Book 2 – Chapter 25

There was no dinner table. There was just one chair. Faust sat on the torn grayish brown carpet floor, as Joachim gently swirled a glass of blood inside his hand, like one would a fine brand of whiskey.

“They used this method in Star Trek,” said Faust. “To find shapeshifters. I remember thinking that if Hell ever watched those episodes I’d be so screwed.”

“That is an incredibly modern reference,” said Joachim, “for somebody so…”

“Old?” said Faust. “Thank you, this seems to be all I do these days. Catching up on culture. Making sure I get the expressions just right. I learned German two hundred years ago. I can’t afford to let it show.”

The test stripes he dipped inside all came back positive, interacting with the blood on a chemical level. In a peak fit of paranoia, Joachim actually put one of them into his mouth and chewed it, just to see if he was really holding a testing strip. He spat it out again when he couldn’t stand the disgusting taste of plastic anymore.

“You could have found a way to fill one of your illusions with blood,” said Joachim.

Faust groaned and the… whatever it was in front of him… face-palmed.

“Your Wifi password is VorfuehreffektIstEinTollerNameFuerEinenKater$$),” she said.

“You could have found that out by torturing the real Carina,” said Joachim. “Or a million other ways.”

“You have a birthmark on your nutsack, right over your left nut,” she said. “Wait. My left. Your right.”

“Again torture,” said Joachim. “Try telling me what her favored episode of Doctor Who was.”

Don’t Blink by a mile.”

“Or tell me that song was playing when-”

“When you tried to perform a striptease? My Hips don’t lie by Shakira. Or did you mean that stupid song you tortured me with in the car? Five Hundred Miles by whatever that band from How I Met Your Mother is called. Or the song that was playing the last time you whipped me? There was no song. Just you hesitating and fumbling around, trying not to skin me with that riding crop, for which I’m grateful for, actually. You whipped me twenty-seven times, before Andrej showed up.”

Joachim paused in what he hoped was a dramatic way.

“Twenty-nine,” said Joachim.

“Twenty-seven,” said Faust.

“You are good,” said Joachim.

“You are paranoid,” said Faust. “Considering my House allegiance that is actually a huge compliment. That reminds me, Sanft is not working for House Paimon, even though he claimed as much. I went to the register and haven’t found that vessel he was using anywhere. Must be an unlisted recruiter. Naughty, naughty.”

Joachim wanted to vomit. He wasn’t sure if that was his emotional state or just his body rejecting the chemicals he had inadvertently swallowed while chewing on the medical testing strip.

“What room have you been hiding in, back at the hotel?” said Joachim.

Faust laughed.

“The lobby,” she said. “I stuck inside that pretty Nigerian body, sitting right next to you. You smelled like lemons. Did you change your shampoo?”

Something inside of Joachim clicked. The magical line where the effort to create the lie far outweighed any potential reward it could bring was crossed. Faust had believed Joachim knew anything about Ritter Lothar for about half an hour. There was no way anybody could extract this level of detail from somebody, create this convincing a performance in that amount of time.

He had been standing there, all stiff, all shocked for several seconds and it had not been lost on Faust.

“There you go,” she said.

“Is that your thing?” said Joachim. “Infiltrating my life? Lying to me about-”

“Stop,” said Faust, Carina and Helga who had been the same person from the very beginning. “I have fallen for you from the very beginning. From when you helped out an immigrant just like that. It… fuck.” She looked away for a second. “It stirred something inside of me, okay? It was stupid, but betraying your own makes you kinda lonely. Of course, none of this would have ever become an issue, if you hadn’t be so stubborn.”

“Not an issue?” said Joachim. He couldn’t believe this.

He should kill her right now. Either she was an illusion after all or the world would finally be rid of her. He just needed to work up his anger.

Remember what you felt like on the torturing chair, Joachim thought. The others have not been rescued.

“I have given myself to you,” said Faust. “I have given you my flesh body. My soul. I have not done this in a long time.”

“How old are you, really?” said Joachim.

“Old,” said Faust. “Five hundred years and some change. The birthday on my ID is real. It’s just the first two digits of the year that are wrong.”

“Jesus,” said Joachim. “My girlfriend is a mass-murdering demon-witch.”

“Awww. You said girlfriend.”

Something inside of Joachim was breaking. Something deep. It was as if his brain was crashing and needed to be rebooted. Along with his entire life.

He hadn’t noticed that he had started crying. When he noticed he hated himself for it and suppressed it. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. He wouldn’t do something stupid that would get himself killed.

Faust… Carina was standing up and trying to hug him, like she had done a thousand times before. Joachim pushed her away.

“Don’t touch me,” he said.

He was looking at her face now, really looking at her face, and her soft, diminutive features merged inside his head with every psychopath she had personally hand-picked and instructed to do horrible, despicable things.

Carina had lifted her hands and taken three steps back. Joachim couldn’t think straight anymore. And he wasn’t sure he could kill her now. And he hated himself for that because she really, really deserved to die and there was no authority on this earth who would see justice done.

“What I did,” she said, “may seem terrible to you. You are still young. You do not remember what times were like. A hundred and fifty years ago, the authorities did the things that I have done. Ninety years ago-”

“Are you going to compare yourself to Hitler?” said Joachim. “Is that your excuse? I’m a war criminal and hundreds of families grief their dead loved ones but I was better than Hitler so it’s still okay?”

Carina screamed in frustration.

“Of course not. You have to see the moral horizon on this. You can disagree with my methods, but-”

Joachim laughed. He just laughed at her.

“I have heard you speak. You have let your little puppet say what you were too much of a coward to say to my face,” Joachim shouted. He was shouting now. “You didn’t do these things because you thought you were doing good. You didn’t do these things because you had a vision of some utopia that could only be achieved by spilling blood. You felt yourself superior to the ones you captured, to the average person on the street. You believe yourself to be worth more than them and you did it because you thought you could get away with it.”

“I didn’t have a choice!” Carina shouted back.

“You always have a choice!” said Joachim. “You just didn’t want to give up your station and your power. You didn’t want to risk your hide to protect those who can’t protect themselves. That is the difference between you and me.”

Carina… Faust was crying now.

“I know,” she said. “I know. That’s why I love you.”

“Don’t say that,” said Joachim. “Don’t you dare fucking say that. I have fought to the death to put an end to something, you could have ordered shut in the blink of an eye.”

“And someone else would have taken my place,” Faust whispered. “The very next day somebody else would have taken my place. They would have walked over my corpse and they would have laughed. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what I have been through.”

“You had a choice,” said Joachim.

“Yes I had a choice,” said Faust. “When I was fourteen years old and they had told me I would never walk again and a demon came up to me and asked me if I wanted revenge on the man who had raped and mutilated me. I could have turned him down. Those people that we needed, those people that all of us needed, they had a choice too. When we revealed ourselves as demons they could have refused. They could have endured. They would have gone straight to Heaven and there was nothing we could have done about it. A few of them actually did. It was a lifetime of temptation boiled down to a single moment. It was a better chance than I have ever had.”

Joachim couldn’t bear to look at her, but he also didn’t have the luxury of indulging in his pain. There was a chance that all of this was a trap. A trap laid by something that wasn’t even human. Or at least not human by any stretch of the definition. It hurt, but he had to go on. He had to go on with… go on with the plan…

He kept looking into Carina’s eyes. Her lackeys had tortured him and he hadn’t broken. This was different.

Book 2 – Chapter 24

Joachim was in no condition to drive, but he did anyway. In fact, he punched it, heading towards a very specific location, swerving beside cars. Most of them were slowing down around that spot. Probably to rubberneck at the burning hotel behind him.

Still, he got more than his fair share of honking as he blatantly ignored traffic laws and common decency, cutting people off, nearly causing half a dozen traffic accidents.

There was an art to this, Joachim realized. He had to make this look real. He had to make it look as if he was actually trying to get away and at the same time make sure that his pursuers wouldn’t lose him.

He tried to do this by doing fancy maneuvers. He could probably lose them by crossing a red-light or making a sudden turn. Instead he sped up and drove snake-lines, driving a route he had picked that only really had one way he could go. If Faust was good enough at thinking on her feet, she would have her lackeys waiting for him at his destination.

Joachim’s car clearly hadn’t been built for this kind of pursuit. The motor had started to make strange noises and at every brake and turn it screeched like an angry banshee.

They were driving down a forest road, heading north, with the sun at their back. There was no way to turn away from the road without crashing into a pine and the drivers going the other way were likely squinting against the low winter sun. Luckily the road wasn’t icy.

Joachim carefully tapped the speed dial on the cellphone rigged up inside. The other side picked up at the first ring.

“Did it work?” asked a woman’s voice.

“I might have oversold it a bit,” said Joachim. After the other side was silent, he added: “You will see it on the news later.”

“Are we still on track?” said the woman.

“Very much,” said Joachim.

The traffic had gotten lighter and the black Audi further down the road that was pretending not to follow him was giving him some room.

“How is our little star?” said Joachim.

The woman on the other end snorted.

“Probably had two whiskey for breakfast and has punched one of the make-up girls.”

“Jesus, is she okay?”

“After getting paid double her rate? I sure as Styx hope so.”

With the road clear, Joachim hit the gas some more. The car was vibrating a lot, making it feel like an unstable space shuttle. It didn’t do wonders for Joachim’s body which kept telling him about the exciting new kinds of pain it had discovered.

“We are not getting another shot at this,” said Joachim. “We have to get this just right.”

“Listen, I have been doing this since you grandfather was happily swimming around in your great-grandfather’s ballsack. You just worry about not fucking up your part, okay?”

“Roger that,” said Joachim. He hung up, nearly crashing into an incoming car as he did.

The forest was clearing up now. Faster than he had expected, but when he had test-driven this route, he hadn’t done it at twice the speed-limit.

There were frozen pieces of farmland ahead and the looming steel scaffolding of electrical towers. Pretending not to notice the red Nissan that followed him now, he calmly turned towards the Autobahn and slowed down a bit. Or rather kept the same speed, only this time legally.

His pulse went down a considerable amount, but not the tension in his neck, nor the exhaustion, nor the million different kinds of pain his body felt. At least his hand had stopped bleeding, which, considering he hadn’t had the chance to clean the wound yet, was probably also not a good thing.

It took him half an hour on a convoluted road to get to the office space they had rented in the depths of the Euroindustriepark. A piece of shit backyard office that had originally belonged to some now-dead side branch of a big, evil and boring corporation and was now inhabited by seedy internet startups and consulting businesses.

Joachim parked the car up front ostentatiously. This whole mission depended on how stupid Faust gave him credit to be. Here was hoping she wanted this enough not to get paranoid.

The elevator upstairs was a metal coffin that somehow had been cleared for six people, even if it only fit three if they were really comfortable with each other.

The door to the office wasn’t closed.

The office wasn’t furnished.

It had a carpet that was torn to shit and a couple of holes in the ground with plug sockets and network ports. There was only one office that had one desk and one laptop that was chained to it and a swivel chair that had five different dials to adjust it, none of which making it any less uncomfortable.

Joachim fired it up and made a video call. The webcam image of an unshaven man appeared. It featured a goatee that the rest of the beard hair had outgrown a bit, a crooked nose that had obviously been broken before and healed badly and several scars. The hair on top of the man’s had was patchy.

“Ritter Lothar,” said Joachim. He bowed to camera.

“Do not speak my name,” said Lothar in what sounded like the strangest regional accent, Joachim had ever heard. “You never know who is listening.”

“I am sorry,” said Joachim, bowing again.

“Is it done?” said Lothar.

“I failed to execute your commands, my liege,” said Joachim. “The witch but lives.”

“Imbecile!” Lothar shouted. “Fool! How can you stand before me, yet living, without my command carried out? Worthless! Worthless is what you are!”

“I am sorry, my liege,” said Joachim.

“This is unacceptable,” said Lothar.

“Please, if you only give me one more chance, I swear I can-”

Enough of this. I will deal with this myself,” said Lothar. “This has gone on for far too long.”

The video call ended.

Joachim took a deep breath. So far so good.

He got up and went over to the kitchen, which featured a lonely little fridge and a brand-new microwave among a jumble of loose cables and unused outlets. He winced as he bent down and retrieved an ice pack, then stood there cluelessly, unsure where to press it.

He was being watched. Joachim didn’t know how he knew, but he could feel it. The best thing he could do right now was to try and recover, try and be ready for the next part of the plan.

He put the icepack down and pulled out a bottle of tequila instead. There was no running water up here. No easy way to clean the bloody mess that was Joachim’s right hand, but he had time. He sat there for half an hour picking pieces of stuff out of his flesh, when the doorbell rang.

He groaned as he got up and carried himself to the buzzer. The intercom didn’t work and the big camera in front of the entrance was a dummy. All he could do was press the button.

“Your arrival was timely my liege,” said Joachim, as he opened the door. “Pray tell how you got here so-… Faust.”

The illusion in front of him was wearing Carina’s face again.

Her clothes were different this time. She was wearing jeans and a leather jacket that looked like they had gone through a dryer filled with rocks and scissors. The face Faust showed him a sympathetic one. She raised her hands as well.

Could this be… her? Joachim thought. No, it couldn’t be. Carina didn’t know he was here. He couldn’t possibly have found her.

“Actually it’s Helga,” she said. “That is my real name. Or at least what people called me, many years ago.”

Joachim’s body shaped up for a fight. He knew all the exits to the place and that included the spots were walls were thin. He was also sure he could survive a drop from the window. At least he had survived it when he had tried it, preparing for the trap.

“Have you come to finish the job?” said Joachim.

She couldn’t possibly have known they would use this place. So she didn’t have dupes inside the office. Unless Mary Catherine Montague – Bloody Mary – of House Asmodeus had double-crossed him. In that case he wouldn’t have to worry much about it though, because he would already be fucked.

“I have come to talk this over,” said Faust. “I overreacted.”

How fast could her illusions form? Stupid idea. This whole plan. He should have let it go a long time ago. Let somebody else deal with the problem. Accepted the fact that he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore or look at himself in the mirror or live with himself having done nothing.

He hated Faust so much. He had spent months fantasizing about killing her, every day. Every time by a different method, too.

“You have a funny way of asking for sympathy, wearing this face,” said Joachim.

Faust’s illusion of Carina closed her eyes and shook her head.

“It’s me,” said Faust. “This is the body I have inhabited for the last thirteen years.”

Book 2 – Chapter 23

Demons had incredible powers. They could turn metals into gold, levitate church pulpits and throw them at your head and cast life-like illusions. They did however take great pains not to violate the Silence – a sort of inter-celestial agreement not to let the mundanes become aware of the supernatural. It was for that reason the man at the front-door was firing a gun, the bullets of which punching holes into the sofa, Joachim had lifted and was now holding up in front of him as a shield.

He had taken care of the Kukomu illusion first. He had hit it against the head with all the force of sledgehammer and instead of its head bursting, it had evaporated into black smoke and dissipated.

People were screaming, scrambling everywhere. Somebody was chasing after them with an axe.

“Do the honorable thing,” the man at the door shouted. “Or I will kill every last person in the building.”

Joachim tossed the sofa at the man and charged, only to find the gun clattering to the floor and another cloud of black smoke rising up. The man with the axe was murdering a woman, her arms pointlessly held up in defense. She was screaming. Another man – her husband? – was trying to tackle the axe-murderer and got an axe to the skull as a reward.

Joachim picked up the gun and aimed.

“Drop the weapon!” he shouted.

He had never fired a gun before. Also, he had never left his fingerprints on a murder weapon before. Also, the man wasn’t holding a weapon at that point, but it still seemed like a good thing to yell.

“Drop the weapon, or I swear to God-”

The axe-murder grinned at him, his face covered with blood spatter. He placed one foot on the man’s skull, and pulled the axe free.

Joachim fired. The stupid thing was loud. It also kicked like a donkey. Still Joachim was sure he had hit the guy, even if it didn’t stop that bastard from standing there and grinning, as black smoke leaked out of several holes.

