Chapter Three

The nurse informed her that she had been out for nearly half an hour, before she asked how she felt. Natalie had not been awake long enough to be able to tell but mumbled, “Okay,” and the nurse seemed to accept that.

She had been taken to the hospital, she realized as she sat up. She did not like it. The Sunflower Lake Hospital already held too many bad memories for Natalie and she did not want any more.

The dream she had been in came back to her in bits and pieces. She recalled the hot sun and the sand beneath her feet and a hooded figure that spoke in riddles. Then—a village? Natalie could not be sure. Three women, walking, wearing dresses. In the end, a black stone that shone in the bright morning.

Natalie shook her head to clear it, trying to make sense of it. It felt like she was missing something, something just out of reach. She pushed it out of her mind – Ramon was more important at the moment. In fact, he made for a very great concern for her.

Natalie’s bare feet felt cold against the floor as she gingerly stood.

She bit her lip. “Ramon—I mean, Mr. Keys. Is he all right?”

The nurse shook her head, a crease appearing between her eyebrows.

“Had a heart attack, the poor man did,” said the nurse. “Doctors can’t explain it – he’s young and healthy.”

“But is he still alive?”

She could not decide what she wanted for an answer. If he had died, then she had killed a person – another human being. She would be a murderer, no better than him. Though unlikely that anyone else would realize that it had been her because she had not so much as touched him, she would always know. She would always be aware of what she had done.

If he lived, then what? Would he try to kill her? Would he try to kill her friends? She did not understand what he was up to. Why had not he deflected the magic she had sent his way? It had been sudden, yes, but it should have been easy to avert for a Master Wielder such as himself. She was still a mere student in the arts of Wielding, a simple Novus.

Her thoughts raced a mile a minute and she nearly managed to work herself into hysterics in the few seconds before the nurse replied.

“Last I heard, he was doing better down in the ICU.”

Natalie let out a breath she had not realized she had been holding.

He was alive.

Ramon was alive.

She did not know whether to be relieved or not at the fact that Ramon had not died, but she felt very thankful that she had not killed anyone.

The nurse left and Natalie walked slowly to the doorway. She felt weak. Unsurprisingly, the burst of magic she had cursed Ramon with had left her drained. She mostly wanted to go lie down again but the urge to see Ramon was stronger.

She knew her way around the hospital these days. Even in the short time she had known Cecily, Natalie had already come with her several times. So she made her way down the corridor to the elevator and waited impatiently for it to come. She realized as she stood there that she had left her shoes back in the room she had been before and as such, she stood barefoot, but she decided it did not matter. She supposed the nurses would force her back into bed once they realized she had left. After all, she had been unconscious for quite a while.

Nurses, doctors and patients filled the first floor as always. Though a small city, there seemed to be enough sick and injured people to fill it. The intensive care unit was less crowded, its patients each having their own rooms with glass doors to see through. It did not take long for Natalie to locate Ramon.

She thought he looked a bit like Cecily had, when she had been comatose mere weeks ago – back when Ava had still been alive, before their fight with Ramon.

He looked anything but dangerous now. Lines went into his hand and one sat stuck under his nose. He looked far too pale. The machines around him beeped steadily as she pushed the door open and entered.

To her great surprise, Ramon’s eyes fluttered open. They locked on Natalie’s frightened ones immediately, as she stood right in front of the bed. Her hands gripped the wooden end of his bed.

Why had she come here?

“Miss Winters.”

Ramon’s voice was raspy and weak. He did not sound any better than Natalie felt, but Natalie steeled herself in case he was acting. Still, the rational part of her did not understand why, or how, anyone could ‘act’ a heart attack – at least not one that fooled the doctors.

“Are you feeling better now?”

It was Ramon who asked the question, not the other way around. The honesty in his voice took Natalie by surprise – he truly wondered how she felt.

Perhaps it was not an act. Perhaps the confusion had been real, perhaps he did not know who she was or that he had murdered her best friend. Perhaps he had an evil twin – though why would they share the same name? – or perhaps he simply did not remember, though she could not figure out why he would not. All she knew was that when she came back from giving into Chaos in Ramon’s Mithridates, he had looked very confused.

