The Angel of Death
It was midnight. Giselle slept naked in her bed after having been visited again by her faithful minion. Unlike last time, he hadn’t been blatant and insistent, but waited patiently until she allowed him into bed. She had nothing to lose, but also reminded him she was still his mistress and those permissions and intimacies didn’t change anything about their previous relationship.
Schäffer, of course, had no objection, and even seemed to enjoy his strange position as sexual servant; which, after all, he’d incited. When he left, she fell asleep for about two hours until she woke up, beset by the feeling that someone was in her room. When she reached over and turned on the light, she found herself in front of her daughter.
Bathsheba was sitting in a chair beside the bed, very upright among Giselle’s clothes, hanging on the chair and scattered on the carpet. Her hands rested together on her knees and she was wearing her white cloak, with her hair spread on the fallen hood.
“You scared me.” Giselle said, covering herself with a blanket.
“What are you doing?” Bathsheba murmured with an indolent tone, arching her slim eyebrows in an expression that was otherwise expressionless.
“What do you mean?” The doctor rubbed her eyes sleepily.
The Nephilim sighed, as if urged to take all the patience in the world, and then said softly: “You left your research on the Island, to go jogging with that primitive disgusting beast from hotel to hotel, while hatching a kind of multiple murder. What do you think you’re doing?” She seemed slightly, only slightly irritated.
Giselle dropped the blanket over her lap and touched the bed headboard in search of a pack of cigarettes. She took her time to pick one up, light it, give it a couple of puffs and rest back again on the headboard, while Bathsheba stared at her.
“I’m flattered.” The scientist said looking at the line of smoke. “My daughter finally cares about me.”
“I’m not in the mood, Mother.” Bathsheba hissed, stressing the last word to make it sound cold and unnatural.
“Well, learn from your father.” Giselle replied. “He’d patience to the end and he’d lived since the dawn of time - and don’t ever speak to me in that tone again. Nephilim or not, you’re here because I bred you.” She took another puff of smoke, feeling pleased with herself, while Bathsheba waited in silence. “I thought,” the doctor said finally, “you didn’t care about my experiments. And behold, I′ve just left them, and then you come here, so upset to see what happened to me. I should’ve done this before.”
“Don’t fool yourself.” The beauty corrected. “I’m concerned because you’re mad. What you’re doing is absurd - and doesn’t suit my purposes.”
Giselle stood as if she’d been stuck, showing her small and pinkish breasts. “Your purposes!” She spat. “I’m sick of your purposes! Ungrateful ignorant! Who gave you life, who raised you? But you turn your back on me as if you’re ashamed of me. You initiated yourself into the cult of that hellish goddess and forgot everything you owe to me!” With a sudden movement, she crushed the cigarette in an ashtray on the bedside table.
Bathsheba was staring at her coldly. “You’re mad.” She repeated quietly. “You only can think of your mindless revenge. The death of all of them will change nothing.”
“Enough.” Giselle sighed, distraught. “You mean you’re going to keep me from killing those bastards? Those who murdered your father, those who collaborated with them? Whose side are you on, Bathsheba?”
“On my own.”
Giselle sighed, and reached out to caress her daughter’s arm. “That’s what you can’t understand, my beautiful Bathsheba. Your side is also mine. I’ve always been with you. Why have you gone away from me?”
The Nephilim tilted her head gently. “Lilith, the mother of all Nephili, has revealed Herself to me. I know you don’t believe in Her, but I assure you She gave birth to my father and he saw Her as I now see Her myself, as you’re now looking at me, as Gertrude, Her priestess, saw Her. She told me that if I offer in sacrifice the Lux Veritatis and his lover at the Vortex’s altar, She will destroy the Periapt Shards, so nothing can hurt me, and so I’ll be immortal and invincible as Karel was never able to be.”
Giselle looked at her, stunned. “So that’s why you let them escape from the Island?”
Bathsheba simply nodded.
“So this Lilith can... break that crystal?”
“She created it, She can destroy it.”
The doctor leaned back. “Now I understand many things. You should have told me before.”
“It wasn’t the will of the Great Goddess. Now you know. Refrain from touching a hair of those three, because they belong to me.”
“Three? Who’s the third?”
“The Amazon’s pregnant. What better gift to the Queen of the Vortex than sacrifice the strongest Lux Veritatis that ever existed together with his unborn son?”
Suddenly, Giselle laughed. She buried her face in the pillow and went on laughing with delight. “Ask that goddess to let me see it.”
“You’re mad.” Bathsheba once more and rose from the chair. “It’s not payback. I do this because She ordered me to. Otherwise, I’d let you to slay the Lux Veritatis the way you wanted at the Island, and I would’ve spared the Amazon and her child, as long as she meant no threat to me.”
Seeing that Bathsheba intended to leave, Giselle got up and took her daughter’s arm. “Don’t leave, Bathsheba. We were so close before. But since you went to Meteora, you’re different. Stay with me.”