Did he want to charge the man with the axe?

That was the question he asked himself, as he charged. The grinning man did swing, but he was far too slow. Joachim had given him a super-powered slap to the face that made the killer go partly cloudy with a chance of axe clanking on the floor.

The other people just stared at him. There were shots being fired above. Joachim could hear them. Did he have a snowball’s chance in Hell to even find Faust? There were enough people running away from the chaos. For all Joachim knew, ‘Helga’ had already left.

She would be a woman. An old woman. Changing bodies means dealing with the Fleshcrafter’s Guild. Nobody does this if it isn’t strictly necessary.

Joachim ran towards the stairs.

He couldn’t cover all the exits.

Think. When you were a demon with a fragile body, where would you hide.

Joachim stopped, at the bottom of the stairs.

There will be decoys. It’s the old woman who is hiding in plain sight that you are looking for, not the one in the penthouse, living large.

Joachim pushed himself off the wall and half-flew towards the front desk computer. Every nerve inside his body was compelling him to run towards his prey. To not let Faust get away.

The hotel database was still open on the screen. Joachim typed faster than he had ever typed in his life.

He was looking for any older women who didn’t check in alone. Who had probably checked in around the same time that somebody checked into the penthouse. How long had Kukomu worked here?

God bless the data kraken habits of major corporations, they actually – illegally – had ID copies on file. There was only one old woman on file and she had checked in with… a doppelganger of Carina. That was original.

It was on the ground level, too. Joachim could have figured that one out. Why sacrifice easy exits for a view if you could just stash one of your illusions in the penthouse and look through their eyes?

Joachim ran. His super-powered legs made sprinting feel like flying over the floor. He didn’t bother to stop and open the doors in his path. Instead, he burst through them like a cannon ball, announcing his position for the remaining murderers still around, who would hopefully focus on him, rather than the civilians.

The door to room 043 was no more obstacle to him than a silk curtain.

It was a suite. Large balcony windows formed the wall towards the Isar. Antique furniture was arranged around a coffee table. A comfortable-looking bed was visible through a half-opened door. Joachim walked towards it, when a noise behind him made him spin around.

There were four of them. They wore coats of medieval armor. Their heads and feet ware almost completely translucent, but they got ever more opaque and real-looking towards the hands that held gleaming longswords.

With a few steps each, they formed a semicircle around Joachim.

Shit.

Joachim had trained a little. More accurately, he had watched Youtube videos about martial arts and had tried to copy their moves a little bit two or three times a week. Most of that had been about dealing with unarmed assailants – blocking punches, standing correctly while delivering them. Unarmed against four swords was bad. Really bad. Especially if Faust had any kind of practice with this.

Was Faust here right now? Could she see him? Was she hiding in the closet or under the bed.

Joachim spun around and punched a surprised fifth assailant straight into his supposedly armored face. He dissipated in black smoke. Then Joachim cannonballed towards the wall behind the bed, ignoring the knights and tackling, punching and ripping a hole through the thin hotel wall. He ended up in a supply closet, his pursuers clanking behind him. The supply closet door had been locked from the outside. It went wherever the spirits of doors ended up when their earthly shells were blown to bits.

Joachim could feel a burning pain inside his right hand and realized it was wet with his blood. There was no time to deal with that now. There was no hope of capture anymore. He needed to get out of here.

He ran. This time away from the room and towards the back exit.

The hotels intercom crackled to life.

“Running is pointless,” said Kukomu’s voice through about a dozen speakers in that hallway. “I am everywhere.”

A door opened on the other end of the hallway, right in front of the fire exit. A man with a shotgun stepped out and blocked the way. He was too far away for Joachim to punch him before he could pull that trigger.

Joachim eagle-dived towards the door to his left instead, headbutting it open, as a shotgun blast ripped through the air.

So much for her not wanting to kill her only lead, thought Joachim.

He crawled across the floor, leaving a trail of bloody fist imprints.

The windows on the wall were tempting, but if Joachim was Faust, he would have somebody on the outside. Joachim needed to do something unexpected.

Gritting his teeth, letting out a shout, he punched the floor, with everything he had.

Everything he had was a lot. It did make a crater, but one punch didn’t get him through. His entire arm hurt now.

Joachim heard metallic footsteps coming down the hallway. He punched the floor again and again and again as they closed in on him.

Finally he had created a hole, large enough for him, only to find it blocked by thin copper pipes.

With one of the knights already looming inside the doorway, his sword at the ready, Joachim ripped the pipes out and jumped down.

The basement had absurdly high ceilings and Joachim did not land all that well, letting out a hearty curse as his foot damn-near snapped off.

Pain shot through his leg and he nearly blacked out from it. Probably would have if it hadn’t been for the adrenaline. He looked around frantically.

It was dark down here. Several boilers stood down here, large and looming. A single metal door led further into the basement. Concrete walls all around.

He didn’t really have time to lose. He tried to open the door, only to find it locked. He tried to open the locked door, only to end up with the door handle inside his hand. Gritting his teeth, he walked towards the other end of the room, and, yelling Spartaaaaa he ran towards it, through the pain, through the fear and tackled the damn thing, bending it in the middle.

It hadn’t really given in, but he managed to pry it open now. Joachim did not have the time to think what the had just done to his shoulder. Or his spine. Or his sanity.

He ran down a dark concrete hallway, and found a set of stairs leading to the other side of the hotel.

The next part was a bit hazy.

He remembered opening a door and ending up in the hotel parking lot. He remembered the noise of the knights behind him, still in pursuit. He remembered a sense of heat and flames and a noise louder than anything he had ever heard. He remembered being pushed towards the parking lot and rolling around there.

With ringing inside his ears, he looked at the flames inside the ground level and the large black clouds of smoke steaming upwards out of the blown-out windows.

Book 2 – Chapter 22

The road led back to Munich. It led to nine hours of driving. To exhaustion. To eating shitty, overpriced gas station meals and to way too much time alone with his thoughts. It didn’t matter. He had a plan now. A way to fight back. The road led to the lobby of the Herzogspalast Hotel in Munich, a huge affair with a chandelier and ugly leather furniture that had probably cost more than anything Joachim owned put together.

Roughly around ten grand, Joachim realized as he did the math. Though he maybe had some insurance money coming once he had figured out how to do his paperwork without paper.

Behind the wooden monstrosity of a curved front-desk sat Kukomu in a page’s outfit. He grinned.

Joachim didn’t pay him any mind and steered towards the sofa with the coffee table and the menu that promised cups of coffee for six Euros and up. He sat down, breathed in the sofa’s new-car-smell and looked outside to the shores of the Isar that the hotel overlooked. A peaceful river, framed by snow, with nobody around to disturb it. As Kukomu walked up to Joachim he started to envy it.

“How do you do it?” said Joachim without looking up. “Having an illusion perform an actual workday, chat with customers, get yelled at by the manager… what kind of obsessive-compulsive mind does it take to keep that up?”

“Maybe this isn’t an illusion,” said Faust – or Helga, whatever. “Maybe this is my real body.”

Joachim was too tired for her bullshit and shot him a disdainful look. Her and her stupid moustache and the helplessness she had projected when they had first met and the fake family she had gotten him to care for. She wasn’t just a sociopathic liar – she was a sociopathic liar, that was for certain – but also an artist. The way that a serial killer decorates his crime scenes and arranges corpses like Leonardo da Vinci sketches. That kind of artist.

“I doubt it,” said Joachim. “I wonder if you are ugly. I wonder if that’s why you keep hiding your face.”

Kukomu just stood there, hands folded, keeping his page persona. Smiling. Smiling, ever so politely.

“How did you find me?” she said.

Joachim had replayed this moment inside his head so many times, he was almost paralyzed by now. This was the moment. This was the moment when infinite potential became the definite past, when the decision tree flattened into a straight, imperfect line.

“Ritter Lothar von Heimelsdingen,” said Joachim.

There was such a strange power in names, Joachim realized. Maybe that was how demon-summoning really worked. Shouting do you know who I am into a telephone, do you know who my daddy is friends with. Faust completely lost her shit. That is to say, she glanced around nervously and started to talk in a whispering voice.

