Chapter no 44

Hell Bent

Anselm’s pets mewled as if sensing his pleasure. The thing with Blake’s haggard face pressed its head against his leg.

“What is this?” Turner demanded.

Anselm let his fingers trail through Not Blake’s hair. “The men of Yale built a Gauntlet and called their journey one of exploration. But exploration is just another word for conquest, and like all adventurers, once they had seen the riches they could attain, they had no reason to return empty-handed.”

“It’s Faust all over again,” said Darlington.

Anselm hummed. “Except Faust paid for his sins himself. Not so your pilgrims. They claimed money, fame, talent, influence. For themselves and for their societies. They just left someone else to pick up the bill.”

Skull and Bones. Book and Snake. Scroll and Key. Alex thought of all the money that had flowed through their coffers. The gifts given to the university. All bought at the expense of a future generation’s suffering. And Lethe had allowed it. They could have investigated the provenance of the table tucked away in the Peabody basement. They could have at least lobbied to shut down Manuscript after what happened to Mercy, or gone after Scroll and Key after what happened to Tara. But they didn’t. It was too important to keep the alumni appeased, to keep the magic alive no matter who got caught in its workings.

“Oh God,” said Dawes. “That was why they erased the journey. To hide the deal they’d made.”

“The Gauntlet wasn’t a game,” said Darlington. “It wasn’t an experiment. It was an offering.”

“A very fine one,” said Anselm. “They walked away with wealth and power, stores of ancient knowledge and good fortune, and they left the Gauntlet in place, marked with their blood, a beacon.”

“The Tower,” Dawes whispered.

“A beacon for what?” asked Turner, his face grim. “For a Wheelwalker,” Darlington said quietly.

“I didn’t really understand what you were, Galaxy Stern. Not until you passed through the circle of protection at Black Elm. Not until you stole what was rightfully ours. We had no idea the wait would be so long for one of your kind.”

Now Alex laughed, a joyless sound. “Daisy got in your way.”

Daisy Whitlock was a Wheelwalker, and she’d stayed alive, disguised as Professor Marguerite Belbalm, by eating the souls of young women. Her preferred prey was her own kind: Wheelwalkers like herself, inexplicably drawn to New Haven. Drawn to the Gauntlet.

“It didn’t matter that you’d built your beacon,” Alex said. “Because every time a Wheelwalker showed up, Daisy ate her.”

“But not you, Galaxy Stern. You survived and you came to us, as you were always meant to. It is your presence in hell that will keep the door open, and you will remain here. One killer is owed to us. Hell’s price must be paid.”

“No,” said Darlington. “It’s my sentence to serve.”

“It has to be Darlington,” said Turner. “I didn’t come here to make a deal with the devil, but if Alex stays, he said the door to hell remains open. That means demons coming and going, feeding on the living instead of the dead. We aren’t letting that happen.”

Anselm was still smiling.

“Stay,” he said to Alex. “Stay and your demon consort returns to the mortal realm untainted. Stay and your friends go free. Your mother will be protected by the very armies of hell.” He turned to the others. “Do you understand what I can do? What a demon’s favor means? All you want will be yours. All you’ve lost will be restored.”

Alex swallowed a wave of nausea as her vision shifted. She was sitting at the head of the table at a dinner party, candlelight gleaming off the

dishes, the music of a cello playing softly beneath murmured conversation. The man at the end of the table lifted his glass. His eyes shone. “To the professor.” It took her a second to understand it was Darlington seated there.

“To tenure,” said the woman to her right, and everyone laughed. Alex.

Older now, maybe wiser. She was smiling.

Pam turned and saw her face in the mirror. She was herself but not herself, confident and relaxed, red hair loose down her back. Everything was easy now. Getting up in the morning, showering, choosing what to wear, what to tackle next. She moved through the world with grace. She had cooked this meal for her guests. She had published. She could teach. Every day would be like this one, a series of tasks accomplished instead of an endless loop of indecision. The possibilities had been ruthlessly pruned, leaving a single, obvious path to follow.

She drank deep from her glass. All is well.




“You did good,” said Esau.

Turner threw an arm around his brother. “We did good. And we’re going to do more.”

They were standing in Jocelyn Square Park, gazing out at a cheering crowd—cheering for him, for the jobs he’d brought to their city, for the possibility of a different future.

He lifted his arm above his head, pumped his fist. His mother was weeping with joy. His father was alive beside her. His people were around him. He wasn’t the hall monitor anymore. He was a hero, a king, a damn senator. He was allowed to love them and be loved by them in return. His wife stood to his left, her smile radiant. She caught his eye, and the look they shared said it all. Better than anyone she knew how hard he had worked, how much they’d sacrificed to get to this moment.

