Chapter no 29

Hell Bent

When Alex woke the next morning, her body ached and she couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering, despite the covers piled on top of her. Her defiance and anger were gone, drained away by nightmares of Darlington crushed beneath Black Elm, Hellie fading before her eyes, Babbit Rabbit’s bloodied little body.

After Anselm had banished them, Alex had invited Dawes to stay with her and Mercy at the dorm. It was closer to the Hutch than her apartment. But Dawes had wanted to be alone.

“I just need some time to myself. I—” Her voice broke.

Alex had hesitated, then said, “Someone needs to go to Black Elm.”

“The cameras are all clear,” said Dawes. “But I’ll check in on him tomorrow.”

Whatever I am will be unleashed upon the world. Alex had seen the circle of protection flicker herself. “You shouldn’t go alone.”

“I’ll ask Turner.”

Alex knew she should volunteer, but she wasn’t sure she could face Darlington—in any form. Did he know how close they’d come? He’d been there. He’d saved her yet again, and sacrificed his chance at freedom. She wasn’t ready to look him in the eye.

“You went to see him,” said Dawes. “The night before the ritual.”

Alex must have been spotted on the camera. “I had to get the vessel.” “He won’t talk to me. Just sits there meditating or whatever.”

“He’s trying to keep us safe, Dawes. The way he always did.”

Except this time he was the threat. Dawes nodded, but she didn’t look convinced.

“Be careful,” Alex said. “Anselm—”

“Black Elm isn’t Lethe property. And someone has to take care of Cosmo. Of both of them.”

Alex watched Dawes disappear into the rain. She wasn’t made to take care of anyone or anything. Hellie was proof of that. Babbit Rabbit. Darlington.

She had trudged home in the wet, changed into dry pajamas, eaten four Pop-Tarts, and fallen into bed. Now she rolled over, shaking with chills and famished.

Mercy was sitting up in bed, a copy of Orlando open in her lap, a cup of tea steaming atop the upended vintage suitcase she used as a bedside table.

“Why can’t we just try again?” Mercy asked. “What’s stopping us?” “Good morning to you too. How long have you been up?”

“A couple of hours.”

“Shit.” Alex sat up too fast, the head rush immediate. “What time is it?” “Almost noon. On Monday.”

Monday?” Alex squeaked. She’d lost all of Sunday. She’d slept nearly thirty-six hours.

“Yup. You missed Spanish.”

What did it matter? Without her Lethe scholarship there would be no way for her to stay at Yale. She’d lost her chance to get away from Eitan. She’d lost her chance at a new life for her mother. Would they let her finish out the year? The semester?

But all of that was too miserable to contemplate.

“I’m starving,” she said. “And why is it so cold in here?”

Mercy dug in her bag. “I brought you two bacon sandwiches from breakfast. And it’s not that cold. It’s because you brushed up against hellfire.”

“You’re a beautiful angel,” Alex said, snatching the sandwiches from Mercy and unwrapping one. “Now what the fuck are you talking about?”

“You never study.”

“Not never,” Alex mumbled, mouth full.

“I read Dawes’s notes, not the actual source material, but contact with hellfire can leave you feeling cold and even result in hypothermia.”

“Was that the blue flame?”

“The what?”

Alex had to remember that Mercy had no idea what had happened in the underworld. “What does hellfire look like?”

“Not sure,” said Mercy. “But it’s considered the fabric of the demon world.”

“What’s the treatment?”

Mercy closed her book. “That’s less clear. Soup made from scratch and Bible verses were both suggested.”

“Yes, please, and no, thank you.”

Alex dragged herself out of bed and fumbled around in her dresser. She pulled a hoodie over her sweats. Was she even allowed to wear Lethe sweats anymore? Was she supposed to return them? She had no idea. She had a lot of questions she should have asked Anselm instead of flipping him off, but it had still been very satisfying.

She found the tiny bottle of basso belladonna wedged against the back of the drawer and squeezed drops into both of her eyes. There was no way she was getting through this day without a little help.

