Book 2 – Chapter 34

Joachim came to quickly. At least that’s what it felt like. He could have been out for months and it would have felt the same. He was looking at the rubble that had once been a floor and a ceiling. Treacherously sharp rocks made of glass. They had soiled, dented and cut up the expensive-looking Persian carpet underneath.

The pain inside his hand was incredible. All he could do was try not to vomit.

They didn’t have time to lose, so he scrambled to his feet.

They were inside a small room that was some sort of drawing room. There was exotic, yet comfortable looking furniture of Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern variety around: Leather covered divans and ottomans. Tiny tables. There were the signature black candles with blue flames around, but the light was far to regular in here. It just seemed to exist inside this room.

He checked for Isabel who was sitting on the floor a couple meters away from him. When he tried to help her up, she stretched out her hands searching for his, then grabbing it emphatically, when she found it.

With her standing on her own two feet, Joachim turned to look for the exit and nearly had a heart-attack.

There were no guards in this room. Just a single, small, black man who sat cross legged on a pillow, right next to a Go board. He looked at them bemusedly. He was clothed in what seemed to be several layers of loose-fitting fabric.

Joachim wondered if he could punch him unconscious using only his left hand.

The man said something in the same foreign language that seemed to be customary inside the entire palace.

“We should go,” said Joachim.

He kept looking for the door, coming up with nothing but empty walls instead.

“I’m blind,” Isabel whispered. “I’m blind.”

“Germans,” said the man sitting on the pillow. “It has been a while since I last spoke your language. This should prove entertaining, if nothing else.”

Joachim couldn’t see a door on the rooms bare walls. He glanced around several times. Was there a trapdoor beneath the carpets? Shouldn’t they be at ground-level right now?

“If you could kindly direct me to the nearest exit,” Joachim found himself saying, without directly looking at the man, “I would be ever so grateful and out of your hair momentarily.”

“My lord,” said the man.

“No need to be so formal with me, you may call me Joachim,” said Joachim.

The man chuckled.

“This is amusing,” he said. “No, insolent jester, my Lord is how you will address me.”

Isabel pulled Joachim’s arm, trying to tell him something.

“Well, yes, your excellency,” said Joachim.

The man laughed wholeheartedly. It wasn’t a cold laugh. It seemed a bit loud and croaky though, as if the man hadn’t laughed in a long time and had on some level forgotten how.

Joachim had checked five times now. The room didn’t have exits. He wrestled his good arm free of Isabel and started turning rugs. That was when he noticed Isabel had assumed a cow-towing position, her forehead resting on the floor. Something tingled in the part of Joachim’s brain that contained his survival instinct. He decided to ignore it. There were guards on the way that would be here any minute. They had probably already piled up near the entrance that Joachim couldn’t find. Curse those demons.

There was nothing underneath the carpets, Joachim realized. The man’s eyes followed him with interest and amusement. It felt like Joachim was the most entertaining thing the man had seen in years.

Joachim started checked the walls knocking on each.

“You could tell me where the exit is, your magnificence,” said Joachim. “It would save us both some time.”

The man chuckled again.

“I believe I can spare the time,” he said. “You will not find the exit though.”

“There is no exit,” said Joachim and stopped tapping the walls. “This is a prison cell.”

“No,” said the man. “That is yes, there are no exits, but only because I closed them up a couple of hours ago. And shouldn’t you be in a prison cell? Or the broom closet of one?”

Joachim turned around. Isabel hadn’t moved a muscle. The man was still cross-legged on his pillow. For some reason Joachim knew that attacking him would be a supremely bad idea.

For starters, the guards upstairs had to have found the hole in their floor by now. Yet nobody had even stuck his head down here, as far as he had seen. Even if the drop was steep, shouldn’t there be shouts in the vein of Surrender now, there is no way to escape?

“Why weren’t there any wisps in the ceiling of this room?” said Joachim, thinking out loud.

The man pointed a finger at him, in a that’s-a-good-thought sort of way. He presented the Go-board in front of him with a flat palm up.

“It would disturb the spell on this board,” he said. “I hate sending messengers all that way to find out what move my opponent has made. It takes too much time and I have to focus on the game all over again.”

“Who is your opponent, your royalties?” said Joachim.

The man laughed. Loudly. He was starting to get the hang of it.

“A man of similar stature as I,” he said. “Which reminds me. I have grown so accustomed to people recognizing me on sight that I have neglected to introduce myself.”

Joachim walked straight up to him and extended his hand.

“Lord Hades of the Great House of Hades, I presume,” said Joachim.

The man did not shake his hand.

“Yes,” he said. “You have known?”

“Not really. The mosaic upstairs depicts a figure completely in black though. Either you have once been supernaturally black or the creator of that piece had never seen a man of African descent before. Still racist, don’t you think? This and your manner were my clues. Thank you for confirming my guess.”

Lord Hades blinked.

“You do not seem afraid in the slightest, yet you are no fool,” he said. “Explain.”

Joachim shrugged.

“Those guards up there carry soul blade weapons,” he said. “By now, many more have been mobilized. There are a million ways to die in this place and you are just one more of them. There is no refuge for me but in audacity.”

Lord Hades nodded.

“Are you really a god?” said Joachim.

“What an odd question to ask. Yes,” said Lord Hades. “I was the first to enter the plane of the underworld. I am without age. I wield powers far beyond your understanding. I answer to no one but myself.”

“That doesn’t necessarily make you a god… my lord,” said Joachim.

“I suppose it does not,” he said. “The definition changed some centuries after the Christian faith took hold.”

There was a kind of existential dread that started to sink into Joachim’s body. There was no escape from this room. Even if he wasn’t facing a god, but only a powerful human, he doubted that punching him really hard with his left hand would get him very far.

“An impressive palace you have here, my lord,” said Joachim. “Especially the prison is awe-inspiring.”

“Kind praise,” said Lord Hades. “Am I to assume you want to move in there? After all you have done here, it wouldn’t just be in my rights to imprison you, it would be unjust not to.”

Don’t punch the Greek god of death. Don’t punch the Greek god of death. Don’t punch the Greek god of death…

He kept looking to Isabel for help, but she seemed perfectly content to just remain in her position until all danger had passed, like a hedgehog of subservience.

“I don’t doubt that you could, my lord,” said Joachim. “But would you want to?”

Lord Hades closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He looked and behaved quite human, all in all.

When he opened his eyes again, he said: “You have helped the witch escape. I would have you interrogated to find out where she went and who had helped her. I have a special hatred for House Asmodeus.”

Interrogation did not sound good. Maybe he could…

“What do you have against House Asmodeus?” said Joachim.

The lights inside the room went up to an intense brightness and Joachim had to shield his eyes to avoid getting the eyes burned out of his skull.

Closing his eyes wasn’t enough. He actually had to press his only good hand against his eyes in order to protect them.

“What do I have against House Asmodeus?” said Lord Hades. His voice was terribly loud. Joachim could feel the vibrations in his stomach.

Lord Hades cursed in what had to be ancient Greek. Then he said: “They make a mockery out of everything we have built. The law is there to facilitate justice. It is supposed to be an expression of it, put into rules and implemented into reality. And they keep exploiting it for their own selfish gain, no matter how many times we redraft it! They are like sand running through our fingers. Like insects laying their eggs in every crack, always returning. These… leeches have bought themselves power by dancing around us with a ball of string and laughing when we topple and fall. I am of half a mind to assemble my armies and wipe those parasites of the face of the Underworld, JUSTICE BE DAMNED.”

Lord Hades breathed, the light subsided.

“The law isn’t sacred,” he said. “Justice is. Even to a god. I cannot afford to forget that, lest I become a tyrant, reigning on nothing but my whim.”

Joachim’s ears were still ringing a bit. He blinked, getting used to more reasonable lighting conditions.

Black walls, a black floor, black rubble… ah shit. In a way Joachim hated justice. He liked to do what he thought was right, rather than what the rules said he was allowed to do. He had come here for his ex-colleagues and made an unholy mess of the place. He had expected to mess with evil demons and now he found himself at odds with the king of the Underworld and Joachim didn’t find it unreasonable that Hades demanded justice for Joachim laying waste to his home and killing his followers. They had done nothing wrong. He had. If he wanted to tell himself that he did good where the non-magical authorities couldn’t, then he needed to accept that others could do the same.

