Book 2 – Chapter 30

The stone the palace was made of was no stone at all, but glass. Mindbogglingly thick glass, with a smooth surface. It seemed completely opaque from far away and completely opaque from up close as well. Just once in awhile, Joachim could see a tiny bit of light flashing up behind it.

They weren’t going anywhere near the front gate, instead going along the huge wall that had the odd staircase, cleverly hidden, carved inside of it.

The ground here was blessedly level, without too many rocks. The perks of – for once – not going off the beaten path.

“It’s a messenger’s gate,” said Isabel. “For outgoing ones. Fewer guards. I bribed the guy who’s on watch there. I don’t know if he will hold true, but if not, I got an alternative. If you don’t mind the smell of rotten meat.”

Joachim stopped himself before he ran into Faust, who had once again stopped walking to just drift off and stare in the distance.

Was she thinking about something? Controlling some of her illusions somewhere? She didn’t say. And she was also not in the habit of giving him warnings.

“They are armed around here,” said Faust. “Soulblades. They have weapons that will not just hurt your body, but slay you permanently. Do not fight them, unless you absolutely have to.”

“I am as much a con artist as you are,” said Joachim.

Faust’s lips formed a sly smile.

“I sincerely doubt that,” she said.

Isabel just stood there, looking at them, waiting patiently. For all her outbursts and all her attitude, there was an air of silent reverence about her, whenever she looked at Faust. As if she was going to fall to her knees any moment should Faust just demand it.

The palace was enormous in size and they walked for half an hour, if his watch was to be believed. It was eight pm… somewhere. In a different solar system. Joachim shivered at the thought. A perfect mix of This is so cool and Oh my God, I am going to die. When he had planned this out inside this head, there had been a clinical sort of distance to it. Like moving pieces around in a board-game. Now that he was one of those pieces he started doubting every part of this plan. Why had he agreed to this? How had he so casually dreamt this up back in that bar in Berlin, probably lightyears away? He just wanted to go home.

Except that his apartment has been burned to the ground, his girlfriend was a psychopathic mass-murderer demon-witch and his would-be colleagues were trapped inside the place that he had second thoughts about raiding right now. The only way through this was forward.

They reached the bottom of a staircase that looked like twenty staircases they had passed before. Isabel walked upfront.

“I can’t see as far down here,” she said. “It’s still my guy on the other side of the door, but we could be walking into an ambush.”

“We could always be walking into an ambush,” said Joachim. “You trusted him enough to bribe him, now we have to trust your judgment.”

Faust and Isabel both turned to him. Their faces said: Who died and made you boss?

“We can spend all day sitting down here being afraid at our own shadow. The truth is that if we don’t know what card to pick, fretting about it won’t make it better.”

“You are right,” said Faust.

This was enough for Isabel to walk up the staircase. Faust followed, Joachim was last.

The stairs were well-worn and the tunnel it led into was constructed for shorter people. This meant twisting his spine in uncomfortable and unhealthy ways, if he wanted to know what was going on in front of him.

The stairs went on forever, ascending into what was soon complete darkness and air so stale it gave Joachim a headache. He heard Isabel’s footsteps and breathing in front of him. Faust was completely silent.

After what seemed like an eternity, Isabel knocked on something that sounded like a door.

A man’s voice called something out in a language Joachim didn’t recognize. Isabel shouted back. She seemed irritated. The door opened.

The light inside would have been dim under other circumstances, but right now it was blinding. The man at the door was semi-translucent, apart from the sword and shield he carried. He had a scraggly beard and was clothed in nothing more than rags. He looked pissed.

Isabel and him argued with each other in hushed tones.

Judging by the guard’s gestures and body language he was less than happy to see the newcomers.

Finally Faust said something in a calm voice. Just a sentence or two. The guard looked scared.

Nobody had told Joachim what the con was. Tough to participate when one didn’t know the language, a detail Joachim had arrogantly ignored when he had fantasized about how this would go. He decided that he played the part of the guard, looking grim and serious, as far as his hunched posture allowed him to.

The guard receded a few steps, more from Faust than anybody else. Isabel groaned and went in first, physically pushing the poor confused man aside.

Faust followed, her posture the picture of dignity once again.

They were in a hallway lit by candles burning in blue flames. There was a sort of wardrobe room ahead where various boots, cloaks and bags were strewn about without much care. The doors looked the part of a medieval castle: wood with iron fixtures, with heavy metal rings for doorknobs. The walls, floors and ceiling looked as if they had been carved out of the glass, much unlike the smooth surface on the outside. To their left and right, the hallway seemed to go on forever. Torches were lit in the distance.

The guard bowed and hastily barred the door again.

Joachim wanted to know what the plan was, but he didn’t want to blow his cover by looking clueless. Instead he started to project annoyed boredom, looking towards Isabel, who could probably see his face just fine, without looking around.

She said some words in that language again and pointed to their left. Joachim let Faust go first, then he followed.

The turned right at the first opportunity, entering a sort of monasterial scriptorum. It was filled with bookcases, of the medieval kind. There were several primitive desks with semi-translucent people – some of them monks – writing on parchment with quill. They were apparently copying something.

The light here came from many iron-cast lanterns dangling of the slightly higher ceiling. The floor was laid out with threadbare carpets of the cheap medieval fair kind.

They crossed the room and came to a tiny spiral staircase and took it down, down, down, Joachim more crawling than walking in the cramped space.

Again, this went on forever. They must have reached some sort of basement, because when they got out and Joachim unfolded himself behind them, making sure all his bones were still in place, the walls were masoned rather than carved. Heavy chains hung off the walls in places.

“You might want to take the lead on the next one,” Isabel whispered. “We are closing in on the dungeon. The place is crawling with guards.”

He glanced at Faust.

“The guards that you told me specifically not to fight?” he asked.

“I want you to distract them,” said Faust. “Leave the rest up to me.”

Reluctantly, Joachim went ahead. The doors in this place were ironcast bars, looking out at what seemed to be rows of cells. He could hear a soft groaning coming from somewhere.

He tried to look confident and strong walking upfront. Mentally, he talked himself into character.

I am walking with the authority of my master. I am trained in combat. Even unarmed I can dispatch three of their guards efficiently, if I have to.

They turned a corner and two of them were standing there, surprised by their presence and leveling their spears. They wore some sort of leather armor made of thick, uneven ribbons. It looked just about crappy enough to be historically accurate.

Joachim didn’t speak the language, so he just pointed at one of them, pretending to be angry.

He waved the guard over.

The guard didn’t move.

Joachim pointed at the ground before him and grunted.

The guard didn’t move.

Joachim walked towards them in his best angry gait, until the tips of their spears almost touched his chest. He noticed the tips were semi-translucent. Soulblades. Capable of hurting his soul, apparently.

Joachim didn’t let them see he was afraid. Instead he made eye contact with the guard he had pointed at. He looked like a young man, perhaps a teenager. If this was really the planet of the dead though, that look would be deceiving. This boy easily had more combat experience than any living soldier on Earth.

Neither of the guards looked particularly scared, but he sure as shit got their attention.

He held their gaze and was surprised when they started to look surprised and then panicked, feverishly trying to maintain control of their spears. Black smoke figures had grabbed their weapons from behind and jerked at them, their feet on the guards’ backs.

It seemed the figures were stronger. The guards fell forward and the figures pushed their weapons into their helpless opponents, again and again and again, neither their armor nor anything else seemed to offer them resistance.

The guards became more and more translucent, their faces contorted in pain. Then they vanished, leaving a belt and a set of strange-looking keys behind.

Seeing this left a strange feeling in Joachim’s stomach. He had seen death before, but never the death of… dead people. There was something inherently one with that. Joachim was not one to believe in an afterlife – even if he was standing in one, there were too many possible explanations yet to explore – but if he did, it would be a place of peace. A place where nothing bad would ever happen to the people living in it, ever again.

Faust’s creations took the form of the now-dead guards, copying the details of their appearance to the dot. It was a scary feat. The armor started to look exactly the same. There didn’t seem to be a hair out of place in the thick mane framing their faces. Did Faust have a photocopy spell? Or was she just… that good?

Finally Faust touched Joachim on the shoulder.

“Proceed,” she said.

Book 2 – Chapter 29

It was when Joachim’s foot stepped down onto solid ground that he realized just how shaky his legs were.

Faust had to be seeing with her eyes again, because she started taming her hair with the trained accuracy of a thousand wild nights in Hell.

The wasteland around them looked pretty much how Joachim had always imagined Hell minus the lava. There was no lava. There was a distinct smell of what he was sure was sulphur. There were rocks so sharp he actually cut himself while trying to sit down on one. There were large rocks on top of smaller rocks, on top of even smaller rocks, all of them black – not gray, not sort of dark, but blacker than coal. Slightly blacker even than the griffin Faust had made, but she had probably modeled that one after the night sky for camouflage.

The wasteland around them went on forever, in every direction. The mountain ranges they had started at were small in the distance.

“So where is the palace?” said Joachim, presenting the the empty stone desert with his arms.

Faust glanced at him irritatedly and waved to their left.

“Didn’t you see it when we were flying?” she said.

“All I saw were black rocks,” said Joachim.

Faust chuckled.

