The Path of the Crucified
The passage aperture was low and narrow, so they had to move at a crouch. Kurtis was too big and it hurt his arms and legs, but he didn’t complain. As they arrived at an extension, his elbows and knees were raw under his tattered clothes - partly because he’d to go first, being bigger than Lara, to clear the tunnel and make way for her. Of course she didn’t bother to thank him - the situation in the putrid pit was left behind and she was again cold and proud, dignified in her permanent irritation towards him.
A blast of cold air caressed their sweaty faces.
“There must be something over there.” Lara said as she advanced toward the tunnel end, from which came a strange light.
“Be careful.” Kurtis said, sucking a bloody knuckle.
Lara reached the hole edge; looked around...and felt ecstatic. “Oh, God.”
Before them there was a vast city carved from a cave, whose boundaries couldn’t be seen. Tall, slender buildings spread out over different levels, rocks and plains, but none reached the floor, which was run by waterfalls and water furrows to converge in a huge lake at the gates of the city. Some buildings had been excavated in the rock and descended to emerge from the walls to liaise with the other neighbourhoods with bridges and spiralling staircases. The city should have been dark, but was in fact glowing with a ghostly light coming from the waters, having its greater focus on the lake.
Lara had been in beautiful and vast places, but she’d never seen something so immense and solemn. The whole city was quiet and the only sound was the murmur of the waters. She shuddered. “It’s wonderful.” She mused, closing her eyes.
“I’d say it’s creepy.” Kurtis said. He didn’t seem impressed by that dark and placid beauty. “Lives up to its name.”
“Eden? I think not. Eden was a garden...” Lara got serious when she heard Kurtis’ deep laughing. She turned to face him.
His blue eyes sparkled with fun. “Yeah, M’lady...they called it Eden. A euphemism, isn’t it? We, however, called it Tenebra.”
“The Order. The Lux Veritatis.”
Tenebra. An appropriate name for this city of lights and shadows.
“Well, Tenebra.” Lara muttered. “Or whatever your name is. Here we go.”
“I’mma say it again, she should have taken my communicator.” Zip muttered, pissed off. “We would’ve been in contact this whole time, as when we raided old Von Croy’s building. But noooo, she didn’t want to, of course. “I like to do the job alone”, “no, I don’t want you chatterin’ in my ear.” He said, imitating Lara’s clear voice. “Gotcha, it’s her business - damn her and her hobbies.”
“Well, they might want to have some...privacy.” Selma suggested, while examining some maps near his desk.
“Really?” He said. “What for? Holding hands with Kurt?”
“Maybe.” The Turkish archaeologist murmured, mysterious, as the man turned toward her.
Selma was sitting on a stool, smiling as her eyes passed over the map. Her long hair was tucked under a yellow turban on her head, but what was left fell loose in dark locks around her face. Dressed in old jeans and a shirt knotted at the waist, she was more appealing than any nicely attired woman. Zip realized he’d been looking at her in silence for a while and hastened to add: “Whaddya mean?”
She raised her black eyes and smiled, unable to resist gossip. “Zip, there are many things you don’t know about those two.”
He looked stunned, his expression totally stupid, which she attributed to his confusion over what she’d just told him. “Hold up, princess...did I miss some kinda drama?” That’s it, Zip, keep it up. You masking perfectly, kid, he congratulated himself.
Selma brought her sight up again...and then her smile faded. Zip whirled and to his horror, he found a person dressed as a mountaineer who was pointing a gun at his very face.
“Get up.” The man ordered. “Take off your headset and leave it on the keyboard.”
Zip obeyed while another armed man forced Selma to stand up. The hacker rushed to stand beside her. “Who the hell are you?”
“None of your bloody business, fucking nero. You,” said the first one, pointing to Selma. “Who’s responsible for this place?”
“Me.” She replied, trying to keep her voice firm.
The gunman looked at her incredulously, as if not expecting that frail-looking young woman to be the authority here, but he shrugged. “Good. Now call them all and order them to get into their tents and barracks. There are many of us here, and you wouldn’t want to see a slaughter, right?”
