This Man Will Survive
Minos Axiotis leaned back on his chair and sighed, then looked at the Theotokos’ icon hanging on the wall and sighed again, this time more deeply.
Blessed Mother, give me strength to bear this uncertainty.
The last time he contacted Lara and Kurtis they were at the hotel in Brasov, but since they had gone to Egypt he hadn’t heard a thing about them. He was afraid something bad had happened. Something to tip the balance in favour of Evil. If only he could...
The phone rang.
Minos looked at the device and shuddered. This wasn’t normal. In his isolation, he didn’t use any media - that being against their modus vivendi and the holy rules of their community, but he’d been forced to use it to contact the Amazon and the Lux Veritatis. Still, he’d always been the one to call. It was impossible somebody could locate him... it couldn’t be...
With a convulsive motion, he picked up the phone. The voice he heard through the handset was cold and as sharp as steel. “Geiá sou, Minos Axiotis.”
The old man gasped. “Who are you?”
“My mortal name is Joachim Karel.” He said in a perfect Greek. “As for my real name, you’re not worthy of knowing it.”
Minos noticed he was shaking. He was talking to a Nephilim! An immortal...an angel...a demon. “What do you want?”
“Oh, just to inform you of the latest movements. Seems that your informers don’t work very well lately. Maybe because I’ve killed them all. So I’ll be your only contact from now. Be grateful, holy man, since not everyone can enjoy such privilege.”
The old man took a deep breath and tried to sound firm. “Say what you want.”
“I got the Amazon.”
Minos groaned, and Karel, hearing that, replied with a laugh. “Surprised? The story is repeating again. Drakul seized Loanna, but he underestimated her. He didn’t predict what a desperate mortal could do. He didn’t see in time she preferred death than serving him. I won’t make that mistake. I know what to expect from the Nephili’s future mother.” Minos couldn’t speak, absorbed in his horror, and Karel thus continued: “It wasn’t easy to get her. The Lux Veritatis has fought hard and even hurt me to avoid it. I really didn’t expect so much energy from that rodent, but it seems he’s stupid enough to sacrifice his life for her. In fact, he already did that once, now that I recall. It’s so typical of a mortal, isn’t it?”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Minos asked, clenching his fists in frustration.
“You already know, dotard. The Lux Veritatis will come for her, driven by that stupid sense of honour and responsibility to his Order’s ancestors. He could be a worthy opponent, but he has a major flaw: he’s human. That will make him lose.” Karel lowered his voice to a whisper. “Call him. Come on. He’s in Cairo. I’ll give you his location. Call and tell him what I’m going to do with her. And then tell me about his reaction.”
“Monster.” Minos snapped. “You’re Satan.”
Karel burst into laughter. “Satan? That’s just the product of your fevered imagination. I’m real, Minos. And that’s why I’m much more dangerous.”
The old man closed his eyes. That must be a nightmare. “I won’t do anything you ask me.”
“You will anyway. I’ll force you.”
Minos abruptly hung up, unable to stand that hateful voice for a second longer. He dropped his head in his hands and trembled violently.
Evil seemed to have found success and opened its way.
His thoughts turned to Kurtis. To the day when he met him...in person. The Lux Veritatis’ warrior didn’t remember that day, but Minos did. He’ll remember it forever.
The images and memories came back to him with vivid clarity...
There was a dark and foul tunnel. Minos advanced through it, face hidden within the hood of his robe and escorted by some of the brothers. They were armed, but not him. He would never carry a gun. Never.
“You must avoid violence,” he advised. “Don’t use weapons unless strictly necessary.” A peaceful man, Minos Axiotis had vowed never to touch any weapon or harm any living being.
The circumstances that led them to the Strahov were quite extraordinary. He was terrified at what they could find at the end of the tunnel. This one ended in a huge circular arena, with a large grating in the centre, under which water sparkled.
“Dear Lord!” Gasped one of them. “What’s that?”
There was a monstrous creature toppled on the ground. It looked like a spider, but it was much more elongated and its proportions exorbitant. The walls and floor were splattered with a disgusting green liquid. When one of the brothers touched it, he screamed and had to wipe it off, for it burned like acid.
A few meters past that repulsive display there was another corpse. This one was decapitated and looked... seemed a strange hybrid of woman and dragonfly, with a pair of spikes similar to those of a praying mantis. “This is devil’s work,” sentenced another, crossing himself in horror.
