Where the hell did they keep coming from?
Every time she thought she was putting some space between them, movement would flash in the periphery of her vision.
She was no stranger to desperate flights through forest, but she was the alien here. She felt like a dainty reedbuck trying to outmanoeuvre a pack of wolves. Dire wolves.
She couldn't do anything until she somehow achieved the advantage of distance. If she could dart behind some form of cover, or vanish into a tree's foliage, she might be able to formulate a proper plan.
Because she knew she wouldn't be able to sustain her survival mode sprint for much longer. Her ribs were practically vibrating with the thrum of her heart. The sensation repeated in her skull, making it difficult to think.
Keep, it together, Lara. Just –
Something wrapped around her calves.
Her yell was reflex. And far too loud.
Her momentum carried her forward, off her feet. She hit the earth chest-first, just missing a root that would have fractured bone.
Winded and shaken, she was in that instant grateful for her body's adrenalin-fuelled autopilot. It was second nature to her now. Conscious thought became completely unnecessary.
Her hand groped for the combat knife on her belt. A second later it swiped at what had tripped her: a bola clamped around her legs.
Then she was back on her feet.
Four stumbled steps and she was running again.
The speaker couldn't be more than two yards behind her.
She refused to look back. That had been Orpheus's undoing. The same for Lot's wife.
Forward, and only forward. That was the way to survive.
She grabbed at a tree branch as she belted past.
It belonged to a beech that was trying to shoulder up among its larger siblings. It was young. Supple.
She released it.
A yelp behind her.
Followed by a snarl.
How many times could she get away with that trick?
The answer was an arrow that skimmed her left shoulder.
Zig-zag, Lara. Play the bloody buck.
The terrain was flattening out. Roots and rocks sank back into the earth. Without having to watch every step, she could move faster. Of course, the same went for her pursuers, and they knew the terrain. She was running blind.
She'd barged through a wall of bush and found herself free of the tree line.
After the shadows and dappled light of the forest, the sun dazzled her.
Unable to risk slowing down, she continued to sprint even without eyes.
It was almost too late when she realised where she was.
She skidded to a stop inches from the bluff's edge.
She hissed at the drop-off before her – a good sixty foot plunge into a river that had helped carve out the valley before her.
Reluctantly, Lara turned.
Three women stood on the edge of the clearing. All three wore short chiton of the masculine style, cut halfway between knee and groin. All three also wore scowls.
They clutched bow, bola and spear respectively.
Lara's fingers skimmed the choices on her belt.
As she did so, the women tensed.
The archaeologist didn't have any other option.
Then she turned and leapt.
During her plunge, time could have stopped. There was no single thought in her skull; no sensation in her limbs. She didn't even breathe.
Only once she hit the water feet first did her survival instincts re-activate.
Along with a snarky inner monologue.
You always said you were willing to die for the truth.
Well, that wasn't going to be today if she could help it.
She preserved her energy until she reached the maximum depth of her dive; then used her arms to haul herself to the surface. Her legs were too tired to offer any real contribution.
She kept herself low in the water for a while, letting the current carry her away from danger.
She'd been lucky. The point where she joined the torrent had been dredged out by a nearby waterfall. Further along, things shallowed out, and the river became studded with boulders.
She clutched at one of the latter to haul herself out.
Free of the water, she let herself rest for a minute, splayed out on the rock like a lizard, while her heartbeat steadied, and her cargo pants and racerback wicked off the worst of the moisture. Even with water-repellent fabric, and a Speedo for knickers, it was bloody uncomfortable. She was beginning to think that shorts weren't such a bad idea after all.
She'd have to move again in a second but in that moment she let her mind do all the racing.
Get to cover. Hole up out of sight. After dark, reassess the situation. If they wouldn't stop searching for her – a very likely possibility – she may have to retreat to her beach camp and stowed water craft. As relentless as Trinity were, they had nothing on these women.
She needed an entirely new strategy to deal with –
Followed by a second, and a third.
Even with the valley generating and bouncing echoes, the sound was too sharp to be birds.
Her pursuers wanted Lara to know she'd been spotted. They wanted her to run.
They wanted their hunt.
Lara Croft was never one to disappoint.
The Englishwoman pushed herself upright. Grimacing, stiff with fatigue, she lumbered over the sandy river bank toward yet another wall of trees.
Why did she ever think seeking out the island nation of the Amazons was a good idea?
Inevitably, they corralled her.
She found herself in a clearing that at any other time she would have appreciated with slack-jawed delight.
It was an open-air shrine to Artemis, who was represented by a life-size statue in marble. Sculpted in an emotive Hellenistic style, the goddess of the hunt had been captured mid-stride, with her hair and chiton flapping out behind her.
Artemis was armed with her signature bow and arrow of course; her fingers just starting to loosen on the string as she released on her imagined target. Her brow was clenched in concentration, but the curl of her lip conveyed her simultaneous delight. She was in her element.