Selma nodded - she looked calm but her heart was pumping wildly in her chest.
“Agreed. Do as I say and nobody will get hurt. Otherwise, we’ll kill them all, starting with this one.” The armed man concluded, pointing to Zip.
Lara felt the sweat freeze on her skin when reaching the ground by a rope. The path to the city stretched beyond a long way to cross the huge stone bridge separating the lake from the walls around the city.
But something made her stop - she hadn’t seen that before because of the height at which they had beheld the city at first, but now it was before their very eyes. Along the wide path leading to the city, on both sides the road was strewn with crosses - and there were people nailed to those crosses.
Ancient Romans used to crucify slaves and criminals out on the roads between cities. It was said the crosses of the condemned in Spartacus’ revolt had spread from Rome to the end of Italy. Now, that dreadful picture was repeated at the gates of that tremendous city.
It was long ago, however, when these unfortunates had died. They were just skeletons, covered with some shreds of clothing and dry skin, not like the juicy bodies rotting in the pit - these people had long been nailed here.
Again, the question was repeated, silent, on Lara’s lips. What horrible comedy is this? Who are these people? “Kurtis...?” She muttered, turning to look at her partner.
But he didn’t listen - he was at the foot of a cross, watching in silence the dislocated skull’s jaw, contorted in a grotesque grimace of horror. She called him again - then she shuddered at what she read in his face, pale and upset. “This is what I came for, Lara.” He whispered amid the great silence. “I knew they were all dead, but I didn’t expect to find them...like this.”
“What? Who?” She asked, confused.
A bitter smile crossed Kurtis’ face, and then he pointed to the title nailed on the cross’ head. There was a written word. A surname. Montsaint. And next to it, the sharpened anchor, Lux Veritatis’ emblem. Lara understood then. “The Lux Veritatis?” She exclaimed. “It’s them, Kurtis? The last ones...?”
“Yes.” He said - his deep voice having a point of tension. “Lots of people who I knew as a child. Look, there’s Clapton. And there, the old Bartory. And Longtom, and that one next to him, his wife, and that child there...” Kurtis began to cross the row of crosses while reciting the names on the dusty placards. He’d met almost everyone - those unfortunates had been for him like parents and teachers, those women had also been his family, those children had played with him at one point...
Lara followed him, feeling her body stiffened with horror. She couldn’t understand what kind of ceremony, what kind of macabre ritual of bloody revenge had led to that genocide. Those empty skulls, only recognizable by the titles, had been living, breathing persons, had been his people. And now they were all dead and he was the last one. What could she say? Was she able to feel that void and dull pain - the pain of being virtually alone on earth, the pain of losing all your people? She bit her lip - suddenly, she felt bad. Who was she to judge him? Why did she need to behold that horror to realize there were deeper causes than her mere selfishness? How could she treat him so bad, if she’d never felt that sorrow, that loss?
They walked in silence the way to the city. Kurtis’ voice trailed off soon, sore and exhausted, and only moved his lips, saying one by one hundred and twenty names on those signs. One hundred and twenty crosses. One hundred and twenty lives uprooted. Neither women nor children were respected.
At one point Lara heard again Kurtis’ soft voice. “This is Eckhardt’s masterpiece. This is the reason I left the Legion to take revenge. He ordered to kill them all. I’d always suspected they could be here. And I...” He turned and looked at his partner with the same bitter face. “I should have been with them. Both me and my mother. They left two crosses to nail. We escaped - and it was thanks to him.” With a weary gesture, he pointed to the last cross, the largest, which stood beside the stone bridge along the ramparts of the city.
Lara came slowly. The man who’d died on that cross had apparently been tall and strong, by the bones’ constitution. She squinted to read the titulus over his head, and then she recoiled in horror.
