Road to Damascus
“As you know,” Marcus went on, “my Order is virtually dead - only two members survived: this old Healer with not much time left, I’m afraid, and a Fighter who never served the cause. However, here’s a chance for the Order to be reborn from its ashes.”
The monks, looking more like parrots than a silent community, broke out again in whispers. No wonder. For centuries, the Lux Veritatis had been the wardens of peace and stability in the community and the world, but very few conveniently were aware of that sacrifice. The war between mortals and demons had been hidden from the world but had destroyed those who by their mortal nature were disadvantaged. Despite being Gifted they had finally succumbed under the evil creatures who outnumbered them, together with the Black Alchemist and the last Nephilim. Of course, these ones had been defeated - except for the demons always proliferating, unless the gates of the Vortex were to be closed - but at what cost?
“Did you find a new Gifted?” The parish clerk asked.
“No, Brother - the odds of that happening are improbable. The Gift passes from parents to children and rarely awakens spontaneously. What I meant is that Miss Croft is pregnant and her child is Brother Kurtis’ son.”
Suddenly a fuss broke out - some began to talk and cry at once, and Marcus went back disgusted - that place looked like a market.
“I always said that this woman was a harlot.” He heard the novice Pancratios sarcastically saying, a comment that finished the old Healer’s patience.
“Enough, Brethren!” The Healer shouted, raising his arms. The monks remained silent. “If you think I came here to gossip, you’re wrong. Christian and moral considerations and your point of view concerning this are totally irrelevant. I told you this because I want to ask you for help, because despite being a community of praying monks, you’ve special resources which I lack.” After a moment of silence, in which all they looked at him expectantly, he continued. “If this child survives what awaits his parents; which I wish with all my heart and we’d all pray for, he may either be born as a boy or as a girl. If it’s a girl, probably nothing will change, for women have rarely inherited the Gift throughout the centuries, but if it’s a boy...” His words remained floating in the air. This time no one murmured. “I think you can imagine, Brethren, what would be the son of Konstantin’s son, Gerhardt’s grandson, the two most powerful Lux Veritatis the Order has ever known. Brother Kurtis is a wasted prodigy but he’s chosen to be so, perhaps because he’s not aware of the great power he has, or he simply doesn’t want to use it. Such waste has been more than an insult to our heritage and the blood of our deceased. Brethren, we must not let the same happen with his child.” Marcus took two steps and spread his hard glance by the audience listening to him. Despite his old age and having spent so much time in jail, he still had his magnificent oratory, and his stern appearance helped him to command respect. “We lost the father, but we won’t lose the son! This child must mark the beginning of a new Order. Otherwise we can give up on mankind, who will fight the demons? It’s a sign; he’s the expected Messiah.”
“But he’s running right now a significant risk.” The parish clerk objected. “A great threat lurks over all, on that child as well. Demons must be informed of his existence already.”
“Of course – that should be expected.” Marcus said. “And it’s likely that Lilith’s daughter saw him even before he was conceived. Nothing escapes the sight of these creatures. But we must not give up.”
Pancratios then asked to speak, and the old man allowed him despite fearing his comment: “Maybe if we lock up the harlot until the time came...”
“That’s inhuman!” A monk claimed.
“Why? Didn’t the Lux Veritatis lock up Loanna Von...?”
“Lady Loanna went to the Order willingly and asking for protection. The only one who locked up her was that wicked Drakul, who...”
“Whatever, she was the same kind of harl...”
“She was not! Lady Loanna was raped by a Nephil...!”
“So what? It’s always the same with women!”
There was a tremendous bang, and the two arguing monks silenced. Marcus had left the room and the parish clerk, embarrassed, hastened to follow him down the corridor of the yard. “A little more humility and respect is needed in this community...”
“Forgive him, Brother Healer. Pancratios is young and earnest...”
“In any case, it’s stupid even thinking about locking the Amazon up. She’s no person whom anyone can do that to. You know nothing about her.”
“I’d never support such a thing...”
“In addition, that would be useless. Those who want her child’s death would find her anyway and neither walls nor doors and locks can stop them.”
“I’ll talk to the hegumenos and report what you told us. Don’t worry, Brother Healer, you’ll get help in return for the good you’ve done in this holy house.”
Marcus stopped at that point and, taking the old monk’s shoulders, smiled and said: “Thank you, Brother. But I need help not only to fight Lilith, but also when the time comes, to take the child.”
The parish clerk looked at him, stunned. “You mean... to separate the child from his mother?”
“What else can be done? As soon as he’s born, we need to take him away from his parents. He should not be raised by them. Lara’s not attached to the Order’s cause, and Kurtis’ a renegade. They will waste their son’s gifts as Kurtis himself was wasted. That child is ours, a Gifted one, and that Gift must be trained and exploited. Pushing him away from his parents and all their bad influence, and trained in power and wisdom, he’ll become the greatest of the Lux Veritatis.”
“As you wish, Brother. You’re wise and you know what you’re talking about.”
Beirut, which in its early years was the West’s bulwark in the East, had several luxury hotels available to tourists. In one of them Lara booked accommodation for one week for three people, and then began to deploy her diplomatic strategy so skilfully practiced and repeated in the past. The first thing was to get decent clothing to move in Beirut’s high society, which was still a colonial waste of times from when it was a French protectorate, although after the Second World War the Westerners had been expelled from there. However, there were again some privileged classes that, among noble and petty, were still anchored to the city where some lived and others sometimes went for sightseeing or holidays.
People were surprised to see two women and one man, elegantly dressed, moving easily in that environment of streets, bars, restaurants, and hotel lobbies, not included in their list of VIP people. Of course, more than one recognized the famous Lara Croft, moving so gracefully as no less was expected of her. However, all felt stunned in the presence of an attractive but obscure man, who looked uncomfortable there but knew how to behave, and a very sensual redhead, both being totally unknown.
For Maddalena wearing nice dresses and moving among big fish people wasn’t new at all, but seeing people’s eyes on her, she kept asking herself what they would think of her - Lara was always grabbing Kurtis’ arm and she followed them like a shadow.
Two’s company, three’s a crowd, the redhead kept repeating to herself as she watched Lara waving and bowing from side to side while greeting this countess or that diplomat. She’d been clever in choosing her wardrobe, which completely hid her pregnancy – not that it was very noticeable yet. But Lara knew she was going to be well looked up and down, and also her two companions, so she made sure that everything was perfect.
Also she’d managed to get in telephone contact with some helpful people but failed to be received before a week.
“What did you tell her?” That was the first thing Kurtis asked Lara when they were alone in the hotel suite.
“Who?” Lara muttered absently while checking herself in the mirror and finding, surprised, that she had dark circles under her eyes.
“Giulia, of course. When I left you looked like you two were about to kill each other, and when I returned you were getting along.”
The British explorer turned and displayed a provocative smile. “Darling, the only way to get along with her would be if she were a hundred thousand miles away from my sight.”
“I thought so. What did you say, Lara?”
“Just what she needed to know.”
He shook his head. “My idea of what she needs to know is maybe different from yours.”
“Maybe, but you’ll have to trust me. C’mon, Kurtis, she’s been attacked by a demon. We shouldn’t have her in ignorance.” And seeing he was looking askance at her, she added. “You don’t trust me, do you?”
“I doubt you care about her safety that much.”
“I only told her you’re a member of an ancient order devoted to fighting demons which sometimes takes control of people for massacre. What the hell, Kurtis! I told her the truth, that’s all.”
“And suddenly you get along.”
