The remainder of the weekend passed as though wrapped in mist. Natalie felt unable to concentrate on anything, whether to do with schoolwork or trying to figure anything out with the magical aspect of her life. She could not even begin to ponder Ava’s ghostly reappearance, because every time she thought of Ava, she thought of death, and that led her straight back to Cecily.
By Sunday night, Natalie had gained only one thing from the weekend – fierce determination to find something that could help Cecily. As Cecily and her father already seemed to have emptied out the medical possibilities to cure Cecily, and Natalie could not help in that department anyway, it left magic.
The nagging feeling in the back of her mind, that Natalie had forgotten about something, stayed with her. Just out of reach, it vanished into thin air each and every time she thought she remembered. It left Natalie feeling thoroughly annoyed.
Her mother’s necklace hung around Natalie’s neck, and it shone softly in the moonlight spilling through the window. Natalie had studied the beautiful craftsmanship many times but tonight, it only irritated her. No matter how breathtaking, the necklace could not save Cecily. Natalie had tried – and failed. The effects lasted only for a couple of hours and Natalie doubted it would matter at all in a few months time.
She wondered what she would have been able to do as a Master Wielder.
She played with the magic she could control, lazily as her thoughts drifted. It moved through her, starting at her toes and pulling power from everything around her. Focused through her necklace, she could pull it out, feeling it sparkle at her fingertips. The power was not terrible, but beautiful. She placed her fingertips on the stone and pulled out a string of whispery magic, forming it into a ball in her hand that illuminated her room in a silver glow. Moving her fingers, she could form the magic and in her hand, it became a horse at first. She added a pair of wings to its side and it left her hand, circling the room.
Eventually, it faded and the room became dark once more.
She lay awake for hours, sleep evading her. When she finally did fall asleep, the dreams were fleeting and nightmarish, with vivid colors and sinister laughter surrounding her.
Far from her bouncy self the next morning, the scene in the kitchen made her want to gag. Richard kissed Emmanuella, although he pulled back hastily when he saw Natalie.
“Good morning,” he said with a nervous glance between his wife and Natalie. “Would you like anything for breakfast?”
Natalie only barely kept a roll of her eyes at bay. She knew that this would be her morning greeting for the next few months: Richard and Emmanuella all lovey-dovey, and Emmanuella playing up every symptom of her pregnancy. After the baby was born – who knew what things were going to be like then? Natalie sighed.
As she walked to class half an hour later, students shot her odd looks. Natalie was not surprised, although she wondered how long it would stay that way – a week had passed since she had cursed Ramon into the hospital and people really ought to have better things to do than gossip.
Still, she heard them.
“That’s her,” a girl whispered theatrically, obviously not minding much if Natalie overheard, “she actually punched a teacher and now he’s in a coma and they don’t know if he’ll wake up!”
The girls around her gasped, looking fittingly horrified. Another continued where the first had left off – “Well I heard that it was because they’d been having a sordid affair and he—”
Natalie shook her head, tuning them out. Rumors had a life of their own. True, Ramon still stayed in the hospital, but hardly in a coma – and the rest of the rumors were simply ludicrous.
“Quite the reputation,” said an unpleasant voice. It belonged to Chase Eadan, who leaned against one of the walls, attempting to look casual. Blond hair fell into his cold eyes. “One could start wondering what kind of person you are, Winters.”
Natalie raised an eyebrow. She was not in the mood but Eadan never left her alone once he had started.
“The same can be said for you,” she said.
Eadan smiled and he probably thought it made him look charming. “My reputation hardly states that I go around punching people.”
“No, it states that you are the most spoiled brat the school has ever seen. A brat who’s not used to getting ‘no’ for an answer, and one who doesn’t understand when people don’t want to hang with him.”
Eadan spat, “Are you really deluding yourself with thinking that I’d want to be friends with you and the runaway freak? And the little inane sicko? You are all freaks.”
Natalie’s temper flared. “Don’t call my friends that.”
Eadan appeared pleased that he got a reaction from her. He took a step closer to her. Out of the corner of her eye, Natalie noted that people stood around them, staring and whispering. Did they truly have nothing better to do?
