Mills was like the conductor of a symphony. He stood in the center of a whirling inferno of smoke and fire, a blue tornado of destruction. It was a ring of protection around the three people on the ground. Three people who had tried to stand against a tsunami of Thieves. Callie was crouched near Fin, her eyes fixed on Mills, but ready to protect the fallen Conduit and his companions at a moment’s notice. Mills’s face was calm, even as his torrent of elemental power ripped around him, thrashing his hair and trench coat. His eyes were fixed on the horde in front of him. With a flick of his wrist, he shot a tendril of fire into the mass, like a whip. It cracked through the ash bodies, cleanly separating torsos from legs. The Thieves made little effort to move forward or attack but Mills knew better than to give them the opportunity.
“How they doing, Call?” Mills kept his eyes forward, his attention on the Thieves.
Callie whined softly.
“What I figured. Let’s get them moving. Surprised no Soulless have showed up to this party yet.” Mills sent two more tendril whips into the mass. It didn’t seem like it was doing anything to thin their numbers. Mills risked a quick glance back and saw Fin stirring again. “You gotta get up, Conduit! We’re sitting ducks here.”
Fin struggled, but he managed to sit up this time. His head was throbbing, pain ran through his entire body, and his throat still felt like it had been torn apart. He looked over at Grace and Carl: they were both stirring and starting to get up. They looked beat to hell. Hair matted to bloody and sweaty foreheads. But they were moving. He heard a soft whine at his side, and he turned to see the dog, Callie sitting next to him. He reached out, but hesitated, unsure how she would respond. Callie ducked her head toward his hand. Fin smiled and scratched between her ears. He groaned to his feet, but he was up and standing. He heard the fire whip cracks from Mills’s attacks.
Fin was momentarily frozen in awe. The shear power the man was wielding, and so casually. Even still, Fin couldn’t help but notice that for as effective as the Elementalist’s attacks were, there was no visible dent in the Thieves before them. No. Fin’s eyes narrowed as he looked beyond the whirling ring of fire surrounding him, Grace, Carl, the man, and his dog. Thieves were surrounding them. Of course. It’s not like the creatures would stay on one front while getting attacked. They would reposition and work to regain a tactical advantage. For as mindless as these creatures seemed, they possessed a wicked and carnal intelligence.
“Who the hell is that?” Grace asked. “And is that a dog?”
“The name’s Mills. And that’s Callie,” Mills said. He threw his hands out forward, launching a column of blue fire into the Thieves.
“And this is the second time you’ve saved us,” Fin said.
“Well, I don’t know that I’d go so far as twice yet. We’re still in this pickle.”
“And what a pickle.” Carl was leaning on his rifle, but he was standing.
Mills risked a glance again. “You guys in fighting shape?”
“Not much of a choice,” Fin said. “And I’m Fin, she’s Grace, and that’s Carl.”
“Delighted. Alright, Fin. You got any juice left? That was one hell of a jolt you shot off last time.”
Fin rolled his head around his shoulders, trying to loosen the tension. It didn’t help. “We’ll have to find out. Let me get my…” Fin trailed off. Where was his sword? It should be…
“Get your what? We’re kinda running outta time here, man.” Another torrent of fire.
Fin saw the tip of the hilt, diamond catching the blue light of the fire around them. He reached down and pulled it out of the rubble. Vertigo rushed into him, his vision tunneling to the hilt he held in his hand. He felt his heart begin to race and his lungs froze. The blade was broken. Just a few inches remained attached to the hilt.
“Fin, did you…” Grace stopped abruptly and her eyes fell to what remained of Fin’s sword.
“Well fuck. That can’t be good. Didn’t know those suckers could break.” Carl had come over and noticed the sword as well.
Mills turned around, momentarily turning his back on the Thieves he had been fighting. Not that it mattered much at this point, as the group was completely surrounded. “Grace, how are you doing? Teleport, speed, support? Anything?”
Grace’s mouth worked silently a few times, like she was chewing invisible gum. “I can’t teleport with your barrier. I can only accelerate myself, and even then, not that fast. I can replace your shield, briefly.”
Mills tilted his head and looked down at Callie. He fished a cigarette from his coat, held it out to the whirling barrier of fire, and pulled the lit cigarette to his mouth. “So no.”
Fin slid the broken sword into his sheath and clipped it in securely. “I can help. Won’t be as much because I can’t ground.”
“You don’t know that, Fin! With a broken ground you could flashover. The feedback from that alone could be enough to sever your soul.”
Fin turned away from Grace, and looked out through the whirling blue flame over the sea of white bodies. “I’m not sure what choice we have. We either die here or trying to get away.”
“Damn, you’re a killjoy.” Mills puffed on his cigarette and scratched between Callie’s ears. Her fur started to shimmer and harden into steel. “Look, based on that lightning bolt you slung earlier, you should have died already. You broke your fucking sword. How many times have you heard about that happening? How many Conduits have survived that?”
Fin’s hand tightened around his hilt. “As far as I know, never.”
“I saw it happen. Once.” Mills flicked the cigarette into the barrier and it was gone in a spark of flame. “During the War of Souls.”
“Another time, Fin. But first, we need to clear a path. You and Grace cover our rear. We’ll have to plow forward. Callie and I will do what we can.”
A phone buzzed, and both Carl and Mills reached into pockets to pull out their phones. Carl spoke first. “This day just gets better. Some Soulless have left the dragon group. Intel suggest they’re heading this way.”
Mills sighed. “I knew it was a matter of time. Dragon or not, they’re not gonna ignore a gathering of their toys like this. It’s time to move.” Mills closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He knelt down in front of Callie and opened his eyes. They were swirling with blue and red light. He exhaled softly, and a mist of some sort spread over Callie, sliding past her nose, between her ears, and down along her spine. Her steel fur began to shimmer and spark as electricity bounced between the razor sharp points of her fur. Mills stood, flashed a smile down at Callie, and strode toward the edge of the barrier. He placed his hands before him, arms outstretched, the bases of his palms touching and facing out toward the Thieves. “Sic ‘em, girl.”
The barrier fell and a torrent of blue fire roared hundreds of feet out into the Thieves. Following the flame was a four-legged demon made from steel and lightning. Callie raced forward, trailing bolts and sparks of lightning as she tore into the Thieves the fire hadn’t destroyed. She was moving in a blur, not giving the Thieves a second to close ranks and recover the narrow corridor Mills had carved out.
“Let’s go!” Mils was charging after Callie, shotgun in one hand crackling with lightning and the other hand pulling blue flames out of the air and forming an orb.
Carl was right behind, the bolt of his rifle cycling as he fired round after round. A loud ping and he ejected the empty magazine, pulling another one from his belt and jamming it into the rifle. The bolt cycled and he was firing again. Grace and Fin each threw a hand up, willing a half dome into existence to shield their rear as they sought to escape. A Thief was reaching through to them, but the two halves of the barrier joined before it could reach either of them, cleanly severing the creature’s arm.
Fin could feel the Thieves pounding on the barrier, pummeling it from every side as they tried to get around and get through. Each impact reverberated through his head. Through his entire body. The white bodies were pressing in, crushing up against the barrier as they continued to move. He saw the expressionless face of a Thief getting pressed into the barrier as its fellows tried to get through. The face was misshapen, pressed flat against the barrier’s surface, but they kept pressing. And the Thief’s flesh gave way, and white splattered over the dome. And more, and more. Soon, they couldn’t see out of the barrier anymore as the weight of Thieves, pulverized by the pressure of the others, smeared across the surface. Even as they pulled the barrier with them, the weight was bordering on unbearable.
“Move! We’ve got to get far enough away and they should lose interest.” Mills’s voice was strained.
They had been moving forward, along the street. Even at a slow run, progress was painstakingly slow. Moving the barrier took virtually all of Fin and Grace’s concentration, which was a challenge given the terrain was uneven and hard to navigate. And despite the continuous efforts of Mills and Callie, more Thieves constantly sought to fill the void they were all fighting desperately for. Each step was hard won. Carl had run out of ammunition. His fingers were white as he gripped his rifle, eyes constantly scanning what little terrain he could see. Sweat poured from Fin’s brow and his arm was on fire. But he didn’t waiver. He kept his arm up, kept pouring what energy he could into the barrier that was getting heavier and heavier as the bodies of the Thieves continued to pile on it. He risked a glance at Grace. Her eyes were narrow slits, likely from concentration, but also to keep the sweat out. She kept an arm up as well, pouring her energy into the shared barrier. They would stumble, their concentration split as it was, over broken sidewalks, curbs, and bones. But they never wavered in maintaining the barrier.
They had gained some traction, as Mills and Callie had been able to cut a path through the bulk of the Thieves. Instead of being surrounded, they were being followed. Grace and Fin had to spread out their barrier, and Fin could feel the strain pulling at him. He still had a connection with his sword. The diamond in the hilt and the alloy ensured that. But it felt strange. Like he wanted to point out something, but was missing a finger. Or recalling a word that was just on the tip of his tongue, but wouldn’t quite let itself be spoken. But for now, the Thieves were being held at bay. But he wasn’t sure for how much longer. It felt like it had been hours. That they had walked for miles. But he couldn’t be sure. And then his heel caught something, and he was falling. He watched as the barrier flickered and then began to melt. Grace yelped in surprise and threw up her other hand, trying to pour more energy into the failing barrier. But it was too late. Through the smeared viscera of white bodies, live Thieves began to poke through.
A stream of blue fire roared above Fin, cooking through the Thieves. The flame torrent widened, turning into a wall as Mills stormed forward and pushed.
“Keep them at bay, Callie!” Mills called over his shoulder. Mills jabbed forward with his free hand, loosing a bolt of lightning into the mass of Thieves on the other side of his wall. And then he poured more fire into the new barrier, bringing it curving backward to cut off the Thieves advancing around the side.
“I’m sorry. I…I’ve got nothing left.” Fin was still on the ground.
Carl came over and started to help Fin up. “It’s okay. We’ll get mov…” Carl was cutoff by the white spike jutting out from his shoulder.
There was a loud snarl, a snap of thunder, and Callie had torn the Thief away from Carl. Carl slumped down, next to Fin. Fin was already ripping his coat off, stuffing it over the wound to try and stop the blood that was pouring from Carl’s wound.
“Grace, we need healing!”
The only response was the roar of fire and crackle of thunder.
“Grace!” Fin looked over, eyes searching frantically for her.
Mills was still standing, keeping up the flame wall as Callie kept Thieves from getting around it. Grace was on the ground, sitting with her legs folded up at her side. She had blood trickling down from the top of head, leaving a streak of red through the dust and ash on her face. Fin heard a yelp and then Mills was whirling around, lightning already starting to streak from his hands as he bared down on Callie’s attacked. But he had abandoned the wall. As the flames began to die down, Fin saw white hands and arms starting to poke through, soon followed by the expressionless faces with the gaping maws of teeth. Just as the first Thief was about to reach him, a brilliant beam of silver light flooded through the street, leaving only the teetering legs of the creature before they stumbled and fell to the ground, inches from Fin.
Another brilliant beam of light pierced through. And another, and another. Soon the street was filled with the brilliant silver light as beam after beam pulsed down the street, vaporizing the Thieves. And then it was quiet, and strangely dark after so much light. And then a voice was calling out.
Relief flooded through Fin and he slumped to the ground, face up to the sky. “We’re here, Xander!” Fin yelled back. And then he closed his eyes and waited. “We’re here,” he whispered.