“So it’s war.”
“You don’t have to be so dramatic about it, Povel,” Gala said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’re always dramatic about everything,” Ingrid said.
“It’s the end of the world.”
“Not for us, it isn’t,” Gala corrected.
The Engströms were eating again, a second late-night dinner. Unfinished plates lay scattered on the table around them. A roasted chicken with one leg gnawed sat smeared in sauce next to half a slab of pork loin with the fat eaten off it. A pile of vegetables in a dish grew colder by the minute. But the waitstaff was still bringing wine.
“Are you hungry?” Gala asked the beast on the other side of the table.
“I eat every hundred years,” the beast said, and exhaled. Ingrid caught a long, pungent whiff of liver.
“What did you say your name was, again?”
“Quelzhemox,” the beast answered.
Gala turned to Ingrid. “And where did you find him?”
“He came highly recommended,” Ingrid said, a little too casually for Gala’s taste, but she decided she would drop it.
Gala turned back to the beast. “You charge a lot for your services.”
“In the world that is coming,” Quelzhemox said, “you will learn just how flexible the definition of wealth is. I assume the deal is still on.”
“Good. For centuries I have dreamed of destroying a human institution like the Catholic Church.”
Povel held up his hand for a high five. Ingrid rolled her eyes and answered it half-heartedly.
“Just to be clear,” Gala said, “we are not talking about the entire Catholic Church.”
Quelzhemox sighed. Liver again.
“We’re talking about the Vatican. More specifically, a part of the Vatican.”
“Fine,” Quelzhemox said.
“It’s just a first step.”
“Agreed. When the new world comes, we will be able to destroy the entire Church, and perhaps the very concept of church, wholesale. Though I am disappointed that I’ll have to share in this carnage with others.”
“You talk a big game for one human-size demon,” Povel said.
“I have colleagues.”
“Which is exactly what we’ve hired you for,” Gala said.
“So we’re clear on our orders, demonic hyperbole aside?”
“Target and infiltrate the Societas Librorum Occultorum and destroy it,” Quelzhemox said.
“You make it sound so easy,” Gala said.
“It is,” Quelzhemox said, “when you have the right people.” Quelzhemox disappeared in an organ-scented mist.
“I take it that means he’s on his way?” Povel said.
“Must be,” Gala said.
There were new guards at the Vatican, and more of them, Sal noticed. And their uniforms had changed, gotten a little more voluminous. She wondered if they were concealing weapons, and what kind of weapons they were concealing, if so. Maybe they were fighting fire with fire now. And just when Sal wasn’t sure fighting was really the answer to all this. To the Engströms, sure. But to the world changing?
“We’re here to see the Societas Librorum Occultorum,” Menchú stated to the guard who blocked him at the entrance. It felt strange to hear Menchú utter the words aloud. But now everything was out in the open, wasn’t it? “Cardinal Fox is expecting us.”
The guard glanced at each of their faces. Sal’s, Liam’s, Grace’s, Menchú’s, Asanti’s. There they were, the old team. Now the Bookburners, a name they were still getting used to calling themselves, rather than having it hurled at them as an insult.
“We have each of you on file still. Welcome back,” he said. Sal could tell it was a formality. The guard didn’t mean it. He moved to accompany them to the entrance.
“We know the way,” Menchú said.
“I know,” the guard said. “Let me escort you in.”
The first hall inside the Vatican was the same. Not a thing different. Sal had almost forgotten how beautiful it was; that beauty hit her all over again compared to the chaos in London, the alleys she’d been running down lately. In that hall, it was possible to imagine that the Vatican could survive just about anything the world, earthbound or magical, threw its way. Or maybe, Sal thought, it will just be the last thing to go.
An image settled in her head, apocalypse meets Looney Tunes. There was Saint Peter’s Basilica, serene and unchanged, while the sky turned pink overhead. The land around it turned to soup and dropped away, and that tide rushed around the cathedral until there was only a mesa of land beneath the building, and space all around. Now that mesa eroded too, until—hat...