The valley at the bottom of the gorge ended in another cave, opposite to the place where they had left the alienated Giselle. Lara lit a flare and plunged into darkness, with her hand near her holster. Bathsheba followed her at a distance. She’d stopped levitating and was now walking, the stones mixed in the soil hurting her white feet, but she didn’t seem to care.
Lara enjoyed entering an underground place where anyone else would’ve turned and ran, so gloomy and suffocating was the atmosphere of that rocky gallery descending into the bowels of the earth. She, after all, was used to that. It was that flat, empty expanse in which they had traveled until then that made her nervous, not knowing how to orientate herself or knowing if she was going somewhere. At least there was only one possible way.
Behind her, she noticed Bathsheba’s heavy breathing. Since she couldn’t see her, Lara flashed a wide grin of sarcasm. That creature didn’t resemble her father. The idea of imagining Karel nervous or anxious about something was kinda hilarious. But more than that, it was laughable to think the Nephilim knew what was about to happen and instead of warning her she was merely tormenting herself and trembling. Pathetic.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Bathsheba replied to her thoughts, wearily. “And my father was a pure Nephilim, not a half-human like me. He couldn’t have feelings.”
“Excuse me, divine one.” Lara laughed, scanning the dark. “I never gave you permission to read my thoughts.”
“Involuntary. Besides, arrogant people like you scream when thinking - all of Vortex’s demons are hearing you right now.”
The tunnel was descending. Lara touched the rock to guide herself. At other times she wouldn’t have slowed down, but that new strange incipient weight she felt in her belly made her be instinctively cautious. Moreover, there was that incontrollable influx of hormones that kept her in a dazed, almost lethargic state, which made her feel so relaxed, so calm, as if she wasn’t fooling around in the very hell, not knowing where to go and with an ominous prophetess of doom attached to her heels whose mission was to watch her slaughtering - not to mention she was ignorant of whether Kurtis was dead or alive or what could have happened to him...
Stop it, you silly. You’ve always known how to take care of yourself and this time nothing should be different, the British explorer inwardly reproached herself. It’s just another damn den with another unlikelihood of surviving. You’ve been through this a thousand times. If you mess up this, you die, but before that happens, try your best.
“What happened with the Scepter?” Lara asked suddenly while looking ahead. “All this mess was because of the damn thing - shame if you lost it after all.”
“Safe.” Bathsheba said. “Along with the Periapt and the Shards – until their time comes.”
The carelessness with which the Nephilim answered made it easy to pry for information. Of course it really did not matter, since she won’t be able to change the course of events. If there was something that annoyed Lara more than anything else in the world, it was not being in control of the situation.
“Wait.” The British explorer suddenly exclaimed, stopping short. She reached forward, to the front, and made a sweep with the flashlight. “Who’s there?” She hadn’t noticed the slightest change, but now she was certain someone was there. Bathsheba looked sideways without losing her central field of sight, and saw the Nephilim puzzled frown, as if this was unexpected, even for her.
Moloch, Lord of the Incubi and Prince of Demons, said a nightmare voice from the dark. Lara tensed her muscles. I come to bring you a valuable gift from your love.
Day 30 in the Vortex.
Maybe I should call this a new stage in the rocky valley, as the empty desert was left behind us. There’s no doubt that the evil beings who rule this horrible dimension have wanted that.
I fear for Lara’s life. She’s very unprotected, but she thinks not. She has full confidence in her skills, but that won’t be enough this time. I fear what may happen, and that’s going to lead to disaster.
Bathsheba... what are you doing? React! You still have time... you must change, you must rebel... it’s impossible you could end up obeying Her. You couldn’t have believed Her flattering promises. You’ll destroy innocent people, everything just to go to languish in the same darkness with Her.
You’ll taint your hands with blood, you who are pure and innocent...
“Careful. Giselle Boaz’s up ahead, and she’s totally deranged.”
