“It’s still not holding long enough to connect. Aren’t you worried?” Near the entrance, Minako leaned on her knees and breathed heavily.
As watched her, Brian gripped the heirloom staff tightly. In the two days since he shot a barrier at her, she had seemed less exhausted, but their progress remained at a standstill. Without any hopeful moments, the chance to meet across the desert seemed even more fleeting. Brian shook the negative thoughts from his mind and finally smiled. “I am, but I want to keep supporting you instead of focusing on my worries and pushing you. It was driving me crazy.”
“I’m worried too, Brian.” Though she stood up, Minako kept her gaze fixed on the ground. “I really don’t want to separate if it’s not easy for us to reunite. But you’re right, it probably does make the most sense.”
He pursed his lips, then began striding across the arena toward her. I promised myself that I would just talk to you instead of being secretive. Now’s the time. Once he reached her, he gently held her shoulder. “Even if it takes weeks or months, Nick will make sure we can meet. I hope you know that.” After a deep exhale, he clenched her shoulder. “But, I also don’t want it to take that long, especially if it’s an emergency. How would you feel about asking Howie for help?”
“I do, I believe all his promises.” Minako rubbed her arm as she continued avoiding Brian’s stare. “I suggested asking Howie for help too, actually. Nick hates it because it puts you, me, and Howie at some risk, plus we don’t know the cost.”
“If it was made of metal, blood is probably part of the cost.” Brian frowned. The rest of the cost, though...
“And then something intangible…” She crossed her arms and rested her hand on her chin. “We have to think about what Howie has already made where we know the cost and maybe we can try to predict it. He made his sword with his father…”
Brian ran his fingers along the staff’s cold metal shaft. The concept was familiar to him. “To share something with his father with such intense patrilineal history, they had to give up their feelings for Howie’s mother, the matrilineal line. He acted like that was an expected cost, but I wonder how you convince a child that it’s worth it...”
“It sounded like Howie’s mom died when he was really young, a long time before they made the sword… But… when you’re missing a parent… I know I wanted to hold on to anything I could…” Minako swallowed, then finally looked up at Brian. “Anyway... the scale was the ability to call…”
“But the scale could bring him right to it once you did appear. What about that orb he gave you?”
“The ability to go with Nick and me to look for all of you.”
Brian ran his hand along his chin. “Matrilineal for patrilineal… And the other two seem to be something like giving up personal action to provide extra help. Are they opposites?”
“We want to get back together, but we’ll already be separated…” A hint of a grimace formed on Minako’s lips. “So that can’t be the opposite…”
“No, they’re inherently intertwined…” Brian pressed his lips into a thin line. “Would it be about the connection?”
Minako lowered her head. “I would hate to lose any of my feelings for you all just to get us back together sooner.”
“Me too. I wonder if what you ask for makes a difference in the cost.” Brian furrowed his brow. No matter what, we need to find something that won’t take feelings...
“Howie describes it like a contract, so exact words are probably a pretty big part of that…” Minako swallowed, then raised her head to catch Brian’s stare. “He’d be the one to ask though. Are you willing to take that risk?”
“I am. I think a fast exit strategy would benefit us. Are you?” His tone was resolute. Above all else, they had to find a way to meet again.
“I don’t think I can ever be as strong as you are, no matter how much time we have, so I’m willing to try anything that would help. But...” She glanced at the ground again.
Minako agreed, but we have to stop hesitating. Brian exhaled as he held the bridge of his nose. “I’ll make you a promise now. I will do my best to not let anything jeopardize our friendship, with each other and Howie or with AJ, Kevin, and Nick.” He lowered his hand and stared straight at her, hoping the weight of his words was enough. “I will do my best so that you can stay with us. I won’t let you forget Nick if I can help it. If my actions make any difference, we will get out of Emeradotouhou safely and we will reunite. Please believe me.”
“I believe you. I’ll do the same for you and Howie as best as I can too…” Minako grabbed his hand, then smirked. “Maybe less of the Nick stuff though.”
That did it. I hope I can keep that promise. We’ll have to be careful, but I also have to keep her focused on these happier thoughts. He smiled, but clutched his heart as he gaped at her. “How could you betray me like this! You’d let me forget Nick? We don’t have to be rivals for his affections, Minako! We can share him!” He started laughing.
“Does he want to be shared?” Minako giggled.
