The Bitter Price
They were close. Very close, since they could now glimpse it, standing proud amid the square and shining through the luminous water. “There’s the temple!” Zip hissed.
Selma, crouched in the darkness and clutching the Scepter in her hand, was sweating. Yes, there it was, about twenty steps away. But the place was quiet, too quiet...and she was afraid to cross the square.
“What are we waiting for?” Said one of the guys...Selma could never remember his name.
Zip made a gesture, telling him to shut up. The Turkish archaeologist was straining to hear the slightest rustle, the lowest whistle, the quietest snap, in fact, any sound which might reveal that those things were close. But the silence was dense. “Let’s do this.” She said then. “I’ll go first. The others will go behind me, and Zip in the rear.”
The hacker didn’t like that proposal, but he didn’t complain.
“You see the temple doors.” The Turkish girl said, pointing at them with the rod. “Run towards them and don’t look back. Whoever arrives first should push with their full strength to open them...and whoever gets there last must close them.”
“And if they don’t open?” Whispered a girl named Karen.
“If they don’t open... Allah have mercy on us.”
Zip looked at her. She was dirty and her clothes were torn. Hours earlier she’d fallen and rolled down a cliff and was cut across the cheek, dyeing her skin with blood, but for him she looked more beautiful than ever. However, the twenty people with them were equally dirty and bruised.
“Well, here we go.” She whispered. “One...two...three!”
They started to move as if ejected, running with all their forces towards the alabaster doors. But they hadn’t even reached halfway through the square when the monsters showed up.
There were five manticores. They went out from the corners, through the windows, and rushed upon them. One cut off Selma’s way. The other knocked down another boy, who began to scream in terror.
Zip was the one who, despite being the last, reached the doors first. He pounced wildly on them and began kicking and punching. “Open, ya goddamn fucking door!”
Karen joined the other boy’s screams. The beasts were around them. Selma saw, scared, how the manticore who’d grabbed one of them nailed its jaws in his throat and began to shake him like a ragdoll, so that drops of blood were flying through the air.
“Open already, fuck!” Zip was still howling, who’d nearly flayed both hands banging on the door.
The Turkish woman leaped forward and swung the Scepter in an arc, screaming with all her will. Karen and the other guy huddled behind her, while the rest were piled next to Zip, some covering his back, others trembling with terror.
But the manticores were in no hurry. In the distance, the cries of the victim had gone out - he was already dead. Throwing him aside, the manticore, with its bloodstained jaws, joined the others in their slow progress towards their preys, who were retreating towards the door.
“Go back!” Selma sobbed, scared to death, wielding the Scepter. “Get away!”
At that time, the doors opened at last, and Zip fell face down on the marble floor of the temple. “I’m in!” He gasped.
All the young people, panicked, turned and ran into the temple, leaping over the poor Zip. Selma stood alone against the five manticores.
“Selma!” Yelled Zip. “Come on!”
But she was afraid to turn away from them. She saw them moving forward with that smiling face, swinging their lethal stinger on both sides, while their features replicated the girl’s face to scare her more.
Zip was now at her side. “Selma, c’mon, let’s go inside!”
“You go.” She moaned. “I...”
Suddenly, a manticore pounced on them. Shrieking, Selma raised the Scepter and hit its head - and then something amazing happened. The beast landed on all fours and began to squirm, letting out shrieks of pain. It rolled on the floor, rubbed its head, and finally turned around and sped away.
The other four manticores froze, staring at the Scepter, which Selma held with trembling hands. At that moment, Zip had an idea - he took the silvery rod and with a cry, sprang forward. The manticores shrieked and fled.
“Look at that!” Cried the boy. “This thing scares them!” And without thinking, he rushed after them, wielding the scepter, screaming with all his might.
Selma ran to the boy on the floor. He was the one whose name she could never remember - but he was dead, his throat torn apart.
“Ahaha! Yeah you better run, smelly flea bags! Move your paws!” Zip was exultant as he chased the manticores, making a fuss with the Scepter as if holding a torch. But the demons were faster than him and soon disappeared from his sight. No matter- he’d driven them away! He’d saved Selma! And also the others, of course, but Selma too!
Jumping, he climbed on an angel’s statue, and raising the Scepter, yelled: “I’m a Lux Veritatis!”
“You’re what?” Said a mocking voice at his side.
Zip almost fell, frightened. He looked down and saw Kurtis at the statue’s feet, arms crossed and looking at him with a grin on his face.
“Geez, Kurt, you scared the shit outta me!” The hacker jumped to the ground.
