The young Pancratios went towards the table and left a cup of tea with which the monks would spend a sleepless night. He noted, sideways, the Healer absorbed in the study of the old codex and couldn’t help saying with a sneer: “Devil’s writings. Your Order must have fallen so low to resort to the ravings of a witch.”
Marcus looked the novice up and down. “I think, Pancratios, you shouldn’t dump your bitterness on me either. That’s also falling so low for someone who claims to be a Christian, don’t you think?”
The boy turned away and left. Marcus took the cup and sipped the herbal tea. If not for it, he would have already spent hours sleeping and drooling over the codex - even the fascinating text was too much for his old age and weakness.
“Bitter is the sacrifice of a mother who must choose between her children,” he read, fingering the scroll, “dooming one, betraying the other, saving another one.”
“Sounds very strange.” Nikos was back there. There was no way to force him to rest - and he was still skinny and weak, as if his body were unable to recover the lost energy. Marcus was genuinely concerned about him, but he’d decided not to insist on it. “Has he been bothering you?” The hegumenos said, gesturing towards the door. “Our Pancratios can be somewhat annoying at times.”
“You must have the patience of a saint with him.”
The hegumenos chuckled. “A martyr’s patience! But tell me again what you found.”
“Not much. Listen to what it says about the Angel:
Flashpoint of the avenging sword
You’re wielding, with trembling hand,
You who never knew the touch of a kiss,
Whose heart beats crazy
Locked between the spines of your distress,
Splashing blood around you.
Your offspring have to kill you,
Because you were born for love
But you can only breed hatred.
He let out a sigh and leaned back closing his eyes while Nikos looked at him, amused.
“This Sibilla was a really fascinating woman.” The Healer said.
“Brother, this is not a poetry contest. Lives are at stake.”
Marcus blinked. “I know - but it would be inhuman not to be caught up by this. Don’t forget that the classical Sibyl was a prophetess inspired by divinity.”
“By Satan, in this case.” The hegumenos sputtered.
“A supernatural being who speaks through her mouth. I... I think if we don’t strip these lines of prophecy, nothing or no one will. But my findings have been more specific with the figure of the Wise.” He cleared his throat and leaned back on the codex.
You who have come to interpret
What my mouth said centuries ago
You, who are the last and you’re alone
You who count the fast seconds
Which lead you to sister Death
You, with all your knowledge, nothing will change,
But without you nothing would change.
He leaned back and looked at a stunned Nikos. “Well, looks like she’s talking about you, Brother Healer. You must be the Wise.”
“That frightens me.”
“Why? The other two candidates are discarded. The Turkish girl is dying and the Romanian professor was murdered - and here, right now, there’s only one Wise who could interpret what her mouth has announced.”
Marcus shook his head and closed his eyes - he was so tired... Then he felt the hegumenos′ comforting hand on his shoulder: “Maybe that’s why you survived. They kept you alive first, imprisoned for some reason, all to reach this day, this hour, when you’re interpreting the song of a Sibyl. Nothing happens by chance, Marcus.”
“I can’t believe the reason for Eckhardt, Karel, and finally Boaz to keep me alive was to become an obstacle to Lilith’s plans.”
“No one says you’re an obstacle. Sibilla said that you would change nothing.”
“She says also that without me nothing would change.”
“Such are the contradictory Sibyls, or perhaps our minds are short of understanding and don’t have enough knowledge.” Nikos laughed.
Suddenly, an explosion was heard in the silence of the night, leaving them startled. Used to reacting to danger, Marcus stood, clutching the manuscript to his chest.
“That came from outside!” Nikos said turning around.
“Yes,” Marcus muttered, “it’s gunfire.”
“I need to see her again”.
She truly was headstrong, for the Light’s sake!
“You heard her.” Kurtis replied calmly. “She doesn’t like intruders. Better to stay out her way.”
“C’mon, Mr. Trent, a little witch who doesn’t even reach your belt has frightened you?”
He turned towards Lara, who looked at him expectantly. “What frightens me are the forces that protect her.”
“You saw something in her, right? You think it’s true what she said?”
Kurtis didn’t answer. Lara let out a sigh of exasperation. “Really, sometimes I can’t understand you.”
“I’m a very understandable man, Lara. I don’t play with fire - I know I can get burnt. But even if you get burnt you keep playing with it.” Assuming the discussion was over he raised the canvas and left the tent.
Lara’s mouth twitched - it wasn’t easy to deal with Kurtis when he smelled danger. No doubt he’d developed a sense of survival in a really hard way, but for Lara risks should be taken in order to get results.
“May I enter?” It was William’s voice.
“Of course.” Lara said, wiping the sweat from her brow.
The ruddy archaeologist looked at her grimly - something was wrong with him. He’d always been a good partner, but now seemed to distrust her. No doubt the conversation would be about it. “Why are we here?” He said with a gesture of despair. “For a while I harbored the hope of reopening the excavation and restoring this jewel for knowledge. But now Wilbur has told me all you’ve done is sneak through a hole and visit a supposed witch who lives in the temple. What the hell’s going on?”
She smiled patiently. “It’s hard to understand, but I didn’t lie to you, William. We’re looking for an entrance to...”
