Chapter Eighteen

Natalie could not decide what to think. Ramon had just given his father’s name – and it happened to be the name of Natalie’s father. Her grandmother had gone completely white, and sat staring at Ramon.

But it could not be, could it? Ramon could not possibly be her—half brother? That was far too twisted. Surely, there must be other men in the world named Orion Winters. There could not just be the one, her father.

Their father…?

Natalie noted suddenly that her hands shook, but she resisted the urge to sit on them to keep them from doing so. She stared at Ramon, who looked rather curious, as though he had suddenly realized that his father’s surname happened to be the same as Natalie’s. He did not appear fazed – he did not know that the first names matched as well, and he understood as little as Natalie of Natalie’s grandmother’s pale face.

Briefly, Natalie’s thoughts rested on what it would mean if Ramon’s father turned out to be her father as well. Then he had been a follower of Chaos, and her own father had done what she thought insane – he had allowed a part of himself to stay in the stone, to haunt it and control the wearer. He had tried to kill her. Her father had tried to kill her.

She shook her head – she jumped to conclusions! Her father could not possibly be—

She turned slowly to her grandmother, her eyes leaving Ramon at last.

“Grandmother – is he my half-brother?”

Ramon’s head shot up suddenly. “What?”

Her grandmother did not speak, but nodded the affirmative.

Natalie’s world came crashing down around her. She fell back into her seat, her mind overloaded. It was true – she had a brother. A brother who had tried to kill her because he had been controlled by the spirit of his father. Her father. Their father.

She had a brother.

“There must be some mistake,” Ramon said. “I don’t have a sister – I’m sure my mom would have told me about it!”

Natalie’s grandmother shook her head very slowly and when she spoke, she did so quietly.

“Your mother didn’t know,” she said. “It was long after they saw each other the last time, I’m sure. You are much older than Natalie.”

Natalie realized she had never reflected on Ramon’s age. She asked, “How old are you?”

“Twenty-five,” Ramon said.

“Ten years older than Natalie,” her grandmother said.

“So then—my father – our father – died soon after her birth,” Ramon said. “But I—why did he die? What happened?”

Natalie’s grandmother took a deep breath, which she appeared to be very much in need of. Very little of the color that usually graced her cheeks had reappeared. Natalie did not feel much better than her grandmother looked – most of all, she would have liked to go lie down and sleep for a couple of years.

But she had pushed for answers, and now she got them.

“He supported Chaos,” her grandmother said. “Perhaps he even loved her – he was deeply encompassed by her power and darkness. He was—a casualty in the battle we fought to tame Chaos.”

Then her father had been one of the Wielders in the ‘gang’ Chaos had gathered – and her grandmother had been on what she had fought against him. It was no wonder she had been hesitant to divulge the information to Natalie. Still, Natalie thought she deserved to know. He had been her father.

“I have a sister,” Ramon said with the same air of disbelief that Natalie felt.

Natalie thought suddenly of Ava. What would she think – her killer was, one way or another, directly related to Natalie as either her brother or her father. She felt sick.

“Excuse me,” she mumbled, standing up suddenly.

The room swam around her as she dashed towards the bathroom, one hand covering her mouth. Once inside, she bent over the toilet and retched.

After several minutes, she sat back, feeling utterly drained. Her hands shook badly and she knew she must look like death itself. Waves of hot and cold ran through her, as though she had a fever.

The bathroom ran without electricity, but it seemed magic did the trick instead. A basin of water emptied and refilled itself as she rinsed out her mouth and washed her hands.

Finally, she laid down on the hard wooden floor. She felt drained and tiredly recalled the time a couple of weeks ago, in the desert, when Ava had left her to go find a way back to Lake Sunflower. She had felt about the same then – lead lined and bone tired. She did not want to move, ever again.

Images of Ramon mixed and blurred before her. Her brother. She could hear the cackling sound of his mad laughter, but also the rather gentle voice he had used as her teacher, his kindness when he asked her how she was. His eyes, going from raging mad to dark and kind. There was no likeness between the two, him and Natalie, but then she had never looked at him that way.

She fell asleep, curled together on the wooden floor.

When she awoke again, she had been moved to the guest bedroom on the second floor. She did not recognize it at once, and it took a few seconds for the disorientation to abate, but then she recalled the events that had taken place earlier. She supposed someone had brought her up here.

