Nick clenched Minako’s hand tightly. Minako seems a little brighter this time. Is focusing on Madeline helping her manage her own worries? Can she not feel Renee this time? Am I helping? I hope I’m helping her feel like everything’s going to be okay.
“Nick?” Minako turned to him.
He smiled at her. “Hm?”
“You’re holding my hand really tightly… Are you okay?”
Nick chuckled. “Am I holding it that tightly? I’m sorry. It’s just…”
Minako gave his hand a squeeze. “You’re worried about me?”
Her shoulders slumped as she sighed and leaned against him. “I’m still worried, but… Madeline is also hurting and we need to be strong to support her.”
Nick put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her into his side. “Madeline being sad doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be sad.”
Minako smiled. “I know. But I know that when I’m worried, I have you.”
“You always have me.”
”And you have me. Madeline doesn’t have anyone right now, so I think we should be that person for her.”
“If you two can become friends, she’s lucky to have you.” He kissed the top of her head.
“Nick, what was she like when you knew her?”
Nick bit his lip. “I honestly don’t remember… She was tall, but maybe I just thought she was tall because I was smaller…” He shrugged. ”She had those red light powers like you do. She and my Master fought a lot.”
“Is that why she was condescending? Because she argued with one person?” She giggled. “What a strange reason to call someone condescending…”
“There’s a lot of things people said about her, not just things I remember…” He pursed his lips. “I think bewitching beauty was another one...”
“You had a crush on her. Admit it.” She squeezed his arm as she laughed.
Nick shook his head. “No, she was too involved with my Master, I could never look at her that way.” He smiled. “Besides, it wouldn’t matter anyway. I have you.”
Minako wrapped her arms around his waist. “You’re allowed to have a life before me… Even if you don’t remember it.”
Nick glanced at Madeline. “Honestly, when I look at her, she feels more like a sibling… But I don’t feel close to her like I do to all of you…” He turned back to Minako. “And of course the way I feel about you is different from the others.”
Minako smiled up at him. “If you want to kiss me, you don’t have to flirt with me first, just kiss me.”
Nick chuckled. “I wasn’t saying it to get a kiss, but I will always kiss you when you want one.” He leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.
“You always make me smile.” Minako smiled, then kissed him again.
He stopped her and held her closely to his chest. “That’s what I was hoping.” He locked her lips with his.
After a few days of traveling, the group reached the inn they had stayed at the last time they were in Akahouseki. After settling into their rooms, they congregated in the tavern area. Howie laid his charts and figures on the table to go over their battle plans with Madeline. As Howie spoke, Madeline leaned on her hands as her head and elbows sank to the table. Her eyes fluttered open and closed.
“Ruby Pandora?” Howie put his hand on her shoulder.
She startled and opened her eyes, sitting up quickly. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty… I was never the planner in our group. You would need to find him for that…”
“That is fine. However, it is important that you are abreast of the situation.”
Madeline put up her hand. “I’m not trying to be rude when I say this, but I’m just not interested.” She bit her lip. “Actually… Nicky, can I talk to you?”
“Okay… What about?” He smiled.
She shook her head and stood. “In private?”
Nick turned to Minako and cocked his head.
She smiled as she held his hand. “Whatever you want, Nick.”
He pressed a kiss to her lips as he stood, then gave her hand a quick squeeze before following Madeline to an empty table across the room.
She sat and motioned toward the empty seat. Nick sat as well.
“Ruby Priestess, please just call me Nick.” He smiled.
She shook her head and put her hands on the table. “You’ve always been Nicky to me… But I’ll try, if you try to call me Madeline.”
“Okay, R-- Madeline, I will try.”
Madeline leaned forward, stopping inches from Nick's face and lowering her voice to a whisper. “Will she be jealous that we are talking?” She glanced at Minako.
Nick scoffed and leaned backwards in his seat, crossing his arms. “Of course not, she trusts my judgement.” His lips curved into a sweet smile. “And anyway, Minako would be happy that we were friends again.”
