Beginning And End
The gentle morning breeze stroked Marcus’ beard. They were on top of Mount Ararat in Israel. Sill pressing the beautiful manuscript against his chest, the Healer turned toward the thoughtful lady at his side. “I see your trouble, Bathsheba. You’re undeniably human, despite your appearance and essence.”
The Nephilim didn’t answer. She was staring into the plain, her rags fluttering in the breeze. Her glassy eyes shone as if feverish.
“So it begins, right?” The Lux Veritatis asked.
She nodded slightly. “Yes, it has begun. The Mother is waking up.”
“Then we’ve not much time left. We must take the Bitter Path. Where’s the entrance to the Vortex?”
“In the Sibilla’s lair.” She replied calmly. “You’ll be surprised to know that she’s still alive, old Wise. She’s survived taking one body after another through the millennia - but her work comes to an end. The Great Goddess claims her back to Her womb. Opening up the gate will be her last mission in the mortal world.
Marcus nodded, serene. Finally, all was being disclosed. “We must go there. Why do you hesitate, Blessed Daughter?”
Bathsheba’s lips trembled slightly. “You shouldn’t call me that. I’m your ancient enemy, the plague that wiped out your people.”
“They wiped out my people - not you. Bathsheba... being half Nephilim doesn’t make you my enemy. They became our enemies because we damaged them and they damaged us. You’re different, you know. You’re more human than all of them.”
Her green eyes, surrounded by bruised dark circles, turned toward him. “Stop always repeating the same refrain. I’ve the Blood of the Mother.”
“Blood can’t change who you are. You’ve admitted that yourself. Bathsheba, it’s in your hands to stop what is coming.”
“It’s useless. I made my choice.”
“You haven’t chosen anything. You know She uses you. Choose for yourself, there’s still time, you’re still pure. Choose the right side.
“I’ve already chosen.” She answered coldly, and turning away, she parted.
In the silence of her cave, the Sibilla felt the bowels of the earth vibrating.
At first it was a soft murmur, almost imperceptible - then it increased. It ended up being an intense vibration tingling the soles of her feet. Mortals couldn’t yet perceive, but the Dark Lady woke slowly.
“The signal we expect.” The prophetess murmured softly. “For centuries I’ve longed for this, O Mother. Finally it’s time.” She got up.
At the bottom of the cave there was a tiny pond of groundwater. She went and washed herself - which she did rarely, for ritual purification. She erased from her childish body all the paintings of red, ocher and black, leaving only the tangle of scarifications made by knives. She left the fresh, clean water and took a flint knife, with which she shaved her shaggy hair, snatching from it the parasites feeding on it, all the trimmings of the hair, leaving her head smooth and shiny.
She gathered her few clothes and hair and burned them. Then she spent hours getting everything ready for her farewell. From several millennia she’d been treading the earth and at last it was time to leave. If she’d remembered how to smile, she’d do it. Finally she was about to return to the Mother.
The Sibilla took her seat again, brooding, watching the dying embers of the fire. Almost instantly her eyes caught the new presence in her cave.
“Welcome, I was expecting you.” The prophetess muttered.
He lifted the curtain and stared at her, frowning.
“Don’t be surprised. Now I welcome you and before you weren’t welcomed – it was expected of me. Don’t be surprised, also, because I’ve noticed your presence despite your silence. Your aura is so bright that you shine like a torch in the darkness.”
“I thought you were blind.” The man said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I’m blind to earthly things - but I see everything else: souls, hearts, time, fate. I was waiting for you. It’s time.”
Kurtis, standing with his legs apart, looked at her with suspicion. He’d come to her for answers.
“Oh, you’ll have your answers.” The Sibilla replied calmly. “Although there’s so little time.”
“I want to end this.” The Lux Veritatis said bluntly. “This life of running and fighting something I can’t defeat. Tell your masters I’m ready.”
