He glanced at her as he raised his sword. “Pandora.”
She clenched her eyes shut. “AJ sacrificed himself so we could win, but…”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “While the parley is a crucial step in battle, it is abundantly clear that discussions about the nature of this particular battle will not lead to victory.”
She laughed nervously. “I don’t really want to fight… I’d rather be at home worrying about homework and tests, listening to my CDs on repeat, or going shopping at the mall… But…” She opened her eyes slowly. “I believe in our bonds. And even though it’s horrifying, I know that whatever happens in the end is for the best…”
“Regardless of life or death?” Howie’s eyes narrowed as he clenched his hands tightly around the grip of his sword.
Minako smiled, but her eyebrows pinched. I’m terrified but… I really do want to fight if it can help them. “It doesn’t matter anymore… No matter how small I am, I’m going to face this for all of you.”
Howie smiled gently. “Pandora, there is no shame in beginning small. There is only shame in refusing growth when opportunities present themselves. Those who pass tests can enlarge their containers without limits. Within the container, the soul is the unlimited possibility of miracles.”
Minako gripped his sleeve. “Howie, do you think we can make a miracle together?”
Howie chuckled. “The only miracle we can imagine is your wish for all of us to reach the end of this battle intact.” He glanced toward the ground. “Of course, that is an impossible miracle now.”
Minako pulled her hand back and lowered her head. Without AJ, that wish can’t come true… AJ… For your sacrifice, I have to think of something...
Howie cupped her shoulder with his hand and smiled broadly. “Pandora, show us a miracle beyond our imagination.”
Minako gripped his hand and smiled. But what should I do? Our demons are matched in numbers. God who watches over us still stands ultimate. She growled.
Renee crossed her arms. “Well, Minako, what will you do?”
Minako clenched her eyes shut. Her hand shook as she lowered the dagger. I don’t have an answer. She inhaled quickly. This is warm… Surrounding me in warmth. She opened her eyes quickly and glanced at the clawed hands wrapped around hers as the tight embrace surrounded her. She turned over her shoulder. “Nick!”
He smiled gently as he rested his chin on her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her chest. He turned his gaze toward Renee.
She sneered. “Worthless creature.”
He growled as his eyes narrowed, then shot his pointer finger toward her before quickly raking it across his neck. He then crossed his arm back over Minako’s chest.
Renee laughed. “What is this? Hand gesture threats?”
Howie placed his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “He means to say that as it is a time for action, your throat will be slit.”
Nick turned to Howie with wide eyes and nodded.
Justin appeared beside Renee and snarled. “Doubtful. Sapphire Pandora, your demons are weak.”
Minako gripped Nick’s hands tightly. “There are different kinds of strength! Not everyone grows strong relying on force alone!”
He laughed wickedly. “Then show me, Sapphire Pandora! Show me what other strengths exist!”
Brian and Kevin crowded behind Minako, Nick, and Howie.
Minako clenched the gem next to the necklace. AJ… I won’t let your sacrifice be in vain! We will all fight, and we will all win! “There’s strength in working together! Fight us!”
“I don’t need to unleash my full powers for weaklings like you!” Justin raised his sword and rushed toward the sapphire demons.
Brian raised his staff, then slammed it into the ground. “Likewise!” A sapphire orb barrier sprung up around them. He grinned and gave Minako a thumbs up.
Minako clenched the jewel at her heart. That’s right, they’re not weak at all. When their individual strengths combine, the power of unity makes the impossible possible. Minako exhaled loudly and crumpled in Nick’s embrace as she dropped Howie’s dagger.
He caught her, then pulled her up before holding her left shoulder and pressing his palm against her right shoulder, forcing her to turn and face him. As he gripped her cheek and ran his thumb against it, he smiled gently, but knitted his brows.
Minako threw her arms around his neck, pulling him closer to her again. He exhaled a held breath and wrapped his arms around her tightly.
Howie plunged his sword through the throat of its scabbard and crossed his arms. “Are there new observations of the emerald demons’ powers?”
Kevin crossed his arms as well. “It appears there may be ice and wind.”
Brian clutched his staff tightly and furrowed his brow. “And one unconscious one. Plus whatever power the emerald general actually has. Speaking of...”
