Day 22 in the Vortex.
May the Light forgive me, but I’m sullying this ancient manuscript with an infamous pen and a clumsy trembling handwriting - for these last blank pages, I suspect, are left by the Sibilla Herophilis for me. Perhaps I, Marcus, the Wise, had to write this, like another part of those great evil plans that will take us all.
I say it’s the twenty second day and it seems laughable, given that it’s difficult to perceive the passage of time here. Nothing changes in this vast expanse. But I’m able to perceive it, perhaps because again, that’s what matters to someone. They have been slowly creeping, and here I am, at the end of my path, without having advanced anywhere and with almost no food or drink. Anyway, I know I won’t die until my task is completed, whatever it is.
Through subtle mists I perceive my other colleagues, who don’t perceive me or are not able to perceive each other. I confess I’m finding myself maddening when witnessing Brother Kurtis’ slow agony, as it must be for poor Giulia. I wonder why this evil plan has thrown her into the midst of this grim scenario. But demons have always loved gratuitous suffering. In that, they’re not very different from humans.
Now, when finally the Warrior seems to be delivering the last remnants of his physical strength under the relentless onslaught of our ancestral enemies, I can’t but admire Lara’s strength. She’s not been treated with more compassion. But her legs haven’t trembled at any time, nor she feels pity for the uncertain future of her unborn child. She has received more wounds than her body could fit and some are unbearable, but I haven’t seen her mask of hardness break at all. Perhaps she’s the strongest of us all.
What I can say about Bathsheba, who remains an impenetrable mystery to me? She looks like a ghost. I know she can see me, since she looks back at me while the others can’t do so, but she always does so in silence. What goes through your mind, Blessed Daughter? You know I believe in your purity and your kindness, but if you don’t fight against your nature, you won’t be saved. No one will be saved.
In the midst of this crazy series of empty hours, knowing that here time crawls as it flies in the mortal world, a mysterious revelation has come to me in a terrible and certain way. I know why the Amazon and her unborn child must end at Lilith’s altar. I dare not write it yet. I fear this abomination takes shape and strength when writing about it. I’m an old superstitious man and the idea of the aberration awaiting Lara makes me nauseous. And the very idea of Bathsheba consenting to such thing crumbles my faith at times, because now I know, fully conscious and lucid, that even Joachim Karel, who was a being without feelings or scruples, would have never tolerated such an action. More than anything because of what this means.
Bathsheba must quit this madness, she must rebel against what she’s being prepared to comply with all gentleness, or mankind will be lost. It breaks my heart, which I still have despite all my years, when seeing this grotesque scene, but the good of mankind is worth the suffering of a righteous man like Kurtis. But if Bathsheba’s plans are fulfilled, so much pain, such an endless agony, will have been for nothing.
What’s this? A Lux Veritatis, caught off his guard?
At the sound of this mocking cruel voice Kurtis slightly opened his eyes. He was leaning on another rock, where he’d dropped himself after his last fight. Of the bloody spoils he’d done with the demons that had attacked him previously, there was nothing left. Anyway, why be surprised.
“Wrong, Moloch.” He whispered, opening his lips, sticky with cotted blood. “I noticed you a while ago.”
A dry, cracked laughter rang in his ears. The creature before him was a being of nightmare, a terrible incubus. Tall and built like a man, his body was covered with scales. A white, red-eyed snake coiled around his naked shape. The face was horrible, with snake eyes and a mouth full of huge triangular teeth like saws, twisted into a hideous smile. The ovoid head was crowned with a series of twisted horns. And faint leathery wings completed the rest.
Look at him. The indomitable Kurtis Trent. A living legend. Although I liked you better when you used to gut soldiers in the Gulf. You were the most polished killing machine of the whole damn Legion. It was so amusing watching you. Since your brains melted for that British slut, you’re truly worthless.
“Well, Moloch.” Kurtis gurgled, spitting a clot of blood. “You speak like a legionnaire.”
I had the chance to learn a lot from mortals - from you, especially. Admit it, you’re just a cutthroat, but so much fun we had with you. And so much fun we’re going to have now... He left the sentence unfinished to display another monstrous smile.
Kurtis made an insane grin. His body was limp, relaxed, his head cocked, as if his body couldn’t react or as if that terrible presence wasn’t able to intimidate him.
