The trouble with Hell is--
The trouble with Hell is that it doesn't make any sense.
The queen shifted her fox mask to one side to frown down at the rather diminutive newcomer to the revels. She called herself the queen although she was no more a queen than these were revels: she was the demoness Emipusa and this was her own personal jurisdiction of eternal torment, but there was no reason her party guests needed to know that. She had powerful magic laid over her face and form that transformed the ragged, thorny edges of her carapace to a diaphanous gown, her chitinous mandibles to a pair of lush pink lips, her beautiful antler-crown into what she personally thought was a much less impressive fall of iridescent silver-blonde hair which nevertheless appealed to her guests.
Humans had such contemptible tastes, like children who detested anything but porridge and sugared milk toast. They preferred everything plain and pure and featureless--beauty to them was looking like a hairless, naked infant, practically larval. She had no regard for their aesthetics. Unfortunately, she hadn't founded the Ball of the Fairy Queen to serve her own artistic integrity.
However, business was business, and the guests at Emipusa's Ball were all obliviously living out their wildest dreams. And Emipusa lived for their dreams and wishes. It made for an excellent business model.
From this child's expression, she could tell the glamour wasn't working. Not on him, at least. For one, he hadn't taken one look at her and fallen instantly in love.
This was interesting.
"You're very small," Emipusa remarked in dulcet soprano tones--or, alternately, with a few clicks of her insectoid jaws. "You'll pardon me, young sir, but I don't remember issuing an invitation to so--youthful a personage."
The boy squinted his little eyes at her. He had yellow hair too, just a few shades off her own illusory color, though considerably less iridescent. "Are you actually speaking German," he said, "or do you just sound like it? Because it's me you're talking to?"
She stared, then recovered herself with a brilliant smile. "I speak all tongues, child," she said, "all the tongues of man and beast, of air and darkness. You understand me all the same, don't you?"
"What does that even mean?" The German boy looked cross. "Never mind. I'm just trying to make sense of this. I see it's wasted on this place."
Emipusa tilted her head at him. Something about those shrill little Teutonic consonants rang a bell of recent memory, though there were so many humans, and so interchangeable. "Most of my guests are older," she said. "You're very young to be dead."
"Yes," said the boy, "I would be."
And then she could hear it when she listened for it: of course. His heart. He had a beating heart. His little heart was thrumming much faster than his impressively deadpan voice would indicate. She nearly smiled; her guests were not corpses, exactly, but they'd been…halted, and there was something particularly delightful about the fresh smell of blood still coursing through a living body. It was overpowered by the scent of potpourri right now, but there'd be time.
To the boy there was no potpourri at all. To the boy the potpourri was sulphur, Emipusa's hair was an impressive exoskeletal headdress, and her mandibles were mandibles. This frightened him a little more than he'd like to admit, but overpowering his fright was a strange concoction of guilt, indignation, and anger--and the way she was leaning down to talk to him in a cooing who's-a-good-boy was helping. Johannes scrunched up his nose at the sulphur, which was less demonic than simply disgusting.
"I don't have any sort of time for this," he said in a tinny boy alto that still maintained a stubborn refusal to break. "You stole something of mine and I want it back."
The glamour of the Fairy Queen raised her eyebrows. Emipusa just twitched her antennae. "It isn't yours, Johannes Cabal," she said, "and I didn't steal it from you, either. But you've got quite a cheek."
Unfortunately, she was right.
Johannes Cabal lost his brother for the first time when he was fourteen years old. Most people would never need to append a qualifier to such a sentence. Most people would, in fact, never have need for such a sentence in the first place. But most people are not Johannes Cabal, even at fourteen.
"Lost" may have been a misnomer in this case. Whatever his personal responsibility for the result, Johannes certainly did not misplace Horst the second time by design, and of the third nothing needs be said.
The same cannot exactly be asserted of him in the autumn before his fifteenth birthday when he put both his hands on the stones of a Bavarian wishing-well and said, loudly, in German and in tears, "I wish Horst would just go to Hell."
Johannes, a secondary-school student of no infamy to speak of, had yet to learn the lessons of fairytales. In truth, he'd never liked fairytales: he didn't like them any better as an adult, either, but had gained a grudging appreciation for their informational value. As a child, however, he was more dismissive. He'd wished for things before, cautiously and as an experiment; they'd universally failed to come to pass. He was still slight for his age, still near-sighted, still unpopular and pony-less and in the possession of no bat wings whatsoever, which was quite enough to dismiss from his hard little mind all hope of wishing yielding useful results.
Save his occasional jaunts into fancy, such as the bat wings, he was an unimaginative boy. Imaginative boys tended to dream of professions other than "solicitor." (So did everyone, really. There was always something a bit wrong with Johannes Cabal.)
When he ran crying--already not his remotest intention--to the crumbling well behind his schoolhouse and closed his eyes and imagined his dark, handsome brother tumbling down into a bottomless pit, he didn't expect anything to come of it. But after everything that'd happened today, he meant it. Maybe not for more than a few seconds. Certainly Johannes hated Horst half the time, but he was his brother, after all, and for two teenaged siblings, half the time was practically loving. Still, he pictured it clearly in his mind, down to the surprised O of eighteen-year-old Horst Cabal's mouth as the darkness swallowed him up.