“What are you going to do about it?” asked Eadan, staring down at her. Then he added, smirking, “Freak.”
“That I am,” Natalie said. “Would you like to find out just how much of a freak I am?”
With her temper, her magic ignited within. She kept it at bay – she did not want another occurrence like the one with Ramon – but left it simmering just below the surface, where she could easily reach it if need be. She doubted it – Eadan would not sully his hands and risk detention to hurt her here. Besides, she had already used magic on him once. He knew, even though he did not know exactly what it was, that she could do extraordinary things.
Eadan’s face fell and for the merest of moments, Natalie could see some dread in his eyes. He feared her. She felt unsure of whether to be pleased or not – if she frightened him enough, he might leave her alone, but then again, she did not want to be fearsome to anyone.
Then Eadan’s façade was back up and he sneered at her. “You are nothing, and you can do nothing to me.”
Natalie took a few steps closer. She narrowed her eyes at the boy, who tried to look suave.
“Are you sure?”
His eyes flitted to the sides and Natalie wondered where his followers were. They usually did not leave his side.
Eadan’s eyes locked with hers and they stared at each other. Natalie could feel the irritation welling up in Eadan’s eyes – frustration that he did not have her under his command. He was not used to people who were not – when Ava refused to follow his orders, he had bullied her for years.
“Leave me and my friends alone,” Natalie hissed to him, “or you might find out that there is something I can do to you.”
With a final glare at Eadan, Natalie turned from him and continued down the hallway towards the her History class with Mrs. Hensley.
An hour later, Natalie met up with Cecily in math. She had not seen Cecily since Saturday and felt unsure of how to act with her. Cecily calmed her quickly, behaving as she always did – serene and quiet, her homework at the ready when Mrs. Miller asked for it. Natalie had to give Cecily credit: she made for a very good actress.
They had not much time to speak even between math and English, and what little they did say, they kept light. Walking down a corridor in a student-filled school was not the place for serious conversations of dying friends.
A substitute, one who was not Ramon, held their English class. Natalie did not participate much in the discussion on famous writers. She usually did not, but especially not now.
Packing up their books after class, Cecily said, “I’ll see you at lunch, but not in art.”
“Why?” asked Natalie although she suspected the answer.
Cecily appeared concentrated on placing her books back in her bag. “They’re going to do a battery of tests this afternoon. I won’t be here tomorrow; they want me overnight for observation.”
Natalie’s heart constricted. “Would you like me to come visit you?”
Cecily looked up. There was gratefulness in her eyes, as though she was glad that Natalie had offered. Still, her answer was, “No, please don’t.”
Natalie had already seen her in the hospital on more than one occasion but it did not matter. Natalie knew Cecily thought this was different – Cecily was wide awake this time, for one, not unconscious like she had been the other times. There would be nurses poking and prodding, doctors asking questions and doing tests. Cecily would be a lab rat, not a human.
Natalie nodded. “Okay. But I’ll see you at lunch.”
That afternoon, Natalie felt only like drawing a paper full of black in art. She had a very hard time seeing what the good in life at the moment – she had already lost one best friend, would she now lose her second one as well?
Mr. Connell, the rather short art teacher, looked over her shoulder as she stabbed at the paper, drawing lines up and down and across, filling the paper with darkness.
“Might I assume that you are feeling unhappy?” he asked, perfectly politely.
Natalie looked at him and tried to not make it an obvious glare. He would, after all, be setting her grade.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Mr. Connell ignored any hostility in her voice. “Am I also to assume this has something to do with Miss Cordell’s absence?”
Natalie hesitated a bit before saying, rather more quietly, “Yes, sir.”
He smiled slightly, a sympathetic smile. “I would think that if a friend has less time amongst us than others, one would make the most of it, rather than spend it in darkness.”
Natalie looked at him for a few moments, processing his words. He had obviously been able to tell that Cecily was unwell and getting worse – but as she had been absent twice in one week, it was not hard to figure out how he knew.
More important were his words. He was right, of course. If Cecily did not have more than a few months left – Natalie swallowed back tears at the thought – they should make the best of it rather than tread on eggshells around her and curse the illness. They should be making it the best time for her, no matter how hard.
