Bound by duty, p.19
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       Bound by Duty, p.19
 

           Stormy Smith

  Chapter 18

  I stepped across the threshold of Derreck’s home and was surprised by what I found. I was surrounded by sleek black appliances, dark granite counter tops, exposed piping, black leather furniture, and modern art. I stood in the center of the very open floor plan and turned in a slow circle.

  “You were expecting animal heads and an old brown recliner?” There was a hint of smile playing on Derreck’s lips as he put a tea kettle on to boil. I looked away, embarrassed to realize I had expected just that.

  “It’s…um, nice. Really nice.” I fumbled for words and was glad when Cole stepped quietly through the door. Just having him here, realizing that I wasn’t the only one people had been holding out on, gave me strength. The last few weeks had been hell and I was ready for it to end. I just didn’t feel like tonight was the night. No, tonight was just the beginning.

  I paced the length of the living room and back. Charlie and Onyx sat on opposite ends and I let my hand drop to absently caress their heads as I walked past. I chewed on my lip, deep in thought about what it all could mean. What would happen if I sat down and let Derreck speak? Would he be the one who could tell me the truth? Or would he only tell me the parts he wanted to share like everyone else had done? Would I find out exactly what it all means? Or would he just lead me down another path I hated more?

  Aidan’s face flashed in my mind and the ache in my chest deepened. That sent me down a whole other line of thinking.

  I could walk away. Right now. I could walk away, find Aidan, and do what my mom had done. I could leave the truth and the drama behind and be happy. I could live the life I chose.

  But, could I?

  “You’re going to wear a path, Amelia. Sit down.”

  My head flew up and I realized that both Cole and Derreck were sitting on the black leather couches in the living room. Cole’s jaw was locked, a muscle ticking in frustration, as he struggled with his own emotions. Derreck simply sat back, sipping his tea, not really looking at either of us directly.

  I took quick steps to the overstuffed chair and pulled the blanket from the back over myself, suddenly needing comfort of any kind. As the thought entered and left, Charlie appeared beside me, whimpering as he licked my palm. I scratched behind his ears and left my hand on his scruff as he sat beside my chair, his big head sitting taller than the armrest. I threaded my fingers through his course fur, preparing myself for what was to come.

  I couldn’t walk away. I had been waiting for the truth for longer than I could remember. My mother lived with the truth her whole life. She got to make an educated decision. If I wanted to do the same, I needed all of the facts, however I could get them.

  “Okay. Go.” I wanted to get back up and go sit by Cole; I had a feeling I would need him. But, someday I was going to have to be able to handle this stuff myself, so I stayed in my chair.

  Derreck set his tea cup on the table and put his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands in front of him. He looked intently between Cole and I, but his gaze returned to Cole.

  “Cole, before I start, I want you to understand that I was trying to help you. To make the right choices to protect you. I never got to be a part of Amelia’s life and honestly, I wasn’t supposed to be part of yours. That was the agreement we all made. So, please, listen to me before you judge me. That’s all I ask.”

  Derreck sat and waited. Cole eventually lifted his eyes and met Derreck’s. So many emotions and unspoken words traveled between them in mere seconds but even I could see the pain and apology etched in Uncle Derreck’s features. Finally, Cole simply nodded and Derreck’s face relaxed in relief, some of the tension visibly draining from his rigid posture.

  “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “I’m not sure exactly where to start, but you need to understand what’s really happening.

  “First, most importantly, you both need to know that your parents loved you more than anything.” He looked at me. “You, especially, Amelia, need to understand that. You didn’t get time with your mother like Cole did, but know this — she loved you from the very moment she felt your light inside of her to the moment hers was snuffed out by that Hunter.” The snarl that accompanied that last word changed his every feature. His mouth twisted, his nostrils flared, and his eyes narrowed to slits.

  “So, our dad isn’t crazy? She really was murdered?” I asked. It had been a possibility, but having it confirmed challenged everything I thought I knew. My father’s delusions were legendary and this one always seemed so far-fetched.