“Hell, Lara! You’re rambling! Tell me the truth! What are you plotting, both you and that lover of yours? You think I didn’t notice that every night you bring him in your bed?”
Lara stood as driven by a spring. “Is that your business, huh? When I want someone to nose into my life I’ll call on the British paparazzi!”
“I haven’t come to watch you bang that...”
So that was it - Lara couldn’t believe it. “You’re just jealous!” She whispered, astonished. That sentence cut William’s verbiage, who glanced at her with resentment. He’d intended to disguise that, but here it was. After all that time... “William, I was clear when...”
“Oh, you were clear! Lady Croft rejected me in a very graceful manner after this commoner was encouraged by false hopes of...
“I didn’t give you false hopes, William!”
“Of course not! You just flirt with every living creature, and when a poor wretch thinks he can aspire to something more than your glances and your endless waltz, you crush him with your heel - as you crushed me! Are you also playing with him, bitch?”
It was surreal. But she had to cut that off. “Stop it, William. You should have known I wasn’t interested in you. I don’t play with men who don’t interest me. I have my own problems.”
“You really think I forget so easily, as you forgot me? Seems the poor son of a worker is not adequate to the Duchess of Saint Bridget.
“Get the hell outta here.” Lara muttered, blushing in rage. How dare he call her by her loathed title?
But William wasn’t over. “Tell me, what the highest and most chaste British aristocracy will think when they learn that Lord Croft’s daughter, that rebel stray bullet, is now pregnant and unmarried from a nobody mercenary with an obscure past? It will be really exciting!”
Lara stared at him speechless. He intended to damage her seriously - and he was perfectly able to do it.
“C’mon, Lara! You really think I wouldn’t notice? I’m not a queer like my brother, who looks at a lunch menu with more scrutiny than he does a woman. But I’m not stupid! How long will you be able to hide it, huh?”
That was enough. The British explorer jumped from her seat and stood before William, with her face so close to his that he drew back, startled. “Go to hell.” She muttered.
And passing next to him, she left the tent.
Kurtis plunged his hand into the bowl of water and splashed his face. At dusk the temperature was cooling, but even after a while his skin would be burning. He’d always had a body temperature above the usual in other humans, as if having a slight fever. Lara had been concerned at first, until he’d assured her, laughing, that was typical of a Lux Veritatis - only he didn’t know why. According to the sages of the Council, something related to the Gift’s flow.
He fixed his eyes on the horizon. The Temple of Astarte - or Lilith, if one referred to Lara’s theory - was the only structure in miles around besides the small camp. But even at that distance Kurtis was able to distinguish two forms walking down the road.
“May I speak to you?”
He turned so abruptly that Maddalena yelped and backed away.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Nevermind.” She smiled, and looked at him languidly with those golden eyes. If only she stopped looking at him like that. She seemed like a thirsty person looking at a spring of fresh water. No, Maddalena seemed about to die of dehydration, and he must have looked like an entire lake. She stared at him as if about to drink him up. “What did you want?”
But she reached out and touched his arm. “You’re burning!” She muttered shocked. “Are you sick again?” Was it real concern for his condition or the lovely ploy of an expert in seduction?
Probably both, he thought with dismay. It was hard to categorically refuse someone so loyal and friendly. “It’s normal, don’t worry.” He replied, not wanting to go into further details.
She didn’t seem convinced, but she withdrew her hand. “I’m worried. I think we’ll have problems soon.”
“I believe William is suspicious of us. He’s been harassing me all the time with frantic questions. I didn’t want to say anything but he hasn’t stopped chasing me.”
“You did well, Giulia.”
“He seemed especially interested in your relationship with Lara.” The Italian woman was twisting a red loop as she spoke. It was evident she found it painful to mention. “I think he’s only going to damage us. We shouldn’t have got them into this, and we’d better get rid of them before they give us real trouble.”
Curiously, Kurtis fully agreed with that - but it had been Lara’s idea and when she insisted in something it was impossible to bend her will. Even Maddalena, whom Lara thought was just a tacky whore, had been smart enough to have noticed that.
“You’re right. I tried to talk to her but she’s very stubborn. Although I feel more uneasy about the Sibilla issue.”
The redhead listened to him with total interest. How many times Lara had listened to him like that, had requested his opinion, had found worthy what he thought? Not too many times, really. Her personality was so strong and overwhelming even rolled up with him, who wasn’t a weak spirit at all. But there he was, trusting a stranger who’d fallen madly in love with him and listened to him with total adoration. Perhaps that was the difference between her love and Lara’s love.
Then Kurtis realized that would only bring more complications. He decided to leave the conversation there, so he apologized and turned away. Maddalena, upset, started to say something, but then she fell silent when noticing two people approaching from the road.
Kurtis smiled, surprised. “What are you doing here?”
Marie Cornel’s silhouette, tall and wiry, was unmistakable. At her side, the slender Radha smiled shyly. “You’ve no idea what a journey have we had! In one and a half day, from Romania to Syria - and then we had to walk from Damascus.”
“That’s a thing you would do.” Kurtis mocked, hugging her.
“Ugh!” The Navajo woman backed away. “I′d forgotten that sometimes you’re a furnace! Move away, you’ll make me catch on fire. Hi, Giulia.” She politely added, nodding towards the redhead.
