Beautiful DarknessKami Garcia
Table of Contents
For Sarah Burnes, Julie Scheina,
and Jennifer Bailey Hunt
because for some silly reason
they wouldn't let us put their names on the cover.
We can easily forgive a child
who is afraid of the dark;
the real tragedy of life is when
men are afraid of the light.
I used to think our town, buried in the South Carolina backwoods, stuck in the muddy bottom of the Santee River valley, was the middle of nowhere. A place where nothing ever happened and nothing would ever change. Just like yesterday, the unblinking sun would rise and set over the town of Gatlin without bothering to kick up so much as a breeze. Tomorrow my neighbors would be rocking on their porches, heat and gossip and familiarity melting like ice cubes into their sweet tea, as they had for more than a hundred years. Around here, our traditions were so traditional it was hard to put a finger on them. They were woven into everything we did or, more often, didn't do. You could be born or married or buried, and the Methodists kept right on singing.
Sundays were for church, Mondays for doing the marketing at the Stop & Shop, the only grocery store in town. The rest of the week involved a whole lot of nothing and a little more pie, if you were lucky enough to live with someone like my family's housekeeper, Amma, who won the bake-off at the county fair every year. Old four-fingered Miss Monroe still taught cotillion, one empty finger of her white-gloved hand flapping as she sashayed down the dance floor with the debutantes. Maybelline Sutter was still cutting hair at the Snip ’n’ Curl, though she had lost most of her eyesight around the same time she turned seventy, and now she forgot to put the guard down on the clippers half the time, shearing a skunk stripe up the back of your head. Carlton Eaton never failed, rain or shine, to open your mail before he delivered it. If the news was bad, he would break it to you himself. Better to hear it from one of your own.
This town owned us, that was the good and the bad of it. It knew every inch of us, every sin, every secret, every scab. Which was why most people never bothered to leave, and why the ones who did never came back. Before I met Lena that would have been me, five minutes after I graduated from Jackson High. Gone.
Then I fell in love with a Caster girl.
She showed me there was another world within the cracks of our uneven sidewalks. One that had been there all along, hidden in plain sight. Lena's Gatlin was a place where things happened — impossible, supernatural, life-altering things.
While regular folks were busy cutting back their rosebushes or picking past worm-eaten peaches at the roadside stand, Light and Dark Casters with unique and powerful gifts were locked in an eternal struggle — a supernatural civil war without any hope of a white flag waving. Lena's Gatlin was home to Demons and danger and a curse that had marked her family for more than a hundred years. And the closer I got to Lena, the closer her Gatlin came to mine.
A few months ago, I believed nothing would ever change in this town. Now I knew better, and I only wished it was true.
Because the second I fell in love with a Caster girl, no one I loved was safe. Lena thought she was the only one cursed, but she was wrong.
It was our curse now.
The rain dripping off the brim of Amma's best black hat. Lena's bare knees hitting the thick mud in front of the grave. The pinpricks on the back of my neck that came from standing too close to so many of Macon's kind. Incubuses — Demons who fed off the memories and dreams of Mortals, like me, as we slept. The sound they made, unlike anything else in the universe, when they ripped open the last bit of dark sky and disappeared just before dawn. As if they were a pack of black crows, taking off from a power line in perfect unison.
That was Macon's funeral.
I could remember the details as if it had happened yesterday, even though it was hard to believe some of it had happened at all. Funerals were tricky like that. And life, I guess. The important parts you blocked out altogether, but the random, slanted moments haunted you, replaying over and over in your mind.
What I could remember: Amma waking me up in the dark to get to His Garden of Perpetual Peace before dawn. Lena frozen and shattered, wanting to freeze and shatter everything around her. Darkness in the sky and in half the people standing around the grave, the ones who weren't people at all.
But behind all that, there was something I couldn't remember. It was there, lingering in the back of my mind. I had been trying to think of it since Lena's birthday, her Sixteenth Moon, the night Macon died.
The only thing I knew was that it was something I needed to remember.
The morning of the funeral it was pitch-black outside, but patches of moonlight were shining through the clouds into my open window. My room was freezing, and I didn't care. I had left my window open the last two nights since Macon died, like he might just show up in my room and sit down in my swivel chair and stay awhile.
I remembered the night I saw him standing by my window, in the dark. That's when I found out what he was. Not a vampire or some mythological creature from a book, as I had suspected, but a real Demon. One who could have chosen to feed on blood, but chose my dreams instead.
Macon Melchizedek Ravenwood. To the folks around here, he was Old Man Ravenwood, the town recluse. He was also Lena's uncle, and the only father she had ever known.
I was getting dressed in the dark when I felt the warm pull from inside that meant Lena was there.
Lena spoke up from the depths of my mind, as close as anyone could be and about as far away. Kelting, our unspoken form of communication. The whispering language Casters like her had shared long before my bedroom had been declared south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was the secret language of intimacy and necessity, born in a time when being different could get you burned at the stake. It was a language we shouldn't have been able to share, because I was a Mortal. But for some inexplicable reason we could, and it was the language we used to speak the unspoken and the unspeakable.
