Lara opened her eyes and stretched. At the foot of her bed was Winston, solicitous, offering a cordless phone on a tray. The woman sat up lazily, picked up the phone and then the butler told her: “It’s Professor Ivanoff from Romania, miss. I was unable to locate him until now.”
“Thank you...Ivanoff! We have to talk about the Shard...!”
“No, dear.” She heard the professor’s voice. “I’m the one who brings bad news. Meteora’s monks told me you still don’t know about it.”
Lara frowned. “About what?”
“The Periapt has been stolen.”
The explorer sat bolt upright, completely awake now. “What...??”
“Yes, it happened two days ago. And Nikos Kavafis, who’s the new hegumenos since Axiotis died some months ago, is suffering.... a strange ailment. The monks believe he’s possessed.”
“Dammit, Vlad! Yesterday some kind of art dealer tried to buy the Shard!”
“But it was forbidden even to talk about it!”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, you dummy! Have you told anyone? Selma swears she knows nothing!”
“Meeeee? Look darling, if the last Lux Veritatis commands Vladimir Ivanoff to shut up about it, he will shut up, okay?”
She believed him. The Romanian professor had a respect for Kurtis bordering on panic due to the events that happened at Bran castle two years before.
Lara jumped up and began pacing around her bedroom like a caged animal, while the edge of her nightgown twirled around her ankles. “It’s too coincidental! The Periapt disappears and someone wants to buy a Shard! And neither of those two artefacts were known to the public domain! Do you understand?”
“What about Mr. Yves?”
“For heaven’s sake, Ivanoff! I’d entrust Jean with my bank account key!”
“Do you want me to go to Meteora? I’ve to give a lecture in Athens and it wouldn’t take too much...”
“Wait, let me go. I need to know in situ what happened.” She said goodbye and hung up hastily. Winston was already next to her, attentive as ever. “From now on Selma and Charles will stay here.”
“Miss Al-Jazeera was spending a few days with the Indian girl...”
“No matter. Let them come here too. And tell Selma to bring the Periapt Shard she keeps, wherever it is, and leave it here.”
“Wouldn’t be dangerous to reunite them? If the lady you see at the party was looking for one, maybe she’d want the other one...”
Lara frowned. Winston was clever and sensible. “We must take the risk. It may be worse to keep them scattered. I’m going to install an addition to the manor security system. If the Periapt had been stolen from a dusty crypt in an isolated monastery, they may also try to steal from here. Bloody monks! They don’t know to take care of what’s theirs! Why did I leave the Periapt there!”
“I’m going to Meteora. Now. I need to know what happened and what’s wrong with Kavafis.”
Marie looked up when she heard the distinctive roar of the motorbike. She turned to the visitor and whispered: “It’s him.” And left the porch to greet him. “Oh, Kurtis!”
He limped slightly in the courtyard. Although he’d washed off the traces of blood, his face was covered in scratches and his clothing was still torn. “Just a bad day.” He joked. Then he frowned at seeing the dark figure appearing behind his mother. “What are you doing here?”
The monk nodded. “I’ve been sent by my brothers in Meteora. It’s…it’s urgent you follow me.”
“Can’t he even have a rest?” Asked Marie. “He’s hurt!”
“It’s nothing.” He said, and turned to the monk. “What happened?”
The cenobite crossed his arms and hid his hands in the sleeves. “Our hegumenos was attacked by an evil creature and we believe he’s possessed.”
“What evil creature?” Kurtis took a bucket of water and dropped it on his head. He immediately felt the sharp sting on his face wounds. He tossed his hair back and buried his face in a towel.
“It was a woman.”
Marie snorted and laughed. “C’mon, Pancratios! A woman is not an evil creature.”
“She looked like a woman.”
“Much better.” Kurtis pointed out. “Is that all?”
“We’ve bad news. The Periapt has been stolen.”
Kurtis whirled: “Stolen? Are you a bunch of idiots or something?”
“Kurtis!” Said the woman, shocked, but he continued. “You’re supposed to be its ancestral keepers. I’d have done better sending it back to Loanna’s tomb. A dead woman was more efficient than a whole community of living monks!”
Pancratios said, visibly upset: “We’re not warriors like you. If someone takes from us something by force, we can’t defend ourselves. We have people like you for that very purpose. And now we ask you to help us.”
He raised his hands helplessly and said: “Okay. I’ll go.”