What’s stopping us? Mercy had asked. The answer was nothing. Alex didn’t want to go through hell again. But if they’d done it once, then they’d know what to expect the second time around. Dawes would have to choose a night of portent—assuming she and the others were willing to make a second run at the Gauntlet—and they wouldn’t have armor for Mercy, but they could load her up with other protections, figure out a way around the alarms if they couldn’t brew another tempest. Why not try again? What was there to lose? They’d come close enough that they had to take another shot.

She checked her phone. There was a text from Dawes from the day before.

All clear at Black Elm.

No changes? she texted back.

A long pause followed and then finally: He’s right where we left him.

The circle doesn’t look right.

Because it was getting weaker.

They might not be able to wait for a night of portent. That was the other problem. Anselm had scolded them for putting Lethe and the campus in

danger. But he didn’t really understand the game they were playing. He didn’t know Darlington was caught between worlds, that the creature sitting in the ballroom at Black Elm was both demon and man. And Alex wasn’t going to tell him. As soon as Anselm understood what they’d done, he’d find some spell to banish Darlington to hell forever rather than risk another use of the Gauntlet.

“I’m sorry last night was such a shit show,” Alex said.

“Are you kidding?” said Mercy. “It was great. I’m pretty sure I saw William Chester Minor. Honestly, I thought it would be a lot tougher.”

You should have been fighting wolves with us.

“I think I’m going to get kicked out of school,” Alex blurted. “Is that … a prediction or a plan?”

Alex almost laughed. “A prediction.”

“Then we have to get Darlington back. He can plead your case to Lethe.

And maybe scare them with a lawsuit or something.”

Maybe he could. Maybe he’d have more on his mind after a prolonged stay in hell. They wouldn’t know until they walked the Gauntlet again. But God, Alex was tired. The descent had been a beating and it wasn’t just her body that hurt.

She texted their group chat: Everyone okay?

Tripp’s reply rolled in first. I feel like shit. I think I have a cold.

All Turner said was Check.

If someone has a kitchen, I can make soup. That should help, Dawes replied and Alex felt a fresh wave of guilt. Dawes had a microwave and a hot plate at her cramped apartment, but no real kitchen. They should be gathering at Il Bastone, healing up for the next fight, making a plan. She thought of the house waiting for them. Did it know what they had attempted? Was it wondering why they hadn’t returned?

Alex rubbed her hands over her face. She felt tired and lost. She missed her mom. She loved Mercy, but for the first time in a while, she really wanted to be by herself. She wanted to eat that second bacon sandwich, then curl up and have a good long cry. She wanted to go to Black Elm and run straight up those stairs, tell Darlington or the demon or whatever he was

all about fighting Linus Reiter, her troubles with Eitan. She wanted to tell him every last terrible thing and see if he flinched.

“You okay?” Mercy asked. Alex sighed. “No.”

“Should we skip class?”

Alex shook her head. She needed to hold on to this world as long as she could. And she didn’t want to think about Darlington or Lethe or hell for a few hours. If Lethe didn’t let her finish out the semester, then what would she do? Locate the exits. Make a plan. She wasn’t the girl she’d been. She wasn’t helpless. She knew how to handle Grays. She had power. She could get a job. Go to community college. Hell, do some ghost-listening and hire herself out to some rich Malibu douchebags. Galaxy Stern, psychic to the stars.

She took a long hot shower, then changed into jeans and boots and the heaviest sweater she had. Their Shakespeare and the Metaphysical class was in LC, and Alex wondered what would happen if she ran into the Praetor. Would Professor Walsh-Whiteley look at her with pity? Give her the cut direct? But if the professor was somewhere in the rush of students, she didn’t see him.

They were filing into class when Alex heard her name being called. She glimpsed a familiar head of dark hair in the crowd.

“Be right back,” she told Mercy, slipping into the flow of people. “Michelle?”

Had the Praetor already sent for Michelle Alameddine to replace her? “Hey,” Michelle said. “How are you holding up?”

Better than I told you so. “I don’t really know yet. Are you meeting with Walsh-Whiteley?”

There was the faintest pause before Michelle said, “I had an errand to run for the Butler.”

