The Seal’s Story
The first time a traveller beholds Meteora’s mystical valley they are immediately seduced by its grandeur and solemnity. It can already be seen from the Thessalian town of Kalambaka, beyond a vertical ascent, culminating in a belt of rocks in mysterious grey cylindrical shapes. In the center of the valley, on very high cliff walls, smooth and vertical, stands the isolated monastery of Ayios Stefanos. It kneeled on the hard rock like an altar, and its seeming inaccessibility would impatient a novice adventurer. It dazzled Lara and Kurtis, who observed the silent place under the scorching sun of the purest Mediterranean climate.
“How are we supposed to climb up there?” He asked.
“From where we are now in the town of Kastraki, it’s ten kilometres to the monastery,” said Nikos. “The only way to get to it is by going down to the valley floor and climbing the rock. Our brothers built the monastery in 1138 with the aim of shutting out the world, an aspect that, as you can see, remains today.”
The monk walked briskly, gliding gently over the rocks. Lara started to follow him, but Kurtis stood where he was, shielding his eyes with his hand and looking with despair at the rugged enclave. “Damn monks,” he sighed with exhaustion. “Apparently there’s no other spot to place a fucking monastery.”
Lara turned towards him, peering over her sunglasses and smiled. “Just curious, Mr. Trent: Where’s your sense of adventure?” And she turned and started to descend to the valley, leaping nimbly from rock to rock like a graceful antelope.
The valley had more than twenty monasteries, most of which had become museums which tourists could visit through hanging bridges suspended between the rocks. Only two monasteries were still places of meditation and prayer: Ayia Triada and Ayios Stefanos. They weren’t for visiting and therefore there was no suspended bridges allowing access. In theory, nobody went to and nobody came from them.
When arriving at the foot of the towering rock, Nikos cupped his hands and issued a signature call, which started echoes in the quiet valley. A few minutes later a pouch made of strong nets tied to a rope descended towards him.
“Whoa,” Lara said. “Thought I’d seen it all with the chopper, but no doubt this is advanced technology.”
Nikos threw her an annoyed glance, but she smiled cheekily. The monk entered into the net as he said: “This is the elevator for monks. It can only be used by the monastic community. As foreign visitors, you’ll have to climb.” And he rudely pointed to some steps carved into the almost vertical wall. Then the rope pulled tight and Nikos began to rise within the netting.
“Great.” Kurtis muttered. “Next time how about you don’t make fun on their elevator.”
“At that speed we’ll arrive before him,” she said. “There’s about ten minutes of climbing, more or less.”
The upbeat tone of her voice exasperated him. “Looks like your feet aren’t aching.”
“Oh how whiny,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “C’mon, Kurtis, show me the legionnaire who lives in you.”
He grumbled under his breath, and began climbing the rock. Lara followed him, still smiling.
A heart was pounding hastily in Minos Axiotis’ chest when Nikos solemnly bowed to him and reported the newcomers’ presence. He left the monastery to receive them, surrounded by some of the younger monks, and watched in silence how Kurtis saved the last step. After climbing, his palms were skinned and slightly bleeding. He looked at his wounds and, without more, he wiped his hands on his pants.
Indeed, we can’t deny he’s Konstantin Heissturm’s son, Minos thought at feeling those blue eyes piercing him. Years ago his father had looked at him with such challenge and distrust, without uttering a word.
After him arrived a woman whom he’d never seen before, but he immediately recognized her. Graceful and slender, lithe and lovely, she lifted her chin and said: “I’m Lara Croft.” With the haughty tone in which she said that, she could’ve easily meant I’m Helen of Troy or I’m the Queen of Sheba.
Minos stepped forward and smiled: “Nice to finally meet you, Miss Croft.”
Lara looked around his black robe and the large crucifix hanging from his neck. She’d recognized his voice at first, but took time to look at the hegumenos before answering: “So you’re Minos Axiotis, our phone guide,” she said sarcastically. “I hardly could’ve imagined you like this.”
“Times are strange, Miss Croft. Our community has been forced to break some rules and use extraordinary resources for extraordinary situations.” Then he looked at Kurtis, who hadn’t moved an inch and remained still without saying a word. “I’m really pleased to see you recovered, Mr. Trent.”
“I remember you,” he said then. “You were at the Strahov. You came to me surrounded by armed monks.”
Minos nodded. “There are causes worth the fight and risk.”
