Chapter no 39

Hell Bent

The house was big enough that there was room for everyone to sleep behind the wards. Darlington was back in the Virgil bedroom on the third floor. Dawes would sleep on the couch in the parlor, and Turner had claimed the floor of the armory.

Alex and Mercy set up camp in the Dante bedroom. But before Alex turned out the light, she tried texting Tripp once more. It wasn’t safe to go looking for him at night, but she and Turner would try in the morning.

“I wasn’t very nice to him,” said Mercy.

“That’s not what got him in trouble. And you don’t owe everyone nice.” She lay back on her pillow. “I need you to be ready tomorrow. Dawes said the descent could be different this time. I don’t know what that means for you on the surface, but there’s at least one vampire running around out there. I don’t like putting you in danger again.”

Mercy wriggled under the covers. “But we’re always in danger. Go to a party, meet up with the wrong person, walk down the wrong street. I think … I think sometimes it’s easier if instead of waiting for trouble, you go to meet it.”

“Like a bad date.”

Mercy laughed. “Yeah. But if anything terrible happens to me—” “It won’t.”

“But if it does—”

“Mercy, if anyone fucks with you, I will teach them a new word for violence.”

Mercy laughed, the sound brittle. “I know.” She sat up, punched her pillow, leaned back on it. Alex could practically see the wheels turning. “To be a pilgrim … you all killed someone?”

Alex had known this conversation was coming. “Yup.”

“I know … I know Dawes killed Blake. I’m not sure I want to know about everyone else, but…”

“Why am I qualified to be on Team Murder?” “Yeah.”

Alex had told Mercy about Lethe, about magic, even about the Grays, and that she could see them and use them. But she’d left her past good and buried. As far as Mercy knew, she was a kid from California with some gaps in her education.

There were plenty of lies Alex could tell now. It was self-defense. It was an accident. But the truth was that she’d contemplated killing Eitan that very morning, and if she’d been able to get away with it and find a place to stash the bodies, she would have done it and never looked back. And she’d promised she wasn’t going to lie to Mercy again.

“I killed a lot of people.”

Mercy rolled over on her side and looked at her. “How many?” “Enough. For now.”

“Do you … How do you live with that?”

What truth was she supposed to offer up? Because it wasn’t the people she’d killed who haunted her. It was the people she’d let die, the ones she couldn’t save. Alex knew she should say something comforting. That she prayed or cried or ran laps to forget. She hadn’t had many friends and she didn’t want to lose this one. But she was tired of pretending.

“I’m just not made right, Mercy. I don’t know if it’s remorse or conscience that I’m missing or if the angel on my shoulder decided to take a long vacation. But I don’t lose sleep over the bodies on my scorecard. I guess that doesn’t make me a great roommate.”

“Maybe not,” Mercy said and turned off the light. “But I’m glad you’re on my side.”



Alex waited until Mercy was snoring, then slipped out of bed and padded upstairs to the third floor. The door to the Virgil bedroom was open, and there was a fire blazing in the hearth beneath the stained glass windows

depicting a hemlock wood. Darlington was sprawled in a chair by the fire. He’d changed into Lethe House sweatpants and an old robe—or maybe it was called a dressing gown. She wasn’t sure. She just knew that she’d been looking at him without a stitch of clothes for weeks, but that something about seeing him this way—feet propped on the ottoman, robe open, bare chested, a book in his hand—made her feel like a Peeping Tom.

“Something you want, Stern?” he asked without glancing up from his reading.

That was a complicated question. “You lied to Turner,” she said.

“I imagine you’ve done the same when necessary.” He looked up at last. “Are you going to hover in that doorway all night or come in?”

Alex made herself enter. Why the hell was she so nervous? This was Darlington—scholar, snob, and pain in the ass. No mystery there. But she’d held his soul inside her. She could still taste him on her tongue.

“What are you drinking?” she asked, picking up the tiny glass of amber liquid from the table beside his chair.

“Armagnac. You’re welcome to try it.” “But we—”

“I’m well aware my Armagnac was sacrificed for a worthy cause— perhaps along with my grandfather’s Mercedes. This bottle is far cheaper and less rare.”

“But not actually cheap.” “Of course not.”