Maddalena waved back, cautious. That clever old woman should already be aware that she was the third one in a love triangle, but she still showed no signs of knowing that.
“Why did you come?” Kurtis asked then. “Now things are a little calm, but that doesn’t mean...”
“Didn’t Marcus tell you?” Marie interrupted him, startled.
“Marcus? No. But anyway, we’ve spent several days without connection. The site’s not suitable.”
Marie shook her head and covered her face with her hands.
He would’ve wanted to control it, but farsee came to him by instinct and suddenly raided the images from her mind, coming one after another faster and faster.
A bloody hook. A hospital corridor. A Swiss knife lying on the floor. Blood on the carpet. Guts stuck out her wound. Torn flesh. His skull has been crushed by a hit. Cries of pain! She’s not breathing, she’s not breathing. If she doesn’t breath on her own she won’t wake up. Poor man, he just tried to defend himself. They hung her like a piece of beef. They have scattered his brains over the floor. Now he sleeps underground. She has tubes in her throat. She doesn’t breathe on her own. Zip cries. Revenge. Innocent flesh. Crying meat. They shout. Revenge. Revenge. They’ve paid for you. He died for you. She’s dying for you. That hatred is because of you, but they have suffered it instead of you.
The blood rushed to his brain, pressure increasing in his temples. His head was about to explode. He screamed in a horrible way.
It had happened again. Lara’s dream. Selma was yelling, but she’d no voice. Selma... Ivanoff... Selma... Ivanoff... the pain was unbearable. A red light blinded his eyes. His mouth tasted like blood. His skin was going to burst into flames.
Why? He doesn’t breathe anymore, she can’t do it on her own. You think you have the right to breathe, to live, when they no longer can? How naive you were. You wanted to save them, protect them, but you’re so cursed that the same curse either goes with you or remains to destroy the innocent you thought to love. It was easier to die, let it die out with you. You tried, but you’re too strong. So they will die for you, until you’re alone, until there’s no one left to love, and only then you’ll succumb... you’ll be theirs...
His head exploded in a liquid fire, and then darkness came.
“Hush, he’s waking up.”
The painful pounding in his head didn’t remit. It was like hammers crushing his head, like nails sinking into his temples. A hot liquid ran up his throat and he spat it in an attempt to breathe.
The images were blurry, but he saw Lara and Marie next to him. Behind them, Maddalena and Radha were watching the scene, scared. The twins were not seen anywhere.
“Is this normal?” He heard Lara asking, visibly concerned.
“To some extent, yes. Farsee is a skill hard to control and has caught him off guard. He could’ve died, but luckily the blood pressure...”
“He could have died?” Lara interrupted, looking horrified at Marie, who smiled.
“It’s always like this, Lara. The Gift is paid with both body and mind. Don’t worry. He’s very familiar with death risk. We all were.” The Navajo woman concluded with a sinister voice.
“Mother, stop scaring her.” Kurtis gurgled, trying to get up.
Two pairs of hands rested on his chest and forced him to lay again. “Be still!” Marie said. “And now all of you, get outta here! This is not a show!”
That meant both Maddalena and Radha had to leave the tent, then she followed them and left Lara with him. He was sure she’d ensured the twins were out of there too.
“You scared me to death.” Lara said, passing a handkerchief over his mouth. Kurtis noticed the fabric had reddened.
“I didn’t see that coming.” He said. “Sorry, musta been a spooky show.”
“Nevermind. I told the twins you’re epileptic.” Noticing Kurtis’ resentful glance, she laughed. “C’mon! What else did you expect me to say?
“Very clever of you.” He hardly sat and rested his shoulders on the pillow that Lara relocated. Then he looked at her tenderly. “You’re screwed, darling, with two children at your expense.”
Lara laughed again. “I’ll handle it. I’m good at improvising.”
Watching her, Kurtis noticed she still looked upset, but she didn’t look like she knew about the sad news. He frowned. “Did my mother tell you what happened to me?”
“A farsee vision.”
“But did she tell you what I saw?”
“How was she supposed to know?”
Kurtis swore. “She already knew - and I was so naive to focus on other things, so I didn’t see it until now. Now!” He clenched his fists and sank his head on them, frustrated. “Now I can’t do anything for them!”
“For whom?” Lara jumped, startled.
It was meaningless to hide it longer. “Ivanoff is dead and Selma is comatose since we left Romania.”
“What?” Lara shouted, stunned.
Kurtis closed his eyes. “Two days after we left, that bitch Giselle Boaz arrived with her thugs to Brasov. She was following our tracks and when not finding us she made them pay for it. She commanded Selma to be hung and gutted with a hook.” He tried to ignore Lara’s gasp. “She almost died, but was saved in the hospital, although she has been plunged into a vegetative coma. Then they murdered Vlad by crushing his skull with a strike, set fire to his office and destroyed all documents and Zip’s computer.” He knew it as if he’d been there, but it had come to him too late!
He opened his eyes. Lara was shocked. She put her hands to her mouth and bent, as if she’d been hit. “We left to protect them!”
“We were wrong, Lara. I was wrong. This damn Gift that makes me as miserable as it does unique didn’t warn me before. It’s as if the odds are against us.”
But she wasn’t listening. She embraced herself and began to swing, tormented. Ivanoff had died. Poor Ivanoff, so weak, so harmless...
