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 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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”