Chapter no 38

Hell Bent

Dawes was standing on the front steps of Il Bastone when they arrived, her headphones around her neck, her hands twisting fretfully in her sweatshirt sleeves. Turner stood beside her, leaning on one of the smoke-stained columns. He was in jeans and a button-down, and the sight of him out of a suit was almost as distressing as watching a ceiling cave in.

“Who are these guests I don’t recall inviting?” Darlington asked as the demons moved out of the shadows across the street.

Slowly, Alex opened her door and climbed out, wondering what the driver thought about the odd group of people standing in the road at twilight.

“Demons,” she said. “We brought them back.” “As an exchange program?”

“It was an accident,” she said as their ride pulled away. “They set fire to the house.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“We were trying to rescue you, Darlington. There were bound to be hiccups.”

“I’m not sure I’ve ever noted your gift for understatement, Stern.” “Demonic hiccups.”

“Alex? Mija?” Alex’s grandmother was standing on the sidewalk, her dark hair shot through with gray, dressed in a soft turtleneck and a long black skirt that brushed the ground. When Alex was small, she’d loved the sound of the fabric trailing over the floor. “But doesn’t it get dirty, Avuela?” Her grandmother had winked and said, “What’s a little dirt when the devil can’t find me?”

Alex knew this was not her grandmother, but her heart twisted anyway. Estrea Stern had been afraid of nothing, determined to protect her strange granddaughter from her flighty daughter, to shelter her with prayers and lullabies and good food. But then she’d died and Alex had been left with nothing but her mother’s dollar store magic, her crystals, her whey smoothies, her boyfriend the acupuncturist, her boyfriend the capoeirista, her boyfriend the singer-songwriter.

“Who is feeding you, mija?” Estrea asked, her eyes warm, her arms open.

“Alex!” Dawes shouted, but her voice seemed far away when home was so close.

Darlington leapt in front of her and snarled. His shape altered before Alex’s eyes, his golden horns curling back from his forehead.

Alex tasted honey. Her body burst into blue flame and the grandmother demon squealed, losing its shape, seeming to slide back into the form of a young woman, a hybrid of Hellie and Alex and something unnatural, one shoulder lifted too high, head lowered as if to hide its leering mouth, its many teeth.

Darlington charged forward like a bull, slamming into the demon and pinning it to the sidewalk. He rammed his horns against it as it shrieked. The other demons cringed back into the shadows between the houses.

“Darlington!” Alex said. It was almost dark and people were coming home from work. If they drew a crowd, they were going to have even more problems.

But he wasn’t listening or the monster in him didn’t care. He rammed into the demon with a snarl, severing its torso. Its legs dissolved into wriggling maggots, but it just kept on screaming.

“Darlington, enough!”

Her flame unfurled in a crackling blue wire, snapping around the glowing golden band that had appeared on his neck where the yoke had been. It snaked around Darlington’s throat and yanked him away from Not Hellie. The rest of the demon’s torso dissolved into squirming grubs.

Darlington fell back on his haunches with a growl. Like a hound brought to heel.

“Shit,” Alex said, batting at the blue flame leash, watching it recede. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

But Darlington’s horns had faded with the fire. He was human again, kneeling on the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated.

His gaze was dark and assessing, like he was studying a new text. He rose and brushed the dust from his coat. “Best we get inside, I think.”

Alex nodded. She felt nauseated and tired, all the gleam of carrying Darlington’s soul within her siphoned away. She’d let the demon feed on her like some kind of amateur. And what the hell had just happened?

“Is it really dead?” she asked, stepping over the maggots and trying not to gag.

“No,” said Darlington. “Its body will re-form and try to feed on you again.”

“And Anselm?” “Golgarot too.”

Alex wondered what that meant for a creature like Linus Reiter.

In the doorway of Il Bastone, Mercy released a nervous laugh. “The demons don’t like him, do they?”

“Not one bit,” said Turner, the leaves of the oak clustered around him. He’d called to his salt spirit. To help Darlington or to put him down? Maybe Turner was having doubts about the whole soldier-for-good thing after seeing those horns come out. “How was Spain?”

Darlington cleared his throat. He was human again, but the shape of the demon seemed to linger over him, a memory, a threat. “Hotter than expected.”

“Anyone want to explain how he got here?” Turner asked. “And why Alex just caught fire?”

