Thick coils of incense arose in the air. In front of Bathsheba, red candles were burning and giving her pale skin a golden hue. She was alone in the darkness of her room, calm and quiet. She′d stripped off her clothes and her hair was loose, to reveal herself to her Divine Mother as she’d been born, naked and vulnerable. She walked calmly up to enter the circle of blood - her own blood, shiny and silver, drawn on the ground.
The Nephilim dropped to one knee in the middle of the magic circle and clasped her hands in prayer, while her long hair spilled over her bare shoulders and covered her slender and delicate body. The sticks of incense and burning candles weren’t enough to warm it up, but she never felt cold nor heat.
In her right hand she was holding a sharp knife - the knife of sacrifice that proved her immortality two years ago - Gertrude’s dagger - and with her left hand she touched her heart, beating fast under her small breast. She closed her eyes, and when her mind was free from all thought, with melodious voice she intoned the prayer Gertrude had taught her. The Invocation of Lilith.
Listen, Mother Lilith. To you I speak.
You who dwell in dark abode, have mercy on your daughter.
You who breathe sulphur, have mercy on your daughter.
You whose beauty is more radiant than the Sun and more mysterious than the Moon, have mercy on your daughter.
You, whose heart breeds the immortal, whose hands crush the mortal, have mercy on your daughter.
You, whose lips drip blood of the enemy, have mercy on your daughter.
You who are the Beginning and the End of all life, have mercy on your daughter.
Listen, Mother Lilith. To you I speak.
Oh, Princess of Bulinka, listen to the call of your daughter.
Oh, Venus Illegitima, listen to the call of your daughter.
Oh, Wife of Samael, listen to the call of your daughter.
Oh, you, who were the First Born, listen to the call of your daughter.
Oh, you who Make Yourself, listen to the call of your daughter.
Oh, you, Mother of All Us, listen to the call from your daughter.
Angel of Darkness.
Queen of the Vortex.
Lady of the Beasts.
Beautiful as the sea, strong as the foundations of the Earth.
Look not upon my pride; look not on my lack of faith.
Come to me now, as I invoke you.
Listen, Mother Lilith ... to you I speak!
The moment the litany ended, Bathsheba lowered the blade with decision and made a cut between her breasts down to the navel, and then the knife slipped from her fingers as she bent in two, gasping in pain.
The cut wasn’t deep, but bled profusely, with a bright jet splashing the centre of the circle. A strange drowsiness came over her and she was about to fall on the pool of her own blood, but then she noticed the wound was closing and she regained her strength.
But she hadn’t the courage to stand up. She stood there, bent, trembling with a sense she’d never experienced before: fear. There was someone else there... with her.
The Nephilim sensed a presence in front of her, on the edge of the circle. She stood with her head stuck in the ground, shaking, while in her hair the blood dried. And suddenly, a multiple voice seemed to arise from several hundred mouths at once and spoke: You called me, Child. Here I am.
Bathsheba felt the fear that gripped her coiling around her throat like a bunch of thorns. Cold fingers grabbed her chin and forced her to raise her head, and then her eyes beheld the Great Goddess, her Mother.
Lilith’s appearance was sweet and terrible at once. She looked like a tall woman - much taller than her, if that was possible, whose albino hair reached to the floor. She’d the delicious body of an angelic virgin, with full breasts and narrow hips, in whose gentle curves little snakes were coiling this way and that, and there wasn’t a single tuft of hair on all her glowing skin. The fingers that held Bathsheba’s chin seemed like knives, but held her with affection. Nearly transparent wings unfolded behind her, and her eyes caused more terror than anything else, because they were white as if blind, but there was no doubt she saw perfectly... and yet was so beautiful Bathsheba felt tears sliding down her cheeks... she who’d never cried before.
Don’t fear me, Child. What you see is just an image I can move to this place to answer your call. From many centuries I’ve dwelt in the depths of the Vortex and my sweet slumber doesn’t prevent me from meeting the demands of my devotees. Don’t fear me, then.
Bathsheba nodded weakly and She let her go. Her slender body shone with a stronger light she could never reflect... and devoured the darkness of the room.
