When Meteora valley appeared before her, Lara thought she would’ve never suspected to return there so many times - and yet the beauty of that place still made her mute in awe.
Maddalena was also silent while watching, impressed by those huge masses of stone with monasteries on the top. After the helicopter landed near Kalambaka, she felt dizzy when discovering the only way to access Ayios Stefanos was to climb that almost vertical wall, as the famous web-elevator would be used only by the elder Marcus.
Lara turned towards the redhead and said: “No need to go up. The climb’s exhausting and we’re just going to stop for an hour.” Maddalena was about to thank her when the British explorer, turning around, said aloud: “Anyway, I don’t think the monks will allow you in. They’re picky enough with common women, they’d probably make a fuss with a prostitute.”
The Italian girl blushed and tried to hold back a harsh reply, but she finally said: “I don’t think you should climb either, sister, considering your delicate pregnancy.”
Lara pivoted on her heels in time to see how some monks who’d arrived to meet them exchanged a shocked look. The argument didn’t go further because Kurtis grabbed Lara’s arm - not too gently, and took her away. “Making friends are we, M’lady?” He hissed quietly.
“Funny to see how you take her side.”
“You’ve provoked her, Lara. No need for this - you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“You’re blind about what’s happening here, aren’t you? I warned you and since you do nothing to handle this, I will.”
Kurtis let her go, stepped back and stared at her. At last he muttered: “I love you, Lara, but I hate when you behave like a spoiled brat.” Without giving her time to reply, he turned and headed towards the monastery. Lara watched him walk away in silence.
The whole community had come to greet them. At seeing them appear together, both Healer and Fighter, the monks did something they had never done before: they bowed their heads and fell on their knees. Marcus stretched out his hands, grateful, but Kurtis stepped back, frowning. Disgusting - it was disgusting! Were they gods? Some kind of Messiah? He felt sick.
“In this evil hour,” said the parish clerk, who acted as spokesman, “at last a glimpse of hope for our dying hegumenos. In your dying Order there’s still a Healer alive: God’s answer to our prayers.”
Marcus, who shone like a transfigured Christ, asked: “Take me to your hegumenos.”
The cell remained dark and stuffy. When they open the door, a wave of stench struck the two Lux Veritatis. Kurtis went back and covered his mouth and nose. Before Marcus’ indignant gesture, the parish clerk hastened to explain: “His condition has worsened a lot. He went wild and impossible to deal with, broke the ropes and attacked our brothers when we tried to feed and wash him, so we’d to chain him to the bed. He tore our Brother Kyriakos’ ear by biting him. Dirty and having to lay down, he has bed sores on his back, but we daren’t let him go. He hasn’t eaten for days, but looks like the devil keeps him alive. You, who are Gifted, please have mercy on him.”
Marcus entered decisively into the stinking cell and commanded to open the window. The show he found would’ve scared the bravest of mortals.
Lying and rigid, with torn clothes and covered by his own filth, a thin and wrinkled Nikos was waiting for a hopeless death. He was just reduced to his bones; his head like a skull, his eyes wide, his jaw collapsed and his clenched teeth full of bloody foam. The stench was as disgusting as the worms Kurtis could see sliding down the festering sores produced by the bindings.
“Close the door, Brother,” ordered Marcus to the parish clerk, “and withdraw to pray for your hegumenos. I’ll do my best.”
When Kurtis was about to follow him, the old man said: “Stay. I need your psychic powers to deal with this creature.”
Without turning, the Fighter replied: “You don’t command me, Marcus. I thought this was clear when I left the Order.”
“Will you deny relief to a troubled soul?”
“I also remember saying I don’t like your methods.”
“They’re not mine. This has been done since the Order exists. And if you don’t want me to command you, Ibeg you. Without you it will be impossible, son.”
Finally, Kurtis relented and turned. A shiver ran down his spine at seeing Nikos, his head twisted in a horrible angle and his drooling mouth twisted in a grotesque grimace, having his bloodshot eyes upon him. The hegumenos started to shake violently, and releasing a dreadful laugh said: “Ah, woe to you!”
Marcus went towards the bed - though the stench was enough to repel anyone back. Then the possessed started screaming harder, still looking at Kurtis: “Woe to you, son of a whore and lover of a whore! Woe to you, Fighter! The hole is already open under your feet, death hands you her arms and a grave awaits you! Woe to you, doomed before birth, for you’ll die in terror and be doomed for all eternity...!”
