The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 36

Merrell frowned at the tall man standing beside Jet. “So you really did join the enemy, Jet. I didn’t think even you would go that far.” He struck suddenly, shooting a ball of light not at Jet but at the non-family stranger standing next to him. There was no time for the stranger to dodge the attack, and Merrell smiled with grim satisfaction as his bolt connected and shattered into a million points of light.

Only the enemy didn’t disintegrate into a pile of charred ashes. He remained standing next to Jet; not even his clothes were charred. Jet grinned back at Merrell. “Want to try that again?” he mocked. “I told you you can’t kill us.”

“My turn,” said Aylard, stepping forward. Jet laid a hand on his arm and shook his head. Aylard clenched his jaw but he stopped. “The Enforcer, I presume? I am Aylard First, and you are on my land. Get out. Now.”

Merrell for once was speechless. He stared hard at the non-family man. His eyes narrowed. “What are you? You’re not human.”

“He’s the leader of the Sons of Men,” Jet put in, “and they’re not what we thought they were. I mean, they are, but they don’t have to be. Macek,” Jet turned to the cousin most likely to understand. “You wanted to find out what happened to the blasted lands? Aylard can tell you.”

Aylard turned his head and spat, glaring at the group of Family. “They happened. Their King murdered an entire city and made sure the land was uninhabitable. They thought they killed me, but that’s impossible.”

“Why is it impossible?” Merrell asked suspiciously. “Are you saying you’re Family? Even Family can be killed. Even you, Jet.” It was a threat, thinly veiled so that the rest of the Family grouped around him wouldn’t understand what he meant.

“I’m not Family!” Aylard growled.

Jet wondered if he had sounded like that in the beginning when he continually protested he wasn’t one of them. Until he realized that he was. Jet sighed. “Aylard’s like me,” he said, elbowing Aylard in the ribs when Aylard would have denied that, too. “Close enough,” he amended. For now, Jet didn’t want to reveal that Aylard was one of the original Elementals and hadn’t been born like the rest of them. No use stirring up that pot until he absolutely had to.

Merrell’s face whitened. He said, “Then the tornado---that was him? He can work weather?”

Aylard sneered. “This is my land. If I don’t want you here, the land won’t let you in.”

“But here we are,” Daniel pointed out a little bit smugly. “Your tornado fizzled out.”

“Shut up, Daniel,” Merrell said. He kept his eyes on Aylard. “You’re like Jet?” Merrell worded his question carefully. As far as Merrell knew, no one else there was aware of Jet’s other abilities. “Then why did you stop? Why, as Daniel asked, did your tornado fizzle out? You knew we were trying to destroy your underground encampment. You could have stopped us. Why didn’t you? Why--” Merrell pointed his finger at Aylard, smiling in triumph. “—didn’t you stop the King fifteen years ago before Parrion was destroyed? Because you’re not as powerful as you’d have us believe, are you?”

Aylard laughed out loud. “Children,” he said disdainfully. “You’re all children. You have no idea what you are. At least the Sons of Men know what they are. Jet, we’ve wasted enough time on your explanations. Will you believe me now and help me free these abominations from their earthly shells?”

“I see your point, but no, there’s been enough killing. If the Family won’t listen to reason, then they must go home.”

“And we’re just supposed to forget his Sons of Men tried to kill the royal Family? They tried to kill you too, Jet. We’ve come to rescue you.” Merrell made a subtle motion with his fingers to Daniel, who flicked a quick glance skyward as a look of concentration crossed his face.

Yeah, right. Merrell wasn’t here to rescue Jet. If anything, he was here to punish Jet for going against him. Jet tracked Daniel’s cloud-gathering with one eye as he surveyed the Family in front of him. He wasn’t worried about Daniel. “What are you really doing here, Merrell?” he asked.

Merrell’s expression turned crafty. “We’ve come to get you,” he insisted. “You are the King’s heir.”

Daniel paused, his fingers spread although he kept his arms down by his sides to disguise what he was trying to do. “Jet’s the heir?” he asked in disbelief. “Since when?”

“Since always,” Merrell said curtly, surprising both Jet and Daniel.

“Where is the King?” Jet asked, narrowing his eyes. Why wasn’t King Roy a part of this little ‘rescue’ party?

“He took your betrayal really hard,” Merrell said. “He blames himself. I assured him I would get you back and obliterate the Sons of Men from the face of the earth.” Merrell signaled to Daniel, who pulled the clouds he had been herding the last few miles so that they were directly overhead, blocking the sun. Daniel had gotten better these past few weeks, proving that the Family could learn by copying. That little cloud trick had been Jet’s. “Now!” Merrell shouted.

Daniel shot successive lightning bolts from the clouds to where Jet and Aylard had been standing. So much for ‘rescuing’ Jet. Although Merrell had to be fairly sure that Jet could survive a lightning strike. Probably he was hoping that Aylard wouldn’t be so lucky.

Jet brought the darkness down over them all again, smothering even the brilliant white light of the lightning. Aylard had immediately let go of his body, and now Jet did, too, merging in the darkness with Aylard. He sent his thoughts strongly through their combined essence where words no longer mattered. Jet would not allow Aylard to destroy the Family. Just as he would not allow the Family to destroy Aylard’s Sons of Men.

Jet conveyed what he wanted to Aylard and released the darkness.

“Where did they go?” Daniel asked, twirling around. His clouds, without his guidance, began to drift apart. Jet nudged them further away. Aylard wasn’t all wrong. The time for talking had passed.

Jet saw the trick of it now. As Elementals, neither he nor Aylard were limited by their physical bodies unless they chose to be. Merrell couldn’t kill him unawares now that he understood his true nature. The problem was, the Family did not understand theirs. They believe they were physical creatures, and so they were. But Jet saw their true essences. He and Aylard surrounded the Family and wrapped themselves through them. Macek gasped as he recognized the sensation. Jet sent ‘amusement’ as he wove his combined essence through Macek’s. In an instant, they were Macek, and Merrell, and Daniel, and the handful of loyal enforcers, cousins as well as Family, and as such, they controlled their physical essence. ‘Substance is no barrier.’ Jet and Aylard dove through the stone into the heart of deserted Parrion, pulling the Family along with them.

They gave the Family back their form in the great central square, taking back their own as well. Merrell was visibly shaken. Daniel, the youngest among them, took it all with more equanimity, looking around in fascination. “Wow, there’s a whole city down here!”

Macek, his voice shaky, said, “I told you so.”

“But I didn’t think it would be so big. I thought it would be like, you know, a military camp.” Daniel squinted at the buildings that ringed the central cavern. “Where are all the people?”

Merrell shoved his way over to Jet. “How did you do that?” His voice croaked with strain.

“Like I said, there’s a lot you don’t know. Can we talk now?” Jet asked. He folded his arms across his chest. It looked like Ben and the Sons of Men had gotten everybody out in time. “You would have destroyed this whole place and never known that people made their homes here.”

“Non-family,” Merrell said, crossing his arms too. “A threat to us.”

“They did it before,” Aylard said, glaring back at Merrell.

“Can I go look around?” Daniel asked.

“No. Stay put. This place could be dangerous.”

Aylard laughed derisively. “You finally understand.”

“How did you take us here?” Macek asked. “I felt—something—and then we were here—all of us! I can’t do what you do, so how--?”

Merrell glanced at his son sharply. He hadn’t known Macek knew about Jet. He glanced at Aylard. “You are the same as Jet. I see it now. It doesn’t explain what you did to us.”

“Because you have no idea of what you are,” Aylard answered. “You call yourselves Family. You cloak your selves in flesh and think you are mortal. You’re not. I am not. He—“ Aylard jutted his chin towards Jet, “—is not.” We are Attania. We are the land, and the air, and the sea. We are the wind, and fire, light and darkness. Cloaking ourselves in flesh does not change that.”

Jet took up the explanation. “Aylard and I brought you here in your true forms, which have nothing of substance about them. But those are the forms you are most familiar with, so you took them back when we let go. I’m hoping you can learn to be both Elemental and Family.”

“What you are is abominations, things that should never have come into being.” Aylard said harshly. “If you cannot let go of your physical bodies, I will do it for you. This world is ours, but we were never meant to rule the mortal beings who live here.”

“What are you saying?” Merrell asked suspiciously.

“Enough for now,” Jet said firmly. “Aylard has some pretty strong ideas about Family. It’s why he formed the Sons of Men in the first place. Take back Attania for the humans, and release the Family back to their elemental forms.”

Formed the Sons of Men?” Macek asked incredulously. “That was hundreds of years ago!”

Oops. Jet hadn’t meant to let that slip. “I’ll explain later,” he said. “Will you come with me now? You can rest, get something to eat, and then take a look around Parrion like Daniel wants to do. Aylard has shown me some things about the origins of our kind.”

“Books?” Macek asked eagerly. “Do you have records of our origins?”

“Books? I suppose.” Aylard scratched his head. “In the early days, some of us kept records so that we wouldn’t forget—but in the end, they all forgot, except me.”

“Look at this!” From across the square, Daniel shouted excitedly. It drew Macek’s attention away from Aylard before he could ask the Sons of Men leader what he meant.

Daniel had found the one-rail. “How fast does it go?” he asked. “Can I try it?” He seemed to have forgotten for the moment that this was an enemy encampment. Jet grinned.

“That’s how you evacuated Parrion?” Merrell asked. “Where did the rest of the Sons of Men go?”

“Why? So you can follow and take away this invention from them too?” Aylard challenged. “I can still kill you now.”

“There will be no killing,” Jet repeated. He fought the urge to roll his eyes.

Lights flashed in the tunnel and the one-rail started up on its own, whisking backwards into the tunnel. Daniel jumped back, but there was no danger. The one-rail ran on a dedicated track. But why was it moving now? His question was answered a few minutes later, as the empty train, which must have been shunted onto a side track, was replaced by another train, this one with people on board.

When the new train pulled to a stop, Ben, Reg and Doll got out. They stared at the newcomers in surprise and not a little trepidation. “Jet, are you all right?” Doll called out. She would have run to him, but Reg caught her arm and held her back.

Jet shook his head, glad to see them but worried at this new wrinkle. “Why did you come back?” he asked. “I told you I’d come for you when it was safe.”

“We were worried about you,” Ben said. “Doll was coming, whether we went with her or not, so we all came together.”

Merrell gathered a handful of shadow. “I don’t know who you are,” he said to Ben, “but he is my prisoner. He tried to kill the King.” Merrell pointed at Reg.

Jet didn’t want to undermine Merrell’s authority as Enforcer of the Family. He still had hopes that this whole situation could be resolved peacefully. But he wasn’t about to stand by and let Reg be captured again. He closed his fist and encircled Merrell in a wall of flame, not to burn him, but to contain him. “Leave him be,” he said softly.

Merrell’s enforcers rushed to Merrell’s aid, but to Jet’s surprise, Macek blocked them with shadows. Daniel stood on the side nearest the train, looking confused. “What should I do?” he called to Merrell.

“Get them!” Merrell growled back. Jet let his flames rise higher, fighting the shadows Merrell threw at them from the inside of his barrier. So far, Jet’s flames were winning. If Merrell said anything else, his words were lost in the roar of the flames.

Daniel hesitated, glancing from Jet to Doll. He raised his hands, then dropped them again. “No,” he said in a low voice. “I won’t do it.”

Jet shot Daniel a grateful glance and released his barrier of flames. By this time, Aylard had made his way towards Daniel and the train. If Daniel had tried to attack, Jet had no doubt Aylard would have stopped him. Jet wondered if Daniel had any idea how close he had come to death.

Merrell, apparently, had realized it. He slumped, defeated, and called off his men. Macek let go of his shadows, swallowing as his father gave him an appraising look. But Macek faced his father squarely. He had made his choice.

Merrell looked at Jet. “Now what?” he asked.

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