Then Minos saw him. He was lying motionless on his side, over a huge pool of blood. They ran towards him and surrounded him.
“It’s him!” Minos said. “My dear God, what happened here?”
One of the brothers - Karolis - leaned over and placed the body face up. Great was their astonishment at seeing the man shudder and let out a groan. “He’s alive!”
It seemed impossible. He had a huge hole in his stomach and was bleeding in spurts.
“Quick!” Said Minos, “give me a piece of robe.”
He tore the garment into strips and applied around the man’s waist, trying to stop the bleeding.
“It’s useless,” Karolis said, “you can’t hold in the blood with that. He’s going to die.”
The wounded man opened his eyes at that time. They were deep blue, like his father’s, but now glazed and lost, and a trickle of blood ran from his lips. He raised a shaking hand and tried to grab a gun that was holstered on his side, but he was too weak and dropped the hand again.
Karolis understood. He leaned over and picked up the gun and pointed to his head.
“No!” Cried Minos. “Have you lost your mind?”
“It’s hopeless,” Karolis said. “We can’t save him. It’s better to end his suffering quickly.”
The man rocked back and let out a howl of pain.
“But...” Minos hesitated.
The wounded man screamed again. There was blood everywhere. Then he fixed his gaze to his pious executioner and held it with decision.
He wanted to die. But Minos’ compassionate nature rebelled against that idea. “Drop that gun,” he ordered curtly.
Karolis, who already had his finger on the trigger, hesitated.
“Drop it, I said!”
“Father, Karolis is right,” a brother intervened. “This man is dying. It’s better to put an end to his agony.”
“No,” said Minos, and moved between Karolis and the wounded man. “Let’s get him out of here and take him to a hospital.”
“He’ll die anyway!”
“Enough!” Minos yelled. Suddenly, he felt furious. “Did you forget who this man is? Kurtis Trent is Konstantin Heissturm’s son! Did you forget what his father did for us? Yes, the same one who saved our lives! Now we have his son dying here...and the only thing you think of is to shoot him!”
“Silence!” He was enraged. “Quick, move! And woe to you if he dies before reaching a hospital!”
The brothers stared at each other, stunned. Then they bowed down and moved quickly to attend the injured man. Kurtis saw Karolis had lowered the gun and then dropped his head down and passed out, unable to cope with the pain anymore.
“He’ll live...” Minos muttered as he watched how he was being picked up. “This man will survive! I swear this for God’s sake!”
And he survived, but only thanks to Minos, because in addition to waging the bloody battle with the brothers, he also had to deal with doctors, who at the beginning refused to perform surgery on Kurtis. According to them, he had no chance, so it was better to sedate him to quell the pain and let him pass away.
Minos wouldn’t have it. Kurtis had to live. When screams, cries, and entreaties failed to move their hearts, the money did. Those heartless people were bribed with an amount the brotherhood couldn’t afford. Then Minos himself and all the brothers had to offer their own veins because in the body of Konstantin’s son there practically was no blood left.
Against all odds, Kurtis survived. Doctors were bewildered: the surgery had been risky and the bleeding, massive. But he made it, since fate had seen to that the monstrous sting which stabbed him from front to back had damaged neither his aorta, his spine, nor any other inner organ. Within weeks he was out of danger.
“I can’t believe my eyes,” said Karolis. “Doctors say it’s a miracle.”
“Of course it’s a miracle, brother,” sighed Minos. “A true miracle.”
Kurtis was in a bar, in a lost village between Karnak and Luxor. Anyone who saw him would have said he was just a tourist.
He knew how to find his own sources and to search for contacts, so he carefully chose his target: an employee of an illegal aircraft hangar. He would know if Gunderson had left the country – since Kurtis knew he wouldn’t be so stupid to catch a commercial plane while holding a hostage - but this guy would never provide any information willingly.
Kurtis had two options: the fast one, to make him sing by brute force. Unfortunately, that meant the guy would remember his face for a long time...which wasn’t convenient at all. So despite his own eagerness, he chose the slow one and invited the man to a couple of drinks at the nearest bar.
It’s said that children and drunks never lie. He had already talked with children, now it was the drunk’s turn.
With that man Kurtis played the braggart legionnaire’s role, posing as the stereotypical desert fox who knows everything happening between the sky and the ground. With a little help from Jack Daniel’s, the victim was talking up a storm in no time. “So you really were at Kosovo?” The guy asked. “That’s awesome!”
“See this?” Kurtis noted a long scar beside his left eye. “A Croat stabbed me. I almost lost the eye.”
“Awesome!” He repeated.
Of course, that was a lie. But the guy was so drunk at that point that Kurtis could’ve convinced him that donkeys could fly. And with the gauze still taped to his temple and his best pimp face in place, he fully mastered his role-playing.
“So, what have you been up to?” Kurtis said, filling the other’s glass for the umpteenth time.
“I’m an aircraft pilot.” Said the other, emptying the glass in one gulp. “People pay me and I help them to leave the country without having to go through tolls or customs. But today I’ve a day off and a colleague is taking my place.”
“You must see all kinds of people.” He said, putting a cigarette between his lips.
“Oh, definitely! Some Mafia guys and smugglers. What they are up to is not my business, as long as they pay me.” Then he looked askance at Kurtis. “You haven’t drunk that much, dude.”
In fact, Kurtis still had his first glass half full while his partner was on his twelfth. He’d only wet his lips twice. “I can’t overdo.” He replied with a calm smile. “I recently had stomach surgery and shouldn’t be playing with this.”
At least, that wasn’t a lie. In fact, he had really good alcohol tolerance - when the fellow right there would be on the floor Kurtis would feel only a slight tingling; but it wasn’t time to get drunk, not even to sound more convincing.
“Meh, no matter.” Said the other, eagerly watching his glass. “I’ll take care of yours.”
Kurtis rushed to fill his glass again.
“Well, now that you mention it, there’s been pretty weird stuff today.” The fella’s voice began to be a bit slow. “A kidnapping.”
“Looks like you got a leak in your glass.” Kurtis said, filling it again.
That was the final straw to that wretch, who couldn’t resist the temptation to brag any longer and let his tongue loose. “You should’ve seen that woman!” He croaked at some point in his rambling. “What a woman! A daddy’s girl, no doubt, but what a beastie! She woke up when they were loading her on the plane. Gagged and all that stuff, the chick managed to bite the bald titan and before they knocked her out, she’d three of his minions all fucked up. A kick-ass girl, and with that being tied! She spread their teeth all over the floor. Actually, I don’t envy whoever has to be her jailer. They better release her before the payment.” He laughed loudly and pounded the table, rattling the cups. Some clients turned to look at him.
“Looks like you’re a man of resources.” Kurtis said hastily, seeing the guy crumble. “Y’know where they took her?”
“A-ha, fella.” Said the other, dull-minded. “Gotcha. You’re looking for her, right? Munich, I think. But if someone notices...” He didn’t finish the sentence. He collapsed on the table, overturning the glass. Some customers pointed at him, laughing.
Kurtis decided he’d drawn enough attention for that day. He got up and walked to the bar door, pointing his thumb at the drunk and saying to the barman before leaving: “Bill’s on him.”
Karel took off his sweater and turned to Giselle who, trying to control her trembling hands, gently peeled back the gauze covering his wound. “Oh.” She sighed. “Still bleeding.”
The Chirugai had cut him deeply to the point of breaking his rib, but it was now intact again. The Nephilim were able to heal their wounds quickly and easily, but something here angered Karel and baffled Giselle: as soon as it looked healed, it then reopened and bled again.
“I don’t understand.” Karel hissed through clenched teeth. “I’ve had worse over the centuries, mostly thanks to the Lux Veritatis, and that’s never a problem. What’s wrong here?”
Giselle applied clean bandages to the wound, while staining her hands with his luminous white blood. “Maybe that weapon.” She suggested. “Something on those blades prevents complete healing. Or maybe it’s the curse between you and that man. Probably an injury made by him will never heal.”
“Then it may work backwards as well. I’ll remember that.” The Nephilim whispered with a confident smile.
Suddenly there was shouting and scuffling in the hallway. Giselle ignored it, used to patient’s fusses, but at the moment the bedroom door opened and a very pale Marten Gunderson appeared, with one hand wrapped in rags.
“I see you’re back from Egypt.” Karel said, getting dressed again.
“Yes, Meister.” He replied, nodding. “I got that bitch. My men are taking her to a room. Those howls you hear is her, making a fuss.”
“And what did that...mmm...bitch do to you?” Karel said with an ironic twang, adjusting his black scarf around his neck.
“This!” He grumbled, unwrapping his hand.
