The waning sunlight bathed the rural landscape in an orange glow as the center of their star system made its descent toward the horizon. Ahead and to the right, the livestock were sectioned off by their respective animal groups, various farm sounds overlapping to create a distant barnyard melody. Scarlett watched as two figures meandered through the crowd of rotund beasts, performing their share of chores as early evening arrived.
She leaned against the wooden railing that lined the long balcony, her sharp cinnamon eyes on the angels in the pens. I guess this is where I live now, she thought to herself. A breeze blew against her face, and she shut her eyes and revelled in the final bout of wind before night would come. She inhaled deeply, a somber smile pulling at her lips as the memory of a face tugged at her heart strings.
Maybe in our next life, babe.
Her eyes opened but remained lowered. She did not turn to greet the angel who came to check on her. “Princess.”
Alice stepped up to the railing, her crossed arms a barrier between her torso and the splintered wood. “You haven’t really spoken to anyone in awhile. Is everything okay?”
“Peachy,” she said sarcastically. “Do you guys just not think about being potentially ambushed by bandits? Who’s taking watch? Are we all coming out in shifts?”
Her superior’s cerulean eyes widened, taken aback. “Uh… No. We don’t have to worry about that here. The human colonies of Wyoming work with the indigenous tribes of the midwest to ward off bandits–and we work with all of them to keep it that way.”
Scarlett frowned as she tried to make sense of their tranquil existence. “That doesn’t make any sense. There aren’t that many of us, and only a few of you have abilities–and, no offense, but manipulation of music and emotions and being able to talk to animals doesn’t exactly give you guys a great offensive strategy.”
“Never needed it,” Alice admitted. “The Neptunians have done their part to keep the midwest free of bandits, too.”
The newcomer’s blood ran cold as her leader’s words sank in. “We’re allied with the Neptunians?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” she explained. “We have a sort of truce with them that was negotiated by the human tribes; Chief Attack directs his demons to help keep the midwest safe, and we lend them Noah whenever they need a healer. Apparently, they deal with more bandits in Canada than they do the States…”
Eyes still averted, Scarlett cleared her throat. “ ‘Chief Attack,’ huh? Have you met him?”
From her peripheral she could tell that Alice had both shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, a couple times back when I first awakened. I was only fourteen, and all I had with me were Gin, Noah, Isaac, Aria and Eric.” She let out an embarrassed huff. “Without Wells, we had to ride over on horses. We must’ve looked like the cast of a half-assed, mid- twenty-first century western.”
Scarlett did not join her short, quiet laughter, so she continued, “Anyway, the Neptunians seem nice. The chieftains are all older–way older. Chief Attack was appointed, like, five years ago, and he’s already thirty–but he’s the youngest chief they’ve had since their reemergence.”
“Is he the true chief?” Scarlett inquired, though she already knew the answer.
“Nah, but he’s still a good leader. His matron, Nail, is his soul mate, and they’re both very nice. They have a bunch of members who are teenagers like us, the youngest being my age–but I’ve only ever met a couple of them here and there when they’ve needed a healer.”
The eighteen-year-old buried her face in her hands as panic flooded her mind. It’s too late–I’m too late. If Cytherea and Fintan meet, her chances of recognition are increased. If Aodh is recognized, then Fintan will remember Cytherea and search for her, and then her recognition is guaranteed. This mission is already a bust, and I only just got here…
“Uh…” Scarlett’s self-destructive train of thought was interrupted by the princess. “Scar? You okay?”
“Just peachy,” she reiterated, dropping her hands and meeting Alice’s inquisitive gaze with a relaxed smile.
Alice cocked an eyebrow at her act. “Uh-huh. You do know I can read your emotions with my pathokinesis, right?”
Her reminder soured the other spirit’s facade. Scarlett frowned and let out a small grunt. “Yeah, I know. Do you make a habit out of vibe-checking all your new recruits?”
“Actually, yeah,” confirmed the princess. “Not everyone’s had it as easy as me. Wells and Julian lived over in the Spokane colony with their family up until a couple of years ago. Their community was attacked by a group made up of both bandits and demons, and the two were sent with a couple other teens to find help. After almost two hours of driving, one of the demons caught up and ambushed them, taking out their friends and leaving both in critical condition. The demon got away, but the local colony that found them was in Neptunian territory, so Chief Attack asked us to send Noah. While he was healing them, I noticed the potential in their souls and recruited them.”