“What do you know?” she said. Her accent had changed. The illusion she presented him with right now, was a Nigerian speaking in a Scandinavian accent.

“For starters, that he’s pissed you are leading people to his graves,” said Joachim.

“You have spoken to him?” Faust whispered through her teeth.

Joachim looked out to the Isar river again. His heart was pounding, his stomach was twisting. The difference between a regular person and a con man was that the latter had crossed the line from wanting to throw up all the time to actually enjoying this. Once crossed it was pretty much impossible to go back. Joachim had never done it.

Faust sat down next to him, all matters of decorum and cover forgotten. The sofa actually bent under the weight of her illusion. Another interesting tidbit.

“So you know what he represents?” said Faust.

Joachim shook his head.

“I honestly don’t care,” he said. “It is another scheme I want nothing to do with, in a game that I don’t want to play.”

“That is the entire point,” Faust hissed. “A way to escape the game. I thought you would jump at this. I honestly thought you would jump at this.”

Joachim turned around to him.

“You are a mass-murdering piece of shit,” he said. “I hate you so much I have trouble sleeping at night.”

They are the mass-murderers,” said Faust. “You think giving them a couple of moments of torture followed by an eternity of doing exactly what they were doing before was evil? They have ice-cold Club Mate in Hell for fuck’s sake. They are fine. You want to know what’s evil? You know what I protected them from?”

Joachim stayed silent, looking straight into Faust’s fake, dark eyes. He wondered if he could dispel the illusion, just by staring at it intensely. If he knew that his eyes were deceiving him… but that was stupid. It wasn’t in his mind. The sofa was bending. This was more like mobile force-field sort of deal. Much more powerful.

Jesus… if she could project these things anywhere, she could easily murder people and just dispel the illusion and be gone. Or frame people for crimes. Or make a TV appearance as a president, threatening another country with nuclear weapons.

“There are wars going on in Hell, destroying immortal souls. The Houses have always fought for territory. The lesser Houses puppets of the Great Houses. The Great Houses themselves are pyramids protecting those that are rich and powerful. All of this goes down to the poor shmuck who just died and has no idea what’s going on and who will die again, permanently, for no better reason than to keep those in power safe and happy. They have endured thousands of years, wrapped in a cocoon of death. This thing you are doing right here, is nothing but the extension of their wars. Wars over territory that have as much meaning as scoring points in soccer.”

And all of that power in the hands of an egomaniacal sociopath.

“Sounds just like you,” said Joachim. “Making people your pawns, letting them do the dirty work, torturing and killing others to score prestige. Wasn’t that what you told me? Wasn’t that the reason you have given me, why these people needed to die?”

The illusion of Kukomu next to Joachim rubbed its temples.

“Why are you here?” said Faust through it.

“It’s simple,” said Joachim. “I’m going to kill you.”

Faust blinked several times, processing this.

Then there was a long silence during which her illusion stayed eerily still. It didn’t even breathe.

Joachim pictured her running towards the windows and then to her computer doing any number of checks. And probably the odd magic circle, too.

That was great. He needed her paranoid. He needed her to be anything but thinking clearly and thoroughly.

“How?” said Faust, finally.

The illusion had started breathing again.

“I don’t do James Bond villain,” said Joachim. “Let’s just say I took a little page from your playbook.”

The illusion suppressed an actual scream of frustration. Joachim wondered if there was some kind of manager looking at them now, but he didn’t turn around to check.

“Could you turn off your suicidal conscience for about two seconds? You know what I could do for you now that you have found Lothar? What I could do for Carina? Do you even care where you are going to end up when-… Huh.”

Shit. What?

“Maybe I will pay a little visit to your girlfriend. She has been all over town, at the usual demon hangouts, did you know that? Would be so easy to slap her with a tattoo and turn her into my personal slave. How would you like that?”

This fucking asshole.

“I wouldn’t like it,” said Joachim. “There is nothing I can do to stop you from doing that, though. Which is my problem, precisely. As long as you walk around, you will do evil shit, with little thought for anyone else.”

“Oh Joachim,” said Faust. “We could have done great things together. It’s a shame it has to end this way.”

Joachim felt as if somebody was pointing a gun at him now. This entire plan hinged on being too valuable to get killed. Faust had scoured the earth looking for Ritter Lothar and found nothing. Joachim was the only lead she had. If she was going to attack him, it was only to incapacitate him and torture him until he revealed everything he knew about him. It was a gamble and right now all his money was sitting on Red and the roulette wheel was spinning.

“Why did you come here?” said Faust. “There is no way you will get to me in time.”

Wait! She is actually here?

Joachim didn’t have much time to process this, since at that moment the hotel lobby erupted into violence.

Book 2 – Chapter 21

The data-dump was full of secrets. Secrets that were hard to discover and that probably only a handful of people knew. Places to visit, people to to talk to, deals that could be arranged.

There was a bar in Berlin. It wasn’t a huge bar. Certainly not a flashy one. It had this grimy old sign with a forgettable name. It had stained glass windows that nobody cleaned, with only little light seeping through them in either direction.

The bar had a central location, but it wasn’t easy to reach. It wasn’t on Google Maps, though the alley – too narrow for cars – was. It was in walking distance from the Bundestag. Per extension it was in walking distance from more than a handful of embassies and all of the most important ministries of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was in walking distance from three major subway stations, yet few people ever came here.

The door opened to Joachim with a creak. Even though smoking had been forbidden in public bars, the dark interior still smelled of it. This and the taste of stale beer in the air made the aroma of the place.

The bar keep was an ancient man. He looked like a skeleton that had wrapped wrinkly skin around him, tightly. He looked like a corpse too stubborn to die, while there was still a bar too clean, still a beer glass to fill for the bloated figures who sat on the stools, unaware of their environment.

A woman sat in the corner. She was not old, nor was she young. She could have been thirty or she could have been fifty. The light didn’t flatter her unclean skin and her patchy red hair and the darkness hid the rest.

The woman had no glass in front of her, just a large folder. This place was her office. As far as Joachim could tell, it had been for many years. He wouldn’t have to worry about being watched here. There would be counter-measures in place here designed to befuddle foreign intelligence services.

Joachim came up and sat down across from her. She looked up at him, half-bored.

Joachim had not called ahead. He had not let her know who he was and what he wanted and even that he was coming. A short look on her part was all the information he gave her and all the information she took.

She opened her folder and clicked her ballpoint-pen. The notes inside were all written in her handwriting, with scarcely any print between them. There was a large stack of them.

“Would you like to see a magic trick?” said Joachim.

The woman didn’t look up.

“I have seen them all,” she said. “And they bore me.”

Joachim lifted up his hands and showed them to her, even if she wasn’t looking. He showed her his sleeves that had nothing in them but an ace of hearts that he sheepishly took out and tossed onto the table. He then waved his hands in the air in a dramatic flourish and produced a three-piece chain, fashioned from crude metal, like it had been forged in medieval times from the front pocket of his sweater and placed it on the table.

The woman looked up, then stared at the chain.

“Not so bored now, are you?” said Joachim.

“How?” said the woman.

“I had it in the front-pocket of my sweater. Want me to show you?”

“Where did you get this?” she said, punctuating the question with a deadpan look.

“The Kreuzberg Medieval Market,” said Joachim. “Looks just like the one in the Fleshcrafter’s Guild, doesn’t it?”

The woman gave him an annoyed grunt.

“I’m going to perform a con,” said Joachim.

She stared at him.

“On the Fleshcrafter’s Guild?” she said.

“No.”

“On… me?”

“No.”

The woman groaned in exasperation. “What do you want?”

“You help in performing said con,” said Joachim.

“On whom?”

“Faust.”

“Who?”

“I think you know who that individual is,” said Joachim. “I don’t think you know what he or she is planning.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed.

She clicked her ballpoint pen.

Click-click.

“I want to trick him,” said Joachim. “It is the only way I can win.”

Click-click.

“He needs to be stopped,” said Joachim.

Click-click.

“He is a traitor,” said Joachim.

