“I was young and ambitious - I longed over all knowledge and wisdom. And he was very, very old, like he’d seen ages and ages pass like a single moment of a mortal life. He was old and eternal, and I was young and ambitious - I let myself be seduced by him.
I don’t know if the woman who bred you told you how he was. Truth be told, he’d an ordinary look, he wasn’t a marvel of beauty and perfection as you are. He was tall, blond with blue eyes, always dressed in black, very elegantly. He′d chosen to be called Joachim Karel, taking a mortal name from the Hebrew language, as was usual among the Nephili. Same way your mother chose yours, no doubt.
He... he came to me on a stormy night. I had already become a deacon in my unstoppable ascent, and slept a feverish sleep among the manuscripts that my solicitous protector, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, had let me see. I looked up at a certain moment, startled by a sudden burst of lightning, and then I saw him there, in a corner. Those who’d seen a Nephilim’s smile know how it feels. May God forgive me this blasphemy, but it’s like seeing an angel smiling...and also a demon. He wasn’t as attractive as you, but while he lived there was no creature as terrifying and irresistible in all the Earth.
So I saw him as an open door to eternal wisdom, like a sea of promises. I was proud and had little fear of God, despite my fervent farce to my superiors, and gladly listened to his enticing, cajoling, poisonous words.”
The cardinal stopped with a gasp, shuddering. The pain of his poor joints had increased. He felt as if his bones were being crushed under a hammer.
“Ercole Monteleone.” Karel whispered with a crooked lupine smile. “As you are part of the hierarchy of your Church you’re also among very inappropriate texts.”
The young deacon, stunned, dropped the parchment and cast a look of panic on the scrolls and codex scattered around the table. “Who are you?” He stammered, as seeing him dressed in black he thought he was an inspector of the Holy Father.
But Karel, in reply, advanced towards the table, took a paper and watched it with disinterest. Then his keen eyes swept across the remaining documents. “Necromancy, Malleus Maleficarum, Black Bible...and...what is this? A Lux Veritatis’ manuscript about the Nephili and Lilith...” He threw the paper back on the table. “Certainly inappropriate for a holy man. I can imagine what your superiors would think about feeding your soul with such readings. However, you hold them in your library. Oh, the irony.”
“Are you an inspector?”
Karel again showed his crooked smile. “I am much worse for you. I guess you’ve already read enough to recognize this.” He opened his hand, showing a seared scar, something that in fact the deacon Monteleone identified as the mark of a Nephilim.
“Fake.” He’d the courage to mumble. “That mark can be done by anyone. Are you kidding me?”
The table vibrated sharply and moved in a horizontal direction until crashing against the wall, dragging lamps, vases and chairs, and scattering the manuscripts. “The long centuries have given me patience for everything except for the insolence of mortals.”
Ercole went back against the wall, shivering violently. “I-I’m just...a...p-poor deacon...”
“A miserable mortal, which is worse. But you’re corrupted by ambition and you learn from forbidden texts - which is enough to serve my purpose.” Before Monteleone’s stunned eyes, the Nephilim took a sheet of paper and threw it contemptuously on the table. “Write, poor deacon.” He mocked. “Those of your ilk have always enjoyed chattering and writing.”
Ercole took the paper tremblingly and looked for something to write with. Even his curiosity was greater than his fear and he had no strength to resist. “What should I write?”
“I’ll tell you about Samael’s fall. It’s time for your pompous bunch of preachers to stop telling lies to the mob. If I see you’re useful for this, maybe then I’ll tell you about Lilith. I bet your texts were not going to say anything such as interesting as this.”
Without another word, the deacon convulsively grasped the pen and proceeded to transcribe the intensity of that immortal voice, revealing to a human being for the first time one of the greatest mysteries of all times.
The old Cardinal looked up and beheld the unexpected daughter of who was his confidante. The beautiful girl smiled calmly. “You don’t want me to tell you about your father.” He murmured at last. “You want me to talk about what he ordered me to write.”
“You’re clever, old man.”