Giselle gasped. Two of his fingers were broken and crushed. The doctor examined with a critical eye and said: “Those bones are splintered. Sorry, Marten, but you lost both fingers.”
Gunderson released a loud and resounding swear and collapsed on a chair, grumbling and cursing under his breath.
Karel blinked in surprise: “You say she did that to you?”
“Yes, Meister. She pretended to be choking on the gag and when I was removing it, she bit me.”
“She bit you?” The Nephilim dropped his head on his chest and put a hand on his forehead. Then his shoulders started shaking, so Gunderson thought he was about to fly into a rage. Giselle stepped back, frightened, but then Karel threw back his head and burst into laughter. The hitman frowned, annoyed. Giselle looked again at his crushed fingers and began to wonder what kind of woman Lara Croft was.
“Well, Gunderson.” Karel said when he caught his breath. “I think you deserve some compensation. I’m harsh, but not ungrateful. Ask what you want and you ’ll be granted it.”
Marten Gunderson had dreamt a thousand times of that moment, hoping Eckhardt would reward him for his efforts with immortality. But all his plans and major projects had collapsed. He now wanted just one thing so far, and wanted it more and more intensely. “I want to kill Lara Croft.” He spat between his teeth.
Karel arched his eyebrows and said with a grin: “You ask too much, Gunderson. She’s mine.”
“When you’re done with her,” the killer insisted, “I want to be the one to finish her.”
The Nephilim laughed again. He enjoyed mortals’ hatred and fear of death; it amused him. “Granted.” He said, and turning to Giselle, he added. “When you’re done with the cure, take care of Lara Croft. You know what to do.”
The doctor nodded and proceeded to prepare the instruments to perform surgery on Gunderson.
Karel went to the Library adjacent to the Laboratory. Luther Rouzic was there waiting for him with the Periapt, already delivered to him by one of the mercenaries.
Rouzic was a really creepy man. Tall, thin, completely bald, and pale as a corpse; but the most frightening thing about him was his glass eye, inserted into an empty socket traversed by a scar given to him by a manticore. The monster had mutilated him at Eckhardt’s order, a punishment for an escape attempt, and since then he’d served the Cabal with great devotion and loyalty.
A specialist in symbolism and experienced in its study, Rouzic felt at the time the same fascination by the Periapt as Lara. When Karel arrived to his office he immediately rose and saluted him with due respect. Then, with the same deference, he offered him the orb. The Nephilim turned the crystal ball in his hands, carefully observing the carved symbols.
“Careful, mein Meister.” Rouzic advised with his wheezing and mellow voice. “Its edges could harm you.”
Karel glared at the archivist, who shuddered and lowered his eye to the ground.
“This glass can only hurt me if wielded by a Lux Veritatis.” Karel said with his icy voice. “I don’t need you looking for my weaknesses, Rouzic. You won’t find many, anyway.” Leaving the Periapt on the desk, he continued: “What about the Shards?”
“Well kept as ordered, mein Meister.”
“There might the chance of merging them. To fuse the three Shards with the original sphere again.”
Rouzic said with admiration: “Without a doubt it would erase the risk, Meister.” Seeing Karel’s glare, he hastened to add. “But I don’t see how. The Periapt recomposes itself in a millisecond. I don’t know how the Lux Veritatis succeeded in separating them.”
“We’ll get it.” Karel sentenced. “You’ll begin immediately with the study of the symbols. Lara Croft has done some work already, and I’m sure you’ll be interested in her input.”
Rouzic made a subtle sneer. “She’s just a grave robber. What can she know that I don’t?” That wasn’t mere arrogance. Luther Rouzic was the most proficient scholar in symbolism, cryptography, and decoding hieroglyphics in Europe, and had little to envy from other experts worldwide.
Karel nodded and called a mercenary, who laid on the table a bundle of papers. “Gunderson brought this from her tent in Al-Fayoum.” He explained. “Take a look, Rouzic, you’ll find that interesting. Maybe she’s just a thief who pretends to be an archaeologist, but she’s also the smartest mortal I’ve met in my long-lived existence. Alas, what a Nephilim could’ve been.” He muttered to himself.
The archivist took the papers with a dismissive gesture and examined them superficially. After a few seconds, he dropped his jaw and gasped softly.
“Surprised?” Karel said. “I leave you to study. With your experience and her talent combined, you’ll give me the True Option earlier than expected.”