Which meant he was in deep shit right now.

“I am sorry, your… my lord,” said Joachim. “I had thought my friends wrongfully imprisoned here and in my attempt to rescue them, I have lied, bribed, broken in, caused structural damage, harmed your guests – though she was a torturer, so I am not too sorry about her – killed your guards and finally helped a known fugitive escape. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time, but I can now see that I have been wrong.”

Lord Hades scratched his chin, pondering.

“You do not have standing,” he said.

“So people keep telling me,” said Joachim.

Lord Hades frowned and Joachim shut up.

“One could say you were the pawn, a mere tool, of powers far beyond your understanding,” he said.

He let that sentence hang there. Apparently pagan gods were fond of dramatic pauses.

“I have decided to imprison you for a hundred years and a day,” said Lord Hades. “After that your accomplices will have either been brought to justice or moved on to new schemes. Either way, you shall never be their tool again.”

Lord Hades smiled, obviously pleased at the reasonable and just sentence he had just pronounced.

Joachim needed to think of something and quickly. Or he would soon have a lot of time to think about what he could have said.

“My lord,” he said. Always a good beginning. “I thank you for your just consideration. Unfortunately, though my mortal shell is my own, my soul has already been reserved.”

Joachim didn’t know if this was a smart thing to do. Looking at four consecutive life sentences though, he had decided to roll the dice.

He shrugged out his jacket – incredibly painful – and pushed up the sleeve of his sweater.

As he did, his tattoo started to climb out of his skin and hover above it in a three dimensional structure, one strand still rooted inside his flesh.

Lord Hades looked at it with interest. He said something under his breath in ancient Greek. Joachim was sure about the language now.

“This is a grant,” said Lord Hades. “Your soul is indeed reserved. According to paragraph 59, section 16 of the Contractus Senatus Nigri the fugitive Helga Wafnasdottir will be accountable for the damage you have caused. Furthermore, House Lucifer now has the right to demand restitution from her for violating the Contractus Reservationis Animorum.”

Lord Hades sighed.

“It would have felt more satisfying to me had I imprisoned you. It would have been better for you as well. Nevertheless, I will not knowingly disobey the law.”

That was one potential answer to the question if God could create a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, thought Joachim.

“Thank you, my lord,” said Joachim. Leave it at that. Don’t ask. Do not ask! Do not- “There is a House Lucifer?”

From behind him, Joachim could hear Isabel whimper.

Lord Hades raised his eyebrows.

“Of course,” he said. “The Great House Lucifer – your House – was founded by the Archangel Lucifer who still presides over it as Lord. It is one of the oldest and most respected Houses in the Underworld.”

“Did you-… Did you say my House, my lord?”

This earned Joachim a frown from Lord Hades.

“You weren’t told?” he said. “Not surprising. Lord Lucifer is a bit secretive when it comes to… anything he does.”

“Would you say that he is… dishonorable, my Lord?”

Lord Hades laughed wholeheartedly.

“He is not one for treachery,” said Lord Hades. “As for his motives… I have thought about them a long time and I am still not certain.” He tapped the edge of his Go board, the black-steel ring on his finger clicking against the wood. “I have yet to win a game of Go against him as well. And we have played for centuries. It was both a frustrating and rewarding experience so far. You are free to tell him all I have said when you meet him.”

When, not if, thought Joachim.

“What about Isabel?” he said.

This drew another whimper from her.

“The treacherous representative of House Paimon, you mean? She will rest comfortably in one of my cells. Until King Paimon sees fit to deal with her.”

Joachim looked for words in her defence, finding none. He cringed. He was just about to walk out of here on a technicality.

“Can you restore her eyesight at least? My lord?” said Joachim.

“Her eyesight is lost,” said Lord Hades. “It is beyond my power, even if not beyond my influence, to restore it to her. If you mean her Scrying, it is prevented by the wards around this room. I value my privacy. I suspect that she will be able to see just fine, inside her cell.”

Isabel raised her head. Her eyebrows behind her bandage were pleading.

“Please,” she said. “Please. You can’t leave me here.”

“I have no choice,” said Joachim. “Besides, would you have gotten me out of here? You sold out your friends of I-don’t-know-how-long. Are you telling me you would have risked your neck to break me out of prison?”

Isabel seemed to sink into herself, resigned.

“I request clemency for Isabel, my lord,” said Joachim. “She, too, was duped by false promises.”

This time Lord Hades’ face became stern.

“She came to my court under the guise of a diplomat, abusing the very system that many depend upon to survive. Her ends – illusions or not – were selfish, her intents treacherous, her methods disgraceful. She is beyond my jurisdiction to judge or to grant clemency, but I would not if I could.”

“Thank you, my lord,” said Joachim and improvised a bow. Then he thought better and performed a cow-tow.

Book 2 – Chapter 33

“Step aside,” said Hannah. “I really mean it.”

Her face was one of icy professionalism. Her starved features were hardened by the resolve of a professional killer.

Isabel had leveled her gun at the lot, but nobody seemed to be paying much attention to her.

Joachim’s body felt sore and tired. The magically enhanced strength had left him and he was afraid to try that stunt again. Afraid he might get addicted to it.

He wondered why he was doing what he was doing, if maybe he was under some form of mind-control magic. Doing this had felt so automatic, so natural.

Another part of him was calculating how to take all of them out. How many cuts from a soul-knife could he take before expiring?

“This is bad idea,” said Andrej. “Do not do this.”

“On the subject of bad ideas,” said Joachim. “I kinda, sorta thought you were dead and used your secret to gain leverage on the Fleshcrafter’s Guild. You should probably run. Sorry.”

Joachim showed his teeth in an oops-I-really-screwed-up expression. Andrej didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest upon hearing this.

“She has done something to you,” said Stefan. “You are being manipulated.”

Joachim’s heart was beating fast and hard. Decision time. Could he get a quick-save to see how that choice would turn out?

“That was quite the elegant trap you sprung,” said Joachim, stalling. “You really put in a lot of effort into putting this up.”

Andrej laughed.

“This was Tuesday,” he said. “We have been through worse.”

“Step aside,” said Hannah. “I am not asking you again.”

Joachim lifted his hands, palms up.

“I don’t want you to ask me again,” said Joachim. “But I also didn’t come down here without a contingency plan.”

“Oh shit,” said Stefan. “What did you do?”

Slowly, using two fingers, he reached down and lifted up his T-Shirt. There was a second, swirling tattoo, comfortably nested next to his bellybutton.

Andrej’s eyes widened, Hannah kept a poker face, Daniel’s face revealed complete and utter cluelessness.

“Tracking charm,” said Andrej.

“Cost of being business with House Asmodeus,” said Joachim. “They are more paranoid than I am. And better at it.”

“You think they would dare intrude here?” said Hannah.

Three armed figures, clothed like European ninja-wannabes, dropped their invisibility spells, seemingly appearing out of thin air. They were brandishing swords with edges made of soul steel. Their straight, fine, gleaming blades made the knives Hannah and the others carried look like prison shivs.

“They should have stayed behind,” said Joachim, “but somebody-” He pointed to the bound and helpless Faust behind him with his eyes. “-kept disabling the wards that revealed camouflaged intruders.

Hannah glanced at them and nodded appreciatively.

“You do see the problem with this?” she said.

Joachim nodded.

“You made a deal with House Hades to set up this trap. His guard will come to your aid.”

“Did you plan this from the beginning?” said Faust, behind him. She sounded weak. Defeated.

“No,” said Joachim, “I wanted to see if I could trust you, maybe. Also Mary probably needed to improvise a lot. She seems to be rather good at it..”

Andrej’s face distorted in disgust.

“Of all the people you could have made deal with…,” he said.

Joachim shrugged.

“I thought you were dead,” he said. “Learn to communicate better.”

The light inside the room suddenly got a lot brighter. There were footsteps sounding from afar.

“They are coming,” said Hannah. “Make your move.”

One of the not-ninjas said something in Latin. Hannah replied, angrily and curtly, without turning her eyes away from Joachim.

“You cannot win this fight,” said Andrej. “You can walk away. Just leave her behind.”

“I won’t,” said Joachim. “She is not yours to punish.”

Hannah laughed.

“And who is allowed to punish her?” she said.

“You sure didn’t seem to have a problem stacking up bodies, last time around,” said Stefan. “What changed?”

What changed was that we was sick of this. His girlfriend was a homicidal psychopath whose ambition had brought her into this mess. He had simply pulled her from certain death, to almost certain death. Which was what he owed her. She probably wouldn’t see it this way. Either way he would never become like her. If this was the price of power, he refused to go down this road.

The footsteps were closing in.

The ninjas eyed each other nervously, they assumed positions behind Hannah’s team.

“Drop your weapons,” said Joachim. “Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”

The footsteps sounded like they were just behind the large gate now. Shouts in a foreign language became audible. How long would the chains Faust had put up hold?

“Fine,” said Hannah. She held up her weapon and let it fall to the ground in a dramatic gesture. Hesitantly, the rest of team did the same.

“Kick them over,” said Joachim.

They did. He grabbed one of the knives. Two of the ninjas brought their swords up to the team’s necks, while the third grabbed Faust, shouldering her as if she weighed nothing. Unnatural electrical charges licked outwards from Faust’s body, making the ninja flinch with pain, but he held her and marched on.

“What are you playing?” said Hannah.

“Spoilers?” said Joachim.

Her stare was icy.

“Hannah, we were never friends,” said Joachim. “I don’t owe you anything. In fact, you owe me. I brought you huge amounts of intel last time around. I took point on a risky mission that I’m sure has bought you favor down… or… out here. There don’t need to be hard feelings.”

Andrej’s face looked pensive. He was trying to puzzle it out.

They were ramming the door from the outside now. The sound was enormous and Joachim could hear the wood cracking and breaking underneath it.

“I am not going to shoot you,” said Isabel. “I am better than you.”

“Anyway,” said Joachim, pointing towards the door that was already threatening to be thrown off its hinges. “That’s my cue. Don’t feel bad to be beaten by an amateur. I’m sure this was all beginner’s luck.”

He ran towards the central room, Isabel closely behind him. The ninjas had disappeared the way ninjas do.

“I assume you have a plan?” said Isabel.

“Yes, I do,” said Joachim. “It involves you telling me how to get out of here.”

“I hate you,” said Isabel.

She stood still for a second, frantically looking into different directions.

“That way!” she said, pointing to a door that looked like all the others in the large fresco room.

Joachim didn’t hesitate. He sprinted forward, gave the door one chance to open like any polite door should, then smashed it to pieces with the hatred of a thousand battering rams, feeling incredible while he did it.

The room was filled with crates and medieval-looking chests. The only light was the bright, yet diffuse one coming in from their back, casting deep shadows into the room.

“Need help, climbing up?” said Joachim.

“We are not going up, we are going down,” said Isabel. “The ceiling and the walls are crawling with wisps. Only the floor is clean.”

“Awesome,” said Joachim. He didn’t waste time and went down on his knees, mentally preparing to become the human jackhammer once more. “Where does it lead?”

Isabel shrugged.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m kind of taking this one problem at a time.”

The chains on the outside had given in and the large gate flew into the circular room in many more pieces than one.

Joachim tried to do his magic breathing thing again. He tried to focus in any conceivable way. If this didn’t work now, they would have him. He would get dragged away and would have to answer for a lot of dead people he had left in his trail on his way in here. And about how Faust had gotten away. And who had taken her away. None of this were anywhere close to the short list of his favorite topics of conversation.

The magic flowed in slowly, blocked – no doubt – by the warding and the creatures in the wall and who the fuck knew what else. Upstairs, drawing power had felt like breathing in. Down here it felt like dying of thirst, while drinking water through the world’s thinnest straw.

Shouts were exchanged in the prison cell. Joachim could make out Hannah’s voice. He didn’t understand the language, but he could guess at the content.

“Any time you feel like it,” said Isabel.

He didn’t have nearly enough strength.

“This is going to hurt,” he said.

He drew breath. Real air this time. Then he let out a manic scream to brace himself against the impact.

He jumped up and threw his entire weight behind his fist, like a wrestler would pretend to. Because not pretending to would have been stupid. Because it would have turned the bones inside his hand into a million piece jigsaw puzzle.

His fist connected with the floor just fine. He could feel it yielding. He could hear it cracking. He could see the spider-cracks shooting outward from the point of impact. He could feel the floor lowering and then falling.

Then the pain came in like a white-hot flash and blessedly, Joachim became unconscious somewhere along the way.

Book 2 – Chapter 32

In his life, Joachim had never run so fast. He had grabbed the many-armed woman who seemed to weigh a ton, despite his magical strength and despite having an incorporeal body with the figure of an anorexic Indian goddess.

Her scream was horrible and unnatural, angry and frightened, and it hurt Joachim like jamming an icepick into his ear-drums.

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object, he thought, as she hit the large, hungry cloud, making noises of hungry rats and locusts.

His legs pushed him through the door which exploded into a hundred little pieces. Isabel was staring at him with her mouth open, while Faust was already opening some sort of portal inside the floor.

“Quickly!” she shouted, as some kind of wind pulled a strand of her hair free, whipping it around.

Only way I know how, thought Joachim and without thinking jumped into the circular black void Faust had opened up, feeling his body getting sucked through to the other side.

He hit the floor on the other side – hard – and didn’t stop to think when a man in obsidian Greek armor started to raise his spear against him.

He grabbed it, just behind the tip and he pulled, his mouth producing an otherworldly growl, as he tossed the puny guard against the bare glass wall. He took his little toy away from him and jammed the spear through the man’s head, shattering it as it hit the wall behind the skull it had pierced.

Just in time, he dodged two more spears that other, identically armed guards were leveling against him. He tasted blood. He smelled blood. There was nothing to see in his immediate environment but the five hapless guards, who were all fighting with vague, anthropomorphic shapes made of black smoke.

Joachim didn’t charge, he pounced.

His magically charged arms ripped the first man’s head off. Then he took his spear, barely comprehending what he held, before he sunk it into the next man’s chest.

The strength he held was intoxicating. With enough of it, the rules of physics soon became optional. He pushed himself off walls, practically flying. He shouted so loud that his whole body reverberated. He grabbed a guard and tore his freaking soul limb from limb. Not out of cruelty, not just out of fear anymore, but also to see how far he could take this, what the limit was, like a child torturing a spider.

When Joachim felt anything like himself again there were four figures holding him down and a magical weight holding down his chest. He saw Faust’s face. She looked concerned.

“How are you feeling?” she said.

“Is it over? Are they dead?” he said. His voice was hoarse and his throat felt raw.

Faust nodded.

“I have barricaded the entrance,” she said. “There shouldn’t be any guards for a minute or two.”

Joachim relaxed his muscles. The energy raging inside of him was dying down.

“That was some feat you accomplished,” said Faust. “Have you been trained in the magical arts?”

Joachim shook his head.

With a wave of her hand, Faust dispelled the the weight on Joachim’s chest. The figures released his arms and legs.

Joachim felt seven kinds of sore.

“You need to be careful running such raw energies through your body. If you don’t control the magic, the magic will control you.”

Joachim noticed a cut on his arm – a scratch really – that was leaking a soft blue mist, like the woman on the bed had. He pressed his hand on it stemming the flow.

This couldn’t be good.

“I found them,” said Isabel, from somewhere a million light years away.

Joachim scrambled to his feet and looked around.

They had broken through the ceiling of a large circular chamber. There were Greek pillars, lining the walls and a huge mosaic on the floor, depicting a black figure clad in a blue robe surrounded by… angels. It was a whole scene, like a painting, with everybody having a different posture and expression at the scene.

There were several doors leading away from the chamber. The large double-doored gate had to be the entrance, as it was sealed with chains made of black smoke.

What a versatile power Faust had.

He went towards where Isabel’ voice had come from.

Faust followed him, apparently keeping a close eye on him. Story of his life, he had brought himself into a dangerous situation for the hell of it, then done something reckless and stupid to get out of it again. And now he was a ticking magical time-bomb. Just excellent.

Behind the door was another circular chamber sans fresco with three cells connected to it that looked way more spacious and luxurious than the ones in the canyon below had looked.

Isabel was standing in front of… Hannah. Joachim hardly recognized her. She looked emaciated, her clothes hanging off her loosely. She hadn’t been down here that long. Did time flow differently here? Did they do something to her?

Hannah spat at Isabel and hit her square in the face.

Then she looked at Joachim and her eyes went wide.

“You too?” she said. Her voice was feeble, barely there anymore.