“I should have figured. You’re coming to speak to me and then kill me.”
Bathsheba waved a hand tiredly. “You’re all obsessed with death. Must be something exciting - makes you live too fast. Why would I kill you, if you’re going to die tonight anyway?”
Ercole laughed bitterly. “If all your predecessors thought like you...”
“Tell me about the script he made you write. The one you burned.” The woman’s green eyes scrutinized him mercilessly. How could she know everything just by looking at him? He shivered - he’d forgotten how terrible those creatures were.
“Yes, I burned it, I admit.” He writhed in pain in his chair. “I burned it when my sources informed me that he was dead and couldn’t return to punish me. Those words were cursed - its very existence made the angels mourn.” His eyes strayed to the dim light of the lamp, and then looked at the package she still kept coiled in her lap. As driven by a spring, Bathsheba’s arm suddenly uncovered the fabric.
“Oh, Santa Maria.”
There they were - the Periapt and the Shards. His eyes welled with tears. How often had he dreamed of them, while he devoured forbidden manuscripts, trying to imagine them, wanting to touch them...he′d them there now, and his bone pain was so intense that he couldn’t even lend a hand.
“At last you have them, powerful woman. Finally the dark days are coming. She will wake up again... and thanks to heaven, I won’t live to see it.”
“Everyone will see.” Bathsheba hissed. “All of you. The inhabitants of the Earth. Those who dwell in heaven. Those who suffer in the Vortex. The wandering, lost souls, who are homeless. All of them. Lilith’s awakening won’t remain unnoticed even to the most despicable form of life ever created.”
“Then, may God have mercy on us.” And one more time, he went on...
Marcus had great oratorical skills, but even his best oratory couldn’t resolve that situation. After long hours of consultation, the entire community mobilized to help with the monastery’s archives, and all they got had been vague allusions or incomprehensible texts – it was exasperating.
“So, the Antichrist comes and we’ve nothing with which to fight Her.” The old Healer looked up from the codex he was studying, surprised, and saw Nikos Kavafis standing before him. He was altered. “Patéras, you’re still too weak. Please, go back to rest...”
“I can’t be idle - not in these circumstances. The Antichrist’s coming...and I thought to see Her in a Nephilim who was easy to defeat.”
Marcus frowned, while the hegumenos took seat beside him. He moved slowly, tortured by the pain of his still fresh wounds.
“I wouldn’t call Her the Antichrist.”
“How would you define the awakening of that horrible devil? Call it Satan or Lilith, the Evil One threatens to overshadow the earth. For centuries we’ve helped your Order against those whom we believed the greatest enemies of mankind, these Nephili... ours is the story of a failure.”
“Not very different from ours.” Marcus smiled. “All we have now is a Fighter who doesn’t want to fight and an unborn child in the spotlight of all the dark forces - not a very good picture.”
Nikos nodded. “I wish I had the great faith of my predecessor. He’d have known what to do.” He shook his head as if to ward off such thoughts, and whispered. “What are you consulting there, Healer?”
Marcus grinned and showed the text to the hegumenos. He read: Innocence, Wisdom, Occultism, Impurity, Angelic Essence, hanging from the fingers of a Warrior and an Amazon.
“Dear Lord.” The hegumenos murmured surprised. “At last you’ve found something!”
“You think so? I’m not so sure. Read on.”
An Amazon and a Warrior two must sacrifice. For their cause they will have to shed their blood, but not stain their hands with blood.
“If you want my opinion”, Marcus snorted, “this is a meaningless hodgepodge.”
Nikos smiled. “Well, I’m a hieromonk, and you’re a Healer. If we don’t unveil this, nobody will - let me read on.”
The shed blood cries from the ground. Innocent blood, wise blood, impure blood, occult blood, angelic blood will splash the earth.
“You said meaningless?” Nikos sputtered. “It’s crystal clear!”
“Yes, right?” Marcus had trouble containing the sarcasm. “My friend, that’s the problem. It’s so clear that it’s not saying anything. It merely repeats the bloody prophecy!”
“Let me read on, Marcus.” The hegumenos said, taking the codex. “I might find something.”
See with clear eyes what the truth is. Nothing is as clear as shown by our mortal eyes. Innocence is not innocence; impurity is not the absence of purity. Wisdom has many faces, and what is hidden from the eyes is clearly shown to the world. The angel can be demon.
Nikos laughed. “It’s pretty...ironic. It is and it’s not. It can be anyone, but not what it seems. This text doesn’t get us anywhere...”
“Well, obviously we shouldn’t quit. Any assumption about the chosen ones?”
“Professor Ivanoff proposed that he, Selma or I could be the Wise. According to him, the Angel could be Lady Bathsheba, while he saw the Impure in Ms. Manfredi...”
Nikos laughed again. “Ivanoff is quite sharp, but... he seems to stick in the dark. Bathsheba might certainly be a demon looking like an angel, but the Impure and the Wise is too obvious...and this text warns us we shouldn’t overlook anything.”
“Kurtis didn’t seem satisfied either. Evil creatures don’t distinguish a prostitute from a chaste mortal. For them all of us are dirty mortals.”
The hegumenos looked through a little more of the codex. In some places the ink was smeared and half-erased; some pages were rotten and had lost its caps long ago.
“Who wrote this manuscript?” Marcus asked. “Do you know? I found it in one of the basements near the crypt.”
“The title being?”
“O Onirikón Daimonion. The Devil’s Dream.”
Nikos stood for a moment, and then grinned. “What... what paradox. So it is there where the events lead us....”
“Why? I never heard of this book before.”
“Neither you nor anyone outside the monastery - and much less the younger novices. This book was forbidden by hegumenos Stefanos, who commanded to keep and banned access to it in XIII century.”
“Why didn’t he burn it? But... are you saying that this really was written in the XIII century?”
The hegumenos laughed. “Not at all. It was written long before. This book was already old when he ordered to hide it. Maybe he was afraid of burning it.”
Marcus leaned back in his chair. He trembled slightly. “If it’s not fake...”
“It’s not, Brother.”
“..then we have in our hands a book that tells about the Order, the prophecies of a Warrior and an Amazon... several centuries before the Order was born... before Loanna Von Skopf was born! In the name of all which is sacred, who wrote this?”
Nikos was smiling. “It’s forbidden to talk about this, but these are times of trial...and there’s always leaked information. My predecessor Minos talked to me about this book, on his deathbed. How strange...”
“Tell me about it!” The Healer commanded rather than suggested.
Eighty years of life had trod the earth, and finally it was time to leave. Minos Axiotis lay on his deathbed, his limp hand barely holding the rosary, his eyes fixed on his beloved icon of the Panagia, which had presided his office for so long, which he’d sent to bring in front of his bed.
At his feet, holding her hand, Nikos Kavafis, elected as his successor, stood with his head bowed. The impending loss of one who′d been guide and inspiration for the whole community had fallen like a wet blanket over them, although he was too old and sick.
The monk opened his eyes. Minos had his face turned towards him, but he no longer saw anything – his dim eyes didn’t point in any direction. “Nikos, I must tell you something. It’s about...the forbidden book. Ó Onirikón Daimonión.”
He frowned. No doubt they were the ravings of a dying man. “Rest, patéras. The Lord awaits you.”
“No!” The cry came out with surprising energy from his bloodless lips. “I should have talked about it long ago. Listen, I beg you. I’m dying...”
Nikos bowed his head in respect.
“This book... will be your guide when Evil returns.”
“What are you talking about, holy Father? Evil′s dead. We saw him die, and end the pain.”
Minos strenuously shook his head. “Evil always returns. Always returns, and becomes stronger. That was just a battle. You must... help them...”
