Chapter no 24

Hell Bent

The night before Halloween, they met in the dining room at Il Bastone. It felt more formal than the parlor, and Dawes had argued that they needed the space. Alex hadn’t really understood until she saw the oversized blueprints of Sterling spread across the table. Dawes brought out her beloved whiteboard and prepared a pot of hot cider that filled Il Bastone with the smell of fermenting apples.

Mercy had changed clothes three times before they left their dorm room, finally arriving on a snug tweed jacket and velvet skirt.

“You know you’re doing us the favor, right?” Alex had asked. “Dress for the job you want.”

“What job do you want?”

“I don’t know,” Mercy said. “But if magic is real, I want to make a good impression.”

Do we all hunger for this? Alex wondered as she shepherded Mercy into Il Bastone, watching her eyes grow wide at the sight of the sunflower staircase, the stained glass, the painted tiles that framed the fireplace. Why raise children on the promise of magic? Why create a want in them that can never be satisfied—for revelation, for transformation—and then set them adrift in a bleak, pragmatic world? In Darlington she’d seen what grief over that loss could do to someone, but maybe the same mourning lived inside her too. The terrible knowledge that there would be no secret destiny, no kindly mentor to see some hidden talent inside her, no deadly nemesis to best.

Maybe that grief, that longing fostered by stories of more beautiful worlds and their infinite possibility, was what made them all such easy prey for Lethe. Maybe it made Mercy dress in velvet and tweed and put fake

emeralds in her ears, driven by the dream of finding her way through the back of the wardrobe. Alex just hoped there wouldn’t be something awful waiting behind the coats.

Earlier that night, she’d had to watch the members of Manuscript tie a chart-topping pop singer to a chair, crane her neck back, and place a nightingale in her mouth, securing it with a tiny rope bridle. Then they’d waited for the bird to shit down her throat. It was supposed to bring back her legendary voice. That was the truth of magic—blood and guts and semen and spit, organs kept in jars, maps for hunting humans, the skulls of unborn infants. The problem wasn’t books and fairy tales, just that they told half the story, offering up the illusion of a world where only the villains paid in blood, the ogre stepmothers, the wicked stepsisters, where magic was just and without sacrifice.

They found Turner sitting at the dining room table, poring over the notes Dawes had prepared. Alex suspected he was mostly trying to ignore Tripp, who was stuffing himself in front of the elaborate spread of charcuterie, fondue, and geometric bits of puff pastry laid out in the kitchen. “Alex!” he cried when he saw her, his mouth half full of cheese. “Your

buddy Dawes is a sick cook. Like insane.”

Dawes, ladling hot cider into a cup, looked caught between acute delight and stern disapproval, and the result was a kind of constipated half smile. She was in jeans instead of her usual sweats, her hair combed into a French braid. Even Tripp had worn a blue blazer and a polo instead of his usual T-shirt and sweats. Alex felt suddenly underdressed.

“Let’s get started,” Turner said. “Some of us have work in the morning.”

And some of us have papers due, thought Alex. Not to mention a stack of reading that grew ever higher: To the Lighthouse, which had bored her; Novel on Yellow Paper, which had surprised her; page after page of Herodotus, which had quickly made her rethink her newfound passion for Greek history; long, opaque poems by Wallace Stevens, which sometimes put her in a kind of dream state and other times lulled her straight to sleep. If she could have chosen something other than the English major, she would

have, but she wasn’t equipped for anything else. Which meant she might come into even closer contact with their new Praetor.

They’d met in the parlor that afternoon to discuss Alex’s preparations for the songbird ritual at Manuscript. Professor Walsh-Whiteley had sipped sherry and nibbled biscotti while he perused Alex’s index cards, then given a brief sniff and said, “Passable.”

Alex had struggled to retain a victory whoop, though it had been difficult to maintain that triumphant mood once she actually understood what the ritual entailed. She’d wanted to go home and never think about it again, but she was determined to get her report typed up and sent to the Praetor before they attempted the Gauntlet. No reason to worry, sir. No need to pay close attention.

“Turner,” Alex murmured as they took their seats at the table, “does Professor Lambton have kids?”

“A son. Lives out in Arizona. And yes, he has an alibi.” He answered instantly, and Alex realized he might be sitting at this table, but his mind was elsewhere, constantly turning over the details of the faculty murders.

“You might want to check that alibi again.” “Why? What do you know?”

“The quotes we’ve been chasing all lead back to the execution of Charles I. But it was his son who went looking for revenge.”

“And how did you suddenly figure this out?”

“I’m a sleuth,” Alex said, tapping her head and enjoying his eye roll way too much. “I did some digging. Pieced it together.” She wasn’t about to mention her lunch with Michael Anselm, or start talking about demons and vampires and the possibility that someone had bled the life from Marjorie Stephen. Not until she knew there was something more to it than her own paranoia.