The same went for the trio of flesh-and-blood figures standing before the statue.
They weren't the same as the women who had chased Lara to the cliff edge. These women were Amazons in every sense of the word.
Armoured, their gear was a hodgepodge of materials and styles from Mediterranean Antiquity: one wore a typically Greek cuirass in bronze over her tunic; another the hardened leather lorica segmentata of a Roman legionnaire, complete with pteruges skirt; while the third relied solely on the protection of a full-length manica guard strapped to her right arm and shoulder.
The only thing standard to their dress was steel bracers clamped around their forearms, and the fact that they disdained helmets.
The woman in the cuirass – a redhead – stepped forward. Clearly the commander of the band, she pointed her sword at Lara. "Yield."
The archaeologist's body was reacting without her again. She felt her fingers tighten around the climbing axe at her waist. Her thumb skimmed the carabiner catch that kept the tool attached to her belt.
The action didn't go unnoticed by the redhead. Her eyes narrowed as she repeated, "Yield."
Lara glanced around her. She was trapped in an arc of warriors, six or seven strong. They'd advanced since flushing her into the clearing. She'd simply been too distracted by her surroundings to notice.
There was one marginally wider gap between the women, to her left, if she could manoeuvre herself in that direction.
It felt like she was stuck in a truly awful game of Piggy in the Middle.
She could sense the women drawing closer from all sides. She scanned over them, trying to gauge their threat level. She didn't fancy her odds. Most were over six foot, with the reach to match. They looked lean, hard, and focused.
Scowls had set on faces as ethnically diverse as their owners' dress.
The archaeologist expected a spearhead to slip between her ribs at any moment.
She tried to make eye contact with the women in turn; keep them at bay purely through strength of will. It was the exact same strategy she used with drivers when crossing the street in Rome.
It didn't lessen her feeling of being fenced in.
Turning and turning in the narrowing gyre.
She muttered, "You know, I was never bullied at school, but I always imagined it would be something like this."
Lara said it more for her own wry amusement; to distract her from her fears. Though the Amazons obviously knew some English – somehow – their use of it was coarse and monosyllabic. She doubted they understood her.
Of course, her speaking their language was impossible. She'd enjoyed only a few minutes of anthropologist's observation, hidden in bushes by a swimming hole, before she was spotted and the chase began. There'd been no time to even start sampling the stew of archaic languages that was their communication staple.
Lara reassessed her enemies' faces. Most continued to glare at her with distrust. The redhead and a few others were smirking. They evidently had seen straight through her faked fierceness. After all, Lara was the runty lone wolf caught snuffling near a pack den.
The redhead said as much, as she sauntered to the edge of the elevated marble dais she stood upon.
"Small. Scared. Weak."
She flicked her waist-length braid dismissively, before extending her arm to her nearest companion. Her xiphos was immediately replaced with a staff.
Then she descended the handful of steps that tiered the circular platform. All the while she tapped the wood on her palm, and kept her pupils locked on Lara's.
The woman was superior and she knew it. Haughtiness stiffened her manner.
That suited Lara just fine. An arrogant opponent was always to her advantage.
The archaeologist unclipped her axe and held it neutrally next to her left thigh.
The redhead looked completely unperturbed. "Yield," she breathed.
Lara's response was to snatch the pistol from her thigh holster and point it at the woman. She would have preferred the intimidation factor of a bow, but her composite was back in its case at the campsite.
Her hope was that maybe she could still dazzle the women with technology. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court had been one of her favourite reads as a child.
"Stop." She fumbled for the word in Old Ionic Greek, not knowing any Scythian or Sarmatian – the historically better options.
The Amazon looked at her like she had whipped out a live trout.
Grinning, the redhead prattled off something to her companions, and a few of them chuckled.
Lara tried again. "No… war. Pea–"
The staff jabbed towards her chest.
Lara leapt to her left, firing twice.
The redhead's arms shot up before her face and torso.
Lara's reflection gaped back at her from the Amazon's raised metal cuffs.
Deflecting bullets? You have got to be kidding?
The redhead lowered her arms, revealing her sneer had broadened into a self-satisfied grin.
An instant later she lashed out again at archaeologist.
Lara was too stunned by impossibility to react fast enough.
The ash pole came down on her extended forearm. Right on the radial nerve point.
Her fingers turned to sausage, and she dropped her gun.
A swift second thrust drove into Lara's solar plexus. She was as unable to resist folding as she was to losing her weapon.
So she was bent over when the redhead redirected her swipe. The staff came back at Lara like a golf swing. The edge clipped her under the chin, and her head snapped back.
The momentum sent her sprawling on her back.
Christ, Larson Conway didn't hit as hard as that.
She lay there for a moment, waiting for the earth to resume its usually imperceptible rotation.
Her eyes were stinging and streaming.
She couldn't decide which was viler: the taste of blood or her throbbing, freshly-bitten tongue.
All the while, laughter rang out around her.