Now, the goddess looked around, and her beautiful face was distorted into a terrible grimace. Where is she? she hissed with that multiple voice. I don’t see my beloved Priestess. I don’t see Gertrude. Where has she gone?
The Nephilim shivered. “She died, Mother. She was poisoned by... by my mortal mother, Giselle Boaz, who hated her.”
There was a sharp hiss, as if thousands of snakes hissed at once, and Bathsheba saw two fangs hovering from behind the pale lips of the goddess. How dare she! She will pay dearly for the murder. Gertrude was loved by me as if she were an Immortal Child. She was a faithful and good Priestess. She will pay for what she has done! Her angelic transparent eyes then turned towards her. Why did you call Me then, Child? What do you ask of Me?
The beauty swallowed and tried to keep her voice calm. “I’ve seen over time and space, and I′ve exceeded a knowledge few mortals master today. I know Your divine wrath took my siblings to destruction, but Your unworthy daughter hopes You will want to soften Your Dark Heart... for I am the only one left... and restore the peace You snatched from my predecessors. I’ve in my power Your Holy Immortal Scepter and the Periapt... and getting the Shards will be a matter of time. I beg You, Mother, to destroy them so nothing can hurt me... and I swear by the blood I poured in Your honour to devote the rest of my immortality to serve You and do what may be Your Holy Will.” With a shudder, Bathsheba touched her forehead to the ground and spread her two hands out to reach the smooth, cold feet of the goddess.
Lilith soon spoke: Your blood is truly dear to me and I believe you are my beloved Daughter, even though it was a mortal womb which bred you. The seed that gave you life belonged to one of my dearest Children, who called himself in mortal life Joachim Karel, one of my First Born, yet he betrayed me and caused my anger.
This was said with such a furious hiss that Bathsheba gasped: “I offer my life as payment for the wrong my father committed against You.”
And I accept it, Lilith smiled, baring her fangs, because I see that your heart is pure and not tainted with the rot of mortals. Come to me, Child, and drink My blood, to remove from your veins that dishonourable mortal blood bequeathed to you by Giselle Boaz, and make you carry only the blood of the Immortals.
Bathsheba was shaking like a leaf when she stood. Lilith came to her and encircled her waist with one arm. The Nephilim was so close she felt Her fierce breath on her neck.
You are beautiful! she exclaimed, rejoicing, I never saw such a perfect Daughter! Indeed you look like you’ve been bred by my own womb. Let us not wait.
Then Lilith made a sharp cut with the nail in Her own neck, and a trickle of bright blood ran down Her throat and slid down Her breasts, which were pressed against Bathsheba’s ones. The Goddess affectionately made the Nephilim to put her mouth to the wound and suck the blood, which tasted like steel but was sweet as honey. Bathsheba stopped shaking and surrendered herself in ecstasy to the honour which few of her kind had experienced over the centuries. Meanwhile, Lilith pierced Bathsheba’s thigh with her own nails and let the blood gush there, although her daughter was so entranced that she felt no pain.
Your impure blood will be entirely drained from this wound. You must drink from Me if you want to live. I will prevent this wound from closing, because for Me nothing is impossible - and you will be reborn into a new existence in which there will no longer be a hybrid half mortal, half Nephilim, but you will be pure and whole. My daughter, you will be a First Born.
Bathsheba clung to her Mother and sucked Her blood with despair. She seemed to float as if her feet no longer touched the ground. The skin of the goddess was warm and soft, like Her breasts, and suddenly Her wings wrapped and drifted them both in an embrace.
No one knew how long that intimate and sacred rite was. In the end, Lilith closed the wound in her thigh and gently pulled her back from Her neck. Bathsheba gasped, her mouth dripping blood, and suddenly she slipped from Her arms and laid on the ground, bursting with fullness.
I am extremely pleased, the Goddess said as She closed the wound in Her neck, I’ll be happy to do what you asked. The Periapt and the Three Shards will be destroyed. The Scepter is in your hands and you’ll rule with me the Legions of My Spouse. But before that, my blessed girl, you must offer to Me a special sacrifice.
