Hell Bent

Chronicles of the Herald: Book 1

Book Cover: Hell Bent
Part of the Chronicles of the Herald series:
  • Hell Bent

Alice Koufax is a reporter for the Herald, something her half-elf mother hates but her dad thinks is just fine, but then he works in the steel mills of Hell. Mostly, though, Alice just wants to get out of the Lifestyle section and do some real journalism.

When she’s handed the story of a football player proposing to the Mayor’s succubus daughter, she thinks it’s just another puff piece, but when that daughter goes missing and signs point to a magical curse, she’s neck deep before she knows it. Can she save the Mayor’s daughter? Prove the fiancé’s innocence? And most importantly, can she get the story in before the print deadline?


I did not start the day thinking I would end up in Hell. It was Monday, after all, and Hell is more of a Thursday thing for me. The morning staff meeting turned that around, more than anything because I hadn’t been paying attention.

Jim Ballard sat at the far end of the long conference table, tossing out stories. I stood tucked into the corner along with three other junior reporters and a fake rubber tree. The Monday meeting was the only mandatory one at the Pittsburgh Herald, and I did not rate a place at the conference table.

Sports always ran long on Mondays, and today was no exception. The Steelers had finally locked up the division the night before, but they were heading into the wild card game with an injured center. I am as much a Steelers fan as the next gal, but it was not my beat.


“So Al, I want you to do a write up on the happy couple, but not just the usual engagement announcement. I’m thinking about twenty column inches for the Sunday edition. Get a couple of photos too.”

Al. That was me, Alice Koufax, though Mom still called me Alyssa.

“The—um, the happy couple?” I stammered.

Jim looked at me in my corner. “Didn’t you watch the game last night? Dillon Whitley and the mayor’s daughter?”

I had watched the game, at least most of it, but when the Ravens’ quarterback was carried off the field in the fourth quarter, I had gone to bed. “I guess not all of it.”

Jim sighed. “Get Mason to fill you in.”

We got to Lifestyle next, and I picked up a couple more stories for the week, but I already had my big assignment. Even before Mason got to me afterward, a quick search on my phone told me. Dillon Whitley, starting tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had proposed to Lithia Pathar on national television after the game last night. This would not typically be much of story, but Lithia was not some run-of-the-mill succubus. Her father was Brakesh Pathar, a demon lord of significant influence, who also happened to be the current over-mayor of the five ’burghs.

Mason caught up to me in the hallway, and I held up the AP wire report on my phone. “I got it, Mason.”

“Don’t feel bad, Al. It was in the post-game show.”

I laughed. “Yeah, tell that to Big Jim.”

I knew I needed to get a little interview time with both Lithia and Dillon, but I also wanted to get a reaction quote from the mayor. I did not expect much from him, but if I was ever going to escape the Lifestyle ghetto, I had to get at least a taste of the politics. The big deal here wasn’t merely that it was a mixed marriage—heck, I’m one-quarter elf—but that Pathar’s line had held power in their neighborhood of Hell for over forty years, and Dillon was one of the city’s favorite sons. From homecoming king at Steel Valley High to two-time MVP over at Pitt, he was a local hero. If Pittsburgh could be said to have royalty, this couple was going to be it.

City Hall was four short blocks away, but it was twenty-two degrees outside. I made a quick call to the mayor’s office and got one of his assistants. A hint of a Karthai accent told me she was a demon, and knowing the mayor’s tastes, she was bound to be a cute little succubus not much older than Lithia. “I’m sorry, but Mayor Pathar is out of the office.”

“But I thought he worked Monday mornings Earth-side.”

“Yes, ma’am, but he’s at St. Claire’s for the opening of their new cancer wing. I believe he’ll be there for the luncheon and then is leaving for the home office.”

It was already eleven-thirty; on most days that would not have been a problem, but I had taken the train that morning. My bike was in a garage fifteen miles away, and I would never get down to St. Claire’s in thirty minutes by taxi, at least not that close to lunch. Not that I was going to let that stop me. In a city like Pittsburgh, it’s often quicker to walk, and the River Point Gate was right across the street.

I grabbed my backpack and coat and headed downstairs. Pittsburgh is a great city, especially downtown Earth-side, but January is not what you would call Chamber-of-Commerce weather. I had to jump over the roadside slush and make my way across Commonwealth to the park, and even the park was filled with dirty snow. I stayed on the sidewalk until the path branched off toward the gate.

River Point Gate has an elegant stone archway built around it, like most gates. There are even hints of the elfin architecture of upper Wizburgh, but it’s mostly just for show. I’ve read that the gates exist on their own without the surrounding superstructure, but the structures do serve some purpose. Here, for example, the stonework hides a floodgate that can be raised. This close to the where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers merge to form the Ohio, there was a real risk of floodwaters spilling out into upper Wizburgh. My brother Paul tells me that the stonework around the gates into Faeburgh hide telecom cables going through.

I took three quick steps up to the gate platform and moved to the right. There were no cars on the streets of Wizburgh, but we Americans have thoroughly indoctrinated its citizens with the notion of staying on the right side of the road. I slowed at the transition surface itself, not out of fear, of course, but because I once stumbled right into one of the city elders, and Mother lectured me for months on it. The transition was a little hazy, but I think that has more to do with the freezing temperatures on our side than any mystical properties of the gate magic. With one last step, I crossed through.

In truth, Wizburgh is purely an Americanism. To its residents it has always been Evanelle, and they don’t particularly appreciate the nickname, regardless of all the magic. The elves founded it above the upper falls back when Babylon was three rickety huts overlooking the Euphrates. Much later, around the time Persians were first doing their thing, humans settled on the lower plateau between the upper and lower waterfalls of Evanelle and became the de facto majority. The magic in that realm always flowed through the elfin blood, but there are enough mutts like me there now that wizards and magical crafters come in all stripes.

Wizburgh gates have an even larger structure around them than ours on Earth; the elves turned them into fortressed gatehouses, designed to keep people inside of them, and thus out of the city. However, today was like most days where they were a mere formality. The archway into the city before was wide open with the portcullis fully retracted and the safety blocks firmly in place. I glanced up to the stone balcony above me to see two city guards chatting, their crossbows resting against the wall, and no battle wizards on duty. It had been a long time since the last demon war, and clearly they were not expecting the next invasion to come from Pittsburgh.

I slipped past the portcullis with a nod to the single guard and into the open air. The first thing I did was open my jacket. It was already spring here in Wizburgh, its shorter year working its way around the Earth calendar sixteen days each year. Ahead of me was the Nalia River, flowing at full force as it plunged over the falls to the lower city. The upper city was spread out to my right, the elfin sensibilities informing all the architecture with stone columns, ancient trees, and vines everywhere. Weeds were not weeds up here. They were merely flowers in need of transplant. At least that is how Mother describes them.

River Point Gate is near the top of the falls in old Evanelle. The most direct route to St. Claire’s was through Restoration Gate, but that was on the far side of the upper city’s inner park ring, at least forty minutes on foot. Focus Gate, on the other hand, was at the bottom of the falls, and from there I could cross through Faeburgh to Serenity Gate in minutes.

I turned left and headed over to the lifts. A small crowd was milling around the edge, but far enough back to avoid stumbling into thin air. If the inspectors from Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works ever get their way, they’ll install some guardrails, but for now, the platform simply ends in the open air above a six-hundred-foot drop. The Council of Elders says the rails would ruin the view, and I think the same magic that drives the lifts would catch anyone that tumbled over.

Below us, the lower city was still draped in shadow, the cliffs that divide the city pushing back sunrise by several hours for the residents below. The Nalia was swollen, with the spring rains adding to the snowmelt of the Ashyr mountains. It spread out along its banks as it curved north through the lower city, churning against the levees before reaching the dam above the lower falls. I couldn’t see for sure, but it looked like at least two of the flood gates were open, sending the waters raging down the cascades before reforming into the Lower Nalia that headed west toward the distant sea.

A lift rose to the platform, the curved roof cutting off my view. I stepped on with the rest of the small crowd and we were funneled through the openings. The lifts, at least, had side rails. Ours paused for the briefest of moments before sliding over to its downward leg. I saw a teenage boy running to try to catch us, but he stopped short as soon as we started to drift down. Another lift would be passing by within the minute. At least two or three were always in rotation during the day.

The Wizburgh lifts are free-floating. At least, that is how an Earth-trained engineer would describe them. There were no cables, no rails, and no counterweights. Instead, the lift floated down on invisible beams of force, locked into its destination as securely as if it were encased in a solid shaft. Visitors from other realms find this very disconcerting at first, but I have never heard of such a serious magical installation failing without warning. Elevator cables, on the other hand, are only steel and often not even demon steel.

I stepped off as soon as we hit bottom and made my way toward the Focus Gate. Here the architecture was much more rustic, with the local human influence reigning. Most of the buildings were wood with the occasional masonry wall. The original human settlers here had not come from modern Pittsburgh, of course, and their construction techniques were still catching up to the nineteenth century.

The chief exception to all that was the Diviners’ Guild Hall. It stood across from Focus Gate in all its elfin architectural glory. Eight marble columns dominated the front of the building, with great two-by-six-foot slabs of granite filling out the walls. Even the roof was stone, with black slate shingles slick in the mist from the falls.