“Yeah, that is pretty much what we are looking for,” she said. “A gigantic black slab of stone. There’s a slope over there. Be careful when you approach it.”

Joachim made an effort to keep his head down and move as few stones around as possible. There was silence all around them. All the noises came from them and the sulphury wind howling in the distance.

Meter for meter he followed an awkward path through the desert, when all of a sudden the desert stopped.

The slope was really more of a cliff and it was huge and far too fragile for Joachim’s taste. There was some sort of valley down below with… a gigantic black slab of stone, about as high – and several times as long and wide – as the Cologne cathedral. There was but one entrance and it was easy to spot it, because the front door was made out of blue fire. There were hooded figures up front, keeping vigil, with swords and shields.

“Legend has it,” said Faust’s voice startling Joachim so hard he very nearly dropped, “that this is the oldest building in Hell. Like somehow the old Pagan god is a relic of creation itself. Or maybe God had created Death who simply decided to call himself by another name. It’s interesting to contemplate, isn’t it? The time before Lucifer fell? Don’t worry, it is safe to think about. We are already damned after all.”

Joachim shot her a look. She was looking as if she had just stepped out of a modern make-up studio, her hair gleaming in – no doubt – magically improved perfection.

“Yeah, I don’t really believe in any of this stuff,” he said.

Faust chuckled.

“That is some feat, considering where you are standing,” she said.

“How are we going to get in there?” said Joachim.

“You could try asking nicely,” said a voice behind them.

Joachim spun around and instinctively put himself between Faust and the newcomer. Which was silly, considering she probably had magic to level whole buildings while Joachim had the power to lift slightly heavier rocks than most people.

The person before them was a hooded figure, smaller than Joachim. She had spoken with a woman’s voice. Slowly she reached up to her hood and folded it back, revealing a blond shock of hair and eyes that were hidden beneath bandages.

“Isabel?” said Joachim.

“Hi dummy,” said Isabel. “Took you long enough to get here. Are we all playing for the same team now?”

It was hard to tell, but the last part seemed to be addressed at Faust.

“Joachim still has reservations about such an arrangement,” said Faust.

“On the grounds of her being a mass-murderer and such,” said Joachim. “Why did you join her? Did you join her? Word last time was that you were kidnapped by a psychopathic torturer, so you understand my confusion.”

Isabel tilted her head back and ran her hands through her hair.

“That was your doing, wasn’t it?” said Isabel. “Them charging inside here?”

Joachim shrugged.

“Maybe,” he said. “Why don’t you answer my question?”

She turned her face directly towards him, managing to fixate him with gaze, even without eyes.

“You know why,” said Isabel. “She told you about the alternative.”

“So you team up with her?” said Joachim.

“I’m standing right here, you know,” said Faust.

Isabel stemmed her hands into her hips.

“And why not?” she said. “You have seen what she can do. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She has contacts in Hell and Earth. Lots of them. Do you seriously think we could pull something like that off without her? Do you think you could? You have felt what it was like to be hunted by one tiny group of demons. How long do you think you could evade the freaking Fleshcrafter’s Guild?”

“She is evil,” said Joachim.

“Again,” said Faust. “Right here. I can hear you. Since you are standing next to me.”

“She is the enemy,” Joachim continued.

“She is your enemy,” said Isabel. “Get your head out of your ass. Do you think the forces of Hell give a shit if you ate meat on a Friday or rape-murdered fifty people? You either get to go to Heaven or you don’t and if you don’t, the people down here will fuck up your shit if you don’t have friends. That is my reality. What planet are you living on?”

Joachim struggled to remain calm. To keep his voice down. It wouldn’t do to alert the guards down in the valley, no matter how agitated he got.

“Visiting,” he said. “The planet I’m visiting is where I team up with Faust to carry out Hannah and Andrej and Stefan and Daniel out of the fucking palace of Hades, who is real apparently or at least claims to be. The planet I’m living on is where I don’t torture people to death. I don’t deal with people who torture people to death. Maybe I am kidding myself that I can fight for my survival without becoming a monster. Maybe I am kidding myself that I can do anything to make the world any less fucked up, but I am here. I am breathing. As long as I can do that, I can do some good. Leave this place better than I found it. Some people work hard to reduce their carbon footprint to do that, others risk their lives running into burning buildings. I belong into the latter category.”

Isabel snorted in anger.

Faust was sitting down on the ground.

“I couldn’t have done anything,” she said. “There were too many of them. They were too powerful. I couldn’t have done anything. Could I? Could I?”

She was rocking back and forth, holding her clawing hands in front of her face.

“Oh shit,” said Isabel. She knelt down beside her. “Helga. Helga! Keep it together, okay? We need you.”

Isabel shot Joachim a now-look-what-you-have-done glance. Without using her eyes. She was really good at facial expressions, all things considered.

Faust kept whispering to herself. Was this an act? Was she secretly unstable?

“Snap out of it,” said Isabel. “Please. We will all die if you won’t.”

Faust’s black eyes looked up at Joachim, pleading. For what, he didn’t know.

“You are doing good here,” said Joachim. “Those people need our help.”

This seemed to calm her down.

“I couldn’t have done anything,” she said.

She reached upwards with her hand. Joachim held it.

“It is too late to blame yourself for past mistakes,” he said. “You can only choose a different path from now on. You can find ways to repair what you have done. You can just… decide differently. It’s that simple and that hard.”

Faust calmed down. There were no tears on her face. He wasn’t exactly sure if a… soul or whatever she was could cry.

Isabel breathed up in relief.

“Come on,” she coaxed Faust. “Come on. Get up. That’s it.”

She helped her up, then turned to Joachim.

“I got us a way in,” she said. “I doubt that you will get very far though. They are being held in the Depths. I don’t know a way to get down there in one piece, but… if anybody can, it’s her.”

They made their way towards a narrow path that led down into the valley. Faust seemed absent-minded. When she had first gotten up, she had walked with poise and dignity. Now she was hunched and seemed frail.

Some part of Joachim couldn’t help but wonder if he had just been manipulated. If Isabel, who had been so conveniently around, was just one of Faust’s illusions. If this was a scene she had orchestrated for him to forgive her.

Book 2 – Chapter 28

Carina’s body on the ground was still breathing, but unconscious. Faust swirled around, the hem of her skirt brushing through the mud without picking any of it up. He black eyes darted around the landscape as if she was checking a thousand things that Joachim was unaware of, just by reflex.

Joachim kept looking back and forth between the two. Carina’s body looked alive. There was a flush inside her cheeks. Was there another person in there? A functioning brain, a consciousness? Had Faust controlled her and made Joachim an accomplice in her rape?

Faust’s eyes were unnerving, as was the lack of noises that she made. Her voice carried perfectly, but her dress was perfectly silent. She also seemed to weigh a lot less, because she jumped way higher than any non-Olympian had any right to and swirled onto a large rock sticking out of the dry ground. Not once did she risk her modesty or even dishevel any part of her outfit while she did that.

Quietly at first, then ever louder, Faust started to hum, then sing a strange song in a strange language. He hands performed a complicated dance in the air like the traditional-chinese-character-version of an Indian sari dance. Her face betrayed an intense focus as black smoke started to form – to condense out of thin air – and take the shape of something horse-like with a beak and large wings.

Slowly, ever so slowly, it began to look more and more like a griffin wearing a saddle. Joachim couldn’t tell when its cloud-like texture started to smooth out. It was a fast, yet gradual process, more like an afterthought.

Faust was almost ecstatic at that point, her body shaking like a faith healer taken by the holy spirit, her voice loud and imperious and more than a little unhuman.

The griffin started to move its head, as feathers formed around its empty eyes. Slowly, but surely it came to life. A saddle sprouted from its back, slowly growing, until it was large enough to accommodate the both of them. A soft murmuring escaped the beast’s massive black beak. Clawed paws impatiently scratched the ground.

The song ended. The creature went down on its knees at Faust’s direction.

“This is amazing,” said Joachim.

For the first time he saw her wield her power from the other side. He had thought the strength Sanft had given him had been an unfair advantage, but now he realized he was the wimpiest kid on the school-yard. He could have fought against Faust for a hundred years and never gained ground. He had only just glimpsed the true potential of her power.

“It is the best I could do on short notice,” said Faust, curtsying at the compliment.

She looked normal again. That was to say, she didn’t glow anymore. Her skin was weirdly perfect though and her dress still unmarred by her environment. There was a wind now and it carried more than its fair share of dust.

There were three stirrups on one side of the beast and only one on the other. Faust gallantly accepted Joachim’s hand and heaved herself into the saddle. She weighed almost nothing, but then again she never really had to him.

Joachim wasn’t sure he wanted to get onto the back of a savage, flying animal, but he would be damned if he showed hesitation in front of Faust.

“It feels great to do real magic again,” said Faust, as she started to fix leather straps around her waist and shoulders. Joachim picked up his harness and started to hastily puzzle out how to wear this in a way that would maybe prevent falling to his death.

“Less of it on earth, you mentioned?” said Joachim.

“Like sucking it through a straw,” said Faust. “Glad I didn’t unlearn it. I’ve been away for awhile.”

Yes, great, thought Joachim. He had brought Faust to the place where she was the most powerful.

