The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 35

Aylard growled and lunged for Jet, hands outstretched but fully corporeal. Evidently three thousand years of being on his own hadn’t taught Aylard any new tricks. “I’ll bring this building down around you!”

Jet stayed his ground but he let his arms and hands discorporate and become burning flames. Aylard stopped short. “Do it, and I’ll bury this entire city,” Jet said evenly. The earth rumbled ominously beneath their feet.

Doll glanced sharply at Jet, but he couldn’t afford to let her know he was bluffing, or Aylard would realize it too. Ben swore under his breath. Reg looked stunned.

“You’re Family?” Reg asked Aylard. “But—you fought with my grandfather!”

“I’m not Family!” Aylard spat, glaring at Jet from a safe distance away. “I’m an Elemental.”

“But you—“ Reg looked at Jet and Doll in confusion. “You taught us that they were Elementals—and that they are mankind’s enemy.”

“Exactly,” Jet said. “He lied.”

Ben hadn’t said much beyond the occasional swearword under his breath. He looked at Aylard with weary resignation. “I should have realized,” he said softly. “I’ve known Jet since he was a kid. You and Jet—I should have realized.”

Aylard trembled, then started to turn to wind. “Don’t,” Jet said grimly. He used fire to corral Aylard’s physical form, loath to turn completely to fire and thereby lose the power of speech. Aylard seemed to come to the same conclusion, sighing dramatically but remaining in human form.

Reg backed away until he was against the outside door. He glanced through the small glass and hesitated, one hand on the doorknob. “We’ve got trouble,” he said tersely.

Jet’s sudden appearance in the middle of the square had alerted the non-family citizens that their secret bastion had been invaded by the enemy. They’d seen Jet run into the building, and a group of them now approached cautiously, weapons drawn.

The earth trembled again, knocking a few of the townspeople down. Dust sifted down from the ceiling in the room Jet and the others were in. Jet glanced quickly at Aylard, who wore an expression of intent concentration. “That time wasn’t me,” Jet said.

The townspeople reached the door and pounded on it, ignoring—or trying to—the small aftershocks which still rippled through the cavern. Jet motioned for Reg to let them in. As soon as Reg opened the door, several men poured in, guns ready and pointed towards Jet and Doll.

None of the soldiers who had escorted them here were with this group, but the men recognized Aylard immediately. They rushed to free him, but balked at crossing Jet’s wall of flames. Just then, a particularly strong tremor shook the building, throwing men around like toys. Aylard stumbled, shimmered as he momentarily lost his hold on his form, then solidified again. The townspeople didn’t seem to notice.

“Aylard, please! Stop!” Ben said, grabbing the back of a chair for stability. “These are your people! They don’t deserve your wrath!”

“It’s not me!” Aylard grunted. He stared upward, clearly torn between wanting to discorporate and find out what was wrong, and keeping his secret identity.

Jet had no such compunctions. These people already knew he was Family. “I’ll go,” he said, catching Reg’s eye.

Reg knew what Jet wanted. “Go. I’ll keep her safe.” He took Jet’s place beside Doll and glared at the people pointing guns at her.

Letting go of his body, Jet flowed upward through the ceiling and through the rock above. Aylard had been right—the disturbance was definitely coming from up above. It was easier traveling straight up rather than through the winding tunnels to the surface.

Above, Aylard’s winds still raged, stirring up sand and making it hard to breathe, so Jet stayed in elemental form. His wind self slid effortlessly through the tearing winds that battered the blasted lands.

A determined army of Sons of Men faced an equally determined contingent of Family, who were currently maintaining a shield of wind around themselves to keep out Aylard’s whipping sandstorm. Foremost among the Family was Daniel, holding the shield for the group. Merrell was there too, with arms outstretched as he sent volley after volley of shadowbolts into the ground. Merrell ignored the Sons of Men in front of him, trusting in Daniel’s shield to proctect them all from human weapons as he made his assault on the underground.

The King was not among the Family ranged against the Sons of Men. If he had been, this battle would already be over. King Roy had laid waste to the above-ground city of Parrion once. He had the power to utterly destroy what was left if he chose. As it stood, Merrell was making a pretty good attempt at doing just that.

Jet’s heart sank as he noticed Macek behind Daniel. Had Macek sold them out? Judging from the miserable expression on Macek’s face, it had not been willingly. Macek had wanted to discover the underground city all his research had led him to believe existed. He wouldn’t have wanted to destroy it as Merrell seemed bent on doing.

Jet angled in for a closer look. Daniel’s wind barrier was no obstacle to him. Jet thought about merging with Macek, sending his essence through his cousin. Perhaps he could pick up some sense of what was going on that way without revealing he was actually present.

He didn’t get a chance to try it. A black, roiling cloud shot up in the midst of the Sons of Men, making them fall back in fright, thinking they were being attacked. The cloud towered fifty feet in the air and began spinning faster and faster, pulling the sandstorm into it and unraveling Daniel’s wind barrier.

Aylard. Jet changed course, diving into the middle of the churning mess. He merged his essence with Aylard’s, subsuming his own wind to the greater wind that was Aylard. He couldn’t speak, not without taking back his body, but he didn’t have to. He knew Aylard’s mind. So Jet showed Aylard his.

Aylard’s towering cyclone would destroy not only Family, but also his own loyal Sons of Men who had come out to this desolate surface in order to protect Parrion, to protect Aylard, from attack.

Aylard’s anger rang through the howling winds. Jet had done this—Jet had led the Family here. He cast Jet’s essence out of his own, and Jet tumbled, becoming corporeal with the shock. He found himself inside the Sons of Men’s formation. They stared at Jet, thinking him some new tactic of the enemy. They still had no idea the raging cyclone was their own leader. Unfortunately, in his rage, Aylard seemed to have forgotten that as well.

Jet scrambled to his feet and discorporated before he could get shot. It wasn’t the Sons of Men’s fault that they had no real idea what was going on. Jet had to protect them, too. He became a wall of fire and placed himself between the tower of wind and the Sons of Men, driving them back away from Aylard and away from the Family. A side-effect of Aylard’s current transformation was that he had drawn all the raging sandstorms into his funnel, so behind the battlefield the blasted lands were relatively calm. The Sons of Men would be safe for the moment.

Jet materialized. “Go back,” he told the soldiers. “Gather everyone up and move them as far away from Parrion as you can. Talk to Ben Reaves. He’ll help you. Tell him Jet’s taking care of things on this end, but I don’t know how successful I’ll be, so get out of there now. Stick to the outer tunnels. I’ll find you when it’s over.”

They didn’t want to believe him. Jet could see the growing panic their eyes. Jet had literally flown out of a tornado into their midst and then put up a wall of flame against them. They hadn’t quite put together that Jet was the flame. They thought he merely manipulated it. Which wasn’t a bad idea. Snapping his fingers, Jet replaced the wall of flame at his back. “I’m protecting you,” he tried again. “Aylard sent me.” That was stretching it—a lot—but it seemed to work. The men muttered among themselves and came to some sort of a decision. Nodding at Jet, they trotted away from the confrontation.

Jet watched them go, hoping they had a way of getting back into the tunnels from that direction. There must be, or they would not have gone. Now, if they listened to him and got the citizens of Parrion away from the danger of Merrell’s earthquake, maybe he could salvage some of this disaster.

Jet still didn’t know how the Family had made it to the very center of the blasted lands, or how they knew the underground city was directly below them. Ben hadn’t led them this far in; he had brought them to an entrance very near the edge of the blasted lands, and even that had been guarded by Sons of Men. So the Family had Daniel, a weather-worker, albeit a weak one, with them. That explained how they managed to get so far across the blasted lands. But why? Were they chasing him and Reg? It still didn’t explain how they seemed to know precisely where Parrion lay.

Jet didn’t like it. He didn’t trust Merrell not to destroy the Sons of Men. He didn’t trust Aylard not to destroy all of them. He let the wall of fire die down. Daniel’s shield of wind was in tatters, and Merrell, Macek and the other enforcers with them had thrown up shadow barriers against Aylard’s raging vortex. It was only a matter of time before they would all be overwhelmed. Then Aylard would get his wish, and these Family, at least, would be dead. Jet wouldn’t accept ‘freed.’ Enough was enough.

Aylard might be a three thousand year old Elemental who could release his physical form at will, but he had only one elemental form—wind. The other elements which bonded together to create his physical form were only trace elements, not enough to manifest as a separate entity. Jet, on the other hand, wasn’t limited to just one element. Whatever he could use, he could become: fire, wind, shadow, water, light. More than that.

Jet called lightning down, and with it, rain. It fell in torrents, not doing much damage to Aylard’s whirling winds, but drenching the Family. That got their attention. He pulled down darkness and laid it over the land, swallowing up all the Family’s attempts at light. Maybe Macek had been right after all—without a speck of light, even the Family couldn’t make more. He walked through the darkness to where the Family grouped together, their formidable elemental strength hobbled. “Stay there,” he said. They couldn’t see him, but they recognized his voice.

“Jet!” Macek called. “Wait! Talk to us!”

There was no time. “Stay!” Jet warned one last time, before abandoning his body and becoming wind. He merged with Aylard again, but this time he didn’t remain as wind. Once inside the whirling tower, he became fire, invading Aylard’s essence with the essence of fire. It was enough to confuse Aylard, and he didn’t react when Jet tore through his outer winds and surrounded the entire tower with fire. Unlike when Jet had done it in Parrion, however, Aylard did not immediately capitulate. That was all right; Jet had lots of other tricks. None of them would actually hurt Aylard, but Jet might be able to overpower the ancient Elemental. He was the fire this time, and he squeezed Aylard’s winds tighter and tighter, forcing them in upon himself. When he felt Aylard begin to waver, he turned to water and flowed through Aylard, throwing him off-balance once again, then before he could recover his equilibrium, Jet became shadow, then light, then wind again. Aylard’s own winds had lost some of their momentum and the whole funnel was about to collapse in on itself.

Jet really hoped the Family stayed put like he’d told them. He needed time to check out the situation in Parrion and to set Aylard straight about a few things. If Aylard had hurt Doll or any of the others, all bets were off. Jet gathered up Aylard’s essence within his own, knowing he was the stronger, and sank straight down through the blasted earth as fast as he could. Aylard didn’t fight him. His anger had flowed out of him along with his raging winds. The tremors Merrell had been causing had also stopped, so maybe the Family had gotten the hint, too.

Ben, Reg and Doll were still in the same room where Jet had left them. “Jet!” Doll cried with relief as Jet and Aylard both materialized.

“Jet!” Reg called, equally relieved. “You’re okay!” He gave Aylard a hard stare.

Good to know who they considered the bad guy. Aylard’s townspeople also stared at their leader warily. Aylard must have transformed right in front of them. No wonder they were wary. “We have to move. Now.” Jet yanked open the front door. At least half the town stood outside. These were the ordinary citizens, not the soldiers who still had not made it back through the tunnels.

Aylard spoke up. “The Family have found our city. We managed to slow them down but it may not stop them completely. I want all of you to gather only what you need and head out towards the far tunnels, away from Parrion.”

No trace of his former anger. No mention of his transformation. The townspeople who had been in the room when Aylard disappeared goggled at him but they didn’t contradict him. They edged past him and ran with the others to their homes to get their families and go.

“What happened, Jet?” Ben asked. Jet noticed he didn’t ask Aylard. Somewhere along the line, the leadership had switched to Jet. With Ben, Jet understood why: Jet had never lied about who he was or what he could do, whereas Aylard had lied from the very beginning. Jet was more surprised by Reg’s loyalty. Reg didn’t know Jet all that well, and Jet was just as much of an Elemental as Aylard was, but Reg had chosen to follow Jet and not Aylard.

“Merrell’s causing the tremors,” Jet said. “They’re directly above us. I might have been able to talk them out of it, but then he showed up. He tried to kill them all, including his own men.”

Aylard reddened. “I didn’t mean to.”

“You didn’t. I got them out of there in time. In fact, they should be here soon.” Jet grinned. “They took the long way. Ben, I’ll leave it to you and Reg to organize the evacuation.”

“Right.” Ben grinned back at Jet.

“You were right,” Aylard admitted. “These are my people, human or not. I lost my head for a while when everything came crashing down around me. Thank you for stopping me.”

“You’re not done yet,” Jet said. “We’re going back up there to talk to the Family and resolve this once and for all.”

Aylard’s jaw tightened. “I haven’t changed my mind about Family, Jet. You’re different. But the rest of them?”

Jet walked over to Doll, squeezing her hand as he whispered into her ear. She smiled and nodded. Slowly, Doll let her hands become fire. Jet did the same, and their two flames merged together and became one. Doll still couldn’t let go completely with her body, but Jet had confidence that eventually she would. Mattie almost could.

Shaking his head, Aylard said, “Impossible.” But he couldn’t deny his own eyes. Family could learn to let go of their physical bodies. “All right. I’ll talk to them.”

Doll remained behind with Reg and Ben, helping to guide nervous townspeople out of Parrion. The soldiers had finally arrived, and at Ben’s direction, began loading people into the one-rails. Nobody said anything about a Family girl helping out with the evacuation, but then again, the soldiers had already met Jet, and besides, Doll had her own Sons of Men guard who stuck by her side the entire time.

Jet and Aylard returned to the surface. Blackness hung over the entire blasted lands, although Jet could hear Family moving about cautiously. With a thought, he lifted the blackness. Merrell and the others blinked in the sudden light, stiffening when they saw Jet and a stranger coming towards them.

“That’s not one of the prisoners,” Daniel said as they got closer. He fashioned a spear of shadow and hefted it. “Stop right there.”

“Daniel,” Merrell said in a low voice. “Put it down.” He looked Aylard up and down but when he spoke it was to Jet. “Give me one reason why I should not just destroy you both where you stand.”

“Because you can’t.”

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