Alex and Anselm fell backward as the ballroom floor collapsed from above in a cascade of plaster and wood. Darlington crouched in the wreckage, his horns glowing, his golden eyes like searchlights. He looked bigger than he had before, his back broader.
He growled, and in the sound she heard a word, maybe a name, but she couldn’t make sense of it.
Alex put herself between Darlington and Anselm. “Darlington—”
Darlington roared, the sound like the thunder of a subway train. He slashed at the floor, leaving deep trenches in the wood. She thought of the claw marks in his parents’ chests.
“Run!” she shouted at Anselm. “I can hold him off!”
Anselm was pressed against the wall, plaster on his suit, his eyes big as moons. “It … he … what…”
Darlington stalked toward them.
She licked at her wrist, and the salt snakes leapt from her body, hissing and snapping. Anselm screamed. Whatever Darlington had become halted as the snakes slithered across the floor toward him.
Anselm whimpered. “That’s … that’s Daniel Arlington?”
The rattlers lunged at Darlington, jaws closing on his legs and arms. He howled and tried to shake them off, stumbling back toward the stairs.
“This is … this is an abomination,” Anselm gibbered. “Stop him now!
You have the advantage.”
“Just get out of here!” Alex shouted over her shoulder.
“You can’t possibly think you’re going to save him! He could bring down Lethe, all of us.”
Darlington slammed one of the salt serpents against the banister, then pinned it there with his horns.
“Look at him,” Anselm demanded. “For once in your life, think, Stern.”
“Don’t let him get to the circle!” Anselm cried. “Send that monster back to hell and I’ll find a way to get you back into Lethe!”
But why would Darlington want to go back to his prison? And how did Anselm know about the circle of protection?
Think, Stern. To Anselm she’d always been Alex. Miss Stern when he was angry. It was Darlington who called her Stern. She hesitated, an impossible notion fighting its way through her muddled thoughts. She remembered when Anselm had told her the story of the three judges, how much he’d reminded her of Darlington.
Darlington without magic, without Black Elm. Without a soul.
She remembered how surprised she’d been when he had asked about her mother. Does she embarrass you? The wave of shame that had overtaken her, how exhausted she’d felt after that meeting. She remembered Anselm stretching in the sunlight like a well-fed cat. I feel almost human.
Alex knew she shouldn’t turn her back on a wounded demon, but she had the feeling she’d already made that mistake. She moved slowly, cautiously, trying to keep both Darlington and Anselm in her sights.
Anselm was pressed against the wall in his rumpled suit.
Alex slid her tongue over her wrist. Her salt snakes uncoiled. They knew a demon when they saw one. Even if he was dressed up in human skin and the authority of Lethe. They leapt.
Anselm held up his hands and a ring of orange fire swept forward. The salt snakes seemed to pop and sizzle in the heat, exploding in a hail of sparks.
“Well,” he said, dusting himself off for the second time that day. “I had hoped you’d do the killing. I wanted to watch you torment yourself over the murder of your beloved mentor for a while.”
Does she embarrass you? The question had hit her like a punch to the gut, left her shaken and tied up in guilt. He’d been feeding on her. She
remembered him standing in Sterling, shaking his head like a beleaguered dad on a television show. Like he was performing being human.
“You’re his demon,” Alex said, understanding coming on in a flood. “You hitched a ride when we tried to bring Darlington out of hell the first time. When Dawes and I botched the ritual at Scroll and Key. And you’ve been fucking with us ever since.” He was our son but not our son. “You killed Darlington’s parents.”
Anselm rolled his shoulders, his body seeming to shift beneath his skin. “They showed up at Black Elm when I was trying to figure out how to get my lesser half out of that cursed circle.”
Whatever I am will be unleashed upon the world. Darlington hadn’t just been using the force of his will to stay inside the circle; he’d called on the remainder of his humanity for restraint. It was that same humanity that had fought to give them clues, even to try to warn her. In the dream, there had been two of him: demon and man. There have to be, he’d said. The boy and the monster.
But Anselm hadn’t been able to feed on Darlington in the mortal realm, because he was protected by the circle. So the demon had needed to take on another form.
“You killed Michael Anselm too,” she said. That was the husk in the basement. The demon had fed on Anselm, stolen his life. When Alex had lunch with him by the water, she’d even noted how different he seemed— young, at ease, handsome, like he was having a damn fine time. Because he was. He was sated on human misery. She’d shaken his hand. Made a deal for her mother’s life. How he must have laughed at her desperation.
