Beautiful chaos, p.1
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         Part #3 of Caster Chronicles series by Kami Garcia  
Beautiful Chaos


  Begin Reading

  Table of Contents

  Copyright Page

  For our mothers

  Susan Racca,

  who raises baby squirrels and

  feeds them with an eyedropper,

  &

  Marilyn Ross Stohl,

  who could drive a tractor before

  she could drive a car.

  They are true Gatlin Peaches.

  Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—

  Were all like workings of one mind, the features

  Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;

  Characters of the great Apocalypse,

  The types and symbols of Eternity,

  Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.

  —WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, The Prelude: Book Sixth

  BEFORE

  Sugar and Salt

  In Gatlin, it’s funny how the good things are all tied up with the bad. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. But either way, you end up taking your sugar with your salt and your kicks with your kisses, as Amma would say.

  I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere. I only know Gatlin, and this is what I know: By the time I got back to my usual seat at church with the Sisters, the only news being passed along with the collection plate was that the Bluebird Café had stopped serving up hamburger soup, peach pie season was winding down, and some hooligans had stolen the tire swing from the old oak near the General’s Green. Half the congregation was still shuffling down the carpeted aisles in what my mom used to call Red Cross shoes. With all the purple knees puffing up where the knee-highs ended, it felt like a whole sea of legs was holding its breath. At least I was.

  But the Sisters still propped their hymnals open to the wrong pages with their curled knuckles, wadded up handkerchiefs buried in the spotted roses of their hands. Nothing kept them from singing the melody, loud and shrill, as they tried to drown one another out. Except Aunt Prue. She accidentally hit on a real harmony about three notes out of three hundred, but nobody minded. Some things didn’t have to change, and maybe they shouldn’t. Some things, like Aunt Prue, were meant to be off-key.

  It was as if this summer had never happened, and we were safe within these walls. Like nothing but the thick, colored sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows could force its way in here. Not Abraham Ravenwood or Hunting and his Blood Pack. Not Lena’s mother Sarafine or the Devil himself. Nobody else could get past the fierce hospitality of the ushers handing out programs. And even if they did, the preacher would keep on preaching and the choir would keep on singing, because nothing short of the apocalypse could keep folks in Gatlin out of church or each other’s business.

  But outside these walls, this summer had changed everything, in both the Caster and Mortal worlds, even if the folks in Gatlin didn’t know it. Lena had Claimed herself both Light and Dark and split the Seventeenth Moon. A battle between Demons and Casters had ended in death on both sides and opened a crack in the Order of Things the size of the Grand Canyon. What Lena had done was the Caster equivalent of smashing the Ten Commandments. I wondered what the folks in Gatlin would think about that, if they’d ever know. I hoped they wouldn’t.

  This town used to make me feel claustrophobic, and I hated it. Now it felt more like something expected, something I would miss someday. And that day was coming. No one knew that better than I did.

  Sugar and salt and kicks and kisses. The girl I loved had come back to me and broken the world. That’s what actually happened this summer.

  We’d seen the last of hamburger soup and peach pie and tire swings. But we’d seen the start of something, too.

  The beginning of the End of Days.

  9.07

  Linkubus

  I was standing on the top of the white water tower, with my back to the sun. My headless shadow fell across the warm painted metal, disappearing off the edge and into the sky. I could see Summerville stretching out before me, all the way to the lake, from Route 9 to Gatlin. This had been our happy place, mine and Lena’s. One of them, at least. But I wasn’t feeling happy. I felt like I was going to throw up.

  My eyes were watering, but I didn’t know why. Maybe it was the light.

  Come on, already. It’s time.

  I clenched and unclenched my fists—staring out at the tiny houses, the tiny cars, and the tiny people—waiting for it to happen. The dread churned in my stomach, heavy and wrong. Then the familiar arms slammed into my waist, knocking the air out of me and dragging me down to the metal ladder. My jaw hit the side of the railing, and I stumbled. I lurched forward, trying to throw him off.

  Who are you?

