Chapter no 33

Hell Bent

Alex waited for Eitan and Tzvi to disappear into the big black Suburban idling by the curb. She should have noticed it, but she’d been focused on the wrong threats.

She pressed her back against the wall in the alley and slid down, rested her head in her hands. She needed to get back to the dorms, to someplace with cover, where she could be alone to think, but her legs were shaking.

Eitan had been here at Yale. He knew where to find her. And she wasn’t stupid enough to believe that if she somehow survived another encounter with Linus Reiter, Eitan was going to be done with her. He wasn’t going to give up a weapon in his arsenal, not when he was so sure he had her under his thumb. How much did he know about her? What other leverage could he find? He couldn’t have discovered the secrets of Lethe, but had he followed her to Il Bastone? Black Elm?

A shadow fell over her and she looked up to see a girl with dark hair.

“It’s all over,” she said. “It’s all slipping away. How long did you think you could keep pretending?”

Alex had the eerie sense that she was looking into a mirror. Not Hellie’s hair was black and parted in the middle, her eyes black as oil. She’s feeding on me. Alex’s hopelessness had called to her like a dinner bell.

Alex knew it, but the sadness in her made it hard to think. She felt like she was at the bottom of a well. She was supposed to fight. She was supposed to protect herself. But when she thought about moving, about taking any kind of action, it was like she was scrabbling at the well’s stone walls, wet with moss. It was impossible to find a grip. She was just too tired to try.

Not Hellie’s tattoos had begun to emerge. Peonies and skeletons. The Wheel. Two snakes meeting at her collarbones.


Got a little viper in you. Ready to strike.

That was what the real Hellie had told her. The Hellie who had loved her, who had protected her to the very end and beyond. And this fucking impostor was wearing her face.

“Those don’t belong to you,” Alex growled. She forced herself to drag her arm to her mouth, push her tongue over her knuckles.

Her salt spirit lunged, the snakes snapping at Not Hellie. The demon backed away, but slower than the last time.

“Leave her alone!”

Alex looked up to see Tripp striding down the alley. She wanted to shout at him to keep his voice down, but she was so damn glad to see him bustling to her rescue she couldn’t be bothered to worry about a scene.

She was thankful for the shadows of the alley when she saw him lick his arm and his albatross screeched forward, slamming into Not Hellie.

The demon cringed away with a high-pitched whimper, but she was smiling as she scuttled back to the crowded street. And why not? Her belly was full.

Alex wasn’t sure what anyone walking past had seen. Maybe they simply hadn’t noticed the snakes, the seabird, a girl scurrying off in a way that was not quite human. Or maybe their minds skipped right over it, filling in an explanation that would allow them to keep on with their daily lives, the memory of anything odd or uncanny gratefully forgotten. She could have died in the shadows of that alley, and they would have walked on by.

“You okay?” Tripp asked. He was jumpy, crackling with energy and nerves.

“No.” She didn’t actually feel like she could stand. “You look awful.”

“Not helpful, Tripp.”

“But the albatross worked.”

It had. Alex wanted to believe that her snakes would have come through, but it seemed like they were tied to her own state of mind.

“Thanks,” she said, dragging herself to her feet. She was shaky and weak, and when Tripp offered her his arm, she was embarrassed to have to take it.

“It feels so bad,” he said as they walked back to Blue State and took refuge at one of the tables.

“Spenser been after you?”

“As soon as I left my apartment. I had to go to work. My trusty seabird helped.”

Maybe so, but Tripp didn’t look great. He was pale and his cheeks had a sunken look, as if he hadn’t been eating, even though she’d seen him only a day before.

Alex bobbed her head toward the chalk menu behind the counter. “Any chance that chili is made from scratch?”

“Yeah, but I think it’s vegan.” “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

When Tripp went up to the counter, Alex called Dawes. “We need to check the cameras at Black Elm.”

“What am I looking for?”

“A black Suburban in the driveway.”

“I would have gotten an alert if anyone was there.” “Okay. Just keep an eye out.”

“Who are you expecting?”

Alex hesitated. The full moon was only two nights away, but that felt like a distance she didn’t know how to cross. “I’m just being careful,” she said.

“Since you mentioned Black Elm,” Dawes began, “I need—” “Late for the Praetor,” Alex said hurriedly and hung up.

She didn’t feel good about it, but Dawes was going to ask if she could go to Black Elm to check on Darlington, feed Cosmo, pick up the mail. She should. It was her turn and Dawes had done plenty. But right now she couldn’t think about that. She needed to meet with the Praetor, to deal with Eitan. She needed to find her escape hatch. Her failures were stacking up

too high, and the thought of facing Darlington behind that golden circle, still trapped between worlds, still not whole, made her feel hopeless all over again.

She texted the group chat with a warning: Keep your mood up. They know when we’re low.

“You think that’s true?” Tripp asked when he returned with two bowls of chili and a chocolate chip muffin.

“I do.”

Tripp took a bite of chili and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “I don’t know if I can take much more of this. Spenser—”

“It’s not Spenser.”

“You keep saying that, but what difference does it make?”

“We have to remember what they are. They’re not the people we loved or hated. They’re just … hungry.”

Tripp took another bite, then pushed the bowl away. “It’s Spenser. I can’t explain it. I know what you’re saying, but it’s not just the shit he says. It’s that he’s enjoying it.”

Alex thought of what she’d read in Kittscher’s Daemonologie. If Rudolph Kittscher was right, then demons had been getting by on the emotions of the dead for a very long time, and that was nothing compared to feasting on the pain and pleasure of the living. Why wouldn’t they be enjoying themselves now that they were in the mortal realm? The buffet was open.

