Beautiful Chaos by Kami Garcia

“Never?” She was trying to say the word, but from where we stood, we almost couldn’t hear it.

  “Our only clue is the boy. How did he come to be, and for what purpose?”

  “Or the girl?” Liv asked.

  “Olivia. That’s enough.”

  But Liv wasn’t deterred that easily. “Perhaps you already know? How did she come to be, and for what purpose? Scientifically speaking, it would be relevant.”

  Lena shut me out, willing her mind apart from mine, until I was alone in the passageway even as we clung to each other.

  Macon shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was harsh. “Don’t say anything to the others. I want to be absolutely certain.”

  “Before you tell Lena what she’s done,” Liv said flatly. It was a fact, but somehow she didn’t say it that way.

  Macon’s green eyes held all the emotion his black ones never had. Fear. Anger. Resentment. “Before I tell her what she has to do.”

  “You might not be able to stop this.” She looked down at her selenometer out of habit.

  “Olivia, it’s not only the universe that could be destroyed. It’s my niece. Who is, as far as I am concerned, more important than a thousand lost universes.”

  “Believe me, I know.” If Liv was bitter, she didn’t let on.

  It felt like my heart stopped beating. Lena slipped out of my arms before I even realized she was gone.

  I found Lena in her room. She didn’t cry, and I didn’t try to console her. We sat in silence, holding hands until it hurt, until the sun fell away—behind the words, behind the glass and the trees and the river. The night slid across her bed, and I waited for the darkness to erase everything.

  9.15

  Izabel

  Are you sure we’re going the right way?” We had turned off the highway, south of Charleston. But the houses had changed from traditional Victorians with wraparound porches and white turrets stretching toward the clouds to—nothing. The houses were gone, replaced with miles of tobacco fields and an occasional weather-beaten barn.

  Lena glanced at the sheet of notebook paper in her lap. “This is the way. Gramma said there weren’t a lot of other houses near my old… where my house used to be.” When Lena told me she wanted to see the house where she was born, it made sense—for about ten seconds. Because it wasn’t just the house where she took her first steps and scribbled on the walls with crayon. It was also the place where her father died. Where Lena could have died, when her mother set fire to the house, right before Lena’s first birthday.

  But Lena insisted, and there was no talking her out of it. We hadn’t said a word to each other about what we’d overheard in Macon’s study, but I knew this had to be another piece of the puzzle. Macon thought Lena’s and John’s pasts held some kind of key to what was happening in the Caster and Mortal worlds. Which was the reason we were driving through the backwoods right now.

  Aunt Del leaned forward from the backseat of the Volvo. Lucille was sitting in her lap. “It doesn’t look familiar to me, but I could be wrong.” That was an understatement. Aunt Del was the last person I would ask for directions, unless we were in the Tunnels. And lately I wasn’t sure if she could find her way around down there either. If visiting the charred remains of Lena’s birthplace had been a bad idea, bringing Aunt Del with us was an even worse one. Since Lena’s Claiming, no one seemed to be turned inside out as much as Lena’s aunt.

  Lena pointed at my window. “I think it’s up here. Uncle M said to look for a driveway on the left.” A fence, with white paint peeling down the sides, guarded the road. There was a break in the fence a few yards ahead. “That’s it.”

  As I turned between the crooked posts, I heard Lena’s breath catch. I took her hand, and my pulse quickened.

  Are you sure you want to do this?

  No. But I need to know what happened.

  L, you know what happened.

  This is where it all started. Where my mother held me as a baby. Where she decided to hate me.

  She was a Dark Caster. She wasn’t capable of love.

  Lena leaned against my shoulder as I drove down the dusty driveway.

  Part of me is Dark, too, Ethan. And I love you.

  I stiffened. Lena wasn’t Dark, not like her mother.

  It’s not the same. You’re also Light.

  I know. But Sarafine isn’t gone. She’s out there somewhere, with Abraham, waiting. And the more I know about her, the more prepared I’ll be to fight her.