But whatever spell had bound Dawes frozen on the steps had broken.

She descended the stairs slowly, then stopped.

“It’s … it’s not a trick is it?” she said quietly.

She was wise to ask, when friends and parents and grandparents and members of the Lethe board might all be monsters in disguise. When

Darlington had just crushed a demon against the pavement. But this time the magic was kind.

“It’s him,” Alex said.

Dawes sobbed and lunged forward. She threw her arms around Darlington.

“Hey, Pammie,” he said gently.

Alex stood awkwardly to the side as Dawes wept and Darlington let her. Maybe that was what she should have done, what someone without so much blood on her hands did. Welcome home. Welcome back. We missed you. I missed you more than I should have, more than I wanted to. I went to hell for you. I’d do it again.

“Come on,” Darlington said, his arm over Dawes’s shoulders, ushering them all back inside, slipping into the role of Virgil as if he’d never left. “Let’s get behind the wards.”

But when he set foot on the steps of Il Bastone, the stones trembled, the scorched columns shook, the lantern above the doorway rattled on its chain. Beneath the porch, Alex could hear the jackals whimpering.

Darlington hesitated. Alex knew this feeling, the fear of being banished from a place you’d called home. What had Anselm said? Are you so eager to be cast out of Eden? Another little joke for the demon, another puzzle she’d failed to solve.

The door creaked softly on its hinges, a high whine of anxiety, as if it was deciding whether there was danger on its doorstep or not. Then the house made up its mind. The steps went still and solid, the door sprang wide, every window came ablaze with light. Even the house could say what Alex could not: Welcome back. You were missed. You are needed. Part demon or not, the golden boy of Lethe was back, and human enough to pass through the wards.

“Where’s Tripp?” she asked.

“He’s not answering his phone,” said Dawes.

Alex’s stomach turned. “When did he last check in?”

“Three hours ago,” said Turner as they shuffled into the dining room where someone had set the table. “I went by his apartment, but no answer.”

Darlington looked skeptical. “I suppose this is a reasonable time to ask why you brought Tripp Helmuth, of all people, to hell?”

Alex threw up her hands in annoyance. “You try putting together Team Murder on short notice.” She had left Tripp on the New Haven Green. She’d seen him set off toward downtown. Could he be late? Scared of returning to hell? He knew another descent was the only way to be rid of their demons. They were the bait. Their misery. Their hopelessness.

“We never should have left him alone,” she said. “He had the seabird,” Turner noted.

“But the salt spirits can only do so much. I don’t know about you, but I could tell Not Hellie was adapting. She was less scared of those snakes the last time I used them. She wasn’t frightened out on the sidewalk a minute ago.”

“You’re all forgetting he could just be a coward,” Mercy said as they settled around the table.

“That isn’t fair,” Dawes called from the kitchen.

“What?” Mercy demanded. “You saw how freaked out he was. He didn’t want to make the descent a second time.”

“None of us do,” said Turner. “And you wouldn’t either.”

“I’ll go,” Mercy said, her chin lifting. “You’re down a pilgrim. You need someone to fill the gap.”

“You’re not a killer,” said Alex. “Yet. Maybe I’m a late bloomer.”

Dawes returned to the dining room with a big tureen of steaming soup. “This isn’t a joke!”

“Let’s try to remember that not being a murderer is actually a good thing,” Darlington said. “I’ll take Tripp’s place. I’ll be the fourth.”

Dawes set the tureen on the table with a loud, disapproving thud. “You will not.”

Alex didn’t like the idea either. The Gauntlet wasn’t meant to be used as a revolving door. “I’m not giving up on Tripp. We don’t know that Not Spenser got him. We don’t know anything yet.”

“We know the math,” said Turner. “Four pilgrims to open the door— four to make the journey, and four to close it all up at the end. The full

moon is tomorrow night, and unless Tripp suddenly slinks out into the open, the prodigal demon is our only option.”

“We’ll find another way,” Dawes insisted, ladling soup into bowls aggressively.

“Sure,” Turner replied. “Should we just have Mercy stab someone?”

“Of course not,” Dawes snapped, though Mercy looked scarily game. “But…”

A faint, sad smile touched Darlington’s lips. “Go on.”

Now Dawes hesitated. “Look at you,” she said quietly. “You aren’t … you aren’t completely human anymore. You’re bound to that place.” She glanced uneasily at Alex. “You both are.”

