Chapter no 40

Hell Bent

Her face went very still. Darlington had learned that this was what Alex Stern did when faced with uncertainty. Fight or flight? A survivor’s move was sometimes no move at all. He could see her in the basement on that night so long ago, a girl wrought in stone.

She raised a brow. “So … are you going to do my laundry?” Fight, flight, or sarcasm. “What a horrid girl you are.”

“Ma’am. What a horrid girl you are, ma’am.” Now he laughed.

But Alex’s brows had drawn together. Her jaw was set. She looked like she was squaring up for a fight. “There are too many mysteries. I don’t like the way they’re adding up.”

“I’m not certain I do either,” he said, and he wasn’t lying this time. “You can see the dead, hear them, use them for your own ends—and unless I’m very much mistaken, were it not for certain scruples that Marguerite Belbalm lacked, you could use the living in much the same way.”

All he got for that assessment was a short, sharp nod.

“As for me…” He wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. As a man he had suffered in hell. But as a demon he had doled out suffering with ease and ingenuity. Sandow had come to them, murdered by Belbalm, his soul already consumed by her. He would never pass beyond the Veil, but hell was happy to claim him. Darlington’s demon self had enjoyed finding new ways to make Sandow miserable, to pay for the anguish he’d caused.

Darlington had been frightening to the shades of the Veil and even to himself. It had been … If he was honest, it had been exhilarating. He had been a creature of the mind since he was a boy—languages, history, science. The rest of it, the training he’d put himself through—fighting,

swordplay, even acrobatics—had all been in service to the future adventures he’d been sure he would have. But the great invitation had never come. There had been no noble quests or secret missions. There had been rituals, glimpses of the world beyond, schoolwork, reports to write, and that was all. So he had kept honing himself like a blade that would never be tried.

Then Dean Sandow had sent him to hell. Darlington shouldn’t have survived, but he’d managed to hold on until at last rescue had come.

And now? Was he human enough? He had been able to sit at the table and hold a conversation. He hadn’t growled at anyone or broken any furniture, but it hadn’t been easy. Demons were not thinking creatures. They operated on instinct, driven by their appetites. He had prided himself on being nothing like that. Never rash. Guided by reason. But now he wanted in a way he never had. He had been tempted to bury his face in his soup bowl and lap at it like a greedy animal. He wanted to place himself between Alex’s legs now and do the same to her.

Darlington drew a hand over his face and gave himself a little shake, praying for sense to return. He was her mentor. Her Virgil. He owed her his life and he could do better by her. He was not some slavering beast. He would pretend to be human again until he was.

Darlington had been surprised by the way that the others had come together to work and plan. He almost hadn’t recognized the command in Alex, the confidence in Dawes, all of it born of his absence. They would have gone on without me. They would have grown stronger. Sitting there, watching them hatch their schemes with Turner and Mercy, he’d felt like a stranger in a place he’d once known he belonged. His understanding of his own lack of consequence had been both slow and sudden in its cruelty.

“As for me, I don’t know what I am,” he said at last.

“But you can control”—she waved a hand as if casting a spell over him

—“whatever that demon shit is.”

“I certainly hope so. But I think it would be wise for you and anyone else near me to keep a ready supply of salt at hand. We might consider putting prohibitions on Black Elm too, or wherever I wash up, so that I can’t leave without escort.”

How reasonable he sounded. It wasn’t so hard to playact the man he’d been.

He considered the strange and terrible girl before him. Her eyes were black in the firelight, her hair shining as if it had been lacquered. Undine the water spirit, risen from the lake in search of a soul. Darlington hated to think of that night at the Halloween party at Manuscript. He’d been out of his mind on whatever they’d used to drug him. But when he had looked into the great mirror, he had seen that Alex was something more than her mortal self. And he’d understood that he wasn’t the hero he’d always dreamed of being. He’d been a knight, and what was a knight but a servant with a sword in his hand? For the first time he had known himself and his purpose. At least it had seemed that way at the time. All he had wanted was to serve her, to be seen and desired by her. He hadn’t known he was looking into the future.

“You are a Wheelwalker,” he said. “I know that only because you know that, only because Belbalm and then Sandow knew it. I’m going to have to dig deeper than the Lethe library to find out what that truly means. But I do know this: Not all of us will return from the underworld tomorrow night.”

“We made it out before.”

“And you brought four demons with you. One of whom may have taken up permanent residence in our world to feed on people until it’s vanquished. But we won’t all be coming back this time. As long as hell is short a murderer, the door will remain open, and your demons will keep coming through. Hell’s price must be paid.”

Alex scowled. “Why? How do you know that?”

“Because I was one of them. I was a demon feeding on the suffering of the dead.” He’d meant to say it easily, casually. Instead the words emerged haltingly and stinking of confession.

“Am I supposed to be shocked and horrified?”

“That I engaged in a kind of emotional cannibalism to survive? That I ate pain and enjoyed it? I’d think even you might be troubled by that.”

“You’ve been in my head now,” she said. “Did you get a look at the things I did to survive this life?”

“Glimpses,” he admitted. A string of bleak moments, a deep and desperate ocean, Hellie shining like a golden coin, her grandmother glowing like a banked ember, her mother … a disaster, a cloud, a tangle of frayed yarn, a mess of pity and longing and anger and love.

“We do what we have to,” Alex said. “That’s the only job of a survivor.” A strange benediction, but one he was grateful for. He folded his hands, debating his next words, unwilling to let them remain unspoken. “What if I

told you that some part of me still hungers after suffering?”

Alex didn’t flinch. Of course she didn’t. It wasn’t in her repertoire.

“I’d tell you to keep your shit together, Darlington. We all want things we shouldn’t.”

He wondered if she really understood what he was. If she did, she might run from this room. But it wouldn’t be a worry for long, not after the descent. Until then, he could make sure the demon didn’t slip its leash.

“You need to accept that hell is going to try to keep one of us,” he said. “It will be me, Stern. I was never meant to leave.”

He wasn’t sure what he expected: Laughter? Tears? A heroic demand that she take his place in hell? He had lost track of who was Dante, Virgil, Beatrice. Was he Orpheus or Eurydice?

But all Alex did was lean back in her chair and cast him a skeptical glance. “So after we fought and bled to drag you out of hell, you think we’re going to just bring you back like a foster dog who shit on the carpet?”

“I wouldn’t put it—”

Alex rose and tossed back his glass of his expensive Armagnac like it was a dollar shot on ladies’ night at Toad’s. “Fuck off, Darlington.”

She strode to the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To the armory to talk to Turner. Then I have some calls to make. You know your problem?”

“A predilection for first editions and women who like to lecture me about myself?”

“An unhealthy respect for the rules. Get some sleep.”

She vanished down the dark hall, there and gone, like some kind of magic trick.

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