It happened at the refectory. At first the monks were eating separately since they felt uncomfortable in the two foreigner’s presence; but after Mino’s severe command, they agreed to sit with them, of course, as long as the woman kept covering her face with the hood and not disturbing them with her brazen and insolent eyes. There were traditions and stereotypes that would never change, despite the time passed. In Meteora almost nothing had changed in ten centuries.
Lara had been avoiding Kurtis all day. He, far from being offended, had displayed a sly smile every time they crossed paths, which in turn pissed her off even more. Now she was sitting next to him, separated as much as possible, while peering from the depths of the hood at all the monks, young and old, throwing piercing glances every time they looked at her, more to piss them off than anything else. Until one of the novices furiously stood up, threw his bowl on the floor, and pointing at Lara yelled: “Enough! Father, this shameless female haunts us! Her entrance into the holiness of our retreat is a desecration!”
“Behave, Pancratios,” the hegumenos said sternly. “She’s here because I’ve allowed it. Don’t forget that.”
The novice was red with fury. Far from calming down, he went on: “Since when is a woman meant to summon the Holy Oracle? How far can we go? We, holy men and ancestral wardens of this place, we can’t talk to the angels, but this harlot can!”
A fuss broke out in the refectory. Half of the community stood up, shouting furiously that Pancratios was right and asking to cast out the woman. The other half of the community began to rant Pancratios for using such inappropriate vocabulary. Minos stood in their midst remembering the rules of silence and humility imposed by the community. And Kurtis tested his Chirugai, just in case.
But Lara did nothing. She stood absolutely still on the bench, with pursed lips and a puzzled expression on her face – and that wasn’t for the offense. After each meeting with Gunderson, she already got used to all the synonyms for “prostitute” with which he’d gifted her - nor was she afraid of the monks’ attitude, usual in people like them.
It was something else. Something she’d seen in Pancratios’ face, while voicing his outrage. At that moment, she’d clearly seen how his face changed and rearranged itself, as if someone was using his face and voice to insult Lara. It lasted only a second, but it was enough.
Enough to recognize in that changing face Karel’s icy glance.
Kurtis hadn’t overlooked Lara’s confused expression when she arose from the bench and rushed out of the refectory. She wasn’t easily upset by nonsense like that, so he promised himself to find out what had really happened.
He couldn’t go until later. Pancratios had almost caused a riot in the refectory and the monks wanted to cast the foreigners out. Minos tried to calm everyone, and Kurtis was tempted to throw more than one monk over the window and send them to the bottom of the valley. Eventually all of them calmed. The hegumenos, hoarse and exhausted, imposed a severe penance on the whole community, then left lamenting to the church to pray, whispering: “Evil has arrived to my monastery! Another corrupt soul like Karolis! How long will I be able to resist this?”
It was midnight when Kurtis went to Lara’s cell. Through the window, a moonlight beam enlightened the cell with a strange glow. He found her asleep, lying on her bed, frowning as she slept. She hadn’t even taken off her robe, but it had lifted a little, revealing a white barefoot, still with a bandage around her injured ankle. Kurtis took the edge of the habit and covered her feet, turned and was about to leave the cell, but then he noticed she’d taken his hand. He turned.
Lara was looking at him, clasping her fingers with his. “Stay here,” she whispered softly.
He sat quietly beside her, holding her hand. “Look at you, M’lady,” he said with a grin. “You’re pale. Have you seen a ghost? Or is it the air of an offended maiden?”
She grimaced too: “If I took offense for every time I’ve been insulted in my life...Actually, it was something else,” she lowered her voice. “I’ve seen him.”
Kurtis frowned. “Are you sure? If he really was here, I’d have noticed him. He can’t escape from my farsee, nor can I escape from his one.”
“I’ve seen him! In that monk’s face, just for a moment.”
He thought for a while, then said: “Maybe he’s creating illusions, but in fact he’s not here. He’s made use of that monk’s anger to scare you.”
“Well, he succeeded in that,” she grunted softly.
Kurtis looked at her, surprised. “Whoa, so you’re human after all.”
“Don’t make fun of me!” She said. “I hate that monster. I really hate him. I want to kill him. I want to stop wondering where he is and why he’s going around me without making an appearance. I can’t bear being manipulated, blackmailed with the lives I have in my hands, tempted like he did with me.” She stopped suddenly, realizing she’d talked too much.
Lara hadn’t told Kurtis about what happened in the morgue, nor did she want to. When Karel had offered her everything, especially when she’d been about to give up, seduced by that creature’s evil spell. She’d felt ashamed of her weakness a thousand times, for having been about to betray that man who was now looking at her, sitting beside her and holding her hand in silence. A man who’d trusted her wholeheartedly and whose life depended on her now.