Dawes clinked her knife against her water glass, the sound surprisingly clear and resonant. She flushed pink beneath her freckles when everyone turned to look at her and said, “We … should start?”

Tripp joined them at the table, his plate heaped high, a bottle of beer in his other hand. “Do we have to take an oath or something?”

“Don’t die. Try not to be an asshole,” Turner said. “That’s the oath.

Let’s get on with it.”

Dawes wiped her hands on her jeans and took up her position beside the whiteboard, where she’d drawn a rough plan of Sterling. She pointed to the entrance, to the first station of the Gauntlet.

“We’ll arrive at eleven sharp to get settled. Stay in the Linonia Room. We’ll be using a very basic shrouding glamour to keep ourselves hidden when the library closes.”

“What are we going to tell Lauren?” Mercy whispered as Dawes described where in Linonia they should hide and which part of the room would be glamoured. “She’s going to be furious if we leave the party early.”

Alex wasn’t sure. It would have to be something so dull Lauren wouldn’t want to come along.

“There is very little guidance to work from,” Dawes continued. “But it would be wise to fast for at least six hours before. Do not consume any meat or dairy.”

“Only vegans go to hell?” Tripp said with a laugh.

Dawes looked at him with her stern, studious eyes. “You’re going to want empty bowels.”

That shut him up fast.

Dawes gestured to Mercy. “Our sentinel will be stationed in the courtyard. The four pilgrims will walk the Gauntlet together starting at one o’clock exactly.”

“How are we protecting Mercy?” Alex asked.

Mercy held up a small red notebook. “I’ve got my death words.” “You’ll want to commit them to memory,” said Dawes.

Mercy grinned. “Quid tibi, mors, faciam quae nulli parcere nosti?”

“You speak Latin?” Tripp asked disbelievingly.

Mercy’s smile faded, and she cast Tripp a look of pure contempt. “When I have to. Death words work better in dead languages, okay?”

Alex was surprised at the edge in Mercy’s voice, but Tripp just shrugged. “If you say so.”

“What does it mean?” asked Turner.

What am I going to do with you, Death, who spares no one?” quoted Mercy. “It’s funny, right? Like Death is a bad party guest.”

“I’m all for Latin,” said Alex, “but death words aren’t going to help against a demon.”

“I have something in mind for that,” said Dawes. “Salt armor,” Mercy said.

Dawes beamed at her. “Exactly.”

Alex was embarrassed to feel a pang of jealousy at that proud look, another unpleasant reminder that she was the interloper here.

“What happens when the library closes?” asked Turner.

“We walk the stations of the Gauntlet together.” Dawes gestured to the sideboard. “Mercy will set the metronome ticking. The rhythm has to remain uninterrupted until the ritual is complete.”

That didn’t make much sense to Alex. “I don’t think they had metronomes in Thonis.”

“No,” agreed Dawes. “In times past, a whole group of people would have stood sentinel and kept the beat with drums or other instruments. But we don’t have a group and we don’t know how long we’ll be. We can’t risk Mercy getting fatigued or interrupted.”

Tick tick tick. The bomb waiting to go off.

“We’ll begin outside at the scribe,” Dawes continued, “and mark the entrance with our mingled blood.”

Turner shook his head. “This is some satanic shit.”

“It’s not,” said Dawes defensively. “The blood binds us and should wake the Gauntlet.”

“So we’ll know we’re on the right path?” Alex asked.

Dawes gnawed on her lower lip. “That’s the idea. Each pilgrim has a designation that determines the order we use to walk the Gauntlet. Soldier first, then scholar, then priest, then prince.” She cleared her throat. “I believe I should take the role of scholar. Given Turner’s religious leanings, he can take the office of priest.”

“I can be the soldier,” Tripp offered.

“You’re the prince,” said Alex. “I’m the soldier. I’ll walk first.”

“That means you’ll also be the one to close the circuit,” warned Dawes. “You’ll walk that final stretch alone.”

Alex nodded. That was the way it should be. She was the one who had let the hellbeast consume Darlington in that basement. She’d be the one to close the circle.

“By then,” Dawes said, “we’ll all have taken our positions in the courtyard. Each of the four doorways will be marked with blood. We’ll need a signal so we can all begin the walk to the center of the courtyard at the same time.” She set down a metal disc.

“A pitch pipe?” asked Mercy.

Dawes nodded. “It was enchanted sometime in the fifties to ensure perfect harmony. I’m hoping it will help us stay in sync if things get … difficult.”

Alex didn’t want to dwell too long on what that might mean. “We’re sure the courtyard is the spot?”

Dawes pointed to a series of Post-its she’d laid out on a plan of the Selin Courtyard. “Four doorways. Four pilgrims. Four compass points. And the inscriptions can’t be a coincidence. Remember the Tree of Knowledge? This is engraved above the stone sundial on the librarian’s door. Ignorance is the curse of God. Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.