Madeline put her hand to her face and smirked as she rested her chin on it. “Is she that kind or did she just make you submissive?”
Nick shook his head. “It’s not forced. She did take a while to come and I had to be patient, but ever since she appeared here, she has only ever shown me how much she loves me, believes in me, and trusts me.” He fiddled with the ring on his finger. “She always found me... in this world… and in the other one. I don’t think we would ever stop trying to find each other.”
Madeline frowned as she tapped her fingers against the table.
Nick put his hand on her arm. “We’ll find my Master, I promise. I’m learning that when you let too much go unsaid, you both end up feeling hurt. But if you love each other, then you’ll get your feelings across. You just need to see each other and talk.”
She pulled back from Nick’s hand and squinted as she stared at him.
“Where do you think he would be?”
“Where do I think…” She crossed her arms and leaned on the table. “He always wanted to travel to different places… I think I only held him back.”
Nick lowered his head. He didn’t see nearly as much of the world as I did after his priestess appeared. I wonder if it would have been safer if we stayed in Safaiananpou… Why was he there? How did he get there? The gate didn’t exist yet then… Or maybe it did, but it wasn’t guarded? Where was he trying to go?
“You didn’t hold him back, Nicky. He decided to bring you along, but I forced him into being a cardinal demon by showing up.” Madeline leaned back in her chair. “I first met him near that grassy hill… Do you remember it?”
Nick clenched his fist, then clapped Madeline’s shoulder as he stood. “With the big tree! Of course he's there! Let’s go!”
She glanced at the sapphire demons across the room looking over Howie’s charts. “Everyone?”
Nick loosened the grip of his fist and released her shoulder. “We’re a team…”
Madeline crossed her arms and smirked. “Can you not do anything without them, Nicky?”
Madeline tapped the table again. “See sense. You know he doesn't like strangers… or crowds…” She smiled. “But I know he would love to see you.”
Nick lowered his head. My Master was always so reclusive. It was strange that he wanted to travel and see the world, but not see anyone. It was even stranger that we traveled together for so long. He chuckled. “I doubt he would want to see me now. Would he even recognize me?”
“I’m sure. Don’t you demons recognize each other by smell? Even if you act a little differently, I’m sure you smell the same.” She leaned forward. “But I really think it should just be us.”
“What if he hurts them?” She smirked. “Or her?”
Nick clenched his fist and growled quietly.
He shut his eyes and exhaled. “You’re probably right…”
Madeline stood and gestured toward the others. “Go tell your retainers.”
Nick growled. “Friends.”
“Better than being your nanny, trust me.”
Nick stormed back over to the other table. He hastily sat in his chair, gave Minako’s hand a squeeze, then crossed his arms.
Brian intently watched Madeline slowly walk back to the table. “You seem upset. What did you decide to do?”
“We’re going to look for my Master.”
Brian stood. “When should we leave?”
Madeline held the back of Nick’s chair with one hand and waved Brian off with the other. “Just Nick and I.”
Brian frowned. “Is that… alright?”
“My Master was always cautious around crowds… He may consider it an ambush.”
Kevin rubbed his chin. “That would be dangerous…”
AJ stood as well and slammed his hands into the table. “It could be dangerous if you go alone, Nick!”
Madeline batted her hand. “I’ll be there too.”
“It would be a liability for you and us.” Howie chimed in as he stacked a few of the charts on each other.
Madeline waved at the two men. “I’m still definitely going to be there.”
AJ crossed his arms. “Would she even protect him?”
Madeline turned to Nick. “It’s like we’re not even here…”
Nick clenched his fist and lowered his head.
“Nick…” Brian put his hand on his shoulder.
Madeline crossed her arms. “Maybe I’m not here…”
“Of course I want you all to come.” Nick stood and put his hand on Brian’s shoulder as well. “But you remember what happened in the catacombs...”
Brian grabbed his chest and inhaled sharply.
“How could I want that to happen to you again? And Minako…” He put his hand to her cheek as his eyes welled with tears.