“Listen, Tripp … I’m sorry I got you into this.” “I totally get it. You were just doing your job.”

Alex hesitated. “You … you know this wasn’t sanctioned by Lethe, right? We were never going to make trouble for you with Skull and Bones.”

“Oh, I know.”

“And you helped us anyway?”

“Well, yeah. I needed the cash and … I don’t really know where I am, y’know? My friends are all working in the city. I still don’t have my degree. I don’t even know if I want it anymore. I like Darlington and … I don’t know. I like being one of the good guys.”

Is that who we are? There was no greater good here, no fight for a better world. But what had Mercy said? You rescue me. I rescue you. That’s how this works. To pay your debts, you had to know who you owed. You had to decide who you were willing to go to war for and who you trusted to jump into the fray for you. That was all there was in this world. No heroes or villains, just the people you’d brave the waves for, and the ones you’d let drown.



Alex and Tripp said their goodbyes at the green. She felt better than she had an hour before, but the double nightmare of Eitan and Not Hellie had left her roughed up. She wasn’t in any condition to meet with the Praetor, but there was no way around it.

“My God,” he said when she tapped on his office door. “You look terrible.”

“It’s been a rough few days.”

“Come in. Sit down. Can I offer you tea?”

Alex shook her head. She wanted to get this over with, but she felt so rotten she let herself slouch in the chair as he set an electric kettle to boil. She just didn’t have it in her to put on a performance, and there was no reason to anymore.

“Well,” said the Praetor as he sorted through a selection of teas. “Where shall we start?”

“The fire last night…”

He gave a dismissive wave. “New Haven.”

So Walsh-Whiteley had believed Turner’s claims of vandalism. Maybe he hadn’t gone inside. Maybe after being summoned from his warm bed, he’d been only too happy to go home.

“It was far worse in the eighties,” the Praetor continued. “New Haven was quite the punch line. Biscuit?”

He held out a blue tin to her.

Alex was baffled, but she didn’t say no to food. She took two.

“There was an upside, of course. We threw some marvelous parties at the old clock factory and there was simply no one around to care. The

murals are still there, you know. Some of the students from the architecture school painted them. Beautiful, really, in a crumbling-into-the-tarn kind of way.”

Why was the Praetor reminiscing about his graduate party days instead of lecturing her about the Gauntlet, or her crimes against Lethe and the university, or the process for ousting her and Dawes—or better yet some plan to rehabilitate them? If Alex didn’t know better, she’d think he was trying to build some kind of camaraderie with her. Was he just savoring the lead-up to a grand send-off?

“Now,” said Walsh-Whiteley, settling himself behind his desk with a mug of tea. “Let’s begin.”

“I … Is there something I’m supposed to sign?”

“For the wolf run? No, they all know the risks they’re taking. It’s why they’ll do the mass transformation on land. I believe they’ve chosen”—he consulted his notes—“condors for the air run next semester.”

Alex tried to make sense of what the Praetor was saying. She knew he was referring to the Wolf’s Head ritual scheduled for tomorrow night. They would transform as a pack and have the full run of Sleeping Giant State Park. They weren’t allowed to attempt flight this early in the school year because there had been so many injuries and accidents in the past. But Alex had assumed the ritual would be put on hold until … well, she hadn’t thought about what Lethe would do with no Dante and no Virgil. She assumed Michelle Alameddine would be asked to come back.

So why was the Praetor looking at her like he expected her to bust out a bunch of index cards and start talking about spiritual safety procedures?

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you still want me overseeing the wolf run?”

Walsh-Whiteley raised a brow. “I certainly hope you don’t expect me to drag my old bones out to Sleeping Giant in the dead of night. Come now, Miss Stern. Your report on Manuscript was very solid. I expect you to maintain that standard.”

What the hell was going on? Was the board waiting to make a decision on expelling her and Dawes?

Alex felt a skittering sense of worry. There was another possibility. She hadn’t seen or heard from Anselm since he’d interrupted their trip to hell.

What if Anselm had never made it back to New York? What if he’d never had the chance to speak to Walsh-Whiteley or the board?

“Sir, I apologize,” she said, trying to get her bearings. “I haven’t had time to prepare.”

The corners of Walsh-Whiteley’s mouth turned down. “I recognize you have a gift, Miss Stern, and perhaps I should not have asked you to … demonstrate it on my behalf. But you should understand that I will not be making allowances for shoddy work just because you were born with an unusual talent.”

“Again, I apologize. I’ve … been under the weather.”

“You certainly don’t look well,” the Praetor conceded. He settled the cover on the tin of biscuits. Apparently cookies were for closers. “But we have an obligation to the societies and there’s a full moon on Thursday. Focus, Miss Stern. There will be consequences if—”

“I’ll be there,” Alex said. She could start the evening with a mass transformation of sixteen undergrads and finish up with a quick trip to the underworld. “And I’ll be ready.”

Walsh-Whiteley didn’t look convinced. “Email me your notes and we can arrange to meet at the Hutch until the repairs are done at Il Bastone. I’ve petitioned the board for funds.”

“You’ve been in touch with the board?”

“Of course I have. And you can be certain that should you not live up to your obligations—”

“Right, yes. Understood.”

Alex got to her feet and was backing out of the door before Walsh-Whiteley could settle into his rant. She knew she should try to stay and appease the Praetor, but she needed to talk to Dawes. They had somehow managed to dodge a bullet, and that meant they still had access to all of Lethe’s resources. Maybe they’d gotten lucky. Or maybe Michael Anselm’s luck had run out.

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