“Yes, sir,” Natalie said a third time to her teacher. He smiled kindly at her and hurried away, as other students needed his counsel.
Natalie looked at the paper before her. It was nearly all black, filled with the thick strokes of the oil crayon she held in her hand. Natalie closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She could do it; she could make Cecily’s days good.
Still, the resolve within her to find something else, something to cure her, was stronger than ever.
That night, Natalie began composing a letter to her grandmother, wishing to come see her. She had no idea of how she would get the letter to her grandmother, but perhaps she would figure something out. She needed to see her grandmother, and even more, she needed to see Diophane McCoy. The Diophane, she was sure, would know a way to help Cecily.
As she finished up the letter and wrote ‘Madeline Turner’ on the front of an envelope, Natalie came to think of the ghost writer. She had not heard from it for a while.
Outside, a dog was barking in the darkness. Natalie stared out the window, into the starlit skies. It was another beautiful Californian night with not a single cloud in sight. It was calm and clear night, the air fresh. Natalie felt herself getting sleepy, her mind wandering to places she could not quite remember.
As she sat there, memories started seeping into her mind. Natalie frowned at them – there was a desert and a cloaked figure, and then there was a village and three women and a stone that everyone was looking at… Places she had never been and people she had never met but they seemed very familiar all the same. Natalie had the sense that the images were important. She recalled speaking to the hooded figure, and it had spoken back to her. If only she could remember what they had talked about.
As if on cue, there was writing on the paper when Natalie next looked down.
‘Go to the library of Lake Sunflower.’
Natalie frowned at the direct order. The ghost writer had always spoken in riddles before – what was with the clear instruction?
Natalie wrote, ‘Why?’
Natalie concentrated on the photo of herself as a baby with her mother, while she saw her arm move out of the corner of her eye.
‘You wish to help your friend, don’t you?’ wrote the ghost writer.
Natalie answered immediately. ‘Of course!’
The next response was longer; it was the longest she had ever received from the ghost writer.
‘Then go to the library and to its West Wing. Find the shelf closest to the wall. Use magic to get in.’
Natalie frowned at the ghost writer’s strange directions. The library? She had only visited it once – she had gone with Cecily to pick up a book a few weeks ago – but she found the place freaky. The building was at least a century old, if not more, and both the exterior and the interior reflected this. Its outside looked like an old castle, and inside, the walls were dark. Though filled with modern literature, the shelves were original, ornately carved wood. They were beautiful, but something had sent shivers down Natalie’s spine when she had been there.
At the ghost writer’s words, Natalie wondered what the old building could be hiding. What history was in there?
‘Get in where?’
Natalie decided not to ask questions about the building – she suspected she would not get an answer anyway. The ghost writer only answered the things it wanted to answer, and going through a building’s history was not likely to be on that list.
‘You will see.’
The return of the secretive answers, Natalie sighed. The ghost writer never had been straight forward. However, Natalie knew she had to go. It did not matter if she found the place freaky, or if it had been in hell itself – Natalie would still have gone. One friend was enough to lose – Natalie would go to great lengths to keep the one she still had.
She decided rather quickly, however, to not tell Cecily of this at all. There was no need to get her hopes up, if it did not work out. Natalie could not stand the thought of disappointing Cecily, especially not when it came to this matter – a matter that was in fact life or death.
The ghost writer seemed to have left her again for no more words and sentences came forth. Natalie finally put her pen away and left the letter for her grandmother laying on the desk. Looking at her alarm clock, Natalie realized the hour and that it was time for bed.
The house was quiet. Natalie brushed her teeth and returned to her room. Just as she was about to push open the door, she caught a glimpse of something through the small opening that was between the door and the doorframe.
She was not sure what she saw; it was gone before she had a chance to get a good look. It was about the size of a seven-year-old child, but it did not move like a child would. It had been far more graceful, each movement refined.
Natalie opened after a minute, when she was sure the thing was gone. Looking around the room to make sure it had not been a thief that had been in the room, Natalie noted that the letter she had written to her grandmother was gone.
She smiled slightly, a feeling of excitement running through her.
She had just seen her first wood elf.
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