21 km outside of Nashville, TN – 2:15
“How are we doing?” asked Monty, his voice barely rising above a whisper.
He stood at the center of a wide highway not too far from an on-ramp. Daya, his eagle creation, was perched on his left shoulder, her eyes peeled for any sign of danger. It was a different experience for him to communicate with her and his other ink creatures without his sketchbook as a filter; when he was younger, all he had to do was keep an eye on the page Daya or Leah vacated whenever he wanted to know what they found. Now, their every report came through in the form of soundless words and the occasional image. After several hours of this, they almost seemed to have their own voices…
Benji, Frankie, and Aldo were all discussing their next steps in hushed tones not one meter away. Maggie and Hank were directing the scouts and monitoring the hostages as they arrived; Cienna was seated cross-legged on the nearby grass with her hands touching the ground, her eyes shut as she concentrated on the rescue. Alexa was seated in a similar fashion behind her so that they were back-to-back, doing her part in relaying information to Cienna and the other psychics. Tony and Cooper were on either side of them; the former focused on his ability, keeping the sky overcast while the latter girl had her left hand on Cienna’s right shoulder, lending her illusions to the fairy’s vines. Cameron was providing first aid to the injured, of which there were far too many, and Chris Sr. was teleporting captives in one by one and away eight at a time.
Connor was the only member of their squad who kept to himself; he idled at the edge of the road between Monty’s group and Tony’s, his unfocused hazel eyes closer to grey as he absentmindedly played with his butterfly knife.
Hearing Monty’s question, Benji paused from their discussion with the older angels to address the prince. “Good, I think. The lookouts posted on the outskirts of the market report no movement aside from Cici’s vines bringing them hostages, and the squad watching Knoxville hasn’t sent any updates since we started the evacuation–but I also advised them to only report when something new happens, so I’d say we’re doing well.”
Monty nodded, distracted. “And Charlotte?”
Benji scoffed. “They’re doing better than we are, according to Gabby. Their evacuation is nearly done; Uncle Remi will do one final sweep before he heads over to help Cici.”
The prince nodded again. “Alexa, what’s our count?”
Without moving from her position, the psychic announced: “Twenty-two rescued, one-forty-eight still inside. Cici’s vines can only sneak three adults out at a time, or six kids, and she has to move slowly so as to not alert anyone, so…”
“Right,” sighed Monty, running the fingers of his right hand through his hair. “What’s Charlotte’s count?”
“Ninety-nine rescued, twenty-nine still inside. But Uncle Remi’s much faster–” she cut herself off to add, “Oh! Make that one hundred rescued and twenty-eight still in Charlotte.”
“At this rate, Remiel will be here in ten minutes,” Aldo chuckled.
“Doing the best I can here, so keep your comments to yourselves…” Cienna said in a sing-song voice, a layer of annoyance in her normally sweet tone.
“You’re doing great, Cici,” Monty assured her, smiling her way even though she couldn’t see him. “Keep it up.”
She smirked but said nothing, continuing with her task. The occasional crash of lightning striking the outskirts of Nashville masked their words as Chris Sr. busied himself with transporting the hostages from the scouts out of the field to the medics on hand, and Monty was grateful that Connor was doing his part to keep their entire squad hidden in spite of their differences.
Here’s hoping he can keep it up… Daya?
The raptor clicked her beak and spread her large wings, launching herself gracefully into the air. It took all of one minute to reach an appropriate height where she could soar above Nashville with minimal interruption. It was another fifteen seconds before he received her report.
Minor movement in the north; no movement elsewhere aside from Cienna and Christian. The vitals of the lookouts are normal.
“Looks like we haven’t alerted anyone yet,” he shared with the others. Aldo and Frankie nodded upon receiving the news, while Benji studied him with renewed interest. “Tony, give us some more cover, just in case.”
The royal advisor muttered his acknowledgment and shut his eyes, focusing his intent on the clouds above.
