Alex was surprised at just how much the soup helped. She felt warm for the first time since she’d burst out of the underworld and into the cold New Haven rain. Nothing felt quite as dire. Not with dumplings in her belly and the taste of dill on her tongue.
“Shit, Dawes,” said Tripp, grinning as if Spenser and every other bad thing had been forgotten, “can you please just come stay in my loft and make me fat?”
Dawes rolled her eyes, but Alex could tell she was pleased.
None of them looked toward the windows, where the curtains remained drawn.
They’d gone seeking the Lethe Days Diary from Lionel Reiter’s time at Yale. Rudolph Kittscher had served as Virgil then, but while his Daemonologie had been allowed to remain, his diaries were gone. All part of the cleanup job.
Even so, Dawes was thrilled with the protection spell Mercy had found. It needed only ingredients from Lethe’s stores, and she thought they could manage it in Hiram’s Crucible. She gave them each a list of supplies to gather, and they spent the next hour in the dim light of the armory, searching the small drawers and glass cabinets, disturbed by nothing except Tripp humming frat rock and occasionally yelping when he touched something he wasn’t supposed to.
“Why do you even have this stuff?” Tripp complained, sucking on his finger after a locket that had belonged to Jennie Churchill bit him.
“Because someone has to keep it safe,” Dawes said primly. “Please focus on your list and try not to blow anything up.”
Tripp’s lower lip jutted out, but he went back to work, and a minute later he was singing “Under the Bridge” in a passable falsetto. Alex didn’t have the heart to tell him she’d gladly spend the next two semesters in hell if it meant never hearing the Red Hot Chili Peppers again.
The recipe was seemingly banal—a slew of herbs of protection, including sage, vervain, and mint, along with heaps of ground amethyst and black tourmaline, crow feathers bound with rosemary, and dried jackdaw eyes that struck the base of the crucible with a clatter like pebbles. With Turner’s help, Dawes removed several of the baseboards beneath the crucible, revealing a heap of coals. Dawes whispered a few words in Greek, and they glowed red, gently heating the bottom of the big golden bowl.
“This is the greatest moment of my life,” Mercy said in a giddy whisper. “All of it comes with a price tag,” Alex warned. Those coals never
cooled completely, never extinguished, never needed replenishing. They’d been used by Union Pacific to take dominance over the rails, and the creation of each briquette had required a human sacrifice. No one knew whose blood had been shed to create them, but the suspicion was working men, immigrants from Ireland, China, Finland. Men whom no one would come looking for. The coals had arrived at Yale through William Averell Harriman, Bonesman. Most of the coals had been lost or stolen, but these remained, another cursed gift to Lethe, another bloody map hidden in a basement.
“We have enough supplies to do this once,” Dawes said as Alex and Mercy hefted sacks of salt from Prahova and the secret chamber at Zipaquirá and tipped them into the crucible. “Can someone get me an ash paddle?”
Tripp snorted, then blurted a hasty sorry when Dawes glared at him.
Alex found the glass cabinet hung with everything from a Model 1873 Winchester that carried the doom Sarah Winchester was so certain had followed her out to California; a broomstick that dated back to a Scottish witch-burning in the 1600s, charred black but unharmed by the pyre; what might have been a solid gold scepter; and a slender stick of ash, carved and sanded to smooth perfection. It looked a bit like a wizard’s staff if the wizard had planned on making brick-oven pizza.
“We have to stir continuously,” Dawes said as she began to combine the ingredients, moving the paddle in steady time. “Now, spit.”
“Pardon?” said Turner.
“We need enough saliva to dissolve the salt.” “My moment to shine,” said Tripp and let fly.
“This is disgusting,” Mercy said as she daintily spat into the cauldron. She wasn’t wrong, but Alex would take this over another trip to the
Manuscript aviary any day.
“Okay, who wants to try the paddle?” Dawes asked without breaking the rhythm. “Keep to the beat.”
“How long do we do this?” Turner asked, taking the paddle from her smoothly.
“Until the mixture quickens,” Dawes said as if that explained everything.
One by one they took their turns stirring with the ash paddle until their arms reached fatigue. It didn’t seem magical, and Alex felt a twitchy self-consciousness. Magic was supposed to be mystical, perilous, not a mess in the bottom of a giant mixing bowl. Maybe some part of her wanted the others to be impressed with what Lethe could do, with the power in their arsenal. But Dawes didn’t seem concerned at all. She was entirely focused on the task, and when the crucible began to hum, she grasped the paddle in Alex’s hands and said, “Give it to me.”