  I wasn’t sure if that’s what this trip was really about. But it didn’t matter. Because when I pulled up to what was left of the house, it was suddenly about something different.

  Reality.

  “My stars,” Aunt Del whispered.

  It was worse than the yellowed photos in my mom’s archive—the ones that captured what was left of the plantations after the Great Burning—black skeletons of enormous homes reduced to nothing but charred framework, as empty and hollow as the towns the Union soldiers left in their wake.

  This house, Lena’s old house, was nothing more than a cracked foundation floating in a sea of blackened earth. Nothing had grown back. It was as if the ground itself had been scarred by what happened here.

  How could Sarafine have done this to her family?

  We didn’t matter to her. This proves it.

  Lena dropped my hand and walked toward the rubble.

  Let’s go, L. You don’t have to do this.

  She looked back at me, green and gold eyes determined.

  Yes, I do.

  Lena turned to Aunt Del. “I need to see what happened here. Before… this.” She wanted her aunt to use her powers to peel away the layers of the past so Lena could see the house that once stood here—and, more important, see inside it.

  Aunt Del looked more nervous than usual, her hair coming loose from her bun as we walked over to Lena. “My powers have been misfiring a bit. I may not be able to find exactly the moment you’re looking for, sweetheart.” What moment was that? The fire? I didn’t know if I could stand to see it—if Lena could. “They may not even work at all.”

  I put my hand on the back of Lena’s neck gently. Her skin was hot.

  “Can you try?”

  Her face pained, Aunt Del looked at the burnt wood scattered around the base of the house. She nodded and held out her hand. The three of us sat on the black ground and joined hands, the heat beating down on us like a fire of its own.

  “All right.” Aunt Del stared at the crumbling foundation intently, preparing to use her powers as a Palimpsest to show us the history of what was left of this place.

  The air began to shift around us, slowly at first. Just as the world started to spin around me—I saw it for a split second. The shadow that always moved too fast for me to see. The one I felt in English class, the one following me. The one I couldn’t escape. It was watching, as if somehow it could see whatever we saw in the layers of Aunt Del’s perception.

  Then a door opened into the past, and I was looking into a bedroom—

  The walls are painted a pale, shimmering silver, and strands of white lights hang across the ceiling like stars in a magical sky. A girl with long black curls is standing by the window, staring out at the real sky. I know those curls and that beautiful profile—it’s Lena. But the girl turns, holding a bundle in her arms, and I realize it isn’t Lena. It’s Sarafine, her golden eyes shining. She stares at the baby, whose tiny hands are reaching. Sarafine holds out her finger, and the baby grabs it. She looks down at the baby, smiling. “You are such a special girl, and I will always take care of you—”

  The door slams shut.

  I waited for another to open, the way the doors always did, opening and closing like a chain reaction. But there was no point. The sky swirled back into view, and for a minute I was seeing double. Both Aunt Dels looked flustered.

  “I—I’m sorry. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It doesn’t make sense.” Only it did. Aunt Del’s powers were out of whack, like everyone el
se’s. Usually, she could stand anywhere and see the pieces of the past, present, and future, like the pages of a flip-book. Now there were pages missing, and she had only caught a single glimpse of the past.

  Aunt Del was visibly shaken and looked more confused than ever. I took her arm to help her up. “Don’t worry, Aunt Del. Macon’s going to figure out how to… fix the Order.” Which seemed like the right thing to say, even though it was clear that Gatlin—maybe the whole world—was pretty broken.

  Lena looked broken, too. She pushed herself up and walked closer to what was left of the house, as if she could still see the bedroom. Rain pelted down without warning, and heat lightning flashed across the sky. The grasshoppers scattered, and within seconds I was drenched.

  L?

  Standing there in the rain reminded me of the first night we met, in the middle of Route 9. She looked almost the same, and yet so different.

  Am I crazy, or did it look like Sarafine cared about me?

  You’re not crazy.

  But, Ethan, that’s not possible.

  I pushed the wet hair out of my eyes.

