The girl was running from a group of devils. At the head were several that resembled mastiffs the size of small horses. The rest were all at least nominally human shaped, though many had fallen to running on all fours in their haste to reach the prize. In all there were thirteen. Noah hoped that made them unlucky.
The girl was fast. She was managing to stay ahead of her diabolic pursuit for now, but she had to be exhausted. There was no way she could outrun those devils. There was nowhere for Haynes to set a trap for her pursuers. A frontal assault was the only option that would allow him to reach the girl in time. He’d have to engage a more mobile and numerically superior force of unknown capabilities while preventing them from harming a civilian. It was stupid. It was suicidal. Noah was already running.
There was an outcropping that ran from the mouth of the canyon into the basin. Haynes ran along it, hoping the devils were too intent on their prey to notice him. He stopped for a moment, gauging the timing, then charged forward and leapt off the cliff.
He landed on one helldog, snapping its spine. His twin blades trisected a second. He spun around, opening the stomach of a third. The last dog’s lunge landed on Haynes extended point.
“The rumors are true!” shrieked a lesser devil. “The human has grown claws.”
Rumors? Was I spotted earlier?
“It matters not.” A scaly grey mountain stepped out of the crowd. He stood nine feet tall, and muscles rippled under pebbly skin the color of charcoal. Tiny black horns dotted his hairless scalp. A breechclout of rough leather was his only garment. He glared down contemptuously at Noah.
I wonder if this is how Beowulf felt.
“I know not what sorceries with which you summoned the talons of the blood mantis, but they shall not save you.”
“He’s killed my beauties!” cried out a whip thin devil the color of swamp muck.
“Cease your sniveling,” intoned the massive devil, punctuating his imperative with a backhanded blow.
“This girl is under my protection,” Noah declared, desperately hoping his voice sounded more imperious than he thought. “I have been sent to retriever her.”
“By whom?” the chief devil asked incredulously.
Behind Noah the girl started.
“The Velvet Hand has no business here,” he sneered. The other devils seemed to shrink back from him slightly. “I demand a game be played for the girl.”
“We know the law. Death and her servants must submit to a game of possession if challenged.”
Crap. Crap crap crap crap crap. Is he bullshitting me?
“As you will. What game do you propose?”
The devil drew himself up to his full height and took on a more regal bearing. “A simple match between you and my champion. The first to force the other to the ground three times will be declared the victor. You shall fight in the manner of the high Aetherians Neither tooth nor claw shall be used.”
Champion? This guys built like an Abrams. Why does he need a champion?
“Who shall be your champion?” Noah asked, dreading the answer.
“Kazzak, come forth. You shall be my harbinger of violence.”
A devil with skin the color of clay stepped forward. His skin was smooth and hairless. While shorter than the first, this devil was nearly as broad and just as muscled, and he was still a head taller than Noah. He wore a breech clout, like his larger counterpart, and long, pointed ears framed his face.
“Lord Belron, I shall grind him into dust.”
“What guarantee do I have that you will allow us to leave should I win?” Noah asked Belron pointedly.
The devil lord looked affronted. “The law of the game is sacred. Should you win, we should not dare attack you for fear of Atherial justice.”
“Of course. Just making sure you remembered that.”
First order of business when I get out of here: Find a copy of The Afterlife for Dummies.
Noah handed his blades and his shoulder bag to the damsel.
“My name’s Noah. Watch these for me, eh?” he said, smiling as reassuringly as he could. The girl accepted the weapons and stared at him in mute disbelief.
The two combatants faced of on the dusty battleground. Behind his opponent the other devils jeered at him from a rough half-circle. Behind Noah stood a terrified girl who looked much too young to die.
What now, Galahad? he wondered ruefully, just before Kazzak leapt into motion.