Asanti rejoined the rest of the team that night. They met her at a deserted bus stop outside Rome, really nothing more than a patch of dirt on the side of the unlit country road, marked by a wooden post that might have once held a sign but now relied on regional memory to carry its message. Grace had taken over at the wheel, driving a circuitous route to be sure that none of Balloon and Stretch’s people were following them, while Menchú gradually guided them toward their destination. Asanti squeezed into the back with Sal and Liam, and Sal could feel her relief to see them all alive and whole. Sal wished she could share the feeling.
“Were you followed?” Menchú asked from the front seat.
Asanti shook her head. “No sign of anyone. And on a road this empty, I would have noticed.”
“After what happened in the monastery, Balloon and Stretch will be licking their wounds for a bit,” said Liam.
“Not for long,” said Menchú. He turned to Grace. “We should get moving.” Grace nodded, already putting the car in gear.
“What happened at the monastery?” asked Asanti.
“Long, painful story,” said Sal.
“What happened in Rome?” asked Menchú.
Asanti sighed. “I went back to Cardinal Varano, who remains as dedicated as ever to saving himself paperwork. However, I think I was able to convince him that Balloon and Stretch are going to end up causing him even more paperwork than Sal’s possession. Unfortunately, he won’t make a move to help us until we have our own house in order.”
“Which means getting rid of the monster in my head,” said Sal. She was recovering faster from their ordeal than the Hand was, but she could feel it gathering its strength, waiting until it was ready to make its move.
“Yes,” said Asanti. “But if we can do that, Sal’s testimony should convince Varano to shut down Balloon and Stretch once and for all.”
“That’s a big if,” said Liam.
“About that,” said Asanti. “We need tools to force the Hand back to its home dimension. I tried to go back to the Archives after my meeting with the Cardinal, to retrieve the Book of the Hand, but our entire wing is under lockdown. The new guards were keeping me out of the Archives. Me. I don’t know who they report to, Arturo, but it wasn’t anyone friendly to us. I was looking for Sansone when I got your ‘not safe, leave now’ message. Three buses later . . . Well, here we are.”
The group fell into silence, broken only by the thrum and rattle of the tires against the poorly maintained rural road. Sal looked out the window, but all she could see was black land spread beneath endless blue-black sky. The car’s headlights sliced the road ahead of them, a tiny bubble that seemed wholly inadequate to keep the pressing dark at bay.
Their destination proved to be a beautiful stone villa situated on five rural acres outside of Rome. The building was more than three hundred years old, set back from the main road behind a low wall more decorative than functional. Behind the main house a fig tree shaded a flagstone patio, and grapes grew over a wooden pergola. Beyond, a small guest house stood between an ancient olive grove and a lake.
The guest house had been originally built as a pump house, then expanded to store olive oil. Now, the only signs of its former purposes were wooden casks repurposed as end tables and the old well cover located under a throw rug in the center of the larger bedroom. Asanti, Grace, Liam, and Sal waited as Menchú rolled aside the rug and lifted the heavy well cover, revealing the inky blackness of the stone shaft below.
Sal swallowed and asked, “What’s down there?”
“Somewhere we can rest.”
In the last twenty-four hours Sal had suffered an exorcism, died, then come back to life after a harrowing trip through a demon dimension. The prospect of stopping in safety, even for a little while, was too much to refuse.
Once the well cover was back in place, the blackness inside the shaft was complete. Asanti, clinging to the ladder between Grace below and Sal above, felt a bit of mortar crumble away from the wall and silently counted until she heard a quiet splash. It was a very long way down.
Menchú snapped a chem light and passed it down the line to Grace.
“Do you remember how to open the passage?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Grace.
“Are you sure? It was twenty years ago.”
“Less for me,” said Grace. The yellow-green light clipped to her belt descended, and Asanti hurried to keep up.
It wasn’t far to climb, really. After ten feet or so—that only felt like they stretched for miles—Grace stopped again. A press and turn of a loose stone and a hidden door swung inward to reveal a gently sloping stone-lined passage, just wide and tall enough for them to walk single-file without stooping. Once they were all inside, Menchú took the light and the lead.
After another few hundred feet of twists and turns, the passage joined a cave system that opened into a natural cavern stretching far beyond the reach of their meager light...