Gunderson collapsed upon the rickety old bed and squinted through the sun that shone through the bars of his cell window. He’d spent three days locked up and under judicial disposition, awaiting trial over the damage caused to Brasov’s heritage. His situation couldn’t be worse and he didn’t expect anybody to help him.
He was proved wrong when he heard almost inaudible steps on the hall floor. He looked through the little window of his cell door and noticed a black clothed figure. Gunderson bowed his head in respect.
“Excellent work you made of Bran,” Karel said.
Gunderson wasn’t sure if he was serious or just more of his snarky comments. “Meister, I lost my men.”
“I’ll provide you with better ones.”
Gunderson found that offensive. Each one of his men was valuable and had been precious to him. After so many months of training, of earning confidence and respect, they had been absolutely loyal toward him. They had been the best. “I exposed those two, but they’ve escaped.”
“Of course. What did you expect? If I don’t let them make progress, they won’t find out what I need.”
“That being the case, Meister, should I suppose I’m no longer useful?”
“That decision belongs only to me.” Karel extended a hand and lightly touched the door lock. At his contact the metal began to twist and melt like butter, dripping onto the ground. Gunderson stepped back, feeling a mixture of horror and admiration. The lock melted completely and the door opened. For a moment, Gunderson thought he was going to be killed. But Karel turned and went down the corridor. He hurried to follow after him. “What about the guards? They might hear us,” Gunderson commented.
“I seriously doubt it,” Karel replied, pointing to a corner with a contemptuous wave of his hand. There, on the floor, were the twisted corpses of the unfortunate guards that were on call that night. And all over wall, smeared with their blood, was the Nephilim writing. The Damned Language.
Five Jeeps, preceded by a big motorbike, were crossing the desert’s highway toward Al-Fayoum Oasis. It was afternoon by the time they set up camp in a nearby area: Jean, Lara, Kurtis and about thirty workers. That evening they sat around the campfire to have supper, except Kurtis, who went by himself to sit on a dune.
Still looking at him, Jean told Lara: “Where did you find that guy?”
“He was a legionnaire.”
“Was? And now what?”
Lara shrugged. “I crossed paths with him by chance and since then we’ve been working together on this.”
“I do not have a good feeling about him.”
She laughed. “He’s a bit sullen sometimes, but not so bad at heart.”
“Trusting a stranger is something you don’t do.”
“I know, but I owe him that. He helped me when he didn’t have to. After all, it was his mission, not mine.”
Jean already knew about Boaz’s incident.
“Eckhardt, or rather Karel, murdered his father,” continued Lara, “and he wants to have revenge. I’m involved because of Werner’s murder.”
“That man was insufferable,” Jean snorted with all his good reasons to hate Von Croy.
“Maybe,” Lara admitted distractedly. “He’d been a thorn in my side all these years, but he made me who I am. He didn’t deserve to die like that.”
“Nobody does,” Jean agreed.
After a while, Lara stood and went towards the outskirts of the camp where Kurtis was. He was smoking and watching the stars. She sat down in silence next to him and sank her fingers into the earth. Egypt’s sand was smooth like silk, with an intense salty aroma and a reddish hue. After all, that’s what Egypt meant: The Red Earth.
“Karel was in Brasov a day before we left,” she said, taking a handful of sand and letting it slip through her fingers.
“I noticed him,” Kurtis replied. “He’s threatening you.” That was a statement, not a question.
Lara stared at him and sternly said: “He doesn’t scare me.”
“He doesn’t intend to scare you. He just wants you to know he’s always there. That’s what those freaks always do.”
Suddenly, Lara blinked and said: “Do you see that?”
She pointed towards the horizon. There the starry sky began to become blurred and cloudy.
“What the hell is that?”
“Sirocco,” Lara said, rising with a jump. “It’s causing a dust storm. We need to leave and warn them. It’ll reach us soon.”
Kurtis stumbled through the violent, sandy wind and fumbling for the Jeep’s door, opened it with a tug, jumped inside, and closed it with a bang. “I got sand everywhere,” he coughed, trying to clean his face. He had gone out to verify his motorbike was well-protected by the canvas cover he brought wrapped around the handlebars. He wouldn’t get a wink of sleep if he couldn’t be sure the corrosive sand wouldn’t damage the engine.
Typical man, thought Lara, who was lying in front of the steering wheel, with the seat leaned all the way back for greater comfort. “How are the others?”
“Your friend is sleeping like a log and the workers are praying and striking their chest with the Quran.”
She smiled. “They always get nervous when something like this happens, thinking it’s a bad omen: Allah sending a punishment.”
They spent some time talking about the issue. After a while, Lara began to find the idea of sleeping next to Kurtis all night inside a Jeep in the middle of a roaring sandstorm awkward. Luckily, he had the consideration to lie in the back seat. He didn’t take long to fall asleep, but for some strange reason Lara couldn’t, even though she was used to the sirocco’s deafening roar.
On the Jeep’s dashboard Kurtis had left a small portfolio. She had seen him taking it from his luggage and grasping some papers, where he seemed to write something. Lara had taken notice of this for some time now, but she hadn’t really minded. However, at that moment curiosity overcame her. After checking he was asleep – he was so quiet that she hardly heard his breathing - she took the portfolio and opened it. It was a sketchbook containing pencil drawings. There were many figures drawn on both sides of the papers, some of them corrected several times. Lara checked the sketches, one by one.