A rocking chair that had not been there before stood at the other end of the room. Ramon occupied it.

“Where is grandmother?” Natalie asked.

Ramon, who had been staring out the window, jumped at the sound of her voice. “She’s resting, too.”

“Why aren’t you?”

“I don’t think this has been as bad for me as it has been for you,” he said. “I’ve merely found out I have a sister. I still don’t recall any of the things that happened last month, so I’m no worse for wear for that. I just—I suddenly have family again.”

Natalie cocked her head to the side. “Don’t you have your mother?”

Ramon shook his head. “She died a year and a half ago. Cancer.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Ramon nodded. “Me too. It was the reason why I started researching father’s map. I wanted to feel connected to something, have some family left.”

“I see.”

She wondered if it could all have been avoided if his mother had simply not died when she had. Then what? Ava would not have been dead, and Natalie would never have experienced Chaos. She would not have found out about Ramon. She could not decide if the latter was good or bad.

They sat in silence, each lost in deep thought. Though Natalie tried to keep her thoughts on track – she had to find out more about the Nebula Medeor while she was here – she did not manage. Her mind replayed all the times she had ever spent with Ramon. The first, starting in a dream and ending with her grandmother’s great entrance, and then passing through each and every one of their meetings.

Natalie looked up suddenly, remembering.

“I’m sorry I put you in the hospital.”

Ramon’s head snapped up. “What?”

“I was the one who put you in the hospital,” Natalie said. “When you first taught at Lake Sunflower.”

“But—how could you—” Then he answered his own question. “Magic.”

Natalie nodded. “I was convinced that you were a threat. I couldn’t really control it – I’m still just a Novus, or at least I was at the time – and it just—I thought you were going to attack me, or at least defend yourself. But you just—didn’t.”

Ramon stayed silent for a moment. “That explains why the doctors couldn’t say why my heart stopped all of a sudden.”

Natalie studied her hands. “Yeah. Sorry.”

“Considering what I did to your best friend, I don’t think you are the one who should be apologizing.”

Natalie had no answer to his quiet words and even if she did, it would have been lost. A knock on the door interrupted them and at their admission, the maid appeared.

“There is a visitor who would like to see you,” she said.

Natalie glanced at Ramon. “Which one of us?”

“She didn’t specify,” the maid said.

She waited for Natalie to get out of bed. Natalie did so gingerly – she still felt a bit shaky – but finally stood and followed the maid down the stairs. Ramon walked just behind her.

Night had started to fall and the living room looked cozy and spooky all at the same time. The flickering light from the fireplace sent shadows dancing all over the walls. Natalie did not notice the two figures standing in the corner of the room at first.

“Miss Winters.”

Natalie recognized the chilly voice of Diophane McCoy.

“Uh, hi,” Natalie said.

“You wished to speak with me,” the Diophane said.

Natalie frowned. Had her grandmother sent for the Diophane after all, despite her protests? Natalie almost wished she had not, as she stood and tried not to fidget under her stare. She had forgotten what Diophane McCoy was like.

“Yes,” Natalie squeaked. “I—”

She trailed off, her eyes catching the boy standing behind the Diophane. He had moved just a little and she could see him. He wore a long cloak with a hood that cast his face in shadows, but she believed she could make out the rather sharp features of a boy her own age. He stood proud, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Miss Winters?” Diophane McCoy said again.

Natalie decided to go for it. She did not have anything to lose. “What do you know of the Nebula Medeor?”

She studied the Diophane’s face and that was the only reason she caught the brief, shocked expression. A second later, Diophane McCoy had rearranged her face back into perfect calmness.

“Where did you hear of the Nebula Medeor?”

Natalie hesitated, and thought about her answer for a moment. Then she shook her head.

“You answer my question first, then I’ll tell you.”

The Diophane’s green eyes pierced her; it felt as though she stared into Natalie’s soul. Then Diophane McCoy’s necklace glowed dark red for a moment. She wielded magic but Natalie did not know why.

“Now we are protected,” Diophane McCoy said. “Now I will speak.”

She moved forward and sat on the couch where Natalie’s grandmother had sat earlier. Her stance was still hard, even sitting down. The boy followed her and sitting down, leaving enough space for another person to come sit between them. Natalie and Ramon sat down where they had been sitting earlier.