“I can’t, I won’t.”
“You just asked what I was doing. Well, my daughter, what the hell are you doing?”
“I don’t have to answer your questions, but since I still appreciate you, I will.” Bathsheba chimed. “I’m under orders of the Mother, and I’m so busy.”
“What commands you to obey that dark Lilith? What’s more important than our projects? Why didn’t you get stop those and…?”
“I’ll do as She provides. I can’t tell you anything else. Goodbye, Mother.”
“Bathsheba!” The doctor held out her arms, but her fingers grasped only air. She stood motionless for a moment, and then dropped her arms.
There had been no cold sarcasm in her last word. That, somehow, encouraged her. Bathsheba hadn’t left her cause completely. As soon as she forgot her obsession with that bloody Lilith... well. Her visit had been a warning. The scientist must hurt neither Lara nor Kurtis.
But... had she said something about the others?
Zip leaned back in his chair and loudly blew a huge bubble with his bubble gum.
Lara glared at him. “When Zip stops clowning, we’ll begin.”
Selma elbowed her partner, and he repositioned in the chair.
“Well,” Lara continued, casting her eyes by all those present, “Kurtis and I′ve been discussing what to do, and have come to some conclusion but, of course, I’d like to know your opinion about it, since you’re also somewhat affected.”
At that point, Kurtis took the word. “Giulia’s beyond help for the moment, but out of danger. The spirit who took her, unlike Meteora’s hegumenos, is not harming her. Since we can’t force it to leave her right now...”
“Yes, we can.” Marcus growled softly.
“... and I don’t approve of Marcus’ ideas to do it,” Kurtis was now looking askance at the old man, “for it would only harm her, we’ll have to go our own way before the picture gets worse, and it can get much worse. Although in the beginning I disagreed with Lara, it seems there’s no choice. We’ll soon go to Syria.”
Ivanoff winced and Selma gasped.
“To Syria!” It was Marie who spoke. “You mean to the Vortex!”
“Indeed.” Lara granted.
There was a snort of contempt, and Marcus shook his head. “Dear friends, you’re insane. It’s not you who goes to the Vortex; it is the Vortex which comes to you. Do you really expect to go to Syria and find a hole in a lost place which leads you to an underground world with flowing lava and horned devils?”
“Of course not.” Lara stressed. “This is not entirely clear to me, but it looks like the Vortex is a mindset, a parallel world, another dimension not present on Earth, but easier to reach from around Syria rather than elsewhere.”
“No one has ever been so foolish as to try to go there. You won’t make it.” Marie turned her gaze to her son. “Kurtis, please! Do you care so little about her? You know you both are going to die!”
“We have no choice.” He replied calmly. “Terrible things are coming. I feel it. I’m not even able to discern what they are. We must act. Better than sitting and waiting for the catastrophe.”
The Navajo woman stood up, furious, from her seat. “What are you going to do there? Go to the very nose of Satan and ask him to leave you alone? Try to negotiate with His Spouse? Assuming you attain crossing the threshold!
A mild cough interrupted her. Ivanoff was adjusting his glasses. “Well, Marie, let’s be objective. There’s a prophecy...”
“Demons lie or tell the truth as it suits them.” Marie cut off, and addressed Kurtis again. “You know this better than anyone else here!”
The Fighter refused to get nervous. “The Voice In The Darkness is not a common demon. Doesn’t act like a low status devil. It’s Lilith’s right hand. She wouldn’t have it come here to deliver bullshit.”
“As I said,” Ivanoff continued, clearing his throat again, “there’s a prophecy in which apparently we’re all included. A Wise, an Angel, a Warrior and an Amazon, a Hidden One, an Innocent and an Impure...” He felt his pocket and pulled out a crumpled paper. “As you know, I’ve been recently talking to some of you, except for Lara and Kurtis, obviously, since they can’t be any other than the Amazon and the Warrior, respectively - and I’ve come to some conclusions.”
“Vlad,” Selma chimed softly, “those are just theories. They may not refer exclusively to people around us.”
“Of course, my dear.” He said patting her hand with affection. “But I’m sick of being useless. Let me show off a little.” He coughed again, adjusted his glasses on the bridge of the nose and repositioned himself in the chair. Everyone watched him in silence, and Lara even smiled with fun. “Consider the prophecy. Although two will go to shed their blood at the foot of the Great Mother, this part is pretty nasty - two people will die by the hand of Lilith, as the Great Mother’s attribute is fitting to many old goddesses and this is no exception, it will be seven transiting the Bitter Path, right? Seven people are going to go through this, and Bitter Path is the nickname of a very harsh experience, probably in the Vortex... the Warrior and the Amazon, well, one must be an idiot if not figuring this out. Long before this prophecy these titles were given to our two colleagues here. There’s no other Amazon on the face of the Earth today, and her Warrior partner can’t be other than you, my Lux Veritatis friend. The Impure and the Innocent... here I came across the first wall of bricks - but I think the Impure could be our friend Giulia, given her previous activities...”