“And suddenly she grew up a little and thought about her real problems, something much more important than eyeing your body and accidentally touching you shoulder when passing by. Why do you care, anyway?”
“Because you two are driving me crazy! I have enough without your jealousy and she with her... obsession.”
Lara smiled triumphantly and sat in an armchair. “Here’s the thing. If she weren’t here the problem would vanish.”
“So we kill her and drop her in a sewer.”
“You want me to go to her instead and say hey, here you go, do what you want with him?”
“Ha! Do you ignore her, Mr. Trent?”
Kurtis remained silent.
“You feel sorry for her, which is unbelievable.” Lara continued. “In fact, maybe if I weren’t here you’d want to give relief...”
“Stop.” Kurtis said, pointing at her with his index finger. “Not that way, Lara. Don’t exhaust my patience, I don’t have much left.” She said nothing, but smiled faintly. “You’re not serious, are you? Looks like you don’t deserve what you have.”
“And what do I have, Kurtis?”
“Me. Not much, I know, but it’s all I have.” Then he went out slamming the door. Lara remained silent, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling.
Kurtis remained in the hallway brooding for a long time. Finally, he walked to Maddalena’s room - which Lara had booked well away from theirs - and knocked on the door. “Giulia? Are you there?”
The door opened and she looked at him with astonishment. She was wearing sweatpants and her untamed hair was tied in a bun.
“Gotta talk to you.” He said very seriously.
She allowed him in and sat on the bed, visibly nervous.
“Any new trouble with the Voice?”
For a moment, she looked disappointed - what was she expecting, anyway? Then she said: “No, but I’m scared. Somehow... I feel I’m not alone.”
With a quick glance, Kurtis noted a Catholic rosary on the bedside table and a picture of...a saint? “Sorry to disappoint you, but this stuff can do little against demons.”
“And a Navajo amulet?”
Maddalena probed around the collar of her shirt and pulled out the dreamcatcher, which dangled before their eyes.
“Where did you find that?” Kurtis exclaimed in amazement. “It’s my mother’s!”
“Seriously? It was in an abandoned van, next to a destroyed hut...”
Kurtis made a bitter smile and nodded. “You got there after Schäffer’s mercs took both her and Lara. It’s her amulet, and it has been with me since childhood.” She started to remove it to give it to him, but he stopped her. “Nevermind, keep it. We’ll give it back to her later. I never trusted in these things, but my mother did somehow.”
Then he glanced around - he’d just noticed something. Yes, she was right, she wasn’t alone - there wassomething there, lurking within those four walls. Kurtis tried to break through that presence he couldn’t see or hear, only feel. You’re all very smart, he thought in silence, but not enough.
Not only smart, but also old, very old, the Voice replied sarcastically, and you know this, little mortal...devil’s wiser because he’s olde...
“Kurtis? You okay?” Maddalena was looking at him with her big golden eyes. He shook his head. “She might come back. You know who.”
“No!” She cried, and clung to his arm. “Take her away from me!”
“I can do that as many times as you want, but she will come back anyway. You gotta understand...what did Lara tell you about me?” He dropped suddenly.
The redhead looked at him in silence a moment, still holding his arm, and whispered: “I already knew something about the Lux Veritatis... Daniele was obsessed with the issue after he took me as his lover. His uncle, the cardinal, had done extensive research on...things about angels and demons, prophecies about warriors...and...when I fled I stole a manuscript from him, from which I read many more things. But I could never have figured that you were one of them.”
“Fortunately for me, that’s quite noticeable to the naked eye. So Monteleone taught you Latin?”
“He taught me many things, but I’d never cared much. I thought they were legends... and in any case I was terrified to talk about it.”
“So Lara told you I was a Lux Veritatis.”
“She also told me that all your kind was dead, and who’d murdered them. She spoke about Bathsheba...about her father...and of course, about that demon called Lilith. She spoke of many things, anyway...”
Kurtis shook his head. “Guess you gotta know. Y’know why you’re coming with us, don’t you?”
Maddalena looked at him with sweet eyes, so Kurtis was quick to reply: “You’re in great danger. I didn’t get you into this, but now I’m responsible. The Voice has chosen you as our guide - that’s what she told us, using your lips.”
The sweetness of her eyes turned into horror. Her fingers sank further into his arm. “Me? Why me? What...?”
“I’ll try to find out. Demons love to brag and for better or worse, you’ve been chosen by one of the oldest. She’s lurking and will return - but you must know how to take advantage of it.”
Maddalena shook her curls in a passionate denying. “Never! I don’t want to deal with her! I just want her to leave!”
“Hear me out. You gotta take advantage of this chance. This kind of demon enjoys torture and killing, but she seems to have other intentions for you. I’ll help you, but you must stop being afraid.” He got up, and Maddalena with him, still clinging to his arm. Her grab was a painful tingling in the skin. He gently pulled her away, but only managed to get those nails stuck into his arm. “Giulia...”
“You care about me and took me with you. I want to thank you...” She was too close to him - Kurtis could feel her warm breath on his cheek and her curls brushing his face. Maddalena’s sinuous fingers curled around his neck - and she wasn’t the kind of woman a man could easily ignore.
His first thought was that she was so beautiful and at his disposal - even in love? If he wanted, whatever might happen, and then...
Then what? Kurtis thought angrily. Lara was rightfully outraged. What would he think of a man who spent all day following her earnestly and touching her as often as he could? What would he think of her, if she allowed that, or if she considered to enjoy it? Wouldn’t he be angry? Wouldn’t he want to... to beat her? To beat both of them?
At the very moment her lips were brushing the corner of his mouth Kurtis firmly pushed her away, but to his surprise she resisted. “No!” Maddalena shouted. “You love me! I know!”
“You kissed me! You love me! But she holds you back...”
“What the...” He growled. “If you mean what happened on the Island, I barely noticed...I was hurt...”
“She holds you because she’s pregnant! But she doesn’t love you, she never loved you! She’s just a bitch, a fucking bitch who likes to scold you and stands between us!” For a moment Kurtis stared at her in silence, and then Maddalena flushed. “Sorry, I...”
“First, you know nothing about Lara just as you know nothing about me.” Kurtis replied dryly. “Second, no one asked about your judgement. If you intend to earn my affection, that’s not the best way to start.”
“I told you, but you didn’t listen. You’re living a dream, something that’s not real. Both Lara and I have already enough trouble to care about your whims.” Deeply upset, he let go of her arm and headed towards the door, but she went after him.
“Forgive me! I shouldn’t have said that! But...sometimes she’s so...I thought you were with her only because she’s pre...”
“Here’s why you know nothing about Lara. She doesn’t need anyone at her side - she’s managed to take care of herself so far. She doesn’t need me for raising a child, if that’s what you mean.”
“But then...why? When I first saw you I thought you hated each other! I watched you for days - and she eluded you and glared at you each time she saw you! She despised you, I know!”
Kurtis grabbed the doorknob and pulled it, but to his surprise, the door was locked. Who’d locked it? He began to struggle, but was stuck. “Again, you’ve no clue.” He sputtered. “What happened then between Lara and I is not your nor anyone’s business. You’re wrong, Giulia, and have no right to judge.” He yanked the damn knob. What the hell happened? “Have you locked the door?”
“Me?” Maddalena arched her eyebrows. “I haven’t moved from your side!”
Kurtis struggled again with the knob - could it be broken? He kicked the door – suddenly feeling like destroying the whole room.
“You mean you really love her?”