The old man stepped forward and snapped: “Shut up! One hundred thousand of aeons have passed since you were thrown out by the angels of Paradise, with your Lord and your Lady, to drink from the shadows, and to grieve in the darkness, and from that day you still dare to torment those who are pure and servants of the Light.”
But the creature who spoke by the mouth of Nikos didn’t attend his words and continued screaming at Kurtis: “Woe to you, bastard! You filled up the measure and your time is coming!”
“It’s all a pack of lies.” Marcus interjected.
Nikos’s head turned towards him so sharply that his neck bones cracked.
“Lies!” He croaked. “How dare you! The Voice in the Dark doesn’t know the essence of lie - a mortals’ feature, but speaks clearly of what the Great Goddess has seen in the distance. And I who repeat her clear words, I’m not lying either.”
“What else has this fucking goddess said?” The possessed turned his head again to Kurtis, who’d just spoken. The Fighter had clenched fists and his knuckles were white, as if those words were disturbing him. However it was not for him whom he cared.
“I wouldn’t speak so lightly of Her who has your life in Her hands.” Nikos mocked. “Everything you’ve endured so far is nothing compared to what awaits you - and you won’t be the only one to atone for his pride...ha, ha, ha!”
“Let’s end this.” Kurtis muttered, standing next to Marcus.
Lara wasn’t being idle - that wasn’t her style. She’d jumped down from the helicopter, went to a rock and sat on it, displayed a map of Syria and started phoning all the contacts she’d in the area - not many as she’d barely been there in the past, but that would be enough.
As she was managing this, she thought all that adventure was a crazy business - they weren’t going to any particular place, nor for anything in particular. The main idea was to take away danger from those who’d been left behind - and she couldn’t know yet that wouldn’t work.
However, Lara was far from being lost, as Maddalena or even Kurtis felt lost. She knew exactly what she’d to do. First thing was talking to Bathsheba. The beautiful Nephilim had been rather “accessible”- of course, if it suit her own goals, but she also lacked her father’s cruel side. While that didn’t make her better, it could mean a chance for Lara, who suspected that being a newborn, Bathsheba could be dealt with in a way she’d never have considered with Karel.
However, she couldn’t be confident about that, since though the Nephilim was young that didn’t mean she was naive. If at that point Bathsheba had retrieved the Shards it would be the perfect time to implement the plan the British explorer had in mind, since Kurtis was protecting them from the sharp sight of the Nephi...
A shadow covered the sunlight and Lara looked up. Maddalena was in front of her. It was impressive to see her backlit, the sun filtering through her locks gave the impression her hair was on fire. “What are you doing?” She asked.
Lara was about to send her to hell, but then said: “I’m planning our next moves.”
The redhead surrounded her narrow waist with her white arms. She looked really helpless despite her pride. “I’ve no idea what we’re doing and where we’re going.” She muttered. “If you’d explain to me... everyone seems to know what we take in hand, but me.”
“That’s because you shouldn’t be here.” Lara replied bluntly. “You should have remained with your people – you’re messing with something beyond your understanding.”
Maddalena looked at her briefly and then said: “You don’t like me. You think I’m molesting Kurtis.”
“I don’t think so.” Lara mocked. “I see it every day.”
The Italian woman looked very confused - she wasn’t used to Lara’s temper, but she forced herself to stand and said: “I don’t care about what you think or see - I’m not willing to be humiliated by you. I may not be more than a whore, but you’re not better than me, not with that queen-of-the-world attitude and manners. Not because of having been born wi...”
“... with my ass on cotton pillows am I superior to you. Thanks, I remember how to finish the sentence. I’ve heard that many times. Y’know what?”
Maddalena remained silent.
“You should inform yourself about who I am, so you can find out that I have lived to detach those cotton pillows from my ass, as you say with your low-life manners. I don’t need anyone at my side, I support myself with my two hands. Instead, you’ve had to live in the shadow of scoundrels and despicable people to go on.” Then Lara got up abruptly. Maddalena stepped back instinctively, but the British explorer swung the map and added: “However, you refuse to return with your people and you’re chasing a man who’s not interested at you. And behold, a demon has chosen you as a means to poison me, pry the only advantage we’d on our enemies, and worsen our situation. Looks like I’ll have to put up with you, but now you’re going to know exactly what you’re dealing with.”