“That’s bullshit.” Kurtis cut off. “Being a prostitute means nothing to those freaks; they stain their hands with blood daily – and she’s now the vessel of the prophetic spirit.”
Ivanoff shrugged. “I just theorize, my friend. Well, moving on. The Wise, then, sorry if I’m being cocky, but there are at least four chances. First, brother Marcus, last Healer and guardian of a great legacy which Kurtis wouldn’t accept; Marie, who’s a descendant of a matriarchal kind of great wisdom and knows everything about plants, cures and primary care; Selma, who’s an expert in Semitic mythology and culture, and lastly this humble servant, who’s a professor. So the issue of the Wise is quite complex.” He cleared his throat again and continued. “The Angel. I’ve my reasons for asserting this refers to Lady Bathsheba.”
Lara laughed. “Bathsheba going through a Bitter Path? That hag will feel at home in the Vortex.”
“As you want, my dear. The Innocent is Radha, no doubt.”
The Indian teenager, who was near the window, raised her face to hear her name and looked stunned at the group of people discussing in a language she didn’t understand.
Lara felt suddenly shocked. “Radha! That can’t be, Vlad. How could she be involved in this? She’s just a girl!
“And the Hidden One.” Vlad continued. “Here I’ve to accept my defeat. I’ve not the foggiest idea. This has told the Voice in the Darkness: among the two who shed their blood, only one could be redeemed, and he’ll redeemed by the will of the Goddess. But woe to them if they don’t satisfy the Ineffable: none of them will again see the light of mortals. Indeed, among the two who will die, one can be saved if it pleases to Lilith. But how to please the Ineffable? Another great mystery.” He folded the paper again and removed his glasses. “As you see, I’ve not made great progress. I doubt everything except that concerning Lara and Kurtis. Too many chances for the Wise, and you’re not agreeing about the others. But I insist it’s convenient to go to Syria, not just you two, but all of us.”
Marcus and Marie declined in unison.
“It’s madness.” The elder said. “Excuse me, but you don’t know even what you’re talking about. It’s a collective suicide. I don’t approve of such a thing.”
Lara went around the table – on it there was a full glass of water. She put her lips on it and sipped. “Marcus,” she said, placing the glass on the table, “we need to do something. Otherwise, the situation will get out of hand.”
“Don’t know what Bathsheba may be up to,” Kurtis added, “or what the Cabal might be trying now, much less what to expect from...”
Suddenly, Lara felt bad - she stopped paying attention her partner’s words and put her hands to her temples, which suddenly ached as if they were being crushed with iron tongs. She felt a bitter taste in her mouth. She glanced at the glass and then she understood. A scream of rage parted from her lips.
“Lara!” Selma cried. “What happening?”
All went silent and looked at her. Kurtis grabbed her arm so hard she thought he was going to tear it - she didn’t realize she was falling to the floor and he was trying to hold her. Lara gripped the table and took three steps towards the door.
A cry of horror pierced the air. It was Radha - only she could scream so acute. Then Lara looked down and saw a dark stain spreading on her pants, down her legs, like a sea of warm fluid flowing from her.
Marie stood by her side, trying to hold her too, but she flung off her arms, threw herself against the door and opened it, stumbling towards the centre of the courtyard.
Maddalena was on top of the stairs, watching her with a cold smile.
Lara fell on the flagstone while the blood spread under her. She barely heard someone - was it Selma? groaning in horror. “That’s...she’s pregnant!”
I told you, Maddalena’s coralline lips whispered - but it was the Voice who spoke for her.
Lara passed out.
Bathsheba looked at her from above. Lara had never realized before how tall she was.
“Freak! Get the hell outta here!” The British explorer felt another spasm and screamed. She was lying in a pool of blood. “Go away! Damn you, this is your doing!”
“Don’t look at me. I didn’t poison you. I haven’t caused this miscarriage.”
“Get outta here. Leave me alone. Are you happy now, hag?”
“I have come to offer you an exchange, Lara, but you must hurry. I can save this life - but you must give me something in return.”
“Get out. I loathe you. Get out.”
“Tell me where the Three Shards are hidden.”
“You know, damn you. You know everything when you want. Sod off, get them and cut your throat with them.”
“Your lover has been very clever. Not only has he surrounded his mind with a barrier I can’t penetrate, but yours too. And both he and you are the only ones who know where they are.”
Another contraction - and the horrible feeling of that unstoppable bleeding, of losing, of letting die, that life inside her...
“Your child is dying, Lara. So little you care? Oh, and if his father didn’t even know!”
“The Shards, Lara! Now or never!”
Lara closed her eyes to not see her, and defeated, confessed where she had hidden them all the time, since Selma and Marie had given her the other two.
Bathsheba smiled - how beautiful she was.
“Thank you, Lara Croft. I knew you’d be reasonable. Now my turn.” The Nephilim leaned over her and put her soft lips on her forehead. Lara tried to repel those arms around her, but had no strength to resist.