“You outta thank me, Moloch. Last time we met I almost got your ass.”
Indeed, we’ve a little unfinished business, Lux Veritatis.
“Right. You outta kiss my ass now that you’re the top dog in all of fucking Hell.”
Moloch laughed again. Correct. You killed the old Karel. When finishing the Nephilim, the incubi inherited the kingdom of the Father - and I enjoy a new position. Very true. But still, I won’t kiss your ass... I’d rather kiss your guts, when I’ll rip them out.
“Shame. I don’t think you can deal with her.”
The incubus’ hideous face twisted into a look of hatred. That one who intends to be a hybrid Nephilim? The one who calls herself Bathsheba?
“Hush hush. Your Lady likes her. I think you know the incubi will be sent to the seventh circle again. Go back to begging souls.”
Not if Moloch can prevent that.
“The only one who can stop her is me. “
You are no longer needed! You don’t have the Periapt Shard. And we can use that damn oldster, the Healer, to finish her - for all I know, she has a stupid confidence in him.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Poor Moloch. So much time raping nuns has melted your scarce brains.”
The incubus let out a deafening roar and slapped Kurtis with his claw. He bent to one side, letting out a gasp of pain.
You’re just a wreck. Sooner or later you will run out of strength. You’re nothing but a mortal. Did I tell you how your father cried when being crucified? It was pathetic.
“Try harder. My father’s in peace.”
Moloch leaned, grabbed Kurtis’ hair and forced him to look at him. The devil’s slavering jaws were just a few inches from his face. But I know what’s your soft point, Soldier of Light. And I’ll tell you: that whore you impregnated is here with us. And we’ll have so much fun with her. So much fun!
He was still saying this when Kurtis’ hand snapped him and there was a metallic click. The demon roared in pain and sat howling - the Chirugai’s blade had hit him, destroying his right eye.
Kurtis jumped while Moloch was unprotected, wiping the mixture of black blood and fluids flowing from the socket’s eye. He glanced bitterly at the Lux Veritatis, who provocatively showed him his deadly weapon.
“Such a bad liar, Moloch.”
You’d wish that, son of a bitch. You’d wish it was a lie.
“This is boring.”
Let’s have fun, then. With a tremendous roar, he spread out his wings and rose, circling his opponent.
Kurtis knew what to expect from this attack. He crouched on the ground, clutching the Chirugai, and tried to ignore the throbbing pain of his wounds. He peered for a moment at the ancient demon, who remained suspended in the air, examining him carefully.
“Gotta admit I kinda missed you.” Kurtis said, taking a handful of sand from the ground and rubbing his hands together before taking the gun again. “Hell wouldn’t be the same without Moloch.”
Releasing a cruel laugh, the incubus plummeted. Kurtis kept his position, and at the last moment he stretched the Chirugai ahead and activated it. The blow was violent enough to have him and his attacker rolling on the ground, but when Moloch rose again, he had a terrible gash in his scaled belly while Kurtis was unharmed.
“As cocky as ever.” The Lux Veritatus mocked. “Still falling into the same traps.”
Another laugh accompanied the further descent of the incubus. The strategy would not work again, so this time, the Fighter dodged the attack of his opponent and leapt back. Moloch laughed and went down again at high speed. He couldn’t see so well with one eye and Kurtis took the chance to punch him in the face - he cut his knuckles with the demon’s scaled skin, but managed to unbalance and send him to the ground amid a cloud of bulky dust.
Moloch had barely landed when his adversary pounced on him. He could have easily shaken him off, as he was twice as big and brutal, but then he noticed the Chirugai’s bloody blades just a few inches from his remaining eye. He hated that damn weapon with all his might. All hellish creatures had learned to fear and hate it - so he didn’t move.
Despite his exhaustion, Kurtis wasn’t willing to be kind - he grabbed Moloch by the horns and twisted his head viciously, putting his blade on the demon’s face. “Let’s chat.” He hissed in his ear.
The incubus chuckled. What do you want me to tell you? Your fate? But that would spoil the fun.
“If Lara’s here, show me.”
Angels and demons don’t lie, motherfucker.