They were undeniably good, with a strong and realistic outline. On the first piece of paper there was the Proto-Nephilim, a creature who Lara only recognized by his description. That horrible monster had been depicted from several points of view and with accuracy. He’d sketched Boaz, focusing on details; and also some artefacts, like the Chirugai, the Sanglyph, his Order’s symbol…even some Cabal members.
When getting to the last sketches, Lara felt suddenly stunned. Kurtis had drawn a woman. It was her.
His characteristic harsh outlines were smoothed to shape her face. Lara was depicted in so many ways: frontal, profile, looking askance, with sunglasses; her sarcastic face, her lips tightened in anger, even smoothly smiling... sleepy in the hollow of a cave or kneeling on the floor, looking furious at a certain door opening unexpectedly. There were hardly any erase marks in those sketches, as if he was sure from the beginning about what he wanted to depict.
Lara kept staring at the sketchbook for a while, fascinated. But pretty soon she was overcome with a feeling of guilt: she should not be looking at this. And although all her life was focused on snooping around, for once she regretted it and quickly put the drawings back inside the portfolio, taking care to leave them in the same order she’d found them. She returned the portfolio to the dashboard and closed her eyes, but didn’t manage to catch any sleep. The wind still roared and the sand whipped the Jeep.
He felt a sunbeam on his face and blinked, annoyed, before turning his head. So there was again the darkness. In fact, there was too much darkness. Kurtis suddenly sat up and looked around. “Lara!” He shouted, touching her arm.
She woke up and also looked around, stunned. “Oh, damn!” She whispered. Through the Jeep’s windows nothing could be seen but piles of sand compressed against the glass. A single fragment of sky glimpsed through the passenger window, where the sunbeam had shone through. “We’re buried in sand!” Lara added with a tense voice.
Kurtis unsheathed his gun. “I’ll break the glass.”
“Then the sand will get in!”
“I won’t be buried alive,” he roundly replied while violently pistol-whipping the window. The glass cracked and the pressure caused the rest to burst so the sand began to pour inside quickly. Kurtis went ahead pressed through the running sand to stand on the hood of the Jeep. He reached an arm out to Lara, grabbed onto her with all his strength, and pulled her toward him.
The outside view wasn’t much better. Most of the camp had disappeared under the sand. Only Kurtis’ motorbike and a couple of Jeeps had remained visible. But as for the rest of the expedition...there was no sign of them.
Lara and Kurtis ran towards a tent with some shovels. Helped by workers who had also escaped being buried alive, they began to shovel sand away to unearth the rest of the Jeeps, which were easy to locate thanks to the horns beeping and cries for help. Eventually a door appeared under the sand, and behind it Jean’s terrified face. Lara opened it and pulled her friend out to safety. “Mon Dieu!” He gasped, “I thought I wouldn’t make it!”
They spent half an hour removing sand to help the rest of them. It was useless to try to extract the vehicles, so they left them half-buried.
“What bad luck!” The Frenchman complained, looking around, “this damned sirocco will delay our work!”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Kurtis said and pointed to the excavation area, cleared by the sirocco. Before them, half-buried in the sand, stood an arc-shaped underground entrance.
“That’s it,” Lara said, coming near to examine the structure. There was a sign carved in the arc’s threshold. The cross and the V, like a sharpened anchor: The Lux Veritatis’ symbol.
While Jean and his workers were reconstructing the camp, Lara prepared herself to enter the stronghold. She opened her luggage trunk and picked up a rolled canvas, raised it with concerted effort and threw it on a wooden table. After unrolling it with a sweep of her arm, it revealed a great arsenal of weapons: pistols, machine guns, shotguns and other goodies she’d been collecting for a while.
Kurtis whistled. “Are you going into battle, Lieutenant Croft?”
“The more of them, the better,” she replied, loading a weapon. “You want any?”
He shook his head. “I’m a one-gun kind of man.”
“May I see?”
Kurtis threw the Boran X to her. She took it and hefted it up, rotating it in her hand. Then she aimed it off to the distance and looked down the sights. “Wow,” she said, admiring, “Nice.”
“It’s a prototype. I designed it myself.”
Lara raised her eyebrows in surprise, and examined the gun again. “It looks like a really good weapon. An expert is telling you that.”
He smiled and took the Boran back. Lara finished by adjusting her mag pouches, filled the backpack and hung it on her shoulders.
Then Jean arrived to the tent and looked at Kurtis who was relaxing in a chair, surprised: “He’s not going with you?”
“No, I’ll go first,” Lara explained. “He’ll wait a couple of hours and then he’ll follow me. Going together is foolish. This way if one of us dies, at least the other one is left. But if both die squashed by the same boulder it wouldn’t make our day.”
Jean was already used to Lara’s cynical logic. As for Kurtis, his expression didn’t change. That man was enigmatic.
They accompanied her until the tunnel entrance.
“Take care, my dear,” told Jean.
Lara smiled, and winking at Kurtis, said: “No problem.” Then she descended into the darkness.