Then he realized that he was being a child and wiped his face on his shirtsleeve and considered what, if any, actual revenge he was going to visit upon Horst. He decided against it in short order. Revenge was stupid. He'd plotted it against Horst before, and it always resulted in bed without supper and no change whatsoever in Horst's offending behavior.
Johannes rubbed his eyes with pallid knuckles, went home for supper, and--perhaps for the very last time in his life--suspected nothing.
And what had Horst done? Objectively speaking, Horst hadn't done much of anything. He'd come to retrieve Johannes from day school and had discovered his young brother in an argument with his maths master, the repellent Herr Engel, over the Mandelbrot set. Horst opted to defuse the situation with a playful remark at his brother's expense right in the middle of one of Johannes's stammered-out sentences.
Anyone watching a mouthy teenager about to get into trouble with an adult's ego knows this can be a good idea. Anyone who is a mouthy teenager about to get in trouble with an adult's ego knows this is betrayal of the first degree. So what Horst Cabal had done--on this particular day, one thing, maybe, but at this particular moment, to his unhappy brother, what hadn't Horst Cabal done?
A wretched, passionate I wish Horst would go to Hell directed at the stupid bottom of a stupid well was surely the least Johannes Cabal's stupid brother deserved.
Let us take a step back before we rejoin Johannes at supper and consider Johannes and Horst Cabal circa Johannes's fifteenth year, two young Germans on the verge of, well, two unremarkable adult lives. Horst Cabal, eighteen, the heir to his father's business, the apple of his mother's eye, as well as the orange and the melon and an assortment of tastier fruits. Johannes Cabal, four years his junior, a… studious and hard-working young man.
There is virtually nothing worse than being marked out as the "hard-working" child in a family. It is faint praise so damning that it's practically Calvinist. Just as damning was the tendency several of the Cabals' neighbors developed to refer to young Horst as "Horst" and young Johannes as "the younger."
Unsurprisingly, Johannes bore this with sourness and no particular aplomb; it never takes a great deal of rationalizing for a clever but not terribly mature boy to conclude that his greatest obstacle to the world's affection is an older sibling.
Johannes first reaped the fruits of his labors when his mother muttered, "I don't know where Horst is. He was supposed to meet Hanzi after school today."
"Did you remind him?" his father asked her.
She shook her head. "Hans? Have you seen your brother today?"
Johannes looked up over a sullen forkful of egg noodles. Yes, but I ran off in tears and assumed that he went home without me didn't seem like a very appealing answer; neither, however, did no, which would just cause worry, and worry caused more questions. He wasn't terribly worried about his stupid brother, who had never lacked in the ability to take care of his own stupid self, but he hardly wanted to talk about him at the moment.
He opted for the safe, if wholly untrue, "I saw him talking to a girl." He said the last word like it was 'pedophile.'
Mother sighed. Father said fondly, "oh, Horst," and, "I do hope he settles on just one sometime soon."
"I hope he comes home before supper's over," said Mother.
I hope he doesn't, thought Johannes. He'd tamed his sniffles and stopped wishing death and damnation upon Horst, but that didn't very well mean that he wanted to see him.
But Horst didn't. And he didn't come home after dark, either, which was when Johannes started to wonder.
Wondering had always come easily to Johannes Cabal. He was unimaginative, not incurious. Imagination involved confabulating what didn't exist, which seemed to his young mind a pointless and irritating exercise. Curiosity, on the other hand, involved unraveling what did. They were hardly synonymous.
So when he noticed that Horst was late he finished off his noodles and wondered. It was unusual, anyway. Lucky for Johannes, but unusual, and Johannes was always suspicious of things that were too lucky for him. The world didn't seem to work that way by nature.
In retrospect, "muumuu + housecoat + jacket" was a terrible order for layering clothing. The muumuu itched. The housecoat should have been the bottom layer. If Herr and Frau Cabal hadn't been awake and worried downstairs, there wouldn't have been any need for either--but Johannes's autumn coat was by the front door, and his bedroom window had posed his only realistic hope for escape. So Mother's muumuu and Father's housecoat it was. It was cold. He wasn't about to skip merrily out into a Bavarian November night in his pyjamas just for the sake of avoiding a muumuu. That would have been silly.
Unlike going looking for one's missing verdammt brother at this ungodly hour in one's pyjamas. That was entirely sensible. He was probably with a girl, at that.
At fourteen Johannes hadn't quite yet mastered taking himself unbelievably seriously, but he was a journeyman, at least. He shoved his hand under his collar to scratch the hot skin of his collarbone, endeavored to scowl so no one who saw him at 3 AM would mistake this for his normal sense of fashion, and cursed the muumuu with every step it took him to get out of sight of his house.
The sight of his schoolhouse made him uneasier than it usually did, being of the breed of student who actually dreaded the onset of holidays. It occurred to Johannes that he didn't know where he was actually going to start looking in the town or outside of it. He didn't even have a theory any more about Horst. All he knew was that Father had announced that if Horst wasn't back by dawn he'd round up a search party, and that it had sent a paralytic, indescribable panic through Johannes's body: he didn't know how, he didn't know why, but he just knew he was going to be in trouble.
What he didn't know was how this was going to help things. "Horst?" he hollered, then put his hands around his mouth to amplify: "Horst? This isn't funny!"
Neither was this. Though Dieter and Heinz Hummel from Geography might well think so, if they discovered him in the middle of one of their midnight egg-throwing expeditions. He was about to turn back and re-evaluate his strategy when a lazy, Prussian voice confided from a pool of darkness under a streetlamp, "You aren't going to find him that way."
Johannes frowned and turned his head to stare into the shadows. He'd been warned about strange men and their strange intentions for children out alone at night, of course, and was not so naive as to be unable to infer how strange, exactly, those intentions might be, but had never been really able to imagine himself an appealing target to one of these men. What concerned him more was that someone had heard him shouting for Horst like an idiot.
"And what business of it is yours?" he said. He'd meant to sound haughty, but in point of fact he only sounded cross. "Have you got a better idea?"
The voice uncurled itself from a particularly deep shadow, stretched, and tiptoed out into the light. It was a… cat. No. Trying that again: it was a--no, it was a cat. A little black cat with little yellow-green eyes constricted to slivers in the light.
Johannes put his face in his hand. "No," he said.
That seemed to perplex the cat. It (or he) flicked its tail sharply to one side. "No?" it repeated.
"No," repeated Johannes. "My God. I don't care if my brother is floating face-down in the Rhine. I am not conversing with a cat."
"If your brother were floating face-down in the Rhine," mused the cat, curling its tail around the lamppost in an uncannily anthropomorphic fashion as it walked a tidy circle to examine Johannes, "then there wouldn't be much point in you looking for him, now, would there?"
Johannes had no answer to that, so he just folded his arms a bit sullenly and leaned against the post next to the cat. He gave it a suspicious look. He disbelieved this entire circumstance less than he expected he would: true, none of the cats he'd encountered up to this point in his life had broken out in the irritatingly honeyed voice of a Berlin university student or young Hussar, but this still seemed likelier to his young mind than the notion that some extremely talented Prussian ventriloquist was hiding in the shadows of a schoolhouse with a trained cat for the express purpose of confusing local schoolboys.
For one, no one exciting bothered with his town. Devious and perverse ventriloquists seemed much more exciting than talking cats. He'd never read about a devious and perverse ventriloquist in a children's book. Johannes sighed. "Do you intend to keep on astounding me with your very presence, or is there a point to this line of inquiry?"
"You're a very charmless boy," said the cat.
"Yes," said Johannes, "that's been said before, and is not an answer to my question." He heaved a sigh and fisted both his hands in his untidy yellow hair. "I don't like cats at all," he said after a moment. "You've got children all wrong. If this is intended to lure me into a lair it isn't going to work."
The cat purred and flicked its tail back and forth. Ugh. Maybe it was a strange man. "I highly doubt it's possible to lure you anywhere, Johannes Cabal," it said. "You haven't the imagination."
"Oh, lovely." Johannes screwed up his eyes. "It's supercilious, too. Is my brother dead?"
"What?" The cat sounded surprised.
"I said, is my brother dead?" snapped Johannes, whose patience was not the stuff of legend at a reasonable hour. "If you're some sort of… eldritch spirit and you've come to tell me that, I'd rather you just spit it out."
The cat licked its paw as Johannes glared. "No," it said.
In spite of himself, his dignity, and basically everything else he could think of, Johannes sighed again in relief.
"Well," said the cat, "not exactly."
"Not exactly?" said Johannes.
The cat hopped up onto the cobbled rim of the well, then into the unused and mouldy bucket with a whimsical flick of his ears. Cats.
"You still haven't told me who you are," Johannes muttered. He'd opted for who in place of what after a moment's consideration, just as he'd mentally changed he for it, in the grudging service of politeness. It didn't seem to be appreciated.
The cat yawned and arched his back.
Johannes considered dropping the bucket. This seemed pointless and immature, though, and besides, he wasn't sure how to undo the rope. The night chill nipped at his nose and ears and reminded him that he was out far past his bedtime, among other things.
Under different circumstances, he might have been more than a little excited, imperiled brother or no imperiled brother. He was fourteen, after all, and certifiably nothing interesting had ever happened to him. All girls and boys of fourteen have grown embittered to things not happening to them. It is past the age when they are still hoping that they will be whisked away onto a pirate ship, but not quite after they've come to realise that pirate ships were not exactly all they were cracked up to be either.
Even Johannes's skeptical little heart was set a-flutter-or-two by the idea that he was about to embark upon a grand adventure with a talking cat, even if he would have preferred a, say, raven, if a talking animal had to be involved at all. However, the flutter was drowned out by a much louder hammering when he thought about what would happen if he came home empty-handed.
"What happened to Horst?" he asked, leaning against the well. "I am not going to accept mysteriousness on that point. You can be as cryptic as you like about yourself, but this is a bit more urgent."
The cat licked his paw.
