“Dragon event?” Grace broke the silence.
“Does that mean what I think it does?” Fin’s eyes were glassy orbs staring past the phone screen still held up for them to read. His voice was calm, but not the calm of a still pond. It was the calm of sail without wind.
Carl nodded, tapping at the phone’s screen. “Based on how you just asked, I’m assuming you’re at least a little familiar with the dragon.”
“I’ve read some stories. Saw snippets of damaged footage that was salvaged.”
“Wait, wait.” Grace was shaking her head. Her arms matched the motion, cutting against each other. “Is this why the Soulless have been gathering? To summon one of those things?”
“Very likely,” Carl said. “I may have been a lot younger the first time around, but it’s basically the Soulless’s M.O.”
“So you weren’t just there when New York was destroyed.” Fin was still calm.
Carl looked at Fin for a moment before answering, eyes scanning over the Conduit’s passive face. “No, I wasn’t.” There was an ache in the way those words pushed out of Carl’s lungs. “I am a veteran of the War of Souls. I lost family and friends then, and I’ve lost family and friends now. No escape it seems.” Carl’s lips tucked together. Clearly, he was trying to smile to pass it off, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Oh Carl, I’m so sorry.” Grace reached out gingerly, as if to comfort Carl, but stopped and pulled her arms back, hugging herself tightly.
“Just figured once was enough, you know?” Carl walked over and grabbed his rifle from by the door. He pointed at the swords. “Might want to grab those, we need to get going.”
Fin nodded, going to retrieve both swords. He paused. “Hold on. How are you getting this kind of information? We haven’t heard anything from headquarters.”
“Well, we haven’t exactly checked in, either.” Grace had gotten their swords. She held Fin’s out for him.
Carl looked back and forth between the two. “Seriously? That gives me loads of questions. But first, we know because we share information. We’ve got people all over the city keeping an eye on things and fighting.”
“Speaking of more questions,” Fin started.
Carl cut him off with a flutter from his hand. “It feels like you’re implying that you guys can’t talk to each unless you are actively trying to talk to each other. Which is crazy.”
Fin and Grace just stared at each other. Fin finally spoke, “Well, the diamonds in our swords work as our form of radio. A kind of telepathy. But we have to open a channel first, and that requires direct contact with the diamond.”
Carl’s mouth slipped open and he stared at the two Conduits standing in from him, awkwardly holding their swords. He started laughing. “Are you saying that cell phones are still a better and more reliable form of communication than your magic? Holy hell that’s rich!”
Fin slid the sheath into his utility belt and rested his hand on the sword pommel. “I’m going to try and check in. See if I can reach anyone.” He spoke to Grace, ignoring Carl.
“That’s not what he said.” Grace was standing a little taller. Or least trying. Her back was straightened and she held her chin out, almost defiantly. “Telepathy allows instantaneous communication with another Conduit anywhere in the world.”
“Yeah?” Carl chuckled. “My phone vibrates when I have a message. And I can read and respond to it later.”
“No one’s responding. Not even Xander.” Fin’s fingers were absently fidgeting with the diamond on his sword. He spoke toward Grace and Carl, but he wouldn’t meet Carl’s expectant gaze.
Carl simply waggled the cell phone in front of them before tucking it away into his pocket. “I’ll leave that alone. But seriously, maybe look into some non-magical means of communication. Could come in handy for you guys.” His eyes still glinted with remnants of humor, but his expression tightened and his lips pursed. “Now, I’m assuming you’re going to come with.”
Fin opened his mouth to speak, but closed it. He was going to make some comment, but Carl had dropped it and moved on. And he was right. There were more important things to be concerned with right now. And he was right about alternate forms of communication too. Assuming they all made it through the day, and he could find anyone else, it was something they would have to remedy. In the meantime. “Yes, of course we are. It’s our duty.”
Carl nodded. He rifled through a pile of clothing and gear near the door. He pulled out an old helmet. Fin assumed it was old, anyway, given the faded urban camouflage pattern, scrapes, and one very conspicuous dent. Carl paused for a moment, looking at the helmet. His fingers brushed the dent, and then the helmet was on his head, steely eyes locking onto Fin’s.
“Then let’s get going. We’ll have a bit of a trek ahead of us. All reports suggest the event is in Harlem.”
Fin froze. “Harlem? That’s…”
“Yeah, several miles away. An hour at a good clip, maybe two or more depending on the condition of the terrain and if we have to avoid any Soulless or not.”
“No, I…” Fin swallowed hard. “Harlem was our first real encounter with a group of Soulless. I almost…”
Carl stopped and turned to look at Fin. He had the door almost open, but let it close. “First real action, huh? I get that, kid. Trust me.”
Grace’s hand had made its way to Fin’s shoulder. She gripped him tightly, her fingernails slowly turning white.
“I almost burned my soul there. Shit, I’ve almost burned my soul both times we’ve fought large groups of Soulless.”
Carl stayed quiet, standing in front of the door.
“I summoned a localized meteor storm to repel the Soulless. I could feel the power tugging at my soul, trying to break against my sword…”
“Hey, it’s okay, Fin. We made it out…”
“No, it’s not,” Fin said, cutting Grace off. “I killed a handful of Soulless and almost killed myself in the process. And then later, we were only saved by an Elementalist we don’t even know and his dog. We are woefully outclassed against the Soulless. And now a dragon? A fucking dragon?”
A finger jabbed into Fin’s chest and a very angry face was inches from his.
“Then why do you even try?” Carl shouted. “Why are you out here?”
Fin straightened. “I swore an oath as a Conduit.”
“Is upholding that oath worth losing your own life?”
Fin’s jaw set and he locked eyes with Carl. “Yes.”
“But it’s not worth throwing your life away, Fin. There’s a difference between sacrifice and waste.” Grace’s arms were crossed in front of her, violet eyes attempting to bore into Fin’s.
“She’s got a point, bud. But here’s the deal.” Carl walked over to the door and opened it. “You aren’t alone in this fight. Quit acting like it. Now come on, we’ve got a hike in front of us.”
Fin cocked his head, a smirk crossing his lips. “Unless you want to get there just a bit quicker.”
“How do you mean…”
Fin winked at Grace, touched Carl’s arm, and they were gone in a smear of silver.
“…get there quicker?” Carl finished. And then doubled over and vomited.
Fin gingerly stepped around the pool of, well, mostly coffee it seemed. They had teleported close to where they had fought the Soulless last time. They were in a mostly intact coffee shop. One of the bay windows was still whole, large cracks crisscrossing the pane. The other window and door were shattered, leaving pools of crumbled glass pebbles, the remnants of the safety glass. Most of the tables and chairs were still upright, and at least a couple of overhead lights still flickered. A bashed and battered motorcycle lay in a nest of rubble and broken wood; the cause of the broken glass at the storefront apparent. He peaked out into the street. It was quiet.
It bothered him how quiet it was. How quiet everything had been really. With the exception of the Soulless they had seen, and Carl, Fin and Grace had not encountered a single other person. Living person, anyway. They had come across plenty of the dead. Fortunately, the coffee shop seemed devoid of death. But still, had the Soulless really killed that many? Wiped out that much of the city? Had the military and police been able to evacuate enough people? So many questions.
“A little warning would have been appreciated.” Carl had found a napkin dispenser and was wiping his beard and mustache.
“That was reckless, Fin.” Grace’s voice didn’t quite contain the bite the words could have carried.
“I’ve been to this place plenty. And we would have felt any residual magic before we reincorporated.” Fin walked over to where Grace and Carl were standing, turning his back to the window. “That, and I figured it would be empty.”
Grace slowly turned, taking in their surroundings. “Oh,” she said. Her eyes dipped, heavy with the same recognition that was evident in her voice. “This is, or was rather, Soul Awakening.”
“Yeah. The name was always a little on the nose, but they had a great americanoand cinnamon rolls.”
Carl stepped over, putting his phone away. “Alright, there’s a group a couple blocks east of us. We can group off with them. We’ll need to be careful; sounds like there’re a metric ass-ton of Soulless here.”
Fin slowly drew his sword, the silver blade glinting dimly in the fluorescent lighting. The whisper of metal on leather told him Grace had drawn her sword as well. “Then lead on, Carl.”
Together, they all left the broken storefront, stepping out into the open street and out of cover. Fin felt exposed. There was something that just didn’t feel right walking out in the open like this, not after the last few days. God, he thought. Has it really just been a few days? So much has changed…
“Movement,” Grace whispered. She crouched, touching her sword to the cracked pavement.
Fin followed suit, stepping in front of Carl and motioning for the older man to take cover behind them. He watched, a mixture of fasciation and horror crossing his face, as a shapeless white mass pooled from an alleyway down the street from them. It froze, seemed to almost shiver, and then it took on a humanesque shape. One that Fin recognized with ice gripping the base of his neck and melting down his spine. He pushed down on his sword, and the tip sunk several inches into the asphalt. “A Thief.”
A gunshot rang out from behind Fin. He glanced back to see Carl on one knee, rifle held up, smoke wisping from the barrel. Carl’s gun was pointed in a different direction than the Thief in front of them.
“More than one,” Carl said. Several more gunshots rang out, empty shells jumping through the haze of gun smoke.
“Save your bullets. These things are just as resilient.”
Carl didn’t have a chance to reply. The Thieves blurred and disappeared. Fin’s eyes erupted into silver orbs and he threw his arms out, streaks of silver lightning splintering from his fingers. He willed himself to move faster and the Thieves blurred back into view. They were rapidly approaching them, arms distorting into long, ashen blades. Fin’s lightning continued splintering, arcing back and around, wrapping around himself, Grace, and Carl like a web. The first Thief reached the web of lightning, running headlong into it. As soon as it touched the lightning it froze and began to vibrate violently. If it had eyes, they would have rolled back into its white head.
“Now!” Fin yelled at Grace.
She lunged forward, slashing into the Thief with her sword. The blade sparked and chattered as it crossed through the web and cut into the ashen body of the Thief. The creature opened its mouth, sharp teeth sparking with electricity. Its arm separated from its body, just above the elbow. And then the top of its body, across its chest also separated. Lightning streaked through the Thief’s bisected body, tracing through its limbs and causing it to erupt in silver flames. It disintegrated into a cloud of silver dust, sparks tracing through the air as the dust fell through the lightning web. The other two Thieves stopped just outside of the web. They waited, standing completely still, eyeless faces staring at the trio.
“The hell are these things?” Carl asked.
“The cause of all of this death,” Fin said. His eyes still flared silver as he maintained the web. “Incredibly resilient, stupid fast, and the shocktroop of the Soulless.”
“That one seemed to die pretty easy.” Carl’s rifle was still leveled at the Thieves.
“A trick I learned when I fought one when this all began. Need to blend elemental magic.”
“Lightning and fire?”
“Last time I used earth. Accidentally.”
“Guys? Can we focus here?”
Another Thief had joined the two standing outside the web. They remained still, maintaining a healthy distance from Fin’s defensive barrier.
“We need to get moving before more join their friends here,” Carl said.
Fin nodded, sweat starting to drip from his brow. “Yeah, we do. And that’s gonna be a problem.”
Carl glanced over at Fin. The question was clear on his face.
“This barrier takes a lot of energy. I’m currently grounded to my sword.” Fin jerked his head at his sword, still stuck several inches in the ground.
Carl clicked his tongue. “Ah. That is a problem. Grace?”
“That trick only worked once. And they move too fast for me to fight myself.”
Carl fiddled with the bolt on his rifle. “Well this is a pickle. How fast do they move?”
“I was barely able to keep up with one in single combat.”
“Grace, do you think you can take over this barrier?”
She never looked away from the Thieves. There were four of them now. “There’s gonna be a brief moment when the barrier will weaken. They’ll likely capitalize.”
“I think that’s a risk we’re going to take. Objections?” Fin waited a beat, knowing no one would say anything. “On my mark.”
Grace moved next to Fin, her movements stiff. Her brow was furrowed and her violet eyes were already beginning to disappear into silver orbs as she grounded her sword near Fin’s. Carl crouched down, taking a shooting stance, leveling his rifle at the nearest Thief.
The barrier flickered as Fin dropped his lightning. The Thieves flickered too. Fin didn’t wait for Grace. Nor did he wait for his lightning to fade. In the breadth of a second, he moved forward, closing his arms and turning his lightning into a net. He caught the two outer Thieves before they could react. The other two were moving toward him, blurring in his vision even as he pushed himself harder. A silver haze caught the corner of his eye. Grace’s barrier, a translucent silver dome was shimmering into existence, like a cracked egg pooling over an invisible bowl. It was moving too slow. He poured power into his body and the lightning. The first two Thieves began to crack, their ashen skin breaking apart in chunks as the energy coursed through their unnatural bodies. It was like watching a powdered donut slowly flaking apart.
One of the other Thieves was closing in to Fin. Its long arm was stretched unnaturally into a sharp point, reaching toward his chest. His heart. It was inching closer and closer, even as Fin pushed past his limits. His mouth was open in an unheard feral yell. A roar, like standing below a waterfall filled his senses. He couldn’t hear the sizzle and crackle of the molten asphalt around his blistering sword. Deep within his belly, he felt something stirring, and he let it loose. A stream of fire belched from his mouth and spewed across the Thief in front him, its daggered arm beginning to pierce through his uniform. The fire bathed over the Thief and stuck like napalm. Its mouth opened in a voiceless shriek as it burned and charred.
As Fin continued to pour his energy into the lightning, he maintained his onslaught of flame. The other Thief got caught in the fire as well. Fin began to close his arms in, like a funnel, and the disintegrating Thieves joined the others in the hellish inferno. They melted and burned together, a heap of charred shapes that no longer resembled anything human. The fire stopped and Fin let his hands fall to his sides, releasing the lightning. He slowly let go of his power and Grace’s barrier suddenly snapped into place, bisecting the molten remains of the Thief that had reached Fin. A gunshot rang out, but there wasn’t anything where the bullet was aimed anymore. All that remained of the four Thieves was a misshapen pool and mound with a glassy appearance.
“What the holy fuck was that?!” Carl racked the bolt of his rifle, ejecting the spent cartridge.
Grace was staring at the melted remains of the Thieves, her mouth open. She recoiled at something near her, and Fin realized it was his sword. It was starting to dim, but it still glowed red and heat poured off in waves. The asphalt around it had all melted into a smooth, black pool.
“Fin! What the hell was that?!”
He opened his mouth and no more than a croak came out. He felt something crack, and the corner of his mouth was wet. He absently reached up and brushed his lips with the back of his hand. “I’m not entirely sure.” His was voice was hoarse, like he hadn’t used it in years. And his throat hurt. A lot.
“Oh my god, Fin! Are you okay?” Grace was over to him in a heartbeat. Concern flooded her eyes as she started up at Fin’s face. There was another emotion lurking in her eyes as well. Horror?
“Yeah, I think so.” His voice was still hoarse. He looked at the back of his hand, and noticed it was smeared with black and red. Blood and…? Burned skin. “We need… We… We need to get moving. How far is that group you mentioned, Carl?”
Carl had been looking at the melted pool of Thieves. He looked over at Fin, and Fin saw the same mix of emotions cross over the man’s face. “Uh,” Carl stammered. “Couple of blocks.”
Fin gingerly reached for his sword. It had cooled enough to touch, but it was still almost uncomfortably warm. A testament to the magical alloy that it had cooled at all. He swiftly sheathed the blade. “Let’s get moving. Before anything else shows up.”
“Uh, yeah. Are you sure you’re okay, man?” Carl’s expression was still unreadable. Concern mixed with something? Not quite fear. But, something.
“As fine as I can be. I pushed myself, harder than I ever have.”
Carl absently glanced back at the Thieves. “I’ll say. Uh, listen.” Carl pulled the phone from his pocket and fiddled with the screen. He held it up to Fin, the selfie camera open. “You sure you’re okay?”
Fin stared at the image in the screen for a moment. Recognition finally clicked and he realize he was looking at himself. His lips were black and red, a mixture of blood and burned skin. A shock of dark red streaked through his silver hair. And his eyes. Fin recoiled. One iris was its normal silver. But the other was not. The sclera had turned blood red, ringing a black and silver flecked iris. Fin touched the skin near the eye. His right eye. The mirror image of the camera had confused him. There was faint scarring from the corner of the eye leading up to the streak of red in his hair.
“Just how close did I get?” Fin’s hoarse voice was a whisper.
Grace gingerly grabbed his face between her hands and tilted his head down to face her. Her eyes were narrowed into violet slits, forehead creased and pinching her face. “You saw your sword. I felt the heat reaching me through the ground. I wasn’t able to keep track of you. You moved faster than my barrier could. Hell, I’m guessing by what happened you moved faster than the Thieves. You should have burned out, Fin. You know it and I know it.”
Carl shouldered his rifle and glanced beyond them, catching the corner of Fin’s eye. “Guys. Mysterious and all. But we should really get moving.” He moved closer to Fin, threading his arm through Fin’s, and directed them onward.
Fin stumbled at the sudden move, but quickly regained his footing. He saw Grace look behind them and her face fell into a blank expression, color draining. “I can walk just fine,” Fin said, although he didn’t stop Carl from leading him.
“Then get moving.” Carl was looking forward. In fact, he was looking forward in a manner that suggested that he very much only wanted to look forward.
Fin began to turn his head to look back, but Carl urged him forward, forcing his attention back to his feet and where he was walking. “What’s going on, guys?”
Carl glanced at Fin, the color leaving the older man’s face as well. He didn’t say anything. Instead, his lips tightened into a single line. His eyes darted over to Grace. Her eyes were fixed forward, jaw set, sword held to her side and ready.
Fin could guess at this point. But he didn’t want to. He pulled his arm free from Carl’s grip and turned around. He stumbled over some rubble and dropped to a knee. Several hundred yards behind them, beyond the melted remains of the Thieves, was a veritable sea of ashen white bodies. They pooled together, writhing like a cancerous mass of flesh and bodies. They poured from everywhere: streets, alleys, buildings. Fin’s hand was grasping the hilt of his sword and drawing it before he knew what he was doing. Carl’s hand stopping him and pulling him onward snapped him out if, and he turned his back on the mass of Thieves.
“I said keep moving,” Carl grunted.
“Why haven’t they attacked?”
“Who knows? Who cares? They haven’t and we’re alive. Let’s keep it that way, eh?”
Fin’s hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. “You know we’re not going…”
A loud gong cut him off and the reverberating shock waved knocked them to their knees. Fin spun, sword drawn in a flash of silver. Another gong and he realized what was happening. Grace had grounded her sword, a barrier between them and the Thieves. The noise was coming from them launching attacks. Large, ashen projectiles were coalescing in front of the Thieves as they walked forward and then being fired like bullets. Gong. Well, more like cannon shells. The attacks were picking up pace. The barrier flickered and cracked with each concussive blast. Fin could see the sweat and exertion clear in Grace’s face, even several feet away.
“Keep going. I’ll hold them…”
Gong. Gong. Gong.
Grace staggered. She was on her knees now, her grip on her sword the only thing keeping her from falling over. Her hair stuck to her face, slick with sweat. But her eyes were fixed on the Thieves, determination evident in the set of her jaw.
Gong. Gong. Gong.
“No,” Fin said, sinking his sword into the ground, “you won’t.” His hair began to fan out, like the precursor to an impending lightning strike. His eyes burned silver, even the newly red one. With the red streak in his hair, it almost looked like a flame the way it danced. Fin tilted his head back and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the acrid air of smoke, dust, and death. Even as he had tried to ignore it, he knew it wasn’t just rocks and rubble they had stepped over. The street around them was littered with the blackened and brittle bones of people that hadn’t been able to get away. The people that had died to the flood of Thieves and Soulless. People that hadn’t stood a chance. He wondered how many had died without knowing what was happening. Instead, just watching their friends and family incinerated or torn apart before they were snuffed out as well.
“Fuck me.” Carl’s whisper barely reached Fin’s ears.
Gong. Gong. Gong.
Fin was surrounded by a torrent of power, whirling around him like a localized wind storm. He opened his eyes and looked through Grace’s failing barrier, more cracks than shield of light now. The Thieves were still advancing, still launching the barrage of ashen projectiles. In the back of his mind, he realized he was floating, feet no longer touching the ground, as he pulled more and more power close to him. Soul magic couldn’t kill the Thieves. He needed elemental magic. And he willed it toward him. Heat pooled from his sword as he drew more and more energy. The ground around it was a molten pool, and the sword was slowly sinking into the ground. Fin pointed and the sky broke in half.
For a moment, the world was frozen. The bolt of brilliant blue lightning seared through the sky, its light burning the afterimage into everyone’s eyes. The crack of thunder was immediate and powerful, a shockwave all its own from the origin of lightning that suddenly leapt into existence. Fin gazed at the bolt. It jumped into the front group of Thieves, lighting them up like Christmas lights and then popping. Puffs of ash and a spark of electricity. The bolt snaked through the Thieves, connecting them like the strings on a murder board tracing the connections of victims and suspects.
As the light from the bolt extinguished, time caught back up and a final peal of thunder tore through the street as the superheated air slammed back together. A jagged line cut through the mass of Thieves and the shockwave of thunder threw the humans to their backs and flattened some of the Thieves. But Fin knew it wasn’t enough. He stared up into the sky, blinking away the afterimage of the lightning. He wasn’t sure where the others were. Or how many of the Thieves he had killed. Get up, Fin. I’ve got to get up! He fought with every fiber of his being to get up. His head tilted to the side. Get up! His muscles tensed through his body. A finger twitched. You’re alive! Get up! Check on the others! Grace’s barrier was gone. His hand grasped in the gravel and broken bones and rubble. Both hands turned to fists and he pushed. He was up to his elbows, head still hanging back. That’s when he saw it. The dog again. It was upside down. Or rather, his head was, because it was tilted back and the dog was looking down into his face. Its tongue slathered across his face.
“Good girl, Callie. Looks like they’re still alive.”
The dog, Callie, turned from Fin to look back at the man that spoke. He was wearing a ratty, brown trench coat and had a shotgun casually on his shoulder. The other hand held a cigarette to his mouth.
“Now, to finish what you started. And then to figure out how the hell a Conduit managed an elemental attack like that without burning himself to a crisp.” The man strode past Fin, not waiting for a response and holstered his shotgun. He dropped the cigarette and opened his hands on either side him, palms out. Fire began to spider out of the air toward the open palms, condensing into blue orbs.
Fin’s arms gave out, and he collapsed back onto the ground, his head hitting uncomfortably on something hard. He couldn’t see the man anymore. The Elementalist he and Grace had gone searching for. But he felt as the heat from the man’s attack grew. And he heard the roar as the fireballs belched across the battlefield toward to the swarm of Thieves. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him now, but he swore he heard some of them scream, an unnatural and guttural shriek as the fire tore through them.