  Derreck’s eyes glowed an iridescent green, like the glow of the green flash you could sometimes catch just as the sun set over the ocean. Against his dark features and the black leather of the couch, he looked scary.

  “Oh, yes, Amelia. Your mother was absolutely murdered.” Derreck’s eyes glittered with hate, the green glowing brighter and brighter. “The queen sent her most ruthless Hunter specifically to find your mother. It was only dumb luck that he found her giving birth to you, and his own good sense to make the deal he did to keep you alive. Julia would have likely preferred he wiped out the whole line, but the Hunter, Rhi, understood immediately what you would be capable of. That you were the one.”

  “The one what? I know I’m an Elder but there have been hundreds of Elders over the years. There is nothing special about me, Uncle Derreck, except the fact that I'm the last female and have absolutely no idea how to handle the crazy power I’ve got.” I shook my head at him, trying to make him understand that if they were pinning any hopes and dreams on me, it wasn’t a safe bet. And, given what had been happening lately, there was no way he wanted to put my dual personalities in charge of saving anyone.

  Cole kept quiet as I looked at him, waiting for some back-up, but I got nothing. “Really, Cole? You know how much of a disaster I’ve been. I’m nobody’s one anything,” I muttered those last few words to myself. We had agreed not to bring up my alter ego until Uncle Derreck had showed his hand, but I wanted help. I wanted to just spill it all.

  Derreck reacted to my conflicted expression by thrusting himself off the couch and taking three purposeful strides over to me. Crouching in front of the chair, he put his hands on my knees.

  “Amelia, you absolutely are our one. You are the one who can kill Julia. You’re the only one who can stop her devastating reign and right our world again. Under no circumstances can you go to that castle. You have to get away, Amelia. She can’t ever have access to you. And, before the time comes when she expects you, we have to find your mate. He’s the only one who can bring out the real power you hold, and the only one who can help you control it.”

  I tried to stand but was tangled in the blanket. The current that jolted through me was so strong, I thought it would split my head in half. I tore the blanket from my legs and tossed it across the room, diving out of the chair and almost toppling Derreck in the process. My hair floated around me and the violet smoke I had come to love swept in and around each of my fingers, encompassing my hands as it built and gathered.

  “I have a WHAT? What the hell is a mate? It’s bad enough I’m already betrothed to one guy and now you’re telling me there’s another one out there expecting me? What exactly do you people think, that it’s okay to pimp a girl out to the highest bidder? Does anyone around here give one crap about what I want?” I balled my fists, trying to contain the rapidly spiraling power that was radiating in and around me. I expected Cole to stand up and help me slow the waves rippling off my body, but he just sat there, staring. The dark energy was back. The black seeping into my internal violet power, blotting out the brightness and sending my emotions through the roof as my desperation for answers trumped anything else I was feeling.

  I took measured steps toward my uncle, feeling the change as a stronger, more dominant side of me took control. “You still haven’t told me what I am. Why I’m the one. All Elders have power. What makes me different? What is so special about me?”

  He actually stumbled as he tried to back away from me. “Am
elia, you need to calm down. I told you I had answers, but you have to be able to hear them.” He looked around as the framed art on the walls started to shake, his hands out, as if he could slow my progress. I cocked my head, looking at him, making it perfectly evident that I wasn’t calming down in the slightest. I was lost in the haze of power and energy. There was nothing he could do to stop me.

  “You. Need. To. Tell. ME!” Derreck’s eyes widened as he lifted off the ground and floated in front of me. “I won’t ask again, Uncle. I don’t know exactly what I could do to you, but you probably don’t want to find out.” The cold, flat tone of my voice seemed foreign to my own ears.

  It was a heady feeling as the energy built around me. I had no idea where it was coming from and I didn’t care. I just wanted answers. I was done waiting.