Justin’s sword hit the barrier, but his body was forced backward. He growled as he slid to a stop. “Hiding behind barriers is strength?”
Brian clenched his staff. “General, you should recognize the value of defensive strength in battle! However, my strength of will, the power to protect my friends, is stronger!”
Justin sneered and clenched his fist. “What a feeble strength of will.”
Brian chuckled. “Yet it is difficult for brute strength to combat spiritual power, isn’t it?”
Justin growled. “You--”
“Wait!” A masculine voice rang out across the room.
Tears began to fill Renee’s eyes as she raised her hand to her mouth.
In the shattered entrance to the room, Lance stood clenching his fists. “If brute strength can’t combat spiritual strength, then maybe my spiritual strength can!” He pointed to his chest with his thumb.
“Lance!!” Renee slowly pulled her hand from her mouth.
“Your Eminence.” He smiled broadly.
Renee held out her arms and began running toward him.
He thrust his palm toward her and froze.
Her steps gradually slowed until she stopped. “What? Lance...”
Lance lowered his head. “Your Eminence, more than anything I would like to talk to you now. But, in this final battle, it is most important our enemies are defeated before we reunite.” Lance turned back to Brian. “Let’s battle, sapphire demon!”
Brian stared at him firmly as he nodded.
Minako pulled herself from Nick’s embrace, hurried over to Brian, and clutched his sleeve. “Brian--” He thrust his staff into her free hand and clenched her hand closed around it. Minako gaped at him and shrank backward, but he kept his grip firm. “Brian--”
“I don’t want all of you to be hurt while I battle… And I don’t actually need it to use my powers.”
”But, Brian, I--”
Brian smiled warmly as he removed his grip from around her hand, and gave it a small pat. “Your power as a priestess should help you to wield it, Minako.”
Brian put his hand to her head, then gave her a quick embrace. “Don’t worry. I’ll fight for your future. I’ll protect that world of light.” He pulled away from her and then turned back to the edge of the barrier.
Brian laced his fingers together and began chanting inaudibly, then tore his hands apart, creating a small hole in the barrier. He pulled the edges apart and stepped through. Once Brian stood outside the barrier, the strong sapphire glow around it weakened.
Justin clenched his sword. “This is my chance!” He ran toward the weakened barrier with his sword held high and thrust the weapon toward it.
Brian pulled a sutra from his tunic as his eyes began glowing sapphire. He began whispering, “Away from me, but keep the seal! Enforce and repel!” He threw the sutra toward the barrier as his irises glowed sapphire.
When Justin struck the barrier with his sword, it propelled him backward again.
As Brian snarled, his fangs emerged. “Do you hinder this Holy battle by harming my friends?”
Justin clenched his fist and cackled. “And how will you keep me from trying?”
Brian raised his laced fingers to his face and began chanting in a whisper again. “Away from me, unleash a seal! Freeze and block!” He pulled his hands wide with his fingers splayed.
Renee started running toward Justin, but stopped mid-step with her hand stretched out. “Just--”
Brian lowered his hands. “Battle any other time but now, general.”
Lance clenched his fist. “You froze my comrades?”
Brian glanced between Renee and the other emerald demons.
Justin had frozen with his fist clenched and his mouth wide as he cackled. Joshua pulled the fletching of his arrow as it drew back the string of his bow. Christopher also clenched his fists.
Brian’s stare bore through Lance. “I thought this was a battle between spiritual powers. When that barrier is impenetrable, four against one is hardly fair.” His glance shifted between them again. “And two of them are a liability…”
“You can’t do that!” Lance clenched his fist tightly.
Brian lowered his head. “Can’t I? In this world, there are many types of justice. If freezing your companions helps me reach the world of light, then I will do anything in battle for that justice.”
Lance crossed his arms and chuckled. “You’re preaching for a justice that benefits you. Is fighting for justice only believing in what you say?” His lips curled upward into a smirk.
Brian glanced around their surroundings. “What I call justice, others may shun as tyranny. Justice is shaped by the world we live in.” He turned back to Lance. “And yet, fighting to reach a world of light for all... Don’t you think both the living and the dead would appreciate that?”
