“A demon?” Madeline gripped Ashley’s shoulder tightly as she peered at the grotto.
Ashley snorted. “They were bound to be correct eventually.”
“Ashley, it has to be Erik!”
The ground shook again as rocks shot from the grotto and began rolling down the side of the mountain.
“We have to get him!” Madeline shouted.
“Absolutely not! He’s dangerous!”
“Ashley! He’s probably hurt! He’s our friend!”
“A friend, what a ridiculous thing to call him!”
“Brian! Kevin!” Nick’s shout interrupted their argument. The three demons descended back to the path before Brian’s barrier surrounded them.
“Ashley! They’re going to get hurt!”
“Let them get hurt. They made that decision.”
“We can help him!”
“We’re not getting injured!”
“Jacob! We have to help him!”
“What did Ashley say?”
Minako held the sutra to her chest as she and Nick stood inside the grotto, shielded from the falling rocks by the small barrier. The injured demon wore blood red armor with spherical plates at his chest, abdomen, back, shoulders, and a series of elongated ovals encircling his thighs. An unsheathed sword lay near his hands. As he convulsed, small earthquakes rattled the ground.
“You probably don’t remember us, but we’re here to help!” Minako exclaimed.
“Who?” He opened his eyes slightly and winced as he burst with red light. The grotto shook, but the barrier remained intact.
Minako and Nick kneeled down next to him, then Nick tapped his shoulder. “We’re the Sapphire cardinal demons. We were traveling through the mountains and found you.”
“Sapphire?” Another quick burst of light shook the grotto.
Minako put her hand to his head. “We have a doctor, if you can tell us where you’re injured.”
The ruby demon moved his hand toward his chest, right above his heart. “This scent… Nicky?”
Nick grunted quietly. “It’s me, yes.”
“You don’t sound like--” He burst with light again, shaking the grotto.
“I lived an extra decade, Erik! I know you’re surprised, but we can talk about it later! You’re injured!”
“Is Ashley--” Another burst.
“Ashley is here. And Jacob and Madeline too.” Minako interrupted Nick quickly.
A small smile crossed Nick’s face, then he mouthed, “Thanks.”
“Madeline…” Erik stopped shaking for a moment.
“This is our chance,” Minako whispered.
Nick nodded. “Erik, stay calm. I’m going to pick you up to take you to our doctor.”
Erik shut his eyes. “Madeline…”
Nick thrust his arms under Erik and lifted him up. “Minako, you’ll have to move quickly and keep the barrier safe.”
Erik still shook and glowed in Nick’s arms, piercing Nick with a stinging shock. Nick winced as he and Minako rushed away from the grotto and back toward Brian’s barrier.
Brain crumpled the sutra in his hand, then brought his hands together with a loud clap, merging both barriers.
Nick set Erik on the ground quickly, then jumped back as red light burst from Erik’s body. Nick groaned as he gripped his chest. “It hurts. This is what those sparks felt like in the clearing.”
“You were right, Nick, this does look similar to you and Brian. What could have caused it?” Kevin knelt beside him.
“He tried to incapacitate the emerald general when he was only used to using his power defensively?” Brian chuckled.
“Brian, it is an inappropriate time for jokes.”
“We said you were a doctor and Erik said his chest is injured too.” Minako knelt beside Kevin.
Kevin cupped Erik’s shoulder. “Hello Erik, I’m the doctor Nick and Minako mentioned. Stay calm.” He began removing the chest plate from Erik’s torso.
“Minako, will you assist me?”
Minako nodded and helped Kevin remove the chest plate. Beneath it, a gaping hole spread across Erik’s bloody chest.
Kevin put one hand to Erik’s chest and the other to his forehead, gripping it slightly. As the sapphire glow emanated from Kevin’s hands, a bright ruby aura sprang up from Erik’s body, without shocking Kevin, then encased Erik’s body as though it were a mold around him. While his eyes remained closed, his shaking body calmed and the tremors in the ground stopped. Kevin stood quickly.
“Kevin?” Minako gripped his pants.
