Bound by duty, p.22
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       Bound by Duty, p.22
 

           Stormy Smith

  Chapter 21

  I let the back door slam after I shoved my way through it, convincing myself I could do this. I walked up the trail and at the tree marked with a slash, I deviated and started pushing through the brush. I didn’t go far before I came to a clearing. Micah was in my head; I could feel him sitting in the back of mind, trying to be quiet, but his anxiety radiated into my subconscious.

  As I pushed the last of the tiny tree branches out of my path, I saw him. Across the grass-covered oasis stood a man that had to be six-foot-five. Even from my distance, I could see the rigidity of his muscles as he stood facing me, his arms crossed. What I couldn’t see was his face as the trees cast a shadow over him.

  We both stood facing each other, silent. Finally, I opened my mouth to ask where Bethany was when he spoke first.

  “Get him out,” he said. His tone was dry and impatient.

  “Who out?” I asked, wondering how he could possibly know.

  “We all have our gifts, Amelia,” he said with a smirk. “I found his trace as easily as I found yours, it was only as you approached that I realized he wasn’t physically here. So, again, get him out. We had an agreement.” Only his mouth moved as he spoke. He didn’t fidget. I couldn’t even tell if he was breathing.

  I closed my eyes and whispered a quick apology to Micah. His anger exploded just as I kicked him out of my head and shut the door behind him.

  “He’s gone,” I said, immediately feeling fear flood my system as I realized I was truly alone. But, it melted into determination just as quickly. Bethany was here. I had to get her back.

  The man finally stepped out into the clearing, the full moon’s light shining down on him. He took sure strides to the center, still a good fifteen feet from me. I was surprised to find he had bright red hair, thick and wavy.

  “I am Elias. It’s nice to meet you, Amelia. We’ve been waiting a long time to find you,” he said, a genuine smile transforming his chiseled face from menacing to boyish charm.

  I couldn’t believe how easily he transitioned to being conversational. Like we were here to get to know each other instead of freeing my imprisoned best friend.

  “You know, I don’t really give a crap who you are. All I want to know is where Bethany is and what exactly you’re expecting from me to get her back,” I snapped, impatient and eager all at once.

  “Fair question. She’s here.” With breaking eye contact he said, “Bring her out.” He clearly wasn’t talking to me.

  Bethany stumbled out of the tree line behind Elias, flanked by a large wolf on each side. I saw the burnt red coat of the wolf on the right and knew it was Melinda. I had no idea about the one on the left, but it wasn’t just two wolves who accompanied her — animals streamed out from the forest. Wolves, panthers, mountain lions, owls…there had to be at least ten of them. The animals surrounded Elias, making a semi-circle. He still hadn’t broken eye contact or changed his stance.

  “Let her go,” I said. My hands were starting to shake as my power rose to meet the surge of magic around me. All of this power in one place was more than I could handle but I couldn’t show my hand. He couldn’t know what or who I was. It was the one promise I’d made my brother, I wouldn’t give myself away. So, I pushed, shoved, and scolded myself internally, while trying to stand relaxed and poised in front of a mass of AniMages.

  “We will let her go, but first, you and I need to have a discussion. There are things we need to get straight, Amelia. Information you need.” I hated the cocky certainty in his tone. How he was controlling the situation. I was surprised that my fear hadn’t returned, but for whatever reason, I was sure Elias didn’t want to hurt me. I was at least glad to know my internal alarms were back in action.

  I had kept myself from looking at Bethany, trying to maintain eye contact with Elias and hold my ground, but I couldn’t stop any longer. She stood stick straight, and even with her hair a mess of tangles, her makeup streaming down her face from dried tears, and a wrinkled and dirty dress, she held an uninterested stare until her eyes connected to mine. As soon as we locked, the fear was evident. The panic she had been containing came to the surface as her eyes filled.

  A lump lodged itself in my throat at seeing my best friend like that. I glared at Elias. “Are you afraid of a little southern girl, Elias? You think she’s a match for your crew?” I tossed my head toward his minions. “I think it’s a safe bet that she can stand next to me and we can still talk, don’t you?”

  A small smile played at his lips and he nodded. “Go,” he said, gesturing to me. Bethany took a few steps forward, maintaining a perfect pageant stride until Melinda let out a low growl and nipped at her heels. Bethany let out a squeal as she sprinted to my side. I enveloped her in a hug, crushing her to me as I finally exhaled.

  “You okay, B?” I asked into her hair. “Huh,” she snorted weakly, “and I thought I was the bad influence on you.” I couldn’t help but smile, relieved that she was okay enough to make jokes while we were being stared down by a hoard of Immortals.

  We parted and I kept her hand locked in mine, standing just in front of her. They wouldn’t come close to her again.

  I turned myself back to Elias. “You wanted to talk. Talk. And, while you’re at it, control your animals.” Melinda took a step toward me, her eyes a disconcerting shade of iridescent blue. A deep growl built in her throat before Elias broke in. “Stop. Melinda, shift. Now.”

  His words were even. He never raised his voice or changed his tone. In just four words he had tamed the beast. In the blink of an eye, I was staring at a red-haired Melinda crouched down in front of him. She was completely naked and didn’t seem to mind at all. She stayed in her crouch as she shook her head and her hair fell around her shoulders, providing modest cover.

  “My apologies, Amelia. Some of us are a little more passionate about the cause than others. Melinda will control herself.” He looked down at her without moving his head and she nodded in grim submission.

  I nodded, still waiting to know why I was here.

  “You are here because you have been lied to your whole life, Amelia. Yes, I heard that.” He clearly saw the question in my eyes. “By your father, your nanny, your schools, and your friends. We’ve seen you. We know who you are. What you are. And you need to know that we are the people you need to fight with. To fight for. We are the exiled, we are the ones who were tortured and held captive. We endured the worst of Julia’s reign and you can help put us back in our rightful place. Only you.” His eyes were as pained as they were hopeful.

  “I apologize for the means in which we had to get you here, away from the rest of them, but there are things you need to know. We couldn’t risk anyone else knowing we were here.”

  I put my hand up. “I know all of that. I’ve been told about what the queen did. How she treated you, the Elders, and any Mages who didn’t fall in line. I know what happened.”

  In an instant, he was two inches in front of me. Bethany gasped and stepped backward, still holding my hand and forcing me to twist toward her and into Elias.

  “Do you now?” he whispered. Looking into his deep blue eyes was like staring into the depths of transparent ocean water as they swirled and churned. His hand cupped my cheek and I dropped straight into Elias’s own personal hell.

   

   

  I stood in the center of a small log cabin. All around me, people were throwing things into bags, moving quickly here and there. People were running in the front door and out the back. I couldn’t move as the action never stopped around me. Finally, I heard someone speak. A woman turned to a young man, who I immediately recognized as a young Elias, and said, “Are you sure? Are you sure they’re coming for us? We know nothing. Why would the queen do this?”

  She was young, maybe in her twenties. Fear etched panic lines in her face. Her lips were a tight line and her eyes shone with unshed tears. Elias reached out and pulled her to him, embracing her as he whispered in her ear. I almost smiled at the sweetness of his
gesture. It was clear that he loved this woman.

  Their loving moment didn’t last long though as another man came barreling into the room. “They’re coming! John is up in the sky and he said they are close. We have to go. Elias, we have to go now!”

  Elias grabbed the woman’s arm and the backpack she had been holding. “Come, Nell. We have to shift. We have to go now.” She pulled her hand from his and it immediately dropped to her stomach. “But, Elias, we don’t know what that will do. I was told not to shift…” her voice drifted off as the tears dripped in a steady stream down her cheeks. Elias’s breathing was becoming shallower by the minute.

  “Nell, honey, I can feel them. I can hear what’s in their heads. They won’t spare anyone. Not even a pregnant woman. You’re going to have to shift. Please, Nell.” The other man looked back and forth between them, clearly torn, before he wished them luck and ran out the back. Elias pulled Nell outside. “Shift, Nell. Now. We can have another baby.”

  She silently shook her head. “You don’t know that, Elias. A new AniMage hasn’t been born in years. We have no idea why, but our people need this baby.”

  “But, Nell, I need you.” Elias crushed her to him, wrapping her inside his giant arms. He pulled back and looked down at her, heartache in his eyes. “You won’t shift, will you?” The sadness of his words pierced my heart. Nell shook her head. The heartache in his eyes was replaced by unwavering resolve. “You aren’t going to leave, so I’m not either. We’ll do this together. You and me, Nell. Just like it's always has been.”

  The tears continued to fall as she nodded and reached up to press a kiss to his lips. It was not a romantic kiss, it was desperate, scared — it was a good-bye kiss, and they both knew it.

  I stood back with tears falling as I watched the moving scene. In the depths of my mind, I knew what was coming, what had to be coming. But, nothing could have prepared me for the storm of Hunters that swept into the area. There had to be a dozen of them, orange eyes blazing, bright white and orange balls of fire erupting from their palms. Elias shoved Nell behind him and with a roar, shifted into his bear form. I hadn’t a clue what his native form would be, but a mammoth black bear stood protectively in front of the love of his life. She shot her own small blue blasts from around him, but it was clear to me that magic was not their strong suit.

  Elias fought valiantly, attempting to slice Hunters open from root to tip when he was able to get his huge paws close enough. Within minutes, the group suddenly stopped and parted, allowing the largest Hunter I’d ever seen to walk between them and stop just feet in front of Elias.

  “You think that your stinking bear hide means anything to me, vermin? You are not part of us. You don’t belong here or anywhere. I will be damned if I allow you to weaken our race and pollute our people with your vile ways.” The man stood at least seven feet tall. He wore black leather from head to toe, the only things in contrast being his bright white hair and the silver collar he wore around his neck, signifying his oath and allegiance to Queen Julia.

  Nell took that moment of silence as her opportunity to try to hurt the Hunter and shot a blue flame in his direction. The Hunter laughed an evil, booming laugh and with a wave of his hand, the flame dissipated in mid-air.

  “You are nothing to me, half-breed. I see you cowering behind your mate. Do you think he can keep you from me? And, I hear that little heartbeat. You will die together, as a family.” The Hunter was so focused on intimidating Nell that he didn’t see Elias jump, shifting yet again, this time into a black panther and slashing him across the face. The Hunter roared in pain as blood dripped from his cheek. In the same instant, he froze Elias in mid-air and then pinned him to the side of the cabin with nothing more than a flick of his wrist.

  “For that, vermin, you will watch. You won’t die today. You will live to remember what your worthlessness caused.” The Hunters eyes glittered with evil joy and a sick smile replaced his scowl as he turned back to Nell. Without moving from his position, he lifted her from the ground. She screamed in agony as welts appeared on her arms and legs and blood dripped from wounds no one had physically made. The Hunter was torturing her without moving a muscle. In his panther form, Elias shrieked as if he were being beaten himself. Elias struggled against the power, scrambling for any kind of purchase against the coarse cabin exterior. He yowled and screamed, suddenly shifting back and forth between human and panther.

  The Hunter simply laughed as Nell whimpered from above him. Elias hurled curses and vengeful promises in his direction. “I wish I had time to draw this out, but I have places to be. So, beast, remember my face and what I’ve done. Remember this feeling because it is the feeling I will evoke in every single one of your kind. Go and tell them that Rhi the Hunter stole your woman and babe. Tell them how you couldn’t move an inch to save her broken, battered body.”

  I was thankful the scene went dark before I had to watch the rest. I couldn’t let myself imagine what that Hunter had done to poor Nell. What he had said echoed in my mind. That was Rhi — the same Hunter who murdered my mother.

  When Elias removed his hand from my cheek it was all I could do to not crumple to the ground. Bethany caught me as I bent over. The hurt, pain, and despair that cascaded through me was more than I could handle. Elias’s leftover emotions charred my heart as I tried to separate myself from him. I reached up to place my hand where his had been only to realize I couldn’t move as the sobs wracked my body. I cried for that poor woman and Elias’s heartbreak. When I looked up at him, the tears were falling from his eyes in slow rivers. He didn’t move to wipe them away and neither did I.

  “Is that what you knew?” he asked, sorrow seeping from his words as the blood had from her wounds. I could only shake my head. Nothing Cole had told me prepared me for what I had just witnessed. I, too, would never be able to erase her screams from my mind.

  “There is more, Amelia. So much more. I hold so many truths that you need regarding how to control what’s inside you. About the prophecy. About your mother.”

  My head cleared at his mention of my mother and the power I had done my best to hide. My curiosity peaked, but I had no reason to believe he knew anything more than Derreck had. “And, why is it that I’m supposed to trust you, Elias? You just finished telling me how everyone lies to me. Constantly. Why would I trust anything you say over them? Your story is terrible and I am so sorry for what you went through, but what makes you different?” I leaned heavily on Bethany as I finally stood tall and fixed my stare on his.

  His tone was grim, but determined. The tears gone. “Because I started our relationship with truth. I haven’t lied to you. I manipulated you to get you here, but I didn’t lie. I don’t lie.”

  He stepped back from me a few paces and gestured to the beasts around him. “These are all people, Amelia. People who have been running their whole lives. Who, like me, watched their friends and family murdered, or worse. I am not Julia. I don’t want to use you. I want to help you. I want you to help me — us. But, the choice is yours. You can always find one of us here, in this place. I know that you cut off the communications to your brother and the prince, and they are likely to come for you soon. You should go.”

  Bethany and I reacted simultaneously. “The what?” I yelped at the same time that she said, “Who’s a prince? Prince of what?”

  Elias smirked and looked far too smug for my liking. “Another half-truth, Amelia. Ask him. You know exactly who I’m talking about. I just thought you realized. Ask him why he’s really here, Amelia. Then, come back and we’ll talk some more. Just be careful with what you share. He, like so many others, is not what he seems.”

  Bethany and I watched, our hands still gripping each other’s, as Elias, Melinda, and all of the animals melted back into the tree line. In mere seconds, it was as if they’d never existed. Bethany turned to me to say something and I interrupted her before she could ask. “Not yet. There’s so much I have to tell you, and I will. Just give me a minute, okay?” She swallowed a
nd nodded, standing silently next to me while I tried to slow my racing heart and make sense of what had just unfolded.

   

   

  Thankfully, Bethany was quiet as we made our way back toward the apartment. My mind was swimming. Micah was the prince. He had to be. There weren’t any other options. That meant I was betrothed to Micah. And, judging from what Elias had just said, Micah knew it.

  I felt the dark magic rising within me and forced my thoughts away from Micah and back to Elias. To his words, his excruciating memory, and the promises he had made me. He used the only thing he knew would sway me — the allure of truth. And it was working. I wanted to deposit Bethany in the apartment and run back to where he had stood. I had so many questions. Everything I’d learned in the last twenty-four hours was a convoluted mess in my brain. It seemed like the only thing anyone agreed on was the fact that I couldn’t go to the castle. I couldn’t play into the queen’s plan. But, outside of that, no one seemed to agree on anything.

  Uncle Derreck wanted me to find my mate. Elias wanted me to help the AniMages. And, then, there was Bethany, to whom I owed a lengthy explanation. Everywhere I turned, someone needed something from me. What I needed, was time to think. To sort all of the madness out in my head. I needed more than just a few minutes between catastrophes. Somewhere in this mess was a choice I had to make, but at this point I didn’t have a clue on where to find it.

