It feels completely surreal to finally be posting this, since I got the original idea for this story from a dream I had over •six• years ago. Yes, I am a ridiculously slow writer. But life also kept on getting in the way. Needless to say, it took me a heck of a lot of hard work and grind to finish this story and it would mean the world to me if people took the time to read and review! This story is already complete and will be posted in eight parts over the coming weeks, so no need to fret over the abdundance of evil cliffhangers to come, muhaha :D
As always characters do not belong to me. I must warn you that there will be lots of language, graphic violence and sex in this story, but what would be the fun if there wasn't? And although I did a heck of a lot of research I have yet to visit Prague myself, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in its depiction. Enjoy!
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.
This was not the England of her memory.
Lara missed the rolling hills and the sinking valleys cut into row after row of patchwork squares. All she saw now was the overcast sky, and the gentle specks of rainwater which gathered on the window only to fade away and leave behind her own blank expression. Lara Croft was not the woman she used to be; everything she once knew and loved had passed away. After Egypt every day, every hour had felt like a gamble, like death was stalking her from the shadows. But now she knew that her greatest danger came from within, for two years of her life may have passed but she was still in love with the darkness.
Early that morning she had returned home from that business in Prague to find the rain descending like some portent of impending doom. It only became worse as she climbed into a waiting cab outside Heathrow and pressed a wad of notes into the driver's outstretched hand. The wind was howling wildly as Lara stepped out of the rumbling taxi twenty minutes later and unfurled her umbrella against the lashing rain. The ties of her black mackintosh fluttered wildly as she slammed the door closed and made her way up the paved stone drive towards the forecourt of Croft Manor. There she found her memorial statue rising before her in the gloom, mocking her with its depiction of her past glories; rain hammered against the proud shoulders and outstretched stone pistols to collect in a churning deluge in the storm drains below.
The bright lights of the departing taxi washed over her as the vehicle turned around and sped away through the open gates of her estate. Lara stood motionless in the rain, her umbrella held high as she studied the stone figure towering before her. The howling wind sent the rain tumbling in horizontal waves and soaked her through before she had even reached her own front step. Her leather gloves were slick with water as she punched in her security code and pushed aside the door with a gentle creaking.
The entrance hall of Croft Manor was shrouded in darkness, save for the lightning which now snaked across the distant sky and illuminated the stained glass windows set high beneath the rafters. Lara's boots left a trail of mud and water upon the carpet as she approached the grand staircase; her dripping umbrella she left to dry in a Peruvian vase in the entrance foyer.
It did not take her long to reach her bedroom, peeling off her sodden mackintosh as she went and flinging it across the balcony railing. There she took the rusted key from underneath her pillow and opened up the locked cabinet beside her bed. Her fingers alighted upon the two-barrel shotgun bracketed to the wall of her weapons alcove.
Returning outside she loaded two cartridges into the chamber as the rain dripped down into her eyes. Blankly she read the words etched beneath the statue which had once served as her epitaph:
Once and Future Adventurer.
Lara took aim and blasted until the stone effigy of her face was a mere masquerade of chipped and blackened stone. The gunshots were lost beneath a distant rumble of thunder as the heavy storm passed over the Surrey countryside. She only ceased shooting when she ran out of ammunition. A few dozen bullets, however, would not destroy this statue built as a reminder of her own mortality. An hour later the removal company had arrived to pull it down, bit by bit, and haul it away until only the stone foundations remained.
As Lara stood there in the rain, her arms huddled tightly to her chest, she sensed someone approaching her. Her butler laid a warm hand upon her shoulder and implored her to come inside. His words were kind; they always had been, but whether from pity or concern she could not tell. It no longer mattered. He did not deserve to feel responsible for her anymore. She had cut ties with him long ago.
"I don't need you," Lara muttered, in a voice quite unlike her own. "Please go inside and gather up your things, Winston. Your services are no longer required."
She could not bear to meet his eyes as she said the words. Lara felt his hand tighten upon her shoulder for a second before slowly withdrawing. She expected him to protest or to insist that she seek some help, but he merely shook his head and said: "Goodbye, Ms. Croft. It has been a pleasure to work for you."
She remained frozen in the rain as Winston returned to the house to pack up his few belongings. About twenty minutes later he kissed her tenderly upon the cheek and bundled his suitcases into the back of a waiting taxi. Lara watched with detachment as the vehicle pulled out of her gates and disappeared into the gloom. The rain did not ease up as she stood there, contemplating her future. It began to pour down even harder. She bowed her head to stop it from running into her eyes as mascara cascaded down her cheeks.
When the lightning started again Lara finally gave up her pretense and slowly walked back inside. Left alone in her huge echoing mansion she collapsed at the foot of the stairs and began to cry.