  With a flick of my hand, I sent Derreck flying across the room, stopping him inches from the wall. “NOW!” I screamed the word and it was at that point Charlie’s barking broke into my thoughts as he barreled into back of my knees. He was running between Cole and me, bellowing at us both as he tried to get a reaction from either of us. My brother sat there, still as a statue, refusing to make eye contact with me.

  I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. It was in control, though. With its destructive energy and single-minded focus, the rogue part of me was enjoying this too much. It didn’t want to stop playing with Derreck. It wanted to force him in whatever way we needed to. I heard its thoughts as clearly as my own, but mine were telling me to stop this, to calm Charlie, to let Uncle Derreck go. The two halves fought inside my head until I couldn’t take it anymore.

  “STOP! JUST STOP IT!” I dropped to the floor, covering my ears with my hands, and continuing to whisper, “Just stop. Please stop.” I rocked back and forth and all at once, the rattling of frames stopped, Derreck dropped to the ground, and Cole was by my side.

  Cole pulled me into his lap and I stayed a tight ball, trying to understand what had just happened as I let him smother the fury that had infiltrated my veins. As my body reacted to what had just happened, I was pulled under. In the most far off voice, the last thing I heard was, “That’s what you are, Amelia. You are a Keeper. You are our Keeper.”

   

   

  I woke up to a pounding head and a dark room. Through tiny slits, I saw light coming around the window shade and knew it was still the same day. I closed my eyes again and searched myself for my destructive power. As much as I wanted to forget it was there, what had just happened made it very obvious that I was not truly the one controlling my power. Inside of me was something else entirely. I could see my own inner light, the part of my power that was truly mine to own and control. But, there was also this other piece that I couldn’t name and didn’t feel like it belonged to me.

  The tight ball of power that wasn’t truly mine sat back in the corner of my mind, a vibrant flame of shimmering black light. I could feel its smug pleasure and it made me sad. What I had just done to my uncle wasn’t who I wanted to be. I dragged myself off the bed and out into the main room. With each step, my head pounded more viciously. I struggled to move with any speed or grace, my whole body still reeling from what had happened.

  Derreck and Cole were back on their individual couches, talking in hushed tones. Both stopped as they saw me, wary looks in their eyes.

  “It’s just me. No crazy woman here. She’s back in her hidey-hole.” I tried to inject some humor, but the words didn’t quite have the playfulness I had hoped.

  Derreck gestured to the chair I’d been in earlier. “Take a seat, Amelia. We should probably pick up where we left off. There really isn’t time to waste given what I just witnessed.”

  I sat gingerly, trying to move as little as possible as my head continued to throb. “Are you okay, Ame? Really?” Cole asked. “Do you need me?”

  “Amelia. Help yourself. You can undo exactly what you’ve done, you just need to focus.” Derreck actually sounded a little irked to have to explain it, but I didn’t care. I’d thought of helping myself, it was what I usually did, but after what had just happened, I was afraid to use even an ounce of my power. I would have much rather had Cole’s help, but now I didn’t feel like I could.

  “It’s fine. I’ll be fine. Just talk.” I let my own irritation come to the surface and with a huff, Derreck got back to business.

  “Things got a little convoluted back there and I feel like you only got half of a few different stories. I want to start with your father, which was where I tried to start.”

  I wanted to say something snarky about all of the half-stories, but I just didn’t have the energy.

  Derreck continued. “What I was trying to explain was that the day you were born, the day your mother died and you were betrothed, the Hunter, Rhi, also put a spell on your Father. Rhi initially wanted to take you right then. He wanted to take you back to the queen and force you to live your life out at the castle. But your father, even amid all his grief, thought faster than Rhi. He offered to allow Rhi access to his mind, to allow him to monitor you, so long as you were allowed to stay with him until you were twenty-one. Your father wanted the opportunity to be with you, to watch his beloved daughter grow up. Rhi agreed, but your father didn’t force Rhi to be specific enough in his oath. He wanted the ability to allow Rhi to see you when he chose to. Instead, the oath allowed Rhi to access his mind any time the queen wanted to see you or see your progress. All Rhi had to do was say a specific command and he could see whatever your father could see. Any moment of the day or night, your father would be a spy for the queen.”