“The Nebula,” the Diophane said, “is not a well-known artifact. I shall be very interested in hearing where you found out about it. However, as you drive a bargain—” Natalie held back a prideful smile “—I will tell you a bit about it. What do you already know?”

“I know that three girls found it and they used it to heal people,” Natalie said. “And then for some reason, it broke.”

“For some reason, yes,” the Diophane said. “No one knows why, although there I have my personal theories.”

“Which are?” Natalie asked.

“Far too long and complicated to explain.”

Natalie glared for a second, but the returned hard gaze made her shrink in her seat.

“The Nebula Medeor was, like you said, found by three young women – sisters. As far as I have been able to tell – not much has been written about it – they used it to heal people of their village. However, the stone appears to have been just as dangerous as it was helpful. The more they healed, the more they began to fight, drawing them into darkness. The three girls had never been known to fight before they found that magical stone – but afterwards…”

Natalie felt herself fading from the semi-lit room. The shapes of the shadows cast on the walls twisted and turned. Natalie felt suddenly sleepy and when she blinked, she no longer sat on the comfortable couch. The Diophane had disappeared, as had every part of the living room.

Natalie stood on a grass slope, harsh winds pulling at her hair. Rain poured down from black skies and in the distance, she heard thunder. Before her, the slope ended and when she moved forward, she saw that it did so by plunging downwards, hundreds of meters, into the cold, dark ocean.

The three sisters stood at the top of the cliff, too close to the edge for comfort. Natalie could see their angry faces – red blotches on their cheeks, their brows drawn together. The youngest sister appeared furious. They had soot on their cheeks and clothes, and Natalie wondered where it came from.

She moved closer.

“…we were given the stone for a reason! We are supposed to use it!” Sandrine yelled, though the words were partly erased by the loud wind.

“The village burned, Sandrine!” the eldest sister yelled back. “It burned, all because of us!”

Natalie looked around, and saw the village behind them – or what was left of it. Black pillars of smoke rose towards the skies, and suddenly Natalie could feel the smell of burnt wood in the air.

Tears coursed down the eldest sister’s cheeks, while the youngest only appeared furious.

“That’s not our fault! We did not cause the fire!” Sandrine screamed. “This stone is good – it will do great things, if only we let it!”

“The stone – you saw what it did,” the middle sister said. She cried quietly. “Please, give the stone to us. We can’t use it anymore.”

“No! Leave me be!” yelled Sandrine. “You will not stop me from using this stone. Have you not seen the happiness in the people we have healed? How can you call that anything but good? The stone will aid so many.”

The eldest sister shook her head. “It has a mind of its own—it is dangerous!”

Sandrine pulled a cloth out of her pocket. The fabric fell away and the stone became visible. Suddenly, the sound of the storm around them faded and all Natalie could see and hear was the stone, lying still before her, power seeping from it in waves.

The three sisters appeared to be equally entranced by the stone. They reached out and touched it gently, all the while staring at it. They bore different expressions. Sandrine looked suddenly giddy at the sight, while the eldest looked truly horrified and the middle sister appeared sad.

“It’s a stone, Sophia!” Sandrine yelled to the oldest sister. “How can it be—”

A deafening crack drenched out the sound of the rest of her sentence. A flash so bright, it made it look like day filled the sky. It traveled down from the clouds as though in slow motion, reaching its long arm out to the three sisters standing precariously on the top of the cliff.

Like a magnet for lightning, the Nebula Medeor pulled the flash towards itself.

It hit, and Natalie could see the stone break. Three perfectly even pieces, each girl touching a part. Wide-eyed, they stared at it – all save for Sandrine, who jumped back upon impact. In the slippery grass, she lost her balance and though she tried, she fell back. Her hand clasped her part of the stone as she realized that she no longer had anything to stand on. Her eyes became wide with terror – and a moment before all was lost, she knew it would be.

She fell over the edge of the cliff and the second she had fallen so far back it was far too late to save her, the world started moving at normal speed again.

Her sisters screamed and the storm around them continued. Natalie moved to the edge once more and looked down. Sandrine had disappeared in the dark waters far, far below and could not be seen no matter how much her sisters begged.

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