Chapter no 11

Hell Bent

Alex had every intention of helping Dawes research, but the next thing she knew she was waking up in the parlor at Il Bastone, morning light drifting through the windows. A copy of the 1931 Yale Gazette article detailing Sterling’s decoration rested open on her chest as though she’d tried to use the book to tuck herself in.

She felt warm and easy, as if she’d imagined everything at Black Elm, and this morning could just be simple, an ordinary Sunday. She touched her hand to the floorboards and they seemed to hum.

“Did you do that?” she asked Il Bastone, staring up at the coffered ceiling and the pendant lamp that hung high above her from a brass chain. The bulb flickered softly behind its frosted glass globe. The house had known she needed rest. It was looking out for her. At least, that was what it felt like and maybe what Alex needed to believe.

Dawes had left a note on the coffee table: Going to Beinecke. Breakfast on the counter. Call me when you’re up. Bad news.

When wasn’t it bad news? When was Dawes going to leave her a note that said, All good. Go work on that paper so you don’t fall further behind. Left you fresh scones and a couple of puppies?

Alex needed to get home, but she was famished and it would be a shame to waste a breakfast, so she shuffled into the kitchen in Dawes’s giant Tevas.

“Shit,” she said, when she saw the plates of pancakes, the vat of scrambled eggs strewn with chives, heaps of bacon, hollandaise warm in its flowered pitcher, and, yes, a pile of strawberry scones. There was enough food to feed an entire a cappella group if they would stop humming for a

minute. Dawes cooked to soothe herself and that meant the news was very bad indeed.

Alex piled her plate with two of everything and called Dawes, but she didn’t answer. You’re freaking me out, she texted. And everything is fucking delicious.

When she was done, she filled a go-cup with coffee and tucked three chocolate chip pancakes into a plastic bag for later. She thought about making a detour to the Lethe library to see if the Albemarle Book could find anything on Turner’s Bible quote or poisons that aged their victims, but that would have to wait. She needed a hot shower and some real clothes. On her way out, she patted the door jamb and briefly wondered if she was making friends with a house or losing her mind.

She had crossed campus and was halfway up the stairs to her room at JE when her phone finally buzzed.

Sterling at noon. We need four murderers.

Alex stared at Dawes’s message and replied, I’ll stop at the store.

Should I get half a dozen to be safe?

Her phone rang. “This isn’t a joke.” “Why four, Dawes?”

“To get into hell. I think that’s why Darlington mentioned Sandow. He was giving us directions. It takes four people for the ritual once the Gauntlet is activated, four pilgrims for the four compass points.”

“Do we really have to—”

“You saw what happened when we tried to cut corners at Scroll and Key. I’m not going to blow up the library. And I think…”

Dawes’s voice trailed off.

“And?” Alex prompted, all the optimism of the morning bleeding out of


“If we get this wrong, I don’t think we’re coming back.”

Alex leaned against the wall, listening to the echo of voices up and

down the stone stairwell, the sounds of the college waking, the ancient pipes gurgling with water, someone singing an old song about Bette Davis’s eyes. She couldn’t pretend to be surprised. Talk of Gauntlets and boys named Bunchy made it all feel like a game and that was the danger. Power

could become too easy. There were too many opportunities to try just because you could.

“I get it, Dawes. But we’re in it now.” From the moment they’d met up in the cemetery and Alex had floated her wild theory of the gentleman demon, they’d known they couldn’t turn their backs on the chance that Darlington was still alive. But the stakes were different than they had been last spring. She remembered her dream, Len saying, Some doors don’t stay locked. Well, they’d blown this door wide open when they’d botched that ritual at Scroll and Key, and now something half man, half monster was trapped in the ballroom at Black Elm. “We save him,” she said. “And if we can’t save him, we stop him.”

“What … what does that mean?” Dawes asked, her fear like a spotlight searching for answers.

It meant that if they couldn’t free Darlington, they couldn’t risk freeing the demon, and that might mean destroying them both. Whatever I am will be unleashed upon the world. But Dawes wasn’t ready to hear that.

“I’ll see you at Sterling,” Alex said, and hung up.

She trudged up the remaining stairs, feeling tired all over again. Maybe she could nap before she met Dawes at the library. She pushed open the door to their common room expecting to see Mercy curled up in the recliner with her laptop and a cup of tea. But Mercy was sitting upright on the couch, back straight, in her hyacinth robe—directly across from Michelle Alameddine. Darlington’s mentor, his Virgil.

