Chapter no 6

Hell Bent

Alex didn’t remember much of what happened next. Her ears were ringing, her eyes watering, and the stink of sulfur was so sharp, she barely had time to roll onto her hands and knees before she vomited. She heard Dawes retching too and she wanted to weep with happiness. If Dawes was puking, she wasn’t dead.

Robbie ran into the room, waving away the smoke and shouting, “What the fuck? What the fuck?” Then he was vomiting too.

The room was covered in black soot. Alex and Dawes were coated in it. And the table—the table King Arthur’s knights had supposedly gathered around—was cracked down the middle.


She couldn’t even pretend she hadn’t heard it because Dawes had too.

Alex had seen the anguish in her eyes as the portal slammed shut.

Alex crawled over to Dawes. She was curled up against the wall shaking. “Don’t say a goddamn word,” Alex whispered. “It was an inspection, that’s all.”

“I heard him—” Tears filled her eyes.

“I know, but right now we’ve got to cover our asses. Say it with me. It was an inspection.”

“It was an inspec—inspection.”

The rest was a blur—shouting from the Scroll and Key delegates; calls from their board and alumni; more shouting from Michael Anselm, who arrived on the Metro-North and offered the use of Hiram’s Crucible to restore the table and make it whole. Dawes and Alex did their best to wipe the soot off themselves and then faced Anselm in the entry hall of the Scroll and Key tomb.

“This isn’t on us,” Alex said. Best to come out swinging. “We wanted to make sure they hadn’t been opening portals or performing unsanctioned rituals, so I constructed a revelation casting.”

She’d prepared a cover story. She hadn’t anticipated she’d have to cover a massive explosion, but it was all she had.

Anselm was pacing back and forth, his cell in one hand, and a Scroll and Key alumnus could be heard screaming on the other end. He covered the phone with his palm. “You knew the nexus was unstable. Someone could have been killed.”

“The table is in two pieces!” shrieked the alum on the phone. “The entire temple room is ruined!”

“We’ll arrange for cleaning.” Again Anselm covered the phone and whispered furiously, “Il Bastone.”

“Don’t worry,” Alex said to Dawes as they passed a wrathful group of Locksmiths and headed down the stairs to the sidewalk. Robbie Kendall looked like he’d fallen down a chimney, and he’d lost one of his loafers. “Anselm is going to blame me, not you. Dawes?”

She wasn’t listening. She had a startled, faraway look in her eyes. It was that word. Wait.

“Dawes, you have to keep it together. We can’t tell them what happened, no matter how shell-shocked you are.”


But Dawes was silent all the way to Il Bastone.

A single word. Darlington’s voice. Desperate, demanding. Wait. They’d almost done it, almost reached him. They’d been so close.

He would have gotten it right. He always did.



It took the better part of an hour washing with parsley and almond oil to get the stink off of them. Dawes had gone to the Dante bathroom, and Alex had stripped down in the beautiful Virgil suite with its big claw-foot tub.

Her clothes were ruined.

“This damn job should have a stipend for replacements,” she grumbled to the house as she pulled on a pair of Lethe sweats and went down to the


Anselm was still on his phone. He was younger than she’d thought at first, early thirties, and not bad-looking in a corporate kind of way. He held up a finger when he saw her, and she went to find Dawes in the kitchen. She had laid out plates of smoked salmon and cucumber salad, tucked a bottle of white wine into a bucket of ice. Alex was tempted to roll her eyes, but she was hungry and this was the Lethe way. Maybe they should just invite the hellbeast to a cold supper.

Dawes was standing in front of a sink full of dishes and soap suds, staring out the window, the water running, her freshly washed hair hanging loose. Alex had never seen it down before.

Alex reached out and shut off the water. “You okay?”

Dawes kept her eyes on the window. There wasn’t much to see—the alley, the side of a neatly upkept Victorian.

“Dawes? Anselm isn’t done with us. I—”

“Lethe set up a security system at Black Elm when … when we knew it might be empty for a while. Just a couple of cameras.”

Alex felt an unpleasant flutter in her stomach. “I know. Front door, back door.” Sandow had made sure the windows were boarded up, and the old Mercedes had been repaired on Lethe’s dime. Dawes occasionally used it to run errands, just to keep it from sitting idle.

Dawes tucked her chin into her neck. “I put one in the ballroom.” In the ballroom. Where they’d attempted the new moon ritual.

“And?” Alex could hear Anselm talking in the parlor, the crackle of soap bubbles in the sink.

“Something … I got a notification.” She bobbed her head at her phone resting on the counter.

Alex made herself pick it up, swipe the screen. Nothing but a dark blur was visible, a faint light dancing at the edges.

“That’s all the camera is picking up,” said Dawes.

Alex stared at the screen as if she could find some pattern in the dark. “It might just be Cosmo. He could have knocked the camera over.”

Darlington’s cat had rejected all attempts to rehome him to Il Bastone or Dawes’s apartment up near the divinity school. All they could do was offer

tributes of food and water and hope he’d watch over Black Elm, and that the old house would watch over him.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Dawes.” “Of course not.”

Of course not.

But Dawes still had that startled look and Alex knew what she was thinking.

Wait. The plea had come too late, but what if, when the portal at Scroll and Key had slammed shut, Darlington had somehow still found a way through? What if they’d somehow gotten it right? What if they’d brought him back?

And what if we got it very wrong? What if whatever was waiting at Black Elm wasn’t Darlington at all?

“Alex?” Anselm called from the other room. “A word. Just you, please.” But Dawes hadn’t budged. She had her hands clenched around the edge of the sink, like she was clinging to the safety bar on a roller coaster, like she was getting ready to scream on the way down. Had Alex really ever understood what Darlington meant to Pamela Dawes? Quiet, closed-off Dawes, who had mastered the art of disappearing into the furniture? The girl only he’d called Pammie?

“We’ll get rid of Anselm and then go take a look,” Alex said. Her voice was steady, but her heart had taken off at a sprint.

It’s nothing, Alex told herself as she joined Anselm in the parlor. A cat. A squatter. A wayward tree branch. A wayward boy. She needed to keep a clear head if she was going to figure out how to appease Anselm and the Lethe board.

“I’ve spoken with the new Praetor. He was already reluctant to take the position, and I doubt today’s activities will fill him with confidence, so I’ve made every effort to downplay this little disaster.”

Thanks didn’t seem appropriate, so Alex stayed quiet. “What were you really doing at Scroll and Key?”

Alex had been hoping Anselm wouldn’t be so direct. Lethe liked to dance around trouble, and they were expert at finding dusty rugs to sweep the truth under. She took a closer look at Anselm—tan from some kind of

summer vacation, slightly rumpled from the night’s adventures. He’d loosened his collar and poured himself a scotch. He looked like an actor playing a man whose wife had just asked him for a divorce.

“I smelled sulfur,” he continued wearily. “Everyone within two miles probably smelled it. So tell me what went wrong with a revelation casting to cause something like that? To smash a centuries-old table?”

“You said it yourself: Their nexus is unstable.”

“Not fire-and-brimstone unstable.” He lifted his glass, pointing a finger as if ordering another. “You were trying to open a portal to hell. I thought I made myself clear. Daniel Arlington isn’t—”

Alex considered. He wasn’t going to let her get away with saying this was an accident or a revelation casting gone wrong. But she wasn’t about to admit to trying to find Darlington, not when he might be back, not when something far worse might be waiting at Black Elm.

“It wasn’t an accident,” she lied. “I did it on purpose.” Anselm blinked. “You intended to destroy the table?”

“That’s right. They shouldn’t have gotten away with what they did last year.”

“Alex,” he scolded gently, “our job is to protect. Not dole out punishment.”

Don’t kid yourself. Our job is to make sure the kids keep the noise down and tidy up after.

“They shouldn’t get to do rituals,” she said. “They shouldn’t get to pick up right where they left off.” The anger in her voice was real.

Anselm sighed. “Maybe not. But that table is a priceless artifact and we’re lucky the crucible can piece it back together. I appreciate your … sense of fairness, but Dawes, at least, should know better.”

“Dawes was just along for the ride. I told her I needed a second person for the ritual, but not what I had planned.”

“She is not a stupid woman. I don’t believe that for a second.” Anselm studied her. “What spell did you use?”

He was testing her, and as usual, she hadn’t done the reading.