“Kurtis. Lara. They remain at risk. The forbidden codex...” A fit of coughing prevented him from going on. Nikos took a jug of water from the table and poured a glass, which he brought to the lips of the dying man. “Son...” Minos muttered after drinking. “This book was written in the seventh century AD. It tells us about things that didn’t exist at that time, such as the Order of the Lux Veritatis, or the Amazon. It was written by one person... a woman...” Another fit of coughing. Again Nikos gave him a drink. Despite knowing that it was wrong, Nikos could feel the sting of curiosity tormenting him in the inside. “That woman... was a prophetess living in the mountains of Syria. A woman who calls herself in the manuscript as Sibilla Satanica.”
“A Devil’s priestess?”
“How can we keep such horror in our library?” Nikos gasped.
“Because it’s a horror that can save many at one time. Listen... this woman foretold the awakening of an ancient evil... an evil that will come to punish, to avenge, and to destroy. Eventually, you’ll help with this manuscript when everyone demands it.”
“Swear to me, son.”
“Swearing is sinful!”
The old hegumenos smiled bitterly. “There are many things which are sinful and we do them anyway. Swear, son...” The breathing became slower, mechanical. Little by little, his pupils dilated and his lips remained half open.
Nikos placed his hand on his chest and bowed his head. “Welcome him, angels of the Lord. Receive him, Queen of Heaven.”
The hegumenos shuddered when finished talking. He looked at his hands, horrified, as his eyes filled with tears.
“Nikos!” Marcus exclaimed. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, Blessed Lord!” He sobbed. “I remember now! I had a demon inside of me...”
“That’s already over. You’re healed and purified.”
Nikos gave a cry of grief. Then he buried his face in his hands. “How could I forget! I had it in me and he whispered that prophecy over and over again! How could I forget that book, how could I ignore Minos’ last breath!”
“Courage, Nikos. We’re still on time. We can help. Looks like this codex itself is valuable, so we’ll turn to study it and tell Lara and Kurtis what we get.” He pressed the monk’s hand, still dazed, and both then returned to reading.
They drove for half an hour across the arid landscape, after having left behind Damascus. There were two Jeeps, one driven by the twins, and the other for Lara, Kurtis, and Maddalena. Despite the British explorer’s protests, it was Kurtis who was driving. “If I agreed with everything you propose,” He muttered, glancing at his passenger, “maybe you’ll end up bungee jumping in your ninth month, Lara. Stop acting like a maniac.”
She glared at him and then focused on examining the map.
“I remember you had a motorcycle” The redhead gently whispered from the back seat.
“Must be at your friend Monteleone’s.” Kurtis said. “But I’ll get it back.”
Lara smiled - Kurtis knew, but not Maddalena, that the capo was dead.
“Now, when you get to a kind of intersection, turn left.” The British explorer said, and brushed a stray strand of hair from her sweaty forehead.
“You sure we need those two?”
“A little late to send them back to the USA.” Lara laughed. “Yes, we need them. They know the excavation which is massive. Could do it myself, but that would take a long time, and time is what we don’t have.”
Maddalena shrugged. She couldn’t understand anything. What were they searching for? What was about to happen?
You know, beautiful Giulia. You know that.
She shuddered with fear and looked around, terrified.
I never leave you, in neither sun nor shade, whispered the Voice, never forget it.
“Ah!” Wilbur sighed. “My beautiful! They didn’t destroy it.” He turned towards the rest. “Welcome to the temple of Astarte.”
It was huge, indeed. A massive structure in ruins, some walls carved, some other with traces of pigments. Lara looked at them, delighted, but commanded herself to focus on her goal. “We need to get started. Any suggestion?
“Lead us where you saw the manticores.” Kurtis told Wilbur.
When the three had disappeared among the ruins, William dropped himself at the foot of a column and lit a cigarette. Then he looked at Maddalena, who had sat in the shade absently. “I spent the best years of my life in this place.” He murmured, looking with a smile at the beautiful engravings. “When we found it, it was nothing more than two misplaced stones - and look now how much we unearthed.” He sighed. “I’m surprised those suckers respected it. I’m about to change my opinion on them.”