Again darkness came...
Maddalena’s body, which she no longer controlled, turned and walked back towards the hallway to her bedroom where she’d been locked up and where she’d gotten out. She walked unhurriedly, calmly, her hands crossed on her chest and feeling the soft touch of the white nightgown on her bare ankles, oblivious to the screams and other signs of the drama left behind her, which she’d just caused. Quietly, she closed the door, cutting off Radha’s sharp cries, and sitting at the baroque dressing table, she began to brush sparingly her beautiful hair.
Looking up, she saw Bathsheba’s face in the mirror, behind her, but she didn’t turn. She looked at her in the mirror.
“Are you who’s called the Voice In The Dark?” The Nephilim inquired sharply.
“I am.” She said while brushing her hair.
Bathsheba’s pale cheeks were stained with flushing, as they always did when she was in a rage. “Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“Of course.” The Voice calmly answered. “I′ve given a humbling lesson to that stupid smug bitch. I am the Voice of the Great Goddess. No one is laughing at me, let alone a dirty mortal.”
Bathsheba’s long fingers drove into the chair’s black velvet. “And you consider yourself Lilith’s handmaid?” She snapped. “Did you know that both the Amazon and her child should be sacrificed to Her in Her altar and not before in any other way?”
The Voice turned and smiled. “Of course, my Lady. Do you take me for a fool? I knew you’d rush to repair the harm. The important thing is that from now on, this filthy mortal will think twice before underestimating us all. And you can be sure I′ve the blessing of the Mother, who wanted to test your speed and efficiency.”
“Your game has been too dangerous.” Bathsheba hissed. “I might not have arrived in time.”
“You underestimate yourself, my Lady.” The Voice mocked, turning back to the mirror. “Rather you should thank me for the opportunity to find out where that bitch hid the Shards.”
But Bathsheba said nothing - she looked up, at the door, and whispered before disappearing: “He comes for you.”
The door opened wide with a brutal blow. Who appeared behind it, his face flushed with rage, was Kurtis. Without saying a word, he pounced on her and grabbing her by the hair, threw her against the mirror, which broke when her head hit the glass. Maddalena fell sideways, bounced off the dressing table and went to the floor, her nightgown showing her thighs. Kurtis, out of himself, beat her repeatedly while she made a futile attempt to protect herself with her arms.
“Idiot!” She yelled, trying to shield herself. “Stop this, you moron! Remember, it’s Giulia who...!”
A punch cut off her breath, her face slammed against the floor and clouded her vision, while a burning liquid filled her mouth. She watched, fascinated, how some crimson drops began to spatter the ground.
Another hair pulling forced her to come up and look directly at her attacker. She screamed again, but out of anger and humiliation. The pain was Maddalena’s, not hers.
He’d stopped beating her, but was holding her by the shoulders and shook her so violently she thought her teeth were about to fall out. “Are you having fun?” He shouted in her face, disillusioned. “Are you entertained? Bitch! Didn’t you have enough with me, with destroying my life, my mother, my father, all of us? Fuck you! You had to touch her!”
“Lilith.... sent me to punish... that proud bitch... and she has sinned in her pride.” The Voice gurgled as a trickle of blood ran down the corners of her lips. “You may kill Giulia, but you can’t destroy me.”
Another blow forced her back to bite the ground. Crying in rage, the body convulsed and pushed Kurtis back. After a loud yell, Maddalena was free.
The Lux Veritatis sat up, rubbing his head, dazed, and saw the red-haired woman crawling up the wall and covering her face with her hands while sobbing. Her nightgown was torn and splattered with blood.
Kurtis looked down at his hands, furious with himself, and knelt beside her, who was trembling like a lamb and hadn’t even noticed that a wisp of fabric left almost exposed her breast.
What had he done? What had he said? Mad with rage at what had happened to Lara, he’d vented his rage on Maddalena.
Maddalena, who was absolutely innocent. Maddalena, who’d left her protector to look for him. Maddalena, who’d offered herself to take his place in the torture chamber.
“Giulia...” He muttered, embarrassed. “Forgive me. I lost control. I don’t...”
She uncovered her face - her lip was wounded and she had a swollen eye, but what was shining in her eyes was not hate. She threw herself into his arms and hugged him so hard that he lost his breath. “Kurtis!” She sobbed. “She forced me to...sorry...the glass... I didn’t want to! I didn’t know she was pregnant!”
He shuddered.Neither did I, Giulia. Tears moistened his neck as she wept, pressed against him. On the corner of his eye, he noticed Marcus, solemnly watching the scene, and appeared to be satisfied with the expulsion of evil through violence. Get outta here, he ordered with his eyes, full of remorse. The old man shrugged and walked away.
“Please...!” The redhead was still sobbing. “I beg you... don’t let it enter again... keep it away from me... please!”
The baroque mirror, shattered in pieces, multiplied their embraced figures by thousands.