  But the harder I swung, the harder he hit me. The next punch landed in my stomach, and I doubled over. That’s when I saw them.

  His black Chucks. They were so old and beat-up, they could have been mine.

  What do you want?

  I didn’t wait for an answer. I lunged for his throat, and he went for mine. That’s when I caught a look at his face, and I saw the truth.

  He was me.

  As we stared into each other’s eyes and clawed at each other’s throats, we rolled over the edge of the water tower and fell.

  The whole way down, I could only think one thing.

  Finally.

  My head hit the floor with a crack, and my body followed a second later, the sheets tangled around me. I tried to open my eyes, but they were still blurred with sleep. I waited for the panic to subside.

  In my old dreams, I had tried to keep Lena from falling. Now I was the one falling. What did that mean? Why did I wake up feeling like I’d already fallen?

  “Ethan Lawson Wate! What in our Sweet Redeemer’s name are you doin’ up there?” Amma had a particular way of shouting that could haul you right back up out of Hades, as my dad would say.

  I opened my eyes, but all I could see was a lonely sock, a spider working its way aimlessly through the dust, and a few beat-up, spine-busted books. Catch-22. Ender’s Game. The Outsiders. A few others. The thrilling view under my bed.

  “Nothing. Just shutting the window.” I stared at my window, but I didn’t close it. I always slept with it open. I’d started leaving it open when Macon died—at least, when we thought he’d died—and now it was a reassuring habit. Most people felt safer with their windows closed, but I knew a closed window couldn’t protect me from the things I was afraid of. It couldn’t keep out a Dark Caster or a Blood Incubus.

  I wasn’t sure anything could.

  But if there was a way, Macon seemed determined to find it. I hadn’t seen much of him since we came back from the Great Barrier. He was always in the Tunnels anyway, or working on some kind of protective Cast to Bind Ravenwood. Lena’s house had become the Fortress of Solitude since the Seventeenth Moon, when the Order of Things—the delicate balance that regulated the Caster world—was broken. Amma was creating her own Fortress of Solitude here at Wate’s Landing—or Fortress of Superstition, as Link called it. Amma would’ve called it “taking preventative measures.” She had lined every windowsill with salt and used my dad’s rickety stepladder to hang cracked glass bottles upside down on every branch of our crepe myrtle tree. In Wader’s Creek, bottle trees were as common as cypresses. Now whenever I saw Link’s mom at the Stop & Steal, Mrs. Lincoln said the same thing—“Caught any evil spirits in those old bottles yet?”

  I wish we could catch yours. That’s what I wanted to say. Mrs. Lincoln stuffed in a dusty brown Coke bottle. I wasn’t sure any bottle tree could handle that.

  Right now, I just wanted to catch a breeze. The heat rolled over me as I leaned against my old wooden bed frame. It was thick and suffocating, a blanket you couldn’t kick off. The relentless South Carolina sun usually let up a little by September,
but not this year.

  I rubbed the lump on my forehead and stumbled to the shower. I turned on the cold water. I let it run for a minute, but it still came out warm.

  Five in a row. I had fallen out of bed five straight mornings, and I was afraid to tell Amma about the nightmares. Who knew what she would hang on our old crepe myrtle next? After everything that happened this summer, Amma had closed in on me like a mother hawk protecting her nest. Every time I stepped out of the house, I could almost feel her shadowing me like my own personal Sheer, a ghost I couldn’t escape.

  And I couldn’t stand it. I needed to believe that sometimes a nightmare was just a nightmare.

  I smelled the bacon frying, and turned up the water. It finally went cold. It wasn’t until I was drying off that I noticed the window had closed without me.

  “Hurry up, Sleepin’ Beauty. I’m ready to hit the books.” I heard Link before I saw him, but I almost wouldn’t have recognized his voice. It was deeper, and he sounded more like a man and less like a guy who specialized in banging on the drums and writing bad songs.

  “Yeah, you’re ready to hit something, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the books.” I slid into the chair next to his spot at our chipped kitchen table. Link had bulked up so much that it looked like he was sitting in one of those tiny plastic chairs from elementary school. “Since when do you show up on time for school?”