Kevin’s green eyes glowed a bright sapphire as an intense flame of sapphire surrounded his hand for a few moments. The glowing subsided as he clenched his hand into a fist and his eyes returned to their green coloring. “We’ll need to get him cleaned up before I can try to heal his chest. And if he’s anything like Nick, I would prefer to not try to heal it all at once in case the binding ends up weaker and opens again.”
Nick crossed his arms and frowned. “We were fighting for our lives! Would it make you happier if I didn’t do anything?!”
“Yes,” they said simultaneously, though Kevin spoke forcefully through tightly pressed lips, while Brian chuckled, and Minako’s glassy eyes reflected the concern in her voice.
“Fine! I’ll just never help again!”
Brian released his barrier, then put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “You did a noble thing. Continue to help, but be less reckless.”
Nick snorted and turned away from him.
“Kevin, why was your hand all fiery?” Minako pulled on Kevin’s pant leg again.
Kevin opened his hand again and smiled. “I can generally use my healing powers without directly touching a wound. Unfortunately, the one place I absolutely must touch is the heart, and the head if it is an issue with demonic powers. Without sanitary equipment available, I needed to use my healing powers quickly on myself to ensure I remain healthy after touching his blood directly.” He knelt beside her. “Will you assist me in replacing his chest plate?”
After they refitted the chest plate, Kevin furrowed his brow as he began examining the remainder of Erik’s wounds. “Brian, when we were at the base of the mountain, you said we were fairly close to your home. Is that still true? He needs medical attention sooner rather than later.”
“It’s true, we are close.”
The other demons settled on the ground around them, then Madeline pushed herself out of Ashley’s arms and ran toward Minako and Kevin. She collapsed to her knees. “Erik!”
Minako ran her hand along Erik’s dark hair. “It’s okay, we got him out of the tiny cave.”
Madeline wrapped Minako in a tight hug and started sobbing. “Minako, thank you!”
“Of course. We’re friends and a team.”
“Nicky… Kevin… Brian… Thank you for helping Erik.”
Nick glanced back at Brian, but still frowned. When Brian caught the glance, he started laughing. Kevin held his forehead and shook his head.
Nick averted his glance away from Brian as the other two demons gave short nods. “Of course,” Nick mumbled quietly before glancing at Ashley, whose body language mirrored his own. Nick frowned as he glanced at his arms, then relaxed his posture. “Where do we need to go, Brian?”
Brian gestured down the path. “It should be just a little further that way.”
Nick knelt next to Minako and Madeline. “Are you okay walking?”
“I’m fine. Thank you for letting me sleep a little longer this morning.” Minako smiled.
“Anything for you.” Nick smiled warmly, then thrust his arms under Erik’s body again, hefting him against his chest as he stood. “Let’s go. I’m glad we’re almost there.” He started walking down the path.
Ashley stared after him, then turned back to the other demons. “Hang on, we’re just going to start walking again?! Did Erik agree to this alliance? Does he even want our help?!”
“Unconscious people who need medical attention can make decisions about alliances later! Let’s go!” Nick shouted over his shoulder.
Brian and Minako rushed to catch up with Nick; Madeline trekked behind them and Jacob followed her. Kevin, AJ, and Howie hung back. Howie glowed sapphire for a brief moment, concealing his demonic appearance.
Ashley furrowed his brow. “You’re hesitating. You don’t agree with this?”
AJ pointed to the group ahead of them. “Your turn. Go.”
“You’re watching me on his behalf?” Ashley smirked.
AJ tapped his nose, smirked as well, and pointed back to the group.
“And if I refuse?”
AJ shrugged. “I have all day and they’ll come back to look for me.”
Ashley rolled his eyes, but started walking. Kevin, AJ, and Howie followed behind him with enough distance to speak privately, but short enough to leap between the space.
“You all found that solution quite quickly.” Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword as he walked.
Kevin shook his head. “That was all Nick. He’s constantly reckless, but always dependable in a crisis.”
Howie smiled. “Always strong of heart. How can someone so protective believe they are only a monster?”
AJ shrugged. “If all you ever hear is that you’re a monster, you start to believe it. He’ll figure it out and hopefully come out better.” He crossed his arms. “I wonder what Brian’s home is like. Do you think it’s still here?”
