“Dammit!” Furious, Kurtis slammed his fist against the hard rock. He only managed to skin his knuckles. Then he turned, helpless and put his hands to his aching head.
Maddalena looked with horror at the footprints left on the ground. Blood drops scattered here and there; Lara’s guns and a long knife abandoned, and worse - a mop of brown hair with bits of skin stuck to it. Kurtis took that lock of hair, which he recognized by touching and smelling it. “This is Moloch’s work.” He sentenced. “I should’ve killed him when I had the chance.” His voice was full of rage. He turned back to the wall, where the tunnel ended, and struck it again.
“Enough!” Maddalena shouted. “You’re hurting yourself!”
Blood ran down Kurtis’ arm, but he didn’t care. “This wall wasn’t here before.” He muttered. “They’ve put it there to prevent me from passing. So I can’t reach her.”
What outraged him was that Lara was in evident danger. He’d heard her screaming, calling him with total clarity. She’d been silenced and now he couldn’t hear her anymore, but he still could perceive her nearby. He struggled to control himself. He couldn’t pierce the rock with his fist.
“We gotta find another way.” The Lux Veritatis determined, and retreated to the tunnel’s exit. There was Giselle still constantly reaching, crawling, but he barely looked at her. He sat on the floor, crossed his legs and breathed deeply.
The redhead knelt beside him. “What are you doing?” She asked softly.
“Once, long ago,” he said, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible, “I lost Lara. She was kidnapped by the Cabal mercs and taken to Munich, where they wanted her to breed a new hybrid species with a Nephilim.”
“Dio mio!” Maddalena mumbled.
“I found her by using this. Hope it won’t fail me now.” He dropped his head on his chest. “This’ supposed to have improved...”
It had improved - and so much. The Light gathered around him as soon as he summoned the Gift. He saw it as something material, dancing around, spinning ever faster, and suddenly he found himself out of his body, becoming another particle of Light. That process didn’t hurt him, didn’t make him feel heavy nor exhausted as previously. He invoked Lara’s name and face and drifted. He crossed rock, fire and flesh, to reach her.
She was unconscious because of a brutal blow to the face, which had broken her nose and mouth. One of the incubi dragged her mercilessly by the leg, so her clothes and skin were being torn and peeled off as a result of friction against the rocky ground. The other incubi rushed through the tunnel, led by Moloch, who made them hurry with dry orders. The brutality of those beings, even though Kurtis already knew, shocked him - and the fury when seeing they were doing that to Lara, not able to fight back anymore.
The voice saying that, sweet and sad, disturbed him to the point of losing his vision. The incubi and their battered victim disappeared from his sight, and the Light redirected again toward a tall, slender and delicate figure in front of him. There was something familiar in her, even though he couldn’t have seen her ever in life. A tall, white woman, with long blond hair and a delicate expression on her face.
My benefactor. She wore a long white dress. She smiled sweetly at him. Do you remember me? We met through time and space. You helped me to execute my revenge. With the death of the last Nephilim, my shame was atoned. I am Loanna Von Skopf.
Yes, of course he’d recognized her. Kurtis wanted to say something but couldn’t speak, being at that time just a spark of the huge assembly of Light. Loanna smiled with beatific peace and then argued sadly: I’d like to help you, but I’m not allowed to intervene. Nobody will prevent me, however, from speaking to you. I want to say that Lara is already doomed, and you must not blame yourself for that. She followed you willingly, or rather because it was willing to happen that way. There are very powerful hands that are pulling the strings of your destiny, and you are no longer master of your own actions. Powerful and evil hands, not human - and therefore beyond your feelings. Every step you give is predicted, in fact, as has always been. You can’t prevent Lara’s death, and you’d better resign yourself to it, or you’ll doom yourself too, my benefactor.
Somewhere, the young Fighter heard a faint moan. Lara was waking. There were a couple of violent blows, and he heard her screaming.
Loanna approached. She was beautiful, free of sorrows and miseries that have afflicted her in life. Don’t listen to that! You’ll only be hurt. I’m not an evil spirit that seeks for you to forget your goal. You avenged me and now I’ll return the favor. Don’t let what you feel for her stand between you and your goal. You sacrificed your human eyes to behold the Light as no mortal has witnessed it before, and this has given you a power you’re still unable to appreciate. You’re now as powerful as them. You can destroy them. But if you just abandon yourself to the pain and despair caused by the torture and death of your partner, everything will be in vain - for you will die also.
She was asking too much for him. Dying was easier than that.
