Zip hadn’t spent two hours asleep when a strange sound woke him - sounded like someone moaning. He opened his eyes, startled, but all he saw was his open laptop and those stunning girls parading one after another in the screensaver presentation. He was closing his eyes again when he heard the groan again, louder this time. Someone was crying in the next room.
The hacker got up quietly, put on his pants and walked cautiously into the hall. Just as he suspected, the groans came from Selma’s room. He knocked softly on the door, and then they stopped. “Princess? Are you there?”
There was a moment of silence, and then Selma’s hoarse voice said: “Go away. Leave me alone.”
Zip scratched his neck. “You’ve already woken me up - and don’t think I could sleep knowing you’re crying on the other side of this wall.”
Having no answer but silence, the man opened the door and entered. In the darkened room, the Turkish archaeologist was sitting on the floor beside the bed, hugging her knees with her face buried in them. He came and sat beside her, after checking she was wearing a nightgown. “Umm... so.” He coughed. “What’s with the night time serenade?”
Selma raised her face, wet with tears. “Do you always joke about everything?”
Zip shrugged. “That’s just me. I need to make jokes. My life’s crap and making fun of everything makes my shitty world better.”
The girl smiled. She remained silent another moment and then she whispered: “Al Jazeera...”
“What? Pardon me, princess, but “learning Turkish” is still among my pending tasks.”
She laughed. “It’s not Turkish, it’s Arabic! Al-Jazeera. My last name.”
“Hey, the TV channel!”
Despite the gloom, Zip saw she was glaring at him. “The TV channel! Everyone tells me the same thing! Al-Jazeera is a name older than any television or media. When Muhammad delivered Allah’s words to the Arabian tribes, that name already existed, naming the clans most exalted among the Saudis.”
“Ok, got it. Not gonna screw it up again. Why did you say that?”
Selma’s head lay back on the knees. “You know whatAl-Jazeera means in Arabic?”
“Not yet, but I bet I will soon.”
She smiled again. She wasn’t crying anymore. “My father wasn’t Turkish - he was Saudi, born in one of the noblest and exalted families of Arabia. He wasn’t from the royalty nor was linked to the television channel, but he was rich. He went to Turkey, searching for a less oppressive place. You know, in Turkey, things are different. Arabia’s a beautiful haven for men and their rights, but a hell for women. Things happen... But why talk about it? You all know!” For once, Zip said nothing. Selma stood up and continued talking. “He′d grown up watching his mother and sisters in a situation bordering on slavery. They lacked nothing except freedom - freedom to go wherever they want, freedom to marry whoever they want, freedom to have children or not, freedom to speak... none of it was allowed. Things went well, but my father, who was an exceptional man, brought those memories with him. There he met Nilufer, my mother, who studied archaeology and was among the first Turkish women’s group, along with some men, who began to own their lives.” She twisted a lock of hair away. “It wasn’t an easy life she lived. Nor mine. She taught me the passion for archaeology. I′ve fought so hard for this cause! And now... what do I have?” She buried her head on her knees and sobbed again.
“Hey, princess, c’mon...that’s not true...”
She′d raised her head again, and smiled bitterly. “Island. That’s what my last name means. An island. Lost, isolated in the ocean... nothing to see, nothing to hold on, but water... My father was an island and I’m an island. And I’ll always be alone.”
The crying got worse. Zip, for once, didn’t know what to say nor had he a good joke at hand to alleviate the situation. “Your father wasn’t alone. He found Nilufer. And you...”
“I had my Ahmad and they took him away from me. He was murdered. I found him lying near the entrance of the excavation... All my friends, dead. I’ve nothing left. They don’t even let me dig.”
“You’ve done a lot – you’ve helped Lara, you’ve helped Kurt. Things could’ve been ugly for them without you. You’ve solved stuff with the Turkish government, ain’t that right?”
“And what am I doing now, here, waiting while others fight for their loved ones. Am I so useless and cowardly I’m only able to wait?”
“Nope! What about the brave heroine who fought the manticores and chased them away?”
Selma laughed again. How beautiful she was when she laughed, when those eyes shone so dark, so black. “I was scared to death then. I’m not like Lara or Kurtis - they’re strong. Not me.”
“You’re different, Selma. What the hell... if we need to be scared stiff to survive, so what? You’re helping. We’re helping, you, Vlad and me. In our own way.” He moved closer to her and casually began to withdraw the damp dark locks of hair stuck to her cheeks. “When I first saw you I thought you were the cutest thing in the world.” He admitted. “Yeah I’m a jerk and maybe you don’t care but it’s the truth. You were so pretty and so sweet in your loneliness. I wanted to kill that Italian sick fuck for touching you.”
The Turkish girl leaned her head on his shoulder and whispered: “Don’t remind me of that, please.”
He was kissing her neck. Slowly, his dark fingers slid down both her neck and her soft black hair, in a completely different way as Sciarra had done. She shuddered.
“Sorry for your Ahmad, princess... but you can’t waste all your life crying. Selma the Island... that island must disappear. You won’t be alone anymore. You’re young and pretty, and I like you very much. No more tears, okay?”
Selma muttered under her breath a few incoherent words, and suddenly felt his mouth on hers. Why feel guilty? Hadn’t it been two years or so she’d spent weeping and wailing? Was it not time to lift her head? She was young and life was still ahead. Twenty-five years! She was very young. It was terrible what the Cabal had done to her life, her love, her project, but she had to prove they hadn’t completely trampled her. While she still had the strength, she’d fight.
