“What?” Austin asks, dumbfounded. Then: “No. No, no fucking way. You can’t just - you can’t just walk here and - that’s not how -” He stops to collect himself, tearing his eyes away from Landis and affixing them on Naberius. “He can’t just do that, right?”
Naberius’s eyebrows are furrowed in concern. “Well, there’s precedent for it, certainly. But it’s never been done right before a duel.”
“Abyss said it could still be done,” Landis objects. His hands are starting to shake, and he can feel his heartbeat speeding up, hammering painfully into his ribs. He fights his body to breathe normally. He can’t decide if it’s the anxiety at having to kill someone again finally setting in, or residual stress from being unexpectedly kissed. Whatever it is, he tells himself, you’d better save it for later.
“Did they,” Naberius says, giving Abyss a positively withering look. They shrug.
“Technically, it can. You’ll just have to delay the duel by a few minutes, and run the risk of an angry audience.”
“Wait,” Austin interrupts. There’s an expression on his face that Landis can’t read, somewhere between angry and disappointed. “Don’t I get a say in this? I don’t want Landis to have to kill anyone again, not on my account.”
“I don’t want you to have to kill anyone,” Landis says, with emphasis.
“Gen isn’t just anyone,” Austin snaps. “She’s the reason we’re all in this mess in the first place. If I was going to kill anyone, it would probably be her.”
“Killing her isn’t going to just erase everything that happened,” Otter says quietly. When Austin whirls on him, looking ready to retort, he just stares him down. “You know I’m right. It’ll make you feel better, sure, but killing someone is…you can’t take that back, Austin. And it won’t fix anything.”
Austin sputters, his face going from pale to flushed in a matter of seconds. He clenches his fists - Landis can see his knuckles turn white around the handle of the dagger, and wonders briefly if Austin isn’t just going to march into the ring and end the argument that way. But instead, Austin stays still, wordlessly fuming at the circle of people surrounding him.
“Technically, if you don’t agree to it, the transfer is null,” Naberius tells Austin.
“Well then, I don’t agree!” Austin says.
Walker, who has been watching the exchange as though it were a particularly engaging tennis match, clears his throat.
“What if I do it?”
“Bullshit,” Austin says, before anyone else can respond. “You’ve never killed anyone before.”
“Maybe I have!” Walker protests. He looks offended, but Landis can tell just by looking at him that Austin’s right.
If he’d killed anyone before, with those powers of his, he’d be a little less reckless with them now. Landis rubs his thumb over the tiny scab where his hangnail tore earlier, chewing the inside of his cheek. Besides, isn’t he -
“You can’t,” Naberius interrupts. “You have powers vastly superior to most humans’. It tips the scales too much - every champion, in every duel, has to be given a fighting chance at survival. Otherwise, the matches are decided in a matter of minutes.”
Walker arches an eyebrow, his lips curling into a smug smile. “Vastly superior, huh?”
“Well, then Austin should let Landis do it,” Otter says. Austin looks at him like he’s just suggested child murder.
“Are you serious?”
“I am,” Otter says, and nods. “Look, Landis has killed people before, right? That was kind of his job for a while. No offense, Landis.”
Landis blinks, too stunned by his own argument being taken away from him to say much.
“So,” Otter goes on, “all I’m saying is, maybe he’s, uh, better equipped to do the job.”
“No,” Austin says. His expression is dark, but he redirects his glare away from Otter, towards the ground. “Absolutely not. I’m not letting Landis -”
“Could you shut up for a fucking second?” Landis asks abruptly, raising his voice so sharply that everyone around falls silent. Even Naberius and Abyss, engaged in a private debate of their own, freeze in place.
Austin looks up at him, stunned. “I -”
“No,” Landis says, “ I’m talking now.” He takes a deep, shaky breath, feeling his Adam’s apple bob erratically in his throat. “I know you like to rush into danger, and I know you think you can handle it on your own, but that’s how you ended up here in the first place. You thought you could handle something alone, and you almost died doing it. Just,” his voice cracks, and he swallows. “Just, for once, can you let someone help you? Can you let me at least try?”
He can feel everyone else’s eyes on him, but tries not to shrink away, looking at Austin so hard that pain starts to blossom behind his temples. Austin’s mouth opens slightly, like he’s trying to speak, but he shuts it tight again.
“I literally would have died if you hadn’t pulled the bullshit you did at the lake,” Landis says, to fill the uneasy silence. “At least let me return the favor.”
Austin is quiet a while longer, then turns away from everyone, leaning on the wall that surrounds the arena. He sets his dagger down on top of the wall and scrubs at his eyes with the heels of his hands. Landis is sure he hears him sniffle, and when Austin turns back around, his eyes are red and watery. No one mentions it.
“Fine,” Austin says. His voice is thick and exhausted, and he holds out his dagger to Landis. “Fine. I concede, or whatever.”
Landis takes the dagger gingerly in his hands. It’s heavier than he was expecting - there’s more of a heft to it than a utility knife. He holds it with its tip carefully pointed towards the ground, and approaches Naberius and Abyss, who seem to have concluded whatever argument they were previously engaged in.
“Transfer Austin’s contract to me,” he tells Naberius, who heaves a deep and long-suffering sigh.
“Well, yes, I suppose I’d better.”
“Shouldn’t you clear it with Samael first?” the strange, non-human humanoid at Naberius’s elbow, a living shadow dressed in a servant’s uniform, speaks up.
Before anyone else can respond, there’s a loud crackling sound, and someone else appears in the center of the group in a puff of scentless, white smoke. As it clears, Landis can see that the newcomer is taller than even Walker, dressed in a pinstripe suit clearly tailored to cling to his skinny frame. His hair is blond, combed carefully in a pompadour to accommodate the two, large rams horns curling out from either side of his head.
“Speak of the Devil,” the living shadow mutters.
“What’s the holdup, Nab?” the newcomer - Samael? - asks, with a grin full of fangs that look razor sharp. “ The audience is getting antsy.”
“Austin wants to…transfer his contract,” Naberius says. His voice sounds oddly strained. “We weren’t certain of the logistics of doing it so soon before a duel, and -”
Samael begins to laugh before Naberius is even finished. “Are you kidding me? A last minute change-up? Kesi’s going to have a damn conniption.”
“Well,” Austin says begrudgingly, “we tried, at least.”
“Oh, God, no. Not what I meant.” Samael waves a hand dismissively, still chuckling a little. “By all means, go on and do it. It’s been ages since we got any good drama around here.” He looks back over his shoulder, across the arena. “Can I tell Kesi?”
“Someone should,” Abyss says pleasantly.
Samael vanishes again, in another puff of smoke, still cackling. Landis turns to look out across the arena, and sees Samael reappear on the other side, in front of Gen and the demon who must be Kesi. Their body language quickly turns to anger and indignation as Samael speaks to them. Good. Let them be distracted by that - it’ll give me a leg up in the fight if Gen can’t think straight.
“Was that the Devil?” Walker asks, weakly, somewhere nearby.
“Yeah,” Austin says. He’s already moving again, towards Naberius, with businesslike purpose. “You get used to it. Let’s do this contract thing, already.”