Bound by duty, p.4
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       Bound by Duty, p.4

           Stormy Smith
 

  Chapter 3

  I was making a half-hearted attempt at my algebra homework when my phone rang. Rynna was calling for a check-in and I was glad for the official distraction. My mind had been constantly wandering off since I got home. All avenues pointed to Aidan and what I should have said differently, or how I could have made myself look any more foolish. I sighed as I slid my finger across the screen.

  “Hey, Ryn!” I couldn’t help but smile as I answered. Rynna had been my rock during the rough years after Cole left, and I fully credit her with me being as functional as I am today. She also provided a constant connection to my father since he refused to use telephones. Just another one of his wonderful eccentricities.

  “Amelia, I wasn’t sure if you’d pick up. I just wanted to let you know that things are going…okay.” Rynna’s soft, proper voice floated through the speaker but I heard the muted panic behind her words.

  “Is he eating? Will he even talk to you yet? Ryn, I’ve been gone for two months. Please tell me he’s at least talking to you?” My father had never engaged with Rynna. Since my mom had died, he hadn’t spoken a single word to her. My father was an odd man. On the worst days, he was outright mean. She had been my mother’s best friend and they had all grown up together, yet he refused to acknowledge her existence. He hadn’t actually even hired her to be our nanny, she just took it upon herself and continued to show up. For years she cooked, cleaned, and helped with homework for free. She always said mom would have done it for her if the situations were reversed.

  She sighed and I knew she was holding back. “Come on, Ryn. Just tell me. Did he light the barn on fire again? Finally kill the neighbor’s dog?” I had to make light of the situation because there were so many worse things my father could have done.

  “You know I try to keep you out of these things, Amelia. Your father…he’s just having a hard time. He’s…lonely.” Her hesitation only made my reaction worse.

  “LONELY?” My blood pressure skyrocketed and, with it, my power bounded through me. A headache started to take hold at the base of my neck. It was the one I always got when too much power let loose too fast. “Rynna, you honestly think he’s lonely? I spent years under that roof and was lucky if he spoke to me once a day. You think he is the lonely one? I have one friend here and can barely manage stringing a coherent sentence together around new people.”

  The temperature in the room rose and I knew I had to get myself under control. No one could send me into a tailspin like my father, and Rynna knew that. All those years of me desperately trying to make him show me an ounce of affection, even knowing he was the one who gave my future away.

  “Now, Amelia, calm down. Honey, be fair. You know that your father hasn’t been himself. Your leaving has just been…a transition.” Her quiet patience was doing nothing to tamp down my anger. My guilt. I knew when I left that he wouldn’t take it well, but I only had these few precious years to myself.

  “Just tell me,” I gritted the words through clenched teeth, trying to hold back tears, already expecting the worst.

  Another sigh. “Well. He left. He moved out into the woods. He said that with you and your brother gone, he doesn’t have to do it anymore. That he can be free, whatever that means. I don’t think he really means it, honey, I just think he’s hurting. You know how his delusions take hold. We just need to wait him out a little bit. I won’t let him go far, you know that, right?”

  Rynna continued on, trying to smooth over the words she knew cut me to the core. Hurt flooded my heart and my mind. He can be free. I dropped to my bed as the tears threatened and Rynna’s voice faded into the background. I bit the inside of my lip, the metallic taste and the shot of pain stopping the onslaught of emotions. I was on my own. I’ve always been on my own, I reminded myself. Swallowing down emotions I didn’t want to acknowledge, I hung up the phone, not caring if Rynna was still on the other end.

  After my conversation with Rynna, I tried and failed multiple times to focus on my homework. The longer I sat there, hearing her words inside my head, the more my power spun and built inside me. From the deepest corners of my heart, the hurt bubbled over and my power was quick to respond. Ever my internal champion, it warred with the pain — pushing, shoving, and growing in response. I was a war-torn battlefield of emotion. My gut ached, my anxiety built, and the power vibrated through every cell. Something was going to have to give. There was only one place I could go, one person who would understand what I was dealing with.

  As I pulled up to Cole’s gym, I felt ready to burst. All of the pain and anger my father’s words had stirred up inside me were snowballing into something near hysteria. My power and emotions were so closely tied that I couldn’t control either. I needed Cole and needed him quickly. I had to keep myself from running into the training room looking as frantic as I felt. Luckily, I didn’t even have to get all the way through the doors before Cole was pulling me into a hug.

  In a split second, all of his strength and soothing emotion enveloped me and the swirling inferno slowed. This was Cole’s gift, his ability to calm the raging storm of my emotions, and thus my power. Before he left, from the time I was a baby until I was ten, he would be the one to pull me out of my nightmares and allow me to sleep. He was also the one to help me keep my power in check, to stop the surge before my father sensed it and locked me in my room again. Dad always claimed it was for my own protection, so they wouldn’t see. So they couldn’t know what I was. But, they had to know. The Hunters had arrived just after mom died and they knew I was an Elder. The Hunter knew exactly what he was doing when he demanded my betrothal to the prince.

  Cole’s strained voice broke my train of thought. “Hey, there. It’s okay. Ame, what happened?” He had my head tucked under his chin and I had to turn it to the side to stop my voice from being muffled by his shirt.

  “It’s Dad. Rynna says he took off. Since we’re gone, he can finally be free.” I punctuated those words with as much sarcasm as I could before tears filled my eyes and a sob filled my chest. Cole was the only other person in the world who understood what our father could do to a person’s self-esteem; what spending a childhood with him could do to you. It was why he left when I was ten and he was eighteen. At that point, I wanted to hate him for it. Now, I understood. Even then, I understood that it was because of me that he had to leave. I was born and mom died. Mom died and dad went crazy. It was all because of me.

  I pulled away, furiously swiping at the tears on my cheeks and feeling even more ashamed for needing my brother, yet again, to save me from myself. “I’m sorry, Cole. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be putting this on you. I don’t know why he does this to me. Why I let him.”

  Cole’s aura changed from soothing to angry. He wasn’t trying to help me anymore. He was pissed. “Damn it, Amelia. Don’t do this to yourself. How many times do I have to tell you this isn’t your fault? None of it is. If you need me, you come to me. That’s our agreement.”

  Cole lightly gripped my chin between his finger and thumb and forced my head up to meet his eyes, his voice softening to a whisper. “Right, Ame? That’s our agreement. That’s why you’re here, so I can help you. You know that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since I left.”

  The anger had melted away and I saw his own guilt over leaving me; felt him showing it to me. I sighed and moved in for another hug. “You’re right,” I mumbled into his chest. “And, it’s not your fault either. God, I hate how screwed up he’s made us.”

  “Speak for yourself, half-pint, I’m doing just fine.” A laugh rumbled in Cole’s chest and I pulled away smiling, blinking back unshed tears. Cole ruffled my hair and slung his arm over my shoulder. “You look like hell, Ame. How about you go get cleaned up and I’ll buy you some dinner. Unless, you want to take a turn in the training room? It might do you some good.”

  I seriously considered it for a second, but right now I needed food more than a heavy bag. “Nah, soon though. I’ll come in and have at it. And really, Cole, at
least I don’t smell like a mix of sweaty boy and dog,” I said with a snort. “Did you and Charlie work out together today, because pheeww! Besides, you know I can’t turn down a free meal.” Trying to get things back to normal, I stuck my tongue out at him for the full effect and got a poke in the ribs for my sass.

  “You leave my dog out of it. Charlie might be a brute of a dog but he’s worth every gnawed table leg and new pair of running shoes I’ve had to replace,” Cole said. The vision of his giant Great Dane snacking on his table leg gave me a chuckle.

  I know Cole will never see me as an adult, but I can’t help but play the part of the younger sister. I’d missed him. Even though we only spoke through letters and emails, Cole never let his “big brother” status slip.

  I made a pit stop in the bathroom and spent a few minutes staring in the mirror. Focusing, I was able to concentrate on my red, puffy eyes until my power finally responded to my command and moved to that area. I watched my eyes brighten and the dark circles fade, feeling pleased with what I could accomplish. It was still a work in progress, but I was slowly figuring out how to conquer the basics. I’d been blowing things up in bursts of power for years, but even Rynna hadn’t been allowed to explain the little things.

  We left the gym and headed out to the boardwalk. The waves crashed in the background as we walked silently toward our traditional dinner stop — Mariano’s. We both loved Italian and Cole was forever carb-loading with all of the time he spent in the gym.

  I turned to look at him as we walked. Of course, my brother was a good-looking guy. Any decent sister could admit that. But, over the years, it’s been so interesting to see him change through pictures, and then to see him now in person. He’s different. He tries to hide his own anger and pain, but I can feel it. I still don’t know exactly what he went through in the time since we’d last seen each other, but he promised that one day he’d tell me. Still, there are times when I’m shocked that I can walk up and hug him.

  Cole was on the shorter side, though still taller than me, with really broad shoulders and a trim waist. His hair was a little longer, just brushing his ears, thick and dark like mine, but more brown than black. With his powers suppressed, his eyes were the darkest brown, like Dad’s. He had kind of a big nose, which once I realized, stirred a memory inside of me I had long forgotten. I stifled a giggle, remembering an instance where Cole had picked me up to carry me inside after I’d scraped my knee. I looked up to say something and found it hysterical that he had such a big nose. My six-year-old self couldn’t contain her laughter and he had blushed the darkest shade of red.

  “What’s so funny over there, eh? What are you staring at?” Cole gave me a shove as I pointed my finger at my nose and gave him a look that made him realize exactly what I meant.

  “You’re pushing it tonight, girl. It might be bread and water for you!” He crossed his arms, his biceps looking like they might actually burst, and tried his best to give me a haughty look. He totally failed.

  “Right, Cole, you’d leave your only darling sister to starve?” I clutched his arm and leaned my weight into him, acting as if I would die without food that moment. Two seconds later, his arm was wrapped around my head. Putting me in a choke hold, he ground a noogie into my hair and shoved me toward the door of Mariano’s with a laugh. “Get in there, half-pint. Let’s eat.”

   

   

  Later, I took a break from shoveling pasta into my mouth to ask the question that had been burning in my mind, the one I asked every week when we had dinner. “Have you learned anything new lately?” I tried not to look hopeful, but knew I failed miserably when Cole laughed at my expression.

  “Not really. I just can’t believe that no one will even talk about who and what the Elders used to be. I understand that Queen Julia and her Hunters have scared the crap out of every Immortal out there, but there has to be somebody that can tell us what’s happening to you.”

  Cole looked defeated. His eyebrows were drawn together and his scowl deepened the longer he thought about it.

  “I know Cole, I’m frustrated, too.” I tried to sound reassuring, “But, you’ve been asking questions for years. I know that has to be part of why you moved around so much while you were gone. Maybe we should stop pushing. I’m going to have to do this no matter what. The queen wants a magical puppet for her prince and I drew the short straw.” It was just the reality of the situation, no matter how much we both hated it.

  “No, Amelia. I won’t. I won’t stop until I figure out how we can either get you out of this betrothal or at least get you prepared to handle it. We’ve talked about some of what I’ve learned, but there are a lot of things I’ve never told you; things I didn’t want to have to tell you. It’s probably time. You need to understand what you’re up against and the deadline is only coming closer. The queen will come to collect.”

  There was a different emotion in his voice this time — fear. Just the edges of his irises were turning green and I could feel the change in the air around us. I grabbed Cole’s hand. “Hey. Hey, Cole. Not here.” He was lost in his own thoughts and I wondered what it was he was seeing behind those eyes. What memories were replaying in his mind to take him out of our conversation and somewhere else entirely? I gave him a few more seconds, but when I couldn’t seem to get his attention with my hushed whispers, I kicked him under the table. I hadn’t thought it all the way through and my Cherry Pepsi was almost upended as my foot not only connected with his shin but also the table leg. Cole came out of his trance and reached out faster than he should have to stop it from tipping over. He quickly glanced around to make sure no one was watching and then scowled at me. I shrugged. “What’d you want me to do? You just disappeared over there.”

  Shaking his head, Cole gestured for me to continue eating. We ate in strained silence as I continued to wonder what he wasn’t telling me, and Cole maintained a look that told me his mind was elsewhere. Finally, he paid the bill and led me outside. We walked silently along the beach for a few minutes until he plopped down in the sand and gestured for me to join him. After a few more moments of silence, he finally spoke.

  “You know that when I left and told you that I had to get away from Dad, it was really so I could help you, right?”

  “Of course, Cole. I mean, no, I didn’t know that right away, but eventually it made sense. And, I knew Dad was too much for you. After knowing him and Mom before…well, before me, you knew what you were missing. I never did,” I said.

  “Don’t do that. Just don’t,” he said, turning to me to make his annoyance clear. “We aren’t going there today. I left because Dad was never going to help you and you were finally old enough to keep yourself together while I was gone. I knew that Ryn would be there, too. I thought there had to be people out there — our people — who knew what you were going through. It wasn’t right that he handed your future off and then refused to teach you what to do with what you had.

  “I started out young and stupid and way too obvious. I knew that some of the larger Mage populations in North America were in the North West and the upper Midwest. It wasn’t hard to find them once I got close — I could feel their power like I do yours. But, when I outright asked other Immortals about the Elders, they would just turn and walk away from me, refusing to acknowledge the question. So, I got a little stealthier in my approach. I had to give myself time to become part of their community and not just some stranger off the street. I did a lot of odd jobs. I found myself in conversations where after a few drinks, it was easier to pull out a few details here and there. I kept journals of everything I learned so I could connect the dots later. And, I always tried to find out where the next closest community was before I started in about the queen or the Elders, in case I needed to move on.”

