Howie opened the door calmly with his typical warm smile on his face. “Have you enjoyed your time to rest?”
“What did you mean by ‘require a cost’?!” Nick dug his claws into the door and his face grew hot as he growled.
As Howie glanced past Nick to see the others crowded behind him in the corridor, his smile became a frown. Then he pushed the door open wider and turned back toward the table, revealing his wings resting against his back. “We suppose it is time we discussed the full extent of our powers.”
Minako brushed past Nick and followed Howie to the table, then reached out to him hesitantly. “Howie, I--”
He smiled, but his eyebrows pinched together. “An apology is unnecessary. We suggested that you speak to Nick if you felt any doubt, then prepared for this outcome.”
Nick stormed into the room. “Howie! Stop avoiding my question!”
He gestured to the table. “Sit.”
“Don’t calmly tell me to do things! What did you mean by ‘require a cost’?!” Nick bared his teeth, his fangs curling over his lips.
“Howie… I’m also concerned about how you get tangible things from intangible things.” Brian sat at the table and held his hand to Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, I know you’re mad, but you have to give him a chance to tell us. He can’t get a word in if you keep shouting.”
Obviously Brian’s right, but… Nick growled again.
Howie gestured to the table again. AJ tiptoed over to it and sat beside Brian, then fiddled with his sleeves as his gaze darted between the three of them. Kevin glanced at Nick, then sat at Brian’s other side as he folded his arms and pressed his lips into a thin line.
How could he agree if it’s dangerous?! Nick stormed toward the table, then plummeted to the chair beside Kevin, curling into himself and crossing his arms deeply as he bristled. Nothing bad can happen to them! He alternated between glowering at Howie and monitoring Minako. He should have said no!
Howie glanced at his cut pinky as he brushed a pebble on the table into his hand, then smiled at Minako as she finally sat beside Nick.
“Howie…” She reached her hand out to him again.
He smiled warmly as he held her hand gently. “It is time, Minako. Truthfully, we are relieved.” He glanced at the flame on the wall beside the table, then released his hold on her hand and held his empty palm toward the flame. When the sparkling sapphire glow surrounded it, he pinched the flame between his fingers and pulled a small bit toward his body.
“Wait, Howie!” Nick flung out his hand. When he glanced at the others’ surprised faces, he flinched, then yanked his hand back and folded into his crossed arms again. I’m still mad at you, but… you need to stay safe too.
“We are unharmed, Nick, though we appreciate your concern.” He laughed quietly. “Would you prefer we explain first or would you like to see?”
Nick bit his lip, but glanced at the ground as he felt the tips of his ears grow hot.
Kevin glanced at Brian and AJ. “Show us.”
“Unless it hurts you.” AJ frowned as he drummed his hands on the table.
Howie held out the pebble and pinched flame. His eyes glimmered in its light. “We appreciate your concern for our health, but we will be fine. Minako, you have already seen this, would you confirm?”
Minako lowered her head and nodded, peeking at Nick from the corner of her eye.
Kevin patted AJ’s hand. “I would help him if he needed it.”
AJ exhaled quickly as he smiled at Kevin, then fixed his gaze on Howie.
Nick scanned the others’ faces. They’re focused on Howie… He gripped his fingers around Minako’s hand. But you’re only worried about me. That must mean Howie will be okay. He tightened the wrap of his hand around hers.
“As we cut our finger earlier to demonstrate this for Minako, this version will be smaller to avoid further injury.” Howie rolled the pebble against his pinky as he stepped back from the table until he stood in the center of the room. “Simple things, such as this demonstration, require little cost. Complicated things require great cost.” He shut his eyes and a bright sapphire glow surrounded his hands as he pressed the pinch flame into his palm with the rock and closed his hand, then cupped his free hand over it.
Minako yanked her hand from Nick’s, then hurriedly covered her ears.
Nick cocked his head as he continued to stare at her. Huh? A loud pop echoed across the room and Nick flinched, then whirled his head toward Howie with wide eyes.
As Howie walked back to the table, an enigmatic smile crossed his face.
“Howie…” Brian frowned.
Howie sat in the chair between Minako and AJ, then uncupped his hands and set the minuscule sheet of metal on the table. He leaned back, resting his hands in his lap as he surveyed the others.
