Alex had thought they’d be free to speed straight to Black Elm as soon as Anselm was gone, but he left them on the phone with his assistant, who rolled one call after another to Scroll and Key alumni and members of the Lethe board so that Alex and Dawes could explain themselves and apologize contritely, again and again.
Alex pressed the mute button. “This isn’t healthy. I can only feign sincerity for so long before I rupture something.”
“Well then, try meaning it,” Dawes scolded and stabbed the mute button as if she were skewering a cocktail shrimp. “Madame Secretary, I’d like to discuss the harm we caused tonight…”
It was midnight before they were free of the apology chain and headed for the old Mercedes parked behind Il Bastone. Alex wasn’t sure if it was right or wrong to be in Darlington’s car in this moment. It felt uncomfortably like they were just on their way to pick him up, like he’d be waiting at the end of Black Elm’s long driveway with a duffel slung over his shoulder, ready to slide into the back seat, like they’d drive and keep driving until the car gave up or sprouted wings.
Dawes was a nervous driver at the best of times, and tonight it was as if she were afraid the Mercedes would combust if she pushed it over forty miles per hour. Eventually they reached the stone columns that marked the entry to Black Elm.
The woods that surrounded the house were still thick with summer leaves, so when they came upon the brick walls and gables, the house appeared too suddenly, an unpleasant surprise. A light was on in the kitchen, but they’d set that to a timer.
“Look,” said Dawes, her voice barely a breath.
Alex was already looking. They’d boarded up the windows on the second floor after Dean Sandow had deliberately botched his ritual to bring Darlington home. A faint light shone through the edges, soft, flickering amber.
Dawes parked the car outside of the garage. Her hands gripped the steering wheel, white-knuckled. “It might be nothing.”
“Then it’s nothing,” said Alex, pleased with how steady she sounded. “Stop trying to strangle the steering wheel and let’s go.”
They both shut their car doors gently, and Alex realized it was because they were afraid to disturb what might be waiting upstairs. There was a chill in the air, the first hint of the end of summer and the autumn to come. There would be no more fireflies, no more drinks on the porch or sounds of tag played late into the night.
Alex unlocked the kitchen door, and Dawes gasped as Cosmo sprang from behind the cupboards, screeching past them into the yard.
Alex thought her heart might leap straight out of her rib cage. “For fuck’s sake, cat.”
Dawes held her satchel to her chest as if it were some kind of talisman. “Did you see his fur?”
One side of Cosmo’s white fur looked like it had been singed black. Alex wanted to make some kind of excuse. Cosmo was always getting into trouble, showing up with a new scar or covered in brambles, jaws clamped around a poor murdered mouse. But she couldn’t force her mouth to make the words.
Before they’d left Il Bastone, they’d stopped in the Lethe armory for more salt, and they’d brought the silver chains. They seemed silly and useless, toys for children, old wives’ tales.
Dawes hovered at the kitchen door as if it were the actual portal to hell. “We could call Michelle or…”
“Anselm? If we summoned some kind of monster, do you really want to tell him?”
“It’s pretty quiet for a monster.” “Maybe it’s a giant snake.”
“Why did you have to say that?”
“It’s not a snake,” Alex said. “It could still be nothing. Or … an electrical fire or something.”
“I don’t smell smoke.”
So what was making that dancing light?
It didn’t matter. If Darlington were here, standing at this threshold, he wouldn’t hesitate. He’d be the knight. He’d be a lot better prepared, but he’d walk up those stairs. Protect your own. Pay your debts.
“I’m going up, Dawes. You can stay here. I won’t hold it against you.” She meant it. But Dawes followed anyway.
They plunged past the brightly lit kitchen and into the dark. Alex never explored Black Elm’s other rooms when she came to feed Cosmo or pick up the mail. They were too silent, too still. It felt like walking through a bombed-out church.
Dawes paused at the bottom of the grand staircase. “Alex—” “I know.”
Sulfur. Not as powerful as it had been at Scroll and Key but unmistakable.
Alex felt a cold bead of sweat roll down her neck. They could turn back, try to arm themselves better, get help, call Michelle Alameddine and tell her they’d gone ahead and done something stupid. But Alex felt like she couldn’t stop herself. She was the cannonball. She was the bullet. And the gun had gone off when Dawes had told her there’d been some kind of disturbance at the house. You want to open a door that isn’t meant to be opened. There was nothing to do but keep going.
At the top of the stairs, they paused again. That same golden light flickered in the hallway, filtering out from beneath the closed ballroom door. She could hear Dawes breathing—in through the nose, out through the mouth—trying to calm herself as they approached the door. Alex reached for the handle and yanked her hand back with a hiss. It was hot to the touch.
“What did we do?” Dawes asked on a trembling breath.
Alex wrapped her shirt around her hand, grasped the handle, and pulled open the door.
The heat hit them in a gust, an oven door opening. The smell here wasn’t sulfuric; it was almost sweet, like wood burning.
The room was dusty, its boarded-up windows as sad as ever, the walls littered with weights and workout equipment. They hadn’t bothered to clean up the chalk circle they’d created for Sandow’s failed new moon ritual. No one had wanted to return to the ballroom, to remember the hellbeast looming above them, the cries of murder, the horrible finality of it all.
Now Alex was grateful they’d all been such cowards. The chalk circle glowed golden, less a circle than a shimmering wall, and at its center, Daniel Tabor Arlington V sat cross-legged, naked as a baby in the bath. Two horns curled back from his forehead, their ridges gleaming as if shot through with molten gold, and his body was covered in bright markings. A wide golden collar ringed his neck, ornamented with rows of garnet and jade.
“Oh,” said Dawes, her eyes darting around the room as if afraid to let her gaze land anywhere, but finally settling in the far corner—the place most distant from the sight of Darlington’s cock, which was very erect and shining like a supercharged, oversized glowstick.
His eyes were closed and his hands rested lightly atop his knees, palms down, as if he were meditating.
“Darlington?” Alex choked out.
Nothing. The heat seemed to be radiating directly from him. “Daniel?”
Dawes took a shuffling step forward, her Tevas smacking against the dusty floorboards, but Alex blocked her with an outstretched arm.
“Don’t,” she said. “We don’t even know if that’s him.” Whatever survived in hell wouldn’t be the Darlington you know.
Dawes looked helpless. “His hair grew out.”
It took a second for Alex to catch up, but Dawes was right. Darlington’s hair had always been kept tidy but not too tidy, as effortless as the rest of him. Now it curled around his neck. Apparently there were no barbers in hell.
“He … he doesn’t look hurt,” Alex ventured. No scars, no bruises, all his limbs intact. But she knew that she and Dawes were thinking the same thing: that while they’d been trying to solve the mystery of how to get into hell and living their lives, watching TV, eating ice cream, and planning for
the school year, Darlington had been alive and trapped, maybe being tortured, in hell.
Had she not quite believed it? Despite her talk of the gentleman demon? Despite the arguments she’d made to Anselm and the board? Had some of her thought everyone else was right and that this ridiculous quest was just another opportunity to throw herself into harm’s way and appease her own guilt over his death?
But here he was. Or someone who looked very much like him.
“The circle is binding him,” Dawes said. “It’s Sandow’s old casting.”
Hear the silence of an empty home. No one will be made welcome. When Sandow had realized Darlington might be alive on the other side, he’d used the last moments of the ritual to ban him from Black Elm and the living world.
Dawes tilted her head to one side. “I think he’s trapped.” Then it was as if she had woken from sleep. She looked almost panicked. “We have to find a way to get him out.”
Alex cast a glance at the horned and naked creature sitting in what her mother would have praised as a very fine sukhasana pose. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
But Dawes was already striding toward the circle. She reached for it. “Dawes—”
As soon as her hand broke the perimeter of the circle, Dawes screamed.
She stumbled backward, clutching her fingers to her chest.
Alex lunged for her, pulling her away. The smell of sulfur overwhelmed her again and she had to struggle not to gag. She crouched beside Dawes and forced her to release her wrist. Dawes’s fingertips were singed black. Alex remembered Cosmo howling out of the kitchen. He’d tried to cross the circle too. He’d tried to get to Darlington.
“Come on,” Alex said. “I’m getting you back to Il Bastone. There’s got to be some kind of potion or balm or something there, right?”
“We can’t leave him,” Dawes protested as Alex dragged her to her feet. Darlington sat silent and unmoving like some kind of golden idol.
“He’s not going anywhere.”
“It’s our fault. If I had finished the ritual, if the portal—”
“Dawes,” Alex said, giving her a shake. “That’s not how this works.
Sandow sent the hellbeast—”
A low growl rumbled through the room. Darlington hadn’t moved, but there was no question that sound had come from him. Alex felt a shiver pass over her.
“I don’t think he likes that,” whispered Dawes.
Is it you? Alex wanted to ask. She wanted to try charging straight through that circle. Would she end in a heap of cinders? A pile of salt? And what was waiting on the other side of that shimmering veil? Darlington? Or something wearing his skin?
“Come on,” she said, herding Dawes out of the ballroom and down the stairs. She didn’t want to leave him, but she didn’t want to be in that room a minute longer.
Alex was locking up the kitchen door when her phone buzzed. She drew it from her pocket, keeping one eye on Dawes, one on the light from the boarded-up windows above. She hesitated when she saw the name on her screen.
“It’s Turner,” she said, pushing Dawes toward the car. “Detective Turner?”
Alex scowled and replied: You call me. Remember how?
She didn’t know why she was bitter. She hadn’t heard from Turner in months. She’d understood he was angry after the dean’s death, but she’d thought he liked her and that they’d managed some pretty good investigating together. To her surprise her phone rang almost immediately. She’d been sure Turner would ignore her. He didn’t like to be told.
Alex put the detective on speaker.
“You do remember,” she said. She nudged Dawes toward the passenger seat and whispered, “I’m driving.” Dawes really must have been hurting because she didn’t protest.
“I’ve got a body at the med school,” said Turner.
“I’m guessing there are a lot of bodies at the med school.” “I need you or someone to come take a look.”
That stung too. Turner knew better than most what she’d been through last year, but apparently she was just a Lethe deputy now.
“There’s something that isn’t sitting right. Just come by, tell me I’m seeing things, and we can go back to not talking.”
Alex didn’t want to go. She didn’t want Turner to just be able to call her up when he wanted to and not before. But he was Centurion and she was Dante. Virgil.
“Fine. But you owe me.”
“I don’t owe you shit. This is your actual job.”
He hung up. Alex was tempted to stand him up on principle. But better to worry about a dead body than whatever was sitting in the ballroom at Black Elm. She reversed too fast and the tires kicked up a spray of gravel.
You’re not fleeing a crime scene, Stern. Calm down.
She refused to look in the rearview mirror. She didn’t want to see that flickering golden light.
Dawes huddled against the passenger-side door. She looked like she might be ill. “Another murder?”
“He didn’t actually say. Just a body.”
“You don’t … Could it be related to what we did?”
Damn. Alex hadn’t even considered that. It seemed unlikely, but rituals had all kinds of magical blowback, particularly when they went wrong.
“I doubt it,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “Do you want me to come with you?”
Part of her did. Dawes was a better representative of Lethe than Alex would ever be. She would know what to look for, what to say. But Dawes was injured inside and out. She needed a chance to heal and wallow a little in her guilt and grief. Alex knew the feeling.
“No, you’re Oculus. This is Dante business.”
Dawes looked absurdly comforted by that. She wasn’t giving in to fear.
She was following protocol.
They drove with the windows down, the night cool around them. They could be anywhere right now. They could be anyone, free of fear or duty, headed someplace good. Vacation. A night out. A house somewhere up the
coast. Darlington could be sprawled out in the back, duffel tucked under the seat, hands folded beneath his head. They could be all right.
“Was it him?” Dawes whispered in the dark, the night air snatching her words, casting them out into the sleeping city, the houses and fields beyond. Alex didn’t know what to say, so she turned on the radio and drove toward campus, waiting to see the lights of Il Bastone that would tell her
she was home.
Darlington managed the challenge of the jackals easily—no surprise. He’s got Lethe written all over him and it’s nice to see someone genuinely enjoying all Il Bastone has to offer. When I explained the particulars of Hiram’s elixir, he recited Yeats to me. “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I know the quote and I’ve always hated it. It’s too easy to believe that we’re being watched and studied by something with infinite patience, as we rush unknowing toward an irreversible moment of revelation.
My new Dante is eager and I suspect my primary task will be to keep that enthusiasm from killing him. How easily he speaks of magic, as if it is not forbidden, as if it does not always ask a terrible price.
—Lethe Days Diary of Michelle Alameddine (Hopper