Joachim held on tight as the beast suddenly started charging. Huge, anatomically improbable wings spread out and caught the wind. A few seconds later, they were airborne and gaining height.

Beyond the purple forest was a mountain range, dark and ominous in the night. Even more interestingly, there was a city to the other side, far off in the distance. It didn’t have as many lights as a modern one, but there were enough to make out the shapes of hundreds of spires and thousands of buildings, hugging and framing a river. The realm of the dead was a whole new world to discover, Joachim realized, as he saw the wide, dark planes filled with tall grass – or something grass-like – swaying underneath the caress of the wind.

They were ever gaining more height, sharp winds pulling at Joachim who asked himself just how durable that leather saddle really was.

As durable as she wanted it to be, he realized. It wasn’t really leather. It was her will that kept him in place. If she wanted him to drop, he would die. Better not piss her off. Better try to not develop Stockholm syndrome.

“Are we going straight for Hades’ palace?” Joachim shouted.

“Yes,” said Faust. Her voice carried through the wind without trying.

The wings of the griffin carried them forward. He was faster than he had any right to be, the ground underneath running past them. Long slopes of pasture. A lonely shepherd, unnaturally thin and tall, stood watch over a herd of creatures that could have been goats, but looked a lot more dangerous, judging by their shape.

It was frustrating how little he could make out in the dark. The stars above them were gorgeous though and far more numerous than any night sky he – as a city-dweller – had ever seen.

“Do you live around here?” shouted Joachim.

Faust laughed.

“I live where I lay my head to rest,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in the Mirror Mountains of Asmodeus, but that was a long time ago.”

“Where are you from, originally?” said Joachim.

“Moleå,” she said. “It used to be part of King Steinar’s domain, but it’s part of Sweden now. Not a lot left of what I remember. Just the ocean and the odd cliff.”

Faust didn’t make sounds when she didn’t want to, but as her hair untangled itself in the wind and whipped free, he could smell her. She smelled of jasmine and cedar, of smoky old whiskey and pastries dipped in honey. She smelled of gunpowder, too. It was an acrid smell that Joachim recognized from all the hours his father spent at the shooting range.

“Do you miss it?” he said.

She hesitated, then shrugged.

“My only regret is that I didn’t get to burn it to the ground with everyone in it. Or maybe I did do that. It was a long time ago, my memories are a bit hazy.”

The creature underneath bucked against a stronger gust of wind. Joachim realized that Faust had closed her eye. She was seeing through the griffin’s eyes now, feeling with his body to sail through the currents of the night-sky. Most likely, she was unaware that her wild hair had wrapped itself around her face. Most likely she wasn’t hearing them without her ears either. There was much Joachim still had to learn about this place and it frightened him.

“Quiet now,” said Faust. “We don’t want to attract attention.”

There was a road underneath and – Joachim hadn’t seen them before – watch towers with guards moving on top of them. There were no torches – or any light at all – illuminating them. Apparently they could see in the dark just fine.

Joachim held his breath and listened. The griffin – or rather Faust – had gone into stealth mode. Its wings were merely sailing right now. There was no noise but the wind.

The plains underneath soon became a scorched wasteland filled with black rocks. Sharp, twisted rock formations reached into the night sky. In between them were the lights of a camp of sorts. Hundreds of small tents stood orderly in rows, with a makeshift wall out of piled rocks surrounding it. Was this an army? Was somebody going to war against… someone?

He was stranded on another planet, both figuratively and literally. He had no doubt that his chances of survival in this place, without Faust at his side, were slim. He didn’t know if the locals spoke any German or English even. He didn’t know how far his rusty Latin would carry him. Doubtless that was what Faust had wanted on some level. It was too late to pull out now. The trap had sprung and he was right there in it.

He didn’t know how long the flight took them. His ass, back and legs felt a hundred kinds of sore, yet his hands had clawed into the saddle and wouldn’t let it go. Joachim had never really been a big fan of heights. No, this was not like flying in an airplane where an hour went by like five minutes if he only had his laptop around. It was still night when they landed, he knew that much. There was no telling though how long the nights on a foreign planet really were and the rocky wasteland the griffin circled down to looked much like the rocky wasteland they had passed an eternity ago.

Book 2 – Chapter 27

The last time Joachim had visited Hell, it had been with Andrej. They had gone through an invisible doorway and just passed through. It had been quick and pleasant, if completely unreal. None of this applied to following Faust.

There was an oak tree just past Domagkstraße. It was probably a hundred years old and a lighting had struck it, mutilating and twisting it. Faust took his hand, which felt weird. It was a necessity, she explained.

They were running towards the tree. Running as fast as they could, hoping their fear wouldn’t catch up with them. They jumped at the massive trunk and it warped around them and swallowed them whole.

Joachim was on fire. Not in the pleasant way, but in the third-degree burns sort of way.

It was bad. Warm at first, then the worst pain Joachim had ever felt.

He screamed.

He screamed and screamed and screamed as they were pulled through whatever this was by an invisible force and fell face-forward into the blessedly cold mud of Hell, completely unharmed.

Joachim shivered. His eyes had teared up and his throat was sore. In his hand he held the mangled remains of Faust’s hand. Startled, he let go of her.

She didn’t seem to be in pain. Her look was one of sympathy, maybe fear. Her left hand was grotesquely misshapen. Joachim let himself fall back into the dirt, crying, wanting to puke.

He kept looking at his hands, feeling his face, the rest of his body. Nothing hurt. Nothing was numb. Nothing was injured in any way. It had been his brain interpreting whatever had happened to them. Or maybe his nerve-endings being stimulated.

He had felt heat. He had felt it. He had thought he was going to die. He had wished himself dead.

“Your hand,” said Joachim. He was completely hoarse.

“I don’t feel the pain,” said Faust. “And I have had worse. We just have to find somebody who can put it back together again. It will cost a fortune, but it’s just money. Idiot tax. I should have thought of your strength.”

“No health insurance in Hell?” said Joachim.

Faust laughed. Funny, she sounded just like Carina.

Above them was a night-sky with constellations Joachim didn’t recognize. A purple moon.

Faust pointed with her right hand.

“There’s a city up there,” she said. “On the dark side of Tvíburar. That’s what that rock is called.”

“There are space-ships in Hell?” said Joachim.

Faust laughed.

“There is magic in Hell,” said Faust. “Much stronger than what they have on Earth, actually.”

So Hell was actually a different planet. A planet in physical space where the dead people went. Strange. All of this.

“Can you do magic?” said Joachim.

This earned him Carina’s… Faust’s special look she reserved for stupid people.

“No, actually I have this holo-projector given to me by the mysterious but benevolent inhabitants of planet Mars. It took some practice to get it to work, since I don’t have tentacles as such, but-”

“You can do magic,” said Joachim. “How does magic work?”

This stopped Faust in her tracks. She seemed to be uncomfortable with answering that one.

“I was about to say ‘really well, thank you’, but…”

Faust trailed off.

“You don’t want to talk about it,” said Joachim.

“It’s not something you should ask about lightly,” said Faust. “It has strange effects on people and the road there is not something I’d wish on my worst enemy… well maybe my worst enemy but it’s nightmarish and brutal and you should really stop asking about it.”

Joachim pondered this, as his insides rearranged itself in a more comfortable position. There was more to Faust… Helga… whatever than he had originally thought. It was easier when she had just been a monster. It was easier to fight against a faceless enemy of pure evil. It was much harder to figure out how to heal the environment that had produced them.

“So all you can do is illusions?” said Joachim.

“They are not illusions,” said Faust, clearly indignant, “and yes I know how to do a lot more. This is just the craft I have chosen to perfect.”

Joachim’s hands clawed into the mud, pressing it through his fingers as he grabbed it. This was Hell. This was the mythical place where dead people went. It was another planet. This was insane. Was he insane? What were the implications of this?

“So you don’t have a brother,” said Joachim.

Faust tilted her head and looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

“No, I don’t,” she said. “But I am thorough in building cover identities. If you had dug around, you would have also found a boss named Lars and coworkers with a variety of opinions about me.”

“Frustrating that I didn’t, huh?” said Joachim.

Faust shrugged.

“You get used to it,” she said. “Most security precautions are unnecessary… until they aren’t.”

“Why did you burn down our-… my apartment?”

He had to ask once more, now that he maybe had a better chance of getting an honest answer. If this seemed to hurt Faust, she didn’t show.

“I wasn’t lying. I really didn’t,” she said. “You should talk to Hannah about that. She is playing her own game in the background… or was is more like.”

“Their own game, hm? What was yours?”

“I thought that should be obvious by now,” said Faust. “I’m looking for a way out.”

“Why did you drop Wieland so quickly?”

Faust smiled.

“Wieland was way too clever for his own good,” said Faust. “My technological literacy is limited. Sooner or later he would have found a way to follow me, spy on me or figure out my game. I could tell he was getting close, so I had to cut him loose. I gave him to you, so I could make sure he wouldn’t spill anything important.”

“You would have slit his throat otherwise? That’s one hell of a way to treat your henchmen,” said Joachim.

“Temporarily delay them, you mean? He would have ended up in Hell again, just far, far away from me.”

“Is that how you justify trying to kill me?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And let’s not forget you were trying to do the same thing to me.”

