He didn’t expect to meet him here, but then again, Joachim wasn’t really surprised he’d show up.
Joachim’s legs felt heavy from the hike through the wilderness, but at least he wasn’t cold anymore. He had opened his jacket and taken off the sweater underneath, but still felt warm despite being able to see his breath.
Nature around him was gorgeous. The Thüringer forest was basically untouched by mankind, as were the endless green planes that came after, with scarcely a real path to get him where he needed to go and grass so tall, it kept tickling his fingers, as he had marched forward, feeling the tall plants like an elephant carving his way into the jungle.
His sneakers were a mess. Served him right for underestimating nature. He had been too cheap to invest in hiking boots and his feet had paid the price. The blisters he had earned today hurt with every step he took. And he would still have to go back to the car, since he hadn’t brought a tent. His backpack included nothing but a few magnesium tabs and a now mostly-empty bottle of water.
And there he stood, next to slight, hardly visible elevation in the ground that was the unmarked, recently disturbed grave that Joachim had come here to see.
He didn’t wear a suit this time. Somehow Joachim had expected Sanft to wear a suit anywhere, not to sleep, not to shower without wearing a custom-tailored garment. He had scarcely recognized the man in his dark-green winter coat and jeans and – yes – hiking boots. They were immaculate though. The hiking sticks sticking out of Sanft’s backpack seemed to have never touched the ground either. His skin looked as wrinkled and leathery as it had the day Joachim had sat down with him for the worst job interview of his life. His eyes – sunk deeply into his face – still had the same spark of amusement in them.
“Are you looking for someone amongst the dead, Herr Schwartz?” said Sanft. “I could put you into contact if you desire it.”
Joachim’s mouth was dry. He could feel his heartbeat against his chest. He was terrified of the man. Last time they had met he had casually turned a coin into gold. There was no telling what other kind of magic powers he had possessed.
“You were tracking me,” said Joachim. He was uncomfortably aware of the moving – possibly living – tattoo on his arm. A mark of a magical grant that was the source of Joachim’s super-strength. A mark that Sanft had inflicted on him.
“It would be careless of me not to, wouldn’t it, Herr Schwartz?” said Sanft.
Joachim kept expecting Sanft to sit down the first opportunity he could find. He just looked so frail. Yet, despite his appearance, he had the physique and energy of a dancer. He walked around the grave with an easy grace, taking in the landscape around him and smiling.
“What a beautiful spot to be buried, don’t you think so?” said Sanft. “I have seen so much worse. It is so… peaceful here. Lots of space to unfold, not like those cramped church cemeteries.”
Joachim was surprised Sanft would voluntarily set foot on holy ground. Then again, Joachim had been attacked in a church a couple of months ago and no divine light had kept that demon back then from smashing the pews into Joachim.
“Who is buried here?” said Joachim.
“Oh nobody,” said Sanft. “The grave is entirely empty. However if you were asking whose grave it is then the answer is no one you need to concern yourself with. A local troublemaker, a product of less civilized times.”
Joachim stifled a groan. He couldn’t expect straight answers out of his kind. He’d say what he had come to say and leave. That was the way of it. The problem was that Sanft would take his sweet time doing that.
“Faust claimed he pointed me out to you,” said Joachim.
“Faust?” said Sanft. His attention had wandered to everything but Joachim, but now he had it back. “Who is-… Oh yes, of course, Faust. Yes, that is correct. Though I am afraid we are not on friendly terms anymore. He has gone a bit overboard with his… ambitions.”
“Do you still remember what we had eaten when we first met?” said Joachim. “What did you have with the salmon?”
“The crayfish, you mean? Avocado tartar on baby spinach. Goodness. He really has you running scared, doesn’t he?”
“Never hurts to be careful,” said Joachim. “Speaking of, we are being watched.”
“No, we are not. I have taken the liberty of taken a few precautions. How are you feeling these days? How are you adjusting?”
Joachim laughed out loud. He had to, even risking punishment for his insolence. It was the only honest response he could give.
“Are you serious?” said Joachim. “You are concerned for my well-being?”
Sanft didn’t seem angry at this. Nor did he get that psychopathic gleam in his eyes that would have suggested a power play.
“We are not evil,” said Sanft. “House Nicostratus were barbarians, as was to be expected of the lesser Houses. I did know… Faust was going to put you into its course, but I had thought you’d seek allies first and do this slowly and methodically. You will go far, even if you obviously can’t know the big picture yet.”
“And what is that big picture of yours? Did you not profit from those people getting tortured to death?”
“No,” said Sanft. “Neither I nor we profited from House Nicostratus’s actions. Unless you define the word we a lot more broadly than I usually do. As to the big picture…” Sanft tilted his head from side to side ever so slightly, thinking this over. “We are all players on some boards and mere pawns on others, if at all. We need to choose to be players or pawns is all we ever will be.”
“You think me taking on Faust is foolish?”
“That remains to be seen and depends on your approach. He will most certainly be a fugitive soon. You are being played in more way than one on your pursuit of him. Among them, interestingly, Faust himself.”
“Then why don’t you help me out here?” said Joachim. “Tell me what he is after.”
Sanft smiled his tiny smile.
“I don’t remember swearing an oath of loyalty to my House,” said Sanft. “Not that it matters anyway. You will serve us once you are dead.”
“Is that so? I don’t recall us signing a deal.”
“The grant you were given is a mark of reservation for your soul. No other House will dare touch you after you are dead. Apart from dragging you in to deliver you to us, of course. And I have it on good authority that you already refused Heaven. Until you are dead, you are a free man off course. You don’t need to serve us up here, unless you want to make your afterlife much more comfortable or earn large sums of money.”
He hated that man.
Remain calm. There is a way out. There is always a way out.
“Provided there is an afterlife.”
Sanft gave him a deadpan look.
“I’m taking my chances.”
“And that I don’t find a way back into Heaven,” said Joachim.
“Would you… would you want that, Herr Schwartz? You have taken such issue with the things Faust had been up to. I would be rather surprised if you signed up with the fanatics upstairs.”
“And why is that? That Hadraniel fellow was nice enough,” said Joachim.
Nice enough if one disregarded him killing people with a hand-gesture and being totally okay with Joachim bleeding out on the floor, since he was going to Heaven now.
“There is no way that you would believe me,” said Sanft. “You will have to do your own research.”
“I’ve been getting this a lot recently. Any pointers?”
“Maybe you should look up what happened to the people you fought so hard to save back in that garage.”
Joachim’s stomach twisted into a knot. This couldn’t be good. Images of Hadraniel burning somebody’s brain from the inside flashed through his mind.
The smell of frying meat coming from a corpse.
Fifty innocent people.
He pushed it out of his mind. There’d be time to process this when he wasn’t staring down a tiger.
“Why is the grave empty? Why is Faust digging up ancient corpses?”
Sanft shook his head.
“Faust hasn’t dug up anything. This grave has been empty for many years. And as to the why, I’m afraid you are going to have to find this out yourself. Sometimes procedure can be a bit of a hindrance.”
Joachim glowered at the man.
“Why tell me anything if I will find out myself and do what you want me to do in the process?”
“Herr Schwartz,” said Sanft, “you might be a pawn on many boards and a player at some, but in most games you are yet too insignificant to enter into the equation. You are not part of an elaborate plot. You are a casefile on my desk. That is it.”
And just like that Sanft turned and left through an invisible doorway.