Jet was tired. Tired of being King, tired of trying so hard to fit in, tired of living. No, he wasn't quite tired of living yet. Not like his son Attan, who had left Attania and the physical world a long time ago. He missed Attan.
Everyone around Jet had kept on moving forward, but it was as if time had stopped for Jet. Even his second son, Zephyr, looked more like his younger brother than his child. Zephyr's mother, the lady Madelyne, avoided Jet these days as much as possible because she looked as if she could be his mother. She wouldn't even let him touch her in the privacy of their own rooms—as if Jet cared what her outer self looked like. He saw through to her essence, which was just as eternal as he was.
For a long time it seemed that Jet's first wife, Doll, Attan's mother, would remain as youthful as he did, but as Attan moved on and Jet took more wives, gradually Doll started to age, too.
No one knew why Jet was different, but everyone noticed. And not everyone was happy about a King who would never die.
"What now?" With a long-suffering sigh, Daniel slid into the chair across from Jet. Whenever Jet called him into his office, it usually meant another job for Daniel—one that the King foisted on the Enforcer because he didn't want to deal with it himself.
Jet hid a grin. "I promised Zeph an adventure," he said. "Can you make it so nobody knows we're gone?"
Daniel muttered something uncomplimentary beneath his breath. "How long this time?" he asked irritably. "It better not be months, either."
Jet's grin expanded. He knew he had Daniel. "Not months. A week, maybe a little more. Less than two. Can you handle it?"
"It's not a matter of handling it," Daniel grumbled.
He'd aged in the last ten years, though he still looked younger than most Family his age. It was a side-effect of transforming to an Elemental state, they thought. Though why it affected some more strongly than others was still a mystery. Jet thought it might have something to do with a person's mind set. If they perceived themselves as essentially mortal, then they were. Time, Jet supposed, would tell.
Jet left Daniel still grumbling, to tell Zeph the good news.
His second eldest son was in the training room with Mattie Pomeroy. Mattie was another one who had barely aged in the last ten years. Then again, he was one of the youngest, not counting Jet's own kids, to learn to transform. Mattie was currently an instructor at the prestigious school for royals at Arden.
"Dad!" Zephyr immediately broke off when he sensed Jet's presence. Without waiting for his dad to take physical form, Zeph transformed himself and merged with Jet. Mattie was a heartbeat behind.
"Really?" Grinning as he took back his form, Zeph slapped Mattie's upraised hand. "Does Mom know?"
Jet frowned. "She knows. She's not happy about it, but a promise is a promise." Jet had been promising Zeph an adventure for some time now, and as he was nearly ready for his test to get his grays, both Jet and Madelyne recognized that he deserved a small break. Jet didn't tell her what kind of adventure he had planned.
"Go." Mattie shooed them with his hands. He hesitated. "Is Meetoo coming here?"
"No. Daniel doesn't think it's necessary. We won't be gone that long."
Meetoo was Attan's look-alike, a true elemental who had taken form modeled on Attan's physical body. He lived in the south with Elea, an unusual young woman who was not Family, but not exactly non-family either as far as Jet could tell. Meetoo occasionally would stand in for Attan if needed. Most of Attania didn't know Attan was gone. Daniel had thought it better that way in light of the turbulence Attania had been going through for the past ten years. If the public knew that Attan had caused it, however well-intentioned, then their support of Jet's reign might waver. Which would be bad for Attania, according to Daniel. So Jet had deferred to Daniel's decision in this matter, as Daniel was Attania's Enforcer, and Jet was only the King.
Bian and Lilli were at Arden, too, so Jet made it a point to greet his other two children before they left. Both were quiet children, placid some might say if they hadn't touched the inner spirit of the twins. Both were strong in their elemental gifts, which was to be expected, given who their parents were. Bian reminded Jet a lot of Attan, and if it weren't for Bian's twin anchoring him to this existence, Jet might worry his youngest son would follow in the eldest's footsteps. Lilli, however, kept Bian grounded.
"When will I get to go on an adventure?" she pouted, tossing back silky curls as if they annoyed her. Jet saw it for what it was: a ploy to win his sympathy. Power wasn't the only thing she'd inherited from her mother, though Lorra had mellowed a lot over the years. At least she was still speaking to Jet.
