“What is wrong with you two?” she challenged. Her anger was rising with every second that passed. “Koji is a colonist. I went to school with him.”
Lizzie took a step toward the younger teens. “It’s going to be alright, you guys. I’m here to take you all home.”
Gabby and Benji hesitated, their eyes wandering over to Koji. The boy shook his head back and forth, stepping back.
“I can’t go back to the colony with you, Liz. That angel’s right–I’m not human anymore.”
She took another step forward. “Koji, you’re not making any sense. If you’re not human, then what are you? An angel?”
“A demon,” said Connor and Frankie in unison.
Lizzie blinked. Angels? Demons? There’s two different kinds of ‘em?
“Is that true?” she asked the trembling teen. He nodded, prompting her to sigh.
“Okay. I’m not going to pretend that I know what the deal is between angels and demons,” she began. “But I’m guessing you’re the reason we had to shut the carnival down, right? Because you crossed the border?”
Koji nodded again, but it was Gabby who gasped. “Wait–the carnival got shut down? Because of us?”
“Because of him,” Frankie answered. “Though you two shouldn’t have wandered off with him. What the hell were you thinking?”
“Demon or human, Koji’s still our friend,” Benji retorted. “We’re not going to abandon him like you angels have. You kicked him and his brother out just because they’re different from you!”
Lizzie froze. “They what?”
“We had to, Lizzie–” Connor began, only to be cut off by Lizzie’s command:
“Leah–bring Monty here. Now!”
Leah immediately stopped baring her teeth at the teens and sprinted back the way they came, leaving an angry ex-bandit with two colonists, two angels, and a demon.
“Lizzie, listen to us!” Connor pleaded. “Monty and their chief have a temporary truce; their chief is the only member allowed in our territory, and even then he’s only allowed when he senses that one of our colonists are actually demons for his tribe. When he recruited Kent and Koji, we had to let them go so they could be with their tribe.”
“You haven’t even stopped to hear his reason for coming back–” Benji shouted. It was Lizzie’s first time seeing them lose control of their emotions. Their orange-yellow aura was overtaken by cloudy blue and mustard yellow.
“What reason could be good enough for him to come and not his chief?” Frankie demanded. “The wording of our treaty was specific for a reason. Only the chief–”
“My tribe got wind that bandits were headed this way, okay?!” Koji shrieked. “I saw a truck full of ‘em myself. Dane didn’t see the point in warning you guys because you have scouts and borders, but…”
The boy looked at each of his best friends. “My friends are here. My family is here. My entire life is here in Savannah. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt just because Dane couldn’t be bothered to see Monty himself.”
Lizzie pushed past Connor and ran to Koji, trapping him in a tight embrace. She didn’t know what to say, but she didn’t have to say a word; Koji returned the hug, buried his face in her shoulder, and sobbed. She could feel his body shuddering, his fingers digging into the back of her shirt.
“I-I-I don’t want anything to happen to you guys,” he said between shaky breaths. “I miss you all. And I miss Mair. A-A-And I even miss school.”
Lizzie’s heart broke. “How many of you are out there?”
“F-Five other than K-Kent and me,” he managed to get out. He was beginning to calm down; talking had forced him to take slower, deeper breaths. “All guys. Two of them are around our age but haven’t been to school in years.”
The sound of lightning touching down onto the asphalt behind them, reverberating against the surrounding trees. A second round of thunder resounded, signaling not only the prince’s arrival but the council of elders’. Lizzie only had to glance at Gabby in order for her to rub Koji’s back and whisper in his ear. He released his hold on Lizzie and embraced his friend; she held him tightly with one hand while the other rubbed his back comfortingly.
Then Lizzie spun around and glared at the prince.
Monty was surrounded by angels, a bitter expression on his face. Tony, Alexa, and Chris all stood by his side–the rest of the younger angels were, Lizzie presumed, in the vehicles she saw off in the distance that were headed straight for them. Matteo and the rest of the council, except for the absent Remiel and Desideria, approached the leaders from behind, their eyes on the teenagers hugging a demon. The blue sky was now dark grey from all the storm clouds that had rolled in; thunder rumbled in the distance, signalling the oncoming storm.
Lizzie stepped back onto the asphalt and walked toward the angels until there was only a yard between her and the prince. She wanted to scowl, to yell, to lose her mind. She wanted to point out everything wrong with the way the court was doing things. She wanted to pull out her hair and scream.
