For anyone that's wondering, I haven't abandoned my other fics in progress, I just haven't been able to write anything good for ages. My muse went on a cultural exchange to work for Aurelin and never came back, so I had to find a replacement. This story takes place directly after the end of AOD.
The Last Candle
- For Spitfire, because I broke my promise to her for a PiC update way back in January -
God, she hurt. A stabbing, searing pain in her stomach. She didn't remember getting hit there, but then again in the middle of a fight to the death with the adrenaline flowing, you often only found your injuries afterwards.
Taking heavy, lurching footsteps as she entered the vault arena that she had last left a battleground,Lara Croftreached out to a nearby winch for support as she passed, surveying the area.
"Kurtis." The word barely made a sound as it fell from her lips unbidden, as she found herself staring at an empty battleground, bloodshed evident in a single congealing pool that dripped through the drainage holes to the Lux Veritatis vault below.
His distinctive bladed disc weapon sat waiting towards the edge of the pool, small and its blades quietly sheathed, almost meek against the massive stain surrounding it. Her eyelids flared in shock as it sprang to life in her hands, wrenching her arm and pulling her around urgently as it directed her to the dark cavern beyond from where Boaz had entered. Almost as quickly as it had awoken it fell dormant once more with a final shudder and still holding it aloft Lara allowed herself to grin. He'd won.
Lara walked confidently into the shadows, too busy to notice the rapidly dissipating pain in her stomach. It was dark inside, and she stopped to let her eyes adjust. Slowly, shapes began to emerge and things became clearer. Boxes, crates, equipment…it seemed to be a storage area, but she wasn't interested. Striding forwards, she reached out and clasped her hands onto the rungs of a ladder. She immediately pulled them off again, staring down at a liquid on them that she couldn't see in the darkness. Sniffing warily, Lara recoiled. Blood. Kurtis must have been injured and had come this way.
"I hope that stain back there wasn't yours, Kurtis," Lara muttered to herself with a hint of worry in her voice as she resolutely took hold of the slippery rungs and began to climb. "It was far too large."
Nearing the top, she stepped off onto a platform bathed in a weak light shining through the windows of an adjacent room, and looked inside.
"Kurtis!" Dashing through the doorway, she quickly rounded the table that he was slumped over and reached out for him. Her hands stayed where they were, one on his back and one on his forearm, as her head bowed. It was cold in the whole building and it had quickly sapped the heat out of him. He couldn't have been dead more than three hours and already he was eerily cold.
"Oh, Kurtis." One hand stroked through his hair. It moved to feel the non-existent pulse in his wrist and then slid further to clasp her fingers in his. Still holding his hand, she pulled out the chair next to him and sat.
"Eckhardt's dead," she said quietly to him. "Your father's avenged, don't you worry about that. I'm so sorry it had to end this way. I really am."
Wiping away a tear, she looked around. They were in some sort of briefing room. The large oval table sat in the middle with note pads set at each seat. Soft lighting bathed it in a pale, unobtrusive glow that left the outer reaches of the room shadowed and allowed for the projector screen to be clearly seen. Frowning, Lara slowly stood as she saw for the first time a computer file being projected, and her gaze moved to take in the skewed laptop computer that sat across from Kurtis, his fingers still outstretched to push it away from him. He'd wanted her to see this.
She moved to stand in front of the screen. A three dimensional depiction of the Sanglyph broke into its constituent pieces and rejoined, spinning slowly to the right of a block of text that had been scrolled through to some point in the middle. Lara began to read aloud to herself, realising that Kurtis had found some sort of personal journal of Karel's.
"Awakening of The Sleeper requires the correct administration of the Sanglyph by the proper alchemically altered user. An incorrect methodology or user biochemistry will result in an alchemic overload of the specimen, causing irreparable damage. Only Eckhardt or myself have the necessary attributes to ensure success and the will strong enough to imprint upon The Sleeper the sense of servitude needed for control to be regained. Without this safeguard, our plans will likely backfire, leaving us at the mercy of a strong and politically uneducated specimen – power is only of benefit when used in a wise and timely fashion."
"So," Lara mused, turning back to Kurtis, "I did the right thing, then. Well, that's good to know." She laughed quietly, almost celebrating their victory with him. "It was just a guess, really – bullets weren't working and I was about to get fried. I suppose you could say it was a leap of faith." She laughed again, coming to stand by Kurtis and rubbing his back sympathetically. "Don't worry, it's done."
As she stood over him she found herself becoming slowly overcome by a growing sense of something that pushed away the bittersweet happiness that until now had accompanied his body, replacing it with the need to just break down and cry – regret, but just as the tears were welling, the echoing thump of heavy booted footsteps began to approach.
Quickly, Lara pulled out her gun and ejected the clip. With a rising panic, she saw that it was almost empty, and the sounds told her that there was more than one person approaching. Her eyes darting around quickly, her gaze fell gratefully upon the vent of the air duct high up in the wall, and she sprinted across the room, yanking the cover away and sliding it across the floor to hide it under the table before using a nearby chair to step up and pull herself into the nook. Bruising herself in her haste, she'd barely pulled her legs in behind her before an automatic weapon brandished by a black-clad soldier leapt into view in the doorway, scanning the room for threats.
"Body." The American accented voice called the word almost excitedly, and the soldier stalked cautiously towards Kurtis with the gun trained firmly on the prone man's head to cover a similarly clothed partner who moved in from behind and warily poked their find with a hard shove of a gun barrel. Gaining no reaction, he gingerly reached forward to look for a pulse.
"Oh for crying out loud, Al, just see if he's alive or not already."
"Have you heard the reports on the radio coming out of the sanitarium? Forgive me if I'm a little cautious here, Jack," Alfredo Ricci returned, his English carrying a telling European accent. That wasn't all that was worrying him – rumours had been filtering through to him from his friends in intelligence that his co-workers weren't privy to, and if they were anything to go by then the Cabal had been up to some pretty extreme activities. Finding no pulse in the man's neck, Alfredo let out an audible sigh of relief and visibly relaxed. "He's dead."
"Ok, then let's start searching this place and get out of here before they seal us in with the freaks and monsters." Jack moved over to the filing cabinets and pulled open the top drawers, rifling through the papers.
"The servers are being downloaded, yes?" Alfredo asked, hovering near the laptop.
Jack Tipper spared him a quick backward glance. "Yeah, just shut it down."
There was a silence for a few minutes as they both searched through drawers and files, and Lara found herself feeling close to hyperventilation from her short, shallow breaths as she fought to keep calm and remain hidden in the darkness of the vent whilst still being close enough to see and hear what was happening. There was rank insignia on the men's uniforms, and name tags, but the patches denoting organisation affiliation had been removed. She had no idea who they were. Her gaze flicked back to Kurtis' cold, still form, treated so irreverently by the soldiers and now forgotten. Tears pricked her eyes once more, and then she started as their radios crackled into life, simultaneously spewing out static followed by the sound of background weapons fire.
"We have a combat situation in the biodome…repeat, a combat situation in the biodome…requesting backup. Over."
Ricci and Tipper looked at each other, silently questioning whether they should respond or not, given their long distance from the area, but a team closer to the action took the call.
"Gasquet, this is Maverick and Ramirez – we hear you loud and clear, we're near your position and on our way. Over."
Jack snorted and returned to his work. "Maverick? Johnson's calling himself Maverick now? Please…"
Alfredo swallowed, his hand stilled on the folder he'd been scanning. "Jack, I don't like it here…we don't know who this man is, so let's just take the body to the vans and I'll swap with someone on guard duty. They can come back down with you."
"Are you kidding? No way! You are not landing me with one of those kids – they're like, twelve, I'm not trusting them to watch my back."
"Jack – really."
Tipper stopped and turned, his expression clouding. "What's with you, buddy? You're hardened, man, you don't freak easily."
"From what I've been hearing, it'd be stupid not to."
"Fine, fine." Jack slid the filing drawer shut and walked over to Kurtis. "Let's tag this place for cleaning by the data people and get this guy up top. Come on."
They grabbed one of Kurtis' arms each, Ricci looking relieved, and hefted him up into a sitting position.
"Whoa. Jack, look at this!"
Inside the ventilation shaft, Lara quietly shifted to better her view, but Al was in her way.
"My god…that's just low. Framing a dead guy? Who does that?"
"Do you think Croft wrote it?"
Jack shrugged. "Probably. We might know she's innocent, but the police don't. Even so, shifting the blame onto a corpse to save your own skin…that's just sick. What a bitch."
Shaking their heads in wonder, Jack and Alfredo hauled Kurtis out of his chair, took his wrists and ankles, and began to carry him away.
Lara's face was written in hurt confusion. What on earth were they accusing her of? Giving them time to move out of earshot, she hopped down out of the shadows and moved to the table. There, previously hidden underneath Kurtis' head and splayed hair, was a scribbled message on the notepad laid into the table, the blood-marked pen that had written it lying adjacent.
'My confession – I am the Monstrum. Croft is innocent.'
The signature consisted only of a bloody handprint.
"Oh." That was all Lara could manage. No other words would come – just a shocked, whispered exclamation of overwhelming gratitude and a terrible sadness born not only of the feeling that she didn't deserve such gallant behaviour, but also from the soldiers' interpretations of the note.
Reaching out, she laid her hand on Kurtis' red palm print, his bloody fingerprints extending out past her own in their larger stature. "Thankyou, Kurtis," she whispered.
The corridor was, thankfully, lit by emergency lighting only, leaving plenty of gloom and shadows to aid Lara in her journey out of the building undetected. She encountered two pairs of soldiers walking the halls, their radios crackling with reports from similar teams further into the complex. She hid around corners or in alcoves of pipework, unwilling to risk confrontation with her limited ammunition and lack of knowledge as to their intentions. Eventually making her way into some sort of office, she locked the door behind her and moved to the window.
The sky was dark, black clouds highlighted by silver moonlight. Scanning the walls, she found a clock patiently ticking away the hours. It was early, well before dawn. Sliding the sash window open, she looked out and found herself to be on the first floor, a single soldier taking a slow stroll underneath the window on patrol. Moving quietly, Lara climbed out onto the windowsill and, waiting for the guard to disappear around the corner, let herself hang for a moment before dropping down with a soft crunch into the cradle of a small snow drift built up against the wall. She flattened herself against the stonework, stalking along and peeking around to the front of the building.
More militia clustered near the gates of the Strahov in the intermittent glows of portable standing lights, talking, smoking, carrying storage crates into or out of the main doors. The crates being carried out seemed to contain evidence from the Strahov – files, computers, even jars of preserved organisms that must have come from Boaz's labs. They were being loaded into two vans, parked askew inside the walls and already filling.
"Ricci! Tipper! I thought I said to leave the bodies!" Colonel's insignia on his arm, one of the men stepped forwards and stared crossly towards the main entrance. The two soldiers from the briefing room shuffled into view, Kurtis' corpse hanging limply between them.
"It's not one of Boaz's experiments or one of the guards, Sir," Ricci panted. "We don't know who it is."
Their leader marched over and surveyed their find. "He's got a weapon," he observed.
"Yeah. Was lying over a confession claiming he was the Monstrum too," Tipper said.
The commander sighed, considering what to do for a moment. He was hoping that this could be a nice, clean job – just move in, take the evidence, seal the place up. In and out, no problems. It wasn't turning out that way at all, though.
"Alright," he conceded at last. "Get him in a bag and put him in the van."
Ricci nodded, and together with Tipper began to haul Kurtis away.
No sooner had one event of interest finished then another began, and, hugging herself against the cold, Lara stayed crouched and hidden and continued to watch. A police car had slid to a halt just inside the open gates of the Fortress walls, and two officers got out, angrily slamming the car doors shut and marching forwards. The soldiers on guard duty raised their weapons and moved forwards, staring down their sights suspiciously as those clearing the building glanced up for a few moments before returning to their work.
"Prokázat se!" one of the policeman barked.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen," the Colonel replied, moving forwards of his men to greet the visitors, "I'm afraid I can only communicate in English or French."
"Identify yourselves," the policeman demanded, not even acknowledging the greeting.
"This is not your jurisdiction, Officers," the Colonel smiled calmly, "please move on, we have the situation in hand."
"The last time I checked, Prague was our jurisdiction – who are you?" the other policeman insisted.
Not answering verbally, the Colonel simply pulled some sort of wallet from his uniform and held it out. Presumably it held identification, but Lara had no chance of seeing what it was. The two officers looked it over and turned back to the Colonel, voices still belligerent but lower and no longer able to be heard. Grimacing in frustration at being left out of the conversation, Lara decided it was time to get out.
Peeking back around the corner the way she had come, she saw the dancing light of the patrol guard's torch about to round the far corner. Her gaze drifted back to the vans, on the other side of the guards and police. Taking Kurtis' bladed disc out of her backpack for a moment, she looked at it and then returned a resolute look to where the two soldiers from the briefing room were just loading a black body bag into one of the vans. It belonged with him.
Alfredo protesting at having to return to the Fortress, he and Jack went back through the main entrance with another two soldiers, leaving everyone else outside engaged in the insistent battle for authority between the Colonel and the police. Sneaking one last look behind her, Lara crept forwards, crunching quickly through the snow as she passed through the pale lighting of the police car's headlights. No-one noticed anything, and with a sigh of relief the fugitive hopped into the van and crouched down next to Kurtis behind a crate.
Unzipping the bag, Lara's heart fell as she saw for the first time since his death, Kurtis' face. She sighed, shaking her head sorrowfully. He looked pained and worried, no doubt aggrieved by the knowledge that he would die before gaining confirmation of his father's vengeance.
"This is yours," Lara said softly, reaching for the weapon, but as she moved to tuck it into the body bag the blades unsheathed with a violent shudder and once more it propelled itself through the air in her grip, almost causing her to fall. Holding on with all her strength, Lara fought to pull it back towards her, but the disc refused and continued only to strain forwards in the direction of the road that passed on the other side of the Strahov walls.
"No!" Lara complained, pulling back on her own wrist with her other hand, "You belong here!" The struggle waged on, Lara vehemently keeping hold of the apparently living metal despite the feeling that her shoulder was about to be dislocated. Losing strength at last, she collapsed forwards onto her knees, and the disc quieted. Confused, unable to help but wonder if there was something very odd going on with her fallen comrade, Lara surveyed him doubtfully and acquiesced. Resealing the bag, she replaced the weapon in her backpack and scuttled out of the van.
Hiding between the two large vehicles, Lara watched as, looking distinctly unpleased, the two police officers got into their car and drove away, executing a reckless three point turn before roaring off across the thick snow. Low chatter took up between the soldiers and they dispersed, many of them moving into the building upon quiet orders from their leader that were only perceptible to Lara, further away, through body language.
The situation worked to her advantage, however, as only five men remained within the vicinity of the gates, three of them on the other side and talking to each other, the other two meandering aimlessly and facing away from Lara. It was odd, they seemed so relaxed. Maybe they didn't expect any interference, Lara mused. The place certainly seemed to have a reputation with the locals, perhaps most people just turned a blind eye to it.
Keeping low and creeping towards the front of the vans in order to move between the cabs and the adjacent Strahov walls, Lara allowed her own guard to drop – until she found herself face to face with a shocked, lone soldier. Both immediately grabbed for their weapons, clicking off the safeties and aiming at each other in a hasty stalemate.
They stared at each other, neither one quite knowing what to do. Lara's finger began to squeeze the trigger, but she relaxed it again. She'd have no hope if she started a gunfight against them all.
The young soldier's eyes flicked uncertainly back and forth, his teeth biting gently at his lip. He didn't know how to perceive her, that much was clear to Lara. Calculating her chances, her own gaze dancing all around, she decided to drop her weapon…and run.
She turned, sprinting back between the vans and out the other side, keeping her sights firmly fixed on her path and concentrating solely on escaping before the others could react to her.
Barely believing what she had just managed to pull off as she dashed through the gates, her vision took in the snow covered form of a motorbike parked along the roadside. "Kurtis," she muttered to herself as she staggered to a halt with her arms flailing and leapt astride it, "I certainly owe you."
As the engine howled in top acceleration and the bike snaked dangerously across the snow to the slushy vehicle tracks of the main road, the six soldiers on guard at the Strahov gathered at the gate and watched her go.
"Dude, I was just held at gunpoint by Lara Croft."
Another spoke as he began to walk away. "I'll let the Colonel know she's gone."
The remaining soldiers turned their attention away from the panicked woman as a cement truck turned the corner from the direction Croft had just disappeared. It pulled up slowly by the gates and a black-clad soldier hopped out of the cab.
"Ready to go as soon as you've finished clearing it out," he called as he walked over to his friends.