The walk back to campus was long, and the heat felt like an animal dogging her steps, its breath moist against the nape of her neck. But Alex didn’t slow her pace. She wanted distance between herself and that Gray. What had happened back there? And how was she supposed to keep it from happening again? Sweat trickled down her back. She wished she’d worn shorts, but it didn’t feel right to wear cutoffs to a beatdown.
She paralleled the canal trail, counting down her long strides, trying to get her head straight before she was back on campus. She’d walked part of that trail last year, with Mercy, to see the leaves turn, a flood of red and gold, fireworks captured in their fullest bloom. She’d thought how different it was from the LA River with its concrete banks, and she’d remembered how she had floated in those dirty waters, flush with Hellie’s strength, wishing they could both drift out to the open sea, become their own island. She’d wondered where Hellie was buried and hoped it was someplace beautiful, someplace nothing like that sad, scraping-along river, that collapsed vein.
The canal trail would be green now, choked with summer growth, but Grays loved it and Alex didn’t want to be anywhere near them just this minute, so she stuck to the dull parking lots and faceless office buildings of Science Park, hurried past the industrial lofts, and on to Prospect. Only Darlington’s ghost chased her here. His voice telling stories of the Winchester family and how their descendants had mixed and married with the Yale elite, or the hulking mass of Sarah Winchester’s grave across town
—an eight-foot lump of rough-hewn rock, a cross pressed into it like a child’s school project. Alex wondered if Mrs. Winchester had chosen to be buried at Evergreen instead of Grove Street because she knew she wouldn’t
rest easy right down the road from the factory where her husband had produced barrel after barrel, gun after gun.
Alex didn’t slow down until she’d passed the new colleges and crossed Trumbull. It was comforting to be back near campus where the trees grew over the streets in shady canopies. How had she become someone who felt more at home here than on the streets outside the Taurus? Comfort was the drug she hadn’t understood until it was too late and she was hooked on cups of tea and book-lined shelves, nights uninterrupted by the wail of sirens and the ceaseless churning of helicopters overhead. Her Tom Brady glamour had shaken loose completely when she’d let the Gray enter her, so at least she didn’t need to worry about causing a stir on campus.
Students were out enjoying the warm night, waddling along with couches jammed between them, handing out flyers for parties. A girl on roller skates coasted down the middle of the street, fearless, in a bikini top and tiny shorts, her skin gleaming against the blue night. This was their dream time, the magical early days of fall semester, the happy haze of meeting once again, old friendships rekindling in firefly sparks before the real work of the year began. Alex wanted to wallow in it too, to remember that she was safe, she was okay. But there wasn’t time.
The Hutch was only a few blocks away, and she stopped to try to get her head together, leaning against the low wall in front of Sterling Library. How had that Gray overtaken her? She knew her connection to the dead had been deepened by what she’d had to do in her fight with Belbalm. She’d called them to her and offered them her name. They’d answered. They’d saved her. And of course rescue had come at a price. All her life, she’d been able to see Grays; now she could hear them too. They were that much closer, that much harder to ignore.
But maybe she hadn’t really understood what salvation would cost her at all. Something very bad had happened in Oddman’s house, something she couldn’t explain. She was meant to control the dead, to use them. Not the other way around.
She pulled out her phone and saw two texts from Dawes, both exactly fifteen minutes apart and in all caps. URGENT CALL IN.
Alex ignored the messages and scrolled down, then typed out a quick
The reply was immediate: When I have my money
She really hoped Oddman got his house in order. She deleted Eitan’s messages, then called Dawes.
“Where are you?” Dawes answered breathlessly.
Something big must be happening if Dawes was ignoring protocol. Alex could picture her pacing the parlor at Black Elm, her knot of red hair sliding to one side, headphones clamped around her neck.
“Sterling. On my way back to the Hutch.” “You’re going to be late to—”
“If I stand here talking to you, I will be. What’s up?” “They’ve selected a new Praetor.”
“Damn. Already?” The Praetor was the faculty liaison for Lethe, who served as a go-between with the university administration. Only Yale’s president and dean knew about the real activities of the secret societies, and it was Lethe’s job to make sure it stayed that way. The Praetor was a kind of den mother. The responsible adult in the room. At least he was supposed to be. Dean Sandow had turned out to be a murderer.
