The tall man took Ben’s place, sinking to a cross-legged position in the front of the room. The shadows that had blocked the entrance gathered around him to settle on the floor and the walls. Jet bit back a sharp laugh, causing Ben to glance quickly back and forth between the two of them.
“Aylard.” Ben bowed. “I didn’t think you’d come in person. Thank you. Please, by all means, go ahead.” Ben moved back to stand next to Reg, who stared at the leader of the Sons of Men with something akin to awe.
“Parrion has always been the center,” Aylard said, continuing the story of the origin of the Sons of Men. “Even after it was destroyed, it remains the center. From here we will free the true humans of Attania from the oppressive rule of the elemental pretenders, and to do that, we must first free the elemental spirits from their host bodies.
“What you call Family weren’t always as you see them now. Once they were free spirits who roamed Attania, unbound by physical ties. They existed long before the human race on Attania and will exist long after humans have returned to dust. But these elemental spirits saw humans and envied them their form. They desired the pleasures of the flesh and so took on human form. But there was always a way to tell these false humans from the real ones: the false humans could only take one shape, with white flesh such as never occurred in nature, and hair so black it rivaled the darkness. And even though they had taken on human form, these spirits retained their elemental powers. Ancient humans saw them and thought them gods.
But these creatures who called themselves Family were far from gods. They used their elemental abilities to rule over the true humans, even going so far as to breed with each other to create abominations—combinations of different elements into one flesh—binding spirit into flesh so tightly that after a while it became their reality.”
Jet thought the story sounded like the ones in the book King Roy had given him from the secret library underneath the royal compound, more like a fairy tale than reality. “How do you know what you’re saying is true?” Jet challenged.
“Ah, the prisoner.” Aylard gave Jet a withering stare. “I know,” he said. “I have made this my life’s study.”
And the life’s work of the Sons of Men, too. Jet slanted a glance at Ben and Reg, who both seemed unsurprised by Aylard’s revelations. Jet had a sick feeling in his stomach as he realized Ben had thought he wasn’t a real person all the time he was growing up. And yet Ben had not killed him then, and he had not betrayed Jet to the Sons of Men after he found out Jet was capable of more than just manipulating a few elements. Clenching his jaw, Jet decided to listen a little longer.
Aylard began speaking again. “About six hundred years ago the Sons of Men were formed in Parrion, which was the main seat of Family power at the time. Their mission was to return these trapped elementals to their spirit form, leaving the material world to the true humans. By then, most Family forgot they were ever anything but flesh and blood, and so of course they resisted. We have been at war ever since.”
“You say we’re not real. I was born, just like the rest of you. I love my parents. Did you ever ask any of your victims if they wanted to be freed? Even if what you say is true, how can you make that decision for them?” Doll held tightly to Jet’s hand, but she faced Aylard bravely. “I happen to like my life.”
Aylard regarded Doll thoughtfully. “How can you miss what you’ve never had?” he asked her softly, shaking his head. “I promise you will feel no pain.”
Growling under his breath, Jet pulled Doll behind him, prepared to confront Aylard directly, but Aylard’s attention had already drifted.
He gazed around the room, sliding over Jet and Doll to linger on Reg where he stood next to Ben. Aylard flowed to his feet, walking over to put a companionable hand on Reg’s back. “You must be the young hero. Archer? Any relation to Darius Archer?”
“He was my grandfather,” Reg replied.
“A great man. Died too soon,” Aylard murmured, much to Jet’s disbelief. Reg was a hero for trying to kill him, yet his grandfather was a hero for dying? Where was the fairness in that?
“He died in the blast,” Reg clarified, catching Jet’s expression. “My father and I have sworn to carry on his work.”
“Your father?” Jet asked.
Ben answered for him. “Reginald’s father is the quadrant leader for the north.”
Reg’s own father had sent him on a suicide mission? Unbelievable!
As if he had heard, Aylard swung his head around to stare right at Jet. “Why are you not bound?” He gave Jet a cold look. “Don’t think you can use your elemental wiles on me. You’ll find I am very hard to trick.”
Jet smirked. “I’ll bet.”
Aylard did not acknowledge Jet, instead addressing his comments to Ben. “You were right to bring this one here to me. He is the royal one? He’s finally come into his powers? An abomination,” Aylard said with contempt. “You see what I mean. They breed for ones like him.”
“What about the other one? The girl—does she harbor multiple elements also?” Aylard approached Doll and cupped her chin in his hand. Reg and Jet both moved at the same time, eying each other suspiciously, but Aylard had already let go of Doll. “No, she’s pure. I will free you, little one,” Aylard whispered softly in Doll’s ear.
“Kill her, you mean.” Jet spoke harshly.
Aylard’s bright green eyes bored into Jet. “What you are can’t be killed, only released from your mortal shells.”
“What we are--!” Jet exploded.
Ben quickly intervened. “Listen to what he has to say, Jet. Aylard isn’t advocating murder.”
“What would you call it then?” Jet spat. He jerked Doll away from Aylard. “I’ve heard enough.”
“Sir?” Reg spoke up. “We’ve come to you because Jet and Doll aren’t like other Family. Maybe you could make an exception in their case? Jet knows things that could be useful to our cause.”
Jet glared at Reg. “Stop helping me,” he muttered under his breath. “I am Family. I don’t want any special treatment from him.” He turned his glare on Aylard.
“What about Doll?” Reg asked softly, but Doll shook her head, making her position very clear. She was with Jet, in many ways more Family than Jet could ever be.
Ben said, “I brought the young Prince to you because I could not kill him, even though I know it’s a necessary step for our grand plan.”
“For his good as well as ours,” Aylard reminded him, taking a chair near the door.
Ben nodded. “As you are aware, I’ve known Jet since he was a boy. He is as human in his thoughts as I am. I couldn’t end his human life, even if it’s for his own good.”
“So you brought him to me to do it for you,” Aylard said. “And so I shall.”
Jet laughed. “You can try.”
Ben and Reg exchanged glances. “Please, Aylard.” Ben tried one more time. “Talk to Jet. He is more than he seems.”
“Abomination. Too many elements crammed into a frail human case, crying to get free.” Aylard stared steadily at Jet. “Very well, if it will set your mind at ease, we will talk first. Alone. Perhaps it is time this false human sees the truth of Parrion.” He stood, his head brushing the low ceiling. “Come with me, Abomination.”
Doll held onto Jet’s arm with a desperate strength. “I go where Jet goes.”
Aylard smiled gently and pried her hand away. For some reason, he saved all his animosity for Jet and treated Doll as a treasured guest—one he sadly was going to have to kill eventually, but treasured nonetheless.
Doll called flame to her fingertips, reaching out for Jet. Aylard never flinched when Jet’s answering flame leapt across the space between them. “Stay with Reg and Ben for now. I won’t be long,” Jet promised.
Reg took Doll’s other arm, the one not clothed in flame. “Come on, Doll. It will be all right.” He shared a long look with Jet.
Aylard waited patiently until the last of their flames subsided. Once again, his body blocked the light from outside, casting wild shadows. Jet slipped into them and followed Aylard across the busy underground city center. No one at all noticed them.
“Nice trick, that,” Jet commented, following Aylard across the open cavern. “What are you? Air? Wind? Water? All of them? I know you worked weather in the blasted area above.”
“What are you talking about?” Aylard continued walking. None of the townspeople even looked up, confirming Jet’s belief that for all intents and purposes, they were invisible. He wasn’t doing it, therefore Aylard must be.
Jet snorted. “Come on. You might be able to fool the others, but you can’t fool me. I know you’re Family. My question is—why are you killing your own kind?”
Aylard wheeled about, his green eyes blazing fury. “You know nothing!” he hissed. “I am nothing like you creatures!”
He didn’t say he was human either, Jet noted. Well, that was all right. Until recently, Jet hadn’t thought he was anything like Family either. Determined to get to the bottom of this, Jet let Aylard lead him out of the underground city and into tunnels which led down and down. Jet called light to his hands so they could see.
There was nothing man-made about these tunnels, unlike the one which housed the one-rail or even the larger ones which comprised the new underground city of Parrion and its subsidiaries.
“This is as far as you can go,” Aylard announced after they had been traveling through increasingly narrow pathways for quite some time. Jet stifled a laugh at Aylard’s choice of words, thinking of his own little retreat in Low City. Aylard might be surprised.
The narrow path had opened into a small grotto which would have been pitch black but for Jet’s globe of light. Aylard’s green eyes glowed eerily in the faint light. So did bands of color which wrapped around the walls. Aylard touched his hand to them and the colors began to glow softly from inside the rock walls. Jet extinguished his own small light. He wondered if Aylard had used an elemental trick Jet wasn’t familiar with, or if this was another one of those non-family inventions the Family would have suppressed had they known about it. Either way, it was pretty spectacular.
“How did you do that?” Jet asked, touching the softly glowing wall. It was cool to the touch.
Aylard scowled. “Family originated in Parrion. We drove them out, me, and the Sons of Men, over six hundred years ago. None of them remembered what they were. None of them!” Aylard pointed towards the wall. “No wonder you have no idea what that is! You’ve all forgotten so much.”
“Hey, I wasn’t alive then, sorry,” Jet muttered angrily. He looked up when Aylard’s scowl darkened into something more sinister. “Why? Are you telling me you were alive back then?” Aylard, except for his grayish-brown hair and skin which could be dust as easily as anything else, had the slender build of Family but he didn’t look forty, let alone six hundred something.
“I told you I am not like you. I was never born into this flesh. Yes, I am an elemental, as you were meant to be, but I took on this body because I chose to, not because I must.”
“If you take on human form, what makes you any different from the rest of us?”
Aylard thundered, “Because I can release it at my choosing!” To demonstrate, Aylard burst into a cloud of air, screeching around the tiny cave and whipping Jet’s braids around his head. As suddenly as the windstorm had begun, it stopped, and Aylard stood once again in front of Jet, his chest heaving. “I don’t have to remain in this body. I’m not like the rest of you. I remember who I really am.”
“But you’re pretending to be human.”
“I am helping them take back their world,” Aylard said. “You will never understand.”
Jet chuckled. “I understand you’re lonely and isolated and maybe a little bit crazy. Aren’t you afraid I’ll tell your precious Sons of Men your secret?”
“No.” Aylard regained his composure. “You won’t be around to do it. Maybe when you’ve shed your mortal shell you will finally understand.” He raised his arms and Jet tensed. Aylard gathered light from the glowing walls into his hands and fashioned it into a swirling spear which he thrust into Jet with all his strength.
Except Jet wasn’t there. Jet chose wind also, always his favorite, and re-formed again behind Aylard. The other man twisted around, shock evident on his face. “How?” he stammered. “What--?”
“I understand more than you think,” Jet said. He dissolved into wind once more and moved towards Aylard and then through him to the center of his being, which was pure wind.
Aylard made an inarticulate sound, and let his body go until he, too, was nothing but wind. Together, they whirled around the grotto and then down, through tunnels too small to allow their human shapes, but just right for the wind.