The Soulless were a ring of white bodies tinged with the flaming red of their hair around the cratered remains of what used to be Times Square. They all stood perfectly still, facing inward, with the hint of their mouths whispering. It was hard to tell from this distance what they were doing. But gatherings of Soulless like this were never good.
Fin ducked back behind the once yellow and twisted remains of the taxi cab. He tried to ignore the black and bloody remnants in the seats. His head swam, momentarily overwhelmed by the acrid scent hanging in the air, the constant overwhelming reminders of death and defeat at every turn. He and Grace had slowly picked their way across the ruins of New Brooklyn from the Conduit bunker on their way back to Times Square. The sun was low on the horizon, but the brilliance of the sunset was lost in the glow of a city on fire. It was oddly quiet and still, considering the level of destruction around them and the horde of Soulless chanting in a circle several hundred yards from Fin’s position behind the taxi.
“We have to keep moving.” Grace’s voice was low, barely audible in the oppressive silence around them.
Fin glanced toward the Soulless again and opened his mouth to answer her. He simply nodded instead. He glanced around for a path forward that didn’t lead them to the Soulless. While most of the area was reduced to rubble, some buildings still partially stood. Not much had survived the earlier aerial assault and subsequent massacre the Soulless responded with.
“There,” Fin pointed. A smoldering bus (Fin fought to keep the thought of what all was actually still burning out of his mind) provided cover to a small hill of rubble and a relatively intact building. It would provide enough cover to navigate around the Soulless. They seemed to be oblivious to their surroundings, but Fin didn’t want to take any chances.
Grace nodded and started shuffling forward. Like Fin, she was crouched down, and neither of them stood as they moved from the relative safety and cover of the taxi. When they reached the bus, Fin realized he had been holding his breath. The hot air and char of burning human remains filled his lungs and he fought against a cough, tucking his head into the crook of his elbow. The cough turned into a fit, and he slid to the ground, battling the need to stay quiet, to breathe, and to not think about what he was breathing in. A soft touch on his shoulder sparked a cold shiver through his body, but his coughing fit subsided. His hand gently touched Grace’s, still on his shoulder, but as he turned to her he noticed she was looking away. His gaze followed hers through the burned out metal side of the bus. Through the cracks, he could see the Soulless. They remained perfectly motionless. Still chanting.
“Thank…” Fin was quickly cut off by a sharp gesture from Grace.
One of the Soulless was looking in their direction. The way its gaze pierced the distance between them, it seemed to be staring directly at them, as if there wasn’t a burning bus full of death between them. Could it see them through the cracks?
“Move.” Grace hissed.
They were on their feet and running when the bus shuttered. Fin could feel the searing heat radiating through the bus before the red glow around its edges were visible. And then the roar. Fingers of flame curled around the bus, reaching toward Grace and Fin. Another step and the fireball exploded around the bus, the force shoving the bus into Fin. The shock of the cold metal pressing into him mixed with the heat swirling all around them. They were tumbling, a jumble of metal and char, flame and rock, human and debris. Somehow, his hand found hers and they interlocked, a silver sheen surrounding them before the bus crashed into the side of a building.
Pain shot through Fin’s body, radiating out from the center of his back. But his hastily conjured shield had held and protected him from worse damage. The night was silent again. Fin squeezed the hand still in his and relief flooded through him when it squeezed back. His shield, he hoped, had spread to cover Grace in time. Her moving her hand was a good sign. He couldn’t tell anything else at the moment, however. They were pinned between the bus and the building. Until he knew the Soulless wouldn’t do anything else, he was unwilling to try and free himself, or Grace.
“Are you okay?” He whispered, barely passing air between his lips.
The hand squeezed his again.
Minutes dragged like hours. Fin waited in the darkness of the bus and building unable, and unwilling, to move. His hand still holding tight to Grace. No other attack came. Fin could only hope that the Soulless thought it had killed them and didn’t feel the need to check. He tried to move his head but froze. His shield scraped against the metal of the bus, letting a small shriek escape. He remained still again, letting the minutes drag by.
“Fin.” The voice was quiet.
Fin stirred. It was cold. His whole body was sore. The cold of the metal and stone felt like it was sapping the energy from him. His eyes fluttered, but all he saw was darkness. No silver sheen. His shield must have dissipated.
“Fin!” The voice was more forceful this time.
He tried to move, but his body was still pinned between the bus and building. Pins and needles spread through his hand and he realized something was squeezing it. Not something, though. Someone. “Grace?”
“Fin, we need to get out of here. The Soulless hasn’t attacked again, but we’re in no position to do anything at the moment.”
“Right.” Fin shifted his head, wincing as he scraped his cheek on something jagged. Bus or building, he couldn’t tell at the moment. He spread the fingers on his free hand, feeling the surface. Fairly smooth, a little rough. He scraped a fingernail and felt the catch of concrete. Building then. “Hold on, I’m going to try and get through this wall.”
Grace’s hand squeezed his. “Try to be quiet.”
Fin took a breath, his lungs protesting against the tight space they were in. He flattened his palm against the building, spreading his fingers like he was trying to press them into a ball of dough. Without being grounded, he would have to be careful. He had no idea how much it would take to get through this wall. He kept wiggling his fingers, willing the concrete to be malleable. Even though it was dark, he closed his eyes. Imagined that he was pressing his fingers into wet sand, gentle waves lapping and swirling around him. Something gave. Startled, he opened his eyes and saw a dim light coming through from somewhere. Not somewhere, he thought. My hand!
He lifted his hand, shock and thrill flooding through his body. His hand moved through the wall, easily, and he could feel the wall crumbling where he touched. A creak, and he realized the bus was starting to shift. He tightened his hold on Grace’s hand. “Hold tight. We’re going though.”
“We’re what…” Grace didn’t have time to finish her thought.
Fin willed himself through the wall, and it gave way in a shower of wet sand. His hand still gripped tightly to Grace’s as he pulled her through. Sand and brick crumbled down around them, clattering wetly across the peeling and singed linoleum tiles shimmering in the dim flickering of the few remaining overhead lights. For a moment, Fin and Grace held each other in the dim light of the ruined building, nested in a pile of rubble. The hole remained covered by the wreckage of the bus, the remnants of a campaign slogan promising safer streets with the dirty partial smile of some politician barely visible.
Most importantly, though, was that the hole in the wall was still blocked. The Soulless had not come over to investigate. Fin slowly got to his feet, helping Grace up as well. He searched around for an exit. Broken shelves and various products, like paper towels, dog food, and other miscellaneous items. Near the back of the store, there was an emergency exit door. It was barely hanging onto the hinges and open to the darkness of the night.
“We’re little more than a minor annoyance to them, aren’t we?”
Fin winced as he took a step. He hadn’t made it through the attack quite as unscathed as he thought. He shook his foot, feeling the pain in his shin. Sore, but he could manage. He looked back at Grace. She was still standing in the middle of the pile of sand from the wall. Her black hair curtained around her face, eyes gazing down at her feet. She gently massaged her elbow, arm crossed over her chest.
Fin’s chest swelled with a sigh. “Their power is on a completely different level. It takes virtually everything we have to kill one. Yet one snap…”
Grace looked up at him. He could see the determination seep into her eyes as she stood up straighter. A slight grimace flashed across her face as she let go of her arm. “But we know they can die. They can be stopped.” She brushed off the sand and dust, more smearing the grey and red across her black uniform. “We need to find that elementalist.”
Fin turned and walked towards the exit. “Yes, we do.” He stopped at the broken door and peered into the darkness of the night. A red glow emanated from the various fires throughout the ruins. But he could see the occasional pinpoint of a star through the smoke. He even caught the sliver of the moon. “But first, we need to find a safer place to spend the rest of the night. Did any of our supplies survive?”
Grace lifted up a torn and slightly singed duffle bag. “Enough, I guess.” She rummaged through the bag. “Rations are a bit smashed, but I think they all survived.”
A smile touched Fin’s lips. “Well, small victories. Alright, it looks clear out there. I’m not sure if the Soulless are still out there, but I’d feel better if we get away from here.”
Grace nodded and swung the bag across her good shoulder. “Let’s go find a slightly nicer hole in the ground, eat some smashed, cold rations, and brace for a long, cold night.”
Fin stifled a laugh. “You make it sound like so much fun.”