“Fucking hell!” He exploded, turning at once. The Italian woman backed away, frightened by the look on his face. “Will you ever listen? You’re in love with a dream, a ghost - I’m not the man you think I am! Nothing could make me leave her, get it?”
Maddalena’s face changed from fear to hate. For a brief moment, Kurtis imagined himself jumping on her and grabbing her neck - but what was he thinking? He looked around. The atmosphere was laden and heavy. The door, stuck. His head pounding... What’s going on here? His ears buzzed. His vision blurred.
Maddalena’s voice turned shrill and began banging in his ears. “For you, you bastard, I crossed the Mediterranean! I left those who protected me and I had to sleep with disgusting men to reach you. I sold that manuscript, the most valuable thing I had, to save you. I offered myself to be tortured instead of you! What has she done for you? Can you tell me? What did that woman do for you?”
Kurtis leaned against the wall, covering his face with his hands. Maddalena, believing her passionate speech was taking effect, came back to him. “You notice anything weird in this room?” He gasped, suddenly sweating.
“Nothing at all.” Maddalena said, biting her lower lip. “I never had anything in life and no one really loved me – and I’m not ugly or stupid. The only man I thought to love me was more in love with himself and his fortune. All I wanted in my life is to have someone at my side. When I saw you I thought the time had come, but she’s ruined everything. I hate her.”
Kurtis had raised his eyes, looking around again, and in four strides he reached the window overlooking the terrace. With a jerk he tried to open it. It was stuck. He punched the glass.
“What’s wrong with you?” She cried. “You’re acting like a madman!”
“Someone has locked the room. There’s no way out.” He put his fingers to the neck of his shirt and pulled it, suffocated. “The air is loaded.”
Maddalena, suddenly smiling sweetly, came to him and began to unbutton his shirt and slowly bare his chest. “That British woman has dazzled you indeed. What can I do? She’s not even as pretty as me, but whatever - I’ll have you in one way or another. If you refuse Giulia the woman, you’ll get Maddalena the whore. What Lara doesn’t know won’t hurt her...I won’t tell her, I promise...”
Before Kurtis could even avoid it, she’d unbuttoned his shirt completely and was sliding it over his shoulders and down his arms to remove it. Then he felt her lips on his chest, but as he was looking up, he noticed something on the ceiling. It was like a dark spot, small at first, next to the lamp. Then, slowly, it began to spread, like a drop of ink in water. That darkness began to branch out and spread, reaching the ends of the ceiling, and dropped slowly on the walls, branching out like a black root growing rapidly.
Maddalena’s arms embraced his waist, feeling his skin moist with sweat with her fingertips, while her tongue ran down his neck, then chest, around his shoulders and down to his navel, and despite that his body was reacting to the skilful stimulation, he couldn’t look away from the blackness already reaching the ground and pouring around them, to darken the room completely.
And then the chant began...
Son of Light...
He wanted to scream Giulia! and placed his hands on her shoulders to push her away, but she laughed and began to tinker with the closure on his pants while whispering to his ear: “Let me do it... I’m good at this... I’ll make you feel like you’re in heaven...”
Son of Light...
The whole room was black. How could she not notice that?
The pants closure was now undone.
Son of Light
Nothing can be done against us
In the end you’ll have to surrender
Don’t you see you’re alone?
Maddalena’s fingers entered inside of his pants, toured his thighs, fumbled his groin as she continued to laughing playfully...
Son of Light
Your grave is dug
What are you waiting for?
Don’t you challenge us?
Great is the power of a woman...!
Suddenly she pulled herself away and smiling deviously, clutched the zippered collar of her tracksuit jacket and pulled it down, opening it. Her two breasts, white and soft, with pink nipples, emerged for she wasn’t wearing anything underneath, and after forcefully removing the jacket, she threw it aside. Kurtis observed, as if in a dream, as the garment was swallowed by that fluctuating blackness which began to swell and gurgle, while that chant, made by a hissing, choppy, breathless voice, continued...
Son of Light
How easy it is to defeat you
Just one temptation...
Maddalena was completely stripped now and feverishly pressed herself against him. Her skin was so warm that he disliked it, since the atmosphere was already as heavy as an anvil of lead and he had no air to breathe. Kurtis tried to push her away again, gasping for air, but he was suddenly weakened, like drained by that blackness, vast blackness. He slipped to the ground and she with him, kissing him violently. If only he could... breathe... move...
Son of Light
Man of strong spirit
But weak of flesh
Look what you do
Who you’re going to betray
Will she forgive you?
Before she dies...
“Giulia!” He achieved to gasp. “The...Voice...!”
Before she dies...
She will know ...
“At last we’re free!” The redhead panted, excited. “I’m finally yours!”
Son of Light
Open your eyes
Watch what you lose...
At the time Maddalena mounted on him – was he lying on the floor? - she suddenly began to change before his eyes. Her soft and freckled skin wrinkled and shrivelled, now blackened; her breasts withered and unhooked as two dry skins; her beautiful red hair turned white and fell off, revealing an ugly bald head...her eyes, large and golden, became injected with blood and darkened. Her face features deformed so he was soon looking at a living nightmare, a monster who laughed uproariously with bizarre laughs coming from a deformed mouth and rotted gums without teeth. A claw, provided with long nails and some mutilated fingers, walked up to his face.
“No!” Kurtis yelled, and then the creature darted back and screamed aloud.
With a hop, he got up, while that thing hissed shrilly. Once again, the Gift had come to his aid when his body had failed him.
The Lux Veritatis crossed the room quickly towards the door, but suddenly the blackness was on him like an oil slick, clinging to his skin, as if someone had thrown hot metal on him. He kept crawling towards the door, groping, trying to get out while that thing shouted after him: “You’ll regret this, bastard! I’ll make you pay! No one rejects me, no one! Do you hear? And less a disgrace like you!” That voice was not hers, could not be hers, as the creature that crawled towards him, stretching its hooked claws, could not be her.
The knob was on fire and burned his hand. It didn’t matter – he’d to get out, get out as soon as possible...
Son of Light
Your time is coming
This was a warning
You will lose what you love
You can’t save her
Even giving your life
Which with pleasure we’ll take with us...
... To the darkness...
The door burst into pieces, and the threshold reflected a bright rectangle of light, while a jet of fresh and pure air tore his fevered body drenched in sweat, coming into his lungs like an icy knife.
Kurtis took four steps, went outside and fell on his knees. A gush of blood came out through his nostrils - then the world became water around him and he fell sideways on the floor.
The surgeon smiled at Zip, who looked at him expectantly over his mask. The boy had just undergone a process of disinfection and sterilization to be allowed to access the Critical Care area. Now they were next to Selma’s bed. She looked like an ivory statue, lying motionless.
“I thought we can induce her to breathe on her own.” The surgeon said. “As you know, your friend now breathes through this ventilator. If we switch it off, she may die, but sometimes it has worked. I mean,” he added at Zip’s spiteful glance, “according to some experts, the temporary disconnection of the respirator can help to stimulate the breathing apparatus. It has been estimated that at least in 30% of cases a person leaves the comatose state after being forced to use their own occasional respiratory mechanisms...”
“Wait, wait.” Zip interrupted, feeling dizzy. “Are you telling me she’ll start breathing only if we remove that tube? Will she wake up?”
The surgeon smiled patiently. “Not sure, but this way she’s likely to start breathing on her own, and that would be an incentive to get her out of the coma. I can’t promise anything, but it’s better than doing nothing.”