Alex crossed her arms. “What do I have to do with it?”

“You were on fire,” said Dawes. “The same way you were in the underworld.” Dawes dipped her spoon into her bowl, then set it down. “We can’t send Darlington back, and I … if Tripp’s demon … if something happened to him, it’s our fault.”

No one could disagree. Dawes had said that Alex and Darlington were tied to the underworld, but the truth was that they were all bound together now. They had seen the very worst of each other, felt every ugly, shameful, frightening thing. Four pilgrims. Four children trembling in the dark. Four fools who had attempted what should never be dared. Four shoddy heroes on a quest who were meant to survive this reckless endeavor together.

But Tripp wasn’t here.

“I’ll go back to his place tomorrow,” Turner said. “Reach out at his job. But we agree right now, no matter what, we make the descent tomorrow night. We can’t let those things keep feeding on us. I have seen some shit in this life and been through it too. But I won’t make it to the next full moon.”

No one was going to argue with that either. Alex didn’t want Darlington back in hell, but they were out of options. If what he had just done to Not Hellie couldn’t stop these things, nothing in the mortal realm would.

“All right,” said Alex. Dawes gave a short nod.

“How exactly did you get Darlington out?” Turner asked a little too casually.

Alex was tempted to ask if he wanted her to write up a statement. But Dawes and Mercy and Turner were owed an explanation, or whatever answers they could patch together.

So they ate, and they talked—about Anselm who was no longer Anselm, the bodies they’d left at Black Elm, the murders of Professor Stephen and Dean Beekman, and the third murder that would have been committed if Turner hadn’t arrested Andy Lambton.

When they were done, Turner pushed his empty bowl away and scrubbed his hands over his face. “You’re telling me Lambton is innocent?” “He was there,” said Alex. “At least for Beekman. Maybe for Marjorie

Stephen. I think Anselm enjoyed making him an accomplice.” “That’s not his name,” Darlington said.

“Well, whatever you want to call him. Golgarot, the demon king.”

“He’s a prince, not a king, and it would be unwise to underestimate him.”

“I don’t understand,” said Mercy. “The … demon prince or whoever … he ate Anselm. Shouldn’t he be a vampire now? Why is he messing around with getting some guy to commit random murders?”

“They weren’t random,” said Darlington. His voice was bleak, cold, something left at the bottom of a lake. “They were a puzzle, steeped in New Haven history, a custom lure for my mind, for Alex, for Detective Turner. A perfect distraction. He was having fun.”

“But not drinking blood?” Alex asked. She’d tussled with Not Anselm, and aside from being able to create fire out of thin air, he’d been physically weak, nothing like Linus Reiter.

“Golgarot is not like your demons or the demon that devoured Lionel Reiter. He tortured me in hell. He had already fed on my misery, and when I tried to come through the portal you opened at Scroll and Key, he was able to follow.”

“When the circle bound you to Black Elm,” Dawes said.

“But not Golgarot. He hadn’t fed enough on me to be trapped by Sandow’s spell.”

“And the horns?” Turner asked.

“You were all travelers, moving between this world and the demon realm while your bodies remained here. That wasn’t true for me. I walked right into the mouth of a hellbeast, and when I entered the demon realm, I split.” He kept his words steady, but his gaze was faraway. “I became a demon, bound in service to Golgarot, a creature of … appetites. I became a man who fed his keeper with his own suffering.”

“Right down the middle, huh?”

Darlington’s smile was small. “No, Detective. I think you well know that one can be both a murderer and a good man. Or at least a man who tries to be good. If only the evil did terrible things, what a simple world it would be. Both demon and man remained in hell. Both demon and man were bound by the circle of protection.”

“Anselm followed me into hell,” Alex said, “when I crossed the circle.” “He had to in order to fight you. Golgarot is both more and less

powerful than your demons. As long as I was bound to the circle, he could move freely, consume victims as he chose, but he remained weak. He couldn’t enter this realm completely, not without killing me or pushing me back into hell forever.”

“But … but he’s dead now, right?” Mercy asked.

Darlington shook his head. “I destroyed his mortal body, the one he’d constructed. But he’ll be waiting for me in hell. For all of us.”

Dawes frowned. “Did he know we’d found the Gauntlet?”