The prophetess looked up, scanning the room with her white eyes. She held a steaming bowl in her hands. Had she drunk from it? Suddenly, her voice became hoarse and sounded as if someone else spoke through her mouth. “You’re the last of the Lux Veritatis. The Wise’s not a threat to us, but you are. Your life was requested from the moment you were born. What you never knew is that escaping from us and the Order had always eased our way. You weakened them by not having your powerful collaboration and by escaping you extended your life, giving us the satisfaction of chasing you. Now you offer all you’ve left, your own life, hoping that we’ll spare your beloved ones.” The cracked voice broke for a moment. Kurtis had not moved an inch, staring expressionless to the Sibilla. “But you will be pleased only if that suits our plans. All those included in our servant’s prophecy must follow their fate no matter what you desire. Although two will go to shed their blood at the foot of the Great Mother, it will be seven transiting the Bitter Path: the Warrior and the Amazon, the Impure and the Innocent, the Wise and the Angel, and also the Hidden One. This has told the Voice in the Darkness: among the two who shed their blood, only one could be redeemed, and he’ll redeemed by the will of the Goddess. But woe to them if they don’t satisfy the Ineffable: none of them will again see the light of mortals.” Upon hearing the prophecy recited again, Kurtis realized what he already suspected: it was the Voice speaking through the Sibilla’s lips.
“If I’m going to die,” he demanded, “I want you to spare the Amazon. One life for another.”
“Only if She pleases.” The hoarse, inhuman voice articulated. “Don’t think you came here just for yourself. All who are bound by this prophecy have acted to suit our plans. Every step you’ve taken from the day you were born has led you here, Kurtis Heissturm, Demon Hunter. Both you and the others.”
The Lux Veritatis nodded his head with a dry bow. “I’m ready.” He said stoically.
Without further ado, the Sibilla handed the steaming bowl to him. Kurtis doubted only a moment, then, adjusting his load on his back and securing his weapons, approached, took the bowl and drank it down in one gulp.
“I, Sibilla Satanica, the Servant of the Dark, open the gates of the Vortex for you.” The priestess said, now with her human voice. “What you left behind you won’t recover. Who goes in never comes out as the same. Who gives a step further will never step back.”
Kurtis’ figure began to blur. He looked, dazed, as his fingers, his arms, his whole body crumbled into nothingness like mist, and eventually was absorbed by the dark, without leaving the slightest trace of his presence.
“No! It can’t be!”
Lara faced all the sad faces looking at her, outraged.
“It’s true.” Marie said, sorrowful. “He’s gone. See for yourself - there’s not one of his things left, he’s taken them all.”
“He wouldn’t have left like this, without telling me.” Lara made a fuss. “He wouldn’t make decisions without telling me!”
Why not? A little insidious voice said in her head. Who do you think you are? His mother? She has no more control over him than you! You thought he was a lap dog to be commanded all the time?
“He wouldn’t do that.” She mumbled again, dazed. “Leaving like this, leaving me..like... as he once did... he promised!” She broke out, furious, not caring that everyone was looking distressed at her.
“He did that to protect you back then, Lara, and he’s done it again.” Marie calmly reasoned. “Please, calm down. I also fear for him, Lara.”
The British explorer turned, furious, and went to her tent.
“Where are you going?”
“What no one seems to get here is that we’re both involved in this!” She yelled. “Both of us! He needs me!”
Marie followed her at full speed.
“What do you mean?” She looked stunned at how Lara picked up her things, and then she screamed. “No! What are you doing? You mean to follow him!”
“I know where he’s gone.” Lara gasped. “The Sibilla. What I already suspected...she could help... he’s gone to the Vortex!”
The Navajo woman took four strides and grabbed Lara’s elbow. “Enough!” She yelled. “You’re pregnant, Lara! You can’t do anything for him. You must think now about your child, his safety, your safety!”
Lara tried to pull away from her, but Marie, despite her age, was still very strong and she dug her nails hard in her arm. “You think you’re being clever, girl? You’re being foolish!”
“I’m joining him.”
“You’ll lose your child - and you’ll die.”
“I owe allegiance to him. We’re both in this.”
Maddalena listened with her head down - then made a silent question. He’s there where she says? She trembled awaiting an answer from the Voice.
Yes, my Giulia. He’s there.
The redhead gasped and turned away. Is there any hope for him?
Only if someone gives his life for him, but he’s chosen to sacrifice himself for her, who will soon follow him, whether the Navajo woman likes it or not.
Am I included in the prophecy? Maddalena shook again.
Yes, Giulia. Soon you will join the others. But fear not, I’ll protect you.
Yes, Giulia. Marcus the Wise, Giselle the Angel, Lara the Amazon and Kurtis the Warrior.
Who am I? The Impure, the Innocent, the Hidden One?
You must be told that only by the Wise. So it has to be.
“Are you ready?”
“I am ready.”
The Sibilla handed the bowl to Marcus. He bowed to the prophetess, took it, but before drinking he said: “I should return the manuscript, Herophilis.”
