Lara had the good sense to quietly turn off Zip’s communicator after ending the conversation with Monteleone, so the subsequent dialogue with Selma wasn’t recorded. By transmitting the recording to his computer, Zip directed everything so that it could also be heard by Kurtis, who at the end frowned.
“Well?” Selma said, anxious. “What do you think?”
“I agree with Lara.” He answered. “Even if what Van Der Brieck says is real, Monteleone’s theory about feelings is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve heard in my life.”
Lara smiled - she didn’t know why, but she had been sure he’d be wise about it.
“Still,” Kurtis stated, “there’s something I don’t like in that guy’s voice. I think there’s more to it and he’s hiding it.”
“Yeah, same here.” Zip said, blowing a bubble of gum from his mouth. “That fucker’s hoity toity voice, with all those manners. He’s playin’ at that good vibes shit.”
“But he can’t fool me.” Lara said. “I don’t like anything of this. I think he knows more and I’ll pry into it.”
“Maybe we should tell him we’ve the Scepter.” Selma suggested.
“Yes, of course. And then I’d apologize for having forgotten it for days.”
“Hell, no. Just pretend you’ve just found it.”
Kurtis shook his head and said: “If you did that, he’d be here in the blink of an eye with all his minions and snatch the rod right from our hands. Then this guy will probably return to Sicily and the Scepter will end being studied by some old geezer at the Vatican.”
“Wait, wait.” Zip said. “That guy’s working for the Vatican? Ain’t he mafia?”
“The Vatican has close contacts with the Italian Mafia.” Lara said. “It’s not unusual to see cases in which many mafiosi families have relatives serving as cardinals and archbishops who offer them protection and support. Monteleone must be an example, otherwise it’s impossible to explain his access to the Vatican’s Library secret archives.”
“Holy shit.” Grumbled the boy. “We’re fucked.”
“Never too late to realize.” Kurtis said sarcastically.
Then came a moment of silence. Selma ended up breaking it. “Well, with or without the Scepter, the dig must go on. The city’s there and its remains are still the main claim of my mission. This is the dream of my career and I won’t waste it neither for a foul silver rod, nor because all the Cosa Nostra stands before me. I’ve sacrificed enough of my life.” She said quietly.
That night, Lara couldn’t manage to fall asleep, thinking about everything that happened in Tenebra. She was convinced that while the fact they shared memories was due to the Scepter, surely her beating around the bush wasn’t due solely to it. No device could control her mind - it was only her who controlled herself.
In the end she got up. Selma was sleeping peacefully beside her, so she left the tent quietly so as to not disturb her. Slowly she moved through the camp, until arriving at the stream between their camp and the Italians’ one, where some lights were still on and she could hear from afar the laughter of the prostitutes. Well, they also didn’t sleep too much.
She leaned over the water to rinse her face. She used to sleep with tank top and a shorts tracksuit, now slightly damp with sweat. She pulled her hair up in a bun to cool her neck and stared silently at the starry Turkish sky.
“M’lady has insomnia?”
She turned. Kurtis was there, sitting a few yards away at the foot of a rock, calmly smoking.
“It’s this heat.” She lied. “It sticks to my skin. But I still haven’t seen you asleep...you seem to like this spot.” She added slyly, making a clear reference to the previous meeting with Maddalena.
“It’s cool. Also, I don’t sleep much. I usually watch most of the night.”
“Why?” She smiled. “The workers are taking turns.”
“Yeah, sure...go there and you’ll find them snoring by the campfire.”
Lara laughed, though she promised herself to give a good scolding to those lazy ones. “In fact,” then she said hastily, “I wanted to talk to you.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“It’s...about what happened in Tenebra...or Eden...when I took the Scepter.”
Kurtis smiled, puffed his cigarette and blew the smoke slowly. “So it’s that and not the heat which keeps you awake.”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Being so sharp!”
“It’s good for surviving.” He smiled again and took another drag on his cigarette.
Damn. He was so hot. And that didn’t help with getting down. She decided to sit on the floor, feeling suddenly her legs very heavy.
“I didn’t notice anything off about you when you heard what happened to the Van Der Brieck brothers...but you know as well as me that the same thing happened to us. I saw someone else’s life memories and I’m sure you did too.”
He didn’t answer right away. He threw the cigarette butt on the ground and stepped on it, staring in the distance when whispering: “What did you see, Lara?”