The surgeon couldn’t believe his eyes. He’d crossed the aisle, running sterilized at full speed, and when he saw the body in the operating room, screamed in rage: “Who did this?”
“Severe bleeding from laceration with a pointed metal object.” The nurse reported. “Tearing of the peritoneum and several broken floating ribs...”
“I see, I see!” He grunted, quickly adjusting his gloves.
The woman on the stretcher - a woman? Just a girl! had her belly cut open, so her bowels had spilled out. The nurse was trying to introduce them all over again in the body with trembling hands, while another surgeon was attempting to repair the blood vessels, which were quickly shedding their contents, but there was so much blood that she no longer knew what she was looking at.
“How many blood bags did she take?” The first surgeon gasped.
“Three ... we’re running out of blood. We’re losing her.”
“How many years?”
“About twenty-five. Turkish. Selma Al-Jazeera.”
Amid the red splash on his glasses, the surgeon remembered...Selma Al-Jazeera? Was she that young archaeologist at Cappadocia? His young son, who was studying History, used to talk about her all the time...
“We’re losing her, Doctor...”
In the aisle, Zip tore his hair, ripped his shirt collar, and bit his finger nails. He let out loads of curses and profanities, half blind with tears - until Marie sighed, stood before him and slapped him twice, cutting off the poor man’s hysteria.
“Stop behaving like an ass!” The Navajo woman spat in his very face. “You’re embarrassing your partner! Be worthy of this trial you’re enduring!”
Zip groaned and collapsed on a seat. Luckily, they were alone in the room, apart from Vlad, who’d watched the scene in horror, and Radha, who was standing like a caryatid in front of the entrance door of the operating room, staring at the junction of the doors.
“That bitch... that bitch...!” Zip hissed through his clenched teeth.
It had been Giselle - no doubt. Selma had been found chained, her belly open and her guts hanging. A clean, stylish cut, a surgeon cutting. Not lethal but intended to make her suffer for hours, and for hours she’d cried for help, and with every cry her insides fell out a little more, so she’d not move - and the blood trickling down her legs. When Zip found her, she’d already passed out.
“Hanged and gutted…!” He yelled, burying his head in his hands “That butcherer... that bitch...”
Radha stepped back, knelt on the ground, and clasped her hands. Then she bowed her head and started mumbling a litany in her language.
“Pray, child, pray.” Marie murmured. “She’s gonna need it...”
Only that tragedy had been able to bring her out of her confinement. The Navajo woman was weakened by her hunger strike, but after seeing the panorama, it looked like it was time to stop fooling around and take care of the others. One more time.
Quietly, firmly, Kurtis and Marcus joined hands before the hegumenos’ bed. The demon, who’d seen this sign performed many times over the centuries, knew what to expect, but still showed no fear and no will to leave the body, and laughed and insulted them with a parley half in Greek, half in Latin.
It was Healers’ business to expel a demon entrenched in a human body. Purification ceremonies, as they were called, were performed by several Healers and at least one Fighter containing the evil spirit with the strength of his mind, for a Healer was vulnerable during the exorcism.
And now there were only a Healer and a Fighter - a very old Healer indeed, and a Fighter who didn’t want to be so, but who had the strength of many. And that was acknowledged by that demon, who, seeing the risk, sent a message to his Lady: What should I do? Leave, endure? How much longer do I have to deal with this?
Over time, distance, and the vacuum of silence Bathsheba heard the lament of the creature. After a while, she commanded: Resist as long as you can and then leave. Hurt them as much as you can, kill the old man if you’re able - and then withdraw, you’ve done enough.
Again the evil spirit insisted, saying, Should I kill the hegumenos?
Bathsheba said,No need, he’ll die alone. Now back off, I’m busy.
“Listen, evil spirit!” Marcus shouted. “I command you to leave this mortal body you’re tormenting and go back to the Shadow you came from. If you don’t obey, I shall expel you by force, cleansing you like a festering wound, and that will be harsh and I’ll even destroy you if necessary.”
For answer, the spirit issued a grotesque laughter to provoke the Healer, who immediately started the ritual.
About what happened there in, the monks never knew: they heard as if they were butchering the poor hegumenos for almost three hours. There wasn’t the slightest physical aggression though - it was all a battle between minds: the demon and the two Lux Veritatis - a harsh struggle. The spirit twisted Nikos’ body until releasing the bounds which tied him to the bed and threw himself over Marcus, knocked him on the ground and would’ve strangled him if Kurtis hadn’t pulled him out of there and sent him headlong into the other end of the room, using his telekinesis to avoid touching that dirty, tortured carcase.