“Think of all of our rituals, worthless without me! Who else would tell you and Nick goodnight before you go to bed or that they love you in the afternoon? What about when the sun is up in the morning?”
“Sure that first one, but you just decided that the second one is a ritual after it happened a few days ago.”
“Length of time doesn’t matter!”
“And is that last one even a ritual, Brian? You poke me with your staff and say ‘the sun is up,’ then I hide under the blankets and groan. So you poke Nick and he either says ‘Bri-an…’” Despite laughing, Minako attempted making her voice deeper as she spoke for Nick. “...or does nothing because he’s still sleeping!”
“That’s a terrible impression of Nick’s voice! It’s obviously ‘Bri-an.’” Contrary to Minako, Brian made his voice higher pitched. “And of course it’s a ritual. We do it every day. You know, I miss that one most of all while we’re apart.” He brushed a pretend tear from his eye and grinned at her. “Should we stop reminiscing about it and go see Howie?”
Minako continued to laugh as she pushed Brian toward the crevice in the wall. “Yeah, yeah, Brian. Let’s go.”
Without the others, the meeting space in Howie’s room was an abyss of silence. Various papers and supplies covered the table in a thick, jumbled pile. The lanterns above the table glowed with the light from the flickering fire within them. Howie leaned his elbows on the table as he unearthed a cloak from within it. With nimble fingers, he folded it absentmindedly, lost in his thoughts. Will these supplies be enough to cross the desert safely? We will need some sort of shelter… Does that exist in the desert or is it barren until Kihouseki? Should palace horses have accompanied us even though the terrain would have been difficult for them? Perhaps palace guards should have accompanied this journey to ward off potential dangers...
A light rap sounded against the door. Howie glanced up, then set down the half folded cloak and walked over to it. A smile crossed his face when he found Brian and Minako waiting on the other side of the door.
“Howie, about our conversation from a few days ago…” Brian started.
“We considered your request while we were in the capital and have a potential solution.” He gestured toward the table. “Come sit.”
Once the three of them returned to the table, Howie pushed aside the cloaks and supplies. After gently pulling two daggers and a pile of stones from the pile, he set a small paper beside them and smoothed his hand over the intertwined circles depicted on it. A strategy table is useless in solitude. This is preferable. “We thought perhaps bracelets with magnetic attraction may solve the problem created by the distance.”
Brian picked up the page. “A physical item made to bind together... “ He glanced at Minako. “That could work, what do you think?”
“Something endless that connects…” Minako ran her finger along the circles, then brushed her hand against one of her hair pins. “Howie, do you have any idea what the cost for creating these might be?”
Doubt may make this more difficult. He pressed his lips together, then smiled. “We envisioned metal bracelets, so some amount of blood from each of us. However, the exact cost for the bind is unknown to us.”
“Do you find out when you start or can you guess by what you say? Like a contract?” Brian set the paper down and leaned on the table.
“As with your clan, words do carry weight.” Howie frowned, considering the implications of Brian’s request. “Are you hoping to find something that lessens the cost?”
“Every cost you’ve mentioned seems like an opposite, but being together is already the opposite of being separated. So just saying that we wanted to reunite wouldn’t do much of anything, would it?”
Howie rubbed his chin. “We cannot say for certain.”
“Brian and I made a promise to each other. We won’t give up anything that we share to make this happen.” Minako reached toward Howie’s hand. “Not for you either.”
Howie cupped Minako’s hand gently, both to reciprocate her feelings and ease her worries. “We appreciate this sentiment and will do our best to create a request that abides by that. Perhaps something that erases distance between our physical forms?”
“What’s the opposite of that?” Brian frowned. “Or will we not know until we try it?”
“The exchange must be started to know the exact cost.” Howie pulled his hand from Minako's and fiddled with the pommel of his sword, a pesky, nervous habit he adopted any time he felt uncertain.
“Can you stop it if you feel like the cost is too high? Erasing something feels like it would make something else appear...” Brian furrowed his brow, as though he considered possibilities without being able to name any specifically.
“It depends.” Howie glanced at the drawing on the table. “We have never attempted it, but our father did mention that if it is an exchange between demons, the other demon may be able to negate it.”
Brian crossed his arms. The serious expression remained on his face. “Do I just tell you that I want to stop?”
“It is unclear. As we said, we have never made an exchange involving another demon.” Howie frowned as well. Would only Brian have this power or would Minako’s increasingly demonic energy allow her to negate it? Or would she be powerless to the exchange? Though Howie rarely voiced his concern, he often acted in a manner intent on protecting those less powerful than him -- Minako remained one of his chief charges.