  As we neared the complex, Cole and Micah burst from the back door. Bethany went running for Micah and he swept her into his arms. For a millisecond, I was happy for them, then Elias’s words came back and squashed any joy I held for my friend. Cole came toward me a little more tentatively.

  “Ame? What’s wrong? I can’t get a read on you, there’s too much going on.” He gave me a sideways look that said he could tell that she was taking hold of me. “What happened up there? Why did you shut us out?” I could only stare over his shoulder at Micah. Pure, unadulterated hate was all I had for him. I had trusted him. I had thought we were friends. My limbs started to tremble. I made the conscious decision to stop fighting her off and stood taller as the layered effect of her power gave me the necessary strength.

  “Amelia,” Cole said slowly. “What is going on? I can feel it. This isn’t good. Talk to me, Ame.” He tried to reach for me and I flinched away, shaking my head.

  “I need to talk to Micah. Alone. Now.”

  Micah pulled his head up from being bent into Bethany and his eyes widened when he met mine. I saw the instant he realized I knew. Apologies reflected back at me, but I wouldn’t acknowledge them. I wanted him to feel badly about what he’d done.

  Cole looked between us, and when Micah asked him to take Bethany inside he agreed, but didn’t look happy about it. He took a step toward me. “I’ll be just in there, Amelia.” I nodded, my eyes never leaving Micah’s. “Stay in there.” I waited for Cole and Bethany to go inside before I spoke.

  I found it hard to form the words; to put the accusations into syllables that would make sentences. I opened and closed my mouth a few times before I could even do it.

  “You lied to me. You’ve been lying to me from the beginning, haven’t you? You never wanted to be my friend. You asked me to trust you and I did!” The more I spoke, the stronger my voice became. My violet smoke surrounded me. My breaths became shallow and the pressure inside me quickly became too much to bear. I couldn’t stop the eruption. After everything I’d just been through, I wanted someone to pay. To feel as beaten and twisted and tortured as I felt in that moment. I had no idea which way was up or what I was supposed to do. So, I funneled all of that into Micah.

  “I thought we were FRIENDS!” I shot a blast at him, not giving it everything, but trying to give myself a release. He was ready for it. Sadly, he understood my power probably better than I did, at least the parts he had seen, and he countered. Red and violet crashed into each other, electricity popping and snapping as the two magic’s battled between us. I held both hands up in front of me, pushing at him, wanting him to do something. To say something.

  Sweat popped on his brow as Micah finally yelled over the sound, “We are friends, Amelia. I came for you, but not for the reasons you think. I came to help you. To protect you.”

  That only set me off further and I pushed harder, forcing Micah to take a few steps back. “To protect me? How? By figuring out exactly what I could do so you could report it back to your demented mother? I’m nothing but a puppet to her. A means to an end. I won’t do it, Micah. She doesn’t understand what I am. No one does.”

  Suddenly, I was exhausted. Drained of hope and will and the energy to even hate Micah the way I wanted to. I slowly backed myself down and Micah did the same. I doubled over, my hands on my knees as I fought for air. I looked up at him from under a curtain of hair, happy that he was at least visibly exhausted, too.

  “Amelia, it isn’t what you think. Really.” He coughed out between deep breaths.

  “Isn’t it, though, Micah? Is that even your name? Who are you really?”

  A deep voice came from behind me, sending chills up my spine. “He is Prince Mikail. You would do well to remember that, girl. Keeper or not, he is your prince.”

  I turned around. At the sight of him, my world spun. Standing feet from me was Rhi. The Hunter who murdered my mother and Nell. Elias’s scar still remained a thick line running from his temple to his chin. I should have killed him. I should have maimed him. There were so many things I should have done. Instead, I passed out.

 
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