The Bitter Path
Kurtis crouched behind the rock while checking his last ammo magazine. He scanned the horizon, but the damn beast had disappeared. However, he didn’t relax - he was too experienced to trust the apparent calm.
He didn’t know how long he’d been there. It wasn’t how he imagined the Vortex, but in any case, Kurtis had always been a man of little imagination - he only knew that the time he’d spent there - days? weeks? months? Impossible to specify – had been a constant struggle for survival, a struggle he knew he was going to lose.
The landscape before him was a barren extension, from which an end could not be seen, formed by dunes, dry soil and rocks. Nothing grew there and the sky above the place, if it could be called so, was like a carpet strewn with leaden storm clouds which neither moved nor poured any rain. At day, he was living in twilight - and at night, in the blackest darkness. There was no light, nothing moved, and the only living beings there were those constantly trying to kill him.
The Lux Veritatis loaded the Boran-X and turned to scan again the desolate landscape. His odds of surviving were small – it had been a while since he’d run out of food and water, so he was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of his enemies and had only one last magazine. Fortunately, the Chirugai would serve him until the end.
Though he’d suffered several wounds, he’d nothing left with which to treat them. All clothing left was a tattered T-shirt and the remains of what had been his pants, still half-hanging from his thighs.
He possibly had never been worse and so certain of his impending death, but for the first time, he felt at peace with himself - he’d done the right thing. He’d walk the Bitter Path, but Lara would be safe. For a moment, he even thought of his unborn child, but instantly jerked him away from his mind – for he would never meet him.
Suddenly, the Fighter’s keen ear caught a gurgle. He rose violently and saw behind him a crouched manticore, looking at him with its grim smile.
“You cunning bitch.” Kurtis snapped.
Letting out a loud shriek, the demon pounced on him, digging its claws into his unprotected chest. It tore the flesh but didn’t go far, as he rolled and kicked the beast off him. It was useless to try to empty the ammo mag on it, as there was just one thing really able to hurt it.
But the manticore was a clever beast and repeatedly dodged the Chirugai’s beam, while at the same time was reluctant to attack, leading to the depletion of its rival. Kurtis had counted on that and pretended to be tired, exposing himself for a moment. When the manticore pounced on his throat, he grabbed its head and sliced it with a single blow.
The Lux Veritatis stood a moment, panting. His chest was covered in blood, but he didn’t look at his wounds. The priority was to take profit of the corpse - he dismembered it and then swallowed the raw meat – for he’d no chance to light a bonfire - and drank the blood.
How long would he hold on like that? For the moment that would do. So far the demons attacking him were overcoming with the degree of difficulty. Although he knew they would wait until he would be really weak to send something worse.
At that point, only hatred kept him up. He’d wanted to live a normal life, but they had turned him into that. So, until they managed to kill him, he’d guarantee they’d regret it.
Marcus wasn’t far from him, but they wouldn’t meet, at least for the moment. The old man had been sitting under a rock. Unlike Kurtis, he was helpless and could’ve died right away, but nothing and no one came to attack him. As expected, the Bitter Path would be different for the Wise.
Sighing, the old Healer checked the precious codex once again, but everything was already startlingly clear to him. He couldn’t believe it, but he’d interpreted every word. The revelations were terrible- and it made sense that his mouth remained sealed until the right time.
Sighing again, he wrapped himself in his robe and looked around. There was nothing. The only sound was silence. The primeval empty silence.
There was a flash of lightning in the distance – but the rain never came.
Lara slowly opened her eyes. She was lying face up under a sky heavy with clouds. She sat up while scanning the desert around her. It wasn’t Syria, for sure, but the Vortex - which she accepted naturally.
A few steps away of her, there was Bathsheba. No one else. The Nephilim was kneeling on the ground, her head bowed and hands clasped in her lap. She seemed to be meditating.
The Nephilim had never been openly violent towards them, but nevertheless Lara felt confused with that attitude of naive innocence - of a slaughtered lamb Lara would say, which the beauty had recently adopted and that the British explorer didn’t know whether to believe or distrust.
Lara’s natural instinct won - she distrusted. “Hey!” She called out, standing up.
Bathsheba’s face turned slowly towards her. Her expression might have broken many hearts - but Lara’s was made of steel. “You look like a martyr on the way to the arena!” She snapped.
“That’s what I am.” The Nephilim said in such a low voice that Lara barely heard her. Then she looked at the explorer, upright at her side. Lara wore a wide shirt to hide her incipient pregnancy, but her pants were long and tight and she had taken all her equipment with her. The British woman’s eyes were impatient and distrustful. “Where are we? And why are you here with me?”
“Somewhere in the Vortex, at the beginning of our Bitter Path. I must protect you and your unborn child so both can arrive safely to the altar of sacrifice.”
“How kind of you!” Lara said ironically. “For a moment I felt almost tempted to thank you. Where are the others? I guess you’ll have each one in place.”
Bathsheba wrung her hands in a gesture of concern, totally unlike her. “I’ve no control over this situation anymore - it’s up to Her. The others are here too, following their own path. They might be at least four steps away from you, but you won’t see them, nor will they see you while traveling the Path.”
“I should have imagined you’d plot something like that. Well, I’m not willing to waste time. Do whatever you want, I couldn’t care less.” Lara turned away and walked to nowhere in particular. Bathsheba looked up and started to follow her quietly.
As for Lara, she’d no intention of being sacrificed. She didn’t know yet what to do, but she won’t be slaughtered like a lamb - not without fighting, anyway.
At first, Giselle saw nothing. Since that, in her opinion, was nothing – a desolate landscape made of sand and dust. She stood up, brushing the dirt from her skirt. Then she found she was more or less well, and breathed a sigh of annoyance. For someone like her, who believed in science and common sense over all, this situation was ridiculous, and nevertheless she remained sceptical of what might happen. However, that didn’t stifle a glimpse of a confused thinking... would this be where she’d find Karel? It sounded stupid and childish, but nothing seemed to be in place anymore.
She started walking, looking around in bewilderment. For once, she missed Schäffer at her side - the burly German was able to stay calm in the midst of an earthquake, and nothing managed to warm his head. She, however, despaired so easily.
“Damn bitch!” The Cabal scientist yelled, outraged. “Bathsheba! Enough of this game! Get me out of here, now!”
But only silence answered to her. Furious, she began to walk with more energy, but soon she had to stop and take off her shoes, because those sharp heels threatened to leave her buried in the malleable dirt. Distressed, she went on a while, she couldn’t calculate how much, for there was no sun for orientation or any wind blowing, until her stockings ripped and her feet began to hurt. Then she fell to the ground, defeated, but determined not to mourn.
“Cursed be the day I bred you.” She growled to her daughter. “I should have choked you in your crib!
Then she snorted. Exhausted, Giselle laid back on the ground and remained a long time lost in her thoughts. She should have fallen asleep in exhaustion, but it was a restless sleep, full of tantalizing images.
When she awoke, the reality proved to be worse than her dreams.
It had darkened a bit, but everything was in place - not a cloud had moved. But where once was a barren desert, there was now a crowd.
They were people, human beings - hundreds, thousands of them. Wherever she looked there were rows and rows of people lost in the horizon. They were stiff, silent, standing and staring at her, their faces completely expressionless.
Giselle realized, terrified, that she could recognize them. Most were dressed in an unmistakable hospital gown - she’d given it to them when they were brought by force to her center. She clearly recognized the lovely girl who’d died months ago when trying a treatment with her. She noticed the Italian student whose life had been wiped away with injections when Karel was still alive, shortly before receiving the order to take care of Lara Croft. It had been months, years, since the death of those people, and she’d forgotten them as their bodies were cast into the sea, but now they were there and stared at her.
The doctor began to tremble. Something told her that she should keep a cool head, to think rationally, to conclude that this was illusory, but those faces were horribly real, though no breeze ruffled their clothes or hair.
The silence was deadly.
“What do you want?” Giselle cried, but she got no answer. Then she turned sharply to gauge how many people were around her, but a scream got stuck in her throat when noticing the two people right behind her.
One was Professor Vladimir Ivanoff - she recognized him despite his head was crushed as it was impossible to recognize his features. The skull had collapsed on one side and only one eye was staring at her through that bloody pulp. And right beside him, there was the Turkish girl - but unlike the others, she seemed to glow slightly. Her hair moved and the white robe she wore shook slightly.
“What do you want?” The scientist repeated shakily. “Go away!”
She winced. Selma had moved her lips, but the bloodless voice echoing in her ears didn’t seem to come from them. The doctor stared at her, stunned.
“What!” She shouted at the edge of hysteria.
I’m talking to you, I who am on the edge between life and death, on behalf of those who have no voice.
“What do you want from me?” Giselle cried a third time.
What you always wanted. Revenge.
The scientists took a couple of steps and tried to move away, but she was surrounded.
“This is madness.” She muttered. “You’re dead. Dead, dead, dead! Go away and leave me alone.”
Selma tilted her head slightly to one side.
That’s not possible.
With a cry of rage, Giselle rushed at her, but her hands only reached air. She crossed the ethereal figure of the Turkish girl and felt absolutely nothing between her fingers. However, she had pounced on her so violently that she stumbled across her and hit the first person behind her. And this one, despite being, apparently, dead, was frighteningly strong and real. Giselle screamed again, but then that dead grabbed her neck and started squeezing it.
Maddalena had never been so scared in her life.
She’d been so blindly confident that after she crossed the limbo she’d be with Kurtis, that finding herself alone in that inhospitable place made her panic. She looked around and when seeing nothing, she fell on the dry land and began to rock back and forth, moaning. This didn’t last long - suddenly she heard her hated and eternal companion.
Why are you crying, Giulia? Did not I give you what you most wanted?
“He’s not here.” She said.
Oh, yes! Very close. But you can’t see him.
“I want to see him.”
Very good. To me there’s nothing impossible. But I warn you he won’t see you, nor you will be able to interact with him, at least for now.