“Damn, I’ve killed him.” He mumbled grumpy, helping Marcus to get up, whose lip was bleeding.
“Hopefully not.” Said the old man, coughing, dropping himself into a chair.
Kurtis quickly bent over the hegumenos limp body, who suddenly twisted as if receiving an electrical shock and put his hands around his neck, choking him, his nails scratching his skin and leaving blood grooves, as a last attempt. But after that the spirit was exhausted and left, yelling in frustration. The hegumenos’ body stopped shaking and collapsed on Kurtis, who pulled him away and lay on the ground.
Marcus went towards him and examined him. Nikos was unconscious and breathing very faintly. Kurtis stood scratching his neck and looking around. Finally he said: “It’s gone. Won’t return.”
“Blessed be the Light. Call the monks, son, he needs care.”
The brothers praised the two Lux Veritatis as hurried to attend the hegumenos, who cured and washed along with that filthy room. Kurtis didn’t miss more than one glance of reproach from them, as if saying you weren’t able, but he’s done it. The Fighter didn’t care about what they may think – and truth be told since without his help, Marcus wouldn’t have made it.
The American turned his back to everyone and went to the monastery entrance. The bright sun hurt his eyes, after being at the darkness of the monk’s stinking cell. He rubbed the scratches on his neck, thinking about what the spirit had told him. He wasn’t sure all that was bullshit – Marcus could believe as he pleased, but as a Fighter, during all his life, he’d learned far more about demons than any Healer.
At that time, Marcus, who’d followed him, overtook him and said: “Where are you going, son?”
“Lara and Giulia are waiting for me. I’m leaving, Marcus, I’ve nothing left to do here.”
“I’ll stay. Nikos may not survive and here I’m needed. May the Light be with you, son.”
“And with you, Marcus.”
The chief police leaned over and examined the photographs taken from the crime scene. Then he sighed and threw them on the table, and looked at the two women before him. A young and an old one - two Indians, one from the actual India and one who must be a red-skin or something...
“I’m Navajo, inspector.” Marie said. “Stop looking at me that way.”
“Excuse me. You’re without doubt a pretty picturesque group. I spoke with the surgeon and stated the injury is caused by a person skilled in medicine... so they didn’t immediately seek to kill Miss Al-Jazeera. If you can...”
“I told you.” The old woman insisted. “She’s a young and attractive woman, her name’s Giselle Boaz and she’s a scientist - or so she thinks.”
“Where from do you draw the guidelines for making such a statement?”
Marie remained silent. What could she say? How to start from the beginning - the Nephili, the Cabal, the Lux Veritatis and a lifetime of misery and suffering? “She’s our enemy. I think she acted out of revenge.”
“You must get me familiar with such a relationship or I won’t trust you, no less to let you go.”
“You can’t hold me against my will. What charges do you have against me?”
“It’s compulsory that...”
“Stop wasting time. That crazy killer is on the loose. You better find her before there’s another tragedy.”
“There’s the crime scene, a filthy tool shed where they’ve hung an innocent girl and gutted her like a pig. We can provide information concerning this woman, and what activities she’s dedicated to...” Suddenly, there was light in Marie’s mind. Leaning towards the agent, she said: “Two years ago, there were a series of crimes committed in the Strahov in Prague and then in the outskirts of Munich, in a place known as the Laboratory. Are you familiar with those facts?”
“Then contact the Czech and German police and they will tell you the same about Giselle Boaz - she was among the few implicated who managed to escape.”
Zip, his forehead and hands resting on the cold glass, was staring at the clear liquid poured through the tube into Selma’s arm, who, covered with a sheet up to her neck, danced on the border between life and death, without regaining consciousness. Thus he could see her only through the glass - after surgery she’d been transferred to the ICU, the wreckage of her belly already patched. Stuck to that glass, he spent hours without moving.
“Son...” The hacker took a moment to cast his eyes away from her, but he finally did. The surgeon was beside him, and judging by the way he was looking at him, with pity; he must be looking terrible. “Son, this is in God’s hands, as my grandmother used to tell me. I did my best, but she’s very weak and depends on her own strength. We’ll watch her day and night to take care of her, but I won’t give you any hope. It’s up to her now...”
Zip wasn’t listening - he felt a ringing in the ears. What a fool he’d been, while she was screaming and bleeding, helpless before her executioners, and he was engaged with a damn computer. That was how he’d spent his whole life and now, because of that, he was about to lose her… she, who was the only one to make him feel, in a long time, that life’s worth living.
The surgeon, receiving no answer, patted his back and walked away, lamenting, what a pity, such a young and pretty girl, these things shouldn’t happen, what a disgrace...and prepared himself for another night of insomnia.
Then Zip’s cell phone rang - at first he didn’t recognize the singing melody, but then he picked it up: “Zip, honey, it’s me, Marie...”
“Look, we reached a consensus with the police. That damn woman won’t remain unpunished, but now we’re in danger, Zip, we gotta hide...”
“Not gonna go anywhere, Marie. My place’s here with her.”
“Son, you’re in serious danger, we gotta...”
“Whyon earth is everyone calling me “son”!? I ain’t nobody’s son, and I’m not moving an inch from here!”
“As you want...I hope you’re aware of...”
“I’m aware that Selma′s dying, period.”
“Vlad will return to the castle nevertheless, there’s been no way to convince him, and as for me, I’ll take care of Radha’s safety and trying to contact both my son and Lara.”
“Good luck, Marie. You don’t need to worry about me no more.” He hung up and kept looking through the glass.
On reaching the place where the helicopter was waiting, Kurtis saw Lara sitting, looking at a map, and Maddalena at her side. The British explorer, as usual in her, looked calm and self-confident as if this were just another adventure, as if she wasn’t pregnant and expecting death - if he’d to trust what that demon had predicted, and it was foolish not to listen to it.
Kurtis sighed. What he would’ve done to have the faith she had - in herself and her chances, so everything would be fine. Maybe that’s why she’d succeeded in almost everything she’d fallen into, whereas he’d failed again and again.
Seeing him, Maddalena rose. If he’d been already shocked seeing the two of them together and in silence, he was far more shocked by how she looked at him, as if for the first time. Not so, he corrected himself, because the first time she’d looked at him with sexual desire, and now as if he was a freak, a creature as strange as admirable.
“You’re bleeding!” The redhead said. He’d forgotten about the scratches on his neck, touched them and mumbled that it was nothing.
“Must have been...ominous.” Lara said shrewdly.
“I’ve had worse.” He replied. “Sorry for taking too long. How it’s going?”
The British explorer quickly folded up the huge map. “Complicated. We’ll make a first stop in Beirut and then continue to Damascus. I′ve some contacts in the area.”
“Syria’s wide.” Maddalena interjected, to Kurtis’ surprise. “There’s no place we can aim for, as you told me.”
“No, but I′ve a clue.” Smiling, Lara walked to the chopper and jumped in, prompting the pilot to fly to Lebanon.
Maddalena glanced at Kurtis candidly and walked leisurely towards the vehicle.
Well, that was weird. What did you tell her, Lara?
Nikos Kavafis, successor of the ineffable Minos Axiotis - who’d died in odour of sanctity, regained consciousness and opened his eyes, looked stunned at the crowd of brethren around him, and among them an old man slightly bent, long white hair, but with a fierce expression on his face.
“How do you feel,patéras Kavafis?”
“Who are you?”
“Marcus the Healer, brother of the Lux Veritatis’ Order.”
The hegumenos put his hands to his temples, dazed, and two brothers helped him to sit in the bed, now clean and healed of his wounds, still staring at the old man. Marcus finally rolled up his black robe and bared his skinny shoulder.
“A Lux Veritatis Healer!” Nikos exclaimed, seeing the tattoo.
“I survived the Order’s extinction, as brother Kurtis whom you already know. However, there will be time to talk about this later. How are you?”
“Not very well... what happened to me?”
“Don’t you remember?”
Nikos ran his hands over his face, exhausted, and looked at his bandaged hands. “A woman... with big green eyes...”
“Is that your last memory?Patéras, it’s been almost five months since the Nephilim Bathsheba...”
The hegumenos writhed when hearing that name and let out a scream. “I’ve sinned against chastity. That demon prompted me to lust. She came and stole the Periapt...I’ve sinned...”
“Any sin you think you’ve committed are purged to spare. You’ve been purified and the evil spirit won’t haunt you anymore.”
“I can’t remember anything...”
“So much the better.Patéras, I request an immediate meeting with the entire community. You’re still weak and shouldn’t get up, but it’s compulsory to convene the meeting. Something serious is happening.”
“Be as you say. Pancratios will attend on my behalf.”
The novice bowed, flattered by being awarded with such honor.
The meeting was held in the refectory. There were already many monks who lived in Ayios Stefanos – thirty to be exact - despite those who’d died and that no new novices came, except Pancratios, who, as Marcus would know later, had been abandoned as a child at the foot of the immense rock and his cries attracted the attention of the monks, who adopted him. This conditioned his sour spirit, and led him to such an ascetic life among adults and elderly men. Looking at the monks who’d gathered around him, the Healer knew that in many generations the monastery would be empty and become just another place for sightseeing.
And so it must be. The old historical monastic orders were doomed to disappear. Some of them because of having died or grown older, others because having been exterminated.
Discarding that dark thought, Marcus started: “Brethren, I came to you not only to heal your hegumenos, for whose recovery I′m pleased. A great danger hangs over the world. Two years ago, the last of the High Breed was killed by the last of the Fighters - but this has done nothing but cast ourselves into a greater danger. You all know that there’s a woman of disturbing beauty, in whose presence mortal beings are captivated by her charm.”
He paused, and then he heard Pancratios saying:
“A witch of Satan!”
“A Nephilim, brother. A child born from Giselle Boaz’s scientific experiments, a scorned woman who’s lost her mind, risking herself greatly to breed a creature that could’ve been monstrous, but which turned out to be perfect for her goals.” A murmur rose among the monks, and finally Marcus picked up the thread of discourse: “This creature has been given the name of Bathsheba. Some of you’ve already seen her - she arrived here to steal the Sacred Periapt and cursed your hegumenos when he tried to stop her. No more than two years of life she has, and therefore she’s practically a newborn, but she’s cunning to become a real danger. Specially because judging by what we’ve been investigating, she’s made a contact with the Queen of the Vortex.”
That comment caused great horror - suddenly there were shouts and the monks began to gesticulate too wildly, talking to each other. The parish clerk called for silence and then said: “Brother Marcus, we’re Christians. We don’t believe in pagan gods.”
“I assure you, Brother, that Lilith’s as real as you and me. As real as Bathsheba is, as it was the one who called himself Joachim Karel, her genetic father. As real as there’s a place where this creature lives, together with Her husband, the angel Sama...”
“The Devil!” Pancratios exploded indignantly. “You’re talking about Satan in this holy place!”
“You did it before...” Marcus hissed, but the novice didn’t hear him, but added: “You speak of Satan as an angel, but he’s not but an abject devil, the father of all Hell’s aberrations!”
“Personally, brother Pancratios, now I’m more worried about His wife than about Himself - and I expect to be able to speak without interruptions.” The novice was now silent and moody, so Marcus continued: “I won’t go into lengthy detail about the latest events - I will soon. Now it’s important to know that Bathsheba is seizing the Order’s sacred objects: she stole the Periapt, and as for the Three Shards, we believe they should already be in her possession - and we know why she stole them.”
The parish clerk, who’d been meditating with a frown, whispered: “The hegumenos Minos, may he rest in peace, told me about this. He said that the crystal of such objects couldn’t be broken, but also said that, according an ancient tradition, they could only be broken by the impure Lilith, goddess of the underworld.”
“That’s an atrocity!” Shouted one monk in the back rows. “You’re calling goddess to a devil! That’s polytheism, blasphemy!”
“We’ve no time to waste in dogmatic considerations.” Marcus grunted. “Well, Brother, we think so. We believe that the Nephilim will take them to her Mother to destroy them, and then she’ll be indestructible. But that’s not all, as Bathsheba also stole Lilith’s Scepter from the ancient city of Tenebra, although Miss Croft and Brother Kurtis tried to recover it before.” There was silence. “Never heard of Lilith’s Scepter? It brought so much bitterness to the Order in medieval times. Looks like a rod, but it’s a weapon. It’s said that the Goddess rose and with a single blow she could kill hundreds of mortals.”
Outraged, the monk who’d protested rose and left the room, but not before spitting towards Marcus: “Blasphemer!”