  Maybe it is.

  The rain stopped instantly, from a downpour back to sunshine in the span of a few seconds. It happened all the time now—Lena’s powers fluctuating between extremes she couldn’t control.

  “What are you doing?” I jogged to catch up with her.

  “I want to see what’s left.” She wasn’t talking about the stones and burnt wood. Lena wanted a feeling to hold on to, proof of the one happy moment she had experienced here.

  I followed her to the edge of the foundation, which was more of a wall now. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but the closer we got to the charred remains, the more it smelled like ash. You could see where the steps that led up to the porch had burned away. I was tall enough to see over the side of the wall. There was nothing but a hole filled with cracked concrete, splintered pieces of rotted black wood littering the ground.

  Lena was kneeling in the mud. She reached for something about the size of a shoe box.

  “What is it?” Even when I got closer, it was hard to tell.

  “I’m not sure.” She wiped the mud off with her hand, revealing rust and dented metal. There was a melted keyhole on one side. “It’s a lockbox.” Lena handed me the box. It was heavier than it looked.

  “The lock is melted, but I think I can open it.” I looked around and picked up a piece of broken rock. I lifted the rock to get some leverage, when suddenly the metal hinges scraped open. “What the—?” I looked up at Lena, and she shrugged.

  “Sometimes my powers still work the way I want them to.” She kicked at a puddle. “Other times, not so much.”

  Even though the box was burnt and dented on the outside, it had protected the contents: a silver bracelet with an intricate design, a worn paperback copy of Great Expectations, a photo of Sarafine in a blue dress, with a dark-haired boy at a school dance. There was a cheesy backdrop behind them, like the one Lena and I had posed in front of at the winter formal. There was another photo, tucked under the bracelet—a baby picture of a little girl. I knew it was Lena because the child looked exactly like the baby Sarafine had been holding in her arms.

  Lena touched the edge of the baby picture and lifted it above the box. The world around us started to fade, the sunlight quickly turning to darkness. I knew what was happening, but this time it wasn’t happening to me. I was following Lena into the vision, the way she had followed me the day I sat in church with the Sisters. Within seconds the muddy ground turned to grass—

  Izabel was shaking violently. She knew what was happening, and it had to be a mistake. It was her deepest fear, the nightmares that had haunted her since she was a child. This wasn’t supposed to happen to her—she was Light, not Dark. She had tried so hard to do the right things, to be the person everyone wanted her to be. How could she be anything but Light, after all that? But as the devastating cold tore through her veins, Izabel knew she was wrong; it wasn’t a mistake. She was going Dark.

  The moon, her Sixteenth Moon, was full and luminous now. As she stared at it, Izabel could feel the rare gifts her family was so sure she possessed—the powers of a Natural—being twisted into something else. Soon her thoughts and heart would not be her own. Sorrow, destruction, and hate would force everything else out. Everything good.

  Izabel’s thoughts tortured her, but the physical pain was unbearable, as if her body was tearing itself to shreds from the inside. But she forced herself to her feet and ran. There was only one place she could go. She blinked hard, her vision clouded by a golden haze. Tears burned her skin. It couldn’t be true.

  By the time she made it to her mother’s house, her breath was ragged. Izabel reached above the door and touched the lintel. But for the first time it didn’t open. She pounded on the door until her hands were cut and bleeding, then she slid to the ground, her cheek resting against the wood.

  When the door opened, Izabel fell, her face slamming against the marble floor of the hallway. Even that didn’t compare to the pain raging through her body. A pair of black laceup boots was barely inches from her face. Izabel clutched at her mother’s legs frantically.

  Emmaline pulled her daughter up from the floor. “What happened? What is it?”

  Izabel tried to hide her eyes, but it was impossible. “It’s a mistake, Mamma. I know how it looks, but I’m still the same. I’m still me.”

  “No. It can’t be.” Emmaline grabbed Izabel’s chin so she could see her daughter’s eyes. They were as yellow as the sun.

