The following entry has discussions of dark subject matters, including (but not limited to) endangering the welfare of minors and death.
READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.
“What do you mean, someone on the inside?” Lizzie inquired. “From Jesup? From Philly?”
“We don’t know, Liz,” Hank shrugged. “We ain’t exactly got the means to figure that out. They used to leave messages ‘round wherever we was stayin’, but now that we’re scouts on the border, they been leavin’ messages by our posts.”
“They know your posts?!” Lizzie seethed through gritted teeth. Whoever the hell they are, they’ve been watching my family for years!
“Do you think they’re really on our side?” Monty aimed his question at Maggie, who offered him a half-shrug.
“Hell if I know. I don’t doubt they got their own reasons, like using Savannah to take out our uncles so they can take over the gang. They ain’t ever lied to us before, though.”
Monty nodded, and Lizzie recognized the far-away look in his eyes as the one he wore whenever he was telepathically linked to Alexa and the rest of the leadership. “What was the message?”
Maggie wordlessly stepped forward and reached into her jacket pocket, pulling out a paper folded into a rectangle. She held the paper out to the prince, her dull mauve aura splattered with coffee brown spots. Monty took the paper without question and unfolded its triangle flap.
“What the hell is that thing?” Koji grumbled.
“It’s an envelope,” Benji pointed out. “Before the plague, humans would send one another mail and letters. They used envelopes to keep their mail safe.”
Hank huffed. “Safe, my ass. Paper gets wet, paper catches fire, paper gets ripped…”
Lizzie smirked, her previous unease dissipating. “Easy, smartass.”
Monty had pulled the message in question from the envelope and read it in silence, his expression grave. Lizzie was about to approach him when Matteo spoke up.
The prince muttered his thanks to Maggie, who was already returning to her spot, and handed the page to his father as he announced: “The bandits have strongholds of their own: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.”
Gasps rang out among the angels. “You can’t be serious,” Connor groaned aloud.
Natalie, who was grouped with him, Sal, Sam, and Frankie, gripped the handle of the sword hanging from her hip. Her head was shaking back and forth.
“You can’t expect us to leave you to storm bandit strongholds,” she challenged in a shaky voice. Sal and Sam nodded, in apparent agreement with their friend. “We’re your strongest fighters. You can’t send us to Florida with the Semes Tribe!”
“We don’t have a choice,” the prince reminded her. “They lent us four of theirs, so you guys need to help them out however you can. You’ll probably complete your mission before we even finish gathering intel on these cities.”
“He has a point,” Lizzie offered reluctantly. “The bandit encampments in no man’s land are small–they have no need for strongholds because they have no opposition. Jesup’s the closest one to us.”
“Not anymore,” Lori said. “After Clint killed Daddy an’ blew the place up, Uncle Clyde moved everyone left to first Columbus, then further west to Montgomery. Whoever’s been leavin’ us messages has been attackin’ them every chance they get.”
“Any chance Clyde’s dead?” asked Lizzie. When her sister threw her another cocked eyebrow, she sighed. “Right, that’d be asking for too much.”
“Then that’s good news,” Sal pointed out. “If there are no bandit strongholds in south Georgia, then our mission with the tribe will be a breeze. We’ll be home before Christmas!”
When all three of her siblings threw her perplexed stares, Lizzie waved them off. “I’ll explain Christmas later.”
Natalie tucked a hot pink braid behind her left ear. “Yeah, okay. I guess there isn’t a better option.”
The prince nodded and turned to Chris, who walked up to Natalie, Sal, and Sam. Gordon kissed Cassidy goodbye and weaved through the crowd until he joined his sister. The four angels placed their hands on the outstretched arms of their teleporter, and they were gone in a violent flash and a thunderous crash!
“Okay,” Monty sighed, turning back to the Peter siblings. “There are bandit encampments between here and Florida, strongholds in the four cities on that message you guys received, and the Jesup gang relocated its base to Montgomery, Alabama. Is there anything else you guys can think of?”
The former bandits exchanged glances as they weighed their own thoughts. “Are Charlotte and Nashville still markets?” asked Lizzie.
“I ain’t heard otherwise,” Maggie revealed.
“Back up–what do you mean, ‘markets’?” asked the prince.
“There are three kinds of bandit camps,” Lizzie explained. “Literal camps, bases, and markets. Camps are temporary points that all bandits can travel to and know they won’t meet resistance–the locations are always the same, but who you find where will vary. Bases are permanent housing for the men, their women, and the kids. That’s where the training, weapon-making, and family planning happen.”
“Their women?” Cassidy scoffed, just as Cooper called out, “What do you mean ‘family planning’?”
“She means the girls are auctioned off to the men,” Maggie illustrated. “The strongest men get first pick. Girls pump out as many babies as they can.”
“You mean ‘women,’ right?” Cassidy tried to correct the former bandit.
Maggie shook her head, her expression as cold as her words. “If I’d meant women, I’d have said women. I meant girls.”
The already pale faces of the Montgomery sisters blanched considerably. Alexa shut her eyes and hugged herself. Cienna’s hands were covering her mouth, her eyes wide with horror. Desideria was the only female among the angels who maintained her composure, though her glaucous eyes displayed a deep well of sadness. None of the men said a word, but Lizzie could tell they were shocked and uncomfortable by the subject matter.
The demons to her left said nothing, but she felt Gabby gently take hold of her balled fist. The motion relaxed the former bandit, even if only a little; she unclenched her fingers and interlocked them with the demon’s, grateful for her quiet support. Thank you for being my friends no matter what.
Lizzie cleared her throat. “Markets are the last type of bandit camp. You can find weapons and clothes at some of them, but their main commodity is people. Every colonist that has ever gone missing after a bandit raid is taken to a market and sold to the highest bidder–and the bandits they’re sold to can do whatever they want with them.”
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