Another twinge made his neck bones crack. He saw his own ophidian eyes reflected in the ferilium of the Chirugai’s blade.
“The Lux Veritatis don’t lie either, so listen to this: I’m gonna break your neck.”
Then something unexpected happened: the white snake, which had been dormant the whole time, reacted suddenly and looked up. Kurtis was not expecting it. The reptile bit him on the neck and, with a brutal strength threw him aside. The Lux Veritatis got up instantly, but the sharp lash of Moloch’s tail whipped his face and knocked him down again. Kurtis’ face broke into a hot sticky wave of pain and for a moment he lost sight of everything, for his eyes were full of blood.
Moloch’s claw grabbed him by the neck and lifted him into the air with the same ease with which someone would raise a child. The Chirugai slipped from his hand and fell to the ground. The incubus kept him caught for a moment, raised him above his head, and kept looking at him with cold satisfaction. Come on, do a favor for your friend Moloch. Beg for your life.
Even through the yarns of blood sliding down his face, the devil noticed Kurtis’ sarcastic grin. He tried to speak but his voice came out weak. Moloch loosened his grip to let him talk.
“I’d ask you to do me the favor and kill me, but you got no balls for that.”
With a roar, Moloch slammed him on the floor. The blow caught his left leg in a bad position and twisted his ankle.
Killing you? This is only the beginning.
Kurtis thought that brutal beating was going to continue, but then the nightmare creature, with a sinister smile that promised future punishments, vanished into thin air.
Maddalena told herself a thousand times she was a coward. She’d curled up next to Kurtis, while he, barely conscious, was sleeping on the rock, stroking his face and hair even she knew he wasn’t going to notice. When that devil appeared, however, she’d no courage to face him. She ran to hide behind a rock, listening, trembling at every blow, the terrible conversation and brutal attack, crying silently. Not even the certainty that she wouldn’t have been able to do anything to help set her free from her oppressive burden of guilt. For a moment she thought that aberration tormenting Kurtis had looked toward her and smiled with satisfaction, as if he knew she was watching that and he enjoyed it, but she couldn’t have assured that.
When that horrible creature disappeared, she got ready to run to the Lux Veritatis’ side again, but there was nothing she could do. Kurtis swore between his teeth and wiped the blood from his face. His left foot was twisted in a horrible position. He couldn’t walk.
The Italian woman was still leaning over him when suddenly everything vanished from her sight. She cried and looked around. No sign of Kurtis, or the rock, or traces of blood on the ground. She began to tremble.
Someone wants to greet you, Giulia, said the Voice.
A shadow took shape around her. She turned, surprised, and found Daniele Monteleone.
He was the last person she expected to see there. She stood open-mouthed, gazing at him. The absolute certainty that he was dead reached her before even noticing his rigor mortis, the black and blue of his lips and his dead eyes, not to mention that great bullet hole in the center of his forehead. He was sitting in a chair, as he used to do in Italy, and turned in his hand an empty glass.
“Daniele!” She cried hoarsely.
The capo looked up, expressionless, and glanced at her for a long time. She trembled from head to toe. Finally, she dared to take a few steps. “Daniele ... who ... who ...?”
The familiar voice had sounded without those deceased lips moving an inch. With a gesture empty of expression, he brought the glass to his mouth and pretended to drink, but there was nothing to drink.
Maddalena sobbed. “Oh, Daniele, I didn’t know... she...nobody said anything...I thought you were alive!”
I paid my debt, Maddalena. This is farewell.
The redhead girl reached out and touched Monteleone’s arm. She found him cold, hard and rigid. Her knees buckled and collapsed at his feet. “Among all men I ever met, only you cared about me.” She muttered.
Among all women I ever met, only you loved me - and yet I failed you. Maddalena... carissima...you were right to leave me.
Tears streamed down her face, but she didn’t take notice of them. She buried her head in Monteleone’s thigh. A withered hand played with her curls.
“Right?” She sobbed. “It’s been a big mistake. I left my safe and strong position by your side to chase a man who doesn’t love me. I’m lost, Daniele, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I just hope to die, now that I know you’re dead.” She could not even feel hate against Lara for killing him- just a great emptiness and despair on the inside.
I had at my hand the best woman in this world, and I treated her like a whore. A queen’s life is what I should have given you. I wasted my time on my reputation and my pride. Now I have nothing. Forgive me, Maddalena.