“I don’t care. I want to know if he’s OK.”
As soon as she said that Maddalena saw him on the horizon. She stood up with a leap and ran toward him, but stopped after at a distance - a precaution she didn’t need to take.
Kurtis’ status was terrible - though he seemed quite clear and confident. At that time he was kneeling on one knee on the floor and tearing the last shreds of what had been his T-shirt, which no longer covered his torso and only hindered his movements. He quickly tore it into strips which he used to wrap some wounds, while scanning around with a sharp glance – that convinced Maddalena he really couldn’t see her.
“I can’t understand why he has to suffer that much.” The redhead muttered aloud. “I can’t see why you’re so cruel with him.”
It’s the eternal war, Giulia - but it will come to an end soon. Very soon, yes.
There was a roar in the distance. Kurtis rose rapidly, holding the Chirugai in his hand. Maddalena watched, horrified, how horrible deformed beings emerged from the sand and approached him. They sought to surround him, but the Lux Veritatis quickly went back with a grim smile as he demanded them, provocatively waving the hand, to come at him.
Then she understood in her inside that her Bitter Path would be to witness his suffering - unable to speak to him, unable to provide him comfort or relief, unable to help him in any way.
Exactly, my dear Giulia.
Lara looked around and retreated behind a rock. For a long time, she’d felt something, but couldn’t tell what. Bathsheba, at her side, had the exasperating appearance of knowing what it was to come and when it would happen, but the explorer was determined to not to beg for information - let her be with her mysteries!
The British explorer calmly loaded her guns, while Bathsheba scanned the horizon.
“Here they come.” The Nephilim announced with indifference.
They were mild dark shapes moving at surprising speed. At first Lara didn’t distinguish them well, but then she saw their stout, anthropoid forms, their heads crowned with twisted horns like those of rams. They had strange lower limbs, like those of an ostrich, that allow them to run at an incredible speed.
“Incubi.” Bathsheba said again.
“And I thought these things only existed in medieval Bibles.” Lara said. Not even in these circumstances was she reluctant to make a joke.
The demons’ growls mingled with cruel and cold laughter. They seemed to have fun with what awaited them.
“It’s a hunt.” The Nephilim said once more.
“And we’re their prey!” Lara climbed behind the rock and prepared her gun. She aimed with cold precision and the first shot struck one and wounded another. The first one burst into a black cloud, but to her horror, the blood left in the second wound generated another incubus who quickly joined the game. “Dammit!” She cursed. There were eight in total – she must not fail.
“Their weak point is the brow.” The beauty said.
“I’ve already noticed that, Miss Perfection!” Lara hated being bothered when targeting. With perfect coldness she achieved to kill four before they reached them.
The British explorer was not surprised to see that incubi didn’t attack Bathsheba - in fact, they didn’t cast a glance towards her, even though they tried by all means not to brush against her, and gather around the rock, laughing derisively. The faces of those creatures could have challenged any painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Their sharp jaws stretched to the sides of their faces, and surprisingly, they were blind, but they seemed perfectly able to sniff the woman. One of them threw a blow in Lara’s direction, who was balancing on the sharp rock, and hit her in the thigh. She felt something like a tremendous burning sensation and warm blood sliding down her leg, but she didn’t even stop to look at her wound and neither allow herself to groan in pain. The attack had put the incubus at her mercy and she killed him with one shot.
Suddenly, Lara felt a tug in the back and lost her balance. Letting out a scream, she fell back and landed among the tangle of incubi. Three pairs of claws hastened to tear her skin. She didn’t hesitate to take out her knife and stab them. The cries of those nasty things deafened her.
Through the corner of her eye Lara saw Bathsheba climbing the rock, looking like a fallen fairy in that broken dress. The Nephilim closed her eyes and formed an oval with two hands - almost instantly her whole body began to glow with a wonderful blue light. The freshness she emitted reached the British explorer’s burning skin.
The jaws of an incubus sank into Lara’s shoulder. The pain was more than she could tolerate and uttering a cry, she stirred and stabbed him. She saw her blade penetrating in slow motion between the two white blooded cells that were the sightless eyes of the creature, and immediately it disintegrated into a black steam. She kicked angrily at the other two, which were practically pulling the flesh from her legs by biting her, and taking advantage of they were engulfing some of her skin, she gave them two well-aimed blows of knife in their front. Instantly she’d escaped from them.
Lara collapsed, sore, panting, her legs soaked with blood and full of bites. She noticed her own blood running down back from her shoulder. The pain was quite sharp - although nothing was burning like the fury she felt inside. “I should do the same to you!” She yelled.
Bathsheba glanced among her blue aura, and said: “You ungrateful. Who’s been protecting both of you?”
Stunned, Lara realized that at no time during the painful battle she’d been aware that, in fact, she was pregnant, and could have had worse consequences. She gasped, looked at Bathsheba, and then saw something floating suspended on the oval formed by the Nephilim’s hands, joined at the tips of her fingers.
It was the small image, similar to a hologram, of a tiny human embryo.