Who’s there?! He bolted upright and whipped his head from side to side, as the sapphire walls swallowed him.He put his hand to his chest and the other to his head. My heart is racing. I can't see anything… It hurts…
He smiled as he grabbed her hand. Even when I can’t hear you, you’re always calling me and supporting me. He blinked, trying to get his eyes to focus. When his vision cleared, Minako appeared sitting next to him on the ornate bed. He reached up and ran his thumb across her cheek. “Your voice always brings me back…”
She squeezed his hand on her cheek. “Did I wake you?”
He pushed himself up, then grabbed both of her hands and held them to his chest. “In my dream… Your voice called me back from the darkness…”
She put the back of her hand to his head. “You’re not hot… But your face was so pale back then… Are you… feeling okay?” She brushed his hair back.
His eyes began welling with tears as he held her cheek again. “When we went to that crater, it was overwhelmingly sad… Just like losing you!
“Nick, are you sure you--”
Nick thrust his arms around her and pulled her into his chest. “You’re the only one I can talk about it with!”
Minako frowned, but wrapped her arms around his neck tightly. “Whatever you need, Nick…”
He pulled away and raised his eyebrows. “But how did we get back? Did I walk? Did you try to carry me?”
Minako laughed. “It’s cute that you think I could carry you. Kevin brought you back. He wanted to see the crater and found us there...” She pulled her hand to her chest and glanced down. “ He said he’d been there before when he was younger… Before it was just a hole and demonic energy...”
Nick frowned and rubbed the back of his head. “I couldn’t smell anything demonic… It just felt like… fear and sadness...”
“Maybe you’ve been there before?”
Nick bit his lip and furrowed his brow. Why would I have been there? It’s just a hole...
Minako gripped his hand tightly. “When I tried to keep walking, you pulled me into those vines. And Kevin said he remembered pushing them back too.”
Nick reached out his free hand and mimicked brushing back the foliage. “Brushing away the leaves and the vines felt like the right thing to do when we were standing there. Going forward felt… bad?” He frowned. “And then again inside the darkness, it felt right to push until there was a bright spot… Then walking down a hill… It all felt right…” He squeezed her hand, then pulled back and crossed his arms. “Why was Kevin there?”
“He said he and his master went to a house to deliver a baby… A demon’s baby...”
A house with demons… A very sad and terrifying house? He glanced up at her. “Do you think that I have a baby?”
Minako lowered her head.
Nick rubbed his neck as he frowned. “But Kevin’s older than I am and you said he was young…” I would have been really little when Kevin was young… How long ago did he go to that demon house? A sad and terrifying demon house… He clenched his hand into a fist in his lap and stared at it. “Minako… Do you think I was the baby Kevin was telling you about? Why would I be a baby in a sad and terrifying house?”
Minako glanced up at him as she reached her hand toward him, but quickly pulled it back and lowered it into her lap.
Nick reached into her lap and clenched her hand tightly. I know everything will be okay if I have you. Even if you don’t know the answer either… He laced his fingers through hers. When you’re near me, it makes the unknown feel quieter. He glanced up at her with a shaky smile, as he spoke, his voice echoed his smile. “I wonder why the house is gone… If that valley is where I come from, then why did I end up in Rubiihoppou with my Master? Do I even have a family anymore?”
Minako pulled him into a hug and rubbed his back gently.
As he leaned his head on her shoulder, he exhaled deeply and his subsequent breaths evened. Even if my past is filled with darkness, you’ve always been filling my future with light. If I never know, at least I know that you and our friends will do your best to stay with me. But if I know about my past or my powers, then maybe we’ll actually be prepared for whatever’s next… “My Master must know… I want to find him… If we’re back here, maybe he is too…”
Minako pulled back her embrace. “Kevin said that Howie thinks so too and that he wants to form an alliance with the other cardinal demon tribes. Maybe if we all work together, we can be stronger than Justin...”
Nick cupped her cheek. “What do you want to do?”
“The emperor of the heavens originally intended for all the priestesses to unseal the box. Probably because we’re stronger together… We might be able to undo whatever Justin did if we can work together.” She lowered her head. “I do want to get Renee somewhere safe, but I don’t know that it’s the right time to go to Emeradotouhou… Maybe not until we have help...”
“Rubiihoppou first then? I wonder if Howie would be okay with that… Would Kevin, Brian, and AJ come too?”