There were no mysteries anymore, no monsters but the ones you had to have lunch with in DC. He would take a little rest. They would go down to Miami, or they’d treat themselves to a trip to the Caribbean. He would

make up for every moment he’d been absent or distracted in pursuit of this goal.

“We did it,” she whispered in his ear. He drew her close. All is well.





Darlington sat in his office at Black Elm, looking out at the borders lush with flowers, the neatly trimmed hedge maze. As always, the house was full of people, friends who had come to visit, scholars staying to make use of his extensive library or give seminars. He heard laughter floating through the halls, lively conversation from somewhere in the kitchen.

He knew everything he wished to know. He need only touch his hand to a book and he grasped its contents. He could pick up a teacup and know the history of anyone who had ever held it. He visited travelers and mystics on their deathbeds, held their hands, eased their pain. He saw the scope of their lives, absorbed their knowledge through his touch. The mysteries of this world and the next had been revealed to him. Not because he’d undergone some ritual, not even through rigorous study of the arcane, but because magic was in his blood. He’d almost given up hope, abandoned childish wishes. But it had been there all along, a secret power, just waiting to awaken.

He saw Alex in the garden, a black-winged bird, night gathered around her like a silken shroud shot through with stars. His monstrous queen. His gentle ruler. He knew what she was now too.

He returned to his writings.

All is well.




Alex stood outside of a freshly painted bungalow—white adobe, trimmed in blue. Wind chimes hung from the porch. A stone Buddha held court in the garden, lush with lavender and sage. Her mother sat sipping tea on a daybed heaped with colorful cushions. This was her house—a real house, not a lonely apartment with a balcony that faced the wall of another lonely

apartment. Mira rose and stretched and went inside, leaving the door open behind her. Alex drifted after her.

The house was tidy, cozy; crystals crowded the fireplace mantel. Her mother rinsed her cup in the sink. A knock sounded. A blond woman stood at the door, a rolled yoga mat slung over her shoulder. She looked familiar, but Alex wasn’t sure how.

“Ready?” the woman asked. “Just about,” Mira said.

They couldn’t see her.

“Do you mind if my daughter joins us? She’s home from school.”

Hellie stood behind the woman in the door. But not a Hellie Alex had ever known. She looked brave, utterly confident, her arms lean and muscled, her bright hair in a neat ponytail.

“This place is so cute,” she said with a smile.

Alex watched as Hellie and her mother idled in the living room, waiting for Mira to change and get her mat.

“That’s her daughter,” Hellie’s mother said, gesturing to the photograph Hellie was peering at. A photo of Alex in a denim jacket, leaning against their old Corolla, barely smiling.

“She’s pretty,” Hellie said.

“She wasn’t a very happy girl. She passed a few years back. Only seventeen. A drug overdose.”

She passed.

Incense had been set before the photo, a white feather tipped in black. Another photo stood in a frame tucked behind the picture of Alex. A young man with curly black hair that tumbled over his tan face. He was standing on the beach, arm around the surfboard propped beside him. There was a pendant around his neck, but Alex couldn’t make out what it was.

“That’s so sad,” Hellie said. She’d moved on to a deck of cards set out on the coffee table. “Ooh, does Mira read tarot?”

She plucked a card off the top deck and held it up. The Wheel.

For the first time, Alex felt something other than love and regret well up in her at the sight of Hellie, perfect Hellie with her ocean eyes.

“You shouldn’t have let them kill Babbit Rabbit,” she said. “I wouldn’t have let him die.”

Alex watched the Wheel spin, alight with blue fire that consumed first the card, then Hellie’s hand, then Hellie, her mother, the room, the house. The world swallowed by blue flame. All is well.

She was standing on the steps of Sterling, surrounded by fire, and the others were looking at her with pity in their eyes. Alex wiped her tears away, her gut twisting with shame. She’d felt no sorrow at her own death, only relief to see the world wiped clean. She knew her mother had wept over her, but how many more tears had she wasted on a living girl?

And Hellie? Well, that was the worst of it. If Alex hadn’t been with Len that day on the Venice boardwalk, maybe Hellie never would have gone home with them. Maybe she wouldn’t have stayed as long. She would have made the trip back from hell and returned to the world of softball games and college transcripts and yoga on Saturday morning. She never would have died.

“I’m going to make this easy for you,” Anselm said gently. “Take your place here, Galaxy Stern. Live in splendor and comfort, never want for anything, and see all the damage you’ve done in the world erased. Everyone gets what they want. All will be well.”

What would it mean to become a ghost?

Darlington grabbed her arm. “It isn’t real. It’s just another kind of torture, living with something that isn’t real.”

He wasn’t wrong. She’d known Len’s love wasn’t real. She’d known her mother’s protection wasn’t real. That knowledge ate at you every day. You lived on a tightrope, waiting for the moment the rope would vanish. It was its own kind of hell.

“I can make it easier still,” said Anselm. “Stay or your lovely friend dies.”

In the shimmer of the fountain that would have been the Women’s Table, Alex caught a flicker of movement.

She recognized the man approaching Mercy in the courtyard. Eitan Harel.

As if from a great distance, she heard him ask, “Where is that bitch?

You think this is a joke?” He’d found her.

“He’s going to hurt her,” Anselm said. “You know that. But you can stop it. Wouldn’t you like to save her? Or will she be one more girl you failed? One more life taken because you’re so determined to survive?”

Another Hellie. Another Tripp.

Alex met Dawes’s eyes and said, “Find a way to shut the door behind me. I know you can.”

Turner stepped in front of her. “I can’t let you do that. I’m not unleashing a tide of demons to feed on our misery. I’ll kill you before I let you doom our world for the sake of one girl.”

He wasn’t much of an actor, but he didn’t have to be.

“Stand down, priest,” Anselm said with a laugh. “The Wheelwalker has my protection. You have no authority here.”

Darlington gripped Alex’s arm. “This was your plan? To give yourself up? This isn’t meant to be your sacrifice, Stern.”

Alex almost smiled. “I’m not sure that’s true.” Her life had been built on lies and stolen chances, a series of tricks, and evasions, and sleight of hand. She already knew the language of demons. She’d been speaking it her whole life. A little magic. The stones to take a beating.

“Come forward and meet the punishment you deserve,” Anselm said. He held up the yoke. It was different from the one Darlington had been forced to wear, inlaid with garnets and black onyx. It was beautiful, but there was no mistaking what it meant.

“Alex,” Darlington said. “I won’t let you do this.”

She let fire bloom over her body and Darlington yanked his hand back, his horns emerging. “It’s not your call to make.”

“I liked our game,” Anselm crooned. “There are so many more to come.”

But Alex was only half-listening. She was watching the reflection in the mirrored fountain. Tzvi stood behind Eitan. He had taken Mercy’s salt sword. Eitan had a gun in his hands.

And Mercy had a bottle in hers. Datura. She hurled it at Eitan. The bottle of oil smashed against him, and before he could recover, Mercy shoved him toward the basin.

Alex seized the yoke from Anselm and leapt toward the water, jamming her other hand beneath the surface.

She heard shouting around her. Anselm was lunging at her and he wasn’t in his human form anymore. She didn’t know what he was—a goat with spiked horns, a red-eyed rabbit, a hairy-legged spider. He was every horror all at once. But Dawes and Darlington and Turner had arrayed themselves around her.

“Protect her,” Turner shouted. “No one gets through!” His feathered cape looked less like a costume than actual wings, spreading wide. Dawes had raised her hands and words had appeared on her scholar’s robe— symbols, scrawl, a thousand languages, maybe every language ever known. Darlington’s horns glowed golden and he drew his sword. They had enacted their little play for Anselm’s benefit and now they were ready to defend.

She had baited Eitan, telling him she was going to work for Linus Reiter, that she knew his secrets, that she would share every one in return for the vampire’s protection. She’d had Turner call him up with all of the authority of the NHPD to question Eitan’s connection to her, to make it clear she was talking, becoming a liability. Alex knew Eitan would move to deal with her himself. After all, he knew exactly how to locate her. She’d realized that when he’d sidled up to her outside of Blue State Coffee. She’d made sure her phone was on and left it with Mercy in the courtyard so that he could find her tonight.

Now she could feel his soul fighting her, slippery and screaming, scared for the first time in a long time, struggling to remain in the mortal realm. She thought of Babbit Rabbit’s heart pounding against her palm.

She pulled his spirit to her, just as she drew Grays, just as she had drawn Darlington’s soul to her to bring him home. He fought, but Alex had hold of him. Eitan’s spirit rushed into her. She saw a city of skyscrapers and sun-bleached stone, tasted bitter coffee on her tongue, heard the roar of the 405 in the valley below.

She spat him out.