AJ gaped with wide eyes, leaning his palms on the edge of the table as his gaze darted between Howie and the metal. Kevin leaned forward, but kept his arms crossed. Minako glanced between Howie’s hesitant smile and Nick’s shadowed grimace, then patted Howie’s hand before lacing her fingers through Nick’s again. He squeezed her hand tightly.
“Grandfather didn’t say much about your powers… But I’ve always felt a void…” Brian leaned forward and tentatively reached for the metal, grabbing it after Howie nodded. He held it up to his face, examining it as he brushed his thumb across the smooth face.
“Minako, what did you call it?” Howie cupped her free hand. “The power to create things?”
“That is a simplistic way to describe it, rather it is the power to create things from other things, alchemy. However, alchemy requires an exchange for the combined item. For metal, rocks and fire can be combined with a small amount of blood.”
Brian gasped as he clenched the metal tightly. “I’ve heard of that! You can make fantastic things out of ordinary things, like gold from iron!”
Howie chuckled. “We try not to focus our energies on such trivial things, especially when that excess amount of gold would lead Safaiananpou into economic ruin.” He lightly fingered the pommel of his sword. “But when it is not currency…”
Nick snarled as he glared at Howie. “Why don’t you tell them about your sword...” An object more important than remembering someone...
“Our clan tries to only use our powers when necessary. So to compensate, we also focus our attention and energies on physical strength and swordsmanship.” Howie drew his sword and lightly ran the blade against his hand. “All children create weapons with their parents--”
Nick sneered. “And?”
Howie pressed his lips together as he gazed directly into Nick’s searing stare.
He bit his lip as he averted his gaze to the ground. I shouldn’t have interrupted...
“Nick, you seem to be masking your fear with anger. We understand that you are trying and do not mind if you express your concern exactly.” Howie smiled at the sword as he set it on the table gently, fixing his gaze on it. “We created this sword with our father using both our powers, but the price for the sword was the feelings we both held for our mother. She exists in our memory, of course, but we feel nothing, unlike our memories of our father which brim with emotions.”
Nick slammed his hand on the table. “How could you even think of letting Minako participate in that?!”
“Don’t tell me to calm down! Why would you let Minako help with that?!” He stood quickly, pulling his hand from Minako’s and clenching his fists.
“She inquired, but… You are correct of course.” Howie glanced at the ground.
“Nick…” Minako put her hand on Nick’s elbow.
His eyebrows pinched as he sank in the chair, then furrowed his brow as he fiddled with his ring. There’s nothing in this world… nothing in any world… more important than remembering you. Forgetting anyone is… He swallowed.
At the same time Minako rested her hand on Nick’s knee, Brian patted his shoulder and set the small metal piece back on the table.
The tension in Nick’s face relaxed as he exhaled, but he continued to fiddle with his ring.
Kevin rested his elbows on the table, then laced his fingers and leaned on his hands. “Have you used your powers recently?”
“Only a few times.” Howie leaned back in his chair. “The orbs I gave Minako... and the scale.”
“I always assumed it didn’t just judge hearts.” Kevin smirked as his eyes gleamed.
AJ leaned forward and glanced at Kevin as he picked up the small piece of metal. “Kevin, you never said… how did you end up at the gate?”
Kevin frowned as he pressed his chin into his hands. “In the midst of the siege, my Master placed me with a trusted friend who was a human. He intended to return, but then he was killed. My Master’s friend only agreed to continue to train me as long as I concealed my demonic appearance. However, by suppressing my demonic aura, I could no longer use my powers to heal.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “While both demonic and human healing methods have been useful in my practice, there are far more limitations to human healing methods. There was one day…” He narrowed his eyes and his gaze became glassy. ”We had a patient who couldn’t be healed with human methods. My new mentor insisted that these things happened, but my heart was breaking for the child’s screaming, begging mother and the child who had only just begun to live… I knew that I could save that child and extend its life…” He shut his eyes. “So I unleashed my powers to give it that small chance to exist in the world.”
“You did a noble thing.” Brian cupped his hand on Kevin’s shoulder.
Kevin smirked again and chuckled derisively. “Ah yes, humans will focus on the nobility and not the demonic.”