As he spoke, a monk presented a bundle of black clothes to Lara, which she accepted without questioning. She’d visited hundreds of sacred places throughout the world and had learned that, regardless of the religion, women weren’t welcomed unless they follow strict dressing rules. In Meteora, any woman who would venture into that silent world of praying men was required to wear all-black ankle length skirts and long sleeves, to stifle any hint of female beauty which was forbidden in the monastery. But as they could see when Lara came back dressed in those robes, no dark clothing managed to drown out her charming aura.
“Welcome to Meteora,” Minos said then. “This is where your journey ends.”
“How do you know...?” Lara began, but then the hegumenos stopped her and turned to Kurtis: “If I’m right, the Golden Seal has revealed the latest location. It already served its purpose and the spirit which guided it has vanished.”
Kurtis looked then at the ring, and after a moment of surprise, showed it to Lara. There was no longer any map on the golden surface. It had disappeared, giving way to an empty space, a polished square without any sign or imperfection.
The monastery was a corner for silence and meditation. In that place only the songs of the monks were heard, along with the whispering rush of their sandals on the floor and the whistling of the wind. No other sound came to this peaceful haven, even when other monasteries were packed for sightseeing. Nothing disturbed the daily routine in Ayios Stefanos.
Once the reception ended, Lara and Kurtis were left alone with the hegumenos. He led them to the inner yard and started to answer the barrage of questions with which Lara harassed him, while Kurtis, leaning against the wall, kept to his traditional silence.
“You seem to know much about the Golden Seal and the Periapt’s symbols,” she said. “More than what the Lux Veritatis and Karel himself knew. You’re an Orthodox monastic community, but you’re also more than that. Am I wrong?”
“Only partly,” Minos said with the utmost courtesy. “In fact, we’re monks at God’s service, and as such we were born. But we’re also warden. At first we had little or nothing to do with the Lux Veritatis, but in time, circumstances made us allies.”
“Wardens of what?”
“The Angels’ Oracle.”
Lara arched an eyebrow, as if asking for further explanation. The hegumenos pointed to the cardboard cylinder hanging over her shoulder and said: “You’ve shown me many papers, written by the Cabal’s archivist and yourself. The studies are brilliant, worthy of skilled people like you. But in ancient times, the world didn’t have archaeologists or specialists in deciphering the sacred mysteries. We, as monks of Meteora, are the wardens of an ancient power, stronger than human mind: we’re the wardens of those who know the True Option.”
Lara stood up for a moment and then started walking around the narrow yard, with her robe fluttering around her ankles. “Are you telling me that you’ve always known what the True Option was? That everything we’ve done has been for nothing?”
“Oh no, of course not. No mortal or semi-mortal, like the creature that haunts you, knows the True Option. Only the Angels’ Oracle knows. We, the monks of Meteora, protect the entrance to the Oracle.”
Lara stopped wandering, put her hands on her hips, and said with narrowed eyes: “Whatever. I’ve been kidnapped and used as a laboratory guinea pig. People I cared for have been killed. I’ve endangered others’ lives just by being near them. I’ve wracked my brain studying long lists of endless symbols, and almost killed myself in a traffic accident to recover these papers...and now an old fat monk tells me that by just consulting an oracle I can get the key, without having gone through all this.”
Kurtis shook his head, disapproving Lara’s attitude, but she ignored him and stuck an angry glance on Minos, who held it without flinching. “The Oracle won’t disclose you the True Option. Its purpose is not to reveal, but to host it. You’re an explorer. As I’ve understood, discovering clues or using devices to be inserted in holes or keys to open doors is what you do. The True Option is a key, a symbol, call it whatever you want, but only knowing it won’t make any difference. It’s to the Oracle whom you should reveal the key, and then you must choose between Light and Darkness, in this case, between Mr. Trent and the demon lord who calls himself Karel.”
Minos spoke with patience and serenity, an attitude contrasted with Lara’s, who seemed chased by a demon herself. “Who or what is the Oracle?” She asked, crossing her arms.
“Neither a person, nor a thing. It’s just the Oracle. It’s here; beneath the ground we stand on now, in the crypt, where we bury our dead. It was already here when the monastery was built.”
“And you’ve spoken with this Oracle?”
The hegumenos shook his head. “We’re not worthy. There’s only one person in the world who, by divine will, can summon the Oracle: The Amazon.”
