Chapter no 25

Hell Bent

Halloween on campus was mild during the day, almost as if the students were embarrassed by their desire to play—a few people in capes or silly hats, a professor in a jack-o’-lantern sweater, an a cappella group singing “Time Warp” on the steps of Dwight Hall. Celebrations were even more subdued in the wake of Dean Beekman’s murder. But even that quiet excitement was enough to rile up the Grays. They sensed the anticipation, the feeling of a holiday that buzzed through classrooms and libraries and dorm rooms. Alex tried not to let it get to her, but the noise of the dead— their sighs and exclamations and chatter—was difficult to ignore. Only Morse was quiet, the place where Beeky had been killed. There the living didn’t feel free to celebrate, and the dead wanted to stay far from the killing ground.

Alex and Mercy went all out decorating the common room as a kind of penance for abandoning Lauren, hanging chains of paper flowers over the ceiling and walls so that it looked like a goth garden. When they’d told her they were helping to work a candy exchange for parents at Mercy’s church, Lauren just said, “You guys are the worst,” and continued taping up skeins of crepe paper. She had a group of her field hockey friends to go out with later that night.

Liquor Treat got going around eight. Alex poured tequila shots and Mercy filled cups with chocolate soil and gummy worms while Lauren put on records in her sexy-gardener short-shorts. But Alex and Mercy didn’t touch the alcohol, and Alex made herself avoid the candy too. She was taking Dawes’s instructions seriously, and that meant she was dizzy with hunger and grumpy about it.

Early that morning, Alex had gone to Black Elm. She’d picked up the mail, put out fresh food and water for Cosmo, and then walked the length of the first floor to the office that looked out over the back garden. She knew Darlington had worked in there sometimes; she had even gone through the drawers of the mahogany desk when she was searching for his notes on the Bridegroom’s murder case.

But the office felt different than the rest of the house. Because it had belonged to the old man. It was a big, gloomy room, heavily paneled in dark wood, a long-dormant fireplace taking up the bulk of one wall. The only photos were black-and-white shots of the Arlington Rubber Boots factory, a man in a dark suit holding the hand of an unsmiling child in front of an old-fashioned motorcar, and a framed wedding picture that, judging by the bride’s dress, had to be from the turn of the century. The Arlingtons before the curse had come upon them and their shining prosperity had gone to rot.

The box was on the desk, a palm-sized porcelain thing with a scene of children playing in the snow printed on the top. On the inside of the hinged lid, Merry Christmas from Your Arlington Rubber Boots Family! had been inscribed in blue script framed by snowflakes. But the well of the box was stained reddish brown. From the elixir. Darlington’s attempt to see to the other side, the dream that had almost killed him, and that had led him to Lethe.

“That thing upstairs isn’t Danny.”

The old man was standing next to Alex. She could feel him inching closer, hoping to climb inside her, eager to be in a body again. Alex had been shaken by her run-in with Linus Reiter, the dream of Darlington in the circle, the unpleasant task of kissing Michael Anselm’s ass, the constant fear of another command coming down from Eitan before she found a way to clear the books. But she wasn’t about to become a carnival ride for some bitter old bastard who had cared more about his legacy than the little boy he’d trapped in this castle.

“That so?” She turned on Daniel Tabor Arlington III in his blue bathrobe. “Darlington deserved better than you or your crap son, and this

isn’t your house anymore. Death is the mother of beauty,” she snarled. All that Wallace Stevens ought to be good for something.

The old man vanished, his expression indignant.

Alex glanced up at the ceiling, and the next thing she knew she was climbing the stairs, moving down the hall. She hadn’t meant to go to the second floor. She was just supposed to retrieve the box and get out of Black Elm fast. Or was she lying to herself? Had she wanted to see Darlington before they attempted the Gauntlet? She didn’t try to fight whatever force took hold of her this time. She let herself be carried into the heat and golden light of the ballroom.

He was standing close to the circle’s edge, gaze locked on her. He was the demon she remembered, naked, monstrous, beautiful. Not the young man she’d spoken to her in her dream. Heat seemed to eddy around them, something stranger than a mere change in temperature, a crackle of power that she could feel against her skin. The circle of protection flickered. Was it growing fainter? Dissolving as it had in her dream?