Joachim grunted and stewed over this. She was right. Wasn’t she? Was she?

More questions. The more he learned, the better.

“When you joined House Asmodeus…” Another part clicked into place for Joachim. “You were once human, yet you claimed to be a demon.”

Faust grunted.

“I would like to think I’m still human, but yes, I’m also a demon. I inhabit bodies, I craft magic spells, I tempt people to sign contracts with Hell… sometimes with a little bit more encouragement.”

Joachim’s stomach twisted. For a few moments Faust had felt like Carina again. He had trouble merging the two. Carina was the monster, the monster was Carina. He had snuggled with a psychopathic mass-murderer. He had kissed her. They had gone on dates, discussed future plans and enjoyed kinky roleplay together. He should have felt dirty at that. He should have felt betrayed. Somehow, the deepest parts of him didn’t care. They just missed her touch.

“Have I been just a tool to you?” said Joachim. “Are you lying to me right now, pretending you still care?”

Faust remained eerily still for a long time. The cold started to seep into Joachim’s bones, but he would lie in the mud until he got his answer.

“I am trying to get what I want,” said Faust. “I am… accepting your help while doing this. I will not betray you unless I absolutely have to to survive and then only if betrayal doesn’t mean your death. There are things I haven’t told you for a variety of reasons. I fully understand that you don’t trust me and I don’t trust you completely. Trust is an alien concept for me.”

She took a deep breath.

“I care,” she continued. “I care about you and I care about us. I am not pretending to, this is real.”

Something inside Joachim made him shake with heavy emotions at this. He didn’t have the best connection to himself. Sometimes it felt like his emotions were behind an ancient modem connection. There were times when he needed up to a minute to figure out how he felt about something. There were times when he needed a lot longer than that. His emotions surprised him.

“But you would have kept lying to me,” he said.

“No,” said Faust. “I would have eased you into the truth. This was why I pretended to want to join up. I wanted to see how you react. I wanted to get closer to you.”

“I don’t know if I can believe that,” he said. “What you did at the police station? You enjoy toying with me, and toying with people, way too much.”

He got up. He didn’t want to look at her right now.

There was a strange wilderness around them. There were narrow trees around them, their bark a purple color, their bald branches standing straight up as if afraid to touch each other. They did keep a respectful distance to each other and they didn’t touch. The ground around them was cracked and dry, the moist mud transitioning into a cracked wasteland.

There was a small path visible that looked well-used, but there was no additional sign of civilization, nor any other animals or plants. Just the trees.

“Which way do we need to go?” said Joachim, careful to keep the emotions out of his voice.

Faust was covered in mud and when Joachim looked down, he realized that he didn’t look much better. she kept her left arm folded in, supporting her mangled hand. With her right hand, she pointed upwards and smiled.

“It will take days to walk this road,” she said. “And we don’t want to get picked up by the people who roam this land. Not that they are too dangerous, but they won’t let us go unless we prove to be more trouble than we are worth.”

She shook her head.

“No,” she said. “It is much better to fly.”

Joachim tried jumping up and wishing really hard. It didn’t work.

He thought about this. Magic was hard.

“It’s hard to do this one handedly,” she said. “Excuse me.”

She sat down in the dirt, then leaned back and stretched her legs, until she lay perfectly straight. She closed her eyes. Then she got up, leaving her body behind.

It was strange as fuck. Carina was lying on the ground. A ghostly figure separated itself out of her body. She was semi-translucent at first and slowly became ever more material. The figure was a medieval noble woman in an extravagant gown, her blond hair tied back into a knot, her skin glowing with whiteness, her eyes pitch black with no white or iris in them. The gown slowly gained color, becoming red and green and gold, with complicated stitch works. It was skin tight on a figure that was smaller and thinner than Carina had been. Her breasts were smaller, her shoulders more narrow. She didn’t look ugly or much more beautiful, just different.

“Much better,” said Faust. Her voice had changed. It sounded like a normal, female voice, yet somehow it was just too different, the experience to eerie and Joachim wanted to run away. He got the sense that his fists would be of limited used against this kind of being.

“Greetings, Joachim Schwartz,” said Faust. She curtsied. “My name is Helga Wafnasdottir. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Book 2 – Chapter 26

The milkshake bar had twenty-seven kinds of milkshakes, all of which were just words on the plastic-covered menu without any memory or pleasure attached to them. The place was a disgusting netherworld filled with neon light that highlighted any imperfection in people’s skins, making them look like zombies, revealing their ugliest side.

It felt sort of appropriate.

Faust had gone into quiet mode. They had both hardly spoken a word on their walk here, away from the trap, for now. Joachim would find a way to explain this to Mary, later. The longer the silence went on, the more Joachim felt just how little energy he had to deal with all of this. He was the first one to speak.

“You win,” he told her. “You have beaten me. I am not going to kill you. I will let somebody else do it. You probably have no shortage of enemies.”

Faust gave him a tired smile.

“What about us?” she said.

“I do understand you know. At least a little better. But I do not think that I like you.”

“I don’t really care, if you like me,” said Faust. “I want you to love me.”

“I don’t love you either. It’s just some part of me that you have duped into caring for you. Congratulations by the way.”

The waiter placed two milkshakes on the table. They were large whipped-cream-and-sprinkles-covered sundaes in tall crystal glasses. Strawberry for her, banana for him. With the fruit pieces inside of them and the tiny tinsel stick on top they looked ridiculously cheerful.

“I think I want to go now,” said Joachim.

“Then why don’t you?” said Faust.

Joachim did want to get out, but his body – or rather his subconscious – wasn’t obeying him.

“Because when I leave, we are over,” said Joachim.

“Funny,” said Faust. “That’s why I’m staying.”

“You lied to me,” said Joachim. “You lied to me in so many ways…”

“And what’s wrong with that?” said Faust.

“Seriously?”

“Yes, I am serious. Does a plaice apologize for pretending to be a rock? Does a flower fly apologize for pretending to be wasp? You were in danger. Me being there alone has put you in danger. There are people who would have snatched you the moment they realized you mean anything to me.”

“It wasn’t just them,” said Joachim. “You knew that I would have rejected you. You could have come up to me from the very beginning. Instead you manipulated me. You put a demon contract in front of me. You put me in the path to dismantle your operation and possibly – likely – die in the process.”

Faust sighed.

“For the last time, get it through your thick atheist-skull: There is an afterlife. This here, this is not the end. If I kill somebody and they are truly good – whatever the fuck that means – they will go to Heaven. Nobody in Hell has any say in that by the way. The bird people decide and we get the rest of the souls by default. A tidy little arrangement. It goes back thousands of years. Thousands of years of bloodshed and pain and brutality. I am glad you are living in this post-industrial civilization of yours where everybody pats each other on the back about how civilized and enlightened they are. Not like there are African miners working in shitty conditions to provide all that wealth you enjoy.”

Enough,” said Joachim. “Is the world perfect? Of course not. Things are shitty. Life sucks. The only difference is what you decide to do about it.”

He had raised his voice. He didn’t care if people were staring. Let them. He found it hard to care about a lot of things right now.

“You sound just like them, you sanctimonious, self-righteous prick.”

“Well I told ‘them’ to go fuck themselves with a broomstick,” said Joachim, and he added in a quieter voice, “Over the torture-murder business that you set up. Satan and God can both suck my dick. If they set up a system like this, the first thing I will do when I’m dead is take one of your fancy soul-destroying weapons and kill myself all over again. Let’s see if there is something behind them who is not a fucking sociopath.”

Faust was trembling now. She didn’t hold back her tears. Neither did Joachim.

For the longest time they said nothing. Their milkshakes melted, untouched, like world’s most sugary pair of candles.

“I wanted to ask you to move in with me,” said Joachim. “Well, before you burned down my apartment, that is.”

Faust shook her head.

“I didn’t burn down your apartment. Hannah and her crew did that.”

Wait, what? Was that another lie? It did make sense though. For all their saying otherwise, they had wanted him involved, moving him across the board like a pawn. He could only guess at their plan though.

“I see,” said Joachim. It seemed like a good response to settle on. “Good thing I sold them out then.”

Faust raised an eyebrow.

“I traded their intel against info about what you were after. I have never been close to any universal vessel. I have no idea where Ritter Lothar is, if he even exists.”

“I see,” said Faust.

Joachim could tell she didn’t believe him one bit. Not that it made any difference at this point. He couldn’t see himself going through with that trap now.

Or could he?

“They will be pissed when they find out,” said Faust. “Really, really pissed.”

“They are all dead,” said Joachim.

Faust shook her head.

“They are prisoners of the Great House of Hades,” she said. “I have a reliable source who confirmed that.”

More lies? Joachim’s head starting rustling.

“Is that reliable source called Isabel?”

“The range of her abilities is limited. She can’t see directly into Hell, not from the realm of mortals, anyway” said Faust. “Would be a bit too easy if we could just spy on each other with impunity, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” said Joachim, deadpan. “That might just keep you honest.”

Joachim could tell Faust was thinking about something. Something that had seemingly just occurred to her.

“What you said about you hating Heaven and Hell, did you mean it?” she said.

“Yeah,” said Joachim.