  This time, it was Cole that spoke before I did. “You’re telling us that not only was he not crazy and that mom was really murdered, but that what he did to us — what he did to Amelia — was all because the Hunters really were everywhere? Do you understand what that means? What knowing that could have changed?” His voice cracked as he spoke and I felt the wounds inside of him rip open once more.

  Derreck was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry, Cole. It wasn’t my choice and it wasn’t my place. Your father made the decision that he needed to protect your sister, to try to do his best to stop her from becoming what they wanted her to be. Or, if she did, to make damn sure they never knew it. You were an innocent bystander, but he also needed you. You helped contain her. Your leaving was hard on him in so many ways, but I was watching, too. I followed you from town to town and I saw what you were trying to do, how you were trying to help Amelia. You were going to get yourself killed doing it the way you had. And, I felt your pain, your loneliness. Your mother would have never forgiven me if I had let you face all of that alone.”

  I had never seen my brother cry, but as the two men sat staring at each other, Cole’s eyes shone with unshed tears. Probably tears he should have cried many times over the years and never did. The tears that came from feeling betrayed not once, but many times — by family. But, there was also understanding.

  Blinking them back yet again, Cole composed himself. “At least you were there. I’m glad you were there,” he said, his voice thick.

  As I had watched the conversation progress between Cole and Uncle Derreck, my mind was reeling at all of the information. All the times my dad had yelled at me about control and locked me in my room. They hadn’t been about me failing him. He had been protecting me. He hid in his office so they couldn’t see me. So that he wouldn’t accidentally show them something. My throat clogged with emotion and my own tears fell in silent drops, leaving trails of regret in their wake.

  “Where is he, Uncle Derreck? Where is our dad? We need to see him. He needs to know we know.” An urgency I hadn’t felt through any of this raced through me. There was so much I needed to say to my father.

  Derreck shook his head, his answer a mix of patience and misery. “I’m sorry, Amelia. He’s gone. I couldn’t help him and there was only one person I could even think of that could. I can’t tell you where he’s gone or how long, I don’t know where the man I sent him to is. And, you
can’t see him anyway. They would be able to see you. Rhi is still inside of his head. Until someone can break that bond, he’ll always be in his head.”

  Defeat sucked the urgency and the fervor straight out of me. “Then tell me, what is a Keeper?” I had to keep going. I had to know it all. It had been hard enough being an Elder, the idea that I was still something else entirely was almost more than my mind could handle.

  “What you need to understand is that there is not more than one. You are it, Amelia. You alone are the Keeper and what you are has never been and can never be again. You are a combination of all of the power held by the Elders who were still living when your mother got pregnant. You have the normal Elder power you should, but you also hold power from all five families. You are the only one to ever hold this power. The first thing the queen did when she moved to take over was separate the five families from each other. She knew that alone they could never do the damage they could together when their powers were linked and fed off of each other. That is what you have inside you. You have their power. You are the Keeper of our future.”

  I sat back in my chair in stunned silence, Derreck’s words rolling over and over in my head. It should have been harder to understand, but at least now I could give a name to the darkness in me. It was a she. Many of them. How could I explain to him that it was evil? That this supposedly-wonderful Keeper power took me over and did nothing but damage? That it wouldn’t listen to me or be guided by me? I needed more time to think, so I just sat quietly.

  “And, her mate? What does that even mean?” Cole asked. “Did Rhi do that, too?”

  “No,” Derreck responded. “Rhi had nothing to do with anything Amelia is or isn’t. That was all your mother. She had foreseen what was to come and took action of her own accord. She was one of the strongest Elders we had and knew she could handle the pregnancy and that her daughter could handle the power. No one knows who Amelia’s mate is.” Derreck paused for a moment before leaning in, his palms together and his fingers steepled.

