Lara passed out shortly after, for she’d lost too much blood. The bleeding slowed after a while, but Kurtis, who held her against his chest, felt his own shirt soaked through with that blood he loved. The blanket was wet and his arm was slippery because of it.
He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to think about that. He just had to take her there. It was her only chance. The hospital was forty miles far from there, along a dusty road full of rocks and potholes. She wouldn’t make it alive. He had to take her there.
The road wasn’t long, since she didn’t live so far away, but for him it was an eternity. He didn’t know whether to accelerate and thus risk her falling from his arms, or to slow down and risk her dying there. If he had the strength, he would’ve wept with rage. But all his forces were focused on arriving soon.
No journey had ever seemed so long.
Marie heard the engine roar from afar, so she went outside to meet her son, surprised to see him visiting her just after a few weeks living there. But when she saw the injured woman in his arms, she understood.
The Navajo woman ran towards him as he stopped the motorbike, and pulled the blanket to look at the wound with a critical eye. She hadn’t expected such severity. “Quick.” She murmured. “We’re running out of time.”
They took her inside. Marie had her lay on her bed and for a moment she hesitated, not knowing if whether to care for the injured arm first, or go directly to the hole shot in the chest, which was draining her life out. Kurtis leaned over her and brushed her hair from her forehead, and then Marie recognized her. It was Lara Croft!
“This is very serious.” Marie muttered. “She has lost too much blood.”
“Save her. You’ve saved others. You can do this. “
The old woman sighed and leaned over the wounded – and at that very moment, Lara opened her eyes and stared at her.
But in fact, she didn’t see her - she couldn’t see at all. The only thing visible around her was a group of dancing elongated shadows leaning over her - and everything else was dark.
She tried to breathe, but the effort was so painful her eyes moistened - she could hardly do it. She felt the silver bullet, stuck there like a sharp bone, her arm hurting from shoulder down to the fingertips, and she couldn’t move it. It hurt like hell.
There were two shadows around her. Somehow they looked familiar to her, but they couldn’t be friends, because they were torturing her. One of them stretched out her skinny arms and began to twist her arm, putting her fingers into the wound, both inside and out. She wanted to scream, but no voice came out from her - her mouth was dry. She closed her eyes to avoid seeing them, and then she felt a sharp burning tip across her chest, right where the bullet was tormenting her.
And she began to rave. Without knowing why, her dull mind transported her back to a time when she suffered so much she thought she’d die, but someone decided to save her...
Marie wiped the sweat from her forehead with her bloody hand. Her face was also smeared with blood, but she didn’t care. She was used to blood: blood of wounds, blood of childbirth, blood of a thousand sick and wounded who’d passed through her hands.
She had worked with skill and speed. With her son’s help, she had Lara’s arm bandaged and splinted to cut off that endless flow of blood. Then she tried to extract the small bullet with a burning needle. But she got nothing but to make her scream and squirm.
The bleeding had been completely stopped, but the bullet was still inside - and Marie was very tired. Through the haze that clouded her eyes, the Navajo woman saw Kurtis surrounding Lara’s shoulders to lift her slightly and bring a glass of water to her lips. He also was spotted with blood to the elbows.
“Why did you bring her to me?” The old woman said.
“Because you can save her. You’re a healer.”
“You need to know the truth. She’s bled too much. A transfusion would be the best. Otherwise, she might not make it.”
A transfusion! Kurtis thought, discouraged. If he’d been asked to cut his own hand or foot, or to open a gash in his own neck to bleed like a lamb, he’d have done it without hesitation. But a transfusion wasn’t possible here, only at a hospital, where she might not arrive in time.
Marie looked back at Lara, laying in her bloodstained bed. They had cut and removed her shirt to cure her, and now a bandage was holding her chest, which bled no more. Pale and sweaty, she barely drank the water that Kurtis offered her and went on muttering strange words under her breath.
“She’s raving.” Marie said. She leaned back over her and added. “Who’s Putai? “
“What?” Kurtis said, confused.
“She’s calling for a person named Putai. You know her?”
He frowned, then he shook his head, grieved. “Yes, she was a friend of her. But she died.”
“Putai! Putai, my sister! “
Why didn’t shehear her? Was it that she wasn’t shouting loud enough, or was she deaf? She wanted to hold out her arms, but she couldn’t lift them. The pain was far too intense. Tears came out from her eyes.