And just like that Lara descended into a routine of lethargy and depression she had not experienced since Egypt. Day after day she rose at noon and stood barefoot at her window, staring out upon her unkempt grounds and ignoring the constant phone calls which echoed throughout the entrance foyer, whether from family, friends or the British press clamouring for an interview. Often she sat at the little desk in her library and flicked absently through Werner's notebook, studying the intricate sketches and the scattered snatches of notes which filled its pages. She found herself unable to close the book on that chapter of her life, and equally unable to move onto another.
Although Lara had sacked most of her remaining staff her life was not completely empty or directionless; there was a stack of potential missions piled upon her reading desk, awaiting her attention. She needed only to spin her globe and her finger would alight upon another artefact. Another discovery. Another payoff. Her vast fortune allowed her to turn down virtually every dig or expedition offer that crossed her desk over the next few months. She did not wish to face the wider world just yet. A spark was missing that she was not sure if she could ever get back.
Two years passed in such a languorous fashion. As her isolation became more and more acute Lara's career in academia stalled. Often the newspaper was her only point of contact with the outside world, but even when she did venture outside her estate dressed incognito it seemed to Lara as though the world was simply passing her by. One evening in late November she sat in her music room idly playing legato upon her dusty grand piano. A roll of athletic tape sat upon the stand in lieu of sheet music, and Lara interrupted her playing at intervals in order to wrap her fists with it. She knew that she had to do something in order to defeat her demons, but lately her only outlet had been through vigorous exercise. Perhaps a workout would help her to clear her head and make this day productive for a change.
With a sigh Lara raised her arms above her head and performed some stretches to relieve the tension in her shoulders. Then she carefully closed the piano lid and swung her legs out from beneath the stool, padding barefoot across the music room and out into the corridor. She was wearing nothing but a pair of blue drawstring pants and a white sports bra which clung to her ever-shrinking frame. As she entered her bedroom and threw her roll of athletic tape in the drawer by her bed she set up the next CD in rotation upon her sound system. Her rather battered punching bag was already hanging from a chain cinched to the low ceiling. Heavy bass began pounding from the speakers set about her bedroom.
It did not take her long to get lost in the rhythm. Soon she had entered that other plateau – the place where all of her troubles and frustrations were being projected outwards, and the beating of her heart was in perfect symmetry with the pounding of her fists. And then into her consciousness had come the unwelcome shrieking of the telephone.
Lara collapsed against the punching bag a quivering mess, her face a drastic shade of red. She had not realised how gruelling her routine had become, and it took her a moment to regain the strength in her legs. With a shaking hand she brushed away the hair which had come loose from her braid. Then she struck out and blasted the punching bag so hard that it came off its chain and slammed into the opposite wall.
Lara clutched desperately at her hair with both fists, staring down at the punching bag as she struggled to catch her breath. The cacophony of noise made her want to scream out loud in frustration, but instead she grabbed the remote and switched off the volume on her stereo system. The telephone's shrill ring was giving her a headache by the time she had navigated the clutter which adorned her bedroom floor and hauled the extension off the wall.
"Who is this?" she growled. She was in no mood for pleasantries.
Her heart caught in her throat.
"How did you get this number?"
The man on the other end laughed a little. The sound was strangely comforting.
"It wasn't too hard. I'm just surprised you're up at this hour."
"Yes, well…" Her reply was flustered. "I'm sure it's much later where you are. And I'd hate to keep you from your beauty sleep any longer. Lord knows you need it." She was about to hang up the phone and wrench it out of the wall for good measure, but then he simply laughed some more.
"You're not gonna hang up, Lara. You want to know why I called, don't you?"
She paused for a moment and cursed him under her breath. He was right and she knew it. Curiosity had always gotten the better of her.
"Well," she said, trying her utmost to regain control, "since I've explicitly told you to stop calling me and even changed my number I guess it would be useful to know when I file a police report." Her eyes flickered closed as she took a deep breath to calm herself. "So tell me: why did you call, Kurtis?"
"I wanted to see how you were doing."
"Me?" She gave a sarcastic laugh. "I'm doing just fine, thank you." Lara looked down at one of her ravaged fists and clenched it so hard that the blood began to flow down between her knuckles. "I've just been rehearsing what might happen at our next meeting."
He had that tone of self assurance in his voice that she hated and loved so much. Part of her was angry and heady with adrenaline, but into her mind, as always, crept that annoying little thought that maybe he could offer her something that she was missing.
"What do you want?" she growled.
Lara could imagine an inane grin spreading across his face.
"I need your help with something - it's to do with Prague."
"What to do with Prague?" Her tone was scathing.
"You got The Times?"
Lara rolled her eyes.
"…hang on." She put down the phone and hurried across the landing to the library without a second thought. It was almost midnight and the house was dark; her path was brightened only by the light of the moon as it threw long shadows at her feet. That morning's newspaper was still lying open upon her reading desk. Lara took up the extension on the wall and rubbed wearily at her tired eyes. "I have it. What am I looking for?"