“I saw memories that weren’t mine. I saw...I saw a little boy hugging his mother in a basement, while upstairs a helpless old man was being tortured...” She shuddered at the memory. “I also saw a teenager meet his father for the first time, a wife reunited with her husband after fifteen years...finally, I saw,” she concluded, staring at him, “a legionnaire wounded in the battlefield.”
Kurtis was looking away. Then he murmured: “Yeah...that’s me. What a life, huh?” He looked bitterly at her. “Wouldn’t even be good for a reality show.”
Lara didn’t answer.
“But...” He continued, “What I saw was just as hard, only you dealt with it better than me. I saw you crawling through the snow, escaping from a crashed plane. I saw you taking up a gun for the first time, and finally I saw you fighting the hardest of your battles, dealing with your parents to achieve the freedom to decide the course of your life.”
She shook her head, confused. “I don’t know why this happened...I just know it made me think.”
“Same way it made Hugh Van Der Brieck think?”
“Forget that guy. I know what I feel - and I’m sure no silver rod is manipulating me right now.” She got up, as he looked interested at her. Lara came towards him and stood just three feet away. “Forgive me.” She said, not recognizing her own voice.
He looked stunned. “What?”
“Forgive me.” She repeated, and thanked the darkness for hiding her face, burning like an ember. “For all I said to you, for my attitude since we met again in Meteora. You were right. Selma was right. I behaved like a spoiled brat. I’ve been proud and selfish. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
She turned and started to leave, but then Kurtis grabbed her arm. “Look at me, Lara.”
She shook her head. The situation was too uncomfortable.
“Strange.” He murmured. “The same woman who glared at me when I left her locked in that airlock is now unable to look up.”
Lara smiled and slowly raised her eyes to meet again those blue eyes, so rare, so dark.
“You’re blushing!” He laughed.
“The heat.” She mumbled.
“You’re lying again. I wonder why. Thought you were used to flattery.”
Not this kind, she thought. So honest. So natural.
“Kurtis,” she hurriedly said. “I owe you an explanation for my behaviour...if something like this admits an excuse. Two years ago, when you left...well, at that time I got what you meant, and now that I’ve seen how your life has been, I get it even more. But eventually I started to miss you. I went on with my life, my travels, but you...you’d vanished.” She paused. He was listening to her in silence, as he always did when she spoke, since she knew him. He was always listening. “I never thought you were dead. Maybe I wouldn’t believe it, despite the strange life you led...so unreal, putting you in constant danger. After a few months I couldn’t stop thinking of you...and after a year, I started looking for you.”
“Looking for me? You?” He said, surprised.
“Yeah.” She laughed. “I can find places and things nobody would have bet a penny on their existence, but I couldn’t find you. Nobody knew you, nobody had ever seen you. It was as if you’d never existed. In some places someone had heard about you, but it was the farthest I got.” She shook her head. “I was desperate. I got angry and stopped looking for you. I decided the easiest option was to hate you for having come and gone in my life so quickly, to the point of thinking I’d forgotten you. I’m proud when I get angry and also thoughtless. I solved my troubles by adopting a selfish attitude and I cursed you, blamed you and decided to forget you. But I just couldn’t. During these two years all I wanted was to see you again, and when it finally happened...well, you saw how I reacted.” She sighed, and then he fixed his eyes on her chestnut eyes, which again showed their pride. “Well, I’ve apologized. Now you owe me yours.”
“Lara, I told you...”
“Yes, yes, the Lux Veritatis mission, responsibility, honour and all that stuff. But like it or not, Mr. Trent, you casted me aside, forsaken, and I can’t forgive that. I can apologize for my attitude, but something is still pending.” She walked up to him to stay a few inches from his face: “Your mother’s here in Turkey, right?”
He was stunned again. “How do you know?”
“Only suspected. You were gone several days before coming here...you were with her. I’ve seen her in my dream, my vision, and I’ve concluded that only an extraordinary woman, a strong and brave woman, of which there are few, could have endured the life she has led for the sake of her own people. One needs to be really tough to love a Lux Veritatis, right? Years of fear, suffering, loneliness. Certainly not all women could endure such a life, am I right?”
“Then,” continued Lara, chewing every word, “For all your demons’ sake Kurtis! What made you think I’m not that kind of woman?”
He opened his mouth...and closed it again, ran out of words.