Smiling, Jet pulled his daughter towards him and ruffled her unruly hair. Lilli squealed, casting a worried glance over her shoulder to check if anyone from her class had seen. "Dad!"
"You'll have your adventure soon enough," Jet promised, relenting. He loosened his hold on her, but Lilli only scooted back a little.
"I want my own adventure," Bian said. "I want to pick it."
"Okay, two separate adventures, then," Jet agreed. He gave Bian a rough hug before catching Lilli again for a hug, too. This time, she let him. "Now you'd better get back to your lessons before I get you into trouble with your teacher."
They all smiled at that. As Bian reached for the handle to the classroom door, they heard a scramble of many feet, and Lilli's face turned red as she realized her whole class had heard the entire exchange.
They didn't waste any time after that. Daniel had the rough outline of the area Jet intended to explore, and he wasn't worried about either of the royals. The King was King for a reason.
Jet and Zeph dissolved into wind for the first leg of their journey where they needed to make some changes before the real adventure could begin. They took form again inside a modest little house on the banks of the Mattick River. They hadn't gone very far on their adventure, just to Lady Doll's house in Low City. Jet's too, Zeph supposed. The King had a house—and a wife—in many cities. Zeph had never been to this part of Low City before. It was—old.
"Lean your head back here."
Zeph complied, blinking warily at his father who sat across from him with a towel wrapped around his head. The floor was scattered with the remains of Jet's tiny braids.
Doll scrubbed at his head and applied something which made his scalp sting. "Don't fidget," she warned him, wrapping his head in a towel, too. "Now, that needs to set for a little while before we can begin the next step."
She unwrapped Jet's towel in the meantime, revealing short, spiky orange hair. Zeph's eyes widened in alarm. "Don't worry. It won't stay like that," Doll assured him. She took a packet out of her kitchen drawer and sprinkled it in a bowl of water. It looked bluish. But she applied it to Jet's hair and then wrapped it back up in a towel again. "That should do," she said.
Zeph's hair ended up lightening much more than Jet's, so the final product had Zeph with short, blonde hair a little darker than Elea's, while Jet's was a streaky, buttery yellow. It stuck up all over his head like a porcupine, which made Zeph laugh. Oddly enough, the lighter hair made both of their skin tones appear slightly darker because of the lack of contrast.
"This will work. Thanks, love." Jet reached over and kissed Doll a little more intimately than Zeph would have liked to have seen. She clung to him for a moment before letting go.
"It won't last forever," Doll cautioned him. "Your true color will grow out soon."
"It just has to last a week—then we'll cut it all off, right, Zeph?" Jet winked at his son, who looked a little worried at that. Zeph's hair was short enough already.
"It stinks," he complained.
They spent the afternoon shopping on the non-family side of Low City, gathering food and camping supplies. Jet rented a beat-up old truck from a withered old man who didn't look much better than his truck. Neither the old man nor anyone else they encountered recognized Jet or had any inkling that either of them were Family. That was exactly how Jet wanted it.
They drove for hours, at first south, then west, following the curve of the coast until at some point, just when the light was beginning to fade, Jet turned inland towards a slight swell of hills that quickly became mountains. They left the few towns and settlements behind as full dark fell, until finally Jet stopped when the road became too narrow to continue.
"We're really going camping?" Zeph asked skeptically. This wasn't the adventure he'd had in mind.
"Yep," Jet said, shouldering the larger of the two packs they'd brought. "Come on." He led the way up a steep trail to a clearing near a small stream. In all that time, neither he nor Zeph had utilized their elemental gifts. Clearly, Jet had traveled this way before, probably as wind, which was how Zeph had imagined they would be going too. Not—walking. His feet hurt.
In the night it rained, and Jet and Zeph both got soaked trying to keep their tent from floating away when their small stream became a good-sized waterfall. Still, Jet didn't use his elemental skills to keep them dry or even to redirect the rain away from them. Zeph understood why, but it was very uncomfortable. At least the sun shone warm the next morning as they packed up all their soggy belongings and started up the mountain.
There was a path, barely wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side, but Jet noted it with interest. It narrowed the farther up they went. Suddenly Jet shot his hand out in warning. Zeph felt it too, a slight tingle in the air. He pretended he didn't notice.
The bushes rustled and a grim young girl stepped out, followed by several young men carrying rifles. "What are you doing on Jay's mountain?" the girl asked. "This is private property."