“Here?” Michelle did look put together for a work meeting—dark skirt, gray turtleneck, suede boots, and a matching bag. But she worked in gifts and acquisitions at the Butler Library. An errand should bring her to Beinecke or Sterling, not the English department.

“It was the easiest place to meet.”

Alex didn’t have Turner’s sense for truth, that prickle she’d felt when she’d been in his head, but she still knew Michelle was lying. Was she trying to spare Alex’s feelings? Or was she supposed to keep any Lethe business confidential now that Alex had been excommunicated?

“Michelle, I’m fine. You don’t have to tiptoe around me.”

Michelle smiled. “Okay, you got me. No meeting in LC. I had to be in New Haven and I wanted to see how you were.”

No one is looking out for us but us. That was what Michelle had said when she’d tried to warn Alex not to use the Gauntlet. Even so …

“All this back-and-forth must be wiping you out. How was dinner with your boyfriend’s parents?”

“Oh, fine,” she said with a small laugh. “I’ve met them before. As long as we avoid talking politics, they’re great.”

Alex considered her options. She didn’t want to spook Michelle, but she didn’t want to keep dancing either. “I know you didn’t go back to the city that night.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You told me you were going back to New York. You said you had a train to catch, but you didn’t leave until the next morning.”

Color flooded Michelle’s cheeks. “How is that any of your business?” “Two murders on campus means I get to be skeptical.”

But Michelle had regained her composure. “Not that it’s your concern, but I’m seeing someone here and I try to come to town a few times a month. My boyfriend is fine with it, and even if he weren’t, I don’t deserve to be interrogated. I was worried about you.”

Alex knew she was supposed to apologize, to make nice. But she was too tired to play diplomat. She had held Darlington’s soul in her hands, and in it she’d felt the heavy, slumberous tuning of a cello, the sudden, exultant flutter of birds taking flight. If Michelle had stuck her neck out, even a little bit, they might have been better prepared. They might have succeeded.

“Worried enough to show up with a smile,” Alex said, “but not enough to help Darlington.”

“I explained to you—”

“You didn’t have to make the descent with us. We needed your knowledge. Your experience.”

Michelle licked her lips. “You made the descent?”

So she hadn’t talked to Anselm or the board, hadn’t met with the Praetor. Was she really just worried about Alex? Was Alex so unused to the idea of kindness that she instantly distrusted it? Or was Michelle Alameddine a champion liar?

“What are you doing here, Michelle? What were you really doing in New Haven the night Dean Beekman died?”

“You’re not a detective,” Michelle clipped out. “You’re barely a student. Go to class and stay out of my personal life. I won’t waste my time on you again.”

She turned on her heel and disappeared into the crowd. Alex was tempted to follow her.

Instead she slipped into her Shakespeare lecture. Mercy had saved her a seat, and as soon as Alex was settled, she checked her phone. Dawes was headed to Tripp’s loft to cook.

Alex pinged Turner privately.

Michelle Alameddine is on campus and I think she just lied about why.

Turner’s reply came quickly. What did she tell you? Said she was running an errand for the Butler Library.

She waited, watching the screen. Doubt it. She doesn’t work at the Butler.

Since when? She never did.

What was this? Why had Michelle lied to her—and to Lethe—about her job at Columbia? Why was she really on campus, and why had she tracked Alex down? And what about the fact that, when Alex had referred to two murders, Michelle hadn’t blinked? As far as anyone on campus knew, there had been only one murder. Marjorie Stephen, a woman Michelle actually knew, had supposedly died of natural causes. But Michelle had no reason to hurt either professor. At least not one Alex knew about.

She couldn’t concentrate on the lecture, though she’d actually done the reading. Part of the reason she’d let Mercy talk her into this class was

because she’d covered two semesters of Shakespeare’s plays already. There was plenty more to read, because there always was, but at least she hadn’t had to bluff her way through every lecture.