Alex stepped back and felt the heat building in the floor, radiating from the crucible.
The mixture sparked and hissed, the glow lighting Dawes’s determined face. Her hair had come down from her bun and spread over her shoulders in damp red coils. Sweat gleamed on her pale brow.
Fuck me, Alex thought, Dawes is a witch. She worked magic with her potions and brews and healing ointments, with her soups made from scratch, her plastic containers of broth in the fridge, just waiting to be needed. How many times had she healed Alex and Darlington with cups of tea and tiny sandwiches, with bowls of soup and jars of preserves?
“Keep the rhythm!” Dawes commanded, and they beat their hands against the side of the crucible, the sound louder than it should have been,
filling the room and making the walls shake as heat rose from Dawes’s cauldron in shimmering waves.
Alex heard a loud pop, like a cork bursting from a champagne bottle, and a cloud of amber smoke burst from the crucible, flooding Alex’s nose and mouth, making her eyes sting. They all bent double, coughing, the rhythm lost.
When the dust cleared, the only thing left in the crucible was a heap of powdery white ash.
Mercy cocked her head to the side. “I don’t think it worked.”
“I … I thought I got the proportions right,” Dawes said, her confidence dissipating with the smoke.
“Hold on,” Alex said. There was something down there. She bent over the edge of the crucible, reaching. It was deep enough that the lip dug into her belly and she had to tip forward off her toes. But her fingertips brushed something solid in the ash. She dragged it out and dusted it off. A salt sculpture of a snake nestled in the palm of her hand, sleeping in a circle, its flat head resting against its body.
“A talisman,” said Dawes, her cheeks glowing with pride. “It worked!” “But what does it—” Alex choked back a gasp as the snake uncoiled in
her hand. It spiraled around her forearm, all the way up to her elbow, then vanished into her skin.
“Look!” Mercy cried.
There were gleaming scales all over Alex’s bare arms. They glowed brightly and then dimmed, leaving nothing behind.
“Was that supposed to happen?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Dawes. “The spell Mercy found—”
“It was just a guardian spell,” Mercy finished. “Do you feel any different?”
Alex shook her head. “Battered, bruised, and full of quality soup. No change.”
Tripp reached into the crucible, nearly toppling into it. Turner grabbed him by the waistband of his shorts and hauled him back. There was some kind of bird in Tripp’s hand.
“Is it a gull?” he asked.
“It’s an albatross,” Dawes corrected, her voice troubled.
As they watched, its white salt wings unfurled. It took flight, circled once around Tripp, then landed on his shoulder, folding into his body as if it had found the perfect place to roost. A pattern of silvery feathers cascaded over Tripp and disappeared into his skin.
“They’re amazing birds,” said Mercy, her hands flapping as if she too were about to take flight. “They can lock their wings in place and sleep while they fly.”
Tripp grinned, arms outstretched. “No shit?”
“No shit,” said Mercy. It was the most civil exchange they’d had. Hesitantly, Dawes reached into the ash. “I … What is that?”
The tiny salt creature in Dawes’s hand had enormous eyes and strange hands and feet that looked almost human. It sat as if it were hiding its face.
“It’s a slow loris,” said Mercy.
“It’s adorable is what it is,” said Alex.
The salt loris peeked out from behind its hands, then climbed up Dawes’s arm, its movements graceful and deliberate. It nuzzled her ear and then curled into the crook of her neck, dissolving. For a moment, Dawes’s eyes seemed to glow like moons.
Turner didn’t look impressed. “Is it going to kill those demons with cuteness?”
“They can be deadly,” Mercy said defensively. “They’re the only primates with a poisonous bite, and they move nearly silently.”
“How do you know all of this?” Alex asked.
“I was a really lonely kid. The advantage to being unpopular is you get a lot more reading done.”
Alex shook her head. “Boy, did you come to the right place.”
“I’ve read about the loris,” said Dawes. “I’d just never seen one.
They’re nocturnal. And they make terrible pets.” Alex laughed. “Sounds about right.”
Turner sighed and peered into the heap of ash. “There better be a fucking lion in there.” He drew a sculpture out of the crucible. “A tree?” he asked incredulously.
Tripp burst out laughing.
“I think it’s an oak,” said Dawes. “A mighty oak?” offered Mercy.
“Why did everyone else get something good and I got a damn plant?”
“The spell indicated the guardians would come from the living world,” Dawes said. “Beyond that—”
“An oak is alive!” Tripp giggled, doubling over. “You can acorn your enemies into submission.”
