He growled and stared at his hands. They pulsed and sparked, but as quickly as the tendrils of light appeared, they abruptly vanished. This isn’t… This doesn’t feel as dangerous as when Brian and I were in the clearing. I know that if I tell AJ I want to stop, he’ll land on the ground, clap his hand on my shoulder, and tell me that we’ll figure it out… But there’s only so much time until we can’t figure it out anymore… Justin wouldn’t give me that luxury. What can I do to make time to think?
“Nick, do you want to stop?!”
Nick clenched his fists causing the sparks to disappear again. No time… I have to make time... He growled, then leapt from the ledge. Once he leapt, AJ soared toward him and shot the small pebbles at him. One hit Nick’s cheek again and he winced. If I hit him, I could make time to get away… Is it okay to use my old fighting techniques now when I’m trying to figure out my powers? They flipped and tumbled over each other in midair as AJ shot another pebble. I have to make time.
Nick inched closer to AJ and raked his claws across his face, before kicking him in the stomach. As AJ began falling from the blow, Nick soared to the ceiling and peered below him. He’ll reorient himself and come back… I have seconds, minutes at most… He scanned their friends below, then his face lit up. “Brian! I’m coming to you now!”
Brian nodded and stood as he raised his hands to his face, keeping one flat and lacing the other between it, except his outstretched pointer finger. He then spread his hands, forming a web between them. “Understood!”
Nick stretched out his leg as he neared the ground, dropping into a slide. “And your grandfather too!”
Brian turned to his grandfather, giving him a brief nod, as he enclosed the three demons in the barrier. It rippled lightly as the small pebbles struck against it.
Nick pressed his hands against the ground and pushed himself back onto his feet, then clenched his fists and growled. “I don’t understand… I’ve made those strings of light before, why aren’t they working now?”
Brian clapped his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Are you distracted by Howie’s request for you or Minako? Are you worried about Ashley? Or you don’t want to hurt AJ?”
“All those things are bothering me…” Nick snarled, then exhaled deeply. “But I’m trying not to think about them... I’m trying to focus on the light. I don’t understand…” He lowered his head. “It felt like cheating to kick him…”
“You’re just trying not to get hurt.”
Virgil closed his eyes, inhaled, and then peered up at Nick. “His Majesty has taken an interesting approach to honing your skills, but I am not sure he is considering your weaknesses while trying to improve your strengths.”
“Truthfully, it is likely he does not know them. All demons have weaknesses, just as all clans have weaknesses. We noticed it with Brian in the past as well, but you cardinal demons rely too much on your auxiliary strengths when you feel threatened rather than growing from your weaknesses. Thankfully, we could still instruct Brian when he was young and more adaptable.”
Nick stared at him and gaped. “Grandfather, I don’t understand…” He clenched his fist tighter. “You’re saying it is cheating.”
Virgil shook his head as he stood. “There are many ways to fight, but relying on what you already know will not help you grow stronger in the way you are hoping. That is not necessarily cheating, but it is a disservice to your growth.” He gestured toward the arena. “You are of the Celestials, but what do you see in this arena?”
Nick scanned the arena. “Lots of rocks… Everywhere!”
“Even above you, where you would hope for the sky. You have been trying to connect to the sun, but it’s extremely difficult when you cannot sense it nearby, especially for a demon as inexperienced as you.”
Nick hunched his shoulders as he lowered his head and Brian clenched Nick’s shoulder tightly in response.
Virgil smiled, but his tone remained critical. “As I said, all demons have weaknesses and all clans have weaknesses. However, you elemental demons are the most melodramatic because your weaknesses are obvious, so you avoid rather than plan strategically.”
Nick flinched. “Grandfather?”
He motioned to AJ. “Consider your opponent.”
Nick leaned against the barrier and stared at AJ, who was now feet from the barrier as he continued to sling the pebbles toward it. “He’s a shapeshifting demon.”
“And his powers?”
