Chapter no 5 – October

Hell Bent

On Friday morning, Alex went to Modern Poets and EE101 with Mercy and did her best to pay attention. It was too early in the year for her to be short on sleep.

She wanted to stay in that night, catch up on rest, finish hanging posters in her room. Mercy’s side was already elaborately turned out in art prints and strips of poetry in Chinese characters collaged with fashion illustrations. She’d created a kind of makeshift canopy over her bed in blue tulle that made the whole place feel glamorous.

But Mercy and Lauren wanted to go out, so they went out. Alex even put on a dress, short and black, held up by cobweb straps, identical in all but color to Mercy’s and Lauren’s. Alex felt like they were a tiny army, three sleepwalkers in dainty nightgowns. Mercy and Lauren wore strappy sandals, but Alex didn’t have any and she stuck to her battered black boots. Easier to run in.

They paused by the swing to take pictures and Alex chose one to send to her mom, the one where she looked happiest, the one where she looked all right. Lauren on her left—thick honey-blond hair and teeth brighter than a flashlight beam. Mercy on her right—hair in a shiny black bob, big vintage earrings in the shape of daisies, caution in her eyes.

Were Eitan’s people still watching Mira? Or had he decided to leave her mother alone now that Alex was doing what she was told? California seemed less like another coast than another age, a hazy time before that Alex wanted to keep blurry, the details too painful to draw into focus.

The party was at a house on Lynwood, not far from St. Elmo’s sad slump of an apartment, its hopeful weather vanes spinning slowly on the

roof. Alex drank water the whole night and was bored out of her skull, but she didn’t mind. She liked standing with a red Solo cup in her hand, flanked by her friends, pretending to be buzzed. Well, not quite pretending. She’d dosed herself with basso belladonna. She’d told herself she was going to get through the year clean, but the year was being a dick, so she’d do what she had to.

Saturday morning, she slipped out while Mercy was still asleep and called over to Scroll and Key. As promised, she was nothing but polite; then she curled up in bed and went back to sleep until Mercy woke her.

They ate breakfast late in the dining hall, and Alex piled her plate high as she always did. They were about to try to open a portal to hell; she should be too nervous to eat. Instead, she felt like she couldn’t get full. She wanted more syrup, more bacon, more everything. Grays loved this place, the smells of the food, the gossip. Alex could have warded it, the same way she had set up protections on her dorm room. But if something came after her, she wanted a Gray close enough to use—just not near enough to bother her. And here, they seemed to blend into the crowd. There was something peaceable about all of it, the dead breaking bread with the living.

Alex knew there were more beautiful rooms at Yale, but this was her favorite, the dark wood of the rafters floating high above, the great stone fireplace. She loved to sit here and let the clatter of trays, the roar of chatter wash over her. She had expected Darlington to smirk when she’d told him how much she loved JE’s dining hall, but he’d only nodded and said, “It’s too grand to be the common room of a tavern or an inn, but that’s how it feels. As if you could put up your feet here and wait for any storm to pass.” Maybe that was true for some weary traveler, for the student she was pretending to be. But the real Alex belonged in the storm, a lightning rod for trouble. That would change when Darlington returned. It wouldn’t just be her and Dawes trying to bar the door against the dark anymore.

“Where are you going?” Mercy asked as Alex rose and shoved a piece of buttered toast in her mouth. “We’ve got reading.”

“I finished ‘The Knight’s Tale.’” “And ‘The Wife of Bath’?”


Lauren leaned back in her chair. “Hold up. Alex, you’re ahead on the reading?”

“I’m very scholarly now.”

“We have to memorize the first eighteen lines,” said Mercy. “And it isn’t easy.”

Alex set down her bag. “What? Why?”

“So we know how it all sounds? They’re in Middle English.” “I had to learn them in high school,” said Lauren.

“That’s because you went to a fancy prep school in Brookline,” said Mercy. “Alex and I were stuck in public school, honing our street smarts.”

Lauren nearly spit out her juice laughing.

“Best be careful,” Alex said with a grin. “Mercy will fuck you up.”

“You didn’t say where you were going!” Lauren called after her as she strode out of the dining hall. Alex had almost forgotten how tiring it was to come up with excuses.

