Alex took a car the short distance back to the dorms from the crime scene. She probably should have walked, but the area around the med school wasn’t safe and she was too tired for a tussle.
By the time she got washed up and tucked into bed, it was 3 a.m. Mercy was fast asleep, and Alex was glad she didn’t have to answer any questions. She slept and dreamed she was climbing the stairs at Black Elm. She entered the ballroom, slid past the barrier of the golden circle, its warmth a comfort, like slipping into a hot bath. Darlington was waiting for her.
Alex didn’t remember waking. One moment she was asleep and standing inside the circle of protection with Darlington; the next she was alone beneath an autumn sky at the door to Black Elm. At first she thought she was still dreaming. The house was dark except for the gold light bleeding from beneath the boarded windows on the second floor. She could hear the wind in the trees, shaking the leaves, a warning whisper, Summer is over, summer is over.
She looked down at her feet. They were covered in mud and blood.
Am I here, or am I dreaming? She’d gone back to her dorm room after she’d left Turner at the psych department, brushed her teeth, climbed into bed. Maybe she was still there now.
But her feet hurt. Her arms had broken out in gooseflesh. She was wearing nothing but the shorts and tank top she slept in.
Real awareness crept in. She was cold, alone, and in the dark. She had
walked here. Barefoot. No phone. No money.
She had never sleepwalked in her life.
Alex put her hand to the kitchen door. She could see herself reflected in the glass, bone white against the dark. She didn’t want to go in. She didn’t want to walk up those stairs. That was a lie. She could feel the dream pulling at her. She’d been standing with Darlington inside the golden circle. She wanted to be there now.
She looked up at the windows. Did he know she was here? Did he want her here?
“For fuck’s sake,” she said, her voice too loud, dying too abruptly in the woods that surrounded the house, as if no sound could be permitted to carry to the outside world.
She needed to get back to the dorms. She could try to find a Gray to summon and use its strength to get her home, but her feet already hurt like hell. Besides, after that little incident at Oddman’s place, she wasn’t sure she wanted to invite another Gray in. She could try limping to a gas station. Or she could break a window and use the landline to call Dawes. Assuming the landline worked.
Then she remembered: the cameras. Dawes would have gotten an alert someone was at the door. She waved frantically at the doorbell, feeling like a fool. “Dawes,” she said, “are you there?”
Alex placed her head against the cold stone. She’d never been more grateful to hear Dawes’s voice. “I think I sleepwalked. Can you come get me?”
“You walked to Black Elm?”
“I know. And I’m half naked and freezing my ass off.”
“There’s a key under the hydrangea pot. Get in and warm up. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Okay,” said Alex. “Thanks.”
She tilted the pot up, grabbed the key. And then she was standing in the dining room.
She didn’t remember unlocking the door or passing through the kitchen. She hadn’t even turned the light on. An old sheet had been placed over the dining room table to keep it from collecting dust. She snatched it up and wound it around her body, desperate for warmth.
Wait for Dawes. She had every intention of doing just that, but she’d also had every intention of staying in the kitchen by the stove.
She felt as if she were still asleep, still dreaming, as if there had been no key, no conversation with Dawes. Her feet wanted to move. The house had opened to her because he was waiting.
Goddamn it, Darlington. Alex clutched the banister. She was at the base of the stairs. She looked back and saw the dark stretch of the living room, the windows to the garden beyond. She tried to anchor herself to the banister with both hands, but she was a bad marionette, yanking at her strings. She had to keep climbing. Up the stairs and down the hallway to the ballroom. There were no carpets to soften her steps.
She knew of only one Gray who frequented Black Elm. An old man, his bathrobe forever half open, a cigarette hanging from his lips. He came and went, as if he couldn’t decide whether or not to stay, and right now he was nowhere to be found. She had no salt in her pockets, no graveyard dust, no protection at all.
She willed herself not to push the door open, but she did anyway. She hooked her fingers over the door jamb. “Dawes!” she shouted.
But Dawes wasn’t at Black Elm yet. No one was in the old house except for Alex, and the demon that had once been Darlington was staring at her from the center of the circle with bright golden eyes.
He was still sitting cross-legged, hands on his knees, palms down. But now his eyes were open and they glowed with the same golden light as the markings on his skin.
The shock of his voice was enough to loosen her grip on the door. But she didn’t stumble forward. Whatever force he’d been using to control her had abated.
“What the hell was that?”
“Good afternoon to you too, Stern. Or is it morning? Hard to tell in here.”
Alex had to force herself to stay still, not to run, not to weep. That voice. It was Darlington. Fully human, fully him. It had only the faintest echo, as if he were speaking from the depths of a cave.
“It’s the middle of the night,” she managed, her voice rough. “I’m not sure what time.”
“I’d like you to bring me some books, if you would.” “Books?”
“Yes, I’m bored. I realize that speaks a lazy mind, but…” He shrugged lightly, the markings on his body glimmering.
“Darlington … You know you’re naked, right?”
Like some perverse statue, hands resting on knees, horns alight, cock erect and glowing.
“I’m a demon, not a dullard, Stern. But my dignity has long since been left in tatters. And you didn’t dress for the occasion either.”
Alex clutched the sheet tighter. “Which books do you want?” “You choose.”
“Is that why you dragged me up here?” “I didn’t drag you anywhere.”
“I didn’t walk barefoot across New Haven in the dead of night for kicks. I was compelled.” But that wasn’t quite right. It hadn’t felt like the coin of compulsion or Astrumsalinas or any of the other strange magic she’d encountered. It had felt deeper.
“Interesting,” he said in a voice that didn’t sound interested at all.
Alex backed away, wondering at every moment if her feet would simply stop obeying and she’d be forced to stay. Once she was in the hallway, she took a moment to catch her breath.
It’s him. He’s alive.
And he wasn’t angry. Unless this was some kind of con. He hadn’t come back bent on revenge or ready to punish Alex for failing him. But what was this? What had brought her here?
She considered making a run for it. Dawes would be here soon. She might be turning onto this street right now. But what was Alex going to say when she came running out of the house? The monster demanded that I do his bidding! He bade me select reading material for him!
If she was honest, she didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave him.
She wanted to know what came next.
She took the stairs up to the third floor and Darlington’s tiny, round tower room. She hadn’t been here since the night of the new moon ritual, when she’d been searching for information on the Bridegroom’s death.
She peered out the window. The driveway curved into the trees, the road invisible from here. No sign of Dawes. She wasn’t sure if she was worried or glad.
But choosing reading material for Darlington was its own nightmare assignment. What might entertain a demon with a taste for the finer things? She finally opted for a book on modernism in urban planning, a spiral-bound biography of Bertram Goodhue, and a paperback copy of Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.
“Aren’t these just going to catch fire?” she asked when she returned to the ballroom.
Alex put the paperback on the floor and gave it a hard shove. It slid through the barrier, seemingly unharmed.
Darlington’s hand shot out and captured the book. The collar at his neck glinted, the garnets like red eyes, watching.
“That’s quite a piece of jewelry,” she said. It was really too big to be called a collar. It stretched from his throat out to his shoulders, like something a pharaoh might wear.
“The yoke. Thinking of pawning it?” “It’s not doing you much good.”
He ran a fond hand over the paperback. The letters seemed to shimmer and change to unfamiliar symbols. “Would that I might make thee love books more than thy mother,” he murmured.
His fingers were tipped in golden claws, and a memory came to her, the feeling of his body wrapped around hers. I will serve you ’til the end of days.
She shivered despite the heat of the room.
“Why did that work?” she asked. “Why didn’t it burn?”
“Stories exist in all worlds. They are immutable. Like gold.”
She wasn’t sure what to make of that. She slid the rest of the books across the boundary of the circle.
“Okay?” she asked. Her whole body was humming, trapped between the desire to run and the hunger to remain. It felt dangerous to stand in this room, alone with him, this person who wasn’t quite a person, this creature she knew and didn’t know.
Darlington perused the titles. “These will do for now. Though Fire and Hemlock seems more apropos than Dogsbody. Here,” he said. “Catch.”
He tossed the paperback in the air. Without thinking, Alex reached for it, realizing too late that she was going to breach the circle. She hissed as her outstretched arm struck the boundary.
But nothing happened. The book landed in her palm with a loud smack.
Alex stared at it, at her arm on the other side of that golden veil.
Why hadn’t she burned the way Dawes had?
Her tattoos had changed. They glowed golden and they seemed to be alive: the Wheel spinning; the lion atop it prowling over her forearm; the peonies blossoming, then losing their petals, then blooming once more. She drew her hand back, dropping the book.
“What the fuck?”
The demon was staring at her, and Alex rocked back on her heels, the reality of what had happened sinking in. If she could get in, then could he …
“I can’t get out,” he said. “Prove it.”
“I don’t think that would be wise.” “Why not?”
A small furrow formed between his brows, and she felt a pinch in her heart. Despite the horns, the markings, that was Darlington.
“Because every time I try to breach the circle, I feel a little less human.” “What are you, Darlington?”
“What are you, Wheelwalker?”
The word hit Alex like a hard slap. How did he know? What did he know? Belbalm had called her Wheelwalker. She’d claimed to be one too, but Alex hadn’t found any mention of their kind in Lethe’s collection.
“How do you know that word?” she asked.
“Sandow.” That name emerged as a growl that shook the floor.
“You saw him … behind the Veil?”
Darlington looked at her with those strange golden eyes.
“Are you afraid to say it, Stern? You know where I’ve been, far beyond the borderlands, far beyond the Veil. My host was happy to welcome Sandow to his realm, a murderer who killed for gain. Greed is a sin in every language.” Two expressions flickered across his face, at war, one of distaste, the other of almost obscene satisfaction. Some part of him had liked punishing Sandow. And some part of him was disgusted by it.
“A little revenge can be good for the soul, Darlington.” “Not a word to bandy about casually, Stern.”
She didn’t think he meant revenge.
“Alex?” Dawes’s voice floated up from the bottom floor. “It’s best if she doesn’t find you here.”
“What is this, Darlington?” Alex whispered. “How do we help you?
How do we get you out?” “Find the Gauntlet.”
“Believe me, we’re trying. You don’t have any idea where it is?”
“Would that I did,” he said, and there was desperation in his voice, even as he released a laugh that raised the hair on Alex’s arms. “But I am just a man, heir to nothing. Find the Gauntlet, make the descent. I can’t exist between two worlds for long. Eventually the tether will snap.”
“And you’ll be trapped in hell forever?”
Again his expression seem to flicker. Hopelessness. Anticipation. “Or whatever I am will be unleashed upon the world.” He was close to the edge of the circle now. Alex hadn’t seen him move, hadn’t even seen him stand. “I have appetites, Stern. They are not entirely … wholesome.”
His clawed fingertips pierced the golden circle, and Alex stumbled backward, a high-pitched yelp emerging from her lips.
Darlington seemed to shift. He was taller, broader; his horns looked sharper. He had fangs. I feel a little less human.
Then he seemed to yank himself back to the center of the circle. He was sitting once more, hands on knees, as if he’d never moved. Maybe he really was meditating, trying to keep his demon self in check.
“Find the Gauntlet, make the descent. Come get me, Stern.” He paused then, and his golden eyes flashed open. “Please.”
That word, raw and human, was all she could bear. Alex ran, down the hall, down the steps. She slammed into Dawes at the foot of the stairs.
“Alex!” Dawes cried as they fought to keep their balance.
“Come on,” Alex said, dragging Dawes back through the house.
“What happened?” Dawes was saying as she let herself be pulled along. “You shouldn’t have gone up there—”
“We can’t be sure what we’re dealing—”
“I know, Dawes. Just get me out of here and I’ll explain everything.”
Alex threw open the kitchen door, grateful for the clean burst of cold air. She could hear Belbalm’s voice: All worlds are open to us. If we are bold enough to enter. Did that mean the underworld too? She had passed through the boundary unscathed, just like in the dream. What would happen if she entered the circle?
Alex grunted and stumbled when her feet hit the gravel. Dawes caught her by the elbow.
“Alex, slow down. Here.” She held up soft white tube socks and a pair of Tevas. “I brought these for you. They’re too big, but better than going barefoot.”
Alex sat down on the doormat to pull on the socks and shoes. She wasn’t going back inside. Her head was buzzing. Her body felt alien.
“What were you doing up there?” Dawes asked.
Alex could hear the accusation in her voice and she didn’t quite know how to reply. She thought about lying, but there was too much to explain. Like how she’d ended up at Black Elm in her pajamas.
“I woke up here,” she said, trembling in the cold now that her panic had eased. “I dreamed … I dreamed I was here and then I was.”
“I guess so. And then it was like I was still sleepwalking. I don’t quite know how I ended up in the ballroom. But … he talked.”
“He talked to you?” Dawes’s voice was too loud. “Yeah.”
“I see.” Dawes seemed to close in on herself, the concerned friend receding, the mother hen emerging. “Let’s get you warm.”
Alex let herself be helped to her feet and shepherded into the car, where Dawes cranked the heater up, the faint smell of brimstone emerging as it always had since the night of the new moon ritual. Dawes rested her hands on the wheel as if making a decision.
Then she put the car into gear and they were driving back toward campus. The streets were nearly empty, and Alex wondered who had seen her walking, if anyone had stopped to ask if she needed help, a half-naked girl, barefoot and wandering in the dark, just like that night with Hellie.
It was only once they were back at Il Bastone, with Alex’s feet coated in healing balm and propped on a towel-covered cushion, a cup of tea by her side, that Dawes sat down, opened her notebook, and said, “Okay, tell me.”
Alex had expected more emotion, lip chewing, maybe tears. But Dawes was Oculus now, in research mode, ready to document and investigate, and Alex was grateful for it.
“He said he doesn’t have much time,” Alex began, then did her best to explain the rest, that he had nearly breached the circle, that he’d begged them to find the Gauntlet, but that he didn’t know where it was.
Dawes made a small humming noise.
“He’d have no reason not to tell us,” said Alex.
“He might not be able to. It depends … it depends how much demon he’s become. Demons love puzzles, remember? They never move in a straight line.”
“He talked about Sandow too. He saw him on the other side. He said his host had welcomed him.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Dawes. “He could have named his host, whatever god or demon or hellbeast he’s in service to, but he didn’t. What did he say about the host?”
“Nothing. Just that Sandow had killed for gain. He said greed was a sin in any language.”
“So Darlington may be bound to Mammon or Plutus or Gullveig or some other god of greed. That might help us if we can figure out where the Gauntlet is and how to reveal it. What else?”
“Nothing. He wanted books and I brought him books. He said he was bored.”
“That’s it. He said something about loving books more than his mother.”
Dawes’s lips softened in a smile. “It’s an Egyptian proverb. Suits him well.”
Egyptian. Alex sat up straighter, her feet sliding from the pillow. Dawes yelped. “Please don’t get that on the rug!”
“When the books didn’t burn, he said stories were immutable.” “So?” Dawes asked, bustling into the kitchen for a towel.
Alex remembered walking beneath the entry to Sterling with Darlington. There were four stone scribes over the entrance. One of them was Egyptian.
“When was Sterling Library built?”
“1931, I think?” Dawes said from the kitchen. “People really hated it at the time. I think the term used was cathedral orgy. They said it looked too much like…” Dawes halted in the doorway, wet towel in her hands. “They said it looked like a church.”
She and Dawes had taken what long-dead Bunchy said too literally.
They’d been looking in the wrong places.
Dawes drifted slowly back into the parlor, the towel still dripping in her hands. “John Sterling donated the money for the library.” She sat down. “He was in Skull and Bones.”
“That doesn’t mean much,” Alex said cautiously. “There are a lot of rich guys in Skull and Bones.”
Dawes nodded, still slow, as if she were underwater. “The architect died suddenly and someone else had to take over.”
“James Gamble Rogers took the job. He was in Scroll and Key. Punter
is another word for a gambler.”
Johnny and Punter’s friends built a Gauntlet. On hallowed ground.
Dawes was clutching the towel with both hands now, as if it were a microphone she was about to sing into. “Would that I might make thee love
books more than thy mother. That quote is above the entry, above the scribe. It’s written in hieroglyphs.”
Stories were immutable. And what was a library but a house full of stories?
“It’s Sterling,” Alex said. “The library is the portal to hell.”