They stared ahead at the winding endless path in front of them. The mountains loomed above them touching the sky and towered over the forest below them. Kevin examined the various grottos and outcroppings they passed. “I hope we’re not imposing on his family. Do you think there’s room for all of us?”
“Brian is rather vague about his background.” Howie pursed his lips. “We believe his words were akin to some of them being there still.”
“There’s several of these small grottos. I wonder if further down, they’re bigger Maybe several families of barrier demons live close to each other.”
“Regardless, if he worried the space was too small for all of us, he would have mentioned something.”
“How big is it?” AJ asked.
Howie put a hand on both of their shoulders. “We shall see. If you will excuse us, we would like to continue charting our journey with Brian as our guide.”
AJ and Kevin nodded as Howie made his way to the front. When he passed Ashley, they shared a brief glance before Ashley glanced back at the other two demons still walking behind him.
When Howie had made his way to the front of the group, he clapped his hand on Brian’s shoulder. “Brian, would you be so kind as to indicate how much further this path goes?”
“Whatever helps our journey, Howie.”
Howie pulled a chart from his tunic and unfolded it to reveal the mountain range sketched on it.
“This is where we took flight, up here is where we found Erik, and we are headed here.” Brian pointed to various points on it as he spoke.
Minako smiled back at them as she leaned on Nick’s arm. “It’s different up here, Nick.”
“We do usually walk the slowest.”
“Which is better, you think? The front or the back?”
“The back. Then I have you all to myself.” He smiled.
Minako gripped his arm. “Brian said he would do his best so we could have our own room at his house. I hope it’s big enough.”
“He would have said something if it wasn’t. Just how big is it?” He glanced ahead of them, then frowned. “Minako, someone’s coming. Stay behind me.”
Minako fell into step behind him as the two figures stopped on the path in front of them. Upon approach, their plain colored clothing came into view, with both tunics and pants in the shades of gray and white. The men also wore tall boots, straw hats, and similarly colored capes.
Nick hefted Erik. “We’re in a bit of a hurry to get our friend medical attention.”
“How did you find this path?”
“The rock slide. Excuse me.”
“Woman, your aura feels strange.”
“She’s fine. Move.”
One of the men gestured toward Madeline. “That one is dressed strangely.”
“Why are there so many of you?” The other one asked.
Nick raised an eyebrow and snarled. “You have a lot of things to say, but nothing about us being demons. Why is that?”
Minako tugged Nick’s sleeve. “Nick, they look like Brian.”
Nick glanced back toward Brian, then back at the two men. “They do look like Brian… Why?”
The two men turned to each other. One whispered to the second who nodded, then ran the opposite direction.
“Who are you?” Nick growled.
“Who are you?”
Nick set Erik at his feet, then clenched his hands into fists quickly. “We say our friend’s name and you act suspicious! Answer me first!” Nick’s hands began glowing as he clenched them tighter.
The remaining man clapped his hands together and a barrier sprung around him. His straw hat fell to the ground revealing the horns on his head.
Nick unclenched his fists and stepped backward as he gaped. “A barrier demon?”
Brian looked up from Howie’s chart. “Nick you stopped…” He and Howie turned from Nick to the demon in the bubble, then Brian pushed the chart back toward Howie and walked over to Nick quickly. “Hi.” He waved.
Nick gave Brian a bewildered look. “You’re not surprised there’s another barrier demon?”
“Should I be? I told you some of them probably still lived here.” He turned back to the other demon. “My friend Nick makes snap decisions sometimes, but he always has the best intentions. Come out.”
Nick growled as he knelt down to scoop Erik into his arms again, then leaned over to whisper in Minako’s ear as he stood. “Why isn’t he surprised? I’d be really surprised if there was another demon like me."
Minako smiled, but shook her head and shrugged.
The barrier demon released his hands from each other and the barrier fell around him. “Brian?”
“It’s me. It’s been a while.”
“Did you stop the earthquake?”
Brian put his hand behind his head. “Sort of. That was mostly Nick, actually. It was being caused by an injured demon in our alliance and we need to get medical attention for him. Is my grandfather home?”