Nick ran his hand along the barrier as he locked his gaze with AJ’s. “To turn into anything…”
Nick stared at the pebbles striking the barrier. “But only his own body…” He clenched his fists. “So he’s much better at close range combat!” A grin spread across Nick’s face. “Howie is right, AJ does have a pretty good handle on his powers, even how to help his weaknesses! He used a tool to make a longer range weapon because I’ve been avoiding him… Which isn’t typical for me...”
“So then you…”
Nick smirked “I’ll have to find something in here to help! Thank you.” He nodded to Brian. “Thanks! Let me out!”
Brian coughed and released the barrier before pressing his hand to Virgil’s again. As the second barrier vanished, Nick shot back toward the ceiling.
Kevin strode over to Brian. “Can I help? I know you’re not a participant, but it’s good that we all get some practice.”
Kevin’s hands began glowing as he placed one at Brian’s chest and the other to his forehead. He clapped his hand to Brian’s shoulder. “Keep working toward it. You’re a strong demon.”
Brian chuckled. “If nothing else, this is testing my stamina.”
Nick and AJ tumbled and soared back and forth across the arena as AJ continued to shoot pebbles at him. Nick passed one of the rows of torches lighting the arena and gripped at the shadows underneath. They stretched like the tendrils of light he had been trying to summon. He tossed them at AJ, but they turned to dust and crumbled once they touched him.
Nick growled. I thought maybe the shadows would be enough… He soared up to the perch again and squatted. Why isn’t this working? He leaned on his knees. If I touch the fire, I’ll get burned, so I can’t use that… There’s nothing here that reflects… That’s the only light… And the shadows crumble when I try to grab them… I could kick him again, but Grandfather is right, that’s only practicing what I already know and that’s not the part I’m trying to make stronger right now...
AJ glided toward the rock outcropping. “We can stop, Nick!”
Nick clenched his fists. I have to find something for now. Until I get stronger… Will I need to connect with it when I’m stronger? Or will I be able to do it on my own? Grandfather said the light was stronger in my aura… Where can I find that light if we’re still in here? Not the fire, not the shadows… Somewhere else there’s light… A strong enough light...
AJ appeared in front of the ledge, his hands glowing and shaping as his wings trod the air.
Nick gasped and vaulted over him.
AJ turned abruptly to follow his movements. “Nick?”
Nick somersaulted in the air back toward the crevice at the entrance. “Brian! Barrier me! But just me!”
Brian raised his hands and stretched the webbing between his flat hand and his clenched hand as Nick dove toward the entrance.
“Minako!” Nick wrapped one arm around her waist and the other around her head as he pulled her close. They tumbled and rolled to the ground as Brian’s barrier surrounded them.
“Nick!” Minako threw her arms around his neck before touching his bleeding cheek. “Are you okay?”
Nick pulled her into a sitting position, holding her close to his chest as he pressed a kiss to her lips.
He leaned his head on hers and gripped her cheek as well. “Ever since we’ve been together, you’ve been filling my heart with this bright light over and over again and making me feel like I can do impossible things. They keep calling it demonic, but that’s just you.”
“It was never the box or a miracle, it was just… you…” His smile widened as he stared into her eyes. “You’re my light, forever.”
She pulled him closer. “And you’re mine!”
They began shining with a bright sapphire light as they stood and Nick pulled her into a kiss. He held her cheek and pressed his forehead to hers. “I love you.”
She ran her hand along his cheek as well. “I love you too. But what are you…”
He beamed. “I’m going to light up the darkness.” He knocked the barrier and gave Brian a thumbs up. As the barrier slowly disappeared around them, he pressed another quick kiss to Minako’s lips then released her from his embrace.
AJ landed on the ground in front of them. “Nick?”
Nick clenched his hands to his heart and took a deep breath. He unclenched his hands, revealing a small light nestled in his palms. He smirked and bounced off his foot back into the air, flapping until he landed on the ledge again.
AJ took flight as well. “Nick?”
Nick held the small light between his index finger and thumb, then flicked the orb at AJ, singeing part of his tunic When AJ froze in alarm, Nick put his hand back to his chest and produced more small lights, which he subsequently flicked at AJ one by one.
AJ dodged several of them, but winced as a few hit his arm. He flipped and headed back toward the ground, landing in front of Kevin. He grit his teeth. “Kevin…”
Nick landed beside them. "AJ, are you okay?"
AJ nodded hesitantly as Kevin pushed up his sleeve, revealing several burn marks.
Kevin placed his glowing hand to AJ’s chest and began running his other hand over the burns.
“AJ… I’m sorry…”
"Nick it's fine, but let's stop. I don't want to keep dodging you while I decide what to do next. Buying time is not something I enjoy." He smirked. "But I did enjoy your private meetings in the open."
"I had to help Brian, obviously." Nick grinned and winked.
Brian rolled his eyes as he sat and put a hand to his chest. "Sure… I'm exhausted." The barrier rippled slightly, but he clenched his hands back together and calmed it.
Nick cupped his shoulder. “Sorry Brian…”
Minako ran over to AJ and hesitantly touched his uninjured arm. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m really fine, Minako.” He smiled. “Thanks to you, Kevin.”
Kevin nodded and continued to soothe the burns with his healing glow.
Howie clapped his hands. "Let us stop for the day. That was an interesting turn of events."
When the burn marks disappeared, Kevin closed his hands as AJ slid his sleeve back down his arm.
Nick turned and clasped AJ's hand. "Thank you."
Brian and Virgil released their hold on the barrier, causing it to ripple before disappearing entirely. Virgil placed his hand on Nick's shoulder. "Fledgling of the vestigial Celestials, I expected you to find the shadows from the torches. I did not expect you to rely on Her Esteemed and Honorable Eminence’s odd powers."
Nick clenched his fist. "I may be a… celestial... but that's new to me." He shook his head. "What isn't new is my family. If I'm going to get stronger, I need to draw from the strengths of my family."
"But your family are--"
Nick lowered his head and glanced away. "Long dead... if you're talking about the one I was born into."
Virgil paused and removed his hand.
Nick inhaled deeply and fixed his gaze on Virgil’s eyes. "But this one is very much alive. And… you had to have known it would do things differently. For Brian… for all of us...”
Minako gripped Nick’s arm.
He rested his hand on hers, glanced at her, and whispered, “I’m fine, I promise.” He fixed his gaze back on Virgil. “You said yourself, cardinal demons are supposedly eternal wanderers… Isn’t that only until they find each other? Until they form the clan they told you they belonged to when they were born? The one that uses pale blue light?” He shook his head. “Howie's asking Brian to do things you say your family doesn't do… or at least, not well... but Brian is trying for us anyway. So which one is more important? The clan at the beginning or the clan at the end?"
Brian stood and put his hand on Virgil’s shoulder. “I think both.” He smiled broadly. “Where you come from is just as important as where you end up going. That’s part of why you feel lost, isn’t it? Not knowing what happened before now…”
Nick lowered his head again, but smiled as Minako rubbed his arm, then patted her hand.
“But you’re right. In the end, we’ll all have to bring our strengths together into new strengths. We’re strongest when our strengths compliment each other.”
Virgil smiled. “The progeny of the sky brought to earth to bring peace cannot bring peace to a warring land if they are warring as well. All clans are equally important.” He gripped his staff. “But I acknowledge your point, Fledgling of the vestigial Celestials, there are different types of strength for different types of clans.”
Nick glanced at the ground again. “Just call me Nick, Grandfather…”
Howie crossed his arms. “If we may interject, perhaps this a discussion best held away from the battlefield, especially with our defenses down.”
Nick crossed his arms as well. “Then put them back up.”
Howie shook his head. “The tactics and strategies we practice will be incomplete without all parties, Nick. Eventually, inclusion is necessary. There are only so many slights that alliances will withstand before they crumble.”
“It’s not… safe yet…” Nick clenched his fists.
“Nick…” Minako started.
“Then we should have left him in Rubiihoppou!” AJ crossed his arms and fingered his forearm gingerly. “I can’t stand him either, he’s a monster! But the longer we keep him here without involving him, the more he’ll distrust you!”
“AJ….” She frowned.
Nick snorted. “What trust?”
Kevin put his hand to his forehead as he shook his head. “You’re creating your own enemy, Nick.”
Nick stepped out of Minako’s embrace and closer to Kevin. “What! You want him to take away your powers?! You want him to kill you?!” He growled and tensed. “Why aren’t we preparing for that?!”
Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword. “With more research… There are possibilities to counteract that power, but there is too much suspicion to question the source.”
“And what about Justin’s powers?! We can practice all we want to be stronger than his sword, but then he’s bound to give up on his sword and just use his powers eventually! How do we prepare for that?! We don’t know what they are!”
Kevin continued to rub his forehead. “Nick, we’re not trying to start an argument with you. It’s just facts...”
“We’ll just get stronger, Nick.” Brian cupped Nick’s shoulder. “These things just take time.”
He flinched away from him and frowned. “Then why are we focusing on me?! We have bigger problems!”
Kevin covered his eyes with his hand. “Nick…”
“More is stronger, I get it! But Ashley could turn on us! Let’s solve that first!”
Kevin sighed, then spoke with a frank tone. “Nick, you’re a liability.”
Nick flinched and stepped backward as he gaped at Kevin, then began breathing quickly and shallowly. How could you say that? You think I’m our biggest problem?
“I know you’re frustrated, but fighting with us won’t change any of that. We’ll solve those problems together after you get a handle on your powers, because they’re both prepared for the way you fight now.” He crossed his arms. “And then when we know what to expect, we’ll be able to work together better, like Brian said.”
Nick bristled as his fists shook. “I’m trying my best!”
Kevin put his hand to his head again. “It’s a fact, not an argument, Nick. We need to address these things in order.”
Nick’s wings flared as he tensed again and continued yelling. “Sorry no one taught me anything except for someone we should be suspicious of! I’ll go back and fix that now! Obviously I decided to be an orphan!”
“We all have dead family members, Nick!” AJ clenched his fist as his wings flared from his back as well.
Nick flinched. AJ… You...
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to yell at you, but it’s frustrating.” He folded his wings against his back as he lowered his head. “I’m sorry that it’s something you’re only just now getting to deal with, but that doesn’t make it more important than any of our pain.” He glanced up at him. “We’re a team, remember? We all decided we needed to strengthen our powers, so that should come first.” He shook his head. “And you’re the one who decided to accept his alliance when you didn’t even fully trust him before he told you the truth. You obviously still don’t, but you need to accept the consequences of that choice so we can keep working.”
Nick growled, quickly turning away as he hunched his shoulders again, then stormed through the crevice.
Kevin shook his head. “Let’s take a break. I’m exhausted.”
Minako frowned as she stared at the crevice. “But Nick...”
Brian chuckled nervously. “It’s hard to get a word in when he gets like that.”
AJ patted her shoulder. “Just go after him.”
She turned to him, her face equally concerned. “But AJ, you…”
He gave her a brief hug. “It’s fine. It’s been almost twenty years. I’ve had a long time to process things and grieve.” He shook his head. “He just needs to know that time doesn’t always lessen things. Just like how he’s angry about Ashley. Has a decade changed anything?” He tightened his grip, then let go of her. “I know it’s not quite the same…”
He nodded toward the crevice. “I’m really fine. Go after him.”
Minako turned toward the crevice again, but hesitated.
Kevin put his head in his hand. “Minako, go. Talk some sense into him. He’ll usually own up to his actions when you do.”
Brian laughed. “It takes a lot for him to yell at you these days.”
Howie patted Minako’s back. “We will accompany you.” He turned back to Virgil. “We thank you for your assistance today, Elder Virgil. Please know that we are grateful for all you have done for our health and comfort.”
Virgil nodded as Howie gently led Minako toward the crevice.