Giselle dropped on the chair beside the stretcher. She reached out and stroked the dead girl’s hair - she did that for almost an hour. After a while, she was interrupted by the warden’s arrival. “Doctor...” He murmured politely. “We should move her to the morgue...”
She looked at him., her green eyes glassy. “Tell me, Ralph, why this child died?”
The warden smiled, understanding. Of course she knew, she’d been present at the time of her death, but he had to say because she requested it. “A brain stroke, Doctor. Fulminating. Couldn’t do anything.”
Giselle nodded quietly. “A stroke caused by an excess of serum. I shouldn’t have given her that much. But her heart was failing and the serum could’ve helped her.” She bowed her head and grabbed her hands in a tormented gesture.
Seeing her, Ralph thought, she seemed an ordinary physician suffering for not being able to save the life of such a young and beautiful patient.
Reality, however, was very different.
“Why do my patients die? Why, why?” Giselle complained aloud. “Each one is valuable! They are so hard to achieve, to care for! Why do they die, if I’m improving the art more and more, if every time the serum, the treatment, the experiments are better and safer?”
Ralph spread a blanket over the girl’s tiny body, a fair-skinned blonde creature looking like a doll. “If you allow me the insolence, doctor, I fear the system still has flaws.”
Giselle sighed in dismay. If only my stubborn daughter were here and not stumbling around in Turkey! I’m not making progress, dammit!
“Excuse me, Doctor.” Ralph said gently. “I’ll take the girl.” And pushing the stretcher, he went out.
Giselle remained seated for a moment, motionless, and then she got up and left the room. She passed through the halls like a lost soul. Through the blast doors, the prisoners’ cries and groans were heard. She knew about their agony. But she was suffering too!
“I’ll go out for a while, Karl.” She said to the main entrance’s warden. He was quick to press the release button and the big doors were opened, leaving Giselle to go outside.
Since Karel had disappeared, the surviving members of the Cabal had decided to seek a new stronghold for their research. Moscow was only an interim stage, and no other European capital was safe anymore - the police would be always aware. No, they had to find a safer place.
And they had found a place in that island, that lonely rocky outcrop off the coast of Syria, near Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. All authorities believed it was uninhabited and so it should remain. In record time, workers had built a fortress that was both laboratory and prison. All around, there was nothing but rocky coast and sea. Patients arrived kidnapped by private vessels. Giselle could be satisfied - no one would disturb them there, and she could go on quietly with her ambitious personal project.
What were exactly Giselle’s experiments? Nobody knew for sure. It was rumoured she was endeavouring to create new specimens of the Nephili race, but so far the results hadn’t been better than the horrible Proto of her sister Kristina, therefore, horrified, she’d hastened to destroy them before instilling life to them. Others, however, said she was developing another embryo with which to fertilize herself. But no theory fit those treatments and experiments endured by the hostages. She commanded and she was obeyed - that was all.
Giselle walked to the beach and dropped herself there, removed her shoes and socks and let the foam of the sea kiss her white feet. She closed her eyes and laid on the sand, abandoning herself to the fullest.
Joachim, Joachim, why did we fail? We’d the world at our disposal. If you’d accepted me as a partner, a mother for your offspring, you’d now behold the beauty of your daughter and be convinced that only me, among all your servants, really understood your message. How I wish you were here, you who were immortal, who’d lived since the dawn of humanity, who were going to live forever.
The young scientist opened her eyes, and to her surprise and embarrassment, she found them full of tears. She sat up to wipe them away. She felt so alone! So misunderstood!
From the corner of her eye she saw where the cliff raised at her left side and, carved in the rock, the prisons. At the top of the rock, she distinguished Ralph and another warden devoted to the task of getting rid of the corpses. They piled them on the edge of the cliff, wrapped in sheets, and they gradually made them fall one after another into the sea, pushing. Plop. Plop. Plop. One after another, sinking in eddies formed under the cliff, inhabited by sharks, which within minutes would reduce those spoils to nothing.
Giselle arose at last, feeling somewhat relieved. But when turning, she saw something on top of the fort that made her stop. A dark face peered through the bars.
Radha Deli, imprisoned in that room, was spying on her jailers from above. Giselle looked back at her intently, but the Indian girl was gone, running back the curtain.
Had she seen her mourning?
Across many miles, Marie grabbed Lara’s hand.
They were going towards the coast, but they wouldn’t leave the desert – it would be too risky to enter inhabited areas, the authorities could notice. And with it the two women’s hopes faded.
