Bound by duty, p.8
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       Bound by Duty, p.8

           Stormy Smith
 

  Chapter 7

  That was two. Between the night on the cliffs and my run-in with Micah, that was two major magical outbursts and Cole had to be looped in. He’d been my constant, even when he was gone, and I always told him when I learned something new about myself. He had been mentally cataloging all of my random acts for years and trying to figure out why my power was so different from everyone else’s while he traveled the country. We knew we were Elders and that Elders were supposed to be pretty powerful, but now knowing Queen Julia killed them all, it made sense that they were another thing no one talked about. Just like AniMages. So, there were no records specifically of the female Elders’ scope of power, no stories told at school or history lessons on the heroines of our time. My violet eyes were a dead giveaway for anyone who at least knew that much about Elders, but even those people seemed few and far between. The Mages I had grown up with never saw me lose control, so they never commented on my distinctive power color.

  I walked into the gym to find Cole in his office. I didn’t knock; instead, I just dropped into the seat in front of his desk. Without even looking up, Cole said, “You have something to tell me?”

  I was standing there, mouth agape. “How do you do that, Cole? How do you always know?” I never got used to him being able to read me like that.

  He finally looked up and his eyes gave away the concern he had been trying to hide. “Ame, I felt you before you even walked in the door. Something happened that you didn’t like and it’s hurting you. I can feel it all.” He shook his head in clear exasperation. “We’ve got to find someone who can help you start to hide that stuff. I just wish I knew how to help,” he sighed, also constantly frustrated that his own power wasn’t consistent or easy to explain.

  “It’s happening again,” I said. “The random stuff I don’t mean to do. Well, I guess one of the times I meant to, but then I was blasting rocks apart and it felt really good. But, today…today I froze a hallway of people. All of them, Cole.”

  I went from remembering the high of being out on those cliffs to the low of knowing I had affected so many people unintentionally. I know I didn’t hurt them, but I shouldn’t be able to just do this kind of stuff on accident.

  “Oh, and after the rock blasting thing, I passed out. Like, completely dropped to the ground and lost a few hours.” Those words were a little more subdued. I looked up from under my lashes, a little afraid of his response. Knowing Cole was always concerned, I wasn’t shocked to find him staring at me open-mouthed.

  “Just gonna toss that one out there, huh? No big deal? You passed out after blasting rocks apart on a cliff and that’s just typical Amelia, right? Froze a bunch of humans on accident. Standard week, eh?” The sentence got louder with every word and he was hollering at me by the end. I shrunk a little in my seat. “It’s one thing when you’re trying to keep a lid on your power until we figure it out. But, really, Amelia, what do you want me to do? You completely lost control and woke up hours later on some cliffs? What if something had happened to you? How am I supposed to react when you tell me about this stuff?”

  His accusing tone set me off in the complete opposite direction and I stood up to do some yelling of my own. “You? How are you supposed to react? I don’t know, Cole, I’m not sure how I am supposed to react. I froze those people today in the hall while Micah was yelling at me about ‘us Mages needing to stick together’ for the umpteenth time and I couldn’t unfreeze them. I didn’t know how to unfreeze them because I didn’t actually mean to freeze them in the first place. And, on the cliffs? That… that was amazing. That was the first time I’ve ever gotten to use my power the way I wanted to and it felt great. I felt whole and alive and real. And then, I crumpled. I couldn’t even stay awake. So, you want to talk to me about what you’re supposed to do? I don’t give a damn what you’re supposed to do. You just drop the bomb on me that I’m the last female Elder and, in all likelihood, I’m going to get used and abused by some psychopath, and I’m supposed to worry about how you’re reacting?” I could only take shallow breaths as I struggled to tamp down the panic building inside me.

  Cole put one hand up. Paired with the shock on his face, I just stopped talking. “Micah? Who is Micah? And how does he know you’re a Mage? And what the hell are you doing hanging out with other Mages, Amelia?”

  Ah, crap. I hadn’t meant to tell Cole about Micah in this way but my big mouth never ceased to cause trouble. “Um. Well. First, let’s be clear that I don’t hang out with other Mages. He’s dating B and he’s just always around. It’s not my choice.”

  Cole snorted and I knew what was coming. He was forever making fun of Bethany or complaining about how prissy she was. “Of course, your pageant queen roommate would find herself dating a Mage. Of course.”

  “I don’t know why she bothers you so much, Cole. Bethany is seriously my only friend and she’s great. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Anyway, there was an incident in class one day where I, uh, fell over some chairs and when I woke up, Micah was there and my eyes had changed. We realized we had something in common and he’s been bugging me about it ever since. Wanting to help me or something, but I don’t know what he means.” I selectively chose to leave out all of the parts having to do with Aidan. I’d made my choice, so there was no real need to explain him to Cole. “I’m just happy I finally figured out what it was about him that kept setting off my internal alarms. I guess I always knew there was something different about him, now I know what.” I shrugged even though, in my mind, I felt like there was something I was still missing about the situation.

  “Wait, Amelia. What do you mean you knew?” Cole looked confused, but I could tell his own wheels were turning. Before I could respond, he smacked his palm down onto the desk with a grin. “Yes! I remember hearing about this! This is one of those Elder powers. You can sense other Immortals. Everyone’s radar is a bit different, but that’s one of your gifts. What did it feel like? How did you know?”

  Cole was still leaned across his desk, both hands resting on the top, eagerly waiting for me to tell him some great story. Unfortunately, the reality was much less entertaining. “I don’t really know. I can feel him, and he feels weird. Whenever he’s around, I feel like someone is watching me. Like I want to get away from him. I don’t know. Maybe my radar is broken?”

  I started braiding my hair as I thought back on all of my interactions with Micah. It was a nervous tick of mine to twirl the strands together while I pieced things together in my head. “Come to think of it, a lot of my outbursts have been when he was around. I think maybe my power recognizes that there’s other power around or something.”

  I looked back across the desk and realized Cole wasn’t even listening. He had sat back down in his desk chair and was using his feet to toss himself left and right. I could see he was deep in thought but my curiosity outweighed any politeness I should have had. “Hey! You! Cole!” I barked out the words and he jumped in the chair. “What’s going on up there?” I asked, tapping my temple.

  A slow smile spread across Cole’s face. “Micah. He’s our solution. We need to find out what he knows and see if he can help you!”

  I jumped to my feet. “NO! No, Cole. I know what you’re thinking and I’m not going to manipulate him. I can barely even stand the guy and you want me to cozy up to him? And what about B? How am I supposed to explain why I’m spending time with her boyfriend, huh?”

  “Tell the princess you need a tutor or something. I don’t care what you tell her. Amelia, we need more help than we even know. Maybe this kid can do something we haven’t been able to do ourselves. At the very least, maybe he can introduce us to other people in the area. You don’t know how hard it is to break into these ranks of people. We don’t belong anywhere. We don’t have family lines we can point to without giving away our Elder ties. We need an in. He could be our in!”

  I started to pace the length of Cole’s office. I saw his point. I didn’t understand what he had gone through to get the infor
mation he had, but I knew it wasn’t easy. If Micah could help us at all, it could really get us somewhere. I just don’t like the guy. But, he treats Bethany well and she obviously thinks he’s great, so there’s got to be something there. I continued my internal argument for a few more passes of the office while Cole patiently watched me, waiting for me to process. Finally, I stopped and sat back down in the chair across from him.

  “I’ll try to make friends with him. I won’t lie to him. I won’t manipulate him. But, I’ll see what he has to say.” Cole tried to speak but I stopped him, pointing a finger and glaring until he closed his mouth again. “I’m sick of lying, Cole. I’m sick of half-truths and hurting people in the name of secrets. Hell, I’m sick of being hurt by all the secrets. So, I’m going to really try to be his friend. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, he wasn’t meant to help us.”

  He nodded and I knew he wouldn’t fight me any further. “Alight, Ame, do it your way. I get it. You’re probably right to want to do it this way. I’m too used to the secrets and having to manipulate people to get what I need out of them. Speaking of, I don’t want to get into it now, but let’s do dinner again soon so I can do some more explaining. I know you want to know everything right now, but it’s easier for me to do in pieces.” At that moment, I saw how tired he actually looked. I hadn’t seen it when I walked in, but every time he talked about Queen Julia and the stories he needed to tell me, it was as if I watched him age right before my eyes.

