Jet immediately went to release Daniel. He prepared to disintegrate the metal bars of the horrible cage that held his brother, much as Merrell had disintegrated the bars of the prison in Salter. But just as he stretched his hand out, Aylard flowed through him and surrounded Daniel’s cage in wind form, effectively blocking any elemental meddling Jet was about to do.
Aylard reformed in front of Daniel’s cage. “I’m sorry. I can’t let you have him,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “You were never supposed to find him first. I thought that if I accompanied you, I could settle this before you were ever aware he was nearby, and with time, you would come to accept the inevitable.”
Reg’s father, the leader of the Northern Quadrant of the Sons of Men, held back with his men, just watching. He had accepted Aylard’s non-human identity rather easily, even given the fact that Reg had already filled him in on the basics. Jet lifted an eyebrow. Archer, interpreting Jet’s inquiry correctly, smiled tightly and replied, “The Sons of Men were never about Family versus non-family. Our goal has always been to take back Attania for the humans. Aylard’s goal is the same. We don’t particularly care what he himself is.”
“And when all Family is eradicated, and it’s just you humans and Aylard? What then? Will he give up his physical self and join the rest of us as pure elementals?” Jet asked skeptically. “What if he doesn’t?”
Archer shrugged. “He’s just one. And he has no desire to rule over us like the Family do.” Archer looked at Aylard. “What about this one? Can you take him?”
“One step at a time,” Aylard replied, unruffled. “Jet may still come around to our way of thinking.”
“Let Daniel out,” Jet demanded. “Or I will.” He followed words with action and, turning to fire, assaulted Aylard once more, punching through the wind barrier the older Elemental hastily put up, and easily disintegrating the bars of Daniel’s cage. His fire only burned what he wanted it to burn; Daniel was safe from him, although by the look in Daniel’s eyes, his younger brother was none too sure of that truth. Unfortunately, in this form, Jet could not talk to Daniel. He permeated Daniel’s physical form with fire essence and sent reassurance through the link. It was the best he could do. Still as fire, he roared out of the enclosure with Daniel at his center. Aylard had transformed to pure wind and raced behind Jet. Jet was stronger, but he did not want to fight Aylard with Daniel in human form at his center. Jet headed for the light at the far end of the Northern Quadrant’s underground base. Unlike Parrion, the far side was open to the surface. Jet popped out in an industrial area about sixty miles north of Ballind.
Here was where the Sons of Men built their flitters! Several large warehouses lined a snow-covered street. Beyond them was a long, flat area, also snow-covered, which might have been a launching area for the flitters at one time. Several smaller buildings which looked like apartments spread out behind the main warehouses. They had built their factories right out in the open. The cavern entrance was a wide, low slit at one end of the industrial area. It was large enough for a vehicle to drive into, and from the outside, it looked like nothing more than a parking garage.
Daniel yelled into the flames. “If you can hear me, head to Ballind. I’ll tell you where to go!”
Jet veered southward. Daniel, growing more comfortable in the heart of Jet’s flame, concentrated, calling a storm to cover their movements. Unfortunately, because Aylard was wind, he was able to redirect whatever Daniel threw at him. “Damn!” Daniel yelled in frustration.
When they got close to Ballind, Jet put Daniel down, transforming briefly to human so he could talk. “I’ll get rid of Aylard. Can you get somewhere safe? I’ll look for you after.”
“Yeah. I’ll find you.” Daniel said, gazing up at the sky which boiled with dark clouds on the horizon. “You sure you can take him?”
Jet grinned. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “I won’t let him kill you, Daniel. Don’t worry.”
“I know, I’m not worried,” Daniel said. He shrouded himself in shadow and ran towards Ballind.
Jet became fire and rose to meet Aylard, who was fast closing in on them. Aylard merged with Jet violently, wind clashing with fire, and riffled through Jet’s thoughts to try and locate Daniel. It was evident they were heading towards Ballind. Nothing else was out here. Jet was suddenly glad that Daniel had not told him exactly where in Ballind he was going.
Two could play at this game. Jet delved into Aylard’s consciousness, deeper than he had before. How long had the ancient Elemental’s deception been going on? Who else was involved? Had he killed Jet’s mother?
What he saw was depressing. Aylard had never intended to reconcile with Family. He used Jet to get close to the royals. The Sons of Men, including Ben, knew Aylard was not exactly human, although until recently, none of them were aware of quite how similar to Family he actually was. It had made little difference to them, though. Ben and Reg had conspired with Aylard to lure Jet and the Family away from Parrion so that Aylard could win the Family’s trust. Daniel’s capture was an added bonus. The only true things Aylard had told Jet were that his mother had really chosen to let go of her physical body, and that Aylard really did want Jet to join him.
Jet wrenched his essence free of Aylard’s, the separation shocking them both. He took physical form, breathing heavily, and waited for Aylard to do the same. “Leave us alone,” he snarled, when Aylard appeared before him.
Aylard shook his head. “I know Daniel is in Ballind. I will find him.”