"Turn to page 14. It's in the left column." Lara knelt down and spread the paper open on the floor, with the phone tucked up against her shoulder. "The part about the National Museum," he added. "It's only short."
Lara quickly found the article and read it aloud to herself:
"MYSTERIOUS CRYSTAL SHARDS TO GO ON DISPLAY IN PRAGUE.
After a two year investigation into the elusive Strahov complex in Prague many discoveries have come to light which have fascinated the scientific community. The latest find to be declassified and revealed to the public is a triad of mysterious shards fashioned from precious crystal. It has been speculated by some that these shards were once wielded in combat, although medieval historians have insisted that they were simply ceremonial and never intended for use upon the battlefield. Carbon dating has proved these artifacts to be well over nine centuries old.
"To quote Mr. Churchill," said Edgar Patel, a British academic who studied the find, "these shards are 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. So far we've failed to link them to any existing cultures. They appear to have simply fallen from the skies."
The three shards are now housed in the National Museum in Prague. A new exhibit showcasing them will be open to the public on Monday."
Lara sat back on her haunches. The last time she had seen the three Periapt Shards they had been embedded in the smoking corpse of Pieter Van Eckhardt, and that was where they had remained when Lara had fled the explosion which had destroyed the Cubiculum Nephili and half of the Strahov complex. They must have been made of stronger stuff than she had thought.
"How can that be?" she asked Kurtis, keeping her finger upon the article. "It wasn't much trouble for Von Croy, Carvier and Vasiley to dig up information about the Shards. What makes the National Museum any different?"
"Don't forget, they're still sorting through the messy crime scene that is the Strahov," said Kurtis. "It's taken them two years to release any finds, and they've been scrupulous as to what they will or will not disclose to the public. I don't think they want to admit the truth of what has been found in that place… The whole thing screams elaborate-government-cover-up to me."
"I suppose." She anxiously chewed at her lip. "So they've found the Shards...?"
"And I need to get them back."
"But why? Karel is dead. The Sleeper was destroyed. You don't even need them anymore."
"I'm the last of my order, Lara. And as much as it pains me to say it I've got a responsibility to keep these things safe, even if the Sleeper is gone. I need to be ready for anything."
"That's a good point," she said, measuring her words carefully. "But what on earth has this got to do with me, Kurtis?"
"Well…" There was a lengthy pause. "I need your help in getting them back."
"What?" Lara lowered her voice, as though she was ashamed that she had carried on the conversation for so long. Her resolve was fast crumbling. She entertained the thought of hanging up on him, but now that they had been talking for so long she found herself enchanted by the sound of his voice.
"I'm a demon hunter, Lara. I'm not a tomb raider."
"But this isn't a tomb."
"It still holds treasures, doesn't it? Just look at it as a tomb with air-conditioning."
Lara closed the paper and tossed it down upon the floor.
"And a high tech security system, no doubt."
"Don't worry about the security system, Lara. I can use my powers to disable it, but I need another pair of hands to take the Shards. I have to concentrate like a bitch just to keep the system offline long enough to create a window."
Lara was silent for a moment, cradling the phone against her shoulder. Slowly a disbelieving smile pulled at her lips.
"And of all the people in the world you could have phoned for help, you decided to choose me?" She laughed again. "I'm sure there are plenty of professional thieves out there, looking for work, Kurtis. Or better yet you could get one of your mercenary friends to help you out."
"That was a long time ago, Lara."
She tapped her fingers derisively upon the floor.
"Hmm, yes. I'm sure it was."
"Look, disapprove of me all you want, but I really need your help here. Why else would I phone you up out of the blue like this? And after everything that was said between us-"
"Don't," she pleaded, shaking her head. "Please don't, Kurtis."
"Right. Okay. I'm sorry, but you've gotta help me out here, Lara. I need to get those Shards back. My father passed them down to me. I have a duty to get them back."
His dead father.
Lara felt a pang of guilt as the thought struck her. Perhaps this had nothing to do with their relationship after all.
She switched the receiver to her other ear.
"I helped you find those Shards before, remember?"
"And this business won't be finished until I get them back. Please, Lara, they've been in my family for centuries. I don't want to leave them to rot in some Czech museum."
It took her a good while—along with a lot more cajoling from Kurtis—until Lara was forced into contemplative silence. Finally she uttered the words that he had been longing to hear:
"Fine," she said, almost in a whisper. "I'll help you, but this is the last time, Kurtis, I swear."
And with that his entire demeanour changed.
"Excellent!" Kurtis gave a laugh. "I knew I could talk you into it. Now pack your suitcase and get yourself to Heathrow. I've already reserved you a seat on the first flight to Prague tomorrow morning - all you need to do is show up."
And Kurtis hung up before Lara could yell at him.