He wasn’t sure if he would have the courage to actually come through on his suicide threat, but he sure as shit wasn’t going to work for either side. He had so much anger inside of him, so much energy he wanted to unleash somewh-

“Want to help me fuck up their shit?” said Faust.

“This is a con,” said Joachim.

Faust shrugged.

“So what if it is? You already decided you don’t want to kill me. Why not help me kill more demons?”

That seemed…

“You want me to help you… raid Hell?”

“Yes,” said Faust.

Joachim looked down at the table. Absentmindedly, his hand had kneaded its steel-rim out of proportions, leaving creases in form of his fingers behind.

If anything, he was impressed just how far Mary had managed to predict Faust’s moves, planning for contingencies. Would he go through with it? Shouldn’t he at least try to save the people who had – technically – saved his life?

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Joachim.

Book 2 – Chapter 25

There was no dinner table. There was just one chair. Faust sat on the torn grayish brown carpet floor, as Joachim gently swirled a glass of blood inside his hand, like one would a fine brand of whiskey.

“They used this method in Star Trek,” said Faust. “To find shapeshifters. I remember thinking that if Hell ever watched those episodes I’d be so screwed.”

“That is an incredibly modern reference,” said Joachim, “for somebody so…”

“Old?” said Faust. “Thank you, this seems to be all I do these days. Catching up on culture. Making sure I get the expressions just right. I learned German two hundred years ago. I can’t afford to let it show.”

The test stripes he dipped inside all came back positive, interacting with the blood on a chemical level. In a peak fit of paranoia, Joachim actually put one of them into his mouth and chewed it, just to see if he was really holding a testing strip. He spat it out again when he couldn’t stand the disgusting taste of plastic anymore.

“You could have found a way to fill one of your illusions with blood,” said Joachim.

Faust groaned and the… whatever it was in front of him… face-palmed.

“Your Wifi password is VorfuehreffektIstEinTollerNameFuerEinenKater$$),” she said.

“You could have found that out by torturing the real Carina,” said Joachim. “Or a million other ways.”

“You have a birthmark on your nutsack, right over your left nut,” she said. “Wait. My left. Your right.”

“Again torture,” said Joachim. “Try telling me what her favored episode of Doctor Who was.”

Don’t Blink by a mile.”

“Or tell me that song was playing when-”

“When you tried to perform a striptease? My Hips don’t lie by Shakira. Or did you mean that stupid song you tortured me with in the car? Five Hundred Miles by whatever that band from How I Met Your Mother is called. Or the song that was playing the last time you whipped me? There was no song. Just you hesitating and fumbling around, trying not to skin me with that riding crop, for which I’m grateful for, actually. You whipped me twenty-seven times, before Andrej showed up.”

Joachim paused in what he hoped was a dramatic way.

“Twenty-nine,” said Joachim.

“Twenty-seven,” said Faust.

“You are good,” said Joachim.

“You are paranoid,” said Faust. “Considering my House allegiance that is actually a huge compliment. That reminds me, Sanft is not working for House Paimon, even though he claimed as much. I went to the register and haven’t found that vessel he was using anywhere. Must be an unlisted recruiter. Naughty, naughty.”

Joachim wanted to vomit. He wasn’t sure if that was his emotional state or just his body rejecting the chemicals he had inadvertently swallowed while chewing on the medical testing strip.

“What room have you been hiding in, back at the hotel?” said Joachim.

Faust laughed.

“The lobby,” she said. “I stuck inside that pretty Nigerian body, sitting right next to you. You smelled like lemons. Did you change your shampoo?”

Something inside of Joachim clicked. The magical line where the effort to create the lie far outweighed any potential reward it could bring was crossed. Faust had believed Joachim knew anything about Ritter Lothar for about half an hour. There was no way anybody could extract this level of detail from somebody, create this convincing a performance in that amount of time.

He had been standing there, all stiff, all shocked for several seconds and it had not been lost on Faust.

“There you go,” she said.

“Is that your thing?” said Joachim. “Infiltrating my life? Lying to me about-”

“Stop,” said Faust, Carina and Helga who had been the same person from the very beginning. “I have fallen for you from the very beginning. From when you helped out an immigrant just like that. It… fuck.” She looked away for a second. “It stirred something inside of me, okay? It was stupid, but betraying your own makes you kinda lonely. Of course, none of this would have ever become an issue, if you hadn’t be so stubborn.”

“Not an issue?” said Joachim. He couldn’t believe this.

He should kill her right now. Either she was an illusion after all or the world would finally be rid of her. He just needed to work up his anger.

Remember what you felt like on the torturing chair, Joachim thought. The others have not been rescued.

“I have given myself to you,” said Faust. “I have given you my flesh body. My soul. I have not done this in a long time.”

“How old are you, really?” said Joachim.

“Old,” said Faust. “Five hundred years and some change. The birthday on my ID is real. It’s just the first two digits of the year that are wrong.”

“Jesus,” said Joachim. “My girlfriend is a mass-murdering demon-witch.”

“Awww. You said girlfriend.”

Something inside of Joachim was breaking. Something deep. It was as if his brain was crashing and needed to be rebooted. Along with his entire life.

He hadn’t noticed that he had started crying. When he noticed he hated himself for it and suppressed it. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. He wouldn’t do something stupid that would get himself killed.

Faust… Carina was standing up and trying to hug him, like she had done a thousand times before. Joachim pushed her away.

“Don’t touch me,” he said.

He was looking at her face now, really looking at her face, and her soft, diminutive features merged inside his head with every psychopath she had personally hand-picked and instructed to do horrible, despicable things.

Carina had lifted her hands and taken three steps back. Joachim couldn’t think straight anymore. And he wasn’t sure he could kill her now. And he hated himself for that because she really, really deserved to die and there was no authority on this earth who would see justice done.

“What I did,” she said, “may seem terrible to you. You are still young. You do not remember what times were like. A hundred and fifty years ago, the authorities did the things that I have done. Ninety years ago-”

“Are you going to compare yourself to Hitler?” said Joachim. “Is that your excuse? I’m a war criminal and hundreds of families grief their dead loved ones but I was better than Hitler so it’s still okay?”

Carina screamed in frustration.

“Of course not. You have to see the moral horizon on this. You can disagree with my methods, but-”

Joachim laughed. He just laughed at her.

“I have heard you speak. You have let your little puppet say what you were too much of a coward to say to my face,” Joachim shouted. He was shouting now. “You didn’t do these things because you thought you were doing good. You didn’t do these things because you had a vision of some utopia that could only be achieved by spilling blood. You felt yourself superior to the ones you captured, to the average person on the street. You believe yourself to be worth more than them and you did it because you thought you could get away with it.”

“I didn’t have a choice!” Carina shouted back.

“You always have a choice!” said Joachim. “You just didn’t want to give up your station and your power. You didn’t want to risk your hide to protect those who can’t protect themselves. That is the difference between you and me.”

Carina… Faust was crying now.

“I know,” she said. “I know. That’s why I love you.”

“Don’t say that,” said Joachim. “Don’t you dare fucking say that. I have fought to the death to put an end to something, you could have ordered shut in the blink of an eye.”

“And someone else would have taken my place,” Faust whispered. “The very next day somebody else would have taken my place. They would have walked over my corpse and they would have laughed. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what I have been through.”

“You had a choice,” said Joachim.

“Yes I had a choice,” said Faust. “When I was fourteen years old and they had told me I would never walk again and a demon came up to me and asked me if I wanted revenge on the man who had raped and mutilated me. I could have turned him down. Those people that we needed, those people that all of us needed, they had a choice too. When we revealed ourselves as demons they could have refused. They could have endured. They would have gone straight to Heaven and there was nothing we could have done about it. A few of them actually did. It was a lifetime of temptation boiled down to a single moment. It was a better chance than I have ever had.”

Joachim couldn’t bear to look at her, but he also didn’t have the luxury of indulging in his pain. There was a chance that all of this was a trap. A trap laid by something that wasn’t even human. Or at least not human by any stretch of the definition. It hurt, but he had to go on. He had to go on with… go on with the plan…

He kept looking into Carina’s eyes. Her lackeys had tortured him and he hadn’t broken. This was different.

Book 2 – Chapter 24

Joachim was in no condition to drive, but he did anyway. In fact, he punched it, heading towards a very specific location, swerving beside cars. Most of them were slowing down around that spot. Probably to rubberneck at the burning hotel behind him.

Still, he got more than his fair share of honking as he blatantly ignored traffic laws and common decency, cutting people off, nearly causing half a dozen traffic accidents.

There was an art to this, Joachim realized. He had to make this look real. He had to make it look as if he was actually trying to get away and at the same time make sure that his pursuers wouldn’t lose him.

He tried to do this by doing fancy maneuvers. He could probably lose them by crossing a red-light or making a sudden turn. Instead he sped up and drove snake-lines, driving a route he had picked that only really had one way he could go. If Faust was good enough at thinking on her feet, she would have her lackeys waiting for him at his destination.

Joachim’s car clearly hadn’t been built for this kind of pursuit. The motor had started to make strange noises and at every brake and turn it screeched like an angry banshee.

They were driving down a forest road, heading north, with the sun at their back. There was no way to turn away from the road without crashing into a pine and the drivers going the other way were likely squinting against the low winter sun. Luckily the road wasn’t icy.