Loanna heard his thought, and smiled again. Moloch still doesn’t know what he did when he mutilated you. Now you can crush him, and so the hybrid Nephilim, if you want. They’re no rival for you. Oh, they’ve no idea in what position are you now! And you know what to do. Do it, and forget Lara and your child... they’re lost. Don’t let their death get you down, to destroy your strength. Instead, use that anger as a weapon against your enemies. Defeat them now and get this ancient war that has been without end over with.
And what if he was defeated? If he died too?
Loanna shook her beautiful head, shaking her blond hair. She spread his fingers and touched him gently, at some indeterminate point in his ethereal and luminous form.
Don’t fear death. Whatever it is, it will take you with Lara.
A snap awoke her. Lara opened her eyes and at first she couldn’t see anything, but suddenly, a blurred, immense form took shape in front of her - or rather over her, for she was lying on her back on a hard and high surface, and what she had just saw was a huge statue reaching the very distant ceiling of that place. Gradually the lights and shadows receded and she could focus on that.
Her blood froze in her veins when recognizing it. She’d never seen that before, but Kurtis did long ago, after the ectoplasm attack in that Syrian hotel - and now she recognized that for his description.
A huge throne, with a naked woman sitting on it. A stone statue whose majesty rivaled with that of the idols she’d come to see during her explorations. The statue wore a silver mask attached with the beautiful, expressionless face of a Greek goddess. The sculpture must have measured yards and meters, and weighed thousands of tons. A delicate, beautiful yet terrifying presence, which lacked only breath and movement.
“She’ll do it soon.” A voice said at her side.
Lara turned her face. At the foot of Lilith’s huge statue - for now she was aware this was Lilith - Bathsheba was standing still and radiant, holding in one hand a bowl in which an elongated blue flame was burning. In the other hand she held the Scepter. The British explorer quickly noticed she’d the three Periapt Shards in her belt, tight around the tattered remnants of her robe, and at her feet was the Periapt. The Nephilim was completely motionless, almost seeming a statue.
The sharp pain of Lara’s broken arm took her out of her thoughts. Twisting to look across almost made her pass out. She felt a dull pain in the face, her nostrils blocked, forcing her to breath through her mouth - and every breath was painful.
On the other side there were Moloch and his incubi. They seemed to be waiting for something or someone, and the Prince more than eager.
Lara tried to move again, but then she noticed her shackled hands and feet - shackled to what seemed... a kind of altar. “No!” She shouted. She tried to sit up, but the painful whip of the broken bone laid her back. “Not this way! Give me a weapon and I’ll fight!”
“You’ve no choice.” A sore and tired voice sentenced.
Lara turned her head sharply. A few steps away from the altar, looking towards the Goddess, the Wise was sitting on a rock. With an unhappy expression on his face, he held the O Onírikos Daimonion open on his knees, while the hand held the writing instrument. At each side he’d a manticore with the poisonous appendix pointing directly to his neck.
“Marcus!” Lara shouted.
If the old man tries to make the slightest movement, he’s dead. Moloch sentenced, satisfied. As if a bag of bones like him could do something. Among the incubi’s cruel laughter, their leader approached Lara, grabbed her by the hair and lifted her head to bring her ear to his fangs. He’s about to write your ending, darling. He hissed. We’ll inspire in him something well tragic and impressive, don’t you think?
Marcus turned his head, trying to hide his grief.
Lara briefly stared at her executioner. Then she licked her bloody lips and spat in his very face.
The demon released her head sharply, which struck the stone. I’m tired of her arrogance. The incubus muttered, turning towards Bathsheba. I’ll punish her now, whether you like it or not.
The Nephilim looked up, devastated. She found Lara’s censorious eyes, who even then didn’t asked for help. Bathsheba said: “I didn’t want to make you suffer, but he’s the executioner hand and wants to do it his way.”
“Go to hell!”
We’re already here, the beauty whispered quietly in response.
When Kurtis went back to his body, he was in Maddalena’s arms. She wasn’t looking at him but frowning, scrutinizing an unspecified location in front of them. Noticing his movement, she muttered under her breath: “That demon Giselle...has tried to approach when you were helpless, but I’ve driven her away.”
“Let’s move.” He said, getting up.
Still in front of him was the ethereal, luminous figure of Loanna, waiting patiently with her delicate hands clasped to her chest. Both the white dress she wore and the long blond hair were sparkling. Kurtis thought she looked like one of those elven maidens in northern tales. She can’t see me, said the lady, pointing Maddalena with her eyes, but it’s better this way. She already has enough on her own. Follow me, I’ll guide you to the Mother’s Throne. She’s ready to wake up.
