The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 34

As wind, they raced through tunnels too small to accommodate most creatures, and wherever they touched, the walls glowed with muted colors. In this form they had no words, but they needed none. Occasionally, their essences would overlap and at those times Jet knew Aylard as he knew himself: deeply, completely, with nothing hidden.

It was seductive. Jet understood why Aylard wanted the Family to return to this state, if only to experience the sensation of joining with another being. There was nothing like it in the human world.

Sobered, Jet took back his body in the next cavern that was big enough for him to manifest. He sat on the cold stone floor, knees drawn up to chest, and stared at the softly glowing walls without really seeing them. After a moment, Aylard’s wind swirled gently and he, too, took back his human shape, sitting back to back with Jet in the small space.

“I didn’t think I would ever experience that again,” Aylard murmured, his voice unsteady.

Jet had to admit it was incredible, even more so than the few brief tastes he’d had of merging with Doll, Macek and the younger boys. If only they could let go of their physical forms the way Aylard could. “I know what you mean.”

They sat in silence, each lost in contemplation. Jet no longer thought of Aylard as his enemy, but that didn’t mean he was a friend. After what they had shared, it was hard to remember Aylard planned to kill all the Family.

“What are you?” Aylard said abruptly without turning around.

Jet got that a lot. He shrugged, letting Aylard feel the motion through his shoulders. Neither of them were ready to face the other yet. “I’m Family. My father is the King. The rest?” He shrugged again.

“You were born? How are you able to do what you just did? It should be impossible.”

“Of course I was born,” Jet said angrily. He had too many memories of a scarred childhood to remind him. “What difference does that make?”

“This is where it all began, deep within Attania as the first mortals learned to walk the land above. They drove us here unwittingly, as they invaded the spaces above where hitherto only we had roamed: wind, water, light, shadow, fire. We didn’t know what to make of humans at first.

“We learned, perhaps too well. Humans interacted with Attania in ways that we could not, through touch and taste and sound. We saw them and learned ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ and ‘anger,’ but only at a distance. I was among the first of us to copy human form. At first I could not hold it for long, and could not truly feel. Though I was wind, I bound the stuff of shadow to me so I could walk like a man, and when they ran from me in fright, I bound light to me as well and made my form solid, as you see me now.

“Ah, then what joy I felt, to walk among humans as a man, to taste, to feel, to see. That’s all it ever was supposed to be. We never intended to stay in human form. But those of us that tried it, and there were more and more each day, found it hard to resist.”

Jet raised his head, still staring straight ahead. Aylard was a solid warmth against his back. “So you’re saying you had to combine more than one element to take on human form?”

“No!” Aylard growled. “They weren’t trapped, like yours.” His voice faltered. Jet could release his form too. “We joined for a common cause.”

Jet decided not to argue the point. “So what happened?”

“More and more of us took on form, and with it, its pleasures. We found that we could conceive as humans did, though only with each other. A small piece of our true selves transferred into the new life, but there were differences. These offspring of ours were not as powerful in the elements, and their mortal shells aged and eventually returned to the earth as humans did.

“As the centuries progressed, those of us who were still able to shed our human forms at will grew . . . less. Each time we merged in the human way, we imparted a little more of ourselves into the new creatures. After a while, those of us who were never born began to fade as our elemental cores became weaker, until we dissipated, unable to sustain our human forms any longer, and the new ones began to forget they were ever anything but human.”

Jet interrupted. “But you’re still here.”

Aylard did turn around then, his bright green eyes reflecting the bands of colors which ran horizontally along the cave walls. “I never lay with another of us in mortal form to create a child,” he said, coldly superior. “My essence is as pure as it was three thousand years ago.”

Jet whistled. Three thousand years was a long time. No wonder Aylard was so crazy. “Never?” he asked. He laughed. “Not me. I’m planning on ‘merging in the human way’ just as soon as I get the chance.”

“Abomination,” Aylard said, but there was no heat to it.

“Why am I an abomination but you’re not?”