Joachim carefully tapped the speed dial on the cellphone rigged up inside. The other side picked up at the first ring.

“Did it work?” asked a woman’s voice.

“I might have oversold it a bit,” said Joachim. After the other side was silent, he added: “You will see it on the news later.”

“Are we still on track?” said the woman.

“Very much,” said Joachim.

The traffic had gotten lighter and the black Audi further down the road that was pretending not to follow him was giving him some room.

“How is our little star?” said Joachim.

The woman on the other end snorted.

“Probably had two whiskey for breakfast and has punched one of the make-up girls.”

“Jesus, is she okay?”

“After getting paid double her rate? I sure as Styx hope so.”

With the road clear, Joachim hit the gas some more. The car was vibrating a lot, making it feel like an unstable space shuttle. It didn’t do wonders for Joachim’s body which kept telling him about the exciting new kinds of pain it had discovered.

“We are not getting another shot at this,” said Joachim. “We have to get this just right.”

“Listen, I have been doing this since you grandfather was happily swimming around in your great-grandfather’s ballsack. You just worry about not fucking up your part, okay?”

“Roger that,” said Joachim. He hung up, nearly crashing into an incoming car as he did.

The forest was clearing up now. Faster than he had expected, but when he had test-driven this route, he hadn’t done it at twice the speed-limit.

There were frozen pieces of farmland ahead and the looming steel scaffolding of electrical towers. Pretending not to notice the red Nissan that followed him now, he calmly turned towards the Autobahn and slowed down a bit. Or rather kept the same speed, only this time legally.

His pulse went down a considerable amount, but not the tension in his neck, nor the exhaustion, nor the million different kinds of pain his body felt. At least his hand had stopped bleeding, which, considering he hadn’t had the chance to clean the wound yet, was probably also not a good thing.

It took him half an hour on a convoluted road to get to the office space they had rented in the depths of the Euroindustriepark. A piece of shit backyard office that had originally belonged to some now-dead side branch of a big, evil and boring corporation and was now inhabited by seedy internet startups and consulting businesses.

Joachim parked the car up front ostentatiously. This whole mission depended on how stupid Faust gave him credit to be. Here was hoping she wanted this enough not to get paranoid.

The elevator upstairs was a metal coffin that somehow had been cleared for six people, even if it only fit three if they were really comfortable with each other.

The door to the office wasn’t closed.

The office wasn’t furnished.

It had a carpet that was torn to shit and a couple of holes in the ground with plug sockets and network ports. There was only one office that had one desk and one laptop that was chained to it and a swivel chair that had five different dials to adjust it, none of which making it any less uncomfortable.

Joachim fired it up and made a video call. The webcam image of an unshaven man appeared. It featured a goatee that the rest of the beard hair had outgrown a bit, a crooked nose that had obviously been broken before and healed badly and several scars. The hair on top of the man’s had was patchy.

“Ritter Lothar,” said Joachim. He bowed to camera.

“Do not speak my name,” said Lothar in what sounded like the strangest regional accent, Joachim had ever heard. “You never know who is listening.”

“I am sorry,” said Joachim, bowing again.

“Is it done?” said Lothar.

“I failed to execute your commands, my liege,” said Joachim. “The witch but lives.”

“Imbecile!” Lothar shouted. “Fool! How can you stand before me, yet living, without my command carried out? Worthless! Worthless is what you are!”

“I am sorry, my liege,” said Joachim.

“This is unacceptable,” said Lothar.

“Please, if you only give me one more chance, I swear I can-”

Enough of this. I will deal with this myself,” said Lothar. “This has gone on for far too long.”

The video call ended.

Joachim took a deep breath. So far so good.

He got up and went over to the kitchen, which featured a lonely little fridge and a brand-new microwave among a jumble of loose cables and unused outlets. He winced as he bent down and retrieved an ice pack, then stood there cluelessly, unsure where to press it.

He was being watched. Joachim didn’t know how he knew, but he could feel it. The best thing he could do right now was to try and recover, try and be ready for the next part of the plan.

He put the icepack down and pulled out a bottle of tequila instead. There was no running water up here. No easy way to clean the bloody mess that was Joachim’s right hand, but he had time. He sat there for half an hour picking pieces of stuff out of his flesh, when the doorbell rang.

He groaned as he got up and carried himself to the buzzer. The intercom didn’t work and the big camera in front of the entrance was a dummy. All he could do was press the button.

“Your arrival was timely my liege,” said Joachim, as he opened the door. “Pray tell how you got here so-… Faust.”

The illusion in front of him was wearing Carina’s face again.

Her clothes were different this time. She was wearing jeans and a leather jacket that looked like they had gone through a dryer filled with rocks and scissors. The face Faust showed him a sympathetic one. She raised her hands as well.

Could this be… her? Joachim thought. No, it couldn’t be. Carina didn’t know he was here. He couldn’t possibly have found her.

“Actually it’s Helga,” she said. “That is my real name. Or at least what people called me, many years ago.”

Joachim’s body shaped up for a fight. He knew all the exits to the place and that included the spots were walls were thin. He was also sure he could survive a drop from the window. At least he had survived it when he had tried it, preparing for the trap.

“Have you come to finish the job?” said Joachim.

She couldn’t possibly have known they would use this place. So she didn’t have dupes inside the office. Unless Mary Catherine Montague – Bloody Mary – of House Asmodeus had double-crossed him. In that case he wouldn’t have to worry much about it though, because he would already be fucked.

“I have come to talk this over,” said Faust. “I overreacted.”

How fast could her illusions form? Stupid idea. This whole plan. He should have let it go a long time ago. Let somebody else deal with the problem. Accepted the fact that he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore or look at himself in the mirror or live with himself having done nothing.

He hated Faust so much. He had spent months fantasizing about killing her, every day. Every time by a different method, too.

“You have a funny way of asking for sympathy, wearing this face,” said Joachim.

Faust’s illusion of Carina closed her eyes and shook her head.

“It’s me,” said Faust. “This is the body I have inhabited for the last thirteen years.”

Book 2 – Chapter 23

Demons had incredible powers. They could turn metals into gold, levitate church pulpits and throw them at your head and cast life-like illusions. They did however take great pains not to violate the Silence – a sort of inter-celestial agreement not to let the mundanes become aware of the supernatural. It was for that reason the man at the front-door was firing a gun, the bullets of which punching holes into the sofa, Joachim had lifted and was now holding up in front of him as a shield.

He had taken care of the Kukomu illusion first. He had hit it against the head with all the force of sledgehammer and instead of its head bursting, it had evaporated into black smoke and dissipated.

People were screaming, scrambling everywhere. Somebody was chasing after them with an axe.

“Do the honorable thing,” the man at the door shouted. “Or I will kill every last person in the building.”

Joachim tossed the sofa at the man and charged, only to find the gun clattering to the floor and another cloud of black smoke rising up. The man with the axe was murdering a woman, her arms pointlessly held up in defense. She was screaming. Another man – her husband? – was trying to tackle the axe-murderer and got an axe to the skull as a reward.

Joachim picked up the gun and aimed.

“Drop the weapon!” he shouted.

He had never fired a gun before. Also, he had never left his fingerprints on a murder weapon before. Also, the man wasn’t holding a weapon at that point, but it still seemed like a good thing to yell.

“Drop the weapon, or I swear to God-”

The axe-murder grinned at him, his face covered with blood spatter. He placed one foot on the man’s skull, and pulled the axe free.

Joachim fired. The stupid thing was loud. It also kicked like a donkey. Still Joachim was sure he had hit the guy, even if it didn’t stop that bastard from standing there and grinning, as black smoke leaked out of several holes.

Did he want to charge the man with the axe?

That was the question he asked himself, as he charged. The grinning man did swing, but he was far too slow. Joachim had given him a super-powered slap to the face that made the killer go partly cloudy with a chance of axe clanking on the floor.

The other people just stared at him. There were shots being fired above. Joachim could hear them. Did he have a snowball’s chance in Hell to even find Faust? There were enough people running away from the chaos. For all Joachim knew, ‘Helga’ had already left.

She would be a woman. An old woman. Changing bodies means dealing with the Fleshcrafter’s Guild. Nobody does this if it isn’t strictly necessary.

Joachim ran towards the stairs.

He couldn’t cover all the exits.

Think. When you were a demon with a fragile body, where would you hide.

Joachim stopped, at the bottom of the stairs.

There will be decoys. It’s the old woman who is hiding in plain sight that you are looking for, not the one in the penthouse, living large.

Joachim pushed himself off the wall and half-flew towards the front desk computer. Every nerve inside his body was compelling him to run towards his prey. To not let Faust get away.

The hotel database was still open on the screen. Joachim typed faster than he had ever typed in his life.

He was looking for any older women who didn’t check in alone. Who had probably checked in around the same time that somebody checked into the penthouse. How long had Kukomu worked here?

God bless the data kraken habits of major corporations, they actually – illegally – had ID copies on file. There was only one old woman on file and she had checked in with… a doppelganger of Carina. That was original.

It was on the ground level, too. Joachim could have figured that one out. Why sacrifice easy exits for a view if you could just stash one of your illusions in the penthouse and look through their eyes?