Henry VI,” said Mercy and glanced at Alex with a grin. Alex smiled back. “More Shakespeare.”

“There’s also this.” Dawes held up a photo of a stone grid of numbers. “Sudoku?” asked Tripp.

Dawes looked at him as if she wasn’t sure whether to put him to bed with a hot water bottle or hit him with a shovel. “It’s the magic square from Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia. Every direction you add the numbers, the sum is always the same. I think it’s a gesture toward containment.”

“A perfect puzzle for a demon to get caught up in,” Alex said.

“Exactly. And of all the details from Dürer’s works, it has no real reason to be in this courtyard.”

“What’s at the center?” Turner asked. “What are we all marching toward?”

Mercy wrinkled her nose. “There’s a fountain, but it’s not much to look at. More of a big square basin with some cherubs stuck on the corners.”

“It was added later,” Dawes said. “After the library was built. Because something was seeping up through the stones.”

Silence settled over the room.

Turner scrubbed a hand over his head. “Fine. We get to the middle.

Then what happens?”

Now Dawes hesitated. “We descend. I don’t know what that entails. Some people describe hallucinations and an actual sensation of falling, others describe a complete disconnect from the body and a feeling of flight.”

“Sweet,” said Tripp.

“But that could be because of the datura.”

“That’s a poison,” said Turner. “Had a case where a woman was growing it in her backyard, putting it in lotions and ointments.”

“It does have medicinal uses,” said Dawes. “It just needs a steady hand.”

“Sure,” said Turner. “Are you going to tell them its other name?”

Dawes looked down at her notes and mumbled, “Devil’s trumpet. The pilgrims are anointed with it before they begin. It loosens the soul’s tether to this world. We can’t cross over without it.”

“And then we die,” said Alex.

Tripp gave a nervous laugh. “Metaphorically, right?”

Slowly, Dawes shook her head. “From what I can tell, we’ll be buried alive.”

“Shit,” said Turner.

“The verb is unclear,” Dawes offered. “It might mean buried or submerged.”

Tripp pushed back from the table. “Are we sure … Is this a good idea?” “We’re out of good ideas,” said Alex. “This is what we have left.”

But Turner wasn’t interested in Tripp’s nerves. “So we die,” he said as if he were asking for directions to the bank. “Then what?”

Dawes had bit so deeply into her lip a thin line of blood had appeared. “At some point, we should encounter Darlington—or the part of him still

stuck in hell. We secure his soul in a vessel, then we return to this plane and take it to Black Elm. That’s when we’ll be at our most vulnerable.”

“Vulnerable how?” Alex asked.

Turner tapped the open book in front of him. “If we don’t close off the Gauntlet, something can follow us.”

“Something?” Mercy finally sounded scared, and Alex was almost grateful for that. She needed to take this seriously.

“What we’re doing is considered theft,” said Dawes. “We have no reason to think hell will give up a soul easily.”

Tripp gave another nervous laugh. “Like a hell heist.” “Well…” Dawes mused. “Yes, that’s accurate.”

“If it’s a heist, we should all have jobs,” said Tripp. “The thief, the hacker, the spy.”

“Your job is to survive,” Turner bit out. “And to make sure you don’t do anything stupid that gets the rest of us killed.”

Tripp held up his hands, agreeable as always. “No doubt.”

“We do need to move fast and stay on our guard,” said Dawes. “Until the two parts of Darlington’s soul are brought together, we’ll be targets.”

For any demons that pursued them. For creatures like Linus Reiter. What if he was watching? What if he knew what they meant to do? Again Alex felt that crawling paranoia, that sense of their enemies multiplying.

“Are you so sure we’re going to find his soul?” Turner asked.

Dawes dabbed at her lip with her sleeve. “His soul should want to find union with its other half, but that’s all about the vessel we choose. It needs to be something that will call to him. Like the deed to Black Elm or the Armagnac Michelle Alameddine left him.”

Except the deed had burned to ash months ago and the Armagnac had been blown to bits at Scroll and Key.

“Like a grail,” said Tripp. “That would be good.”

“Maybe a book?” suggested Mercy. “A first edition?”

“I know what it should be,” said Alex. “If I can find it.”

Dawes had somehow reopened the cut on her lip. “It has to be precious.

It has to have power over him.”

Alex’s memory was not her own—it belonged to the dead Daniel Tabor Arlington III watching his grandson mix an elixir over the sink in Black Elm, knowing the poison could kill him, unable to make him stop. She remembered what Danny—Darlington—had chosen to use as his cup in that moment of reckless desire: the little keepsake box from some long-ago, better time, the box he had once believed was magic and was determined to make magic again.

“It’s precious,” Alex said.

The dream of a world beyond ours, of magic made real. The way through the wardrobe, and maybe back again.

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