Maybe there was an upside to all this disaster. No more struggling through classes. No more watching divas swallow bird shit for the sake of a hit album. Alex tried to imagine what life might look like on the other side of all this, and it was too easy to picture. She didn’t want to go back to the hot, seasonless glare of Los Angeles. She didn’t want to work a shit job and make shit pay and get by on scraps of hope, days off, a beer and a fuck to make the month more bearable. She didn’t want to forget Il Bastone, with its tinny stereo and its velvet couches, the library that had to be cajoled into giving up its books, the pantry that was always full. She wanted late mornings and overheated classrooms, lectures on poetry, too-narrow wooden desks. She wanted to stay here.

Here. Where their professor was comparing The Tempest to Doctor Faustus, tracing lines of influence, the words singing through the room. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. Here beneath the soaring ceiling, the brass chandeliers floating weightless above, surrounded by panels of tawny wood and that Tiffany window that had no business in a classroom, alight with deep blue and green, rich purple and gold, groupings of angels who weren’t quite angels despite their wings, pretty girls in glass gowns with halos that read ScienceIntuitionHarmony, while FormColor, and Imagination clustered around Art. The faces always looked strange to Alex, too solid and specific, like photographs that had been pasted into the scene, Rhythm the only figure who looked out of the frame, her gaze direct, and Alex always wondered why.

The Tiffany window had been commissioned in honor of a dead woman. Her name, Mary, was inscribed on the book that one of the kneeling angels-not-angels was holding. The panels had been packed away during the Black Panther trials, in case of riots. They’d been mislabeled and left to molder in boxes, until someone stumbled over them decades later, as if the campus was so sated with beauty and wealth, it was easy to forget something extraordinary, or simply mourn it as lost.

What’s the point of it? Alex wondered. And did it need a point? The windows were beauty for its own sake, for the pleasure of it, smooth limbs, flowing hair, boughs heavy with flowers, all of it hiding in a lesson on virtue, meant as a memorial. But she liked this life full of pointless beauty. It could all disappear as easily as a dream, only the memory of it wouldn’t fade the way dreams did. It would haunt her the rest of her long, mediocre life.

A girl was leaning against the wall beneath the Tiffany window, and Alex had to ignore the twinge she felt at the gleam of her golden hair and honey skin. She looked like Hellie. And no one had a tan like that before winter break.

In fact, she looked exactly like Hellie.

The girl was staring at her, blue eyes sad. She was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. Alex’s heart was suddenly racing. She had to be hallucinating, another symptom of her literal hangover from hell. She knew better, but a wild hope entered her head before she could stop it. What if Hellie had somehow found her through the Veil? What if she had felt Alex’s presence in the underworld and crossed over to find her at last? But Grays always looked the way they had in death, and Alex would never forget Hellie’s pallid skin, the drying vomit on her shirt.

“Mercy,” Alex whispered, “do you see that girl under the Tiffany window?”

Mercy craned her neck. “Why is she staring at you? Do we know her?”

No, because Alex had erased every bit of her old life, the good right along with the bad. She hadn’t propped a photo of Hellie on top of her dresser. She’d never even spoken her name to Mercy. And the girl standing there beneath all those angels-not-angels couldn’t be Hellie because Hellie was dead.

The blond girl drifted toward the back door of the lecture hall. This felt like a test, and Alex knew damn well she should stay right where she was, pick up her pen, pay attention, take notes. But she couldn’t not follow.

“I’ll be right back,” she whispered to Mercy, and grabbed her coat, leaving her bag and books behind.

It’s not her. She knew that. Of course she knew that. She pushed the door open onto High Street. Dusk was falling, the November night coming on early. Alex hesitated, standing on the curb, watching the girl cross the street. The blacktop looked like a river and she didn’t want to wade in. The High Street bridge seemed to float over it, its winged stone women reclining gently against the arch. The architect had been a Bonesman. He’d designed and built their tomb as well. She couldn’t remember his name.

“Hellie?” she called, halting, uncertain, afraid. But of what? That the girl would turn or that she wouldn’t?

The girl didn’t stop, just crossed into the alley beside Skull and Bones.

Let her go.