“All honour and glory to You, Queen of Hell.” Murmured Bathsheba, in a state of ecstasy. “I’ll give you whatever you ask me, even my whole soul.”
Lilith reached down and stroked her body with Her wings. I saw that my Priestess’ murderer is decided to give a cruel death to the last of the Lux Veritatis. That’s not My will. That man won’t meet his death here in this fortress, not under her hands. She kept bowing until Her lips brushed her ear. I want you to take this man out of the prison and bring him to my kingdom in the Vortex. I want you to sacrifice him in My altar, because I’ll be pleased to show the Angels how the last of Their warriors dies because of Me. And you will also sacrifice his lover, the Amazon, the Black Alchemist’s murderer, for she’s bringing in her womb a new Warrior of Light.
Bathsheba shuddered at that, and her eyes widened. “She’s bringing... in her womb...!” She repeated with a gasp.
That will be my Great Sacrifice - that will show to Yahweh, and all His heavenly minions who sentenced Me to dwell in the shadow, that there is no superior to Me in Heaven, on Earth, and in Hell. You’ll pour into My altar the blood of father, mother, and son, and Heaven shall shake at My Great Power. She got up slowly and Her shining figure began to fade. Do this for Me, Bathsheba, Daughter of Karel, My Child, and I will destroy the cause of your grief.
The Nephilim smiled through her bloodstained lips and lost consciousness while still whispering: “All honor and glory to You, Lady of Beasts. Your will be done.”
Maddalena spent the first days on the Island fascinated by everything she saw. After a severe medical exam - thank God, her clients hadn’t spread to her the dreaded diseases common in her job, and after receiving an even more severe speech about discipline, she was given clean new clothes and an auxiliary uniform. She immediately found herself working in a huge fortress with bright hallways and isolated chambers, where patients of all ages and both sexes suffered atrociously.
At first, Maddalena thought it was a kind of secret military hospital. Her boss, Dr. Giselle Boaz, was an attractive and certainly lovely woman who transmitted a sense of confidence to her employees. Of course, Maddalena could tell that there was something wrong in everything... she’d the impression that this woman, who reportedly commanded there like a warlord, was plunged into a deep depression, as reflected in the harshness with which she treated patients, nothing like her usual way with people.
A few days later, Maddalena became convinced that something was terribly wrong there. The suffering of the patients was awful and some surgeries looked cruel and unnecessary... to her, who hardly knew anything about medicine. But she fulfilled the duties of her job and primary care to patients efficiently. It didn’t take long to do that.
However, it was the fifth day when the horror lived in those isolated chambers was confirmed. She’d been anxiously looking for Kurtis, expecting to see him in a camera, locked up and strapped to a stretcher, but there was no sign of him. Whom she met, however, was Radha Deli.
It was mid-afternoon after cleaning the wounds of a poor old woman, when she heard a shrill voice screaming and ringing throughout the hall. She came running and found Ralph, the warden, waiting calmly before an open chamber, where the screams came from. Inside she heard Giselle’s voice.
“Don’t move! You hear me? This is because Lara Croft needs to know where you are. She’s a very suspicious woman, isn’t she? If we don’t send a proof you’re here, she won’t believe it! That would be sad, right?”
Maddalena then heard a tearing scream followed by a burst of sobs. She leaned against the wall, dazed, while she heard Giselle saying: “You can let her go, Karl. Well, Hugh, here they are - hope they arrive fresh to its destination.”
“Don’t worry, Mistress. They will arrive in good condition.”
“Good. Well, you know what to do.”
The Italian prostitute saw a harmless looking man going out and carrying a small cardboard box in his hands. He walked passing next to her without looking at her and she noticed a drop of blood on the box top... full of horror, the redhead controlled herself and reached the armoured door frame.
Inside, huddled in a corner, was a girl about fourteen years. By her features, Maddalena thought she was Indian or Pakistani. The warden was leaning over her and tried to get the arm she’d stubbornly hidden under her jacket. Then Giselle turned towards Maddalena... and she held back a scream. The lovely doctor was splashed up and down with blood and wielding a sharp scalpel in her hand. “Oh, Giulia, glad you’re here.” The blonde sighed. “Let’s see if you can mend her wounds... I had to intervene and her stubbornness has left me no choice.”