“Let me tell you that sometimes your overprotective attitude is suffocating. Look at me, Kurtis, I’m not just any common kind of woman. You’ve seen me fight and challenge the world, breaking chains that held me tight in the atmosphere in which I was born. I’m not a softie. I fight to get what I want, and whoever pisses me off, I blow his brains out. But no, you had to protect me, you had to turn me away from that dark world of yours in which you thought I wouldn’t survive...you offended me! Did Konstantin Heissturm tell the woman he loved to stay at home safe and forget about it? If he’d done so, you wouldn’t be here, confronting the same dilemma! I know sometimes I’m stubborn and probably I’m talking too much right now, but no one but you has ever done this to me!” She stopped a moment to catch her breath, in which she withdrew a lock of wet hair from her forehead. “To summarize,” she continued, puffing out her chest and crossing her arms, “enough of your ‘doomed hero’ attitude and gentlemanly manners. I’m not afraid of pain or death. I don’t fear any of the demons, monsters, and abominations that may be lurking out there. Your cause is my cause and your enemies are also mine. I’m as good for this as your mother was. Only that she separated from the man she loved and I won’t. Wherever you are, I’ll be, when you fight, I’ll fight by your side, and forget everything else! I won’t be cast aside again. So if you vanish again without a trace on the pretext of you try to protect me from your doomed fate, I swear this time I’ll find you wherever you are, cut your balls off and serve them on a platter to the manticores. Do I make myself clear?”
“With crystal clarity.” Kurtis mumbled, and then he laughed - he laughed and laughed until tears came to his eyes as she watched him, barely concealing a smile. It was weird to see him laugh... for he almost never laughed. “Oh, M’lady, sorry for the offense!” He said, and laughed again. “Geez, Lara, you’ve no idea what these two years have been like.”
“Yes, I do.” She was serious now. “An eternity.”
“An eternity.” He repeated.
Suddenly, in an almost imperceptible movement, he took her face in his hands and kissed her. Lara’s stomach flipped and she hugged him tightly. Now that she was feeling it again, she noticed how much she needed it.
“How can you?” She whispered when their lips parted. “I treated you like trash!”
“Doesn’t matter. Glad this is over, you were driving me crazy. But I suspected something when you scared that poor girl. You had such a face...”
She went back, altered. “Much too obvious? For heaven’s sake, that hooker has her eye on you! You don’t even realize how she looks at you. Just what I needed.”
“Then,” Kurtis said solemnly, “I’m so sorry for her. It has been a while since I can even think of another woman...”
Lara laughed again and soon was kissing him back. She’d almost forgotten the soft texture of his lips and that way of kissing he had, half sweet and half rough. Once again she regretted having delayed that so long. She kissed him harder, clinging on his body.
Kurtis’ fingers slid slowly from her face to her neck, down her throat. By stroking her there, he noticed her violent heartbeat throbbing under his fingertips. He went up to her shoulders, gently lowered her tank top straps, and then he stopped.
“No doubt.” Lara whispered. “We’ve wasted enough time.”
She took the top around the edges and pulled it over her head - she wore nothing underneath. Then she took off his shirt and embraced him again, crushing her soft breasts against his rock hard chest, while the kissing became more violent. She had the weird feeling someone was listening or watching them, but she didn’t care anymore.
The rest of their clothes were ripped off in jerking movements, breathing hard. Lara thought her heart was going to jump from her chest. Darkness covered the stream edge and she could barely see Kurtis, so she guided herself by touch. She ran her hands across his tanned, strong body, kissed his chest, and brushed the contour of his scars with the tip of her tongue. Suddenly the world around them had vanished and there were only just her and him, and she’d even forgotten that hours before she had been still mad at him.
Resentment, misunderstandings, selfishness and pride were buried under sweat and saliva. Nothing more mattered. She loved him - not as he loved her, for he’d loved her almost from the first time he’d seen her, but she’d been gradually falling in love with him. She’d taken years and months to realize it was useless to resist the evidence, and that the exchanged kisses long ago weren’t enough for the both of them. But now it didn’t matter. All she wanted now was him, and she knew it was something she wouldn’t regret.
When their bodies finally merged, lying on the ground beneath the starry sky, she realized how badly she’d been wanting him since she met him again for the first time in Meteora. She sunk her teeth into his shoulder to stifle her moans, which might have awakened the whole camp, before abandoning herself to that ecstasy.
All around, the world seemed to hold the silence.
Zip was watching his computer screen engrossed. He could feel cold sweat sliding down his back. “Holy shit.” He sputtered.
There it was. The camera was recording it with fidelity. Selma, who was nearby, peered over his shoulder and held back a scream. “Is that..?”
“Yeah, princess. What kinda freaky-deaky monster is that…”
Finally, the techie had managed to get the little camera running. Lara had installed it on the roof of the pit of decay the second time she’d descended. And now it recorded the image of those awful fangs, still parsimoniously grinding its gigantic amount of food. “If someone told me about this I’d never believe it.” Zip said again, tapping to zoom. “Look, Selma...it’s eatin’ a dead body! Where them bodies come from?”
“Looks like it’s being fed.” Said a deep voice behind him.
He turned. Kurtis had entered and sat in a chair to finish buckling his boot.
“But... by who?” Said Selma.
“Not who but what.” The man continued. “While you were talking with the mafia boss, I went to the villages around to ask. There have been disappearances of adults and elders.” Making a gesture, he pointed to the screen. “So there they are, being digested by that thing. Children don’t count, they’re too small.”
“The horror!” Cried the archaeologist.
“The manticores.” Kurtis pointed. “They have strong jaws, but they’re done after one or two victims. That’s not their way of killing. They take it calmer, paralysing the victim with their poison, sucking the blood out until draining them, and then chew the meat to peel. But they’re also the ones who feed that thing. They’re able to drag a body for miles by holding the victim by the neck with their jaws.”
“Dear Lord!” Selma was pale. “Who told you that?”
“No one. I’ve seen it.”
The boy cast a glance at the screen. “Well, I pity those poor losers. Probably they were still alive when that thing ate ’em.”
“Alive but unconscious. Manticores’ venom is too strong.”
Zip fumbled the table for the gum box, took one and put it in his mouth. “I feel like that thing’s some kinda bouncer.” He mumbled while chewing. “The Nephili put that there to eat unwanted visitors.”
Kurtis smiled cynically. “You think this bug can distinguish between visitors?”
“At least it wouldn’t touch the Nephili...I guess.”
“Not sure. It also eats manticores...which feed it. There are no rules among demons.”
“Why would these manti-whatevers feed it? What’s in it for them?”
“Not a clue.” Kurtis said, rising. “What matters now is to be careful. Thus far, these demons are content with villagers. But as they get tired of dragging bodies through the desert and decide to get their paws on those who are closer...we’re going to have trouble.”
At that time the tent canvas lifted and Lara entered.
“Damn, girl!” Zip mocked. “You look tired as hell! You been trampled by a wild horse?”
“Shut up.” She grunted, then turned back and said to Kurtis. “There’s a corpse at the camp entrance. You should take a look.”
It was a Turkish guy’s body, just a teen. He was lying on his side, with his face crushed to the ground in a horrible twist. Kurtis leaned over and gently pulled back the turban covering his neck. Selma groaned. His throat was severed and covered with a layer of dried blood.
“Just what I thought.” Kurtis said, pointing at the wound. “Note the irregular edge of the bite. How many rows of teeth do you see?”
“Three.” Lara replied, and looked uneasy. “Three rows of teeth?”
Kurtis nodded, and then took the boy’s face and turned it into the light. Selma gasped and went back, covering her mouth with both hands.
The boy had a contorted face. His mouth was open and his eyes bulging - rather an eye, since the other had disappeared, pecked by a crow or another prey bird.
“Three rows of teeth in the throat and that look of panic. This boy died watching his face being disfigured.” Kurtis said. “It’s the sign. He’s been attacked by a manticore.”
Zip whistled. “And why didn’t it eat him? You think it was bringin’ him to that big monster?”
“No.” Kurtis sighed, again covering the boy’s face. “They’re smart, very smart. They have left him here as a warning. Next one to be killed, will be one of us. And another and another. Until we change our minds and leave. They don’t want us here, digging in the city of the masters whom they served and worshipped.”
There was silence. Selma had covered her face with her hands and sobbed quietly.
“Hey, princess, don’t cry.” Said Zip, passing his arm over her shoulders. “You’ll see how everything will be OK.”
“It will never be OK.” She groaned. “It’s happening again. I found them the same way. Oh, God...they were all like this...with their throat open...my people...my Ahmad...oh...slaughtered...that monster, that Black Alchemist, ordered so...oh...”
“That fucker’s dead, princess. Lara killed him. And Kurt killed the other one, the blond. They got no one to rule ’em right now.”
“And so now they’re more dangerous.” Lara said with a pessimistic voice.
“Hey, I’m trying to cheer her up!” The hacker protested.
Selma now openly wept on his shoulder. The old ghosts of the past came back to her.