  At the stove, Amma sniffed, one hand on her hip, the other pushing at scrambled eggs with the One-Eyed Menace, her wooden spoon of justice.

  “Morning, Amma.” I could tell I was about to get an earful, from the way she had one hip cocked up higher than the other. Kind of like a loaded pistol.

  “Feels more like afternoon to me. ’Bout time you decided to join us.” Standing at a hot stove on an even hotter day, she didn’t break a sweat. It would take more than the weather to force Amma to budge an inch out of her way of doing things. The look in her eye reminded me of that as she sent a whole henhouse’s worth of eggs tumbling across my blue and white Dragonware plate. The bigger the breakfast, the bigger the day, in Amma’s mind. At this rate, by the time I graduated I’d be one giant biscuit floating in a bathtub full of pancake batter. A dozen scrambled eggs on my plate meant there was no denying it. It really was the first day of school.

  You wouldn’t expect me to be itching to get back to Jackson High. Last year, with the exception of Link, my so-called friends had treated me like crap. But the truth was, I couldn’t wait for a reason to get out of my house.

  “You eat up, Ethan Wate.” Toast flew onto the plate, chased by bacon and sealed with a healthy glop of butter and grits. Amma had put out a placemat for Link, but there was no plate on it. Not even a glass. She knew Link wouldn’t be eating her eggs, or anything else she whipped up in our kitchen.

  But not even Amma could tell us what he was capable of now. No one knew, least of all Link. If John Breed was some kind of Caster-Incubus hybrid, Link was one generation removed. As far as Macon could tell, Link was the Incubus equivalent of some distant Southern cousin you ran into every couple of years at a wedding or a funeral and called the wrong name.

  Link stretched his arms behind his head, relaxed. The wooden chair creaked under his weight. “It’s been a long summer, Wate. I’m ready to get back in the game.”

  I swallowed a spoonful of grits and had to fight the urge to spit them out. They tasted weird, dry. Amma had never made a bad batch of grits in her life. Maybe it was the heat. “Why don’t you ask Ridley how she feels about that, and get back to me?”

  He winced, and I could tell the subject had already come up. “It’s our junior year, and I’m the only Linkubus at Jackson. I got all the charm and none a the harm. All the muscle and none a the—”

  “What? You have a rhyme for muscle? Hustle? Bustle?” I would’ve laughed, but I was having a hard time getting my grits down.

  “You know what I mean.” I did. It was a little more than ironic. His onagain, off-again girlfriend, Lena’s cousin Ridley, had been a Siren—able to get any guy, anywhere, to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted it. Until Sarafine took Ridley’s powers, and she became a Mortal just days before Link became part Incubus. Not long after that bite, we could all see the transformation beginning, right in front of our eyes.

  Link’s ridiculously greasy spiked hair became ridiculously cool greasy spiked hair. He packed on the muscle, popping out biceps like the inflatable water wings his mother used to make him wear long after he knew how to swim. He looked more like a guy in an actual rock band than a guy who dreamed about being in one.

  “I wouldn’t mess with Ridley. She may not be a Siren anymore, but she’s still trouble.” I scooped grits and eggs onto my toast, slapped bacon in the middle, and rolled it all up together.

  Link looked at me like he wanted to puke. Food didn’t have the same appeal now that he was part Incubus. “Dude, I’m not messin’ with Ridley. I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid.”

  I was starting to have my doubts. I shrugged and stuffed half my breakfast sandwich into my mouth. It tasted wrong, too. Guess I undershot on the bacon.

  Before I could say another word, a hand clamped down on my shoulder, and I jumped. For a second, I was back at the top of the water tower in my dream, bracing for an attack. But it was only Amma, ready for her usual first day of school lecture. At least, that’s what I thought. I should’ve noticed the red string tied around her wrist. A new charm always meant the clouds were rolling in.

  “Don’t know what you boys are thinkin’, sitting here like today’s just another day. It’s not over—not the moon or this heat or that business with Abraham Ravenwood. You two are actin’ like done is done, the lights are on and it’s time to leave the picture show.” She lowered her voice. “Well, you’re as wrong as walkin’ barefoot in church. Things have consequences, and we haven’t seen the half a them.”

  I knew about consequences. They were everywhere I looked, no matter how hard I tried not to see them.

  “Ma’am?” Link should have known to keep his mouth shut when Amma was going dark.

  She clenched Link’s shirt tighter, creating fresh cracks in the Black Sabbath iron-on decal. “Stick close to my boy. There’s trouble runnin’ through you now, and I’m ten kinds a sorry ’bout that. But it’s the kind a trouble that may keep you fools from gettin’ into any more. You hear me, Wesley Jefferson Lincoln?”

  Link nodded, scared. “Yes, ma’am.”

  I looked up at Amma from my side of the table. She hadn’t relaxed her grip on Link, and she wasn’t about to let go of me anytime soon. “Amma, don’t get yourself all worked up. It’s just the first day of school. Compared to what we’ve been through, this is nothing. It’s not like there are any Vexes or Incubuses or Demons at Jackson High.”

  Link cleared his throat. “Well, that isn’t exactly true.” He tried to smile, but Amma twisted his shirt even harder, until he rose up from the seat of his chair. “Ow!”

  “You think this is funny?” Link was smart enough to keep his mouth shut this time. Amma turned to me. “I was there when you lost your first tooth in that apple, and your wheels in the Pinewood Derby. I’ve cut up shoe boxes for dioramas and iced hundreds a birthday cupcakes. Never said a word when your water collection up and evaporated like I said it would.”

  “No, ma’am.” It was true. Amma was the constant in my life. She was there when my mom died, almost a year and a half ago, and when my dad lost himself because of it.

  She let go of my shirt as suddenly as she had taken it, smoothed her apron, and lowered her voice. Whatever had brought on this particular storm had passed. Maybe it was the heat. It was getting to all of us.

  Amma looked out the window, past Link and me. “I’ve been here, Ethan Wate. And I will be, long as you are. Long as you need me. Not a minute less. Not a minute more.”

  What was that supposed to mean? Amma had never talked to me that way before—like there would ever be a time when I wasn’t here or I wouldn’t nee
d her.

  “I know, Amma.”

  “You look me in the eye and tell me you’re not as scared as I am, five miles down.” Her voice was low, nearly a whisper.

  “We made it back in one piece. That’s what matters. We can figure everything else out.”

  “It’s not that simple.” Amma was still talking as quietly as if we were in the front pew at church. “Pay attention. Has anything, even one thing, felt the same since we got back to Gatlin?”

  Link spoke up, scratching his head. “Ma’am, if it’s Ethan and Lena you’re worried about, I promise you as long as I’m around, with my superstrength and all, nothin’s gonna happen to them.” He flexed his arm proudly.

  Amma snorted. “Wesley Lincoln. Don’t you know? The kind a things I’m talkin’ about, you could no more keep from happenin’ than you could keep the sky from fallin’.”

  I took a swig of my chocolate milk and almost spit it out all over the table. It tasted too sweet, sugar coating my throat like cough syrup. It was like my eggs, which had tasted more like cotton, and the grits more like sand.

  Everything was off today, everything and everyone. “What’s wrong with the milk, Amma?”

  She shook her head. “I don’t know, Ethan Wate. What’s wrong with your mouth?”

  I wish I knew.

  By the time we were out the door and in the Beater, I turned back for one last look at Wate’s Landing. I don’t know why. She was standing in the window, between the curtains, watching me drive away. And if I didn’t know better, and I didn’t know Amma, I would have sworn she was crying.

  9.07

  Mortal Girls

  As we drove down Dove Street, it was hard to believe our town had ever been anything but brown. The grass looked like burnt toast before you scraped off the black parts. The Beater was about the only thing that hadn’t changed. Link was actually driving the speed limit for once, even if it was only because he wanted to check out what was left of our neighbors’ front yards.

 
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