She frowned and sat back, crossing her legs. “So it’s up to me,” she said. And suddenly she uncrossed her legs and stomped her foot on the floor. “Dammit! I bet that bastard Karel knows that! That’s why he let us escape from Munich. He’s got me just where he wants again!”
“Of course he knows. He’s always known what he does. It’s not easy to escape from a Nephilim’s will, and their thoughts and attitudes are as strange as incomprehensible to us,” Minos said. “But you must know it’s you who has the last word. Neither Mr. Trent nor Karel can do any more for themselves. Now you’ve their lives in your hands.”
Lara looked at Kurtis, but he veered his gaze, as if all that had nothing to do with him. She thought in silence while nervously twisting her braid. Then she got out of the blue and said solemnly: “I need to be alone for a while.” She took the papers and left the cloister.
Minos watched her walk away. “Do you think she’ll find the key?”
Kurtis took a few seconds to answer. “Of course. She’s the smartest person I ever met, and also the most stubborn. I don’t think anyone can compare,” he added quietly, more to himself than to the hegumenos.
Minos sat quietly in one of the stone benches and watched the rectangle of sky above the small yard. “I guess you’ve have your own questions. But you’re pretty quiet. Your silence has been uneasy to me.”
“I never open my mouth if I’ve nothing to say. Really, Lara’s slick enough to speak for the both of us.”
“That’s strange,” said the hegumenos, still staring at the sky. “You know each other for just a month, but it seems as if you’ve spent many years together.”
Kurtis gave him a glance Minos couldn’t decipher. He thought he’d say something about it, but instead he said: “Why you know so much about me, my father, and my life? I’m not very popular among mortals,” he said wryly.
Minos crossed his fingers and his aging face turned again to the sky as he said: “I met your father many years ago. I was still young, before I was elected as hegumenos. He was a tall man with strong shoulders and a powerful face, a man who commanded respect in a single glance. Like you. But you probably know all this.”
“Actually, I never knew much about him. He was always on the other side of the world, fighting Eckhardt and the Cabal, while I was running from one place to another with my mother. By the way,” he said, pulling out the dreamcatcher, “how did you find her?”
“She came to us. She knew more than she seemed to, and she’d no one to turn to. She wanted to warn you that the real danger wasn’t Eckhardt, but Karel. So we went to the Strahov. We didn’t expect to find you dying.”
“Typical of her to leave her shelter. Was she with you? Is she here?”
“No. We sent her back. We didn’t want to risk her life.”
Kurtis nodded, playing with the little amulet. “Guess now I can say thanks for saving my life.”
“No need to thank me. You’re the one who’s going to fight a great evil, delivering us and the rest of the world from it. But please, don’t think we helped you only for convenience, or because we felt sorry for your mother. Years ago, when I was just elected, Eckhardt attacked the monastery, trying to steal the Golden Seal.” His gaze was now on Kurtis’ ring, who was listening to him with great attention. “The Seal is not an artefact of your Order, nor is the Periapt. It had been here since ancient times. Traditions state that it was given by one of the four archangels to the first hegumenos of the community, with the following words: If ever the Light of Truth and the Fallen Angel clash and balance their forces so that only one of them will prevail, this ring will lead the way. Today, nobody believes this. But indeed, the Seal has led you here, back to its home, after you knew Lady Loanna’s tragic story and she put the Periapt in your hands.”
“And how did the Seal come to my father’s hands?”
“I gave it to him. As I said, Eckhardt attacked our monastery and set it on fire. Then he began to kill our brothers, one by one, waiting for me to reveal where I was hiding the Seal. We would’ve all died, and me the last of them, if your father hadn’t arrived then, confronted the Black Alchemist and defeated him, saving our lives. That’s why I gave him the Seal. That’s why we saved your life. I thought he was the chosen one, that the Archangel was referring to him as the Light, and the Alchemist as the Darkness.” He looked down and caressed his long beard. “I was wrong. Evil wasn’t Eckhardt, but Karel. The last of the Lux Veritatis wasn’t Konstantin Heissturm…it was you. His only son.”
Kurtis had taken off the ring and was spinning it between his fingers, caressing its polished golden surface. “Then I should give it back to you. It’s yours, after all.”
But Minos smiled and shook his head slowly. “No. The Seal was a gift and no gift should be returned. That’s all you have left from your father. Keep it.”