But if Kurtis felt any curiosity about that episode, she never knew - he asked no questions. “Yeah gotcha,” he said instead. “Nephili can be really annoying, as I’ve learnt. I’m as eager to get rid of him as you. To make him pay for all he’s done to you, to my family, and to my Order. To serve justice once and for all.”
He sounded intense. Lara looked at him. What if what Minos said was true? What if he had something of angel in him? Nonsense. He’s supernatural, of course, but as far as an angel...
“Sleep, Lara,” he said, dropping her hand gently and rising. “If this fucker is over here, I’ll notice. Deal only with the Oracle. I’ll take care of the rest.”
As he walked towards the door, Lara muttered: “Thank you.”
“For what?” he said, turning.
For coming to Munich to rescue me. For never abandoning me. For being the best partner I ever had. For drawing me in your sketches. For being my guardian angel...an angel who rides a motorbike.
“For everything,” she replied simply.
Kurtis smiled and made a military salute. Then he got lost in the dark.
During the following days, Lara worked frantically. She would spend hours focused on the symbols, crossing out hundreds of them, starting with the most recent. Rouzic had defined the True Option as the mother of all religions. That meant she’d to choose the oldest one, which might seem simple, but it wasn’t at all. Who knew what the oldest religion was, the first god worshipped by mortals? Reluctantly, Lara ruled out hundreds of Egyptian gods, and was about to liquidate the Olympic pantheon – which was problematic, since that being the case, there was nothing left.
When she needed a break, she walked around the monastery or went down to the crypt to examine the stone altar. She still had no idea about how to summon the Oracle - she was an explorer, not a Sibyl, but as of now it wasn’t a priority.
Kurtis stood aside, making rounds in the monastery like a warden. But every precaution wasn’t enough for what happened the third day.
Lara came out that night to walk around. The monks were sleeping, so she hadn’t needed to endure their unfriendly glances or gestures. She moved raging like a shadow in the dark, sliding down the aisles as she explored every corner of that quiet place.
It was almost dawn when she sat next to a fountain outside the complex, a kind of pool whose depth didn’t reach beyond the knees. Lara sat on the edge and took off her sandals. She removed the bandages from the ankles and dipped her feet in the cool water.
There was so much calm and silence, so when a strange noise sounded behind her, Lara heard it perfectly. She sharpened her hearing, but remained motionless. No one who approached slowly from behind could have something good in store. She refused to show she’d actually heard something – better to catch the assailant in the act, so she kept calmly swinging her feet in the water, and when she saw a huge shadow reflected on the surface of the water, stood up and stepped aside. Her attacker, who’d already pounced, lost his balance and fell into the pond. But before splashing into the water, however, he had grabbed the edge of her robe and dragged Lara in with him.
She struggled and kicked her enemy’s stomach, whom she didn’t see in the darkness. Among all the bubbling and splashing, she recognized a familiar growl. She stood out of the water and tried to jump out of the pond, but then a pair of huge arms grabbed her at her waist and dragged her back into the water.
The black robe she was still wearing was heavier when wet, the fabric clinging to her body and tangled in her legs, making any movement difficult. To make things worse, her opponent had a brutal force, and within seconds he immobilized her, grabbing her head sharply and plunging it underwater. Lara struggled to free herself, but the other held her head underwater, oblivious to her kicks.
He wants to drown me, she thought as she tried to see her executioner’s face. However, under the water and through the bubbles, all she could see was his right hand, which lacked the index and middle fingers. Gunderson! Why was he trying to kill her now? Had he decided to sabotage Karel’s plans and betray the Cabal?
In any case, that didn’t matter. What mattered then was to survive. The thug was still holding her head underwater, and if she kept struggling her oxygen would run out soon. To keep on fighting, led by panic, meant to die. Sorry, brute, but won’t give you the pleasure of drowning me. She relaxed her muscles and let out the air which she’d been desperately holding - risking her life, but it was her only chance.
“You look thirsty. Drink all you want, bitch!” Gunderson laughed loudly. “What, still not enough?”
From time to time he drew her head out from the water and again sunk it. He was too blinded by anger to realize that his opponent was no longer struggling. Surprised, he let her go. Lara’s body slowly surfaced the water, drowned.
“Too easy,” Gunderson said with a sneer. He jumped out of the pond. “Thought the fun would last a bit more.”
Well, he still had some unfinished business. He sneaked quietly into the monastery and entered the church. Minos Axiotis was here, praying in silence, kneeling and looking at a Pantókrator’s icon. Through the open iconostasis, on a table, there were the Periapt and the three Shards, placed to be treated as precious and sacred objects.
“Be quiet, geezer,” Gunderson said when the hegumenos discovered him. The thug slipped down the aisle and took one of the Shards. Wielding the dagger in his left hand, he approached to the trembling Minos. “Did you pray enough, you fat monk? Tonight I’m lucky. I’ve just drowned in your pond that slut who left me unable to wield a weapon,” he showed his mutilated hand. “Hard to believe she did this with her beautiful teeth, huh? Well, now I’ll slit your throat as if you were a pig, so you’ll go straight to take your place among the martyrs. Then I’ll gut that bastard Trent and in doing so, will also kill the last Nephilim. Then lastly, maybe I’ll have a tour of the monastery and kill some monks, who knows?”
The hegumenos looked terrified at that colossus’ face, disfigured by anger. “May God forgive you,” Minos said as he felt the dagger’s blade against his throat. And he closed his eyes, waiting for the end.
Suddenly, he heard a strange whistling sound he couldn’t identify; a sickening crack of broken bones and an animal scream that escaped Gunderson’s lips.
Minos opened his eyes and went away from the pew just in time to see Gunderson bending in double. A strange glaive was protruding from his back, sunk in level with his kidney. Blood flowed in torrents.
Standing beside the altar was Kurtis. The fire burning in his blue eyes scared the benevolent hegumenos.
Gunderson stumbled and pulled the Chirugai out from his back. Then he turned and faced the ex-legionnaire.
“Attacking a helpless old man,” Kurtis spat between his teeth. “How low you’ve fallen, Gunderson.”
The bully didn’t answer. With eyes bulging from their sockets, he let out a wild howl and pounced on Kurtis with the dagger held high as the American unsheathed the gun and stopped his arm. They began to struggle and the Boran fell to the ground.
Gunderson was out of himself - the wound caused by the Chirugai was fatal, but he wasn’t willing to go to the other world without taking his hated former teammate with him. Kurtis was a strong man, but couldn’t do much against the mercenary’s size and musculature. Still struggling, Gunderson slowly pushed him back, throwing him against the Savior’s golden icon.
With a cry of rage, the thug freed himself from the struggle and drove the Shard into the hollow of Kurtis’ collarbone. The blade pierced through his flesh and into the gold leaf icon behind, leaving Kurtis nailed to the wall. A wave of blood splashed upon Christ’s face.
“Méter Théou!” Cried Minos, whose terror kept his feet sewn to the floor. His lament merged with Kurtis’ scream, immobilized by pain.
Gunderson tottered back and grabbed the second Shard. Then he came back to Kurtis and hissed: “What should I rip out first? Your eyes or your guts? In any case, I’ll send you where I sent that bitch you seem to like. I’ll just take my time - hope Karel doesn’t mind if I carve you up,” and he threw a boorish laugh.
Kurtis couldn’t move - his rival had plunged the Shard so viciously in his flesh that only the end of the handle emerged. In a desperate attempt he invoked his powers to his aid and indeed, when Gunderson approached the Shard’s blade to his face, an invisible force struck him and sent him rolling down the steps, away from the iconostasis. He took that moment to reach out and call the Chirugai. His loyal blade quickly came to his hand, and he held it before him in his stretched arm.
The bully rose again, and half crawling, as the loss of blood began to weaken him, came back to Kurtis. “Fascinating, isn’t it?” He gurgled. “If I take one more step, you’ll cut me with that flying thing of yours. But I’ll take advantage of my last scrap of life to kill you. Too bad, you were a good mercenary.”
“I was never good,” Kurtis gasped. “I was the best. Better than you. That’s why you hated me and joined my enemies.”
Gunderson laughed one final time, and rushed Kurtis, pointing the Shard to his heart.
At that moment a shot rang out in the chapel.
Gunderson’s eyes widened as he fell on the table, knocking over the Periapt and the third Shard.
Through the mist which was beginning to cloud his eyes, Kurtis saw Lara, standing in the doorway, holding the Boran X and dripping water from her black robe. “One bastard less in the world,” she said. Then she lowered the gun and in two strides she stood at the iconostasis. “This is gonna hurt you,” she whispered.
“Just pluck it now,” he gasped, gritting his teeth.
Lara poked the wound with decision and, after finding the Shard’s handle, pulled it out at once, placing a foot against the iconostasis. The momentum made her stumble, but Kurtis fell to the ground like a sack.
“Agios O Theos!” She heard the hegumenos muttering.
Kurtis touched his left shoulder, slippery with blood. The pain was so intense it felt like the arm would fall off from his shoulder to the ground. A pair of lithe, wet arms embraced him. Lara.
“Hold on,” he heard her saying, but her voice sounded very far, far away. The world spun around him and then plunged into blackness.
What do you see, Kurtis?
I see nothing, mother. I only feel pain.