The weekend passed without much ado. Natalie studied the two pieces of the Nebula which she had managed to get her hands on, but nothing happened when the two were placed together. Though they fit perfectly, they gave no spark of magic to give even the slightest suggestion that they were powerful.
Natalie hung out with Cecily on Sunday afternoon. They stayed inside because the weather had turned rather cold, fall gripping the city.
Cecily sat in the chair by Natalie’s desk as they talked, while Natalie paced the room. She did not feel nervous, but she could not find peace in her own skin – too much would be happening soon and she wanted to get it started. Get it over with, get Cecily well and get on with their lives.
Natalie looked up to Cecily’s question. “What’s what?”
“This,” Cecily said.
She held out the orange stone that Natalie had found over a month ago, at Diophane McCoy’s Test. It seemed to shine lightly in Cecily’s hand. Natalie had placed it in her desk drawer and forgotten all about it.
“Oh, that’s the stone I found when Diophane McCoy told me to get a magical stone,” Natalie said.
“It’s a beautiful stone,” Cecily said.
“It sings to me. Or it did, then, at least.”
Cecily smiled. “I’d like to hear the song of a stone some time.”
“Perhaps you will. You’re magical, after all,” Natalie said.
Cecily smiled and shook her head so that a few strands of hair fell in front of her face. “I don’t know about that.”
“You can’t mess with evidence,” Natalie said. “You saw Ava, that means you’re magical, one way or another.”
“It’s a nice stone anyway,” Cecily said, with a pointed look at Natalie. “You should try to use it.”
“I have my necklace,” Natalie said. “What do I need another one for?”
Cecily shrugged. “Back-up is always good.”
She handed Natalie the necklace and Natalie put it in her pocket – the one that did not contain the pieces of the Nebula. She could sense the light, humming music coming from it – not nearly as strong as when she had first found it, but still there.
To Emmanuella’s displeasure, Cecily joined them for dinner. Natalie spent the time ignoring Emmanuella and reveling in the joy of having someone to speak to during a meal.
When the two girls returned upstairs, Natalie found a letter lying on her desk.
“Where did that come from?” Cecily asked when Natalie picked it up.
“A wood elf probably dropped it off,” Natalie said, and thought for a second about how natural it felt to say such a thing these days. “Apparently, they’re the mail men of the magical world.”
“Oh,” said Cecily.
Natalie grinned. “How nice – I knew something about the magical world that you didn’t.”
“Indeed. What does it say?”
Natalie read aloud. “‘Dear Natalie. My carriage will await you once your classes are over tomorrow, Monday, if you still wish to come visit. We do, still, have much to talk about. Love, your grandmother.’ ‘Much to talk about’,” Natalie snorted. “I wonder if she has another new sibling to tell me about.”
Cecily smiled. “Two weeks ago, you had no siblings and soon, you’ll have two.”
“Yeah, I will,” Natalie said. “One big brother and a little sister.”
“Sister? How do you know?” Cecily asked. “Mr. Turner only called it ‘the baby’.”
Natalie realized she had said too much – attempting to explain how she knew would reveal far too much to Cecily. She shrugged instead, and said, “It’s just a feeling I have.”
Cecily regarded her suspiciously, but did not say anything.
Natalie took a deep breath, glancing at the letter from her grandmother. She attempted to sound casual as she asked, “Would you like to come along tomorrow?”
Cecily’s doubtful expression changed into one of surprise. “You want me and your grandmother to see each other?”
“I don’t see the harm – you obviously talk to each other about me anyway,” Natalie said, but her voice held no malice.
Cecily turned red and though Natalie was no longer angry with the two, she could not bring herself to break Cecily’s feeling of shame. After a moment of silence, however, she had to say something.
“So, what do you say?”
Cecily hesitated. “I’m not sure—”
“It’ll be fun,” Natalie said. “Come on – it’ll be a nice, calm afternoon.”
If things went as planned, it would be anything but, but that did not matter.
Finally, Cecily nodded. “All right, I’ll come.”