When the door closed abruptly, the Healer continued calmly: “If Lilith rises, and the Scepter reaches Her hands, not only the Nephilim’s direct enemies, but all mankind, will be in great danger. Bathsheba must be stopped. Unfortunately, we only have a vague prophecy - stammered through the mouth of a demon, Lilith’s servant, calling itself The Voice In The Darkness, which selects a group of people travelling on a Bitter Path of pain and death as a sacrifice to the Goddess, who will bemoan some and doom others. And I don’t even know who are called to suffer such fate, except for brother Kurtis and Miss Croft.”
“What can we do, Brother, against such evil? Our prayers will be of little use; we are but humble monks.”
“I don’t want prayers from you. I want you to let me access the library.”
The Healer heard a shocked whisper. What Marcus had just requested was no banality. The libraries of the monasteries of Meteora were absolutely private and no one who wasn’t a monk could access them, even a novice couldn’t see the door leading there. Penalties for access to the library without a specialized license included some lashes - an unreformed rule of the Middle Ages, as there had been no cases of novices or monks who tried to break the rule.
And now a lay man from outside the monastery, despite he was a Lux Veritatis, requested access to the library - but Marcus knew what he’d said. For weeks he′d investigated, along with Vlad, Lara, and Kurtis, all resources and documents in Bran’s castle, and all writings, texts and manuscripts that the professor had gathered, and all computing resources provided by Zip. All for not finding out enough about the prophecy, Lilith Herself, or any information to help them. If the answer wasn’t there, in one of the oldest libraries in Europe, it wouldn’t anywhere else.
“That must be discussed with the patéras.” The parish clerk muttered. “I’m sorry, but we can’t promise anything. Now, if any...”
“Wait a minute.” Marcus interrupted. “There’s another crucial thing you should know...”
Ivanoff ordered piles of papers at full speed. His office was a mess, with sheets spread all over the floor, and while tiding this or that classified document, his mind was spinning thinking how little he’d achieved so far. He, who called himself a professor, couldn’t do much regarding what to expect from the prophecy.
Vlad took off his glasses and wiped the sweat from his forehead, lamenting the mess surrounding him: Selma dying, Zip alienated, Marie and Radha at the police and Lara and Kurtis stumbling in the Middle East without a clue about where to go - or so he thought...and himself without knowing what to think: all was madness.
The Romanian professor had just ordered three piles of documents and he was heading to the next when he noticed a shadow in a dark corner of the office, lit by little more than a lamp and firelight, for it was night.
“Who are you?” Ivanoff asked without trembling, as at that point he was no longer the same frightened little man who tried to challenge Lara and Kurtis two years before.
The figure emerged from the shadows and stood at the light. At first glance, the professor saw a young, pretty blonde woman with short hair and green eyes. He knew immediately who she was and his hands remained stiff on the documents.
“Vladimir Ivanoff.” She whispered. “I’ve taken so much trouble to find out about you. You’ve a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Letters, and for many years - too many I think, you did historical research focused on this old castle as if it were your own place. What I wonder now is how you were able to help those criminals.
“That’s what I ask you, ma’am, as it was the Cabal who set this castle on fire.” He’d not finished saying this when another shadow, much bigger, came out of the darkness. The Romanian professor felt the blood freeze in his veins at the sight of a burly bully, ruddy and stern.
Giselle, meanwhile, had already approached the table and, taking a sheet, looked at it slightly, then threw it down. “I’m sick of papers and documents... my daughter has spent months mulling over superstitions drawn from papers like these, and your friend the British lady has been struggling for a filthy wad of documents held by the mafia, whose whore took beyond the sea and slipped into my domain... yes, I’ve come to find out all, I’ve good contacts. I’m done with this.”
Schäffer, meanwhile, had approached the table and at Giselle’s indication, swept with a blow of his arm all the organized piles of papers that Vlad have taken hours to classify. They rose in a cloud and fell scattered throughout the room. The professor didn’t flinch.
“We should ignore superstitions, right, Professor?” Giselle said, sitting elegantly in an armchair in front of him. “They dull the mind and make people waste their time when the future belongs to science and progress. You should’ve considered that before collaborating with those criminals.”
From the corner of his eye Ivanoff saw the mercenary approaching to look at a shelf, and then took a heavy, odd bronze statuette representing an angel about to take flight. Then he returned to Giselle and Vlad holding the statue by the head.
“By the way,” Giselle said then, while the professor held her gaze without saying a word, “I forgot to ask, how’s the Turkish girl doing? It would be rude of me to not ask!”
“Ma’am,” Vlad sighed, exhausted, “you’d know better than me since that was your doing. I’m tired of your speech, honestly, so do what you came for and leave.”
At that time the phone rang. Schäffer arched his eyebrows, but Giselle waved and said: “Have the goodness to answer the call, Professor.”
Extending a hand that trembled slightly, Ivanoff picked it up:
“Vlad! It’s you?” It was Lara.
His throat was dry. After clearing his voice, he stammered: “Yes, it’s me...”
At the time Giselle leaned over the table and Schäffer put his ear on the handset: “Vlad, we’re in Lebanon. We’ll take the road to Damascus in a week, but... I remember you said something about a temple nearby...”
Although his voice was gone due to sheer terror, Giselle pointed him with a jerk to make him answer. “Yes, Lara, darling, there.... there’s a temple in Syria ... near Damascus ... an ancient t-temple...”
“Is something wrong, Vlad?”
He would’ve wanted to scream, asking for help, telling her she was in danger, that they had mortally wounded Selma, but he’d only answer... “It’s only I’m knackered. You know, mulling over all this... by the way,” he coughed, “there’s a temple half buried near Damascus. That temple began to be dug in the 50′s, but due to instabilities, wars, conflicts and all that, you know, the archaeologist team was expelled and has been abandoned since then...”
“The temple was devoted to Lilith, Vlad, so I’m going there.”
“Are... are you sure? Looking for a half-ruined temple seems a very little thing...”
“Leave me to it, I’m good at this. Tell Zip to give me the coordinates when he can get them. I must leave, Vlad, farewell.” And she hung up.
Ivanoff’s hand slowly went to return the handset on the base, but Schäffer snatched it from his hand and smashed it against the wall, making it shatter.
“So, Lebanon and Damascus, huh?” Giselle smiled. “Well, I didn’t need to gut you also to find out what that silly girl wouldn’t tell me. You’ve been very lucky - you don’t knowuntil what point.”
“Leave them alone. You said you weren’t into superstitions... What brings you to this? What harm can they do to you?”
“The harm was already done to me. This is just payback. Tell me, Professor, do you also believe in such bullshit? Do you believe in this prophecy?”
Vlad didn’t answer. He was silent and kept looking at her, when suddenly, God, an absurd, crazy idea, went through his mind in the last moments of his life, just when casually touched his pocket, and noticed that there was his little Swiss Army knife...
“Ma’am, I can’t tell. But I know that the Nephili believe in it, and therefore the last of them, whom you have known, did so. If so high and supernatural beings, whom exceed us, unfortunately, in wisdom and understanding as much as they exceed us in evil and cruelty, believed it, it must be true. As for me, I won’t say more.” And suddenly, without warning, Vlad jumped up and pounced on Giselle, waving the knife’s sharp blade directly towards her face in a desperate attempt, perhaps foolish, but brave, to strike that killer, to avenge the damage she’d done to Selma, and to avenge himself, since he knew he was doomed.
But it was a vain attempt. If she’d been alone, perhaps, he may have hurt her, tearing the skin of her face, cutting off her lips, or even gouging an eye out. In the end, leaving her severely maimed - but she wasn’t alone. The Romanian professor didn’t reach her, because first she turned away with a shout, so that the knife plunged into where before her head had rested, on the velvet chair, and second, because Schäffer came to her aid, brandishing the bronze statue with such strength that, after drawing an arc in the air, smashed the professor’s skull with such force that he threw the little man across the table, bouncing him against the wall, until he finally fell on the floor.
Panting, Giselle got up, still pale because of the shock - she hadn’t expected that feeble and coward man to react that way. “Is he dead?” She asked to her partner, who at that time bent over the prostrate body.
“See for yourself.” Schäffer replied, and sarcastically showed her the statuette. On the bronze surface there were traces of blood, brains and hair.
Looking at the professor, he left no doubt: a part of his skull was completely crushed and his head was open, under which lay a large pool of blood.
The German threw the statue down and said: “Here we’re done, pretty. We’re leaving.”
But Giselle, staring at many scattered papers, said: “Not yet. Collect this and throw it into the fireplace. Burn everything - their books, papers and notes. And then destroy the guy’s computer. Don’t leave any resource that can serve them.”
“Your wish is my command, honey.”