As the audience watched in perfect silence, the pillar of smoke changed and took shape. A human shape took form – long legs, hips, torso, arms and finally, head. The smoke whirled around the shape, twisting and turning. The contours of a female body became more pronounced and filled in with pale white skin that looked almost translucent, with blue veins visible here and there, and wild hair spreading out around her. The smoke grew a cloak around her which suddenly became solid.
Natalie watched with her mouth hanging open.
What had just happened? Why had it happened? Who was this creature standing before them so suddenly? Why did her grandmother look so aghast? Would this person heal Cecily?
The smoke did not disappear completely. After the cloak formed around the woman, it stayed at the bottom of it, twisting and turning slowly upwards.
“Who are you?”
Natalie’s voice sounded far off to her own ears.
The being laughed and Natalie shuddered at the sound. “I would have thought you’d have figured it out by now.”
“Natalie—Cecily—get back here!”
Natalie’s grandmother’s voice barely held.
The woman cocked her head to the side. “Mother. How nice of you to be here today, on this very special occasion.”
This word brought Natalie’s world to a screeching halt, and would almost have been comical, if Natalie had not realized the severity of the situation. Her brain worked frantically.
“No,” she breathed.
“Tsk, tsk, Madeline – not telling your own grandchild about her mother,” said the woman. “What have you been telling her?”
“I have told her exactly what I needed to tell her to keep her safe,” Natalie’s grandmother hissed.
Natalie took a step back, away from both her grandmother and the woman. “What—what are you talking about?”
The woman, who still stood atop the split Stone of Sitis, took a step down to the ground. Her movements were gracious, exact – not a finger out of balance. The smoke made it seem as though she had just floated down to the ground. She was beautiful – and familiar.
She moved her hand and the stone, the Nebula Medeor that Natalie had worked so hard to assemble, flew into her hand.
“You asked me who I am,” the woman said, advancing on Natalie, her tone as soft as honey yet dangerous. “I’m not just one thing, least of all to you.”
“Carolina, get away from her—”
“You can’t be—” Natalie whispered.
The woman flicked her hand once, and then said to Natalie, “I have spoken to you many times in the last few months – on paper and in your dreams. Remember?”
Natalie’s eyes widened. “You’re not—”
“What is it you call me,” the woman said. “Ah, yes—the ghost writer.”
Natalie could not find the words. Her brain felt like it had been completely overloaded and though it somewhere all made sense, it made absolutely no sense to Natalie.
“And then there’s this body,” said the woman. “It once belonged to a woman – a woman who thought she could wield me. That she could control me.”
“There’s no controlling me.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed at the memory. Natalie took another step back, and the woman followed. She slid rather than walked. Natalie felt a sense of dread spread through her, building slowly but surely.
The woman turned her hand. Fire floated above her palm.
Tears came to Natalie’s eyes. “Then you’re my—mother.”
The girl her grandmother had spoken of – it had been Natalie’s mother. Looking into the woman’s eyes, Natalie could see a ghostly resemblance, like looking into a twisted, dark mirror. But of the sleeping woman in the photo on her desk back home, nothing remained. This woman had a hard face, with angles and shadows and eyes so cold they seemed able to kill, icy blue and the darkest black swirling together. They flashed with danger, dark and endless.
“No,” the woman said. The fire in her hand disappeared as she made a motion over her body. “This shell was your mother’s. I am a force stronger than any other in this world or any other. I am powers beyond what you could ever imagine.”
Her grandmother’s cry of ‘what have you done’ had been fitting.
“Then you’re Chaos.”
The woman smiled cruelly, her words cold as ice. “Indeed. And I have you to thank for finally being free. I’ve been trying to get out of that prison for a great many years.”
Natalie glanced at her grandmother, and Cecily and the Diophane who stood on either side of her grandmother. Her grandmother’s face stood out, as white as a sheet of paper, frozen. The Diophane’s proud stance still held, but lines of worry stood out on her face. Cecily did not look well, but then she had not in quite some time.