Lara sat on the rock and looked up. Ayios Stefanos gazed proudly at her from its location at the top of the huge rock. She’d planned to go and take a look, but she didn’t want to be discovered. The monks were very unfriendly and inhospitable to women. Lara didn’t really care about the attitude, but she wanted to investigate on her own without being disturbed - and that’s why she hadn’t announced her arrival and had no intention of doing so.
“Well, here we go.” She muttered, and began to climb the cliff.
Getting up took her about twenty minutes. She collapsed at the entrance of the monastery, her body drenched in sweat and her heart pounding in her chest. She pulled a black robe out, prepared for the occasion, and put it on. The rim of the fabric covered her boots and a hood concealed her face. She hid her hands in long sleeves, after removing her leather gloves, and went into the monastery quietly.
Ayios Stefanos was as quiet and peaceful as it had always been. The British explorer walked the corridors; exchanging a brief nod to each monk she crossed paths with. Some of them turned, surprised, since they didn’t remember having such a tall partner, but they didn’t bother with it.
Suddenly, a young novice came to her and grabbed her arm, startling her. “Brother!” He whispered. “Come on! He already arrived and he’s with the patéras.”
Of course, she’d no idea who’d arrived, but she quickly followed the novice. They arrived in a large room cleared of furniture, where half the community had gathered, crowded and restless. Among the tangle of dark robes Lara distinguished, in their midst, the hegumenos Nikos Kavafis. He seemed consumed and wasted, his red eyes bulging from their sockets, blood over his face - and suddenly Lara noticed, seeing him tied, it had been him who’d harmed himself.
Suddenly a deep voice thundered in the room: “What have you done?”
Lara felt her heart rising to her throat and her legs almost buckled - it was the last voice she’d expected to hear again. She remained stiffened and breathless.
A man entered the room and walked passing by her side. She instinctively drew back, while the sweat froze on her skin. Kurtis... Kurtis!
The Lux Veritatis walked to the centre of the room and looked at the hegumenos. Nikos seemed inhuman, almost an animal, but that didn’t seem to frighten him. He turned sharply to the others, furious: “Why do you have him tied up like a dog?”
The ecclesiarch came forward and said: “It’s for your safety...and ours. Satan has dwelt in him for days and he doesn’t recognize anything or anyone. He’s scratched his own face, cut himself, he’s attacked many brothers and even tried to jump from the top of this rock. He drools and spits and he’s always uttering blasphemous words, for it is the devil who speaks through his mouth.”
Kurtis moved closer to the hegumenos, while all recoiled in terror. “Can you hear me, Nikos?” Kurtis muttered staring at him.
A gruesome laughter sprang from the skinned hegumenos’s lips. Lara held back a gasp. That voice wasn’t the same one the both of them knew. Instead, a hoarse, guttural, distorted voice admonished Kurtis: “I hear you perfectly, you son of a bitch...magnam umbram et mortem spectare tui...have you come to know, right? Ergo auscultare mei, Lux Veritatis...your days are going to end very soon...both for you and that harlot hiding there...”
Lara couldn’t believe her ears. The terrifying voice, that unnatural mixture of Latin and Greek, and the fact he could see her was incomprehensible. But Kurtis didn’t seem to notice that and continued: “Who are you?”
“Ego sum tenebram princeps, with more class and purity than you, mortal bastard.”
“Let me talk to Nikos Kavafis.”
“He’s wasted. He dared to put his filthy hands on the Divine Lady, and She sent me to punish him. But this punishment is little compared to what awaits you, meretrix filium.”
“Who’s the Lady?”
“She’s the one that was to come, Lilith’s Daughter, Lady of all demons. In her veins flows the blood of the Immortals and has come to avenge the Blessed. Beware of her aura, maggot, while you can.”
During that interval, some monks, unable to endure that voice, had dropped to the ground and others had left. Most of them were fingering the beads of their rosaries and murmuring prayers between moans, crossing themselves without stopping.
Kurtis sighed with exhaustion, as if tired of that interview, or as if he’d seen things like that hundreds of times. “If you don’t let me talk with the hegumenos, I’ll force you to go.”
For a moment, the creature dwelling in Nikos narrowed his eyes. Then, without more, spat on Kurtis’ face and released another monstrous laugh. That apparently ended the man’s patience, who turned loose to the rest of the group: “Get outta here!”