I can't do this. I'm not going.
I gave up on my tie and sat back down on my bed, the ancient mattress springs crying out beneath me.
You have to go. You won't forgive yourself if you don't.
For a second, she didn't respond.
You don't know how it feels.
I remembered when I was the one sitting on my bed afraid to get up, afraid to put on my suit and join the prayer circle and sing Abide With Me and ride in the grim parade of headlights through town to the cemetery to bury my mother. I was afraid it would make it real. I couldn't stand to think about it, but I opened my mind and showed Lena….
You can't go, but you don't have a choice, because Amma puts her hand on your arm and leads you into the car, into the pew, into the pity parade. Even though it hurts to move, like your whole body aches from some kind of fever. Your eyes stop on the mumbling faces in front of you, but you can't actually hear what anyone is saying. Not over the screaming in your head. So you let them put their hand on your arm, you get in the car, and it happens. Because you can make it through this if someone says you can.
I put my head in my hands.
I'm saying you can, L.
I shoved my fists into my eyes, and they were wet. I flipped on my light and stared at the bare bulb, refusing to blink until I seared away the tears.
Ethan, I'm scared.
I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere.
e weren't any more words as I went back to fumbling with my tie, but I could feel Lena there, as if she was sitting in the corner of my room. The house seemed empty with my father gone, and I heard Amma in the hall. A second later, she was standing quietly in the doorway clutching her good purse. Her dark eyes searched mine, and her tiny frame seemed tall, though she didn't even reach my shoulder. She was the grandmother I never had, and the only mother I had left now.
I stared at the empty chair next to my window, where she had laid out my good suit a little less than a year ago, then back into the bare lightbulb of my bedside lamp.
Amma held out her hand, and I handed her my tie. Sometimes it felt like Lena wasn't the only one who could read my mind.
I offered Amma my arm as we made our way up the muddy hill to His Garden of Perpetual Peace. The sky was dark, and the rain started before we reached the top of the rise. Amma was in her most respectable funeral dress, with a wide hat that shielded most of her face from the rain, except for the bit of white lace collar escaping beneath the brim. It was fastened at the neck with her best cameo, a sign of respect. I had seen it all last April, just as I had felt her good gloves on my arm, supporting me up this hill once before. This time I couldn't tell which one of us was doing the supporting.
I still wasn't sure why Macon wanted to be buried in the Gatlin cemetery, considering the way folks in this town felt about him. But according to Gramma, Lena's grandmother, Macon left strict instructions specifically requesting to be buried here. He purchased the plot himself, years ago. Lena's family hadn't seemed happy about it, but Gramma had put her foot down. They were going to respect his wishes, like any good Southern family.
Lena? I'm here.
I could feel my voice calming her, as if I had wrapped my arms around her. I looked up the hill, where the awning for the graveside service would be. It would look the same as any other Gatlin funeral, which was ironic, considering it was Macon's.
It wasn't yet daylight, and I could barely make out a few shapes in the distance. They were all crooked, all different. The ancient, uneven rows of tiny headstones standing at the graves of children, the overgrown family crypts, the crumbling white obelisks honoring fallen Confederate soldiers, marked with small brass crosses. Even General Jubal A. Early, whose statue watched over the General's Green in the center of town, was buried here. We made our way around the family plot of a few lesser-known Moultries, which had been there for so long the smooth magnolia trunk at the edge of the plot had grown into the side of the tallest stone marker, making them indistinguishable.
And sacred. They were all sacred, which meant we had reached the oldest part of the graveyard. I knew from my mother, the first word carved into any old headstone in Gatlin was Sacred. But as we got closer and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I knew where the muddy gravel path was leading. I remembered where it passed the stone memorial bench at the grassy slope, dotted with magnolias. I remembered my father sitting on that bench, unable to speak or move.
My feet wouldn't go any farther, because they had figured out the same thing I had. Macon's Garden of Perpetual Peace was only a magnolia away from my mother's.
The twisting roads run straight between us.
It was a sappy line from an even sappier poem I had written Lena for Valentine's Day. But here in the graveyard, it was true. Who would have thought our parents, or the closest thing Lena had to one, would be neighbors in the grave?
Amma took my hand, leading me to Macon's massive plot. “Steady now.”
We stepped inside the waist-high black railing around his gravesite, which in Gatlin was reserved for the perimeters of only the best plots, like a white picket fence for the dead. Sometimes it actually was a white picket fence. This one was wrought iron, the crooked door shoved open into the overgrown grass. Macon's plot seemed to carry with it an atmosphere of its own, like Macon himself.
Inside the railing stood Lena's family: Gramma, Aunt Del, Uncle Barclay, Reece, Ryan, and Macon's mother, Arelia, under the black canopy on one side of the carved black casket. On the other side, a group of men and a woman in a long black coat kept their distance from both the casket and the canopy, standing shoulder to shoulder in the rain. They were all bone-dry. It was like a church wedding split by an aisle down the middle, where the relatives of the bride line up opposite the relatives of the groom like two warring clans. There was an old man at one end of the casket, standing next to Lena. Amma and I stood at the other end, just inside the canopy.
Amma's grip on my arm tightened, and she pulled the gold charm she always wore out from underneath her blouse and rubbed it between her fingers. Amma was more than superstitious. She was a Seer, from generations of women who read tarot cards and communed with spirits, and Amma had a charm or a doll for everything. This one was for protection. I stared at the Incubuses in front of us, the rain running off their shoulders without leaving a trace. I hoped they were the kind that only fed on dreams.
I tried to look away, but it wasn't easy. There was something about an Incubus that drew you in like a spider's web, like any good predator. In the dark, you couldn't see their black eyes, and they almost looked like a bunch of regular guys. A few of them were dressed the way Macon always had, dark suits and expensive-looking overcoats. One or two looked more like construction workers on their way to get a beer after work, in jeans and work boots, their hands shoved in the pockets of their jackets. The woman was probably a Succubus. I had read about them, mostly in comics, and I thought they were just old wives’ tales, like werewolves. But I knew I was wrong because she was standing in the rain, dry as the rest of them.
The Incubuses were a sharp contrast to Lena's family, cloaked in iridescent black fabric that caught what little light there was and refracted it, as if they were the source themselves. I had never seen them like this before. It was a strange sight, especially considering the strict dress code for women at Southern funerals.
In the center of it all was Lena. The way she looked was the opposite of magical. She stood in front of the casket with her fingers quietly resting upon it, as if Macon was somehow holding her hand. She was dressed in the same shimmering material as the rest of her family, but it hung on her like a shadow. Her black hair was twisted into a tight knot, not a trademark curl in sight. She looked broken and out of place, like she was standing on the wrong side of the aisle.
Like she belonged with Macon's other family, standing in the rain.
She lifted her head, and her eyes met mine. Since her birthday, when one of her eyes had turned a shade of gold while the other remained deep green, the colors had combined to create a shade unlike anything I'd ever seen. Almost hazel at times, and unnaturally golden at others. Now they looked more hazel, dull and pained. I couldn't stand it. I wanted to pick her up and carry her away.
I can get the Volvo, and we can drive down the coast all the way to Savannah. We can hide out at my Aunt Caroline's.
I took another step closer to her. Her family was crowded around the casket, and I couldn't get to Lena without walking past the line of Incubuses, but I didn't care.
Ethan, stop! It's not safe —
A tall Incubus with a scar running down the length of his face, like the mark of a savage animal attack, turned his head to look at me. The air seemed to ripple through the space between us, like I had chucked a stone into a lake. It hit me, knocking the wind out of my lungs as if I'd been punched, but I couldn't react because I felt paralyzed — my limbs numb and useless.
Amma's eyes narrowed, but before she could take a step the Succubus put her hand on Scarface's shoulder and squeezed it, almost imperceptibly. Instantly, I was released from his hold, and the blood rushed back into my limbs. Amma gave her a grateful nod, but the woman with the long hair and the longer coat ignored her, disappearing back into line with the rest of them.
The Incubus with the brutal scar turned and winked at me. I got the message, even without the wor
ds. See you in your dreams.
I was still holding my breath when a white-haired gentleman, in an old-fashioned suit and string tie, stepped up to the coffin. His eyes were a dark contrast to his hair, which made him seem like some creepy character from an old black and white movie.
“The Gravecaster,” Amma whispered. He looked more like the gravedigger.
He touched the smooth black wood, and a carved crest on the top of the coffin began to glow with a golden light. It looked like some old coat of arms, the kind of thing you saw at a museum or in a castle. I saw a tree with great spreading boughs, and a bird. Beneath it there was a carved sun, and a crescent moon.
“Macon Ravenwood of the House of Ravenwood, of Raven and Oak, Air and Earth. Darkness and Light.” He took his hand from the coffin, and the light followed, leaving the casket dark again.
“Is that Macon?” I whispered to Amma.
“The light's symbolic. There's nothin’ in that box. Wasn't anythin’ left to bury. That's the way with Macon's kind — ashes to ashes and dust to dust, like us. Just a whole lot quicker.”
The Gravecaster's voice rose up again. “Who consecrates this soul into the Otherworld?”
Lena's family stepped forward. “We do,” they said in unison, everyone except Lena. She stood there staring down at the dirt.
“As do we.” The Incubuses moved closer to the casket.
“Then let him be Cast to the world beyond. Redi in pace, ad Ignem Atrum ex quo venisti.” The Gravecaster held the light high over his head, and it flared brighter. “Go in peace, back to the Dark Fire from where you came.” He threw the light into the air, and sparks showered down onto the coffin, searing into the wood where they fell. As if on cue, Lena's family and the Incubuses threw their hands into the air, releasing tiny silver objects not much bigger than quarters, which rained down onto Macon's coffin amidst the gold flames. The sky was starting to change color, from the black of night to the blue before the sunrise. I strained to see what the objects were, but it was too dark.