Zip nodded. Then the doctor came and gently tore the tape adhered to the rubber tube which plunged between Selma’s lips. He took the tube a little, and then he approached to the machine and disconnected the life support mechanism. For a few seconds that seemed to last hours, Zip stared at Selma’s face, asking, pleading silently. Princess, please. Breathe.
The surgeon looked at the clock. She was not breathing.
“Connect it again!” Zip shouted, upset.
Not breathing. Was her face turning purple? “Please! She’s choking!”
“She can’t feel anything.”
The hacker waited a little longer, but became increasingly nervous. What if then she couldn’t breathe again? What if she died? What if he’d consented to this madness and he was guilty...? “Enough! She needs air!”
“Fine.” Calmly, the surgeon reconnected the ventilator. Again the patient, who hadn’t breathed or given the slightest hint of reaction, had oxygen again.
The surgeon sighed, turned and handled a handkerchief to Zip, whispering: “You’re bleeding”.
The man hadn’t noticed he’d bitten his own lip - he mechanically passed the fabric across his mouth.
“C’mon. We’ll talk outside.”
Zip followed him obediently – though he was obviously fighting back tears.
“Hey, hey.” The surgeon patted him on the back. “No one has made it the first time. She’s young, so there’s more chances to try, and each new time we’ll be closer to success.”
“What if she suffers...or chokes...”
“None of that will happen. I told you, she’s comatose, she won’t feel anything even if pricked. Trust me, we’ll get this. OK?”
Zip sighed and looked at the blood-stained handkerchief. He should return it but then felt ashamed… he had to wash it, right?
“Keep it, son. You’ll need it.”
He’d turned into a spark, no longer a man.
He plowed darkness at high speed, incandescent, silent. There was no air whistling around him, only blackness. Down and down, sinking into the abyss, through layers and layers of earth, air, fire, until focusing a core away from it all, he didn’t know whether he was up or down in the world, or at its core.
The rock opened and revealed a huge cavity like carved in ivory. In the middle of the chamber, a stone altar with a glass bowl on it. He thought to see a huge blue flame fluctuating, suspended over the bowl, but he couldn’t be sure.
And there in the throne in front of the altar, a tall, high, monstrously large shape, was lying with its arms holding the handles. Was it that he saw it huge, or it was huge in size?
She was naked and was, no, rather only looked like a woman. Her head was bent down upon her breast and a large, thick mat of hair was covering her albino face, breasts and belly, sliding to the ground.
The terrifying and gigantic lady raised her face then, and a flash of white light shone between the locks of hair. At first he thought that her face was all made of light, then he noticed those features were a beautiful but rigid mask. A silver mask.
A breeze, coming from who knows where, swept the very long and soft hair and pulled it back, exposing the firm and white belly, her ivory breasts, her whole nudity away from hair. But she was so stiff that she seemed not to breathe.
The mask had neither holes for eyes, nor for nose or mouth. Was she blind and deaf? Or was she...actually not breathing? With a terrifying premonition, he sensed that she was perhaps dead, or that she was something that didn’t need to breathe... or see... or hear...
Suddenly, She moved. Slowly She separated her back from the throne and leaned forward slightly. At the moment, he was trapped by Her influence and was dragged towards Her, to collapse at Her feet.
The mask began to crack. At first it was just a crack, then the whole thing splintered and began to fall away from Her face. Among the fractures in the metal began to shine a bright, burning light, so painful that he couldn’t continue looking at Her and turned his sight to the altar.
The blue flame extinguished and the bowl was filled with a strange black liquid. At first it was a dark puddle, growing, and growing, until it overflowed the boundaries of the crystal, and then keep on overflowing, dripping on the altar, spreading increasingly and spilling over the marble table and splashing the ground. It was blood...
A crunching metal and its subsequent patter startled him. The mask had crashed into the ground, and light flooded the chamber to make all disappear around...
He tried to lift his eyes... he tried to look... he should... look at... Her...
But when he managed to stare at the face behind the mask, he felt as filled with immense pain in the inside, could not resist looking at such supernatural creature, and burst into a thousand pieces.
Lara leaned over Kurtis and put a hand on his forehead - he was burning.
The fuss caused by the breaking of the door and him fainting in the middle of the hall had attracted lots of onlookers. Lara had taken advantage of this to get help to lift his heavy body and lay him in the bed of their suite, and then rejected all kind offers to take him to an hospital, provided he was still unconscious.
What everyone took for a seizure was for Lara something different, though she didn’t understand. She knew Kurtis wasn’t prone to any kind of seizure, and that the blood flowing from his nose was rather a result of stress than anything else.
In any case, Lara was sure he shouldn’t be taken to hospital. That would only waste their time. She wished the old Marcus was there – he would identify that phenomenon and awake Kurtis, but he wasn’t there and she wouldn’t waste time – she’d deal with this alone.
Having checked he was now breathing well and had stopped bleeding, Lara exited to the hallway. There she found a disoriented hotel employee, collecting with absolute astonishment, one by one, hundreds of splinters which had been the door of Maddalena’s suite. “How’s your husband, ma’am?” He muttered, looking, impressed, how those wood chips melted in his hand.
“He’s not my husband, but he’s alright.” Lara headed towards the threshold, with door fragments still hanging from it, but the employee then said: “Alright? Damn! Can’t imagine how anyone could be alright after crashing against a door like this. He should have cracked his skull!”
“I’m sorry he broke the door. I’ll bear the cost, of course.”
The young man laughed. “Broke? He shattered it! Even the best sumo wrestler wouldn’t be able to do that to a door. I can’t explain this!”
Neither can I, thought Lara as she weaved through the remains of the door and scanned the redhead’s suite with a critical eye. At first glance she saw Kurtis’ shirt and belt thrown into a corner, and with them, the scattered clothing of a woman.
Lara felt a wave of heat that lit her face and clenched her teeth. She would have to be dumb to not immediately see what this meant. Kurtis didn’t seem to have run away from Maddalena’s beautiful curves, of course - so from what had he run away?
In four strides she reached the bathroom door and pounded on it. “Giul... Giulia?” Lara wasn’t used to her real name, for her she was still Maddalena, the prostitute. There was heavy silence. “Giulia! I know you’re there! Open!”
The employee had stopped collecting splinters of wood and looked interested at the scene. Lara’s patience ran out. “If you make me break this door,” she hissed, “you pay for it.”
Finally, the bolt creaked across and Lara hurried to open it. When entering she saw Maddalena curled back on the bathroom floor, next to the tub, wrapped in a short bathrobe and a strange glance in her eyes.
Lara was quick to close the door behind her to prevent the employee’s peering. She folded her arms and looked sternly at the redhead, who was still staring at her. “What happened?” The British explorer asked.
Maddalena slowly raised her eyes. She’d her hair tangled, and if the scattered underwear wasn’t enough proof, Lara noticed she was naked under her half-untied robe. “I don’t know...”
“Don’t lie to me!” Lara took a deep breath - she was not going to lose control. She wouldn’t be upset by some lying clothes, nor allow this slut to force her to make a sad spectacle.
“I haven’t lied to you.”
“You really think, Giulia Manfredi, I was born yesterday? You think so?”
Maddalena looked away to a side and muttered vaguely: “No idea what you’re talking about...”
Lara rushed at her and grabbed her arm - she was quite strong and managed to lift her by a single pull. In doing so, her bathrobe opened and although this shouldn’t have mattered, Maddalena had a fit of shame and tried to cover her breasts and the triangle of reddish hair.