Minako smiled and held his hand. “I’m okay, Nick. You definitely protected me.”
“Don’t make another deal with a devil, Nick…” AJ patted his shoulder.
Nick shook his head. “Of course not. So it’s better if only I go… Or maybe…”
Minako smiled. “Do whatever you think is best, Nick.”
Nick crossed his arms and exhaled. “Maybe knowing we could need Brian’s barriers it would be okay if he came… Or Kevin’s healing power…”
Madeline shook her head. “You know it’s a bad idea.”
“What is this demon’s power, Ruby Pandora?” Howie calmly folded his hands on top of his charts.
Madeline glanced at the ground. “I… don’t know… He always seemed to have whatever power we needed…”
Howie stared back to the table. “With even Ruby Pandora unsure, perhaps it is too dangerous for anyone to accompany you… However, Nick, we wish to accompany you.”
“Your hope was for cavalry. Given the circumstance, we believe we are the correct choice.” Howie stood.
Nick clapped his hand on Howie’s shoulder. “Okay, let’s go!”
Madeline shook her head. “I think this is a terrible idea…”
Nick turned to Madeline and smiled. “I promise it will be okay!”
Her gaze sank to the ground.
Nick leaned down and held Minako’s cheeks with both hands as he kissed her quickly. “We’ll be back soon. I’ll be safe.”
Minako held his hands and beamed. “I can’t wait to meet your Master!”
Nick walked up to the large fir tree and wrapped his arms around its trunk. The first time I was here, I had my Master. The next time, I had Minako. What will it bring this time?
“Eternities have passed since you and Minako were wed here.” Howie stared up to the top of the tree.
Nick released the tree from his embrace, then fiddled with his ring. “Yeah… I’m glad though. I feel like it connected us to each other this whole time. Maybe that's how we could all find each other again.”
An energy blast hit the tree. Nick and Howie jumped back and scanned the clearing. Madeline ducked and covered her head as she hid behind Nick.
Howie glanced at Nick as he gripped the pommel of his sword. “It seems we are being watched.”
Nick nodded and raised his hands into a fighting stance.
A second blast hit the tree. Howie drew his sword, then reflected a third blast off its blade.
Nick clenched his fists. “Who’s there?!”
A fourth and fifth blast hit the tree in succession. “Who dares intrude on me?” A voice bellowed.
Nick flapped his wings and leapt into the air. He scanned the clearing, searching for the voice. A sixth blast shot toward him. Nick dove beneath it causing it to hit the tree behind him, snapping a branch above Howie and Madeline.
Madeline shrieked and Howie rose his sword above them, slicing the branch in two.
Nick exhaled and put his hand to his chest. He began gliding toward the source of the blast, only to be buffeted away by a gale. He collided with the tree behind him and landed on one of its branches.
"What measly powers do you have if you refuse to fight me?!"
Nick growled as he perched on the branch. "Come closer and I will gladly fight you."
The wind whispered between them.
Nick sprung from the branch and flew back toward the second tree. A similar gale burst toward him, but he vaulted over it and then continued his descent to the tree.
One of the branches stretched from the tree and wrapped around Nick's ankle.
As Nick struggled to free his foot, the branch clenched tighter around his ankle. Several other branches twined around his wrists, legs, waist, and neck. As he struggled, they squeezed his limbs.
Howie clenched his hand around the hilt of his sword and looked between Nick and Madeline.
Nick strained against the branches. "Keep her safe!"
Howie frowned as he scanned the clearing. "Energy blasts, wind, and wood? Is this one demon or many?"
Madeline stood quickly, pushed Howie aside, and ran toward the tree. “Ashley!”
A shadowed form shot from the tree toward Madeline leaving a cloud of smoke behind it.
Howie narrowed his eyes and leapt toward Nick. He raised his sword above his head and swung it toward the branches. An energy cracked around the branches before they snapped and shattered to the ground in shards.
Nick shook the loosened wrappings from his body, then flapped his wings as he descended to the ground. Howie followed closely behind him.