And she silently apologized to Ahmad, her distant Ahmad whom she’d shared life and home, and whose face was fading in the distance, while Zip’s dark fingers began to slide under her clothes, feeling the warm skin of her belly and her breasts. How long since she’d made love for the last time, no one looking at her as a woman? She was seductive but she wanted someone to love her, for what she was, for what she wanted to be.
Forgive me, Ahmad, for what I’m doing. I can’t be like this any longer.
They made love in silence, holding their breath, in case Vlad, who was walking his insomnia by the library, heard them. And for once Zip knew himself as more than a Bronx kid, laid-back and always joking; whose only life and love were computers. With respect and almost touching devotion he approached to the Turk’s golden body, wondering what fate had brought him to that beautiful creature of velvety eyes, so lonely and so unhappy. He kissed her mouth, thick and soft, with a sharp tongue, while her black hair covered him like a veil.
At orgasm, it broke through Selma’s eyes all the helplessness that gnawed inside her. She cried for the last time, leaning on his shoulder.
“Did I do something wrong?” He asked, worried.
She smiled. “No. Not at all.”
They finally slept peacefully, embraced, for almost the entire night. It was near dawn when Zip heard Ivanoff talking with someone. He arose slowly to not wake Selma, put on his pants and left the hall. The voices came from the library.
“Next time you come, brother,” Vlad was saying, “knock on the door. You scared me to death.”
“My brothers used to move with stealth, and I try to learn from them.” A youthful voice replied calmly.
Beside the Romanian professor was Pancratios, the young novice with blond hair and angelic appearance, who nevertheless was around Zip’s age.
“Are you alone?” Ivanoff asked.
“Three brothers are with me, waiting outside the castle.”
Zip came and nodded; he rubbed his hands - it was cold and he went barefoot, and said: “Bad news from Meteora?”
The novice nodded gravely. “Our beloved hegumenos is dying.”
A shocked silence fell over the room. Nikos Kavafis was only thirty years old, and had hardly been hegumenos since the death of the endearing Minos.
“The demon sent by that witch, cursed be her name, is finally killing him.” Continued Pancratios. “Wish we could talk to him before he returns to the Lord, but the evil spirit has said he won’t leave him unless I deliver a message to you.”
Ivanoff looked stunned. He adjusted his glasses on the bridge of the nose and whispered: “I beg your pardon?”
At that time Selma entered. She was wearing her nightgown and had her hair dishevelled. She stood in the doorway and looked expectantly at the men present. “The creature within him insisted I should communicate something.” Continued the novice. “Since you’re the only ones I’ve been able to locate...”
“God!” Exclaimed Selma. “Tell us the message!”
At that time, Pancratios seemed to hesitate. He staggered, dazed, and before falling to the ground Selma and Zip held him while Vlad approached holding a chair.
“Sorry.” The young monk mumbled. “I’m exhausted, but everything is for God’s glory and the good of my brothers...”
They put a glass of water in his hand and he drank it down instantly. Then he closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
“Well?” Zip said, a little nervous. “What’s the message?”
Pancratios rubbed his temples. “They’re the Evil One’s words, cursed be Him...”
“Please!” Selma insisted. “It’s important!”
He nodded and said: “That damned told us: Although two will shed their blood at the feet of the Great Mother, it will be seven going through the Bitter Path: the Warrior and the Amazon, the Impure and the Innocent, the Wise and the Angel, and also the Hidden One. This has told the Voice in the Darkness: among the two who shed their blood, only one could be redeemed, and will be redeemed by the will of the Goddess. But woe to them if they don’t please the Ineffable: none of them will again see the light of mortals.”
There was silence.
“Creepy stuff.” Zip muttered.
“Is it a prophecy?” Selma asked, pale as the walls.
“Sure it is!” Vlad gasped. “Didn’t he say more? Any hints on whom...?”
Selma moved towards Vlad and put a hand on his arm. “Obviously, Kurtis is the Warrior and Lara’s the Amazon!” She said. “But the others ...!”
Why is she upset? Zip wondered, she wouldn’t be one of them! Nobody would hurt her!
“That’s all.” Pancratios concluded, throwing back his hood over his head. “May God forgive me for being a messenger of the Devil, but our hegumenos needs rites and we wish him to end his days as a man of integrity and a Christian.”
“And what about that prophecy?” Zip said, somewhat annoyed. “Don’t you care?”
The novice crossed himself. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s a hoax. It’s just an evil spirit. They lie and make you suffer so to give glory to the demons. Now I must go. My place is in Meteora, together with our hegumenos.” He left the room in silence, without looking back, leaving the other three looking at each other stunned.
Selma fell on the couch. “I’d give the greatest credit to this prophecy. It’s a warning... or a threat. The Bitter Path... Any idea about that, Vlad?”
“Just the name scares me stiff.” Zip said.
Vlad was sitting on another couch and held his head in his hands, hurt because of so little sleep and so much thinking and thinking. “Don’t know what the Bitter Path is, Selma... I’m educated but not like that. Although I’m afraid that...” He murmured at last. “I just hope that the Wise who must walk along this path isn’t me. I hope that name wouldn’t refer to me.”
Zip was alarmed. “What in the hell are you talkin’ about, man!”
Selma leaned back on the couch and closed her eyes painfully. Vlad smiled bitterly. “I see you understand, child.”
“I don’t get shit!”Zip howled, and crossed his arms over his dark chest.
For a moment, the only sound in the room was the professor’s heavy breathing. Through the closed shutters of the windows daylight was breaking.
“Zip.” Vlad said at last. “I think we must play this game, all of us.”
“Not all of us.” Selma stated. “Only a few ones.”
Zip ran his hand over his face. “Princess...”