Lara slowly opened her eyes feeling defeated, exhausted.
Sitting at the foot of the bed were Selma and Marie, like two guardian angels watching her rest. Seeing her moving, Selma stood from her chair and gently touched Marie on the shoulder. “How are you?” Said the Navajo woman, rising and approaching her.
“Couldn’t be worse.” The British explorer sighed, covering her face with her hands. “Everything’s lost.”
Selma and Marie exchanged an uneasy glance. “Lara,” The Navajo woman said again, “your... the child has survived and it seems he’ll make it. I don’t understand how this could be because he’d almost emerged... but the fact is that he’s survived.”
Lara didn’t answer. She was staring at the ceiling wood panelling. Selma hesitated: “Lara...you know you were pregnant, right?”
“Of course she knew!” Marie broke out, shaking her long hair. “Only an idiot wouldn’t notice, being almost three months along!” She bent over the recumbent. “On behalf of all that is holy, why didn’t you tell us?”
Lara neither answered nor took her eyes off the ceiling, but her slight frown showed she was beginning to chafe.
“Let’s leave her alone.” Selma whispered softly. She took Marie’s arm and both left. Marie allowed herself to be carried away but threw a glance of resentment to Lara, which she didn’t see.
“If you need us,” the Turk’s sweet voice whispered again, “we will be over here.”
“She doesn’t need us.” She heard Marie saying, morose. “She never needed us.”
The door closed – and Lara’s eyes with it.
She didn’t know how long she lay there, motionless but awake, listening to the whisper of the wind and the silence of the castle, because it was not visiting day.
Then the door opened and closed again. Someone walked up to her bed and sat down beside her. Lara wouldn’t open her eyes, but she rebuked herself and sat up. Kurtis was there.
For her it was as if seeing him for the first time, strange as it seemed. The ambiguous, indescribable expression of his face, the white skin contrasting with his dark hair. His always slightly furrowed brow, giving him an eternal expression of grim seriousness. Those rare blue eyes, so intense, like a sunset that has been completed but it’s not yet black night.
And over all, the feeling of aging in a man who was still young, and knowing that those dark circles under the eyes, those pale lips, his haggard face had nothing to do with age, but with years of pain and suffering, wars, harsh trials, imprisonment and torture, deceit and lies, a life he didn’t want to live, imposed by force.
And his silence. His eternal silence. The stronger was his sorrow, the more intimate was his pain. There was no way now, as there never had been, to know what he was thinking, what laid behind his silence.
“Please, say something.” Lara muttered. “If you’re mad at me, yell, shake me, but don’t be like this.”
Kurtis sighed and put his hands to his temples, as if gripped by a brutal headache. “It’s you who owe me a few words.”
What had his voice sounded like? Like threat, danger? Was it a tone of anger, someone about to explode? In any case, the damage was done and she couldn’t blame him.
“It’s my fault.” Lara said, trying to sound as calm as possible. “I told you everything was under control, but it wasn’t. I didn’t lie; I really thought this wouldn’t happen. Apparently, I wasn’t cautious enough.” She paused, trying to spot the smallest reaction from Kurtis, but he remained silent and motionless. “I found out I was pregnant at the hospital.” She continued, less confident. “I’d thought the pains and sickness where due to my wound. When I knew the truth, I didn’t tell anyone. A part of me wanted to get rid of this, I admit it…” Her voice broke suddenly. Why couldn’t she stay calm? Where was her confidence, her coldness? “... and perhaps it would’ve been better.” She concluded, looking back to his eyes. “But I thought that if you were dying... if they kill you, it would be the only part of you that would remain... an extraordinary man whom, however, I haven’t been able to know beyond what your eyes and your silence wanted to tell me, a man for whom I feel something I’ve never felt for anyone else.” She looked down again. “Ergo,” she sighed, opening her hands, “I didn’t have the courage to abort. And now I’ve paid a heavy price for this.” She leaned slightly forward and grabbed Kurtis’ hand - it was as cold as a corpse. “Bathsheba appeared to me as I bled. She said if I showed her where the three Periapt Shards were hidden, she’d save my life, and also...well, both of us.”
Kurtis rose abruptly, his expression of bewilderment and confusion increasing. Lara cursed herself for causing him that distress.
“I tried to protect your mind from her!”
“I wasn’t willing to give in.” Lara added. “But... the pain was too much and I admit I didn’t want to lose... now that I’ve decided to keep him.”
Kurtis brought his hands to his temples again.
“I made a terrible mistake.” Lara concluded. “I’ve revealed to Bathsheba where the Shards are. She’ll take them to Lilith and She’ll destroy them. Then there will be no way to kill her and we’ll be lost.”
“It’s my fault.” He muttered. “I should’ve guessed... if I...”
Lara shook her head violently. “Enough! You can’t assume all the blame! It’s me who disappointed you. You already have enough burdens on your shoulders, my love. Don’t carry my faults too.”