“The hell were you doing?” He said. “And my name’s Kurtis!”
The boy’s chest swelled with pride. “I scared them! Me on my own! I bet you’d never...”
“Of course not. I’d never go running and screaming like an asshole in an ancient city potentially full of enemies, waving around an ancient object like a toy. Bring that here!” And he grabbed the Scepter out of Zip’s hand.
“Whatever, man.” The hacker replied. “But those things went running with their tails between their legs once they saw the… well, not exactly ‘saw’, when Selma hit one of them, it seemed to hurt and then the others...”
“They got scared and fled. So it was her who did it - and you showing off is gonna get us all killed. Move on!”
Grunting, Zip obeyed. On reaching the temple they saw the others sitting at the feet of Lilith statue. Karen held the corpse of the dead boy as Selma bandaged his neck to keep his head together with his body.
Seeing Kurtis, the Turkish archaeologist rose, ran towards him and hugged him: “Thank God you’re here!” She sobbed.
“Why did you come down here?” He said, dismayed. “This place’s dangerous!”
“We didn’t know what to do!” She told him. “The mafia was after us and the only way out was down here. But I regret it. Many have died...and those things almost got us killed. I suggested to come to the temple, but we almost didn’t make it...”
“What have you done with this?” Kurtis said, showing her the Scepter.
Selma shrugged. “I was scared to death and I hit a manticore. But I barely touched its head, it was hard as stone!”
“And that harmed it?”
“It screamed as if burned with something hot. Then the others fled when Zip threatened them with the Scepter.”
The man had fallen silent, staring at the silver rod. Then he said: “Close the doors. We’ll stay here overnight and try to leave tomorrow. The Italians have set the others free and they’ve left.”
“Are they gone?”
“That can be good or bad. They still want the Scepter, so we should to count on that.”
They lay at the statue’s foot. The excavators and Zip soon fell asleep, but Selma and Kurtis stayed awake a long time. The Turkish woman wanted to know what had happened and how Lara was. Then she murmured: “What should we do? Return the Scepter to its place?”
Kurtis looked up. Lilith seemed about to take flight and didn’t seem to notice that she lacked her rod. “No.” He finally decided. “The Scepter’s no longer safe anywhere, so many people are looking for it. I don’t know for sure what to do, but I know it hurts demons which are hard to hurt...you can only get rid of them by killing them instantly. And if such strong demons are harmed by this, that’s because it’s more than a silver rod.”
He remained silent for a moment. Selma murmured: “Monteleone wanted the Scepter. Bathsheba is searching for you. She also has the Periapt and wants the Shards, so it’s not unlikely she also wants the Scepter.”
“The Periapt and its Shards. The Scepter.” Kurtis wiped the sweat from his forehead. “They’re trying to gather powerful weapons.”
“And to seize a very powerful man.” Selma whispered, staring at him.
He didn’t answer. His eyes were lost.
“They’re preparing something big.” Continued Selma. “Any idea of what that could be, and what they want?”
“Of whom they are, yes.” Said Kurtis. “I didn’t want to say at first, but I suspected it from the start. Monteleone’s just a greedy thug who collects rare objects. Even he’s unable to believe that bullshit about the Scepter. But Bathsheba and her men know what they’re doing...I bet they’re the Cabal.”
Selma’s eyes moistened and she shuddered from head to toe. “The Cabal!” She gasped. “But...but...we stopped them! The police...put them all behind bars! Right?”
“The devil looks after his own.” Kurtis snorted. “And we didn’t stop them all...some of them escaped...like Giselle Boaz.”
The girl looked up to overlook the beautiful statue. She shuddered again. “Holy God...we’re in a mess!”
Kurtis ran his hand over the Scepter, stroking its decorated arabesque lines. “If this thing has always been here, why the hell haven’t they come for it until now? What makes them so interested in it?”
“Apart from scaring demons?”
He looked up again, looking at Lilith. The beautiful goddess’ face threw a serene glance to the sky, her lips slightly parted. “Lilith,” Kurtis then said, “was highly revered by the Nephili. She had many names: The First Born, The One Who Makes Herself, The Mother Of All. She was a symbol for them. I don’t know if there was a woman, goddess or demon, named Lilith, who gave birth to that nasty offspring...but it’s clear they worshipped her. And the demons feared only the Nephili, so that if they identified the goddess with the Nephili...”
“...it’s likely they were afraid of her!” Selma’s eyes were shining. “That’s why I decided to come here, to protect us!”