She smiled benevolently. “If we are to believe that being’s words, apparently not only Lara and Kurtis will be the ones to descend into the Vortex.” And seeing the horrified glance of the hacker, she nodded. “Ah, yes. Now you understand.”
The waves hit the rocks violently. The sound was deafening as it reverberated throughout the cave. Lara closed her eyes and leaned against the rock. She felt dizzy.
Beside her, Marcus leaned on Maddalena’s arm, who watched the agitated waves wide-eyed. Kurtis was behind them, also leaning on the wall. Lara couldn’t see him clearly.
The British explorer felt the back pocket of her wetsuit and pulled out the communicator. She activated it and said: “Justin? You receive me?”
After interference, she heard the soldier’s distorted voice: “I receive you, Lara. They seem to have detected our presence, despite us being hidden above the clouds. However, we haven’t decided to attack.”
“I’ve already found the prisoners! You’ll have to send the helicopter to descend to the grotto of the back of the Island, where we are.”
After another pause, Justin said: “It’s very risky, Lara. They could swing it.”
“There′s no choice. One of the prisoners is elderly and there’s another who doesn’t know how to swim. You’re my only chance.”
“Okay, we’ll try. Hold on.”
The line went dead and then Lara turned to the others. “A helicopter will come for us, but it can’t come down so close to the cliff. We’ll have to go swimming and clinging on to the rocks outside.”
Maddalena paled, but said nothing. She didn’t want to seem a coward.
“Well, here we go.” Marcus coughed, and clinging to the rock, began to plunge into the water. For that man who hadn’t seen beyond of his cell for months, either end was betterthan to remain there. He began to move, always clinging to the roughness of the cave wall.
Thus they began wadingwhile sticking to the outside of the cave, and when both Marcus and Maddalena were hardly something away, Lara turned to Kurtis and whispered softly: “What have they done to you, Kurtis? Why don’t you let me see you? You thought I wouldn’t notice?”
“I can’t go this way, Lara.” He said in reply. The thought of that salty water seeping across his hands’ fractures and all the other wounds, scrapes and burns he hadall over his whole body was really unbearable.
Then he noticed Lara approaching him and felt her warm breath. He stepped back.
“Don’tmove away from me! I’m not leaving without you! I’ll help the others, of course, but it’s you I came for!”
At that time Maddalena, who was somewhat apart, cleared her throat and said: “They have a teenager, almost a child, who claimed to know about you... does the name Radha mean anything to you?”
Lara turned sharply. “Have you seen her?”
“She was locked in a chamberon the upper floors.”
“I’ll look for her!”
Kurtis shook his head: “You can’t leave them alone. I won’t go this way. I’ll search for her.”
“Don’t do this to me!” Lara lowered her voice, hissing through her teeth. “For heaven’s sake, Kurtis, don’t do this...!”
“For once, Lara, I’ll be more stubborn than you. Trust me.”
“You’re wounded and sick! You think I didn’t notice?”
“I’ll go with him.” Maddalena solemnly chimed.
Lara turned slowly and looked at the redhead woman, who had her back against the wall and watched sideways at them. She was numb with cold, was wearing only a wrong buttoned blouse and shorts, her hair scrambled and her face pale, but her glance was firm and resolute. “I’ve been working here for weeks.” She continued. “I know the corridors and areas, all floors and exits. I’ve a map of this fortress in my head. We’ll go for the girl, and then we’ll find another way to escape. I prefer that to drowning.”
Although she spoke in a tone that brooked no argument, Lara’s sharp glancecut herlike a knife. She shuddered and looked down, repenting of having crossed a line not known to have existed.
“Guess there’s no choice.” Lara broke in the end, making a grimace. She turned to the shadow that was Kurtis. “Please, take care. I couldn’t bear... to fail again.” She turned abruptly and went towards Marcus. As she passed next to Maddalena, she gave her another sidelong glance. Was it a warning... or a threat?
“So she’s down there.” Schäffer said. “And you just run away.”
Sciarra grimaced. “I hastened to inform my superiors, as we’re supposed to do.”
The mercenary leader gestured contemptuously and added: “For almost an hour several aircrafts and achopper have been hovering over the island. Your information is certainly valuable but late.”
His men were around, some smiling discreetly. It was time, they thought, the boss teach that cocky bastard a good lesson.
“Arewe not going to attack?” Sciarra said.
“They will attack when I order so.” Schäffer replied dryly. “As far as I know, Adolf Schäffer and not Giacomo Sciarra is the head of the Agency.”
Happy faces. Sciarra triturated them with his gaze.
“As for you,” the boss continued, “you’remore a nuisance than a help. You’ll go down to the dungeonsagain and take care of the situation. I’m sending two men with you. If an oldster, a tortured man and two women can defeat you, you’re not worthit at all.” This time a few laughs were heard. “Silence!” Schäffer bellowed turning to their ranks. Then he went on. “Glenn, Ratford, go with Sciarra.”
The infuriated Italian went down the halls again, while those two, muttering under their breath, followed him - if they were mocking him, they better be prepared.
They had spent five minutes patrolling the corridors while heading towards the area of prison, when Sciarra heard a sound of hurried footsteps,like bare feetpadding against the ground. Far away in the back of the hall, they saw a figure dressed in a sort of hospital gown. A patient had escaped! It was a girl of 14 years,with Asian features, who stopped and stared at them aghast. “Quick!” Roared Sciarra.
The girl screamed at seeing them and turned around, running - and she ran really fast, tall and thin as she was.
“Come here, you bitch!”
Radha! Come here, you hussy! The Indian girl shuddered with horror when that hated voice overlapped the cries of the mercs. But it couldn’t be - he was very, very far away.
She reached a door, opened it with a yank and found the stairs. Blind with panic, she rushed upon them. In the third step one of her bare foot slipped on the cold marble stairs and rolled under, landing on the second floor. A liquid fire broke out at the base of her skull and felt a burning liquid run down her chin. She opened her eyes and saw drops of blood on the floor. She’d bitten her own lip when falling.
“What the hell is this?” A stern female voice boomed.
Radha looked up and there was the evil woman, looking at her with cold green eyes. The three mercs were next to her.
“Doctor.” Sciarra was quick to explain. “The boss had commanded us to patrol, and we found this patient has escaped.”
“Fine.” Giselle chimed. “I’ll take care of her. Keep up your way.”
They nodded and went downstairs. When the sound of their boots faded, the doctor grabbed the bewildered teen by her hair and stood her at a stretch. “Speak, little slut!” She shouted, shaking her. “Who released you? Is it true? Sure! She released you, dammit!”
Radha moaned with a mouth full of blood... she was pulling her hair!
“I’ll teach you!” The blonde hissed, dragging her upstairs. “I’ll teach you! And there’s another one that will hear me...”
The Indian girl had no hope but she continued screaming with all her force with ahigh-pitched voice - her screams echoed through the walls and beat the blast doors. The echoes came and went in a moment. Then Giselle silenced her with a slap.
“I heard someone screaming!” Maddalena said, touching Kurtis’ arm.
He nodded - so did he. But he was more concerned about the sound of approaching boots and discussion among three voices...one of them was Sciarra’s. He pressed himself against the wall and she placedherself by his side.
“How I hate that man!” The woman muttered.
“That makes two of us.”
Now the voices were just around the corner.
“Why hell you have to go instead of us, huh?”
“’Cause I’ve more balls than you, figlio di putana.”
“What did you say, motherfucker?”
“Stop this shit! The boss told us three...”
“You think I need a pair of jerks to brush for two women, an oldster and a wretch who can’t stand on his feet?”
“One of them made you run away, asshole!”
Sciarra stopped short and faced the other one. They were right on the edge of the corner. “You calling mewhat?”
“Asshole might be!”
“What’s wrong with you two! Stop...!”
Kurtis turned back to Maddalena and whispered: “I need you to be my hands, Giulia. When I tell you, you run to the middle of the hallway. I saw a metal door ajar. Open it and hide yourself behind it, but keep it open, okay?”
She nodded and tried to control her trembling legs. Beside the discussion continued, and it was deafening.
“The darling of the Italian mafia! Here you’re no one, sucker! Deal with it!”
“I’m gonna crush your face, fag!”
“Fag’s your fucking father!”
Sciarra threw himself on the other and started punching him. The other began to kick him. They grabbed each other by the neck.
“The Cabal’s pride, yes sir!” Mocked the third, with a grimace of disgust while turning the corner. “You can kill each other if you want...”
He didn’t see the blow arriving. Kurtis elbow hit his temple and fell to the ground.
“Now!” The Lux Veritatis cried.
The two mercs were still fighting when Maddalena streaked by them, dishevelled, heading for the door ajar. They stopped immediately.
“Hey!” Yelled Sciarra. “If it isn’t the fuck...!”
Something hit him in the back and the next moment he was kissing the ground. He noticed a crack in the mouth and four teeth broke off from their place.
Kurtis ran over him at the time Maddalena reached the door, opened it and stood shielded behind her. She saw clearly all that followed.
The other merc raised the submachine gun to hit Kurtis. Maddalena cried... but the blow didn’t fall. He remained with the weapon held high, a few inches from Kurtis, looking at him with horror, completely immobile.
The Lux Veritatis went back slowly, panting, while Sciarra, grunting in pain,rose spitting bits of teeth in the middle of a mass of blood and saliva.
“Shoot him, asshole!” Gurgled through his broken gums. “Shoot him!”
The other didn’t move. Kurtis pivoted and hurried to close the door - then he saw Maddalena’s widened eyes.
“No!” She shrieked in horror, and reached her hand. “Kurtis, bewar...!”
He didn’t turn fast enough. There was a bang and then a stabbing, sharp pain, went through his collarbone area, just on the opposite side where Gunderson had stabbed him with the Periapt Shard, two years before.
Maddalena cried when seeing Kurtis fall, and forgetting the role entrusted to her, ran towards him - who was slipping to the ground, leaving a trail of blood on the wall, grabbed him by the arms and dragged him towards the door.
Sciarra could’ve killed them both at that moment - but it wasn’t his style. He liked to enjoy tormenting his prey, to have some fun with them. He got up, spitting blood, and looked with scornat the dead merc on the floor, and the other one who, when he’d just hurt Kurtis, had regained his mobility as if by magic and fled screaming with terror down the hall.
A trail of blood went until the door, closed abruptly. The Italian reloaded the gun and came running in time to hear the thick bolt. “Maddalena!” He sang. “Bella puttana! Why don’t you open the door?” He spat another tooth and hissed: “You really like this guy, huh? Maybe he fucks better? Shame, I’m gonna kill him anyway! Open!”
The redhead wasn’t listening. She’d placed Kurtis sitting against the wall and was now frantically tearing one sleeve of her blouse andrendering it into strips to patch the gunshot wound, which was bleeding in spurts.
Kurtis opened his eyes. “Shit!” She heard him murmuring. “Just askingfor somethingto work for once!”
Sciarra fired a volley against the door. Maddalena watched with horror how the metal surface was printed with hundreds of small bumps. He fired again and this time some got a little punch.
“Don’t care!” The Italian yelled. “Can wait for him to bleed to death! Then you’ll be mine and scream like the bitch you are!”
