Chapter no 37

Hell Bent

Darlington had been asleep and in his dreams he’d been a monster. But now he was awake and brutally cold. And maybe a monster still.

He made his way up the steps, dimly aware that he was leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind him. His own blood. Anselm had no blood to leave. He’d broken in half as if he were filled with sawdust, a facsimile of a man. Each step made a drumbeat: anger, desire, anger, desire. He wanted to fuck. He wanted to fight. He wanted to sleep for a thousand years.

Darlington knew that at some point he would have been embarrassed that he was naked. But maybe he’d spent so long in two places at once that his modesty had gotten lost somewhere in between. He didn’t want to see the damage he’d done to the ballroom. In fact, after so long in captivity, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to see the ballroom again. Instead he headed directly to his bedroom on the third floor.

He felt as if he were viewing it through thick glass, or one of those old View-Masters, click the button, turn the slide. The colors seemed wrong, the books foreign. He had loved this room. He had loved this house. Or someone had. But now it gave him no pleasure.

I’m home.

He should be glad. Why wasn’t he? Maybe because Alex had freed his soul, but some part of him would forever be trapped in hell, carrying rock after rock, setting stone upon stone, begging to stop, to rest, but unable to. There’d been no boredom, no sense of repetition. He’d been desperate the whole time, a man trying to revive a corpse, trying to breathe life into a body gone cold, looking for some sign of hope, sure that every single stone was the one that would bring Black Elm back to glory. There was more, of course. He had been many things in hell, jailer and jailed, torturer and

tortured, but he wasn’t ready to think about that and he was only relieved that there were some secrets he could still keep from Galaxy Stern.

He could sense her standing at the bottom of the stairs, hesitant, and he was ashamed of the thoughts that entered his head. Could he blame the demon for these visions of carnality? Or was he just a man who’d been in jail for a year? His cock didn’t much care about the debate and he was glad he was alone. And that his erection wasn’t glowing like a New England lighthouse anymore. He pulled on jeans, a sweatshirt, his old coat, waited patiently for the tide of want to recede. He packed a small overnight bag— his grandfather’s old leather satchel. It was only then that it hit him.

His parents were dead. And in a way, he had killed them. Golgarot had fed on his soul in hell, dined on his shame and hopelessness. He’d eaten Darlington’s memories and the worst of his sadness and need. He had killed Michael Anselm for the sake of his plans, an expedient means to an end. But killing Darlington’s parents would have delighted him, not just because Anselm drew satisfaction from pain, but because some shriveled, bitter part of Darlington wanted them to die and die badly—and Golgarot knew it. The boy who had been abandoned to the stones of Black Elm had no care or clemency to give his mother and father, only violence.

Darlington sat down on the edge of the bed, the knowledge of everything that had happened crashing into him. If he let his mind alight on any single thought for too long, he’d go mad. Or maybe he was already mad. How was he supposed to be human again after what he’d seen and done?

Nothing had changed. Everything had changed. His bedroom looked just as he’d left it, and aside from the giant hole in the ballroom floor that he could never afford to repair, the house seemed to be intact.

His parents were dead.

He couldn’t quite get the fact to take on weight and settle.

So he would keep moving. Think about the bag, pick it up. Think about the door, open it. Think about each step he was taking down the hall. These were safe things to gather around him.

Darlington descended the stairs. The patch of squirming maggots Anselm had left behind should have repelled him, but maybe it was his

demon skin that refused to crawl. Alex was waiting in the kitchen, eating dry cereal from a box. She was the same too—skinny, sallow, ready to take a swing at anything that looked at her wrong.

She’s a killer. That had seemed important once, a dark revelation. He remembered her standing in the basement of Rosenfeld Hall, how still she’d been in the moment when he’d needed her to act, a silent girl with black glass eyes, her gaze as steady and as wary as it was now. I have been crying out to you from the start.

They watched each other in the quiet of the kitchen. They knew everything about each other. They knew nothing at all. He had a sense that they had entered into an uneasy truce, but he couldn’t quite name the war. She was more beautiful than he remembered. No, that wasn’t true. It wasn’t that she had changed or that his vision had sharpened. He was just less afraid of her beauty now.

After a long moment, Alex held out the cereal box. An odd peace offering, but he took it, dipped his arm in, tossed a handful of puffs into his mouth. Immediately he regretted it.

“Good God, Stern,” he gasped as he spat into the kitchen sink and rinsed the remnants away. “Are you eating pure sugar?”

Alex crammed another handful of garbage into her mouth. “Pretty sure there’s some corn syrup too. And real fruit flavoring. We can stock up on your nuts-and-twigs stuff … if you want to stay here.”

Darlington wasn’t ready to make any decisions about the house. About anything. “I’ll sleep at Il Bastone tonight.” He didn’t want to say what came next, but he made himself form the words. “I need to see their bodies.”

“Okay,” Alex said. “Their car is in the garage.”

“Golgarot must have put it there.” The name felt wrong on his human tongue, as if he was speaking with a tourist’s accent.

“I only knew him as Anselm. His— The real Anselm’s husk is down there too.”

“You don’t have to go with me.” “Good.”

Darlington was tempted to laugh. Alex Stern had gone to hell twice for him, but the basement was a step too far. He dug in a drawer for a flashlight

and headed down the steps.

The smell struck him, but he’d known that was coming. He wasn’t prepared for the way the bodies had been mutilated.

He paused on the stairs. He’d meant to … He wasn’t certain what he’d intended. To close their eyes gently? To speak some words of comfort?

He’d spent three years studying death words, but he still had nothing to say. All he could think of were the words emblazoned on every piece of Lethe House ephemera.

Mors vincit omnia,” he whispered. It was all he had to offer. He’d been washed up on a familiar shore, but the sea had changed him. Grief would have to wait.

He turned his flashlight on what had been the body of Michael Anselm, a man he’d met only briefly when he was a freshman being inducted into Lethe as the new Dante. Exactly how were they going to explain a dead board member? That would have to wait too.

He climbed the stairs. The basement door had come off its hinges, and he leaned it carefully against the jamb, the boulder at the door to the tomb.

Alex had returned the cursed cereal to its cupboard and was leaning on the counter looking at her phone, her hair a black sheaf, a dark winter river.

“I need to know what to tell Dawes,” she said. “Anselm avoided her cameras, but she knows I’m here and she knows the ballroom camera is offline. Are you ready to be back?”

“I don’t know that it matters. Perhaps it would be best to explain in person.” He hesitated, but there was no reason not to ask. “Did you see them? My parents? After…”

She nodded. “They helped get me out of the basement.” “Do they think I killed them?”

“Sort of?”

“Are they here now?”

Alex shook her head. Of course not. He knew better than that. Grays rarely returned to the scene of their deaths. Contrary to most popular fiction, ghosts didn’t come back to haunt their murderers. They wanted to be reminded of places and people they loved, human pleasures. It took a

vengeful and dedicated spirit to haunt someone, and neither of his parents had that kind of drive.

And they would have wanted to be far from Golgarot. The dead feared demons because they promised pain when the pain should be over. They’d been very frightened of Darlington indeed.

Alex drew her coat more tightly closed. “The old man is here.” “My grandfather?”

“I can hear him. I can hear all of them now.”

Darlington tried not to show his surprise, his curiosity, his envy. How could this scrap of a girl have so much power? How could she see into the hidden world that had evaded him for so long? And after a year in hell, why did he still give a damn?

“They never shut up,” she added.

She’s trusting me, he told himself. Alex was handing him knowledge that he knew, with complete certainty, Lethe didn’t have. Another offering. He found he was as greedy for her trust as her power. He pushed those thoughts away.

“What is he saying?”

Now Alex’s eyes shifted uneasily to the toes of her boots. “He says to be free. That you’ve given up enough blood to this place. It’s yours to take or leave. It always should have been.”

Darlington snorted. “You’re lying. What did he really say?”

Alex shrugged and met his eyes. “That Black Elm needs you more than ever, that this is your home by right of blood and treasure, and a lot of rambling about the Arlington legacy.”

“That sounds much more like him.” He paused, studying her. “You know what happened here, don’t you? What I did? Why I survived the hellbeast?”

Alex didn’t look away. “I know.”

“I always wondered if I’d done the right thing.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I’d smother him right now if I could.”

Darlington was startled by his own abrupt laugh. Maybe Alex could have stopped him from being eaten that night in Rosenfeld Hall. Maybe she’d wanted his discovery of her crimes to die with him in that basement.

He supposed she had betrayed him. But in the end it had taken this monstrous girl to drag him back from the underworld. There was nothing he could say that would shock her, and that was powerful comfort.

“I’ll be back,” he said, in the hopes that his grandfather would understand what he was about to do. “Better to flee from death than feel its grip,” he quoted, letting the death words cast the old man out, a peace offering to Alex of his own.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I don’t know what to do about…” He couldn’t quite manage to say

their bodies. He bobbed his chin toward the basement instead.

“We have bigger problems,” Alex said, rising from the counter. “Come on, I called a car.”

“Why don’t we take the Mercedes?” She winced. “Stern, what happened to my car?”

“Long story.”

She locked the kitchen door behind them, and they started down the gravel drive. But after only a few steps, he had to stop, put his hands on his knees, breathe deeply.

“You okay?” she asked.

No, he certainly wasn’t. The sky was heavy, low, and gray, thick with clouds that promised snow. The air was mossy and sweet, blessedly cold. Some part of him had believed there was no world outside of Black Elm, no street at the end of the drive, no town beyond. He had forgotten how big things could feel, how crowded with life, how beautiful it could be to know the season, the month, the hour, to simply say, It is winter.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“Good,” she said, continuing on. Practical, merciless, a survivor who would keep walking, keep fighting no matter what God, the devil, or Yale threw at her. Was she a knight? A queen? A demon herself? Did it make any difference? “I have good news and bad news,” she said.

“Bad news first, please.”

“We have to go back to hell.”

“I see,” he said. “And the good news?” “Dawes is making avgolemono.”

“Well,” he said as they reached the stone columns that marked the end of Arlington property. “That’s a relief.”

He did not look back.

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