Chapter no 42

Hell Bent

By 1 a.m., Alex and Darlington were back on campus, shivering with cold, their ears still ringing with howls. They waited for the others by the Women’s Table. The shadows seemed too thick, as if they had weight and form. She was nearly faint with hunger, and the terrible possibilities of all she’d set in motion were gnawing at her thoughts.

Alex made sure her phone was on and sent a last text to her mom, just in case.

I love you. Stay safe.

Absurd, a ridiculous message from a girl who had crashed through life like she was charging through a series of plate glass windows. She’d cut herself to ribbons, then patched herself up, only to do it again and again and again.

You too, little star. The reply came fast, as if her mother had been waiting. But Mira had been waiting by the phone a very long time. For a call from the hospital, the cops, the morgue.

Alex knew they needed to get started, but when Dawes let them into the library, she went to check on Mercy in the courtyard first.

The air seemed colder by the basin, as if they’d truly left a door open and a draft was blowing through. There were no stars visible in the gray November sky, but Alex found herself drinking in the feel of the weather, the winter chill on her skin, the dim yellow light from the library windows, the textured gray of the stone. Hell had been like a vacuum, dead and empty, all color and life leached away, as if some demon had fed on the world as much as the souls that inhabited it. If this was her last look at anything real, she wanted to remember it.

She helped Mercy into her salt armor and they talked through the plan. They still didn’t know what might be waiting for them—in this world or below. Mercy was armed with death words, bone dust, and a salt sword, but Alex had retrieved another item from the armory. She handed the jar to Mercy.

“I wouldn’t open—”

But Mercy had already lifted the lid. She gagged and hastily shut the jar. “Alex,” she coughed, “you have to be kidding me.”

“Afraid not.” Alex hesitated. “Vampires hate strong smells. It’s where the garlic myth came from. It’s not too late to back out of this.” She needed to offer this chance at escape, at safety. Mercy had walked this path without hesitation, but did she really know what she was moving toward with such happy momentum?

“Pretty sure it is.”

“It’s never too late to make a run for it, Mercy. Trust me on that.”

“I know.” Mercy looked down at the sword in her hands. “But I like this life better.”

“Better than what?”

“Better than what I was living before. Better than a world without magic. I think I’ve been waiting my whole life for the moment someone would see something in me that wasn’t ordinary.”

“We all are.” Alex couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice. “That’s how they get you.”

Mercy’s eyes glinted. “Not if we get them first.”

Maybe because Mercy was so sweet, so smart, so kind—Alex forgot how much fight she had in her. She couldn’t help but think of Hellie, what it had cost her to fall into Alex’s orbit. What might it cost Mercy to be Alex’s friend? But it was too late for that calculation. She needed Mercy in this courtyard tonight.

“The phone is on,” she said, handing over her cell. “Leave it that way.” Mercy gave a rapid nod. “Got it.”

“Stay close to the basin. Don’t forget the balm. And if this turns ugly, you run. Find a room in the library to lock yourself in and stay there until daylight.”

“Understood.” Now Mercy hesitated. “You’re coming back, right?” Alex made herself smile. “One way or another.”



Once the metronome had been set ticking in the courtyard, they waited for quiet on Cross Campus. Then, in front of the library’s main entrance, they made their cuts, each to the left arm. Alex looked at Darlington in his dark coat, at Dawes in her sweats, at Turner standing at attention, ready for battle, even if he wasn’t quite sure the war could be won.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go to hell.”

One by one they daubed their blood on the entry columns. Alex felt a sudden nausea, like a hook had lodged in her gut and was pulling her forward, like the force that had drawn her across the city on bare feet to Black Elm. They entered, passing beneath the Egyptian scribe, and through that cold darkness, the door that was no longer a door.

All of them had taken on the same titles, in the same order. All but Tripp. Alex entered first as the soldier, followed by Dawes as the scholar, then Turner as the priest, and finally Darlington—the prince. Alex couldn’t help thinking the title took on a different meaning with him in the role instead of Tripp, and that made her feel guilty. She wondered which part Lionel Reiter had taken when he’d made the descent nearly a century ago.

They continued in single file to Alma Mater, then on to the arches beneath the Tree of Knowledge that they once again marked with blood. Down the corridor, past the soldier’s door, past the stone student unaware of Death at his shoulder, and into the vestibule full of those odd windows that looked like they belonged in a country pub.

“Just a man,” Darlington murmured, and Alex knew he was remembering his fight to give them clues to the Gauntlet, his demon wiles at war with his human hope. But she saw delight in his face as they made their way through Sterling, wonder and bemusement. Despite all that had happened, he couldn’t help but thrill at the secrets lurking beneath the stone, left behind for them to discover. There was something reassuring in the way his eyes shone, the eager muttering over quotations and symbols. It’s still

him. Lethe’s golden boy might not look quite the same to her, might have seen and done things no man should, but he was still Darlington.

“Here,” Dawes said softly. “Your doorway.” Darlington nodded, then frowned.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asked.

He bobbed his head toward the stonework. “Lux et Veritas? Did they run out of ideas?”

Leave it to Darlington to be a snob about a hidden gateway to hell.

They anointed the stone with their blood and that black pit appeared. An icy wind ruffled Darlington’s dark hair. Alex wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to do this, that everything would be okay. But there were some lies even she couldn’t sell.

“I…” Dawes began. But sputtered out, a candle guttering.

“Do you know the story of the Phantom Ship?” Darlington asked in the quiet. “Back when the New Haven colony was struggling, the townspeople got together and packed a ship with their best wares, samples of all this brave new world had to offer, and their leading citizens set off to try to convince people back in England that it was worth investing in the colony and maybe coming over themselves.”

“Why do I think this story doesn’t have a happy ending?” Turner asked. “I don’t think they manufacture those in New Haven. The honorable

Reverend John Davenport—”

Hide the outcasts John Davenport?” Alex asked.

“One and the same. He says, ‘Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our Friends in the bottom of the Sea, they are thine, save them!’”

“Go ahead and drown them?” Turner said. “Quite the pep talk.”

“The ship never made it to England,” Darlington continued. “The whole colony was left in limbo, with no idea of what had happened to their loved ones and all the wealth they’d stuffed into the hold. Then, a year to the day after the ship set out, a strange fog rolls in off the sea and the good citizens of New Haven all walk down to the harbor, where they see a ship emerging from the mist.”

He sounded like Anselm that day by the water, telling the tale of the three judges. Had Anselm been imitating Darlington? Or had it simply

come naturally, Darlington’s demon, fed on his suffering, speaking with his voice?

“They made it back?” asked Dawes.

Darlington shook his head. “It was an illusion, a shared hallucination. Everyone on the docks saw the phantom ship wreck before their very eyes. The masts broke, men went overboard.”

“Bullshit,” said Turner.

“It’s well documented,” said Darlington, unfazed. “And the town took it as gospel. Wives who had been waiting for their husbands were now widows free to marry. Wills were read and property disbursed. There’s still no explanation for it, but the meaning has always been clear to me.”

“Oh yeah?” said Turner.

“Yeah,” said Alex. “This town has been fucked from the start.” Darlington actually smiled. “I’ll be listening for the signal.”

They moved on to the next door and the librarian’s office. When Alex looked back, Darlington stood framed by darkness, his head bowed, as if in prayer.

Turner took up his post by the sundial door. “Keep your head straight,” he said, the same words he’d used on their first descent. “And don’t drown.”

Alex thought of Tripp clinging to the railing of the boat, of the phantom ship sinking to the bottom of the sea. She met Turner’s gaze. “Don’t drown.”

She followed Dawes through the secret door to the Linonia and Brothers reading room.

It was quieter in this part of the library, and Alex could hear every scuffle of their shoes on the carpeted floor.

“Darlington thinks he’s not coming back,” Dawes said. Alex could feel her eyes on her back.

“I won’t let that happen.”

They stopped in front of the original entrance to the courtyard emblazoned with Selin’s name in gold letters.

“What about you?” Dawes asked. “Who’s looking out for you, Alex?”

“I’ll be fine,” Alex said, surprised by the wobble in her voice. She’d known Dawes couldn’t bear the thought of losing Darlington again, but it hadn’t occurred to her that Dawes might give a damn if Alex came back too.

“I’m not leaving you down there,” Dawes said fiercely.

Alex had said the same thing to Darlington. Promises were easy in this world. So why not make another? “We’re all coming back,” she vowed.

Alex slapped her bloody palm on the archway, and Dawes daubed her blood over it. The door dissolved, and the gold letters of Selin’s name unraveled, replaced by that mysterious alphabet.

“I…” Dawes was staring at the writing. “I can read it now.”

The scholar. What knowledge had Dawes brought with her from the first descent? What new horrors might she learn when they walked the road to hell this time around?

“What does it say?” asked Alex.

Dawes pressed her lips together, her face pale. “None go free.”

Alex tried to ignore the tremor that passed through her at those words. She had heard them before, during the first descent when she’d seen Darlington’s demon half, the torturer in his element.

Alex hesitated. “Dawes … if this doesn’t go the way we planned … thanks for taking care of me.”

“I’m fairly sure you’ve almost died several times since we met.” “It’s the almost that counts.”

“I don’t like this,” Dawes said, her eyes darting again to those golden letters. “It feels like goodbye.”

Was I ever here? Alex wondered. Had she died alongside Hellie? Had she ever been more than a ghost passing through this place?

“Don’t drown,” she said and made herself walk on, back down the nave where she studiously avoided looking at the Alma Mater mural, then to the right where the circuit had begun. It was time to close the loop.

She studied the stained glass image of Daniel in the lions’ den. Was she the martyr this time? Or the wounded beast with a thorn in its paw? Or just a soldier after all. She couldn’t get her cut to well, so she slashed her arm

again and smeared blood onto the glass. It vanished, as if the library was happy to be fed. She was staring into the empty.

She waited, and in the silence, Alex felt as if she could sense something racing toward them. A moment later, she heard the soft hum of the pitch pipe. She took her first step into the courtyard.

This time she was ready for the way the building shook, the shuddering of the stones beneath her feet, the hiss and bubble of the water overflowing the basin, the stink of sulfur. Straight ahead she could see Turner marching toward her, Dawes to her right, Darlington to her left.

They met at the courtyard’s center and Dawes held up her hand for them to stop. But they didn’t grasp the basin. Instead Darlington nodded at Mercy and she came forward, holding up a slender silver spindle. Pierre the Weaver. She pricked her finger on the tip, like a girl in a fairy tale, ready to fall into a hundred years of dreaming. Instead the silver cracked, revealing a sticky white mass inside. An egg sac.

“Have I ever mentioned how much I hate spiders?” Turner asked.

A slender leg poked through the cocoon of webbing, then another, so tiny they almost looked like hairs. Alex heard a soft snuffling sound, and then Mercy gasped as the egg sac gave way, a wave of tiny baby spiders cascading over her hands. She shrieked and dropped the spindle.

“Get in there,” Darlington said, crouching down. He sounded calm, but it took all of Alex’s will to stay still as the spiders flowed over the ground like a spreading stain. Darlington placed his palm on the paving stone and let them course over his fingers. “Let them bite you.”

Turner cast his eyes skyward and muttered something under his breath. He dropped into a crouch and dipped his hand in, Dawes followed, and Alex forced herself to do the same.

She wanted to scream at the feel of all those slender legs whispering over her skin. The bites didn’t hurt, but she could see her skin swelling in places.

Thankfully the spiders moved on quickly, pouring up the trunks of the trees, casting silk strands into the air, letting them catch on the wind.

The previous night they’d all taken turns weaving with the spindle, the skein of spider silk falling in a lumpen mass. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was

the act of the weave that mattered, pouring their focus into it, a single phrase again and again: Make a trap. Make a trap of sorrow. In the past, the spindle had been used to create charisma and love spells to bind groups together, to make them loyal, to steal their will. This was a different kind of bond.

High above them, the spiders had begun to weave, seemingly in rhythm with the metronome. It was like watching mist form, a soft, soundless blur spreading from the gutters and corners atop the roof, until they stood beneath a wide canopy of spider silk, the web like spangled frost, turning the night sky into a kind of mosaic. Alex could feel sadness radiating from it, as if the strands were weighted with it, making the web bow at the center. A sense of hopelessness filled her.

“Just ride it out,” said Turner. But he had his hands pressed to the sides of his head, as if he could squeeze the misery out of it.

Somewhere in the library, Alex heard glass breaking. Mercy drew her salt sword.

“They’re coming,” said Dawes. “They wouldn’t—” She was interrupted by the sound of breaking glass. “No!” Dawes cried.

“The stained glass—” said Darlington.

But the demons didn’t care. They’d been drawn by a beacon of utter hopelessness, and their only thought was to feed.

“Hands on the basin!” Alex yelled. “On three!”

Alex saw the demons racing toward them. There would be no time for last words or fond goodbyes. She counted down fast.

As one, they seized the edges of the fountain.

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