  A girl not much older than Izabel came down the winding staircase, taking the steps two at a time. “Mamma, what’s going on?”

  Emmaline whirled around, pushing Izabel behind her. “Go back upstairs, Delphine!”

  But there was no way to hide Izabel’s glowing yellow eyes. Delphine froze. “Mamma?”

  “I said go upstairs! There’s nothing you can do for your sister!” Their mother’s voice was defeated. “It’s too late.”

  Too late? Her mother didn’t mean that—she couldn’t. Izabel wrapped her arms around her mother, and Emmaline jumped as if she’d been stung. Izabel’s skin was as cold as ice.

  Emmaline turned, holding Izabel by the shoulders. Tears already marked the woman’s face. “I can’t help you. There’s nothing I can do.”

  Lightning streaked across the black sky. A bolt tore down, splitting the huge oak that shaded their house. The splintered trunk crashed down, taking out part of the roof with it. A window shattered upstairs, and the sound of glass breaking echoed through the house.

  Izabel recognized the unfamiliar look on her mother’s face.

  Fear.

  “It’s a mistake. I’m not—” Dark. Izabel couldn’t bring herself to say the word.

  “There are no mistakes, not where the curse is concerned. You are Claimed Light or Dark; there is no in between.”

  “But Mamma—”

  Emmaline shook her head, pushing Izabel across the threshold. “You can’t stay here. Not now.”

  Izabel’s eyes went wild. “Gramma Katherine isn’t going to let me live there anymore. I have nowhere else to go.” She was sobbing uncontrollably. “Mamma, please help me. We can fight this together. I’m your daughter!”

  “Not anymore.”

  Delphine had been silent, but she couldn’t believe what her mother was saying. She couldn’t turn her sister away. “Mamma, it’s Izabel! We have to help her!”

  Emmaline looked at Izabel, remembering the day she was born. The day Emmaline had silently chosen her child’s true name. She had imagined the moment she would share it with Izabel—staring into her daughter’s green eyes and tucking her black curls behind her ear as she whispered the name.

  Emmaline stared into her daughter’s glowing yellow eyes, then turned away.

  “Her name isn’t Izabel anymore. It’s Sarafine.”

  The real world came into focus slowly. Lena was standing a few feet away, still holding the box. I
could see it shaking in her hands, her eyes wet with tears. I couldn’t imagine what she was feeling.

  In the vision, Sarafine was just a girl whose fate was decided for her. There wasn’t a trace of the monster she was now. Was that how it happened? You opened your eyes and your whole life changed?

  L? Are you okay?

  Our eyes met, and for a second she didn’t answer. When she did, her voice was quiet in my mind.

  She was just like me.

  9.15

  The City That Care Forgot

  I looked down at my sneakers in the darkness. I could feel the moisture seeping through the canvas, then my socks, until my skin was numb with cold. I was standing in some kind of water. I could hear it moving, not so much rushing as rippling. Something brushed against my ankle and then moved away. A leaf. A twig.

  A river.

  I could smell the rot, mixed with mud. Maybe I was in the swamp near Wader’s Creek. The dark fringe in the distance could be swamp grass, and the tall forms, cypress trees. I reached up with one hand. Fluttering feathers, tickling long and light. Spanish moss. This was definitely the swamp.

  I crouched low and felt the water with my hand. It felt thick and heavy. I scooped a handful and held it to my nose, letting it trickle through my fingers. I listened.

  It didn’t sound right.

  Despite everything I knew about pond rot and bacteria and larvae, I stuck one of my fingers in my mouth.

  I knew the taste. I’d know it anywhere. Like sucking on the handful of coins I’d stolen from the fountain in Forsyth Park when I was nine.

  It wasn’t water.

  It was blood.

  Then I heard the familiar whispering and felt the pressure of another body knocking into mine.

  It was him again. The me who wasn’t me.

  I’M WAITING.

  I heard the words as I fell. I tried to respond, but when I opened my mouth, I began to choke on the river. So I thought the words, though I could barely even think.

  What are you waiting for?

 
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