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.
“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.