The demon Saakir breathed out a sigh that vanished in the sound of wing-gusts as their feet touched the ground. They gave their report one and a half times to the tired youth who had stood guard through the night over a village called Sacred Hill, and had stood that same guard every night for months, ever since he left Azier at the beginning of the school year. The day he left was the day after Corona Winter had received a letter of warning from Meryville from his brother, urging him in vain to flee his home with his sons. Corona had told only Deric Rider of this letter, and Deric had told no one else—aside from the warning he gave to Faenon in the midst of a mock battle, that dark plea of, “You’ve got to get better than this”—but this plucky young student had always had his own information channels.
“So we’re free,” said Raz Itona, rubbing his eyes. “I mean, we’re safe. We’re safe, right?”
“You’re free, Raz,” said Saakir. “I can tell you the rest once you’ve slept.”
“What’s the rest?” he asked.
Saakir almost smirked. “The rest is rest.”
“I have to stay up till next watch takes over, anyway,” Raz yawned. “Just tell me now.”
“First of all, as I’ve said at least twice now, I’ve confirmed that the mercenaries’ target was not Sacred Hill, so you can leave your post whenever you’d like,” Saakir said slowly, “and second, it would take me longer than the hour until sunrise to talk about what I’ve just seen.”
Raz’s tired eyes went wide. “Is it our stuff?” he guessed. “Get the twins, wake ’em up and we’ll go. What are we dealing with, bad elven lights again? Or is it something Seech needs to look into?”
“It’s already a paradox,” Saakir said. “Our only option at this point is damage control. And that makes it… a delicate issue.”
“It’s someone we know, isn’t it,” Raz muttered. “There’s an impostor of someone we know.”
“It may be as many as three to five people you know,” said Saakir. “Go to bed knowing that I was right, and you should have stayed in Azier.”
“Rune.” Raz rubbed his palms down his face. “Watched him for a year, nothing. Soon as we leave, he figures it out.”
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Raz held his head in his hands for a few more seconds, then said, “Get the team together before I pass out. Brief us, then whatever… delicacies there are, I’ll sleep on it. We’ll come up with a plan.”
Saakir hesitated when Raz headed back towards the village. They felt the shiver run through his body when they touched his shoulder to stop him.
“I wanted to wait because I haven’t yet decided whether everyone should hear it.” They glanced at the ground. “Were it not for your incessant need to know everything that’s going on, I wouldn’t want to tell you.”
The thoughts played out slowly but plainly on Raz’s face. “You weren’t going to… Saakir, who… who’s the impostor?”
Saakir tightened their grip on Raz’s shoulder. “I found Daion.”
The sound of the name made Raz flinch. Saakir recognized the stony look taking over his face as his gaze fell to the ground. It was the one he wore whenever things did not go according to plan: when he shut down his smiles and humor and channeled every joule of brainpower into processing a plan, a compromise, a way to survive. Saakir knew what happened to that face when there was no way out.
“You’re right,” Raz said at last, barely moving his lips. His voice was flat where it did not waver. “You shouldn’t have told me.”
“You wouldn’t have let us keep you out of it,” Saakir said.
“Then you should’ve…”
When Raz shrugged their hand off his shoulder, still not meeting their eyes, his stance wavered. A blink sent tears dripping down both of his cheeks.
“Sorry,” he whispered as Saakir curled a wing around his shuddering body. “Sorry, I’m just… so tired.”
“I warned you about getting rest before I told you anything,” Saakir said. “Tell the town we can return to peacetime, then go to sleep.” With a heavy hand, they flattened the fluffy, pink curls at the top of Raz’s head. “I’ll have more information when you wake up.”
Raz stepped away from Saakir’s wing, ducking his head. “What’s with all this… touching stuff, Sock?” When he looked up, his eyes were still glistening, but he had a smile, a nervous one. “I’m gonna start thinking you’re the impostor.”
“I was trying to approximate sympathy through friendly physical contact. I’ll gladly never do it again.”
“Aw, no, wait!”
“I believe you have a song to be singing, canary.”
Saakir made haste to the skies, but perched themself in a tree when they were outside of Raz’s three realms of cognizance: sights, auras, and sounds. A melody in a high, clear voice drifted through the trees. He had prepared a variety of exotic bird calls as messages of danger, but a song was the signal of peace. Though his soprano was divine, he shied away from using it unless necessary. As a budding physicist, he knew that high notes scattered through the trees faster and farther than lower frequencies. Saakir delayed their flight to Azier to steal this rare glimpse of Raz’s greatest talent.
Raz hated being called a canary. That nickname came from the translation of his full name, which he hated being called even more. It was a girl’s name, and a parting gift from his estranged father. Raz knew two things about that man: he adored birds and used their names as doting epithets, and Raz had no positive feelings for him. But it was only fair that Saakir could call him a canary; they hated being called Sock, especially long after everyone had learned how to pronounce their Fiallan name. As he sang, Raz picked up a black feather shed from Saakir’s wings. The sturdy shaft would make a fine quill. He tucked it behind his ear.