The best she could do was gaze up at Monty with dejected eyes.
“Why?” she asked.
When a wrinkle formed above the bridge of his nose, she expanded on her question: “Why are you treating demons like bandits?”
Monty said nothing.
“If you met a demon, you wouldn’t question–” Matteo began loudly–but Lizzie spoke over him.
“I have met one!” she countered. “No, I’ve met two of them. I’ve known Koji and Kent for years now–neither of them would dare harm anyone from this colony.”
“You don’t understand, Liz,” Monty pleaded with his eyes as well as his words. “Yes, they’re spirits, just like us–but they have to follow orders given by their chief no matter what. It’s not that we don’t trust your friends, it’s that we don’t trust their chief.”
Lizzie narrowed her eyes. “Who is ‘we’, Monty? Who’s calling the shots here?”
“Don’t do this,” he begged. “Please. Not here.”
“Who is calling the shots, Monty?” she demanded. “Your dad? The council?”
“I am, okay?!” he hollered. “It was my decision to not let the demons in.”
“But why?” she asked again, her tone urgent. “What are you so afraid of?”
Monty stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I made a promise that I would keep you safe–”
“And I made a promise that I would look after all the kids who need a home,” she insisted. “I just found out that besides Kent and Koji, there are two others around my age who don’t have a place to call home. They don’t attend a school where they can learn and socialize.”
“Lizzie–” Monty cautioned, but the human continued.
“You can give them that. You can give the kids a home while putting the adults to work.” She gestured behind her to Koji. “He said there were three adults and two school-age teens. If you invite the demons here and revise the treaty, you can give them a home, let the kids go to school, and make the adults stand on the border for scout duty. They’ll have to protect the colony if they’re living in it, too.”
There was a tense pause as Monty mulled over her suggestion. Two cars filled with the rest of the court arrived; the angels spilled out of the vehicles, wary as they took in the intense looks of all those present.
“Where would we even put them?” Monty asked rhetorically. When Lizzie’s eyebrows shot up, the prince scowled at her. “No. No way in hell.”
“Who better to keep the younger ones in line than me?” Lizzie offered. “We have a spare building that could use some fixing up. Have them move in there and complete all the repairs in their spare time. Between renovating the building and scouting the border, they’ll be too busy to do anything else!”
The prince took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and turned his attention to the young demon. “Tell your chief about our offer, and have him bring your entire tribe to revise the treaty. If all goes well, the Semes Tribe can move into the halfway house by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Th-Thank you,” Koji nodded respectfully. “Uh-um, what about the bandits that are headed this way?”
Monty nodded thoughtfully. Frankie or Connor must have told him everything that went down before they arrived, Lizzie realized, her suspicion confirmed when she caught Alexa’s violet gaze. They’ve been mentally connected this whole time.
“We’ll discuss that tomorrow as well,” Monty promised. “Sam, Ricky, Natalie, Sal–take Koji back to the tribe. Tell Chief Dane that I expect to feel all seven demons enter our territory by noon tomorrow.”
The angels obeyed; Natalie approached Koji with a sweet, genuine smile and gestured for him to follow her. The teenager thanked her, waved good-bye to his friends, and nodded appreciatively at Lizzie as he followed Natalie to the car she had arrived in. The other three angels were already in the vehicle, so as soon as Koji was sandwiched between Natalie and Ricky and the doors were all shut, the car eased around the one Connor had taken and sped off toward the border.
“Lizzie, can you have your friends come here so we can take them home?” Monty asked in a gentle tone. Chris had inched beside them, his smile more of a grimace as he regarded Lizzie.
She nodded and waved the younger teens over. “C’mon, you guys. Let’s go home.”
It didn’t take much to collect Gabby and Benji; the two were by her side within seconds, apologizing for the mess they caused. Lizzie waved off their concerns and advised them to hold onto Chris as they had last winter for the prince’s after party. Once all hands were on deck, a flash of white light consumed everything around them, transporting them back to the complex. Benji bid Gabby goodbye as they dropped her off; Chris was gone in a bolt of lightning, leaving Monty with Lizzie and Benji.
The prince informed the humans that he had driven his car to the carnival, so the three walked across the street to the parking lot behind the distillery. After an awkwardly silent five minutes of speeding through the colony, Lizzie had delivered Benji to their front door and assured their mother that they were alright.
It wasn’t until after Lizzie had returned to Monty’s car and shut the door that the prince said, “We need to talk.”