“I thought you were dead,” said Joachim.

“Takes more than that to give us pause,” said Hannah.

The team was behind her. There was Andrej. There was Stefan. There was the rest of them. They greeted him with grim nods. Stefan didn’t even get up at all. He was lying on a luxurious bed that happened to be the only bed inside the cell. There were clothes and blankets and towels strewn about the floor. Make-shifts bed made out of whatever they had found in the armoire in the corner of the room. A huge table made of ebony had been broken into pieces and lay next to an oven that gave off comfortable warmth.

“I must say you are the last person I expected to cooperate with her,” said Hannah.

Joachim felt a pang of shame at that.

“My options were limited,” he said. It sounded lame now that he said it. What had he done? “Are you considering me a traitor now?”

“Traitor?” Hannah seemed to be trying to laugh but only empty sounds came out. “You never joined us in the first place.”

For some reason this hurt worse.

“Let’s get you out,” said Joachim.

He placed his hand on the bars.

“Not so fast,” said Isabel.

She held a gun. That stupid thing with the long silencer on the end she had already pointed at him once, half a lifetime ago.

Joachim froze. He looked at her, uncomprehending.

“First we get what we came for,” said Isabel.

Slowly, his hands raised above his shoulders, he turned around to look at Faust. Her expression was conflicted. Full of sadness and regret.

“I want the vessel first,” said Faust. “I’m sorry.”

“You knew,” said Joachim.

“Of course she knew,” said Hannah. “That was why she came after us in the first place. She has known since the cottage. That was when she started exchanging emails with Izzy here. You don’t know how disillusioning it is to see just how many hours it took for her to convince someone who has been your ally and friend for eleven ye-”

“Oh grow up,” said Isabel. “You knew there was a way out and you didn’t tell me. All this bullshit about accepting your fate? About giving rimjobs to demons to earn a better place in the afterlife? The heinous shit I did for you and the entire time YOU KNEW!”

She screamed the last part. She was shaking. She tried to say something else, but her voice broke.

“Can we go on?” said Faust. “We don’t have a lot of time. I am offering your freedom… and… your lives, for the vessel.”

“You want Andrej?” said Hannah. “Come in here and get him.”

Red runes started to glow on the door.

“The entrance is warded,” said Faust. Her eyes slowly turned solidly black. “It will not let magic out, but it will let magic in. Surrender or die.”

“Helga,” said Joachim. “Don’t.”

Faust turned towards him. A tear climbed out of her left black eye.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I have no other options.”

“Do it,” shouted Hannah, her scream nothing more than an angry whisper. “You are getting Andrej over my dead body.”

“As you wish,” said Faust.

Her voice started to sound unnatural as she spoke with herself in some sort of multi-voiced canon. Magic energies whirled around her in white electrical currents. A sick pillar made of black smoke shot out of her palm and at the cell door.

Several things happened at once.

Blue and black lightning zipped out of the door and started to bind itself around Faust’s body like rope.

Faust shrieked, so loud, Joachim was afraid his ear-drums would bleed. It startled him to the core.

Hannah pushed the cell door open from the inside and they all took tactical positions around Faust, brandishing soulsteel knives.

Joachim stepped in between them and Faust, protecting her with his body.

Book 2 – Chapter 31

The size of Hades’ dungeon defied description. They stood at the edge of a canyon of cells, with catwalks providing access to each cell of a beehive of cell doors, twenty stories tall, or rather deep. There was a soft wind coming from nowhere in particular, bringing in the stale odors of people who no longer needed to eat, shit, or sweat, as far as Joachim knew.

It was largely dark, with the odd guard patrol illuminating the pitch blackness around like glowworms on slow and somber paths.

Isabel held on to the thick, weathered rope that the creators of this place had put in instead of railings. She seemed to stare into the distance, mumbling to herself. The guards Faust had recreated had picked up torches and stood in a silent vigil on their flanks.

“How are we ever going to find them in this place?” Joachim whispered to Faust. He hoped that his voice wouldn’t carry.

“Twenty five levels,” said Isabel. “Two hundred cells each. Five thousand places they could be. It’s hard to make them out in the dark. I might have to look them over twice.”

Five thousand cells that could keep four people each by the looks of them. More if one was a sadistic fuck who didn’t care. Somebody had gone ahead and said Twenty thousand prisoners… maybe fifty thousand. We should keep them all right here. Let’s build an insanely large prison!

If the prisoners couldn’t die and if their jailor didn’t care, this place was probably an archive of Hades’ enemies. If he tortured a prisoner a day, he wouldn’t need to torture the same one twice, for more than a century.

“Come on, come on, come on…,” Isabel whispered.

“Shouldn’t I carry one of those spears?” Joachim whispered.

It was a stupid idea, if they intended to play prisoners, but he felt uncomfortable being at everybody’s mercy.

“You don’t need them,” said Faust, apparently just for him to hear. “Your fists will hurt a soul just fine.”

Why would they? Unless…

“Are soulblades made of… souls?” Joachim whispered.

Faust smiled. With her black eyes, and the torches throwing shadows into her face, she looked creepy as fuck.

“Yes,” she said.

“Are they… still conscious?” he whispered.

“Possibly,” said Faust. “They are still alive, but the forging process is irreversible. No way to tell for sure, but of course legends say that they are in permanent agony. The process itself is painful enough judging by… judging by the screams… excuse me I-… I need to focus.”

She turned away abruptly and walked up to Isabel. Was she shaking?

They just stood there, silent, for the longest time leaving Joachim clueless about what to do.

“They aren’t here,” said Isabel, finally. She didn’t seem to have many qualms about the volume of her speech. It made Joachim cringe.

“What do you mean, they aren’t here?” said Faust.

“It’s sort of self-explanatory, don’t you think?” said Isabel. “I have looked into every single cell four times. Unless they have souls that look nothing like them, they aren’t here.”

“That’s impossible,” said Faust. “My intelligence was very reliable. Look again.”

“I am looking again,” said Isabel. “Do you think they are magically cloaked, or something?”

“If they are,” said Joachim, “then they knew somebody would come for them. You breaking through the spell will trigger an alarm. It’s the perfect trap.”

Faust spun around. She had a very unladylike grin on her face.

“You are learning,” she said.

“No,” said Isabel, “he has just always been that paranoid.”

Joachim shrugged off the compliment. It did feel great though, even if it was condescending.

“I wouldn’t attempt to do obvious magic in here anyway,” said Faust. “It is the first thing somebody tries when thrown into one of those cells. The first thing they will watch for.”

“No,” said Isabel. “Not here. Not anywhere. Fuck.”

“Where else would they be?” said Joachim. “Are there other prison complexes?”

Faust’s eyes darted towards him.

“Yes!” she said. “Yes, there are. These cells here, they have been constructed to keep in the common rabble. There are more cells, for the… um… harder cases. They will be difficult to get into, but… not impossible.”

Joachim kept glancing at the tips of the guards’ spears. Was there something twisting inside of them? Like some kind of mist that moved like an animal desperately trying to evade pain?

“We don’t have time to lose,” said Faust. “They will be onto us soon.”

She sent her guards to lead the way back to the door. They all followed hastily.

“They aren’t yet,” said Isabel, glancing around. “It’s only a matter of time though.”

“Quickly now,” said Faust.

She kept upping the pace, until they were almost jogging to keep up with her. She left her guards behind at the door, then it was up the stairs again, in a hurried climb.

“Who knows which way we need to go?” said Joachim.

Isabel hesitated.

“It’s right over there,” said Faust, not even bothering to point.

They didn’t go up all they way, but rather just a fraction of the way. They got out into an opulent hallway. The walls were hung with tapestry depicting strangely shaped animals preying on unfortunate riders. The carpets had complicated patterns in blue and black. Were those the colors of House Hades?

There were marble statues about depicting grotesque figures that looked human at first glance. Some of them however were actually grotesque monsters. One a werewolf-ish beast, the next a hunched figure with iron plates bolted into its flesh. There was a woman whose entire body was covered in hungry mouths with sharp teeth. The artisanship on the last one was as refined as it was disturbing.

Faust dashed towards a door that unlocked itself by invisible hands, with Isabel and Joachim scrambling to keep up behind her.

“It’s hidden,” she said. “They keep moving the entrance, but I know what to look for.”

Joachim tried to exchange a look with Isabel, then noticed the obvious problem. Isabel face seemed to acknowledge the gesture though.

“There are guards about,” she said. “And the floor is crawling with wisps.”

Faust flinched. She turned down to the floor and mumbled something, her fingers performing a sort of wavy motion.

“We will not get to the door,” she said. “I know another way in, but it’s guarded. We are going to need a distraction.”

Faust left that last sentence hanging there. It took Joachim a few moments to realize what she meant.

“Distraction as in noise?” he asked. “Does that seem wise to you?”

He tried to make eye-contact with Isabel, looking for support. Again, the obvious problem.

“You just need to draw out the wisps,” said Isabel. “Basically you punch a hole into the floor and then run like your ass is on fire.”

Joachim shook his head.

“Just lovely,” he said. “Is there no other way?”

“Like what?” said Isabel. “Leaving and letting your friends rot in jail for eternity? Or… staying here until the patrol asks us uncomfortable questions?”

“As in who are we and what are we doing in the tract reserved for visiting nobles of the Great House of Hades?” Faust chimed in. “That conversation might not turn out the way we would wish. I am a known renegade by now. My own House is looking for me.”

Joachim groaned.

“Fine,” he said.

This is insane, he thought. We are all going to die. What the hell is a wisp and why do I not want to know?

Joachim ran down the hallway and forcefully opened the door next to the werewolf-man.

There was a bedroom behind it with a huge antique-looking canopy bed. A large, muscular pale man was inside, together with two vaguely female shapes. One of them was chained and suffering and almost completely translucent, her essence bleeding out of a variety of cuts, inflicted onto her by a naked many-armed woman, riding the muscular man.

The woman hissed at Joachim who very nearly defecated himself.

She said something angry to him in a foreign language.

“Excuse me,” he said.

He knelt down on the floor, took a deep breath, gathered his will and then punched it with everything he had.

The sound was loud, but the floor didn’t give.

Massive glass, Joachim remembered. Shit.

The knife inside one of the woman’s hands looked a lot like soulsteel actually. She got up, the large man’s erect manhood sliding out of her.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

He punched the floor. He punched it and punched it and punched it, shards shooting through the air when he hit the floor at an angle.

Magic was supposed to be stronger down here, right? Maybe he could… draw on it?

He kept glancing on the woman.

Preferably before I get soul-gutted, he added in his thoughts.

Energy. Mana. He needed it now. He could draw it, right? Right?

In the end it did feel like drawing breath, except with his whole body. It hurt a lot. As if his veins had suddenly filled up with acid.

He screamed.

He punched.

The noise was deafening.

The floor exploded upwards in a huge yellow cloud of many-toothed creatures, flying through the air.

Book 2 – Chapter 30

The stone the palace was made of was no stone at all, but glass. Mindbogglingly thick glass, with a smooth surface. It seemed completely opaque from far away and completely opaque from up close as well. Just once in awhile, Joachim could see a tiny bit of light flashing up behind it.

They weren’t going anywhere near the front gate, instead going along the huge wall that had the odd staircase, cleverly hidden, carved inside of it.

The ground here was blessedly level, without too many rocks. The perks of – for once – not going off the beaten path.

“It’s a messenger’s gate,” said Isabel. “For outgoing ones. Fewer guards. I bribed the guy who’s on watch there. I don’t know if he will hold true, but if not, I got an alternative. If you don’t mind the smell of rotten meat.”

Joachim stopped himself before he ran into Faust, who had once again stopped walking to just drift off and stare in the distance.

Was she thinking about something? Controlling some of her illusions somewhere? She didn’t say. And she was also not in the habit of giving him warnings.

“They are armed around here,” said Faust. “Soulblades. They have weapons that will not just hurt your body, but slay you permanently. Do not fight them, unless you absolutely have to.”

“I am as much a con artist as you are,” said Joachim.

Faust’s lips formed a sly smile.

“I sincerely doubt that,” she said.

Isabel just stood there, looking at them, waiting patiently. For all her outbursts and all her attitude, there was an air of silent reverence about her, whenever she looked at Faust. As if she was going to fall to her knees any moment should Faust just demand it.

The palace was enormous in size and they walked for half an hour, if his watch was to be believed. It was eight pm… somewhere. In a different solar system. Joachim shivered at the thought. A perfect mix of This is so cool and Oh my God, I am going to die. When he had planned this out inside this head, there had been a clinical sort of distance to it. Like moving pieces around in a board-game. Now that he was one of those pieces he started doubting every part of this plan. Why had he agreed to this? How had he so casually dreamt this up back in that bar in Berlin, probably lightyears away? He just wanted to go home.

Except that his apartment has been burned to the ground, his girlfriend was a psychopathic mass-murderer demon-witch and his would-be colleagues were trapped inside the place that he had second thoughts about raiding right now. The only way through this was forward.

They reached the bottom of a staircase that looked like twenty staircases they had passed before. Isabel walked upfront.

“I can’t see as far down here,” she said. “It’s still my guy on the other side of the door, but we could be walking into an ambush.”

“We could always be walking into an ambush,” said Joachim. “You trusted him enough to bribe him, now we have to trust your judgment.”

Faust and Isabel both turned to him. Their faces said: Who died and made you boss?

“We can spend all day sitting down here being afraid at our own shadow. The truth is that if we don’t know what card to pick, fretting about it won’t make it better.”

“You are right,” said Faust.

This was enough for Isabel to walk up the staircase. Faust followed, Joachim was last.

The stairs were well-worn and the tunnel it led into was constructed for shorter people. This meant twisting his spine in uncomfortable and unhealthy ways, if he wanted to know what was going on in front of him.

The stairs went on forever, ascending into what was soon complete darkness and air so stale it gave Joachim a headache. He heard Isabel’s footsteps and breathing in front of him. Faust was completely silent.

After what seemed like an eternity, Isabel knocked on something that sounded like a door.

A man’s voice called something out in a language Joachim didn’t recognize. Isabel shouted back. She seemed irritated. The door opened.

The light inside would have been dim under other circumstances, but right now it was blinding. The man at the door was semi-translucent, apart from the sword and shield he carried. He had a scraggly beard and was clothed in nothing more than rags. He looked pissed.

Isabel and him argued with each other in hushed tones.

Judging by the guard’s gestures and body language he was less than happy to see the newcomers.

Finally Faust said something in a calm voice. Just a sentence or two. The guard looked scared.

Nobody had told Joachim what the con was. Tough to participate when one didn’t know the language, a detail Joachim had arrogantly ignored when he had fantasized about how this would go. He decided that he played the part of the guard, looking grim and serious, as far as his hunched posture allowed him to.

The guard receded a few steps, more from Faust than anybody else. Isabel groaned and went in first, physically pushing the poor confused man aside.

Faust followed, her posture the picture of dignity once again.

They were in a hallway lit by candles burning in blue flames. There was a sort of wardrobe room ahead where various boots, cloaks and bags were strewn about without much care. The doors looked the part of a medieval castle: wood with iron fixtures, with heavy metal rings for doorknobs. The walls, floors and ceiling looked as if they had been carved out of the glass, much unlike the smooth surface on the outside. To their left and right, the hallway seemed to go on forever. Torches were lit in the distance.

The guard bowed and hastily barred the door again.

Joachim wanted to know what the plan was, but he didn’t want to blow his cover by looking clueless. Instead he started to project annoyed boredom, looking towards Isabel, who could probably see his face just fine, without looking around.

She said some words in that language again and pointed to their left. Joachim let Faust go first, then he followed.

The turned right at the first opportunity, entering a sort of monasterial scriptorum. It was filled with bookcases, of the medieval kind. There were several primitive desks with semi-translucent people – some of them monks – writing on parchment with quill. They were apparently copying something.

The light here came from many iron-cast lanterns dangling of the slightly higher ceiling. The floor was laid out with threadbare carpets of the cheap medieval fair kind.

They crossed the room and came to a tiny spiral staircase and took it down, down, down, Joachim more crawling than walking in the cramped space.

Again, this went on forever. They must have reached some sort of basement, because when they got out and Joachim unfolded himself behind them, making sure all his bones were still in place, the walls were masoned rather than carved. Heavy chains hung off the walls in places.

“You might want to take the lead on the next one,” Isabel whispered. “We are closing in on the dungeon. The place is crawling with guards.”