“You’re telling me all this why?” asked Scarlett, not bothering to disguise her annoyance. A group of both bandits and demons. Sounds familiar.
“Not long after the two were healed and Wells became our porter, Chief Attack and I gathered supplies and weapons, hoping to help the remaining Spokane colonists…”
Her soft voice had trailed off, prompting her subordinate to sneak a peek in her direction. The princess’s confident mask had cracked; her blue eyes had frozen over, staring off at nothing in particular as she wrung her hands. Alice caught Scarlett’s eyes and lowered hers to the ground below, swallowing the lump in her throat so as to continue.
“The group had killed off the entire colony–no one had survived, which meant Wells and Julian were the only family the other had. As our porter and Julian’s big brother, Wellington stepped up to the plate; he focused on his rank and our court, and still made a point to speak with me privately about his issues. Julian shut down completely; he didn’t eat for almost a week and had trouble sleeping. Eric and I had to take them both aside just to talk some sense into them. As our oldest guy member, he’s kind of taken all the others under his wing.”
The two teenagers gazed back through the French doors that allowed them a view of the main common area of the home. A long, curved sectional sat at the center of the room, positioned so as to bring attention to the fireplace to the left. The wood flooring between the sofa and the hearth was covered by a round black rug; white-toned ottomans and poufs littered the shaggy surface, the sturdier of the accent pieces carrying trays for drinks and snacks.
Isaac was working on the fireplace, stuffing kindling between the logs and readying a match. On the sofa were Eric and Julian, deeply engrossed in a one-on-one music lesson. Both held acoustic guitars, though Julian’s was of a smaller size to fit his stature. His smile seemed to be reflected in his large caramel eyes.
Scarlett counted the notches on his soul. “He’s only eleven… And Wells is fourteen, right? How long ago did you take them in?”
Alice turned back to the ranch wearing a stony expression. “It’s only been about two years.”
They shared a silence that seemed to cover their portion of the deck in a layer of tension. Those kids lost their families way too young, she thought. But the timing lines up.
The tension seemed to melt away as the princess sighed. “Sorry for bumming you out more than you already are–but that’s the point I’m trying to make. I can tell when you’re upset and need to talk, so if you ever want to, my door’s open to you–and if your concern is that I won’t be able to relate to your past, then don’t talk to me. Any one of your fellow angels might be able to relate to you, so turn to them. We just want you to feel comfortable here, and to speak openly about the things that bother you–whether it’s my vibe-checking, Eric’s music, or a dream.”
Scarlett’s eyes narrowed. “Did Gin see my dream?”
“Nah, Gin hates the idea of listening in on other people, so she listens to music as much as possible to drown us all out,” defended Alice. “She did feel your emotions and hear some loud stray thoughts as your dream was ending, though, so she thought I should talk to you.”
“Noted,” muttered the newcomer. She picked at her fingernails, awaiting the princess’s departure.
When Scarlett had not spoken another word, Alice nodded again and pushed off the railing. “Okay… Said my peace. Dinner will be ready soon–if you aren’t inside to hear the call then Noah will step out and ring a bell in your ear until you join the rest of us, so look out for that.”
Scarlett chuckled along with the princess. “Thanks, Alice.”
She heard her spin around and open the door. She heard the chords through the opening, and heard as their leader complimented the child’s progress. She heard the door shut behind her, leaving her all alone on the long balcony.
Alone with her thoughts.
A group made up of both bandits and demons attacked the Spokane colony almost two years ago, she reiterated internally. They killed off everyone there…
She crossed her arms and buried her face in the fold of her left arm, losing her fight against the tears. Odds are, the same group was involved–he was involved. And if he killed everyone in Spokane, he could have done the same on Treasure Island.
She gasped quietly, letting out a muted sob as memories came to the forefront. An older man with her eyes and long, braided hair, taking her star-gazing on a blanket on the mainland. His arm raised in the air as he pointed out the constellations, recounting stories his father had told him.
His insistence that she make an effort to get to know the colonists, particularly the son of their leader. His amusement when he discovered the two were seeing one another in secret. His confidence as he told her that, whether by the boy’s side or not, she was born to lead.
Dad… I’m so sorry.