“I don’t know that Howie has a preference… Kevin said he was planning on keeping his promise to fight until everything is over, but I feel bad asking them to do whatever I want… Especially when you and I decided to decide together.” She pulled herself toward him and leaned on his shoulder.
He wrapped her into his embrace. “It doesn’t feel like anything’s sealed this time, so maybe we’re fighting for our choices… Whatever we do, I think we all have to choose together. Maybe more than we already did… So I promise that even when it’s hard, I’ll choose you every time. And then we can choose our friendships every time after that.”
“Me too. I’ll choose you and then them every time.”
The columns of the gate surrounded them and the intertwining symphony of the varied lands stretching in front of them. Minako held her hand to her heart, fixing her gaze on the top of the white bell-shaped structure. Back in the beginning, it felt so magical, but its power had fallen silent and only its faint sparkle remained. Did it actually have its own power or was it radiating with Kevin’s demonic energy? Did Kevin fill it with his spirit to call the other demons? Did it still feel like Kevin’s powers now? I wonder if the demons can call each other too… Kevin said they all smell different, so can they follow each other by smelling? Justin always seemed to find us. Did Nick’s wounds really smell that strong or did he memorize what Nick and Brian smelled like? I wonder if he felt Nick’s pain. Or if all demons feel each other’s emotions. If they all closed their eyes, could they find other demons that way? Is that how Brian had found Nick and I originally?
Nick wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, pulled her into a tight embrace, and rested his chin on her head as he followed her gaze to the red tinted Rubiihoppou. “You’re quiet again. Every time we go to Rubiihoppou, you get quiet...”
“Just thinking about demonic powers…”
Nick’s grip around her tensed.
She hugged his arms. “Not that, just… I wonder if you could all find each other. Even though we got the box, I doubt I could call the other demons… How would we find them?” She frowned. “Will it be any easier to find the other priestesses? Would they really help us? Can priestesses really help this time?”
Nick squeezed her gently and kissed her cheek. “We’ll find them and they’ll help us. Everything we’ve experienced has taught me that we’re stronger together. And if they’re feeling lonely, then we can help. Pandora’s supposed to carry and light the torch of hope, right?”
Minako leaned back against his chest and smiled up at him. “I’ll always do my best for you.”
He leaned his head on hers. “And I’ll do anything I can to help.”
She tightened her grip on his arms. It was always being with all of you that made me want to be someone who could light that torch and carry the burdens of darkness. Back then, I was so worried about losing you and when we came here, I worried that I would never find AJ. I was constantly worried about what would happen if I finally had to fight Renee. And I’m still worried about finding her and convincing the other emerald demons that we really all want the same thing… Why does Justin want this cold and lonely world back?
She glanced at Nick and smiled again when he pressed a light kiss to her temple. We lost each other and still found our way back to each other. I think we were both really lost and lonely when we met each other, but we made each other less broken and made what was hard before seem easier. It doesn’t feel as hard trying to shoulder darkness in this place because you’re constantly trying to take the burden from me. And you and all of our friends promised to carry as much as you could until your ends. I don’t want any of you to have to do that. This time, no matter what happens, I can’t let any of you sacrifice yourselves for me. We all have to make it to the end alive.
I wonder if the other two priestesses are like that? Are their demons? Do they have that kind of relationship or were they more like Renee and the emerald demons? In that empty blackness, they both told me how much they wanted to preserve their happy memories and be together, but they also told me that they wanted to die and that being here turned them into terrible people. I wonder which of those is true… Are we only happy and strong because we conquered the box’s trials? If we lost, would we be sad, filthy, lonely creatures too?
“I can’t believe you really lived here!” AJ’s excitement broke their conversation. He stared in wonder at the tholos with his arms spread wide and a broad grin on his face. “I wonder why they put something so fancy all the way out here!” Even in the dark, his gold tunic buttoned down the center, sapphire pants, and gold shoes gleamed brightly.
Kevin chuckled. “The architecture is stunning, yes.”
Nick pulled Minako toward the center of the gate.
“Did you meet many travelers?” AJ continued to grin broadly. “The other gates were always very busy!”
Kevin shook his head. “No, it was actually quite lonely. I think between the time I met the first priestesses and the time I met Minako, Brian, and Nick…” He ran his hand along his chin. “There were maybe one or two travelers per year.”
AJ crossed his arms and nodded. “It’s not always easy to get the women to leave their homes. War and all. Whenever I heard about it, I always wondered, why did the scale only judge the hearts of women?”
Kevin shrugged. “I never understood myself, though I do have some theories. The stipulations make sense. Men who would sacrifice women should not have a pass between countries without papers and if they had papers, they could use other gates.”
Howie cleared his throat. “We originally gave Kevin the scale in the hopes that he would be able to find Pandora of the Sapphires and bring her to us and the country. That was its main purpose.”
Minako gaped at Howie. How did he come across such a powerful scale with such a specific purpose? Did he inherit it? Did he send out his army to find it? Or… She grabbed his arm. “Howie… did you create that scale?”
Howie glanced away and fiddled with the pommel of his sword. The gold glinted like his golden pants beneath his typical calf-length sapphire tunic and tied at the waist with a golden sash. “An interesting conjecture, Minako… There are many ways to acquire things in this world.”
Minako pursed her lips and gripped Nick’s hand tightly. Howie, I’m used to you saying weird and complicated things… But it feels like you’re avoiding answering. Your powers were almost as mysterious as Nick’s or Justin’s. All three of you use something mundane to fight. You and Justin both use swords even when you have unleashed your demonic powers. And Nick uses his brute strength and physical fighting techniques he learned from his Master. I know he doesn’t know what his powers are, but I wonder why his Master, another demon, would only teach him how to use brute strength and physical fighting techniques... What are all of your real powers if you would rather rely on strength and weapons when you need to fight?
Nick stared at the top of the gate. “You said you made a lot of salves and medicines… Did you do that up here or in the rooms underneath?”
“Below…” Kevin stepped toward the staircase and peered down the steps, then jumped back. “Stand back and be ready, someone is here.”
Brian nodded as he pushed aside his gold cloak and raised his staff. His gold pants glinted with a similar shine against his typical white tunic, white boots, blue sash, and blue beads.
Nick stepped in front of Minako as he raised his hands into a fighting stance.
“Who’s there?!” Kevin shouted down the stairs.
They heard footsteps ascending up the stairs, slowly and laboriously. Was it a demon? A monster? A man?
AJ pinched his hooped earring and Howie gripped the hilt of his sword.
A head of long, wavy, golden hair emerged from the stairs, followed by a silk, ruffled top, jeans, and tennis shoes.
“A woman?” Minako gripped Nick’s shoulders. A strangely dressed woman...
The woman gasped. “I remember your face, you’re the gate guardian! You came back!” She reached toward Kevin.
Kevin stepped back as Brian raised his barrier around the sapphire demons and Minako.
She ran her hands down the barrier. “Please, I’ve been waiting for you. I only wanted your help!”
Minako pulled on Kevin’s sleeve and whispered.“Kevin, look at her clothing, it’s like the other world. She has to be a priestess!”
“What do you think her intentions are?”
“She said she wanted help! But if you’re worried, we know you can protect yourself.”
Kevin took a breath and glowed sapphire. His fangs appeared and his eyes gained their sapphire tint. “Brian, let me out of the barrier.”
Brian nodded and released the grip of a few fingers on his staff, as he did so, a small hole appeared in the barrier. Kevin stuck his hand through it, then pulled at the edges until it was large enough for him to step through. Brian clenched his grip back on his staff and the hole vanished.
She put her shaking hands to her chest. “You know who I am!” She stepped back, her eyes wide as she covered her mouth. “But you’re much… bluer than I remembered…”
“I was called into duty.”
She lowered her head and frowned. “By your priestess…” She stared intently at the bubble. “I recognize your face, girl… There was a brief moment when I saw the Ruby demons again in the darkness and you were there.” She put her hands on her hips and scoffed. “The box chose you, so why are we back here now?”
Minako gripped Brian’s sleeve. “Let me out! This is our chance to convince her to join us!”
“Minako…” Nick knitted his brows.
“Kevin will protect me. I promise!” Minako gripped his hand.
“She’s…” Nick stared at her face. Is this really the right priestess? I always remembered her being so tall… Or was it that she was always shadowed because I was smaller…
She touched his cheek. “I can do it. Believe in me.”
Nick smiled at her gently and gripped her hand. “I always believe in you.”
“Minako, be safe.” Brian released his grip on the staff again as Minako pulled open the hole.
“Ruby Pandora, I didn’t fail!”
“I know, I went home! I just want to go back there, but I need the ruby demons to help!” She lowered her head and crossed her arms. “In the end, we were all useless.”
“We need all the demons to help. Justin from the emerald demons…”
She groaned and put her hand to her head. “The emerald country is always making things harder!”
Minako blinked several times. Is this really that same condescending priestess and bewitching beauty everyone’s always talking about? She just seems like the same kind of girl I would have gone to high school with...
She pointed forcefully at Kevin and Minako. “And sapphire, you’re no better! Sleeping during hell! Do you know how many times I had to listen to that tiny brat whine and complain?!”
Kevin and Minako stared at each other. Tiny brat? Does she mean...
Kevin chuckled and shut his eyes. His sapphire tint disappeared and his fangs softened.
“Brian…” Nick snarled and clenched his fists.
Brian shook his head and the barrier disappeared around them.
Howie slid his sword back into its sheath. “It would seem she is not dangerous.”
AJ released his grip on his earring and laughed heartily. “She might not be.”
Nick clenched his fists and glared at her. “How dare you! Tiny brat! Whine?! Complain?!”
The ruby priestess gaped and stepped backward as she put a splayed hand to her chest. She then clenched it into a loose ball and tiptoed toward him. She stopped in front of him and reached out a shaking hand to touch his face. “Nicky…” She pulled her hand back quickly and cradled it at her chest. “You… you let me touch you without flinching?”
She gasped and turned her head wildly as she eyed the demons and examined her surroundings. “Is--”
She quickly turned back to face Nick.
“No, my Master is not here.”
Her shoulders sunk.
“I haven't seen him since…” Nick closed his eyes and swallowed forcefully. “Since we were fighting for our lives in the castle… But he was only a shell...” He opened his eyes, but lowered his head. “Then the time before that was when you abandoned me in the castle for your fight.”
She clenched her hands at her heart, then held the side of her hand just below her nose.
“Ruby priestess?” Nick looked up at her.
She laughed nervously. “You were so small… You always cowered next to me, but flinched when I would try to touch you… And you would cling to him… You were always so full of anger and sadness, but every now and then you had this vibrant spark. You so desperately wanted to be one of them: big, strong, ruby…”
Nick stepped toward her. “Ruby Priestess, I don’t--”
She closed her eyes and chuckled quietly as she shook her head. “You always asked him why she wouldn’t come and he always told you that she was selfishly sleeping…” She opened her eyes and stared at Minako. “Now she’s awake.”
Nick clenched his fist and snarled. “Ruby Priestess, she--”
She brushed her hair behind her ear. “Your heart seems like it’s stronger than it was then if you’ll let me touch you. Maybe she rescued you after all like you wanted.” She held her hands near her chest and stared at them. “And I…”
Minako put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “Ruby Pandora--”
Nick threw his hands up and huffed, then crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders while glowering at her.
“Madeline.” She shook her head and brushed Minako’s hand from her shoulder. “Without the demons surrounding me or worshipping me, am I even a priestess anymore, let alone Pandora? No, Sapphire Pandora, you claimed the box and changed your demons... At least, I feel pretty confident saying that you saved the one that I knew. You are the only Pandora. I am only Madeline.”
She shook her head and her lips quirked upward as her eyes narrowed. “What?”
Minako smiled. “I’m only Minako. You’re right, they’re sapphire demons, but they don’t belong to me. We’re friends.” Minako brushed Nick’s arm, then reached her other hand toward Madeline. “And maybe you’re right that we saved each other, but only because we grew together and made each other stronger.Let me do that with you too.”
Madeline brushed her hair behind her ear again. "You're too trusting. You don’t even know me."
Minako continued to hold out her hand. "You said you want to find the ruby demons, so do we. So let's work together and find them."
Madeline scowled and wrinkled her brow as she glanced between Minako’s outstretched hand and Nick gripping her hand and smiling at her gently.
"Madeline?" Minako smiled.
She huffed and glanced upward before grasping Minako's hand. "Alright, let's work together."
Minako gripped her hand tightly, then smiled at the sapphire demons. "One down."
Madeline ripped her hand from Minako's. "It's not just me stuck here?"
Howie stepped toward her. "Ruby Priestess, we have reason to believe that all the demons and all the priestesses have descended and are seeking alliances."
Madeline clenched her fist. "I don’t really care about your long term plans, but we have to help Bri!"
The sapphire demons all glanced at each other.
Minako turned back to her. "Who’s Bri? One of the demons?"
"Brianne is my little sister and the Topaz priestess!"