Maddalena wasn’t listening, but rather looking open-mouthed in horror at the little hand that Karl had finally succeeded in extracting from under the clothes: the girl was missing the ring and little fingers of her left hand. Giselle had amputated them.
“C’mon.” The scientists called the warden, snapping her fingers. “I’ll leave you with Ralph, Giulia, he’ll help you with the healing.”
They left after the warden entered with the tray materials and, with affectionate words, he tried to convince the girl to show him the wounded hand. Finally, Maddalena reacted and tried to fix the stumps as well as possible, after having anaesthetized her locally. The girl looked at her outraged.
“Dio mio,” dared to whisper Maddalena, “this girl was perfectly healthy ... as are all patients in this hospital! What’s going on here?”
Ralph looked at her with sarcasm. “C’mon, Giulia, the doctor’s experimenting; she knows what she’s doing. We must serve her and not ask questions, okay?”
The girl’s hand was bandaged and Ralph left, but Maddalena remained in the door, unable to leave. Those dark eyes were focused on her.
“I’m... I’m sorry.” Then the redhead whispered. “I didn’t know... I knew nothing of what they do here. You understand English? I ... My name’s Giulia.”
The kid narrowed her eyes. “Radha Deli.” She said suddenly.
Maddalena tried to think what Giselle had said about... Lara Croft. Sure! The British explorer. Maybe...? “Hey, girl, by chance have you seen or heard of Kurtis Trent? I think he could be here in the fortress.”
Radha shook her head and said in her poor English: “He saved my life and my honour when I was a child, but now I can’t be saved by anyone. I don’t know if he will be here, but I hope not, because then he won’t be fine. And I want to go...” She began to sway back and forth, tormented. “I want to go!” She sobbed. “Please, help me!”
Maddalena put her hands to her mouth, desperate. “If only I knew how...”
“Are you telling me, Marie, you’ve always known this?” Lara looked stunned at the Navajo woman, sitting quietly on the couch in the hall of Croft Manor. Not even two hours had passed since Lara and Dunstan had returned from Rome, and Marie had been waiting there, protected by Justin’s men. The British explorer had barely had time to greet Winston and stifle her remorse for Radha’s kidnapping.
On the table laid an open laptop, a recent acquisition of the Manor, whose screen showed an expectant Zip connected by video-conference.
“The Order has always known the existence of Lilith’s dwelling place and its location.” Marie replied calmly. “And their relatives were also informed. It’s a kind of... security code.”
“You mean, find out where the Devil lives in case he comes to eat y’all.” The computer technician replied sarcastically.
Lara sat down, stunned. “I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn of the existence of Lilith and her abode existing in a physical and real place... but truthfully, I didn’t expect it. I would’ve preferred Bathsheba to remain as our greatest enemy... At least, I know something about how to handle a Nephilim.”
“Bathsheba remains as our greatest enemy.” Marie remarked, raising her index finger. “Lilith has been sleeping nothing less than six hundred years, and She won’t wake up unless something or someone forces Her to do so.”
“What can wake up Sleeping Beauty?” Asked Zip.
“Maybe Bathsheba...” Marie frowned. “No, that would only summon Her spirit. It takes more than that to arise Her.”
“A crane or something?”
Lara turned towards the screen, furious. “Zip, if you keep making crude jokes about everything we say, then you’ll take off those headphones and give them to Selma or Vlad. I want serious people dealing with serious issues.”
“Okay, okay, babe. Just trying to lighten the mood...”
At that moment the bell rang, and Winston came from behind the ladder. “I will open it...” He muttered.
Lara was going to say no, but Zip was talking again and caught her attention: “Vlad’s pretty pissed about the news. He says when this is over, he’ll go to the Vatican to chat with that old geezer himself if he ain’t dead already. I mean the cardinal, not Vlad, of course. But... are we to assume Lilith lives in the actual real Hell, with fire and brimstone and shit like that and all the Lux Veritatis who go there get fried up nice and crispy?”