Natalie smiled. Part one of her plan had now been completed. The two spent what little remained of the evening before Cecily had to go home, just talking.
That night, Natalie dreamed of stones that were alive, calling to her and telling her to find them, but when she went out into the darkness, all that awaited her was Eadan and his cronies. No matter how Natalie tried, she could not reach the stones, her salvation – instead she was doomed to lie there on the ground, tasting the metallic tang of her own blood. When she awoke, she realized she had bitten so hard through her own lip it had started bleeding.
The day crept by, slow as though someone had sent time to walk in thick mud.
“You seem stressed,” Cecily remarked. “Is Eadan worrying you again?”
Despite her dream, Natalie had not thought much of Eadan. She stayed out of his way, but that had become habit by now.
“No, I’m just—tired of school,” Natalie said. “Aren’t you going to eat that?”
Cecily, appearing rather grey-faced, sat with her lunch box in her hands. She had eaten one bite since the two had sat down ten minutes ago. She shook her head.
“No, I don’t feel all that great.”
Natalie wanted to yell, ‘Tonight, I’ll heal you for good – just wait until tonight!’ – but she did not because she still did not have all the pieces. If she did not find the last one – although she thought she would – she did not want to have given Cecily false hope. Yet she could not hold back a small smile, which she hoped Cecily did not notice.
“Maybe grandmother can do something to make you feel better,” Natalie said.
Cecily nodded absently, not appearing to believe it.
When the end of the day came around and the final bell rang, Natalie nearly ran to the small street where the carriage always waited for her. She smiled when she saw it, grand and beautiful. The two horses that pulled it looked powerful, both pearly white and in perfect shape.
Cecily came up behind her, slightly out of breath.
“You really want to go to your grandmother, don’t you?”
“I do,” Natalie said. She felt no need to lie.
“Miss Natalie,” Butler Thomas said. “I see there’s no need to find you in the crowd this time.”
Natalie shook her head.
“And Miss Cordell. Will you be accompanying us as well?” Butler Thomas continued.
Cecily nodded. “If you’ll have me.”
“I’m sure Madame will see no trouble with it.”
They climbed into the carriage and settled against the pillows. Natalie did not mind falling asleep quickly this time – once she arrived in the second universe, she would certainly need all the energy she could muster. A string of excitement passed through her at the thought of what lay ahead, and the two pieces of the Nebula Medeor felt heavy in her pocket. And despite her wish to sleep immediately, it did, for once, take her some time to do so.
The skies were filled with clouds when Natalie and Cecily awoke as they stopped right in front of Natalie’s grandmother’s house. It seemed dark and ominous, not unlike the afternoon when Diophane McCoy had put Natalie through the test.
“Natalie,” greeted her grandmother and then she saw Cecily. “Ah, Miss Cordell.”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “No need to be so formal. After all, you two are pen pals.”
Her grandmother did not appear fazed by her words, but Cecily reddened again. Natalie did not feel surprised with either one of their responses.
“Hi,” Cecily said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Natalie’s grandmother said.
As the two girls followed her inside, Natalie could not help but think that her grandmother did not look quite fine. She wondered if it had to do with the revelations of Natalie’s previous visit, or if it was simply a cold.
The lady with the funny hat served them hot chocolate on a tray, as she usually did when Natalie arrived. The three sat down and studied one another.
Natalie decided that now was as good a time as any to put her plan into action. She placed her cup of hot chocolate on the table.
“If you’ll excuse me – I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.
She stood up and left the room. She felt both their eyes on her back but did not mind – if they thought she left because she felt uncomfortable, that worked just fine with her.
She did not go into the bathroom. As soon as she turned the corner of the living room, she stopped and turned back. She waited a few moments, her heart beating rapidly in her chest with excitement and nervousness. Then she looked around the corner, very carefully.
Her grandmother’s eyes rested upon Cecily, who spoke in hushed tones. Natalie could not hear what she said, but it did not matter. She smiled slightly with satisfaction, and then started to draw magic. The house seemed magic in itself, for it felt very simply to gain the momentum she needed. She held it carefully in her hand, dark green magic floating just above her palm. Then she turned the corner once more, and sent the magic towards her grandmother and Cecily.