“Bet you weren’t trying to cover yourself when he was here, right?” Lara hissed in her ear.
Maddalena broke free of her grip and fell back against the wall, fastening the bathrobe and casting a look of resentment. “Well, yes,” She admitted. “I tried to seduce him. I wanted to sleep with him. And maybe you should know he didn’t seemunpleased with the idea. Men are so fickle, right? One minute they recite poems of love...and the next they’re in the arms of another woman.”
Lara’s mouth twisted into a sinister smile – oh dear, if she only could punch her in the face...but apparently that’s what she wanted. No, she was going to prove that Lara Croft couldn’t be so easily provoked. “I have no time to waste on your nonsense. Kurtis’ is unconscious and he’s not waking up. What have you done to him?”
Maddalena looked concerned then. “I did nothing... except that. I was with him when...he began to sweat, and left me screaming out the door... which he broke...I don’t know how...”
Lara went away from her, opened the bathroom door and examined the room – but there was nothing special, except that the air was somewhat loaded. Obviously, she thought angrily, the atmosphere’s heated. “If he doesn’t get well,” she added, “I’ll blame you.”
“Why would I hurt him?” Maddalena protested. “I love him. I’ve done a lot for him.”
“Of course.” Lara said, unable to keep a note of sarcasm. She approached the scattered clothes and picked up Kurtis’ shirt and belt. At the end of the day, they were expensive and she wasn’t going to leave them on the ground. Before heading out the door - the employee was gone - Lara turned and, pointing a finger at the redhead, said: “If I find out you’ve had something to do with this, start to pray. I can deal with you walking around him, but you won’t go further.”
Kurtis opened his eyes slowly. A tear slid down from the corner of his eye across his temple, to dive into his hair. He wanted to raise his hand to catch it, but it seemed surprisingly heavy. Other fingers, slender and agile, wiped his tear, and turning his head slightly – which hurt him enough to burst, he saw Lara.
A mixed feeling of love, pain and guilt crossed his mind. Then, an unspoken fear about what she might have thought of seeing him half-naked and with his pants unzipped in a room with a naked woman – but fear didn’t last. What was done was done, and in fact he hadn’t done anything. But he almost had... or maybe not? It was too painful to think, with his head pounding... “Lara...” He muttered.
“Hush. You’re in our room. How are you?”
Finally, he managed to raise his hand and touched his head. “I hurt all over... like I got the shit beaten out of me. What happened?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me, as Maddalena has been unable, or unwilling, to tell me much.” The angry glance in her eyes confirmed she knew that. And how couldn’t she know? Even a fool would’ve figured it out, and she was terribly clever.
“I’m sorry, Lara.” He mumbled, sitting up. “I went to see her to sort things out...to solve the situation...”
“...and the situation cast on you.” Lara added mockingly, but stopped when she saw his wounded glance.
“You’re upset, of course, but what it looks like is... different from what actually happened.”
“More than upset, I’m spooked. If you’d had sex with Maddalena, I would’ve killed you, but instead you’ve passed out while bleeding after crushing a door. What happened? Tell me now!”
Kurtis ran his hand across his wet forehead. The rest of his body, arms, chest and back, were also watered with sweat. “Giulia got angry and started arguing, and suddenly the air became heavy and I felt sick. I got nervous and tried to get out, but everything was closed, the door, the windows were jammed. She seemed not to notice anything was wrong. Suddenly my strength left me, and she leaned over me and began to undress me, and then she undressed herself. I tried to reject her, I swear this by what I love the most, Lara, which is you... but I didn’t because I suddenly felt so weak that I couldn’t even raise my arm, and then the ectoplasm and the chant...”
“Wait a minute... Ectoplasm?”
He nodded. “Y′know what that is?”
“I’ve heard of it, but...is it a ghost?”
“The residue of a demon or spirit, which drains energy and changes environment. Only I could see it and the damn thing almost killed me. Then... I fainted and had a vision.”
Lara raised his hand: “Did that ectoplasm hurt Maddalena?”
“You can’t suspect her.”
“She was terrified of the idea of a demon using her. She wouldn’t pact with them.”
“In exchange for having sex with you? Of course she’d pact!” Lara jumped out of bed. There was a strong determination on her face. “Guess now you’re going to support her.”
Kurtis slowly shook his head. “She said some stuff I won’t forgive.”
“Don’t tell me. I’m sure they were about me.”
“Anyway, why would she pact with the Voice if I was gonna be hurt?”
Lara stood a moment in silence - then she added: “No more fighting, at least until I’ve proof. We can’t waste a second on this nonsense. Our Syria contacts will arrive tomorrow and will help us reach Damascus and find that temple. Until then, you must rest – and in the meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on our lovely redhead. You may know a lot about demons, Kurtis, and that’s something I won’t argue. But I know much more about women... and what we’re capable of when we’re in love.”
The sirens arrived like a flash, then left - the brief flash of red light awakened the half-asleep Giselle. She blinked and yawned, running a hand through her hair. Amid the gloom of the room, she saw the robust Schäffer, naked, approaching the curtain and pulling it away slightly to scrutinize the already empty street.
“What time is it?” The scientist muttered.
“Police sirens.” The bully noted, ignoring her. “They should have already found the body.”
“For the hour,” she added, casting a lazy glance at the digital clock on the bedside, “he surely looks awful. Far better.”
Schäffer dropped the curtain and turned to his sleepy mate - his eyes displayed a hard glance. “How can you worry about that now?” He scolded her. “We’re being too reckless. Surely that old Navajo bitch and the Indian brat have already identified you. Maybe now the police have our pictures hanging all over the town! We can’t stay here any longer, unless you want to see the sky behind bars for the rest of your life.”
Giselle got up slowly and stretched, as if she didn’t give a shit the police might be looking for her. “We aren’t done yet.”
“Dammit, Giselle! You killed the girl and the nerd. Tell me, what harm can an oldster and a kid who doesn’t speak English cause us now? They are so utterly insignificant – it’s a complete waste of time killing them!”
“Guess you’re right. But I’m not satisfied yet - everyone must pay.”
“Stupid to stay here any longer.” He walked up to her and placed his knee on the bed. Seeing him coming, she made a gesture of rejection.
Who could understand her? It was not even half an hour ago she’d let him make love to her with total submission, and now she resisted - but he easily beat her strength holding her wrists and kissing her on the mouth with all roughness. She turned her head in disgust. “Monster! You’ve bitten me!” And she touched her swollen lip.
“Bite me back then, darling.” He smiled. “But let’s go. My men have reported much more interesting data.”
“More than the Lux Veritatis and his bitch on the road to Damascus? If I have to give up the oldster and the kid, I’ll go for them, no matter what my wayward daughter says.”
“Even more. Before going for them, as we’ll go if my mistress commands it, we’ll stop to deal reckoning with the Healer.”
Giselle raised her eyebrows. “The old Marcus? Is he not with them?”
“Apparently, he insisted on staying in Meteora’s monastery. And you know, not only him but all that bloody community of monks have collaborated with our hated enemies...”
The blonde’s smile was widening - then she contorted it into a grimace. “They helped that bitch kill Karel.”
“And Gunderson who, relatively speaking, was a fine leader. We still have many men and the surprise factor. Tell me, pretty doctor, what’s more appealing now?”
Giselle smiled again.
“Ma’am...” Radha stammered, struggling with that not yet familiar language. “Ma’am, please...”