“No,” said Darlington. “He knew you were searching, but he had no idea you’d found it or that you were trying the ritual to free me on Halloween night.”

“He said he came to Il Bastone and saw our notes,” said Mercy.

“He told us that,” Alex said. “But it’s impossible. He’s a demon. He couldn’t get past the wards. It’s why he didn’t take us to the Hutch the night he banished us from Lethe.”

Darlington nodded. “He’d set up an early-warning system. Hell is vast. He couldn’t guard every entry. But he knew where you were headed, and once the alarm was tripped, he knew you’d found me.”

Turner drew in a breath. “The wolves.”

“That’s right. He’d set them to watch over Black Elm.”

“They were demons,” said Alex, the realization like a slap. “They became our demons.”

Four wolves for four pilgrims. They’d all drawn blood when they’d attacked, all gotten a taste of their human terror. Alex remembered the wolves burning like comets as they’d fled hell. The demons had followed them into the mortal realm.

“Golgarot stopped the ritual,” Mercy said. “He made me turn off the metronome.”

“But he didn’t step into the courtyard.” Alex remembered him hovering beneath Dürer’s magic square. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to risk seeing it or getting caught up in the puzzle.

“He wasn’t going to let you take me out of hell,” Darlington said. “He intended to strand you there with me.”

“But Alex got us out,” Turner said.

Alex shifted in her seat. “And left the door open for our demons to follow us through.”

“I don’t understand,” Dawes said. “Why are there no warnings about the Gauntlet in the Lethe library? Why are there no records of its construction, of what happened to the first pilgrims who walked it, of Lionel Reiter?”

“I don’t know,” Darlington admitted. “It wouldn’t be the first cover-up in Lethe’s history.”

Alex met Dawes’s gaze. They knew that well enough. Lethe’s members, its board, the few in the Yale administration who knew the true occupation of the secret societies, had a long history of sweeping all kinds of atrocities under the rug. Magical casualties, mysterious power outages, strange disappearances, the map in the Peabody basement. Everyone had believed Daniel Arlington was in Spain for most of last semester, and almost no one knew Elliot Sandow had turned out to be a murderer. There were no consequences, not if you just kept finding new places to bury your mistakes.

Mercy had set her red notebook next to her soup bowl and she was drawing a series of concentric circles in it. “So they covered it up. But Lionel Reiter became a vampire. We don’t even know what happened to the

other pilgrims or their sentinel. Why leave the Gauntlet intact if they knew how dangerous it was?”

There was silence then, because no one had the answer, but they all knew the truth couldn’t be good. Something had gone wrong on that first journey, something bad enough that the Gauntlet had been wiped from the books and Rudolph Kittscher’s diary had been hidden or destroyed. It might just be that Reiter had been followed by a demon, that Lethe was responsible for creating a vampire. But then why not hunt him? Why leave him to prey on innocent people for nearly a hundred years?

“Could I go alone?” Alex asked. She didn’t want to say it. She didn’t want to do it. But they might be down one pilgrim, and the longer they waited, the worse it was going to get. “I don’t need the Gauntlet. Why can’t I just walk back through that circle and find some way to drag our demons with me?”

“That’s awfully self-sacrificing,” said Turner. He glanced at Darlington. “She fall on her head?”

“I’m not doing it to play hero,” Alex said sourly. “But I already got Tripp killed.”

“You don’t know that,” protested Dawes.

“I can make an educated guess.” She hoped it wasn’t true. She hoped Tripp was safely tucked away in his fancy loft apartment, eating bowls of vegan chili, but she doubted that was the case. “I roped him into this, and there’s a good chance he’s not coming back from it.”

“You can’t just walk in by yourself,” said Darlington. “You might pull your own demon with you, but you’ll all have to go through to get rid of the others.”

“What about Spenser?” Mercy asked. “Uh … Not Spenser, Tripp’s demon?”

“If the demon consumed Tripp’s soul—” Darlington began. “We don’t know that happened,” Dawes insisted.

“But if it did, then the demon would be able to remain in the mortal world and feed on the living.”

A new vampire could be preying on people in New Haven right now. Another bit of misery Alex had helped to create. Mercy had every right not

to trust Tripp, to suspect he was a coward. But Alex liked Tripp. He was a dumbass, but he’d tried to do his best for them. I like being one of the good guys.

“We’re going to have to create a tether,” Dawes said. “Open the doorway and pull them back through.”