The effect came instantly.
Her grandmother yawned briefly, then leaned back, and fell asleep in her chair. Cecily stopped, perhaps mid-sentence, and did the same.
Natalie waited for a few moments longer before going back into the living room. Had the magic been strong enough? Would they stay asleep? She did not need it to last for long – only long enough for her to get out and get to Sophia’s Mithridates.
The voice made her jump. She turned and found Ramon standing behind her. He looked relaxed, wearing a button-down shirt that matched the style Natalie’s grandmother seemed to prefer, and loose pants. His hair fell down his back, shining black. Natalie could not piece this man together with the insane one that had kidnapped her – but she could also not piece him together as her brother.
“Hi,” Ramon said. He looked at Natalie’s frozen grandmother, the Diophane, and Cecily. “What did you do?”
“Magic,” Natalie said defiantly. “What are you going to do about it?”
Ramon held up his hands in defense. “Nothing. I’m sure you have your reasons.”
Natalie’s irritation abated. “Sorry. I just—I have to do this and I don’t know how long the magic will hold them.”
“Then you should probably go,” Ramon said.
“You’re not going to ask me where I’m going?” Natalie asked.
Ramon shrugged. “After what I did to you, I don’t think I have any right to question you on anything you do.”
“You didn’t do it,” Natalie said, startling herself with her gentle voice.
“No, right, our dad did,” Ramon said. “That’s so much better.”
Natalie shook her head, with a half-smile. “No, it’s not. But that’s life and we’ll just have to live with it. Now, I really need to go.”
Ramon nodded. “Good luck, with whatever it is you’re doing.”
Then Ramon surprised her when he took a step forward and placed a kiss on Natalie’s forehead. “Be careful.”
Natalie smiled widely, and then he left.
Transportation magic required far more power than making someone fall asleep, and it took her longer to gather it. She imagined Sophia’s Mithridates before her, as clearly as she could remember it from the dream. It seemed to come easily to her – the green grass, the water surrounding it, and the Stone of Sitis in the middle.
Suddenly, she felt the familiar feeling of wind rushing in her ears. She opened her eyes to find the world passing at great speed below her, a blur of colors and shapes. She smiled.
She landed on her feet, stumbling only slightly, for the first time since she started transporting herself with magic. She felt proud.
“There you are. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Natalie’s eyes rose at the sight of Ava before her. Then she gasped as she took in her friend’s appearance. Cuts and bruises marked every inch of her skin.
“My god—what happened to you?”
Ava shrugged. “It’s nothing. It doesn’t hurt.”
“Doesn’t hurt?” Natalie exclaimed. “How can that not hurt?”
“It doesn’t, as long as I’m here,” Ava said.
“Yeah, here. In your world, the world with living people. Here, I’m just a ghost – I can’t feel anything,” Ava said, a tinge of bitterness lacing her voice. “Here, I can’t bleed and bruise.”
“And there? In the Land of the Restless?” Natalie asked, almost afraid of the answer.
Ava hesitated. “There, it hurts like hell times a thousand.”
“Oh god—” Natalie said, choking. “I’m so sorry—”
“It’s not your fault,” Ava said. “They decided to punish me – I don’t even know who ‘they’ are, but someone there – but it’s not your fault. I took you there by my own choice.”
Natalie remembered the pain of the ghosts of the Land of the Restless, as they passed through her. It had felt like knives going through her, blades cutting every fiber of her being open. Was that what they had done to Ava as well? She felt sick.
“I’ll just have to hang around here more,” Ava said. It did not come out as strong as Natalie suspected Ava wanted it to sound.
“I’m sorry,” Natalie whispered again.
“There, there, none of that,” Ava said. She reached out a translucent hand, touching Natalie’s cheek. “We have a stone to find. That’s why we’re here, remember? That’s why we did that stuff before. To save Cecily. Now, are you with me?”
Ava’s short pep-talk made Natalie swallow back her sorrow and guilt. She nodded.
“I’m with you.”