Jet shrugged out of his pack, dumping it on the ground by his feet. "Is it?" he asked in surprise. "The guy at the camping store said there's some good fishing further up." He nodded his head towards the top of the mountain.
"What camping store?" the girl asked suspiciously. She was Family, obviously so, with pure black hair and pale skin, but the boys who accompanied her were definitely not Family.
"Ah, Low City," Jet admitted with a sheepish grin. Low City was a day or more in the other direction. "Who's Jay?"
The girl looked at Jet in confusion before her eyes narrowed. "You have to leave. Now." Around her, a small eddy of wind stirred the dirt and rocks of their trail. Zeph glanced up at the sky, which was still clear after last night's rain. He glanced back at the girl.
"Sari," one boy said nervously.
"What!" she snapped. If anything, the wind picked up until it plucked at their clothes and stirred leaves into the mini-cyclone forming on the path in front of them. Jet bit back a smile. The girl didn't seem to be aware of what she was doing. Her friends seemed to have an inkling, though.
"Sari? We don't mean any harm," Jet said. "The truth is, we came to join you."
The wind stopped. The leaves which, moments before, had been swirling in a high circle, suddenly dropped to the ground in a heap. The boys with Sari breathed a sigh of relief. "What are you talking about?" Sari asked.
"Your group. Your—school. We heard about it and we want to join you."
Sari shook her head. "There is no school. Go home. I don't know what you heard, but it's not true. This is private property. We live here—and we don't like visitors."
One of the boys stirred uncomfortably. "Sari, maybe we should take them up the mountain."
She whirled on her companion. "Shut up!" The wind began to pick up again. This time, it took an ominous turn, as the sky above darkened and rain began to fall in large, icy drops. A shout rang out from above. Sari's eyes widened and she turned towards the path behind her, the one that led up the mountain. A stocky man with a straggly beard strode down it; his eyes burned menacingly.
"What's going on here?" he asked, striding through the group of young men and one girl, who made way for him until he stood face to face with Jet and Zephyr. "Who are you?"
Jet gave a silent sigh of his own. This man was definitely non-family, and definitely not the one Jet had hoped to find. Apparently, Jet's disguise still held, as the man made no attempt to merge with him. "Ned Chilrain, and my brother Zack," Jet said, using the story he and Zeph had decided upon on the long ride up. "We ran away from home to join the Sons of Men."
The non-family man eyed Jet up and down. "That's not a name much heard anymore," he commented mildly. He scrutinized Jet and Zeph for so long Jet was afraid he'd seen through their disguises, but after a while, he grunted, "Come, then, if that's what you want." He started back up the mountain, his young companions milling uncertainly behind him. Finally, the girl, Sari, nudged Jet in the back to start him moving, and followed behind them as the entire group trudged up the steep path.
The man paused, turning back towards the group. "How did you get here?" he asked. When Jet told him it was by car, or rather, beat-up truck, the man sent two of his boys back down the mountain. "Take care of it," he said shortly, and they nodded.
Jet and Zephyr exchanged glances. Were the boys merely supposed to hide the vehicle from prying eyes, or would they make it disappear? If so, what did that portend for the fate of the two pretend non-family boys? Jet shrugged it off. It wasn't as if anything could really happen to them.
They trudged up the increasingly steep mountain trail with Jet and Zeph sandwiched in between the man and the younger people. Sari made a point of walking right behind them, her unconscious anger a beacon for the free elementals in the area. A tree limb snapped, and the boys in the back of the line started nervously, their eyes darting to Sari up front, but the girl was oblivious.
Jet sensed the free elementals who were becoming more and more agitated. This wasn't just because of the girl. Imperceptibly at first, the ground began to shake, and Jet squeezed his eyes shut. Not now. For the last ten years all across Attania the earth had erupted over and over again, re-making itself. Attan's legacy. Thousands had died. His people tried to contain it where they could, mostly in the populated areas which were still controlled by Family. This area was unpopulated. Jet only hoped it was an isolated earthquake, but he had to act now, or it could very well wipe out this little settlement before he and Zeph even had a chance to put their plan in motion.
Along one side of the narrow path was a steep ravine which sliced deeply into the mountain. One wrong step, and an unwary traveler could fall to his death in an instant. Jet chose his instant, his eyes catching Zeph's so that the boy wouldn't give them away before he had a chance to explain. A tremor shook the path they were on, and Jet fell sideways into the ravine.
