Gunderson twisted her arm viciously. Lara stopped struggling as that would only increase the pain. She clenched her teeth.
“I think he still hasn’t heard you.” Gunderson whispered.
“Go to hell!” She gasped.
“I see. Well, if the lady refuses to cooperate, we’ll have to use a more convincing method.”
He told a mercenary to unsheathe the knife from Lara’s thigh and hold the blade over the fire that was burning a nearby chair. Nearly all the wall had burned by then, so Gunderson dragged his prey next to the window. He wasn’t going to leave the room until it was absolutely necessary. The mercenary who had fallen into the flames earlier had fled towards the door, engulfed in fire. The boss had doubts about his survival. The other mercenary brought over the knife, whose edge was now red hot.
“Well, Miss Croft,” Gunderson added, “we’ll see if you fight so efficiently with just one eye...”
The mercenary brought the glowing blade to Lara’s face. But before he could blind her, an orange sparkling object whistled between them with such precision that it cleanly amputated the mercenary’s hand, splattering blood on Lara’s face. The mercenary began to scream, alternating between looking at the bloody stump and his now dismembered hand on the floor, still grasping the knife.
Gunderson shoved Lara against the wall and threw himself to the floor, narrowly avoiding his neck being sliced by the Chirugai. The blade returned immediately to its owner’s hand, who stood at the door. Kurtis’ eyes burned like the flames devouring that room.
“We meet again, Trent,” Gunderson said.
Lara tried to wipe the mercenary’s blood off her face, visibly disgusted. She got up, still stunned by the blow, and retrieved her knife. “Seems you’ve run out of men.” Kurtis said, seeing the mutilated mercenary fleeing out the doorway and still screaming in pain.
“War casualties.” The boss said. “You’re still in disadvantage.”
“I wouldn’t say so. You can’t dispose of us so easily. That freak you work for wants us both alive.”
“Not you, Trent. Just her.”
Lara placed herself next to Kurtis and brandished the glowing knife, although her arm still felt sore.
“You kill me, Karel dies. There’s only one of us left on each side. Your beloved Meister hasn’t told you this tale?”
Gunderson loosed an outburst of laughter. “He knows the True Option. He won’t die with you, you moron.”
Lara was listening to them in silence, frowning.
“If that were true, he’d have already taken her.” Kurtis said, nodding towards Lara. “He doesn’t know jack shit.”
Lara took part then: “We need to leave! This place is going to burn down!” And it was true. The wooden old furniture had held enough, but now the flames were spreading, the heat was unbearable, and the air was almost unbreathable.
Kurtis agreed and picked up his Boran. Almost immediately some sirens began to sound from the outside; it was probably Brasov’s police and firemen. The fire and the fuss of Gunderson’s men must have awakened the whole city.
“Come here and fight like a man!” Shouted Gunderson.
“Why bother? The police will take care of you.” Kurtis said mockingly before following Lara.
While they were running downstairs, Lara told Kurtis about the secret compartment under the tapestry. “There was something there but someone took it!”
“I’d bet my life,” Kurtis said, “that ‘someone’ was our fruit-peeler-wielding friend.”
Lara hummed in agreement, too tired to speak. They had little time to reach the professor before the police did.
Vladimir Ivanoff smiled hopefully when he heard the police’s sirens. “They have come to rescue me! Heeeey! Help! Here I am!”
But then the closet door burst into pieces inexplicably, and who appeared in front of him was not a policeman.
“No!” He yelled, terrified, as he shielded himself with his arms, “Noooo! Not you again!”
“Yeah, me again.” Kurtis said and pulled him out. “You better start walking and keep your mouth shut, since nobody’s coming to help you.”
Ivanoff’s apartment was a mess. Dusty bookcases, tables, and books lay forgotten since he’d spent most of his time at the castle. Forced at gunpoint, the professor led Lara and Kurtis there, and now they sat on comfortable couches, while their victim stared frightened at his kidnappers.
