Monty’s expression–which could be described as pink-faced delight at Lizzie and Leah’s snuggling–faltered, leaving a mask of suspicion behind. “Dane sent his own psychic to help us? Why?”
“Consider it a gesture of goodwill,” Gabby remarked. “We all want the same thing: to get rid of the bandits. Besides, you gave up four of your strongest fighters to help our tribe with our mission. It only makes sense for us to lend you our four stealthiest, recon-minded demons for yours.”
The prince took a deep breath, that far away look in his eyes again.
“If it’ll make you feel better, Alexa and I can conference while you guys continue the meeting,” the Phebean psychic suggested with a shrug. “We’ve got nothing to hide.”
Lizzie frowned. Conference? What’s she talking about?
“Actually, I think that might be best, just to put all suspicion aside,” Monty agreed.
Alexa nodded, her chin jutting out to one side as she gestured for Gabby to join her off to the right. The demon followed the angel without question, and Lizzie watched as the two psychics sat on a driveway, facing one another. Each spirit kept her eyes on the girl sitting across from her, and it was only another second before the human saw both of their eyes shine a deep purplish indigo.
She marveled at the sight. A psychic conference…
“Back to the matter at hand,” Monty sighed. “So, you guys think we should focus our efforts on bandit markets first?”
The scouts nodded, and Maggie added, “That’d be our best bet. With Charlotte and Nashville off the map, the gangs’ll be forced to head out west for more supplies.”
“I mean, they could just raid a smaller colony and take their shit,” Hank suggested, only for Lori to interject. “Yeah, but that’s a gamble–and they’d have to raid at least four colonies to make up for what they’ll lose at even one of them markets.”
“But that still leaves the problem of bandits from whichever market we hit traveling to the other and warning them,” Koji pointed out. “So what do we do?”
“Well, we have two teleporters here,” Benji noted, gesturing to both Chris and his father at the same time. “It sounds like we’ll need to split into three teams, two of which will hit a different market.”
Monty smirked. “ ‘Enhanced tactical instincts’, huh? Do you need a list of our members and their powers?”
Benji shook their head. “No, I’ve been interested in the court for years. I know all of your names and abilities.”
“Yeah, that’s definitely not creepy,” joked Chris.
“Nashville’s bigger, so whatever team gets sent there should have more people,” forewarned Hank. “Charlotte only just came up ‘bout ten years back.”
“And the bigger the target, the more area we’ll need to cover…” Benji surmised with a nod. “Alright, I think I figured out the best placement for everyone. Please indulge me for a moment.”
Monty nodded approvingly; the demon stepped forward and passed their eyes over the court. “When I call your name, please stand over there,” they requested, pointing toward Matteo’s home. Once they saw that several of the angels had acknowledged their understanding with nods, Benji began reciting their mental list: “Maggie, Hank, Frankie, Monty, Tony, Christian, Connor, Cooper, Aldo, and Cameron.”
The named Jovians stepped off to the side reluctantly, with Maggie and Hank joining them. The prince appeared particularly uncomfortable to Lizzie–he was supposed to lead them, and yet he was taking suggestions from a young demon.
I hope he gets over his prejudices soon, she fretted. These are my friends.
“Lizzie, Lori, Koji, Christopher, Cienna, Uncle Remi, Cassidy, Ricky, Vince, and Matteo: please stand by the driveway that Gabby and Alexa are conferencing on.”
Koji and the former bandits did as they were told, with Leah still bundled in Lizzie’s arms. The human settled between the demon and Matteo, her sister standing not far behind her. I know Benji said the Nashville team should be bigger, but doesn’t this make them even? She wondered. I can’t tell which of us is supposed to go where.
At that moment, Alexa and Gabby stood from the adjacent driveway, the indigo glow of their eyes dissipated.
“Perfect timing,” Benji told them. “Gabby, you’re on that team. Alexa and I are on this team.”
Gabby beamed. “Got it!”
“Um, forgetting something?” Tawni reminded her sibling, sounding more than a little annoyed.
“Never,” the tactician deadpanned. Then they pointed to the three remaining angels at the center of the cul de sac. “You’re with them.”
Tawni nodded and joined Desideria, Carter, and Lorenzo as Monty cleared his throat.
“So, which team is which?”
Benji gestured first to their side of the street. “We’re going to Nashville.” Then they gestured over their left shoulder to the opposite group. “They’re going to Charlotte.”
Finally, they turned and pointed at the four remaining spirits. “And they’re staying here.”
There was a short bout of silence before all hell broke loose.
“You’re benching me?!” Tawni screamed. “What the fuck, Benji?!”
“Don’t use sports analogies when you don’t even play,” said the tactician, as emotionless as ever.
“I’m not so old that I can’t fight!” Lorenzo shouted. “Put me in with Nashville!”
“Quit your complaining, old man,” Matteo called out from beside Lizzie.
“I’m not a fan of this set up,” Frankie protested.
“I have to agree,” Monty declared, his emerald eyes settling on Benji. “I thought the point was to send more people to Nashville. Why can’t those four join us?”
