a miasma of so many things. A box filled with sadness, anger, war, death, destruction, judgement, blood, and darkness but also with hope, joy, mercy, justice, change, light, and life. Most importantly, it was filled with the one item that was most precious to each demon. A box that was precious to both demons and priestesses, no, a box that was most precious to everyone.
Minako tightened her grip on the gem around her neck. “This is where it was hidden all these years? Shrouded by blood and sadness?”
“They were the ones that hid it within the darkness, spilling their blood upon its golden shine.”
Minako’s hand shook as she took deep breaths to calm it. “It wouldn’t be covered in a miasma of blood without your trials!” She clenched her eyes shut, then opened them quickly. “I’m going to get it for them!”
She clenched the gem as she sprinted past the figure toward the box. My precious friends who had their beautiful loves and precious hopes stolen from them and sealed within this monstrosity for eternity, I won’t let it keep them! I will return everything to your precious hearts. You tossed your dreams aside to battle for our lives, but if they had what was sealed within this box, then maybe you could conquer all your fears hidden within the catacombs of this castle. The tears lapped down her cheeks. My friends… You helped me get here, you believed in me… Let me return my promise to you. Be happy!
She slowed as she reached the altar. The fragmented wings of the fallen priestesses shrouded her face in darkness. As she reached toward the box, the altar began glowing with a pale sapphire light that washed over her body. She shut her eyes and basked in the beautiful warmth of the pale glow. “This is… my power…” She breathed lightly and let the pale, warm light surround her.
Soft, silken fabric draped across her arms and legs. A jingle sounded as a metal weight tapped against her forehead lightly. The light faded, but the warmth glistened in her heart. She held her hand tightly to the gem from Nick as she opened her eyes slowly. The silky white dress and golden headdress painted her as a virginal being, the very epitome of a priestess and sacrifice. While the chain still encircled her neck, the jeweled form of Nick’s heart had welded itself to the silken fabric and created a collar. She lowered her head slowly as she released her fingers from the gilded surface of the altar.
She examined the other priestesses. They were dressed in a similar manner, but their clothing was less virginal, appearing tattered instead to match their broken wings. Satan… His was a tale of shunning God. An angel that fell from the Heavens. In his hatred of God, he pierced his wrists with chains, forcing his wings to shatter. Their wrists… As in the legend of Satan, metal chains hung from their wrists and attached themselves to the obsidian chair. She turned slowly to eye the cloaked figure.
Her voice was ghostly as it shook. “God…”
“So you know my identity then?” The cloaked figure seemed to smirk.
She narrowed her eyes. “A God who lives in only darkness, creates only chaos, and allows his angels to fall… Is that a true God?”
“A God who shuns monsters is not a proper God?”
“God loves all, especially his monsters.”
“You think I do not love my precious monsters?”
She glanced back at Nick. Bound in chains, shattered… She clenched her fist and it shook erratically. “To create them and call them precious loves, then place them in hell for protection? A merciful God would never do that to his demons who are supposed to bring peace!”
Minako glanced past God’s cloaked head and her eyes began to fill with tears. They followed me! AJ held Nick’s shoulders tightly as he helped him stand, while Kevin repaired Nick’s body with the healing sapphire glow. Brian’s staff glowed with their precious light as he struck it against the ground. Howie’s hand clenched his sword tightly as he stood with his proud demeanor swirling about him. Nick clenched his hands against his chest as he beamed at them.
Her tears lapped her cheeks. “Howie! Brian! Kevin! AJ!” Her heart leaped toward them before her body. We’re all together! She steadied herself, preparing to run toward them.
“My box, Pandora…”
She blinked back her tears and glanced back at God.
“My Pandora who loves the demons, your duties are fulfilled. You have returned my demons to me and conquered the perilous journey of my castle. Your duty is fulfilled. Take my box and make your wishes.”
Minako turned back to the box and eyed the priestesses beside her. It shouldn’t be this simple. Renee is headed toward this room. Ruby and Topaz had suffered and died at each other’s hands, Renee and I are supposed to do the same.
Can I just take it without the battle of blood and tears? Did all our previous battles negate the last one? Is it really that simple? Can I just give this to them now?
Minako swallowed and reached her hands toward the box. My heart is racing and my insides are crawling. Why am I scared now? She clenched her eyes shut and clamped her hands around the box. This is the end!
Minako slowly turned her head back to the door.
She had pushed her way through the sapphire demons. Even in the darkness, her blonde hair shimmered. Renee…
God smirked at Minako. “Do you intend to battle or take what I have granted you?”
Tears flowed from Minako’s eyes. Renee… I should fight you and give you everything I have in battle, like our sisters did. This miasma was ours to fight in, the foretold blood stained battle for the box. I promised I would fight you, but… Why is my heart beating so fast? I just want to give this back to them. If I can do that without fighting you, that’s what I want!
She clenched the box tightly and in that instant, a spark shot through her body. Minako shrieked and slumped to the ground, her limbs twitching.
“The box has deemed you unworthy. Despite your journey, you are missing something… Is it the battle?”
Minako’s hands shook. What could I be missing? What did I fail to gain from our battles? Is my… Is my heart still weak? Will I never be strong enough unless we fight? She looked up at the cloaked figure and Renee.
“Emerald Priestess, is the box yours to claim? Or will you fight for it?”
Renee’s icy stare fixed on Minako. She chuckled darkly. “The box is mine without question. But, in your honor, Minako, I will fight you.”
Minako’s eyes began to fill with tears once more.
Renee’s eyes narrowed. “I will fight you for control of the Holy box.”