The woman’s shoulders shook. “You made me happy... forgive me, Daniele.”
The mafioso’s rigid fingers took Maddalena’s chin and lifted her face. She found herself looking at the face of a dead man.
Do you know why are you here?
“By leaving the man who could protect me, I chased another one I can’t have.”
But even that you did according to the plans of someone, Maddalena. A great sacrifice will be required of you.
“I don’t care. If he doesn’t love me and you no longer live, I’ve nothing to lose.”
Monteleone was speechless. Trembling, the Italian woman went up to meet his blue lips. She’d barely touched them when they seemed to move again.
You’re the Innocent of the prophecy, Maddalena.
She stopped. “I thought I’d be the Impure. I’m a prostitute.”
The body’s sins don’t harm the soul. You know, cara mia. It’s hatred, bitterness and blood what defile our souls.
“Bathsheba, Kurtis, Lara...even the child she carries in her womb, are a hundred times more innocent than I am.” Her eyes welled with tears. “Kurtis is suffering terribly, I can’t stand it anymore.”
No more than you, Maddalena, no more than you. Everyone’s paying their debts. You too, carissima, but for nothing. I’ve already paid, so I’m leaving.
While saying this he began to vanish into thin air. She, terrified, tried to detain him, but her hands grasped only air. “Daniele! No! No, please! Don’t leave me alone! Take me with you!”
But he vanished, swallowed by nothingness, and she was left alone, kneeling on the hard ground, facing the vacuum with sobs.
You really loved me, bella mia!
Giselle landed on her face for the umpteenth time. She stood panting, touching her lips dripping with blood. She looked back - the mob went ahead, unstoppable, following her. She didn’t know how long she’d been on the run. They walked slowly, like the zombies they were, she thought angrily. It didn’t matter. If she stopped, they will reach her sooner or later.
So she’d spent days, weeks maybe. She’d lost her shoes a while ago. On her legs just dangled some bloody remains of her stockings, full of cuts, bruises and abrasions after having fallen a thousand times. Her skirt was in tatters. The hair, disheveled and bloody, was shriveled to dust. In her life she’d felt so dirty, miserable and angry.
“Back off, motherfuckers!” She screamed in a shrill and torn voice. “Leave me alone!”
Never in her life she’d used such language, but she was out of herself. If they laid a finger on her, they beat, slapped, trampled, tried to strangle her. She’d her hair torn in strands - and although she’d fought back, nothing could harm those things, for they were already dead.
Beside her she saw Selma’s ethereal silhouette, staring at her with serene indifference. The Cabal scientist extended a hand full of cuts, with broken nails, trying to grab her, but the Turkish girl was only a wisp of fog. “Tell them to go!” Giselle screamed.
Selma’s eyes met those of her, impenetrable.
I told you I can’t stop them. They want revenge for what you did to them - and they will continue until satisfied.
“But you’re not!” The doctor exploded.
I’m not dead yet - and I wish to be so I can join them and destroy you like you destroyed me.
Giselle screamed with a long, inhuman howl. The shadow of her pursuers was already projected on her. She rose and ran again, panting, breathless. She took a moment to look back, and that was her misfortune - she stumbled over a stone suspiciously placed there, and then she fell down and dislocated her knee.
Letting out a cry of pain, she held the joint. She began to crawl with her hands in despair, shredding the rest of her clothes.
But she could not move faster - soon, thousands of cold hands fell back on her.
“What was my father like?”
The question caught Lara off guard. She was bandaging a rustle in her thigh. She looked up, startled, and stared at Bathsheba, who sat near on the ground, her knees together and legs bent to one side with modesty.
“Are you trying to start a conversation with me?”
Bathsheba grinned. “Who else? Your child?
Lara’s mouth twitched. “Still better conversation than yours.” She muttered, squeezing the bandage hard. “As for your father, all I have to say is that I hope he’s rotting in hell.”
“There’s no hell. The Nephili, like the rest of the immortals...vanish when destroyed. Only mortals know other life, because they have a soul. We don’t.”
“You don’t say it.” The British explorer growled, wiping traces of blood with saliva, not wanting to waste water.