On the stairs, Darlington snarled, still besieged by Alex’s serpents, but she had no idea how to call them off. And why was Anselm so much better at fighting her salt spirits than Not Hellie or Not Blake or the other demons? “The murders,” she said, “all of that about the judges and Professor
Lambton, they were just distractions.”
“A game,” Anselm corrected with a gentle smile. “A puzzle.”
To keep them from finding and using the Gauntlet and freeing Darlington’s soul from hell.
“Two people died and Andy Lambton is in a psych ward.”
“It was a good game.”
The night of their disastrous ritual at Scroll and Key, it had been the real Michael Anselm at Il Bastone—fussy, cold, determined to keep Lethe trouble free. The first campus murder had happened later that very night. The demon had fed on Marjorie Stephen, aging her like a terrible poison, but he’d stopped before he’d made her a husk. He didn’t want to assume her form. It was of no use to him. Besides, he’d just been there to construct a little tableau. He’d been more careful when he’d killed Dean Beekman, kept his demon hungers in check, used Andy Lambton to do the dirty work.
“I needed to sever Darlington’s tie to the mortal world before you bumblers got his soul free and united it with his body,” Anselm admitted. “But while he was in the circle, he was protected. And yet the lure was right in front of me all along. I just had to put his damsel in distress. Of course he came running.” Anselm raised his hand. “And now the task is simple.”
A blazing orange arc of fire burst forward. Alex felt it sizzle past her shoulder singing the flesh. It struck Darlington dead-on.
“No!” she cried. She rushed at Anselm, letting the strength of the Grays flood her. She slammed him against the wall and heard his neck snap. The Grays shrieked in her head. Because Anselm was a demon. Because he was their killer. Because she was a killer too. Harper and Daniel Arlington shoved their way out of her body, leaving her weak and breathless.
Anselm’s head lolled on his broken neck, but he only grinned and raised his hand again, fire leaping forward. Alex dug in her pockets and hurled a cloud of salt at him, savoring his yowl as his flesh bubbled. At least he was susceptible to that. She unloaded the rest of her salt store on him, but she knew there was no way for her to actually destroy Anselm. Not without a stake or a salt sword—and maybe even that wouldn’t do the trick. This demon was not like the others.
Alex’s serpents leapt forward and piled onto the quivering, bubbling mass of Anselm’s body. “Hold him!” she begged, though she had no idea if they understood.
She ran toward Darlington. He lay naked on the stairs, the glow from his markings dimming, the jeweled yoke bright against his neck. The burn
was black and cut across his chest. Her snakes lay in charred, wriggling heaps, scorched by Anselm’s fire.
Alex slid to her knees on the stairs. “Darlington?” His skin was hot to the touch, but she could feel it cooling beneath her fingertips. “Come on, Danny. Stay with me. Tell me how to fix this mess.”
Darlington’s golden eyes opened. Their glow was fading, turning milky. “Stern…” His voice sounded distant, a bare echo. “The box…”
For a second Alex didn’t know what he was talking about, but then she nodded. The Arlington Rubber Boots box was in her coat pocket. She kept it with her always.
“I’ll hold on as long as I can. Get to hell. Bring my soul back.” “The Gauntlet—”
“Listen, Wheelwalker. The circle is a doorway.” “But—”
“You are a doorway.”
Hellie had described Alex the same way, the night of her death.
Why wait? That was what Darlington had asked her when she told him they were going to attempt the Gauntlet. What if he’d been trying to explain she didn’t need to walk the path, that there was a portal right in front of her, a crack between worlds that only she could slip through? As you like, Wheelwalker. You choose the steps in this dance.
“Stay alive,” she said, and forced her body up the stairs.
She was slow without the Grays, the pain making her clumsy. But she had the keepsake box in her coat pocket, and it felt like a second heart, a living organ, beating against her chest. She didn’t know if Anselm was following. He had no reason to. He had no idea what she intended, and his focus would be on Darlington, on destroying him. If she didn’t hurry, he would burn Darlington’s body alive before she ever had a chance to retrieve his soul. If she even could. If this wasn’t another mistake that would get them both killed.
She lurched down the hall and saw the shimmer of the circle, dimmer now, broken in places. But where it was brightest, she glimpsed the other Black Elm, the one she’d seen in hell, a ruined heap of rocks.
In this world, in her world, there was nothing but a gaping hole in the floor. If she fell, she would break her legs, maybe her back. There was no time to second-guess. All worlds are open to us.
“I hope you’re right about this, Darlington.”
Alex shoved off from the doorway. One step, two steps. She leapt.