“What do you think?” Brian glanced at Minako.
Minako ran her hand across the hair pin again. “We’ve all decided that we’re willing to pay a cost to reunite quickly, so let’s just try it and see what happens.” She held out her palm up in front of Howie. “I’m ready. Do what you need to. If I don’t like it and Brian hasn’t said something yet, I’ll tell you both.”
Howie nodded and fiddled with the pommel of his sword again. Father, give me the strength to protect them from this. He pulled the sword from its sheath and held its flat face in front of his profile as a gust of wind circled around his form. The fingers clutched on the grip grew their long claws and his wings sprung from his back. His horns sprouted among his hair and his fangs poured from his lips. When he opened his eyes, the sapphire sheen glinted on his irises.
After thrusting his sword back into its sheath, he grabbed two of the rocks from the table as a bright blue aura surrounded his other hand. “When we request, be prepared to pay the cost for the metal. Use those daggers to draw blood, then spread it on a stone and hand it to us.” He leaned down and pulled a basin from beneath the table and set the rocks beside it.
“This is…" As he swallowed, Brian furrowed his brow. "How much blood is enough?”
“At minimum, a few drops. At maximum, enough to coat the stone. Slicing a finger should be sufficient unless we request more.”
Brian inhaled deeply, then sliced his pinky with the dagger before setting it on the table with a punctuated clink. After grabbing one of the small stones with his injured hand, he cupped his undamaged hand beneath the cut finger. He winced as he exhaled, then stared at Howie. “Ready.”
Minako inhaled as well and copied Brian’s actions. As she cradled her hand gently and held it to her chest, she exhaled slowly, keeping the stone pressed tightly against her cut finger.
Rather than Brian and Minako’s hesitant and stilted movements, Howie possessed a rehearsed grace. He quickly cupped the flame from one of the lanterns and drew it into his hand. After unsheathing his sword again, he sliced the tip of his ring finger as it pressed against the flame. Once the blood trickled down his finger to his palm, he knelt and lowered the flame into the basin. With a deep exhale, he bowed his head and thrust his sword into the flame; it sparkled and danced until it swirled around the sword and became a blazing blue fire. Howie shut his eyes as he finally began to speak. “Venerated ancestors, esteemed and fearsome alchemists, your disciple Howard seeks our revered power for an exchange. Is my blood adequate to begin?”
The ethereal and majestic flame sparked, surging as it licked against the sword. Then a deep voice crackled to life in the flame, rising and falling with the words. “Your blood is accepted, disciple Howard. Request the exchange.”
Minako gaped and stepped backward, but Brian quickly caught her arm and held her in place beside Howie and the basin. Despite his focus on her, the wide whites of his eyes gleamed in the fire’s glow.
“To create a metallic and magnetic bind to erase distance between the physical forms of a demon and a Pandora using the power of the Clan of Shields,” Howie replied as the others remained silent.
“This shall be yours with blood from all parties and stone placed in this sacred fire. Once the metal is shaping, all parties must pay the cost with the unbreakable connection of spirit.”
Brian tightened his grip on Minako, as though he sensed her growing hesitation. “Will you clarify, Howie? Are we allowing our friendships to be vulnerable and fragile when faced with danger?”
Minako gasped and yanked her arm from Brian. A bright sapphire sheen sprang up from her chest and pierced the sacred fire in a beam of light.
The flame recoiled down the sword as the fire sputtered. “Disciple Howard, the cost has been refused by demonic power that does not belong to the aforementioned Clan of Shields. This exchange is negated.” As the fire fizzled, the sapphire glow seeped from it before the flames died entirely.
Howie stood quickly and hastily set his sword on the table. The ancestors are correct, that was demonic power! Is that part of Minako’s priestess powers? “Minako!”
Brian grabbed her arm again. “What was that, Minako?! Are you okay?!”
Minako’s hands shook as she dropped the stone and quickly gripped the chain peeking out from beneath her tunic. “I… I just thought… ‘no’... Or actually... it was more like... ‘NO!’ Then the light just sprang out… I… don’t know…” She sank into the chair beside her, then hid her face with her hand as she continued grasping the chain tightly.
“We are relieved that you are unharmed.” Howie knelt beside her and placed his hand on her knee. “We apologize for shouting, we did not mean to frighten you.”