Johannes seriously considered homicide. He was a boy capable of entertaining homicide and problem-solving in his mind at a time, though, and not always by merging the two, either. He let out a little huff of breath.
"I--accept that I probably caused it in some way," he said. "The magistrate would think the same. I saw him last. I'm not willing to accept the word 'responsibility,' as I have no idea how I was supposed to reasonably--" He trailed off when he realized the cat was staring at him. He huffed again and spat out: "I. Accept. Responsibility. Is that enough for you?"
His new companion's back made a curious parabola when he stretched again. Cat anatomy made no sense whatsoever. "It'll do," he said. "You wished for your brother to go to Hell, and he has. After a fashion. You should have known better. You delivered him into the clutches of the demoness Emipusa on a particularly vulnerable night." The sibilant in Emipusa's name came out in a feline hiss.
"I wasn't aware that my arithmetic examinations had an effect on the efficacy of wishes," said a sullen, somewhat proud-of-his-vocabulary Johannes.
The cat blinked several times. There was something dissonantly humanoid about seeing a cat blink in rapid succession to convey surprise. "As of midnight, this is All Souls Day," he said. "The Day of the Dead, in some places."
Johannes frowned. "Oh, is it? I'd lost track of the calendar."
"And the day before, All Saints?" said the impatient cat, thrashing his tail. "And before that, All Hallows' Eve? Hallowe'en? Samhain, for God's sake?"
"You don't need to read me the thesaurus," said Johannes.
"The night when monsters roam the earth and the veil between Earth and Hell is thin enough for the dead to feel the breath of the living? Dear God, boy--"
"I'm not a Papist," said Johannes, who was tetchy enough about being reminded of his imperfect command of the calendar. "You can't expect me to keep track of every belief and willy-nilly superstition that someone holds somewhere. Yes, I understand, it was a very, very wicked night and I made a very, very wicked wish. Is Horst alive? What do you mean, after a fashion?" He was always less interested in dramatic statements than in the qualifiers that followed them. Life tended to unfold through the qualifiers.
The cat let out an exasperated hiss. "All right. Yes, you're very skeptical. Here's the crux of the matter, Herr Cabal: not all bargains with Hell require the knowing signature of the parties involved, particularly not on the lowest unholy days of the year. Not everything sought-after in Hell is a mortal soul, after all. Mortal blood has its uses in magic as well. There is a demoness masquerading as a fairy princess who runs a pocket sub-dimension purely for the purposes of preying upon the foolish wishes of foolish individuals," he said, "such as yourself. Though usually it doesn't work by proxy--"
He twitched his ears. "Most who end up at the Ball of the Fairy Queen wish themselves there," he said. "With no one the wiser. Your brother's lucky."
Johannes ducked his head to stare down into the depths of the well, and also to hide the expression on his face.
The cat tsked, so it must not have worked very well. "Oh, don't put yourself through the wringer," it said. "If it's any consolation, your brother's having a very fine time. He'll just be having it for a very, very long time if you don't go and fetch him, and soon his mind won't be in much of a state to appreciate it, either. But Emipusa," he let out a long, curiously wistful sigh, "she does throw quite a party. I warn you, it won't look like Hell when you get there."
Johannes wrinkled his nose. "That's a subjective judgment," he said.
"It won't," said the cat in slightly darker tones.
Johannes decided it wasn't worth disputing. Something more pressing had come to his mind, anyway, and he leaned on the stones of the well's cup with his poky little elbows. "'When' I get there?" he said. "I gather it's not a matter of taking the correct train."
"You're lucky too." If it was possible, the cat grinned. "It's still All Souls. Care to make a wish?"
"And damn myself this time?" Johannes swung one leg over the rim of the well and looked at the bottom again, or rather, tried to look at the bottom. It made him a little queasy. "Not likely. I know you've got a better method of transit squirreled away somewhere."
The cat arched his back with great pleasure. Johannes supposed that if he became a cat he'd enjoy the range of motion, too, but this seemed a bit excessive. "Clever boy," the cat purred and gestured to the bottom of the well with its chin. "Follow me."
And with that, he uncurled himself like a piece of rogue punctuation and leapt into the well's center with relish.
Johannes peered after him with owlish eyes. The Cabal family was struck by a terrible tragedy on 2 November, he thought, when their elder son Horst went mysteriously missing and their younger, Johannes, promptly flung himself down a well for some perplexing reason. Family friends have postulated fright, or some sort of academic pressure ensuing from a conflict with his maths master, or neonatal mental sickness.
When he was sure this sounded no more unattractive than arriving home without Horst, he swung his other leg over the lip and gingerly closed his eyes.
They found themselves in indescribable beauty. Not gaudy or gilded was the splendor of the kingdom below the well, but soft and lovely and pastel in the nighttime, where the moon set the hundred thousand tiny blooms from the forest's carpet winking like a hundred thousand eyes--
"No," said Johannes with his hands over his ears and his eyes pinched firmly shut. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no--"
"That isn't going to do the trick," remarked the cat.
A silvery note winged its way through the air, halfway between harp music and mockingbird song. Johannes shoved his fingers into his ears and tried to ignore the rapidly crescendoing urge within him to open his eyes and just revel in the sights and sounds that were forcing their sweet way into his mind.