Turner scowled. “This is some—”
The oak sprang alive in his palm, shooting toward the ceiling, spreading in a vast canopy of white salt branches, its roots exploding over the floor and knocking Tripp to the ground. They wrapped around Turner and sank into his skin. For a moment it was impossible to tell the tree from the man. Then the glimmering branches evaporated.
Mercy was the last. Alex helped her balance as she tipped into the cauldron. She drew out a prancing horse, its mane flowing like water behind it.
As soon as Mercy set her feet back on the floor, the horse sprouted wings and reared back on its hind legs. It circled the room, seeming to grow larger and larger, its hooves shaking the ground. It leapt directly at Mercy, who screamed and threw up her hands in defense. The horse vanished into her chest, and for a moment, two massive wings seemed to extend from Mercy’s back.
She murmured a word Alex didn’t understand. She was beaming. “We need to cleanse the ash,” said Dawes.
“Wait,” said Tripp. “There’s something else in there.”
He tipped over the edge of the crucible again and plucked a sixth salt figure from the leavings.
“A cat?” Turner asked, peering at the sculpture in his palm. Dawes released a sob and pressed her hand over her mouth.
“Not just any cat,” Alex said, feeling an unwelcome ache in the back of her throat.
There was a scar across one of the cat’s eyes, and there was no mistaking that indignant face. The ritual had chosen Cosmo as Darlington’s guardian, although she doubted that was the cat’s true name. She
remembered the white cat she’d seen in the old man’s memories. Just how long had this creature been around?
“Will they really protect us?” Tripp asked.
“They should,” said Dawes. “If you’re under threat, lick your wrist or your hand or … I guess anywhere you can reach.”
“Gross,” said Mercy.
Dawes pursed her lips. “The alternate spell requires that I remove someone’s tibia to stir the pot.”
“No, thank you,” said Turner. “I can make it fairly painless.” “No, thank you.”
Alex remembered the address moths Darlington had used to remove her tattoos, a gift he’d given her, an attempt to show her that the uncanny might be good for something other than causing her misery. This was the cozy magic of childhood imagining. Friendly spirits offering protection. Cats and snakes and winged beasts to stand guard over their hearts. She tucked the salt Cosmo into her pocket, beside the Arlington Rubber Boots box she carried with her everywhere now. She needed magic to work for them for once. If they could bring Darlington home, if they could drag those demons back where they belonged … well, who knew what might be possible? Maybe she wouldn’t have to be haunted by Hellie or Darlington or anything else anymore. Maybe the Lethe board would take pity on her. She could make them the same offer she’d made Anselm. She’d happily barter her gifts if it meant she got to keep the keys to this kingdom.
“How soon can we try to go back?” Alex asked.
Dawes clicked her tongue against her teeth, calculating. “The full moon is in three days. We should wait until then. The door will open for us. It just won’t be easy this time.”
“Easy?” Turner asked in disbelief. “I don’t want to go through every damn minute of the worst moment of your lives again. Thank you very much.”
“I mean the portal will be harder to open,” said Dawes. “Because we won’t have the advantage of Halloween.”
“I don’t think so,” said Alex. “That thing is going to swing open wide for us.”
“Because something on the other side is going to be pushing on it, trying to get through. The tough part is going to be closing it up again.”
“We should…” Dawes chewed the inside of her cheek as if she’d stored words there for winter. “We should be prepared for … something worse.”
Tripp dragged his Yale sailing cap off his head, leaving his hair rumpled. Alex noticed his hairline was starting to recede. “Worse?”
“Demons love puzzles. They love tricks. They won’t just let us walk back into their realm and play the same script twice.”
Tripp looked like he wanted to crawl into the crucible and never come out. “I don’t know if I can do it all over again.”
“You don’t have a choice,” Mercy said. Her voice was harsh, and Tripp looked like he’d been slapped. But Alex finally understood why Mercy disliked Tripp so intensely. He was too much like Blake. He wasn’t a predator—his only cruelty was the casual kind, the blade of having more than everyone else and not quite knowing that was a weapon in his hands— but on the surface, he was cut from the same smug cloth.
“We all have a choice,” said Turner.
Alex opened her mouth to argue—that they didn’t if they wanted to live without torment, that they still had debts to pay—when she smelled smoke.
“Something’s burning,” she said. They charged down the stairs.
“The kitchen!” Turner shouted.
But Alex knew Dawes hadn’t left the stove on.
The ground floor was filling with smoke, and as they reached the base of the staircase, Alex saw the stained glass windows glowing with the light of flames. The demons had set fire to the entrance of Il Bastone.
“They’re trying to smoke us out!” said Turner. He already had his phone in his hand, dialing for the fire department. “Where’s your extinguisher?”
“The kitchen,” Dawes said on a cough and ran to retrieve it.
Alex turned to Mercy and Tripp. “Go out the back. And stay together.
Wait for me outside, okay?”
“Okay,” said Mercy with a firm nod. “Move,” she told Tripp.
Il Bastone’s smoke alarm began to beep, a plaintive, wounded bleat. Alex waited only long enough to see Mercy and Tripp start down the hall; then she was racing toward the kitchen. She intercepted Dawes and grabbed the extinguisher. She’d had to use one when Len had started a grease fire in their apartment kitchen when he was cooking bacon, but she still fumbled with it.
Turner seized it from her hands. “Come on,” she said.
She threw open the front door. Flames had consumed the grass and hedges. They were roaring up the front columns. Alex felt as if she were burning too, as if she could hear the house screaming.
The demons stood in the firelight, and behind them, their shadows seemed to caper and dance. She heard the whoosh of the fire extinguisher as Turner fought to damp the flames. But Alex didn’t stop. She strode toward the demons.
“Alex!” Turner shouted. “What the fuck are you doing? This is what they want!”
The thing pretending to be Hellie grinned. She looked leaner now, hungrier. More like Alex. But not quite. Her hands curled into claws. Her eyes were dark and wild, her mouth crowded with teeth.
“You want me, you bargain knockoff?” Alex demanded. She dragged her tongue across her wrist. “Come and get me.”
The thing ran at her and then shrieked, darting backward, its grotesque smile fading. Alex saw her own shadow had shifted, as if she’d grown a hundred arms—not arms, snakes. They hissed and snapped around her, lunging at the demons, which cowered away from her.
“Alex,” said the thing called Hellie—and she was Hellie again, her eyes that stormy watercolor blue and filled with tears. “You promised you would protect me.”
Alex’s heart twisted in her chest, the grief too powerful, too familiar.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
The serpents wavered, as if they sensed her hesitancy. Then Alex breathed in and coughed, tasting the smoke on the air, the cinders of her
home burning. She heard the crackle of rattlers, their tales shaking with her rage, a warning.
“Last call,” she snarled at Not Hellie. “You’re going back where you came from.”
Hellie’s eyes narrowed. “This is my life. You’re the impostor.”
Fine. Maybe Alex was nothing more than a thief who had stolen someone else’s second chance. But she was alive and Hellie was dead and she was going to protect what was hers—even if she didn’t deserve it, even if it might not be hers for much longer.
“This isn’t your life,” she said to the thing that wasn’t Hellie. “And you are trespassing.”
One of the snakes lunged forward, its bite so fast Alex didn’t see more than a blur, and then the demon recoiled, clutching its smoking cheek.
“You can’t banish us that easily,” Hellie whined. She looked almost like Len now, hair straggly, forehead pocked by acne. “We know you. We know your smell. You are nothing but a stepping stone.”
“Maybe,” Alex said. “But right now I’m the bouncer and you better run.”
Alex knew they hadn’t gone far. Their demons needed freshly harvested misery to survive in this world. They’d be back and better prepared.
She heard sirens wailing down the street, and as she turned, she saw the flames were no longer lapping at Il Bastone. The front of the house was charred and spattered with foam, the stone around the doorway blackened and smoking, as if the building had exhaled a deep sooty breath. The fire on the hedges and grass had been extinguished—flattened by Turner’s roots. The mighty oak. As she watched, they seemed to retract. Her snakes had vanished too.
She couldn’t untangle the mess of fear and triumph she felt. The magic had worked, but what were its limits? They wouldn’t be safe until those demons were back in their jar with the lid screwed on tight, and just how were they going to manage that? And how were they going to explain this
to the Praetor and the board? She’d been bold enough claiming Il Bastone was her house, but she wasn’t even a member of Lethe anymore.
“Find the others,” said Turner. “I’ll talk to the hose haulers. I called it in and I’m still police even if you’re both…”
“Banished?” offered Alex. It was possible the Praetor wouldn’t even realize they’d been at Il Bastone since the fire had started outside. But if he took more than a cursory glance inside, he was going to see the leftovers of their dinner and anything else they’d left behind. She wasn’t sure how serious Anselm had been about criminal trespassing and she didn’t want to find out.
Mercy, Tripp, and Dawes were waiting in the alley, stamping their feet in the cold.
“You’re all right?” she asked as she approached.
“Alex,” said Tripp, bracing his hands on her shoulders. “That was sick. They actually ran from you! Spenser looked like he was going to shit himself.”
Alex pried his hands free. “Okay, okay. But they aren’t done with us.
We all need to stay alert. And you need to remember that’s not Spenser.” “Absolutely,” said Tripp with a somber nod. “Still fucking cool.”
Mercy rolled her eyes. “How bad does the house look?”
“It isn’t terrible,” Dawes said hoarsely. “Hopefully the firefighters will tell Turner the extent of the damage.”
“You sound like shit,” said Tripp.
Mercy blew out an exasperated breath. “I think what he means is that it sounds like you inhaled a lot of smoke.”
“There’s an ambulance,” said Alex. “You should get checked out.” “I don’t want anyone knowing we were here,” objected Dawes.
Alex didn’t like the relief she felt at that, but she was glad Turner was willing to cover for them and that Dawes was willing to go along.
The firefighters and paramedics had been joined by two black-and-whites, and Alex saw Professor Walsh-Whiteley, bundled up in a long overcoat and a dapper little cap, approaching Turner, who was talking to two uniformed cops.
“The Praetor’s here,” Alex said.
Dawes sighed. “Should we talk to him? Try to explain?”
Alex made eye contact with Turner, but he gave the faintest shake of his head. The old Alex wondered if he was covering his own ass, laying a trail of trouble that would lead away from him and directly to her and Dawes. They’d make easy scapegoats. And it was Alex who had brought them back to Il Bastone, who had claimed it as hers.
“We should get out of here,” Alex said, herding them toward the parking lot. They could slip out on Lincoln Street, wait for Turner there.
“I didn’t see Anselm,” said Dawes.
Tripp didn’t seem to care. “Maybe he went back to New York?” “Probably.”
He had a family. He had a life. But Alex felt uneasy. It had been two days since he’d shut down their trip to hell, and they hadn’t heard a word from him. No formal dismissal or follow-up, and Il Bastone hadn’t been barred to them. Anselm had interrupted the ritual at Sterling. Alex didn’t know what rules governed demons, but what if they’d set their sights on him too?
She glanced back at Il Bastone, watching the smoke rise off the building in soft clouds, a warning flame, a ritual fire.
She trailed behind the others and laid a hand on the wall, as if she were placing her palm against the flank of an animal to soothe it. She thought of her mother’s apartment, scarves thrown over the lamps, crystals and faeries in every corner. She thought of Ground Zero, its walls spattered in blood, of Black Elm rotting around Darlington like a tomb. Alex felt the stones hum.
Turner would fight in his own way, with law and force and all the power his badge afforded him. Dawes would use her books, her brains, her infinite capacity for order. And what tools did Alex have? A little magic. A talent for misfortune. The ability to take a beating. It would have to be enough.
This is my home, she vowed, and nothing will take it from me.
The Salt Pearls of Emilia Benatti; salt and silver wire Provenance: Mantua, Italy; early 17th century
Donor: Unknown, possibly gifted from the secret collection at the New Haven Museum
The mechanism by which salt protects against demons is still largely a mystery. We know that salt is understood as a spiritual purifier and is used to ward against evil in many cultures. Its more pedestrian uses also spark the imagination—as a scouring agent, a catalyst for vinegar used in cleansing, a natural preservative that wards off decay, a restorative for failing flowers and fruit. Soldiers were paid in it. Gifts of it were once offered between friends. But what is the significance of Elisha pouring salt into Jericho’s waters to restore them at God’s command? After a funeral, why do some Japanese households scatter salt over their floors? And why do all of our records indicate that salt, above all other substances, is most effective in the dispatching of demonic bodies—both immaterial and corporeal?
Whether Emilia Benatti enchanted the pearls herself or simply acquired them, we also do not know. But she and her family were some of the few to survive the demon plague that struck Mantua in 1629. Her descendants immigrated to America around 1880 and settled in New Haven, where they became prominent members of the Italian
community and can be seen at the St. Andrew Society Feast photographed in 1936. The pearls may have been discarded along with other superstitions of the Old World, but how they came to be documented and preserved in the New Haven Historical Society’s
secret collection is unknown.
—from the Lethe Armory Catalogue as revised and edited by
Pamela Dawes, Oculus