The girl’s reincarnated shoulders trembled. “What did you call me?”
“Herophilis – such was your name when you were a beautiful girl from the V century. You were born in Athens, and that’s the name your mother gave to you. Then you went to serve as a priestess to the virginal Hestia, but it was another Goddess, more powerful and terrible, who chose you. She destroyed your sight, blinding your eyes to open them to Her Darkness. You became the most powerful prophetess of the Mediterranean, the most feared Sibilla throughout the Empire. The Roman emperors came to consult you, and tremble at your presence. They called you Eritrean Sybil, for you lived there, but you served a darker being than the prophetic Apollo.”
The sterile eyes of the prophetess had filled with tears, now streaming down her cheeks covered with scars, remembering what she had so long forgotten. “Herophilis...” She muttered. “Herophilis...Eritrean Sybil...I was so beautiful that even Caesar kissed my feet...” She blinked and lifted her chin. “Herophilis has lived her last reincarnation. Keep the manuscript, it was written for you, Wise. Now drink from the bowl.”
Marcus did it, peacefully, serene - and immediately his figure vanished into thin air, while the Sibilla spoke the ritual words to escort him to that world. Then she took the bowl and looked at Bathsheba, who’d watched the scene silently. “You’ve done well, Blessed Daughter. There are still five left.”
“The Amazon will come on her own, as the Warrior did. The Angel will be brought. I will bring myself the Innocent and the Impure.”
“What about the Hidden One?”
Bathsheba sighed. “That one will also come on his own.”
Schäffer smoked slowly and carefully the Havana cigar he’d reserved for months just in case a special occasion arose. Apparently it would never happen, so why wait any longer. When he finished, he threw the remains and stood from the Jeep’s hood he’d been sitting on. He sighed deeply and went to the trunk, opened it and stared at the load he was carrying, so precious to him. “I hope you’ll forgive me for this.” He said. “But you left me no choice.”
Giselle glared furiously at him, her hands and feet tied and gagged. It had been useless to speak to her calmly, to yell at her, to shake her. All useless, except kidnapping her. As promised, Schäffer had taken control of the situation, dismissing his men without further orders and taking Giselle, who’d howled, kicked, bitten and spat, once preventively disarmed.
Now they were on the coast of Israel, and he’d decided to go inland. That’s what Bathsheba had told him to do - but he didn’t do it because of that. In fact, he was taking orders from no one. He wanted to know what was really behind all of that, provided that it didn’t involve risk to Giselle’s life or his own. He didn’t know the danger was real and so close.
“You’re a perfect idiot.” He said, flatly. “I can’t understand you. If I were you, I’d send everything to hell and live a good life. We could go anywhere, you and I, for I can take care of you. Yes, we could make a new beginning.”
A sarcastic smile seemed to guess through Giselle’s gag.
“Yes, I know you despise me. You’re only able to think of your fucking Karel, who’s dead and even if he was alive, he would not move a finger for you - but I would, Giselle. I’d take care of you even though I am but a subordinate worm to you. Bathsheba’s dangerous and I want to find out what she’s about to do - and I’m not as sceptical of her words as you are.”
He closed the trunk and took the wheel. There was still a long way to Syria.
“Questo mundo mio amore...dove ste mio Dio...” Humming to ignore that horrible feeling of isolation in the midst of that darkness, Maddalena walked shakily through the cave, driving her nails into the wall. She trembled all over her body, but still unwilling to go back.
The cave was dark and cold. The Sibilla had turned off all the lights except the embers of her fire. Terrified, Maddalena’s voice rose again. “Ti amo, ti amo, stella bella mea...”
“Ti amo bella, inanitas, stella, ti amo vanitas...” Another voice replied from the darkness. The redhead winced.
“Fear me not.” The dark voice said hoarsely. “You came on your own and this is unexpected. Welcome.” The small figure held out a bowl.
The Italian girl barely saw a thing in that blackness, but she took it with trembling hands. “Will I be with him?”
“If you move fast.”
“The place where I’m going... is Hell?”
“So you mortals call it, yes.”
She closed his eyes, squeezing hard. “Will I suffer?”
“Of course - but fear not, all your life you’ve been preparing for this. You and all the rest.”
“The Voice promised me he’d be mine.”
“The Voice doesn’t promise in vain - she’s the mouth of the Goddess. Save him and he’ll be yours so that nobody can take him from you.”
“Not even her?”
“Not even her.”
Maddalena drank from the bowl, and drifted.
“Lara, I beg you...it’s your child. His child. My grandchild!”
She could not ignore her, but tried to do so as she finished preparing her backpack. Food, equipment and weapons, she had it all. She carried it at her back, before Marie and Radha’s astonished and desolated gaze. Maddalena was long gone.
“The Sibilla has opened the Vortex’s gates.” Lara said. “That’s where I go, and I must not be anywhere else. I’m sorry, Marie.”
The Navajo woman looked down when she passed next to her, but Radha followed Lara until the temple.
“Stay and take care of Marie, Radha. See you then.”
The Indian girl said nothing - with a silence full of eloquence, she raised her hand in farewell.
At the edge of the well, the British explorer saw Marie coming running. “No one has returned alive from there, Lara, for no one has ever been there. I want you to know that it was a honor to meet you, that you made my son happy and... we would’ve been happier, both of us, if you’d wanted to preserve your child’s life.”
Lara looked at her solemnly. “I’m also honored to have met you, Marie. You’re the kind of woman I admire, and whom all should look like. Take care of Radha.” And she went downstairs slowly, without looking back.
Apparently, Maddalena had anticipated the events, arriving without being called. This was unexpected - it must have been her to lead her to the Sibilla’s presence. It seemed a fact of no importance, but that greatly disturbed Bathsheba. She was used to have everything planned, to see things long before they happened, to discuss the future of others as is it was the present - and that change in her outlook made her feel upset, for beyond the border between the Vortex and the mortal world, her vision faded.
The Nephilim couldn’t see those who’d crossed the border. What was worse, she knew that once she’d cross, she’ll lost her own sight. She wouldn’t be able to see beyond time and space, like a blind mortal, while her arch enemy would be allowed to keep his psychic powers.
Lilith wanted it that way. It was unfair, but as the Dark Queen had said, she wouldn’t need her sight. Bathsheba was sure that was part of the ordeal awaiting her. Moreover, her enemy, as the Goddess had promised, would be unbalanced with a great physical loss, so she’d no right to protest.
But seeing a mere mortal anticipating her plans frustrated her.
“It’s simple.” She said aloud, turning her parched face to Syria’s hot desert wind. “Maddalena’s the piece that dances in the middle of Your board, as You told me. The others will follow their instincts, they won’t disobey their essence, but she’s changeable and unpredictable. I must be careful with her.”
The Nephilim was distracted by the sound of an engine. Ah, there they were - at least there would be no more unexpected events.
The Jeep parked in front of her and she faced the tall, burly man who’d served her during those two years, and who made her a dry and reverent salutation. “My Lady.” He said, looking at her, unable to hide his shame for the unfortunate aspect of Bathsheba, dirty, ragged and impaired. Unconsciously, his eyes ran away from the areas of bare skin discovered by her rags.
He went to the trunk, opened it and took a lump, which he placed at the foot of the Nephilim. Giselle retreated to sit and cast a look of fury at her captors.
“I see you still don’t get it, Giselle.” Bathsheba murmured. Turning to Schäffer, she added. “You’re a faithful servant, and you’ve proven to be wiser than your predecessors.”
“I don’t see any wisdom in what I’m doing, my Lady.” The other said in a bad mood. “Looks like I’m delivering a victim for slaughter.”
“It might be, Schäffer. It might be.”
The mercenary’s glance darkened. “I haven’t brought her to have her killed, my Lady. I owe you loyalty, but I also owe her, and before you. I can’t let you hurt her.”
“Of course not. You’ve brought her here because you’re smart and you know that even if you hid her in the deepest, forgotten hole of the earth I’d find her and take her to her destination. You’ve done this wisely and that must be rewarded. I dismiss you from all your obligations to Giselle and me. You’re free to go wherever you want, we won’t need your services anymore.”
Schäffer took a deep breath. “You can release me from my loyalty toward you, my Lady, but only Giselle can break me free from my allegiance to her. If what you intend is to kill her, I’m afraid I can’t allow it.” And then he pulled out his gun and aimed directly to Bathsheba’s face as he stood between her and Giselle - who, stunned and silent in her gag, watched the scene.
The Nephilim didn’t move an inch. “Follow your common sense, Schäffer. You know I can defeat you, and I can kill you too. But I wouldn’t enjoy to do so as you’ve proven to be faithful and competent. Even if all the military forces of the human armies fought for her, they wouldn’t free Giselle from the fate prescribed for her before she was born. You have done well so, don’t spoil your merit.”