His Prussian guide was his savior this time; while Johannes struggled with the power of Hellish glamour the cat hopped to the forest floor, pawed out a handful of jade-green clover, picked up one in his teeth and then scampered up Johannes's arm. He batted one of them into Johannes's mouth. "Chew," he said loudly into his ear, then even louder than the coloratura birdsong: "Chew."
Johannes chewed. The juice was bland and soapy, no bitterer than ale, but when he swallowed it sweetened rapidly to spoilt milk in his mouth. He gagged and tried to spit it out. The cat's claws were suddenly at his mouth. "Don't spit," he hissed. "That's to remind you of what you're really tasting: Hell can fool your eyes and nose and ears, you see, but it's got nothing on your mouth. Something about the verisimilitude. I should've brought some salt," said the cat reflectively and half to himself; "ah, never mind. Open your eyes. Try not to shriek."
The landscape had shifted, like the forged canvas had been torn down the middle and pulled aside to reveal the smuggled painting beneath. Johannes was less offput than he gathered the cat expected him to be: the initial vision of the kingdom under the well had been as revolting and false as a mouthful of sugar or an over-honeyed tonic that concealed a bitter draught of medicine.
Yet he would've succumbed to it anyway, he reflected. That upset him. On a little blackboard in his head, the number of personal offenses the demoness had committed against him rose by one: 1. Abducting my brother Horst; 2. Trying to hypnotize me.
Little Johannes Cabal already had a list of grudges at least doubly proportionate to his fourteen years. Most of them were against his schoolmates, and he planned to get his own back before secondary school was done. This crowned them. He buttoned up his jacket and looked about himself to take the measure of his true surroundings.
He had never believed in Hell. He had never believed in Heaven, either, lest someone take him for a heretic or something else soppy. He did not bother to consider himself an atheist, as the thought that he had to adopt an identity purely in opposition to someone else's belief rankled him.
This development left him fairly unruffled; he was aware he was looking at something, and that the something was probably Hell, not previously included in his world's cosmology, but if anything it just gave him another mental note to revise his definitions of the word Hell. He refused to have a crisis of disbelief on Horst's account. Horst already got everything.
The trees around him were alive and flourishing with fleshy black thorns. Some of these were tipped in fresh red stains or dirty brown ichor. Johannes could spy ragged figures milling about laughing further on, over the carpet of toadstools and bones. He found it comforting that he was still in a wood, if a wild and hostile one: he didn't recognize the constellations when he looked up, and a few looked suspiciously obscene, but the scene hadn't fundamentally changed, except in particulars. Maybe the demoness couldn't change much more than the superficial appearance of things.
"Is there anything here that can kill me?" he asked, bundling himself up tighter with a nod to the thorns. "Pomegranate seeds I shouldn't be eating? I suppose I should ask before we go on." Johannes knelt and ripped a handful of toadstools from the earth, pocketing them. They were grimy and uninviting to the touch.
"Oh," said his guide--were his eyes redder and his ears more pointed now?--"just about everything. Especially the thorns. You have a beating heart: they'd drink you dry."
Johannes sighed. "Lovely," he said and squinted to map out a series of potential paths for himself through the trees. On top of everything else, it was humid here. "Which way?"
The cat scampered around to one side and flicked his tail in the direction of the ragged figures. Beyond them was a black river; Johannes could hear the chattering of the water. "You should tread more carefully," he warned.
"I am treading carefully. Mother said everything in Berlin could kill me too if I let go of her hand." The boy had his back turned to the cat, so he missed the roll of its slitted, now serpentine eyes.
One of the thorns snagged on Johannes's sleeve when he hopped over a log. The cat's fur spiked up on end and Johannes let out an undignified yelp, but his housecoat and muumuu saved him: he stood very still and extricated himself while the thorn wiggled down further in an unnerving effort to burrow itself through his clothing. He stood up straight and brushed off his sleeve with his nose in the air and gave the cat a look that said, what?
They were quiet most of the way to join the figures in the clearing.
Most of the people had seen better days. To begin with, none of them looked precisely alive. Oh, they weren't revenant zombies, exactly; their skin still adhered firmly to their flesh, some of it young and taut, others wrinkled like rotting oranges, but no more so than ordinary ninety-year-olds. They lolled about in a great crowd, shuffling in an imitation of a dance. Some were talking, but if Johannes strained to hear they were saying nothing more than nonsense over and over again, the same handful of lines of small-talk recycled, and the words what a fine evening! and I do say! over and over like someone's poor idea of a comedy of manners.
Johannes spotted a glassy-eyed toddler trundling around the feet of some of the adults, skin pockmarked with a hundred little red punctures, and felt an unnerving and uncharacteristic twinge of horror. He scrunched up his mouth. "This is repulsive," he said. "I don't see how it counts as Hell, either. No, I'm not sorry. I'm not sorry that Horst's unexpectedly found himself enslaved to a binding invoked by something I said under my breath to myself by accident," he said, sourly. "There's no sense to that. It isn't even like they say in the Church. It's just random. I won't apologize for a folly I didn't even make."