“I put it together myself.” Anselm winced. Good. He already thought she was incompetent. That could work for her. “I used an old stink bomb

casting I found in one of the Lethe Days Diaries. Some guy used it as a prank.”

“That was the blow you struck for justice? A stink bomb?” “It got out of hand.”

Anselm shook his head and downed the rest of his scotch. “The level of stupid we all got up to here. I’m amazed anyone survived.”

“So I’m in keeping with a grand tradition.”

Anselm did not look amused. He wasn’t like Darlington or even Sandow. Lethe and its mysteries were just something that had happened to him.

“You’re lucky no one was killed.” He set down his glass and met her eyes. Alex did her best to look innocent, but she hadn’t had much practice. “I’m going to put forward a theory. You weren’t trying to wreck the table tonight. You were trying to open a portal to hell and somehow reach Daniel Arlington.”

Why couldn’t he be one of the dim ones?

“Interesting theory,” said Alex. “But not what happened.”

“Just like your theory that Darlington is in hell? Pure speculation?” “You a lawyer?”

“I am.”

“You talk like one.”

“I don’t consider that an insult.”

“It’s not an insult. If I wanted to insult you, I’d call you two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag. For example.” Alex knew she should rein in her anger, but she was tired and frustrated. The board had made it clear they didn’t believe Alex’s theory on Darlington’s whereabouts and that there would be no heroic attempts to set him free. But if Anselm was bothered, he didn’t show it. He just looked worn out. “We owe Darlington a little effort. If it weren’t for Dean Sandow, he wouldn’t be down there.”

If it weren’t for me.

“Down there,” Anselm repeated, bemused. “Do you really think hell is a big pit somewhere under the sewer lines? That if you just dig deep enough, you’ll get there?”

“That’s not what I meant.” Though that had been exactly what she’d been picturing. She hadn’t worried too much about the logistics, about what opening a portal or walking the Gauntlet might entail. That was Dawes’s job. Alex’s job was to be the cannonball once Dawes figured out where to point the cannon.

“I don’t want to be cruel, Alex. But you don’t even understand the possibilities of the trouble you could cause. And for what? A chance to expiate your guilt? A theory you can barely articulate?”

Darlington could have articulated it just fine if he’d been there. Dawes could if she weren’t scared of speaking above a whisper.

“Then get someone with the right résumé to convince you. I know he’s…” She’d almost said down there. “He’s not dead.” He might well be resting comfortably in the Black Elm ballroom.

“You lost a mentor and a friend.” Anselm’s blue eyes were steady, kind. “Believe it or not, I understand. But you want to open a door that isn’t meant to be opened. You have no idea what might come through.”

Why didn’t these people ever get it? Protect your own. Pay your debts.

There was no other way to live, not if you wanted to live right.

She crossed her arms. “We owe him.”

“He’s gone, Alex. It’s time to accept that. Even if you were right, whatever survived in hell wouldn’t be the Darlington you know. I appreciate your loyalty. But if you take a chance like this again, you and Pamela Dawes will no longer be welcome at Lethe.”

He lifted his empty glass as if he expected to find it full, then pushed it aside. He folded his hands, and she could see him thinking through what to say. Anselm was eager to be gone, to get back to New York and his life. There were people who carried Lethe with them forever, who took jobs hunting down magical artifacts or did dissertations on the occult, who locked themselves in libraries or traveled the globe seeking new magic. But not Michael Anselm. He’d gone into law, found a job that required suits and results. He had none of the ambling, gentle scholarship of Dean Sandow, none of Darlington’s greedy curiosity. He had built an ordinary life propped up by money and rules.

“Do you understand me, Alex? You’re out of second chances.”

She understood. Dawes would lose her job. Alex would lose her scholarship. That would be the end of it. “I understand.”

“I need your word that this will be the last of it, that we can get back to business as usual and that you’ll be prepared to supervise rituals every Thursday night. I know you didn’t have the training you should have, but you have Dawes and you seem to be a … resourceful young woman. Michelle Alameddine is available if you feel—”

“We’ll manage. Dawes and I can handle it.”

“I won’t cover for you again. No more trouble, Alex.”

“No more trouble,” Alex promised. “You can trust me.” The big lies were as easy as the small ones.

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