“What do we do with her?” Maddalena said, referring to Giselle, whose rac-rac when dragging her body across the floor was heard next there.
“Guess we’ll have to let her be.”
Wise answer, Loanna smiled, as she turned and walked into the valley, even now, Giselle has a role to fulfil, for better or for worse.
At first, Lara struggled, despite the exhaustion and pain. But she was human and her strength reached a limit - and beyond that she was helpless. She experienced the bitterness of defeat and humiliation as never before, wondering how those beings could hate to such a point. She was surprised to find out that, after all, those demons were no different from humans. They assaulted and tortured just like the cruellest of human beings. It was disappointing and comforting at the same time - they couldn’t do more than that. And while the humiliation was worse than the physical pain, she fought back as she’d if her executioner was human – with dignity, resignation and as much indifference as she’d have in such terrible situation. Being no more than a helpless lump, like a straw man, not giving them the pleasure of hearing her moans. Swallowing tears, biting her own tongue. No more pride, just her despise.
A claw sunk in Lara’s jaw and violently lifted her head, forcing her to look at that nightmare face. Thousands of lights danced before her eyes, as a result of the stunning pain, but she distinguished perfectly the features of her tormentor: You see, smug mortal? You’re no different from any other scum. You’d thought you were special, right? You’d thought you were strong. But now you’re like everyone else. You’re now the most miserable. What did I say! You envy the most miserable now, right? For that miserable one is going to live, and you won’t. Moloch released her and she hit her head against the stone. The blow stunned her completely. Nevertheless, she still heard that voice, like a buzzing, swarming painfully in her ears, now saying...
“...or anything at all that you’ve taken all these years. You think you can just go anywhere and say ‘this is mine’? You think you can take what you please just because you’ve found it?” He laughed. “No, Lara Croft. Maybe you’ve done that so far...but this time it’s over. This time I’ll be the one to take you...my Amazon.”
Why was that voice, those words, so familiar to her? She’d already heard that before. Yes, a long time ago...
The nebula over her eyes cleared and saw a tilted, harmonious face, with regular features, a pale, blond man with cold blue eyes. Lara knew him, of course.
“Karel.” She gasped through her swollen lips.
He smiled cruelly. I’m here to witness your ending. I offered you the world, but you rejected and challenged me. You could have had it all, and now look what you’ve become. That’s what your pride has done to you, Amazon, by challenging our High Breed.
Lara closed her eyes. “You’re not real - just a trick of Moloch. You’re dead.”
And so you’ll be, darling, very soon...
The British explorer shook her head. She couldn’t imagine a single fiber of her body that wasn’t hurting, that wasn’t driving her crazy. The feeling of those claws manipulating, sullying, destroying her body was worse than any other pain in the world. “Enough. I give up. Kill me at once.”
You give up?
“This... bloody pride’s useless. Kill me. End this.”
Your lover’s coming. Don’t you want to see him? To relieve your pain before dying?
She squeezed her eyes tightly and turned her face. “You won’t use me as bait to catch him. That’s it. You win. Kill me now! Kill me!” Her voice rose to a scream, even though she hardly had the strength to scream. She contorted in a horrible way and shouted again: “Kill me!”
She opened her eyes. Two figures were leaning over her. What was it, another trick? Another mental torture, added to the physical one?
Lara... do you know us? Do you know who we are?
She recognized their faces, but she seemed to have known them centuries ago. One was an old man dressed in white, with pint glasses and an intellectual look. The other was a black woman, dressed colorfully and adorned with beads.
“Werner,” the British explorer murmured, smiling, and then said to the other, “Putai, is this an illusion?”
Child, don’t give up now, Von Croy said, grabbing her arm. His touch was surprisingly real, even though she knew he was dead, don’t give up, you’re close to victory!
What victory? Lara said, and laughed bitterly, you were right, Werner... this pride...
It’s me who made you like this, child. I’m sorry.
My sister, Putai exclaimed, bending over her, you must endure. You’re the Amazon and you must fulfil your mission, as you did once before.
“I can’t... you too were right, Putai... I can’t resist this... I’d rather die...”
Lara, call them now! The Bedouin woman shouted. Only you can!
Hold on, my child, it’s almost over, Werner said, and let her go.
The figures of her beloved ones vanished. Lara went back to reality and pain. Through the haze that dulled her mind, she clearly heard Bathsheba saying: “It’s about time.”