She set down the glass and settled herself in the chair across from him, letting the fire warm her feet, acutely conscious of the hole forming in her right sock.

“You sure this is a good idea?” she asked. “Going back to hell?”

His eyes returned to the book he was reading. Michelle Alameddine’s Lethe Days Diary.

Was he wondering why she hadn’t been the one to stand sentinel? “Find anything interesting in there?”

“Yes, actually. A pattern I hadn’t seen before. But a demon loves a puzzle.”

“She did help,” Alex said. “She told us you believed the Gauntlet was on campus.”

“She doesn’t owe me anything. I told myself I would never look at her diary, that I wouldn’t go hunting for her opinions on her Dante and give in to that particular vanity. But here I am.”

“What did she say?”

His smile was rueful. “Very little. I am described as fastidious, thorough, and—no less than five times—eager. The overall portrait is vague in its details, but far from flattering.” He closed the book, setting it aside. “And to answer your question, returning to hell is an abominable idea, but I don’t have any others. In my more futile moments, I’m tempted to blame Sandow for all of this. It was his greed that put this series of tragedies in motion. He summoned the hellbeast to devour me. I suppose he thought it would be a quick death.”

“Or a clean one,” Alex said without thinking.

“Fair point. No body to dispose of. No questions to be asked.” “You weren’t meant to survive.”

“No,” he mused. “I suppose you and I have that in common. Was that almost a smile, Stern?”

“Too early to tell.” She shifted in her seat, watching him. He had always been indecently appealing, the dark hair, the lean build, the air of some deposed royal who had wandered into their mundane world from a far-off castle. It was hard not to stare at him, to keep reminding herself that he was truly there, truly alive. And that somehow he seemed to have forgiven her. But she couldn’t say any of that. “Tell me what you wouldn’t talk about in front of the others. Why do you still have horns—”

“Occasional horns.”

“Fine. Why did I light up like a blowtorch when you used them?”

Darlington was quiet for a long time. “There are no words for what we’ve done. For what we may yet do. Think of the Gauntlet as a series of doors, all meant to keep the unwary from strolling into hell. You don’t need those doors, Stern.”

“Belbalm … Before she died—” “Before you killed her.”

“It was a group effort. She said that all worlds were open to Wheelwalkers. I saw a circle of blue fire around me.”

“I saw it too,” he said. “On Halloween. A year ago. The Wheel. I don’t think it was coincidence. And I don’t think this is either.”

He rose and crossed the room to his desk and removed a book of New York landmarks. He moved with the same easy confidence he always had, but now there was something sinister in those long strides. She saw the demon. She saw a predator.

He flipped through the book and held it open to her. “Atlas,” he said, “at Rockefeller Center.”

The black-and-white photo showed a muscular figure wrought in bronze and poised on one knee, bent beneath the weight of three interlocked rings resting on his colossal shoulders.

“The celestial spheres,” Darlington continued. “The heavens in their movements. Or…”

Alex traced her finger around one of the circles emblazoned with the signs of the zodiac. “The Wheel.”

“This sculpture was designed by Lee Lawrie. He’s also responsible for the stonework in Sterling.” Darlington took the book from her hands, returned it to the desk. He kept his back to her when he said, “That night at Manuscript, it wasn’t just a wheel I saw. It was a crown.”

“A crown. What does that mean? What does any of it mean?”

“I don’t know. But when you crossed into hell through the circle of protection, you broke every rule there is. And when you carried me out again, you found another one to break.” He settled himself back in the chair across from her. “You stole me from underworld. That was bound to leave a mark.”

Alex could hear Anselm—Golgarot—screaming thief. She saw the wolf’s lips pull back to form the same word.

“Is that what those things are?” she asked. “Around your wrists and neck? Marks?”

“These?” He leaned forward, and the change in him was instant, the glowing eyes, the curling horns, the broadening of the shoulders. Without meaning to, Alex found herself scooting back in her chair. He was man and

then monster in the space of a breath. The golden bands glowed at his wrists and throat.

“Yeah,” she said, trying not to show her fear. “Those.” “These marks mean I am bound in service. Forever.” “To hell? To Golgarot?”

He laughed then, the sound deep and cold, the thing at the bottom of the lake. “I’m bound to you, Stern. To the woman who brought me out of hell. I will serve you ’til the end of days.”

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