“He tried to defend himself with that ridiculous fruit peeler.” Kurtis said bitterly.
Selma! Sweet, lovely Selma. She, who’d never stepped on an ant... hanged and gutted... and it was their fault!
“The dream, Kurtis!” Lara groaned. “She screamed and I couldn’t hear her! That’s what she was trying to tell me?”
“I don’t know, Lara. I wish I knew everything.”
She grabbed her head and bent further. Selma... Vlad... Selma... Vlad...
“Now you know how it feels.” Kurtis sighed. “Now you fully understand why I wanted you away from me. Why I left you.”
Lara looked up at him. Her eyes welled with tears involuntarily, she who was proud like a goddess. Kurtis tried to hug her, but she refused, with a terrible glance in her reddened eyes. “A life for a life.” She hissed through clenched teeth. “That’s what the Angel’s Oracle told me two years ago, when I chose you instead of Karel, when I saved your life and sentenced him. I killed a Nephilim. I can kill anyone. And I’ll avenge all of them, one by one. They will pay for what they’ve done.”
“A life for a life.” Kurtis nodded, breathing hard. “Giselle Boaz will die!”
Zip got used to it.
Every day was the same. He got up, had breakfast and went up to wait patiently. He stood for hours looking through the glass, until the doctor arrived and allowed him to enter and spend some time with her.
The hacker recalled that some time ago, being disconnected from the Internet more than a day would have made him mad with anxiety. Now none of that made sense. His whole world had collapsed and its ashes had been swept away by the certainty that Selma would never wake up.
However, Zip had got used to living like this. He was even forgetting how her voice sounded when she laughed, when she spoke, how she moved and breathed. All memory faded at the sight of that white, still figure.
A vibration caught his attention. He looked up. Selma’s breast had shuddered under her nightgown. He jumped from his chair and approached her. But again she’d remained still. He returned to his chair uneasily.
Disconnection sessions had not worked. Selma wasn’t breathing, and her maintenance was expensive. She seemed not to leave her comatose state ever. Was not it better to release her, let her rest? Would she have enjoyed being kept alive?
No! He′d shouted. No! But which death did he actually want to avoid, Selma’s or his own? Because when Selma died, he would climb to Bran’s pinnacle and cast himself into the void. He would have nothing left.
Our death, my princess. The death of both of us.
The fabric vibrated again. Zip jumped back. “Nurse! Nurse!” Soon, the doctor was there. “I saw her moving! I swear! She moved!”
The surgeon, frowning, bent over her, and at once uttered an exclamation of astonishment - then he laughed. “We can definitely turn her off!”
Zip couldn’t believe it. “Have you lost your mind, you damn quack?”
The doctor turned his face towards him and smiled. “Don’t you see, my little fool? She’s breathing on her own!”
So terrible was the revelation, and so strong her desire for revenge, that she forgot to tell Kurtis about the argument with William. Anyway, Ivanoff’s murder and Selma’s sad status turned everything else insignificant.
That night, Lara, alone in her bed, was seething with rage. Kurtis had left to stand guard at night and she couldn’t sleep. She wished to put a gun into Giselle’s mouth and fire. She wanted to destroy Bathsheba’s pretty face with a bullet. She felt such desire to kill until drowning in her own thirst for blood.
Oh, they would pay. Sorrow for sorrow, they would pay. That convinced her more than ever to carry out her plan to trick Bathsheba - but first she must ask for advice...
A sound brought her out of her thoughts on the boil. There was someone lurking outside. The British explorer noticed a shadow. Well, maybe Kurtis. It would be nice if he came back - perhaps he’ll help her sleep...
The canvas fabric rose sharply and a dark shadow fell upon her. Lara tried to get up but the assaulter fell on her with his tremendous weight. She tried to scream, but a huge paw blocked her mouth. The weight was suffocating and was crushing her belly. She squirmed, but that figure completely covered her.
Her attacker’s skin - a man certainly, was cold as ice, and gave off a foul foetid breath. She heard a rattling wheezing like animals, and then she noticed the hardness of his erect member against her strangled belly.
Lara wriggled like an eel, but failed to release herself even though she was very strong. The big hand was still gripping her mouth, and suddenly, her attacker slammed his fist against her face with a tremendous punch. Her cheekbone broke with pain.
She resisted furiously, and suddenly he beat her again, once, twice, three times, until her face was burning in pain and her mouth filled with blood. The British explorer fell back, stunned. In other circumstances she could have escaped from her attacker, but not in such a tiny space or while he was crushing her with all his weight.
Lara tried to yell, but again a punch cut her off breath. She collapsed, defeated, and her assailant gripped her hips with his strong knees, then grabbed her by the neck to make sure she wouldn’t attempt to shout again and with the other hand grabbed her nightgown and ripped it, tearing the fabric. Then that hateful hand began to brutally grope her breasts and belly.
Unbelievable! After a whole life of extreme danger endured, after having risked her life a thousand times, a man was about to rape her in her own bed!
Who was he? Lara couldn’t see him in the dark, but sure as hell it was not Kurtis. He′d never hurt her, although he was sometimes aggressive at sex - which, on the other hand, she liked, but he′d never rape her, not even drunk, and she’d never seen him drunk. Therefore, it could only be William.
The British explorer felt disgusted and infuriated. How dare he? He didn’t even care she was pregnant!
At that moment, he raised his knee and pressed his weight between her thighs trying to separate them. Lara resisted with all her soul and again received blows on the face, one fell on her stomach and she bent in pain.
What if she surrendered? She could let him do – it would be over soon. But the mere idea of being raped made her shiver with disgust. Putai was right - she wasn’t a woman to take that. No one had ever raped her, and he who’d tried had paid with his life. But now she was helpless – not to mention there was a chance that once relieved, he tried to kill her anyway. But if she continued to fight back he’d beat her to death.
Then Lara realized what she’d to do - she stopped resisting and finally her attacker separated her legs. The British explorer sobbed to make him believe he’d win, and was surprised to notice that relieved her, such was the pain she felt. The tears fell on her face cuts and stung, for her nose and mouth were bleeding, but she didn’t dare move.
The man bit the bait - he released her and stood to unzip his pants. With an imperceptible movement, Lara slid her arm under the pillow and searched, praying that her knife was there. It was! She grabbed the handle and gently removed it from its scabbard. It might also hurt her, but anything seemed better than to endure the terrible humiliation that awaited her.
Her attacker was lying now on her, still running over her body with his filthy hands. Lara, meaning she was no longer resistive, raised her legs and pushed her knees to the hips of the man. In the darkness, she lifted her arms with both hands holding the handle. She trembled, but the other, focused on fingering and biting her breasts, didn’t noticed. Lara tried to hold in her nausea.
The tip of the knife was pointing at his back. She had to figure out exactly where to sink the blade - pretty difficult to do in the darkness, for she’d also hurt herself, but risks should be taken.
Suddenly, he grabbed her by the shoulders, and fearing he will discover her raised arms, Lara took deep breath, lowered them sharply and plunged the blade into his arched back, to the hilt, with all her remaining strength.
Her attacker stood still for a moment, and she feared not having hit him, but then he released an inhuman scream, stood up and writhed convulsively.
Lara hadn’t failed. The wound was fatal.
He kept screaming as Lara felt a rain of hot liquid, blood, splashing her nude body. She tried to get up, but the attacker’s hands grabbed her by the neck.
Suddenly the canvas of the tent raised and she heard a cry of rage. A dark shadow crossed the tiny space in a stride and she distinguished Kurtis’ silhouette at backlit. He unleashed a terrible kick on the attacker’s jaw, hitting him with such force that it threw him down. The Lux Veritatis gave him no time to move, but fell upon him and she heard them struggling, then a metallic sound, and suddenly the screaming ceased.
Someone came in carrying a lantern. Lara was willing to cover her bared body, but it was only Marie. The Navajo woman was looking at her horrified. “Oh, dear!” Lara’s face must be looking horrible.
Kurtis was now with her. “Did you kill him?” Lara mumbled through a mouthful of blood.
“No.” He answered, his voice tense. “You killed him. I only finished him.” According to the expression on his face, he blamed himself for not having been there before.
“Looks like nothing’s broken.” Marie was touching her. “I will take care of the blows. Let me touch your belly.”
But Lara refused her and looked at Kurtis: “Who is it? Who?”
The Lux Veritatis put an arm around her waist and helped her up. They went to the corpse, and then he kicked it to make it face up.
She’d been right. He was one of the twins - but not the one she’d expected.
Despite their great likeness, she recognized the medal that only he used to carry. A bloody medal.
Lara shrank and screamed in pain. It was Wilbur.
“Murderer!” The veins in William’s temples were swollen and his eyes bloodshot. He looked at Lara with a hatred she hadn’t long seen in the eyes of an enemy. “Murderer!” He repeated. “You killed him!”
It was a sad scene. Lara and Kurtis were in front of him, his twin’s corpse was on a table between them, and Maddalena, Radha and Marie watched in silence.
“It was self-defense.” Lara argued. “He tried to rape me.” She didn’t notice Maddalena shuddering at that, for her eyes were fixed on William, who suddenly seemed to choke.
“Rape you?” He yelled. “My brother? Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me, bitch?” He stepped forward and Lara noticed Kurtis stiffening, trying to control himself and not punch him in the face. She touched the Lux Veritatis’ wrist slightly, though she was almost willing to let him to shut William up.
Surprisingly, then Kurtis intervened: “So what if he didn’t like women? It’s not that simple. I’ve been in the Legion, where rapists didn’t care whether boy or girl, I can tell.”
“Well, then probably it was you who tried to rape her!”
Marie stood up suddenly and surrounding Radha’s shoulder took her away, considering the conversation not suitable for the girl, although the Indian teen probably didn’t understand it and was more mature than they thought.
“That’s ridiculous, William, and you know it.” Lara said, exhausted. “I’m shocked for what happened, but I never suspected it could be Wilbur. He could have killed me. I had to fight back.”
But he clearly didn’t believe her - at the end of the day, who could blame him? She herself couldn’t believe what had just happened!
Kurtis, more practical, decided: “Guess you want to take your brother’s body back to America.”
William spat at his feet. “You also have things to answer for!” He looked from one to the other. “I’ll accuse you! Both of you! I’ll have you charged with murder and you’ll end up behind bars!”
“I’m done.” Lara snapped, turning around and leaving the tent. Maddalena followed her. But Kurtis stared at William. The American archaeologist held his gaze for a moment, then he sat beside the corpse, covered by a sheet, of his brother.
The Lux Veritatis wasn’t done yet. He came to the corpse and took his hand, sticking out under the blanket. “Look at this.” William ostensibly turned his head and frowned. Under the nails of his brother were small strips of peeled off skin. “It’s Lara’s.” Kurtis took a deep breath. “Your brother grabbed her by the neck and scratched her chest. Are you still in denial?”
William’s lips trembled. He was coming down. “My brother,” he gasped, “was always loving and respectful. In his whole life he didn’t hurt anything or anyone, not even a fly. He just did good to those around him. I can’t believe he attacked her, and even less that he raped her.”
Kurtis also couldn’t believe it, since Wilbur had proved to be harmless - but he was not wasting finesses with the man who’d lost his brother. Lara had been mercilessly beaten and could have been raped and killed. The Fighter had neither been able to avoid Ivanoff’s death and Selma’s status. He felt angry and helpless, and for the first time he spoke to a God he didn’t believe in.
Why I was given a Gift if I can’t use it to protect anyone?
Lara endured, without complaint, Marie touching and examining her face, which hurt like hell. Maddalena was horrified: Wilbur’s fist had beaten her so viciously that his knuckles had cut her skin, opening bloody furrows. The British explorer could hardly breathe, for her nose was swollen and filled with dried blood, and only by a miracle it hadn’t been broken. Most of her face had acquired a horrible purple coloring, not to mention she already had one eye closed because of swelling. Her lips weren’t less swollen and covered with scabs. Incredible, too, she hadn’t any teeth broken.
“You’ve been very lucky. Again.” Marie said, smiling bravely, and extended an ointment on the blows.
Maddalena was surprised of Lara’s meekness towards Marie, but then she remembered that woman had once saved her life, when Monteleone shot her, so it wasn’t surprising that she was at least grateful to her.
At that moment, the Italian woman recalled Monteleone, the man whom she’d loved. She wondered if he wouldn’t have sent some men looking for her, and if he’d miss her.
She still didn’t know he was dead.
“Well, that’s all.” Marie determined.
“Give me a mirror.” Lara asked Maddalena. She knew the ex-prostitute was always carrying beauty items out of habit.
“Lara, you don’t look good.” Marie said. “No need to...”
But the redhead had already given Lara her round pocket mirror - for some reason she expected Lara’s reaction. The British explorer brought the mirror to her face and watched herself carefully. She didn’t react, but quietly assessed the damage.
Maddalena had never seen such an amazing woman.
Then Lara sighed and handed back the mirror to the redhead. “Well I hope your son doesn’t mistake me for a demon at night.” She sneered at Marie, who couldn’t help but laugh at the comment.
“C’mon, Radha.” The Navajo woman told the girl. She, however, grabbed Lara’s arm and said: “Please, let me stay with her, Marie.”
“Lara’s exhausted, Radha, better to...”
“Let her, Marie.” The British explorer smiled through her cracked lips. “Will send her to your tent later.”
The Navajo woman nodded and left. Maddalena moved to leave also, but suddenly turned towards Lara, who looked at the redhead, stunned.
The Italian’s golden eyes were filled with tears. She blinked to clear them and said what she never wanted to say: “I admire you, Lara. I wish I were as strong as you.” She hesitated, then added quickly. “When men did that to me, I never had the courage to fight back.” Then she turned and hurried out without giving time to Lara to reply, ashamed of having shown weakness before who she regarded as her rival.
Lara stood silent for a moment, stunned. Then she noticed Radha looking at her. “She knows what she means, bahanji. That evil man, who came to the Island with the other mercenaries, raped her.”
The British explorer arched her eyebrows in amazement. “You mean Sciarra? He raped her?”
Radha made a fuss with her hand. “Don’t know if that was his name. But yes, I saw it. He raped her so I killed him.”
Lara winced and put her hand to her cheek in a gesture of pain. “What...?” Radha, killing someone? Radha, sweet and harmless, with her big eyes and her tender and candid smile? Killing someone? “Did you kill Sciarra?” The feat was as incredible as that monster was unscrupulous. She, a fifteen-year-old girl, had killed him!
“I killed him because I hate men doing that to women.” She frowned. “A man did the same to me long ago. Then I swore to Durga that if someone tried to do that to me again, or I saw another unfortunate like me suffering that, I’d kill or die. You can’t break an oath made to Durga.”
Despite Radha’s poor English, the revelation was stunning, shocking. Lara would’ve never expected anything like this in Radha! Never! “I thought Kurtis saved you...” The British explorer stammered.
“He did, bahanji. But later I was given to another man... that’s it. I also admire you. She’s right. You’re strong and brave.”
Radha admired her? Jesus, she’d killed Sciarra! That changed everything. The Indian teen wasn’t a timid and helpless little girl!
“I should have taken care of you.” Lara muttered, confused.
Radha just smiled. So candidly. “I’m fine. Mrs. Marie is good with me and cares for me.”
For if this is so, you don’t need anyone to look after you, amazing creature.
“Radha...” Lara murmured then. “I don’t think I can even sleep tonight. Would you tell me your story?
“My story?” The girl blinked.
“Not your childhood before the Legion. What happened to you afterwards, until you met me. Would you tell me?”
The Indian girl wrinkled her nose. “It’s a very ugly story.”
“As you can see,” Lara said, stroking her swollen cheek, “I’m more than used to the ugliness of this world.”
The girl nodded and smiled, and then began her story.
“Makarios!” Nikos shouted, leaving the hall. “What’s happening?
The old monk who used to do night guard was coming towards them, his face contorted: “Patéras!” He shouted. “Tell the young, we’re being..!”
Behind him appeared a black shadow who grabbed him by the neck. Nikos saw a glint of metal and instantly a jet of blood emerging from Makarios’ open throat. The old man collapsed on the floor without a whimper.
The murderer stepped forward - and after him another one, and another. Nikos was looking in the face of death.
He turned and ran down the hall. The horde of men went after him, but he soon reached the door and closed it. Marcus looked at him, stunned.
“Brother!” The hegumenos cried. “Help me jam this!”
The old Healer pushed the heavy desk against the door with his weak strength. They heard a gun cocking and threw themselves to the ground at the time a burst of shrapnel splintered the wood of the door.
“We’ve no way out!” Marcus yelled.
But Nikos shook his head. “There’s always a way out.” He crawled towards a hatch the Lux Veritatis hadn’t seen before. “Bring the codex!”
The door had begun to vibrate constantly, assaulted by blows from the outside. There were gunfire, oaths, and scurrying down the hall. They were attacking the monastery!
The trapdoor leaded to a stone staircase and they descended rapidly.
“If we can go this way, they also will!”
“I know, but I must warn everyone! The bell must be rang!” The hegumenos gasped. “Who would attack this sacred place, full of innocent men?”
“The Cabal.” Marcus snorted behind him . “Those are Giselle’s men.”
Kurtis came out to breathe. He’d gone to see Lara and had found her talking with Radha. He hadn’t wanted to bother her, but felt his blood boiling in rage when seeing her beaten face. Lara could take care of herself but she wasn’t invulnerable or invincible - and he should have been there for her.
He wasn’t surprised to discover Maddalena nearby, next to the still hot embers of the camp fire. She looked herself in a rounded mirror and was tweaking the rouge of her lips. The Lux Veritatis couldn’t avoid smiling. It was funny to see someone putting on lipstick in a desert. Must be a deep-rooted habit in her.
He sat opposite of her, who lifted her eyes and looked at him. “You should get some sleep.” The redhead murmured. “It’s been a hard day and you had no time to rest.”
Kurtis wondered if all women had a little Marie Cornel on the inside. “Look what happened.” He muttered, picking up a stick and breaking it. “Anyway, I haven’t slept much for years.”
Maddalena closed the lipstick and put away the mirror. Then she stared at him. “That priestess knows things.”
“Yes, well, the prophetess. If prophets know everything, she may be able to help us, right?”
“She wasn’t willing to cooperate with us.”
“Then, put a gun in her face.”
The man looked up at her, but Maddalena didn’t seem to be joking. “I don’t threaten those who’re no threat to me.”
“According to what you said, she’s not a harmless kid. I think the more we wait, the more terrible things will happen to us. We must anticipate events, otherwise the events will anticipate us.” She shuddered at feeling Kurtis’ piercing eyes fixed on her - for such a glance she would’ve given her life.
“And all this is suggested by her.”
“Who?” Maddalena was stunned.
“She who dwells within you. They’re so smart, huh? When they talk, everything seems so easy, right?”
The redhead flushed. Then she muttered: “You’re wrong, I...”
“Just for the record: despite my constant failures, I’m clairvoyant and I’m not stupid. I know the Voice hasn’t left you alone. Demons can’t hide from me, as I can’t hide from them.”
Maddalena took a deep breath: “She always talks to me, but she doesn’t harm me anymore.”
“Her presence is harmful. She’s like a spy for a higher evil which hangs over us.”
“I tell you! She doesn’t manipulate my thoughts, nor tell me what to say...”
“No. They only whisper ideas, tips, projects, and they’re so damn smart that it seems easier if you just follow their commands. I can’t do more for you, Giulia, but for the good of us all, don’t listen to that thing. She just wants our destruction, even if she’s being nice to you.”
Before she could answer, William appeared and ran towards them, his face contorted. He had such look of panic on his face that Kurtis rose immediately:
“Hey, you!” The American archaeologist called out.
“Kurtis!” He was too terrified to be pedantic. “Come, quickly! Something awful is happening to my brother’s corpse!”
In the darkness of her cave, dimly lit by the vague, dancing lights issued by the embers of the fire, not used for heating but for cooking substances, the Sibilla lifted up her blind eyes to the rocky ceiling, feeling again the presence of the creature.
It was a Golem.
She sighed and turned her face to the warmth of the fluctuating fire. A Golem was a rough strategy for the Lords she served, even if they used the soul of a cruel man in a docile and malleable body. She wondered why they were that careful. Yes, the Lux Veritatis was dangerous, but that much? The prophetess had scanned his aura, which shone bright amid the perpetual darkness in which she dwelled, and hadn’t seen more than a gaping hole. Who could see beyond her? Yes, he was an unique man, infinitely powerful, but yet not a worthy rival of her Lords. A mortal could never be a rival of immortals. Had he destroyed the last Nephilim? Yes, but even that was expected. He who in life had called himself Karel had corrupted himself through his dreams of redemption and recreation, to the point of mixing with mortals and descending to their level.