But Marie was not listening - nestled next to the wall, and with her face turned towards it, she was crying with all the helplessness of the world. Around her came and went different police officers who’d been following the withdrawal of fire-fighters. They were removing the charred remains of books, records, documents...even Zip’s computer had been destroyed.
But it wasn’t for this Marie was crying, but for who was lying under a blanket of plastic, with his head crushed, amid the ruined library. “We shouldn’t have left him alone...we shouldn’t have left him alone!”
So the Navajo woman wept and wailed for hours, stroking Radha’s black hair. The Indian girl didn’t understand what they could have possibly done to help Ivanoff, but still lamented Marie’s pain and the death of this man whom she hadn’t come to know much, but who’d always smiled at her.
And more after knowing it was the work of that horrible woman who had cut her fingers off without flinching. Radha wanted to hate her as much as Marie and mourn the professor with her, but she was too stunned and exhausted to react.
Ivanoff’s body was lifted and taken away. Then the two women insisted on following him. Now it was Radha who was holding Marie’s arm - she was absent and crestfallen. After a while, the Navajo woman overcame her sorrow and gritted her teeth.
“Did you know him?” Radha stammered.
“Just as much as you knew him, child!” Marie lamented again. “But he was a good man - a good man! These things should not happen. Something like this should never happen...” But according to her erratic glance, Radha guessed she wasn’t talking only about Ivanoff’s murder. And remembering what Lara had tried to explain the last few days she’d been with her, the image of a forest of crosses appeared before her eyes, and she shuddered.
“We’ve released the two suspect’s sketches, put together by the descriptions you’ve provided, Mrs. Cornel.” She heard the inspector’s voice. “We’ve also made contact with our colleagues in the Czech Republic... and... it seems you were right. We owe you an apology. This will weigh on our consciences, for the death of this man could’ve been avoided.”
Marie took a deep breath and lifted her reddened eyes. “Enough chatting. What must be done now is to catch that bitch and her followers. There’s no more we can do for Vlad.”
He nodded. “We’ll start a search around Brasov and widen the circle as we move forward. They can’t have gone very far yet, so we expect to find them.”
When he left, leaving them alone in the office, Radha bowed and took the wrinkled hand of the Navajo woman. “Ma’am...we should tell bahanji Lara about this...she must know what’s going on. Maybe they will be safer.”
Slowly, mechanically, Marie nodded.
Maddalena was sitting alone in the dark, still half naked, half wrapped with the bathrobe - a deaf and blind anger was devouring her from the inside.
There it was again.Maledizione. Cursed be her a thousand times.
“Out of here!” She hissed. “Go to hell!”
Was she laughing?
I’ve been there since immemorial times. But now you can’t kick me out, beautiful Giulia, I’m part of you...
“Get out, spawn. I curse you.”
Giulia, why do you hate me? I only mean to make you happy... Do you see? I haven’t mastered your beautiful body... I respected you...
“You haven’t given to me whom I loved.”
There was a heavy silence.
I gave him to you... didn’t I deliver him to you helpless? Haven’t you had him in your arms?
“You scared him. You hurt him. I hate you.”
It was compulsory to use brute force. He’s a very powerful Lux Veritatis, we can’t cuddle with him. It was necessary...
“I almost had him, he was almost mine, just for me, but you’ve ruined everything.”
How ungrateful you are, Giulia! Who but I have delivered him on a silver platter to you?
“You made him run away. Leave me alone!”
There was silence. Had she gone? Trembling, she crawled to the bedside table and took Saint Lucy’s holycard, her beloved protectress. She kissed her.
That slain virgin has no power against us. She’s happy wandering beside the One for whose cause she was slaughtered so long ago. Instead, Giulia, I’m with you. Don’t waste your prayers.
“You made him hate me and she now suspects me.”
Things didn’t go as expected, Giulia, that’s all. He’s strong and powerful, even for a being like me. He, stupid mortal, doesn’t know how powerful he is. Better if he continues ignoring it. The next time he will be yours.
“I should... I should tell him that you’re here. Make him expel you.”
My naive Giulia...he already knows. He’s noticed my presence, which hurts him like a knife. And as he increasingly becomes weaker when fighting, I’m stronger. No one can kick me out, beautiful Giulia.
The redhead looked at the sweet Saint in the picture. She’d dreamed a thousand times of enjoying the innocence and simplicity of the martyr - and instead, she was a prostitute who talked with demons...
There’s no good or evil. Nothing is as it seems. Stop looking at her. She died so long ago, but you’re alive. She’s on the altar, but you’ll get a better reward.
The holycard was burning. With a cry, Maddalena released it, and watched in horror as the flames consumed the fragile paper, reducing it to ashes, and then disappeared.
I’ve made a promise. He will be yours - and you will trample her face. When all is finished, when you have accomplished what I ask from you, he will be yours. He’ll be docile and pleasant to you, like a slave. And he will love you in absolute despair.
“Pater noster qui is in caelis sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem sed liberanos a malo. Amen.” Concluded the old cardinal, barely rising to the pew where he’d been praying late into the night.
He crossed himself and began his slow transition to the living room. His legs hurt so much...he was too old and needed to rest, but the days continued to happen, slowly, creeping, extending his bad old age, while God was reluctant to take him to Himself.
A chill of terror ran through his aching joints when he saw a figure long and slim sitting rigidly in his chair. His hand, trembling, shot to the switch and lit the room. The woman who was sitting there didn’t even blink. If that was a woman...shaking, the cardinal fumbled his cassock seeking the scapular, because that creature with such supernatural beauty couldn’t be a woman.
“I’m not an angel.” She gently replied, as if she’d read his mind. “Something of angel I’ve in my veins, but not much. Enough to come here tonight, to give you eternal rest.” She stretched a long arm, wrapped in a white wide sleeve, and told cardinal to have a seat near her.
But he didn’t move. “If you are a spawn of Satan...I command you to leave this Holy See.”
“I won’t take long in abandoning it, but you will too. If you don’t want to take a seat, Ercole Monteleone, you’ll remain standing, but then when you appear before your God, you can’t tell Him a Nephilim didn’t pay due respect to an old dying mortal.”
The gnarled old fingers hooked in the scapular. He tugged it nervously and dropped it on his chest, at her sight.
“At least you’re not trying to scare me with a crucifix.” She murmured, and then said. “I guess the Amazon, or even your wealthy nephew, told you about me.”
“My nephew’s dead, Bathsheba of the Nephili, as you already know.” The cardinal murmured sadly.
She nodded slowly. She kept an arm stretched along the sofa, but then the cardinal captured a small bundle wrapped in cloth resting on her lap.
“He was murdered by Lara Croft - the same woman who came to ask you for information. Your nephew’s corpse was still unburied when you paved her way in this very room.” Bathsheba couldn’t have been crueller with her comment - however she spoke with a such sweet and calm voice that she seemed a mother talking to her child.
The cardinal grabbed the back of a chair so as not to faint and clenched his lips. Then he said: “I don’t know if female Nephilim who once trod the earth had that bittersweet contrast of beauty and cruelty. Your father wasn’t like that. He was just cruel. Perhaps because he was a male, but I can’t tell.”
A satisfied smile surfaced Bathsheba’s lips. The cardinal shivered again to see her little white teeth. “I thought I’d have to force you to tell this, Your Eminence.”
“How I met your father? Cursed be the day I did. I haven’t had any peace since that day. The Lord has turned His face away from me.” The cardinal took two steps and, exhausted, sat in the chair he’d previously refused, making a gesture of pain when his swollen joints doubled. She looked at him with indifference, without helping him to sit. “Did you come to know about that, is that right?” He sighed.
“I guess you didn’t talk so brazenly and with such familiarity to him.” She hissed and went back on the couch, like a threatened snake.
“I’m old. I can’t fear anything at this point...except God’s judgement.” He glanced at the fireplace. It was cold and his bones froze of pure pain. While still thinking about how tiring it would be up to go on again, the fireplace suddenly came on and began to burn alone, generating light and heat more quickly and with more intensity.
Bathsheba’s gleaming green eyes reflected the flames. “Tricks like this are easy for us.” She whispered. “I’m expecting harder tests.”
“And who’s about to test you?” Ercole Monteleone replied. “If you wanted, you could send the demons to get you if you fall, just as the angels would′ve saved our Lord Jesus Christ if He’d asked them to do so.”
“I won’t engage in theological disputes,” Bathsheba said, “but as your Messiah did what he did to pass a test without which he couldn’t be dignified, I must expect the same.” She bowed slightly to the cardinal, and a lock of soft black hair slid down on her breast. The old man forced himself to look away. “You knew my father - the one who called himself Joachim Karel. Why did he come to you?”
He was still staring into the flames. “I guess I’ve no choice but to answer...”
“The sooner you do, the sooner your pain will end.”
“Santa Madonna!” He cried. “You’ve come to kill me, then.”
The Nephilim arched her well drawn eyebrows: “Kill you? I don’t need to kill you, old man. I’m here to announce you won’t pass this night.” She gathered the folds of her dress. “I’ve been busy preparing for the test that awaits me, but I need you to tell me what you know about my father - why he came and what he said. I need his guidance, but he died, and all I have is an amorous woman who knows only to mourn him.”
The cardinal made a face. “Why don’t you ask your awful goddess?”
Bathsheba smiled coldly. “Would you ask your God about Judas Iscariot?”
Monteleone frowned. “I don’t see why I should help you.”
“Because like it or not, it’s the last thing you’ll do. Otherwise, don’t help me, I can get that information differently, but in that case, you won’t have a good death.”
Ercole Monteleone didn’t seem to listen - he looked at the flames, absorbed. “I’ve sinned...listening to that demon was sin. I was young and ambitious, and I wanted to know. He’d existed since the dawn of time...he knew things nobody knew and had seen many eras and empires pass, rise and fall...I fell under his temptation.”
“Tell me about it.”
“He called himself Joachim Karel, but it wasn’t his real name. All Nephili have a mortal name and a holy name. You were called Bathsheba by your mother.” He said looking at her. “Did your Lady give a Holy Name to you?”
“You know a lot. You will also know that name, being sacred, is also secret, and no mortal should know.”
“True...” He remained oblivious, staring at Bathsheba’s wrapped bundle. What was there?
Then he looked away, and started his story.
At first she thought it was a dream - then the fog lifted slightly, and she noticed a figure before her.
She was surprised to see that she was Selma, stiff and silent in front of her. The Turkish girl was standing with arms at sides, her black hair loose in the back, some locks falling over her shoulders. She looked at her with her dark, expressive eyes wide open, staring at her as if surprised or frightened.
And the strange thing is that she was dressed...with a kind of white nightgown...or was it a hospital gown? It fell straight as a starched fabric, but ended above the knees.
“Selma?” She stammered. “Is that you?”
In trying to take a step towards her, she noticed something cold underfoot, and saw that she was, barefoot, on a surface of dark water. The slight waves also licked Selma’s bare feet, but she kept looking at her, very stiff.
Suddenly,a gentle breeze began to blow and shook the girl’s dark hair. Lara moved a little more thoroughly, stunned by not noticing a bottom under her feet, and saw that Selma’s lips were blue and her skin was covered with a thin film of sweat.
“Selma!” She yelled again. “What is it? Are you okay?”
For a moment, even the whisper of the breeze stopped. And then Lara saw her moving her lips, gently at first, then frantically.
But no sound came from them.
She went running towards her. The girl’s status upset her. She kept moving her lips as if talking, and suddenly her rigid face transmuted into a mask of anguish.
“Selma! Can’t hear you! What are you saying?”
She grabbed her by the shoulders. The touch was real, firm, but she was cold as a corpse. She shook her vigorously, almost angrily, but she kept moving her lips...without saying anything...
She woke with a scream. Then she sat up suddenly, felt a faint, and when she turned almost slipped off the bed.
Kurtis held her. “Okay, okay! It’s over.”
Her trembling hand fumbled the night stand and switched on the lamp. She looked around and saw Kurtis blinking at the sudden light. “You scared me to death.” He gasped. “What happened to you?”
Lara laid down, removed some strands of sweaty hair from her forehead and muttered: “Nothing. A silly dream.” She turned off the light, not wanting him to see his pale face. Why was a stupid nightmare able to upset her like that? Was she weakening?
Kurtis’ strong arms surrounded her waist, and she felt his warm breath on her neck. “Tell me.”
“You’re alive because I told you my vision, remember?”
Lara smiled and unconsciously touched the still fresh scar on her chest.
“I’m not a Lux Veritatis. My dreams don’t predict anything.”
Kurtis smiled in the darkness. “Tell me.” He repeated softly.
Lara sighed. “I saw Selma yelling, but she didn’t emit any sound. It was weird...but I’m telling you, it’s just silly.”
His fingers reached for her arm gently, feeling her skin - his extraordinarily warm hands. “We can contact her if you want - to calm you down.”
“I’m not nervous...” But her body didn’t seem to agree - she was shivering.
Kurtis put one arm around her waist and the other on her chest and hugged her, giving her heat.
Why was she anguished over just a dream? There was nothing particular in it...
Maddalena ran her finger across the picture frame and went down. Her eyes immediately noticed the twins - two tall men in their forties, blond and ruddy skinned, cheerfully discussing while sitting on the sofas in the hotel reception. All tourists who passed by stared at them, so alike they were one to each other.
Lara went downstairs, passed next to the redhead and went directly towards the twins, who seeing her rose in unison. They were a strange couple.
“Lara!” One exclaimed.
“You look so pretty!” Said the other making a mocking bow.
“Giulia, Kurtis.” The British explorer said, looking at the ex-legionnaire, who had just come down after Maddalena. “Meet William and Wilbur Hawks, from Harvard University. Their specialty is Phoenician archaeology
The two men smiled. “Don’t try to figure out which is William and which is Wilbur.” One added in a festive tone. “Even our mother′s not sure yet.”
“Wait, there’s a way. Wilbur’s gay.” The other replied.
“Indeed, sometimes I make use of my brother.” Then the first one added.
“Don’t believe him - he’s a liar.”
Kurtis wasn’t sure about what was weirder – those men behaving like brats or both having the same specialty in life.
“William and Wilbur have a very crude humor.” Lara interjected.
“We learned it from you, sister!” Mocked one of them - was he Wilbur, or William? It was impossible to distinguish them.
Fortunately, right then the restaurant manager showed up to tell them their table was ready.
“So Lilith’s temple, huh?” One of them – possibly William, said later. “You ask too much. This archaeological dig has been closed for ten years.”
“Under what circumstances and for what reasons?” Lara asked.
The ruddy archaeologist made a gesture of weariness. “You know...it’s always the same. Syria is a much-requested place by the Israelites...I don’t know how long they will keep on – and they’ve never been really fond of foreigners, and even less people like us who’re involved in removing a past with which both Jews and Muslims don’t identify with at all.”
“Really?” Lara’s eyebrows rose. “Is not Lilith a deity emanating from the Jewish tradition?”