Joachim ran. His super-powered legs made sprinting feel like flying over the floor. He didn’t bother to stop and open the doors in his path. Instead, he burst through them like a cannon ball, announcing his position for the remaining murderers still around, who would hopefully focus on him, rather than the civilians.

The door to room 043 was no more obstacle to him than a silk curtain.

It was a suite. Large balcony windows formed the wall towards the Isar. Antique furniture was arranged around a coffee table. A comfortable-looking bed was visible through a half-opened door. Joachim walked towards it, when a noise behind him made him spin around.

There were four of them. They wore coats of medieval armor. Their heads and feet ware almost completely translucent, but they got ever more opaque and real-looking towards the hands that held gleaming longswords.

With a few steps each, they formed a semicircle around Joachim.

Shit.

Joachim had trained a little. More accurately, he had watched Youtube videos about martial arts and had tried to copy their moves a little bit two or three times a week. Most of that had been about dealing with unarmed assailants – blocking punches, standing correctly while delivering them. Unarmed against four swords was bad. Really bad. Especially if Faust had any kind of practice with this.

Was Faust here right now? Could she see him? Was she hiding in the closet or under the bed.

Joachim spun around and punched a surprised fifth assailant straight into his supposedly armored face. He dissipated in black smoke. Then Joachim cannonballed towards the wall behind the bed, ignoring the knights and tackling, punching and ripping a hole through the thin hotel wall. He ended up in a supply closet, his pursuers clanking behind him. The supply closet door had been locked from the outside. It went wherever the spirits of doors ended up when their earthly shells were blown to bits.

Joachim could feel a burning pain inside his right hand and realized it was wet with his blood. There was no time to deal with that now. There was no hope of capture anymore. He needed to get out of here.

He ran. This time away from the room and towards the back exit.

The hotels intercom crackled to life.

“Running is pointless,” said Kukomu’s voice through about a dozen speakers in that hallway. “I am everywhere.”

A door opened on the other end of the hallway, right in front of the fire exit. A man with a shotgun stepped out and blocked the way. He was too far away for Joachim to punch him before he could pull that trigger.

Joachim eagle-dived towards the door to his left instead, headbutting it open, as a shotgun blast ripped through the air.

So much for her not wanting to kill her only lead, thought Joachim.

He crawled across the floor, leaving a trail of bloody fist imprints.

The windows on the wall were tempting, but if Joachim was Faust, he would have somebody on the outside. Joachim needed to do something unexpected.

Gritting his teeth, letting out a shout, he punched the floor, with everything he had.

Everything he had was a lot. It did make a crater, but one punch didn’t get him through. His entire arm hurt now.

Joachim heard metallic footsteps coming down the hallway. He punched the floor again and again and again as they closed in on him.

Finally he had created a hole, large enough for him, only to find it blocked by thin copper pipes.

With one of the knights already looming inside the doorway, his sword at the ready, Joachim ripped the pipes out and jumped down.

The basement had absurdly high ceilings and Joachim did not land all that well, letting out a hearty curse as his foot damn-near snapped off.

Pain shot through his leg and he nearly blacked out from it. Probably would have if it hadn’t been for the adrenaline. He looked around frantically.

It was dark down here. Several boilers stood down here, large and looming. A single metal door led further into the basement. Concrete walls all around.

He didn’t really have time to lose. He tried to open the door, only to find it locked. He tried to open the locked door, only to end up with the door handle inside his hand. Gritting his teeth, he walked towards the other end of the room, and, yelling Spartaaaaa he ran towards it, through the pain, through the fear and tackled the damn thing, bending it in the middle.

It hadn’t really given in, but he managed to pry it open now. Joachim did not have the time to think what the had just done to his shoulder. Or his spine. Or his sanity.

He ran down a dark concrete hallway, and found a set of stairs leading to the other side of the hotel.

The next part was a bit hazy.

He remembered opening a door and ending up in the hotel parking lot. He remembered the noise of the knights behind him, still in pursuit. He remembered a sense of heat and flames and a noise louder than anything he had ever heard. He remembered being pushed towards the parking lot and rolling around there.

With ringing inside his ears, he looked at the flames inside the ground level and the large black clouds of smoke steaming upwards out of the blown-out windows.

Book 2 – Chapter 22

The road led back to Munich. It led to nine hours of driving. To exhaustion. To eating shitty, overpriced gas station meals and to way too much time alone with his thoughts. It didn’t matter. He had a plan now. A way to fight back. The road led to the lobby of the Herzogspalast Hotel in Munich, a huge affair with a chandelier and ugly leather furniture that had probably cost more than anything Joachim owned put together.

Roughly around ten grand, Joachim realized as he did the math. Though he maybe had some insurance money coming once he had figured out how to do his paperwork without paper.

Behind the wooden monstrosity of a curved front-desk sat Kukomu in a page’s outfit. He grinned.

Joachim didn’t pay him any mind and steered towards the sofa with the coffee table and the menu that promised cups of coffee for six Euros and up. He sat down, breathed in the sofa’s new-car-smell and looked outside to the shores of the Isar that the hotel overlooked. A peaceful river, framed by snow, with nobody around to disturb it. As Kukomu walked up to Joachim he started to envy it.

“How do you do it?” said Joachim without looking up. “Having an illusion perform an actual workday, chat with customers, get yelled at by the manager… what kind of obsessive-compulsive mind does it take to keep that up?”

“Maybe this isn’t an illusion,” said Faust – or Helga, whatever. “Maybe this is my real body.”

Joachim was too tired for her bullshit and shot him a disdainful look. Her and her stupid moustache and the helplessness she had projected when they had first met and the fake family she had gotten him to care for. She wasn’t just a sociopathic liar – she was a sociopathic liar, that was for certain – but also an artist. The way that a serial killer decorates his crime scenes and arranges corpses like Leonardo da Vinci sketches. That kind of artist.

“I doubt it,” said Joachim. “I wonder if you are ugly. I wonder if that’s why you keep hiding your face.”

Kukomu just stood there, hands folded, keeping his page persona. Smiling. Smiling, ever so politely.

“How did you find me?” she said.

Joachim had replayed this moment inside his head so many times, he was almost paralyzed by now. This was the moment. This was the moment when infinite potential became the definite past, when the decision tree flattened into a straight, imperfect line.

“Ritter Lothar von Heimelsdingen,” said Joachim.

There was such a strange power in names, Joachim realized. Maybe that was how demon-summoning really worked. Shouting do you know who I am into a telephone, do you know who my daddy is friends with. Faust completely lost her shit. That is to say, she glanced around nervously and started to talk in a whispering voice.

“What do you know?” she said. Her accent had changed. The illusion she presented him with right now, was a Nigerian speaking in a Scandinavian accent.

“For starters, that he’s pissed you are leading people to his graves,” said Joachim.

“You have spoken to him?” Faust whispered through her teeth.

Joachim looked out to the Isar river again. His heart was pounding, his stomach was twisting. The difference between a regular person and a con man was that the latter had crossed the line from wanting to throw up all the time to actually enjoying this. Once crossed it was pretty much impossible to go back. Joachim had never done it.

Faust sat down next to him, all matters of decorum and cover forgotten. The sofa actually bent under the weight of her illusion. Another interesting tidbit.

“So you know what he represents?” said Faust.

Joachim shook his head.

“I honestly don’t care,” he said. “It is another scheme I want nothing to do with, in a game that I don’t want to play.”

“That is the entire point,” Faust hissed. “A way to escape the game. I thought you would jump at this. I honestly thought you would jump at this.”

Joachim turned around to him.

“You are a mass-murdering piece of shit,” he said. “I hate you so much I have trouble sleeping at night.”

They are the mass-murderers,” said Faust. “You think giving them a couple of moments of torture followed by an eternity of doing exactly what they were doing before was evil? They have ice-cold Club Mate in Hell for fuck’s sake. They are fine. You want to know what’s evil? You know what I protected them from?”

Joachim stayed silent, looking straight into Faust’s fake, dark eyes. He wondered if he could dispel the illusion, just by staring at it intensely. If he knew that his eyes were deceiving him… but that was stupid. It wasn’t in his mind. The sofa was bending. This was more like mobile force-field sort of deal. Much more powerful.

Jesus… if she could project these things anywhere, she could easily murder people and just dispel the illusion and be gone. Or frame people for crimes. Or make a TV appearance as a president, threatening another country with nuclear weapons.

“There are wars going on in Hell, destroying immortal souls. The Houses have always fought for territory. The lesser Houses puppets of the Great Houses. The Great Houses themselves are pyramids protecting those that are rich and powerful. All of this goes down to the poor shmuck who just died and has no idea what’s going on and who will die again, permanently, for no better reason than to keep those in power safe and happy. They have endured thousands of years, wrapped in a cocoon of death. This thing you are doing right here, is nothing but the extension of their wars. Wars over territory that have as much meaning as scoring points in soccer.”

And all of that power in the hands of an egomaniacal sociopath.

“Sounds just like you,” said Joachim. “Making people your pawns, letting them do the dirty work, torturing and killing others to score prestige. Wasn’t that what you told me? Wasn’t that the reason you have given me, why these people needed to die?”

The illusion of Kukomu next to Joachim rubbed its temples.

“Why are you here?” said Faust through it.