“I’m glad you’re okay too.” Brian sat beside her and patted her shoulder. “We all agreed we wouldn’t pay a cost like that, so I’m glad it got stopped. But… Are you feeling well?”
“Y-yes, just… surprised and… I really didn’t want to lose either of you… or… any of you…”
Howie stood, then sat at the table as well. The erasure of physical distance would have created spiritual distance. He frowned as he leaned on his tented hands. As Minako and Brian said, this is contrary to our agreement. Are there exact words that could change this purpose?
“I’m sorry I’m not strong enough to be more like Brian… Then we wouldn’t have to worry about that cost…”
Brian clenched his hand around the stone in it, then pulled her into a tight hug. “It’s okay. Like you said, you’re not a barrier demon. I’m happy that you were able to learn to be strong enough to do it at all…” He froze, then pulled away from her. “Howie…”
Strength… Howie quickly leaned back and set his hands in his lap, mulling the word over in his mind. “I agree, Brian. Perhaps the request is for strength.”
“Minako, are you okay if being able to do it makes you weaker for a little while?” Brian’s eyebrows pinched together. “You’re sure you’re feeling well?”
Howie patted her hand. “Were you feeling ill?”
Minako wiped at her eyes with the palm of her hands as a small smile crossed her face. “I’m really fine. You don’t have to keep asking, Brian. How about I tell you if I’m feeling sick instead?”
“Yeah, sure.” He patted her shoulder. “Okay, Howie, what do you suggest for the request?”
“Increasing the strength of the barrier users so they can connect the barriers across great distances... It seems centering the request on the ability of your powers or Minako’s powers would attach the cost to that rather than what the barriers are doing.”
“I’ll do that.”Brian nodded. “Kevin can help me if I need it. Minako?”
“Me too, that’s fine.” Minako held her splayed hands in front of her as she answered. “I don’t want this power for me anyway, so I’ll do anything I can with it to help all of you.”
Howie stood as the sapphire aura surrounded his hands again. As he cupped the flame at the wall, he pulled his sword from the table with a flourish. “Are you prepared?”
Brian stood and examined his pinky. After gritting his teeth, preparing for the inevitable pain, he grabbed the dagger and made a second cut beside the first. When he set it on the table, he held his uninjured hand beneath his bleeding finger.
Minako leaned down and grabbed her stone from the ground, then pulled her dagger from the table and made a second cut in her pinky as well. Once she set the dagger down, she gripped Brian’s arm with her uninjured hand.
The determined faces of his friends gave Howie the resolve to continue forward. First the cut, then the flame, and finally his sword thrust into the fire. After it reared again with the blue flames, Howie shut his eyes. “Venerated ancestors, esteemed and fearsome alchemists, your disciple Howard seeks our revered power for an exchange. Is my blood adequate to begin?”
As the flames rose and fell, the deep voice sparked to life again. “Your blood is accepted, disciple Howard. Request the exchange.”
“To increase the strength of a demon and a Pandora using the power of the Clan of Shields via metallic and magnetic bracelets so their barriers meet across vast distances.”
The flames flickered and waned for a moment then surged up the sword again. “This adjusted exchange shall be yours with blood from all parties and stone placed in this sacred fire. Once the metal is shaping, all parties must pay the cost with demonic power now and loss of strength later.”
“What do you think?” Brian glanced at Minako.
Minako nodded and wiped the blood from her finger on the stone before dropping it in the fire. “I accept this cost.”
Brian smeared his blood on the stone in his hand and dropped it into the fire as well. “I also accept this cost.”
Howie ran his fingers over the stones in his hand, then held them in the fire. “We are bound to this exchange.”
The fire burst into thick tendrils and snaked up Howie, Brian, and Minako’s arms before piercing their chests. Howie inhaled sharply as he deepened his kneel, sinking toward the ground. Brian gripped his chest as he gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut. Minako curled into herself, clutching the chain and her chest tightly as she shrieked, clenching her eyes shut. The tendrils pulled from their chests and snaked back toward the fire. Howie’s tendril spun in a bright, flickering sapphire corkscrew. Brian’s alternated between flaring and quelling with a bright sapphire web. Minako’s glistened with braided strands alternating between gold, silver, black, and sapphire.