Lance clenched his fists as his arms remained crossed. “Is your world of light like your justice? Skewed in your favor beyond imagining?”
Brian rubbed his hand on his chin. “I wonder…” He pulled his hand from his chin and clenched it into a fist at his chest. “Doesn’t your priestess aim to create a world of only darkness? How is that better than a world of light? How is that justice?”
Lance growled. “No one would know our true forms in the darkness.”
“I was fortunate to not meet the darkness until this moment, but now I’ve seen how utterly abysmal it is. This stagnant, cold place tortures the souls of demons who are stronger than mortals!” He lowered his fist and frowned as his stare fixed on Lance. “If you follow the desires of your priestess, then all that awaits you is a world of unending night!”
Lance hunched his shoulders as he snarled. “She’s creating this world for us! Mortals have no place in it.”
“Even her! And why would they want a place in it? She’s creating a cage for all of you!”
“No one will fear us!”
“You’ll suffer alone!”
“The darkness will give us strength!” Lance sneered.
Brian lowered his head and glanced back at his barrier. “Is that what you truly believe?” He put his hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes. Nick… What do you think of that world created for demons to suffer alone in the darkness? Is that what it’s like where you come from? Constantly cold, unending loneliness, pitch-black darkness... How pitiful do proud creatures cowering in the darkness look? But somehow, your heart was strong enough to overcome that. He lowered his hand from his forehead and fixed his stare back on Lance. Would they be as strong? Is being a demon enough of a strength to fight that or do they need some other more important hidden strength? Brian clenched his hand into a fist. That must be the strength you and Minako share, the strength that can light up the world with hope. Hope… “Emerald demon, do you know the true duty of Pandora?”
Lance scoffed. “The box. We have all gathered here for the box.”
“A sacred object is only sacred because you name it as such. The box is a means to an end. Instead, there is something more important Pandora must do. She must carry and light the world with the torch of hope!”
Lance laughed. “That is easy enough with a strong Pandora.”
Brian smirked as he pulled a slim piece of paper from his tunic. “But can it be done in a world of only darkness?”
Lance clenched his fists and an emerald glow began forming around him.
Brian turned back to the barrier and gave them a thumbs up. Minako, that future of light… I will always help you light its torch.
Minako’s hands shook as she clutched Brian’s staff tightly. While Howie and Kevin engaged in a deep conversation, Nick continued to slam his fists against the barrier as he attempted to shout.
Lance’s wings unfurled behind him. “Come, Sapphire Demon, show me your strength!”
Brian turned back to Lance and was momentarily frozen as he stared into his intense emerald eyes. So this was an emerald demon at full power… I suppose if this is combat amongst demons, then it should be waged with our powers. He shut his eyes and the sapphire glow seeped from beneath them as his wings unfurled in full splendor behind him. As he raised the sutra to his face, he began whispering and clenched his other hand into a fist. “Away from me, but hold the shield. Protect and seal.”
He pulled the glowing sutra from his face, then held the talisman out at his arm’s length. His fangs curved around his lip as he opened his mouth. “Emerald demon… Can your ki combat my spiritual strength and priestly powers?”
Lance clenched his fist. “Your priestly powers are weak, otherwise you would have destroyed me already.”
Brian lowered the sutra and placed it between his sash and tunic. He smirked slyly. “We shall see.” He glanced back at the barrier. I believe in your world and I will even bloody my hands if I must. While battling, I will reach out to the power of light, so hold it strongly for me.
Lance crossed his hands as a powerful emerald glow rose up from his body, then spread them apart and shot it toward Brian.
Brian leaped into the air, narrowly missing the oncoming blast. His flared wings seemed to resemble the heavens as his form towered above them all.
Lance growled and took flight as well. He laced his fingers together, then tore them apart and emitted another burst of emerald energy.
Brian laced his fingers together, then whispered a new chant. “Away from me, a protective stream. Shoot and pierce!” A beam of sapphire energy shot toward Lance.
The two streams hit and exploded into a fiery rain of sapphire and emerald energy. Lance glided away from the blast and landed on one of the caskets, shielding himself with his wings as he gripped the wall.