“We’ll have to intervene with them again,” said Seech, scratching at her wrists. It was a rare sight to see her without her gloves, which she usually wore to cover the iridescent scales growing on the backs of her hands. In recent years, the scales had crept into the corners of her face. Her working solution for that was to let her fine, silvery hair hang even more disheveled.
“So, what, just separate that guy Daion from the rest of them and deal with it there?” asked Zuli, the Itona twin with purple hair. Her blue-haired sister, Yuli, sat just behind her on the wooden planks that formed the floor of Seech’s treehouse residence.
“You’re being hasty, Zuli,” Saakir said calmly. Seech had pulled her bed away from the wall a few inches so that they could sit at its far edge, cross-legged, and let their large wings rest on the floor behind them. “We still need to confirm he’s truly an anomaly.”
“But you just said it’s impossible he’s not an anomaly,” Zuli whined, rolling her eyes. “He didn’t even recognize you, right? Classic sign. He’s an impostor. You guys said he’s supposed to dead.”
“Except no one ever confirmed his death,” Seech said. “Raz’s mom never found the body.”
“Doesn’t mean he’s alive,” Raz said loudly into Seech’s pillow from his spot sprawled out on her bed. “Just means she never found him. She’s a grade-A badass, but she’s not an expert at everything she does. Just means she turned me into a mess when I was fourteen.” Raz pressed the pillow down harder on his head. “She can’t even find her keys, for god’s sake.”
Though the bridge of Saakir’s nose was low, they pinched what little of it they could. “I should have told them more directly what to do at the oak,” they muttered. “In any case, if we’re lucky, Daion will part ways with the Azierites in due time, and we’ll send the twins after him. Otherwise, we’ll orchestrate their separation and, again, send the twins after him.”
A sneer slid onto Zuli’s face. She turned to Yuli with her hand raised for a high-five, which Yuli accepted with a blank smile.
“I reiterate, Zuli, your first task will be to draw out information and confirm his status,” Saakir stated, pinching their nose even harder.
“He’s supposed to be dead. He didn’t recognize you. And the only reason he didn’t say what portals he went through is because Rune was right there and you phrased it like you were going after half-elves,” Zuli complained. “It’s so confirmed. You wouldn’t think twice about this if you didn’t know him.”
“We probably wouldn’t,” agreed Seech. “But I think it’s important that we think twice because we knew him. We have to make sure we’re choosing the objective, rational course of action despite…” She glanced behind her at the bed, to both Saakir and Raz. “All of the emotions involved.”
Zuli folded her arms and rolled her eyes. “Sure, rational. You’re the softest in the whole group and we all know it,” she said.
Seech curled her fingers up tightly. “I was the one who decided that we needed to kill all the anomalies,” she said. “I know what has to be done.”
Though she was not assertive enough to take leadership, Seech was the undisputed mastermind of her circle of vigilantes. She had spent most of her strange childhood hidden in the libraries of the Meryville University. There, she developed theories on the cause of the Celestial Event, the mechanisms that powered elven lights, and even the origin of magic itself. A god had selected her bright mind for the mission of detecting and eliminating those who abused the magic she was researching.
“This isn’t a game, babies,” Raz said from the depths of Seech’s pillow. “The only difference between you and a couple of murderers is a mistake. Take your job seriously.”
“We’re eleven years old and we aren’t even paid,” Zuli sniffed. “You know, Gardena has laws about youth in the workforce and I think you’re violating them.”
“We’ve been over both of these things,” Raz groaned. “One, you get to loot the bodies for cool junk. Two, only good ideas Gardena’s ever had are about fashion.”
Yuli giggled and ran her fingers down the sleeves of her dress trimmed with furs. It had come direct from the streets of Meryville.
“We still have to decide what to do about the kids from Azier,” Seech said quietly.
She had made herself so small on the floor that Raz could not see her over the edge of the bed. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Saakir checked it out, doesn’t look like they’re anomalous. We’re all good.”
“Except that they’re miles away from home and their father’s been taken hostage by Vega’s mercenaries,” Seech said. She sank her fingers into her hair. “And it’s… it’s my fault.”
Raz and Sock were not the only ones with nicknames in this circle of friends and colleagues. Yuli was short for Yulina, and Zuli came from Lazuli. Even Seech herself could not remember how her nickname had gotten so transformed, but it was a diminutive for Sycilae.
“It’s not your fault. Your dad even told Mr. Winter—” Raz had to pause in the middle of his own sentence from the confusion he caused his overtired self by calling Corona Mr. Winter when Kye had just as much claim to that name. “He said she was out for him and told him to run—twice, even. And he didn’t! So really, it’s his own fault, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it now.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not my problem,” mumbled Seech. “She’s going to imprison them until I hand myself over to her. I’m immortal. They’re not. Somebody’s going to lose, and it’s going to be me, no matter what I do.”
