The sharp-edged, triangular piece of the Nebula weighed rather heavily in her pocket for such a small stone. Natalie wondered at the wisdom of her decision to take the stone with her to school, but she had not been able to bring herself to leave it behind. She had fought too hard to lose it now.
She kept her head down, studying the ground, throughout the day. She did not wish to speak to anyone and she succeeded, save for when Mrs. Miller asked her a question about equations that she, as usual, did not know the answer to. She really ought to study harder.
She saw Cecily, who watched her curiously, and wondered if she should go talk to her. She probably should. Then Nathan showed up, kissing her lightly on the cheek, and Natalie decided that no, she should not.
After classes ended, she headed to Ramon’s – Mr. Keys, she had to remind herself, as he was after all her teacher – classroom. He sat alone by his desk, all of his students already gone.
“We’re going to my grandmother’s,” Natalie announced. She had not asked him beforehand.
“Are you—are you all right, Miss Winters?” he asked.
Natalie stared at him for a moment. Kindness, from him of all people.
Ramon nodded mutely. He gathered the papers he had been reading in a neat stack, then stood up. His clothes, light and airy, did not match his expression.
“Her butler will be picking us up outside,” Natalie said.
It felt odd that she had to tell him these things – the first time she had met him had been when he had pretended to be that very butler. She pushed away the memory. Things had changed since then. This time, she traveled to her grandmother to get answers, not just more questions.
Though the school had been mostly emptied, the grounds outside still milled with people. Some drove, trying to find their way out in the mess of cars, while others waited for the bus, their parents or a sibling.
Natalie, closely followed by Ramon, headed down to the small side-street where the carriage always waited.
Butler Thomas greeted them with a thin smile, not appearing to be the least bit surprised by Natalie’s company.
“Your grandmother is waiting, so let’s make this journey quick,” he said, holding the door open.
“You’re the one who’s going to be awake, so you get to decide that.”
“That is true, Miss Natalie,” the butler said.
Ramon climbed inside first, then Natalie, and they both made themselves comfortable. He looked astounded at both the carriage and the butler.
“This is how you always travel there?” he asked timidly.
Natalie nodded. She could not bring herself to engage in conversation with him – it felt too strange already, sitting next to him as though they were an odd kind of friends.
He fell asleep moments after the carriage started moving. Natalie fought it until she had convinced herself that the man truly was sleeping and not just faking it. But his breathing evened out and his head lolled to the side, and the only thing missing was the bit of drool coming out of his mouth – he definitely appeared to be asleep. He looked calm – and rather handsome, even. Natalie finally relaxed and allowed herself to doze off as well.
The sun stood rather low on a beautifully colorful sky when they arrived. Natalie rubbed her arms and wished she had brought a sweater – it felt rather chilly.
Her grandmother stood straight, with her hands clasped behind her back, and stared down at Natalie. Natalie fought an urge to squirm under her stare as she came closer. She had to be confident and strong to get the answers she wanted. Her grandmother’s face faltered as she caught sight of the bruises on Natalie’s face.
“Good heavens, what happened to you?”
“A few guys decided that my head was perfect for soccer practice. Or something.” She did not manage to keep her tone as light as she would have wished.
Her grandmother looked suitably horrified. “Are you—”
“I’m fine,” Natalie said.
Her grandmother would not be able to do anything about Eadan anyway, so what point was there in dwelling on the subject? Her grandmother did not believe in using magic to hurt others. Neither did Natalie, not really – except sometimes. The thought led Natalie back to Cecily and the letters she had exchanged with Natalie’s grandmother, and her blood started to boil slowly. She wondered if her grandmother would ever fess up.
Her grandmother’s hand slid over her necklace, which glowed for a second. A moment later, a pleasantly warm sensation passed over Natalie’s skin, traveling down her neck and ending on her stomach. It left her body tingling. She could not see what it had done, but suspected that the next time she looked at herself in a mirror, she would look less broken than she had a minute ago.
She was about to say thank you, but her grandmother’s gaze had already moved to Ramon. Natalie could not tell what she was thinking – not a single muscle in her face moved.
“I see you’ve brought company.”
“Grandmother, this is Ramon Keys,” Natalie said.
“I assumed as much. You said he’d be coming with you,” her grandmother said shortly. “I am Madeline Turner. We have seen each other once before.”
“He doesn’t remember any of the stuff that happened. He wants some answers and I can’t give them to him.”
Ramon looked uncertainly from Natalie to her grandmother, probably wondering why he had decided to come along in the first place. He tried his best to arrange his face to look pleasant, it seemed, though it came out more like a grimace.