The Sibilla no longer considered herself a mortal. Thousands of mortal lives she’d trodden on the earth and the creature she was now was far from that ancient pagan girl whom the Darkest Lord had blessed with a gift which would’ve made the envy of Apollo’s gift. She, who like Cassandra herself would’ve given her virginity and life for the gift of prophecy, she’d met a Being who was above all the gods she knew - and He hadn’t asked for anything in return.
She didn’t even remember her name, given by a mother whom she never returned to. Sibilla Satanica. Sibilla Satanica. Until the end of time.
She was very tired. After all, Samael Himself had asked her something in return. Her body, her life. But yet then it was a very little loss for her, who wanted to be a banquet of the gods, who wanted nothing with mortals. Now, having lived a few hundred lives, she felt the oppressive weight of her eternal mission, a weight she couldn’t resist anymore.
“My Lord Samael, why don’t you take me with You?” She whispered, exhausted. “I can’t help. I need to be taken away by Your black wings to Your burning bosom. I can’t withstand the weight of the world anymore.” She grabbed the bones which decorated her neck and whispered: “The Lux Veritatis’ worthless. He could be a good specimen, but hate and pain had already consumed him. He’s not but a vague shadow, eager to sacrifice. He won’t survive the Bitter Path, since only the strong can overcome it, and his strength is not of that kind. His strength is just physical. With each dim glow of his aura I’ve seen Death calling loudly for him. He endured an unworthy torture from which he could’ve escaped easily. He’s really fascinating, but I think he’s not your goal, My Dark Lord, or your Holy Bride’s one.”
“But who is then, my Lord? The female explorer? She’s clever and brave, but she’s just a mortal. If she destroyed Your last child, it was for his weakness, as You know. No, she’ll succumb too. Bitter Path means dealing with everything and oneself, with the Vortex’s horrors, but also with the inner demons - and she won’t survive her own.”
“My Lord, maybe the creature she’s carrying in her womb could be your goal. Well, your Holy Wife has commanded to your Blessed Daughter to sacrifice him in honor of the shed blood of the Immortals? I hardly caught a sight of him in the distance, it’s just a vague shadow. Can an unborn mortal bother You, Who can do all things, Who defied the Creator Himself? Why don’t You answer me? It’s such a long silence and Thy maid is blind and lost.”
She sighed again and got up from her throne with a patter of small bones and shells.
“Why a Golem, My Lord? The Lux Veritatis easily overpowers it, he’s yet strong enough for it. What do you want, oh Samael? What do you hope from your Blessed Daughter? To what strange fate has your Holy Bride sent her?”
“To my death, O Mother! To my death!”
The vacuum air swallowed her cry. The stormy wind shook her black hair, which hit her face, bare shoulders and back. The relentless rain splashed her almost naked body, from which hung pieces of her torn clothing. The cloak had fallen a long way back, and had been caught in a rocky outcrop, the same which marked her endless rise as such marked the trail left by her little feet in the snow.
Alone at the top of the mountain, Bathsheba screamed to the night and to the storm. No other place in the world would’ve accepted her misery and grief. She’d never have imagined there was anything worse than being used for the propagation of her Breed. But there was the evidence. Evidence that she was unable to cope after the terrible revelation of the cardinal.
Any other mortal would’ve died there but also long before, with so little air to breathe, with snow and ice which burned and rotted their flesh, starting from the limbs, with cutting air tearing the lungs, sharp rain cutting the skin like paper. But she just felt cold, it had only bruised her skin, she barely noticed the rain and wind and the elements that couldn’t destroy her.
For once, she who’d a human heart still in an immortal body wanted to feel all that pain and suffering. She felt disgust for her perfect body, her idyllic beauty - she wanted to punish that body, hit it with sharp blades, tear her skin, her muscles, her soft breasts. She couldn’t ignore she’d be sacrificed and she couldn’t believe it would be for the Mother who was supposed to save her from that disgusting world.
“Mother!” She shouted back with her rending voice. “Answer me! You know what I’ve just discovered! Come to comfort your Daughter!”
The burst of thunder and the roar of the storm were the only answer. She scratched her cheeks, her face, neck, breasts and belly, wanting to hurt that flesh she hated, wishing to see her colorless and tasteless blood spring out, but all wounds were repaired. She neither could feel the pain nor relieve her guilt. Impure. Sullied. Human heart in immortal flesh.
If the blood of Lilith hadn’t cleaned her of that taint, would the Bitter Path do it? Maybe that was what the Mother had intended to say? Maybe she′d be sacrificed to repair that impurity?
Human tears, woman’s tears, froze on her cheeks. Her knees bent and her mouth kissed the snow. Then she collapsed and lay in the snow, whose flakes began to nest in her hair strands.
The climb had been long - she’d climbed to that inclement peak with bare hands, when she could’ve come instantly without exhausting herself, but her soul demanded a penance that the body didn’t accept, but the pain and exhaustion were not in it.
They were within her.