Alex stepped into the street and jogged after her, following the polished gold of her hair up the steps, into the sculpture garden where she’d talked to Michelle only a week ago.

Hellie stood beneath the elms, a yellow flame in the blue light of dusk. “I missed you,” she said.

Alex felt something tear loose inside of her. This wasn’t possible.

Mercy had seen this girl. She wasn’t a Gray.

“I missed you too,” Alex said. Her voice sounded wrong, hoarse. “What is this? What are you?”

“I don’t know.” Hellie gave the smallest shrug.

It had to be an illusion. A trap. What had they done in hell that could make this possible? There was danger here. There had to be. Wishes didn’t just get granted. Death was final, even if your soul continued on—to the Veil or heaven or hell or purgatory or some demon realm. Mors vincit omnia.

Alex took a step, then another. She moved slowly, half-expecting the girl—Hellie—to bolt.

Her eyes caught a movement in the branches above. The curly-haired Gray, the little dead boy, was crouched there, whispering something to himself, the sound soft, like the rustle of leaves.

Another step. Hellie was California sunshine, clear blue eyes, a girl out of a magazine. It couldn’t be. They’d said their goodbyes in blood and vengeance, in the shallow, murky waters of the Los Angeles River. She’d

been carried by Hellie’s strength back to the apartment where her cold body remained. She had begged Hellie to stay, and then she had lain down, halfway hoping she wouldn’t wake up. When she had, the cops had been shining a light in her eyes, and Hellie, the only sunshine in her life, was gone.

“Shit, Alex,” Hellie said. “What are you waiting for?”

Alex didn’t know. A laugh bubbled up, or maybe a sob. She broke into a run, and then her arms were around Hellie, her face buried in her hair. She smelled like coconut shampoo, and her skin was warm as if she’d been lying in the sun. Not a Gray, not some undead thing, warm and human and alive.

What if this wasn’t a punishment or a trial? What if, for once, luck was running in her direction instead of away? What if this was her prize for so much hurt? What if, this time, magic had worked the way it was supposed to, the way it did in stories?

“I don’t understand,” she said as they sank onto a bench beneath the tree. She smoothed the silky blond hair back from Hellie’s suntanned face, marveling at her freckles, her nearly white lashes, the chip in her front tooth from when she’d careened off her skateboard in Balboa Park. “How?”

“I don’t know,” whispered Hellie. “I was … I don’t know where I was.

And now I’m…” She looked around in confusion. “Here.” “Yale.”


Alex laughed. “Yale University. I go here. I’m a student.” “Bullshit.”

“I know, I know.” “You holding?”

Alex shook her head. “I don’t … I’m not really into that anymore.”

“Right,” Hellie said with a laugh. “College girl. But I need something.

Just to take the edge off.”

Alex wasn’t going to say no. Not when Hellie was here in front of her.

Alive. Golden and perfect. “I’ll figure something out.” “Okay.”

“You don’t have to whisper,” Alex said, rubbing Hellie’s arms. “We’re safe here.”

Hellie glanced over her shoulder, then past Alex, as if she was expecting something to come lurching out of the dusk. “Alex,” she said, still whispering, “I don’t think we are.”

“I’ve got you. I promise. I’m stronger now, Hellie. I can do things.” “Len—”

“Don’t worry about him.” “He misses you.”

Alex felt something cold slide through her. “I don’t want to talk about him.”

“You should give him another chance.”

“He’s dead. I killed him. We killed him together.” “I was dead too, wasn’t I?”

“Yeah,” Alex said, and now she was whispering too. “You were. And I missed you every day.”

“You should have come for me,” Hellie said, her eyes dark in the gloom, gleaming with tears. “You should have helped me.”

“I didn’t know I could.” Alex didn’t want to cry, but it was pointless to fight the tears. “It’s okay. I promise. I can protect you.”

Hellie’s look of disbelief stung. “You couldn’t protect me before.” It was true. Only Alex had survived Ground Zero, Len, Ariel.

“Things are different now.” “Len can help us.”

Alex brushed Hellie’s tears away. “Stop talking about him. He’s dead.

He can’t hurt us.”