Brian swooped low to the ground and ducked as he wrapped his arms tightly around his waist. No matter what, I must shield them! As the competing energies dissipated, he whipped his head toward the barrier and exhaled as he held a splayed hand to his chest.
All four of them stood close to the edge of the barrier. Howie and Kevin still appeared to be having a calm conversation while Nick continued to slam his fists into the barrier. Minako now mirrored Nick’s actions.
A sharp force hit Brian’s back. He coughed a stream of blood and turned to face his adversary. Emerald demon… I can’t focus on them when he’s still out here...
“Am I that meaningless that you would ignore me for an unnecessary conversation with that woman and your companions? If I am, retreat to that barrier.” Lance sneered.
Brian laughed. “Have you absorbed your Priestess’ petty hate that you no longer recognize the value in companionship?”
“Hate...” Lance growled. “Why should I show compassion to anyone who made Her Eminence cry?” Lance’s brows pulled together as his eyes glinted in the flickering light of the room.
Crying? Brian glanced at the frozen emerald priestess. There are many emotions that cause crying, but there’s a distinct sympathy in this emerald demon’s eyes.
“It is impossible to keep from hating someone who would cause her to cry such painful tears!” He raised his hands and began forming another emerald orb between them.
Painful... Does this priestess really not hate Minako at all? Could we repair this and work together? Brian reached his hand toward Lance. “Did your priestess--”
The emerald blast slammed into Brian’s abdomen and flung him against the wall, knocking several caskets loose. They fell in heaps around him as he gazed up at them. He quickly laced his fingers together and held his straight pointer fingers against his nose causing a small barrier to spring around him. Moments later, a casket fell on top of him and bounced off the barrier.
Lance strode toward the barrier. “Can you only summon barriers and manipulate sutras? How weak are you?” He reached toward Brian’s head, but his fingers knocked against the barrier before he could touch Brian. He smirked. “Is that the true power of a sapphire demon? Defenses and shields? Can you attack anything?”
Brian pulled his hands apart then pushed the caskets away from his body and stood. The barrier shimmered and disappeared around him.
Lance reached his hand back toward Brian and grabbed a chunk of his hair. “No answer?”
Brian pushed his hand away and stepped backward. “Then I suppose the true power of emerald demons is to attack when your opponent is unarmed or when their back is turned?” He clenched his fist. “That is more weakness than raising a barrier. A barrier means I am at least giving you the full strength of my power in our battle!”
Lance’s hand shook violently as he pulled it back toward his chest.
Is this anger? Or sadness? Do I pull back and try to compromise or do I continue to provoke? Brian cocked his head as his lips formed into a smirk. Conversation did nothing, but maybe if I can provoke him, then I can distract him. “Even transformed, do your powers require you to hide behind dirty tactics and schemes? What a nice shield compared to a demonic barrier.”
Lance lowered his head and growled.
“I’ve hit a nerve. Is that all you have? Prove me wrong, fight with your powers!”
Lance raised his head as a sadistic smile formed on his face. “I’ll do more than that. I’ll turn you to stone.” He formed a circle with his hands and an emerald orb began growing between them.
Brian jumped on to one of the caskets, then continued vaulting himself up the wall.
Lance sprung from the ground and followed him. “Do you really think you can run from me?” He shot the energy from his hand like bullets.
Brian leaped from the wall and maneuvered his flight pattern to dodge the blasts. One blast hit him in the upper shoulder and he winced as he gripped his arm. He growled, then flipped in the air and began descending back to the ground. As his feet hit the floor, he patted the sutra at his waist once more. It’s still safe.
Lance spread his hands again, forming another glowing ball of emerald energy. “I won’t let you run!”
Brian clasped his fingers and ducked, but a cold wind rushed toward him and pierced his back. He sunk to his knees and gripped the sutra at his waist as he chuckled quietly. “It seems I’ve made too many barriers at once. At least it was that one...” He pulled the ice shard from his back and winced.
Lance’s feet slammed into the ground and he clenched his hands into fists, snuffing out the emerald energy. He thrust his hand out toward Brian and gripped his collar. “What is the meaning of this? Are your sutras not as powerful as you claim?”