He glanced at Faust.

“The guards that you told me specifically not to fight?” he asked.

“I want you to distract them,” said Faust. “Leave the rest up to me.”

Reluctantly, Joachim went ahead. The doors in this place were ironcast bars, looking out at what seemed to be rows of cells. He could hear a soft groaning coming from somewhere.

He tried to look confident and strong walking upfront. Mentally, he talked himself into character.

I am walking with the authority of my master. I am trained in combat. Even unarmed I can dispatch three of their guards efficiently, if I have to.

They turned a corner and two of them were standing there, surprised by their presence and leveling their spears. They wore some sort of leather armor made of thick, uneven ribbons. It looked just about crappy enough to be historically accurate.

Joachim didn’t speak the language, so he just pointed at one of them, pretending to be angry.

He waved the guard over.

The guard didn’t move.

Joachim pointed at the ground before him and grunted.

The guard didn’t move.

Joachim walked towards them in his best angry gait, until the tips of their spears almost touched his chest. He noticed the tips were semi-translucent. Soulblades. Capable of hurting his soul, apparently.

Joachim didn’t let them see he was afraid. Instead he made eye contact with the guard he had pointed at. He looked like a young man, perhaps a teenager. If this was really the planet of the dead though, that look would be deceiving. This boy easily had more combat experience than any living soldier on Earth.

Neither of the guards looked particularly scared, but he sure as shit got their attention.

He held their gaze and was surprised when they started to look surprised and then panicked, feverishly trying to maintain control of their spears. Black smoke figures had grabbed their weapons from behind and jerked at them, their feet on the guards’ backs.

It seemed the figures were stronger. The guards fell forward and the figures pushed their weapons into their helpless opponents, again and again and again, neither their armor nor anything else seemed to offer them resistance.

The guards became more and more translucent, their faces contorted in pain. Then they vanished, leaving a belt and a set of strange-looking keys behind.

Seeing this left a strange feeling in Joachim’s stomach. He had seen death before, but never the death of… dead people. There was something inherently one with that. Joachim was not one to believe in an afterlife – even if he was standing in one, there were too many possible explanations yet to explore – but if he did, it would be a place of peace. A place where nothing bad would ever happen to the people living in it, ever again.

Faust’s creations took the form of the now-dead guards, copying the details of their appearance to the dot. It was a scary feat. The armor started to look exactly the same. There didn’t seem to be a hair out of place in the thick mane framing their faces. Did Faust have a photocopy spell? Or was she just… that good?

Finally Faust touched Joachim on the shoulder.

“Proceed,” she said.

Book 2 – Chapter 29

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.

Faust chuckled.

“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.

Faust chuckled.

“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?”

Joachim shrugged.

“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.

Book 2 – Chapter 28

Carina’s body on the ground was still breathing, but unconscious. Faust swirled around, the hem of her skirt brushing through the mud without picking any of it up. He black eyes darted around the landscape as if she was checking a thousand things that Joachim was unaware of, just by reflex.

Joachim kept looking back and forth between the two. Carina’s body looked alive. There was a flush inside her cheeks. Was there another person in there? A functioning brain, a consciousness? Had Faust controlled her and made Joachim an accomplice in her rape?

Faust’s eyes were unnerving, as was the lack of noises that she made. Her voice carried perfectly, but her dress was perfectly silent. She also seemed to weigh a lot less, because she jumped way higher than any non-Olympian had any right to and swirled onto a large rock sticking out of the dry ground. Not once did she risk her modesty or even dishevel any part of her outfit while she did that.

Quietly at first, then ever louder, Faust started to hum, then sing a strange song in a strange language. He hands performed a complicated dance in the air like the traditional-chinese-character-version of an Indian sari dance. Her face betrayed an intense focus as black smoke started to form – to condense out of thin air – and take the shape of something horse-like with a beak and large wings.

Slowly, ever so slowly, it began to look more and more like a griffin wearing a saddle. Joachim couldn’t tell when its cloud-like texture started to smooth out. It was a fast, yet gradual process, more like an afterthought.

Faust was almost ecstatic at that point, her body shaking like a faith healer taken by the holy spirit, her voice loud and imperious and more than a little unhuman.

The griffin started to move its head, as feathers formed around its empty eyes. Slowly, but surely it came to life. A saddle sprouted from its back, slowly growing, until it was large enough to accommodate the both of them. A soft murmuring escaped the beast’s massive black beak. Clawed paws impatiently scratched the ground.

The song ended. The creature went down on its knees at Faust’s direction.

“This is amazing,” said Joachim.

For the first time he saw her wield her power from the other side. He had thought the strength Sanft had given him had been an unfair advantage, but now he realized he was the wimpiest kid on the school-yard. He could have fought against Faust for a hundred years and never gained ground. He had only just glimpsed the true potential of her power.

“It is the best I could do on short notice,” said Faust, curtsying at the compliment.

She looked normal again. That was to say, she didn’t glow anymore. Her skin was weirdly perfect though and her dress still unmarred by her environment. There was a wind now and it carried more than its fair share of dust.

There were three stirrups on one side of the beast and only one on the other. Faust gallantly accepted Joachim’s hand and heaved herself into the saddle. She weighed almost nothing, but then again she never really had to him.

Joachim wasn’t sure he wanted to get onto the back of a savage, flying animal, but he would be damned if he showed hesitation in front of Faust.

“It feels great to do real magic again,” said Faust, as she started to fix leather straps around her waist and shoulders. Joachim picked up his harness and started to hastily puzzle out how to wear this in a way that would maybe prevent falling to his death.

“Less of it on earth, you mentioned?” said Joachim.

“Like sucking it through a straw,” said Faust. “Glad I didn’t unlearn it. I’ve been away for awhile.”

Yes, great, thought Joachim. He had brought Faust to the place where she was the most powerful.

Joachim held on tight as the beast suddenly started charging. Huge, anatomically improbable wings spread out and caught the wind. A few seconds later, they were airborne and gaining height.

Beyond the purple forest was a mountain range, dark and ominous in the night. Even more interestingly, there was a city to the other side, far off in the distance. It didn’t have as many lights as a modern one, but there were enough to make out the shapes of hundreds of spires and thousands of buildings, hugging and framing a river. The realm of the dead was a whole new world to discover, Joachim realized, as he saw the wide, dark planes filled with tall grass – or something grass-like – swaying underneath the caress of the wind.

They were ever gaining more height, sharp winds pulling at Joachim who asked himself just how durable that leather saddle really was.

As durable as she wanted it to be, he realized. It wasn’t really leather. It was her will that kept him in place. If she wanted him to drop, he would die. Better not piss her off. Better try to not develop Stockholm syndrome.

“Are we going straight for Hades’ palace?” Joachim shouted.

“Yes,” said Faust. Her voice carried through the wind without trying.

The wings of the griffin carried them forward. He was faster than he had any right to be, the ground underneath running past them. Long slopes of pasture. A lonely shepherd, unnaturally thin and tall, stood watch over a herd of creatures that could have been goats, but looked a lot more dangerous, judging by their shape.

It was frustrating how little he could make out in the dark. The stars above them were gorgeous though and far more numerous than any night sky he – as a city-dweller – had ever seen.

“Do you live around here?” shouted Joachim.

Faust laughed.

“I live where I lay my head to rest,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in the Mirror Mountains of Asmodeus, but that was a long time ago.”

“Where are you from, originally?” said Joachim.

“Moleå,” she said. “It used to be part of King Steinar’s domain, but it’s part of Sweden now. Not a lot left of what I remember. Just the ocean and the odd cliff.”

Faust didn’t make sounds when she didn’t want to, but as her hair untangled itself in the wind and whipped free, he could smell her. She smelled of jasmine and cedar, of smoky old whiskey and pastries dipped in honey. She smelled of gunpowder, too. It was an acrid smell that Joachim recognized from all the hours his father spent at the shooting range.

“Do you miss it?” he said.

She hesitated, then shrugged.

“My only regret is that I didn’t get to burn it to the ground with everyone in it. Or maybe I did do that. It was a long time ago, my memories are a bit hazy.”

The creature underneath bucked against a stronger gust of wind. Joachim realized that Faust had closed her eye. She was seeing through the griffin’s eyes now, feeling with his body to sail through the currents of the night-sky. Most likely, she was unaware that her wild hair had wrapped itself around her face. Most likely she wasn’t hearing them without her ears either. There was much Joachim still had to learn about this place and it frightened him.

“Quiet now,” said Faust. “We don’t want to attract attention.”

There was a road underneath and – Joachim hadn’t seen them before – watch towers with guards moving on top of them. There were no torches – or any light at all – illuminating them. Apparently they could see in the dark just fine.

Joachim held his breath and listened. The griffin – or rather Faust – had gone into stealth mode. Its wings were merely sailing right now. There was no noise but the wind.

The plains underneath soon became a scorched wasteland filled with black rocks. Sharp, twisted rock formations reached into the night sky. In between them were the lights of a camp of sorts. Hundreds of small tents stood orderly in rows, with a makeshift wall out of piled rocks surrounding it. Was this an army? Was somebody going to war against… someone?

He was stranded on another planet, both figuratively and literally. He had no doubt that his chances of survival in this place, without Faust at his side, were slim. He didn’t know if the locals spoke any German or English even. He didn’t know how far his rusty Latin would carry him. Doubtless that was what Faust had wanted on some level. It was too late to pull out now. The trap had sprung and he was right there in it.

He didn’t know how long the flight took them. His ass, back and legs felt a hundred kinds of sore, yet his hands had clawed into the saddle and wouldn’t let it go. Joachim had never really been a big fan of heights. No, this was not like flying in an airplane where an hour went by like five minutes if he only had his laptop around. It was still night when they landed, he knew that much. There was no telling though how long the nights on a foreign planet really were and the rocky wasteland the griffin circled down to looked much like the rocky wasteland they had passed an eternity ago.

Book 2 – Chapter 27

The last time Joachim had visited Hell, it had been with Andrej. They had gone through an invisible doorway and just passed through. It had been quick and pleasant, if completely unreal. None of this applied to following Faust.

There was an oak tree just past Domagkstraße. It was probably a hundred years old and a lighting had struck it, mutilating and twisting it. Faust took his hand, which felt weird. It was a necessity, she explained.

They were running towards the tree. Running as fast as they could, hoping their fear wouldn’t catch up with them. They jumped at the massive trunk and it warped around them and swallowed them whole.

Joachim was on fire. Not in the pleasant way, but in the third-degree burns sort of way.

It was bad. Warm at first, then the worst pain Joachim had ever felt.

He screamed.

He screamed and screamed and screamed as they were pulled through whatever this was by an invisible force and fell face-forward into the blessedly cold mud of Hell, completely unharmed.

Joachim shivered. His eyes had teared up and his throat was sore. In his hand he held the mangled remains of Faust’s hand. Startled, he let go of her.

She didn’t seem to be in pain. Her look was one of sympathy, maybe fear. Her left hand was grotesquely misshapen. Joachim let himself fall back into the dirt, crying, wanting to puke.

He kept looking at his hands, feeling his face, the rest of his body. Nothing hurt. Nothing was numb. Nothing was injured in any way. It had been his brain interpreting whatever had happened to them. Or maybe his nerve-endings being stimulated.

He had felt heat. He had felt it. He had thought he was going to die. He had wished himself dead.

“Your hand,” said Joachim. He was completely hoarse.

“I don’t feel the pain,” said Faust. “And I have had worse. We just have to find somebody who can put it back together again. It will cost a fortune, but it’s just money. Idiot tax. I should have thought of your strength.”

“No health insurance in Hell?” said Joachim.

Faust laughed. Funny, she sounded just like Carina.

Above them was a night-sky with constellations Joachim didn’t recognize. A purple moon.

Faust pointed with her right hand.

“There’s a city up there,” she said. “On the dark side of Tvíburar. That’s what that rock is called.”

“There are space-ships in Hell?” said Joachim.

Faust laughed.

“There is magic in Hell,” said Faust. “Much stronger than what they have on Earth, actually.”

So Hell was actually a different planet. A planet in physical space where the dead people went. Strange. All of this.

“Can you do magic?” said Joachim.

This earned him Carina’s… Faust’s special look she reserved for stupid people.

“No, actually I have this holo-projector given to me by the mysterious but benevolent inhabitants of planet Mars. It took some practice to get it to work, since I don’t have tentacles as such, but-”

“You can do magic,” said Joachim. “How does magic work?”

This stopped Faust in her tracks. She seemed to be uncomfortable with answering that one.

“I was about to say ‘really well, thank you’, but…”

Faust trailed off.

“You don’t want to talk about it,” said Joachim.

“It’s not something you should ask about lightly,” said Faust. “It has strange effects on people and the road there is not something I’d wish on my worst enemy… well maybe my worst enemy but it’s nightmarish and brutal and you should really stop asking about it.”

Joachim pondered this, as his insides rearranged itself in a more comfortable position. There was more to Faust… Helga… whatever than he had originally thought. It was easier when she had just been a monster. It was easier to fight against a faceless enemy of pure evil. It was much harder to figure out how to heal the environment that had produced them.

“So all you can do is illusions?” said Joachim.

“They are not illusions,” said Faust, clearly indignant, “and yes I know how to do a lot more. This is just the craft I have chosen to perfect.”

Joachim’s hands clawed into the mud, pressing it through his fingers as he grabbed it. This was Hell. This was the mythical place where dead people went. It was another planet. This was insane. Was he insane? What were the implications of this?

“So you don’t have a brother,” said Joachim.

Faust tilted her head and looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

“No, I don’t,” she said. “But I am thorough in building cover identities. If you had dug around, you would have also found a boss named Lars and coworkers with a variety of opinions about me.”

“Frustrating that I didn’t, huh?” said Joachim.

Faust shrugged.

“You get used to it,” she said. “Most security precautions are unnecessary… until they aren’t.”

“Why did you burn down our-… my apartment?”

He had to ask once more, now that he maybe had a better chance of getting an honest answer. If this seemed to hurt Faust, she didn’t show.

“I wasn’t lying. I really didn’t,” she said. “You should talk to Hannah about that. She is playing her own game in the background… or was is more like.”

“Their own game, hm? What was yours?”

“I thought that should be obvious by now,” said Faust. “I’m looking for a way out.”

“Why did you drop Wieland so quickly?”

Faust smiled.

“Wieland was way too clever for his own good,” said Faust. “My technological literacy is limited. Sooner or later he would have found a way to follow me, spy on me or figure out my game. I could tell he was getting close, so I had to cut him loose. I gave him to you, so I could make sure he wouldn’t spill anything important.”

“You would have slit his throat otherwise? That’s one hell of a way to treat your henchmen,” said Joachim.

“Temporarily delay them, you mean? He would have ended up in Hell again, just far, far away from me.”

“Is that how you justify trying to kill me?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And let’s not forget you were trying to do the same thing to me.”

Joachim grunted and stewed over this. She was right. Wasn’t she? Was she?

More questions. The more he learned, the better.

“When you joined House Asmodeus…” Another part clicked into place for Joachim. “You were once human, yet you claimed to be a demon.”

Faust grunted.

“I would like to think I’m still human, but yes, I’m also a demon. I inhabit bodies, I craft magic spells, I tempt people to sign contracts with Hell… sometimes with a little bit more encouragement.”

Joachim’s stomach twisted. For a few moments Faust had felt like Carina again. He had trouble merging the two. Carina was the monster, the monster was Carina. He had snuggled with a psychopathic mass-murderer. He had kissed her. They had gone on dates, discussed future plans and enjoyed kinky roleplay together. He should have felt dirty at that. He should have felt betrayed. Somehow, the deepest parts of him didn’t care. They just missed her touch.

“Have I been just a tool to you?” said Joachim. “Are you lying to me right now, pretending you still care?”

Faust remained eerily still for a long time. The cold started to seep into Joachim’s bones, but he would lie in the mud until he got his answer.

“I am trying to get what I want,” said Faust. “I am… accepting your help while doing this. I will not betray you unless I absolutely have to to survive and then only if betrayal doesn’t mean your death. There are things I haven’t told you for a variety of reasons. I fully understand that you don’t trust me and I don’t trust you completely. Trust is an alien concept for me.”

She took a deep breath.

“I care,” she continued. “I care about you and I care about us. I am not pretending to, this is real.”

Something inside Joachim made him shake with heavy emotions at this. He didn’t have the best connection to himself. Sometimes it felt like his emotions were behind an ancient modem connection. There were times when he needed up to a minute to figure out how he felt about something. There were times when he needed a lot longer than that. His emotions surprised him.