The woman’s eyes fell to the chain. Then they wandered up again.

She seemed to understand the message.

She put down the ball-point pen.

“You want to perform a con,” she said, “on a powerful member of my House.”

Joachim shrugged.

“I figure that must open up some spots above. Must be hard to get promoted if nobody ever retires.”

The woman smirked.

“There is no way I can beat him in a direct fight,” said Joachim. “Or rather he won’t give me one.”

Click-click.

“There is no way I can con him, because he has infinitely more experience in it than I do.”

Click-click.

“The only way to beat a demi-god is with the help of another demi-god.”

Click-click.

“What do you want in return?”

“What you are asking puts me into a difficult position,” said the woman. “I don’t know if anything you said is true.”

Joachim snorted.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You have been doing business with Faust for years. You know what he is up to. At least you have suspected. The trips to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The secret labs. The strange requests. Does any of this sound familiar?”

The woman looked away. On the inside Joachim was celebrating now. He had made her think. He had made her doubt. He didn’t let any of this get through to the outside though, in fear of dispelling the effect he just had.

“Do you have a plan?” said the woman.

“You are looking at it,” said Joachim.

She glanced at the chain between them.

“That is a stupid plan,” said the woman.

“Tried and true bait-and-switch? It’s a classic. Every con works like that. Well… most of them do.”

The woman groaned.

“No, what I mean is, this is not a good bait. He will see through it.”

“Are you sure?” said Joachim. “Think about it. How long has he searched for this? How invested is he? And now he is on the run from people who are slowly finding out his secret. He wants this chain to be real. He wants to believe.”

The woman smiled.

“Ah to be young again,” she said. She leaned forward and she sniffed him. “So full of optimism. So full of energy.”

Instinctively, Joachim reached out and touched her hand. It was cold as ice, but she didn’t draw it away.

He brought his face up to hers.

“I’m not hearing a no,” said Joachim.

She smirked again.

“You are not hearing a yes either. I have a lot to lose here. And you still haven’t told me what part you want me to play in your plan.”

Joachim looked deep into her eyes. They were amber-colored. Beautiful. He wasn’t much of a seducer. Truth be told, he felt mostly helpless when it came to women. For some reason this was easy. Like the steps for a dance he only just remembered. Where these his con man reflexes of old kicking in? Or was she playing him, sending him signals, luring him?

“I will tell you in due time,” said Joachim. “All I want to find out now are your intentions.”

She stuck out her tongue and gently teased his lips with its tip. It was strangely erotic.

He felt guilty. Why was he feeling guilty? Carina wasn’t his girlfriend. And she was the one who left him. Just a gentle blow of his breath onto her lips. Reciprocate without reciprocating. Leave her wanting more.

The woman’s body shivered visibly.

“My intentions?” she whispered. “That depends on what you are going to do to her when this is over.”

Again with the stupid smirk as if it would make any difference at all to Joachim if the murdering psychopath he was facing was male or female.

“Kill… her if I can,” said Joachim. “Though that might be a little bit beyond my capabilities. I was hoping I could feed her to the dogs.”

The woman laughed loudly. Joachim glanced over his shoulder, but the drunks at the bar were apparently to catatonic to pay any attention to them and the barkeeper just didn’t seem to give a shit.

“The dogs being my betters? Oh that is rich. Anyway, here is the truth. I will tell it to you, non-signed, and I will deny all of it should you ever breathe a word about it.”

She bowed her head and took a deep breath. Apparently telling the truth involved great effort for her.

“I get Helga,” she said. “I really do. I envy her even. That thing she does? That wasn’t handed to her. She perfected that skill. All I can do… well, that is a conversation for another time. The truth is, I want what she is after. I’m done with the bullshit. I’m done risking my ass just so the Lords of Hell can live to see yet another millennium.”

She turned around her hand and grabbed Joachim’s.

“I want out,” she said. “For my help, I want you to promise me the first universal body we find. Don’t worry about its current occupant. I will have ways to deal with them. Do we have a deal?”

Book 2 – Chapter 20

Lieprecht’s office looked like a museum. It was so chock full of display cabinets, glass boxes and things hanging off the ceiling that it was remarkable he had even fit his dark wooden desk with the intricately designed brass knobs in there. Clearly, the man had a hoarding problem. It was hard to breathe at the smell of dust, varnish and formaldehyde in this room.

Among the things he displayed were tiny Ancient Egyptian boats that looked like they were stolen from a grave somewhere. There were daggers and various iron prongs and strangely shaped ironcast tools, maybe used for leatherwork. The one thing Lieprecht pointed his well manicured finger to, sitting inside the corner, hidden in plain sight were three links of a dark metal chain.

“Innocent-looking, isn’t it?” said Lieprecht.

The man had the strangest look in his eye. Like somebody who was equally greedy and scared, not knowing whether to grab something or to run away.

Joachim leaned in to get a better look. There were no magic symbols engraved into the chain. The links weren’t even particularly well made, their structure crude and irregular, the way medieval tools looked.

“Excuse me if I don’t follow,” said Joachim. “How is this the most powerful weapon in existence?”

They sure had their touch of melodrama. And/or never heard of nuclear warheads.

“How much do you know about Vessels?” said Lieprecht. “About the work our guild does?”

Joachim shrugged. Better to play stupid and get more details in the process.

“There are several states of existence that a human being can enter,” said Lieprecht. “Its initial state is that of a corporal being, in entwined with its nascent soul. Brain and soul exist in perfect harmony with each other, in the way that the soul shapes the complex neural networks and in turn gets shaped by them. It is a kind of symbiosis that is impossible to achieve on this level of sophistication ever again.”

Joachim took this in. They were certainly taking care to merge their beliefs with science. Joachim sort of had to respect them for that, even if he feared that all of this he was telling him was hogwash.

“At the death of the biological body, the soul separates. Unless it is claimed by the Powers Above, it will drift into the underworld, Hell, as we Westerners call it. The human being in question is now a being of pure magical energy, free in many ways, less so in others. Earth does not have sufficient amounts of magic to sustain it and all but the rarest soul has the capabilities to exert influence upon it.”

“Wait,” said Joachim. “Are you saying Hell is a physical place? Just somehow… more magical?”

“Hell is very much a physical place,” said Lieprecht. “Somehow more magical, however, would be a gross oversimplification.”

There was something there. This piece of information connected to something else. Joachim just wasn’t sure what yet.

“As you might have gathered,” Lieprecht continued, “there are certain factions in Hell that very much wish to exert such influence. This is where the Fleshcrafter’s Guild comes in. It is our noble calling to once again restore the gift of a self-sustaining biological body upon the disincorporated souls. If you consider this for a moment, I think you will realize what sort of position this puts the Guild into.”

Joachim had been aware of this before. Nevertheless he whistled appreciatively.

“Between a heap of rocks and a huge, well-sorted collection of hard places,” said Joachim.

“Well put,” said Lieprecht. “We have put a lot of effort into keeping the process anonymized. Not even the Lord Guild Leader could easily find out when a certain body was created and which House it now belongs to. These structures are the results of many hard won lessons, many periods of time where knowledge, experience and skill were lost and rediscovered and developed. You will have to forgive me if we seem a bit harsh. Any discourtesy inflicted upon you was in a way nothing but the means to our continued survival.”

Joachim took this all statesman-like with a stern nod.

“So what about the chain?” said Joachim.

“It is simple,” said Lieprecht. “In a period of… less refined artisanship, the delicate balance between a soul and a freshly created brain were hard to achieve. Instead, bodies were created that were sort of universal, with chains to bind the soul into the vessel, forcefully keeping it from escaping.”

That had been the missing pieces. Inside Joachim’s head, several things clicked into place simultaneously.

“This makes it possible to steal a body!” said Joachim. “You could take it, unmarked as it is, and go anywhere without your House knowing where you went. A… rogue agent.”

Lieprecht nodded enthusiastically.

“That is the problem precisely,” he said. “Luckily this hasn’t really happened all that often. Herr Zayenkovic is a pretty notorious example, certainly. Also, the mechanisms of aging are optional, at least on a biological level. There are many treaties in place now that make it mandatory for enhanced camouflage and so forth, but I won’t deny that it benefits us greatly.”