Nick put his hand on Howie's shoulder. "Thank you." He clenched his fist. “But…”
The smoke cleared and the shadowed form came into view at the edge of clearing. His blond hair fell lightly against his head as his blue eyes dimly glowed red. His wings spread at his back behind his long black tunic and tattered black pants. The cream ribbon tied loosely at his waist swung lightly. His clawed feet gripped the ground.
“Ashley!” Madeline reached her hands toward him.
He put his hand to her wrist and wrapped his claws around it. “Madeline… Who did you bring here?!”
“Ashley… I wanted to see you… and they…” She began sinking to her knees.
Howie raised his sword, clenching his claws around the grip.
Nick put his arm in front of Howie and stepped forward, his head lowered toward the ground.
“You wish to continue our fight? I will tear your limbs from your body.” He tossed Madeline’s arm back toward her, then stepped toward Nick.
Nick’s gold sash swayed in the wind as he took another step toward the ruby demon, then raised his head. “Master.”
Ashley laughed boisterously. “You dare call me, Master?! Then bow at my feet, lowly sapphire demon!”
Nick shook his head and stepped forward again. “What else should I call you, Master?”
Ashley flinched as he stepped back. His nostrils flared. “That scent…”
Nick continued to walk toward him.
Ashley strode toward Nick and the two met in the middle of the clearing. He reached his hand out to Nick’s face. “Impossible… He’s much smaller…” He sniffed. “But this scent is undeniably his… Nicky…”
“Were you brought back as well?”
“Yes and no… We retrieved the box first and then we were brought back by magic.”
Ashley gripped Nick’s face. “You survived all those years. I can feel it, you’ve grown strong.”
Nick lowered his head and chuckled darkly. “Survived, yes.” He pulled back from Ashley’s grip. “Madeline and I came looking for you. We are trying to find all the demons and priestesses.”
Ashley crossed his arms. “Who sent you on this quest? Madeline? You did always enjoy those fool’s errands.”
Madeline shook her head as she stood and walked timidly toward Ashley and Nick. “They found me.”
Ashley raised an eyebrow. “They?”
“The sapphire demons and their priestess.”
Ashley clenched his fingers around his arms. “So, she no longer selfishly sleeps…”
Madeline quickened her pace, then stopped as she gripped his shoulder. “She saved all of us! But then we were all brought back! Nicky just told you they were able to get the box!”
Ashley tensed under her grip. “So, a selfish priestess is our savior? I refuse to believe that!”
Nick clenched his fist. “Master, we fought through hell and illusions to destroy the false god and restore everyone’s memories. Minako carried the burden for us then and I could only support her then." He unclenched his fist and raised his hand to touch Ashley's shoulder. "But together, we will continue to carry the burden to help everyone survive. This alliance is beneficial for us all.”
Howie strode toward them. "Nick.."
Madeline clasped her hands together. “I know! He’s gotten so mature. He doesn’t even flinch anymore!”
Ashley’s eyes were wide, but he sneered. “So, you have abandoned us for your own companions’ agenda.”
Nick lowered his head and his hand. “Master, unless Madeline had retrieved the box and ended everything back then, I was always going to find them eventually unless--”
“She said she isn’t a priestess anymore and asked to be called Madeline.”
Ashley narrowed his eyes. “And who has accompanied you?”
“His Majesty, one of the other sapphire demons!” Madeline continued to smile brightly.
“Oh? A king is a cardinal demon? No wonder Safaiananpou is always so peaceful and removed from this conflict.”
Nick shook his head. "Delayed… More than anything, our enemy wants to kill us specifically. The emerald demons are merciless."
Howie slid his sword back into its sheath. “All countries can be peaceful if we act together. The alliance Nick mentioned --”
The surprised sneer crossed Ashley’s face again. “Nick?”
Nick smiled warmly. “Minako called me it when we first met. It was the name her heart called out and the one I’ve decided that I prefer.”
“King… Madeline… Nicky… Before I decide whether to become your ally, I want to meet her. Take me to this all powerful bewitching sorceress.”