“But you would have kept lying to me,” he said.

“No,” said Faust. “I would have eased you into the truth. This was why I pretended to want to join up. I wanted to see how you react. I wanted to get closer to you.”

“I don’t know if I can believe that,” he said. “What you did at the police station? You enjoy toying with me, and toying with people, way too much.”

He got up. He didn’t want to look at her right now.

There was a strange wilderness around them. There were narrow trees around them, their bark a purple color, their bald branches standing straight up as if afraid to touch each other. They did keep a respectful distance to each other and they didn’t touch. The ground around them was cracked and dry, the moist mud transitioning into a cracked wasteland.

There was a small path visible that looked well-used, but there was no additional sign of civilization, nor any other animals or plants. Just the trees.

“Which way do we need to go?” said Joachim, careful to keep the emotions out of his voice.

Faust was covered in mud and when Joachim looked down, he realized that he didn’t look much better. she kept her left arm folded in, supporting her mangled hand. With her right hand, she pointed upwards and smiled.

“It will take days to walk this road,” she said. “And we don’t want to get picked up by the people who roam this land. Not that they are too dangerous, but they won’t let us go unless we prove to be more trouble than we are worth.”

She shook her head.

“No,” she said. “It is much better to fly.”

Joachim tried jumping up and wishing really hard. It didn’t work.

He thought about this. Magic was hard.

“It’s hard to do this one handedly,” she said. “Excuse me.”

She sat down in the dirt, then leaned back and stretched her legs, until she lay perfectly straight. She closed her eyes. Then she got up, leaving her body behind.

It was strange as fuck. Carina was lying on the ground. A ghostly figure separated itself out of her body. She was semi-translucent at first and slowly became ever more material. The figure was a medieval noble woman in an extravagant gown, her blond hair tied back into a knot, her skin glowing with whiteness, her eyes pitch black with no white or iris in them. The gown slowly gained color, becoming red and green and gold, with complicated stitch works. It was skin tight on a figure that was smaller and thinner than Carina had been. Her breasts were smaller, her shoulders more narrow. She didn’t look ugly or much more beautiful, just different.

“Much better,” said Faust. Her voice had changed. It sounded like a normal, female voice, yet somehow it was just too different, the experience to eerie and Joachim wanted to run away. He got the sense that his fists would be of limited used against this kind of being.

“Greetings, Joachim Schwartz,” said Faust. She curtsied. “My name is Helga Wafnasdottir. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Book 2 – Chapter 26

The milkshake bar had twenty-seven kinds of milkshakes, all of which were just words on the plastic-covered menu without any memory or pleasure attached to them. The place was a disgusting netherworld filled with neon light that highlighted any imperfection in people’s skins, making them look like zombies, revealing their ugliest side.

It felt sort of appropriate.

Faust had gone into quiet mode. They had both hardly spoken a word on their walk here, away from the trap, for now. Joachim would find a way to explain this to Mary, later. The longer the silence went on, the more Joachim felt just how little energy he had to deal with all of this. He was the first one to speak.

“You win,” he told her. “You have beaten me. I am not going to kill you. I will let somebody else do it. You probably have no shortage of enemies.”

Faust gave him a tired smile.

“What about us?” she said.

“I do understand you know. At least a little better. But I do not think that I like you.”

“I don’t really care, if you like me,” said Faust. “I want you to love me.”

“I don’t love you either. It’s just some part of me that you have duped into caring for you. Congratulations by the way.”

The waiter placed two milkshakes on the table. They were large whipped-cream-and-sprinkles-covered sundaes in tall crystal glasses. Strawberry for her, banana for him. With the fruit pieces inside of them and the tiny tinsel stick on top they looked ridiculously cheerful.

“I think I want to go now,” said Joachim.

“Then why don’t you?” said Faust.

Joachim did want to get out, but his body – or rather his subconscious – wasn’t obeying him.

“Because when I leave, we are over,” said Joachim.

“Funny,” said Faust. “That’s why I’m staying.”

“You lied to me,” said Joachim. “You lied to me in so many ways…”

“And what’s wrong with that?” said Faust.


“Yes, I am serious. Does a plaice apologize for pretending to be a rock? Does a flower fly apologize for pretending to be wasp? You were in danger. Me being there alone has put you in danger. There are people who would have snatched you the moment they realized you mean anything to me.”

“It wasn’t just them,” said Joachim. “You knew that I would have rejected you. You could have come up to me from the very beginning. Instead you manipulated me. You put a demon contract in front of me. You put me in the path to dismantle your operation and possibly – likely – die in the process.”

Faust sighed.

“For the last time, get it through your thick atheist-skull: There is an afterlife. This here, this is not the end. If I kill somebody and they are truly good – whatever the fuck that means – they will go to Heaven. Nobody in Hell has any say in that by the way. The bird people decide and we get the rest of the souls by default. A tidy little arrangement. It goes back thousands of years. Thousands of years of bloodshed and pain and brutality. I am glad you are living in this post-industrial civilization of yours where everybody pats each other on the back about how civilized and enlightened they are. Not like there are African miners working in shitty conditions to provide all that wealth you enjoy.”

Enough,” said Joachim. “Is the world perfect? Of course not. Things are shitty. Life sucks. The only difference is what you decide to do about it.”

He had raised his voice. He didn’t care if people were staring. Let them. He found it hard to care about a lot of things right now.

“You sound just like them, you sanctimonious, self-righteous prick.”

“Well I told ‘them’ to go fuck themselves with a broomstick,” said Joachim, and he added in a quieter voice, “Over the torture-murder business that you set up. Satan and God can both suck my dick. If they set up a system like this, the first thing I will do when I’m dead is take one of your fancy soul-destroying weapons and kill myself all over again. Let’s see if there is something behind them who is not a fucking sociopath.”

Faust was trembling now. She didn’t hold back her tears. Neither did Joachim.

For the longest time they said nothing. Their milkshakes melted, untouched, like world’s most sugary pair of candles.

“I wanted to ask you to move in with me,” said Joachim. “Well, before you burned down my apartment, that is.”

Faust shook her head.

“I didn’t burn down your apartment. Hannah and her crew did that.”

Wait, what? Was that another lie? It did make sense though. For all their saying otherwise, they had wanted him involved, moving him across the board like a pawn. He could only guess at their plan though.

“I see,” said Joachim. It seemed like a good response to settle on. “Good thing I sold them out then.”

Faust raised an eyebrow.

“I traded their intel against info about what you were after. I have never been close to any universal vessel. I have no idea where Ritter Lothar is, if he even exists.”

“I see,” said Faust.

Joachim could tell she didn’t believe him one bit. Not that it made any difference at this point. He couldn’t see himself going through with that trap now.

Or could he?

“They will be pissed when they find out,” said Faust. “Really, really pissed.”

“They are all dead,” said Joachim.

Faust shook her head.

“They are prisoners of the Great House of Hades,” she said. “I have a reliable source who confirmed that.”

More lies? Joachim’s head starting rustling.

“Is that reliable source called Isabel?”

“The range of her abilities is limited. She can’t see directly into Hell, not from the realm of mortals, anyway” said Faust. “Would be a bit too easy if we could just spy on each other with impunity, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” said Joachim, deadpan. “That might just keep you honest.”

Joachim could tell Faust was thinking about something. Something that had seemingly just occurred to her.

“What you said about you hating Heaven and Hell, did you mean it?” she said.

“Yeah,” said Joachim.

He wasn’t sure if he would have the courage to actually come through on his suicide threat, but he sure as shit wasn’t going to work for either side. He had so much anger inside of him, so much energy he wanted to unleash somewh-

“Want to help me fuck up their shit?” said Faust.

“This is a con,” said Joachim.

Faust shrugged.

“So what if it is? You already decided you don’t want to kill me. Why not help me kill more demons?”

That seemed…

“You want me to help you… raid Hell?”

“Yes,” said Faust.

Joachim looked down at the table. Absentmindedly, his hand had kneaded its steel-rim out of proportions, leaving creases in form of his fingers behind.

If anything, he was impressed just how far Mary had managed to predict Faust’s moves, planning for contingencies. Would he go through with it? Shouldn’t he at least try to save the people who had – technically – saved his life?

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Joachim.

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.