Bathsheba smiled weakly. “I think he was different from me.”
“Of course. He was a man.”
Still not used to Lara’s sarcasm, the Nephilim raised her eyebrows until the British explorer chuckled. “Indeed, he wasn’t like you. He wasn’t so...good looking.” Lara practically spat the word. “He was not trying to make friends all the time. The victim does not sympathize with the executioner, so shut up and leave me alone.”
Bathsheba ignored her and added: “My father wanted to make a child with you. He chose you for your merits. Nephili felt repelled by mortals, as far as I know.”
“That pervert Karel wanted to humiliate and take revenge on me because I’d killed his precious Sleeper.”
“However, I’d rather have you as a mother.”
Lara threw her head back and laughed. “Me too!” She hissed. “I’d have stabbed you with a Periapt Shard right from your birth - and all my problems solved!”
Far from being offended, Bathsheba smiled. “Life’s not that easy, right?”
The British explorer wasn’t willing to chat anymore, so she leaned on a rock – was it there before? - and closed her eyes, ready to rest for at least a while, without giving a single look to her unwanted companion.
Bathsheba watched her in silence. Lara had dropped her head on her shoulder and a lock of brown, bloodstained hair covered half of her face. She was bruised and slightly wounded by the constant attacks of the Vortex’s creatures, but this didn’t seem to bring down her strength. Of course, she didn’t know about what tormented Bathsheba, a burden heavier than that child who’d never be born.
Basically, the beautiful Nephilim envied mortals - she’d envied them since meeting Lara and Kurtis. She would never tell anyone, but Bathsheba, hidden in states and dimensions to which only an immortal could access, had spied on them often. Specifically when they locked themselves in their room and had fallen in each other’s arms. Bathsheba knew what this meant and why they felt a fatal attraction to an act which went beyond the mere biological functions, but which she couldn’t understand. For the pure Nephilim, there was something nasty, dirty, in that kind of slow, prolonged dance in which two people were undressing, kissing, biting and licking, then merging into a hectic wave of entwined bodies, watered with sweat and saliva, to gobble each other amid a cacophony of sighs, moans and cries of authentic pleasure, which she initially confused with the most intense pain.
The first time Bathsheba almost vomited in disgust. But even she wasn’t away from the fascination that caused in her - night after night, she went to spy on them, at least if she hadn’t something else to do. Gradually the disgust disappeared. Her pulse accelerated contemplating them, she who in nearly three years of life was virgin and had never allowed anyone to lay a finger on her. There was something incredibly mysterious and sacred in that, something forbidden to the immortals. If Karel had been alive, he’d have told his daughter, with evident contempt, that was a nasty price to be paid for having offspring. The Nephili had mated only to perpetuate themselves and those were cold, mechanical junctions devoid of any emotion, which had nothing to do with what she was witnessing.
Then Bathsheba felt almost sick with envy - she wanted to experience what they felt. It was an almost feverish, ill desire. She didn’t realize that any man in the world would have sold his soul to have her in his arms, because she wasn’t aware of her superhuman beauty. She’d barely looked herself in a mirror and the face that stared back to her was quite common to her. The very idea of a mortal doing to her what Kurtis did to Lara made her shiver from head to toe, in the midst of a limbo between absolute horror and curiosity.
And that, that didn’t match at all with what Gertrude and Giselle had taught her. Kurtis Trent was supposed to be a murderer, a cruel and revolting butcher who enjoyed bloodshed and had vowed to wipe out all the immortals. Lara Croft was a whore, for women like her could only be whores, and she was as sadistic as him, enjoying all what she’d destroyed. That had nothing to do with what she was witnessing. The man’s murderous hands trembled slightly when stroking her body, when crossing it gently with the fingertips, as if afraid of getting burned by the heat of her skin. That harlot, supposedly unable of feeling any emotion towards anyone in the world, closed her eyes and delivered herself to those caresses, those kisses, shuddering when the strong arms of her companion grasped her against him or lunged her at each impulse of...
Bathsheba blushed to the ears. She touched her face, stunned, and thanked Lara couldn’t see her, asleep as she was. What was wrong with her?
A part of you is human, Bathsheba, and you can’t change this, Marcus had told her repeatedly. Now those words tormented her. Not even the blood of Lilith could change that.