The monks weren’t willing to do anything else, but Lara didn’t want to leave the compound, although her heart beat violently at that scene. Taking advantage of the buzz of monks who left hurriedly, she slid down the wall and crouched in a corner. Kurtis stood alone with Nikos and the ecclesiarch, who seemed to be braver than the rest.
But the Lux Veritatis paid no attention to that, focused on his task - and suddenly reached out and drew a strange symbol in the air before the hegumenos’ eyes, who screamed in a heartbreaking way, fell down and began to writhe as if rolling over coals.
Lara wasn’t ready for that, for she had never seen such a horrible thing. She remembered the stories that Father Dunstan had told her about demons and exorcisms, stories which she’d always mocked, and bit her lower lip to contain a gasp again.
“You’re killing him!” Said the startled ecclesiarch, clutching his rosary tightly between his fingers.
“Hopefully not.” Murmured Kurtis, who had on his face an expression of deep sadness and guilt.
Suddenly, the hegumenos left squirming. Kurtis leaned forward and said: “You gonna let me talk to him now?”
Then, after a final evil grin, the monk’s face regained his human composure. He looked around briefly, deeply stunned, and then released a rant in an unintelligible language, which wasn’t Greek or Latin, as complex as it was creepy, abrupt, and icy. The ecclesiarch shivered, and from the depths of her hood Lara saw Kurtis’ eyebrows rising in surprise. But then he answered to him in the same language! The hegumenos seemed relieved that someone finally could understand him. After an exchange of incomprehensible phrases, Kurtis turned to the ecclesiarch and said: “She’s really made a mess of things, that Lady.”
When Kurtis looked in her direction, Lara lowered her head to avoid being recognized. Jesus! Among all the mortal enemies and friends, relatives and acquaintances, it had to be him! She folded her arms to hide her trembling hands. Dammit! He was the last person she expected to find, and now he was about to derail her plans to go unnoticed – even if she’d been the one to not leave with the other monks.
But then the ecclesiarch spoke: “Has he been released?”
“The demon’s gone for now. But I can’t keep it from going back. Also, whoever he was talking about has put a curse of Babel language over him.” The other looked at him dumbfounded. Kurtis said: “Means that he’s actually speaking Greek, or so he thinks, but we don’t understand him. And conversely, we believe to be talking in Greek to him, but he doesn’t understand us.”
“Witchcraft! And you also speak that language?”
“I do not speak it, but it would appear like that.” And seeing the ecclesiarch’s stunned expression, Kurtis shook his head. “Nevermind. It’s a Babel language curse. It has confused us all.”
“Can you heal him?”
Kurtis looked back to the hegumenos, who was looking away and began to experience spasms in the face. Lara had the horrible feeling that the demon was trying to get back. “There’s nothing I can do.”
The ecclesiarch looked at him, shocked, and said: “But she said only you could save him! The woman who attacked him and stole the Periapt!”
Then Nikos rolled his eyes and emitted a guttural roar: “Bat…hsheeee...ba....”
Kurtis looked at him a moment and said: “Bathsheba. He said Bathsheba.”
This time Lara couldn’t contain a surprised gasp. The man turned back to her but once again the ecclesiarch caught his attention: “I don’t know if that was her name. But she was wonderfully beautiful - like a witch! She took the Periapt and cursed our hegumenos before disappearing.”
“What else did she say?”
“Only that you’ll heal him. That you killed her father and that your fight wasn’t over.”
Lara couldn’t get over her astonishment. Slowly she rose and separated from the wall. Kurtis had fallen into a mournful silence. “Better to leave him locked up and well-guarded. The demon could return.”
“Is it impossible to heal him?”
“I can only expel the demon, but he’ll be back. I can’t heal the curse, I’m not a Healer. If she said that, she was wrong.”
Lara slowly slipped out the door. By the time her hand gripped the knob, she heard Kurtis yelling: “You, don’t move! Show me your face!”
Lara was stunned for a moment – then she opened the door with a jerk and ran down the aisle, while holding the hood on her head. Kurtis went after her but he quickly lost her. What a runner! He looked to where she had fled and ran towards the inner yard. He ran down the hall and opened a door leading to the outside by the fountain. He accelerated to full speed and caught her just as she left through the archway.