Aylard settled back so they were no longer looking at each other. “Somewhere around a thousand years ago, when your kind first began calling themselves “Family,” a few of you began breeding for select elements. Until then, fire called to fire, wind to wind, and so on. You had abandoned your true form but even in your human shells you remained pure.”

“Relatively pure,” Jet reminded him. “You said you had to combine certain elements in order to take a human shape in the first place, so none of you are purely one thing or the other, are you?” Jet was annoyed that Aylard kept talking as if Jet had been responsible for everything that had happened to the Family, but perhaps it was what he deserved: Jet kept repeating that he was Family. So maybe in Aylard’s mind it was all Jet’s fault.

"It’s not the same!” Aylard insisted. “I am still wind, though I carry pieces of the other elements within me to sustain this form. They are a part of me. Your friend Doll is fire, though she holds within her a touch of the other elements as well, otherwise she could not exist as she does. However, her elements are trapped within her through no choice of their own.”

“And how is the royal Family any different?”

“You do not merely carry touches of other elements, you carry multiple elements, each warring within your body for dominance, trapped there through no desire of their own. Can you say you are wind, or fire, or water? You use them all shamelessly, but you have no core, no self! Abominations, and all so that you can rule over Attania’s true humans as well as the less powerful of your own kind.”

According to Merrell, it was so the Family could survive in a world that was primarily made up of non-family people. Jet was beginning to get a headache. “Why drag non-family into this?” he asked. “You pretend to be one of them. What do you think they would say if they knew the truth?”

“They don’t need to know. Attania belongs to the mortals, not us. I’m only helping them to take back what is theirs.”

Jet scowled. “Whether you like it or not, Family are mortal now. We are born, we live, we love,” he stressed, “we grow old, and we die. We are also Elementals. What’s wrong with being both?”

“But you are like me,” Aylard said, twisting around once more to stare Jet in the face. “You can release your physical form.”

“Yes, I can,” Jet agreed. “But I like my physical form too. So do you, or you wouldn’t have kept it for three thousand years, am I right?”

Aylard didn’t answer.

Jet felt the shift before Aylard turned to wind, whirling violently around the small cavern. The colors on the walls pulsated wildly. Shielding his eyes from the grit Aylard’s wind stirred up, Jet waited calmly for Aylard’s anger to subside. What he had to be angry about, Jet could only guess. Maybe he didn’t like being called on keeping his physical shape, since he preached so loudly about the virtues of being a pure elemental spirit. Maybe he really was crazy after all these years.

As Jet had predicted, Aylard eventually stopped moving. He took back his human shape, sitting cross-legged in front of Jet this time. Aylard put his hands on Jet’s shoulders. “You can help me!” he said earnestly. “Together, we can release the Family. With your help I would no longer need to use the Sons of Men to do my bidding. We will finally be free!”

Jet knocked Aylard’s hands off his shoulders. “What happened to helping the mortals take back what is theirs?” Jet shook his head. “You don’t want to help them. You don’t want to help us, either. You just want everything back the way it was three thousand years ago.”

“You don’t understand,” Aylard muttered, clenching his fists. “When I free Elementals from their shells they retain no memory of who they were. You’re different. I’m different. We know who we are in all our forms. By releasing the other Elementals, we can start over. We can have it all, Jet! You and I, we can show the others how to take form and release it again without becoming diminished. We will erase the mistakes of the past.”

So Aylard really did like being human. But what was he getting at? No—sex? Jet didn’t think that would go over with the newly formed Elementals any better than it had with the original ones. “What about the humans? I thought you said Attania should belong to them.”

“This time would be different. There would be no more Family to prevent them from developing new technology. The humans would not have to know we were among them.” Aylard’s eyes lit up. He had obviously thought about this for a long time. “As long as we stay out of their affairs, there’s no reason we cannot enjoy the mortal world as well as our own.”

As reasonable as Aylard made it all sound, Jet saw the major flaw in his plan. Killing Family. No matter how many times Aylard insisted he was just releasing the elements within them, it really would be murder. Family was more than just their core elements. They had hopes and fears and very different personalities. Even though they shared basic coloring, Family had physical differences too. Some were plain, some, like Queen Sephira, were quite beautiful. Most were tall and thin, but not all. Jet thought of Lorra with her pretty curves, who barely came up to his shoulders. She didn’t deserve to be snuffed out just so that her core elements could recombine and become someone totally new. Lorra would be gone. That wasn’t right. Not at all.