Maddalena blinked and looked surprised at Kurtis. His face remained impassive and expressionless, at least what could be seen behind the thick cloth that covered his mutilated eye sockets and the trickles of blood running down across his cheeks. She still couldn’t get used to the fact that Kurtis seemed to be able to see, even better than before losing his eyes. She couldn’t explain this, but it seemed to be so. However, she still refused to accept it and kept trying to guide him. She took his arm and peered into the dark rock in the valley, but saw nothing.
“Lara’s near.” Kurtis noted. “Let’s move on. Stay behind me.”
Lara, Lara, Lara... always Lara. Had Lara been there when he was tortured and maimed? Had Lara healed his wounds, changed his blindfold by tearing her own clothes? Had Lara’s hands been pierced with nails? The pain in her wounded hands worsened when feeling the rage that filled her inside.
Kurtis’ hand placed on her shoulder and squeezed her hard. “Reserve this rage to survive, Giulia.”
She’d the grace to blush. “Can you hear what I’m thinking?”
Soon she began to distinguish something up ahead. A figure was huddled against the high rock wall, crouching and withdrawn on itself. A half-naked and bloodied figure trembling like a silk hair exposed to a biting wind. She instinctively ran to help her, but Kurtis’ arm shot out like a spring and grabbed her so hard that it stopped her short. “Don’t even think in doing that.”
“She’s badly injured!”
“You don’t know how she will react. Now she’s more dangerous than ever before.”
They felt a start, for then Giselle jumped. She wore only four to five strips of fabric hanging from her tortured body, but she neither seem to notice nor was she ashamed. She peered at them, a gaze still clear and bright in a face swollen and full of cuts. She could be insane, but she perfectly distinguished her hated enemy. The Cabal scientist shrieked with a whistle that sounded hollow, snubbed between her broken teeth and leaped forward brandishing her nails. Maddalena screamed and instinctively tended to cover Kurtis, but Giselle didn’t get far. Almost instantly an invisible force stopped her and threw her back, pressing her against the wall.
“Enough!” Maddalena shouted, however.
“Why?” Kurtis said coldly. “She wasn’t exactly nice to me.”
“Relax, I was just defending us.”
Giselle sprawled on the floor for a moment - which they used to pass cautiously at her side, without turning away from her. With a start, she sat back and reached out, catching the redhead’s ankle, who shrieked and rushed to get free – but the Cabal scientist didn’t seem to want to fight, because her arm dropped limply. From her lips came a crusty groan: “You son of a bitch...”
Kurtis turned to face her, who began to crawl, fixing her hateful gaze on him. He realized with surprise he felt kind of sorry for her, after all he’d suffered in her hands. Even in that moment he didn’t feel like killing her - or doing anything for revenge.
Giselle retreated prancing like a snake and fell to her knees, staring at her enemy. Then she hissed: “They almost got me, those bastards... but ah! They couldn’t kill me... I’m stronger... they said it was their right... I killed them... you also came to charge your debt?”
Kurtis shook his head. “You’re done. The Light around you is black.” He turned around. “You just need to drag yourself to a corner and die.”
The woman let out a menacing hiss. Foam appeared at the corner of her mouth. Maddalena came forward, frightened. “She’s insane! Let’s go!”
“Why did they come to me and not to you, huh?” Giselle howled. “They came to me, to destroy me... and you, you who are a murderer and a rapist... where are your dead? Did they rip your eyes off?”
“A murderer, yes.” Kurtis said. “A rapist, never.”
“Let’s go!” Maddalena yelled, grabbing his arm.
“What’s your punishment then? Which one? Which one?” The Cabal scientist was screaming her lungs out. “You may not stay unpunished! You killed an angel, you wicked! You killed a divine being...”
Kurtis turned and made his way into the cave, with Maddalena still pinned at his arm. For a moment, Giselle’s expletives followed them. Then a constant scraping noise against the floor notified them that, though dragging behind badly, she was following them.
When Moloch came out of the darkness, Lara gasped and her eyes widened. Neither the most fevered imagination of any great painter could have generated a creature like the Prince of Incubi horror - that sort of animal-headed, reptilian man. His smile was frightening and one of his eyes was missing made him even more sinister, recently emptied according to the still gelatinous pulp poured through his scaly cheek.
Do I frighten you, darling? The demon said hoarsely, satisfied to capture Lara’s horrified gaze. Maybe another look you’re more used to? Suddenly the winged figure blurred and took Kurtis’ shape, naked and with a lewd smile, his eyes covered with a bluish, malignant glow. Better like this, huh? He reached out and maliciously touched Lara’s arm, who gasped again and stepped back. You refuse me? You didn’t when you had him at night in your bed.
“This is grotesque, Moloch.” Bathsheba sentenced, taking a step forward. “This comedy is useless.”
The incubus smiled contemptuously. Oh, but if it’s my new rival! Pathetically wrapped behind human flesh. The virgin who talks beautifully with her mouth but whose eyes claim her dirtiness. He turned towards Lara and said: Did you know how many nights she spied on you and your Lux Veritatis while doing dirty stuff together?
A deep flush rose to the Nephilim’s pristine cheeks, who hissed under her breath: “Your days of glory are coming to an end, Moloch.”
Oh, said the incubus, as if that couldn’t affect him, and took two steps towards her. You’re a beautiful and unsatisfied creature. I can give you what you need, my dear. He swatted at Bathsheba, trying to grab her, but with a single jump she put herself out of reach, raised an arm and stretched two fingers, which caught fire with blue and cold flames. “Touch me,” she sentenced, threatening, “and I’ll burn you alive.”
Apparently the threat was serious for with a sly smile, Moloch went back. Somehow a creature like him had something to fear from Bathsheba, Lara scored mentally - something worth remembering.
I can always amuse myself with this human bitch, the incubus was telling. I’ve been told you’re proud, Lara Croft, but to what point? Would you fuck me?
Lara had the feeling everything was a game arranged by that nasty, horrible monster who was using Kurtis’ shape, but for what purpose? “I’d rather have a sewer rat than you.” She answered sharply, and when he approached her, she raised her gun and targeted him. “Hold it right there, or I’ll break your mouth with one shot.”
The false Kurtis greatly opened his eyes with a feigned glance of innocence. Would you shoot me, your love?
“You’re not him. You’re not even half the man he is.”
She shouldn’t have said that. That touched a nerve, if that monster had any. His face contorted in a cruel, hideous expression, not fitting with Kurtis’ face, and hissed: Of course I’m not him. I still have one eye left. The way he said this made an unpleasant shiver go up and down Lara’s spine and a nasty pressure close the pit of her stomach. However, with no hesitation, she continued holding the gun with a firm hand and staring through her opponent.
Ah, such a proud girl, smiled the incubus. What an immense pleasure it will be to break you. But I won’t distract from the main purpose of my visit. I’ve to bring you this. And he held out a small red box brought from she didn’t know where. Lara took it, while another terrible, distant picture, came up in her mind - a cardboard box with Radha’s severed fingers.
Now she couldn’t help but to put away the gun to open the box with trembling hands, for she knew her fears would be confirmed.
“Don’t.” Bathsheba then said. “Don’t play his game.”
But it was too late. At seeing the contents of the box - a pair of torn, bloody eyes, the same blue eyes she’d fallen in love with so long ago - Lara felt a lump in her throat and a terrible burning in her own eyes. Trying to control herself, even though she was trembling like a leaf, the British explorer clenched her jaws to snap up the sob that struggled to sprout from her chest. Over all, she must not drop the box.
See how she struggles to keep her dignity, Moloch sighed in mocking sorrow. Humans are so weak, even those proud and strong as this woman. C’mon honey, you can mourn a little, we won’t tell anyone, will you, Blessed Daughter? The Nephilim’s title sounded mocking and sarcastic. Ah, how funny. He started, you know? That Lux Veritatis had humiliated me before, and I swore I’d charge him with humiliation. He stared at me so condescending, so I cut out his eyes. Ugh, so pleasant! And with his own weapon, so that pig won’t stop bleeding. He’s lucky with that female human at his side to guide him, otherwise he’d be stumbling against everywhere! But... what are you doing?
While struggling to ignore Moloch’s hurtful speech, Lara had taken one of the bloodshot eyes with her thumb and forefinger. Suddenly, before their astonished gaze, she put it in her mouth and swallowed it, and also did the same with the other one.
Bathsheba turned around in disgust, while shaking with nausea.
Yuck, Moloch laughed. Seems true that you’d fuck a rat...nasty ...
“His eyes,” Lara said hoarsely in pain, “are the purest thing right here and right now.” She struggled to hold back her tears before their enemies, but it was a losing battle - she noticed them, burning, sliding down her cheeks, as she took her hand back to the gun. Bathsheba looked at her, speechless, fascinated by the intensity of feelings that she couldn’t - she’d never- feel.
You know, Moloch said, gesturing towards Bathsheba, she knew it at the very moment I ripped his eyes off, and didn’t say anything on purpose. Moreover, when she knew, she laughed well at ease.
“I didn’t laugh!” Bathsheba spat bitterly. “I didn’t laugh!”
But Lara wasn’t listening - she held the gun and with a mechanical gesture fired two shots, hitting one in Moloch’s forehead and another one in Bathsheba’s. Then she turned and went down the tunnel, her eyes smudged with grief. She heard a moan of pain and a cry of astonishment mixed with anger, which she couldn’t identify because her ears rang.
You’re not going to kill us that way, darling, the incubus’ voice hissed very close, too close to her. Your ridiculous bullets only tickle us.
Lara turned quickly, but it was too late. Moloch’s blow hit her face and threw her to the ground. The gun flew from her hand, but just as quickly she pulled out the long knife strapped to her thigh. The incubus pounced on her – he’d recovered his original form - and brought his ghastly smile to her face, but suddenly he let out a roar of pain. Lara had plunged the knife into his left wing and tore the skin to reach the slim joints and break them with a flick of the wrist. That caused unbearable pain to Moloch, and the slumbering serpent coiled around his body seemed to feel it, for it suddenly opened its red eyes and shot its head towards Lara, sinking its fangs into her neck. That huge snake had an incredible strength, for with a twist struck Lara, forcing her to drop the knife, and pushed her aside by rolling.
Moloch rose furious with outstretched wings and pulled out the knife in rage, while the snake coiled back and closed its eyes. To Lara’s desperation, who trusted to have weakened him, the wound slowly closed, leaving the wing intact. Then she remembered there were only two weapons to harm permanently a demon: the Periapt Shards, and Kurtis’ Chirugai.
Bitch, smiled the incubus. I’ll make you swallow that pride.
The British explorer jumped up and brandished the knife. Moloch laughed. He liked human daring. It always reported more fun - and even more if it was a woman. And if that was the Lux Veritatis’ whore, it was just perfect. He actually was only following strict orders from higher authority, but nothing forbade him from playing with his victim before. And because the demons of his kind were engaged to take human shape to seduce or rape human women, as the succubi did with men, the idea of a proud, haughty and defiant female human made him burn with lust. It’d be an absolute pleasure to break and humiliate her.
The incubus pounced on her again, roaring. Lara feinted to the side and swung the blade, the first blow hitting some demon arm scales. She wasn’t scared at all - she’d be horrified at first, but now only felt an unspeakable disgust. She thought of Kurtis’ mutilated eyes, which she’d eaten to spare them sullying and decaying - and rage granted her all the strength she needed. The second thrust, rather successful, sliced at once the snake’s head. Moloch stopped when noticing the serpent shaking around him, whose beheaded body fell from his body and after a few crackles, laid still on the ground. Freya! Moloch roared, furious. You killed my Freya!
Lara smirked and put her fingers on her neck bite, from which flowed a stream of tiny blood soaking her clothes. Fortunately, it wasn’t a poisonous species... if it was a natural species at all.
Moloch furiously swept the floor, flapping his wings, and propelled against Lara. The tackle smashed her against the wall, leaving her stunned a few seconds, which Moloch took to grab her arm and keep her still, pressing her shoulder against the opposite wall. The demon brought her face so close to her that she could feel his fetid breath, and suddenly his hot and sticky tongue licked her face widely from the neck, through her cheek and to her temple. Lara turned her face, holding back a retch.
What? Do I bother you, darling?
Above the membranous wings of her captor, Lara saw Bathsheba, not involved at any time to defend her, but watching instead the scene with a mixture of horror and compassion. The British explorer wondered if not moving a finger to help her was part of the plan, but no matter what happened, she was determined to not plead for help - and least of all to her.
Moloch snuggled closer to her, and licked her face again. Lara felt something hard against her thigh, and realized, dazed, it was a phallus of a disproportionate size and covered in sharp scales. She tried to struggle but the incubus’ strength was brutal.
Let’s see, you’re very strong, very proud. Very brave. How much are you able to endure without screaming in pain? As soon as he said this the paw that gripped her right arm, the one holding the knife, began to rotate slowly, forcing her arm to bend over. The forearm turned until stopping at the elbow joint, but he kept turning it. Lara let out a gasp of pain and her fingers, trembling and powerless, dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clink.
Tic-toc-tic-toc, Moloch hissed in her ear. You need to scream a little, darling, just a little. Beg me. Come on, you can’t take this. You don’t want your arm broken, do you?
The pain was horrible, unbearable. Lara turned her face and clenched her teeth - a feeling of horror and helplessness assaulted her and silently screamed Kurtis’ name, wishing he was there. Her joint reached the limit and a lash of pain ran through her again.
You scream and I let you go. Word of Moloch, Lord of the Incubi. Come on, darling, let’s hear you...
More pressure. And more. And more. Lara closed her eyes tightly and tried to escape to that, trying not to think about that, but she couldn’t - the pain had become the center of her being. She stifled a sob, held until the last moment - then Moloch, with a cruel smile, made a final sharp twist. Her left arm broke cleanly above the elbow.
Then Lara screamed as if that cry didn’t come out of the depths of her being - she thought it was someone else’s shrieking in such horrible way.
Tsk, tsk, tsk... too late. Moloch said. You humans are so fragile. With one tug he cast her down.
Lara fell on her broken arm. She screamed again. The pain was insane, it wouldn’t let her think. She thought she saw her arm in a horrible position, her elbow bent inward instead of outward as usual, but her vision was blurred. She inhaled air and fell back on the floor, panting.
He gave her no rest. She noticed a claw gripping her by the hair, forcing her to raise her head. The devil twisted and pulled Lara’s braid viciously, forcing her to look at him. Do you realize I’m serious, finally? Now let’s see how it goes now with your beautiful hair... you don’t want to be scalped, right? Would your pride go that far again?
Another pull made her eyes fill with tears. Besides she could glimpse Bathsheba’s figure, saying: “Enough, Moloch! This is not necessary!”
How, do you pity this bitch? Explain yourself.
Trying to ignore the pain, Lara fumbled with her good arm the left holster. Luckily, about handling weapons, she was ambidextrous.
“She’s to come alive to the Mother’s Throne. That’s the command, you know.”
Meh, this won’t kill her! I deserve some fun!
“You want the gift having such an unfortunate look when we deliver it to Her? Is that your way to worship the Goddess?
Moloch only worships Moloch! The monster hissed.
You, princess, you’re not even a shadow of your father - that one was a demon to be proud of!
Lara breathed heavily and counted to three. Then she moved with surprising speed, her strength born of desperation. With one tug, she released herself from Moloch’s paw, although so much of her hair was pulled, resting between the devil’s nails. She turned the gun and fired a rifle butt with all her might against the incubus’ mouth. She didn’t stop to look at how this shredded his teeth - she turned quickly and hit Bathsheba with a violent elbow hit of her good arm, then she went down towards the tunnel, running with all her soul, trying to overcome the excruciating pain of the broken arm she held against her chest. She ran until plunging into total darkness.