Several things happened at once. The earth began to shake in earnest, and more than one of the people on the trail had to grab onto something quickly before they, too, fell into the ravine. The wind also picked up, howling and throwing obstacles such as loose rocks, leaves and small branches into their faces.
"Ned!" Zeph yelled, keeping in character. He scrambled to the edge of the ravine on his belly, and let Jet's true essence flow through him. He couldn't sense words in this manner, but he got the feelings Jet was trying to project. This was all part of the plan.
Except the earthquake itself was not part of the plan! Jet must be trying to control the earth elementals to minimize the damage. What did he want Zeph to do? A wave of calm engulfed Zeph. Nothing now. Jet didn't want him to do anything at the moment.
Strong arms pulled Zeph back from the edge. "It's over. He's gone. Get away before you fall in too. We have to get to the camp." The non-family man held Zeph's arms. Somehow, the other kids had tied themselves together with rope. The man tied Zeph to the end of the line, with only Sari behind him, and made his way back to the front. Sari glared at him as if it were his fault that Ned was gone, but gradually the wind subsided, though the ground continued to shake violently. No new fissures appeared, however, which Zeph attributed to Jet's control of the earth elementals.
They crested the hill. There was a building near the top of the mountain, and several smaller structures around it. A group of young people, mostly children, clustered in the open spaces near the larger building. Several of them were crying as the earth continued to shake.
The non-family man untied Zeph from the rope and slung him towards one of the smaller cabins. "Stay there until I see what's going on," he said curtly, his mind on other things. Zeph heard him outside. "It's all right," he told the worried children. "It's just an earthquake. It'll stop soon."
Zeph certainly hoped so. He eyed the cracks in the roof above his head with some trepidation until the dust sifting down made him close them. He sighed. Some adventure.
The tremors subsided during the night. Zeph crept out of the hut where they'd thrown him to find that fully half the camp had been flattened, as well as quite a few trees. Zeph could see part-way down the steep mountain trail now. Jet was nowhere to be found, presumed 'lost' by their unwilling hosts, though Zeph knew his father had transformed to wind at the last second in his tumble down the mountain, leaving Zeph in the hands of their captors.
All over the camp, kids were dragging fallen timbers off collapsed buildings and occasionally rescuing a trapped person, but on the whole, no one seemed to be seriously injured. It helped that the buildings were none too sturdy to begin with, but Zeph thought there'd be more injuries from the quake. Where were all the adults?
"You!" The girl Sari, her black hair wild, pointed a finger at him. "Help clear this mess." Her finger swung around to point at a jumbled pile of branches, which at first Zeph thought was a fallen tree. "Now!" she yelled. He jumped when the pile heaved from underneath.
Zeph ran past the girl and started pulling branches off the main pile. Sari, in the meantime, ordered two more boys to help. Between them, they removed enough of the collapses hut to reveal a battered older boy who glared at them as he shoved away the last remaining pieces of wood and stood up. He had a gash on his scalp which bled into his eyes. "Who're you?" he growled, looking at Zeph while he wiped his face ineffectively with one filthy hand.
"Never mind that now!" Sari snapped. "I brought him in. We've got work to do. Gather up the little ones."
"Gather them where?" The older boy asked, looking around. Less than half the buildings remained standing, and those that were, including the one Zeph had been thrown in, had significant damage.
"Figure something out!" Sari stalked off, a mini cyclone of wind following in her wake.
"She probably caused the earth-shake herself," the boy muttered beneath his breath.
Zeph glanced at him in surprise. They knew? But it didn't seem that Sari herself realized she was Family. Otherwise, why wouldn't she have used her talents to take care of this mess? For that matter, why didn't he? Were they still pretending to be non-family boys? And where was Jet, anyway?
Zeph felt a frizzon of amusement as his father's essence brushed his.
"Come on." The large boy roughly grabbed Zeph's shoulder and towed him along behind him. "You can explain who you are as we work. Who knows when she'll get around to it."
Sari was already on the other side of the clearing talking at another group of kids. Most of them looked much younger, and several had the dark hair and pale skin typical of Family. The entire group looked up at something Sari said, then began running towards Zeph and the boy.