Kurtis gave a shuddering sigh and buried his face in his hands. Lara thought he’d cry, but he immediately withdrew his hands and his eyes were still dry and red. “Enough burdens on my shoulders... I spent all my life carrying them all. Before knowing you I felt tempted to put the gun to my head more than once.” He stopped abruptly. He was talking too much about himself. But then resumed his speech by talking with rage. “I just beat the shit outta Giulia. The Voice didn’t endure the humiliation and left her, but it will return. I know it will. And I’m just a beast that has gone berserk...”
“You beat her because of me?”
“She was forced to poison you.” Kurtis gasped. “I punished her even though I knew she wasn’t to blame. But nothing makes sense without you, Lara... and nothing I do turns out well... I failed... how could I be so stupid to not see...?” He collapsed back in the chair, holding his head in despair. Lara had never seen him so tormented, he used to be so blank.
She put her arm around his shoulders. “Kurtis, forgive me for having hid this.” She muttered. “Everything else is irrelevant.” She hesitated a moment and then went on. “I won’t force you to be responsible for my mistake. I can manage this alone...” She stopped.
Kurtis had calmed down and looked at her solemnly. “Don’t insult me, Lara. I care about this child as much as you - and I think if he’s been able to make it so far, he’s well worth a try.” He withdrew her arm gently and stood up. Lara looked at him aghast. “Such patience and faith you have in me...”
“That’s the difference between you and me, M’lady. You’d never forgive me if I ever distrusted you this way.” He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette, put it to his lips and lit it with a gesture that seemed terribly sexy to her.
“I behaved like a spoiled brat.” She whispered.
“You weren’t the only one.” He sighed, puffing out the smoke.
Lara looked at him for a while and smiled.
“What’s up?” Kurtis asked then.
“Here’s a man who’s not frightened by parenthood. Even in that you had to be different.”
He laughed, but it was a laugh full of bitterness. “If we all survive this, it will be the best thing that ever happened to me.” He threw the cigarette to the floor and stepped on it with his heel. “It will be the only thing worth having been born for, apart from having met you, Lara. Everything else... I′d like to forget forever.”
She didn’t answer, because she knew what he meant - yes, now she knew.
Two days later, Marcus, Maddalena, Lara and Kurtis left for Syria.
Both Lara and Kurtis had thought in leaving immediately without warning, but it wasn’t possible in any way. First, because the one in charge of connecting with Meteora’s monastery and requesting the helicopter still being used by the monks, was Zip. Soon it was known by everyone in the castle.
The monks didn’t refuse but also demanded Marcus’ presence to heal hegumenos Nikos - no one could explain how he was still alive. In fact it had been Bathsheba, who not seeing any need to kill him, had ordered the spirit to spare him. But every day was torture - too high a price he was paying for having laid his fingers on her.
And Maddalena...Lara didn’t understand why take her with them. “I can’t agree.” She hissed between teeth, glaring at Kurtis. “She’s a nuisance. We’re troubled enough...”
“The Voice hasn’t left her – it will return to claim her prey. If someone has to lead us, it’s her.” Kurtis replied calmly, trying to pretend he wasn’t offended by her jealousy.
It wasn’t the only bad attitude he endured. Marie turned her back to him after knowing they were leaving for Syria, and locked herself in her bedroom. Radha’s eyes welled with tears when she learned that Lara, whom she began to love as an older sister, would leave her behind again - but she didn’t protest.
Zip and Selma were too engrossed with each other to worry excessively about that and Ivanoff was immersed in his books. However, the Turkish girl didn’t resist telling the explorer: “Are you sure? In your condition...”
“In my condition! I’m not missing a limb, Selma.”
“You know what I mean... Marie’s very upset...”
“That’s Kurtis’ business. She’s his mother. I’ve no obligations to her.”
And the Lux Veritatis, the evening they left, went to talk to the Navajo woman, but she didn’t open. Selma watched from afar as he muttered calmly at the closed door - but no answer came out. Finally he withdrew in silence. When crossing paths with the Turkish girl in the hallway, Kurtis smiled and said: “She’s mad at us, of course. They took her husband away a long time ago, then her son, and now...” He paused for a moment, then continued. “I′d rather have her yelling at me, but that’s not her style. Take care of her in my absence, Selma. Will you?”
“Of course.” She smiled, then blushed and hugged him. “You take care of Lara. She’s quite self-confident and can manage this but... she’s risking too much. And of course, take care of yourself. I looked after you for almost a month two years ago and I′d like you to appreciate my effort, you know.”
And there they were, lodged in the helicopter, waiting to depart. Maddalena looked away from the window, crouched in her seat, as if none of this had to do with her. Ivanoff, tightly clutching his glasses so they wouldn’t come flying off with the whirlwind imparted by the propellers, shouted above the roar of the engine: “Did I mention you’re completely mad? You’re going nowhere with no goal!”
