The answer made his blood run cold. He already had a sense of foreboding but hearing Beefo speaking out this forsaken name launched a rollercoaster of fear, despair and anger. He had actually done it. His insatiable greed had driven him so far to make a profaning covenant with this monster. That madman, whose heinous and nefariously cruel deeds had made thousands of Tibians suffer for decades.
"D-Do-Does that mean..." Tibicus stammered.
"It means that your precious hat has returned to its initial owner." Beefo completed the stuttering.
The confirmation of his deepest fear silenced Tibicus. Usually, he would have raised his sword high into the air and ended such miserable low life with a single blow. Instead, he was just standing there, looking into the distance, past the charred remains of the city, out into the poisonous void of the swamps. His gaze was empty. Empty and deadpan.Driven by Tibicus' mental abstinence, Beefo began to raise his upper body: "You know Tibicus... It was all for this very moment. This moment of absolute pleasure wiping off that self-righteous smile of your face and experiencing your crushing defeat... Your most precious possession is gone. Forever. I'm the one who pried it away from you. You're done, Tibicus. I have won. Come on, admit it!"
Tibicus took a deep breath.
"You won and yet lost everything," Tibicus sighed.
"Look around you Beefo... Look at the aftermath of your pathetic power game! We are standing in the ashes of your henchmen. You almost ended up as a casualty as well. It's even more ironic that it was us who snatched you from the jaws of death.
What a great leader you are...
I'm sure that the few ones who survived this massacre are going to be very grateful to you when they realise that you lead them into this slaughter house with your eyes wide open.
You are the one who is done, Beefo! Your former empire is a forsaken wasteland. This entire city is nothing more than a gigantic ashtray. But sure, go ahead, your ego must have reached a new all-time high right now, savour this moment as much as you can, you deserve it!"
He contemptuously directed his gaze down to his adversary, who just stared at him speechlessly.
"Do you know... Do you know if Fridolin survived?" Tabea finally hesitantly broke the silence after a while.
Beefo snorted and shook his head. "You're one special girl, you know that? After all I just told you about this guy, you still care if he survived? You really are a dead loss. However, the last time I saw your little cutie boy he was very much alive, yes. But who knows what has happened to him in the meantime, maybe this heap of ash over there is him... Harharhar!"
"What do you mean?" asked Tabea furiously while Emilio kicked Beefo in his stomach for the disrespectful comment.
"Nothing, I have no idea where he is." he gasped. "When I handed over the hat, two of those demons beat me up pretty bad. They ripped me open like a paper bag, left me here to die and took the hat with them. Their companions, however, they stayed and they let hell break lose. They slaughtered my men and razed my city to the ground while I was lying here, trying to keep my intestines inside. Fridolin that pesky little scum must have used the chaos to free himself from his fetters.
I was surrounded by fire and smoke which limited my sight. I could only recognise vague shadows while the air was filled with the screams of agony of my men mixed with the exulting roaring of the demons. I'm sure, however, that in all the turmoil I recognized his voice as it blared utito tempo san.
As I said, the flames bathed the streets in a flickering light, I could only see the massive outlines of these creatures flinching under a sea of arrows raining down on them and making them stagger. Fridolin might be a bloody traitor, but boy this guy knows how to use his bow. Believe me, it was a pleasure seeing those arrowheads drilling through the demons' leathery skin."
"What happened then?"
"I have no idea and I am repeating myself here. All I could see were vague outlines fighting in between the blazing flames. Judging by the screaming and howling of the demons though, every single arrow found its target. My loss of blood, however, blackened my vision more and more until I ultimately lost consciousness.
Next thing I remember was your stupid face, Tibicus."
"Where exactly did they fight?" Tibicus asked, ignoring the trivial insult.
"Over there!" Beefo pointed his finger north.
Tibicus and his two companions carefully walked to the spot, always looking for clues to Fridolin's whereabouts.
"If I remember correctly, this must be the Magic Bazar, or at least what's left of it." said Emilio as they were standing in the charcoaled ruins of Mystic Lane. The sooted remnants of battered down walls were sprinkled with smouldering stains whose gelatinous consistency reminded of molten lava.
"That's demon blood." Tabea ascertained. "This has to be the place, Beefo was talking about."
The further they went into the ruin, the more demon blood they found splattered over the walls. They continued until they reached the centre of the former magic shop where they found three spots that were only sparsely covered with ash flakes. Instead, numerous cracks were visible on the exposed soil."I've seen that before..." Tibicus mumbled as he followed the fine lines with his fingers.
"Demons rupture the surface with their claws when they rise from the depths. Ironically, despite all the chaos and destruction they usually bring across our land, they are meticulous about resealing those chasms when they return to their flaming realms. These hairline cracks only appear when something is taken into the abyss that doesn't belong there."
"You mean...?" Tabea hesitated.
"I mean a human being. Tibians have no place in the world of demons. Their presence disturbs the magical balance, leaving these fine cracks behind."
"That means Fridolin is..." Tabea still did not dare to say the obvious.
"... most likely in the realm of demons." Tibicus completed her sentence.
"A-A-And now? How do we get him out of there?"
"I am afraid there is little we can do! Accessing their world is impossible for mortal beings like us."
"B-but there must be something we can do!
"Only the most powerful demons are able to cross this barrier with a foreign body. I'm sorry Tabea, but our hands are tied here."
In tears, the young sorceress collapsed and sobbed into her hands. Tibicus stepped behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, I know how much he meant to you."