“If you kill him, I will set the whole Family against you,” Jet said. “I know where two of your bases are now. You can’t stop me.”
“And you can’t stop me, either,” Aylard pointed out. “I don’t think you’ll kill all those Sons of Men out of spite. You don’t have it in you. In the meantime, nothing can stop me from going against Family, one by one if I have to. You can’t win, Jet.”
Aylard was wind, personified. But Jet, who was also wind, among other elements, could touch the free element of wind which existed all around them which, apparently, Aylard could not. Jet needed the free elementals now, so he reached out insubstantial fingers to the elemental wind and grasped them, communicating his desire to them effortlessly. Wind, the true element of wind in all its forms, was Jet’s childhood friend. Aylard’s wind was a piece of them, separated a long time ago and no longer part of the whole. But Jet was.
‘Hold him,’ Jet thought without words. Immediately the wind elementals surrounded Aylard and pinned him to the earth. Aylard transformed, wind as they were wind, and attempted to flow through them, but they held him pinned in this form also. Aylard transformed back, still pinned flat to the ground.
“Still think I can’t stop you?” Jet asked with a grin.
Aylard stared at Jet in astonishment. “Impossible!” he gasped. “What are you?”
Jet squatted down next to Aylard so he could look him in the eyes. “See? You think you have to destroy us to turn us back to what we were meant to be. But what if there’s another way? I am me, Jet, but I am also my elements, and also part of them.” He waved his arm at the wind elementals who held Aylard down. “My question is—why aren’t you part of them? This wouldn’t be possible if you were still connected to the free wind elementals of Attania. What are you, Aylard? You’re not exactly an elemental anymore, are you?”
Aylard’s body went limp as he gave up fighting the elementals. “I—“ He closed his eyes. “Let me up. I’ll leave Daniel alone. I’ll consider what you said. If you want to talk to me, I will be at the Northern Quadrant.”
The wind elementals, at Jet’s command, let go of Aylard, dissipating into the greater air. Aylard got slowly to his feet. He faced Jet and sighed. “It’s up to you what you do next, Jet. But if you bring the Enforcer and the King in on this, there will be a bloodbath and you know it.” He dissolved into wind and blew away, back towards the north.
Jet sat back on the cold, snowy ground and heaved a sigh of his own. Crisis averted for the moment. He hadn’t known for sure the wind elementals would listen to him. Aylard was much older, one of the originals who actually had been an elemental at one time. But not anymore. Aylard, whether he wanted to admit it or not, was more like Jet than like a true elemental. A new creature.
Aylard was right about one thing. Merrell and the King would certainly want to attack the Sons of Men if Jet told them about Aylard’s betrayal. Maybe he should just let it happen. Still depressed, Jet made his way to Ballind.
“So,” remarked Daniel, sliding into the booth across from Jet in the small restaurant in the center of Ballind. “How did you get away from Aylard?”
Daniel had his hair covered by a wooly winter cap, and his skin was still slightly darkened from Doll’s treatment. He looked like any other non-family. “Should you be seen in public with me?” Jet whispered, although, as before, most of the non-human patrons had quickly vacated the restaurant after Jet walked in wearing his grays.
“Probably not. Follow me. We have a place.”
We? Jet followed Daniel out of the restaurant and through some winding streets to a quiet area. It had started snowing—Daniel’s doing?—and the streets were deserted. Daniel led him up a flight of stairs to a small apartment in an older building. It had one bedroom with a single bed, a beat up sofa in the common room, and a tiny kitchenette with an adjoining bathroom right off the common room. All in all, it was smaller than Jet’s apartments back at Arden.
“Thanks for getting me out of that cage,” Daniel said, flopping down on the couch. “We figured you would find me eventually, but even so, the waiting was uncomfortable.”
“Who’s we?” Jet asked with an edge to his voice. Daniel was taking all this very lightly. “Do you understand what Aylard was going to do to you? If he had released you, as he threatened, you’d be gone. Reduced back to elemental status. No more memories, no more body—no more Daniel.”
“So I’ve heard,” Daniel replied softly. “Thank you. Really.”
The door slammed and Jet jumped.
“Good, you’re here,” Daniel said. “Reg won’t be able to get away for a while, but Ricky ought to be here soon. We have a lot to do before then.”
“Patrick?” Jet said in surprise as the young man at the door walked across the small apartment. He had thought Patrick was not involved in the Sons of Men. “Wait a minute? Reg? Ricky? What’s going on, Daniel?”
Patrick took out a drink from the small fridge in the kitchenette. “Got here as soon as I could. He doesn’t know?”
“Doesn’t know what?” Jet asked suspiciously.
“We couldn’t tell you,” Daniel said. “Reg wanted to, but we were afraid Aylard would find out, so we pretended to go along with Aylard’s plans—well, not me—I wasn’t supposed to know anything about it, but Ben and Reg. Aylard convinced them both to give you—and me—up to Aylard without the rest of the Family catching on. He thought the best way to do that was to pretend to make a truce with the Family. He let you think you had talked him into it.