  It was odd to reconcile the stiffness of Cole’s posture with the easy-going flow of his words. There had to be so much more he wasn’t saying. So, I sat silently, waiting.

  “I actually focused a lot during those firs
t few years on the queen. It was just as hard to get people to talk about her, but once I found the right person and we were in the right environment, they’d let loose for hours. Like I said, give them a few drinks out by the lake where no one else was around, and all these Mages wanted was someone to listen. They had lost family or friends to her demented plans. Damn it, Amelia, I never even wanted you to know this stuff.” Cole dragged a hand through his hair and finally looked over at me. “I was so naive and I thought I was going to find some hidden answer. Some way to either get you out of this betrothal or to unlock whatever power you have that she wants. To give you time to use it, master it, and go in there with a fighting chance.”

  I looped my arm awkwardly around his neck for a half-hug. “I know,” I said. “It just isn’t that simple, Cole. It never has been. And, given the way my crazy power has been acting, I don’t know if I want any more of it unlocked.” He patted my hand, nodding. I settled myself next to him again and he continued.

  “You know the basic history. You understand how the Hunters work for the queen and the AniMages have been exiled. You know about how Elders used to be in positions of power working with Queen Julia. But, nobody talks about how or why that changed. That’s what these people told me. They told me both how and why. Somehow, Julia found out how she would die, so she started taking out anyone who could possibly be involved. She didn’t know when it would happen, so her plans were mindless and insane. Some of the people I spoke to even shared their memories, the same way dad has before. The first time it happened I was talking to an older man who had lost his wife to one of Julia’s raids. Mid-sentence he couldn’t speak anymore, so he just reached over and touched my temple. His memories will forever be burned in my mind.”

  Cole shook his head quickly back and forth, as if he were trying to change the channel in his head and make those scenes stop. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I truly wanted to know. Even though I needed to, I refused to ask for more details. Not yet.

  Cole carried on. “Okay, remember the history lessons from when we were little? Our races have been around for hundreds of years. We can be traced back to the Fertile Crescent and Rynna told us our parents grew up in Syria where the main castle and communities stood. What we weren’t taught was that there was a time when the queen was nothing more than a figurehead. Everyone always talked about Elders being so powerful, but from what I understand, it’s so much more than that, Amelia. Elders weren’t just powerful Mages. Elders were the most powerful Mages. They led us all. And by all, I mean that in the beginning, all races were equal. The Elders oversaw Mages, Hunters, and AniMages alike. It was Queen Julia who changed everything, and she was also the one who forced the silence about what really happened. She put a fear into the hearts of all Immortals so deep, she was sure no one would defy her.” The way his face pinched together, his lips a thin line as the tendons in his neck protruded, made it clear that my brother’s hatred for the queen went far beyond the conversation we were now having.

  “There used to be a group of Elders,” he continued. “Five families made up the Elder lines and only the women could pass on the Elder power. Female Elders were revered. They were the ones who foresaw the future and ruled our people. The male Elders had power, but nothing like the women. It’s like you and me. I have some extra power, but what you have is far beyond normal. You have the trademark purple Elder magic. I just have Mage green. Anyway, the oldest female in each family served on the High Council and their wishes were carried out by the queen. She got jealous. She couldn’t take being ordered to carry out the whims of women she felt superior to; orders she disagreed with at every turn. She started plotting out ways to overthrow the Elders and take control. But, she needed help.

  “Julia was smart. She knew the Hunters were more powerful than even she was. They can track the other races, have extremely powerful attacks, and seem to have very little emotion, so doing Julia’s evil bidding never seemed to bother the Hunters she initially recruited. Realizing what a partnership with the Hunters could do for her coup to take over the realm, Julia began polluting their minds with stories of blood line pollution, weakening races, and the inevitable death of their clans if they didn’t act. She was smart enough to allow her recruits to spread her stories to their clan leaders and it didn’t take long for them to call a meeting. Not everyone bought her story but Julia continued to make her case, charming the leaders in whatever way she needed to. Finally, the clan leaders voted and though it wasn’t unanimous, it was decided that the Hunters would align with the queen. Problem was, Julia had found a way to trick them into making an oath of servitude. In one fell swoop, the Hunters became her Royal Guard and captives to the crown.

  “The Hunters brought in anyone who could give Julia information on the Elders’ weaknesses — whether the captives wanted to contribute to her plan or not. That was a lot of what people talked about — the kidnappings and interrogations. Eventually, the queen figured out that if the Elder families were separated, especially when the female Elders were separated from their mates, their power dwindled. As their power lessened, she was eventually able to kill them. No one is entirely sure how she did it or, more likely, how her Hunters did it, but Elders who were caught were never seen again.”

 
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