After what seemed an eternity, the vehicles stopped and both were forced to descend among insults and shoves. Sciarra dragged Lara away by the arm and Marie saw her no more. The Navajo woman was taken to a van where there was someone waiting; a figure dressed in white, covered with a black cloak, the face veiled. Marie didn’t need more to know that this must surely be the famous Bathsheba.
“Leave us alone.” A melodious voice said to the mercenary who’d delivered her.
The old woman stood a moment peering into the thick veil, but couldn’t see her interlocutor’s face. After a few moments, irritated, she dared to say: “Well? Is this veil a game to make you more interesting?”
Marie could’ve sworn she was smiling under the fabric. Then the mysterious figure replied: “We’re women, Marie Cornel. I think you’ll understand me when I say I hate the way in which men look at us, like cattle...like a wild horse looks at a young mare. Chance gave me a peculiar face which makes me feel stripped and stared wherever I go...so this veil helps me get by. Although I must admit I still attract some attention. Have I satisfied your question?” Then she lifted the veil for a moment and said: “You think my fears are justified?”
Marie looked at her, stunned, and said: “Indeed, you’re very beautiful. Too bad such a perfect face hides such wickedness.”
Bathsheba seemed confused for a moment, then she laughed, and her laughter was like a singing crystal fountain. “You really think I’m evil?” She dropped the veil. “I don’t want to hurt you - neither you, nor the British explorer, and I didn’t even want to hurt your son. It won’t be me who will give him what he deserves. I’m just the messenger...the dealer - not the executioner.”
“What are you?”
“You ask the same thing he asked me! But I can answer you. You’ve no powers to threaten me. I’m the Ineffable, who came when all of you believed you’d never see one of my kind again. I’m your ancient enemy, and your son has been so blind to not recognize me.”
Marie was speechless with amazement, and then she tracked down in her mind the face she’d glimpsed beneath the veil just before. “It’s impossible.”
“It’s true, Marie.”
“You attacked me in my rancho in Mexico! You appeared under your true form!”
“There are no true or false forms. All of them are real. It’s true it was me, but it wasn’t my intention to hurt you, just to warn you - and you shot me. See? Now I could return you the harm you did to me, but I’ll be gentle with you.”
The woman gasped, stunned. A female Nephilim! How is it possible?
“Joachim Karel, the last of the Nephili, died two years ago. He had no offspring. The High Breed died with him.”
“You’re wrong, Marie. He had one descendant: it’s me, I’m his daughter. How and when I was born is not of your concern. And now you begin to understand, there in your heart, what the goal is that I pursue, that my people are pursuing.”
Marie began to shake her head in horror.
“For we’ll spare Lara Croft’s life,” continued Bathsheba, “who killed the Black Alchemist, our wise and greatest benefactor, after she found the clue to murder my father. We’ll spare Selma Al-Jazeera’s life, who for years plundered Eden’s necropolis and dared to use the Sacred Scepter against our servants. We’ll spare your life, who for years resisted the Cabal and joined our enemies. We’ll spare the life of all your friends and colleagues - but we won’t spare Kurtis Trent’s life, who committed a greater crime than all this together: to kill the last pure Nephilim, a creature far superior to him using the glass of deception...glass that you and two others keep with zeal.”
The Navajo woman had turned a deathly pallor. She seemed about to faint, yet with a calm voice she murmured: “Guess now you want those crystals. You stole the Periapt and now you want the Shards.”
“If you deliver them to me, I’ll fulfil what I just said. If you don’t, we might not forgive so many lives. Schäffer confessed to me that, in a fit of rage, he almost killed you. It’s a very serious transgression and he’ll be punished, since he was commanded to not hurt you. He reported me the speech with which you threatened him. You’re a very brave woman, Marie, and be sure I apply to myself this discourse. Unfortunately, it’s still the same. I need the Shards. I want them - and there’s no time for more speeches.”
There was a heavy silence, and then Marie said: “Justice will be served. When this is over, when you run out of people to threaten with death, justice will be served. There won’t be men, or spirits, who will make justice with you, both you and yours - it will be time.”
“I’m eternal and immortal. Time means nothing to me.”
“That said your father, and all of your race’s beings, and they now lie in the dust. You’re as immortal as they were. The same crystal can tear your life with a single stab! So that’s why you want the Shards! To end up with the last chance of your death!”
With a precise wave, Bathsheba tore the veil. The face that appeared behind the fabric was, for the first time, altered, and her cheeks flushed. “Only if the glass is wielded by a Lux Veritatis, it can kill a Nephilim! And the last Lux Veritatis is going to be sacrificed in atonement of the Blessed bloodshed! There’s no comfort to you, Marie Cornel! Surrender at once to your fate!”
“My Lady...” Muttered a voice behind her.
“What!” She exploded, turning furious towards the mercenary that had spoken, who felt alarmed at her wrath.
“W-we just gli-glimpsed a tr-truck on the horizon” The minion stammered. “We believe it’s him...”
Bathsheba took a deep breath - then she turned to Marie and grinned: “Woman, behold your son.”
Sciarra couldn’t believe his luck. They had left him alone with the British woman, no one else caring about them. Apparently, Croft wasn’t the valuable hostage there...and that lent him some spare time with her.
The jostling led her to a secluded area by the rocks, making sure no one would notice them. Lara simply got carried away – but when they were alone, Sciarra met her mocking eyes and her sarcastic grin. He decided he’d wipe that smile off her face.
“You gonna abuse me while I’m hurt, boy?” She asked sarcastically.
In answer, the Italian pushed her against the rock and muttered: “Now I’ll teach you if I’m a boy or a man. And I don’t give a damn about your gunshot wound. Vixens like you deserve that and much more.” He stepped back and sat quietly on a rock. He looked around - no one was by there. Great.
Then Sciarra began to clean and load his gun calmly, saying: “You’re pretty. The prettiest English woman I’ve ever seen. Of course, you’re not as beautiful as her, but you’ve got a better body.” He attached the silencer to the gun barrel and said suddenly: “Undress.”
Lara stared at him. She was no longer smiling, but the Italian felt she was taunting him with her eyes.
“Listen, bella.” He continued. “There are two ways to do this - by hook or by crook. If you choose to cooperate you’ll perhaps have a good time. If you choose the hard way, it will be much more unpleasant. That Turkish friend of yours...cute girl! I haven’t stopped dreaming about her since I saw her for the first time. I couldn’t wait to see what was under her clothes...although I may reach that, since it seems, she’ll be the next to fall...”
Sciarra smiled. “No more than any other of my kind. We’re fighters, girl, not monks. And all we’re the same...mercs, legionnaires...wait a minute, that guy you fucked the other night, wasn’t he a legionnaire? Did you ever ask him how many women and children he raped in his years of service? He must have a pretty full quota...”
“That’s like the pot calling the kettle black.” Lara said with a mocking voice.
For some reason, that bothered Sciarra, who suddenly pointed his gun at her: “Bene, you bitch. Let’s do this. If you don’t get naked immediately, I’ll shoot you down. Then I’ll rip off your clothes and do as I please...don’t care if you’re alive or dead...undress!”
Lara’s back went off the rock and said: “Okay, bastardo, what do I take off first?”
Whoa! Che coglioni che ha questa! Well, if she wanted to play, they would play. “Start by taking off your arm bandage.” The Italian said cruelly.
He’d scored a touchdown. Lara reached out and began to withdraw the bandages from her arm. Sciarra smiled as blood stains appeared. Finally the bands fell to the ground and so did the tablet Marie had adjusted with straps to hold the broken bone. After cotton detached, the bruised and broken arm was bared.
“Dio mio”. Murmured Sciarra. “That must hurt. Go on.”
Lara wore a fur robe that Marie had given her, tightened to the pants. She took off her tunic and pants with difficulty. Finally, there were just the bands wrapped around her breasts, slightly damp with blood. She put her hand on them, but then the Italian got up and said: “Fermo, bella. I’ll do it.”
He took two steps and with a sharp pull, he tore up and down the bandage. At the time Lara seemed to have a moment of distress and collapsed to her knees.
“Hey, hey! No rush, I’ll ask for the pompino later...ouch!”
Suddenly, Lara had dropped a knee into his groin. The next blow fell on his chin, and another punch knocked him down to the ground. The gun fell from his hand and saw it no more. Then he received one, two, three kicks full in the stomach. He tried to rise, but a third punch slammed his face into the dust. Suddenly he was grabbed by the neck, and Lara would’ve broken it right there if not for a stern voice commanding: “Let him go.”
Lara raised her eyes and saw Schäffer, who was pointing at her with the gun. She released Sciarra, who fell coughing and gasping in the dust, and quietly picked up her clothes.
“Why is the hostage naked?”
Sciarra had the decency of not answering. Lara, on her part, put on the robe while the boss angrily dismissed the Italian - then he looked at her. “Lara Croft. You’re truly a strange woman. Naked and wounded, yet still you beat up this pig - hope he’ll learn the lesson. As for you...you’ve been lucky. You’re free. Someone has taken your place.”
Lara looked at him, alarmed, but he grabbed her arm and led her to the camp. Along the way, the soldiers turned to look at her...since the robe barely covered her thighs and it was clinging to her body as a result of the bleeding. She was feeling weaker and weaker.
“What have you done to her?” She heard a furious voice.
Lara recognized immediately Kurtis’ voice – he was there, surrounded at gunpoint by several mercs, but he stepped up to her and held her in his arms. He was also badly injured.
“What are you doing?” She whispered, looking into his eyes.
“We didn’t hurt her.” Schäffer said aloud. “That comes from one man, to be punished for his insubordination.”
Kurtis put his arm around her and escorted her to a vehicle parked there. “Listen.” He whispered in her ear as they went. “I’ve exchanged myself for you. They have accepted to set you free if I surrender. Bathsheba has given her word, and I’ve no choice but to trust her.”
“You can’t do that!” She gasped, closing her eyes.
“You have to. You’re hurt and nobody will help you. Drive to the north. You’ll meet Selma, Zip and Meteora’s monks.” All this he said quietly. “Make them take you to a hospital. And above all, don’t try to come back for me.” He opened the door and helped her to sit in front of the steering wheel. The mercs remained tense, targeting Kurtis without moving. Lara neither saw Marie nor Bathsheba anywhere.
“I can’t forsake you like this.” She insisted. “Why are you doing this? I’m irrelevant! I’m not important to them!”
“You’re important to me.” Kurtis said. “You’re the most important. Don’t ever come back, Lara. They will release my mother later if they’re pleased with the outcome.” He closed the door and stepped back. Lara touched his arm, in a last attempt to stroke him, but her fingers slipped on the bloody bandage that wrapped his arm. “Drive fast, M’lady.” He smiled. “You’ll be alone now.”
Two mercs appeared behind him and held him away from the truck. She, who kept looking at him, noticed he’d shaped three words with silent lips. I love you.
Lara stepped on the accelerator. The truck disappeared shortly afterwards, leaving behind a trail of dust.
Then Schäffer said: “That was soooo touching. I almost cried. No doubt you’re a man of your word, Kurtis Trent. And now let’s go, such romanticism made me feel hungry.”
While being carried to the van, Kurtis noticed a white shadow in the corner of his eye. On the top of a rock, with her white robe flapping in the air, the beautiful Bathsheba smiled through the veil.
The hot sun burned her shoulders and her tears made it so she couldn’t see the path she followed clearly - but she hit the throttle. Don’t look back, Lara. Above all, don’t look back. And bear a little more of this pain. If you live today, you’ll fight tomorrow.
After a while, she felt so weak she couldn’t go on. Her robe front was soaked with blood and her wounded arm gave her electric shocks of excruciating pain. She slowed down and eventually stopped. Letting out a groan, she leaned on the wheel, trying to hold back the tears that were already running down her cheeks.
Don’t cry, silly girl. Don’t cry. What would Werner say if he saw you whining like a child? He would say: “Well, now she looks the part, the little aristocrat, Lord Croft’s daughter!” Get up and stop whimpering! Her hands, sticky with blood, slipped across the leather steering wheel. A lock of hair fell over her eyes and she saw nothing more. Oh, you’re so brave Lara Croft! How easy it was when you had your arsenal and could kill the bad guys two by two, if you wanted. And look at you now. This is what your goddammit pride has brought you. Weep, then! That’s all you’ve left!
Why didn’t they leave her alone? Why not let her die?
A pair of warm, affectionate hands surrounded her and separated her shoulders from the wheel. She saw the distorted face of a young sweet brunette she knew.
“Lara...it’s me, Selma...dear God, what did they do to you, those bastards...please, come and help me!”
And suddenly she felt lifted into the air and laid on the back of another vehicle, on a pallet, while the young girl covered her with a cloth. Lara began to shiver again. Too much blood lost.
“Hey, babe, hold on.” Whispered a black-skinned man, who she also thought she knew. “It’s all gonna be fine, right? We’ll take you to a hospital. And when you get well, time for payback. You’ll see.” The man smiled and winked. Then put his arm around the waist of the brunette girl, who leaned her head against his shoulder as she moaned softly.
Yes, she knew them both. But her last thought, before passing out, was of Kurtis.