Maddalena closed her eyes tightly - she’d never felt so scared. Before, in the shadow of Monteleone, Giacomo Sciarra had been his favourite, an undesirable swine who treated women worse than dogs. But she had always been untouchable. She′d treated the wounds and bruises of the women raped by him, hearing them sobbing and comforting them with a pat on the back. And now the world had turned upside down and that beast was a few steps from her, and the man she loved was losing blood in her arms. “Hope you die badly andgo to hell!”
Apparently, Sciarra had his ear glued to the bullet holes, because then he laughed and bellowed: “Hell’s here,carissima!”
Another burst. The bright light of the hall began to filter through light beams in the darkened room.
Kurtis peered around. It was astorage room. In a weak voice, he said to the woman: “Search the room and take whatever could serve as a weapon.”
She did it quickly, terrified, while Sciarra was still howling and kicking the door. After a while, she returned bringing a pair of scalpels and a syringe of morphine which put in her pocket.
Kurtis had been leaning against the wall with eyes closed, as if unconscious, but suddenly seemed to come out ofstupor. “That door over there,” he whispered, pointing with a vague gesture a small door near the window. “, leads to an operating room. Cross it and exit by the left. It will take you to an adjacent corridor. Then you′ll be alone. Find Radha.”
Maddalena shook her head violently. She didn’t even wonder how hecould know that, if he’d never left the area prisonbefore then. “I won’t leave you here, hurt and at the mercy of this beast!”
Kurtis’ blue eyes pierced her with an aggressive glance. “No time to argue with you. I can’tkeep going - I won’t leave here. Now go and look for the girl. If something happens to her, you’ll be responsible.Go!” His tone of voice brooked no argument.
Maddalena no longer heard Sciarra’s blows and howls, but a silence only inside her. Looking at him stunned, her eyes filled with tears, furtively, as if she didn’t want to, she bent and kissed him on the mouth. Then the Italian woman moved away quickly and ran towards the door without looking back, feeling like the most despicable woman on Earth, despising herself as never before, weeping as she ran.
The chopper dropped a little more. The ladder was at hand. Lara surrounded Marcus with one arm and led him to it. “C’mon!” She urged.
The old man grabbed the ladder and began to climb with surprising agility for his age and despite being so stiff after his confinement. Lara held the ladder as he climbed.
At the top, the Lux Veritatis grabbed several arms offering him help, then collapsed on the floor.
He looked up, shocked, at then saw the grey-haired woman. “Marie!” He exclaimed. “Marie Cornel! Is that possible?”
She raised him, helped by others, and led him to the seat. “Marcus! I thought... you were all dead!”
“Not everyone, Marie.” The old man began to cough. “Not all of us!”
“Bring a blanket!” She ordered.
One of the soldiers looked into the void and made signs to Lara. She shook her head. The noise was deafening. No, she wouldn’tcome up, she was gesturing. They must withdraw the ladder and leave without her. She had something to do.
“Let hergo!” Marie cried. “My son and the Indian girl are still there! Trust her!”
The ladder was withdrawn and the chopper manoeuvred upwards. In silence, Lara returned to the grotto.
Giselle pushed Radha against the wall. Then she turned furiously and shouted to nowhere in particular: “Bathsheba! Show yourself, dammit!”
Radha winced when the beauty appeared beside her. Ignoring her hysterical mother, the Nephilim caught Radha’s chin and frowned, looking at the piece of meat hanging from her bitten bloody lip. Gently, she forced Radha to take her face back and put two fingers in her mouth, feeling the edge of the wound. A sort of tickling ran the girl up and down and when the Nephilim pulled her fingers out, her lip was intact. “Be careful with the stairs, little one.” She whispered softly. “A drop through them can kill you.” Her white fingers stroked her hair, and then also her headache vanished.
“Haven’t seen youthis devoted with any of my patients!” Giselle reproached.
“Stop hurting this girl.” Bathsheba said, ignoring her. “She still hasn’t completed her purpose.”
“Purpose! You and your purposes!”
“You promised you’d trust me. You loved Karel so much, yet you show little love for his daughter.”
Giselle groaned and put her hand to her temples. “Oh, stop it. Don’t talk about that. You’re what I love the most.”
“You love your experiments even more.”
“You’re an experiment!”
“Not anymore.” Bathsheba hissed. “Not anymore”.
Suddenly they heard a low rumble. Giselle sharpened her hearing. “A helicopter!”
“The British explorer is freeing Marcus.”
“Oh, great! How long must we stay still, huh?”
“Calm down,Mother. Everything’s going off without a hitch.” Then she turned back to Radha and smiled. “Someone’s coming for you.”
By the time her beautiful figure vanished, Maddalena crossed the threshold.
Lara ran, distressed, down thehalls. She left the prison area and went upstairs, travelling around with her keen eye. White and grey. Plaster and metal. Finally she found a bloodstainedhall and a dead merc on the floor. She hurried, looking at the blood stains, which came to a door riddled with bullets. She hit it, kicked it hard. The hinges, hit by shrapnel, let out a squeal before giving up, and the door fell with a crash.
Light flooded the room and then she saw him, lying against the wall.
“Kurtis!” She yelled and ran to kneel beside him. Now she could see him clearly. “What have they done to you!”
He was dressed only in tattered pants, so she saw the strap marks on his wrists, the burns meandering on the white skin, long and sharp, made with a blowtorch. Cuts and wounds all over his body...burnt marks from the electrodes. And the hands...
“They will pay for this!” Lara gasped in sorrow, surrounding his shoulders. “They will! Kurtis...your hands!”
The bandages made by Maddalena were soaked with blood. Lararemoved them from the gunshot wound smoothly.