“Now it’s up to the Voice.” Lara mocked, up to the helicopter. She was dressed in trousers and coat, partially hiding her budding pregnancy. “Vlad, here we’re putting in danger all of you. Since we’ve brought Evil with us, at least we’ll take it away from here.”
When the helicopter took off, all remained silent. Kurtis was sitting next to the monk pilot and talking to him in a low voice. Marcus was next to Lara, then addressed her: “I’ll stay in Meteora to help the hegumenos. I’ll keep in touch with you through Kurtis.” Seeing Lara’s arched eyebrows, he added. “Quite difficult to explain right now. Call me if anything happens. I may be old but I know how to handle these demons and,” here he lowered his voice, “and I don’t think he’d want to ask for my help.”
The flight to Meteora felt like eternity. No one spoke and Lara spent the trip looking out the corner of the eye at Maddalena, who stood staring at the landscape, barely moving, her copper strands of hair partly hidding her bruised face. Lara would’ve never rejoiced about Kurtis’ reaction against her - too cruel, even for the ruthless explorer’s standards. She simply was surprised to find that him, always under self-control, had lost his temper against someone who couldn’t defend herself and wasn’t at all guilty.
Not that Lara felt sorry for her, anyway.
As the British explorer looked at Maddalena quietly, she couldn’t help but wonder why she couldn’t stand her presence. The Italian redhead had dared to defy her only once, when she caught her showing Kurtis her naked body through her wet nightgown – she’d stated that not everyone was high-born like her. Well, she was right. But since Lara had rescued all of them back in the Island, the Italian woman avoided her, shunned her glance and hadn’t spoken to her.
No, Maddalena was no rival for Lara. She almost feared her - but it wasn’t enough to stop haunting Kurtis, who was torn between his love for Lara and the remorse for the suffering of that woman who loved him without restraint.
Lara pursed her lips. She wanted Maddalena to disappear. She wanted her out of the way, taken away by that bloody demon, whatever. She did nothing but stand in the middle… and Lara was losing her patience.
Unfortunately, the British explorer could do little against it. At the end of the day, and although she didn’t want to admit it, Lara couldn’t stand the fact that Maddalena, all by herself, had been able to find Kurtis, meet him and offer herself to take his place in torture before she’d arrived. When Lara hardly knew where to search, she was already there. The redhead had been there before her. Immature and foolish as it sounded, that made Lara greatly upset.
The British explorer decided Maddalena had to disappear. She didn’t know how, and certainly she couldn’t harm her - but she’d to get out of their way. She didn’t even fit in this scenario at all. She was a prostitute and always would be. She had to return with her people. Here, she had nothing left to do.
Selma wandered blankly throughout the castle outer, wondering what to do next with her life. Lara and Kurtis no longer needed her, even if it hurt her to admit it. They had left for Syria with Marcus, and she no longer had anything to do with that story. And Zip, with whom – she had to admit it too, she was in love - seemed to have no greater interest than expected, with his nose pressed against his computer screen, for something to happen.
Selma felt helpless. She couldn’t do anything for anyone or take any decision. It was frustrating.
In vain she’d tried to get Marie to open the door. Next to it sat Radha, willing to wait her out, and every time Selma came with food for the old woman, she was still sitting there.
“Has she come out of there?” Asked Selma every time.
The Hindu girl always shook her head. In the end, as Marie didn’t touch food trays, it was she who ate them, deciding to remain in that spot until the Navajo woman went out.
Selma felt horrified when thinking Marie was there for three days, locked up without food and without wanting to talk to anyone. The Turkish girl had even suggested to break down the door, just in case she’d done something stupid, but Radha assured she’d hear Marie coughing and moving around the room.
Meanwhile, Zip was on his laptop and Vlad in his books! Why were men never aware of the seriousness of situations?
One day, in one of her wanderings, Selma had got lost by the gardens surrounding the castle and saw before her a shack-shed like those which gardeners used to store tools. She should’ve turned around to undo her way, but the few seconds she remained absorbed in her thoughts would be fatal for her.
The shed door burst open.
Everything happened too fast for her, no chance to react. Two huge and strong arms encircled her from behind and lifted from the ground, throwing her into the shed. She tried to scream but a hand clamped over her mouth as she was dragged in. The door closed, throwing her in the dark.
“The famous archaeologist Selma Al-Jazeera...” Whispered a female voice which couldn’t be related to those arms. “All a celebrity in her country. Too bad, she’s so young...”
Someone turned on a bulb in the ceiling and then she was released. Selma fell over a shelf full of fertilizer bags as she looked at her kidnappers.
She knew one of them - that brutal mercenary who′d tied Kurtis with barbed wire strand. The other was a woman she’d never seen before, a sweet blonde with green eyes and an exquisite taste in clothes, enhancing the very light and beauty of her face.
“What do you want?” The Turkish girl gasped.
“Don’t scream. No one will hear you. We’ve men placed in several parts of the gardens. Obviously you’ve not seen them. I tell you this because you’re not going to leave.”