Alex knew a Lethe Praetor had to be a former Lethe deputy and had to be a member of the Yale faculty or at least reside in New Haven. That couldn’t be easy to find. Alex and Dawes had assumed it would take the board at least another semester to find someone to replace the very dead Dean Sandow. They’d counted on it.
“Who is he?” Alex asked. “It could be a woman.”
“No. But Anselm didn’t give me a name.” “Did you ask?” Alex pushed.
A long pause. “Not exactly.”
There was no point needling Dawes. Much like Alex, she didn’t like people, but unlike Alex, she avoided confrontation. And really, it wasn’t her job. Oculus kept Lethe running smoothly—fridge and armory stocked,
rituals scheduled, properties kept in order. She was the research arm of Lethe, not the harass-board-members arm.
Alex sighed. “When are they bringing him in?”
“Saturday. Anselm wants to set up a meeting, maybe a tea.”
“Nope. No way. I need more than a couple of days to prepare.” Alex turned away from the passing students, staring up at the stone scribes that guarded the Sterling Library doors. Darlington was with her here, picking away at Yale’s mysteries. “Egyptian, Mayan, Hebrew, Chinese, Arabic, engravings of cave paintings from Les Combarelles. They covered all their bases.”
“What do they mean?” Alex had asked.
“Quotes from libraries, holy texts. The Chinese quote is from a dead judge’s mausoleum. The Mayan comes from the Temple of the Cross, but they chose it at random because no one knew how to translate it until twenty years later.”
Alex had laughed. “Like a drunk dude getting a kanji tattoo.”
“To use one of your turns of phrase, they half-assed it. But it certainly looks impressive, doesn’t it, Stern?”
It had. It still did.
Now Alex hunched over her phone and whispered to Dawes, knowing she probably looked like a girl in the middle of a breakup. “We need a delay.”
“What good is that going to do us?”
Alex didn’t have an answer for that. They’d been searching for the Gauntlet all summer and come up empty. “I went to First Presbyterian.”
“Nothing. At least as far as I can tell. I’ll send you the photos.”
“Gateways to hell aren’t just lying around for people to walk through,” Michelle Alameddine had warned when they’d all sat down together at Blue State after Dean Sandow’s funeral. “That would be way too dangerous. Think of the Gauntlet as a secret passage that appears when you say the magic words. But in this case, the magic words are a series of steps, a path you have to walk. You take your first steps in the labyrinth, and only then does the path become clear.”
“So we’re hunting for something we can’t even see?” Alex had asked.
“There would be signs, symbols.” Michelle had shrugged. “Or at least that’s one theory. That’s all hell and the afterlife are. Theories. Because the people who get to see the other side don’t come back to tell about it.”
She was right. Alex had only been to the borderlands when she’d made her bargain with the Bridegroom, and she’d barely survived that. People weren’t meant to move between this life and the next and back again. But that was exactly what they’d have to do to get Darlington home.
“There are rumors of a Gauntlet on Station Island in Lough Derg,” Michelle continued. “There might have been one in the Imperial Library of Constantinople before it was destroyed. And according to Darlington, a bunch of society boys built one right here.”
Dawes had nearly spit out her tea. “Darlington said that?”
Michelle gave her a bemused look. “His little pet project was creating a magical map of New Haven, of all the places where power ebbed and flowed. He said some society members had done it on a dare and that he intended to find it.”
“I told him he was an idiot and that he should spend more time worrying about his future and less time digging into Lethe’s past.”
Alex found herself smiling. “How’d that go over?” “How do you think?”
“I actually don’t know,” she’d said at the time, too tired and too raw to pretend. “Darlington loved Lethe, but he also would have wanted to listen to his Virgil. He took that seriously.”
Michelle studied the leavings of her scone. “I liked that about him. He took me seriously. Even when I didn’t.”
“Yes,” Dawes had said quietly.
But Michelle had only returned to New Haven once over the summer. All June and July Dawes had been researching from her sister’s place in Westport, sending Alex into the Lethe House library with requests for books and treatises. They’d tried to come up with the right series of words to frame their requests in the Albemarle Book, but all that came back were old accounts of mystics and martyrs having visions of hell—Charles the Fat,
Dante’s two towers in Bologna, caves in Guatemala and Belize said to lead to Xibalba.
Dawes took the train from Westport a few times so they could sit together and try to find someplace to start. They always invited Michelle, but she only took them up on it that one time, on a weekend when she was off from her job in gifts and acquisitions at the Butler Library. They’d spent all day poring over society records and books on the monk of Evesham, then had lunch in the parlor. Dawes made chicken salad and lemon bars wrapped in checkered napkins, but Michelle had only picked at her food and kept checking her phone, eager to be gone.
“She doesn’t want to help,” Dawes had said when Michelle left and the door to Il Bastone was shut firmly behind her.
“She does,” said Alex. “But she’s afraid to.”
Alex couldn’t really blame her. The Lethe board had made it clear they believed Darlington was dead, and they weren’t interested in hearing otherwise. There had been too much mess the previous year, too much noise. They wanted that chapter closed. But two weeks after Michelle’s visit, Alex and Dawes had gotten their big break: a single, lonely paragraph in a Lethe Days Diary from 1938.
Now Alex pushed off from the wall outside of Sterling and hurried up Elm onto York. “Tell them I can’t meet on Saturday. Tell them I have … orientation or something.”
Dawes groaned. “You know I’m a terrible liar.”
“How are you going to get better if you don’t practice?”
Alex dodged down the alley and entered the Hutch, welcoming the cool dark of the back stairs, that sweet autumn smell of clove and currants. The rooms were spotless but lonely, the battered plaid couches and scenes of shepherds tending their flocks trapped in gloom. She didn’t like spending real time at the Hutch. She didn’t want to be reminded of the lost days when she’d hidden in these secret rooms, wounded and hopeless. Pathetic. She wasn’t going to let that happen to her this year. She was going to find a way to keep control. She snatched up the backpack she’d loaded with supplies earlier—graveyard dirt, bone dust chalk, and something labeled a Phantom Loop, a kind of fancy lacrosse stick she’d pilfered from the Lethe armory.
For once, she’d done the homework.
Alex loved the Book and Snake tomb because it was across from Grove Street Cemetery and that meant she wouldn’t have to see many Grays, particularly at night. Sometimes they were drawn there by funerals if the deceased had been especially loved or loathed, and Alex had once been treated to the grim sight of a Gray trying to lick the cheek of a weeping woman. But at night the cemetery was nothing but cold stone and decay— the last place Grays wanted to be when there was a campus right next door, full of students flirting and sweating, drinking too much beer or too much coffee, alive with nerves and ego.
The tomb itself looked like something between a Greek temple and an oversized mausoleum—no windows or doors, all white marble fronted by towering columns. “It’s meant to look like the Erechtheion,” Darlington had told her. “At the Acropolis. Or some people say the Temple of Nike.”
“So which is it?” Alex had asked. She’d felt like she was in moderately safe territory. She remembered learning about the Acropolis and the Agora and how much she’d loved the stories of the Greek gods.
“Neither. It was built as a necromanteion, a house to welcome and commune with the dead.”
And Alex had laughed because by then she knew how much Grays hated any reminder of death. “So they built a big mausoleum? They should have built a casino and put a sign out front that said Ladies drink free.”
“Crude, Stern. But you’re not wrong.”
That had been almost a year ago exactly. Tonight she was alone. Alex climbed the steps and knocked on the big bronze doors. This was the second ritual she’d observed this semester. The first—a rite of renewal at Manuscript—had been easy enough. The new delegation had stripped down to nothing and rolled a grizzled news anchor into a ditch lined with rosemary and hot coals. He’d emerged two hours later looking red-faced, sweaty, and about ten years younger.
The door swung open on a girl in a black robe, her face covered by a sheer veil embroidered with black snakes. She pulled it up over her head.
Alex nodded. The societies never asked about Darlington anymore. To the new delegates, she was Virgil, an expert, an authority. They’d never met the gentleman of Lethe. They didn’t know they were getting a half-trained pretender. As far as they were concerned, Alex was Lethe and always had been. “You’re Calista?”
The girl beamed. “The delegation president.” She was a senior, probably only a year older than Alex, but she seemed like a different species— smooth-skinned, bright-eyed, her hair a soft halo of curls. “We’re almost ready to start. I’m so nervous!”
“Don’t be,” said Alex. Because that was what she was supposed to say.
Virgil was calm, knowledgeable; she’d seen it all before.
They passed beneath a stone carving that read, Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. Everything changes, nothing perishes.
Darlington had rolled his eyes as he gave the translation on one of their visits. “Don’t ask me why a society built around Greek necromancy thinks it’s appropriate to quote a Roman poet. Omnia dicta fortiori si dicta Latina.”
“I know you want me to ask, so I’m not going to.”