Suddenly he shuddered and opened his eyes. “Lara...” He muttered, looking at her as if it was the first time he saw her, as if he couldn’t believe she was there.
The British explorer was crying, tears running down her smooth cheeks, flowing from herbrown eyes, mixing with the seawater still moistening her face and her braided hair. She wept in rage as her fingers probed the wound. “Hold on a bit more.” She murmured. When wiping her tears violently, her hand, soaked with his blood, stained her cheek in red. “Am I hurting you?”
“First time you askme that.” Kurtis whispered with a weak smile.
Finally she found the bullet and removed it. Groping her backpack, Lara pulled out some bands and began to curl them tightly around his shoulder and collarbone. By touching him she noticed his skin was covered with a film of cold sweat, but he was burning with fever and shivering.
“You’re very ill.” Lara said, and cupped his face with both hands. “I took too long. I should have come before.”
“You’re here. That’s enough,M′lady.”
Upon hearing that title he’d changed into a loving nickname, her eyes filled again with tears. She wiped them with another slap as he said: “That fucking Italian attacked us. It was a while ago. I fear he wanted Giulia. I think I’ve sent her to her death.”
“Forget it. First I’ll get you outta here. Then I’ll think about her and Radha.” Her eyes wandered around and came back to him. “You’ll have to make one last effort, my love.”
He shuddered. “Gimme a moment.”
Lara sat next to him and hugged him. He was trembling. She kissed him and ran her fingers through his damp hair.
Oh, yes, they would pay for that. She’ll make them pay, one by one.
“You can start whenever you want.” A soft voice hissed.
Lara looked up. Bathsheba’s slender figure was facing them from the other side of the room.
Giselle turned sharply. “You!” She snapped, looking at Maddalena.
“Just come to take Radha with me.” The Italian replied. “Let her go.”
The doctor’s white face twitched. “Yeah, what else? Whodo you think you are, damn bitch?” She advanced towards her with clenched fists. “I won’t allow you to wander through the fortress as if it were yours! This is my life, my project! You blew it once, you’ll never do it again!”
The redhead girl had no idea what that woman meant, but she was obviously angry and alienated. As the doctor approached, Maddalena pulled out a scalpel from her pants and held it up before her opponent’s eyes.
Giselle stopped, threw her head back and roared with laughter: “Ha, ha, ha! You come to me with that! Yes, she did, she also did... and then she broke Friedrich’s neck!”
Madre di Dio, thought Maddalena, terrified, she′s lost her mind!
Giselle came forward, almost to the tip of the scalpel, and hissed: “C’mon, stab me, harlot! Slut!You don’t got the guts for that!”
Maddalena’s second of indecision was fatal. In those years the hatred gnawed inside Giselle had hardened, and she knew how to use strategies never before attempted. At the risk of being stabbed, she jumped towards the redhead and hit her on one side of her head, sending her against the wall. In a second the doctor was over her and snatched the scalpel from her hand, which fell to the ground. She grabbed her beautiful coppery hair and twisted it, making her scream in pain, while her other hand squeezed her throat. But Maddalena was bigger and stronger than her and sent her rolling on the floor with a push.
“Radha!” She shouted. “C’mon, get outta here!”
Giselle stretched a leg and hit Maddalena’s legs, who stumbled and fell to the ground. They began to fight back each other.
Radha watched them, terrified, not knowing what to do. Her eyes fell on the scalpel on the ground and picked it up with faltering hands, but not daring to use it. Suddenly, she saw the two women stopping squirming, and Maddalena jumped up. Giselle tried to get up, trembling, and watched with horror her left thigh. From it protruded a tiny morphine syringe, completely injected. Maddalena had sunk it into her flesh while struggling.
Witha convulsive hand the scientist snatched and tossed it aside. She tried to rise, but rolled over and laid face down. Giselle raised her arm again and tried to grab Maddalena’s ankle, but then she experienced a spasm and remained completely motionless.
The redhead said nothing. She took Radha by her arm and quickly took her away.
Lara jumped up and covered Kurtis with her body. She unholstered the gun and targeted Bathsheba’s forehead.
“That will be useless.” The Nephilim said calmly.
“It’ll be usefulin giving me the pleasure of seeing your brains exploding.” Lara said. “Even for a moment.”
The beauty smiled. Hell, her seductive, sweet and bloody smile! How badly Lara wanted to erase it from her face!
“You’ll pay for what you’ve done to him.” Lara continued.
“I did nothing to him.”
“I really don’t care about how innocent you think you are.”
“Ah, but think about it...! What will you do when you run out of ammo? I can’t die.” She moved a little more, wonderful in that soft and white dress. “You two are following my path like you followed my father’s. Everything is ready - now you must come with me. The Great Goddess awaits you. The Vortex awaits you.”
“Your father’s path turned against him, and we defeated him. With you, it will be the same.”
“Pride makes you reckless.”
“Come here!” Lara hissed, raising her gun. “Come and get me...!”
When Bathsheba raised her arms, she fired. The bullet hit her in the forehead, opening a hole from which it came out a silver jet, as if she’d broke open a source of liquid silver. The Nephilim stumbled and let out a cry of rage and pain. And then Lara heard a strange sucking sound and the bullet came out, rolled down her face and fell to the ground making a chiming sound. The wound closed shortly after.
“You fool!” Bathsheba gasped. “Fool!” This last word was mixed with a sentence of intelligible words. At the moment it was as if something hit Lara and made her fallto her knees. The gun slipped from her hand. Bathsheba’s fingersgrabbed her throat andsqueezed it. “Listen to this carefully!” She said in her ear. “For the power that the Divine Blood has granted me...!” But she never finished the invocation which would’ve sent Lara to the Vortex. Bathsheba stopped abruptly and looked up, stunned.
Kurtis had stood up and held her by the arm. “Let her go.” He commanded.
The Nephilim sat up, falling back, andshrugged him off. “Don’t touch me!” She gasped. “Never lay a finger on me!
But he jumped towards her and grabbed her again, this time by the shoulders. Bathsheba started screaming.
Something unusual was happening. Lara felt a wave of heat and went back. Kurtis was wrapped in a bright orange glow and Bathsheba glowed with a clear and silver light. The Nephilim writhed and screamed, but the British explorer didn’t understand what she said. Apparently that Nephilim chant, made to repel Kurtis, bounced against him and flew off without causing any damage.
“Let me go!” Bathsheba shrieked, her eyes wide with horror. “Take your hands away from me!” She tried to get loose and writhed, tormented, as if the Lux Veritatis’ hands were burning her. But it was him who was suffering atrociously, holding her with his injured hands. The pain was almost insane, but he didn’t let her go. He shook her hard while she screamed: “No! No! Let me go, damn you! That’s forbidden, forbidden! You can’t ... you can’t...!”
Lara finally began to understand. Bathsheba’s glow, cool and soft, began to be absorbed by Kurtis’ warm and intense aura. Little by little, the Nephilim quit struggling and gave up, trembling, as tears of frustration and helplessness began to ply her diaphanous cheeks. Kurtis didn’t ease the pressure- his hands slipped from her shoulders to her wrists and grabbed them mercilessly.
His hands. They were no longer a mess of torn flesh and broken bones. Through the bandages, Lara noticed they were returning to be intact, whole and strong. When his aura waned – his opponent’s had already died, the British explorer could clearly see his skin; so she noticed, amazed, his brands and torture wounds were gone. Even his old scars were gone. The Lux Veritatis shoulder tattoo was now intact and bright.
With a final shake, Kurtis let her go and pushed her back. Bathsheba tripped and fell, the edge of her dress raising and baring her long and beautiful legs. She crawled to the wall and leaned over it. “You... monster!” She gasped, her face wet. She touched her cheeks, stunned, and embraced herself in the midst of uncontrollable tremors. “Freak! You’ve done what can’t be done! You have violated the most sacred rules! Ignoble pig...!” A sob broke her cries and she hid her face in her shoulder while her dark hair covered her like a veil.
Lara was stunned.
“I don’t give a damn about your rules.That was well-deserved.” Kurtis said implacable.
As he took a step towards her, Bathsheba huddled against the wall. “Get out! Get away!” She extended her arm like a virgin who would drive off a rapist. “You’ve broken a pact respected by angels and demons, how dare you? Lilith’s curse fall on you and those you love! There will be no mercy for you. Woe to you over all, for you’re going to shed your sullied blood until the last drop!” With one last gasp of pain, she vanished like smoke in the wind.
Lara went towards Kurtis. She touched his skin, she took his fingers, put her hand on his forehead. He was intact, healthy, restored.
“C’mon.” He said. “We’vegotta find another way to escape.”
“I don’t get it, Kurtis.” She said. “And you know I hate not getting it.”
“I’ll explain later. Let’s move.”
Maddalena was walking hurriedly down the hall with a heavy heart, towards the place where she’d left Kurtis. Radha wasn’t far behind her. They stopped short when seeing a tall andmuscular man at the end of the hallway.
“Look who’s coming!” Sciarra sang. “Were you looking for me, bella?”
A burst of shrapnel rained down around them. Radha shrieked in horror. Flipping her, Maddalena moved to the first room she saw. Unfortunately for them, it was the cleaning room and the door was made of wood and glass. Terrified, they huddled together, clinging tightly to each other, feeling the approaching footsteps.
With recoil, Sciarra broke the glass, and reached his hairy paw groping for the doorknob. Suddenly inspired, Radha jumped and sank the scalpel with all her strength into his hand. There was a deafening roar and the hand, pierced through fromfront to back by the blade, disappeared, leaving all it touched spattered in blood.
Sciarra ripped out the scalpel with another howl and, mad with rage, attacked the door, which yielded to his weight. Herushed in like a waterspout and grabbed Radha by the neck, raised her as if she was a doll and threw her against a shelf. There was a crash and the girl fell to the ground, unconscious.
The Italian then addressed Maddalena, who pressed her back against the wall, sobbing and trembling violently. “Giacomo...” She groaned. “Giacomo, just... stop...”
His hand gripped her throat and her voice broke. “Ah!” He hissed, showing her toothless gums, black and full of blood clots. “Now you want me to stop, huh?Puttana! You should have thought of that before pissing me off!”
Maddalena no longer had any weapons. She′d dropped them after the fight with Giselle. Terrified, she felt Sciarra’s breath falling on her in the darkened room.
“I’ve been dreaming of you from the first day I saw you...Dio, you shined like a lighthouse in the fog.” He panted feverishly. “Among all Monteleone’s whores, no one was like you, and they were the most beautiful he’d afford. Ah, when I saw you, tall, beautiful, with that hair like a flame... looking at me with those eyes... fuck, you must be mine, I thought. But it couldn’t be!” He released a dry laugh. “Not you, you were the boss’ pet!” The goon grabbed her so hard from the neck she dared not move. Sciarra’s other hand dropped the gun and began to grope her breasts under her blouse. “You were forbidden!” He continued, sticking closer to her, until she noticed theerection under his pants. “You belonged to the boss, no one would touch you, how many times I was told that. Couldn’t believe it. The other girls weren’t enough for me. I had them when I wanted and as I wanted. One, two, three... I saw them below me and all of them had your face. That drove me nuts. I beat them, punched them, because they weren’t you, and I wanted you. You andonly you!” With one tug he tore her blouseopen,scattering the buttons. He snatched it feverishly, and after two pulls, the bra gave way with a click.