“You want a murderer?” Alex said as Eitan emerged, gasping, his clothes wet, his body ablaze with her blue flame. “Here.”

“It’s not for you to decide who breaches the doors of hell,” Anselm sneered. “You cannot—”

“I’m the Wheelwalker,” Alex said. “You have no idea what I can do.”

“What is this?” sputtered Eitan. The Chai around his neck disintegrated to ash.

Alex yanked the golden yoke over his head and watched the jeweled clasps fasten. The emaciated demons leashed to Anselm shrieked and whimpered.

“Heretic!” Anselm seethed. “Whore!”

Now Alex laughed. “I’ve been called worse in line at Rite Aid.”

Anselm had dealt too long with the genteel, blundering boys of Yale. He didn’t know how to recognize one of his own kind.

“Go!” Alex shouted, keeping her hand in the water. One after another they leapt into the fountain, passing through her to the mortal realm— Dawes, Turner, Darlington last. She was the Wheelwalker, the conduit. She felt them all, bright, terrified, furious, alive. Dawes like the cool, dark hallways of a library; Turner, sharp and glittering as a city at night; Darlington, gleaming and triumphant, ringing with the sound of steel on steel.

“What is this?” cried Eitan. “You try to fuck with—”

“You get to take your own beatings now,” Alex said. “Hell’s price must be paid.”

She leapt into the water. But Anselm seized her arm.

“You are destined for hell, Galaxy Stern. You are destined for me.” He bit down on her wrist, and Alex screamed as pain lanced through her.

Blue flame erupted over her, over him. But he didn’t burn.

You are destined for hell.

He was drinking from her in great gulps, his cheeks hollowing with every draw. She could feel her blood being pulled out of her, feel her strength lagging.

You are destined for me.

“Okay,” she gasped. “Then come with me.” She tightened her own grip on his arm. “Let’s see how you fare against us in the mortal realm.”

She reached out to him with her power, drawing his spirit into her. It was like sludge, a river of misery oozing into her, a profound agony coupled with obscene pleasure, but she didn’t stop.

Alex saw fear in his eyes and it was like a drug to her. “All is well.”

Anselm released her wrist with a furious roar. She could see her blood coating his chin. Alex thrust the dreck of his spirit out of her and plunged into the water, terrified that at any minute she would feel his grip on her ankle, dragging her back.

Her lungs ached for air, but she kept kicking, kept swimming, desperate to see light ahead. There—a spark, then another. She was soaring upward through a sea of stars. She burst through the surface and breathed in the cold air of a winter night.

Alex tried to get her bearings. They were in the courtyard at Sterling. Tzvi was gone—probably chased away by the sight of Darlington in full-horned demon glory—and Eitan’s body lay facedown in the mud. She heard the ticking of the metronome come to an abrupt stop.

Something was blurring her vision—flurries of white. It had started to snow. She counted her friends—Mercy, Turner, Dawes, and Darlington, her gentleman demon. Their ramshackle army, all of them soaked and shivering, all of them safe and whole. Above them the Weaver’s web glimmered still, fragile in its architecture, weighted with frost and sorrow.

Dunbar dragged a tramp in from the railway station last night, sooty as a coal can and dressed in clothes so dirty they could stand on their own. Claimed he had the Sight. Rudy said it was a waste of time and I was inclined to agree. The man stank of cheap gin and had all the markings of a charlatan. He babbled on about long journeys and great wealth, the fortune-teller’s usual stock in trade. His speech was so slurred I could barely make his words out, until at last Dunbar got bored and put us out of our misery.

I wouldn’t even remark on the whole sorry business, only—and I put this down so that I may laugh at my own milk-livered hand-

wringing later—when Dunbar told him it was time to go and slipped a fiver in his pocket, the tramp claimed he’d not yet said what needed

saying. His eyes rolled back a bit—base theatrics—and then he said, “Beware.”

Rudy laughs and asks, quite naturally, “Beware of what, you old fraud?”

“Them that walks among us. Nightdrinkers, moonspeakers, alls them that dwell in the dead and empty. Best watch for them, lads. Best bar the doors against them when they come.” He wasn’t slurring then. His voice was clear as a bell and it boomed through the hall. Raised the hair on my arms, I’ll tell you.

Well, Rudy and Dunbar were done with it. They hauled him outside, and sent him packing, and Rudy gave him a kick for good measure. I felt badly about it and thought I should slip him another fiver. No doubt we’ll laugh about all of it tomorrow.

—Lionel Reiter, Skull and Bones Commonplace Book, 1933

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