Lara paused, her heart pounding, and her hearing acute. She couldn’t hear anything – it looked like she’d not been followed, but she didn’t want to fool herself with that thought.
Suddenly, a violent stab of pain in her belly made her bend. She leaned against the wall, panting, and waited for it to disappear. She wanted to move on, but instead her legs failed and she collapsed on the floor.
That had been a contraction. She closed her eyes, exhausted, and curled up, hugging her good arm, whispering: “Not now, please, hold on, we can make it...” For the first time she spoke to the child she was carrying in her womb - Kurtis’ son, her own son. He’d survived until then, but he’d die right now - for if contractions went on, she’d have a miscarriage and bleed to death.
Maybe it’d be the best, provided the situation.
Lara buried her face in her good arm, trembling. She hated that feeling of helplessness and weakness as she’d never experienced before. She was more than afraid - totally terrified. She didn’t know where she was, she had no goal, at the mercy of violent and heinous beings, against whom her usual skills - cleverness, physical strength and firearms were completely useless. She was helpless, absolutely helpless.
Then she felt another contraction.
Unable to contain herself any longer, Lara began to mourn.
Day 30 in the Vortex. Part two.
His hand shook when writing it - then he dropped the pen and hid his face in his hands. “Oh Blessed Light,” Marcus the Wise sobbed, “help us...”
She heard them gathering around her, but she didn’t move. Her whole goal was focused on herself, on her inside, on keeping that child her battered body could no longer keep. So when Lara looked up at her executioners, she did it with a cold, emotionless glance. Her tears had already dried.
Moloch’s evil smile, now with a pair of fangs and many other broken detached, greeted her at first. But after him there were several incubi, and around them some others as much, maybe twenty. Bathsheba wasn’t seen anywhere.
Look at that face, Moloch said. Not that she looks quite broken, right?
I’d say she remains just as stubborn as before. We’ll have to punish her, added another incubus malevolently.
“What for?” Lara said, out loud and inexpressive.
Moloch smiled again. This is Hell, darling, what did you expect? You’ve come to learn the highest of lessons. Here you atone for your sins bitterly - and we’re your disciplinary staff. Also, I’ll love to make you bite the dust for that will make that Lux Veritatis suffer the most, that son of a bitch, even more than ripping his eyes off.
“Cowards.” Lara muttered. “Come here and get me, then!”
There was a hideous, multiple laughter which pierced her ears.
We sent a Golem after you, revealed one of the incubi, a Golem made with a recent corpse and the spirit of the human named Giacomo Sciarra, which easily accepted the deal. You beat him back then - but, can you beat all of us now?
Lara clenched her teeth. If she was going to die, it wouldn’t be without fighting - and if those nasty beings tried to rape her, she’d try everything against. So when they approached her, she lit a flare with her good arm and threw it against the first incubus. Fortunately, that horrible being’s oily skin burned immediately with the contact. The incubus howled and flapped its wings, spreading the fire to his companion. In the confusion, Lara took the chance to slip away, throwing a pair of flares over against those who tried to stop her. Soon, the incubi were a mass of moving torches. She already believed to have escaped when a paw grabbed her ankle and pulled her.
The fall was painful. Her mouth crashed into the rocky ground and split her lip. She coughed blood and spat on the ground a couple of teeth, but she was about to get up again when a powerful paw grabbed her head, lifted it into the air, then slammed it back into the ground. The shock was terrible - she felt her nose’s fragile bridge breaking with the impact, and then the world around her faded away.
Last thing she noticed, before passing out, was something gripping her ankle and dragging her across the floor, like a dead lamb.
Lara’s last thought was a desperate lament addressed to Kurtis.
May the Light have mercy on her, Marcus wrote. Then he picked up the book and started the slow descent toward the Mother’s Throne.