Marcus watched, mesmerized, how the valuable Sibilla’s book slipped from his knees and fell to the ground. It didn’t matter anymore - the horror of what he’d just witnessed exceeded everything else. One after another, or several at once, those abominations had brutalized Lara several times, as many as they wanted. The old Healer had lost count. Perhaps she’d have endured torture, but not abuse. It was shameful, absolutely shameful - the height of sadism and abomination. And Bathseba had witnessed that too - while doing nothing to stop it.
And now the beautiful Nephilim, wielding a Periapt Shard in hand, without her arm trembling the slightest, had opened Lara’s belly while still alive, while still screaming and asking to be killed, and had ripped out...
Marcus stood up, trembling, ignoring the manticores that bristled their stingers to see him move. He held out his arm and shrieked: “I curse you, Bathsheba!”
The beauty turned slowly. She was soaked in blood - her arms, chest and belly. Lara’s blood. In her hands she held a small, gelatinous bundle, which filled him with horror and revulsion. “Curse you!” The old Lux Veritatis screamed again, outraged. “Cursed be the father who bred you and the mother who gave birth to you! Cursed be your indifference and your coldness! Cursed your cruelty and your black heart! Curse you, Nephilim! May the Light give you a long and bitter doom, you unholy one, for the atrocity you just committed!”
Bathsheba wasn’t listening - slowly, gently, she rose, carrying her macabre trophy. She went to face the immense Lilith and presented her offering: “Here you have, Holy Mother, as you asked me...”
Marcus moved up and stumbled toward the bloodied altar. Neither the incubi nor the manticores, nor the rest of demons who suddenly began to gather, waiting in the room, tried to prevent it, as they were interested in watching the ritual.
The old man slipped on the steps, splattered in blood, and arrived awkwardly on the edge of the altar. He stared at Lara’s broken, butchered body, and tore his hair in despair, not realizing he was smearing in her blood: “Oh dear, I failed you... forgive me, forgive me...!”
Hearing the hesitant, bloodless words, the old Healer looked at her and noticed horrified she was still alive. The bloody knife was still at the foot of the altar, where Bathsheba had left it. But he was unable to finish her. No, he couldn’t...
He leaned over her. She was close to death, her skin gray and her lips ashen - and he couldn’t even ease her suffering.
Lara moved again her lips.
“Tell me, child!” Marcus whimpered, and bent the ear to stick it to her mouth.
The voice came out weak and breathy. “T... P... t...”
“What? I can’t hear you, child!” Holy Light, have mercy and take her away!
“The ... Per... pt...”
“Child, I need you to speak more clearly, try it!”
Lara’s face turned towards Lilith’s statue, and again uttered that incongruous syllable.
Suddenly, Marcus noticed what she was pointing out. “The Periapt! You want the Periapt!”
He looked around nervously. Each time there were more demons, of different species, as he’d never seen, crowding the place. But no one was watching at him - everyone looked to the Mother, awaiting Her awakening.
The Lux Veritatis ran to the stairs and took the Periapt, then returned to Lara, but she had no strength to lift an arm, so he approached it to her lips - for suddenly, as an inspiration, he came just to understand what was Lara Croft’s last will.
The British explorer moved her lips softly, staining the engraving the area with blood. But twice she stopped, breathless. Her head fell back and her eyes rolled upward, staying blank.
“I’ll help you, child, but it’s you who must say it!” Marcus slid his wiry hand under the woman’s neck and lifted her head.
The last words came in a faint whisper... “An... ge... Is...”
On the heights, Bathsheba had opened a gap, by way of mouth, in the mask of the Goddess, using another Periapt Shard, which cut everything. After that, she introduced the bloody offering in the statue’s mouth.
“He... ar... my... voice...”
There was deep silence. Bathsheba folded her hands and exclaimed: “Wake up, Mother! Come back to us!”
Lara breathed for the last time. “... the... Amazon... is calling you!”
A tremendous tremor began to shake the Vortex’s foundations. At first it was a faint buzz, which grew monstrously at an impact speed. Large chunks of stone fell from the ceiling. Demons shrank in terror - only Bathsheba remained impassive.
The mask was broken. Slowly, and endless bunch of cracks spread over the surface of the statue, leaving glowing traces. The whole statue suffered and seemed to vibrate, to move, because the asleep creature for centuries in lethargy, dreaming of the day of vengeance, had awakened.
Lilith came back.
“Blessed Light... child, she’s awakened her!”
But Lara couldn’t hear Marcus’ words anymore. He looked at her and uttered a cry. Trembling, he gently rested her head on the hard stone and closed her eyes.