Brian crunched the ice shard in his fist as he pulled back from Lance’s grip. “All things must come to an end at one point.” He glanced toward the barrier surrounding his friends. He exhaled forcefully. As long as that one is intact.
Lance growled as he stared at the icy fragments at his feet, then whipped his head toward the doorway. “Betrayer! This is my battle!”
Christopher clenched his fist, forming an icy frost around it. “Do you plan to win by being weak and caring towards your opponent?”
Lance formed a sphere with his hands again, growing an emerald orb of energy between them. “Stay out of my battle!” He shot the emerald blast toward Christopher.
The blast blazed and expanded as it neared the door. Joshua sprung out the way, but the fiery energy ball struck Christopher directly and hurtled him backward. Christopher choked as he held a trembling hand to his chest. “Lance… Why?”
Lance flinched and stepped backward as his wings crumpled and the emerald glow shrank within his eyes.
“LANCE!” Renee reached toward him, but her gaze flitted between him and the door.
“Your Eminence…” Lance fixed his stare on her, then turned toward the door.
Joshua held Christopher’s shoulders as he struggled to sit up.
Christopher reached toward Lance. His voice shook violently as he spoke. “Why?”
Lance collapsed to his knees in front of Brian. “Even now? Even now all I can think of is you?” Tears began streaming down Lance’s cheeks. “Mikagi….”
Renee sprinted over to Lance and Brian, then dropped to her knees and threw the sword on the floor before wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “Lance! It’s okay! It’s going to be okay!”
Brian gaped and stepped backward as he stared at the two demons in the doorway.
Joshua stood and released Christopher’s body from his grasp moments before it encased in stone completely.
Brian lowered his head. To kill your own comrade… That is… He growled and clenched his fist as he raised his head toward the pitch-black throne atop the stairs.
God sat with one leg crossed over the other with his hands gripping the arms of the throne. His eyes simmered and smirked as he met Brian’s gaze.
This is the world of darkness the emerald priestess aims to create… “No more death… Is this what God does to his beloved demons? Were we only created to be pawns in a game of endless killing and suffering?!”
The cloaked figure laughed; its eyes seemed to grin wickedly. “Are you even worth that much?”
Brian glanced down at Renee cradling Lance’s body. “Renee…”
Renee grimaced as she stared up at Brian.
“Renee, this is that world of darkness! Lance said you were crying for Minako. If you’re hurt, just tell her and then we can work together to defeat our true enemy.” A small, but kind smile spread on Brian’s lips.
“You--” Renee glared at him.
He put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t fight anymore… Do you really want them all to die?”
“Your Eminence, forgive me!” Lance wrestled from her grip and pushed her into the barrier containing the other sapphire demons. He then pulled the sword from the ground and thrust it toward Brian.
“Lance…” Renee reached out her hand as she struggled to raise from the ground.
“Do you intend to kill me?” Brian stepped back toward the barrier.
Lance stared up at him as tears streamed down his cheeks. He reached the sword toward Brian with his shaking hand. “Kill me.”
Brian gaped and flinched as he stepped backward again.
Lance tried to push the sword forward again. “Isn’t that what you live for? Kill me!”
Brian held his palms raised in front of his chest. “But your priestess--”
“Kill me! A man who would kill his comrade deserves to die!”
Brian lowered his head. “Is this your way to escape your guilt? Atone and we can work together!”
Lance wrapped his fingers around Brian’s sash and clenched his claws into the sutra nestled between the sash and tunic. “I just want to die! How could I kill her soldier?!”
Brian thrust his hand toward the paper, but it tore into shreds as Lance pulled his claws away. Brian stepped backward again as he began turning toward the barrier, but whirled back to look at Lance when he heard the clink of a sword.
Brian reached out his hand as he leaned down. “Wait! Don’t!”
Blood splattered up on Brian’s face as Lance collapsed to the ground
“LANCE!” Her mournful shriek echoed across the walls as she launched toward him and cradled him in her arms.
Tears formed in Brian’s eyes as he lowered his head. All this meaningless killing…
“BRIAN! BRIAN!” Minako’s voice rang out clearly behind him.
He scanned the room quickly, then began sprinting toward her with wide eyes.
Minako clenched Nick’s hand as she stepped backward. “Brian… Why are you looking at me like that?”