“Not only could they steal the body, they could… live forever?”

Lieprecht smiled an evil little smile.

“That is the advantage and the curse. As long as the chains are in place, the soul will not leave the body, no matter how much trauma is inflicted upon it. Any wound will heal eventually, provided you keep eating. It is my personal theory that some of the modern myths about the undead stem from this very fact.”

Joachim remembered Andrej driving a truck through a portal and then through the wall of a cabin in the woods, reportedly having a grand time all the while. He remembered his driving style a couple of days ago. It fit.

A third alternative.

Faust wanted Andrej’s body. Perhaps he thought he could replicate the process.

The arm in the laboratory. Of course! One of the fugitives had cut off their arm to get rid of the mark. Joachim wondered if that worked. And if he would have the guts to do it to himself if necessary.

“The Great House of Hades,” said Joachim.

“What about them?” said Lieprecht.

“That is where he went. They were trying to negotiate something and things went sideways. They didn’t come back out.”

Lieprecht tilted his heads to each side, considering this.

“That is valuable information,” he said. “Thank you.”

“So that’s it,” said Joachim. “Our bargain is fulfilled? Just like that?”

“Herr Schwartz, you may well be lying,” he said. “Should you be foolish enough to try to deceive one of the most powerful guilds in the cosmos, you will soon learn your lesson. It might not be today, it might not be twenty years from now, but immortality gives you nothing if not patience. We do tend to have a long memory.”

Joachim nodded.

He didn’t feel comfortable at all here. Were the walls closing in a bit?

“I can go?” said Joachim.

“You may go,” said Lieprecht, “I do have another question for you. Just something that is of personal interest to me. If you will indulge me?”

Joachim took a deep breath and braced himself.

“This fugitive you sold out must be capable and probably has some friends. Who are you allied with? You have no standing. Why do you involve yourself in infernal politics?”

Why indeed.

Joachim felt resigned all of a sudden.

“There are some things too evil to be allowed to exist,” said Joachim. “And I have the feeling that if I don’t stand up and do something about them, nobody will.”

“You are doing this alone?”

“If I have to,” said Joachim. “I have a grant deal or whatever with somebody out there. Other than that I have no one to trust, which I think is probably not a bad thing.”

Lieprecht seemed taken aback at this. He went to the antique swivel chair in front of his desk and sat down.

“Are you trying to shoot for a place Above?” said Lieprecht.

Joachim shook his head.

“I already refused one.”

Bile rose up in Joachim’s stomach just thinking about it.

Maybe you should do your own research about what happened to the people inside the garage.

…violate the Covenant of Eden…

There are some fairly powerful individuals making sure that the Silence will not be broken.

Joachim wasn’t sure. Maybe this was propaganda. Maybe this was a subtle little head fake to turn him away from them. The feeling in Joachim’s gut, the way Hadraniel had behaved, all of it steered him towards another direction entirely though.

“Oh my,” said Lieprecht. “Oh my. Would you mind showing me the mark of your grant?”

Joachim shouldn’t have. There was no point in revealing more information than strictly necessary to anyone in a hostile environment like this one.

He did anyway. If only because he was curious.

Lieprecht had warm fingers. His hands were surprisingly soft for a man his apparent age. He carefully inspected the moving tattoo on Joachim’s arm.

“So what’s the verdict?” said Joachim.

“I want to apologize for the discourtesy I have given you,” said Lieprecht. “Please forgive me. I am unworthy.”

Lieprecht was trembling. Joachim pulled his arm away.

“What did you see?” he said.

Lieprecht shook his head.

“If you don’t know, I cannot divulge the information,” he said. “You will learn when you are supposed to learn. Please leave.”

Considering that moments ago he had wondered whether they would let him walk away at all, he was only too happy to oblige him.

Book 2 – Chapter 19

It didn’t take him long to figure out where to go next. The conversation Joachim had had with Hannah’s mother had given him some useful keywords to navigate the vastness of data the team had left him.

Berlin. That was where he needed to go next. That was where he’d find the people with answers.

When Joachim reached the city, it was the middle of the night. Unlike Munich, Berlin was full of dark, monolithic skyscrapers. It was covered in graffiti, trash and industry. It was covered in people who looked like human garbage. It was Joachim’s kind of town.

He knew where he wanted to go, but he took his time. He drove the scenic route, circling in on the historical like a vulture. In Munich, the poverty was contained like in ghettos. The poor people either lived in cramped honeycombs or they didn’t live there at all, with all the hip and pricey areas vast, clean and presentable. In Berlin, rich and poor blended effortlessly. Glittering malls stood surrounded by dirty gray apartment buildings. Large historical sites with pompous half-globe roofs were redecorated with torn concert posters, as if the city were reaching out to them, clawing at them, preventing them from flying off back into the dream world where they had been born.

The Embassy of Flesh didn’t advertise. Among several brass plates announcing medical practices, lawyers and accountants, was a single sign labeled Carnis. There was nothing else, just those words. Still, when Joachim rang the bell, the door was opened for him instantly.

He took the elevator up. It didn’t look high-class or anything. It was one of those steel-colored ones with the square buttons like a million others. Built 1992. In case of malfunction please call this number.

Joachim hadn’t expected a Gothic cathedral- On second thought, no, that was exactly what he had expected.

The door’s opened on the third floor of a ten-story building. One glass door and he stood in front of an office. A large front-desk with an older woman in a suit and T-Shirt combination sitting behind it. The reception area had a living room suite and a ficus tree. There was a huge steel sign bolted to the wall.

Carnis GmbH.

Communication.

Well it was technically true, even if it omitted most of the details.

“Good evening, sir,” said the woman behind the counter. “How may I help you?”

“My name is Joachim Schwartz,” said Joachim. “I have an appointment.”

“Ah yes, Herr Schwartz,” said the woman. “Why don’t you take a seat. Herr Lieprecht will be with you shortly.”

Joachim took a seat. There was nobody else in the office and he didn’t hear any noise of phone calls or meetings or… typing going on. Still it took twenty minutes before a man with a black tie came out who wore the whitest shirt Joachim had ever seen outside of commercials. His silver hair was trimmed short, his wrinkled features looked sort of like an angry owl.

He didn’t say anything, but just sat down next to Joachim, looked ahead and steepled his fingers. It seemed to occur to the woman behind the front-desk that she urgently needed to be somewhere else right now and left.

Shirt-man took a deep breath, followed by a sigh.

Joachim would have to do gymnastics to just look at him and then he would have had a very intimate moment with the man’s ear. He opted to look straight ahead instead as if pretending that they were both just waiting for somebody.

“You have no standing,” said shirt-man – Herr Lieprecht? – as a way of greeting.

“You told me that on the phone,” said Joachim. “At least I think it was you. I called you two hours ago?”

“Yes, that was me,” said Lieprecht.

He stayed silent after that. They were both just staring ahead now, like waiting for a bus.

“I was hoping we could have a polite conversation,” said Joachim.

“Politeness is how we express our respect to those around us,” said Lieprecht. “I have no respect for you, because you deserve none. All I agreed to was a conversation.”

“You are a member of the Fleshcrafter’s Guild, are you not?” said Joachim.

“That seems to be what you think,” said Lieprecht.

“I would like to ask you some questions,” said Joachim.

“You have no standing,” said Lieprecht. “It is the be all and end all of answers you are going to receive. Our secrets are sacred, the trust put into us never invalidated.”

“Andrej Zayenkovic,” said Joachim.

Lieprecht took another one of his deep breaths punctuated with a sigh. When Joachim didn’t say anything more he said: “I can neither confirm nor deny any name you will bring forth. Trying to elicit information from me will only be trying my patience.”

“Maybe that is not his real name,” said Joachim. “Say do you remember somebody escaping with a piece of your handywork. Say, somebody wrapped in chains, running away from you or some House a couple of decades ago?”

Lieprecht stiffened.

“Wait here,” he said.