"Life is random," mused the cat in a not-terribly-brilliant piece of amateur philosophy. Under the light of the chaotic stars his claws seemed longer. "Death is random, too."
"This isn't life or death," muttered Johannes. "It's just kidnapping. And hogwash."
Then he spied a tall young man with a head of dark hair grinning and leading a bloodied young woman out into the clearing, and he cried out, "Horst!"
"That isn't going to work," murmured the cat at his feet.
Johannes ignored him. "Horst!" he shouted again and elbowed his way through the crowd of dazed people, leaving traces of blood on the elbows of his jacket.
"You're drawing attention to yourself," said the exasperated cat. But, as Johannes cut a determined little swathe through the crowd of captives, it became clear that there was very little attention all around here to be drawn.
Horst was grinning, which provoked in Johannes the unfair but familiar urge to punch him directly in the grin. He was also talking to a girl, which elicited a similar urge. And he wasn't all right. He was--intact, anyway, aside from the recent tracks of a few thorns through his shirtsleeves and over his chest, but he didn't hear Johannes the first or second time and what was coming out of his mouth didn't sound like it meant anything.
The cat was talking behind Johannes, probably proposing an alternate solution or reasoning why running after Horst at this moment was unproductive: Johannes ignored him entirely and dashed directly into Horst's path, bumping into him and the wall-eyed girl. "HORST!" he screamed for no rational reason. "Horst, listen to me!"
For a moment Horst's eyes focused, or they at least tracked in the direction of the small boy that had bumped straight into him. He frowned, though frowning seemed to take him a great amount of effort, and tried to look at Johannes like he was attempting to focus on something very blurry. "Hans?" he said. "I didn't realize you were invited to this party. It's a fine evening, I do say," Johannes made a face at that, "but aren't you a little youn--"
Johannes slapped him. Horst didn't seem to notice. Johannes let out a growl under his breath and, fishing out his handful of toadstools, reached up and mashed a few into Horst's mouth mid-inane-sentence. "Chew," he ordered as the cat had. Horst gaped at him. "Chew, you complete idiot," said Johannes again, then gave up entirely and reached up and tried to mash Horst's jaw for him with his hand clamped around his mouth and chin.
Enchanted Horst was considerably more pliant than the real thing. This wasn't half as satisfying as it should have been. Manually chewing for a person wasn't half as easy as it should have been, either, so Johannes let out a wordless whine of irritation, chewed himself another disgusting mouthful of toadstool, then went up on tiptoe and spit the mass into Horst's slack-jawed mouth.
Horst Cabal blinked. Then he blinked again, and went green. The girl had wandered off in the meantime, singing a meaningless la-di-da to herself and greeting another guest with something about a fine evening. Johannes clapped a prudent hand over Horst's mouth before he could spit: "You've gone temporarily mad," he said. "Err, that is, you're in--my God, it's not even worth explaining at the moment. Just keep chewing and don't spit. Let me think." Horst wasn't actually saying anything, primarily because Johannes still had his small hand trapped firmly over his lips, but Johannes added anyway, "Be quiet for once in your stupid life and let me think."
The cat had sidled up to them by their feet. "I see congratulations are in order," he murmured.
Horst stared. Johannes sighed and let up on his mouth, glancing down at his feet to try and figure out how to work a sinister, anthropomorphic cat into his otherwise simplified version of events. "It's a bit--" He stopped and took a deep breath. "All right, I suppose I should introduce--"
"Eberhardt von Auken," said the cat proudly with a stretch to its knees that probably passed for a bow, "Junker sorcerer. Lady Emipusa and I have--unfinished business." Johannes furrowed his eyebrows while Horst made a face that indicated that he, at least, could imagine what sort of business. The disorientation was clearing from his expression, too, replaced by a more garden-variety puzzlement as he glanced around, the sort a person might have if they found themselves suddenly transported to a hellish wonderland.
"Alas, she and I parted ways some time ago. It appears that my considerable skill as a magician no longer--buttered her crumpet in quite the same way, upon the dawning of this venture. I barely escaped with my skin." Von Auken licked his fur. "In a manner of speaking. It appears that my interests align with yours."
"I see," said Johannes with the wryest arch his yellow eyebrows could manage. "Horst, this is complete news to me." He looked up at the sky, curiosity firmly quashed in favor of contriving a way out of here.
"Is this where you usually go on school nights?" asked Horst. Johannes glared at him.
"Now, Herr Cabal," said Eberhardt von Auken delicately, then promptly clarified with, "the younger, that is. A word with you?"
Johannes flicked a dismissive hand. "Just a moment," he said. In his opinion Eberhardt von Auken'd already had quite the lion's share of words tonight.
Von Auken's voice dropped an octave. "I really don't think it can wait," he said and snagged the hem of Johannes's trousers in his teeth. He tugged with a surprising force until Johannes cast a reluctant look in Horst's direction and stepped aside with him.
"Oh, no, no, no," hissed von Auken with claws that now dug painfully into Johannes's arm all the way through his clothing. "That isn't how this is going to work."