“Everyone else, keep it up,” he announced, and the scouts granted him their attention. “You’ve all been a big help. It shouldn’t be too much longer before the workload picks up.”
Maggie and several scouts regarded his remarks with nods and small smiles, but they all resumed their tasks with little interruption. Aldo asked Frankie something about his recent engagement with Carmen, but Monty wasn’t really listening. All he could think about was Lizzie.
If anything happens, I won’t be able to get to her unless Chris Sr. stops his work to take me… And I can’t ask him to do that, he reminded himself. Now isn’t the time for selfishness; Lizzie can handle herself, and she has Dad and Lori there to help her if shit goes south after Remi heads our way. She’s smart and resourceful–whatever happens, she’ll be okay. I have to believe that.
Then the prince peered over at his former best friend, who was still multitasking between his illusions and his knife. I wonder if we’re okay…
He took two steps in Connor’s direction before Benji approached him, their hazel eyes filled with curiosity. “I’ve been wondering–how do you control your animals? Are you linked to them mentally? How do they report back to you?”
“Ah…” God, this kid’s insatiable when it comes to knowledge. “Well, I guess you could say I have a mental link with each one. The strength of the link varies by distance, so I receive Daya’s orders clearer than I can Leah’s right now.”
“And you hear them in your mind?” they asked, gesturing to their own head.
Monty shrugged. “Sure? I mean, sometimes. Sometimes I don’t hear anything, but I see their reports as if I were reading the words in my mind. And if they have something to show me in real-time, it comes through like a picture or a video clip.”
The demon’s eyes widened. “I was right! Your creations are just an extension of you!”
Monty frowned and swapped puzzled glances with Frankie, Aldo, and Connor, who had all taken an interest in the Phebean’s analysis. “I don’t follow. What makes you say that?”
“Think about it,” Benji began, their young face brimming with excitement. “You’re an artist, a creative person who learns and remembers by visual means. When you conjure up a memory, you probably remember what you saw and felt better than what you said or heard, right?”
“Y–” The prince cleared his throat, his mind muddled as it tried to somersault fast enough to keep up with the genius. “Yeah, I guess so. I’ve never really thought about that.”
“And what about when they’re destroyed?” asked Benji. “Do you experience anything in particular?”
With another half-shrug, Monty added, “I mean, it feels like my energy is returning to me, which I always just attributed to me having to put energy into giving my animals sentience.”
Benji made a gesture that seemed to imply that it could go either way. “Sure, that could be it–but that wouldn’t explain why they have sentience in the first place. You can’t talk to or receive reports from something that shouldn’t be able to communicate, and yet here you are. And if they were given autonomy as opposed to being an extension of you, then at the very least your subordinates could give them orders at your discretion and the psychics would be able to hear their thoughts. But their thoughts are unreadable, and they only listen to and communicate with you–and they’ll listen to Lizzie, but since you can’t order them to listen to anyone else, I haven’t figured out why they respond so favorably to her…”
Benji’s words had trailed off, so Monty had hoped he’d be able to sneak off–if it wasn’t for Connor.
“It’s ‘cause they’re soul mates,” he muttered so that only the few of them standing on the road could hear.
Frankie sucked in a sharp breath; Aldo pursed his lips, unperturbed by the news.
Monty was livid; though it was not something the court had outwardly discussed, the rise in soul mate bonds in recent years had shed some light on Monty and Lizzie’s odd connection through his ink creatures. The Jovians were all more or less aware of the reasoning–and of Desideria’s prophecies regarding the former bandit and their sitting prince. They all knew about Lizzie’s pull with creatures like Leah and Hugh, and while a few different theories had been tossed around, there was one that had practically become fact: that Lizzie was Monty’s soul mate.
Monty wasn’t angry over Connor’s mention of this–after all, he loved Lizzie Peters, and the knowledge that they were bonded was more than a little relieving. What pissed him off was his former best friend’s flippant mention of this fact to a spirit who was, by all intents and purposes, their enemy. Yes, the tribe was helping them with the bandits, but only because it gave them what they wanted… And what filled Monty with rage was the notion that territory was not Chief Dane’s only desire.
If he followed his intuition here to recruit Phebeans, and Lizzie is meant to be a demon…
Monty didn’t dare complete the thought, desperate to will it away by simply putting it out of his mind–but Benji, seemingly oblivious to the tension surrounding them, let out a sigh and said the words the prince had been dreading.
“Yeah, we know.”
The four angels nearly snapped their necks to stare incredulously at the demon, eyes wide and speechless as they continued with nonchalance.
“Koji was recruited because Kent saw his potential–something he could only do because you let them say goodbye,” Benji pointed out, gesturing to the prince. “Koji saw the rest of our potentials the day of the carnival, and it was Dane who thought it best to recruit us one at a time. Personally, I think he should’ve just recruited us all at once… But I think he wanted to give you some time before he recruited them.”
Monty’s brow furrowed. “Them–?”
His inquiry was interrupted by an avian whistle from high above, and the sudden influx of information flooding his brain in the form of giant words:
HOSTILES INCOMING FROM THE NORTH! AT LEAST S–
Daya’s report was cut with the far-off sound of a gunshot, followed by a shrill cry and a rush of energy returning to the prince’s body. The speed of its reentry caused him to stagger; Frankie and Benji reached out to steady him, but Monty held them at bay.
“We’ve been discovered,” he revealed in a shaky tone. “Bandits coming from the north!”
All the spirits and scouts within earshot were floored by the news. “No–no,” Benji insisted. “We were careful. There’s no way–”
“Daya’s gone, and none of us shot her down,” Monty reasoned as he pointed at the demon. “Text the lookouts to grab whatever hostages they have and converge on us.”
Setting aside his anger, he addressed Connor. “Keep us covered.”
His friend’s only response was a nod as he refocused on the market, pocketing his knife and retrieving his pistol in the process.
Monty called out to the nearby angels on the shoulder of the highway. “Alexa, alert Savannah and check on Charlotte. Coop, help your brother–Cici, bring the hostages to the south and pick up the pace. Remi should be here soon.”
“Trying…” grumbled Cienna. Cooper stood from her crouch and joined her brother with hastened steps.
“What about me?” demanded Tony, determined to fight.
Monty shook his head. “I can’t let you do your thing ‘til all the hostages have been rescued, cuz. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
“This makes no sense!” exclaimed Benji as their thumbs tapped rapidly against their smartphone’s screen. “It takes two hours for the messengers to get from Charlotte to Knoxville, and they couldn’t approach Nashville from that direction.”
“Could they have taken a detour?” Monty demanded, but the teenager shook their head.
“No! There is no detour that would take them from Charlotte to Nashville this quickly and would have them coming from the direction of–”
Benji’s words caught in their throat as their hazel eyes bulged. “St. Louis.”
Aldo paused from handing out the weapons he and his sons had made to the scouts. “We were informed that the bandits haven’t upgraded to phones!”
When the prince and the tactician gave Maggie a questioning look, she cocked an eyebrow back at them. “The hell you lookin’ at me for? We ain’t been livin’ with ‘em for years–how the hell we s’posed to know they picked up new tricks?”
“Okay, fine–Chris!” Christian paused from gathering a group of captives, preparing to teleport away. “After you get that group to Atlanta, go to Savannah and pick up Tawni. We could use her skills here.”
The elder porter nodded. “You got it, kid.”
“If the bandits have phones,” Benji rationalized. “Then the messengers could have called up their associates in St. Louis and had them head over to ambush us.”
“But that means…”
Benji met Monty’s eyes, their own filled with indignation. Their shoulders shook with anger as they began to lose their composure. “That means that the Charlotte squad was discovered.”