He’d actually smiled. “Everything sounds more impressive in Latin.”
They’d been getting along well then, and Alex had felt something like hope, a kind of ease between them that might have grown into trust.
If she hadn’t let him die.
Inside, the tomb was cold and lit by torches, the smoke gusted away by small vents high above. Most of the rooms were ordinary, but the central temple was perfectly round and painted with brightly colored frescoes of naked men in laurel crowns.
“Why are they climbing ladders?” Alex had asked when she’d first seen the murals.
“Not Why are they all naked? Symbolism, Stern. They’re ascending to greater knowledge. On the backs of the dead. Look at the bases.”
The ladders were propped on the bowed backs of kneeling skeletons.
At the center of the room stood two towering statues of veiled women, stone snakes at their feet. A lamp hung from their clasped hands, the fire
burning a soft blue. Beneath it two older men were huddled in conversation. One wore robes of black and gold, an alum who would serve as high priest. The other looked like someone’s very strict dad, his gray hair in a tight crew cut, his button-down tucked neatly into pressed khaki trousers.
Two more robed figures entered, carrying a large crate. Alex doubted it was a couch from Ikea. They set it down between two brass symbols on the floor—Greek letters that fanned out in a spiral over the marble slabs.
“Why did you lobby so hard to have a ritual sanctioned this week?” Alex asked Calista, eyeing the crate as the Lettermen used a crowbar to jimmy the top open. Most of the time societies took the evenings assigned to them in the calendar or occasionally petitioned for an emergency dispensation that invariably threw the whole schedule into upheaval. But the Lettermen had been very clear that Book and Snake needed this Thursday night for their ritual.
“It was the only day…” Calista hesitated, torn between pride and the demand for discretion. “A certain four-star general has a very tight schedule.”
“Got it,” said Alex, glancing at the stern-faced man with the crew cut. She took out her chalk and her notes and began to draw the circle of protection—carefully, precisely. She didn’t realize how hard she was gripping the chalk until it snapped in two and she had to work with one of the stubs. She was nervous, but she didn’t have that panicked, never-studied-for-the-test feeling. She had reviewed her notes, drawn the symbols again and again in the shadowy comfort of Il Bastone’s parlor, New Order on the tinny sound system. She’d felt like the house approved of her newfound diligence, its doors locked and secured, its heavy curtains drawn to keep the sun out.
“Are we ready?” The high priest was approaching, rubbing his hands together. “We have a schedule to keep.”
Alex couldn’t remember his name, some alum she’d met the previous year. He’d oversee the ritual with the new delegation. Behind him, she saw the Lettermen lifting a corpse out of the crate. They laid it on the floor, naked and white. The smell of roses filled the air, and the priest must have seen Alex’s surprise because he said, “That’s how we prepare the body.”
Alex didn’t think of herself as squeamish; she’d been too close to death her whole life to shy away from severed limbs or gunshot wounds—at least when it came to Grays. But it was always different with an actual body, stiff and silent, more alien in its stillness than a ghost could ever be. It was as if she could feel the void where the person should be.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“No one anymore. He was Jacob Yeshevsky, Silicon Valley darling and friend to Russian hackers everywhere. Died on a yacht less than twenty-four hours ago.”
“Twenty-four hours,” Alex echoed. Book and Snake had requested this night for their ritual back in August.
“We have our sources.” He bobbed his head toward the cemetery. “The dead knew his time was coming.”
“And predicted it to the day. Thoughtful of them.”
Jacob Yeshevsky had been murdered. She felt sure of that. And even if Book and Snake hadn’t planned it, they’d known it was going to happen. But she wasn’t here to cause trouble, and Jacob Yeshevsky was beyond her help.
“The circle is ready,” said Alex. The ritual had to be protected by the circle, but she’d set a gate at each compass point, and one would be kept open to allow magic to flow in. That was where Alex would stand guard, in case any Grays tried to crash the party, drawn by longing, greed, any powerful emotion. Though unless things got really exciting, she doubted Grays would want to be this close to a fresh corpse and all of this grand funereal gloom.
“You’re a lot cuter than that girl Darlington used to run around with,” the priest said.
Alex didn’t return his smile. “Michelle Alameddine is way out of your league.”
His grin only deepened. “Absolutely no one is out of my league.” “Stop trying to fuck the help and let’s go,” barked the general.
The priest departed with another smile.
