© Jennifer R. Milward 2009
This story is a work of fiction. Lara Croft, her likeness, and the Tomb Raider games are all copyright of EIDOS Interactive. There is no challenge to these copyrights intended by this story, as it is a non-sanctioned, unofficial work of the author's own.
Into The Labyrinth
Impatiently, sucking my bleeding knuckles, I tossed the broken handle aside and put my whole weight against the door. By degrees, fighting centuries of rust and woodworm, my efforts forced it back far enough to squeeze through and out of the freezing rain.
My teeth were chattering as I looked about, eyes adjusting for the atrocious gloom. What a dump! When Father Patrick had told me to meet him at the chapel, I'd imagined something grander than this. It was little more than a barn, with pews standing haphazardly between mould-streaked pillars. The rafters creaked to the storm's spiteful rhythm, and from everywhere came the steady drip-drip-drip as the roof leaked. Occasionally a lonely wind would blast through the arrow-slit windows, shrieking like a living thing.
I'd seen Celtic-style churches before, but nothing this neglected. Nobody had been here for years, I was sure. Here and there the walls were soiled with bird droppings, dried to a powdery white. The air was clammy, despite the cold; cloying with the reek of decay. I tiptoed through the filth of rotten rushes and straw, wrinkling my nose at the patches of darkness-loving fungi that had sprouted across the pews with macabre abandon, as splotches of rancid yellow, or slabs of corpse-dry meat, leathery and ghoulish. A sprinkling of gritty lichens besmirched the knot work carvings and animals galloping across the stone; images of deer and serpents, knights and saints, entwined with the very fabric of the building. It must have been a sight, long ago, but now all was crumbling, ruined and forgotten.
Unconsciously I folded my arms, tucking in my hands to keep them warm. I'd not expected to be here at all, otherwise I would have worn something more sensible than shorts and a T-shirt. My ears twitched at every noise. I wished I still had my torch, but it had spluttered and died moments after I'd left the gallows tree. A shiver of revulsion thrilled in my belly as I remembered the heart I'd found, shrunken with age yet curiously heavy, as though malevolence had taken the place of blood.
Had I really done the right thing by returning it?
A rat scurried across my boots, making me jump. Wretched things! I darted out of my private puddle, wringing the rain from my hair, when the flesh of my neck rose to a creeping chill.
Something was behind me.
I looked round, and Death advanced.
My legs backpedalled, pressing me against the far wall as the thing bore down; a seven-foot figure gasping through the remains of its teeth, draped in a cowl of cobweb black. It clasped with skeletal claws, drawing rattling breaths as though scenting the hot gushing of my blood. Unarmed I shrank back, eyes stretched open, stifling a scream. My lips grew dry, forehead prickling with fear as the ghoul floated closer, its coldness all-consuming… and passed straight by without so much as a glance.
Stupefied, I watched the apparition glide away and through an iron gate; not an open doorway, but a locked, undeniably solid wrought-iron gate into an adjoining chamber.
Trembling, warmed by the fires of curiosity, I stole close enough to peer through, hardly daring to breathe.
Me? Scared? Pur-leese.
The ghost – what else could it be? – had paused. His attention (for the sunken features could only have belonged to a man) seemed riveted on a great slab of granite, upon which lay skeletal remains clutching a notched sword to its rib cage. I squinted, trying to make sense of the inscriptions carved on the tomb, but they were too badly weathered to understand.
You must appreciate that, now my initial shock had passed, I was fascinated. I'd felt something possessing this island from the moment I'd eavesdropped on Father Patrick and Winston, from the moment I'd laid eyes on the gallows tree and been visited by the lost soul hanging from its branches. Some incredible mystery hung over this place as thick as the mists that veiled its shores. And no amount of floating nightdresses, however ghastly, were going to stop me from learning what it was.
Delicately, the ghost leaned over and seemed to contemplate the body, uttering sibilant whispers as if in prayer. The air vibrated but I heard nothing more than a soft sighing, as though even the ghost's voice had been reduced to mere spirit. Its scrawny hands gestured and clutched at the bones, until at last it reached down and plucked something from its breast.
Vermin squeaked, horribly close. I lashed out, cursing as the scampering died away. By the time I looked back the ghost was tucking something into the folds of its robes. I practically groaned in disappointment as it began to fade and strode through the wall as though the stone and mortar simply didn't exist.
What the devil had it found?
I exhaled, feeling even more alone than before. Father Patrick might have known what was happening, but he wasn't here. The ice of apprehension slipped down my spine, trickling cold anxiety. I bit my lip as I wandered between the pews, hoping he hadn't run afoul of anything worse than the ghost.
Unlikely, but possible.
There was a font at the far end of the church, its marble bowl clogged with old webs. I peered in, not expecting to find anything, but something hidden in its depths caught my eye. Excitedly, I pulled out a blackened iron key - the same design as that fashioned into the locked gate.
Perhaps this would open it! I thought eagerly, clutching it tight. Yes! I could follow the ghost, and get some answers of my own! No need to wait for Father Patrick…
Flush with triumph, I turned.
A dozen floating skeletons, spectral swords gleaming, filled the church. As one being they turned, and a dozen pairs of sightless eyes focused on me, flaring demonic scarlet.
With great difficulty,I swallowed the terror suddenly frothing in my stomach.
Well… I thought.That complicates things.