He didn’t give her time to react - pouncing on the fugitive and flinging her to the ground. She let out a cry of rage, but Kurtis, astride her, felt shocked. Was it his imagination or was it a woman’s scream?
She took advantage of the moment to push him and try to get up. He grabbed her hood and pulled and tore up and down the fine fabric to discover Lara’s furious face, with flushed cheeks and tousled hair.
For a moment, Kurtis looked at her totally stunned, like he couldn’t believe his eyes. His expression was so funny that Lara couldn’t help smirking and saying: “Well? What would you do now, Kurtis Trent? Arrest me for spying?”
He was still shocked. Eventually he managed to articulate in a hoarse voice: “Lara...”
She pushed him away - since he was still half lying on her, and stood up gracefully. Kurtis stared at her in silence, amazed at how little she’d changed - same glowing face, same lean and flexible body, same vibrant spirit, so charming and yet challenging. “Why did you do that?” He said then.
“Enter the monastery like a spy. You know something about this Bathsheba, right?”
“Why are you hiding, Lara?” He insisted.
She narrowed her eyes and snapped: “Maybe I didn’t want anyone to see me.”
He sighed and ran his hand across his face, exhausted. Now that she was close, Lara saw he’d changed. Those two years had been like a breath for Lara and an eternity for Kurtis. They had left Lara intact, while they had beaten Kurtis head-on. He looked older, more tired, despite he was four years younger than Lara. His eyes were sunken; his shoulders tense and seemed to be full of grief and exhaustion. However, he was still undoubtedly good-looking, and his deep blue eyes were shining in the same way, and not a single grey broke the intense darkness of his hair.
Then she realized she’d spent a while staring at him in silence, and quickly looked away as she said: “Ivanoff told me that the Periapt had been stolen and so I wanted to know what had happened, but without these monks intruding in my path. That’s all.” She concluded upset, wondering why she felt compelled to give him some explanation.
“I’d have liked you to stay away from all this.” He murmured more to himself than to her. “But you’ve heard about this Bathsheba, judging by your reaction. What do you know about her?”
A ray of sunlight slipped between the thick cloud cover which for some time had covered the valley. The light struck Lara’s hair and gave it a golden glow. “Three days ago I met at a party an art dealer named Bathsheba. It’s not a very common name and the description fits, so she must be the same person who has stolen the Periapt, because she offered to buy the Shard.”
Kurtis looked at her, again stunned. “Dammit, Lara!” He shouted. Something in his reaction made Lara think that, if being close to a door, he’d have made it explode. “I trusted you!”
“Don’t you dare accuse me.” She said coldly. “Neither Selma nor I have betrayed the Shards’ existence. Therefore, there’s only one person.”
“My mother,” he went on, furious, “lives alone and isolated for years and she talks to nobody but me. In fact, she’s the most trustworthy.”
Lara struck him with her eyes: “I’m not staying here to take your crap.” She turned, but then noticed Kurtis’ hand grabbing her arm. She held an involuntary shudder.
“I’m not accusing you, Lara. I just...well, fuck this. That’s not what I want to talk about right now.”
Lara felt her hands trembling and her face burning. She’d imagined their reencounter a thousand times, but the proud and defiant statements she’d prepared for the occasion disappeared from her memory. She only felt that warm hand resting on her arm and those deep eyes penetrating her. Her heart was beating in her chest like a drum and that made her feel furious with herself. What the hell happened? She was losing control!
“I have to go.” She murmured, loosen her from his hand. “I’ve nothing else to do here.”
He cut her way off and looked at her ahead. “Wait, Lara. We need to talk.”
She smiled slightly and said: “I didn’t recall you being that diplomatic. In any case, I don’t think you and I have anything to talk about.”
“It’s been two years.” She added with a tone that brooked no argument. “And a lot of things have changed, Kurtis. Better to leave things as they are.” She turned and headed toward the precipice edge. For a moment she thought he wouldn’t add anything more, but then heard him saying: “You should return the Shard to me, ok? After all, it’s still mine.”
Lara froze - she hadn’t counted on that. “Within two days, come to Surrey.” She said, feeling like it wasn’t her who spoke. “I’ll give you the Shard and then you’ll leave.”
She started down the cliff quickly. However, when looking up after a while, she noticed he was still standing there at the edge, staring at her in silence. And what she read in his eyes almost make her lose her grip. So she gripped the stone with slippery hands, and she didn’t look up again.