“Putai! Why are you doing this to me? “
And again she felt the smell of salt, the whisper of the sand, the warm sun of Egypt. Lara opened her eyes and there she was, lying in the Bedouin shaman’s tent. Naked and looking disgusted at herself, for her body was broken, crushed, and mangled after falling under the foundations of the Great Pyramid. Broken bones and some even stuck out of the skin, and every movement was torture.
Putai looked at her, smiling. She was always smiling, for that was what Lara needed. The shaman stretched her arms and took her leg, after which she gave it a sharp tug. Lara screamed again.
“Well, well!” Sang the Ethiopian woman. “The great Lara Croft breaks like a fragile reed, as we always thought! Where’s your courage now, where’s your pride? “
Lara said nothing. She just gritted her teeth.
“No, don’t.” Putai gently chided her. “Pain drives us crazy. You’ll end up cutting your own tongue by clenching your jaws like that. You’ll catch it with your teeth. Bite this stick.”
“I won’t bite a stick. I’m not a dog.”
“Then stop screaming. You’re annoying the whole tribe.”
But when the Bedouin touched again Lara’s fractured limb, she screamed again. In fact, Putai couldn’t understand how she could resist that. She had her arms, legs and ribs broken. The shaman knew she was in agony, but there was no other way - she neededto assemble her bones.
The Bedouin woman turned to the stove lit at one end of the tent. She went up to it and took a cup, with which she dished into a bowl a liquid concoction boiled on the fire. Then she brought Lara up and told her to drink.
“What’s that?” The British explorer mumbled.
“Opium strong enough to knock out a camel. Don’t look at me like that. It’s a drug, which means it will help you sleep. At least, you won’t be yelling and hurting my ears.” Putai smiled, and her eyes sparkled.
“I’m dying.” Lara said then.
“Don’t be dramatic. You just have half your body crushed. I’ll fix you.”
“I’d rather die.”
“Yes, of course. Now drink.”
The drug was strong and left her groggy. Putai continued, tireless, realigning the bones and masterfully sealing them together, using the only tools she had: wisdom, hard work and her strong hands.
She didn’t know why she had decided to save that Westerner’s life. Her father didn’t approve of that - nor the rest of the tribe, either. It would’ve been easier to let her go...which meant to do her a favor, because the Bedouin woman knew how to grant a painless death. But Putai the shaman never brought death, only life, and she wasn’t willing to change her habits.
Patiently, she repaired that body, so pale, so badly hurt. She knew how to do that. The brave warriors of her tribe, those stallions that boasted of being men and being strong, and sang songs in honour of Allah with their booming voices, became like little kids under Putai’s hands. Wounds annulled their manhood. They cried, begged, and cried again. They writhed, calling their mothers. They humbled themselves before this black woman. And she knew then she was strong, she was superior. When they just came back to being healthy, they again swelled their chest, lifting their chins. Men!
“Putai...” She heard Lara’s moan, half blinded by the drug.
“Sleep, my sister.” The shaman whispered, stroking her wet cheek. “Sleep.”
“It’s my fault.” Kurtis muttered, holding his head in his hands, his elbows resting on the kitchen table.
Marie was sitting opposite. They both were still soaked in blood.
“It’s not. Why do you blame yourself?”
“I saw it before it happened. I had a premonition.”
“But you didn’t see it clearly. Farsee is neither clear nor accurate. Sometimes it shows things that already have happened. Other times, things that will happen. And it often shows things that will never happen! You know this better than me!”
He looked up. His eyes were glassy. “What’s the point of being clairvoyant if I can’t accurately interpret what I see? I could’ve avoided this!”
“You’ve avoided her death!” Marie broke. “You warned her, you told her she had to protect herself! You actually pointed to the spot where the bullet struck her! That’s clairvoyance, Kurtis! And when she saw the shot coming, I’m sure she remembered your words, and she covered herself where you told her. You understand? If she’s still alive, it’s because of you! If both the arm bone and flesh hadn’t slowed the bullet’s rate, it would’ve sunk deeper into her chest and pierced her heart. It would’ve killed her on the spot. She’s still alive thanks to you. No more blaming!” She took a cup of coffee off the table and drained it in one gulp. Then she looked tenderly at him and said: “You should rest. You look terrible.”
“I won’t rest until she’s well. And even then I’d have something to do. The people at the camp are still at the mercy of those bastards.”
“You can’t save the whole world. If you don’t rest you won’t be able to fight.”
But he got up, returned to the room where Lara lay and sat next to her. She was sleeping and had stopped raving, but she was still very weak. She was dreaming.
“I want to tell you my story.” Putai said, smiling. “I want to tell you my story because I see you’re bored lying there. But you won’t get up until I command it.”
Lara smiled. She still had half of her body bandaged and splinted. Putai mocked her, saying she looked like those mummies people like her used to dig up. “Don’t dig up the dead, Lara,”the Bedouin woman had said to her, “you must not open the graves. Look what happened to you for raiding tombs.” And Lara laughed.
“I was born in Abyssinia.” Began the shaman. “You know where it is? You call it Ethiopia. It’s a beautiful country. The people are black like me, black as the wood of the baobab. There are many Christians, but I was born Muslim. I had a husband and a child, back there in Ethiopia.”
“You had a child?” Lara said.
“A toddler. They snatched him from me.” She sighed. “The Bedouin make slaves of black people. They consider us inferior, even though we’re all Muslims, even though in Islam there are no classes or upper or lower castes. One day we were attacked. They attacked the village. They killed the men, and the women and children were taken as slaves. I was raped many times by the Bedouin warriors. They took my son. I’ve never seen him again. I should’ve hated them because they destroyed what I loved the most - but I don’t. Hatred devours the heart...and what matters is to live.”
“I can’t understand you.” Lara said. “If I were you, as soon as possible, I’d have taken a gun and the more of those bastards I kill, the better.”
“That’s because you don’t have a child.” Said Putai. “You couldn’t stand being raped. How many of them could you kill? Ten, twenty? And when they caught you, they would’ve killed you. But I didn’t do as you say - and that’s why I’m alive. When I arrived to this tribe, I was nothing to them, just a slave. But they soon discovered my healing skills. They were amazed, nothing like that had ever been seen among their women. Over time, they came to fear me. They call me a witch. They think I have power, that I heal with magic. There’s no magic, Lara, just hard work and good heart. Over time, I lost the status of slave and became the most revered woman, more respected than the older mothers. The chief of the tribe, whom I call father, adopted me as a daughter. He told me, “Ask me whatever you want, Putai, and I’ll give it to you”. I asked for my son, but he couldn’t return him to me. Who knows where he is now, in which tribe he’d gone. I asked him then that a man could never be allowed to touch me again. And that was my reward.” The black woman’s green eyes flashed with vitality. Lara looked at her, silent. “Do you understand this, Westerner? Hate’s not the answer. You would have killed and you would have died. I chose to love and to heal those who’d hurt me, and I’m alive.”
“You and me,” Lara said, “do not live in the same world.”
She opened her eyes. The pain had subsided. She could breathe. “Kurtis?”
He raised his head. He had washed and shaved himself, but he still looked terrible, with dark circles under his eyes, exhausted and sleepless because of being awake next to her. “Welcome back, M’lady.”
Lara raised her hand and touched her chest, covered in thick bandages. Then she touched her wounded arm with the rigid splint. “How long have I’ve been unconscious?”
“A few days.”
She looked stunned - couldn’t believe it.
“We kept you sedated. You were in agony.”
“I dreamed of...” She whispered. “I thought...” Putai. She’d seen her so clearly, speaking, whispering to her, smiling as she told her terrible story. But it couldn’t be - Putai was dead. She’d been killed, shot down in the sunshine of Egypt - the sun and the land she loved, as she’d loved Ethiopia before.
“You had a fever.” Kurtis said then. “Luckily it’s been short-lived.”
“Where am I?”
“At my home!” Then a voice said. “At least, for now!”
Lara looked towards the door. The woman who’d just entered was tall and strong and looked like she’d been beautiful once. The British explorer recognized her immediately, for she’d seen her in her visions, only the black hair she remembered was now sooty white, and her reddish soft skin was now crossed with a few wrinkles. She wore a long leather coat and jeans, and tied her hair at the nape with a feather trim. The dreamcatcher hung around her neck. “This old lady you see here is Marie Cornel.” She said with a smile. “I’m Kurtis’ mother, and also your healer. Although I see, you remember more from your former healer.”
“I appreciate very much what you’ve done for me.” Lara said.
“In fact, without your strength you wouldn’t have made it. But too soon to talk, I haven’t removed that bullet yet. I was afraid to touch it, you’ve spent a few days with fever. Although I’m a good healer, I seem not to be as good, apparently, as that Putai you’ve been talking about. I’d have liked to have met her.” Then she turned towards Kurtis and rebuked: “Are you gonna get some sleep at last? Or will I have to knock you out?”
“I will.” He said.
When he left, Marie sat next to Lara and whispered: “He told me how you were injured, so I know everything about the Scepter. Who betrayed you?”
“It was Bathsheba. Have you ever heard of her?”
Marie nodded. “Yes...an angelic-looking woman, beautiful like a morning sun....and in less than a month, she curses Meteora’s hegumenos and has him possessed by a demon, steals the Periapt, tries to get the Shards, attacks me on my ranch and makes me flee to Turkey, and betrays you leaving you at the mafioso’s wrath. What a specimen!”
“Wait...” Muttered Lara. “She attacked you?”
“Yes, under the shape of a woman of mist. An albino woman shrouded in fog.”
Lara’s eyes widened. She tried to get up, but a twinge of pain stopped her. “I was attacked by a similar creature in Surrey, my homeland! Was she Bathsheba?”
“She might be.”
“Listen, child.” Marie lowered her voice. “I’ve been the wife of a Lux Veritatis and I’ve given birth to another one. At this point it’s difficult to fool me...this Bathsheba’s not a human being. An ordinary person doesn’t cast curses, nor gives orders to the demons and has them obeyed. It’s another kind of being, a supernatural creature. Probably she’s no more than another demon, a damned monster in the guise of a beautiful young lady.”
Lara spent a few moments in silence. Then she said: “Well, that demon, that monster in a princess’ skin, doesn’t want only the Periapt and the Shards. She’s demanded your son’s head.”
The old woman leaned back in her seat, lost in thoughts. Then she hissed: “Who the hell is this creature? Demons have no hierarchy; they don’t obey each other. Only the Nephili could control them. Who’s this Bathsheba, whom the demons obey?”
“Sssht! Hush, hush!” Selma huddled in the corner. At her side, Zip was a nervous wreck. “I can hear ’em!” Gasped the hacker.
They had spent three days wandering in the dark. They had descended to Tenebra. At first, they had been many people, but some had been caught by the Italians. Selma didn’t want to think about their fate. When they were in the tunnels, suddenly the manticores had appeared. How many they were, twenty, thirty? The Turkish girl didn’t know - she’d just shouted: “Run! Run and don’t look at their faces!”
And they had run. Some, full of terror, had been left behind. Others had made the mistake of looking at them...and saw themselves reflected in those hellish faces. They had killed those poor wretches. But the main group, including Selma and Zip, had reached the pit and went down the ropes. The manticores had chased them. They went down the pit walls slowing slipping with their claws, and they had spread out into the putrid pit.
Could’ve been worse. Could’ve been a death trap. But the monster seemed satisfied...for it hadn’t opened its jaws to devour them. They crossed running over its teeth and these didn’t open. Selma wondered why.
And finally, they reached Tenebra. There were about twenty, thirty-five apart from Selma and Zip. The fastest, the strongest ones. There was no turning back.
“Turn off that flashlight!” Selma ordered a girl, who obeyed her, trembling.
They were silent. From a distance, they could hear the clicks and whistles from the manticore’s jaws, lurking nearby. They wouldn’t kill them, content to stalk them, to make them suffer.
Selma squeezed the Scepter in her hands. She felt guilty. Her exultant speech had led them to that. What was worse, death by being shot down by the Italians or death crushed by the multiple teeth of those demons? She’d only wanted to save them!
After a while, the boy who they’d sent to inspect returned. “There are dead people there!” He hissed, terrified. “Crucified people!”
“The Lux Veritatis.” Whispered Selma.
Again there was silence.
“What should we do, princess?” Zip asked then.
She thought for a moment, turning the silver Scepter in her hands. She looked around and saw the exhausted and terrified faces of all the young people who’d come voluntarily to work in the excavation. Now she was the only one responsible for their lives. “This scepter was found in the temple. We’ve to find the temple and enter.”
“That will save us from the manticores?” Cried another girl.
“I don’t know.” Selma frowned. “Kurtis knows about demons. But I’m not Kurtis. I’m just an archaeologist and the only thing I can think of now is to seek refuge at the statue of the goddess whom the Nephili revered - and Nephili were feared by manticores. Maybe she’ll give us protection. Maybe not. But we must reach Lilith”.