But when she stepped through the doorway, the only sound in the room was her quick breathing. She scanned the sparse room, only seeing the familiar bedding, altar, shelf, and mirror. But no Nick. She frowned. I wonder where he went? Is he okay?
She turned back to the door and shut it as she reentered the hall. At the same moment, Howie opened the door to his room.
“Oh, Minako. Are you well?” His bright smile lit up the hallway.
She inhaled deeply, then returned his smile with her own. “Howie, how are you? Has your day been fun?”
“It has been quite enjoyable. We examined our plans and then Elder Virgil loaned us a book detailing military strategies through history.”
Minako laughed. “Howie, it’s a day off. You’re working.”
“His Majesty’s work is never complete.” He winked before scanning her quickly, then pressed his lips together. “Though, it seems you also have an agenda today.”
“I just told Nick I would find him when I came back.” Minako quickly stared at her toes as she breathed audibly.
Howie chuckled. “We will not pry.”
Minako glanced up at him. “Since Nick’s not here, maybe we can finish our conversation from yesterday…”
“What was it you called it? The power to create things?”
He patted her shoulder. “Walk with us.”
As she spoke, he removed his hand and began walking down the corridor. Minako blinked, then jogged to catch up with him. They walked down the corridor in silence, their footsteps against the stone echoing around them.
What are you going to tell me Howie? What kind of power is the power to create things? Is it something you used at the castle? Or can you only use it while preparing for fights? She frowned. Will it be okay if I’m the only one who knows about them?
As they reached the fork in the corridor, she peered down it as they continued walking straight. Madeline’s back with Eric… I wonder what Ashley and Jacob did with their day… Do they know we took a break or do they think they’re still being snubbed? How much longer can we keep working without them? She glanced back at Howie. I wonder why he’s so quiet. What’s he going to say? She held her hand against her chest, trying to stretch out the tightness within it.
As they walked through the bustling main room of the cavern, the figures and movement around her blurred. I wonder where Nick went… Her heart rippled in her chest and she smiled. I didn’t expect to be with Howie after my talk with Madeline. I really thought I would see Nick and we would… She shook her head and glanced at Howie again.
He continued to walk silently through the corridors with his head held high and his shoulders taut.
It’s strange… Howie’s about as tall as I am, but you’d never know it because of how he carries himself. He’s always so calm and collected, no matter what we’re dealing with. Even when Nick’s yelling, he’s always peaceful. Howie, you always do your best to keep us together. I wish I could be more like you… composed when we’re in danger. I’m always in my head…
Howie stopped in front of the crevice for the arena and gestured toward the opening. “After you, Minako.”
Minako froze. “Howie, why the arena?”
“There is some danger in using our powers when others are close. Safety is our utmost priority.”
Minako frowned, but tiptoed through the crevice and Howie followed behind her.
Once they emerged in the large room, Howie drew his sword from the scabbard and raised it in front of him. The flat face of the blade shielded his face as a gust of wind swirled around him. The light in the room glinted off his sword and the bright wind, but when the breeze dissipated, it reflected off the sapphire tint in his eyes. His horns nestled in his dark hair and his wings and tail sprung from his back. He thrust his sword back into his scabbard with his clawed hands.
Minako stepped toward him as she held her hands clasped at her chest. “Howie… I’ve never seen your demonic form before. Your eyes turn blue...” She glanced at his sword. “Does the sword have something to do with your powers?”
He smiled and patted her shoulder again. “It is related to our powers, but it does not control them. Rather, it is similar to AJ’s earrings or Brian’s staff. It assists us in centering ourselves as we prepare to use them.”
Minako pressed her lips together. “Does Kevin have anything like that?”
Howie bent down and picked up a rock from the ground. “Perhaps. He has not clearly mentioned what it might be.”
“Nick doesn’t… does he?”
Howie clenched the rock. “It is unlikely as he still has trouble accessing his powers.”
“I thought they were inside all of you. That’s why Grandfather told Nick to breathe, because celestial demons like the passage of time.”
“That is also correct. An object is not required, but many demons do prefer having an object that connects them to themselves.”
She grabbed his bicep. “I want to make Nick something like that. Something that can help him be stronger and stay himself.” She lowered her head. “When we were in the castle… I was... useless until we actually got the box…”
He cupped her shoulder again and his fangs glinted with his warm smile. “You were ill prepared to battle demons or swords.”
Minako laughed. “Even when you tried to give me your dagger, all I did was drop it once Brian closed us in his barrier. I’m so sorry!”
“That is a price of battle. We own many daggers; they are easily replaced, you are not.”
She frowned as she grabbed both of his arms. “Neither are you! Neither are any of you! And I don’t know why I have this power still… Madeline said she doesn’t.” Her head sank again. “I’d rather use it to help all of you than keep it…”
Howie pressed his lips together as he held both of her shoulders in quiet response.
“We are pleased that you are interested in our powers, but worry you are ill prepared for possible consequences.”
Minako frowned. “Like getting hurt? Nick will…”
Howie pulled back and walked toward one of the torches lighting the arena. With his free hand, he reached beneath his tunic and pulled a dagger from beside his thigh. With gentle precision, he slit his pinky with the blade as he continued grasping the rock.
“Howie!” Minako rushed toward him.
He hid the dagger back in his tunic, then thrust his flat palm toward her. “Stay back. Do not be drawn into the exchange.”
She froze and hid her mouth behind shaking hands. “Exchange?”
Howie held his empty palm toward the flame and a sparkling sapphire glow surrounded it. He cupped the flame, drawing a small portion of it into his hand. As he turned back toward Minako, he held the rock and flame in his flat palms.
“In order to use what you called the power to create things, there is a variable cost. Simple things require little cost. Complicated things require great cost.” He hefted both hands to lift the rock and the flame. “Here are two simple things, a rock and a flame. For this demonstration, we will show you a simple thing. You noticed that we cut our finger, that was in order to prepare the cost.” He rolled the rock against his pinky, smearing the blood across it, before shutting his eyes. A bright sapphire glow surrounded his hands as he brought them together, cupping both the flame and the rock between his palms.
A loud pop echoed in the room and Minako covered her ears.
Howie smiled and opened his hands, revealing a small sheet of metal.
Minako stepped toward him. “You… made the metal?”
“For a small cost, rocks and fire make metal.”
“Your finger… Did you guess that cutting your finger would be the cost?”
“We have made metal many times. We are aware that a small amount of blood can be exchanged for a small amount of metal.”
“You keep saying small…” She frowned. “What happens if you need to make something bigger or more complicated out of metal?”
“More complicated things require greater cost.”
“Complicated like larger sheets of metal?” She cocked her head. “So you did create the scale! Did you make bigger sheets of metal and take it to someone who makes things out of metal?”
“The powers of our clan require a cost, but are not limited to the size of simple things.”
“You made it on your own! Did you know the cost for it before you started making it? Was it a lot of blood?”
He glanced away from her and stared at the smooth surface of the small piece of metal in his hand. “Blood is a simple exchange for simple things. Little is required for something small. As things become complex, more complicated exchanges are required. Some things have been passed through the generations, but others have not. Like the orbs we provided for you.”
“Because you never needed to find the demons before? What was the cost for that?”
He smiled, though it was tinged with sadness. “The ability to journey with you and Nick.”
“Howie… But, you joined us at the gate!”
“You traded the orb for my presence."
She pressed her lips together. "And the scale?”
"Our ability to call you into this world and to our location. You needed to find us on your own."
As she walked toward him, she cupped her hands at her heart. “Howie… But those are intangible things. How can an intangible thing be exchanged for something tangible?” After reaching him, she cupped his hands.
He smiled as he pulled back from her, then sat on his knees. He placed the metal beside him and patted the ground next to him.
Minako sat. Her eyebrows knitted together as she furrowed her brow. “We’re about to have a complicated conversation?”
Howie chuckled. “Perhaps.” He grasped Minako’s hand. “Did Nick tell you anything about demonic powers?”
She shook her head. “Just that he thought whatever my powers are could help him control his… I don’t know how though…”
“Demonic powers are tied closely to the soul: natural, spiritual, and corporeal. Stronger demons access all these pieces of the soul when they utilize their powers.”
“But a soul isn’t tangible either… That’s why you like physical things? To tie yourself to your body?”
“Our Pandora’s ability to interpret information is astounding, as always.”
“So… you’re saying…” She held her hand to her face as she pressed her lips together. “When you’re focusing on intangible things, those physical things keep you in the present… And the more intangible the thing you want is, the more it requires an intangible thing in exchange…”
“Howie! Is there something you could make that would take away all of you?”
He glanced at the metal. “Perhaps. Our clan has not documented such things.” He smiled at her. “However, we would do our utmost to only exchange for things that have finite costs.”
Minako frowned. “Why did you choose your sword for a physical object?”
“The choice of physical object is extremely personal. Why do you suppose AJ chose his earrings?”
Minako leaned back on her hands and stared up at the ceiling. “I guess… since his body changes, he’d want something tangible attached to it… He still had them even when he pretended to be Nick.”
“And Brian’s staff?”
“His grandfather has one too. Is it something his clan ties to their spirituality?”
Howie smiled. “Perhaps.”
She glanced at Howie’s sword. “You said you enjoyed swordplay for fun…”
“And this power to create things doesn’t seem like it’s something that’s always useful in the middle of a fight.”
“That is often the case.”
She leaned toward him. “So a sword is also useful if you learn how to use it… Did your father teach you how to use a sword? Was it something you did together?”
“You are correct, Minako.”
“You mention things you did with your father. Is your mother the one who liked literature?”
Howie smiled, but his gaze was distant and glassy.
She frowned. "Howie… your sword… did you and your father make that together?"
He smiled at it as he gripped the hilt gingerly. "Correct."
"With help from a sword maker... or with your powers?"
As he glanced at her, his eyebrows knitted, but he continued to smile. "Minako… You seem curious about the cost. We do not mind if you ask directly." He leaned his head back and took a deep, wistful breath as he stared up at the ceiling. "To create this sword together with our father, the cost for the exchange was the feelings we both held for our mother."
"You don't remember your mom anymore?"
"She… existed… However, the familial love we feel when remembering our father is absent when we think of her."
Minako gasped and threw her splayed hand in front of her mouth.
He put his hand to her shoulder. "It is a condition our clan prepares for. Our father's sword was created with a similar cost. The women who join our clan typically die young, the cost of a life for a new life takes its toll on them."
Minako pulled away from him as she stood quickly. The women in Howie’s clan always die! And they forget them for swords?! Her stomach churned as she buried her face in her hands.
"If this has placed any doubts in your mind, we suggest you speak with Nick before deciding if this is the correct choice for your powers." He smiled warmly as he stared up at her.
She backed away from him, then turned and ran from the arena. Her surroundings were a constant blur as her thoughts raced like her feet.
In order for Howie to be born, his father knew his mother would die! Every time he creates something, he has to give up something else! Everything has to be exchanged! If I tried to help, I would have to lose something too! All from the very simple want to help Nick! It’s just like the box all over again! Nothing that seems simple is actually simple! And Howie seemed so sad when he was so serious! Like he knew that I would be afraid of everything once he told me! And I just ran away! That has to be why he’s been so secretive! He’s worried about how we’d react! Is he tired of all of it being a secret? He has to know that once I say anything to Nick, he’ll get really upset! Is he trying to keep us going forward? And I’m just running away from him like he’s hurt me! Howie…
Minako collided with something and fell backward. She threw her hands in front of her face. “Sorry!”
“Minako?” The calm, familiar voice seemed to smile at her.
When she spread her fingers, she stared up into his smiling blue eyes.
“Are you okay?” He reached down to her and when she grasped his hand, he pulled her up. “Your face is really pale…”
Her hand shook as he gripped it. “Brian, I’m--”
“Nick?” Brian frowned and turned over his shoulder.
She followed his gaze -- Nick shuffled toward them, hanging his head. Minako pulled from Brian’s grasp and stopped in front of Nick, reaching a hand out toward him. “Nick…”
He looked up and smiled warmly. “Minako.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him toward her. “Nick!”
“I’m back. Found you.” He smiled as he leaned his head on her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her waist.
She exhaled a shaky breath and nodded against his chest, tightening the wrap of her arms around his neck.
“I just went to say goodbye... Brian really…” He pulled back and frowned. “...helped. Minako?”
Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Don’t feel guilty! I wanted you to come, but you weren’t back yet. We’ll go again…”
“Nick, I would have gone. I’m sorry…”
“I know you would have. It’s really okay.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb. “You were already upset before... Did Madeline say something about Ashley? Did Ashley say something?”
She shook her head. “Howie…”
Brian cupped their shoulders. “Howie? That doesn’t seem like him…”
“I told him I wanted to help. Like how I can make those little barriers like you... Nick, I thought maybe I could also try to use Howie’s power to create things and help make something for you like AJ’s earrings or your staff or his…” She hunched her shoulders as she glanced at the ground. Tears dripped down her cheeks again. What if whatever that thing is would take away part of Nick from me? I couldn’t let go of anything from him…
Nick held her chin and lifted her face. “I don’t need anything like that. I have you.” He swallowed. “You think that would help?”
Minako’s heart thudded in her chest. But if the cost… Nick… What will you say?
“The power to create things?” Brian frowned.
“Like that demon finding orb we had… Howie made it, but…” Her voice broke. “But because he made it, he wasn’t allowed to come with us until it was destroyed. He said, ‘The powers of our clan require a cost.’”
Nick bit his lip. “That sounds dangerous like Ashley’s power… When demons are powerful can they only be dangerous?”
Minako pulled him close again. “Nick! No, you’re not dangerous!”
Brian crossed his arms. “Howie rarely uses his powers. It’s unlikely that he’s trying to be dangerous if he’s actively hiding them… A cost…” His brow furrowed.
“But Ashley--” Nick started.
“Is manipulative, Nick. He used you and tried to attack Minako! Howie has only ever used his sword.” Brian frowned. “Minako, did he say what would happen if you helped him?”
"He didn't say for sure…” She lowered her head again. “But when I asked him about his sword he said he and his father did make it together with their powers, but that they had to exchange their feelings for Howie's mom to create it..."
"No." Nick’s hands flinched.
"No!" He tightened his arms around her waist and held a hand firmly against her back, pulling her tightly to his chest. "Of course I want you to help any way you can, but…"
"Nick…" Brian cupped his shoulder again.
Nick shook his head, then leaned his head on hers as he clenched his eyes shut. "You can't!"
She buried her face in his chest.
"It would be different if it just meant your powers would be gone… But it sounds like his powers make you pay a lot to get anything!"
"But if you get stronger…" She gripped his tunic.
"I don't care! Not if you have to give up anything!"
"But what if it's only…"
"Howie's love for his mother?! His father's love for his wife?! For a sword?!" He wrapped his wings around her as he cupped the back of her head with his hand. "I don't want any object like that!"
"Feelings for a sword?” Brian frowned. “I wonder why it's an intangible thing to get a tangible thing…"
Tears began streaming down Nick's face. "Dangerous powers like that could change you, Minako… I don't want you to change because something's forcing you to!"
He bit back his tears and buried his head against her shoulder. "And what if the cost they wanted was your feelings for me?!"
Brian patted Nick's shoulder. "It's possible the cost could be corrupted like that, but we can't assume it will be that."
"If there's even a chance, I don't want that! Minako..." He lifted his head as he brushed her hair behind her ear.
"Nick… I don't want that either..." She gripped his cheek and fixed her gaze on his.
"You can't… You have to stay!"
"Nick… okay, I promise. It’s always you and I."
Brian's brow furrowed. "I would like to hear more about Howie's powers. Maybe it's for the best that he told Minako." He pursed his lips. "I'll get Kevin, you go find AJ, and we'll meet Howie at the rooms." He patted Nick's shoulder. "See you soon!" He turned and headed toward the medical wing.
Nick hunched his shoulders as he held her tightly. "You're always helping me. It makes me happy, but having you here makes me happiest."
"Your powers can help, but don't give them up to help. I'll always protect you. I swear."