Kurtis nodded, still staring at the statue. “It’s likely but not sure. And the Scepter carried by Lilith has hurt a demon with a simple touch.” He sighed. “No idea about what it all means. Only one thing is clear: we have to bear up with this thing...at least for now.”
Marie spent the whole night sleepless. She wandered from the kitchen to the courtyard, to the kitchen again, and walked up and down the hallway like a lost soul. After two hours, when it was past midnight, she sat by Lara’s bedside. The British explorer was awake too, tired of being still, and smiled at the Navajo woman, pointing towards the amulet around her neck: “That dreamcatcher is already a symbol.”
“It has belonged to my family for generations.” Marie smiled. “My great grandmother made it with her own hands and has always been with us. My people believed that this filtered evil spirits, pushing the misfortunes away from our children. But it was hung over my crib while I was a baby and then I hung it myself on my son’s crib, and never has evil or misfortune been spared from us. We’ve suffered all kinds of trials. Still, I love having it.” She took a comb from her pocket and began to brush her hair.
“May I ask...”
“Ask. An old woman like me gets bored if not asked.”
“...how did you meet Konstantin? You’re Navajo and he, as far as I know, was German.”
Marie’s eyes welled up when she heard that. Lara feared to have delved into a deep wound, but then she began: “Yes, he was the son of a Greek mother and German father. His father was Gerhardt Heissturm...and was a Lux Veritatis. But when I met my husband it had been a while since Gerhardt had been killed...and Konstantin lived with the obsession to avenge his father and survive himself. I met him in 1966. He was 33 years old and I saved his life. I was in Europe with my father, who was an officer and worked with Navajo code, the language of our tribe, which had proved to be so useful to the USA in World War II. I saw him crawling on the floor, bleeding. I didn’t know what happened, but I heard shots from a distance and without thinking, I took his arm, picked him up and we hid in an alley. Then I saw him...Pieter Van Eckhardt. He drew close to us but he didn’t see us. He walked and went away with all his followers. We were safe. I took him home and between my father and me, we healed him. We wanted to know who was chasing him and why, but he never answered. I fell in love, but he was too cold and stern to say anything. Furthermore, it was pointless...my father and I would soon return to the USA and I lost his trail...I’ll always remember what he said to me: ‘Thank you, Marie Cornel. But you might not have done me a favour by saving me.’
“It took me a while to understand his words. He disappeared from my life and I returned to my homeland...but in 1969, just four years later, I saw him in Colorado. He came to me. He’d been searching for me all that time.”
She sighed and paused, staring into her lap.
“He told me who he was and who his enemies were, and why they wanted him dead. He told me what he could do...the power which had been granted to him...and asked me if I was able to live with him, knowing that the future wasn’t guaranteed and he could die at any moment; so he’d marry me, because he couldn’t stand being alone and was in love with me. I accepted without hesitation...and we got married.”
She smiled then.
“The rest you can imagine. I learnt to fight with him and lose the fear of his enemies. We suffered a lot, but we endured because we were together. But Kurtis was born in 1972...so I had to leave him then. Eckhardt immediately knew we had a child. The old monster was cunning - not content with harassing my husband, he put a price on my son’s head, who was just a baby. Konstantin was still his target, but he became obsessed in killing Kurtis. And we didn’t know then if he’d have the Gift...I prayed every night of my pregnancy to the spirits of my people, so he didn’t inherit the Gift...but they didn’t listen to me. Within ten years, Kurtis did something incredible, and I had to give up all my hopes.”
She shook her head again.
“Sorry, honey. I’m boring you.”
“Certainly not.” Lara said. “Kurtis never speaks about himself, so I’m dying to know.”
Marie smiled again, and her dark eyes sparkled. “You know what he did? It was serious. He was ten years old...he was only a child. But what he did wasn’t a joke.”
“What did he do?” Lara said.
The Navajo’s eyes darkened.
“Marie! Marie Cornel!”
The woman immediately stepped onto the porch. Four men came running to the house...chasing another, who was wounded. She recognized him. “Stevens!” She cried.
“Marie, help me!”
No more needed. She turned, ran to the bunker where they stored weapons and frantically tried to find the rifle. But it wasn’t here. It wasn’t here!
There were a few shots, and then a thud to the ground. She turned and saw the poor Stevens, whom she’d shelteredfor months, lifeless on the ground, his head riddled with shots.
Three of the four mercenaries entered then. “Well, well!” Sang one of them. “But what are my eyes seeing? If it isn’t Konstantin’s wife!”
“Get outta my house!” She yelled.
“Where’s your hubby? Should he not be protecting you?”