He crept carefully to a couple of rocks he hadn’t seen before. Nevermind - he knew they had put them there expressly for him.
“So nice of you.” Kurtis growled.
His foot was sprained and bruised. He wouldn’t be able to stand on it again - unless he placed it in its original position. After touching it he noticed it wasn’t broken, but soon it would swell and he would need to take off the boot. Well, the faster he acted, the sooner that will end.
The Lux Veritatis placed his foot on the narrow gap left between two rocks, and once it was securely fastened, he took a deep breath, counted to three and swung his leg sharply. The creaking of the bruised joint when returning to its place, along with the lash of pain, almost made him pass out. He stumbled and fell on the ground, releasing a string of swearwords, blasphemies and curses he hadn’t used since the days of the Legion.
Lying on his back, panting, he vowed to kill the damn Moloch as soon as he saw him ahead. For a while he looked at those cold clouds and the static sky until he fainted, exhausted.
He was awakened by the cry of a baby.
Kurtis sat up sharply, with the Chirugai in his hand, and looked around, his heart pounding. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, but it had been madness.
There was nothing there except the same desolate landscape. However, he still heard the child mourning clearly, as if he were next to him.
The Lux Veritatis rose awkwardly. When standing on his injured foot, a wave of pain like liquid fire ascended through his leg. The swelling wouldn’t go for a while, but at least the joint was in place. He walked a dozen steps, limping, and stopped. The crying grew louder and louder.
“New joke, huh?” Kurtis shouted in full voice, looking around. “Try harder!”
At that time he still didn’t know that the cries of that unseen baby would last for the next few hours, more and more intense, ringing in his ears. There was something desperate in those sobs, as if suffering an unbearable pain or crushed by the utmost sadness.
The Fighter would never know, but he endured for eight hours. After that, his calm gradually faded, while that whimpering intensified more and more. Soon restlessness and anger seized him at the feeling of abandonment coming from that cry. What remaining nerve of his were they trying to touch?
“Enough.” Kurtis muttered through clenched teeth. He pushed hard the intertwined fingers to control the nervous tremor of his hands. “Stop it!”
Those words, hissed through clenched teeth, turned to shouts of rage four hours later. They wanted to drive him mad - and they were getting it. He tried to close his eyes but those sobs still were haunting him. He covered his ears, but they were still resounding in his head. At the end he fell into a dark blackness, shrunk in himself, rocking inconsolably, while awaiting the end of that ordeal.
The Lux Veritatis opened his eyes when noticing the metallic smell of blood. Before him a horrible scene was displayed.
Scattered across the sand, like stones thrown at random, there were hundreds, thousands of tiny little bodies of babies. Most were foetuses who had not completed their growth - some bloody, others already rotting, some cut in pieces, others with the umbilical cord still hanging, or partly involved in a bruised placenta. He noticed children of several months of gestation, none exceeded the year of life.
The crying went increasing further its intensity, if that was possible.
Kurtis rose sharply. He sought the answer to that horrible sight sent by the Vortex and the Gift, always witty, finally revealed to him what that meant, why they were showing that to him, what they were warning to him - and it was too much.
The Fighter screamed in a horrible way and fell to his knees, clutching his head, defeated. That was it. He couldn’t resist any longer that existence. He didn’t want to live to see if that fateful omen was fulfilled or not. They had already won.
With a horrible, paused determination, he put his hand to his belt and unhooked the deadly Chirugai. Slowly he approached the disk’s edge to his throat. Actually, it was easy - one command would be enough, a mere imperative of his mind, and the blades would spread. Knowing the violent extent of that weapon, certainly not only they will stab his neck, but also virtually behead him in one blow. Far better.
Kurtis closed his eyes to the sea of small bodies - quivering, spinning his heads towards him and spasmodically waving their arms and legs - and took a breath to activate the razors.
A steady, strong hand appeared out of nowhere and violently grabbed his wrist, giving him a brutal tug forwards at the same time the blades spread. The Lux Veritatis just felt a slight sting in his throat, tearing him only a trickle of blood. He yelled in frustration when realizing he’d failed, and as he struggled to understand what had just happened, a powerful, confident sounded voice at his side.
Courage, my son! You’re not alone anymore!