Xander stood in the center of a group of twenty or so other Conduits. They were standing on a small hill. A hill which Fin realized was really the rubble and remains of a collapsed building. Swords planted in the ground, the Conduits and Xander made a striking image. Black and silver coats were buffeted by the wind as they all pointed in unison and fired silver beams that coalesced together, combining their power, and sliced through the now thinning horde of Thieves.
The relief Fin had initially felt was short lived. He was still pressing hard onto Carl’s wound, attempting to slow the loss of blood. But that was a fight he was rapidly loosing. “Grace! I need you!”
Grace’s head finally shifted and Fin could see the silver streaks of light flying past them reflected in her wide eyes. She looked over to Fin, her face ashen, save the scarlet stream of blood that was starting to crust on her face. Her eyes were still wide, almost glassen and unseeing like a doll.
“Grace! Snap out of it! Come on!” Fin desperately wanted to go over to her, but he knew he couldn’t leave Carl. And even if his sword wasn’t broken, he was nowhere near as gifted at healing as Grace was.
Mills strode over to Grace, Callie at his heel. She was limping and her steel fur was covered in a muddy white: the gore of her own wounds mixed with torn viscera and flesh of the Thieves. Mills knelt down and grabbed Grace’s face. “Hey, your friends need you. You good?”
Grace stared into Mills’s face for a moment. Then she blinked. And blinked again. She gently shook her head as Mills let go of her face. “I… Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” She took Mills offered hand and let him help her stand.
“Go. Carl’s hurt bad.”
Grace started to move toward Fin and Carl. She half turned back to Mills. “I heard Callie yelp. Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Never tried to heal a dog, but I’m sure I can help if needed.”
Mills simply nodded, a cigarette already hanging from his lip like a magic trick.
“I’m here,” Grace said. She kneeled down next to Carl, snaking her hands under Fin’s blood-soaked coat. She winced as she touched the wound, but her face was set. Her eyes flared silver, this time from her own power, and not the reflection of the now diminishing beams. “This will feel…unpleasant.”
Carl’s body tensed and began to convulse. Fin held him down as Grace fought to keep her hands in position. Silver light crackled around Carl’s shoulder and the scent of seared flesh touched Fin’s nose. He glanced over at Grace, but her attention was solely on Carl’s shoulder.
Fin glanced around the street that had become a battlefield. Smears of white and chunks of bodies littered the ground, spreading out from them in a half-circle. There was still some movement out there, but the Conduits’s attacks had slowed down. Most of the Thieves were either dead or scattered. He heard footsteps, a strange mix of crunching against gravel and squelching.
“I see you made some new friends and promptly got into trouble. And what the fuck happened to your face?”
“I thought you all had left,” Fin said.
Xander knelt down next to Fin, rugged face looking down at Carl’s, whose face was still twisted in pain. “That was the plan. To be honest, we tried. I took a group of Conduits and went to support General Matthias’s evacuation efforts. It… It didn’t go well.”
“I’d say not much different than what happened here. But that’d be a fucking lie. Here we were able to save your asses. The Soulless were ready for us. We were attacked by the largest group of Soulless and Thieves I’ve ever seen.” Xander allowed a small, half smile. It was crooked and served to darken his face. “Course, a few days ago we hadn’t seen any Soulless.” He motioned back to the hill where the other Conduits were. “Not much of us left. Some military guys are holed up with other guys that look a lot like your friends here.” He nodded toward Carl and Mills.
“I didn’t realize it was so bad.”
Xander nodded. “None of us did. I mean, what we saw in Harlem and Times Square was bad. But the extent of it. The total devastation…” Xander trailed off, staring at Carl.
“Is it all like this?” Fin motioned around. While there were a large number of buildings standing, many of them had substantial damage. Sections blown out, some half collapsed, others just piles of rubble, like the one Xander and the Conduits had been on. Debris and ruin littered the streets. Cracked concrete, charred vegetation, vehicles in varying states of destruction. And then death. There weren’t always bodies or evidence of human remains, but there was enough. Charred remains, shattered bones, and sometimes just bodies with little evidence of trauma. Closer examination would show ragged holes through vital places: head, heart, or various other parts of the body. It was clear the Soulless didn’t discriminate. Military, police, Conduit, and civilian all blended together. To the Soulless, it seemed that a life was a life, which meant they wanted everyone dead.
“It was like this last time.” Carl’s voice was strained and rough. His face and expression matched. Pale and tight lipped, the corners of his eye pinched. “Only the creation and deployment of the Damp Fields stopped them.” Carl tried to get up, but Grace’s hand on his injured shoulder kept him from doing anymore than sitting up.
“You still need more healing. I’ve done what I can, but there’s still a lot of trauma from that wound.” Grace’s eyebrows were pinched together, a sheen of sweat covering her brow. She kept her hand on Carl’s shoulder.
“Believe it or not, I’ve had worse. And it’s not likely better healing’s gonna be available anytime soon.” Carl gently moved Grace’s hand away, trying and failing to hide the grimace of pain. “Save your strength.”
Grace hesitated, biting her bottom lip.
“Really, Grace. I’ll be fine.”
Grace looked like she wasn’t going to listen, but she nodded. She stoop up and walked over to Mills, where he was sitting on the ground, Callie in his lap, and a cigarette half-forgotten in his mouth. Grace knelt down in front them and scratched Callie’s snout. “How’s she doing?”
Mills roughed Callie’s scruff. “She’s good. One of the Thieves was able to penetrate the armor spell, but the wound looks pretty superficial. Already stopped bleeding, so I’ll think we’ll be good.”
“Want me to take a look anyway?”
Mills shrugged and pulled the cigarette from his mouth with a puff of smoke. “If you wanna try, sure. Will it bother her like it did Carl?”
Grace extended both hands and touched them on either side of Callie’s chest, her fingers burrowing into the soft fur. “Honestly, I’m not sure. Carl was hurt pretty bad. Worse than I’d ever healed, to be honest. Usually, it’s a cold feeling. Kinda like ice along the spine.” Grace brushed Callie’s fur gently. “It’s okay, baby. I’m just gonna see if I can take some of the hurts away.”
Callie looked up at Grace with her wide, brown eyes and whined softly. Grace closed her eyes and channeled her power, looking for wounds. Callie whimpered, and then shivered, her fur shaking in a silky sheen of brown and black. And then her tongue lolled out of her mouth and she started panting, tail wagging softly.
Mills chuckled. “Well, guess she doesn’t find it so bad.”
“That’s a good girl, Callie!” Grace ruffled the fur between Callie’s ears. “That armor spell of yours seems pretty durable.”
“Mine?” Mills had another cigarette in his mouth and was pulling a burning finger away from it. He shook his hand, putting out the flame. “That’s all her.” He winked at Grace.
A Conduit came down the hill toward Xander and Fin, his hand wrapped tightly around his sword. “Xander, we’ve got word that some Soulless are getting close to our position. They branched off from that massive group performing that summoning ritual or something.”
Carl was on his feet, albeit unsteady. It was clear his shoulder injury was still causing him significant pain, despite the healing that Grace performed. “All this,” he motioned with his good hand at the smattering of white corpses and gore, “and we still have that fucking dragon to deal with.”
Xander cocked his head at the mention of the dragon. “That mean what I think it does?”
“Well shit. One thing at a time though. Let’s get off the street and regroup. I’m not sure any of us are ready to tangle with a group of Soulless right now.”
“We’re running out of time to have a choice,” Mills said. He had come over shortly after the Conduit shared his intel with Xander.
“And you are?” Xander’s voice was neutral.
“This is Mills,” Fin answered. “And his dog, Callie. He’s the Elementalist and they’ve saved our lives twice now.”
Xander’s eyes momentarily widened. “So you did find him?”
“More they found us.”
Mills flicked the cigarette butt into the street. “Doesn’t matter. To the point, we should get moving. The Soulless coming our direction was the main reason for our rapid retreat in the first place.”
Two phones buzzed and both Carl and Mills fished cell phones out of their pockets. In a blur, Mills’s phone was replaced with a shotgun and he had whirled around. Carl fumbled, working to get his phone back in his pocket and grab his rifle, but his injury was making it impossible.
“Movement, southwest!” A voice yelled.
Mills was already summoning a ball of fire into his free hand. The Conduit that had come down to them started to draw his sword, but his skin was flaking from his body as fire raced through his veins. He was gone in a soft explosion of ash and his sword clattered to the ground. Mills released the fireball, sending it roaring across the street at the Soulless that was standing in the open, its white hand outstretched from the snap. The Soulless waved its hand and brushed the fireball aside. The attack puffed out, a smear of blue fire and smoke that vanished as easy as if it was erased.