Heat flashed through her as she crossed the circle. But she never hit the floor. Instead she found herself stumbling over dusty, rocky ground. She could still see the flicker of the circle around her, but now she was in the demon realm.
“Darlington!” she shouted and yanked the box from her pocket. “Danny, it’s me!”
She didn’t need the old man’s voice this time. He remembered her. He knew she’d tried to bring him home.
He looked up at her, a rock still in his hands. “Alex?”
She held the box open. “Trust me. One last time. Trust me to get us out of here.”
But the look on his face was one of terror. Too late she realized it was a warning.
Something slammed into her back. The box flew from her hands. It was like watching movement underwater. Time slowed. The box arced through the air and struck the ground. It shattered.
Alex screamed. She was on the ground scrambling toward the broken pieces. She felt something grab the back of her shirt and flip her over, the force driving the breath from her body.
A rabbit was standing over her, six feet tall and dressed in a suit— Anselm’s suit. It placed one of its soft white feet on her chest and pushed. Alex shrieked as her broken ribs shifted. But none of it mattered. The box was broken. There was no way to bring Darlington back and reunite him with his body. He would die in the mortal world, and his soul would be trapped forever in hell.
The rabbit leaned down, its red eyes twitching. “Thief,” it sneered.
She had let them die one after another. Babbit Rabbit, Hellie, Darlington. And maybe now she was going to die too, crushed by a monster. If she died in hell, would she stay here forever? Move on to some
other realm? The blue fire that crawled over her body caught on the rabbit’s fur, but it didn’t seem to care.
“How did you cross the circle?” the thing demanded, shifting its weight, pressing down harder.
Alex couldn’t even draw breath to scream. She turned her head to the side and saw Darlington watching, his face sad, a rock in his hand. He wanted to help her, but he didn’t know how any more than she did. She had no Grays to call on here.
“How did you cross the circle?” the rabbit demanded again. It flexed its paw and Alex shuddered. “Not so tough now, hmm? Not so scary. What are you without your stolen strength? An empty little cipher.”
She thought of Darlington’s burned body on the stairs, the old porcelain box lying in pieces, the demons they’d set free. Her ribs hurt; her shoulder throbbed. The thing crushing her beneath its foot was right. She did feel empty. She’d been hollowed out. A cipher, an empty cup.
A shattered box.
Except she wasn’t broken, not where it counted. She was bruised and battered, and she had a bad feeling that rib was poking one of her lungs, but she was still here, still alive, and she had a gift Anselm didn’t know about— in either realm. You cannot imagine the vitality of a living soul. That was what Belbalm had told her. Alex had only ever claimed the dead. But what if she claimed the living?
She remembered Darlington leading her up the stairs at the Hutch, into the hall at Il Bastone, down haunted streets, and through secret passages. He’d been her guide, her Virgil. How many times had he turned to her and said, Come with me? He’d promised her miracles and horrors too, and he’d delivered.
She held out her hand, just as she once had to Hellie, just as she had to countless spirits, just as Darlington had to her again and again.
“Come on along,” she whispered.
Darlington dropped the rock. His soul flooded into her like golden light. New-leaf green. Morning bright. The sweet vibration of the cello’s bow. The ringing, triumphant sound of steel on steel. Her body erupted into white flame, searing, blinding.
The rabbit shrieked, high and helpless, as the fire burned through its body.
Alex’s pain was gone. She leapt to her feet, and before Anselm could recover, she was running toward the glimmer of the circle. She hurled her body through it. The world went white. She closed her eyes against the brightness, then gasped as she realized she was falling.
The floor of Black Elm was rising up to meet her. But she had Darlington’s spirit inside her and it was nothing like the power the Grays bestowed. If the strength of a Gray was a candle lit inside her, this was a thousand searchlights, a bomb blast. She struck the ground on soft feet. She was light, graceful, and the world was ablaze with color. She felt the cold on her skin from a draft somewhere in the house. She saw every bit of broken wood and fallen plaster borne aloft on the air, lovely as a snowfall. She saw Darlington’s body on the stairs, the yoke still gleaming against his neck, though the rest of him was scorched black. He was curled on his side, trying to hide from Anselm, who had followed Alex into hell and back out again.
The monstrous rabbit was gone and Anselm was a man once more, though he was singed where Alex’s fire had burned him. He leapt over her toward Darlington, orange flame streaking from his fingertips—but fell into a crouch, hissing, held at bay.
The cat had come yowling down the stairs, his fur on end, aglow with white light. Darlington’s protector. How long had that cat been watching over the owners of this house? Was he a salt spirit or something else entirely? Anselm shrieked, rocking back and forth on his heels and hands. He had never looked less human.
