Cecily could not keep from bubbling on and on about the wonders of the dance. Natalie felt rather like a zombie, walking next to her. She giggled uncharacteristically and spoke excitedly, in a display of happiness that should not be possible at that hour of the morning, Natalie thought sleepily – especially on a Monday morning. Still, she kept quiet because Cecily deserved her happiness.
The fifteen minute break between second and third period allowed them to go get their books out of their lockers. As the two stood there, Natalie saw Nathan approach behind Cecily. He tapped her carefully on the shoulder, looking terribly nervous.
Cecily turned and her smile grew at the sight of Nathan. “Hi!”
Nathan looked tongue-tied and Natalie had to bite the inside of her mouth not to laugh. She wondered how the nervous Nathan had managed to ask Cecily to the dance at all.
Nathan stammered out a, “H-hi,” to Cecily and then held out a rose that he had been hiding behind his back. The dark red color and the long stem with a single leaf made for a beautiful flower.
“Oh, thank you, Nathan,” Cecily said. Her cheeks colored as she accepted it.
Natalie turned back to her locker. The uneasy display of affection between the two did not need a gawking onlooker. Instead, she busied herself with filling her bag with the necessary books for the day, forcing herself not to listen to Nathan’s nervous stuttering and Cecily’s soft words. She would likely receive a word-by-word recount later anyway.
“Aw, look at that – little nerd A and little nerd B, giving each other flowers and blushing beet red. It’s almost too cute for words.”
Natalie did not need to see him to know who had spoken. She glanced at Cecily and Nathan, who had stopped talking to each other and now had their eyes trained upon Eadan.
“What, no answer?” Eadan continued. “No stu-stu-stuttering reply? No witty comeback?”
Anger rose in Natalie. An echo of her grandmother’s words – do not use your powers to harm another – passed through her but she did not pay the words any heed. Without a moment’s hesitation, driven by the resentment she felt for Eadan, she drew upon her magic. His words would come back to haunt him, immediately, she thought, as she imagined him as beet red as he had described Cecily. She smiled wickedly.
She passed her fingers over her mother’s necklace, feeling the magic sparkle at her fingertips. Then she allowed it to leave her, knowing it would find the correct target. It would not be long. She imagined she could feel the magic take effect, spreading.
Eadan sniggered at them. “You really are pathetic. You—”
Natalie heard one of his cronies, and he sounded a bit worried.
“What?” snarled Eadan.
“You—” said the crony, but he hesitated before continuing.
“Oh my god!” shrieked Eadan’s girlfriend, Lindsay Weaver, suddenly. “Chase, you’re turning purple!”
“What are you talking about?” Eadan sneered at her. Then he obviously caught sight of himself – perhaps his hands – and with a horrified scream, he stuttered, “What—you—impossible!”
Natalie never turned around to admire her work. She did not have to. Besides, she could feel Eadan’s scorching glare burn into the back of her head just fine without having to meet it. He knew it had been her, although he could not know how. He screamed, and she felt the air around her shake with anger rather than magic. She heard Eadan, Lindsay and the rest scurry away, leaving the hallway empty. She smiled contentedly to herself, finishing putting her books away.
Cecily was upset. Natalie had never heard her sound angry before but when she turned and faced her friend, she knew that Cecily thought she had done something wrong.
“What?” asked Natalie.
Cecily grabbed a hold of Natalie’s arm and dragged her away from Nathan, who stood staring behind them. Natalie could have pulled away from Cecily’s rather weak hold at any time, but she did not. She could see no point – it would probably anger Cecily more, and Natalie wanted to find out sooner rather than later what had upset Cecily. She had a sneaking suspicion.
“You do not use magic to hurt people,” Cecily said. A fire in her eyes told Natalie just how furious she was.
“I didn’t hurt him. I only turned him red. It’ll pass.”
It would. Magic cast at the heat of a moment would not last forever, at least not hers, at least not yet.
“That qualifies as hurting.”
“I didn’t hear you complain when I turned them ugly for a while and gave them colds – wasn’t that hurting?”
Cecily narrowed her eyes. “Yes, it was – but you were grieving at the time, so we let it slide.”
“We?” Natalie asked suspiciously. “What do you mean, ‘we’?”
“I,” Cecily said. “I let it slide.”
“No,” Natalie said. “You said ‘we’.”
“Your grandmother wrote to me and asked how you were doing after Ava died. I told her what you did—”
“’What I did’?” repeated Natalie. “What I did? He said that Ava’s disappearance was a ‘good riddance’!”
“Like I said, we let it slide.”
“What are you talking about? Why are you talking to my grandmother?” Natalie said.
“She wrote to me and she was worried about you.” Cecily sounded exasperated. “We simply talked—”
Natalie felt her cheeks become hot with anger. “Behind my back!”
“No, it wasn’t like that, we were simply afraid that you’d—”
“That I’d what – get another person killed?” Natalie glared angrily at Cecily, hurt rising like a tidal wave. “We’ll I’m not planning on it.”
“We didn’t think you were, she just wanted to see how you were doing and since you wouldn’t talk to her, she asked me!”
“She never asked me to begin with! And what little she did ask, she didn’t believe my answers!” Natalie cried out. “You are not my goddamn mother! Neither of you are! What I do is none of your business!” Natalie said.
Cecily glared hotly and she crossed her arms across her chest. “It is, when you misuse magic and—”
The bell rang.
Natalie’s chest heaved with irritation. She glared down at Cecily and for once, she appreciated the fact that she stood taller than her. Cecily looked fiercely up at her with heat Natalie had never seen before. Students passed around them, glancing their way but they did not dare, or care, to interfere. Lucky them, Natalie thought furiously. She did not need anyone else messing about with her life.
Finally, Natalie broke the staring contest. Returning to her locker, she grabbed her backpack, slammed the locker door shut and stormed away from Cecily.
Two days passed blessedly Eadan-free. Natalie did not notice, because the two days had also passed without a single word spoken between her and Cecily. Natalie changed her seat in the classes she shared with Cecily, so that they would not be sitting next to each other. Though Cecily looked mostly sad at this, and though Natalie felt a bit childish, she did not bulge – she had done nothing wrong.
Rather, she felt betrayed. Her grandmother and Cecily had been speaking to each other behind her back. They had been talking about her. Who knew what they had discussed? What else had they ‘let slide’? Did they have any other opinions about her actions? About her behavior? Perhaps about her grades, or something else? Natalie sneered bitterly at the thoughts – they probably did. She probably acted the wrong way, did the wrong things, and received grades far too poor for them to be content.
She slumped in her seat, her eyebrows drawn together in an angry frown. She doodled idly as she did more often than not, but no new words had appeared in days. She did not care. She had pushed the thought of the Nebula Medeor out of her mind, together with all thoughts of Cecily.
“Thank you, thank you for your help. I’ll be fine from here on.”
The voice was familiar. Natalie looked up and found her breath catching – Ramon had returned. He looked frail, with sallow skin and shadows beneath his eyes, but he walked on his own. He had said thank you to an older woman, whom Natalie recognized to be one of the counselors.
Ramon – perhaps she ought to call him ‘Mr. Keys’? – let his gaze slide over the class. It settled on Natalie for a moment too long and she turned her stare to her desk, studying the grains of the wood.
“Hello, class,” Ramon said. His voice only barely carried over the classroom. “I hate to disappoint you, but I’m back.”
Natalie glanced around and saw several students smile at the rather sad joke. She kept her own face a stony mask of annoyance and anger, as well as a bit of fear. Though she had quite convinced herself by now that Ramon no longer had come to kill her – he would have surely attempted to do something by now, instead of spending his days in the hospital – his mere presence made her uncomfortable.
“Well, let’s see, Mrs. August has been kind enough to leave some notes here on what you’re supposed to be doing – has everyone a book to read?”