“Come on, she’s manipulating you,” Raz said. “She’s trying to lure you out by going after them, like B always said. You just have to let it go. Don’t let her trick you.”
“It’s not a trick,” Seech said, staring into her palms. “My brother’s going to die. He’s going to die.”
“That’s his own damn fault, too,” Raz snapped. “It’s all their own damn fault. Faenon’s dad didn’t run when we told him to, and your goddamned brother wanted to go.”
Seech’s switch had gotten faster over the years. She used to fall into a daze for a moment before opening her opalescent eyes with an inner fire that did not come from her own soul. Now it was nothing more than a twitch before the ancient rage took hold.
“You can’t seriously believe he wrote that note to their family without a knife to his throat,” said a god through Seech’s lips.
“Um, um, we said we wouldn’t talk about this anymore,” Yuli interrupted, waving her hands.
“Yeah, Seech, it sounds like you’re getting dangerously close to accusing my mom of working with Vega again,” Raz grumbled.
Yuli’s hands drooped. “Raz, come on, you’re not supposed to talk about—”
“We know she was working with Vega. That’s not an accusation, that’s a fact,” continued the god. “And I don’t know how you mistook me for Seech, but I’m not her.”
Yuli wilted. “B, no, don’t…”
Seech had spent most of her life in partial submission to a living god. Though known most often as Beobachter, the Watcher of Man, or sometimes the Dragon God, they called themself B when fraternizing with mortals. By carrying a piece of B’s divine spirit within her body, Seech embodied the literal meaning of the word Vessel.
“Okay, B, but my mom’s worked with everyone, that doesn’t mean anything,” Raz went on, unfazed. “She promised she wouldn’t tell Vega anything about you guys. She wouldn’t just change her mind after eight years.”
“Well, evidently, she did,” said B, “because somehow little Leech’s letter was mixed in with the morning mail.”
Saakir unfolded their legs, crossed them at the ankles, and rested them along Raz’s back just as he started to push himself upwards. Unable to overcome the physical weight compounded with the weight of fatigue, he fell flat to the bed with a grunt.
“Anyway,” said Saakir, “it’s well past time we discussed what to do about Mika.”
Sighs passed through the air in unison, the longest and loudest from Raz. B closed their eyes and tried to bring Seech back to the surface, but she could not be coaxed into the forefront of this gloom. Zuli slid back across the floor to retreat further from the center of the room. Yuli tried to scoot back farther to mimic her, but her back hit the wall.
“So she’ll find out something’s up soon as she next looks for the kids in Azier,” Raz said. “Then she’ll come to us and we can’t tell her where they are, unless we’ve gotten rid of Daion by then. We’ve got a time limit.”
“Or you can just tell her the truth,” B said. “You try to keep so many secrets, you never realize which ones are worth telling.”
“B, it’s for her own good.” Raz folded his hands over his head and rubbed his scalp with his fingertips. “After all this time, she’s still got the emotional stability of a fourteen-year-old girl with brain damage.”
“That’s hardly fair,” Saakir said.
“Don’t kid yourself, Saakir. She’s fading.” He slid the pillow over his head. “She’s getting less and less coherent and she’s going to slip away someday soon, just like Daion used to say. And then she’ll be really gone, and there’s nothing we can do about it, and it’s fine.”
The wooden walls absorbed and reflected the tones of his breaking voice. It was rare that any emotion crossed Saakir’s dark face, but concern flickered in their eyes as they lifted their feet from Raz’s back.
“Okay,” Yuli said to break the silence, clapping her slightly cupped hands together with a soft sound. “So we don’t tell Mika, and me ’n’ Zuli take care of Daion before she finds out about anything. Cool?”
Zuli gave her sister a narrow-eyed stare in the short pause that followed. Yuli replied with an oblivious smile and a slow blink of her round eyes.
“Cool. Meeting adjourned,” Raz agreed when no one else spoke. “B, you’re gonna have to drag me off this bed if you guys want it back.”
B made a show of loudly stretching Seech’s body as they got to their feet. “Nah, I’ll take the fresh air while I’m out,” they said. “Maybe bring Seech over to get some work done.”
“Don’t forget her gloves,” Saakir said quietly when B made for the door without covering Seech’s scaled wrists.
Once the gloves were adorned, B climbed out of the treehouse after Zuli. Saakir followed after a wary glance over their shoulder. Yuli stayed behind a moment to give a cheerful farewell to Raz.
“Make sure your sister doesn’t do anything stupid, alright, Yuli?” Raz asked, giving her a thumbs-up without emerging from underneath his pillow.
“Um, okay,” Yuli said, wringing her hands. “I’ll try.”