“And you think I can?”
“You were the one who told me that it was possible to keep a person’s spirit locked up in a stone – and you’re a Master Wielder – so yeah, I’m sure you know more about these things than I do.”
Natalie felt an annoyance rise. Why could her grandmother not simply help?
Her grandmother nodded. “Let’s go inside.”
Natalie trotted after her grandmother and without looking back she knew that Ramon followed her. Natalie took a deep breath – dragging all the information she wanted from her grandmother would certainly not be easy. And she had a lot of questions, though not all of them were directly related to each other.
The maid with the strange hat who always seemed to be at Natalie’s grandmother’s beck and call, appeared with a choice of hot chocolate, coffee and tea on a tray. Natalie chose a cup of hot chocolate absently, all the while gazing at her grandmother. Her grandmother chose tea and carefully placed the tea bag into the water and stirred with her spoon, until Natalie thought the noise of the spoon hitting the cup would drive her mad.
Ramon, who had chosen a cup of coffee, had not taken a single sip – instead, he wrung his hands and appeared to be sweating.
Finally, Natalie had had enough. It was time – time to get answers, time to finally know something about some of the things she had had to deal with already.
“What is Chaos?”
Her grandmother dropped the spoon and it fell noisily to the floor. Her grandmother’s face had suddenly turned ashen. She would not look at Natalie.
“Why do you ask?” her grandmother said.
“He tried to raise it by killing me,” Natalie said, nodding towards Ramon. “Why me? What’s Chaos? Why did he try to do it?”
She attacked her with questions, hoping she would give in and answer them. If she had time to compose herself, Natalie had a strong feeling her grandmother would never answer. She would get her answers, to all of her questions.
“I don’t know,” her grandmother said, her voice weaker than Natalie had ever heard it.
“I think you do,” Natalie said, narrowing her eyes.
Her grandmother looked at Ramon. “He was possessed. That was why.”
“Still doesn’t tell me what Chaos is.”
“It is nothing you need to know—”
“He tried to kill me to raise it – her, as he said,” Natalie said coolly. “I think I have the right to know.”
She rather enjoyed the feeling of being in control for once. Since the first time she had met her grandmother, it had always been her grandmother who had been deciding the subjects talked about and the questions asked. It had been fine the first few times, but no more. The stakes were higher now.
The stone in her pocket weighed heavily, as a reminder of just how high the stakes were. She needed answers about the stone as well, but that would come. Hopefully.
Her grandmother contemplated what to answer, it appeared, for she gripped her cup so hard her fingers turned white and the surface of the tea rippled slightly as her grandmother’s hands trembled. Natalie wondered briefly if she had pressed too hard, but pushed the thought aside.
A deep breath, then her grandmother spoke.
“Chaos is—darkness. Magic gone bad, dark, and deadly. Everything alive has some part of it in us, a little or a lot, but everyone has it. Some are more susceptible to it than others. It makes us break the rules – not necessarily the laws, but the rules of human kind. It can make a person depressed, suicidal, insane—”
“But Chaos is more than that,” her grandmother continued after a moment. She spoke quietly. “It is an entity as well. A devastating entity that ruins all that is good and light and controlled. It—it can be called into a being, so that it is trapped within a body, and then it walks the earth as though it is human. It has powers—it doesn’t need stones, it doesn’t need anything but itself. It can kill with a single gaze, and drive you mad with a flick of its hand. It is raw darkness.”
Her grandmother stopped, staring at the contents of her cup. Natalie gazed at her. Chaos was in everyone? Then perhaps what she had felt in Ramon’s Mithridates had not been specific to her – perhaps anyone could be seduced by Chaos if deep enough in grief, like she had been.
Ramon stared at Natalie’s grandmother, looking rather entranced but with his eyebrows tightly drawn together in a horrified look.
“Why me?” asked Natalie. “Why did he insist that I was the one he needed to kill?”
Her grandmother continued to study her cup. Eventually, she said, “I don’t know. Perhaps it was the ideas of a madman.”
A slight waver to her voice made Natalie wonder.
Natalie looked at Ramon. “And you don’t remember why you did it?”
Ramon startled at being spoken to. “Huh?”
Natalie repeated her question and Ramon shook his head.
“No, sorry,” he said. “I—I remember feelings – there was fury and power—and love—but I don’t know why it made me want to raise her—it sounds awful.”
“It is,” Natalie’s grandmother mumbled.
Natalie cocked her head to the side. “You’ve seen Chaos raised?”
Her grandmother looked distressed. “It was a long time ago.”
