“Those are my terms,” the man said. Theo couldn’t remember if he’d gotten his name or not. “The terms are quite generous, if I do say so myself. A handshake, if you please, and your path will be forged with happier days.”
The man’s fingers were as pale and thin as his face. He waited patiently, his elbow on the little table and outstretched hand hovering above their drinks. Theo’s was empty. The strange man’s full.
That – and the sound of another chair being pulled up to their cramped table – made Theo jump and pull back. His own hand had been inches away from the man’s, he’d been about to shake. Had he wanted to? Did he want to? He couldn’t remember.
The strange man looked at the new person at the table with a sneer. He rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair.
“You have no business here, heatherheart,” the strange man said.
“By the stupid laws of your guild, I do and you know it.”
The woman who sat down between them was copper skinned with a handsome face. She sat like a man, legs wide, like she owned the table. From the way the strange man leaned away as he stared at her, it was clear they knew each other. And hated each other. She picked up the strange man’s untouched beer, sniffed at it, and then took a large sip.
“I was planning on drinking that,” he muttered.
“Oh. Sorry,” the woman said. She held it out to him and didn’t try to hide her amusement when he only looked at the glass with disgust.
“I’m sorry,” Theo said, putting his elbows on the table. “What’s going on? Who are you?”
“Name’s Esther. And I’m here to stop this.”
The strange man took off his thin glasses to clean them with a cloth that he seemed to pull from thin air. “Not necessarily. Go on. Make your case. See if it’s any better than mine.”
With that the strange man leaned back. He had a pipe in his hand. Theo didn’t know where the pipe came from. With a lit match that also was not there one second, there the next, the man lit the pipe and puffed on it a few times. Then he sat back and gestured at Esther.
“How gracious of you,” she said before turning to Theo. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Theo. Do you know who you’re talking to?”
Theo looked across the table at the strange man, who tipped his pipe at him. Theo didn’t know who this was at all. Meeting him was rather hazy. He had been sitting here, by himself, participating in that time honored tradition of staring into his beer and trying to find answers. And then the man was there. Theo couldn’t even remember the man sitting down. Certainly not introducing himself. It was like time had skipped ahead a bit, to where they were already deep in conversation.
Esther nodded as though this was exactly what she had expected. She took another sip of the beer she had stolen. Or had she? When had that beer shown up, exactly? And whose was it?
“This man you’re talking to is a shadow man, and he deals with the devil,” Esther said.
The strange man snorted. “The devil. Like there’s only one.”
“I get to speak my piece,” she said sharply, glaring at him from the corner of her eye. The man, pipe in mouth, held his hands up in surrender. She looked back at Theo, eyes soft now.
“He deals in the bad kind of magic. The stuff of devils, and hell, and evil, and darkness. Whatever terms he gave you aren’t worth it. Nothing is worth taking anything from him, or his kind.”
Theo stared at her, for the first time in however long it had been (Theo honestly still didn’t have the best grasp on the finer points of reality) he started to feel something besides bland confusion. At first, he wasn’t sure what it was. Slowly its nebulous form took a hard shape.
“Lady, I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.”
Her lips parted slightly, and the space between her eyebrows formed a crease. “His price-”
“You don’t even know what I’m getting out of this,” he said.
“I’m telling you it doesn’t matter. Nothing is worth your soul.” She glanced behind her, at the rest of the bar, but they were in the corner and away from the others. “Whatever it is he promised you, you’ll get it. Followed by an eternity in hell. Do you know how hard it is to actually get into hell otherwise? Much harder than any church folk would make you think.”
Hell. It wasn’t something he ever believed in. And, sitting there, staring at a strange man and an equally strange woman, it still wasn’t something he could really picture. What he could picture was what the man had promised. And the years he would have to figure it out. Surely he could come up with some way out of it, before his time was up.
“The terms,” Theo said slowly, “are actually very generous.”
Esther stared at him the way you stare at the man raving about spies on the subway.
“Generous? Generous? It’s a few decades of what you want, and then an eternity of what he wants. Which, in case I haven’t made clear, is literally hell. Fire. Physical pain. The music you hate the most. Forever. Literally forever. An actual eternity of pain and suffering so demons can feast on your soul. For a few decades of…what did he promise you?”
Theo didn’t see how that was any of her business. He didn’t see how any of this was her business. Hell, if it was real, was decades away. What he wanted now, could be his. Now.
He looked at the strange man, who had been waiting very patiently, and held out his hand.
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