The fire of anger burned brightly in my middle.
“Not even the dead are safe from him,” I said, feeling the faith Mia and Chad and John and the others had put in me. They were depending on me to set this to rights. “And it’s the dead I’ve sworn to protect.”
I sent a blast of the Line’s magic out in all directions like a shock wave, punching through the middles of Valens’s minions. Once they were down, I collected the little ribbons connecting everyone in the area, took a split second to grab them, and yanked them all to the ground.
“Here comes Johnny!” Bria shouted, quoting her favorite movie.
The illusion of the ocean cut out. Screams and hoarse yells rose around us as the enemy forces were brought to their knees. Some even tumbled onto their backs.
Through the din, one person rose. A woman built like a tank struggled up from the ground and staggered toward me.
“Kill the vile Soul Stealer,” she yelled. “And save yourselves!”
“That was hurtful,” Bria said as she ran forward to meet her.
She punched the woman square in the face, jabbed forward with her knife, pulled it back, flinging drops of crimson, and round-house kicked her in the head—all in one graceful series of movements.
The woman fell like a sack of bricks.
“That was overkill,” Chad murmured.
I repeated it for Bria’s sake.
“Can it, Chad, or I’ll tell Barbie you cheated with Kimmy.” Bria motioned us on. “Let’s go. This is just a few of a great many. The boys are on that beach. We need to get to them.”
She was right. Behind the group of peons kneeling around us, a sea of red and black moved toward the ocean. Magic flared and arched over the crowd, the battle raging and the Six clearly fighting for their lives.
Fear gripped me. I sent spirit through the connections I held, using it to seep past their spirit protectors. Without delay, I ripped out their life essences, the process easy now that I’d given in to the feeling of it.
Gritting my teeth, I yanked them all free.
Spirits popped out all around us and bodies fell to the ground. I didn’t wait until the spirits regained their equilibrium from that harsh transition and started calling me names. I ran, cutting through the downed bodies and spirits alike.
“Follow Alexis,” Bria shouted to our undead crew, purely for effect since her magic was actually leading most of them.
A group of people turned to face me as I reached them, just within the large parking lot beside the beach. Hands came out and a sword rose. They weren’t waiting for a command to attack.
I slashed through their middles and kept running, dodging between them as they froze or sank to the ground with wide, terrified eyes. A couple of them startled into action again, pushing past their fear or discomfort, but by that time the corpses had reached them. The army of the dead slammed into them, ripping and tearing with their hands. One dead guy bit someone’s nose, losing a tooth in the process.
Another group of Valens’s people waited beyond, shifting in their ranks, no doubt wondering what was coming their way. The organization made it clear who was in charge. I slashed at their spirit boxes while veering in the other direction, not wanting to barrel through bodies if I could help it. Group by group I took down whoever waited in my path, ripping the souls out of the leaders and leaving the others to be dealt with by the force at my back.
Kieran had been dead right to keep my magic a secret. My unfamiliar and deeply uncomfortable magic stopped them cold, and by the time the stronger, harder, more advanced soldiers regained their equilibrium, the dead were ravaging through them.
No one knew to target me until it was too late.
“Get to a place where I can work,” Bria shouted, slashing a serrated blade across someone’s throat, turning in the same movement, and sticking it into the side of someone else’s neck. “You’ve given me a lot of spirits and bodies to work with. I might as well make myself useful.” She kicked a guy in the balls before ramming her knife through his breast plate.
“You’re plenty useful now,” I muttered in awe.
Amazingly not out of breath from all the running and magical fighting, I reached the barrier between the parking lot and the beach. A blotch of red drenched the first step and driblets ran from the bottom step out onto the sand. A body dressed in green lay facedown.
Glancing up, a shock of cold dread ran up my spine and fear pinched my gut. Greens and blues must be Kieran’s colors, against the blacks and reds of Valens’s people. They’d had to use colors to distinguish sides, but as I stood there, I saw a green-clad man turn and stab someone in blue. Likewise, someone in red flung out his hands and the woman in black in front of him sank down to her knees. Regardless of the turncoats, it was clear from the action spread across the beach leading to the water that Kieran’s army was vastly, horribly outnumbered.
Beyond the turmoil, the ocean rolled and surged in unnatural ways. The natural waterline had been pushed back halfway to the spot where Kieran’s mom’s skin had been kept, and two figures fought on the hard-packed sand with a speed and ferocity that left no doubt as to who they were. The waves or foam swirled around them, sometimes nearly reaching one of them before being magically pushed away again.
As I watched, Valens glanced my way, and with my enhanced vision, I could barely see him do a double-take before Kieran stole his focus again. He’d seen the mark. Thankfully, he couldn’t know what sort of power the mark-holder wielded.
With us on his side, he’ll win.
Daisy had been entirely too confident.
Chad groaned beside me, and I swore I heard stealer.
The magic that inspired fear unlike any other. Stories had been passed down of a single man walking through a raging battle and ripping the life from all he passed. Bodies fell around him and lay in piles in his wake. He was a living plague. No one was immune.
And then the horrifying inevitable happened: the bodies rose again.
The spirits passed through the fires of hell and were summoned back up to do the Soul Stealer’s bidding. He was Satan’s helper. He was a walking terror.
He was a she.
In order to save those I loved, I had to become the thing I most feared.
I pulled power from the Line. More than I ever had. It pulsed to the side, ready to welcome any souls I threw at it.
But I wouldn’t be throwing souls. I would be recycling them. They would do my bidding and protect those who were trying to protect Kieran. He had always been right—I could turn the tide. And I would. I couldn’t bear to lose the family I’d so recently let into my life.
Kieran dodged a punch faster than any he’d ever seen. He managed to slam a fist into his father’s side and then blasted him with a heavy dose of magic. Water crashed all around them, his father trying to knock him away with the surging surf.
But there was more than one ruler of the ocean in this fight.
Kieran waved away the white foam and shoved the waters, parting them on both sides of their fight. His father kicked his side just as a huge blast of air pushed him off his balance. Kieran tore down the air currents but took the kick. A dull ache spread across his ribs. Had he been a normal man, that kick might have cracked a few bones and maybe punctured a lung.
He blocked another kick and delivered one of his own, nearly reaching for Alexis’s magic to push his father back. Not yet, though. She was coming—he could feel her power burning brightly through their connection, filling him up to bursting. He wanted Valens to see the woman he had chosen. The woman he had marked.
He wanted him to know he’d been wrong.
Zorn’s cloud materialized into his physical form nearby, well within the water’s natural edge. He surprised two of Valens’s men who’d been running out toward the water.
“Need your lackeys to help you with your inferior son?” Kieran taunted, punching his father in the throat, then whirling just in time to miss a kick to his knee.
“Need my men to help fill your miserable excuse for an army?”
“Yes, actually. Thank you for that.”
Magic surged and water rose back up around them. Kieran shoved it away.
“It seems you’ve developed a sense of humor. So have I.” Valens swept his hands from the side and thick spikes of air bore down on Zorn and the guys he was quickly taking down.
Kieran gritted his teeth to tear down the spikes. The distraction gave his father a window. He blasted Kieran with a hot, stinging stream of magic that sent pain pulsing through his body. Black spots danced in his vision and his mind dizzied.
Valens hit him with another, stronger this time, and Kieran staggered back and bit down on his tongue. The rusty taste of blood coated his mouth.
“Weak,” he heard his father say. A fist battered his head, then a kick drove him to the ground. “The Elite are replaceable, Kieran, how many times must I tell you? Accrue many, bind them with their blood, and you need not worry if one or two goes down in battle.”
“Have less, and you will achieve a stronger bond.” He threw up his hand to block a punch but missed the fist. It smashed into his mouth, splitting his lip. Water crashed into his body, washing over him. A swell of magic rose. It would take him under and drag him out to sea, giving his father the upper hand.
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