“Tell me,” Natalie said.
Her grandmother stood up, sounding suddenly resolute. Her hands still trembled, which meant she still had not calmed, but her face was set.
“I should not have told you as much as I did. It was a mistake.”
“A mistake?” Natalie asked disbelievingly. “Are you kidding me? He tries to kill me to raise this thing and you think it’s a mistake to tell me about it?”
“Well, he didn’t succeed, now did he?” her grandmother said.
“No, but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t try.”
“I’m sure nothing more will happen. You had enough adventures for a lifetime.”
“And yet, they just seem to keep coming,” Natalie said harshly.
“What are you talking about?”
Natalie glared at her. “What do you know about the Nebula Medeor?”
“Never heard of it,” her grandmother said, and Natalie could not judge if she lied or not. “You’ll have to ask someone else.”
“Fine,” Natalie said. “Can you get Diophane McCoy to come here?”
“One does not simply call for a Diophane to come!”
“You made an appointment the last time I was here.”
“That was because you needed to be Tested and the Diophane was interested in a Wielder of our family,” her grandmother snapped. “As you did not pass, we have no business bothering her.”
Natalie continued to glare. “What’s with the secrecy, grandma? What is it you’re not telling me? What is the Nebula? And what about Chaos – why do you think you’ve already told me too much?”
“Because it’s dangerous!”
Her grandmother actually yelled. The usually so calm, collected woman whom Natalie barely knew, raised her voice to a screeching level. Chaos obviously made her quite upset – and considering Natalie had felt it, she did understand why. But she needed to understand more.
Natalie took a deep breath and her tone was calmer when she started speaking again.
“I know. I know it’s dangerous. But Ramon here nearly killed me because of it, and we’re both trying to understand why. Please – he killed my best friend for that cause – I need to understand.”
She saw Ramon’s face scrunching up in the corner of her eye at the mention of Ava’s death. She did not care – could not care. Not if she wanted to make her grandmother tell her more.
Her grandmother returned, and sank down onto the couch. She looked terribly old, all of a sudden. Every line on her face could be seen, every shadow darkened. A thin stray of grey hair had even left its place in the tight bun at the nape of her neck.
“A young woman raised Chaos over a decade ago,” Natalie’s grandmother said. “She did it to fight a Wielder gone bad, but in the end, Chaos took over her body and decided to make the world her playground.
“To make a long story very short, another Wielder finally bound Chaos and contained her – but not before she managed to up the death toll on the ‘good’ side, and gather a gang of Wielders on her side.”
Natalie noted with some annoyance that her grandmother gave her the cliff-notes-version. She wondered whether it was because her grandmother did not want to tell her, or if she simply did not know.
“Did you fight?” Natalie asked.
“On which side?”
“Natalie!” said her grandmother indignantly. “Against her, obviously.”
Natalie shrugged. “There’s nothing obvious about it. Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
They stared at each other in silence for a long moment, while Ramon fidgeted. Natalie could see him move around in the corner of her eye. She did not move to make him more comfortable.
“So who was controlling him?” Natalie asked, nodding towards Ramon.
“I think he has the best answer to that question,” her grandmother said.
Ramon looked from one to the other and squeaked, “What?”
“Who gave you the necklace?” her grandmother asked.
“No one,” Ramon said. “I didn’t get it from anyone – I found it. Sort of.”
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?” Natalie asked.
“I—I’d been looking for it for a while.” He sighed. “My father died when I was ten and didn’t leave me with all that much. Since I’d never actually met the guy – mom didn’t want me to see him – it didn’t really matter. But when I turned eighteen, she gave me this paper that had apparently been part of my inheritance as well, and it turned out to be a map. I didn’t look at it much until about a year ago, when I finally had some time to pass. I decided to find whatever it was he had left me – I hoped it was a load of money, because I have some loans to pay off – but—well, it wasn’t, obviously.”
Natalie glanced at her grandmother. She looked quite unhealthily white, and Natalie got the distinct feeling that Ramon’s story meant more to her.
“So the necklace was your father’s, then,” Natalie said. “He was a follower of Chaos’?”
Ramon shrugged heavily. “I suppose – I mean, he must have been. Why else would he have—”
Ramon trailed off. Natalie knew what he was thinking. She could not understand how anyone could enclose a part of themselves in a stone – it sounded insane. To have one’s father do it must be awful.
“Mr. Keys,” Natalie’s grandmother said, too quietly for it to be good. “What was your father’s name?”
Ramon hesitated but a moment before he answered.
Natalie stared, while her grandmother’s face turned ashen.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Seventeen: