The piece of the Nebula did not quite lie in Sandrine’s hand, but rather just below it. It rested upon a bit of the white clouds, and could be seen because Sandrine’s hand was not solid.
Sandrine appeared to be sleeping. She looked as beautiful as when Natalie had seen her in her dreams – her hair fell softly down her shoulders, her skin perfect and white as porcelain. She did not seem to be the least bit aware that anyone watched her.
‘What do you think happens if we take it?’
Ava could obviously sense Natalie’s feeling of unease and worry.
‘Yeah, me too,’ Ava thought.
Natalie looked around at the ghosts floating around them. Though some stood upright and floated this way or that, they did not seem aware of their surroundings. One or two glanced at them, lazily, mostly staring through Natalie’s body.
‘How quickly can you get us out of here?’ Natalie asked.
Ava’s nervousness mixed with Natalie’s until she did not know the difference. Ants occupied her entire body, making her want to squirm.
‘Quickly, I hope,’ Ava replied.
Natalie swallowed. ‘All right then. Be ready and we’ll do this on three, okay?’
‘Okay. On three.’
Natalie reached out her hand. It went straight through Sandrine’s incorporeal body and landed on the only solid thing in the Land of the Restless – the second piece of the Nebula Medeor.
Her fingers wrapped around it and she picked it up.
Immediately, everyone awoke.
Every single ghostly being that had been vacantly floating around the realm suddenly had its eyes on them – hollow but furiously red eyes. They awoke from their deep sleeps, soaring through the air, all towards Natalie.
The first one hit Natalie like a cold shower. It stayed for just a second inside Natalie, chilling her to the very bone.
She screamed, nearly dropping the stone.
‘Get us out of here!’ Natalie thought to Ava.
‘I’m trying! Something is stopping us!’
The next one hit, the ghost of a young boy. Natalie looked into his eyes for a mere second before he disappeared into her. His spirit tore into her, as though he was made of broken glass. It cut her, all the way through.
They were trying to kill her, trying to force her to stay in this realm.
Ava worked with the same panic and great fear that rose like bile in Natalie’s throat.
A woman, older, with hair floating around her like a halo, hit her from the side. Natalie saw her only for the briefest of moments before she cut into her, and Natalie fell into a heap in the white fog that surrounded them. She noticed dimly that she was bleeding. She held onto the Nebula even harder.
They moved through her at a quicker pace. Each ghost that passed through – an old man, a very young child, a lady, a teenaged girl – made Natalie bleed more, cuts appearing on her arms and chest. She bled through her nose, tasted the metallic taste in her mouth.
Then suddenly, she felt as though she fell, and she wondered if this was what it was like to die.
Should she be scared? She did not feel much of anything, but pain and he rushing of wind in her ears.
‘Natalie – hold on!’
Natalie did not know what to hold onto, especially as she fell quicker and quicker.
She stopped as suddenly as she had started falling.
Panting heavily, she felt strangely unaware of her own body. Then with little ado, something left her – something different, something warm. A moment later, Natalie felt her own aching body once more.
“I’m never doing that again.”
Ava floated in front of her, horizontally as she had before they had started their combining adventure. She had obviously returned to her own non-existent body, and she crossed her arms defiantly to punctuate her words.
“Are you okay?” Ava asked when Natalie did not respond.
“I’m—woozy,” Natalie said. “And achy. But you—you’re not with me anymore.”
Ava shook her head. “Splitting us up wasn’t hard – our spirits weren’t meant to be one to begin with. I just left.”
“I see,” Natalie said, though she did not really. Her mind felt as though it had been filled with the white clouds of the Land of the Restless.
“Did you get it?”
Natalie realized she still held onto something with great strength. She relaxed, finally safe, and showed the piece to Ava.
“The second piece,” she said, smiling tiredly.
Ava’s grin grew wide. “We did it!”
She glanced to her side, as though expecting something.
“What is it?” Natalie asked.
Ava waited for a second, but nothing happened. “Oh, it’s nothing—it’s just—”
Ava sighed. “You know what Cecily said about a purpose for ghosts – I thought maybe this one was mine. That I was meant to go get that piece with you.”
“Oh,” Natalie said.
“But it seems I was wrong,” Ava said.
“You don’t look happy about it.”
Ava shook her head. “Like I said, I’d like to live again. I don’t want to die. But this in between thing? It’s worse than either. I mean, I can talk to you and Cecily, but—you guys live your life. I float in and out every now and then, and the rest of my time is spent in a foggy mist. And I just don’t want to be around for six hundred years waiting for my purpose.”
“Six hundred years?” Natalie asked.
Ava shrugged. “It’s how long Jules said he’d been around. I mean, he’s a spirit and not a ghost but—still. I don’t want to be here that long.”
“Oh,” Natalie said, though when she thought of it, it did not surprise her – after all, his mother Sophia had lived in the fourteenth century.
“Anyway,” Ava said, “I just thought this might be it. My purpose. It would have been kind of nice, if my purpose was to save Cecily.”
Natalie did not know what to say. “Well, I guess you’ll just have to wait around.”
She felt utterly unhelpful. She did not know whether to comfort Ava, or give her a pep-talk.
“I guess,” Ava said. “But at least we got the stone.”
Natalie nodded. “And we survived the crazy ghosts. I thought I was going to die.”
Ava looked down. “You had me worried there for a second. I mean, I felt some of the pain but not all of it – but you screamed and I couldn’t get us out of there.”
Natalie sat up gingerly, stretching her limbs. She looked at her arms and chest – no cuts could be seen now, though she did not doubt that she had been cut in the other dimension, and she had been close to death. She ached.
“You got us out of there in the end,” Natalie said. “So you did great.”
Ava nodded. Natalie cocked her head to the side and asked a question that popped into her head just then.
“Will they punish you when you return, or something like that?”
Ava tried to sound neutral. “I don’t know. But what can they do to me – I’m already dead, right?”
A stab of worry shot through Natalie. She hoped it did not show on her face.
With the two pieces now safe in her pocket – she decided to keep them with her at all times, because it felt safer than leaving them at home – Natalie felt more sure of herself as she walked to school the next morning. She had braved death – surely, she could handle Chase Eadan?
But as she came closer and closer to the school, and saw Eadan standing with his cocky smile and irritating minions, she felt her resolve disappear. She cursed herself – she should be strong! Yet no matter how she tried, she could not bring herself to walk past them. She hung back until they went inside.
“Don’t force it.”
Natalie turned to face Cecily. She wondered how long she had been watching.
“I shouldn’t be scared of him,” Natalie said. “I have magic! I should turn him into a toad.”
“It’s not that simple and you know it,” Cecily said gently. “He hurt you and it marked your soul – it’ll take time to heal. It’s not something magic can fix.”
Natalie nodded, though she did not quite want to accept that. “They closed the investigation.”
Cecily stared at her, a wordless question.
“They ‘lack evidence’,” Natalie said softly, and with a humorless snort she continued, “Apparently, my blood being everywhere but inside me wasn’t enough.”
“I’m sorry,” Cecily said.
“Why?” Natalie shrugged, feigning indifference. “It’s not your fault.”
Cecily grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “No, I know it’s not.”
Natalie looked down at their locked hands. Cecily’s touch felt good and she squeezed back. Cecily gave her an encouraging smile.
“You’re more okay than many people would be,” she said. “You’re in school, you’re doing things.”
“I have to,” Natalie said. “There are things I have to do – and I can’t stop. If I stop, I’ll think about it.”
The bell rang and the two girls climbed the stairs. “Are you feeling better today?”
Cecily shrugged. “A little. It doesn’t matter – I can’t stay in bed all day long, then I just feel sicker.”
The stones felt heavy in Natalie’s pockets and she held back a smile. Just one more to go and Cecily would be healed. Then Cecily would be able to be in school every day, she would not have to live in hospitals, she would be able to join the rest of the school in sports and activities – she would live.
Natalie thought all day long about the final piece of the Nebula Medeor. She would have to come up with a reason to visit her grandmother to be able to then find Sophia Sihera’s Mithridates. She did not know where in her Mithridates she had hidden the piece, so she would need enough time to look for it once there. Someone needed to keep her grandmother busy.
She realized as she sat in her art class, drawing rather absentmindedly, what she would have to do. She smiled, as a plan formed in her head.
“You look pleased,” Cecily said with a sideway smile, as she worked on perfecting the wing of a white dove.
Natalie grinned back. “I am pleased.”
She almost had a skip in her step as she walked home that afternoon. She ran upstairs, grabbed a pencil, and quickly penned a note to her grandmother, wishing to come visit whenever her grandmother would have her. She left the note lying on her desk, neatly folded with ‘Madeline Turner’ printed on the front, and then she went downstairs to make dinner.
It felt a bit strange to know that the baby residing in Emmanuella’s body was a girl, when Emmanuella and Richard did not know. They had decided to wait until birth.
Natalie decided that she felt quite excited about the new baby.
“You’re looking happy today,” Richard said when they arrived home. “It’s a nice look for you.”
Natalie thought about it – she did feel more up than she had in a while – she and Cecily were friends once more, and the talk they had had about Eadan had actually helped. Those things, coupled with the two thirds of the Nebula in her pockets, made her happy. She decided to cut Richard some slack about the way he had acted when he was young. It could not have been an easy situation for him either.
“Thank you,” Natalie said. “I’ve been working on it.”
“Good. You had me worried, after the assault and everything,” Richard said hesitantly, obviously scared to bring it up.
Natalie swallowed, not completely at ease with talking about it with Richard. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”
He heard the undertone of desperation in her voice. “Definitely. And I’m proud of you for how well you’ve handled the situation.”
Natalie placed the salmon she had cooked on one of the plates.
“Thanks,” she said, “By the way, I don’t think I’ve really said it and meant it – congratulations on the baby.”
Richard’s smile went from ear to ear. “It makes me so happy to hear you say that. I know you and Emmanuella don’t get along too well, but this baby – he or she will still be your sibling. I would like for you to really feel like the big sister, not just the add-on to this family. Because you’re not. You never were and you never will be.”
“You’re getting sentimental,” Natalie said, chuckling. “But it’s still nice to hear.”
They ate dinner and the overall mood felt much better than it had in months. Emmanuella even managed to speak in civil tones to Natalie, if only to ask for her to pass the salt.
Once Natalie returned upstairs, she smiled – the letter had disappeared. Now all she could do, was hope for a swift reply.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Twenty-Three: