If only it could always be like this.
She lazily scissored her legs from the hip, and felt her body glide forward through the water.
In addition to the weight of her dive gear, she had a good ten pounds of lead strapped around her waist and shoved into the pockets of her buoyancy compensator. Here, though, the burden seemed meaningless.
Her every movement was effortless.
Mountains would remain her first love, but there she was always cognisant of the strain on her body – the way her quads started to quiver, the icy rawness in her throat echoing the sensation in her fingertips, and the realisation that no matter how deeply she inhaled, she wasn't getting the oxygen she craved. At some point her physical strength would be utterly depleted and she'd have to switch to mental reserves to complete the ascent.
By contrast, on the ocean bottom she felt free of her skin.
Free of everything.
She rolled onto her back and looked up at the water's surface. She wasn't actually that deep – swimming along at a depth of maybe 65 feet – but it seemed like she was contemplating the ceiling of a completely different world.
Down here she felt completely disconnected from Man's domain, and its myriad of problems.
It was liberating.
There was a reason that so many cultures described underwater utopias in their folk tales; why figures like Urashima Taro lived so happily with magical sea folk. It was supreme wish fulfilment for anyone hankering after escape from their terrestrial lives. Troubles, much like physical weight, were largely irrelevant in this setting.
Why wouldn't sailors leap in? You didn't even need a buxom mermaid to make it enticing.
Though that inclusion certainly wouldn't hurt.
Smiling around her mouthpiece, she flipped once more onto her stomach and focused on the seabed. She was supposed to be concentrating – scanning the algae-coated rocks and coral for jarring, man-made shapes – but it was so easy to let her mind wander. Easier than in the shower, or those evenings she set herself up, Merlot in hand, in Croft Manor's vast library.
She was aware of the danger down here. Even if you weren't drunk with nitrogen narcosis, it was possible to lose all sense of self-preservation in the blanket of blue.
Seductive. Suicidally hypnotic.
Pondering this point at least reminded her to check the dive computer strapped to her wrist. Conditions were ideal: no currents to battle; water so warm so she could get away with wearing only a shorty. Combined with other factors – her supreme relaxation for one – it meant that her air supply was lasting longer than expected. Without pushing it, she still had a good hour left to entertain her lotus-eating wants.
To stay here forever…
That would be nice.
On or under it, water was an element she'd been supremely comfortable in her entire life. Even though it smothered senses that made the millisecond difference between life and death, she still felt at home in it. Hell, she'd even lost her virginity on the S.S. Endurance a few weeks short of her twentieth birthday.
And the older she'd grown, the more she prized the sea for the solitude it provided.
Because Lara Croft wasn't a people's person.
She studied the best and worst of human achievement through history. As over-dramatic as it sounded, she routinely saved the world. But she didn't have any particular faith in her species.
It was about more than the professional whispers behind her back, or the Daily Mail's insistence on snapping stuffed-face pics of her every time she visited Nando's post-expedition.
Lara had never been a team player. She'd preferred solo pursuits since childhood.
Looking back, it seemed she had always been apart. Even before she was branded with the othering status of orphan.
Sure, in adulthood she had many associates who'd metamorphosed into friends. She cared for them; there was very little she wouldn't do to help them if they were in distress. Truthfully, though, she didn't let any of them in. Not anymore. If they were butterflies fluttering about fresh out of chrysalis, she stood behind netting.
Physically available; emotionally aloof.
She was someone who would breeze into a party, entertain her circle of companions with a few choice phrases that demonstrated her cool wit, and then slip out the back door when no one was looking.
She lived without goodbyes.
It was better that way for everyone, or so she insisted.
Too many people had been hurt through association with her. Over half a decade later, Reyes's words still stung.
Seems anyone caught with you has a pretty low survival rate.
The surly ex-cop had made it off the island of course. But there was no denying the pain Lara had brought others, and continued to bring others, even after that blasted island.
Sam and Jonah were the most prominent in that regard: Yamatai survivors who had suffered because of her. It was no coincidence that they were the last people she really let into her heart.
But then there were all the others too: acquaintances sucked into misfortune when they simply passed a little too close to her.
She was Charybdis in human form.
Lara had encountered enough inexplicable supernatural entities over the years to accept their existence as fact. Believing in good and bad luck totems was a harder sell. But as much as she'd never admit it out loud, she had for some time theorised that her life was charmed.
At some point, perhaps even before her birth, a deal had been struck. It was a Faustian arrangement, or something out of a Black Forest fairy tale. She dodged death's grasping fingers repeatedly, accomplishing the impossible in the process. The trade-off was that everything she evaded would score a direct hit on those she herself touched.
Get within a certain radius of Lara Croft and danger – at best – or tragedy – at worst – was the result.
It made relationships impossible. Apart from Sam, human connection had never been a priority for her, but now she treated the desire for companionship as an itch to be dismissed with a few scratches. A couple of nights spent spooning with another warm human body was all she could realistically permit.
It was silly and embarrassingly superstitious, but she found herself keeping her distance as much as possible to keep everyone safe.
Everyone, including herself.
She reasoned that when enough people betray and-or try to kill you, distrust is the natural result. Over the years she'd felt wariness accumulate, like layer upon layer of hard, ugly scar tissue. And just like that replacement skin, she'd grown stiff and defensive.
Her attitude was that others could take her or leave her.
A misanthrope is born.
Among strangers, she was typically cool, unable to hide her cynicism about their intentions; their very nature. They, in turn, would misinterpret her emotional armour as arrogance, frost over and resist her requests for assistance.
There were obvious consequences of that.
Lara had become reluctant to engage with other people whenever possible. The increasing amount of time she spent alone though further eroded her social skills. And that deficiency manifested in a multitude of ways, from the comical to the dangerous.
She talked to herself in public sometimes, confirming the "Crazy Croft" murmurs.
She was impatient and irritable.
Her first stage solution during conflict resolution was reaching for her pistols.
Realising how antisocial her behaviour had become, she retreated further. Into mountains. Jungles. Caves. Tombs. Ocean bottoms.
So the cycle continued.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre…
As a result, she'd come to prize self-sufficiency in all aspects – from stitching herself up to hastily assembling a shelter out of tree branches.
Which reminded her that she really needed to finish her skipper's training so that she no longer needed to rely on shifty bastards like the captain who was waiting for her above. The Cypriot Turk looked like he was permanently greased up for a bout of oil wrestling. She really disliked him, even before she felt his eyes caressing her neoprene-clad curves. Still, she had long ago accepted that surly, reclusive rule breakers attracted a certain kind of contractor. And he was the only seaman back at port willing to take her to her coordinates. All of the other boat operators had waved her away with varying degrees of politeness.
It had worked out in the end though. She was here, hunting for answers in the Mediterranean south of Cyprus. Rummaging for another piece of the great Immortality puzzle, in what felt like a box containing a dozen dismantled jigsaws.
Her peers didn't have the patience for it, which was probably why they dismissed her as yet another lunatic fringe archaeologist.
At least she had money now. Embarking on this expedition would have been a nightmare in the past. Accepting her inheritance had made her life considerably easier. It wasn't limited to the matter of available resources either. With her claimed fortune and title, she'd also earned the label "eccentric". Overnight she'd become a rich weirdo in the eyes of society, as opposed to a poor crazy girl who desperately needed psychological help.
It never ceased to amaze her the amount of respectability – or, more accurately, eye-rolling tolerance – a few extra pounds in her bank account could buy.
Something snagged her eye. About ten feet down, a dark blocky shape jutted from the uneven seabed. Even protruding at an angle, it was a little too geometric to have been created by Mother Nature's undisciplined hand.
Lara slowly exhaled, emptying her lungs to descend without the need to vent air from her inflator hose. She equalised her ears twice before settling into a horizontal position within arm's reach of the object.
She could control her buoyancy with precision. It hadn't always been like that, but her hours underwater had racked up over the years. She'd been a qualified diver since her teens, when her school offered a basic open water course.
God, she remembered how proud Roth had looked when she presented her certification card to him. That had made trips on the Endurance during school and uni holidays a lot more fun. They'd always climbed together and suddenly they could dive together too – with her benefiting from his decades of experience as a Royal Marine Commando and wreck diver.
She still missed him terribly.
He'd taught her so much – more than her own father had time to – but there was still so much he hadn't been able to share.
Not that he would have been contributing much just then. Roth was a salvage expert. He simply hauled things up to the surface. Lara, on the other hand, could identity items on the spot. Even though she hadn't specifically pursued maritime archaeology at uni, the subdiscipline didn't intimidate her.
She stroked a fingertip over the object. A box. Eight inches long, corroded of course, but silver beaten over a wood frame, and inlaid with mosaicked turquoise.
She doubted it was exactly what she sought, but it was a positive sign she was in the right area. She hastily added a location marker to her computer. Then she groped for the knife strapped to her inner shin and returned to her examination.
She was lucky to have found anything. This specific patch of the Mediterranean had been crawling with treasure hunters since a recent earthquake. In the aftermath, recreational divers stumbled on mottled coins, swords and palm-size pottery fragments protruding from the freshly fractured seabed.
An eye blink after their finds appeared online, Lara had snatched up her passport.
She had to get there first, before the looters arrived.
Before, far more importantly, the wrong people realised the significance of what Poseidon had finally released from his fist.
Lara traced around and under the box's base with the flattened tip of her blade. Confident she'd freed it from all grasping matter, she lifted it. It was heavily encrusted with silver sulphide, especially around the hinges and along the lid join. She'd have to force it open, which she was unwilling to do just then.
Once more floating upright, with her knife re-sheathed, she flipped the artefact over. Immediately she found herself mimicking a bug-eyed cartoon character, double take and all.
Another mottled mosaic in turquoise, but the image was distinct enough.
The Vergina Sun.
It corroborated her research.
When Alexander the Great had ventured east on his great campaign of Persian conquest, the stories that returned were fantastical – encounters with mythical beasts, superhuman accomplishments and the successful location of the Fountain of Immortality. Tale upon tale was added over the centuries, until two dozen contradictory versions of the Romance of Alexander existed. That made the stories easy to discredit.
But what if there was truth there, among the impossible legends and medieval allegories?
What if Alexander had actually found the Water of Life?
He certainly never got to use it, but perhaps he never had time. His death at 32 was sudden and unexpected, and in the aftermath his great Empire building efforts were undone by in-fighting among his generals. With no officially named successor, Alexander's kingdom was divvied up, and things slowly fell apart. Finds and figures faded from historical record.
Among them was Nearchus, one of Alexander's navarchs, and closest friends since boyhood. Although the Cretan had never been suspected of foul play, Plutarch noted that it was Nearchus who dined with Alexander the night before the god king's fatal fever set in.
Lara wasn't normally one for sensationalist political conspiracies – these days she'd rather leave that to The History Channel – but the more she read, the more things slotted into place. While Alexander was thrashing on his death bed in Babylon, Nearchus dispatched a veteran marine unit back to Macedonia. The marines' mission and escorted cargo went unlisted. The single recorded instruction when the soldiers boarded a waiting ship in Tyre was that the captain travel as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, the Mediterranean crossing was battered by storms, and Nearchus's vessel never made it as far as Rhodes. It was lost with its crew and whatever else it was carrying in its hold.
The cargo may not have been the Water of Life, Lara had to admit, but it was certainly something of great importance for Nearchus to whisk it away so covertly and hastily.
One of History's overlooked mysteries.
Following the tenuous lead had paid off with the artefact in her hands – in all likelihood, a further clue.
She was still staring at it when her fingers stiffened reflexively.
The box tumbled from her grip.
While she was trying to make sense of her body's reaction, the back of her skull caught alight.