“Kevin?” AJ patted Kevin’s shoulder as well.
“After discovering that I was a demon, they planned on killing me, but, thankfully, my new mentor insisted that I was taken to the palace for judgement. The king never saw me and didn’t kill me, of course.” He glanced at Howie. “I thought it was strange at the time, but it makes sense now. Of course Howie would never kill another cardinal demon. Instead, he ordered me to be placed at the gate with the scales to judge the hearts of passersby. But… I was told that the scale was only for women.”
“In order for the item we planned to create to function properly, we needed a demon who could remove a heart without killing and heal a body when the organ was replaced. It was fortuitous, actually, and even more so because the demon that appeared in the palace ‘healed with pale blue light’ according to the citizens.”
“It wasn’t just the power to judge hearts? That would be too simple.” Brian frowned and furrowed his brow. “Did it actually hold the power to seek out the purity inherent in Pandoras? If it was for that and not judging hearts, then of course it would only work for women…”
Kevin smirked. “I always suspected that to be true, because who else would need a gate without papers? What women would travel across countries? As AJ said, most people, women or otherwise, would hardly leave their homes in a world of war unless they needed to.”
AJ frowned. “But then they would have papers.”
Howie averted his gaze to the ground. “Correct.”
“What was the cost for that?” Nick grimaced as he fiddled with his ring. You and your father were willing to forget your mother for a sword… What would you pay to have something that could find Minako?
“When we provided the orbs for Minako, we gave up our ability to journey with you until they were destroyed. As we said, more complicated things require greater cost. Unlike with our practiced simple things, we often do not know this cost before beginning the exchange unless our ancestors had requested similar things. For the scale, that cost was…” He swallowed and fixed his gaze on Nick. “...Our ability to call and search for Pandora. When we all desperately called together, surely she would hear our prayers and descend. However, would the calling be loud enough when we lost our ability to assist? Suddenly, we depended on one of you to find her and then seek us out in the palace.”
Nick frowned as his stomach sank. “Howie…”
He smiled. “Thank you, Nick for coming to us.” He glanced at the ground again. “However, our Pandora did not descend when Topaz and Ruby appeared, so we fear the calling was merely a whisper.”
Kevin leaned his elbows on the table again and then rested his chin on his tented hands. “I also stopped calling. When I started to suspect that the scale was for finding our Pandora, I put my faith in it and the hope that she would happen to appear to it eventually. When Ruby and Topaz appeared, that only strengthened my belief in the scale, but not my own voice and spirit.”
“Minako… AJ… Nick... I’m sorry…I also stopped calling.” Brian gazed at the stone walls around the room. “I knew that even if it was horrible in the world, it was likely that I would always have a safe and protected home to return to. I was never desperate to be saved…” He swallowed forcefully. ”Which seems callous to say in light of everyone’s tragedies...”
Howie glanced between AJ and Nick. “It seems the strength of our calls only depended on the youngest demons’ hope and prayer.”
AJ briefly glanced at Nick, then fiddled with his sleeve as he stared at the ground. “Minako… Nick... I’m really sorry… With my family gone, I found a new family in the troupe and Joseph… And I believed it when my mentor convinced me you would never come, and that even if you did, that you weren’t interested in me for me, just me as a tool. So I lost hope, stopped trying, and accepted that being a sapphire demon didn’t matter.” He clenched his fists against his thighs. “Maybe if I hadn’t given up, if I kept hoping… You would have come sooner and I would have been stronger in the castle… I’m so sorry!” He clenched his eyes shut tightly.
“AJ, Brian, Kevin, Howie…” Minako clenched her hands at her heart. “It’s really okay. I’m happy that I was able to help and support you. I’m… sorry that I didn’t arrive before you felt like I was never coming. Really… I want to do anything you ask… anything you need.”
Nick clenched his fist and growled as his head sank. Just me… only me… Would I have waited as long if they’d been calling too?
AJ reached across the table and put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “It’s okay if you stopped too…”
Nick hunched his shoulders and swallowed. All alone in the dark… Screaming alone in the dark... “No… It was… all I did sometimes… Knowing you were all out there… waiting… was all I had… sometimes...” He glanced up at Howie. “Don’t… don’t make a single thing that would change any of you, including yourself...”
Minako put her hand to his cheek. “Nick…”
He gripped her hand as he locked his gaze on her eyes. “I can’t wait for you again. My heart would break.”
“Nick, I already promised you.” She brushed her thumb on his cheek. “I’ll always stay. You and me.”
He swallowed and exhaled a shaky breath, the moisture in his eyes glinting with light. That’s all I want. You and me and all of us.
“To the demon most desperate indeed…” Howie leaned back against his chair. “It is good fortune that we all had you to remain vigilant.”
Desperate… Nick’s heart sank into his stomach. I’m desperate when we were all waiting... He snorted, then glanced at the floor as he mumbled. “It’s easy to be the most desperate when no one else is at all.”
Brian stared at him intently and frowned. “Nick… You’re allowed to be mad. Just say so instead of being sarcastic.”
Nick slammed his hand on the table and pulled away from Minako as he stood. “Fine! I’m still angry that Howie would even consider involving Minako in powers like that! When she could forget us! Let alone whatever he would have to give up too! What kind of object is worth forgetting everyone you care about?! And then to hear that you all didn’t care if she came at all! Calling me desperate while you’re happy! I’m so…” He growled. “...frustrated… that we’re even having this conversation!”
“Nick…” Brian stood and reached his hand toward his shoulder.
Nick flinched backward, pushing his hand away. “You said that I’m allowed to be mad, Brian!” He turned away from the table and stormed back toward the door. “I’m going on a walk! Don’t follow me!”
Across from the craggy rock face, the sunset silhouetted the lone tree at the edge of the path before it met the sharp slope of the mountain. Nestled in its branches, Nick peered at the valley below him as shadows stretched into the vanishing rays, creating a glistening haze over the landscape.
As he held his hand to his chest, a small orb of light formed in his palm; after pulling his hand away, he peered at it, then flicked it to the barren ground beneath the tree. Its embers sparked and flared, then died down against the rock. He put his hand to his chest again, created another orb, then flicked it again. As he watched the landscape slowly fade into night, he continuously repeated this process, focusing on his thoughts filling the silence.
Does every strong demon constantly have to make decisions that affect other people? Do their powers only hurt constantly? I don't want to be that… At least Howie seemed sad that his powers could hurt everyone or himself… Ashley doesn’t seem to care… And Justin even less… If I became something that couldn’t see Minako... something that could hurt them… I would never forgive myself.
Howie said that my clan probably did care about the difference between creating and destroying… I wonder what they said to children who could only destroy… Were they shunned? If I could only destroy, would they accept me? What if I was dangerous when I was destructive? Would they help me? Everyone… Minako… Would you still accept me if my power could hurt you?
"You're just like Ashley, hiding in the treetops." The voice pierced through his thoughts.
He peered down toward the base of the tree and pressed his lips into a thin line. "Madeline…"
"Once you're in, they don't make it very easy to get out, do they?" She gestured to the two barrier demons resting against the rock next to the entrance’s crevice.
He glanced at the demons near the entrance, then stared back into the distance ahead of him. "It's fine. I just wanted some space and some fresh air…"
She put her hands to her hips. "You know your demon buddies can just fly up there and join you. Unless you meant space from your wife." She winked.
"Madeline, stop." Nick’s nose wrinkled as he frowned.
She crossed her arms. "You are touchy right now. Do you want someone to talk to who isn't knee deep in your business?"
Nick stared back down at her.
"You can say no. I just came out for some fresh air too."
"Okay." He jumped from the branch, using his wings to slow his fall, then sat on the ground next to the base of the tree, pulling his knees to his chest and resting his hands on them.
Madeline sat cross-legged beside him. "I'm surprised you all ever want space from each other, you're like grapes… all bunched up together." She imitated squishing her hands together.
"I was angry and it wasn't solving any problems to yell at them anymore." Nick leaned on his knees as he laughed quietly. “It never really does. I just…”
"I get it. We're all cooped up here, so tensions are high. Sorry Erik is taking so long to heal."
"It takes time. You don't need to apologize for that. I’m glad that Kevin can help him." He lifted his head and stared into the distance. "Hey… What was your relationship with Ashley really like? I know what I saw, but..."
Madeline laughed and held her forehead. “You and Minako need to stop talking to me and just solve your problems together.”
Nick cocked his head and blinked as he stared at her.
“She’s lucky. You’re very genuine and open in your feelings whenever she’s involved.” Madeline smiled wistfully, then put her hands in her lap. "I’m starting to think that maybe I always liked him more than he liked me… But I kept pushing so that we would work out. We struggled a lot over who was in charge, but I'm sure you remember that…"
Nick smirked. “Maybe that’s why your legends call you condescending, because you two were always arguing.”
A sad, short laugh escaped Madeline’s lips as she stared into the distance. “There were a lot of times it was bitter and angry, but there were many other times where it was fierce and passionate. To be honest, I loved fighting with him. It meant I got to prove that I was right.” She turned to Nick. “You and Minako don’t really fight, do you?”
“Not really…” He leaned back against the tree. “In the beginning, we argued more, but… No… I argued more. I wasn’t ready to fully trust or hope again… I was still fixated on thinking I was a monster. She just…” He held his breath for a moment, but an adoring smile formed on his lips as he exhaled. “She just smiled at me like I could have any feeling or any reaction and be only myself. I got to stop worrying about being a monster and got to be just Nick… And Nick could be… anyone I wanted and she would still smile at me. Everything felt easier after that, even when things were difficult.”
Madeline remained silent, as she scrunched her nose and cheeks.
“When we first came back here, we did fight... but we weren’t actually angry, we were sad… Once we talked everything out and committed to choosing each other while we kept our initial promise, things felt easier again.” He turned to Madeline and frowned. “You’re very quiet, but you’re making a face. What do you want to say?”
Madeline crossed her arms. “So many things, but I’m mostly happy that you were opening up to me, so I was just going to let you talk as long as you wanted. We’ve never really talked like this.” She put her hand to her cheek. “I guess, what was the promise you made to each other?”
“To stay… To take care of each other and protect each other… To tell each other what we were feeling… We weren’t always good at keeping those promises in the beginning, but we tried. Then, in the end when Minako did get the box, everything happened so quickly and she made decisions without saying why…” He looked down. “It felt like being left behind again. I didn’t know why she was making the wishes she made… It was… devastating. But when we came back and could discuss everything in a calm setting, we recommitted to our promise and agreed to always decide together.” He clenched his fist. “I’m not mad at her, she talked to me right away, but I can’t… I can’t lose her… I can’t wait for her again… It was…”
“That was my other question. What happened after we… left you?”
Nick gripped his knees and swallowed. “I…”
“Do you not remember?”
"I don't know… I kept having this dream about my family that seemed more like a memory than a dream…" He put his head in his hands. "And now I started dreaming about the castle and the false God… and me as a monster, but that seems more like a worry than a memory…"
"Did you tell them?"
"No… I was going to tell Minako, but then everything came up with Howie's powers… I just… don’t think I can tell them until I know for sure the castle dream is a memory and not just a worry." He bit his lip. “I… hated hearing how Ashley found me… His plans… It’s hard suddenly having to accept the things I couldn’t when I was younger… But they're all a really strong support system and they've been helping me through it. I know that when I do tell them anything, they’ll keep helping.” He smiled.
She put her hand to his shoulder. “Have you told them that?”
He exhaled through his nose as a smile quirked on his lips. “Yes and no.”
“Sounds like you’re mad at them with extra information they don’t know…” Madeline leaned back on her hands. “It seems easier for you to start with her, plus you said that you and Minako promised to talk to each other and make decisions together. So?”
“I know.” His smile grew. “I’ll tell her.” He glanced at the sun sinking in the distance. “Actually, I promised…”
“Just go.” Madeline waved her hand as she laughed. “Promise me you’ll talk to her about everything you both have going on. These heart-to-hearts are fun, but only interesting for so long when I’m in the middle.”
Nick frowned as he cocked his head.
“Everything’s fine. Go find her and tell her that you’re not mad at her.”
Nick nodded quickly as he stood, then ran across the path to the crevice in the craggy rock face. I’ll tell her… A lot actually… Just us, Minako.