Home > Hell Bent (Alex Stern #2)

Hell Bent (Alex Stern #2)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

 


PART I

As Above

 

 

November

Alex approached Black Elm as if she were sidling up to a wild animal, cautious in her walk up the long, curving driveway, careful not to show her fear. How many times had she made this walk? But today was different. The house appeared through the bare branches of the trees, as if it had been waiting for her, as if it had heard her footsteps and anticipated her arrival. It didn’t crouch like prey. It stood, two stories of gray stone and peaked roofs, a wolf with paws planted and teeth bared. Black Elm had been tame once, glossy and preening. But it had been left on its own too long.

The boarded-up windows on the second floor made it all so much worse, a wound in the wolf’s side that, left untended, might turn it mad.

She slotted her key into the old back door and slipped into the kitchen. It was chillier inside than out—they couldn’t afford to keep the place heated, and there was no reason to. But despite the cold and the mission she’d come here to fulfill, the room still felt welcoming. Copper pans hung in neat rows above the big vintage stove, bright and ready, eager to be used. The slate floor was spotless, the counters wiped clean and set with a milk bottle full of holly branches that Dawes had arranged just so. The kitchen was the most functional room of Black Elm, alive with regular care, a tidy temple of light. This was how Dawes dealt with all they’d done, with the thing lurking in the ballroom.

Alex had a routine. Well, Dawes had a routine and Alex tried to follow it, and it felt like a rock to cling to now as fear tried to drag her under. Unlock the door, sort the mail and set it on the counter, fill Cosmo’s bowls with fresh food and water.

They were usually empty, but today Cosmo had tipped the food on its side, scattering the floor with fish-shaped pellets, as if in protest. Darlington’s cat was mad at being left alone. Or frightened by not being quite so alone anymore.

“Or maybe you’re just a picky little shit,” Alex muttered, cleaning up the food. “I’ll pass your comments along to the chef.”

She didn’t like the sound of her voice, brittle in the quiet, but she made herself finish slowly, methodically. She filled the water and food bowls, tossed out the junk mail addressed to Daniel Arlington, and tucked a water bill into her bag that she would take back to Il Bastone. Steps in a ritual, performed with care, but they offered no protection. She considered making coffee. She could sit outside in the winter sunlight and wait for Cosmo to come find her, when he saw fit to leave off prowling the messy tangle of the hedge maze for mice. She could do that. Push her worry and anger aside, and try to solve this puzzle, even though she didn’t want to complete the picture emerging with every new and nasty piece.

Alex glanced up at the ceiling as if she were able to see through the floorboards. No, she couldn’t just sit on the porch and pretend everything was as it should be, not when her feet wanted to climb those stairs, not when she knew she should run the other way, lock the kitchen door behind her, pretend she’d never heard of this place. Alex had come here for a reason, but now she wondered at her stupidity. She wasn’t up to this task. She’d talk to Dawes, maybe even Turner. For once she’d make a plan instead of rushing headlong into disaster.

She washed her hands at the sink, and it was only when she turned to reach for a towel that she saw the open door.

Alex dried her hands, trying to ignore the way her heart had leapt into a run. She had never noticed that door in the butler’s pantry, a gap between the pretty glass cupboards and shelves. She’d never seen it open before. It shouldn’t be open now.

Dawes might have left it that way. But Dawes was licking her wounds from the ritual and hiding behind her rows of index cards. She hadn’t been here in days, not since she had set those holly branches on the kitchen counter, making a picture of what life should be. Clean and easy. An antidote to the rest of their days and nights, to the secret above.

She and Dawes never bothered with the butler’s pantry, its rows of dusty dishes and glassware, its soup terrine the size of a small bathtub. It was one of the many vestigial limbs of the old house, disused and forgotten, left to atrophy since Darlington’s disappearance. And they certainly never bothered with the basement. Alex had never even thought about it. Not until now, standing at the kitchen sink, surrounded by tidy blue tiles painted with windmills and tall ships, staring at that black gap, a perfect rectangle, a sudden void. It looked as if someone had simply peeled away part of the kitchen. It looked like the mouth of a grave.

Call Dawes.

Alex leaned against the counter.

Back out of the kitchen and call Turner.

She set down the towel and drew a knife from the block beside the sink. She wished there were a Gray nearby, but she didn’t want to risk calling one to her.

The size of the house, its deep silence, sat heavy around her. She glanced up again, thought of the golden shimmer of the circle, the heat it gave off. I have appetites. Had those words excited her when they should have only made her afraid?

Alex walked quietly toward the open door, the absence of a door. How deep had they dug when they’d built this house? She could count three, four, five stone steps leading down into the basement, and then they faded into the dark. Maybe there were no more stairs. Maybe she would take a step, fall, keep falling into the cold.

She felt along the wall for a light switch, then looked up and saw a ratty piece of twine dangling from an exposed bulb. She yanked on it, and the stairs were flooded with warm yellow light. The bulb made a comforting hum.

“Shit,” Alex said on a breath. Her terror dissolved, leaving nothing but embarrassment in its place. Just stairs, a wooden railing, shelves stacked with rags, cans of paint, tools lining the wall. A faint, musty smell rose up from the dark below, a vegetable stink, the hint of rot. She heard the drip of water and the shuffle of what might have been a rat.

She couldn’t quite make out the base of the stairs, but there had to be another switch or bulb below. She could go down there, make sure no one had been rooting around, see if she and Dawes needed to set out traps.

But why was the door open?

Cosmo could have nudged it on one of his ratting expeditions. Or maybe Dawes really had popped by and gone down to the basement for something ordinary—weed killer, paper towels. She’d forgotten to close up properly.

So Alex would shut the door. Lock it tight. And if, by chance, there was something down there that wasn’t meant to be down there, it could stay right where it was until she called for reinforcements.

She reached for the twine and paused there, hand gripping the string, listening. She thought she heard—there, again, a soft hiss.

The sound of her name. Galaxy.

“Fuck this.” She knew how this particular movie ended, and there was no way she was going down there.

She yanked on the twine and heard the pop of the bulb, then felt a hard shove between her shoulder blades.

Alex fell. The knife clattered from her hands. She fought the urge to reach out to break her fall and covered her head instead, letting her shoulder take the brunt of it. She half-slid, half-tumbled to the base of the stairs, and hit the floor hard, her breath flooding out of her like a draft through a window. The door above her slammed. She heard the lock click. She was in the dark.

Her heart was racing now. What was down here with her? Who had locked her in with it? Get up, Stern. Get your shit together. Get ready to fight.

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