The gun trembled in the mercenary’s hand. “You’ll kill her...”
“No, my friend. I never said such a thing. What must be done will be done. I can’t see what will happen, but it will happen as written centuries ago. You know there’s no other way.”
Slowly, the man lowered the gun. “If she makes it, I want her back to me.”
“So sad. She loves you no more than she was loved by my father. Would you endure the same fate, her madness?”
“She fell in love with a soulless being. I am as mortal as her. If she...”
“If her fate is to survive, and I pass the test awaiting me, I swear by everything which is immortal that I, Bathsheba, will return Giselle to you.”
“That being the case, I agree.” He turned away.
The Nephilim smiled, admiring the sense she didn’t expect in someone like him. Then she looked down on the handcuffed woman. “You don’t deserve his love. If I were him, I’ll let the Vortex’s demons take you, you wicked woman.”
Giselle seemed to smile mockingly behind the gag. Bathsheba bowed toward her and instantly a fuzzy aura wrapped them and took them out of sight of the mercenary.
Schäffer remained silent a moment. Then he murmured: “I’ll wait for you.”
“Fascinating meeting.” It was the Sibilla who’d spoken, looking over Lara’s shoulder. The British explorer already held in her hands the bowl with the ritual drink when she turned, surprised to see, coming out of nowhere, Bathsheba and Giselle at her feet, hands and feet tied and gagged.
“My hour has come.” The trembling prophetess murmured, rising from her throne.
“Stop!” Lara shouted, holding the bowl with one hand and pulling out the gun with the other.
Bathsheba folded her arms, quiet and serene. “Watch out, Amazon. Don’t spill the precious contents of the bowl. You will share it with both of us, since the Sibilla is not going to make more.”
The blind prophetess seemed to look back to the Nephilim, murmuring: “You don’t need the potion to pass to the other world, Blessed Daughter.”
“It’s the Goddess’ wish - so be it.”
“Let, then, Her will be done.” The priestess advanced, trembling with emotion, towards Bathsheba, who picked her up gently, like a mother cradling her daughter. Suddenly, however, she threw back her head and sank her teeth into her throat, slowly sucking all her blood. Lara didn’t move, impressed by a scene so delicate and cruel at a time. The prophetess finally relaxed and went limp.
Bathsheba deposited the body of the girl on the ground while muttering: “Herophilis, I command you not to be reborn again. Immortal prophetess, go to enjoy the promised rest with your Lord and His Wife. Go to the Darkness, and may it always protect you.” And she closed the corpse’s eyes. Rising, she looked monstrous in Lara’s eyes, for all her dirt and untidiness, the stains of blood spreading from her mouth down her chest to her groins. She looked like a vampire, but it was just a way to kill as any other.
It seemed incredible that a being like the blind prophetess, who’d lived more than most of mortals, was now dead. Someone who’d died as many times as a life expectancy takes to last, through History’s varying stages - but this time she’d stay dead, this time her soul would find no other flesh vessel to dwell within.
“You’ll be pleased.” Bathsheba heard Lara saying. “Everything’s going off without a hitch, isn’t it?”
“Not everything. Not everything.”
Lara laughed mockingly and lifting the bowl, exclaimed: “Cheers!” And drank a drink.
Bathsheba barely had time to pounce on the bowl and catch it before it hit the ground and broke when Lara vanished into thin air. The liquid splashed a little, but she didn’t miss much.
“That fucking bitch will regret her pride.”
The Nephilim turned. It was Giselle who’d spoken, for she’d removed the gag by rubbing her mouth against her shoulder.
“We’re all going to regret many things, Giselle. You most of all, perhaps.”
The doctor twisted, stabbing her with an insidious glance. “You’ve become a decent copy of your father, cold and manipulative. Perhaps that proud British woman is right, we all are now where you want and when you want - and now you’re sending us God knows where.”
“As if you weren’t cold and manipulative - but I’ve wasted enough time. Fate awaits us.”
She leaned over and grabbed her mother by the neck. Giselle fought and tried to bite her, but she also realized, shocked, that the delicate hand of her daughter had become strong as a steel claw so she couldn’t resist. She felt the rough edge of the bowl on the lips and then a burning liquid running down her throat. Then, the Cabal scientist felt suddenly light, volatile, her vision cleared and she knew nothing more.