“He can watch out for us. We can’t do this alone.”

Alex wanted to scream, but she forced calm into her voice. She didn’t know what Hellie had been through since she’d died. She didn’t know what it had taken to get back to the mortal world.

“I’m telling you, it’s not like that anymore. You can stay with me. I can help you get a job, go to school, whatever you want. It’ll be just like we always said. We don’t need him.”

“That’s just pretend, Alex.” Hellie’s scorn was so firm, so familiar, that Alex felt a flickering doubt. What if none of this was real? The courtyard. The towers of Jonathan Edwards and Bones. Yale. What if it was all some stupid fantasy she’d spun for them?

Alex shook her head. “It’s real, Hellie. Come on.” She stood, tugging at her hand. “I’ll show you.”

“No. We have to stay here. We have to wait for Len.” “Fuck Len. Fuck all of them.”

Something rustled in the bushes. Alex whirled, but there was nothing there. She looked up to the branches of the tree. The little boy ghost was whimpering softly, crouched on the branch. Not playing, not hide-and-go-seek. He was terrified. Of what?

Alex pulled on Hellie’s hands, drawing her to her feet.

“We have to go, okay? We can talk about Len or whatever else, but let’s just get out of here. I’ll get you something to eat … or anything you need. Please.”

“You said you could protect us.”

“I can,” Alex said. But she felt a little less certain. Against Grays? Sure. Against bad boyfriends? She could damn well do her best. But she also knew that night was falling, and there were creatures like Linus Reiter somewhere out there. “I need you to trust me.”

Hellie’s eyes were sad. “I did.”

If Hellie had come back angry or vengeful or hungry for blood, Alex could have handled it, maybe even welcomed it. They would have set fire to the world together. But this ache of guilt and shame was too much. She was going to drown in it.

“Tell me what to do to make it right,” Alex said. “Tell me what to say.”

Hellie cupped her cheek. Her thumb brushed Alex’s lower lip. “You know that mouth is only good for one thing, Alex. And talking isn’t it.”

Alex recoiled. Hellie didn’t talk that way. Len did.

But Hellie’s fingers dug into her skull, pulling her closer. “Hellie—”

“He was good to us,” Hellie hissed. “He took care of us.” “Let go of me.”

“He was all we had and you killed him.”

“He wanted to throw you out like a bag of trash!” “You let me die.”

Hellie threw her to the ground and Alex went to her knees in the dirt. She felt the kick to her side, and then her face was shoved into the ground, the stink of rotting leaves and rainwater filling her nose.

You let me die, Alex. Not Len.”

Hellie was right. If she’d just woken up when Hellie came in that night, if she’d made it home sooner, if she hadn’t fallen asleep in the theater in the first place, if she’d told Len no, they were done. If she’d kept them in Vegas, they could be there right now, staring at all the pretty glass at that big hotel, smelling the perfume and the old-cigarette smell beneath it.

Hellie pushed at the back of Alex’s head, but Alex wasn’t fighting, she was crying, because she’d failed Hellie again and again and again.

“That’s right.” Hellie flipped her over and shoved a handful of rotting leaves into Alex’s mouth. “I choked on my own vomit lying next to you. But you blamed Len for that? I let Ariel fuck me. He put some kind of electric prod inside me. He thought it was funny the way I jumped when he fucked my ass. I did it for us. I made the sacrifices, but here you are with your new friends and your new clothes, pretending you loved me.”

“I did love you,” Alex tried to say. I love you still.

“You should have died, not me. I was the one who finished school. I was the one with a real family. You let me die and you stole the life that should have been mine.”

“I’m sorry. Hellie, please. I can fix it—”

Hellie hit her, a glancing blow, not enough to really hurt, just enough to shut her up.

Her body sitting atop Alex was warm. Too warm. Her hands had been warm when Alex held them. Her cheeks had been hot when Alex touched her face.

Even though she was just wearing a T-shirt.

Even though it was night in November in New Haven.

Alex reached beneath her collar for the string of salt pearls. Gone, they’d fallen off somewhere … No, the broken wire was still there, two

pearls hanging on. She seized one and crushed it in her hand, hurling the dust into the moist air.

