Mary made her phone calls on the way to CERT, and when the trio arrived, Colin was shocked at how many elementals responded so quickly.
Mary squeezed through the crowd to change and prepare in her office, leaving Colin and Andreus to make a space for her to stand and speak. Kurada found them, and joined them by the makeshift podium. Carmel and some of her men stood near the exit. Colin realized they were letting anyone in, but they weren’t going to let anyone out once the plan was revealed. Colin tried and failed to suppress a shiver in the warm, body heat filled room.
Colin watched Carmel answer her phone, hand it up, and make a call. He watched Phoenix joke around with some other men around his age, and watched Isaac and Katrina nod and whisper to each other. Everyone seemed to be on edge, waiting with a hot, palpable tension that only grew as the crowd grew. The boardroom filled up and elementals spilled out into the bullpen, out into the halls, some even took refuge in the interrogation-like rooms to get a taste of the air conditioning.
It felt like much longer than an hour before Mary came back out, showered, made up and dressed in a white suit. She reached the podium.
“As you may have guessed,” she started. Her voice boomed throughout the complex. Colin stared in awe for a moment, before realizing she had a microphone clipped discretely to her jacket. “I’ve called you here to go to battle.”
A murmur rose and fell through the crowd.
“You won’t like what I have to say next, but if you stay to listen, you must stay until we fight.”
Colin’s thought was confirmed, mercenaries guarded the door to stop anyone from running to tell the Purest of the plan. A few elementals left, one with a broken leg and two who apologized on their way out. Everyone else remained.
“Thank you all. I said you won’t like what I have to say next because most of you, like me and all of us up here, won’t like the enemy.”
Another murmur swelled and died.
“Our enemy for this battle, is the Purest themselves.”
This time, not a murmur but a roar erupted. A couple of elementals tried to beg their way out, tried to leave and not fight. Some tried to argue that the Purest could not be killed, but maybe they could be contained.
“They are not gods. They are not Titans, and we are not Zeus,” Mary replied. “They are mortal, and they are evil. The Terrafiers are everything the Purest wanted CERT to be. We will not be the committers of genocide. Neither will we be the victims.”
Andreus glanced at Colin at the mention of the thunder god, and Colin rolled his eyes. Mary’s words seemed to infuse the crowd, those who weren’t dragged away to holding rooms anyway, with a new energy.
Kurada explained the plan, glancing at a paper in her hand occasionally. From where he stood beside the podium, Colin saw the paper was blank. She spoke differently from the way she did in the warehouse where she first presented her plan. She seemed prepared, practiced, even. She really was a good actress.
Confidence bolstered by the assurance that Kurada went undercover for months for the information, and the knowledge that Carmel and her mercenaries were going in first, almost the entire crowd seemed ready to fight.
“Are they really that tough?” Colin asked Mary.
“Tougher,” she said. “She might be tougher than me, and she won’t hire anyone who doesn’t meet her standards. They’re a real army, we’re peasants with pitchforks.”
Kurada turned the podium over to Katrina, whose presentation was less polished, but somehow equally effective. “Alright, y’all. Isaac and I are gonna teach you air and waters a few tricks. So pair up and meet us in the basement. Get ready to make it rain.”
A cheer erupted, a loud release of tension as the elementals broke off in pairs and the crowd shrunk considerably.
“We need Earth Movers,” Mary said. If you need a little while to practice, head down and do that. But don’t tire yourselves out. We strike tonight.”
Colin stared at her. They expected all the elementals to be prepared so soon? Only hours?
“If you need someone to blow shit up, I’m your guy,” Phoenix said. “Can’t imagine a better way to get a hole in a mountain than that. I’ll have police and fire send out the message for citizens not to worry. Some kind of testing or whatever they do.”
“Thanks,” Mary said. She drifted away to talk to others about how they could contribute to the effort. She had numbers and diagrams in her hands and Colin could only stand by and watch. He couldn’t help deplete water or earth from the cave. He also couldn’t just let his friends go to die.
Colin drifted the halls like a ghost during the hours when the others practiced and learned and prepared for the upcoming battle. All he could do was stand by when others looked at him quizzically, clearly wondering why he wasn’t with Phoenix and the others, suiting up and getting psyched to blow shit up.
Everyone he knew was too busy for him, except Carmel, unless standing still looking like a badass counted as being busy.
“You coming with us?” she asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You gonna keep yourself under control?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
She smiled. “You’ve come a long way in a little while. Trust me, though, if you relapse out there and hurt anyone on our side, I’ll put you down.”
“I’m sure there’s something you could be doing to prepare. Light some incense and candles or whatever you do to get zen and not kill us.”
“What about you?” Colin asked. “Everyone else is getting ready. You don’t need to warm up?”
The man opposite Carmel snorted. She shot him a look.
“Everyone else has desk jobs or no jobs,” Carmel said. “There’s a reason we’re going in first.”
“Colin!” Andreus called Colin toward one of the rooms, where snacks sat on a table and a broken vending machine sat in a corner.
“Is Carmel really all that powerful?” Colin asked.
Andreus shrugged. “I wouldn’t fuck with her. Mary won’t fuck with her. So I’ll say yes.”
Someone stumbled into the room- a man, perfectly between Andreus and Colin’s heights and bald. Colin couldn’t tell if it was by choice or genetics that the man had no hair.
“Hey,” Andreus greeted.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” the man said. “What the hell is wrong with you people?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean this place was founded on the idea of the Purest. Now we’re expected to not only turn our backs on them, but to kill them?”
“They’re with the Terrafiers now,” Andreus said. “They tried to kill me twice. You’re bitching to the wrong person.”
“So it’s because Mary’s little fuckboy got hurt that we are expected to go to war? I don’t think so. You can all go and die and I’ll be right here to rebuild when you don’t come back.”
Something in Andreus’ expression terrified Colin. He tried to reach for his friend, but Andreus punched the man.
His pale arm flew into the man’s face, straight into his mouth, and didn’t stop there. Andreus pushed until it looked like some sick magic trick, sword swallowing to the extreme.
“You know what I think?” Andreus said in a hoarse growl. “I think you’re a little weak to try to start shit with me right now. I don’t give a shit what you think this is about, but if you think you’re getting in the way of this, you’re wrong.”
The man, an earth elemental, started to choke as the skin around his mouth turned to stone. Colin watched in horror. Carmel and Mary had no problem shifting, they would never have been hurt by this. But this asshole just said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“Andreus, stop,” Colin said. “Stop, you’re going to kill him!”
“I don’t see the problem.”
Colin stared in horror, the man struggled and gagged. Colin sent a shock at both of them and silently prayed it wasn’t enough to kill.
It wasn’t. Andreus withdrew. The man dropped to the floor, coughing. Colin stared some more. Was anyone who they seemed to be?
Andreus smiled, wrapped an arm around Colin’s shoulder and walked out of the room. “Let’s go tell Carmel to lock this piece of shit up.”
“What the fuck, Andreus?”
“You were going to kill him, weren’t you?”
“What? No, of course not. I just needed to put him in his place a little bit.”
“That was terrible.”
“I told you it’s not pretty. It’s not as easy to choke someone to death as you might think.”
They told Carmel just before Isaac and Katrina led their little army of partners back upstairs.
Mary came out at almost the same time. “Are they ready?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” Isaac said.
“Alright,” Mary said. “Carmel, keep someone here to protect anyone who doesn’t want to fight. Let’s do this.”