Selma looked terrified. “Who are you?”
“My name is Giselle Boaz. Ah, I see it’s familiar to you. Your British friend must have told you about me.”
“What do you want from me?”
Three men whom she hadn’t seen before came out the darkness and surrounded Schäffer. Selma pressed closer against the shelf, while the sweat ran down her back. “I did nothing to you!”
“You think so? Are not you the same Selma who hosted in her home and took care of a murderer?”
“Kurtis’ not a murderer. And I’d never refuse to help someone sick and wounded. You don’t help sick and wounded. You kill them.”
“Stupid girl. You know nothing about anything. Kurtis murdered my sister. My dear Kristina, who was like a twin to me. He killed her in cold blood and without being able to defend herself.”
“That’s a lie!” Selma cried, outraged.
“Say what you want. But not satisfied with that, you helped that bitch Lara Croft, you opened the city of Eden so she could plunder it, and you also helped them to murder Karel.”
“It was Karel, through Eckhardt, who killed my friends and my boyfriend, who destroyed my projects and my whole life.” Selma couldn’t stop. “No one, but him, is a murderer. You’re the one who doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”
Giselle took two steps forward and, raising her hand, slapped her. The girl’s face slammed into the shelf. She cried and her mouth started to bleed.
“Minion.” She heard again Giselle’s voice. “Damn Turkish bitch. You’ve been working willingly with that slut and her pig of a lover. You think your life has been miserable? Wait and see.”
The doctor raised her hand again and snapped her fingers. Immediately the four men surrounded her and started dragging her back. Selma screamed even knowing no one would hear her. Her panic increased when she was thrown back on the surface of a table and they began to undress her, since her screaming, crying, and kicking could do nothing against the strength of those brutes.
“Don’t worry, darling.” Giselle said. “They’re not going to rape you. These are men of good breeding, pure German blood. They would never mix with scum like you.”
Once they finished stripping her, Schäffer took a heavy chain and passed it around a wooden beam above, adjusted it well and bound Selma’s wrists to it, while she was strongly held by the others. Then he tugged at the other end of the chain and lifted her, leaving her half hanging from the ceiling while her knees still had support on the table.
Giselle nodded, satisfied, and then Schäffer tied the chain to another beam. The other three flew back to their place in the shadows, while eyeing Selma’s nakedness, whose dark skin was damp with sweat.
“Your two friends,” continued the doctor, “along with that redheaded whore and the old man, have vanished. Where are they? Where have they gone?”
Selma remained silent.
“I asked you a question. If you don’t answer, you’ll be in trouble. Where have they gone?”
Giselle sighed in annoyance and, raising her hand, snapped her fingers again. Schäffer stepped forward and kicked the table, making it fall. Selma’s body, without support, hung itself down; her toes barely touching the ground.
“I’ll have to ask another friend of yours.” Giselle insisted. “The black man, for example. Or the Indian girl! What would be a few fingers more for her?”
“Monster!” Selma suddenly dropped, making a tremendous effort to breath. That position was very painful.
“I’m not more monstrous than that fucking bastard and the whore he just impregnated. Ah, of course I know that, my dear. What kind of monster would I be otherwise?”
Schäffer tried not to smile – listening to the delicate Giselle Boaz swearing like that was unheard of.
“Will you speak? Or will I have to ask someone else?”
Selma took another slow, painful breath. “Guess what? Kurtis didn’t kill your sister. Eckhardt killed her despite everything she’d done for his cause. She was killed before your Karel’s very eyes, who did nothing to stop him.”
“Now you want me to shut up? If she’d been you, that devil you think you loved wouldn’t have done anything for you. And you waste your life in his cause. You’re pathetic, I feel sorry for you. I hope it’s true that there’s a hell where people like you are going. Hopefully, when you go there, you’ll meet him, and he’ll tell you what I’m telling you now: that he never cared about you!”
Giselle pounced on her, but went back disgusted when feeling a sticky substance on her face. She’d spit on her! “Adolf!” The doctor yelled. “Give it to me!”
The mercenary hesitated. He looked at the blonde covering her dirty cheek with a trembling hand and offering him the other, her face red with anger and her eyes almost popping out of their sockets.
“Doctor, better to...”
“Give it to me now!” Giselle howled again. The outstretched hand shook under his nose. The mercs were looking amazed at her.
“Giselle.” Schäffer lowered his voice. “That’s not what we planned... I can’t let you do this...”
“It’s the last time I command this, Adolf Schäffer!” She shouted in reply.
At last, after a few seconds of indecision, the leader of the mercenaries slowly removed an object from his coat, wrapped in a cloth. He unfolded it and put it slowly in Giselle’s hand, who gripped it and turned back to Selma.
Suddenly, the Turkish girl desired to be dead.
To close her eyes and find out it was all a bad dream, a nightmare. That was not real, Giselle didn’t have that in her hand, and she was not directing it towards her and lifting it up to her belly.
An iron hook.