Alex hadn’t seen her since Michelle had practically fled their summer research session. She was wearing a plaid dress, a cardigan, and woven flats, her thick hair bound in a braid, a jaunty scarf tied at her neck. She looked quality. She looked like a grown-up.

“Hey,” Alex said, her surprise rendering her incapable of much more. “I … How long have you been waiting?”

“Not long, but I have a train to make. What are you wearing?”

Alex had forgotten she was still in her pajama shorts, a Lethe sweatshirt, and Dawes’s bunchy socks and Tevas. “Let me change.”

Who is she? Mercy mouthed as Alex hurried into their bedroom. But that was not a conversation Alex intended to have in mime.

She shut the door behind her and shoved open the window, letting the crisp morning air clear her head. Just like that, summer had gone. She yanked on black jeans and a black Henley, traded the Tevas for her boots, and rubbed some toothpaste over her teeth.

“Is there somewhere we can talk?” Michelle asked when Alex emerged from the bedroom.

“I can give you guys privacy,” Mercy offered.

“No,” said Alex. She wasn’t going to kick Mercy out of their room. “Come on.”

She led Michelle downstairs. She’d thought they could talk in the JE library, but there were already people staking out tables.

“Let’s go to the sculpture garden,” Michelle suggested, pushing through the doors. Alex sometimes forgot it was here, an empty sprawl of gravel and the occasional art installation that sat just outside the reading room. It wasn’t much to look at, a pocket of quiet and trees sandwiched between buildings.

“So you fucked that up,” Michelle said. She sat down on a bench and crossed her arms. “I told you not to try it.”

“People tell me that a lot. Anselm called you?”

“He wanted to know if you and Dawes had reached out to me, if you were still trying to get Darlington back.”

“How did he—”

“We were spotted together at the funeral. And I was Darlington’s Virgil.”

“And?” Alex asked.

“I didn’t … rat you out.”

She sounded like she was quoting an episode of Law & Order. “But you’re not going to help us.”

“Help you with what?” Michelle asked.

Alex hesitated. Anything she said to Michelle might make it straight back to Michael Anselm. But Darlington had considered Michelle one of Lethe’s best. She might still be able to help them, even if she wasn’t willing to get down in the dirt.

“We found the Gauntlet.”

Michelle sat up straighter. “Darlington was right?”

Alex couldn’t help smiling. “Of course he was. The Gauntlet is real and it’s here on campus. We can—”

But Michelle held up a hand. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” “But—”

“Alex, I came to Yale on a scholarship. Lethe knew that. It’s part of what made me appealing to them. I needed their money and I was happy to do what they asked. My Virgil was Jason Barclay Cartwright, and he was lazy because he could afford to be. I couldn’t. You can’t either. I want you to think about what this could cost you.”

Alex had. But that didn’t change the math. “I owe him.” “Well, I don’t.”

Simple enough. “I thought you liked Darlington.”

“I did. He was a good kid.” She was only three years older, but that was how Michelle saw him, the little boy playing knight. “He wanted to believe.”

“In what?”

“In everything. Has Dawes told you what you’re in for? What this kind of ritual entails?”

“She mentioned we’re going to need four murderers.” Well, two more murderers, since she and Dawes had half of that particular equation covered.

“That’s only the beginning. The Gauntlet isn’t some magic portal. You don’t just walk through it. You’re going to have to die to make it to the underworld.”

“I’ve died before,” said Alex. “I made it to the borderlands. I’ll make it back from this too.”

Michelle shook her head. “You don’t care, do you? You’re just going to rush right at it.”

I’m the Wheelwalker, Alex wanted to say. It has to be me. Except not even she knew what that meant. It sounded foolish, childish—I’m special, I have a quest—when the truth was much closer to what Michelle had said. Of course Alex was going to just rush right at it. She was a cannonball. She

wasn’t good for much at rest, but give her a hard enough shove, let her build up enough momentum, and she’d punch a hole through anything.

“It’s not that bad,” Alex said. “Dying.”

“I know.” Michelle hesitated, then pulled up her sleeve, and Alex saw her tattoo for the first time. A semicolon. She knew that symbol.

“You tried to kill yourself.”

Michelle nodded. “In high school. Lethe didn’t know. Otherwise they never would have tapped me. Too much of a risk. I’ve been to the other side. I don’t remember it, but I know this isn’t hopping a bus, and I am never going back. Alex … I didn’t come here to play Anselm’s stooge. I came to warn you. Whatever is out there, on the other side of the Veil, it isn’t just Grays.”

Alex remembered the waters of the borderlands, the strange shapes she’d seen on the far shore, the way the current had yanked her off her feet. She thought of the force that had drawn her to Black Elm, that had wanted her in that room, maybe inside of that circle. “They tried to keep me there.”

Michelle nodded. “Because they’re hungry. Have you ever read

Kittscher’s Daemonologie?”

Of course she hadn’t. “No, but I hear it’s a real page-turner.”

Michelle cast her eyes heavenward. “What Darlington must have made of you. Lethe has a copy. Before you do anything crazy, read it. Death isn’t just a place you visit. I fought my way back once. I’m not going to risk it again.”

Alex couldn’t argue with that. Even Dawes had hesitations about what they were about to attempt, and Michelle had the right to live and be done with Lethe. It still made Alex angry, little-kid angry, don’t-leave-me-here angry. She and Dawes weren’t enough to take this on.

“I understand,” she said, embarrassed by how sullen she sounded.

“I hope you do.” Michelle sighed deeply, glad to be rid of whatever burden she’d been carrying. She closed her eyes and breathed in, scenting that first hint of fall. “This was one of Darlington’s favorite spots.”

“Is,” Alex corrected.

Michelle’s smile was soft and sad. It terrified Alex. She thinks we’re going to fail. She knows it.

“Have you seen the plaque?” she asked. Alex shook her head.

Michelle led her over to one of the window casements. “George Douglas Miller was a Bonesman. He had a whole plan for expanding the Skull and Bones tomb, building a dormitory.” She pointed to the towers that loomed over the stairs that led to the sculpture garden. Crenellated, Alex could hear Darlington whisper. Cod-medieval. Alex had never noticed them before. “Those towers were from the old alumni hall. Miller had them moved here when Yale knocked it down in 1911, the first step in his grand vision. But he ran out of money. Or maybe he ran out of will.”

She tapped a plaque at the base of the casement. It read: The original part of Weir Hall, purchased by Yale University in 1917, was begun in 1911 by George Douglas Miller, B.A. 1870, in partial fulfillment of his vision “to build, in the heart of New Haven, a replica of an Oxford quadrangle.” But it was the second sentence that surprised Alex. In accordance with his wishes, this tablet has been erected to commemorate his only son, Samuel Miller 1881–1883, who was born and died on these premises.

“I never noticed it,” Michelle continued. “I never knew about any of this until Darlington. I hope you bring him back, Alex. But just remember Lethe doesn’t care about people like you and me. No one is looking out for us but us.”

Alex traced her fingers over the letters. “Darlington was. He’d go to hell for me, for you, for anyone who needed saving.”

“Alex,” Michelle said, dusting off her skirt, “he’d go to hell just to take notes on the climate.”

Alex hated the condescension in her voice, but Michelle wasn’t wrong. Darlington had wanted to know everything, no matter the cost. She wondered if the creature he’d become felt the same.

“You came up on the train?” Alex asked.

“Yes, and I need to get back for dinner with my boyfriend’s parents.”

Perfectly sensible. But Alex had the feeling Michelle was holding something back. She waved as Michelle descended the stairs beneath the arch that would take her to High Street, where she’d catch a cab to the train station.

“That’s me,” said a voice beside Alex, and she had to fight not to react. The little Gray with crisp curls had perched in the window beside the plaque. “I’m glad they put my name on it.”

Alex ignored him. She didn’t want Grays to know she could hear their stories and complaints. It was bad enough having to listen to the living.



Mercy was waiting in the common room. She’d dressed in a pumpkin-colored sweater and a corduroy skirt, as if the barest suggestion of autumn in the air had signaled the need for a costume change. She had her laptop open but closed it when Alex came in.

“So, is this going to be like last year?” Mercy asked. “You disappearing and then nearly getting killed?”

Alex sat down in the recliner. “Yes to the first part … I hope not to the second part?”

“I like having you around.” “I like being around.”

“Who was that anyway?”

Alex hesitated. “Who did she say she was?” “A friend of your cousin’s.”