Marie smiled for the first time in many days, and then she added: “Lilith lives in the Vortex... which is the name that men of the Middle Ages gave to what we call Hell. The Vortex is neither physical nor geographical, Lara; it’s not a place where the lava flows and there are bonfires. The Vortex is the womb that breeds demons. They are born there, and then they spread throughout the world, and as they aren’t animals like elephants or dolphins, they don’t breed; they’re barren: when one dies, the Vortex breeds another. Hence, the demons never run out. Hence the task of the Lux Veritatis is infinite.”
“Fuck.” Zip murmured.
“The Vortex has an access point on the face of Earth, which both the Cardinal and I know, Lara, but once you cross its threshold, nothing more’s known.”
Lara twisted her braid with a finger. “Now you’ll tell me that all unwary who venture there never return.”
Marie shook her head. “No. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever gone there. The Order considered that a stupid risk. The fight was against Eckhardt, the Cabal, the Nephili and demons... they already had enough, no need to go into the very mouth of the wolf. Nobody has ever gone there, Lara. It’s madness. It’s the Vortex.”
The British explorer smiled. “I’ve always said the same about other places, Marie.”
“You’re not planning on going, are you?”
“If Bathsheba forces me to do it, I will. I won’t have that monster awakening.”
Marie let out a sigh of dismay. “Lara, you don’t know... if you think Tenebra was frightening, it’s because you haven’t seen the Vortex. Nor me! No one alive in this world has! The Vortex is the very heart of Evil, not just the place where Lilith lurks, but also Her husband, Samael, the dark angel you Christians call Satan. You’d never reach far beyond its threshold. You’d never see the faces of the Fallen One and the Lady of Beasts. Before that, you’d be devoured by creatures bred from Her own womb.”
“I’m shitting my pants.” Zip remarked.
“Furthermore,” Marie continued, ignoring the hacker’s comment, “think of my son. Think about Kurtis. He’s more important than Bathsheba and her bloody goddess. It’s him who′s being killed right now as we waste time chattering.”
A shadow of sorrow crossed Lara’s face and she turned, so Zip couldn’t see her. Yes, Marie was right, dammit, but she didn’t know where to go... she had no clue about his whereabouts!
Lara looked up and noticed Winston looking at her with a thoughtful, sorry expression. He was holding a package in his hands. “This just arrived for you. If you want I can open it...”
“No, thank you. I will. You should go to rest.”
The old man obeyed and Lara waited until his footsteps were lost in the top floor. Then she looked suspicious and opened the package while saying: “Tell Vlad and Selma about this, Zip. I’ll call you as soon as we know more.”
The hacker nodded and closed the screen window immediately. Lara had already removed the wrapping of the package and found a cardboard box. Her eyes, and Marie’s ones, got stuck in a small brown spot on the cover.
“Is that... blood?” Marie murmured.
Lara slid her hand along the edge of the lid. In the split of the second she took to lift it, thousands of thoughts went through her weary mind at the speed of light. Suddenly she saw the content, and the cover slipped through her fingers and landed on the ground.
“Oh... no!” Marie moaned, covering her mouth with her hands.
There were, bent at the knuckle like two quotation marks, two fingers cut at the base - a ring finger and a little finger, dark skinned and with short nails, already rotting on a folded note splattered with blood. Lara took the note from under the fingers and handed it to Marie, who opened it and read a typewritten message:
THIS IS SENT BY RADHA DELI WITH GREAT AFFECTION
WITHIN THREE DAYS YOU MUST BE IN THE TAMESIS’ DOCK AT TEN PM
BRING THE PERIAPT SHARDS WITH YOU
IF NOT WE’LL KEEP SENDING THE GIRL IN PIECES
UNTIL ONLY HER HEAD REMAINS
HAVE A NICE DAY
“Bastards.” hissed Lara. The box slipped from her lap and the two little fingers rolled across the carpet. Suddenly she felt a spasm and bent in half. She noticed Marie’s hand on her shoulder. “Let me...” Lara still gasped. “This...”
