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.”
“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.