Long ago, the demons were shunned by God for their insolence and turned away for their betrayal. Their white and feathered wings disintegrated from their bodies as they fell from the Heavens into a Hell beyond measure. Curiously, it was in that unmeasurable Hell where God also chose to reside. His obsidian throne was nestled among endless rows of black caskets for those who were only waiting to live and those who had wanted nothing but death. The tragic miasma of this place permeated that unending struggle. Corpses and limitless energy that fought the eternal battle to live or die, their tragic hearts yearning for only death in the sacrifice of life or yearning for life in spite of tragic death. To be a demon or a priestess was to uphold this battle for both. To live without living and die without dying. To only exist as an entity or a shell and nothing more. This was the fate that led them to the castle nestled in darkness, entered with only an invitation, proceeding in a downward spiral of only destruction. It was a castle of darkness, but more than that, it was a castle of demise, a castle of only nothingness. It was an end of an end and an end of all things.
The decaying, contorted bodies and shattered wings of the priestesses masked her face as they loomed above Minako. Renee followed me this whole journey, except a step behind with a slightly more shattered heart. Yet I’m broken and crumpled on the ground. When she stands, she’s a shimmering blonde Goddess. Tears streamed down Minako’s cheeks. “Renee...”
“Minako, stand up.” Her voice was cold and her stare was hard.
Minako rested her hand upon the altar as she tried to breathe deeply. She received a small aftershock from the box’s rejection and winced; she squinted and exhaled, trying to fight the pain. Something’s wrong... I struggled, suffered, and battled. I befriended and protected them, but I’m still unworthy... Is my heart not strong enough after all? I have to keep trying. She stood on her shaking legs. “Renee...”
“I will fight you, Minako.”
Minako’s heart raced as her cheeks grew hot. A sudden rush of fiery bitterness washed over her. “You will?”
Renee smirked. “Yes, me.”
“Not your demons?”
“Didn’t the legend say that the arena where the box is held is where the priestesses armed themselves and fought each other in a battle royal for possession of the Holy box?”
“No?” Renee scoffed. “Are you too weak?”
Minako clenched her fist. “It’s more than a battle royal! It is an unending battle of self-sacrifice! Blood for blood! Do you want to be part of that?”
“Living and dying by the sword, is it? Kill or be killed?” Renee smirked.
“It is a battle of wills, not a battle of strength.”
“Whoever has the stronger demons will win.”
Minako clenched Nick’s gem at her chest. “No. Whoever has the stronger heart.”
Renee pushed her way past the demons and began walking toward Minako, her pale pink skirt swaying against her legs. “Then, the winner will be the one who can mercilessly accept the darkness of the world.”
Minako growled. “Can you?”
Renee’s smirk grew larger. “Can you?”
Minako clenched her eyes shut. The one who can mercilessly accept the darkness of this world will be the victor…
“This is still an age of war… Four countries may have emerged victorious… But you can barely call it that… All our nations, and all the satellite nations, are still warring with each other…”
The world’s darkness… This is a world of endless war and suffering. I’ve never seen an actual battle but I have seen the unending rows of soldiers and the aftermath of those battles. This is a world plagued with sins, where the rivers run red with blood. While they only try to survive, men’s hearts are stained with their anguish and their bloodied hands remain unclean. Is there a heart that exists in this world that can shoulder all of that darkness?
She turned to Nick. His hands were still clenched tightly at his chest. I rescued his heart from the darkness, the epitome of what this shadowed world stands steeped in. His heart remains kind and forgiving, instead of cold or broken. Can a demon shoulder the darkness of the world? She turned to the cloaked figure. God… This is a God of darkness. Yet, he forces all that hate and anger upon his demons’ shoulders. He is the master of the world of darkness, controlling it with strings, so his heart shoulders nothing. He even fails to hear the anguished cries emanating from his demons’ hearts. If even God fails to shoulder the darkness, does that mean no one can?
And yet, Renee grinned wickedly and proposed that we should shoulder all of it, embodying that idea of killing or being killed. Is that what our world has come to? Believing in old adages of living by swords and dying for honor when we were raised with different ideals... Is that all we live for? We came from a world where we were individuals even though we were always together, yet now we’re preaching ideals that we don’t even understand, that we’ve barely begun to experience. Is this our fate? Are we supposed to succumb to the world around us without struggling? Is our only role in life to be the priestesses who gather their arms and enter the battle royal? That’s the world’s view of what it means to be a priestess of demons, that we’re made to be thrust into death for being the weakest or the most compassionate. Or... Maybe that’s the key to victory. Maybe a wicked heart can’t contain the darkness of the world. Maybe that duty has to rest on a heart filled with kindness.
She clenched Nick’s gem at her heart. I can compete if kindness is the strength. Renee, let’s see who has the stronger heart. She lowered her head. “Renee, I will win.”
Renee sneered. “Where did this confidence come from?
Minako raised her head. “Even if I die, I will definitely shoulder all the darkness!”
Renee smirked and clenched her fist. “Then I will be the harbinger of your death!” She shut her eyes quickly and shrouded herself in a veil of darkness.
Minako stepped back and gaped. Are you becoming the priestess of darkness? An agent of the Devil… Renee…
The darkness seeped from Renee, revealing her golden headdress and the silken linens covering her skin, though she had no gem at her chest.
Renee laughed darkly. “Are you surprised?”
“I see the priestess has awakened.” A low voice interrupted their conversation and both girls turned back toward the doorway. The emerald demons gathered beneath the arch.
“General!” Minako growled.
Renee smirked. “Now that our demons are all present, our battle can begin!” She turned to the emerald demons. “Joseph, hand me that sword from your sash.”
“Interesting.” God sneered and began walking back toward the pitch-black throne.
Nick glanced at him, then started trying to walk toward him, but AJ pulled him back. Nick clenched his fist and gnashed his teeth, then whirled on AJ and forcefully poked him in the chest before he started gesturing toward God largely and wildly with his hands. He continued opening his mouth as though he spoke, but no sound came out.
AJ pushed Nick away, then walked over to the emerald demons. “Joseph!”
Joseph lowered his head as he held the sword out. He glanced away toward the ground. “Alex…”
Justin smirked as he grabbed the sword from Joseph and pushed his way through the demons crowded around the entrance.
He glanced at Joseph as he walked toward Renee. “This is no time for past loyalties.”
Joseph nodded as he crossed his arms. “Of course you’re right, but I have one request.”
Justin clenched the sword he had just taken and sneered. “What does your weak heart wish now?”
“Only I can kill him.”
Justin smirked. “Fine. Make it a clean cut.”
AJ clenched his fist and grabbed Joseph’s shoulder. “Joseph, why would you say that past ties are now meaningless?”
Joseph brushed AJ’s hand off and turned away from him. “Our future depends on our ties to the Priestess. Camaraderie is meaningless.”
AJ growled. “Camaraderie…” His eyes began glinting sapphire. “Friendship makes the weak strong… Brings solace to the suffering… Lights up the darkness with our hopes!” His wings unfurled. “Friendship is victory!”
Howie smirked and glanced at Nick. “This is an unlikely scenario where AJ joins the fray first.”
Nick crossed his arms and scowled.
Howie’s eyes began to glow sapphire as well. “It seems it cannot be helped.”
Justin handed Renee the sword and she stopped at the foot of the stairs leading to the throne. She clutched the grip tightly and smirked at Minako. “How nice of them to run into battle for us.”
Minako lowered her head and clenched her fists as she began walking toward Renee. “It is for the box and their own dreams. Not us. Never us.”
Renee tightened her grip on the hilt of the sword and pointed the tip toward Minako. “We are their masters! They battle only for us!”
Minako froze and glanced at the ground. “Has being pampered made you selfish, Renee?”
Renee growled. “What do you care?”
“Carried in a paladin, residing in a suite in the palace, guarded by soldiers… What do you know of the world?” Minako’s voice shook as her eyes welled with tears.
“What have you seen of the world, Renee?”
Renee hunched her shoulders and gripped her chest as she grimaced. She snarled and gripped the hilt of the sword tightly. “It’s a black hell of death and darkness!”
Minako glanced at the ground. How can she call us their masters when she’s so sheltered? “Can you really say that?”
“What gives you the right to say that?”
“I have seen blood stained battlefields! I have wandered through the country plagued by war, covered in death, shrouded by darkness! Stop belittling my experiences, Minako!”
Minako wiped her hand across her tear stained face. I’m not meaning to. My heart is racing. Is making you angry the only way to get you to talk to me? “Since when does seeing something mean that you’re carrying it in your heart?”
“So seeing means experiencing?”
“Why would I want to hold on to a bad memory? Are you sadistic?” Renee stepped backward and snarled.
“Renee, stop arguing with me, I’m not trying to fight with you. I’m trying to fight together with you!”
Renee clenched her fist, then grimaced as she clutched her chest. She breathed heavily as she stared back at the demons at the entrance before straightening and turning back to Minako. She chuckled darkly and gripped the sword tightly. “Minako!”
Minako frowned. More than anything, I want to run over and hug you so that you stop hurting, but… I can’t let you hurt them! “Renee…”
Renee thrust the tip of the sword toward Minako. “I won’t run away.”
Minako held the jewel at her chest. I’ll have to find a way to fight you to keep them safe! “Neither will I!”
“But, you need to know, the world is dark because humans are full of darkness. And when darkness increases, those who are wicked get stronger.”
Minako frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You keep claiming that you’re fighting for things like friendship and love, things that are unquestionably good and light. But if you only acknowledge your existence in light, you’re ignoring the darkness.”
Minako gritted her teeth.
Renee released one hand from the hilt of the sword and pointed at Minako. “But look at your shadow!”
Minako glanced behind her, peering at her shadow silhouetted across the floor.
Renee clenched her hand into a fist. “Nothing exists without darkness.” She glanced at the ground. “And it’s hypocritical of you to only preach goodness in this world’s unending cycle of death and betrayal.”
Minako gripped the jewel at her chest. “Stop saying that I betrayed you, I didn’t!” Her eyes welled with tears.
Renee grasped the grip of the sword with both hands. “If you want to pretend to be a god of goodness, I’ll use my power and show everyone this infinite hell of darkness!”
“Renee!” Minako’s knuckles turned white and shook as she tightened her grip on the gem.
Renee rushed toward Minako with the sword ready to strike. “I’ll make you ponder your sins in eternal darkness!”
Minako clenched her fists and shut her eyes. “I won’t die here!”
“My blade says otherwise!” Renee swung her sword.
Metal hit metal.
Renee smirked as she heard the sound. “Did I strike the stone on your heart? Does that kill you and your worthless creature?”
“Emerald Pandora, it is lowly to strike someone who is unarmed.”
Renee pulled back her sword. “You dare let your demons stand in front of you during our fight?!” She lashed forward with the sword again.
Minako opened her eyes as the ringing sound of metal hitting metal echoed around her again. “Howie! You’re...”
Howie’s wings flared through his stained tunic and his clawed hands clenched the grip of his sword as he held it aloft against Renee’s blade. In a swift motion, he parried and knocked Renee backward with the force of his quick blow. She landed on the ground in a heap.
Howie glanced back at Minako. His fangs glinted as he smiled. “We are relieved that we were expedient.”
Minako wiped away her tears, then wrapped her arms around Howie’s abdomen and buried her head against his wings. “Howie! No! What would happen if you died?!”
“Even kings must sacrifice for our Pandora, especially when your opponent attempts to fight you while you are unarmed.”
“No! No one needs to die! We can all live and bring light to the future!”
Howie patted her hand. “This is a world of war. Not everyone is allowed to live. Everyone fights for their lives in hopes that what is important to them is allowed to live. You are important to us.”
“Pandora... There are times when death is inevitable. If that is the case, we stand at your side with our sword held high.”
She tightened her grip on his waist. “Don’t die! You don’t need to die!”
Howie pulled from her grasp, then pushed her until her back was against the stairs. He glanced at Renee, then fixed his gaze at Minako again and gripped her shoulders. “Before we resume this battle...” He pulled his dagger from beneath his tunic. “Pandora cannot fight a weapon with words alone. It would be our honor to lend this to you.” He gripped the dagger delicately by the pommel as he held it out to her.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she gripped his hand that remained on her shoulder. “Howie…”
He smiled as he pulled her hand toward the dagger’s grip, then closed her hand around it as he pressed the large knife into her hand. “Do not die in this battle.”
A loud shriek echoed through the room. Howie and Minako turned to it quickly, as did Renee while she struggled to stand. Away from the altar and the box, the other demons had begun battling. Brian had enclosed Kevin and Nick in a barrier with him that most of the emerald demons tried breaking. Kevin sat on the ground and pointed toward each of the emerald demons. Brian nodded and gestured with his hands. Meanwhile, Nick pounded on the barrier with his fists and appeared to be shouting. Outside of the barrier, AJ slumped against the wall and held his shoulder tightly while gnashing his teeth. He winced in pain as his back slid down the wall and his wings fell limply around his body.
“AJ!!” Minako reached out her free hand and started running toward him, but Renee pulled her back toward the stairs.
Minako’s voice cracked. “Renee…”
Renee sneered. “We have already picked our battle partners. No one but Joseph is allowed to touch him. Unless all of you resort to cheap tricks.” Renee pulled Minako’s hands behind her back and held them together tightly.
Minako tried to pull her hands away from Renee’s grasp. “I don’t want to fight him! I want to help him! Let me go, Renee!”
Howie stopped running and whirled back toward Minako and Renee.
Renee smirked as she pulled Minako against her chest, then held the blade of her sword in front of Minako’s neck. “Will you run to him now, King?”
Howie growled as he clutched the grip of his sword. “Is this an attempt to stay our hand?”
Renee’s lip curled. “One move toward anyone, and I will slit her throat.”
Minako struggled against Renee. “Let me go! Renee!”
Howie continued growling as he held his sword at the ready.
Tears streamed down Minako’s face. “AJ!!!! Stand up!!!”
AJ looked up to her with wide eyes. A small stream of blood trickled down his chin from his lips. “Minako…” He began to stand up, but his legs shook as he tried gripping the wall.. “I’m coming… Minako…”
“AJ! No!!” Minako struggled against Renee’s grip, trying to jam her elbows into her sides. Minako’s heart and breath raced as she locked eyes with Howie. “Howie! Help him!””
AJ reached his hand toward her. “Minako...”
“You’re fighting me!” Two demons identical to Joseph flew toward AJ on either side of his body. Both demons swung out a clawed hand as they neared him.
AJ glanced between both demons, then coughed a stream of blood from his mouth as each demon raked their clawed hand across his chest.
“AJ!!!” Minako pulled from Renee’s grip forcefully.
Renee tightened her embrace around Minako, pulling her back against her chest. She moved the blade closer to her neck. “Move again and I’ll kill you.”
Minako repeatedly shoved her elbows into Renee’s sides. “It doesn’t matter if I can help my friends!”
“I’d get the box.”
“They could go forward and create the future of light even without me!”
Renee smirked. “Except I would be breeding a world of darkness.”
“They would make it exist! Even in the dark!” Tears streamed down Minako’s face. This is too much! This castle is a breeding ground for death. No one’s heart is safe from the impending shadows. There’s too much darkness and destruction here. But I have to believe in our future so that it comes true! And believing in them makes me feel strong enough to help!
Renee laughed darkly. “How gullible are you?”
“I’m not gullible! I have faith in my friends!”
Renee wrapped her fingers around Minako’s mouth as she positioned the sword closer to her neck. “That is your weakness.” She gave her a sly smile.
Minako clenched her eyes shut. I’m not weak for believing in you! We’re best friends! Why are you holding me hostage? I just want to help them!
Minako clenched the gem at her heart. It feels warm, like it’s lighting me up. AJ… Is this you, or Nick, or me? She opened her eyes quickly and turned to face his voice.
AJ grabbed Joseph by the hem of his tunic and pulled him closer. “Don’t battle me, it doesn’t matter who wins! Camaraderie means more than countries! Being in this castle taught me that we really do need to work together to be stronger!”
Joseph slapped his hand away. “Of course I value your companionship, but in this castle our companions need to be the foretold alliances because only one of them can get the box! Camaraderie across countries makes you weak!” He grabbed AJ by the neck of his tunic and pulled him up toward his face, then raked his claws through his chest and abdomen again.
AJ’s wings slumped around his body once more and his knees shook as he stood. “It’s true… I am eternally weak. My heart wavers and stands for nothing… But…”
Joseph loosened the grip of his hand. “But?”
AJ lowered his head. “I was only waiting for an opening. I will always be your companion, no matter how weak it makes me.”
Joseph choked as blood spurted from his mouth. He gripped his chest and wrapped his fingers around AJ’s wrist. “Alex?”
AJ pulled his hand out from Joseph’s chest revealing that he had transformed it into a saber.
Both demons breathed shakily and laboriously.
“Joseph…” AJ coughed again as the blood streamed down his chin. “Are we truly meant to fight? We are companions...”
“It is our destiny…”
“Demons who die for their Priestesses?”
Joseph lowered his head and raised a shaking hand to AJ’s shoulder. “How did you see through my illusion?”
“I couldn’t… It was a perfect illusion. But you released it and I took advantage of that opportunity while she warmed me with her sapphire light.”
“Would you let anyone but me kill you?”
AJ lowered his head and thrust his arm through Joseph’s chest again. “Only I can kill you. I would die any death by your hand.”
Joseph choked as he dropped to the ground. “Alex…”
AJ’s legs shook as he pulled his closed fist toward his chest as his wings fell limply and the sapphire glow in his eyes began to fade. He stared at his blood stained hand and the glowing object within it.
“AJ!!!” Minako’s necklace flared with sapphire light that burst around her in a glinting mass that knocked Renee’s sword from her hand as it hurtled her backward. Minako grabbed Howie’s hand and began running toward AJ.
AJ lowered his head as his fist shook. “I see… This is what becomes of our hearts when we die.”
Renee pulled herself from the ground and growled, then started chasing after Minako.
AJ clenched his fist tighter and growled as well. “Emerald Priestess! Your partner is dead! Do you have no feelings except vengeance?”
Renee froze, then laughed darkly. “Let him die. He is meaningless to me.”
AJ growled. “Then… I will not give this to you!” He held out his bloodstained hand revealing a still, but bloody emerald tinted heart in his hand. AJ cradled it with his other hand. “I won’t let his heart become your power!” He raised both hands to lips and sunk his teeth into Joseph’s heart.
Renee stepped backward and put a splayed hand to her chest. “You say that you care only about camaraderie! How can you eat your friend’s heart?!”
The blood from the heart dripped down AJ’s wrists and lips as tears streamed from his eyes. “If you don’t care if he lives or dies, then I will honor him in death! I’d rather eat it than have you absorb it, because he is my precious partner!”
AJ swallowed the last bit of Joseph’s heart, then his irises returned to their normal brown coloring as he fell to his knees.
“AJ!” Brian’s voice rang out through the room. He ran toward AJ along with Nick and Kevin.
All five of them reached AJ in the same moment and Brian slammed his staff into the ground, forcing the barrier in its center to expand around them.
“AJ!” Minako dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around his chest. “Stand up, it’s okay! Kevin is here!”
AJ’s head slumped against her shoulder. “Minako…” He raised his blood stained hand to her cheek. “Don’t cry…”
Minako gripped his hand. “We’ll all live! We’ll go to the future together! Stand up! Kevin can heal you!” Tears streamed down her cheeks.
AJ smiled faintly as he collapsed backward against the ground. “It’s too late… Minako… before I met you… I only wanted to escape my destiny…” He laced the tips of his bloodstained claws with her fingers and curled them toward her cheek. “But… all of you accepted me… even when I was weak…”
“AJ! No! You’re really strong!” Her tears hit his claws, letting the blood run down her fingers.
He laughed weakly. “I barely got a chance to prove that I was a strong soldier… Minako… We’re friends… Right?”
Minako nodded, shutting her eyes in an attempt to restrain her tears. “Of course we’re friends! You don’t need to be a soldier!”
AJ released her hand, then held his hand to his chest. “I have a last request...”
Minako opened her eyes quickly and gripped his hand again. “Anything! I’ll do anything for you.”
AJ pulled his hand back, then hooked his claws into the gashes at his chest and began digging into it. “Eat my heart… and be strong...”
Minako’s eyes grew wide as she tried pulling AJ’s hand back. “AJ!”
AJ’s chest illuminated with bright sapphire light as he pulled his heart from within it, then his hand fell limply against the ground. His heart radiated sapphire light, but also glinted with a brief emerald tint.
Minako slumped over his body and shook his shoulder. “AJ!! Why?!”
Howie knelt beside her. “Some must die. We cannot all see the future in the light.”
“But… I wanted to return what he was missing! I wanted to give him his wish! I can’t do that if he’s dead! Kevin!”
Howie smiled briefly. “Perhaps his wish is realized without claiming the box. His wish was for camaraderie after all.”
Kevin knelt down and gripped AJ’s wrist, then glanced up at Minako and shook his head.
Minako stared at AJ’s hand that had collapsed on Joseph’s arm. Reunited and connected in death. “AJ…” Her tears spilled down her cheeks.
Nick clenched his fist and locked eyes with God, his stony stare boiling.
“Then I should take his heart and fulfill his wish?”
Brian clapped his hands against each other, then held them in prayer as he bowed. “Find peace.”
Minako reached toward AJ’s hand and the shining of his heart increased like a halo of light, then it solidified into a glimmering jewel, not unlike the form Nick’s heart had taken. She grabbed the gem from his hand and clenched it tightly to her chest, then closed her eyes as she gleamed with a sapphire light. When she opened her eyes and removed her hand, the gem had fused to the collar of her dress beside Nick’s necklace.
Howie put his hand on her shoulder.
Minako placed her hand beneath AJ’s head as her tears streamed down her cheeks again. “AJ…”
Kevin stood quickly. “Release his head or you will follow him.”
Minako peered at his body. Stone… Will we all become these statues? She removed her hand as she kissed his forehead lightly, then pushed his eyelids downward. She clenched his gem again. “If my friends turn to stone, I want them to be peaceful…”
Howie placed his hand on her shoulder, but his furrowed brow and downturned head betrayed the calm comfort in the gesture.
Minako lowered her head as well. “Brian, let me out of the barrier.” She stood, clenching her hands tightly.
“I won’t let AJ’s sacrifice be for nothing. Let me out.”
Brian lifted his staff and the barrier shrank around them, until he held it in his hand. He replaced it into his staff and reaffixed the sutra to attach it.
Renee’s shoulders trembled as the tip of her sword fell to the floor. She clenched her hand into fist against her chest.
“Is this how you will usher in the dark world, Renee?!” Minako’s pulse raced as her fiery stare ignited.
Renee inhaled a deep breath and shut her eyes, then smirked at Minako as she stared back.
Minako raised Howie’s dagger in front of her face. “I won’t let you! I will fight back for them!”
Renee sneered. “Then fight.”
Minako lowered her head. “For you AJ… I’ll make your wishes come true.” She lifted her head and her eyes narrowed. “I promise that I will stand against the God of Chaos!”
Renee tightened her grip on the hilt and raised her sword as well. “Show me what a God of Goodness can do, Minako! Before there was light, there was only darkness!”
Minako’s hard stare remained firm. “But light was born from the darkness! So only a heart of goodness can shoulder the darkness!”
Renee chuckled darkly. “And you intend to try to shoulder it with your good heart?”
Minako clenched her fist. “I won’t try anything. I will shoulder everything.”