The other demon counted the group. “Alliance?”
“Some sapphire, some ruby, two priestesses.”
The barrier demon gasped as he stared at Minako and Nick, then dropped to his knees.
Nick glanced at Brian, then down to the barrier demon as he hefted Erik’s limp body again. “Hey, we were serious when we said Erik needed medical attention. Can you take us to Brian’s grandfather?”
The awestruck barrier demon bolted to his feet, then began running down the path.
Nick gestured after him and started walking. Minako and Brian kept pace with him as they walked.
Brian frowned. “I’m a little concerned they could feel that earthquake that far away. They’re probably on high alert already, but at least my grandfather is home.”
“Your actual grandpa, Brian?” Minako smiled as she grabbed Brian’s arm.
Brian laughed. “Of course my actual grandfather.”
“It’s so nice that your grandpa lives with your family still!”
Nick motioned his head toward the barrier demon. “Should we catch up to him?”
“No, I know where we’re going. He’s probably just telling my grandfather that I’m coming.”
“There were two of them originally. One already took off running when we said their clothes looked like yours.”
Brian laughed again. “Oh no, Grandfather is going to be overwhelmed.”
“Are you related to that barrier demon?”
Brian shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Does your family live near a lot of other barrier demons?”
Nick lowered his head and groaned. “Brian, this is irritating. It’s like when we first met.”
Brian laughed again. “I’m sorry, I just haven’t been here in a while, so I don’t want to say something that isn’t true or overwhelm you unnecessarily.”
“The way we do things is different than I think you’re all used to...”
“There’s a council…”
“There’s enough of you for a whole council?”
“I’ve told you many times, we’re very defense oriented. There’s probably a lot more barrier demons than other types of demons, especially after the sieges.”
“Is it a couple families in the council, Brian?” Minako asked.
“No, it’s only elders, but not necessarily one from each family.”
“So what?” Nick asked. “Twenty barrier demons?”
Brian shook his head.
Brian shook his head.
Brian turned back to the path, but remained silent.
“A lot more?” Nick groaned again. “This is like when we first met. Annoyingly cryptic.”
He turned back to Nick and smiled. “You’ll see.”
Nick gave Minako another bewildered look, but kept following Brian down the path.
Brian pointed to the other barrier demon waiting beside a craggy portion of rock face. Across from it, a single tree sat on the edge of the path before the mountain sloped down toward the valley again. “There.”
Nick frowned. “Brian, there’s nothing here.”
Brian smiled at the other barrier demon as they stopped in front of him. “Did you already knock, or may I?”
The other barrier demon gestured toward a small crevice in the rock face about the size of a person.
Brian turned back toward Nick and Minako. “Stand closer to me. We’ll wait for the rest of them to catch up before I knock.”
The other sapphire demons and ruby demons caught up to them and stopped.
Howie smiled. “How impressive. We look forward to meeting your clan.”
Kevin examined the rockface. “There’s more on the inside, isn’t there?”
AJ crossed his arms. “You wouldn’t even know when you walked by…”
Nick wrinkled his nose and he pursed his lips. “Hang on… When you’re all saying clan here, you don’t mean like parents and children like when we talked about my family or AJ’s or Kevin and his Master… You mean like a massive clan?!”
Brian smiled. “You’ll see.” He turned to the group and performed a quick count of the demons standing around him, then pulled his hands to his chest and laced his fingers together, but kept his pointer fingers pointing toward his face. He lowered his face toward them and a barrier sprang up around the group and the other barrier demon. He pushed his hands forward, pushing the barrier against the small crevice three times.
Nick narrowed his eyes and caught a small shimmer at the surface of the crevice. The shimmer pushed out toward them and tapped Brian’s barrier twice. Nick gaped and flinched.
Brian reached out a flat hand toward the edge of his barrier, then gripped the air like he was pulling fabric toward himself. The shimmer disappeared and the small crevice lit up, revealing a narrow hallway. Brian turned to the other barrier demon and gestured to the crevice. “After you.” He then smiled at the rest of the group. “Let’s go.”