Wilbur laughed. “Sister, if orthodox Jews heard what you’ve just said, they would stone you for blasphemy. Jews and Muslims are monotheists, as everyone knows, and they won’t take jokes about it very well. Lilith was a Babylonian goddess.”
“Also Adam’s first wife - and now you’ll tell me Adam is also a Babylonian character, right?”
The archaeologist’s eyes darkened. “I know where you want to go, sister. In short, what my brother wanted to say is that...technically there’s no such temple of Lilith. The enclosure we dug so long ago is a Phoenician temple... and as such, is devoted to Astarte.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Lara laughed.
At that time, Maddalena gently bowed towards the twin beside her, who was William, and asked: “Excuse my ignorance, but I’m not really educated in goddesses and myths. What’s the difference between Lilith and Astarte?”
“There’s none at all!” Lara jumped. “They’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Darling,” Wilbur cleared his throat, “don’t be prosaic. Astarte was the mother goddess of fertility, war, and the supreme deity of all Phoenicians. As such...”
“... she has exactly the same role as the Lilith of Babylon. They’re the same goddess, Wilbur!” Lara insisted. “A syncretism, an association of two figures coming from a triple source, Hebrew, Phoenician, and Babylonian. Lilith’s Astarte, and Astarte’s Lilith.”
William looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think the Phoenicians would appreciate your assimilation, but anyway... what I want to say is that this temple, Lara, is named after Astarte. It’s a place of worship for the goddess mother... Are you sure that’s what you seek?”
“We’re looking for the entrance to Hell.” A sinister voice added suddenly.
The twins stared at Kurtis, who’d just spoken. Maddalena looked at him tenderly.
“Hell, man.” Wilbur mumbled. “I thought a cat had got your tongue, and now you just say that. Very funny.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?” The aforementioned hissed, arching an eyebrow.
Lara smiled wistfully. “Did you ever see anything unusual in that excavation?” She added.
“Unusual? What the hell do you mean?” William growled. “It was a huge and beautiful temple, sadly reduced to ruins. Then those fundamentalist bastards came and expelled us at gunpoint. They blew up all the digging... all our work...” He clenched his fist. “They destroyed what was my life and my brother’s - all our hopes and dreams. And all over shitty politics!”
Seeing him so frustrated, Lara remembered Selma, whose work also had been destroyed. Selma... who shouted at her, unable to speak... She shuddered. “They might not have destroyed it for political reasons.”
“Of course! They hate Western people and our way of digging up the past.”
“You sure you didn’t see anything unusual in that temple?”
“I did.” Who’d spoken was Wilbur, his delicate face darkening slightly.
“What do you mean?” William muttered. “Don’t listen to this lunatic!”
“You, Brother, can’t see beyond your nose.” He muttered in reply. “But I did see something.”
But the other had already turned towards Kurtis. “He knows what I mean. You said the entrance to Hell.” Wilbur laughed. “Yeah, yeah ...you’re not kidding. Neither am I. The Gates of Hell!”
Maddalena sat back and looked at her hands. They trembled. She tightly folded them. That discussion was insane.
“You see ghosts everywhere, Wilbur.” William seemed upset. “It was just an ordinary temple, Lara. A half-buried structure on earth, with a large pit for offerings, but that’s all, sorry, and nothing remains. They destroyed it, my friend, so there’s nothing you can work with. No tunnels, no secret galleries, no traps, no treasures shining in the darkness. Nothing for you, Tomb Raider.”
But Lara stared at Kurtis, who in turn stared at Wilbur. She couldn’t be more thrilled - something told her that Kurtis hadn’t opened his mouth for free. He never said anything if it wasn’t worth saying it. It was as if he’d seen or read something in Wilbur’s eyes or mind, and was trying somehow to extract that information. Looking away from him, she caught Maddalena’s resentful and envious eyes – she, somehow, wanted to participate in this intimacy... but it was theirs alone.
“Through the study of certain sources,” Lara said then, “very vague, yes, but valuable, we concluded that there’s something in that area... I don’t know how to define it... perhaps an entry, or link to an alternate world, another dimension.”
William rolled his eyes. “God, Lara. Why did you call us? Do we look like Mulder and Scully?
“I haven’t summoned you for nothing. I need your help - no one knows that place better. If there’s anything... well, in any case you’ve right to access. Also, if you could reopen the excavation...”
Wilbur seemed lost and plunged into terrible thoughts. He glanced at Kurtis, overwhelmed by his penetrating gaze, then gasped: “I don’t think...we should...”
“Sometimes you’re annoying.” His twin snapped, and then turned his attention back to Lara. “It’s dangerous - fundamentalists could go back and kill us. And the government is not willing now to get involved...”
Suddenly, Wilbur threw back his chair. The sound was so creaky that William stopped and threw a sour look on his brother. “You’re a naive fool.” Wilbur snapped, his voice shaking. “You’re like the mouse that worries about the cat, but doesn’t think who might have sent the cat to destroy us.”
William snorted. “Yeah, sorry, I hadn’t thought about it. The evil Lilith-Astarte has risen from her grave and has summoned all the Israelites to occupy Syria and expel the Yankee invader. What a fool I am, if it was this obvious!”
William’s ironic words only managed to enrage Wilbur, who jumped from the chair. Lara started to get up to avoid possible discussion, but then felt Kurtis’ warm hand holding her by the wrist. He didn’t look at her, staring at Wilbur as he was, but she understood.
The archaeologist’s face was even redder than usual, which seemed impossible. “You moron!” He snapped. Some diners turned to look at them. “I don’t mean the damn fundamentalists. I mean the creatures that attacked my crew when we were excavating the offering pit! Those things with a human face!”
“Manticores?” Lara leaned forward, excited. “You’re talking about manticores?”
But Wilbur’s face was deformed into a mask of panic. “He already knew!” He held out a trembling finger towards Kurtis. “He’s seen...he’s also seen them...! They’re coming to destroy us!”
Maddalena screamed when she saw the man about to faint. She jumped at him and barely had time to hold him before he collapsed, white as wax, and with his terrified eyes fixed on Kurtis, who’d not moved an inch.
“Please! Don’t tell me you believe in such bullshit!”
“That was a panic attack.” Kurtis calmly exposed. “Typical manticores’ stuff. Those who manage to overcome the fear of seeing them, will remember them throughout life, in their worst nightmares, and even when they’re awake.”
William frowned. “I’ve got no idea who you are, but you’re a really creepy guy. I was there with him, and I didn’t see those... things.”
“Manticores are messengers of evil”. Kurtis went on. “The men who were with your brother died, right?”
The other shook his head. “There... there was a rockfall. Some died there... and the others, well... fell sick and died.”
Lara and Maddalena were bent over Wilbur’s prostrate body, who along with some people from the hotel tried to reanimate him.
“They went blind, then... became paralyzed and died. Does it matter?”
“The effects of a manticore’s bite.” The Lux Veritatis concluded.
William shook his head. “Look, I don’t believe in monsters and shit...”
“Whatever – you’ll believe when you see them, but it’s not my business. We only need a pass and some security to access that temple. Then if you want, you can run away with your brother. But Lara, Giulia, and I will stay there.”
Lara had looked up and watched them. Wilbur began to blink and mumble something. “It’s very important to me, William.” She interjected.
The American archaeologist spent a few moments looking silently at his trembling twin. Then he looked at that creepy man, and finally turned back to Lara. “OK. We’re going on the road to Damascus - come hell or high water.”