Johannes flailed for a moment and, in the grip of common sense, reached to fling the cat-sorcerer off his arm and potentially wring his neck at the same time, but von Auken bit into his shoulder and growled again, "Oh, no, no, no. Tell me, Johannes Cabal, how exactly do you think you're going to get home without me?"
Against all his reflexes, Johannes stopped and stood perfectly still and thought about this, with some difficulty presented by the cat-claws still embedded in his arm. He was unable to come up with a satisfactory answer. "Get off me," he said instead.
"It would behoove you to show some patience for once in your wretched little life," said von Auken curtly, "Herr Cabal. I am very sorry to have to be frank, but I'm not actually here on account of you or your miserable brother."
"Are you not?" said Johannes with a snort. "I never would have inferred. Get off me."
"Here is what is going to happen, Johannes." There was not much uglier than a cat when it was angry. Johannes wondered why he'd never noticed before. He pondered, idly, how von Auken might have looked in life, and if it was any more attractive. At the moment he had trouble attributing anything positive to the man. "You offer the blood of a willing innocent and in return she will return me to my original form."
It took some effort to muster a proper scoff with his heart beating this fast, but Johannes felt he managed. "Innocent?"
"You're more innocent than you think, you Godforsaken brat," said von Auken with a dismissive flick of his paw. "You offer the blood of a willing innocent--not enough to kill you, mind, don't be a fool--and for the riches beyond measure that she'll get for it, she'll return me to my original form, with my original powers, and I'll send you both back to Bavaria in a bloody handbasket if you like."
Johannes thought about this for a long, extremely put out moment. There was no guarantee of Emipusa's cooperation, or her restraint, but: "Oh, believe me, she'll be happy enough to take what she can," said von Auken with a malicious laugh. Do you know how often she gets the blood of the willing? She's not Lucifuge. She's hardly all that she used to be, the old bint."
Before von Auken could launch into a petty, feline tirade on the various deficiencies of his old, demonic flame, Johannes saved himself by bursting out with: "All right. All right! I'm thinking." He could feel his own blood start down his arm in trickles. Around them thorns shivered.
While he thought, von Auken sneezed and dabbed at his triangular nose. "It might hurt a bit," he reflected. "But then again, who was it that got him into this predicament in the first place? It takes a wish of extraordinary hatred to seep in through the cracks of Emipusa's enchantment, you know. You're an extraordinarily hateful boy."
"All right," snapped Johannes, "all right. I'll do it. And get off me."
Emipusa waited for the boy to respond with her mask perched on her chitinous forehead. There was no precedent for such an occurrence in her policies, she supposed. This was not as extraordinary as it sounded, as she had only been harvesting the blood of the wished-away and accidentally damned for the better part of sixty years. Hell itself was eternal; Emipusa, too, was older than sand; some ideas, however, took time to germinate. While he stared at her she inspected his pink little face again. He had that ugly round larval look to him too and, come to think of it, it was reminiscent of the bigger, darker one he'd condemned to her keeping. How very touching.
What was curious was not that one of her prisoners had a loved one determined enough to come to her kingdom to get them back. That was not unusual. They all met the same fate, generally with glazed eyes and a spring in their step. What was curious was that her prisoner's would-be rescuer was one and the same with the child who'd been vindictive enough to condemn his own brother to Hell with one unusually malicious wish.
A capricious boy, evidently. Or a very willful one. She'd almost be sorry to see that will extinguished: she rarely found entertainment in the glamoured and harvested. "Is there something else?" she asked with a smile. "Spit those mushrooms out, Johannes. You don't need to make this any unpleasanter for yourself than it already is. I think you'll find yourself and Horst quite reconciled."
"I'd rather not," said Johannes Cabal. "I have a counter-offer."
"A counter-offer?" Emipusa clicked her jaws, charmed. "How very resourceful of you. You are precocious. I'm rather sorry it's going this way." She was. For the first time she rather wished she had some other protocol in place for particularly vivacious children, or some use for them other than their enthrallment and the harvest and sale of their life's blood, the same as any dull human. She did not. "Tell me, Johannes, what is it that you intend to offer me that I don't already have? I am not interested in your soul and as for your blood," she flicked a claw in in his general direction, "you've already done me the courtesy."
"Don't talk down to me," Johannes said with a sneer. "You don't know me at all. I was advanced a level in primary school."
Behind him, Emipusa thought she saw one of the ball-guests put their hand to their forehead in a gesture of obvious and very uncharacteristic embarrassment.
She pursed her illusory lips. "Well, what will it be?" she asked and reached out in preparation to snatch the boy up and pry the toadstools out herself. She really had to get that bug fixed.
Johannes held out his arm straight with all the solemnity of a magician unveiling the results of his trick. It would all have been a bit more amusing if he hadn't looked quite so intent. "Junker Eberhardt von Auken," he said, "come here."
A small black cat scampered out from the crowd. Emipusa's mouth had fallen open in an unattractive O, or an even more unattractive B or M, depending on one's point-of-view. Grinning, inasmuch as a transmogrified feline could grin, von Auken climbed the nearest courtier and settled down on Johannes Cabal's shoulder. "Hello, liebchen," it said in a smug, Prussian, and horrendously familiar voice.
