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.