Chapter no 46

Hell Bent

The Mercedes was parked in the Black Elm driveway.

For a long minute, Alex couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. She was still back on the basement stairs, looking down into a crowded grave. When the fire had finished, the walls had been charred black and there was nothing left—no boxes or old clutter, no bodies, no bones. Anything that burned that hot should have consumed them too. But this was no ordinary fire.

When Darlington had spoken for his parents, Alex wondered if she should say something for Eitan. She knew the right prayer from her grandmother. Zikhrono livrakha. Let his memory be a blessing. But as Darlington would say, that didn’t quite suit.

Mors irrumat omnia,” she had whispered to the flames. It was all she could offer a man who had been willing to send her to her death for the sake of a little more profit.

The car shouldn’t be there. It looked freshly washed, its burgundy paint gleaming in the late-afternoon light. Reiter. Alex’s heart stumbled into a gallop.

“You left it in Old Greenwich?” whispered Dawes.

“It’s daytime,” Alex managed. “The sun is out. How did he bring it here?” And why now? Had he been watching them? Following them?

“He has a familiar,” Darlington said. “Maybe more than one.”

Alex remembered the person walking beside Reiter in the JE courtyard, holding his white umbrella, keeping him safe. She scanned the trees, the cloudless sky, grateful for the harsh winter sun.

“We should get somewhere warded,” said Dawes. “Regroup.”

Alex wanted nothing more than to do just that. Her body had broken out in a cold sweat, and she was struggling to breathe. But they weren’t done here.

She made herself walk toward the car.

“Alex, don’t!” Dawes said, grabbing her arm. “It could be a trap.” Alex shook her off.

The driver’s-side door was unlocked and the interior was spotless. He’d left the keys tucked in the glove compartment. They were heavy in Alex’s hand.

“Give them to me,” Darlington said.

Alex wished she had the balls to argue, but she was too scared. She dropped them into his palm.

They gathered around the trunk, and Darlington slid the key into the lock. The trunk popped open with a sigh. He nudged it upward.

Dawes released a high, helpless cry.

Michelle Alameddine lay curled on her side, her hands tucked under her chin as if she’d fallen asleep praying.

Alex took a step backward. Another death to lay at her feet. Michelle, who had warned them not to use the Gauntlet, who had fought her way back from death for this.

“I’m sorry,” she said, gasping for air. “I’m so fucking sorry.” She lost her footing, sat down hard on the gravel.

I’m sorry. She’d said the same thing to Mercy when she’d left her at the gates to JE early that morning. Mercy had been eager to wash away the sulfur stink of the night, to slip back into her crochet and corduroy. She hadn’t mentioned Thanksgiving plans again.

“You’re okay?” Alex had asked at the gate, and when Mercy had just looked down at her boots, she added, “You saved my life last night.”

“You rescue me. I rescue you,” Mercy said. But she didn’t meet her gaze.

Mercy had wanted adventure, a chance to see beyond the ordinary world. And Alex had turned her into a killer.

“I thought it would be different,” Mercy said, and Alex could see she was fighting tears.

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

“No,” Alex admitted. She had needed a way out and she’d taken it. “But I’m grateful.”

“Thanks,” Mercy said as she passed through the gate. “For what?”

“For not lying to me.”

Mercy had a conscience. She believed in a just God. She wouldn’t be able to walk away from death without it leaving a stain on her heart. But that hadn’t stopped Alex from using her. It never did.

And now Michelle Alameddine was dead.

Alex felt Darlington’s hand on her shoulder. “Put your head between your knees. Try to breathe.”

Alex pressed her palms against her eyes. “I brought him here.”

“Reiter was here already,” Darlington said. “Michelle was his familiar.” “What?” Dawes exclaimed.

Alex stared up at him. “What are you talking about?”

“I think he recruited her while she was an undergraduate. I put it together when I was reading her Lethe Days Diary. There were probably others before her.”

“She knew where the Gauntlet was?” Dawes asked.

“I don’t know,” Darlington said. “I don’t know what he shared with her. Reiter knew about the societies. He’d stolen the life of a Bonesman. He knew about Lethe. But he couldn’t enter warded spaces, so he had to find someone to keep an eye on the Gauntlet.”

Alex thought of Michelle sitting in the parlor, always on her phone, keeping removed from their research but never stepping away completely. She remembered Michelle’s shock when Alex had told her they’d found the Gauntlet, her insistence that Alex shouldn’t use it. Had she been warning Alex or speaking for Reiter? Michelle, who had lied about why she was on campus, who had followed Alex and Mercy to class. Michelle with the jaunty scarf at her throat, the turtleneck sweater. Had he been feeding on her?

“She wouldn’t do that,” Dawes said. “She wouldn’t work for a demon.”

But she might. For the right price. Michelle had been to the other side when she’d tried to take her own life. She’d told Alex clearly enough: I am never going back.

Alex understood that kind of vow. “He promised her immortality.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Dawes was almost shouting now, tears on her cheeks. “He’s a demon. He would have to eat her soul. He—”

“Pammie,” Darlington said gently, “she wanted to believe she could live forever, and that’s what he told her. Sometimes the story is what matters.”

“We aren’t putting her in the basement,” Alex said as she pushed to her feet. “Or in the ground.”

She wasn’t going to bury Michelle Alameddine the way that Reiter buried his other victims. The way he would have buried Alex if she hadn’t run far and fast enough that terrible night.

Alex forced herself to walk back to the trunk, to look at that body, at the puncture marks at her neck, the tattoo at her wrist. She hoped Michelle had found some kind of peace beyond the Veil, that her soul was safe and whole.

“He made a mistake,” Alex said. She could feel her fear changing shape, forming claws and teeth, becoming anger. A welcome alchemy. “If he’d been smart, he would have kept Michelle alive to spy for him.”

“Pride,” Darlington said. “Reiter was too eager to hurt us, to make us feel his power.”

“Cunning, not smart,” Alex said, and Dawes nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Darlington gazed down at Michelle’s body. “You deserved better,” he said softly.

So had Mercy. And Hellie. And Tripp. So had Babbit Rabbit and every other sorry creature who had made the mistake of crossing Alex’s path. It hurt to know that Reiter hadn’t just fed on Michelle’s blood, but on her pain. He would have sated himself on her desperation, her sorrow, her longing for a life that would never end.

I’m going to punish him, Alex promised as they laid Michelle between the elm trees, as Darlington spoke the words of an old poem over her body, as she called the fire once more. I’m going to hurt him the way he hurt you.

This is the forest primeval,” Darlington recited. “The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic…”

She would teach Reiter what real pain tasted like. It was all she could offer this girl she’d barely known. Vengeance that came too late, and prayers spoken in fire.

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