The third pounced on her, but Marie kicked him in the stomach, making him bend double. She sprang to the room door and closed it with a bang, while sticking one after another the latches with trembling hands. Then she ran between rooms. “Kurtis! Kurtis!” She cried in an anguished voice. “Where are you?”
“He’s here.” Said another voice.
Marie stopped short and uttered a cry of horror. The fourth man, whom she hadn’t seen entering the front door, was there, holding her ten-year-old son, gun pointing him on the head.
“Please, let him go.” Marie begged. “He’s only a child...”
“The Black Alchemist wants him dead. Not for me to challenge him.”
The back door collapsed and the other three came in and grabbed Marie, who suddenly seemed to have lost all her strength.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Shouted one. “You’ve got the brat! Kill him now!”
“Yeah, so meanwhile what will you do with the woman? You’ll have her, right?”
“What do you care!”
“What do I care? Asshole! That sucker Konstantin chose a pretty good one, don’t you think? What if we amuse ourselves with her?”
“Okay, but first kill the brat!”
Marie began to mourn while the other three dragged her to the next room. And then, Kurtis, pale and frightened, murmured: “Leave my mother alone.”
The tone in which he said that made everyone stop.
“What did he say?”
“To leave his mother.”
“What the...! Sneezy devil, kill him...!”
“Leave my mother alone.” The kid repeated, and he said it with a rare earnestness to his young age.
Then the man who was holding him slapped him. “You know what? We’ll have his mother right here, so he can see it all!”
“Bastards!” Cried Marie. “He’s just a kid!”
“A cub that can become a lion.” Whispered the other. “C’mon, let’s finish this. The Alchemist can come at any time.”
They threw the woman against the wall and rushed to tear off her clothes. Then everything happened so fast. The four windows in the room exploded into pieces, one after another. The mercs screamed and dropped Marie.
“The fuck was that!” Shrieked one. “Is there a Lux Veritatis here?”
“Moron!” Said the other. “Don’t you see? It’s the kid!”
Kurtis was still standing in the middle of the room, his face flushed and breathing hard.
“Let’s end this!” Said one of them, and pointing at the child with the gun, he fired.
Marie screamed like she could have been heard to the world’s end. But that day Kurtis didn’t die. The bullet aimed at his head stopped and remained suspended in the air only a few feet from his face. He looked straight at the projectile...and it suddenly fell down.
The astonished gunmen had no time to react. Suddenly, the broken crystals arose from the ground and, like arrows shot with accuracy, pierced their bodies from side to side. They screamed, dropped their weapons, and tried to flee. But they were dead before reaching the door - stabbed to death.
Marie closed her eyes and trembled in her corner. She heard cracking and saw herson coming toward her, his feet crushing the glass, stepping over the bodies. When he reached her, he smiled, held out his hand and said: “Let’s go, Mom.”
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this.” Marie said with a shudder. “You’ll think he’s a monster.”
“Well.” Lara said, laughing. “If I’d known he could do such things since he was a kid, I’d have been less mean to him.”
Marie laughed softly and hid her face in her hands. “My son’s not a monster. A ten-year-old boy shouldn’t be submitted to such pressure. The Gift was there, lurking within him, waiting for the right time. And it jumped out when both my life and his were in danger. We never were so in danger as we were on that day...the day he lost his childhood. Konstantin was proud of him, but I’d been always horrified of that day, and so was he. He couldn’t bear to be reminded of that day for a while. He still can’t bear with what he’s able to do. But he’s not a monster. He just wanted to protect his mother. He’s not a...a freak.”
“No need to tell me, Marie.” Lara said, resting on the pillow. “I kill those trying to harm me, and I don’t consider myself a monster.”
The Navajo woman looked up – she had a pained expression on her face, as if she were burning inside. “What a life we’ve lived!” She sighed. “What I would’ve given to be a happy mother...what I would’ve given to have a normal child!”
“For that, you should have rejected Konstantin.”
“No way. I loved him. I may have regretted my life, but I’ve never regretted accepting him. But I regret that Kurtis inherited such power from his father. Konstantin was happy being what he was. He fought for a cause he felt worthy. But not Kurtis - he’s been so miserable.” She twisted the dreamcatcher, turning it over her chest.
“Marie.” Lara said then. “You don’t have to keep talking about this.”
“No!” She said. “No! I’ve never talked about this to anyone. I’m tired of carrying this pain inside. If you want to hear me, let me do this. Let me find, at last, some relief.”
Lara had never felt so intrigued. That old woman had with her the yoke of a lifetime of suffering, and she was also the only one who’d talk to her about the man she loved, since he himself - and she already knew why - wasn’t willing to talk about his life.
“I saw Konstantin again when Kurtis was seventeen. He’d gone all that time without seeing him. He was so changed...he’d endured so much. He almost ignored me. His attention was focused on the boy, on his precious child, who was showing the powers that, according to the Grand Master, were stronger than his father’s, who at that time was the most respected and feared Lux Veritatis.” She smiled bitterly. “Poor Konstantin. Great was his disappointment when learning his son didn’t want to belong to the Order, nor was interested in the War of Shadows, nor in his powers, which he regarded like a disease, a burden difficult to bear.”
“For three years, he allowed them to train him. But at nineteen he’d had enough. The symbol had been tattooed on his shoulder and he’d been introduced to the Order - but he didn’t want to know about that. He fled, and he went to the only place where his Fighter skills would be useful and nobody would ask about his past...also where we could never find him: The Foreign Legion. He was very clever. He changed his surname, from Heissturm to Trent, and got French citizenship. What happened in those years only is known by him. But he had to leave because they went for him there...”
“Who?” Lara interrupted.
“Demons. The Gift attracts them like a magnet. I guess that, in order to defend himself, Kurtis was forced to do things that terrified his superiors. He had to leave the Legion. He never told me about it, that’s all I know. Finally, he joined Marten Gunderson’s squad.”
“Ah.” Lara said, twisting her mouth. “Our old friend Gunderson.”
“They had been friends in the Legion, where he became their leader. I’ve never approved killing for money...only then he became an assassin. But all ended as Gunderson agreed to work for the Cabal. As soon as Kurtis saw Eckhardt, he disappeared. Imagine what must have felt the Black Alchemist when he learned his cherished target had been so close to him...with his own troops..and he’d lost him! Old useless freak!” Marie laughed, but her laughter was short-lived. She became silent after a moment.
“Then, Konstantin died, right?” Lara ventured.
Marie nodded weakly. “It was retaliation. When Eckhardt knew Kurtis had eluded him, he resumed the hunt for my husband with a violence never seen before. He...found him in the end. He killed him and also killed all the remaining Lux Veritatis, minus my son. I was told he was crucified at Tenebra’s gates...tell me...did you see him?”
Lara was silent for a moment. Then she said softly: “What do you want to hear, Marie?”
The Navajo woman hid her face in her hands. “I’d like to hear it’s not true...that you haven’t seen him...that there are no crosses…that my husband didn’t die there, like that...”
Lara was silent.
Marie sobbed quietly, and then looked again at her, her face wet with tears. “You know, Lara? There are people you live with for a very little time...and they fill up your life. Others however, you wouldn’t want to see them, and are always around. I saw Konstantin four times...four times in thirty long years. But I loved him until the end, and even now, at night, my hands still seek him in the dark. Konstantin was like a brief spring, like a dream which came in and out of my life in a flash. He spent only a short time with me, but he left me the most valuable thing he’d give me: Kurtis.”
Marie stood up, wiping away her tears as she said: “I don’t know if you understand what I mean. I know my son loves you. He didn’t say - he never says a thing about what’s inside him. But I’ve noticed so in his eyes. I don’t want him to suffer one more day. I don’t want him crucified like his father. Nor do I want you to suffer as I suffered, even if it’s true you’re stronger than me. I’m so tired...”
She walked to the window while trying to stifle tears. Lara didn’t know what to say.
“Listen to me, Lara. This has to end. We can’t be like this. You have to help him to get rid of this. I’m old and tired, tired of fighting. The Cabal took everything I loved. They still want more. They still want Kurtis so they won’t rest until they see him hanging from a cross. You’re the Amazon. You killed Eckhardt and found the key to killing Karel. You can get rid of this curse and free us.”
Lara looked at her, dumbfounded. She tried to say something, but was interrupted by Marie: “I’ve heard a lot about you. Some consider you the smartest woman in the world...also the strongest. I don’t believe in rumours. I believe in what I see...and in what my son told me about you. Kurtis survived Eckhardt. He also survived Karel. But he wouldn’t survive Bathsheba...remember the day when I tell you.” She leaned over her and grabbed her hurt arm. Lara jumped.
“Swear to me you’ll help him to get rid of this! He should never have been what he is! Swear you’ll help him!”
“I don’t believe in oaths.”
“But I do.”
“Ok. I swear.”
The Navajo woman’s face relaxed. She released Lara, who gasped in pain, and slowly went back. “Forgive me. I shouldn’t talk to you like that. I’m just a crazy old woman. This is the bitter price I... we’ve all paid.” She turned and left the room.