Brian thrust his arms out as his wings unfurled and he stood directly in front of her. He pulled his staff from her grasp tightly and slammed it into the ground as he collapsed backward. A barrier sprung around the sapphire demons.
Minako stared at her hands covered in blood. They shook violently as she looked up slowly to see Justin standing in front of her without his sword.
Justin stepped back from the barrier. He seemed to stare at it, though his eyes were dazed and glassy.
Minako lowered her shaking hands to see Brian had collapsed beneath her with Justin’s sword in his chest. He coughed, shooting blood from his mouth as he clenched his eyes shut. Minako flinched backward as tears began filling her eyes.
Nick threw his arms around her, burying her head in his chest. His eyes also filled with tears as they both sank to their knees.
“WHY?! BRIAN!!” Minako gripped a fold in Nick’s tunic tightly as she sobbed.
Howie and Kevin quickly kneeled on either side of Brian’s body.
Howie gently gripped Brian’s shoulder as he pulled the sword from within Brian’s chest and tossed it against the ground. Then he glanced at Kevin. “Can you…”
Kevin’s hand began glowing sapphire as he reached his hand toward Brian’s chest.
Brian grasped Kevin’s hand and held it tightly. Their hands shook as he released his other hand’s grip on his staff. “Don’t… worry…” His voice was raspy as he reached toward Minako’s skirt and pulled on it. “Minako… Won’t you please look at me?”
Nick shook his head fiercely as he hid his face against her head.
“Nick…” Brian let go of Minako’s skirt and gripped Nick’s sleeve instead. “I want to be able to see all of your faces one last time…”
Nick glanced at him, revealing his grimace as the tears poured down his cheeks.
Brian tightened his grip on Nick’s sleeve. “It’s okay to admit… when you’re not strong enough and need someone else to help hold you up...” He chuckled. “Admitting that weakness may be the greatest strength…”
Nick nodded and loosened his grip on her.
She turned, but pulled Nick’s arm in front of her face.
Minako choked back a sob and lowered Nick’s arm as she sank back into his embrace. Her tears dripped on Brian’s face as she looked down at him.
“Don’t cry… I promised that I would tell you about that gift when this was all over...”
“But… Brian, it’s not... Brian…”
Brian grasped her hand, then clenched it weakly. “I’m so sorry, I really did want to protect everything you dreamed about because of it…”
“You’re more important than anything I gave you! I can’t think of anything I gave you...”
“How can you say that? AJ and I were willing…”
“Don’t say it!”
“But it’s the truth--”
“Don’t say that you’re going to die!”
“We would give our lives for it…” He looked up at her as he gave her hand a squeeze. “How can something like that be meaningless?”
“You can’t die! You and AJ can’t die!”
“Would you like to know what it is?”
He squeezed her hand once more. “It’s friendship.”
Minako choked back her tears.
“This friendship we all share means everything to me…”
“Brian… That’s not a gift… It’s not the power to do the impossible… It’s just normal… We’re friends.”
“To demons who have nothing normal in their lives besides a cycle of endless death... It means everything… Even more than that… We weren’t just demons to you… So we could start to see ourselves as something more with each other...”
“Even if you are a demon, you’re Brian first… Brian is Brian.”
He gave her hand another squeeze. “You say… just the right thing… whenever I need you to…”
She squeezed back and smiled at him gently.
He let go of Minako’s hand and began reaching toward the hole in his chest. “Everyone… I believe in your strengths… individually… and together...” He reached into the hole in his chest and grasped his heart. “AJ and I… are always with you…”
Minako reached toward his hand again. “Brian!”
“This isn’t goodbye… It’s… see you soon…” Brian closed his eyes and let out a short breath as he pulled his still, but glowing heart from his chest and dropped it into Minako’s hand. Stone began encasing his body.
Howie and Kevin stood quickly, cupping each other’s shoulder with a hand.
“BRIAN!!” Minako reached her hands out to him.
Nick quickly pulled her up and jerked her toward his chest, then buried his head against her shoulder.
Like AJ before him, his face seemed almost peaceful as it became a statue. As the barrier vanished, his last words echoed around them like a beacon lighting their way toward the future.