“The vampire too?” asked Mercy.

“No,” said Darlington. “If Tripp’s demon really did become a vampire, it will have to be hunted on its own.”

“Mercy and I have been searching the armory and the library for a way to lure our demons,” said Dawes. “But there’s only so much we can do if we need to be in the right position to open the Gauntlet.”

“They’re drawn to us when things are bad,” said Alex. Turner shot her a look. “So every hour of the day?”

“There’s the Doom Sparrow,” Mercy said, consulting her notes. “If you release it in a room, it sows discord and creates a general sense of malaise. It was used to disrupt meetings of union organizers in the seventies.”

Have you heard that silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?” Darlington quoted.

“I really missed having no idea what you’re talking about,” Alex said. And she meant it. “But I’m not sure we want to start a trip into hell feeling completely miserable and defeated.”

“There’s the Voynich,” said Dawes. “But I don’t know how to get hold of it.”

“Why the Voynich, of all things?” Mercy asked.

Even Alex had heard of the Voynich manuscript. Aside from the original Gutenberg Bible, it was probably the most famous book at the Beinecke. And it was certainly harder to get a look at. The Bible was always on display in a glass case in the lobby and one page was turned daily. But the Voynich was very much under lock and key.

“Because it’s a puzzle,” said Darlington. “An unparseable language, an unsolvable code. It’s what it was created for.”

Mercy shut the cover of her notebook with a loud snap. “Wait a minute. Just … You’re saying the Voynich manuscript was created to trap demons? Scholars have been speculating on it for centuries!”

Darlington lifted his shoulders. “I suppose it traps academics too. But Dawes is right. Accessing anything other than a digital copy is nearly impossible, and taking it out of Beinecke? Forget it.”

“What about Pierre the Weaver?” asked Mercy.

Turner leaned back and crossed his arms. “This ought to be good.”

But Dawes was tapping her pen against her lips. “That’s an interesting idea.”

“It’s brilliant actually,” said Darlington. Mercy smiled.

“Does anyone want to tell me and Turner who Pierre is and what he weaves?” asked Alex.

“The Weaver was acquired by Manuscript,” Dawes said. “It was used by a series of cult leaders and false gurus to lure followers. Pierre Bernard was the last, and the name stuck. The trick is making sure the Weaver spins the right emotional web.”

“And it will trap the demons?” Turner asked.

“Only for a short time,” said Dawes. “It’s all … very risky.”

“Not as risky as doing nothing.” Alex didn’t want to talk anymore. They couldn’t wait until the next full moon. “I’m not going to let those things chase us around and eat at our hearts until they pick us off one by one.”

“They’re only going to get stronger and more savvy,” Darlington said. “Personally, I would prefer not to see you all eaten and then have to deal with a bunch of vampires wearing your faces.”

“Okay,” said Turner. “We use Pierre the Whatever. We trap them and drag them down with us. I still have a murder suspect who was … encouraged, if not coerced, into helping to commit two horrific crimes and planning another. I can’t get them to ease up on his sentence because demons were involved.”

“He was driven mad,” Darlington said. “That’s how you’ll get him leniency. Whether his monsters were real or imagined, the result was the same.”

“Let’s say I let that slide,” Turner continued. “There are the remains of three missing persons in the Black Elm basement, and someone is going to come looking for those people eventually. I have to believe Anselm’s wife

is wondering why he hasn’t come home, even if that demon was out and about, wearing his suits and using his credit card.”

Bag the bodies. Switch the plates on the rental to transport them. Cremate them in the crucible after hours at Il Bastone. Wipe the car. Dump it. Alex knew what they should do. So did Turner. But she also knew he wasn’t going to talk about it. He might have killed Carmichael in cold blood, but he was still police and he wasn’t going to be involved in covering up a crime.

“We’ll take care of it,” said Alex. “I won’t clean up your mess.”

“You won’t have to.”

Turner didn’t look convinced. “I’m going to take you at your word. Now for all your talk, you haven’t explained what happened out there on the sidewalk in front of this house. I saw a demon tear another demon in half. I saw you covered in fire that shouldn’t exist in our realm and I saw you use it to keep him in check. Anyone want to explain all that?”

Darlington shrugged and reached for seconds of soup. “If we could, we would.”

Alex could tell from Turner’s look that he thought Darlington was lying. Alex did too.

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