Finally, Natalie asked softly, “Don’t you remember me?”

Ramon cocked his head slightly to the side. “Why, of course I do. You were in my class earlier, Miss Winters. Though you seemed to have me confused with someone else.”

Natalie did not take her eyes off him as she shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t think I do. And you should know me, but not only from class. You’ve met me before and you—you killed my best friend.”

It was some accusation to come with, to say that another person had committed murder. Natalie stared at Ramon for any sign of recognition, any gleam of knowledge in his eyes. She had her body wound as tightly as it possibly could be, ready to bolt if it all turned out to be an act.

But she found no recognition in his eyes.

He stared back at her, mouth hanging open. Then he finally sputtered, “What? Murd—me? Are you crazy?”

“Yes, possibly,” muttered Natalie.

How could he not remember? Natalie remembered it far too clearly – she wished she could erase it. The resounding crack of Ava’s skull against the wall, the pit of darkness within herself that was Chaos, the mad, cackling laughter of Ramon.

Ramon’s pulse quickened and he lay back, seeming exhausted from the short but intense conversation. A nurse came into the room, checking the monitors and telling ‘Mr. Keys’ to calm down, it was not good for his health.

Natalie backed out of the room slowly, eyes still on Ramon. She knew the nurses would ask her to leave anyway. She would not get to speak more to Ramon and she felt uncertain of if she even wanted to speak to him any more. A doctor hurried past her; apparently Ramon was having breathing difficulties.

Natalie turned and ran.

She did not stop until she reached the front doors and a cool outside breeze swept past her. It ruffled her hair and sent chills down Natalie’s spine. Something was coming. Really, something had already come. Ramon had already come.

Her bare feet felt cold against the concrete but she could not bring herself to go back in just yet.

What did it mean? Who was he? Would he to try to raise Chaos again? Why did he stay in the hospital? Why had he not fought back and protected himself against the surge of magic she had sent his way?

Another breeze swept past.

After a few minutes, Natalie had calmed her quickly beating heart. She sat down on the concrete and sighed to herself. She needed to get a grip.

Suddenly, someone dropped down next to her. At first, Natalie ignored him but she felt his eyes on her and finally looked up, ready to deliver a scathing line. She stopped dead and stared before breaking out into a smile.

“Butler Thomas!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, quite.”

Natalie searched his eyes briefly, and then looked to the man’s chest to look for a magical necklace, to make sure that this was really butler Thomas and no one else. She did not want to be abducted again. She found nothing strange about the man. He wore his regular grey suit and his eyes were a calm blue. His had his grey hair parted straight down the middle and not a single strand laid the wrong way.

“Your grandmother wishes to see you,” the butler said.

Natalie’s smile vanished. She still felt unsure of what to make of her grandmother and the words of butler Thomas did not necessarily bode well.

“Now?” asked Natalie.

“Don’t look so frightened,” said butler Thomas, as though reading her mind. “Madame isn’t that angry.”

The fact that she was angry at all made Natalie rather hesitant to go with the butler but she assumed she would have to see her grandmother sooner or later.

“Now, we should get going,” butler Thomas said.

“But—I’m supposed to be in school.”

“And yet you are here.”

Natalie blushed. “Yes, well, there was a thing—an accident of sorts.”

Butler Thomas raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure the school will understand that a student who has been unconscious needs to go home and rest afterwards.”

She wondered how he knew about that. His reasoning seemed logical, though she doubted the school would be as logical about it.

“I just—” said Natalie indecisively.

Butler Thomas placed a hand upon her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Miss Natalie. If Madame wishes to see you, I am certain she will also see to it that your school will not punish you for your absence.”

Natalie bit her lip and looked down at her bare feet. She had run out of excuses, she realized. She did not know why she did not want to see her grandmother, but she did not. Perhaps it had something to do with the tone of voice butler Thomas used when he had told her – “Your grandmother wishes to see you.”

“My shoes are inside,” Natalie said finally.

“I’m sure you can come get them later,” said the butler. He stood, surprisingly agile for a man of his age. Though Natalie realized, she did not really know his age at all.