Alex wasn’t sure if it was ballsy or creepy to hit on someone within spitting distance of a dead body, but she intended to get well away from
Book and Snake as soon as she could. She had to remain the good girl. Do the job. Do it right. She and Dawes didn’t want any trouble, didn’t want to give Lethe any reason to split them up or interfere with what they had planned. A new Praetor getting in their way was going to be messy enough.
A deep gong sounded. The Lettermen stood outside the perimeter of the circle, their veils drawn over their faces, mourners in black, leaving only the general, the high priest, and the dead man at the circle’s center.
“There studious let me sit,” intoned the priest, his voice echoing through the chamber, “and hold high converse with the mighty dead.”
“For what it’s worth, that quote is about libraries, not necromancy,” Darlington had whispered to her once. It marked the start of every Book and Snake ritual. “It’s written in stone at Sterling.”
Alex hadn’t wanted to confess that she spent most of her time at Sterling Library dozing off in one of the reading rooms with her boots propped on a heating vent.
The priest tossed something into the lamp above them, and bluish smoke billowed up from the flames, then seemed to settle, sinking onto the bare feet of the statues. One of the stone snakes began to move, its white scales iridescent in the firelight. It slithered toward the corpse, undulating across the marble floor, then paused, as if scenting the body. Alex choked back a gasp when it lunged, jaws wide, and latched on to the corpse’s calf.
The corpse began to twitch, muscles spasming, bouncing off the iron floor like hot kernels in a pan. The snake released its grip and Yeshevsky’s body sprang into a deep crouch, feet wide, hands cupping its knees, waddling like a crab but with a speed that made Alex’s skin crawl. Its face
—his face—was stretched into a grimace, eyes wide and panicked, mouth pulling down like a theatrical mask of tragedy.
“I need passwords,” said the general as the corpse capered around the temple, “solid intel, not…” He waved his hand through the air, damning the domed crypt, the students in their robes, and poor, dead Jacob Yeshevsky in a single gesture. “Fortune-telling.”
“We’ll get you what you need,” the priest replied smoothly. “But if you’re asked to reveal your sources—”
“You think I want oversight sniffing around this Illuminati bullshit?”
Alex couldn’t see the priest’s face beneath his veil, but his scorn was clear. “We are not the Illuminati.”
“Posers,” muttered one of the Lettermen standing near Alex. “Just get him talking,” said the general.
It’s a front, Alex thought. That brusque, grunting, all-business act was cover. The general hadn’t known what he was walking into when he’d hatched his agreement with Book and Snake, connected by some high-powered alumnus. What had he imagined? Some muttered words, a voice from the beyond? Had he thought there would be dignity in this? But this was what real magic looked like—indecent, decadent, perverse. Welcome to Yale. Sir, yes, sir.
A string of drool hung from Jacob Yeshevsky’s mouth as he waited in that deep, unnatural crouch, rocking slowly side to side, toes wiggling slightly, eyes rolling in his head, a grotesque, a gargoyle.
“Is the scribe ready?” asked the priest.
“I am,” replied one of the Lettermen, veiled and perched in a small balcony above.
“Speak then,” boomed the priest, “while you may. Answer our questions and return to your rest.”
He nodded at the general, who cleared his throat. “Who was your primary contact at the FSB?”
Yeshevsky’s body crab-walked left, right, left, with that unnerving speed. Alex had done some research into golems and glumae last year, but she had no idea how she’d fight that thing if it came running at her. It was moving from brass letter to brass letter on the floor, as if the whole room was a Ouija board, the corpse skittering over it like a planchet, the scribe documenting each pause from above.
Every so often, the body would slow and the priest would add something to the fire, producing that same blue smoke. The snake would rouse itself, slither across the floor, and bite Yeshevsky again, juicing him with whatever strange venom it possessed in its fangs.
It’s just a body, Alex reminded herself. But that wasn’t entirely true. Some part of Yeshevsky’s consciousness had been drawn back into it to answer questions for the blustering general. Would it vanish beyond the Veil
when this sick bit of business was done? Would it be whole, or would it return to the afterlife damaged by the horror of being crammed back into a lifeless corpse?
This was why Grays steered clear of Book and Snake. Not because their tomb looked like a mausoleum, but because the dead weren’t meant to be treated this way.
Alex considered the veiled and bowed heads of the Lettermen, the scribe. You’re right to hide your faces, she thought. When your time comes, someone’s going to be waiting for payback on the other side.