Once the tendrils reabsorbed into the fire, it burst into a column of flame. “Disciple Howard, the cost has been paid and accepted. To create the magnetic effect you desire, the bracelet bearers must switch auras. This exchange is completed. The effects are negated when the bracelets are destroyed.” As the fire fizzled, the sapphire glow seeped from it as the flames died, revealing two bracelets in the basin: one thick and silver with a bright sapphire web wrapping it and the other thin with the metal braided in wide gold, silver, black, and sapphire strands.
Minako sank to the chair again and held her hand to her head. The glisten in her eyes had vanished, leaving behind a glassy void.
“Does it always hurt like that, Howie?” Brian exhaled forcefully as he reached into the basin and pulled out the bracelets.
“It becomes less arduous over time.” Howie stood and wiped off his sword with a cloth. Though he did not verbalize it, the pain of the exchange gnawed at his chest. Truthfully, the pain of each exchange mimicked this one, but he chose not to focus on it.
Brian frowned as he stared at each of them for a few moments. “Minako, should we test them while we both still have Kevin around to help?”
“S-sure… Can I lay down for a little while first?”
“Why don’t you keep yours until then and we’ll trade before we try?” Brian held out the braided bracelet toward her.
“Thanks… See you soon.” Minako grabbed it from his hand, then stood unsteadily and left the room.
Brian frowned as he stared after her. Once the door closed, he turned to Howie. “I need your help. Will you keep a secret for me?”
“We will always help you, but you seem uneasy about this secret.” Howie furrowed his brow as he sheathed his sword, then pushed the basin back under the table.
“Kevin and I were talking to my grandfather a few days ago…” Brian slid the bracelet on to his wrist, then crossed his arms. “Do you know anything about the sickness? They both brought it up.”
“Unfortunately, there have been many illnesses in Safaiananpou. Could you…” As Howie picked up each dagger from the table, he wiped it with the cloth before returning them to the wood. An illness both Kevin and Elder Virgil mentioned… “Do you perhaps mean the one where children are born feverish to a demon and human coupling?”
“Exactly, that one.”
“We have not seen it ourselves, merely heard about it. What secret about that illness do you need help with?” Howie frowned. “Are you well?” It is strange that Brian would bring this to my attention. The illness has not been prevalent for some time.
“I’m fine. Just…” Brain rubbed his forehead. “Minako doesn’t know about it. She seems fine and keeps saying she is, but… I won’t be able to keep an eye on her since we’ll be apart. Can you do it for me?”
“Is there cause for concern?” An uncharacteristic smirk accompanied Howie’s raised eyebrow. “Nick will be in your traveling party and not ours.”
“Howie…” Brian’s nostrils flared slightly as he spoke with a deadpan voice.
I did not want to know this secret! Howie quickly covered his face with his hand and turned away from him. “We see… We did not expect that to be the secret... Are they aware of our knowledge?”
“I didn’t want to know either, it was an accident!” Brain held up his hands while laughing. “They know I know. He doesn’t know, but Kevin is suspicious because of how I reacted to learning about the sickness. I’m only telling you because I’m worried about her... and Nick. I wouldn’t otherwise.”
Howie crossed his arms as he furrowed his brow. “But her demonic aura…”
“I know. It’s definitely there, I tested it. But she’s not a demon, she’s a human.”
“Perhaps being Pandora negates that?”
“I don’t know, I just…” Brian held his head in his hand. “Will you keep an eye on her health for me? Especially if these bracelets make her weaker?”
“We will do our utmost to ensure that she is well.” Howie patted Brian’s shoulder and his typical comforting smile returned to his face. “May we request a favor of you now?”
“Sure, Howie, what do you need?”
“Refrain from requesting we keep secrets on your behalf.” Howie continued to smile in contrast to his flat and biting tone.
“I’m sorry! I swear I didn’t want to know either!”
“We must continue to prepare for the journey to Topazuseihou.” Howie motioned to the door. “Please inform us when you and Minako attempt to ensure the bracelets serve their purpose.”
“Howie, I’m really sorry!”
Howie motioned to the door again, but remained silent. He hoped that Brian understood his meaning perfectly.
Brian lowered his head and slinked toward the closed door. “Thanks for agreeing to help me. I’ll let you know.”
When the door closed behind Brian, Howie sat at the table and began folding the cloak again. He furrowed his brow as he contemplated ramifications for his actions. Did I inadvertently allow Minako to pay a cost that would severely weaken her health? Have my powers injured my friends? I cannot be responsible for this danger! If that is the case, I must do everything I can to protect her while we are all separated!