The carriage waited for them on one of the smaller streets just a block away. Natalie wondered why no one had discovered it – sure, it was one of the less populated streets but people always moved about in Lake Sunflower and they ought to notice something as big as the carriage. She guessed it had to do with magic. Natalie glanced at butler Thomas, but decided not to ask him about it – he did not seem the type to enjoy playing twenty questions.

Minutes later, they were on their way. Natalie sat comfortably against the cushions that filled the carriage and she fought the urge to sleep that the magic stones swept over her. It did not work and before she knew it, she had fallen asleep.

It felt like mere moments had passed when Natalie awoke. Butler Thomas had opened the door to the carriage and the fresh air roused Natalie quickly. She climbed out of the carriage carefully and then turned to face her grandmother.

“Hello,” Natalie said. She eyed her grandmother gingerly, wondering about her mood.

“Good afternoon, Natalie,” said her grandmother, speaking in clipped tones that were as crisp as the air around them.

Natalie held back a sigh – this did not bode for a fun afternoon.

“Walk with me, Natalie.”

“Yes, grandmother,” said Natalie.

She had obviously done something wrong – something to anger her grandmother. Considering the timing, she rather suspected it had to do with Ramon. She thought briefly of what it would have been like to have a warm, loving grandmother who awaited her arrival with open arms. It did not seem likely that this relationship would ever evolve to that.

They passed through the house, out into the backyard and down the stairs that led into the great forest. Its beauty still took Natalie’s breath away – the forest simply continued on and on, into the horizon. Natalie wondered about this place, this separate reality. How did it work? How could they travel between realities? Were there other realities than this one and the regular world?

Natalie did not feel the least bit surprised when her grandmother led them to her Mithridates. The grass still stood green but the leaves of the trees around the clearing had begun to turn red, marking fall’s quick approach.

Natalie’s grandmother turned and faced her.

“Tell me what happened today.”

Natalie knew there would be no point in pretending she did not know what her grandmother spoke of. It would only forestall the inevitable.

Quietly, without meeting her grandmother’s eyes, Natalie told the story of Ramon’s sudden and unexpected reappearance in her life. It hurt just to say his name – images of his mad eyes flashed before her together with pictures of Ava. Yet when she thought about it, she could not quite piece the two images together – the one of Ramon in his Mithridates and the one of Ramon in the classroom. The latter lacked in madness. Ramon in the classroom, and in the hospital, had been sane and even kind. It was like the person she had faced off with in the Mithridates had been his evil twin.

Natalie sighed as she finished, ending with butler Thomas’ appearance outside the hospital.

“I don’t know what happened, grandmother,” Natalie said softly. “It was him, I swear. But he didn’t recognize me. It was like he had absolutely no idea of who I was.”

Her grandmother looked down her nose at Natalie. Her expression softened, but only a little, and she sighed.

“At least I will not have to start by lecturing you on the ground rules of Wielding. You don’t seem to have done this on purpose.”

“Ground rules of Wielding?” echoed Natalie.

“’Do not use your powers to harm another’,” her grandmother recited.

Natalie shook her head. “I was scared. I only wanted to hurt him because I was scared. I thought he was back to kill me.”

“I do not believe that Ramon – Mr. Keys – will try to kill you again.”

Natalie looked up sharply. “What?”

“I said, I don’t think he will try to kill you again,” repeated her grandmother. “I don’t believe it was his doing at all to begin with.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Natalie. “Of course it was him!”

Her grandmother hesitated for but a moment. Then she reached into a pocket of her dress and fished something up. It glimmered in the afternoon sun.

Natalie took a few steps closer – she had been staying at a distance, a bit frightened of her grandmother’s anger – to be able to see what her grandmother was holding. It was obviously some kind of jewelry.

“Do you recognize it, Natalie?” asked her grandmother and held out the trinket for Natalie to see.

Natalie did not need to gaze upon it for more than a second to identify it.

The shiny black necklace lay comfortably in her grandmother’s hand, the blood-red stone that had once adorned it cracked into a million pieces. Most of them had fallen out and only tiny shards here and there remained.

Natalie imagined she could still feel dark, evil power emanating from it – for it was Ramon’s necklace.

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