“What are you going to do with me?” Ivanoff stammered. He was already convinced that they were a pair of savages. Their current appearance didn’t help improve his opinion: Kurtis was smeared with mud and Lara still had speckles of a stranger’s blood on her face.
“We don’t want to hurt you.” Lara said. “We’re just searching for information which you surely have.”
“You expect me to help you?” He said. “You set fire to my castle and locked me up like a dog! You and that...that...” He said, pointing at Kurtis with a trembling finger, “that freak, who somehow reduced a door to splinters?”
“Well he’s obviously not too afraid to speak.” Kurtis said.
The professor shrank. Lara looked at Kurtis and thought Ivanoff was right. Kurtis was not an ordinary man. And it was too little what she knew about him.
“We didn’t set fire to the castle.” Lara continued. “Those were Marten Gunderson’s mercenaries, the right hand to our rival, Joachim Karel.”
“And you couldn’t find another location for your skirmishes, could you?” The professor whimpered. “My beautiful castle!”
Lara looked at Kurtis again as she said to him: “We need him to trust us. Tell him everything.”
“Can’t wait.” He agreed.
“Tell me what?”
Lara leaned towards Ivanoff and fixed her brown eyes on him. “After listening to this, you won’t feel the same again.”
Ivanoff couldn’t believe his ears. It couldn’t be real; they had to be kidding. “But...” he stammered, “but it is known that both Nephilim and Lux Veritatis are only a legend! They’re not real. You’re making fun of me, or those Karel and Eckhardt are doing so with you.”
Kurtis breathed heavily, but Lara intervened before he exploded: “We’re not joking, Ivanoff. Too many innocent people have died in a horrible way because of that legend, among them his father,” she said pointing at Kurtis, “and my mentor, Professor Werner Von Croy.”
“Seems that the psychopath you’re talking about believes in this nonsense, but he only needs to be put in jail.”
“Put him in jail?” Kurtis exploded. “Karel’s a Nephilim! There are no bars able to stop him! Lara’s the one who can end up in jail, if she’s charged with that freak’s atrocities!”
Ivanoff stared at him and then nodded, shocked. He meditated a moment in silence, and soon he said: “So, if this Karel wants to fulfil the prophecy, and for that he’s chosen Miss Croft as his Amazon, who’s supposed to be the Lux Veritatis who must prevent that?”
Kurtis felt surprised when he realized he didn’t want to answer, even if answering meant teaching a lesson to that insufferable asshole. But Lara remained silent as she looked at him, waiting for his answer. “It’s me.” He said finally.
Ivanoff’s jaw dropped while staring at him with a stupid look of disbelief. “Oh, please, no.” He whispered, and dropped his head between his hands. “Not you.”
Lara smiled discretely.
Kurtis pulled his jersey’s sleeve up until showing his shoulder. There was a tattoo, a cross over a V, like a sharpened anchor. Lara had already seen that symbol when she had tended his wounds, and also in Von Croy’s notebook: The Lux Veritatis sign. Not the typical tattoo of fairs and swap-meets.
“Then...that door’s explosion...” Ivanoff stammered. “Are you a real Lux Veritatis? With supernatural powers and all that stuff?”
“What do you think, smartass?” Kurtis replied, covering his tattoo.
Lara took part again. “Now you know we’re serious. We must find the True Option so that the balance tips in Kurtis’ favour. We thought the tapestry would reveal the next step to us, as the Golden Seal had led us here, to Romania. But behind the tapestry there was only an empty compartment.”
“And why do you think I know something about that?”
Kurtis and Lara had at that exact same moment the intense desire to strangle him. It was hard to convince him, that goddamn runt.
“You know the castle better than anyone. What was in that compartment?” And if you lie to me I’ll beat your dirty face, added Lara in silence.
But Ivanoff sighed, and finally decided to cooperate. “There was a manuscript written by Loanna Von Skopf, prisoner and concubine of Vlad Tepes the Impaler.”