“Good,” Ava said. “Then let’s go find that final piece.”
Natalie had landed in the outskirts of the circle. She walked to the middle of it, to the blue stone, and Ava followed. Natalie touched the stone hesitantly, remembering how the stone in Ramon’s Mithridates – their father’s Mithridates – had caught her and held her prisoner. This stone did nothing of the kind – in fact, it did not react at all. It felt cool beneath Natalie’s fingers, but nothing happened.
“So—where’s the stone?” asked Ava.
Natalie frowned. “I don’t know. The ghost writer never said.”
Ava placed her hands on her hips. Natalie tried not to stare at her – the skin that used to be transparent white, was colored in dark purples and reds, some still appearing to be bleeding.
She looked away quickly, lest her thoughts get caught up in her guilt once more.
She climbed up on the stone, wondering all the while if that was allowed at all. Nothing happened, so she hoped it was all right. She looked around the clearing. She could see nothing special – nothing that gave her any clue as how to find the third and final piece of the Nebula Medeor. The grass grew thick and green, and beyond the circling water grew tall trees.
Ava, who had made a quick sweep around the Mithridates, returned.
“I can’t see anything special,” she said. “But then it’s been a couple of hundred years since Sophia lived, hasn’t it? I mean, the traces might be gone.”
Natalie nodded. She cursed the ghost writer for not telling her more exactly where the piece was hidden, but then the ghost writer had not been forthcoming with the information at any point. She had had to find the exact locations of the pieces every time. The first, in the flower – using magic to get it out. The second, in the Land of the Restless with the youngest sister’s ghost – using Ava, and magic, to get it out.
Natalie nearly slapped herself. The common denominator had been magic both times – why would it not be it this time as well? After all, they were in a Mithridates.
“Let me try this,” Natalie said and she held her necklace in her hand.
Ava watched her as she focused on an image of finding the last piece. She imagined her happiness and wonder at finally reaching her goal. It made her smile even as she thought of it.
“Natalie, whatever it is you’re doing – don’t stop,” Ava said, “’cause I definitely think you’re doing it.”
Natalie opened her eyes. The entire Mithridates had begun to shine and glimmer with magic. It came from the ground and rose like bubbles into the air, floating and shining in gold.
“Wow,” Natalie said, her jaw dropping.
“You bet,” Ava breathed.
An image appeared before her, of a woman she had seen several times before.
“Are you seeing that too?” Natalie asked Ava.
“Uh-huh,” Ava said, and it sounded as though she did not quite believe it.
“Hello, stranger,” the image of the eldest sister Sophia said. She looked older than when Natalie had seen her – perhaps in her early fifties. She must have lived longer than most of her time. “You have found my Mithridates – it appears to have deemed you worthy.”
“Worthy?” echoed Natalie, but the Sophia’s message did not respond or react at all.
“I don’t know who you are, or when you live, but my magic, and the magic of my Mithridates, has deemed you worthy. Here, I have hidden my most precious, and most awful, item. It is dangerous, yet it can bring great joy. As you have been found worthy, you are free to take this item with you – but do so knowing that it can bring great danger.
“This is one piece of the Nebula Medeor, the stone my sister found that led to her death. Care for it if you do take it, and care for this Mithridates, for it is now yours.”
She made a gesture with her hand, and suddenly, the last piece of the Nebula dropped down at Natalie’s feet.
The image of Sophia faded. Natalie looked into her eyes as the image disappeared and she caught a glimpse of great sadness but also wisdom. Natalie wondered what kind of life Sophia had led.
Ava’s voice woke her from her thoughts. She looked down and stared at the final piece. Black and white, striped like the other pieces, it lay on the blue stone as though it had always been at Natalie’s feet, just waiting for her to pick it up.
Natalie’s fingers trembled as she bent down. Her fingers grazed it and wrapped around it. She waited for a surge of magic, a surge of something to tell her that she finally had all three pieces, but nothing happened. She held up the stone and Ava floated up before her.
“You have all three pieces,” she said. “Happy?”
Natalie grinned. “That doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Twenty-Four: