This time, Natalie had no trouble remembering the dream. Everything that had happened felt as clear as if it had happened for real. Briefly, she wondered if it had to do with her being unconscious during the first dream and only asleep during the second, but her thoughts did not linger on it for long. Instead, the sentence the cloaked figure had uttered filled her mind.
“The first piece is right here.”
Right there – in the dream? Could real things exist in a dream? Perhaps she ought to even question if it had truly been a dream – each time she was there, she felt perfectly aware. When she dreamed real dreams, she hardly ever remembered more than tiny bits and pieces. Could it be another, separate dimension, a world that was not-quite-real? Her grandmother lived in a second universe, an alternate reality. Considering that, it might not be entirely impossible that the dream took place in something like that, but it still did not explain how Natalie was supposed to get the stone out of there. The sand had managed – she had brushed it off her feet, staring in wonder, and saved it in a small glass.
“You don’t look particularly interested.”
Cecily’s soft voice broke through Natalie’s thoughts. Cecily stood in front of her bed, on which Natalie sat. She looked stunning. She had curled her long brown hair and it fell gently down her back, framing her face. Her blue dress had the color of a summer sky; light yet vivid.
“I’m sorry,” Natalie said. “You were saying?”
Cecily ignored her question. “What were you thinking about?”
For a moment, Natalie wondered if she should tell Cecily. Then she decided no – she had no idea if she would ever find the stone or if it would work the way she hoped, and giving Cecily false hope was simply cruel. She trusted Cecily, but she would never want to hurt her.
“Nothing important,” Natalie said. “I just get lost thinking about Ramon, and my grandmother, and magic and everything sometimes.”
Cecily smiled. She did not have much make-up on but it still made a difference as Cecily very rarely used it. “Of course.”
“But you were saying?” said Natalie once more, turning the attention back to Cecily.
“Oh, I was just talking nonsense, about the dance.”
“It’s not nonsense,” Natalie said, standing up. “You look gorgeous and I hope you have the time of your life there.”
Cecily looked at her briefly and in the dark eyes, Natalie could see the response neither would voice – yes, because you might not have your life much longer.
Natalie sighed and pushed a strand of hair out of Cecily’s face.
“I hope it’s nice.”
“How could it not be?” Natalie asked. “You look like a princess. Cinderella, or something.”
Cecily smiled. “So I was a maid before, sleeping in the ashes?”
“Of course,” Natalie grinned.
The doorbell rang. Cecily glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Right on time.”
Cecily turned back to the mirror, appearing self-conscious for once. “Do I look all right?”
Natalie shook her head with a laugh. “All right? You’ll be the belle of the ball.”
Cecily blushed pink.
Natalie walked before Cecily downstairs, to where Cecily’s father and her date Nathan waited. He looked nice; the tux he wore was only a moment too big, but he wore it proudly. He had combed back his hair.
She glanced at Nathan as Cecily made her way down the stairs. His chin dropped on the floor and Natalie hid a smile. Cecily looked like a goddess, whether she was aware of it or not. The gown floated around her as though she was treading on small clouds rather than walking down the stairs. She wore small, pretty sandals that glittered in silver.
“You—you look fantastic,” said Nathan when she reached the bottom of the stairs.
Cecily smiled. “Thank you. You look great, too.”
Nathan preened. He handed her a dark blue flower on a bed of green, and she fastened it around her wrist. Nathan had a matching flower in his breast pocket.
Mr. Cordell looked a bit teary at the sight of his daughter. “You look so much like your mother.”
Cecily smiled at him and hugged him tightly.
Natalie grabbed the camera from Mr. Cordell and started snapping away photos – photos of Cecily and Nathan, of Cecily and her father and in the end, when Mr. Cordell pried the camera away from Natalie, a picture or two with Cecily and Natalie together.
Her father had gone all out on his daughter’s lovely evening. Outside, a limousine waited for the couple. The chauffeur opened the door for the two and Cecily waved goodbye to her father and Natalie, her smile the widest Natalie had ever seen.
“Didn’t you want to go?” asked Mr. Cordell as the limousine headed off down the street.
Natalie shrugged. “I’d have liked to be there to watch her have a great time.”
Mr. Cordell nodded. “Wouldn’t we all like that.”
He sounded tired. It was a rare occasion that he did not sound tired, although he acted well around his daughter. The worry must take the energy out of him, just like it did out of Natalie. But worse for him – he had been through it once before.
Natalie said goodbye to him, still smiling at the thought of Cecily on her way to the dance. She could picture her and Nathan dancing together – Natalie felt certain that Cecily danced well, although she had never seen her dance – and she imagined the envious looks of the people around them.
She walked down Haven Avenue, where Cecily and her father lived, towards her home. Darkness fell quickly around her. Natalie’s thoughts slowly turned back to what her mind had been on for the last two days - “The first piece is right here.”
How was she to find the stone in the dream? She felt far from certain how the place worked – did the figure decide what happened there, or did she simply decide when the tale of the sisters would continue? Were they in a real place, or was it a dream landscape that the figure had formed? If the figure controlled that world and the stone hid in there, why not simply give Natalie the stone? If it was another reality, how on earth could she possibly get the stone?
She wanted to talk to someone, but who? Cecily was out of the question. Natalie would not tell her until she had the stone in hand. Her grandmother? No, that would be very strange. Richard? Yes, Natalie could see that go over incredibly well – ‘yes, by the way, magic exists and I want to find a stone to heal my dying friend – I think it’s hidden in an alternate universe’. Hardly a good idea.
The answer appeared next to her.
“I’m getting better at this visibility thing.”
Natalie gasped loudly, pulled back to reality by the sudden appearance of Ava walking beside her. Or floating, as Ava really was, but that was simply a matter of wording.
“You scared me again,” said Natalie, getting her heart rate back to normal.
Ava shrugged. “Yep. Not much to do ‘bout it.”
Natalie shook her head at the ghost, then wondered briefly when she had accepted that Ava was really a ghost rather than a figment of her imagination.
They were silent for a moment when Ava studied the ground, looking sad. “But you know,” said Ava, “you’re the only one who gets scared, because you’re the only one who can see me.”
Natalie frowned. “Have you been to see your parents?”
Ava nodded. “I tried. But they can’t see me, they just walked right through me and they couldn’t hear me even when I screamed at the top of my lungs.”
She recalled her grandmother’s words - humans cannot see beings that are magical. Ghosts must, rather logically, fall under the category of ‘beings that are magical’.
She said as much to Ava, who nodded miserably. “I kind of figured. So I guess you’re stuck with me, ‘cause I’m not trying anybody else. It’s too depressing. And there’s not much point in haunting people who can’t see me.”
Natalie wished she could reach out and hug Ava, but she knew her hands would pass straight through Ava’s incorporeal body. It would probably make them both even sadder if she tried.
“You’re more than welcome to haunt me,” Natalie said instead, “although you can’t expect me to not jump a mile in the air when you just appear.”
“Yeah, I know,” Ava said, her eyes glistening with tears. “So, um, what are you doing tonight?”
The change of subject was welcome. Natalie did not know how to comfort her friend as she could not possibly understand how much Ava had lost.
“I just said bye to Cecily,” Natalie said and she smiled at this. “She’s at the Homecoming dance – with a date!”
“Ooh,” said Ava, “who’s the date?”
“A boy in her science class,” Natalie said.
“Of course,” Ava added with a snigger before Natalie had a chance to continue. “Brainy people go together.”
“His name is Nathan Reynell.”
Ava stopped for a moment, then smiled bigger. “I should have guessed.”
“Do you know him?”
Ava shrugged, “He’s the one kid Eadan always picked on even more than me. Nathan was always such a geek with big glasses and odd clothes, and he’s really smart. It was kind of natural for him to get on Eadan’s nerves.” Ava made a face. “I think Eadan even broke Nathan’s glasses once, when Nathan got another one of his perfect scores. Eadan lured him outside and then he and his cronies beat Nathan up.”
Natalie was shocked. “What happened after that?”
“Nothing,” Ava said, anger flashing in her eyes. “Nathan’s mom wanted to have Eadan expelled, but it turned out that there were absolutely no witnesses to the beating – even though half the school had been there watching.”
Natalie felt sick. No wonder Nathan had been nervous when he had started talking to Natalie – he had had no idea if she would be nice to him, or if she was another bully. After all, most of the school’s students were under Eadan’s thumb.
“I’m going to teach that bastard a lesson sometime,” Natalie said, eyes narrowing.
“I’ll help, any way I can.”
During the short silence of shared, pleased smiles, Natalie came to think of the help she had wanted when Ava had appeared. She needed someone to talk to about the stone, about the Nebula. Ava was the perfect person to do so with.
“There’s something else I need to discuss with you,” Natalie said. “Are you able to stay for a while this time?”
Ava nodded thoughtfully. “Like I said, I think I’m getting better with this visibility thing. It’s just a bit tiresome to stay for too long, and then I have to go back and get some more energy.” She frowned. “Time doesn’t move there like it does here, I think. It always feels like I’m there for just a minute, and then days have passed here.”
“I see,” said Natalie softly, because she could not come up with anything else to say.
A moment’s awkward silence followed.
“What did you want to tell me?” Ava asked.
“It’s about – well, it’s about a lot of things, really, but mostly it’s a stone,” Natalie said. “And magic, of course, and a few sisters that I’m not sure about yet…”
The two wandered back to Natalie’s house as Natalie spoke. She told Ava of the dreams she had had, the Nebula Medeor, the sisters, and her hopes to heal Cecily with the stone in the end. The long story left her hoping that she had not forgotten any vital part. As they entered the house, Natalie stayed silent until she reached her room, as to not draw attention to the fact that she was speaking to no one at all.
Sitting back on her bed in her room, Natalie finished up her tale.
“…so now I have absolutely no idea of where to go from here,” Natalie said. “I mean, ‘The first piece is right here’ – right. Am I truly stupid to not understand that?”
Ava frowned. “Well, I would love to help you, ‘cause it sounds like a fabulous stone to have, but I don’t see that I can. I can’t enter dreams or do anything like that, so I guess you’ll just have to reason with the figure type?”
“But I can’t reason with it! It’s in fact completely unreasonable. It just says the things it has planned to say and nothing else.”
She had tried enough times to know this. She sighed.
Ava looked thoughtful. “You know, there is the other possibility as far as the meaning of that sentence goes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, ‘right here’ might mean in the dream – but what the figure has been showing you the desert because it’s a real place and that’s where the stone is?”
Ava appeared rather hesitant to even present the idea, as though she thought it would sound foolish.
Natalie frowned for a moment before responding. “I suppose it’s possible. But perhaps that’s even worse. I mean, how many deserts are there in the world? How am I supposed to know the one where the stone is?”
“Good point,” Ava said. She made a face. “I was only trying to help.”
“Oh, I know,” Natalie exclaimed. “And I’m very grateful for that. It’s just – impossible.”
She closed her eyes briefly, recalling the image of the desert. The mountain on which she had been standing, the valley below it. An odd, pink flower grew at her feet, but other than that, there was absolutely nothing special about the place. The figure had not even shown her the spot ‘right here’ spoke of.
She felt a chill and when she looked up, she realized Ava had been attempting to pat her shoulder. Ava quickly masked her crestfallen look and pretended that she had done nothing of the sort. Natalie did not comment.
“You need to keep your spirits up,” Ava said. “Although it’d be nice to have some ghostly company, I don’t want it to be Cecily, so please – keep her alive, will you?”
Natalie smiled, though the veil of hopelessness hung silently before her. She thought of Cecily at the ball, dancing the night away with her date, and she hoped that she had a good time. Pain stabbed at her heart as though she had been shot, when she thought that if she did not find the stone, there was a possibility that Cecily might not live to see another dance.
“I have to go now.”
Ava’s voice brought her back to the present.
“Okay. I hope I’ll see you soon,” she said, more a question than a statement.
“I hope so too,” Ava said.
She disappeared slowly, like a cloud whisked away by the wind. Natalie felt suddenly cold, standing by herself in her dark room. Despair weighed heavily on her.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Twelve: