Chapter no 19

Hell Bent

Alex found Dawes in the JE reading room, hunched over a blueprint of Sterling and Kittscher’s Daemonologie.

“This is the book Michelle told me to read,” Alex said, picking it up and paging through it. “Does it talk about the Gauntlet?”

“No, it’s a series of debates about the nature of hell.” “So more like a travel guide.”

Dawes rolled her eyes, then wrapped her hands around her headphones as if she were clinging to a buoy. “Are you really not scared?”

Alex wished she could say no. “Michelle told me we’d have to die to complete the ritual. I’m terrified. And I really don’t want to do this.”

“Neither do I,” Dawes said. “I want to know how to be brave. Like you.”

“I’m reckless. There’s a difference.”

What might have been a smile curled the corner of Dawes’s mouth. “Maybe. Tell me about the Praetor.”

Alex sat down. “He’s a delight.” “Really?”


Dawes’s cheeks pinked. “I did a little dive on him, and he wasn’t a popular figure at Lethe. His Virgil hated him and lobbied against his selection, but there’s no denying he was an academic superstar.”

“The bad news is he has not mellowed with age. The good news is it looks like Anselm and the board are keeping him in the dark about what really happened at Scroll and Key.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Because this guy seems to be held together by righteous indignation. I think he’s been complaining to Lethe for years about how we’re all slouching toward Bethlehem. They just want him to shut up and leave them alone.”

“So now he’s our problem.”

“Something like that. I think our best bet is to just let him believe we’re dim and incompetent.”

Dawes folded her arms. “Do you know how hard I’ve had to work to be taken seriously? To have my dissertation taken seriously? Playing dumb doesn’t just hurt us, it hurts every woman he comes into contact with. It—”

“Dawes, I know. But it’s also really good cover. So let’s just dance for him until we figure this out, and then I will happily stand aside while you crush his ego with your dazzling intellect, okay?”

Dawes considered. “Okay.”

“Not to sound like Turner, but do we have a plan?”

“Sort of?” Dawes spread out a series of neatly typed pages that she’d highlighted with different colors. “If we can figure out how to finish the Gauntlet, we begin the walk at midnight. Once we find the four doorways, each threshold will need to be marked with blood.”

“On Halloween.”

“I know,” Dawes said. “But we don’t have a choice. If we get it right … something will happen. I’m not sure what. But the door to hell will open and four graves will appear. Again, the language isn’t totally clear.”

“Four graves for four murderers.”

“Assuming we have four murderers.”

“We will,” Alex said, though Turner still hadn’t given them a yes. If they had to go back to that hideous map, they would. But they’d have to do it fast. And finding someone who’d agree to be buried alive to rescue someone they’d never met wasn’t going to be easy. “Do we need to … I don’t know, bring weapons or something?”

“We can try, though I don’t know what we’ll be fighting. I have no idea what might be waiting on the other side. All I can tell you is that our bodies don’t make the descent, our souls do.”

But Alex remembered what she’d witnessed in the basement of Rosenfeld Hall. “Darlington vanished, I saw it happen. Not just his soul, his body too.” One moment he’d been there with her, a scream on his lips, and then he was gone, along with the sound of his cry. There’d been no echo, no fade, just sudden silence.

“Because he was eaten,” Dawes said, as if it were obvious. “It’s the only way he was able to become … well, whatever he is.”

“So none of us are going to turn into demons?”

Dawes renewed her grip on her headphones. “I don’t think so.” “For fuck’s sake, Dawes.”

“I can’t be sure,” she said brusquely, as if the idea of losing her humanity was less concerning than the prospect of losing her job at Lethe. “There haven’t been enough well-documented attempts to say what will happen. But just sending our souls is a kind of protection. Bodies are permeable, changeable. It’s why we need someone watching over us, to serve as a connection to the living world. I just wish we weren’t doing this on Halloween. We’re going to draw a lot of Grays.”

Alex felt a headache coming on. They had a little over a week to put all of this together, and she had that same feeling she’d had before they’d thrown themselves into the ritual at Scroll and Key. They weren’t ready. They weren’t equipped. They sure as hell weren’t the right team for this job. What had Walsh-Whiteley said? I expect you to know your own limitations. It made her think of Len. For all his greed and misplaced ambition, he had practiced a strange kind of caution. He’d been stupid enough to think he could earn Eitan’s trust and move up in the ranks, but he’d never tried so much as a smash-and-grab when they were short on cash because he knew they’d get caught. He wasn’t a thief. He definitely wasn’t a planner. It was why he’d loved using Alex to deal on campuses when she still looked like a kid, before desperation and disappointment had hollowed her out. Low risk, high reward. At least for Len.

Now Dawes was talking about trusting someone to fight off a bunch of Grays while they lay there helpless in the ground. For the first time Alex felt unsure.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t want to bring a stranger into this. And are you going to tell them they have to drink Hiram’s elixir so they can see Grays? That can be fatal.”


“Michelle Alameddine isn’t going to help us.” “But she was his Virgil.”

Alex stared at Dawes. Pamela Dawes, who had saved her life more than once and who was prepared to walk side by side with her straight through the gates of hell. Pamela Dawes, who came from a nice family with a nice house in Westport, who had a kind sister to come pick her up at the hospital and pay her to watch the kids. Pamela Dawes, who had no idea what it meant to hurt so much to live you might wake up one morning ready to die. And Alex was glad of that. People shouldn’t have to march through the world fighting all the time. But there was no way Alex was going to pressure Michelle Alameddine to do a job like this, not after she’d seen that tattoo on her wrist.

“We’ll find someone else,” Alex said. But she didn’t know who. They couldn’t just grab somebody off the street and offer to pay them, and they couldn’t ask someone from the societies without risking that person going straight to the Lethe board.

“We could use magic,” Dawes said tentatively. She was making slow spirals with her pen in the margin of her notes. “Bring someone on and then compel them so they can’t remember—”

“Don’t do that.”

Alex and Dawes nearly jumped out of their seats. Mercy was sitting on a couch just behind their table.

“How long have you been there?” Alex demanded.

“I followed you from the courtyard. If you need someone to help, I can do it, but not if you’re going to mess with my mind.”

“No way are you getting involved.” Alex said. “Absolutely not.” Dawes looked horrified. “Wait, who … what does she know?”

“Most of it.”

“You told her about—” Dawes’s voice dropped to an angry whisper. “About Lethe?”

“Yes,” Alex snapped. “And I’m not going to apologize for it. She’s the one who fished me out of my own misery last year. She’s the one who called my mom and made sure I was okay when you were holed up at your sister’s house watching old sitcoms and hiding under the blankets.”

Dawes ducked her chin into her sweatshirt and Alex felt instantly terrible.

“I can help,” Mercy said, breaking the silence. “You said you need someone to watch over you. I can do that.”

“No.” Alex cut her hand through the air as if she were slicing the thought in half. “You have no idea what you’re signing up for. No.”

Mercy crossed her arms. She was wearing a bright blue granny sweater today, crocheted roses gathered around the neck. She looked like a disapproving kindergarten teacher.

“You can’t just say no, Alex.” “You could be killed.”

Mercy scoffed. “Do you really think that will happen?” “No one knows what will happen!”

“Can you give me a weapon?”

Alex pinched the bridge of her nose. At least Mercy was asking the right questions.

“You kind of don’t get to say no, right?” Mercy continued. “You don’t have anyone else. And you owe me for all the magical stuff.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt.” “Because you’d feel guilty.”

“Because I like you!” Alex shouted. She forced herself to lower her voice. “And yes, I’d feel guilty. I rescue you, you rescue me. That’s what you said, remember?”

“So if something goes wrong, that’s what you do.” Dawes cleared her throat. “We do need someone.”

Mercy stuck her hand out. “Mercy Zhao, roommate and bodyguard.” Dawes shook it. “I … Pamela Dawes. Doctoral candidate and…”

Alex sighed. “Just say it.” “Oculus.”

“That’s a really good code name,” said Mercy.

“It’s my office,” Dawes said with as much dignity as she could muster. “We’re not spies.”

“No,” said Alex. “Espionage would be too easy for Lethe.”

“Actually,” Mercy said, “there’s speculation that the term spooks for CIA operatives originated from so many recruits coming from Skull and Bones.”

Alex laid her head down on the table. “You’re going to fit right in.” “Just tell me where to start.”

“Don’t get excited,” Alex warned. “We haven’t even figured out how the Gauntlet works or if we’ve got this whole thing wrong.”

Dawes gestured to the blueprint of Sterling. “There’s supposed to be a circuit, a circle for us to complete, but…”

Mercy studied the blueprint. “It looks like you’re headed around the courtyard.”

“That’s right,” said Dawes. “But there’s no way to complete the circuit.

The path dead-ends at Manuscripts and Archives.”

“No, it doesn’t,” said Mercy. “Just go through the University Librarian’s office.”

“I’ve been in that office.” Dawes gave the blueprints a firm tap. “There’s a door to Manuscripts and Archives and a door out to the courtyard. The sundial door. That’s it.”

“No,” Mercy insisted. Alex felt like she was watching a boxing match where the fighters threw citations instead of punches. “I don’t know why it isn’t on the plan, but there’s a door behind the librarian’s desk, right beside the fireplace, the one with that funny quote in Latin.”

“Funny quote?” Alex asked.

Mercy tugged on one of the rosettes at her neckline. “I can’t remember what it’s from, but it basically amounts to ‘Shut up and go away, I’m busy.’ The door is easy to miss because of the paneling, but my friend Camila showed it to me. We walked right through. It takes you to the Linonia and Brothers reading room.”

Dawes looked like she was going to jump out of her chair. “To Linonia.

Directly around the courtyard.”

Alex hadn’t followed much of their debate, but that she understood. A hidden door. A way to circle the courtyard that wasn’t on the blueprints. “We can complete the circuit. We can finish the Gauntlet.”

“See?” said Mercy with a grin. “I’m helpful.”

Dawes leaned back in her chair and met Alex’s gaze. “You’re Virgil now. It’s your call.”

Alex threw up her hands. “Fuck it. Mercy Zhao, welcome to Lethe.”

What must be understood is that demons are creatures of appetite. So though their powers are virtually without limit, their understanding is decidedly more constrained. This is why they are so easily distracted by puzzles and games: They are most engaged by what is immediately before them. This is also why the creation of material objects out of nothing proves so difficult. Gold out of thin air? Costly in terms of blood sacrifice, but easy enough. An alloy? Slightly more difficult. A complex item like a ship or an alarm clock? Well, you had best have a rigorous understanding of their workings because I can guarantee the demon will not. An organism more complex than an amoeba? Nearly impossible. The devil, my friends, is in the details.

Kittscher’s Daemonologie, 1933

Knuckles of Shimshon, believed to be one of a set; gold, lead, and tungsten

Provenance: Unknown; date of origin unknown Donor: Wolf’s Head, 1998

These “brass knuckles” endow the wearer with the strength of twenty men. They were acquired during one of the many Middle Eastern digs sponsored by Wolf’s Head and its foundation. But whether they were discovered at an architectural site or in a shop in some tourist quarter is unknown. Whether the hair forever trapped in gold belonged to the legendary hero or was simply a part of the enchantment placed upon the object is also unknown. But while the knuckles’ provenance is shaky, the magic is not, and this most useful gift was added to the armory in 1998, in celebration of Lethe’s centennial.

—from the Lethe Armory Catalogue as revised and edited by

Pamela Dawes, Oculus

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