“No,” Jet said.

“No?” Aylard didn’t seem very surprised at Jet’s answer. “Then you leave me no choice. Perhaps in a few centuries you’ll see things differently.” Becoming a tower of wind, Aylard tore out of the cavern. Jet heard a rumble like thunder, and the small opening that Aylard had squeezed through was suddenly choked tight with debris.

Jet immediately turned to wind, seeking any tiny crack so he could get out, but there were none. The cave was sealed tight. Jet tried light, then shadow, but there was no way out. Returning to his physical form, Jet sighed. A few centuries? Jet was born, so it was pretty certain he would die, too. Without food or water, that might happen sooner than he had anticipated unless he could figure out a way to get out of this cave. Of course, if he let go of his physical self, he might be able to last indefinitely, which was probably what Aylard had been thinking. But that was a last resort.

"Think, Jet, think,” he muttered to himself. It didn’t help that Aylard was loose and probably heading right back to Doll at this very moment. He needed to get out of here now. Closing his eyes, Jet tried to remember bits he’d learned from the hidden libraries, but nothing seemed to apply. He wished he had one of those books now, like the one King Roy had given him. That book had some strange ideas—suddenly Jet remembered lying on his bed with Doll as she read him a passage from that very book: ‘Substance is but a seeming. What appears solid is in truth myriad tiny motes. What is between those motes is our realm. Substance is no barrier.’

It sounded like fanciful nonsense at the time. But what if it wasn’t? Jet looked at the gently glowing walls of the cave. ‘Substance is no barrier.’ Did that mean he could pass through solid objects? Usually when Jet went incorporeal, he needed an opening of some sort to pass through. It could be as small as a crack in a window. But the hidden book had said there were spaces in between solid matter. So Jet should be able to go through something solid and come out the other side. Come to think of it, Jet did know this trick already! Hadn’t he done just that when he sent his incorporeal self through the bodies of Doll and the young cousins, and again when he had ‘healed’ Reg? This was just taking it one step further.

Jet let his body go. He approached the stone wall and moved through it, thinking of how he’d moved through flesh and bones. It felt different from how he usually envisioned himself squeezing through the tiniest of spaces. This time, he imagined going in-between all those little spaces between the specks of matter that made up the stone wall, and found himself whole again, though still incorporeal, on the other side. There was no space to take back his body, so Jet didn’t bother. He raced through the tunnels as wind, and when the tunnels didn’t go the way he wanted to go, he went through the stone instead, coming out in the middle of the great cavern that housed the underground city of Parrion.

Jet took back his body, ignoring the gasps of the startled townspeople who witnessed it. There was no time. Running, he made it to the building where his friends were being held and jerked open the outer door.

Aylard was already there, in his human guise, of course, talking softly to a distraught Doll. Neither Ben nor Reg looked happy, either. Aylard was the first to see Jet. His face, under its layer of dirt, drained of color. He shot to his feet, but hesitated instead of striking out with elemental power. Even now, he did not want the humans to know he wasn’t one of them.

Jet didn’t hesitate. He hurled a bolt of white light at Aylard, growling, “Get away from her!”

Shadow gathered around Aylard, shattering Jet’s spear of light, but it was enough to elicit a gasp of surprise from Reg. Jet turned to fire and enveloped Aylard. Finally, in desperation, Aylard turned to wind, and the two elements wrapped around each other, battling for dominance. It was nothing like the merging they had experienced earlier.

“Jet, stop!”

Doll’s voice finally got through to Jet, and he subsided, his point made. He hadn’t hurt Aylard, didn’t think he could hurt him, any more than Aylard could hurt him. He took back his body. Aylard was already back in human form, breathing heavily and glaring at him.

“Reg, Ben, now you know the truth. The leader of the Sons of Men isn’t a man at all—he’s one of us.”


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