“Reg told me everything, of course. He, Ben and I made our own plans while you and Aylard were both busy elsewhere.”
Jet remembered. Aylard had been meeting with Merrell while Jet had used the opportunity to slip away with Doll. When he got back, Daniel and Reg had been arguing in the kitchen, and Ben was nowhere to be found. “You knew where Ben went, didn’t you?”
“We couldn’t tell you, though,” Daniel said. “Aylard might never have left Ben in charge of Parrion if he suspected Ben’s loyalties were compromised.”
“But Ben told the Northern Quadrant we were coming!” Jet said, still trying to grasp that it had all been part of a greater plan. “And Reg turned you over to his father the minute you two got here!”
Daniel smiled. “About that,” he said. “We discussed it and decided the easiest way to get you here was to have me get captured. That way Aylard wouldn’t guess we had tricked him.”
“But you were captured!” Jet said in frustration. “You could have been killed at any time, if not by Aylard and his ridiculous plan to ‘release’ Family to their elemental state, then by one of the Sons of Men. A bullet will kill you just as dead!”
“No, you see, that was why Reg convinced his father to check with Ben in Parrion!” Daniel replied excitedly. “So that the Sons of Men wouldn’t kill me until Aylard got here. We knew you wouldn’t be far behind.”
“But why?” Jet exploded, exasperated. “You had us all worried—me, Merrell, our father—everybody! What if I hadn’t come? What if Aylard had come alone and killed you before I knew what he was up to?”
“I knew Uncle T would send you with Aylard. He doesn’t trust him,” Daniel said triumphantly.
Patrick cleared his throat. “Shouldn’t we tell him the rest?”
“Not until the others get here.” Daniel stretched his arms above his head. “It feels good to be out of that cage!”
Jet shook his head. “I’m still not sure what you think I can do. I still can’t believe you and Reg—you and Ben—“ He glanced at Patrick. “—all of you—are in on this!”
“I thought about bringing Macek in, but we decided to wait until you could make that decision,” Daniel said, confusing Jet even more. Bring him in on what, exactly? But Daniel wouldn’t say any more until the others got there.
Ricky arrived late at night and greeted Jet like a long-lost friend, to Jet’s bewilderment. He hadn’t thought Ricky even liked him. Reg didn’t show up until dusk the next day, grinning like he’d pulled off a particularly spectacular trick. “Aylard’s back with my dad and they have their heads together making plans. Aylard told my father that he let Daniel and Jet go. He assured my father that they would be back of their own free will, and my father had no choice but to believe him! They never even noticed when I left.”
“He didn’t let us go,” Jet said, shaking the hand that Reg offered.
Reg’s eyes twinkled. “I didn’t think so,” he replied. “Did Daniel fill you in?”
“No, I was waiting for you,” Daniel replied, swinging his legs down to make room on the sofa. He’d claimed the sofa for his own, citing his ordeal in the cage as his reason for hogging the whole thing. Nobody had argued with him.
Reg sat down beside Daniel. “I didn’t betray you, Jet,” he said. “We couldn’t tell you our plan in case Aylard could catch it from your thoughts. I’m not sure how that works, but Daniel said it might.”
Jet nodded. When he and Aylard merged, their thoughts became one. Aylard had never lied about his ultimate plan. He had always told Jet that he wanted to return all Family to their elemental states. Only Jet had believed he could change Aylard’s mind. He’d been a fool.
“We thought that if we went along with Aylard’s plan, we could give you some time to come up with a plan of your own.”
“I don’t get it—why me?” Jet asked. “Why not Merrell? He’s the Enforcer.”
“We don’t want the Family to defeat Aylard and the Sons of Men,” Reg said. “And we don’t want the Sons of Men to wipe out all the Family, either. We don’t want things to go back to the way they were.”
“But that doesn’t mean we want all Family to die. Family are people, too,” Daniel added with a grin.
“We want you, Jet. We decided you should rule Attania. We don’t care if you’re royal, or Family. You would make sure all of Attania’s people have a fair chance at a decent life, not just some of us. And right now you’re the only one who has a chance of standing up to Aylard, so we’re on your side, Jet.”
“It’s not just us four either,” Ricky said. “People all over Attania are on your side, Jet.”
“That’s just crazy!” Jet said. “People all over Attania don’t even know me!”
“Oh yeah? What about your bus driver friends? They’ve been telling stories about Prince Jet all up and down Attania. I talked to people in Low City also. They remember the strange Family boy who turned out to be a Prince from their town. They’re quite proud of you, Family and non-family alike. Face it, Jet. People like you.”
“Don’t forget about us, either,” Daniel said softly. “Charlie, Mattie, all of the kids. They look up to you, Jet. Hell, even I look up to you. We want you to lead us, Jet. Just tell us what to do, and we’ll follow your lead.”
“That’s it? That’s your plan?” Jet looked at all of them in disbelief.
“That’s it,” Reg affirmed, grinning. “Ben agrees. So—what do we do next, boss?”