There were many lakes in this former country. Some were so deep, nobody knew how deep; others were so large, one couldn't see the shore on the other side; and some were only a product of humans themselves.One of these innumerable lakes was called Emerald Lake.
It was a unique ecosystem and a lifeline for thousands and thousands of animals and plants. The clear water has always been abysmal. People used to pay much respect to the black depths. Its countless tributaries made it impossible to map.
Springs and underground river courses magically connected the landscape, hidden between towering mountains and densely forested valleys. The slate-like rock gave the lake its namesake colour. Its shape resembled a snake meandering through the branches. The smell of pinecones and water lilies mingled with the deadwood of fallen leaves. It was a small paradise for all those who managed to visit this place once in their lives.
Between the heart of the Emerald Lake was a steep wall that was a gateway to another world. As mysterious as nature could be, it seemed unreal there, almost Delphic. It was an artist's watercolour, it seemed man-made as if it wanted to stop the traveller from continuing.
The lush vegetation had disappeared, a bulkheaded ridge was enlivened by moss-covered rocks and almost dried-up perennials. Right there, shut off from the world, was a very hidden orphanage.
There were two buildings around a big square. This courtyard was large, had some mulberry trees, rose bushes and an olive tree that stood in the centre and was used by frolicking children of all ages as a starting point for their play of hide and seek. The orphanage was unimposing, already showing its age. During a heavy downpour, it sometimes happened that roof tiles broke off as well as branches.
The dark green colours were brightened up by laughter and games. The two responsible persons, nun Klara Steiner and priest Johann Pest lovingly looked after the two dozen orphans. They taught them everything that the Goddess had deemed important. They were probably the most selfless people there were.
Since rarely much became public, it must have been obvious that the children were not brought here voluntarily. Whether it was true or not is not known. In two aspects they were all similar; they were full orphans and all their parents worked for the same company. The vast majority did not even know their parents. The Viktoria Luise Orphanage was like the Eternal Realm, home of the Goddess, to them. There was rarely any crying in these halls.
With the last rays of sunshine on the olive tree, it was time for the playmates to get into bed. The strict rules of the overseers were followed by everyone.
One of them was Lukas Kunz, who was about to celebrate his eleventh birthday. He could hardly wait to eat the apple cake he wished for.
At midnight, the first clouds floated over them. The orphanage got a visit from the rain. The children lay in their beds while the educators did the last errands in the kitchen. Old Mr Pest had made a shopping list for tomorrow. Steiner was calmly humming a happy tune.
With a last drop, they were about to retire to their chambers when suddenly Lukas stood at the doorstep.
"You should be in bed!" whispered Klara Steiner, dumbfounded.
"There's someone in the bedroom."
He sounded scared. She did not immediately realise what he was saying.
"It was a nightmare."
"No," he whimpered, "Please come with me."
Tenderly, she took his hand and helped him back into the bedroom. The wrinkled, warm hand of the nun did nothing to change his fear. In front of the door, he paused as if his legs turned to stone. Steiner waded across the room to the large table after having managed to let her hand from Lukas go. On it stood the gas lamp that she brought to life.
An ice-cold shiver overtook her as the shadows of the beds piled up into black waves on the walls, turning the room into a flickering, chilly room. Steiner felt a cold hand wrap around her, gentle and plain, as the fingers trailed slowly around her neck and moved to her cheeks. Through the furrows to her eyes, it was like a split second to the old nun where she stood still until the person the hand belonged to sat down opposite her.
Steiner´'s weak eyes narrowed with a haze of panic at what was about to happen. Reluctantly, she pushed the lamp towards the person.
"Is that you, Martin?" she asked through the penumbra. "Who is that?"
Lukas held on to the doorstep. She tried to go to him but was overtaken by the person.
"Martin!" she repeated, somewhat annoyed.
It was only with the cut-off scream that she realised it was not the prankster Martin. Lukas slumped to the floor and hit his head on the wall. A dagger was pulled out of his back.
Steiner knelt in front of the fragile body. Almost teasingly, the person danced along the beds and finally tickled the old woman's face. With caresses she suppressed her voice while the person laughed mockingly. Steiner now realised that something was wrong. The sheets were all stained. None of the children was breathing.
A mischievous whisper brought Steiner´s body into a convulsive position. Now both hands were busy scanning the face. The person was speaking.
“Why did he have to get involved? He has nothing to do with it!” the killer said angrily.
Steiner looked up. Something about her counterpart´s eyes caught her attention. They were as sinister as the depth of the sea.
“… Goldmann... is that you?”
“It´s nice that you can remember me,” she replied.
Steiner couldn´t finish her sentence. Goldmann pressed Steiner´s eyes deep in the eye sockets.
“You never saw anything. You never saw how I suffered and now he´s turned up and ruined everything for me!”
Goldmann had left the room.
As if the rope around Steiner had disappeared, she found her voice again and called the priest. Trying to reach Pest, she felt her way along the walls and threw down china and pictures. With her eyes squinted shut, she tried to see as she was crawling into the girl's room. Steiner could barely see anything while Goldmann was merciless as she struck the sheets with delicate stitches several times as if she wanted to show morbidly what happened to one if he did not show obedience.
“They have all suffered enough with you and Pest,” Goldmann said, “I saved them from the wings of the abbey.”
Speechless, Klara knelt again.
Steiner recognised Goldmann coming towards her. It was only a matter of seconds when Goldmann dragged her into the courtyard. Steiner pleaded for her life; tears flowed down her cheeks. Sitting under the olive tree, she could vaguely perceive Pest being brought next to her. Like old potato sacks that had to be burned, the murderer laid them rudely on the spot.
A prayer to the moon made Steiner cry out for help. In the wasteland, no one heard her. Desperation made her forget how her colleague beside her was being maimed with solicitous words. Pest was already lying on the ground when Steiner finally lost her last hope. She felt the warm blood of the priest on her knees and hands.
"Please!" the old woman implored, “We´re sorry. We didn´t know what would happen to you. Believe us.”
“I no longer believe anyone. He interfered and screwed everything up. I had a plan. I´m going to kill him. I´ll kill them all! For what they have done to me…”
Goldmann didn´t speak in anger. It was sadness. It was as if she was on the verge of a collapse. Steiner did not know what she could have done. Humiliated and covered in blood, Steiner was getting dizzy.
Steiner couldn´t react anymore. Steiner received slaps in the face for misconduct she had not committed. With each new slap, the agony became more unbearable. Steiner did not understand how the pent-up rage caused the murderer to go blind.
She did not care. At some point Steiner no longer felt anything. Faintly, she heard Goldmann's voice before she fell to the floor and lost consciousness.
“What have I done?”
Goldmann sat next to the dead Steiner and cried. Like a child who had just realised how much of its toys it had broken, she could not take its eyes off her.
Tears ran down her cheeks.
“Léonard is my rescue. We have a contract after all, don´t we?”
To the next part: Chapter II.5.