Natalie looked back at the woman – her mother – Chaos.
“There never was a way to heal Cecily, was there?”
Chaos glanced aside as well for a brief second. “Of course there is.”
“What?” Natalie said.
“I could heal her in a second,” Chaos said. “And the Nebula works. You saw the sisters – I didn’t make that up.”
Chaos held out the stone. It lay in the palm of her hand, perfectly whole. Natalie stretched out a hand to take it from Chaos – if she could only heal Cecily, the it would all be worth it—
Just as she was about to touch the stone, Chaos clenched her hand to a fist.
“It works – it is powerful, as you just saw,” she hissed, “but healing your friend would require you to get your hands on it and use it. And there is only one way for you to do that.”
Natalie glanced at their audience once more. She frowned – they had not moved an inch. When she thought about it, none of them had moved or spoken since—
“What did you do to them?” Natalie asked.
“I thought you and I should have a little chat,” Chaos said. “Mother to daughter. Without interruptions.”
“They’re not in pain. You really should be more worried about yourself.”
“If it’s me you’re interested in – leave them alone!” Natalie said. “And if you’re so goddamn powerful, why didn’t you get the stone yourself? Why that stone? Why me?”
“I couldn’t get it myself,” Chaos spat. “Your grandmother saw to that. And the stone – let’s just say, it’s mine.”
Natalie waited for a second, then asked again. “And why me?”
Chaos smirked. “Because while I’m not actually your mother, you and I are still bound together, Natalie. Your mother was pregnant with you when she took me in. A part of me lives in you.”
Natalie’s mouth fell open – she had not expected that. Bile rose instantly in her throat – she did not want to have part of Chaos in her. Still, it made perfect, twisted sense. It must have been what she had called upon when she had been with Ramon – it had not simply been the little bit of madness that existed in everyone. It had been the real Chaos.
“You were easy to get to, easy to contact. Easy to control and manipulate. And with such a wish to cure a friend – who could pass it up,” Chaos said. “After the fiasco with Keys, I knew you were ready.”
“Did you have something to do with that as well?” Natalie asked. “With sending Ramon after me?”
They played cat and mouse – for each step backwards that Natalie took, Chaos followed. Every now and then, dark lines flickered from Chaos’ hands, her magic completely colorless. The dark lines drew Natalie in; she stared at them and her mind became enticed, shadows seeping in like poison. Panic, despair, hatred, emptiness, all at once in those dark lines.
“Actually, no,” Chaos said. “He just happened to come along and find your father’s necklace just as I’d started talking to you. I thought for a while I wouldn’t have to use you to get out – that he would do so for me. But where he proved worthless, you proved worthy.”
Natalie recalled the ghost writer’s – Chaos’ – words after Ava had died.
“But he was going to kill me to free you,” Natalie said. “That obviously wasn’t necessary.”
“Obviously,” Chaos said. “He knew only one of the ways to call me to life once more.”
She took a few steps forward towards Natalie and suddenly, they were face to face less than an arm length from each other. Natalie glared hotly at Chaos, who gazed back with calm, cold eyes.
“I’m quite satisfied that he didn’t kill you,” Chaos said. “You’ll do fine by my side.”
“I’ll do what?”
“You cannot imagine the powers I am,” Chaos said. “It is already within you – and I could teach you to use it fully. We could rule – right wrongs and control the people of this earth. Punish them.”
“I’ve heard about your reign – it’s a reign of terror,” Natalie said.
“What’s terror for some is paradise for others.”
“Not for me – I don’t want to rule over anyone,” Natalie spat. “I’m a human being, not a monster.”
Chaos eyes bore into her. “Are you sure? I’m sure there are people who have been monsters to you. People you’d like to hurt?”
Chaos knew all about what Chase Eadan had done to her. Natalie swallowed back the hurt and anger she felt against Eadan – she still did not want to rule over him, or punish him, did she? That was what the justice system existed for.
