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Chapter 24

Everyone arrived in groups, by different means of transportation. Colin went with Phoenix and three others he’d never met, in a small car.

They crept quietly to the meeting place, and from there on, things somehow went according to plan. Colin was sure someone would be waiting for them. There was nothing but quiet until Phoenix and the others created explosions, assisted by the earth elementals who controlled the dirt and kept it from getting too out of hand. It couldn’t have taken more than five minutes to blow and burrow a hole big enough for the elementals to drop though.

Airs went first, they filled the chamber and caught the fire, earth, and water elementals who jumped in next.

Colin watched, waited, tried to listen.

Someone floated up through the opening like a ghost. A girl, with wide eyes. She flinched when she saw him, before she realized he wasn’t going to kill her, then vanished and drifted off in the breeze.

He dropped to his stomach and tried to look into the hole, tried to see how many others were waiting to defend the Purest. He wanted to fight, to help, but there was nothing he could do.

The ground under him rumbled and the hole sealed itself. “Shit.”

Isaac and Katrina hit the ground near him from overhead. Both coughed, nodded once at him, and ran down the hill.

He followed them to the spot where he’d come up into a pond with Mary, only there was hardly any water left. Katrina dove in, emerged, and vanished as soon as she came up. She wasn’t the only one. Colin had a horrible memory of the mermaids when he saw the elementals diving and emerging, fully nude.

He understood what was happening after staring for a long time. They were making it rain. Cutting off Old Man River’s water source from the outside. It couldn’t have taken as long as it felt to him, standing uselessly on the sidelines, but he cheered with the others when they sucked water from the mud and carried it far away.

“Open her up,” Katrina shouted.

More water flooded from the cave, this time Kurada tumbled out with it. “How’s it going out here?”

“Better than we could have expected, how’s it in there?” Katrina asked.

“It’s a battle,” Kurada said. “But we’re still winning.”

The air and water teams cheered again and went back to work with renewed vigor. Kurada looked behind her to a man who emerged a moment later, retching. “Manny!”

Colin helped drag Manny out of the water.

“Damn that bitch is strong.” Manny crawled a few feet away and started to vomit dark clay onto the grass.

“Watch him,” Kurada said before diving back into the water and vanishing into the cave.

There wasn’t much Colin could do if there was a problem, but he watched Manny anyway. Layers of clay, and soil poured out of him. His face looked bruised and swollen.

Droplets of water hit Colin as the elementals in the pond continued to drain it.

Everything moved too fast. Elementals rushed in and out of the cave, through the tunnel in the bottom of the empty pond. Even Manny got back up and rushed back in.

Colin watched.

Carmel slid out into the empty pond, somehow carried on the grains of wet sand. She shook off like a wet dog, but instead of water, clumps of dirt and rocks flew from her skin.

“We need you in there.” She grabbed Colin by the shoulders and they dropped into the earth, the way he’d done with Mary.

Inside the cavern was a confusion of water and rocks and movement and noise.

The air stifled him and he couldn’t see, except during bright flashes from little explosions.

He recognized Mary, fully a statue, spinning and crashing into Mother Earth, knocking chunks of rock from the shriveled golem.

Mother Earth had taken severe damage. She was smaller, and couldn’t regenerate. As soon as a chunk of rock fell, it sank into the ground, under a strange sort of film. Colin realized he was walking on elementals, breathing them. Were they Carmel’s mercenaries? Hanging on with the strength of granite, years of practice, and promise of a payday? Or were the mercenaries the ones fighting, hitting Mother Earth with little explosions, beating rock against rock, and taking all the water out of Old Man River? Which were CERT, and which were the Terrafiers? How many could be left, and how did they know to come?

Carmel grabbed Colin’s shoulders and pointed him toward Mother Earth. “You see it, boy? Go get it!”

He saw. Between the cracks, in places where the great stone shell had been broken down enough, was a body. A skin and bone, human-like body. Carmel pushed him forward. Mary narrowly avoided taking his head off, and she barely glanced at him as she spun by.

He couldn’t hit the tiny, shifting target. He couldn’t have the caves cleared, he couldn’t risk killing everyone inside.

A stone fist sent him flying into a wall. Whoever was there prepared for him and made it soft for him, but it still knocked the air out his lung and when he hit the cave floor, they filled with water.

For an instant, he was at peace. His hands floated away from his body. Everything went quiet. Something brushed his leg underwater, a gently caress from something… Slippery.

He thrashed and fought, remembering the mermaids. He pushed himself from the water and breathed. The ground under him rose and he heard Carmel, or someone, scream.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw it was Mary versus Mother Nature, and Mary was winning. Air and earth elementals kept the Purest from regenerating. Pieces fell away. Manny and Carmel helped, dodging Mother Nature’s heavy arms and Mary’s marble ones.

More of the armor crumbled away. Old Man River surged with the rest of his strength, but the water elementals kept taking away from him, occasionally getting knocked over, or getting pulled in and depleted of what they’d just taken.

Colin tried to hit Mother Nature with a bolt, and missed. The section of wall he hit instead crumbled. The elemental he hit leapt back up and sealed the bare spot almost instantly, but not before stray bits of the cave wall attached to Mother Earth’s fist.

Carmel leapt at Mother Earth like a stone bullet, but a wave pushed her off course. For a long, terrible moment she remained suspended in a watery fist, that squeezed her until chunks of dirt and blood came out. She dropped through the water and stayed still at the bottom.

It all happened so fast. Dozens of elementals appeared around Colin. The cave grew quickly crowded with water elementals, including Kurada and Andreus, who soaked up as much as they could. They swelled, like bloated corpses, like balloons, like nothing Colin had ever seen before.

Old Man River roared. The watery fist shrank, shriveled, solidified. Colin felt himself shrivel, too. The elementals didn’t care where the water came from. Old Man River didn’t care who he might kill, just to survive.

Someone grabbed Colin, dragged him into the cave floor, too quickly for Colin to kick and scream and resist. In an instant, Colin was buried alive, encased in dirt and rock.

He could still see, somehow. He could see the thing that was Old Man River turn into an actual old man, a pathetic withered human man, looking confused and wounded.

Statue Mary spun past and took off his head. The fat, swollen water elementals cheered when his head rolled and the water leaked back out of their bodies into the cave.

Carmel and several others remained motionless on the cave floor, or were taken into the walls and floor as Colin was, protected from further damage. Mary was busy with Mother Earth, who continued to shrink, but it looked like a one on one battle.

Whoever held him in the floor released him. Colin realized that all of the earth elementals in the cave who weren’t fighting beside Mary were still protecting the cave.

Mary screamed. She’d taken a hit from Mother Earth that opened up a crack across her stone torso. Mary started to flicker between statue and flesh in the same unsettling way Andreus did on Colin’s kitchen floor. Blood marked the white stone, and screams issues from the flesh body.

The others hesitated.

Many of the water elementals cleared out, but those who stayed with Katrina aimed powerful jets of at Mother Earth, who started to look more and more like the soil woman from Colin’s first visit.

“Get her, Colin!” Andreus shouted over the roar of a dozen pressure washers.

“What if I hit someone else?” Colin didn’t want to kill anyone else. He couldn’t even see all the elementals in the cave. The walls, the water, the air… They could be anyone.

“Try!” Kurada screamed.

Mary continued her flicker from human to stone and Mother Earth approached her.

Colin panicked. Electricity built up in him with his need to save Mary, but he kept it in. “I need a push,” Colin breathed.

Someone, some air or water, obliged. He flew at Mother Earth, held onto her stone covered shoulders, and hit her with a jolt of electricity. Pieces of the cave walls fell, Katrina shouted orders that someone repeated. Noise, light, action everywhere, but Colin held on.

More walls crumbled, elementals disappeared.

Mary flickered at the feet of Mother Earth, with Colin on her back, until Mother Earth raised an arm and the whole thing fell on Mary, sending white shards of stone flying through the cave.

Everything seemed very distant. The sounds of retreating elementals, the cave walls crumbling, Carmel, who looked almost alive under the moving water. Mother Earth started for the dirt, started to regenerate.

Colin took hold of her slim, naked arm, and hit her with everything.

Everything went away. He didn’t see anything, didn’t feel or hear anything at all. There was just nothing for a moment, or an hour, or he could have imagined it. When it all came back, he fell with Mother Earth into the water.

The walls crumbled faster and harder. He had to get out, but no one was left, or no one was alive to help him. No one remained to push him up to the sky or out to the water. He couldn’t see anymore, and he was trapped under the stone shoulders of the dead Mother Earth. He shouted for help, but none came before a chunk of dirt hit him in the head, knocking him unconscious.

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