Lies came easy to Alex. They always had. She’d been lying since she’d learned she saw things other people didn’t, since she’d understood how easy it was to slap the words crazy or unstable on a girl and make them stick. She could feel all those friendly lies ready to unfurl from her tongue, scarves from a cheap magician. That was what Lethe and the societies demanded. Secrecy. Loyalty.

Well, fuck them.

“Darlington isn’t my cousin. And he isn’t in Spain. And I need to talk to you about what happened last year.”

Mercy fiddled with the laptop cord. “When you had a giant bite mark in your side and I had to call your mom?”

“No,” Alex said. “I want to talk about what happened to you.”

She wasn’t sure how Mercy would react. She was ready to back off if she needed to.

Mercy set her computer aside, then said, “I’m hungry.”

Alex hadn’t expected that. “I can make you a Pop-Tart or…” She reached into her satchel and took out Dawes’s chocolate chip pancakes.

“Do you just walk around with breakfast food in your bag?” “Honestly? All the time.”

Mercy ate most of a pancake and Alex made coffee for both of them, and then she started talking. About the societies, Darlington, the mess of their freshman year. Mercy’s eyebrows rose slowly higher as Alex’s story spilled out. Occasionally she would nod, but Alex wasn’t sure if she was just encouraging her to continue or actually taking it all in.

Eventually Alex didn’t so much stop as wind down, as if there just weren’t enough words for all the secrets she’d been keeping. Everything around them felt too ordinary for a story like this. The sounds of doors opening and closing in the echoing stairwells, shouts from the courtyard, the rush of cars somewhere on York Street. Alex knew she was risking being late to meet Dawes, but she didn’t want to look down at her phone.

“So,” Mercy said slowly, “is that where you got the tattoos?”

Alex almost laughed. No one had mentioned her sleeves of peonies and snakes and stars that had suddenly appeared at the end of the school year. It was as if they hadn’t been able to grasp that such a thing was possible, so their minds had made the necessary corrections.

“Not where I got them, but Darlington helped me hide them for a while.”

“Using magic?” Mercy asked. “Yup.”

“Which is real.” “Yup.”

“And super deadly.” “It is,” said Alex.

“And kind of gross.” “Very gross.”

“I prayed a lot this summer.”

Alex tried not to show her surprise. “Did it help?”

“Some. I went to therapy too. I used this app and I talked to someone for a while, about what happened. It helped me stop thinking about it all the time. I tried talking to our pastor too. But I’m just not sorry Blake’s dead.”

“Should you be?”

Mercy laughed. “Alex! Yes. Forgiveness is supposed to be healing.”

But Blake hadn’t asked for grace. He hadn’t asked for anything. He’d just moved through the world taking what he wanted until something got in his way.

“I don’t know how to forgive,” Alex admitted. “And I don’t think I want to learn.”

Mercy rubbed the hem of her sweater between her fingers, studying the weave as if it were a text to be translated. “Tell me how he died.”

Alex did. She didn’t talk about the new moon ritual or Darlington. She began with Blake breaking into Il Bastone, the fight, the way he’d controlled her, made her stay still while he beat her, the moment when Dawes had crushed his skull with the marble bust of Hiram Bingham III. She talked about the way Blake had wept, and how she’d discovered the coin of compulsion he’d clutched in his hand. He’d been under Dean Sandow’s control when he tried to kill her.

Mercy kept her eyes on that bit of pumpkin-colored wool, fingers moving back and forth, back and forth. “It’s not just that I’m not sorry…” she said at last. Her voice was low, shaking, almost a growl. “I’m glad he’s dead. I’m glad he got to feel what it was like to be out of control, to be frightened. I’m … glad he died scared.” She looked up, her eyes full of tears. “Why am I like this? Why am I still so angry?”

“I don’t know,” said Alex. “But I’m like that too.”

“I’ve gone through every moment that led up to the party so many times. What I wore, what I said. Why did he pick me that night? What did he see?”

Alex had no idea how to answer those questions. Forgive yourself for going to the party. Forgive yourself for assuming the world isn’t full of beasts at the door. But she knew it was never that easy.

“He didn’t see you at all,” Alex said. “People like that … they don’t see us. They just see opportunities. Something to grab.” Michelle was right

about that at least.

Mercy wiped the tears from her eyes. “You make it sound like shoplifting.”

“A little.”

“Don’t lie to me again, okay?”

“I’ll try.” It was the best Alex could offer without lying all over again.

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