Alex could hear that singing steel sound, could feel Darlington’s spirit inside her. She knew now the pleasure that Belbalm had felt when she’d consumed the spirits of the living. Greed is a sin in every language. Darlington’s voice, chiding, bemused. She could hear him, the thoughts clear as if they were her own. She didn’t want to relinquish this feeling of power, this elation. He tasted like honey. But she knew better than to get used to a drug like this. She could only hope she wasn’t too late.
“Go,” Alex made herself whisper.
He coursed out of her, a river of gold. She could still taste his soul on her tongue, hot and sweet. He flowed into the body on the stairs.
“Thief!” screamed Anselm, and Cosmo howled as the demon let loose a torrent of fire that engulfed Darlington.
Alex ran at Anselm, not thinking, just desperate to get him to stop. She should have felt weak in the wake of all that power. But there was no pain. Her ribs weren’t broken. Her chest didn’t hurt. This was what the power of the living could do. She crashed into Anselm, knocking him to the ground, but he was on top of her in a breath, his hands clamped around her throat.
“I’m going to burn the life out of you,” he said happily. “I’m going to eat … you … up.”
His teeth were growing in his mouth, long and yellowing. On the stairs beside them, Darlington’s body was a charred hulk. He looked like the pictures of people in Pompeii, curled in on themselves as the world turned to ash. Too late. No one could come back from that.
But then she realized the jeweled yoke was gone.
His markings began to glow, light shining through the cracks of his burned flesh. Again Alex tasted honey on her tongue.
Anselm hissed, and she saw blue flame racing up his hands, his arms, engulfing him in fire. Her fire. Hellfire. How? It had only existed in the demon realm before.
He shrieked and drew back, seeming to flicker before her, his shape shifting, and she knew she was glimpsing his true form, something clawed and strange, its bones set at odd angles.
“Golgarot.” That growl from Darlington again, but this time she understood the demon name.
The thing that towered over her on the stairs was both more and less like Darlington. His voice sounded right, the echo gone, but horns still curled back from his temples, and his body looked too big, not entirely human. His markings had changed too. The symbols were gone, but there were golden bands around his wrists and neck and ankles.
“Murderer!” shouted Anselm, as his body twitched and pulsed beneath his suit. “Liar! Matricide! You—”
He didn’t get another word out. Darlington seized Anselm in his massive hands and lifted him off his feet. With a single, furious snarl, he tore Anselm in two.
The demon’s flesh gave way as if it were paper, dissolving into a mass of wriggling maggots.
Alex sprang back.
Darlington’s body seemed to shift again, retracting. The horns vanished, the golden bands. He looked mortal. He stood there for a moment, gazing at Anselm’s remains, then turned and started up the stairs.
“Darlington?” Alex stammered. “I … Where are you going?”
“To get some clothes, Stern,” he said, climbing the steps and leaving bloody footprints behind. “A man can spend only so much time without trousers on before he begins to feel like a deviant.”
Alex stared up at him, one hand on the banister. The gentleman of Lethe had returned.
Doom Sparrow (also Bloodfinch or Black-Winged Harbinger); family Passeridae
Provenance: Nepal; date of origin unknown Donor: St. Elmo, 1899
Whether these sparrows were bred or enchanted, or developed their unique traits in the wild is unknown. The first were identified circa 700 when a sparrow colony took up residence in a mountain village, the population of which subsequently poisoned themselves in an act of mass suicide. World population of the bird is also unknown, but at least twelve exist in captivity.
Notes on care and feeding: The sparrow is kept in a state of magical stasis but should be fed weekly, at which time it should be allowed to fly or its wings will atrophy. It prefers dark, cold spaces and will become lethargic in sunlight. When tending to the sparrow, keep your ear passages blocked with wax or cotton. Failure to do so may result in listlessness, depression, or, in the case of prolonged exposure, death.
See also the Tyneside Canary and Manuscript’s Queen-Moon Nightingale.
Gifted by St. Elmo, who believed they were acquiring a Cloud-
Beaked Harbinger, notable for its ability to predict storms in its flight patterns.
—from the Lethe Armory Catalogue as revised and edited by Pamela
Has no one noticed that the societies “gift” Lethe with all of the magic they deem too unsafe or too worthless for their own collections? The leavings, the disasters, the mistakes, the worn-out artifacts and unpredictable objects. Though our armory may represent one of the
greatest repositories of magic housed at a university, it also has the dubious distinction of being the most hazardous.
—Lethe Days Diary of Raymond Walsh-Whiteley (Silliman