“Our team will have more people when you factor in all the scouts that will be joining us,” imparted Benji. “Send at least thirty scouts to Charlotte, have at least fifty come with us to Nashville, and the rest can stay here with the auxiliary team to protect Savannah.”
Cassidy frowned. “Yeah, I’m not sure I get it.”
“They’re saying that we can’t just leave Savannah unprotected,” Remiel explained to her. “So Desi, Enzo, Carter, and Tawni have to stay and man the fort while we’re all gone.”
“Exactly,” Benji affirmed. “There’s no telling what’ll happen while the rest of us are gone–that’s why I arranged the teams as I did. All three teams have a psychic, and the ones attacking the markets will each have a teleporter. That’s also why I think sending Uncle Remi to Charlotte is our best bet; if things go south in either Nashville or Savannah, he’s the only one who can reach both on the off chance that the porters are preoccupied.”
“And you sent Gabby to Charlotte because her telepathic range isn’t as far as mine or Desi’s,” realized Alexa.
The demon nodded. “And since our team will most likely have to deal with more enemies, I assigned Connor and Cooper to us, sent Cassidy to Charlotte, and left Carter home. With the help of their illusions, we should be able to take out as many bandits as possible without alerting most of them.”
“I think I understand,” Tony said uneasily. “But is there a particular reason why Vince, Monty, Cienna, and I are where we are?”
“You, Cienna, and Vince have great abilities for long-range attacks,” Benji explained. “Your storm powers and his earth manipulation can pass for natural, environmental phenomena if done correctly. Cienna’s plant manipulation can be a stealthy way to trap bandits, effectively decreasing their numbers. That means we’ll need you guys to provide cover for both markets while Uncle Remi runs Cienna back and forth: your lightning over Nashville, and his earthquakes rocking Charlotte.”
“We need to be careful how we apply their abilities, though,” Monty revealed to the tactician. “Tony can’t aim his lightning, and his power is tied to his emotions, which makes using them in a stressful situation difficult. And we’re not just trying to take out the bandits, but rescue the colonists they’ve kidnapped–so having Vince just let loose on Charlotte could be disastrous.”
“Not to mention what could happen to our own people if those two fire off haphazardly,” Matteo analyzed.
Benji scratched their chin again. “Then they’ll have to keep their ability usage to a minimum until we’re sure that all the kidnapped colonists have been secured.”
“Maybe we should stop looking at this as a raid and more as a rescue?” Cienna recommended. “Or we could make it first a rescue mission, and then a sabotage mission.”
“Good idea!” Benji gaped. “The psychics can search for the kidnapped colonists; Cienna and Christian can evacuate them in Nashville, while Uncle Remi and Christopher do the same in Charlotte. Once all the colonists and our people are out, Tony and Vince can use their abilities to their maximum output, taking out most of the bandits. Once they’re spent, the rest of us will sweep the area for goods and survivors.”
“Guess I should be standing with you guys!” Cienna practically sang as she sprinted excitedly across the asphalt.
Can’t blame her, Lizzie smirked. Considering her power, I doubt the court uses her much for combat or rescues. She’s mainly stuck here in the colony, tending to the crops.
“Wait–you never gave a reason for sending me to Nashville,” Monty reminded the demon.
“Well, I originally thought it best because Nashville is so much larger than Charlotte,” they explained. “The easiest way to sweep an area without attracting unwanted attention is under the guise of an animal–and since Koji’s limited to three animals back to back at eight minutes per possession, I decided that he should go to the smaller market. Now that we’re prioritizing rescue over sabotage, your animals will be useful in a different way.”
Before Monty could question further, Benji gestured between all three teams. “Let’s say the entire mission is a failure–maybe we’re caught mid-rescue, and lives are lost. If the psychics and porters are busy or dead, then whoever is left will have to figure out a way to alert the auxiliary team in Savannah. That’s why I have Tawni staying here–she can amplify the range of your smartphones, allowing you to reach out to one another across greater distances–but we can’t always rely on technology because it can break or be lost in the heat of battle. We need you to make animals before we even start the mission–and you’re going to give one of them to Lizzie.”
Lizzie and Monty shared shocked, wide-eyed stares as the demon continued. “We’ve all seen how your animals interact with her. They listen to her–and that means that they’ll follow her orders as easily as they’ll follow yours. If you both have an animal nearby, then you two can get an emergency message out to Savannah.”
The human thought back to months earlier when she, Frankie, and Connor were tracking Koji, Gabby, and Benji with Leah’s help. That’s right, they mentioned that Monty’s creations don’t listen to anyone except him…
Her eyes traveled down until they settled on the fox cradled in her arms. Leah yawned, seeming more like a living, breathing animal than a sentient ink creature. What makes me so different?
Several of the spirits shifted restlessly. “When you put it that way, it almost seems like you expect something to go wrong,” Chris quipped.
Benji met Chris’s nervous gaze without an ounce of humor in their tone. “We’re sending a handful of spirits and less than a hundred humans to first rescue colonists–any of whom could be recruits in disguise–and then destroy an enemy that could very well number in the hundreds. We’re too few spread too far, we have no time to prepare, and the enemy could overwhelm us at a moment’s notice. You should expect everything to go wrong.”