“We’re coming to get you,” she said. “You need to be ready.” “I can’t hold on much longer.”

“You have to. If … if it doesn’t work, we’ll come back to strengthen the protections.”

“You can certainly try.”

Alex was unpleasantly reminded of Linus Reiter, sprawled on his cream-colored couch, daring her to hurt him.

“Tonight,” she repeated. “Why wait?”

“It isn’t easy to figure out a Gauntlet and assemble a search party of killers willing to go to hell. And Dawes says our chances are better on a night of portent.”

“As you like, Wheelwalker. You choose the steps in this dance.”

Alex wished that were true. She had the powerful urge to draw closer, but the fear inside her was just as strong.

“Was it you in the dream? Was it real? Is this?”

His smile was the same as it had been in the dream when he said, “This isn’t the time for philosophy, Stern.”

The hair rose on her arms. But was that confirmation or just another riddle for the demon to taunt her with?

“Why are you doing this?” he asked. The demon’s cool voice wavered, and he was only Darlington now, scared, desperate to find his way home. “Why risk your life and your soul?”

Alex didn’t know how to answer. She was putting her future at stake, her mother’s safety, her own. She was asking other people to put their lives on the line. Turner thought this was a holy war. Mercy wanted to wield the weapon that had been used against her. Tripp needed spending cash. And Dawes loved Darlington. He’d been her friend, one of the few who had bothered to take the time to know her and too dear to lose because of that. But what was Darlington to Alex? A mentor? A protector? An ally? None of those words seemed sufficient. Had some soft-boiled part of her fallen for the golden boy of Lethe? Or was this something less easily named than love or desire?

“Do you remember when you walked me through the ingredients for Hiram’s elixir?” she asked.

She could still see him standing over the golden crucible in the armory, his graceful hands moving in clean precision. He’d been lecturing her on the duties of Lethe, but she’d barely been listening. His sleeves were rolled up, and she’d been uncomfortably distracted by the shift of muscles in his forearms. She’d done her best to inoculate herself against Darlington’s beauty, but sometimes she still got caught off guard.

“We stand between the living and the dead, Stern. We wield the sword no one else dares lift. And this is the reward.”

“A chance at a painful death?” she’d asked.

“Heathen,” he’d said with a shake of his head. “It’s our duty to fight, but more than that, it’s our duty to see what others won’t and never avert our eyes.”

Now, standing in the ballroom, she said, “You didn’t turn away. Even when you didn’t like what you saw in me. You kept looking.”

Darlington’s gaze shifted and flickered like firelight. Gold and then amber. Bright and then shadowed. “Maybe I know a fellow monster when I see one.”

It felt like a cold hand shoving her away. Like a warning. She wasn’t stupid enough to ignore it.

“Maybe,” Alex whispered.

She made herself turn, leave the ballroom, walk down that dark hall.

She forced herself not to run.

Maybe they were just two killers, cursed to endure each other’s company, two doomed spirits trying to find their way home. Maybe they were monsters who liked the feeling of another monster looking back at them. But enough people had abandoned them both. She wasn’t going to be the next.

Matching luminaries

Provenance: Aquitaine, France; 11th century Donor: Manuscript, 1959

Believed to have been invented by heretical monks to hide forbidden texts. The glamour will remain strong for as long as the lanterns are lit. Those outside of the light’s reach will find their fear increasing as they draw closer. Ordinary candles may be used and refreshed accordingly. Donation made after storage above the Manuscript nexus created some kind of disturbance in the enchantment and two members of the 1957 delegation were lost for over a week in shadow.

—from the Lethe Armory Catalogue as revised and edited by Pamela

Dawes, Oculus

Halloween is an evangelical holiday. If you don’t celebrate, you’re forced to hide from those who do lest they slap a mask on your face and demand you caper about in the name of fun.

Lethe Days Diary of Raymond Walsh-Whiteley (Silliman

College ’78)

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