  “Okay, Not now, but soon. I’ve gotta go anyway, but I’ll let you know how things are going. And, I know you don’t really care, but I’m going to call Ryn tonight too so I’ll let you know if Dad’s back home yet.” I glanced up, hoping I would see some sort of emotion, but all I saw was indifference in his eyes. He shrugged and came around to give me a quick hug. “Just don’t let him get to you, Ame. It’s not worth it. Ever.” The words were quiet but the anguish behind them was a thick cloud of emotion between us.

  As I walked back out to my car, I wondered what had really happened between my father and my brother. On further thought, maybe I didn’t want to know.

   

   

  The nightmares have been terrible this week. I walked around in a daze of exhaustion from nights spent lost. Literally. Every night it was the same bits and pieces that I could barely recall. Fog everywhere, surrounded by trees, me calling out constantly, and gray eyes with blue flecks. It was always just his eyes, but they were everywhere. As soon as I called his name and turned toward him, they would disappear.

  I hadn’t expected it to hurt this much. I hadn’t thought that stopping a relationship that had never started would feel like I was being ripped open every time Aidan walked by. He still wouldn’t speak to me, but I caught him watching me like he had in the beginning. He wasn’t hiding it. There was no anger like I thought there would be, like there had been that first day. He just simply stared while I made every attempt to not acknowledge it, to keep myself from locking eyes with him and falling directly into the smoky gray depths that wouldn’t let me back out. He was blatantly telling me without words that he wasn’t going away and I couldn’t even let myself think about what that meant.

  I was stronger than this. I had to be. Cole and I had dinner last night and, after another story-telling session, I was even more convinced that I had to remain on course. I still didn’t understand what deal my father had struck to allow me to stay with him and not be taken directly to Queen Julia. She could force me into this marriage but hopefully I could do something good with it. I sighed as I heard Cole’s story rolling through my head once again. He spoke of torture chambers, of Hunters forcing themselves into people’s mind and extracting the information they wanted. He spent a good deal of time going through the exile of the AniMages.

  “Amelia, did you know that AniMages were once respected by all Immortals? That their ability to become any animal, to commune so closely with nature, was something we actually celebrated, not persecuted?” Cole looked so sad as he spoke and I wondered if this was one of those memories he’d been given that wouldn’t go away. I simply shook my head and he continued. “No one really understands what exactly set the Queen on her rampage against AniMages, but one day they were a part of the council and the next they were being banished. Whole communities of AniMages were flushed out by the Hunters. The Queen ordered them out of the castle, off the lands that had been their hunting grounds for centuries. When villages weren’t disbanded fast enough, the Hunters went in and forced the issue. She tried to tell people she never killed them, only forced them out. But, I’ve seen it, Amelia. Women. Children. Grandparents. Dead.”

  We were both quiet a moment as his words sunk in. I was sure visions of the massacre others had passed on to him were pushing through his mind as his eyes took on a far-off look. With a shake of his head, he refocused and kept talking. “The queen tried to justify her case by saying that the AniMages had been planning to overthrow the crown. Eventually, the Mages realized it was she herself who had that plan all along. She told people they were aberrations, a race never meant to be born and an evil mix of uncontrollable animals lucky enough to have some Mage abilities. She convinced the Mages that if they continued to allow intermarriage between the races that one day their children would come out all animal, no Mage left. She actually had people believing that the AniMages’ animal sides held the most control and they couldn’t be considered actual people because they were first animals. The AniMages that stood up against her were thrown in prison and weakened until they couldn’t shift out of their animal form anymore. They were collared and chained up. Hundreds of them.”

  A quick jolt shot through me, a visceral reaction spreading from the deep recesses where my power was hovering, sending rage and shock through me in waves. “She’s a monster. Cole, I just don’t understand how this happened. How is it that everyone just blindly believed her? That they turned on their friends and neighbors so quickly? How was she able to keep everyone from even discussing it? I can’t believe all of our people were so blind and stupid.” I was just flabbergasted to think we had allowed this to happen. But, it was fascinating how ignorant a collective people can be. History has shown us that time and time again.

  He shook his head and I saw light green flow around the edges of his irises. My own power responded to the surge in his.

  “The best I’ve been able to gather is that between Queen Julia and the Hunters, they had something on everyone with any sway. They blackmailed. They threatened. And, a lot of people did what mom and dad did, they just left. They refused to be a part of it, but they also refused to do anything about it. Most of the people who would actually talk to me were ones who walked away from it all and tried to start a new life. As long as the Mage’s didn’t cause a fuss, the queen just left them alone.”

  I pulled the bottom of my lip between my teeth and tried to breathe. “It just seems so cowardly. To walk away from something like this. Our people needed mom and the other Elders. They needed someone with power to fight for them, not to just walk away.” I was getting worked up. So much emotion coursed through me — anger, sadness, the want to do something right now to change things. Electricity crackled in my veins and I could feel the throbbing at the base of my neck signaling a release I wouldn’t be able to stop if I didn’t calm down.

  Cole reached out, laying his hand over mine, and I instantly felt relief. His power was a soothing balm over the frenzied and frantic pulses running through me. My nerves were slowly becoming less raw and ragged as my whole system calmed. It was one of the few times my magic wasn’t angry for being tempered.

  “Maybe that’s why this happened to you, Ame. You are the last Elder for a reason,” he said, looking far too hopeful. “Because you have the strength to do what no one else seemed to be able to do. You can marry the prince and fight for the right reasons. We just need to get you ready.”

  I hadn’t ever thought of it that way. I could marry the prince like I was supposed to, yet have m
y own agenda. I had spent my life living a lie, trying to be someone I wasn’t. How was this any different? Someday Queen Julia wouldn’t be queen anymore and that would make me the queen. I would no longer be a pawn. I could change things. Life could be different if I could just learn to use what I had before I was sent to the castle and she had full access to what I was capable of. Pining away for what might have been with Aidan seemed so small in comparison to what I was up against.

   

   

  I sat on the couch, attempting to care about homework but really thinking about Bethany. She wasn’t avoiding me per say, but she wasn’t being overly communicative either. I wanted to apologize again, but my own thoughts were a mess. It was as if an entire team was playing ping pong inside my skull. The thoughts rammed back and forth across the space, vaulting to one side and then the other.

  I wonder what Aidan’s doing?

  Don’t think about him.

  What am I really supposed to do about a crazy queen?

  You’re gonna have to figure it out. You’re the Elder.

  Why me?

  Quit with the pity party.

  I was exhausted. I was lonely. I needed someone who got it.

  I finally gave in to the instinct I’d been fighting for days and dialed Rynna’s number. It was past time for a check in and I needed to know if dad had showed back up yet.

  “Well, hello there, Amelia!” I always loved when Rynna answered the phone. She was always genuinely happy to be talking to me. I swear, I could feel her love and warmth through the phone, wrapping me up in hugs like she used to when I was home.

  “Hey, Ryn! I’ve missed you. How are things?” I tried to project the happiness she made me feel, but it didn’t quite make it to my voice.

  “Things are fine, dear. But, you don’t sound fine. Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?” she asked.

  I groaned, but was secretly happy to be so easily found out. “I suck at hiding things. That’s what B always says, too. Except, she’s mad at me, which seems to be the theme lately. I just keep pushing people away. Everyone I care about I have to keep at arm’s length. I’ve just had it, Ryn. I’ve had it with the lying, and the power craziness, and always having to be the one giving things up for the good of the cause.” I was whining and I knew it.

  Rynna paused for a second, but I was used to her processing time. Every word was chosen carefully and she always thought every situation through. She was the voice of reason after too many of my father’s tirades.

  “I’ve been waiting for this, Amelia. It’s what I was both afraid of and hopeful for when you left us,” she said. There was a strange mix of pride and frustration in her voice.

  “You’ve been waiting for me to call and say I feel like I have multi-personality disorder? That I can’t control my power? That I lead a double-life and I question every day why the heck I’m doing all of this? Especially the more I learn about the wonderful and glorious Queen Julia?” Sarcasm laced my words, but tears filled my eyes. There was always someone who knew more than I did. I should just be used to it by now.