  “The oldest living Elder from the high council prophecised the end of Queen Julia’s reign. From what I know, she told her that, ‘A day would come when inside her the five families would merge and only a man who was both king and companion could tame the wild and set her free.’ I’ve heard that there could be more to the prophecy, but that was all your mother was sure of. She passed it on to me the same day she explained the choice that she’d made. Of course, she thought she would be here to help guide you, to help you learn to control it all and rise to greatness. Your father didn’t even know until it was too late. He would have never arranged your betrothal had he understood what you were to become.”

  Derreck fell back onto the couch, relief visible on his face, as if a weight had been lifted from him by sharing his story. The problem was that that weight had been transferred to me. I dropped my head back and closed my eyes. My mind was racing and I couldn’t begin to sort through the madness. My life had been a lie. Everything I thought I knew was false. No one was who they seemed.

  Who was I? All of my hopes for real answers were gone — dashed in an instant as Uncle Derreck’s words sunk in and the reality emerged that not only was this so much bigger than I had imagined, but that no one truly knew the truth.

  A huge crash brought me out of my contemplative trance. I shot up as both dogs started barking and Derreck leapt from the couch. I was shocked to find Cole in a rage. He was upending side tables and sweeping the contents of shelves to the ground. His eyes burned a deep green and he tossed a kitchen table chair as he roared, “WHY?” He rounded on Derreck and stalked toward him.

  “WHY? You had so many opportunities to tell me the truth. You found me when I was twenty. I had been out on my own for two years trying to find a way to help my sister. To get her away from my crazy dad and stop this betrothal. You knew I’d spent my life protecting her and that I’d spend the rest of my life doing it. You told me you were going to help me. Did you? Did you really help me, Uncle Derreck? You could have helped me by telling me THE TRUTH!” Cole’s words were like thunder, echoing throughout the cavernous cabin.

  Derreck stood his ground. As I watched the green fire build around Cole’s body, starting at his hands and rippling out until it surrounded him, I kept expecting Derreck to back down. To walk away. To apologize. But, he didn’t. He just stood there, in the center of the room, breathing deeply as he did his best to control the natural reaction to Cole’s explosion. A trickle of electricity swept through me as my eyes changed and she came to life. I tried to push her down, but she was elated to have a reason to come out to play.

  Both dogs were hunkered down on either side of me, inherently protective. The stand-off between Cole and Uncle Derreck was intense, both literally radiating power and emotion. While Cole wanted to be angry, I felt his pain as acutely as if it were my own. The sharp bite of the blade of betrayal. Whether that’s truly what it was or not, that’s what it felt like. I hated that he knew that feeling, that we had that in common now.

  Derreck stood stoic, limbs down but rigid at his sides. Cole faced him in a fighter’s stance with clenched fists and a fierce stare. He took short breaths in and out of his mouth, just waiting for the excuse. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I pushed my way between them.

  “Stop it! Just stop it!” I shouted. I shoved a hand to each of their chests. Not that my one-hundred and fifty pounds was going to do much against two walls of muscle, but it was worth a shot. I looked back and forth between them as heat radiated from their chests into my palms.

  “You want to make this about me, Cole, then make it about me,” I commanded. “Whole truth or not, Uncle Derreck has told us more now than we’ve ever known. But, even with everything we do know, there’s still so much we don’t. Who else is going to help us? We need him. We need his information.” I stared my brother directly in the eyes until the burn faded to the shine of fresh grass and eventually back to brown. Then, I turned on my uncle. “And, you. Right now we need to be convinced that we can trust you. So, convince us.”

  The rogue in me added a little jolt to that last word and Derreck took a step back, rubbing his chest. “Fine! Deal! As much as I can tell you, I will.” He turned away muttering, “Now, was that entirely necessary?”

 
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