“Easy, Lara. Calm down. That’s how they work... who are these fingers from?”
The British explorer looked up. “Radha. She’s... the girl who was abducted. The one who was under my tutelage. I took her out of India to save her...” She closed her eyes tightly and held back tears. Her temples were hammering. Don’t be a hypocrite, don’t try to fool yourself. You’re not crying out of rage and pity for this poor, mutilated kid... you’re crying from relief, because these were Radha’s and not Kurtis’... c’mon, admit it, you selfish hag, for a moment you thought you’d find his two eyes on this box, so blue, lifelessly staring at you...
The adventurer breathed and air was like a wave of fire burning her lungs. She opened her eyes and saw Marie carefully picking and placing the fingers on the box. Then she got up, feeling a wave of anger filling her from head to toe. No, they wouldn’t have pulled Kurtis’ eyes out yet, but surely they were doing many horrible things with him, and now those bastards had the snout, the nerve to threaten her with sending Radha in pieces like frozen veal, and summon her to negotiate the non-negotiable. “You want to play foul, right, bitch?” She hissed through clenched teeth, addressing a non-present Bathsheba. “Fine. Let’s play.”
Kurtis closed his eyes for a moment - no one could deny that to him. Being free for a few seconds. Getting rid of the bright focus of this torture chamber, of the reflections on the metal surfaces, of the faces around him, some sadistic, others indifferent... of the vision of his fingers, crushed in that press.
“Are you deaf or something?” He heard again Giselle’s tantalizing voice. “You know what you’ve done? You know what you did? You know why you are being punished?”
It was always the same - one day, and another and another. The tortures changed - more electric shocks would’ve meant his death, but always the same questions, the same words over and over again. If what they were doing to him wouldn’t kill him, he was sure Giselle’s verbiage would.
Sitting on a chair, dressed only in tattered pants - the only piece of clothing given to him since the rest were shredded, after having spent nights naked in the cell, and with his hands on a table, Kurtis tried to stay cold and calm despite his horrible situation. Both of his hands were caught in a small printing press whose crank was driven by a relentless Schäffer, who seemed to enjoy each turn, which crushed the space between the two leaflets a little more.
“Well?” Giselle insisted, sitting opposite him, her cheeks flushed. “Have you anything to say?”
“Crush me a little more or kill me.” Kurtis said, turning towards Schäffer. “But don’t make me listen to this bitch anymore.”
Giselle gasped in disbelief while Schäffer, smiling wickedly, took another turn to the crank. There was a horrible sound of creaking bones and a painful hiss of air escaping between Kurtis’ clenched teeth.
“You’re a cheeky and cocky scoundrel.” Giselle murmured. “You try to provoke me, but despite your rudeness, nothing will hasten your death. You’ll listen to me until the end, whether you like it or not - and God knows this is just the beginning.” She leaned again towards him: “As you refuse to answer, I’ll do it for you: I’m having your fingers crushed because you killed a divine being with them. Consequences must be assumed, Lux Veritatis, and you didn’t when you stabbed Joachim Karel.”
Not true, said an inner voice, you assumed them, of course you did. You assumed you’d die if Lara failed, if she wouldn’t have discovered the True Option - but you never doubted her. You assumed that, if not killed, that freak would’ve taken and made an atrocity with her. Everything else doesn’t matter. Let the bitch talk - she doesn’t know shit...
Another turn of crank, another crunch. Suddenly, and while his mind faded - it was him screaming so loud? - he became aware of what his fingers had become: mashed flesh stumps filled with splinters of bone, no larger than a piece of seed. Through his blurred eyes, he saw a dark trail staining the press... was it blood? And that blackish crust just fallen from there? A nail?
Suddenly, he’d the delightful vision of Giselle’s head exploding in pieces like a ripped watermelon...c’mon, Trent, you can do it...burst that bitch’s head, the hell she thinks she is, you can’t give up... He felt swallowed by darkness and saw nothing more. Ah, blessed darkness. Who said darkness was bad? Darkness was his friend. Not seeing that horrible spotlight on his face anymore blinding him... And what were those distorted voices swarming over him?
“Take his hands out of the press. Okay, let’s take a look...”
“He’s in shock, Doctor. We can’t ask more from him for today.”
“Call the assistant on duty. We must stop the bleeding.”
Suddenly, a dark hiss around him - Marcus’ mocking voice again: Yes, my son, let yourself be killed like a lamb! Give them the victory they crave! So many years of struggling, shedding the blood of our children, our wives, so that now the last Fighter wins the crown of martyrdom letting himself to be murdered! Okay, you’ll be among those who were as stupid as you - of course, they weren’t gifted like you! So let them win, after so much suffering!
The elder had shouted that again and again, during the long nights on the cell, while the cold permeated Kurtis’ bones. He hadn’t wanted to take the silk cloak... he knew she had left it there and he’d rather sleep naked before touching that... Fuck her and the bitch that bore her... and bit by bit, the fever pulled down in his body, making him more vulnerable to torture, but also willing to surrender before and left alone for longer...
The Lux Veritatis heard someone mourning - a woman weeping beside him. Lara? Couldn’t be. Lara was far, far away, fortunately, she couldn’t see him lying there on the floor, covered with burns, cuts and bruises, convulsing with fever, his hands crushed. But who wept for him in that horrible place? Who took pity on his miserable fate?
Kurtis opened his eyes. The bright light had gone, thank goodness. He could feel the cold marble floor digging into his back, a pain in the neck, that string of stinging burning feeling in his hands... or what was left of them. Suddenly the table, the chair and the press seemed very high, far away - had he fallen from there? He saw neither Giselle nor Schäffer, only the woman who cried, leaning over him.
He looked closely at her and saw it was a redhead young woman, with golden eyes and freckles on the nose. At first he didn’t recognize her, then...
“Maddalena?” He stammered, surprised at the hoarse sound of his own voice.
“Hush. Don’t talk.” The Italian prostitute murmured, wiping away tears. “I’m bandaging your fingers... oh Dio mio, your poor hands...Dio, Dio, what have they done to you, Kurtis?”
He closed his eyes again, too exhausted to answer, as she was sobbing and tinkering with his fingers. She hurt him so much, he wanted to grab her by the neck, but, what if his hands were reduced to smithereens?
“What are you doing here, Maddalena?” He muttered dim.
“Giulia, Kurtis. My name’s Giulia. Forget that other name, it was never mine.”
The door burst open and the woman jumped.
“Have you finished?” The grotesque voice was Schäffer’s.
Maddalena arose to face the German. “The bandage will hold the bone fragments and stop the bleeding, but there’s an infection risk. We need to...”
“No need to do anything, big mouth.” Abruptly replied the mercs’ leader. “If they get infected, we’ll cut off his fingers. Now move, you’re needed elsewhere.”
Maddalena, in desperation, took the last moment to surround Kurtis with one arm and help him sit and lean against the wall. As she did it, the man’s burning lips brushed her ear and heard him whisper: “Have you lost your mind? Go away, they could recognize you!”
She could hear no more. Schäffer threw her away with a stretch and rushed her out of the room, pushing her down the hall. The Italian woman couldn’t contain herself: “That man’s very sick!” She yelled. “What the hell you think you’re doing? You are all insane, everyone!Dio mio, this is not a hospital, it’s a slaughterhouse!”
She didn’t see the arrival of the slap. The German’s right paw slammed into her jaw and threw her against the wall. She collapsed on the floor, dazed.
“You’re asked to shut up and obey.” Schäffer hissed. “Next time I hear something like that, you’ll regret it. Now shut the fuck up and get outta here.”
Maddalena arose, touching her swollen chin, and fled down the hall, stumbling and sobbing, not because the pain but by what she’d just witnessed. She stood in a corner, breathing heavily while shaking like a leaf. Luckily, the German hadn’t recognized her, but maybe her luck wouldn’t last long... and neither Kurtis’ strength.
The redhead gritted her teeth, despite the pain, and walked determined to her locker, to search the documents. Sensible or not, they would listen to her, and if not convinced... well, she had to take the risk. She must. For Kurtis.