Dawes was waiting in front of the music school, its pink-and-white facade like a heavily decorated cake. Alex had never seen Venice, probably never would, but she knew this was the style. Darlington had loved this building too.

“They said yes?”

No Hello, no How are you. Dawes looked impossibly awkward in long frumpy cargo shorts and a white V-neck, a canvas satchel slung across her body. Something seemed off about her, and Alex realized she was so used to seeing Dawes with headphones fastened around her neck, she appeared oddly naked without them.

“In a way,” said Alex. “I told them I was doing an inspection.” “Oh, good … Wait, why are you doing an inspection?”

“Dawes.” Alex cast her a look. “What would I be inspecting?” “You said you’d talk to them, not lie to them.”

“Lying is a kind of talking. A very useful kind. And it didn’t take much.” After the shit Scroll and Key had pulled last year—not the drugs, of course; that was perfectly acceptable according to the rules of Lethe. But they’d let outsiders, townies, into their tomb and made them part of their

rituals. It had all ended in murder and scandal. And of course there had been no repercussions except a firm warning and a fine.

Robbie Kendall was waiting on the steps of the tomb in madras shorts and a light blue polo shirt, his blond hair worn just long enough to suggest surfer without actually looking disreputable. The afternoon heat didn’t seem to be getting to him. He looked like he’d never sweat in his life.

“Hi,” he said, smiling nervously. “Alex? Or, uh … do I call you Virgil?” Alex felt Dawes stiffen beside her. She hadn’t been with Alex on the first two ritual nights. She hadn’t heard that name since Darlington


“That’s right,” Alex said, surreptitiously wiping her palms before she shook his hand. “This is Oculus. Pamela Dawes.”

“Cool. What is it you guys wanted to see?”

Alex regarded Robbie coolly. “Give me the keys. You can wait outside.”

Robbie hesitated. He was the new delegation president, a senior, eager to get everything right. A perfect mark really.

“I don’t know if—”

Alex glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice. “Is this how you want to start the year?”

Robbie’s mouth popped open. “I … No.”

“Your fellow Locksmiths’ callous disregard for the rules nearly got me and Oculus killed last year. Two deputies of Lethe. You’re lucky all of your privileges weren’t suspended.”


It was as if he’d never even considered it, as if such a thing were impossible.

“That’s right. A semester, maybe a whole year missed. I advocated for leniency, but…” She shrugged. “Maybe that was a mistake.”

“No, no. Definitely not.” Robbie fumbled with his keys. “Definitely not.”

Alex almost felt bad for him. He’d had his first taste of magic when he was initiated the previous semester, his first glimpse at the world beyond the Veil. He’d been promised a year of wild journeys and mystery. He would do anything he could to keep his supply coming.

The heavy door opened on an elaborate stone entry, the cool dark a welcome relief from the heat. A Gray in pin-striped trousers hummed happily to himself in the hallway, gazing at a glass case full of black-and-white photos. The interior of Scroll and Key was strangely heavy in contrast to its graceful exterior, rough rock punctuated by elaborate Moorish arches. It felt as if they’d stepped into a cave.

Alex snatched the keys from Robbie’s hand before he could reconsider. “Wait outside, please.”

This time he didn’t protest, just said an eager “Sure! Take your time.”

When the door was closed behind them, Alex expected a lecture or at least a disapproving scowl, but Dawes only looked thoughtful.

“What is it?” Alex asked as they headed down the hall to the sanctum.

Dawes shrugged, and it was as if she were still wearing one of her heavy sweatshirts. “You sound like him.”

Had Alex been doing her Darlington act? She guessed she had. Every time she spoke with the authority of Lethe, it was with his voice really— assured, confident, knowledgeable. Everything she wasn’t.

She opened the door to the ritual room. It was a vast star-shaped chamber at the heart of the tomb, a statue of a knight in each of its six pointed corners, a circular table at its center. But the table wasn’t really a table at all; it was a doorway, a passage to anywhere you wanted to go. And some places you didn’t.

Alex smoothed her hand over the inscription on its edge. Have power on this dark land to lighten it, and power on this dead world to make it live. Tara had stood at this table before she’d been murdered. She’d been an intruder here, just like Alex.

“Is this going to work?” Alex asked. “The nexus has a wobble.” It was why the Locksmiths had resorted to psychedelics, why they’d had to rely on a town girl and her drug dealer boyfriend to mix up a special concoction that would help open portals and ease their passage to other lands. “We don’t have any of Tara’s special sauce.”

“I don’t know,” Dawes said, chewing on her lip. “I … I don’t know what else to try. We could wait. We should.”

Their eyes met over the big round table, supposedly made from planks of the same table where King Arthur’s knights had once gathered.

“We should,” Alex agreed.

“But we’re not going to, are we?”

Alex shook her head. More than three months had passed since Sandow’s funeral, since Alex had shared her theory that Darlington wasn’t dead but trapped somewhere in hell, the gentleman demon who had so terrified the dead and whatever monsters gathered beyond the Veil. Nothing Alex and Dawes had learned in the time since had given them cause to believe that it was anything more than wishful thinking. But that hadn’t stopped them from trying to piece together a way to reach him. Galaxias. Galaxy. A cry from the other side of the Veil. What would it mean to be an apprentice once more? To be Dante again? Months of seeking clues to the Gauntlet had added up to nothing, and this might too, but they at least had to try. Anselm had been an absentee parent, checking in dutifully from New York but leaving them to their own devices. They couldn’t count on the new Praetor doing the same.

“Let’s set the protections,” Alex said.

She and Dawes worked together, pouring out salt in a Solomon’s Knot formation—an ordinary circle wouldn’t do. They were, in theory, opening a portal to hell, or at least a corner of it, and if Darlington was more demon than man these days, they didn’t want him cavorting all over campus with his demon buddies.

Every line of the knot touched another line, making it impossible to tell where the design began. Alex consulted the image she’d copied from a book on spiritual containment. Apparently demons loved puzzles and games and the knot would keep them occupied until they could be banished, or, in Darlington’s case, clapped into chains of pure silver. At least Alex hoped they were pure silver. She’d found them in a drawer in the armory, and she sure hoped Lethe hadn’t scrimped. And if the hellbeast tried to come through again? They placed gems at each compass point: amethyst, carnelian, opal, tourmaline. Little glittering trinkets to bind a monster.

“They don’t look like much, do they?” asked Alex. All Dawes did was chew her lip harder.

“It’s going to be fine,” Alex said, not believing a word of it. “What’s next?”

They set lines of salt every few feet down the hall, more safeguards in case something got past the knot. The final line they poured out was pale brown. It had been mixed with their own blood, a last line of defense.

Dawes pulled a tiny toy trumpet out of her satchel.

Alex couldn’t hide her disbelief. “You’re going to call Darlington out of hell with that?”

“We don’t have the bells from Aurelian, and the ritual just calls for ‘an instrument of action or alarm.’ You have the note?”

They’d used the deed to Black Elm during the failed new moon ritual, a contract Darlington had signed with full hope and intent. They didn’t have anything like that this time around, but they did have a note, written by Michelle Alameddine, that they’d found in the desk of the Virgil bedroom at Lethe, just a few lines of a poem and a note:

There was a monastery that produced Armagnac so refined, its monks were forced to flee to Italy when Louis XIV joked about killing them to protect their secrets. This is the last bottle. Don’t drink it on an empty stomach, and don’t call unless you’re dead. Good luck, Virgil!

It wasn’t much, but they had the bottle of Armagnac too. It was far less grand than Alex had imagined, murkily green, the old label illegible.

“He hasn’t opened it,” Dawes observed as Alex set the bottle on the floor at the center of the knot, her expression disapproving.

“We’re not looking through his underwear drawer. It’s just alcohol.” “It isn’t meant for us.”

“And we’re not drinking it,” Alex snapped. Because Dawes was right. They had no business stealing things that had been meant for Darlington, that were precious to him.

We’ll bring him back and he’ll forgive us, she told herself as she drew a small glass from her bag and filled it, the liquid warm and orange as late sun. He’ll forgive me. For all of it.

“We should really have four people for this,” said Dawes. “One for each compass point.”

They should have four people. They should have found the Gauntlet. They should have taken the time to put together something other than this patchwork mess of a ritual.

But here they were at the edge of the cliff, and Alex knew Dawes wasn’t looking to be talked off the ledge. She wanted someone to drag her over.

“Come on,” Alex said. “He’s waiting on the other side.”

Dawes drew in a deep breath, her brown eyes too bright. “Okay.” She drew a small bottle full of sesame oil from her pocket and began to anoint the table with it, tracing the rim with her finger as she walked first clockwise, then counterclockwise, chanting in stilted Arabic.

When she caught up to her starting point, she met Alex’s gaze, then drew her finger through the oil, closing the circle.

The table seemed to drop away to nothing. Alex felt like she was looking down into forever. She looked up and saw a circle of darkness above where there had been a glass skylight a moment before. The night was thick with stars, but it was the middle of the day. She had to shut her eyes as a wave of vertigo washed over her.

“Burn it,” said Dawes. “Call him.”

Alex struck a match and held it to the note, then tossed the flaming paper into the nothingness where the table had been. It seemed to float there, edges curling, and before it could fall, she threw a handful of iron filings into the blaze. The words began to peel up from the paper and into the air.

Good luck

you’re dead

“Stand back,” said Dawes. She raised the trumpet to her lips. The sound that emerged should have been thin and tinny. Instead, a rich bellow echoed off the walls, the triumphant blast of a horn calling riders to the hunt.

In the distance Alex heard the soft patter of paws.

“It’s working!” Dawes whispered.

They leaned over the space where the table had been and Dawes blew the trumpet again, it echoed back to them from somewhere in the distance.

Come home, Darlington. Alex picked up the glass of Armagnac and tipped it into that star-filled abyss. Come back and drink from this fancy bottle, raise a toast. She could still hear that old song playing in her head. Come on along. Come on along. Let me take you by the hand.

The patter grew, but it didn’t sound like the soft thud of paws. It was too loud and growing louder.

Alex looked around the room for a clue to what was happening. “Something’s wrong.”

The sound rose from somewhere in the darkness. From somewhere below.

It shook the stone floor in a swelling rumble Alex could feel through her boots. She peered down into nothing and smelled sulfur.

“Dawes, close it up.” “But—”

“Close the portal!”

She saw flecks of red in the dark now, and a moment later, she understood—they were eyes.


Too late. Alex stumbled back against the wall as a herd of stampeding horses thundered out of the table, bursting into the room in a seething mass of black horseflesh. They were the color of coal, their eyes red and glowing. Each beat of their hooves against the floor exploded into flame. They crashed through the temple room door, scattering salt and stones, and roared down the hall. The herd of hellhorses blew through the lines of salt one by one.

“They’re not going to stop!” Dawes cried.

They were going to smash through the front door and onto the street.

But when the stampede struck the line of salt they’d mixed with their blood, it was like a wave crashing against the rocks. The herd spilled left and right, a messy roiling tide. One of the horses fell on its side, its high

whinny like a human scream. It righted itself and then the stampede was clamoring back toward the temple room.

“Dawes!” Alex shouted. She knew plenty of death words. She had silver chains, a rope full of elaborate knots, a damned Rubik’s Cube because demons liked puzzles. But she had no idea how to deal with a herd of horses snorting sulfur that had been summoned from the depths of hell.

“Get out of the way!” Dawes yelled.

Alex pressed herself against the wall. Dawes stood on the far side of the table, her red hair streaming around her face, shouting words Alex didn’t understand. She raised the trumpet to her lips, and the sound was like a thousand horns, an orchestra of command.

They’re going to crush her, Alex thought. She’ll break into nothing, dissolve into ash.

The horses leapt, a black tide of heavy bodies and blue flame, and Dawes hurled the trumpet into the abyss. The horses dove after it, arcing impossibly in the air, less like horses than tumbling sea foam. They flowed like water and dissolved into darkness.

“Close it!” Alex shouted.

Dawes held up her empty palms and swiped them together, as if washing her hands of it all. “Ghalaqa al-baab! Al-tariiq muharram lakum!

Then a voice echoed through the room—from somewhere below or somewhere above, it was impossible to tell. But Alex knew that voice, and the word he spoke was clear and pleading.


“No!” Dawes screamed. But it was too late. There was an enormous boom, like the sound of a heavy door slamming shut. Alex was thrown off her feet.

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