Maddalena never felt such fear and hatred in her life.
“I’m not evil...” He gasped in her ear as his fingers went down her breasts, squeezing them until it hurt. “They say I’m a brute. That I liked to beat women. Not true. If I’d had you I wouldn’t have made anyone suffer. I lived day and night, haunted by your vision. And you were so haughty, so dismissive... you hated me. You still hate me. And you know I’m more attractive than Monteleone. Damn, when you wanted you went to bed with anyone you crave! Why not me?” His bloodied mouth fell onto her breasts.
She couldn’t move. If she moved, he squeezed her throat harder. The redhead could hardly breathe. She closed her eyes. Her beating heart was like coming out of her chest.
Sciarra had risen again. Now he sharply unbuttoned her trousers.
Oh, Dio. No, no, no. Protect me, she begged silently.
“And when I finally had you, it wasn’t satisfactory.” He continued, his voice growing hoarse. “I hit you again and again. I wanted to erase that sneer from your face. I raped you, but it wasn’t enough. You became a defenceless straw bag that gave me nothing. Your friend, the beautiful Chinese, really helped me with her sobs and moans. You didn’t. You bit your tongue and let me do. How well whores act, huh? When you dislike the client, you spread your legs and look elsewhere. But this time you won’t! This time you’ll give me what I want!” With one tug he separated her from the wall and threw her down. She screamed when her elbow hit the ground. The impact left her breathless. Then he brutally turned her back and lay on her. “This could have been different...” Hissed him. “If you had wanted to...”
Maddalena turned her head to one side. Through the trail of blood that moistened her eyelids, she saw Radha began to move slowly.
“Giacomo...” She sobbed. “Notin front of her...”
“Ha! There were younger than her in your harem! What are you pretending!”
Then came theoffensive pang which toreat her insides like a razor. She screamed and contracted in pain. The cold marble floor froze her back, and all of her was soaked in sweat.
“Now you’ll see!” Sciarra gasped. “It’s the last time you turn your face from me!” He reached out and grabbed her jaw, forcing her to look at him while he raped her, fumbling her face and hair with his fingers, marvelling at the softness of the skin of her eyelids, the tingling caress of her curls. So he’d dreamed her, night after night: trembling, terrified, her face contorted with hate and pain.
With a final lunge, he unloaded himself completely and fell on her with all his weight. Then he stood up and pulled out of her.
Maddalena was so sore she couldn’t move. Looking sideways she noticed blood spattered on her thighs and felt theseminal fluid flowing within her, dripping to the floor.
Sciarra got up. Now he was looking at her askance, as if she was an incredible and wonderful vision.
“Are you entertained now, pig?” He heard her murmuring, halffaint.
“I’ll be better when I catch that bastard you like and cutoff his balls. Then I’ll fuck you again, while he bleeds, and make him watch.”
She made a face. Yeah, that’s more than he could really do. He may rape her, kill her, yes, but he won’t go beyond that. He was helpless, powerless to retaliate beyond that.
“You still laugh,puttana? Are you still laughing?”
She took a deep breath and pick up some strength. “Yeah, I laugh. You’re a sad and repulsive being. Don’t know what kind of life you’ve had to become such a monster, but you’re worthless and I loathe you. The most you can do with a woman is rape and beat her. The most you can do with a man is fight him. You don’t know how to love and don’t know anything about love. You’re disgusting. You’ve had my body, but you’ll never have me.”
The blow turned her face away and a crack was heard when her cheek hit the ground. “Bitch! What do you know about love, huh? You sell yourself to the highest bidder...!”
“I’d rather be a whore sold to the highest bidder than a hideous monster whom even the most despicable whore wouldn’t sell to.”
Letting out a roar of rage, Sciarra grabbed her neck with both hands and began to squeeze her as he banged her head against the floor. A cluster of stars began to dance before her eyes and she knew he was going to kill her. He might choke her or maybe he’ll bust open her skull on the ground. Whatever it was, it would be the end.
She’ll lose sight of him. Help me, she prayed in silence to the three martyrs of Sicily,end this at once. Please.
Suddenly, the beating stopped. The hands loosened around her throat and, with a gasp of pain, sheinhaled the air, which came dry and burning in her tormented lungs. When the fog clouding her eyes cleared, Maddalena saw Sciarra’s face again, contorted in deep terror. His eyes were bulged and his mouth ajar. Making a gurgling noise, he raised his hands to his throat. Horrified, Maddalena saw that from it protruded the sharp tip of a scalpel.
The Italian goon staggered and collapsed on her. Then he rolled and fell to her side. His body was experiencing horrible convulsions - and suddenly he froze. He extended his large hand into a claw to Maddalena, trying to touch her one last time... and fell on the marble floor. A gush of blood flowed from his lips andlaid motionless, with eyesstaring at the redhead.
Maddalena looked up and saw Radha standing, serene, with a strong and terrible expression on her sweet face. Her right hand was splattered with blood.
“It was you... You killed him...”
The Indian girl leaned over, looked grimly at her sullied thighs and then, passing an arm around her shoulders, she helped her to sit up. A new lash of pain shook Maddalena. “Radha...” She whispered. “You saved me...”
The girl’s dark eyes stared at her. Then, gesturing angrily, she said in her halting English: “It’s because of a man like him that my life has been a living hell.”
Forgetting all restraint, Maddalena began to weep.