  “Well, that is essentially true,” she started. “But, what I truly hoped was that you would go out into the world and realize there was more to it than our little Immortal soap opera. Don’t get me wrong, Amelia, what’s happening in our realm is serious and has dire consequences for all of us, but you are a child in the scheme of things and your life was taken from you.”

  I was shocked at the force behind her words. The anger I heard in the timbre of her voice. Rynna was the strong and steady one. She believed in the system. Or, so I thought. “But, Ryn, this queen, she’s a monster. And I’m supposed to marry her son. And I’m an Elder. The last Elder. Doesn’t that make all of this my problem? It’s on me to do something about all of this. Cole doesn't have what I have. That’s what I keep hearing. That I’m the Elder and I’m the only one left who can change things. Or, at the very least, be able to stop her from using me for something terrible.”

  She sighed and it was a few moments more before she spoke again.

  “Let me tell you a story, Amelia. I once knew another Elder with a very similar problem. She was beautiful, like you, with your independence, spirit, and power, too. Everyone loved this girl. She grew up privileged, with people always watching her everywhere she went. You’d think she would have let it all go to her head, but she didn’t. She was kind and gracious and always thought of everyone else before herself.”

  “When she turned eighteen, she was also betrothed. But, by then, she had already met her one true love. Her parents told her it was for the good of the kingdom. That she had a duty to her family and her people. She tried to listen. She walked away from the boy she loved, spent all of her time at the castle buried in books and tribunals with the other Elder families. She tried her best to do her duty. But, all the while, her heart wasn’t in it. She started to fade. Her internal fire dimmed. Her power wouldn’t cooperate. She stopped smiling and she wandered around as if she were lost. She had only met her fiancée once and she was already a shadow of herself.”

  I hadn’t moved from my original position on the bed, rapt with need for more of Rynna’s words. I wasn’t fading away yet, but it seemed as if I could. Like I could slowly lose the pieces of myself to this duty. Pieces I was only just finding and putting together.

  “The boy she loved couldn’t stand it. He also understood the duty that fell to her and tried his best to honor her wishes, but as he watched her wither away, he realized he couldn’t do it any longer. So, one day as she walked her normal path to the castle, he hid in the bushes and snatched her off the path. She realized immediately who held her, as their magic had been too far apart for too long, and wept into his arms. He offered her two choices. He said that he would leave the village forever and let her do the duty she was bound to, or they could run away that very night. That she could choose love and the rest of the world would have to figure out how to save themselves. He told her that she couldn’t sacrifice herself for others unless it was truly what she felt she wanted to do. That she was choosing her fate; that her heart knew her path and she needed to trust it.”

  Rynna paused again and I caught the sound of a sniffle on her end. She cleared her throat and ended her story with words I should have seen coming but was still shocked to hear.

  “Your mother and father ran from our village that night and never returned, Amelia. They lived many blissfully happy years together and she never once voiced regret for choosing love. So, I want you to think about that. As you learn more about who you are and what you are capable of, know that you are not the first to walk this path and that the choices truly are yours. Your heart is yours to give, it is no ones to take. Not a queen. Not a prince. No one.”

  “Wait. Ryn, that means you know more, right? You know more about who I am and what I can do?” I was so hopeful to finally get answers from someone I trusted. Someone who could tell me the whole truth.

  “Amelia, I’ve already said more than I should have. I have to go. But think about what I said. Choose your path.” And with that, she hung up.

  I stared at the disconnected phone in my hand, replaying her words in my head and connecting the dots from her words to my situation. Could I do that? Could I walk away from this? I didn’t have someone I loved asking me to run away, but I had something. Well, maybe I had something if I hadn’t ruined it completely already.

  And, my mother. The mystery of a woman I knew so little about; she had been forced to make this same choice. I suddenly felt closer to her than I ever could have dreamed and found myself picturing her and my father in their younger days, in love and happy. Wishing I could have known those people for just a short time. I dropped back onto the bed and let my mind wander down paths it had never been. What could my life truly be like if it were my own choice?

  It wasn’t until much later that I realized Rynna had never answered my original question and I still had no idea where my father was or how he was doing.

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