Landis sleeps in fits and starts, waking up what feels like every few minutes to roll over, to throw the covers off or pull them back on. There’s a wild discomfort under his skin that he can’t place. The bed is too big, too soft, with too many pillows and no couch-back to press himself up against. And he’s having dreams again, not the usual nightmares, but strange, surreal images painted on the backs of his eyelids as he tries to keep them shut. A pair of glowing green irises, peering out from the dark crack of an open doorway. A neon motel sign, looming over a highway like an angel descending from heaven, asking HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE BACK?
Landis’s eyes snap open just as he feels himself rolling off the bed and onto the floor. He’s too late to stop himself from hitting the ground, and groans as his head bounces off the plush carpet. Otter and Walker are probably sleeping like babies. What the fuck is wrong with you, aside from the obvious?
He tries to struggle upwards, to his feet, and finds himself cocooned in bedsheets, one arm bent close to his chest as though held in a sling. Painstakingly, Landis untangles himself, also managing to find his pants in the process as he drags his body along the floor. He puts them on as soon as he’s up. If he’s not going to sleep, he may as well take a walk to clear his head. Hopefully there will be servants around to point him back to his room when he inevitably gets lost.
He peeks into the two rooms flanking his own, and finds both Otter and Walker, predictably, fast asleep. From there, Landis lets his mind wander as his feet guide him around the house, up and down different sets of stairs, in and out of rooms full of furniture but devoid of people. Eventually, he finds himself exiting a large pair of doors and stepping outside, onto a terrace that seems like another world entirely. Most of it is taken up by a huge, rectangular pool, bordered by a polished marble walkway about half a yard wide. Clusters of candles float on top of the water, and several paths of stepping stones cut lengthwise through the pool, allowing easy passage back and forth to any side of the terrace.
As Landis stops to take in the view, he slowly registers that he isn’t alone. Abyss is sitting on the marble walkway directly across from him, sipping a teacup and dipping their feet into the pool. As the doors slam shut behind Landis, Abyss looks up and gives him a small smile.
Landis nods. He’s wary of the pool - it’s impossible to discern how deep it is just by looking - but decides to take his chances crossing it by way of the stepping stones. Though they look like they’re floating on top of the water, they feel strangely solid underfoot, as though cemented in place. Landis tries not to think about that too hard, and makes his way over to sit next to Abyss. He pulls his knees up and hugs them to his chest, the marble cool and pleasant against his bare toes, and sneaks a glance into Abyss’s teacup, glimpsing something dark and viscous before Abyss catches him looking.
“Hot chocolate,” they say, by way of explanation. “One of the most worthwhile things humans have invented in the past few centuries, in my humble opinion. I don’t like to drink liquor this late - it only really serves to upset my stomach.”
Landis makes a small sound of affirmation, but otherwise says nothing.
“I could send for another cup, if you like,” Abyss offers. “Or some tea, if it would help you sleep.”
“I don’t think it will,” Landis says. His mind is racing, his thoughts nearly faster than he can keep up with. This is your chance - the others aren’t around, you’ve got Abyss all to yourself, and they can tell you if your idea is stupid or not. There’s no way they wouldn’t know. Why are you so scared to ask? Either it’s a viable idea or it isn’t - and if it isn’t, you haven’t really lost anything, because you haven’t even tried to put it into practice yet. You might as well know if it’s going to work before you go ahead and do it.
“Do you know who Austin’s fighting?” he asks, trying to quiet down the discord in his head. Might as well at least know what his chances are before I do something stupid. “Like, if he stands a chance, or…?”
“His opponent?” Abyss looks thoughtful. “Some witch who summoned Kesi - Naberius’s opponent - to make a contract with him, I believe. I think she was really trying to summon Crocell, but since Crocell is gone, you know, all of their summons have been transferred to Kesi.”
Landis furrows his eyebrows. “Why’s that?”
“Oh, bureaucracy, mostly. He inherited Crocell’s title and estate when they were banished.”
Abyss’s upper lip curls in distaste. Landis gets the impression that they don’t particularly like Kesi much - and Naberius must not, either, regardless of which one actually challenged the other to a duel. Still, interesting that Austin’s opponent is a witch who was trying to summon Crocell. Landis wonders, idly, how many of those there are in the world.
Don’t get your hopes up, though, he chides himself. The chances that it’s actually a witch from Antlers are pretty astronomically low.
He clears his throat. “Can I ask something else?”
“You just did,” Abyss says, amusedly, and takes a sip of hot chocolate. “But go ahead.”
“It might be really stupid.”
“You humans are always saying that, and yet, I’ve never heard a single one of you actually ask a stupid question.” Abyss smiles over the rim of their teacup.
“Well, not stupid. It - the answer might be really obvious, to a demon, I mean.” Landis hugs his knees a little tighter, running his thumb around the frayed circumference of a tear in his jeans. “But I don’t know a lot about demons, or contracts, or any of that stuff.”
“You have a question about contracts,” Abyss says.
Landis nods. He swallows, his Adam’s apple feeling like a tight knot in his throat. Now or never. Ask the question, or don’t.
“Are contracts…” he trails off, gesturing a little with one hand as he tries to think of the proper words. “Are they, you know, transferrable? Like, hypothetically, could a human or demon take on a friend’s contract, so long as all the terms stay the same? Would that work?”
Abyss looks him over in silence for an extremely long time.
“That is a very stupid idea,” they say, finally.
“I know,” Landis says.
“You’ll have to fight in his place.”
“Austin has been training -”
“I’ve killed before,” Landis says. “Eight people. Austin hasn’t.”
Abyss raises their eyebrows - or rather, the spaces where their eyebrows should be - and says nothing. They finish their hot chocolate and set their teacup aside, the porcelain gently clinking against the marble.
“There is precedent for contracts being transferred from person to person,” they say, sounding a little resigned. “Not directly before a duel, of course, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done. All of the parties involved in the original contract would have to agree to the transfer, of course, and the original terms of the contract couldn’t be changed.”
“I’m not really worried about the terms,” Landis says. He stands up, the temperature outside feeling suddenly colder as he sets out across the stepping stones again. There’s still not the proper amount of give that he expects from putting his weight on them, but it feels more natural, crossing them the second time around.
“You don’t think Austin could do it?” Abyss asks from behind him. “Kill someone in combat?”
“I’d rather him not have to find out,” Landis says, “if he could or not.”
He leaves the terrace without another word, slipping soundlessly through the large doors and back into Abyss’s estate.