The thing on top of her shrank back, a sharp, high mewl escaping its lips. Its eyes were black, not that Ocean Pacific blue Alex loved so much. Because this monster wasn’t Hellie at all. Because magic never did the kind thing. There would be no prize at the end of all your suffering. There was no reward but survival. And dead was dead.

“That’s what I thought,” Alex said, spitting leaves and dirt from her mouth, staggering as she tried to push to her feet. How many times before she didn’t get back up?

“You left me,” Hellie said, and her voice was broken.

It didn’t matter that Alex knew it wasn’t really Hellie. Nothing could stop the hurt inside her, the regret. Those were real. But this time Alex could see something else in Hellie’s eyes, not just pain but something eager. Appetite.

Demons are nourished by our base emotions. Fed by lust or love or joy.

Or misery. Or shame.

“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” Alex said. “And I’m just standing here filling you up.”

Hellie grinned, sweet and familiar. “You always taste good to me, Alex.”

“You’re not Hellie,” Alex snarled. Her arm shot out, and the little Gray entered her with a high, wailing scream on his lips. She tasted camphor, heard the clip-clop of horse hooves, smelled rose water—his mother wore it. She shoved the demon with both hands, but it didn’t stumble backward. It leapt onto the low wall that bordered the garden, body poised.

Alex’s mind was screaming. Angel-not-angel. Hellie-not-Hellie. But it looked like her, moved with her grace.

“You can’t just leave us,” the demon said with Hellie’s voice. “We’re your family.”

And they had been. Not just Hellie, but Len too. Betcha. They were all she had for such a long time. She’d wanted to scrape it all clean, leave nothing but a hollow, just like that bomb-blast hole at the old apartment. She’d built something new and shiny right over that empty place.

“Why do you get the second chance?” Hellie demanded, stalking toward her. “The new life?”

Alex knew she should run, but she found herself trying to form an answer, some reason it had been her and not Hellie. It’s a puzzle. It’s a trap. But it was also true. Hellie should have been the one to survive.

Hellie’s hand slid around her throat, squeezing. It was almost a caress.

“It should have been me,” she said. “I was the one who was meant to bounce back. I was supposed to leave you behind.”

“You’re right,” Alex gasped out, feeling fresh tears on her cheeks, the will to fight slipping away from her. “It should have been you.” Alex had never belonged in this life, every day a struggle, a new opportunity for failure, a war she couldn’t win. Hellie would have breezed through it all, beautiful and brave. “It should have been you,” she repeated, the words breaking on her sobs as her fingers closed over the last of her salt pearls. But it wasn’t. “Life is cruel. Magic is real. And I’m not ready to die.”

She slammed the pearl into the demon’s forehead, feeling it explode beneath her palm. It was as if the thing’s skull gave way, crumpling in like wet sand, dissolving into a bloody crater. The demon shrieked, its skin hissing and bubbling.

Alex ran—down the stairs, into the street. The Hutch was closer, but she bolted for Il Bastone, letting the little Gray’s strength carry her. She needed the library. She needed to feel safe again.

She fumbled with her phone and called Mercy without breaking her stride. “Where are you?”

“Home. I have your bag. You—”

“Stay there. Don’t open the door to anyone who … I don’t know … anyone who shouldn’t be alive.”

She hung up and sprinted across Elm. Even with the Gray’s strength, her legs were already shaking, her muscles exhausted from the ordeals of the last week.

Alex risked a glance back, trying to scan the crowds of students in their hats and coats. She paused to punch another number into her phone. She was running again before Dawes picked up.

“Are you still with Tripp?” Alex asked. Her voice was thready and breathless. “Get to Il Bastone.”

“We’re not allowed at Il Bastone.”

“Dawes, just get there. And get Turner and Tripp there too.” “Alex—”

“Just fucking do it! I brought something back with me. Something bad.”

Alex looked over her shoulder again, but she wasn’t sure what she expected to see. Hellie? Len? Some other monster?

There was nothing to do but keep running.

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