The German shepherd was crouched next to a man leaning against the broken concrete barrier. The remnants of skyscrapers loomed into the late evening, the sunlight casting a contrasting glow against the fires burning across the city. The man shifted, crunching worn leather boots against the gravel and broken concrete of the sidewalk. He reached into the pocket of an equally worn brown trench coat that crumpled around him. The man looked at the smashed pack of cigarettes he had fished out and sighed. Pulling the least broken cigarette to his lips, he touched the tip with his finger. The cigarette cherried and he puffed, letting the smoke drift through the hair slipping into his eyes. The dog whined gently.
“What? It’s not like they’re gonna see the smoke.” The man gestured vaguely in the air, smoke trailing from the burning the cigarette. “There’s plenty of haze and fire to hide one cigarette.”
The dog cocked its head slightly, one ear drooping just a bit.
“No. I’m not putting it out yet.” The man took a long drag, the hint of a satisfied smile touch his lips like the cigarette. “It’s not like I can just run to the store again. They’re all kinda closed for some reason.”
The dog laid down, tucking its head between its front legs and whined, brown eyes staring into the mostly empty square beyond the concrete barrier they were hiding behind.
“Seriously,” he said in a puff, “it’s not happening. Regardless of…”
The man trailed off. He and his dog both watched as two figures, dressed in the black and (he could only guess based on the distance and available light) silver of Conduits. They were walking low, hiding behind a burning bus. Looked like the bus had some sort of safety slogan wrapped along its side. The group of Soulless he had been watching had so far ignored the two black figures, but they were pushing their luck. Sure enough, a Soulless noticed them. The creature lifted its arm and pointed.
The man grabbed his dog and rolled behind the barrier as the fireball belched from the Soulless’s pointed finger. Even from this distance, the heat blasted past them with a cloud of smoke and debris. He heard the outrage of metal rushing across the street and the crunch as it collided with a building. His hand was around his shotgun, but he caught himself. He held tight to his dog and kept tight to the wall.
Brown eyes met his. “Don’t look at me like that,” he whispered. “Nothing we can do now. And if they were Conduits, they’ll survive.”
An ear twitched at him.
“Most likely, anyway.” He scratched between the dog’s ears. “If not, they’ll be avenged soon enough, Callie.”
Callie’s tail swished, displacing bits of gravel. Her tongue lolled briefly when the man tapped her nose.
“We’ll move soon. Be patient. Those Soulless will be working their summoning for a bit longer. In the meantime.” He took a long drag from the cigarette and the cherry raced to the filter. He flicked the spent cigarette behind him and rummaged for the broken pack. Pieces of cigarettes and flakes of tobacco were all that was left. He dropped the pack on the ground and sighed. “Alright, I guess we’ll get going sooner.”
Callie’s ears perked and she stood up, whining softly.
“Yeah, I know. But there’s a good number of them there. We need to be careful. There’s gotta be a decent approach.” He was peaking around the wall, eyes taking in available cover and potential paths. So far, he and Callie had kept the Soulless from completing any of the summoning rituals, and they intended to keep their record going. As long as they could at least. He knew that they couldn’t keep it up forever. There were simply far too many Soulless and not enough of them.
The fact that the city was still here, as little of it that there was, was evidence that he and his compatriots had been successful so far. But time was running out. His pocket buzzed, and he pulled the phone from his coat pocket. The screen was badly cracked, but he could read the message: Mills, finish up and head back. Word of a massive gathering. Dragon level.
Mills hit the thumbs up emoji and hit send. “Alright, Callie. Time to go kick some Soulless ass.”
Callie’s tail swished through the air, ears dipping slightly. Her gentle brown eyes hardened and Mills could see the muscles in her lean, German shepherd body tense. Like him, she was prepared and ready for what came next. A flicker of movement caught his eye and his head swiveled, fingertips starting to glow with the crackle of blue light. Two dark shapes slipped out from the building the bus had crashed into. The light in his hand faded.
“Good. They survived. Some of those Conduits are tougher than they seem.” His hand found the comfort of the worn grip of the sawed-off shotgun in the holster on his thigh. Mills looked back over to the Soulless. “Time to give ‘em hell, Callie,” he whispered.
Callie’s ears shot back and her tail dipped. He watched as his sweet dog transformed into a lean bundle of muscles and killing intent, crouched almost as if spring-loaded. And having seen how she moved when fighting, he wondered if there really were springs sometimes. He pulled his shotgun out, checking the few remaining shells in his ammo pouch. They would have to be quick and precise. Not that that’s any different than any other time, he thought.
He moved silently, following Callie as she wove through debris: building, car, and all too frequently human as well. Mills was amazed how quickly he had come to ignore that smell. And disgusted. None of this felt right. Not how quickly the Soulless had appeared almost out of nowhere. Not how useless the Damp Fields had been. Not how quickly New Brooklyn had fallen and been utterly destroyed. This level of devastation hadn’t been seen since, well, since New York fell.
Callie stopped and her tail flicked. Mills crouched behind her, only the broken retaining wall and charred remains of trees and decorative flora between them and the group of Soulless. This close, he could hear them now. Not that the Soulless spoke. Not really anyway. But it was the whisper on the wind, like someone was calling your name from far away but you couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. Mills suppressed a shiver. To him, it sounded like the lost souls. And given what those monsters were, he figured it was probably a fair description.
“Get ready,” he whispered to Callie. He scratched between her ears and then ran his hand along her spine, a faint glow emanating from his fingers.
Callies’ fur began to take on a slight metallic sheen, shimmering down from her spine where Mills had brushed her. She clinked as she shifted her weight on her paws, new metallic fur settling in like a tailor-made suit of armor. Her ears twitched and she glanced back at Mills. She was still. Waiting. At the flick of his finger, Callie was up and over the retaining wall, paws tucked and tail streaming as she glimmered in the faint firelight.
Then her paws were on the ground and she was sprinting toward the Soulless. She was on them before they realized, her teeth sinking into a white neck as she leapt. Her momentum and weight carried her and the Soulless forward, causing the creature to stumble. Before it could react, her teeth touched together and the severed head bounced to the ground, a shock of red hair against the bloodless body.
Mills was right behind Callie, his sawed-off shotgun already drawn and raised at the nearest Soulless. His coat streamed behind him as he vaulted the wall. The air around him seemed to crackle, teasing his hair with spider-thin wisps of blue light. He pulled the trigger and a blast of lead and lightning streaked toward the Soulless next to the one Callie had decapitated. It slumped, like its stomach was hurting, and then it was a burst of confetti: lightning blasting through its body and into several other Soulless behind it. A blue glow washed over the square as the bolt pierced the bodies of the Soulless and ripped them apart. Mills didn’t slow down, and neither did Callie.
Already, the remaining Soulless (about half of the original group now) were turning to engage their attackers. Several already had arms raised and fingers outstretched. Mills suppressed a shiver as best he could. Their faces were always unnerving. Especially this close. Blank expressions, all white save for the red hair, slathered over the approximation of human features. Black eyes over lipless mouths stared at him. The first Soulless Callie had attacked was already getting back to its feet, a new head forming as it turned toward Mills.
Callie was a blur of steel fur. Razor-sharp steel fur. She shredded the outstretched arm of the nearest Soulless before it could snap its fingers. Her strong jaws bit through its neck as well, toppling another head to the ground. She lunged off of the falling body to the next Soulless, jaws separating its hand from its arm in a single bite.
Mills pointed at the first Soulless Callie had attacked and let a stream of blue fire consume it. The creature writhed in what Mills could only assume was pain. The Soulless never made any noise. No noise beyond those lost-soul whispers anyway. He swung his shotgun around to the remaining creatures. The barrel was almost across one when he felt it. A sharp tingle in the base of his spine.
“Shit!” Mills held onto the gun, his eyes meeting the black of the Soulless that had snapped. He could feel the fire starting to race up his spine. Knew that it wanted to race through his veins and consume him from the inside. He had seen the Soulless use this attack time and again. After all, why change the classics? Mills jabbed his fingers into the nearest Soulless’s chest, racing against the fire hungry to consume his body. He had never used this technique in the field; a technique very similar in principle to the Conduits and their grounds.
Mills was an Elementalist. The domains of earth, air, water, and fire were his to command. That didn’t mean the elements couldn’t be used against him. Even if the elements were being bullied by Soul magic. The fire was to the base of his neck and would soon begin burning through his veins. The world seemed to have frozen: the shot of lightning from his initial attack was still fading. Callie was covered in what could have been the cotton stuffing of a plush toy, but was very much the flesh and viscera of the Soulless that had snapped. Mills’s fingers pressed into the bare white flesh. He could feel it catching under his fingernails. The fire tickled his skull.
Fire is a lot like lightning. It likes to take the path of least resistance. So Mills provided one. Along his arm and into the body of the Soulless. Pain seared across his outstretched arm and through his fingers. He could see the fire spark along the veins of the Soulless. No blood, but still had veins? Question for another time. In a flash, the world caught back up and the Soulless erupted, burning away from the inside. Mills pulled the trigger, firing another blast of lead and lightning that tore through the remaining Soulless. His left arm dropped to his side, singed and smoking through his coat. But he was alive. He had survived the snap of a Soulless.
The thundering crack of his lightning attack snapped him back to reality. He was standing in the center of the square, the burnt and shredded remains of at least a dozen or so Soulless surrounding him and Callie. She had bits of white flesh stuck to steel fur. And part of an arm still hanging from her mouth. Mills holstered his shotgun. He gently touched a fingertip to Callie’s head and it was like her fur melted. The hard sheen of metal pooled from her coat, leaving a healthy and clean fur coat.
“Holy damn that was close, Callie.” Mills wiggled the fingers on his left arm and sighed in relief. It hurt like hell, but he could still move them.
Callie jumped up on his chest and her tongue found his face.
“Yeah, I know, I know.” Mills gently pushed her down with his good arm. “Save it for when we’re back and safe. We need to get out of here before we attract any further attention.”
His left coat pocket buzzed. “Damn it.” He reached awkwardly for the phone with his right hand, grimacing as he stretched. His fingers brushed at the pocket but he couldn’t quite get it. “They’ll have to wait. Let’s get going Callie.”