She hugged her knees, not looking at him. He however didn’t take his eyes off her. “I don’t get what’s happening here. I’m getting more and more confused. My brother raves like a madman, like when we left this site, and I find Lara totally changed.” He threw the cigarette. “What do you know about this? Who are you and who’s that guy? He’s her lover, right?”
The redhead ran her view across the structure, feeling uncomfortable. “Not my business.”
“No? What are you doing here? Are you his lover too?” There was no response. “I hate that guy. I don’t like him. I don’t think we can trust him. Do you believe all that bullshit about Lilith and the descent into Hell?” Silence. “It’s a trap, right?”
“This is a bothros. Archaeologists named bothroi the...”
“... the offering pits in ancient temples.” Lara smiled sarcastically. “You going to teach me archaeology at this point, Wilbur?”
The ruddy American, squatting in front of the pit, smiled like a child whose mother scolded him. “Let me enjoy it, Lara. Your friend could learn something.”
Kurtis bowed to the empty darkness and sniffed. “How deep is it there?”
“About six meters to the ground. But I brought a lad...” Before he could even finish the sentence, Kurtis had thrown himself down the hole. Wilbur screamed. “What are you doing, man! You’ll break your legs!” A light flickered down, and he saw Kurtis standing among rubble remains, shining his flash-light around. The archaeologist was stunned. “Unbelievable! You must have titanium bones to... that’s a fall of six meters!”
“Six meters is nothing to Kurtis.” Lara smiled, somewhat envious of that Gift which allowed him to slow down the rate of fall. “But bring that ladder here, Wilbur, if you don’t want us to break our legs.”
Shaking his head, the archaeologist adjusted the rope ladder with the help of Lara, and they descended. Once on the bottom, as she stepped on some broken pottery, the woman bent down and lifted a winged statuette with unmistakable symbols. “Lilith.” She announced triumphantly. “You still think this temple was devoted to Astarte?”
“Don’t start with that, Lara.”
Kurtis was crouched next to a hole in the bottom of the borehole wall, his flash-light scanning their surroundings. “Here’s a tunnel. Wide enough for a person to crawl through... and for a manticore to freely move.”
Wilbur began to tremble, but made an effort to keep calm. “Those things went out there. There were many... but... what are you doing?”
Kurtis was crawling down the hole. Lara followed him. “You sure?” She said. “If they come, how can you defend yourself in such a narrow space?”
“They aren’t here.” The Lux Veritatis gasped. “I don’t sense them.”
The American shook his head, not knowing what to think.
“I’m going with you.” Lara was crawling after him.
“Hush! If there are no manticores, there’s no danger - and no one died simply from crawling for a while!”
With a grunt, Kurtis went forward.
“Are you coming with us, Wilbur?”
“I... I think ... I’ll wait here.”
Twenty yards ahead, they saw the exit - luckily the ground was near. Kurtis slipped out of the hole and planted his feet on it. Then he helped Lara to go out. “Incredible.” She announced, satisfied. “Who could say?”
They were in a large underground cave which seemed to be ventilated with drafty upper galleries coming from the surface. Before them there was a kind of strange stone structure, like an egg, with a central staircase carved in stone. Some torches illuminated the place.
“Someone lives there.” Kurtis said.
“What kind of person can live buried here?” Lara muttered, already heading for the stairs.
Kurtis took her arm. “Don’t you think it could be dangerous?”
Lara lifted her loose shirt and showed the gun she’d tucked into her belt. “I’m armed. C’mon.”
They ascended through the dark rock towards the stone egg. A tattered curtain covered the entrance, behind which they saw a reddish glow.
“You think we should knock on the door?” Lara mocked. “It’s proper behaviour for decent places.”
“This is not a decent place.” Kurtis smiled, and pulled the curtain back with a stretch.
At first, a cloud of perfumed smoke prevented them from seeing anything. They took a few steps inside, then Lara gasped in surprise.
They were in a circular room, which would seem to be larger if it weren’t packed with stuff: jars, bottles, books, furniture, curtains, and thousands of boxes, shelves filled with objects and bundles wrapped in threadbare cloth. Opposite of them, and after a huge brazier in which some spices were burning and lit the room with a ghostly red light, there was a large wooden throne, covered with threadbare pillows. And sitting in it, there was a girl.
If she could be called girl - she seemed to be so judging by her small size, and because on her body, naked and smeared with red ochre, there was no evidence of puberty. But her appearance was horrible. Along the lines of paint that covered her little body, there was much scarification - her whole body was marked by blade. The hair was so dirty and matted that it was impossible to determine its color, but several tiny bones and skulls - mouse skulls? hung from it as a decoration. Lara estimated she was eight or nine years old.
The girl had been rigid in a seat that was five times bigger than her, but soon slightly opened her eyes. At first, Lara was horrified seeing the milky white color they had, but then she found, ashamed, that there was nothing monstrous in those eyes – she was just blind.
“Sorry we bothered you.” The British explorer said, suddenly feeling stupid at the fact she didn’t know how to react. “We...” She didn’t go on, because then the girl hissed like a snake - her pale lips, painted with a blackish substance, parted, showing her sharp yellow teeth.
Then Kurtis took a step and gently pushed Lara away, covering her to protect her from the child.
“Kurtis.” She murmured. “She’s just a kid, she can’t...”
“The man is wiser than you, woman.” The creepy girl suddenly spoke. Lara looked at her, stunned, as the hoarse voice that came out of her horrible mouth didn’t seem the one of a child, but of a decrepit old woman.
“You speak my language?” Lara asked, still surrounded by Kurtis’ arm.
“I speak all the tongues of mortals and immortals. The Ancients gifted me with this instruction.” The whitish mass that was her eyes moved slowly, turning basins.
“But if you’re just a girl, who let you here? Where are your parents?”
The tiny chest swelled and the creature gave a dry laugh. “I have no parents. Perhaps I had ones a long time ago, but they died while I’ve been spending entire ages on the Earth. I was also a child long ago, but I left that behind. Now I’m very old and very wise.”
“I don’t get what you mean.”
“If you want answers, open that huge closet at your right.”
Lara turned to the cabinet, but Kurtis grabbed her again. “You crazy?” He hissed in her ear. “You have no idea what’s in there!”
“Fear not, Son of Light.” The girl said. “I won’t be the one to hurt the Amazon.”
The British explorer released herself from his arms and went to the closet. It was as if she weren’t herself. Kurtis glared at her, and yes, she was being stupidly reckless, but curiosity drove her to do what that monster dictated. She yanked the rickety closet doors, which creaked loudly, and then she stepped back and let out a cry of horror.
There were a lot of severed heads, piled up on several shelves. Stuffed heads, old heads, with mouth and eyes sewn shut, matted gray hair crowning some of them, others with a dry bald top...ten, twenty, thirty...
“Thousands of them.” The child said. “Since I was born until now, these are my previous avatars. I keep them in thousands of cabinets scattered in my domains. You understand now, Amazon? I was born the first time in the VII century of your era - since then, I’ve born, died and reborn again. When my body was dying, I took another one and kept my former bodies to venerate them. Unfortunately they rotted over the centuries and I only can keep the heads.”
Lara retched at the stench of the rotting heads. She staggered and Kurtis held her. “What’s this atrocity?”
“Not an atrocity, but the gift of reincarnation. Only I can enjoy this, among all mortals.” The girl repositioned on her throne. “I hope your insane curiosity is satisfied now, Amazon.”
The nausea got worse – Lara was about to throw up. She closed the closet at once. The smell of corpses, burning spices...blood...filth... she thought, ironically, if she vomited on the carpeted floor, she wouldn’t mess that disgusting hall more than it already was. “Who are you?” She sputtered.
The blind eyes briefly closed, hiding the white jelly in her sooty face. “I’m Sibilla Satanica.” The creepy child whispered, baring again her sharp teeth. “And you, intruders, what are you doing in my domain?”