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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.