In that title, the carved name was unmistakable:
Konstantin. Konstantin. Konstantin. Lara repeated that name several times to make sure it was that name and not another. Finally, she turned slowly to look with deep sorrow at Kurtis. But he wasn’t looking at her - he’d raised his eyes to the skull’s empty sockets.
For the first time in so many years, father and son looked at each other.
“Sit down.” Ordered the man, pushing Selma into a chair. Zip was a little behind, sitting in a corner of the tent.
After making the scared volunteers enter their tents, a mob of armed troops had taken and cordoned off the camp. They weren’t mercenaries nor criminals, however, for their mountain outfit was refined and impeccable after all. Selma was terrified and neither she nor Zip had mentioned Lara or Kurtis – both were their only hope now. The man watching them seemed to have a lot of authority there. But it wasn’t the leader for he said: “In no time il signore Monteleone will come, and you’ll tell him what is this roost, huh, ragazza?”
Of course, that accent! They were Italian. Mafiosi, perhaps? But what could they want from them?
The hitman was looking at her again and Selma shuddered. He had stopped to stare at her as if he hadn’t seen a woman for months. “Wow, wow, you’re pretty for a Turk.” He whispered. “How old are you?”
Selma didn’t answer.
“You’re a bit rude. But hey, you’re about twenty-something. Archaeologist, right? I understood your people put veils on you and keep you at home.” Upon receipt of a new wave of silence, the killer walked up to her. With a smug smile he flipped the yellow handkerchief off her head, and Selma’s black hair spilled down around her shoulders. Enthralled, he took a long strand of hair and brought it up to his nose to inhale its aroma. Selma jerked her head and slipped her soft hair out from between his fingers. The bully growled: “You’re not very loving. Come on, cooperate.” He grabbed her roughly by the chin, his fingers sinking into Selma’s opaque, soft skin, forcing her to face him. She struggled but then he increased the pressure on her jaw, and bent to kiss her.
“Leave her alone!” The man looked up. Zip was up and watched him angrily.
“Sit back down, asshole, or I’ll bust your brains!” He slid his fingers around Selma’s neck and grabbed her tightly, digging his fingers into her warm hair. She tried to break free again, but his captor raised her from her chair with a sudden jerk of hair that drew from her a cry of pain, and violently pulled her towards him.
“I said leave her alone, mothafucka!” Zip yelled, and pounced on the man who, caught by surprise, let the girl go and staggered backwards. Zip pushed him again and knocked him down. But the other was an expert fighter and within seconds he straightened up and mobbed him a hard kick to the hacker’s stomach, which knocked him against a table. Drawing his gun, the man pointed directly at Zip’s head and roared: “Say addio!”
Selma screamed in horror.
“What’s going on here?” An elegant voice brought everything to a hold. The canvas of the tent was now up and a man of delicate constitution entered, dressed in brown and with grey hair. However, he wasn’t very old, being about fifty, and had a proud aristocratic bearing.
Seeing him, the gunman lowered the gun and immediately saluted. “Benvenutto, signore.”
The other looked at Zip, half knocked to the ground, writhing in pain, and the dishevelled young Turkish woman, with one arm protectively surrounding him. It was enough to figure out what had happened. “What were you doing, Sciarra?” He said coldly. “I ordered you not to harm anyone.”
“I know you very well, amico mio. Next time you want a woman, go to Maddalena and she’ll provide you with one. But this signorina is under my protection, okay?”
The so-called Sciarra nodded, frowning, and left the tent. The other turned his gaze to them calmly and said with gentle courtesy: “Scusate, sorry. I hope your friend is fine.” He said, looking at Zip, who was still on the floor. “I’m Daniele Monteleone, and you are...?”
“Selma Al-Jazeera.” She said hoarsely, helping Zip get up.
“Mmmm...Al-Jazeera is generally an Arabic surname, and you’re Turkish.”
“My father was Saudi.” She murmured, surprised. “What do you want from us? Why are your men here?”
He didn’t answer right away, but looked around, puzzled, and then asked the question that troubled Selma: “So, where’s signorina Croft?”