Except the justice system had already failed to punish Chase, a voice said. The very same voice wanted to say yes to Chaos’ proposition. A part of her did want to hurt Eadan the way he had hurt her.
Natalie pushed the thought back.
Chaos looked unpleasantly satisfied. “See, there you go.”
“I don’t want to rule with you,” Natalie said. “People can be monsters, but that doesn’t give me the right to do anything like that to them.”
“But turning people purple is all right? Where is the line drawn, Natalie?” Chaos hissed the last part, leaning close to Natalie. “Is it all right to hurt someone because you think it’s right?”
“Your brother would beg to differ, I believe,” she said.
Natalie turned white at the reminder of what she had done to her brother – she had given him a heart attack. But no – she had not done it because she wanted to hurt him, she had done it to protect herself. Or was that simply what she told herself?
She took several steps back. “Get away from me!”
Chaos shook her head. “What if I offer you something you want?”
“You have nothing I want.”
Chaos smiled. “What if I cure your friend?”
“Cure Cecily?” Natalie asked before she could stop herself.
Chaos nodded, satisfied with her curiosity. “I could do it with a flick of my hand.”
Natalie’s heart rate sped up further. Curing Cecily – that was what this had all been about. That was why they were now in this situation. Natalie wished that more than anything.
And yet, she could not. Her grandmother’s story of Chaos’ killing sprees and terror-filled reign – Natalie could never, ever be part of that. But even more than that, she thought of Cecily. Cecily would never want Natalie to agree to such a deal, no matter what the cost would be for herself.
Chaos shook her head. “And here I had such high hopes for you.”
She raised her hand and Natalie felt her body leave the ground. Something tightened like iron fists around her throat, making breathing difficult. She hung in the air, helpless, breathless, and was at once reminded of that this was exactly how Ramon had held her. But Natalie could not use Chaos to get out of this – Chaos had become her opponent now and she was much stronger than Natalie could ever hope to be.
“Oh,” said Chaos and walked over to her, “and this belongs to me.”
She flicked her wrist and the necklace ripped from Natalie’s neck. The beautiful crystal flew soundlessly into Chaos’ gloved hand and it disappeared. Natalie’s only source of protection, what little it might have been able to provide, had gone.
Natalie saw him come barging in, from the corner of her eye. Ramon’s looked livid, angry red splotches on his cheeks and his hair flying in the wind.
“Ramon—don’t—” Natalie choked out but he did not listen.
He charged at Chaos, physically throwing himself at her.
And then he stopped in midair.
“Hello, Ramon Keys,” Chaos said. “I saw you lurking in the shadows – I wondered when you’d come out and introduce yourself.”
Ramon’s face turned redder. Natalie wondered if he could breathe. Her own air supply was so short, black dots danced before her eyes. But she heard Chaos words loud and clear.
“The illegitimate child,” she hissed. “The one Orion spoke of sometimes. You have his eyes.”
“Let—her—go,” Ramon gasped, and Natalie no longer doubted that he had a hard time breathing.
She felt consciousness fading.
“You have no say in what I do,” Chaos said.
She turned her hand and Ramon screamed, a guttural scream that pierced through Natalie. It made her open her eyes and start to fight once more – she would not give up. Ramon had come to save her – now she had to do something.
An invisible knife had slashed through Ramon’s shirt and his chest bled through it. Another flick of her wrist and another cut appeared, this time on his leg. A third time, and his abdomen colored red with blood. Ramon screamed each time, and it pierced through Natalie like ice. It drove her in her wish to get free. She pulled whatever magic she could from her surroundings – perhaps she could still use it, even when Chaos had taken her necklace.
“You’re no challenge,” Chaos said to Ramon. “I could snap your bones without so much as a second thought.”
She flicked her wrist again and sent Ramon flying. He landed in a lifeless heap on the ground and Natalie realized she was crying.
“Stop it!” she yelled at Chaos.
At the very same moment, she let loose the magic she had been able to collect. It passed from her and through Chaos, like a sound wave. For a moment, everything stood still – then Natalie dropped to the ground, coughing and gasping for air.
Chaos smiled, as though she had done well. “You, on the other hand, are worthy. Let’s see about the others.”
With a flick of her other hand, Chaos freed the other three. Natalie’s grandmother, Diophane McCoy and Cecily came to life at once.
“Natalie!” yelled Cecily, horrified.
“Let her go!” Natalie’s grandmother bellowed, taking powerful strides towards Natalie and Chaos.
“Of course, mother,” Chaos said with a mocking bow.
Natalie’s lungs burned and she gulped down air. The edges of her vision swam a bit, but she stayed conscious. She had to. She watched her grandmother approaching Chaos quickly, and Ramon’s lifeless body, lying well away from her. She had to get to him, she had to know that he was still alive.
“I locked you away once, I can do it again!” Natalie’s grandmother said.
“You got lucky,” Chaos said. “You won’t be again.”
They circled each other. Natalie’s grandmother looked ready to kill, while Chaos eyed her with cruel amusement, like a cat playing with its prey before killing it. A chill ran down Natalie’s back when she realized that was exactly what Chaos was doing.
“No! Grandma, don’t!” she cried.
“Natalie, stay back,” her grandmother warned her. “This is not your fight.”
Natalie fell silent. She stood unsteadily and started towards Ramon, whilst Chaos’ attention stayed on her grandmother. Or perhaps Chaos saw her move but did not care. Tears coursed down Natalie’s face – when had things gone so wrong? She looked over to the other side of the clearing, where she saw Cecily, grey-faced and shaking. Like Natalie, she tried to make her way towards Ramon without diverting Chaos’ attention. Next to her, Diophane McCoy stood, her eyes trained on Chaos, ready to attack, should things go wrong. Natalie wished she did not already know that things would go wrong. The feeling in her gut told her that this night would not end well.
Natalie wondered where Ava had gone. She had not seen her since they had been running towards the Mithridates.
If only her grandmother had managed to stop them.
If only Natalie had listened when the Diophane had said the Nebula Medeor was dangerous.
If only her mother had never called Chaos into her body to begin with.
But it did not matter how much she wished – reality still played out before her. She reached Ramon, who lay motionless on the ground, his leg bleeding and broken and his face contorted with pain. The cuts Chaos had made on his body bled profoundly. He appeared to be breathing still and when she searched for his pulse, she found a weak one.
“Ramon,” Natalie mumbled, brushing his hair out of his face. “I’m so sorry.”
Cecily came to sit next to her, her eyes moving from Ramon to Chaos constantly. Natalie stood up, moving towards Chaos, and began to concentrate.
She needed magic.
Her grandmother and Chaos still circled each other, predator and prey. Everything moved slowly, as though the world warped with their every step.
Then it happened.
Natalie’s grandmother made her move, much quicker than a lady her age ought to have been able to do. A string of blue magic flared across the Mithridates, rushing towards Chaos.
Chaos deflected it effortlessly. She held up her palm and the blue magic bounced off, sending it flying up into the air. It shimmered like a blue rainbow for a moment, but no one had the time to appreciate the beauty. Chaos sent a string of her own magic – all black – towards Natalie’s grandmother—
She did not have time to react. The magic hit her full force, and she fell back, landing in a boneless heap.
“No!” screamed Natalie, tears blinding her.
Then Chaos turned towards Cecily and Ramon.
Diophane McCoy suddenly sent a salve of her orange magic towards Chaos. Chaos repelled it easily – she did not even look at the Diophane. Instead, she gave Natalie a smile, a cruel one that sent chills down Natalie’s body.
Chaos flicked her wrist, and a line of red magic traveled across the Mithridates.
Natalie did not know how she managed to get in front of Cecily and Ramon in time – perhaps it was magic. But as the line of red was just about to hit her brother and Cecily, she threw herself in front of them.
She heard someone scream but she did not know who it came from.
A million thoughts passed through her mind, so quickly she did not have time to register them.
She waited for the hit. And waited to die.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Twenty-Six: