Nicholas Randich had sworn he’d make it back for Elsie Spenser’s birthday, come Hell or high water. He was killed four months and three days before the September day that was hers, and descended to Hell. There the Devil was waiting for him, a gigantic black man, starless night black, black as the grave that held Randich’s mortal remains. “Welcome, sir,” said the Devil, and laughed nastily. “We have long waited sir’s arrival.”
Randich swore, which pleased the Devil immensely. “Excellent spirit, sir,” he said. “That shows quite the proper spirit. Sir will get along like a house afire.” Randich explained about her birthday, and the devil frowned, and ran a cracked and blistered tongue over black lips. “Sir,” he said, reproachfully, “does not perhaps appreciate his situation.”
Randich said his situation could be damned.
“Indeed, sir,” the Devil said.
There was nothing else for it. Randich planted his feet and swung with all his might at the Devil’s tremendous black jaw, the haymaker that had put the fear of God into the timber camps of Gray’s Harbor and Hoquiam. The Devil rocked on his feet. His eyes glowed like two coals in the pit of his face. “The Rules, sir!” he cried, and a chorus of demons howled in the distance.
Randich swore and in the depths of Hell called upon God and the saints to witness his vow. The Devil screeched like a hung cat and burst into a towering pillar of black flame that twisted and clawed at him. “The RULES!” bellowed the pillar, and there was no pleasure, no sly insinuation in the voice. The demon chorus howled again.
He knelt before the pillar and prayed to God and the Devil to not make him an oathbreaker, howsoever much a sinner he was. The pillar of flame and the demons howled again, louder than either time before, and a voice that was not the Devil’s cried, “THE RULES!”
It was a wet September morning when he clawed his way out of the grave that Elsie had made for him beneath the trees. He had been eaten at by the worms, but not so much as he might have been, and the beard that had burst forth in full flower under the earth covered most of the damage. He shambled through town, unseen by any living soul, though accompanied by angry, gibbering imps. The Devil stalked silent behind him, his eyes red and aflame. When Randich came to her house the party was in full swing, and she stood by the cake, head and colour high, holding the knife to cut the first slice. Fjaler, the camp cook, stood beside her, and guided her hand. Everyone was clapping and merry, and Fjaler’s hand lingered on hers after the cake had been cut.
Randich stood outside the window, and watched, and the Devil laughed at his elbow. He turned away, and followed the capering imps back into Hell.