"Eberhardt?" said Emipusa.
"He's a delightful young man, isn't he?" purred von Auken. "I think we should adopt."
"I've brought Eberhardt von Auken here," declared Johannes, "in order to propose a trade."
Something about that phrasing caught von Auken off guard. The purring cut off and he lashed his tail a little, narrowing his eyes.
Johannes closed his hand over the base of von Auken's spine. His other hand had suddenly embraced the cat's ribcage. "If you do not give my brother and I back our freedom I will snap Eberhardt von Auken's neck," he said, "and forever deny you the revenge on this man that's been denied to you for so long." This sounded about right, the quavering part of his mind thought. This was how people talked in this sort of thing. He was distracted thinking about syntax, though, and had to dismiss it in favor of demanding: "Do you swear that you'll let us go if I spare his life for you? Answer me!"
Emipusa quirked her brows again. "Done," she said.
The cat-sorcerer did him the favor first: with a chilling screech he tore himself free of Johannes's grip and sprinted away on the ground. Emipusa was faster--Johannes watched, transfixed, until something or someone seized him. He looked up into Horst's pale face. Horst spun him around immediately as the stench of sulphur grew sharply stronger and Johannes stumbled, dizzy.
There was a horrible tearing sound behind them and the shriek of a cat. Horst gripped both Johannes's shoulders in alarm--"That's it?" he asked. "That was your plan?"
"Yes?" said a momentarily confused Johannes.
"She's a demon!" Horst was completely horrified. "Johannes, what on earth were you thinking? She's going to devour us anyway once she's finished with him!"
Johannes curled his fingers vise-tight in the fabric of Horst's shirt. "She swore," he said, suddenly feeling very small.
"That's--God, Johannes!" Horst himself swore, though not in quite the same sense of the word, and wrapped his arm around Johannes and crushed him to his chest before the boy could look back to see what was happening to Eberhardt von Auken. "I--how did you get us here? You wished, didn't you? Scheisse, can't you just--"
Johannes Cabal shut his eyes and clenched his fists in Horst's shirt and summoned up the most fervent wish from the blackest depths of his heart. It didn't seem very fervent right now, and they didn't seem very black, either. He didn't know where that passion had gone. It'd all seemed so important when he was angry with Horst after school. "I wish--" he said. "I wish we could go back home--" But fright was clouding his mind.
Nothing happened. Emipusa snarled somewhere behind Johannes and Horst, too, snarled under his breath: then, as Johannes pushed his face into Horst's chest and started to form a prayer in his head to something or someone indistinct, he heard Horst say, "God in Heaven, please bring my brother and I home, I beg you. Please. He's only fourteen. I wish we could both go home. I want him to outlive me. I wish."
Johannes buried his face in the ragged cloth of Horst's coat for longer than he wanted to admit. Then, when death did not come for him and neither did the overpowering brightness of Emipusa's glamour, he opened his eyes a sliver. Everything was dark. Maybe death had come for him after all. Then he remembered he'd left in the nighttime and opened his eyes all the way, finding himself faced with the blurry fabric of his brother's clothing. Then he realized what he was doing and immediately shoved himself away from Horst, taking several embarrassed steps back.
Horst looked maddeningly unruffled. He glanced to one side, then to the other, then at the well. "Do you think that really worked?" he said.
Johannes blinked at him like he'd sprouted mandibles. Then he looked around himself--that was Orion, all right, and that seemed to be the well--and waited for Horst to begin yelling.
Horst shrugged. "I suppose if the illusion's convincing enough, it'd be indistinguishable," he said and held out his hand. "Well, dead or not, it looks like our lot's improved. Come on, Hanzi."
Johannes's arms itched. No, they hurt. Von Auken had clawed them nearly to shreds--Horst noticed, too, as he said with a bit more alarm, "You're hurt," and started to kneel down to look at him.
"Don't touch me," snapped Johannes.
"All right, all right." Horst straightened up again but he had that maddeningly concerned look on his face still. He didn't even look angry. He frowned, then recovered and winked at Johannes. "I don't bite."
Aren't you angry with me? Johannes wanted to ask, but instead he just pursed his lips and looked down at the ground. You're an extraordinarily hateful boy, von Auken echoed in his head.
Horst leaned down and Johannes expected him to pat him on the head, or perhaps clap him patronizingly on the shoulder. He kissed him on the forehead. His mouth was dry and a little chapped. "Thank you for coming after me," he said.
"No thank you for sending me there in the first place," added Horst with a reflective twist of his handsome mouth. He stepped back again and held out his bigger hand again, this time with a slightly more pointed look. After an embarrassed moment Johannes took it. "We should think of what to tell Mother and Father." He paused. "If it's any consolation, Johannes, I'm still fairly convinced that I'm having a very peculiar dream."
"You've always been a ridiculous optimist. I'm still fairly convinced that we're dead," said Johannes, "and that this is the afterlife."
Horst laughed, as irritatingly as ever. "You would," he said and laced his fingers through Johannes's smaller ones before he could object. "Come on. It's past your bedtime."