The stands are silent as Gen lifts the guillotine blade made of her own blood up into the air. Austin feels like the wind’s been knocked out of him, his stomach strangely hollow, his throat tight with panic. He barely has time to wonder what Gen is saying to Landis before she swings her arm down, the blade coming with it. Austin looks away, bile suddenly rising up through his chest, and clasps a hand over his mouth to keep from vomiting as the crowd begins to cheer. It’s almost a given that the next time he looks back, he’ll see Gen kneeling over Landis’s decapitated corpse, Landis’s blood staining the sand in a puddle underneath of him.
But nothing happens to signify the end of the match - no bell, no announcement from Samael - and Austin looks to one side to see that Otter and Walker are both on their feet, cheering, Otter pumping one fist in the air. What?
Austin swallows back the urge to throw up and forces himself to look back at the arena. Landis is alive. On his feet, even - and looking somehow even livelier than he did before. His dagger is soaked in blood, dripping from the blade onto the sand as he puts distance between himself and Gen, and it doesn’t take Austin long to put the pieces together. The solid stuff Gen makes out of blood turns back into a liquid on impact. He forced her blade to hit the dagger instead of his neck. Pretty smart.
How much longer can she keep it up? Austin wonders, as Gen staggers slowly to her feet. Her leggings are torn, stained with blood and dirt, and she looks suddenly much worse for wear than Landis. Every time she wants to attack him, she has to use up more of her own blood. I’ll bet she expected this to be over by now - and if it were me down there, it might have been. But Landis is really wearing her out.
“Listen,” Morse says, tearing Austin’s attention away from the center of the arena, “your friend might not get so lucky again. If you’re going to try and stop the duel, you should get a move on.”
“Morse is right,” Naberius says. He stands, unfolding himself from his seat, and reaches across Morse to put a hand on Austin’s shoulder. “We should, ah, ‘get a move on.’”
Austin opens his mouth to respond, but doesn’t get the chance. His stomach drops, a similar sensation to being on a roller coaster as it starts to descend, only this particular roller coaster is tearing him out of reality and into a featureless void. Naberius’s hand is still on his shoulder, squeezing it too tightly, and Austin barely even blinks before the void is gone, replaced with a shroud of dense, grey smoke. The smell of sulfur fills his nose without warning, and he doubles over to cough once Naberius lets go of him.
“You could’ve warned me,” he says hoarsely, glaring up at Naberius, who shrugs.
“I assumed you could handle it. It’s how I brought you to Hell in the first place.”
“I was half-dead,” Austin groans.
The smoke has cleared enough for him to vaguely understand where they are - somewhere within the arena, as he can see the stands around them, and Landis and Gen still duking it out in the middle. It seems somehow less sunny than before, and Austin glances upwards to see a canopy, held in place at each corner by a tall, metal pole. The tall, throne-like chair several feet ahead, its back to Naberius and Austin, slots the last puzzle piece in place in Austin’s mind.
“I assumed when you said ‘get word to Samael’, you meant by messenger,” he says under his breath, shooting Naberius another glare.
“Normally that is how it would be done,” Naberius replies, also under his breath. “But I thought the situation required a bit more expediency. And he seems to like you, for some reason I have yet to discern.”
Perfect. Austin takes a step forwards, towards the throne, and nearly screams as someone else appears a few inches in front of his face with a sharp popping sound. He reels backwards several steps, getting a better look at the newcomer as he does so. It’s not Samael, but another, shorter demon that bears a striking resemblance to him, save for darker skin and smaller, straighter horns that protrude directly out of his forehead. He’s dressed similarly to Samael, too, but without a blazer, the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up to reveal arms covered in tattoos.
“Naberius,” the newcomer demon says, grinning. “And…guest. Weird time for a drop-in.”
“Prince Lucifer,” Naberius says through his teeth.
The demon laughs. “C’mon, you know better. Luce is fine.”
“Your Highness,” Naberius says, strained, “I acknowledge that we were not invited into your private box, but I have sensitive information pertaining to the duel that your father needs to hear as soon as possible.”
“You’re really gonna try to meddle again?” Luce looks almost impressed, looping his thumbs in his pockets and eyeing Naberius and Austin with interest. “Changing your champion right before the duel was one thing, but -”
“Luce,” Samael says warningly from his seat, “enough.”
Luce rolls his eyes, but backs off, retreating to lean against one of the poles holding the canopy up. Samael rises up to his full height, turning only to drape himself over the back of his ornate chair.
“This better be good, Naberius.”
“Kesi’s contract with Gen isn’t fair,” Austin says quickly, and maybe a little too loudly. He’s suddenly, acutely aware of the attention of all three demons in the box being directed towards him, but chooses to focus on Naberius, who looks offended. “Look, we don’t have time to beat around the bush with pleasantries, or whatever. They’re still trying to kill each other down there.”
Naberius purses his lips, but gives a small nod of acknowledgement at Austin’s point. Samael cackles.
“Kesi’s really trying to screw his human over? How do you know?”
“She told me,” Austin says. “We were talking, before the duel, and she said Kesi threatened to renege on the contract if she didn’t actually fight - if she tried to cause a stalemate or something. I think he’ll do it if she loses, too.”
“That’s a serious accusation,” Luce says.
“But one that bears investigating,” Naberius counters, folding his arms over his chest. “If what Austin says is true, that human is here under false pretenses. The Council should at least investigate the case before allowing the duel to continue.”
“You know,” Samael sighs, “this whole Crocell thing, and everything that’s come of it, is the most excitement we’ve had around here in ages. Maybe people should try to assassinate me more often.”
“Say that a little louder,” Luce says dryly, earning him a look from his father. He goes silent, but the hint of a smile still lingers around his mouth.
“So are you gonna stop the duel or what?” Austin asks. Samael laughs again, waving a hand dismissively in the air.
“Fine, fine. Just a second.”
He snaps his fingers, and the sound of a bell rings out through the arena a second time, deafeningly loud in the small space of the box. Austin watches the action in the ring carefully - Landis and Gen both freeze in place, as though unsure what to do. They’re still a good distance away from each other, not tussling like they were before, but Gen is ringed with more solid blood projectiles, and Landis has his dagger held up near his face, using the flat of it to block.
“Citizens of Hell,” Samael says, his voice booming across the arena. “In light of new information regarding the contract of one of our champions, and pending investigation by the Council, this duel is hereby postponed!”
The crowd murmurs curiously. A few demons cry out in disdain, but most stand and begin shuffling for the exits of the arena, gossiping in hushed voices, probably speculating about what, exactly was worth pausing the duel to investigate. In the ring, Austin can see Landis wobbling unsteadily on his feet towards the wall that separates him from the stands. Abyss, Otter, and Walker appear there to meet him, Otter quickly looping Landis’s arm around his shoulders and becoming his crutch. Gen looks frozen in shock, the projectiles around her dropping out of the air and smashing against the sand like broken water balloons.
“There goes Kesi,” Luce says mildly, pointing into the stands, where a short figure clad in red and brown is trying to shove his way through the crowd and out of the arena. “Should we tell the guards to detain him?”
“Nah, just tell them to pick him up at home,” Samael says, sinking back down into his seat. “They should know that estate pretty well by now.”