He got up and walked over to the front-desk. Then he picked up the receiver and punched a number into the phone. Lieprecht had a conversation in what sounded like Russian he kept glancing at Joachim, saying da.

Then he put his hand on the receiver.

“Herr Schwartz, would you mind coming over here?” said Lieprecht.

Joachim got up and did just that. Lieprecht handed him the receiver. Then he made himself scarce as well.

“Herr Schwartz, was it?” said a man with a… foreign accent on the other side.

“Yes.”

“It is a pleasure,” said the man. “My name is Magnus Ivinius Crutas. I am in charge of the European continent.”

“Charmed,” said Joachim. He was about to ask if he meant in charge of the guild operations on the continent or literally the continent, but then didn’t. He wouldn’t have liked the answer either way.

“We have been looking for the man you have been describing. Do you know where he currently resides?”

“I am surprised you can even talk to me,” said Joachim. “Seeing as I have no standing and all.”

“Herr Schwartz, our organization is in a delicate position and has been for as long as it existed. You will have to excuse the discourteous remarks that might have been made by my subordinates.”

Joachim’s hand was shaking. Every single word the man spoke exuded power. And all it had taken to speak to him was mentioning Andrej’s name. Was he going to walk out of this place alive? Somehow Joachim had the impression that it depended on the end of this conversation.

“I know where he is,” said Joachim. “This information has a price though.”

“Yes of course,” said Magnus Ivinius Crutas. “I can see to it that you are well compensated for your troubles. Provided you remain discreet and exclusive in your dealings.”

“Agreed,” said Joachim. “I am not interested in money though.”

“Then what are you interested in?”

Faust’s head on a pike.

“Information,” said Joachim. “Secrets.”

There was a pause on the other line.

“Please be specific, Herr Schwartz. Time is a precious commodity, even among the immortal.”

Was he sure he wanted to ask this? He had come here with a different question. Background info on Faust. Anything that could be used for blackmail or discern his motives. Now though…

A bone inscribed with symbols.

Andrej didn’t age. He had spent decades looking like a roughed-up kind of thirty. Why?

“Multiple questions. I will give you information depending on how much I like your answers.”

“Agreed.”

“How come Andrej doesn’t age?”

“A complex questions with many answers. For you it might be enough to know that he had taken an old vessel, from back when aging was more of a hindrance than a necessity. How do I know you have actually seen him?”

“He spent a lot of time in Munich, driving a white BMW. There is a man who had been buried in an unmarked grave in a forest in Thüringen about a thousand years ago. The grave is now empty. Many people are very interested in this grave and similar ones. Why?”

“They all belong to the same person. A person much similar to Herr Zayenkovic, but far older and far more dangerous. He had been hunted to the end of the earth and lives still. Your answer seems to imply that Herr Zayenkovic no longer resides in Munich. Do you know where he is now?”

Was there a connection somewhere?

“Yes on both counts. In how far are Herr Zayenkovic and the individual in question similar?”

There was silence on the end of the line.

“Those are dangerous questions, you are asking, Herr Schwartz. Perhaps I can make you another offer? I have a substantial amount of funds at my disposal. There are five million Euros inside the very office you are standing in. That is how much this answer is worth to me.”

That was how much he wanted to avoid telling him what was going on, thought Joachim.

“Pass,” he said. “What is there about those two that is so valuable that somebody would spent a lot of time and resources in securing it?”

“The end of peace,” said the voice on the telephone. “The end of order. The end of a truce that has remained uneasy and fragile for millennia. Herr Schwartz, if I told you this, I would violate the Covenant of Eden itself. I am prepared to do it, but please do not ask this of me lightly.”

“Do you want to have Andrej or not?” said Joachim. “Do it.”

Book 2 – Chapter 18

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.”

Sanft chuckled.

“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?”

Sanft shrugged.

“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.”

Joachim smiled.

“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.

Sanft chuckled.

“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.

Burning eyes.

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.

Book 2 – Chapter 17

Lerchenweg 19 in Potsdam was the nineteenth white house with a wiremesh fence in a series of virtually identical white houses with wiremesh fences, each with their own little patch of green grass, their own unique set of tiny decorations – garden gnomes, ceramic frogs, flower pots, wind chimes, tiny replicas of classical statues – on an identical ground, paved with identical tiles. Number nineteen didn’t even have a unique door or fancy window decorations. It was the same modern gray metal and glass door that almost every other house on that street had. The trees on the other side of the road, across from it, hinted at just how young this development had been. How much history they had paved over here to ruin it with their sameness.

Or this place had actually been a dump before, in that case good riddance.

The name on the white plastic door bell was Becker. That was not the name of the man who lived inside.

Nobody reacted to Joachim’s ringing, so Joachim jumped the tiny, yet locked, garden door and walked up to the front door.

Nobody reacted to Joachim’s knocking, so he casually pulled the door open, cracking its soulless frame with a violently loud snap.

The room on the other side looked fresh. Lots of white Ikea furniture. Classical books – The Odyssey, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Selected Shakespeare plays – sat on the otherwise empty shelves untouched. A staircase with fake marble slab leading upwards.

There were no pictures on the wall. The whole place smelled of plastic.

The carpet muffled Joachim’s footsteps as he made his way to the living room.

Emptiness here. Hardwood floors, no dents from furniture. Nothing. It was sort of zen actually.

Had he come to the right place?

The whole place was silent. The whole place was clean. It looked like nobody had ever lived in here.

He looked outside the window, just to see a narrow asphalt path, marked with a hopscotch cross drawn in colorful chalk, and the next row of houses. No garden.

Who would live upstairs? Who would live upstairs and cast aside the easy escape routes the ground level offered.

Joachim went back to the entrance to cast the carpet aside, revealing a trap door in the corner of a house that was not supposed to have basement.

The trap door was locked.

He opened it.

There was no ladder that led down in what looked like a drop of three meters. The good thing was that his super-strength included his legs.

He jumped.

The floor down there was hard, but it didn’t hurt him. It was covered in small white tiles, that much he could see before he tapped the light-switch.

When the light came, he saw more.

The place was some sort of laboratory. It had an experimentation area surrounded by acrylic glass, with a huge tube on top to suck off fumes. It had a bunch of equipment – electronic devices in the broadest sense – with white plastic casings and many buttons. On a cursory glance it didn’t even look all that weird. If one disregarded the mummified human arm inside the glass box, suspended above the countertops. Rows of cabinets waited above and below, their white doors closed and unlabeled, waiting like ghostly guards, impassively watching.

There was no chemical smell about the place, which surprised Joachim. The whole place smelled of… dust? A bit of rubber?

Was that how archaeologists worked these days? He hadn’t imagined to find a hat and a bullwhip down here, but whatever happened to digging tools? Or shelves filled with sixteen volumes about a time period of ten years?

There were no doors. This laboratory, built in an illegal basement, underneath a house that was a carefully constructed lie was all there was to it. Joachim briefly summed up the amount of money, time and effort that had to go into setting this up and estimated just how much the owner of this lab would have to charge to make up for it.

Joachim started opening the cabinets, discovering beakers, test tubes, a bunch of pointy metal things, all of it either unused or ridiculously clean. He had to work all the way to the end, to a large double-door cabinet, to find something more interesting.

The contents of the shelves inside of it were used. There were notebooks – handwritten, that was more like it! – stacked up on one. There were cardboard boxes, frayed with heavy use. There were rows of test-tubes labeled in immaculate handwriting. Alpha-4, Beta-1, Beta-2, Beta-3, Gamma-1, and so forth. They were soil samples.

Joachim grabbed the notebooks and leafed through them.

Sample Beta-4 inconclusive.

Some scientific jargon followed. Lots of abbreviations. Something about PCR results and restriction enzymes.

Joachim glanced up at the arm, then at the book again. He placed it down on the cleaner than clean countertop and started snapping pictures.

There were maps inside the book, neatly cut out and glued into place. Somebody had really been going for that gold star with this piece of homework.

The maps were too close to place them, but the labels were in… Arabic?

What followed were stunningly detailed drawing of corpses. Or rather mummies and bones. Then pieces of clothing with approximations of what they could have looked like. Medieval garbs. A sort of tunic and a cloak. Leather boots. More data. More terse words about procedures and experiments performed.