“It’s simple,” said Joachim. “I’m going to kill you.”

Faust blinked several times, processing this.

Then there was a long silence during which her illusion stayed eerily still. It didn’t even breathe.

Joachim pictured her running towards the windows and then to her computer doing any number of checks. And probably the odd magic circle, too.

That was great. He needed her paranoid. He needed her to be anything but thinking clearly and thoroughly.

“How?” said Faust, finally.

The illusion had started breathing again.

“I don’t do James Bond villain,” said Joachim. “Let’s just say I took a little page from your playbook.”

The illusion suppressed an actual scream of frustration. Joachim wondered if there was some kind of manager looking at them now, but he didn’t turn around to check.

“Could you turn off your suicidal conscience for about two seconds? You know what I could do for you now that you have found Lothar? What I could do for Carina? Do you even care where you are going to end up when-… Huh.”

Shit. What?

“Maybe I will pay a little visit to your girlfriend. She has been all over town, at the usual demon hangouts, did you know that? Would be so easy to slap her with a tattoo and turn her into my personal slave. How would you like that?”

This fucking asshole.

“I wouldn’t like it,” said Joachim. “There is nothing I can do to stop you from doing that, though. Which is my problem, precisely. As long as you walk around, you will do evil shit, with little thought for anyone else.”

“Oh Joachim,” said Faust. “We could have done great things together. It’s a shame it has to end this way.”

Joachim felt as if somebody was pointing a gun at him now. This entire plan hinged on being too valuable to get killed. Faust had scoured the earth looking for Ritter Lothar and found nothing. Joachim was the only lead she had. If she was going to attack him, it was only to incapacitate him and torture him until he revealed everything he knew about him. It was a gamble and right now all his money was sitting on Red and the roulette wheel was spinning.

“Why did you come here?” said Faust. “There is no way you will get to me in time.”

Wait! She is actually here?

Joachim didn’t have much time to process this, since at that moment the hotel lobby erupted into violence.

Book 2 – Chapter 21

The data-dump was full of secrets. Secrets that were hard to discover and that probably only a handful of people knew. Places to visit, people to to talk to, deals that could be arranged.

There was a bar in Berlin. It wasn’t a huge bar. Certainly not a flashy one. It had this grimy old sign with a forgettable name. It had stained glass windows that nobody cleaned, with only little light seeping through them in either direction.

The bar had a central location, but it wasn’t easy to reach. It wasn’t on Google Maps, though the alley – too narrow for cars – was. It was in walking distance from the Bundestag. Per extension it was in walking distance from more than a handful of embassies and all of the most important ministries of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was in walking distance from three major subway stations, yet few people ever came here.

The door opened to Joachim with a creak. Even though smoking had been forbidden in public bars, the dark interior still smelled of it. This and the taste of stale beer in the air made the aroma of the place.

The bar keep was an ancient man. He looked like a skeleton that had wrapped wrinkly skin around him, tightly. He looked like a corpse too stubborn to die, while there was still a bar too clean, still a beer glass to fill for the bloated figures who sat on the stools, unaware of their environment.

A woman sat in the corner. She was not old, nor was she young. She could have been thirty or she could have been fifty. The light didn’t flatter her unclean skin and her patchy red hair and the darkness hid the rest.

The woman had no glass in front of her, just a large folder. This place was her office. As far as Joachim could tell, it had been for many years. He wouldn’t have to worry about being watched here. There would be counter-measures in place here designed to befuddle foreign intelligence services.

Joachim came up and sat down across from her. She looked up at him, half-bored.

Joachim had not called ahead. He had not let her know who he was and what he wanted and even that he was coming. A short look on her part was all the information he gave her and all the information she took.

She opened her folder and clicked her ballpoint-pen. The notes inside were all written in her handwriting, with scarcely any print between them. There was a large stack of them.

“Would you like to see a magic trick?” said Joachim.

The woman didn’t look up.

“I have seen them all,” she said. “And they bore me.”

Joachim lifted up his hands and showed them to her, even if she wasn’t looking. He showed her his sleeves that had nothing in them but an ace of hearts that he sheepishly took out and tossed onto the table. He then waved his hands in the air in a dramatic flourish and produced a three-piece chain, fashioned from crude metal, like it had been forged in medieval times from the front pocket of his sweater and placed it on the table.

The woman looked up, then stared at the chain.

“Not so bored now, are you?” said Joachim.

“How?” said the woman.

“I had it in the front-pocket of my sweater. Want me to show you?”

“Where did you get this?” she said, punctuating the question with a deadpan look.

“The Kreuzberg Medieval Market,” said Joachim. “Looks just like the one in the Fleshcrafter’s Guild, doesn’t it?”

The woman gave him an annoyed grunt.

“I’m going to perform a con,” said Joachim.

She stared at him.

“On the Fleshcrafter’s Guild?” she said.

“No.”

“On… me?”

“No.”

The woman groaned in exasperation. “What do you want?”

“You help in performing said con,” said Joachim.

“On whom?”

“Faust.”

“Who?”

“I think you know who that individual is,” said Joachim. “I don’t think you know what he or she is planning.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed.

She clicked her ballpoint pen.

Click-click.

“I want to trick him,” said Joachim. “It is the only way I can win.”

Click-click.

“He needs to be stopped,” said Joachim.

Click-click.

“He is a traitor,” said Joachim.

The woman’s eyes fell to the chain. Then they wandered up again.

She seemed to understand the message.

She put down the ball-point pen.

“You want to perform a con,” she said, “on a powerful member of my House.”

Joachim shrugged.

“I figure that must open up some spots above. Must be hard to get promoted if nobody ever retires.”

The woman smirked.

“There is no way I can beat him in a direct fight,” said Joachim. “Or rather he won’t give me one.”

Click-click.

“There is no way I can con him, because he has infinitely more experience in it than I do.”

Click-click.

“The only way to beat a demi-god is with the help of another demi-god.”

Click-click.

“What do you want in return?”

“What you are asking puts me into a difficult position,” said the woman. “I don’t know if anything you said is true.”

Joachim snorted.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You have been doing business with Faust for years. You know what he is up to. At least you have suspected. The trips to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The secret labs. The strange requests. Does any of this sound familiar?”

The woman looked away. On the inside Joachim was celebrating now. He had made her think. He had made her doubt. He didn’t let any of this get through to the outside though, in fear of dispelling the effect he just had.

“Do you have a plan?” said the woman.

“You are looking at it,” said Joachim.

She glanced at the chain between them.

“That is a stupid plan,” said the woman.

“Tried and true bait-and-switch? It’s a classic. Every con works like that. Well… most of them do.”

The woman groaned.

“No, what I mean is, this is not a good bait. He will see through it.”

“Are you sure?” said Joachim. “Think about it. How long has he searched for this? How invested is he? And now he is on the run from people who are slowly finding out his secret. He wants this chain to be real. He wants to believe.”

The woman smiled.

“Ah to be young again,” she said. She leaned forward and she sniffed him. “So full of optimism. So full of energy.”

Instinctively, Joachim reached out and touched her hand. It was cold as ice, but she didn’t draw it away.

He brought his face up to hers.

“I’m not hearing a no,” said Joachim.

She smirked again.

“You are not hearing a yes either. I have a lot to lose here. And you still haven’t told me what part you want me to play in your plan.”

Joachim looked deep into her eyes. They were amber-colored. Beautiful. He wasn’t much of a seducer. Truth be told, he felt mostly helpless when it came to women. For some reason this was easy. Like the steps for a dance he only just remembered. Where these his con man reflexes of old kicking in? Or was she playing him, sending him signals, luring him?

“I will tell you in due time,” said Joachim. “All I want to find out now are your intentions.”

She stuck out her tongue and gently teased his lips with its tip. It was strangely erotic.

He felt guilty. Why was he feeling guilty? Carina wasn’t his girlfriend. And she was the one who left him. Just a gentle blow of his breath onto her lips. Reciprocate without reciprocating. Leave her wanting more.

The woman’s body shivered visibly.

“My intentions?” she whispered. “That depends on what you are going to do to her when this is over.”

Again with the stupid smirk as if it would make any difference at all to Joachim if the murdering psychopath he was facing was male or female.

“Kill… her if I can,” said Joachim. “Though that might be a little bit beyond my capabilities. I was hoping I could feed her to the dogs.”

The woman laughed loudly. Joachim glanced over his shoulder, but the drunks at the bar were apparently to catatonic to pay any attention to them and the barkeeper just didn’t seem to give a shit.

“The dogs being my betters? Oh that is rich. Anyway, here is the truth. I will tell it to you, non-signed, and I will deny all of it should you ever breathe a word about it.”

She bowed her head and took a deep breath. Apparently telling the truth involved great effort for her.

“I get Helga,” she said. “I really do. I envy her even. That thing she does? That wasn’t handed to her. She perfected that skill. All I can do… well, that is a conversation for another time. The truth is, I want what she is after. I’m done with the bullshit. I’m done risking my ass just so the Lords of Hell can live to see yet another millennium.”

She turned around her hand and grabbed Joachim’s.

“I want out,” she said. “For my help, I want you to promise me the first universal body we find. Don’t worry about its current occupant. I will have ways to deal with them. Do we have a deal?”