Mother actually lived not too far from here, but she would be at work in Upper Evanelle by now. Plus, it wasn’t like I would want to stop by anyway, and never at her home if I could avoid it. That would have meant tea and a little chat, and chats were never all that little, leading inexorably to my career, my love life, and why I needed to move to Wizburgh and find a nice elf to settle down with. Except that it was not Wizburgh to Mother. It had been Evanelle when Pittsburgh was an empty floodplain, and no silly human sense of rhyme was going to rename it.

Is it any surprise that I went to live with Dad after the divorce?

The gatehouse for Focus Gate was almost a duplicate of the River Point gatehouse above the falls, but where that gate had been decorated with carvings of humans, this one had much more abstract adornments, almost as abstract as Faeburgh itself. The guards inside barely registered my passage, and I stepped through without a worry.

If you have never been to the city of the Fae, it is not nearly as strange as you may have heard. Yes, it is strange, but if you are prepared, it is quite manageable. In fact, if you have a choice, I highly recommend Focus Gate over the more convenient Serenity Gate, but none of my friends in Pittsburgh ever seem to take that advice.

On the Faeburgh side, Focus Gate is at the heart of the information district, and while there is no structure surrounding the transition plane, the surrounding plaza is an amazing piece of stonework. It is not actually stone, of course. It is merely the idea of stone, but it looks and feels solid enough, forming a spiraling pattern that pulls your eyes toward the gate. On Earth, I could just as easily describe it as radiating outward from the gate, but not here. Here there was no doubt in my mind that the pattern was directed toward Focus Gate.

But that is the way things are in the city of the Fae. The same way we build with stone and steel, they build with ideas, and those ideas are alive. That is why I encourage people to try Focus Gate rather than Serenity. Here my thoughts were crisp. I knew where I was, why I was there, and what I had to do next. Focused. My brother’s office was nearby, and while I would have enjoyed a visit, that was clearly not on my agenda. I marched forward with a purpose, crossed the plaza, and made a left onto Memory.

Ironically, Memory is an avenue here, not a lane, but the metaphor still applies. Marble statues adorned each of the storefronts. Every one of them was a person I knew. The people on the street all looked familiar, and if you had caught me in that moment, I could have recited the Steelers’ win-loss record back into the ’30s with play-by-play for each of their Superbowls.

As much as I try to warn people away from Serenity Gate, that was my destination, and while the more obvious route went through places like Imagination, Dream, a long trip along Fantasy, and then to Bliss, I didn’t have that kind of time. Instead, I was taking a shortcut, one Paul had taught me last year, though I never asked him how he learned it.

I paused near a statue that reminded me of my most recent boyfriend and looked around. I found it after a moment. To me, it was a crack in the wall, large enough to pass through but with jagged edges. I started toward it, but a woman stepped in front of me. She was not my mother, but she had Mother’s disapproving scowl. “Miss, you don’t want to go that way.”

But I brushed her aside. “Thanks, but I know what I’m doing.”

And so I stepped into Vengeance.

Finding your way through the fairy realm is always something of a personal journey. I heard that you have to think your way through it, but to me it was always more a matter of feeling your way through. The routes you find say more about you than the layout of the city. They also say that therapy is an important step to a thorough exploration of Faeburg. Then again, some places in the city will send you back to therapy all over again. Vengeance is one of those places.

I find it uncomfortable, and it eats at me. The worst part is where it crosses Madness. I suppose it does not cross it so much as Madness branches off of Vengeance. At least it does for me. Paul made no mention of it the first time he brought me this way. I have run into Madness in three parts of the city. I cannot imagine how they connect, but one look down that dark, twisty lane was enough to remind me that I have no desire to find out. So I scurried on past, trying not to meet the eyes of the two other travelers on this street. I could accept that it was a useful shortcut, but part of me was still angry with Paul for ever showing it to me.

None too soon, I crossed onto Justice. Justice is a much nicer place than Vengeance. It’s a broad street with ornate buildings of marble and glass. It reminds me of the Mall in Washington D.C., but done on a working man’s scale. Part of me wanted to catch my breath, or maybe my sanity, but instead I picked up the pace.

Two fae paused in their conversation as I jogged past. Both were men, or at least appeared so, and they were as beautiful as you would expect. Although they were not presenting themselves with wings, they still had that look of radiance. The taller one watched me intently. I tried to keep my thoughts on my path. To the fae, most of us are mental megaphones on legs, and it bugs me to think what I might be broadcasting.

One block past Mercy, I took a left on Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a pleasant road. I find it very homey, and it always smells fresh, like a forest after a spring rain. I found myself slowing up as the road broadened out into Serenity Park.

Serenity is everything you would expect it to be, but richer. It is always day in Faeburgh, but only in Serenity do I feel the sun on my face—not too hot, mind you, just warm like that first real day of spring. I could feel the grass tickling between my toes, even through my boots, and while I could not see them, I could hear children laughing in the distance.

I started toward Serenity Gate, but a tree beckoned. Its broad canopy painted a most inviting shade on the ground below. I took a few steps into that shade, and the sun on my face was replaced by a refreshing breeze carrying a delicate hint of jasmine. A ring of benches surrounded the trunk, and they looked so inviting. I circled around to find the best spot, and that was where I found her.

She was human and on the far side of fifty. Her winter jacket was on the ground, propping up her bare feet. She smiled up at me, but her eyes never quite connected with mine. Beside her on the bench, a handheld sign rested on its side. “Don’t you have someplace else to be?” it read.

I nodded to the sign. I did have someplace else to be. I had a story or something. It was going to get me a promotion and national acclaim. Dad would be so proud. Even Mother would agree that it was a worthy pursuit. I pictured it in my head. I could almost read the words. In fact, I should sit down and dash it off right here.

I shook my head and backed away from the tree. I took one more look at the woman and turned back toward the gate. That is the real danger of Serenity Park. People have died in there from thirst or starvation. They were quite aware of their physical needs, but they simply did not care enough to leave. After one last moment savoring the feeling of grass beneath my feet, I stepped through the gate.

And right into the twenty-two degree Pittsburgh winter. I squeezed a few obscenities through my chattering teeth as I zipped my jacket again. I had remembered opening it up back in springtime Wizburgh, but the short stroll across Serenity pushed such wintery thoughts far from my mind.

“Are you all right, miss?” a voice called.

I looked up. I was in a clearing in the woods behind St. Clair’s Hospital. A small cluster of camp chairs were arrayed around a fire pit. Two men sat close, bundled up for the cold and drinking coffee. The one in the Steelers knit cap waved to me. “Do you need to sit for a bit?”

I stepped toward them, relishing the warmth from the fire. “You’re with St. Mark’s, right?”

He nodded. “Just doing what we can for you travelers,” he said. “It can be a tough reentry.”

I thought about the woman by the tree—the woman with the sign. “You have someone inside, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Did Mary talk to you?”

I shook my head. “I saw her, though. She’s in bad shape.”

The second man set his coffee down. “Was she by the tree?”

“Yeah, on the bench.”

He stood. “Okay, time for me to go in. Thank you, miss.”

I nodded and walked off, listening to their voices fade. “All right, John, your rent is late, and your ex is sleeping with a professional wrestler. Focus on that, and I’ll come for you in an hour.”

I shook my head. I didn’t envy any of them that crappy job, but I might not have made it through without the woman’s sign. As alluring as Serenity Park can be, I know to avoid it when feasible; today it had been worth it. I had made great time: from downtown to St. Claire’s in fifteen minutes on foot. I made my way along the wooded walkway and through the parking lot. I saw a television news van outside and realized the paper must have sent someone there as well. I tried to think of who had been missing from the morning staff meeting, but I did not have to think long. I was still in the main lobby when Max Fischer walked up behind me.

“Visiting a friend, Alice?”

I turned around and almost ran into him. At five-four, he isn’t much taller than me, but he must be almost that far around as well. Around the office, I prefer the name Al, but Max was not keen on young ladies using men’s names. “Actually I’m looking for the mayor. Can you tell me where the luncheon is?”

“The cafeteria is in the basement, but Pathar already left. Why are you looking for him anyway?” Max’s demeanor wasn’t defensive, but his tone was. I screwed him on his unicorn story last year. I still say it was not my fault, but he had good reason to be sore with me.

“His daughter got engaged last night, and Big Jim wants me to do a story on it.”

He nodded. “That’s right, the football player. Sorry, Alice, but Pathar skipped the luncheon. He did the ribbon-cutting and that was it. He must be halfway to Perdition by now.”

I cursed. That was another thing Max was not keen on. “Sorry, but I wanted to get a reaction quote from him. Did he say anything about it?”

Max ran his hand over his chin as though he actually had to think about it. “Well, let me see if I can remember …”

“Oh come on, Max. This is my first above-the-fold assignment since the turkey thing, and it’ll be for Sunday too.”

He nodded. “Okay, he said a couple of things, but I didn’t get a quote. He seemed happy about it. Tell you what, I recorded the whole thing, and I’ll email it to you tonight. See if there’s anything there you can use.”

“Thanks, but I was hoping to ask him a couple of questions too.”

He shrugged. “You want the recording or not?”

“Yes, thank you, Max. I’m just …”


I shot him a grin.

“That’s that I figured. Well, Pathar is supposed to work the rest of the day from his Karthai office. You should go after him.”

Max was right, or course. It looked like I was going to Hell. I might as well try to have lunch with Dad while I was there.