No match. That was what it said. No match to what?

Joachim pulled out the neat metal stands containing the tubes with the samples, one after the other. Which one was the most frequently used? Which one had a name that differed from the others?

The samples went all the way to Kappa. Was the arm in the case the original? Could Alpha be?

He looked at the contents of the tube and couldn’t quite make it out. Was this… human flesh?

Somebody had gone through a lot of trouble to secretly identify a grave. This couldn’t be Andrej. Joe had Andrej’s bones. Hannah wasn’t dead. At least not likely dead. For centuries.

Faust?

Joachim looked at the arm again. It was a blackened, leathery thing, completely shrunken in on itself. So much so, that it didn’t even look real anymore. More like something made out of plastic. If it was real, Joachim couldn’t even tell if this arm – a right arm – had belonged to a male or female.

He went back to the notebooks and started flipping further. The digging sites had been chosen all over the world. There seemed to be no pattern to them, no logic. There was one in England of all places. There was one in the Czech republic. Why would there be…

Joachim looked at the garbs again. Medieval times. It could have been the Crusades. In that case there probably was a distinct path leading from Dourbershire, England all the way to a place in the Middle East.

Should he destroy this? Would it thwart Faust’s plan?

No. He was watching. In a way, Joachim did exactly what Faust had told him to do.

Joachim kept taking pictures of the notebooks with his cellphone, but he didn’t know if he really needed to be that subtle. What was going to happen if he just took everything? Whom was he trying to fool by clandestinely making copies?

On the other hand, he had to start practicing being a spy at some point.

It took him an hour to make the copies and put everything back into its place. There was no sign of the archaeologist who had done all of this work. The last pages actually detailed two routes going through Germany. Close-by even.

Joachim’s eyes widened. Of course. Why would the lab be this pristine and have only one shabby little cabinet filled with equipment that had actually been used? This was a field lab. It was new. Created for this very dig site.

And it was at this dig site where the archaeologist’s search had stopped.

Book 2 – Chapter 16

The one thing that surprised Joachim after four hours on the Autobahn was just how easy all of this was. First of all, the cheap-as-peanuts used lemon he was driving was actually a halfway decent car. The roads were empty enough not to be too much of a bother and he could just hold a comfortable speed and do a lot of driving straight ahead and it was just like swimming in the way that he subconsciously remembered how to do it.

The landscape he could see past the anti-noise walls was stunningly green, with coniferous forests taking in the winter sun on the endless slopes of hills he had never known were there. Easy on the eyes. Therapeutic even. He wished his car – this driving coffin built before Kohl had been chancellor and giving off such a cigarette stink as if Federal Chancellor Schmidt had been chauffeured around in it – could turn into an airplane, or better yet, a pair of wings, so he could explore those slopes with his body, the way his eyes kept exploring it.

There was nothing holding him back now. No job, no girlfriend, no overpriced tiny apartment, not even any stuff he had to move. No allies who kept trying to recruit him for plans that they couldn’t talk about. Plans their infernal overlords had deemed necessary. Plans that he would learn about now.

He should have felt isolated and he did feel a bit alone. He should have felt without purpose, without context, utterly uprooted, but he did not. For the moment at least, he felt free, letting the engine of his new car howl as its prehistoric wheels dug into the asphalt, pulling him forward.

They were dead. Dead in a way that kept them from walking the earth. Dead in a way that kept them from resetting their dead-man’s-switch. The email had gone out. Joachim had sucked the first five gigabytes through his cellphone into his shiny new laptop that hadn’t even received the bliss that was Linux yet. There was more. There were hundreds of gigabytes, dwarfing the data Joachim had liberated from the body-snatchers’ offices. More than he could review in a month of work. Probably enough for a year if he wanted to get a complete picture.

It was all there. The shard he currently had unpacked, he had managed to decrypt it, too. It contained email archives from two years ago, among them Hannah’s. It looked real. It was real. Hannah’s crew didn’t have the know-how or the manpower to pull something like this off.

Jesus, Joachim thought. They are dead. They are all dead.

There was something about them that had seemed invincible. Or at least careful enough to survive almost anything. They were smart. They were well-trained. Faust had casually taken them apart or at least driven them to take themselves apart which – to Faust – was probably the same thing.

The downside of having a car from the dark ages was the car radio that only accepted cassettes. Or the radio. Joachim didn’t know which he hated worse. He hadn’t listened to the radio or watched actual TV in ages. Not since he had been a teenager. Atheism aside, he did wish for a special hell for whoever first looked at the numbers, figured repetitive advertisement – playing the same stupid commercial again and again and again until the jokes had long stopped being funny, until nothing in it had any meaning, after Joachim had made a holy oath never to buy that shaving cream or laundry detergent or insurance policy – was worth it. Just go ahead. Do it.

Joachim had a pathological hatred for free TV and radio and ads you couldn’t click away and now he was stuck out here on the Autobahn, with only a vague destination in mind and nothing to distract him from his thoughts.

How do you catch someone who could create illusions of anyone – and probably anything. Someone who now watched his every move. Isabel never went into detail just how much she could see, but for all Joachim knew, she could read the time of his watch. And she had already read all those emails, most likely. There was no advantage to be had here.

Think.

Whenever Joachim wanted to change the rules, break the rules, get an unfair advantage, he would do a con. To do a con – on probably one of the most experienced con men in the universe – he needed to know what he wanted. What Faust wanted so badly that he would ignore risks and common sense to get it. There was something. Giving Joachim Wieland had been a risky move. Or at least costly.

He wanted to go AWOL. How? Using what? What did he need Joachim’s help for? He was good for punching people and installing printers, basically. None of this seemed to figure much into immortality.

Think.

He only had one pair of far-reaching eyes. That was Isabel weakness, if she had no others. Looking at one thing meant not looking at other things. There were limits to the things she could see. If he had many enemies, why did he keep talking to Joachim? Why was Hannah so important? Why did Hannah send Joachim to see her presumed mother? There was a piece of information that was staring him into the face here, that he was missing. What was it?

Think.

An archive full of intelligence. He couldn’t read the right questions. Hannah couldn’t talk to him because she couldn’t divulge classified intel. It was apparently okay to do this post-mortem. Who else got a copy of the archive? What were the pieces that only he had? A story about Hannah’s origins. A story about Andrej. A bunch of symbols carved into his bone. A list of known associates of Faust’s operation-

Of course!

Faust was doing his own thing. He was hiding it from his superiors. The best way to hide it was in a clandestine operation. The body-snatchers had been organized in cells with no cell really knowing what the other cells were up to at any given moment. It would not only have been possible to hide something in there, it would have been easy. Joachim pulled into a rest-stop. He was in no-man’s-land right now. The previous GDR territories – the New States – had beautifully developed cities, but everything in between – the smaller towns, the villages – seemed underdeveloped. All the greater was the surprise to see a huge, mint-condition building with walls built of glass and steel, offering gas, a supermarket, washrooms, showers, a restaurant and – thank the gods above and below – free WIFI. All of this at prices that he would have never found in Munich in a hundred years.

He sat there clutching his steering wheel, ordering his thoughts.

He had to find the intersecting set. That was the trick there was to it. First of all, a list of all the external contacts Faust’s operation had had that were not directly involved in the day-to-day business. Especially if they were investigators, researchers or deliverers of unusual equipment. These could include people Joachim and Hannah had already questioned about Wieland.

Second of all, find out what Hannah’s crew had known about all of this. And about him, actually. He was itching to look into their cards.

Third of all, answer the important questions. Who was Hannah? Who was Andrej? How were they connected to all of this?

All of this with the single important question: What was Faust after?

Joachim looked up at the rest stop. Would they take offense if he lived here for a while? Sleeping inside his car like the homeless person he technically was?

A thousand more questions ran through his head.

What did Isabel know about all of this? Was Carina safe? What was the true nature of Hell? Was there actually a Greek god called Hades? Or was it just a wizard who fancied to call himself that name?

He grabbed his laptop and headed out.