There were few things as effective in sobering her. Anger was Lara Croft's purest motivator. Even if, in hindsight, she almost always regretted her actions while under its influence.
Hers were always the darkest, bloodiest benders.
The Englishwoman spat red from between her lips. Then she pushed herself onto her elbows.
The redhead stepped up to Lara, and prodded the brunette's boot with her staff in fresh warning.
Lara sighed heavily. "I see you're deadset on that one-star TripAdvisor review."
She seized a handful of dirt and flung it at the woman's face.
That finally buried her smug expression.
As the redhead flailed backwards, Lara drew on her fury to drive forward.
Snarling, on her feet, she seized the base of the staff in her right hand, and rammed the weapon's full length at the Amazon's face.
The redhead jerked her head sideways to avoid the blow.
Her eyes shot wide a heartbeat later when she realised the charge was a feint. Lara's left arm swung in with her climbing axe, straight towards the woman's collar bone.
The Amazon grabbed the staff in both hands as the tip passed her ear. She tugged it perpendicular to her chest, just hooking the pole beneath the axe head before it found flesh.
But Lara had already abandoned that attack.
A second feint.
Robbed of the staff, the archaeologist's right hand darted for her combat knife. She slashed back, catching the redhead on the cheek.
The Amazon howled.
Lara stood there, doubly ringed – by silence and by warrior women evidently paralysed with shock that the lone wolf had bloodied their alpha.
The redhead lashed out in retaliation with her staff.
The action jarred Lara's axe from her fingers, and flung the archaeologist backwards.
She slammed into one of the man-size chunks of marble that marked the perimeter of the clearing.
Lara didn't feel the impact.
Her adrenaline had been fully recharged by the hand-to-hand scuffle.
Physical sensation was smothered. She registered that she still clutched her knife, though. And that she had received the unexpected gift of distance.
Fight or flight?
Her body made the decision for her.
She vaulted over the marble.
And in keeping with her ever-spectacular luck, landed in a bramble patch.
Time to test that numbness.
Lara forced her way through the knotted barbs, stabbing with her blade and grabbing with her left hand. The brambles grabbed back at her with equal viciousness, clawing her arms, shoulders and cheeks.
Red spots and streaks multiplied over her skin like a hideous allergic reaction.
With one final shove, she found herself clear of the tangle, and back among trees.
It was probably a bad idea, but she paused for a second to settle the tremor in her legs. Fists on her knees, she swallowed repeatedly, trying to flush the rawness from her throat despite the lingering, sickening taste of blood.
Get to camp, Croft.
She checked the compass dial on her watch and started to trot again. If she followed a wide arc back, she might have more opportunities to throw her pursuers. She needed every single advantage if she was to make it to safety.
Leaves rustled to her right. But something was off about the sound. There was a weight behind it that no human could generate. She could feel the earth shuddering under her boots.
Her limbs stiffened as an awful thought slapped her.
There weren't bears in this place, were there?
She hated those buggers.
The vibrations beneath her spaced out into a distinct pounding rhythm. The rustling grew louder. It was joined by the sound of snapping branches… and snorting.
Unquestionable animal snorting.
Lara started to run.
Her knife felt wholly inadequate, but she still tightened her grip on it.
She'd got about ten yards when a beast bounded over the bush to her right and landed heavily in front of her.
It reared up, cycling its legs.
Lara's mouth dropped open in stunned realisation of what she was looking at.
Another Amazon – a dark-haired young woman wearing a turquoise tunic and silver circlet – was astride the creature.
Inattentive eyes would have simply interpreted the woman's mount as a thoroughbred – a very impressive specimen, well-muscled, with a pure white coat and height of over 16 hands.
Except, it wasn't a horse.
From its forehead jutted a foot-long horn in a material like mother of pearl.
The archaeologist was staring at a sodding unicorn.
While Lara gawked, the woman yelled.
Something struck Lara's crown.
She was too well acquainted with the sensation.
A split-second where it felt like her brain tissue was being branded.
In that instant her body transmuted into base metal.
The hit had knocked all sense from her except one.
She could hear her frenetic breathing, and movement around her. Feet crunching leaves and underbrush. Voices hissed in the mangled tongue she was in no state to translate.
The tone of their words was easy enough to decipher though.
While external sounds came with a muffling side order of tinnitus, Lara's own voice was clear between her ears.
She tried to push herself upright. Grimacing, locking out her elbows, she got about halfway there. Her legs just weren't cooperating.
While she held cobra position, a tunnel of vision opened before her. Colour was muted, and everything blurred, but she could still identify the unicorn-rider. The young woman had dismounted and was gazing down on the archaeologist. The redhead stood next to her. Both held swords.
Behind them, nothing but smears of flesh and coloured fabric, stood the other Amazons; maybe a dozen.
The rider appeared startled that Lara was looking at her. But there was something else in her wide blue eyes as well.
Lara's arms quivered, and gave out.
Her temple struck the ground. And her fight finally ended in blissful darkness.