Most of the students nodded. Natalie did not bother. Her book stood in the bookshelf and if they were supposed to read, she would go get it. Instead, she watched Ramon as he bumbled nervously through the lesson. After a while, his eyes stopped landing on Natalie quite so often and he calmed down. He seemed to pretend that she did not exist.
Not until the bell rang, signaling the end of class, did anything of interest happen.
“That’s it for today,” Ramon said, although they had all already begun packing their things. Then, with a note of apprehension, he added, “Miss Winters, would you mind staying for a moment?”
Natalie did not feel particularly inclined to speak to him. She felt irritated enough already, without the added bonus of Ramon’s bad memory.
“I have class.”
“It wasn’t a suggestion.”
The tone of his voice did not quite match the authority the words suggested, but Natalie sighed to herself and decided that a detention would make the day even worse.
The last student made his way out the door and Natalie and Ramon stood facing each other silently. Her mind flashed the memories before her – Ramon in his Mithridates, cackling madly and killing Ava with a single burst of power. It made her hands shake, strands of magic passing through her, and she closed her hands into fists, trying to block the memory. She did not want to remember.
He looked at her, eyes dark with flecks of green.
Finally, after a deep breath, Ramon said, “I’m unsure of what to say to you.”
The annoyance that Natalie could reach so easily these days rose to the surface. “Then why are you keeping me here?”
“Do you still claim that I—that I—killed—your friend?”
Natalie stared at him. She could not believe that this was happening. Why could he not simply be evil? Then she could throw magic at him, hurt him, make him pay – but this meek, frail version of Ramon did not pose any sort of threat that would make hurting him all right. She could not get her revenge on him.
She sighed, letting her breath out slowly. Some of the annoyance vanished along the way.
“Do you remember what you did in—well, all of September, really?”
She did not know what she would do if he could give her a perfect account of what he had been doing – then she was somehow, some way, mistaken about his identity, and she would have hurt an innocent man.
She need not have worried.
“I—no, I don’t.” Ramon’s soft words sounded very hesitant. He seemed nearly broken. “I’ve thought of it since you—since we were at the hospital. I thought of it before as well, and I couldn’t—I only remember flashes. I don’t know of what but—”
A sudden lump formed in Natalie’s throat. She did not want to hear this. She did not want to know that Ramon, the dark and powerful Master Wielder, stood before her with no memory of what he had done. That would mean that she would never be able to get revenge on him. Right now, revenge mattered. It would not bring Ava back to the living, but perhaps it would soothe at least a part of this empty, aching hole in her heart, the place where Ava should have been, laughing and happy. Natalie did not want to know that she would never be able to fill that hole with anything but passing time, slowly healing. Right now, healing seemed so far away, and she wanted to fill it with something else.
‘Do not use your powers to harm another.’
She wondered if that rule applied to revenge as well. She suspected it applied even more there.
Students for the next class began spilling inside. The noisy, laughing students talked loudly with each other. Ramon’s eyes stayed on Natalie, searching her for knowledge.
“I have to go,” Natalie said. The bell would sound any second and she would be late for phys ed anyway, but it gave her a way to escape.
“Can you come back after classes?”
Ramon did not ask her as a teacher asking a student. He asked like a lost boy, holding on to the only person he could find that had any sort of answers. She probably did have answers, at least more than Ramon himself had now. Still, she wanted to say no to him. She wanted to scream no, to inflict the same pain on him as he had on her, on Ava, on Ava’s family. He had killed her! Murdered her in cold blood – how could she even think about helping him?
She turned and left, not waiting for his answer. Her heart broke into a million pieces. Had she just betrayed Ava?
The day passed surprisingly quickly. Natalie attempted to focus on her school work and in art, she threw herself into the project. They worked with oil crayons, creating whatever they wanted, and Natalie grabbed the darkest colors she could find. An hour later, a dark angel stared back at her, his dark wings folded around him, and long black hair falling in his face. He had a knife in hand and she searched for a red crayon to draw blood on it.
“That is fantastic use of the crayons,” Mr. Connell said, gazing down upon her finished piece. “A touch of light somewhere might give it the final touch?”
“There isn’t supposed to be anything light about him,” Natalie said coolly.
She sensed Cecily’s eyes upon her from the other side of the classroom.
Her feet felt like they were lined with lead as she walked back towards her English classroom. The other students chatted happily around her, blissfully ignorant of all things magical. She wondered how she could have been one of them mere months ago.
Ramon sat behind his desk, leaning his head in his hands. He looked tired, more so than when Natalie had first seen him earlier. He had his hair tied back in a ponytail, though a few strands had loosened and fell across his face. She wondered if his exhaustion could be blamed on a long day of work, or if her magic had caused it. Perhaps a combination of both, she thought, and felt the unwelcome sting of guilt – she should not be the one feeling guilty!
She closed the door and he looked up at the sound. His dark eyes searched hers.
“Why can’t I remember?”
He sounded desperate. Natalie hated that she was able to understand. She did not want to be able to understand a murderer.
“You may have been possessed,” Natalie said. She felt unsure of how much she ought to tell Ramon, yet at the same time, she felt that he deserved to know. It was his life, his month, that had been taken from him. But what if he knew nothing of magic? What if he thought her to be a lunatic, a crazy person?
She wanted to laugh, because Ramon had been a Master Wielder – and now she would Awaken him?
“Possessed?” echoed Ramon.
“I can’t explain it,” Natalie said. “I just—I don’t understand it all and I’m not very good at understanding magic—”
“Magic.” Natalie did not say anything more, did not know what else to say.
“I found a necklace,” Ramon said. “It was— it—I put it on. And then it all started.”
“When was this?”
Ramon thought about it for a moment. Natalie wondered why she cared – it did not matter. Ava would still be a ghost no matter what Ramon’s story entailed.
“A few months ago. I started having weird dreams and then I started blacking out,” Ramon said. “I’d wake up in strange places.”
Sadness and annoyance battled within Natalie. “You didn’t think to remove the necklace?”
Ramon frowned. “I tried. I just—I couldn’t. It wouldn’t let me.”
‘But there is magic – magic to trap a part of one’s soul inside a stone.’ Natalie recalled her grandmother telling her about it. It seemed so long ago already, though it had only been two weeks. ‘The essence of the person will then live on within the stone and it will, if strong enough, control the wearer of the stone.’
If the story Ramon was telling her was true, of course – perhaps he had not wanted to remove the necklace at all. Perhaps he had wanted it all along – how would she know? Perhaps he still played her, although she could not understand why. No one could fake a heart attack, could they? No one would freely stay in the hospital – and no Master would allow himself to be attacked and hurt the way Ramon had been, without any kind of attempt to protect himself? Would they?
Natalie’s head pounded painfully.
“And then I blacked out completely and I only remember bits and pieces until— something woke me up.”
“Yeah,” said Natalie. “Me.”
Ramon looked questioningly at her, but she did not offer any explanation. No one but Cecily knew how much power she had had in Ramon’s Mithridates, how close she had been to giving herself up to Chaos. No one else should know, least of all Ramon.
“Look, I can’t explain it all. I’m not even sure I want to,” Natalie said. “But I have a grandmother—she lives in the second universe. She might be able to tell you more.”
“Second universe—what—I can’t—I—”
“Nearly killed me? Killed my friend?”
He stopped, stared at her, and she saw fear in his eyes. She wondered if he feared her or himself. Perhaps a bit of both. He hesitated, then nodded slowly.
“Yes. I think I might have.”
“All the more reason to find out why,” Natalie said. “You’re coming with me the next time I go there.”
She felt unsure of whether it was wise to do this or not, but she decided that she did not care. It sounded like a sort of logical thing to do. Her grandmother might be able to shed light upon at least some of the questions she had, as well as some of Ramon’s questions. And if she could not, then Ramon would at least prove a distraction – a needed one, because Natalie’s mind still became dark with rage when she thought of her writing to Cecily rather than to her.
She turned and left Ramon, and the questions that spilled from his lips.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Thirteen: