A muted click whispered warningly through the hall. There was a slight ripple in the stillness as a single figure stepped around a corner and placed long, thin feet on the carpeted floor. The form crept through the growing shadows with ease. The silhouette seemed a bit strange, however. It was obviously a female, but her arms were up and in each hand was an odd shape. Anyone with any experience could recognize them to be a pair of pistols. The woman jumped over a reclining couch and made her way around a television. Up a short flight of stairs was the study. Light flickered from inside and she knew a fire was set. She padded up the stairs silently and held waiting in the darkness. The person she hunted was resting in a high-backed chair, his feet propped up to be warmed by the fire. She tightened, her muscles preparing to pounce, then lunged forward, firing. The man jumped up, his eyes going wide until he realized she was only firing blanks.
"Good God, Lara!" he exclaimed. "Sneak up on me, why don't you?!"
"With no problem," the woman replied in her naturally throaty voice. Her accent was a British one. She put the pistols away into a pair of holsters tied to the top of either leg and poured herself a small glass of cognac. She sat down across from him. Her butler gazed at her for a moment, his employer, Miss Lara Croft, professional Tomb Raider. She gazed into the fire for a long while without speaking.
"What's on your mind?" he finally asked.
"I received a letter today from Sir Jials McKintrey. Do you remember him?"
"The chap with the taste for the occult and supernatural?"
"That's him." Lara nodded. "The one that I met in my trip a while back to South America. He did me a great help there to getting into and out of that temple alive. I know I told you about that. I told him that if he ever have need of a tomb raider, all he had to do was call. I had a debt to him." She paused a moment. "Today he called on that debt." She handed a folded parchment to him with a slight coffee stain from when she had accidentally dropped it on the paper when she was reading it. The words had caught her off guard. Her butler read quickly through the scrawled letter.
I regret that I have not sent word earlier and had you come visit, but I have been extremely busy. I had recently found an intriguing artifact with a single arcane symbol on it. It looked like it had once belonged on a column of some kind or another. Not very far from it, we found eight other such images, all looking like they had come from what had once been white columns. To try to see what they had once been, we placed the symbols on specially crafted white marble columns. We placed them in the exact place we had found the original pieces. There were nine in all and eight formed a half circle around a ninth. And the strange things is, Lara, they grew! Not only grew, but lengthened, reaching up into the sky. And they seemed to vibrate. Needless to say, my companions were amazed that we had found something like this. But the stone now seems to pulse with a power, and no matter what item we took to them, they would not break. The tool chipped or broke itself, but there wasn't a mark in the stone.
Now, all this is fascinating in itself, but from there it took a turn for the worst, you see. The columns would not come down no matter what we did. Instead, one day, not very long after their creation, they began to hum strangely. We didn't question; seeing them grow was far more impressive than having them hum. But then, Lara, they began crackling with energy. The energy centered on the main column, then it shot forward a few feet and opened a crystal blue, wavering portal. We didn't know what to make of it. I sent some people through; none returned. A few hours after that, things began coming through. At first, it was just a bird or a wolf. But the birds were not . . . Earth birds, for lack of a better term. When we tried to catch them, they vanished into a green luminescence. We haven't seen them since.
Then things went really wrong. Creatures of human height began pouring out of the portal. Some looked humanoid, but their flesh seemed to be barely holding on. Others looked a mixture of dogs and humans. I . . . don't know what they are, Lara, and nothing seemed to hurt them. Knife gashes healed quickly, bullets penetrated, but didn't seem to do lasting damage. But one of my men kept a lucky knife that had helped him in many situations. It was pure silver. That seemed to do the most damage of all. Keep in mind that it didn't poison them or anything. It was more that it actually cut through their tough hides far better than anything else we had. The thing he was fighting was backed into a pool of water we kept for bathing. The thing acted like it was burning before it died and fell over.
Let me tell you now, Lara. It was night when all this happened. Over the horizon, the sun came up, and the first rays touched these things. They . . . burned. It was almost like someone had taken a torch to them. They literally caught on fire, Lara. And they died, leaving me and my remaining men in peace. For that night, anyway. There were others. We've learned to keep flame-throwers handy at all times.
Lara, bare with me for a moment. I know you think I'm crazy and have no common sense, but that's not true. However, though you won't believe this, judging from the evidence these look like honest-to-God vampires. Yes, I know they're fiction. Yes, I know they don't exist on this world. But for God's sake, Lara. On THIS world. This portal does not connect to OUR world. It connects to another, a completely different one. Could it be possible that there are vampires in this world?
Would you please come out here? I don't ask for anything other than that, Lara. You've seen things even I haven't. Think about the statues in India that you saw that came to life. Think about the Dagger of Xian, a weapon which turned you into a dragon, a supposedly mythological creature. Please come out and see this. I ask no more. And I will reward you. We have found several other arcane artifacts which I believe you will find most . . . interesting.
And Lara, when you do come out, bring ALL your guns and make sure you put all silver ammo in. I know you can get that.
"He's nuts," her butler stated simply as he handed the letter back. "All this talk about vampires? I don't think so."
"True," she murmured, leaning her head on her hands. "It does seem unbelievable. But Jials has never once lied to me. And he wouldn't call me out there unless something was up."
She fell silent again. Her butler watched her.
"Lara?" he asked suspiciously.
"Send in a special request. I need my next shipment of ammo made out of silver."
A few days later, Lara walked down the path to a large circular building. Behind it were nine white pillars that reached up into the sky. She couldn't see where they ended. She had to agree with Jials, though. They were amazing. And they had been supposedly indestructible. She hurried toward the building faster.
At the door, a man stepped out into the light. Jials was a man who wasn't thin, but wasn't obese, either. He had a nice amount of flesh on his almost wiry frame. However, now she saw some definite differences between this Jials and the one she met back in South America so long ago. He had lost weight, and obviously quite a bit of it. He looked like he weighed less than she did. His black hair, which had once been so crisp, was a ruffled mess and there were some gray streaks sneaking in. His light blue eyes were murky and didn't shine anymore.
Jials had to applaud the shape his Tomb Raider was in. She looked nearly the same as she had so many years ago. Her brunette hair was a bit longer than before, reaching past her back even when it was braided as it was now. The balance between bust and hip had caught many a man's eye, and that alluring figure still remained. Her brown eyes were quick and intelligent, and he noticed with almost a bit of satisfaction that those luminous eyes kept returning to the white pillars behind the building.
"Good afternoon, Lara," he greeted her. As always, he had an odd accent to his words, but she could never figure out where it hailed from. It didn't sound like any accent she had come across before.
"Good God, Jials! What's happened to you? You've changed quite a bit since we've last met."
He chuckled softly at her undiplomatic way of pointing out the obvious, no matter how embarrassing it was. He had almost missed that about her. He knew of no one else who did it.
"In all truth, Lara, these changes have only really occurred in the last week and a half."
"You're still fight—" She stopped abruptly as he made a gesture for her to cut off her sentence.
"Come inside. It's frightfully hot out here. We can discuss things in peace in there, anyway."
He led her into the darkness of the building, away from the searching heat of the sun. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness, but when they did, she bit her lip to keep out a gasp. A few of Jials' men were here, some lying on cots with vicious wounds, others resting against the wall, a cloth around their neck.
"As you can see, Lara," Jials stated softly, "it's only being proven more and more that these creatures are vampires. They've tried to kill my men and we've found several trying to suck out their blood. As an after effect, those men cut by these creatures' claws have a tendency to avoid the sun. It won't kill them, but it makes them very uncomfortable. It lasts a few days, then they are returned to full health. We've been fighting these things every night for the last week and a half. It isn't any easier, but we know better where to strike each time."
"How many men have you lost to these things?"
"Quite a few the first couple of nights when we were still trying to figure out what they were and how to combat them. Since then, however, not many. Most of the casualties now are just from the vampires getting too close to my men and scratching the hell out of them."
Silence fell between the two as he led her down a long hall. He stopped at a door with a padlock on it. He undid it quickly, then turned back to her.
"Here's one of the things I thought you'd be interested in."
He opened the door and held it open for her. She walked in cautiously and he followed. The room was circular with shelves on the walls. In the very center of the room was an olive green crystal that floated above the ground. On one of its faces was an arcane rune.
"A restoration crystal," she shrugged.
"You know what it is?"
"Of course. I have ten or twelve of them saved from my travels." She looked at him. "Don't you know what they are?"
He shook his head.
"Oh. Restoration crystals heal health and the body. Not only just from sickness like the cold or the flu or minor cuts, mind you. These things can bring a person back from the precipice of death. Suppose a person was missing a leg from an accident. If they spoke the correct rune on the crystal and mentally thought what they wanted out of it, they could grow a new leg. If a person had an accident and they had one of their arms shredded, with one of these things they could heal the damage done."
" . . . Dear God," Jials breathed. "Lara, why don't you give these things to hospitals? To people who need them?"
She sighed. She knew such a question would be asked of her sometime.
"Because, Jials, these things are powerful beyond belief. Humanity as a whole is not ready for them. Plus, only specific people could use them. There has to be some certain thought process in the user's mind. You and I, for example, could use them. The typical Joe modern human could not. It would not work for them."
He was silent for a long moment. "I see. I understand. You're quite right. Humanity would not be able to make proper use of them." He paused. "Go ahead and take the crystal, then. It will probably serve you better than me."
"But what about your men?" When he shook his head, she eyed him cautiously and an eyebrow raised. "If you're giving it to me, that means you think I'm going to be in a more dangerous place than you. What do you want me to do, Jials? What do you want to send me out to do for you?"
"Come with me, Lara. I'll show you the other items we've found later." He led her back out of the room and locked the door behind her as she stuffed the crystal in her backpack. He went down another hall and came to a door to the back of the building. He opened it, bowed, and swung his hand toward the open in an invitation for her to go in first. She headed out, noticing immediately that the pillars were much more impressive when standing close to them. She walked to the edge on the left and began walking past the eight before going to the ninth in the middle. All the columns were white and each on had a symbol that was approximately a foot wide. These symbols were separated from the column by two gold bands, one on the top, one on the bottom. The first pillar's symbol looked much like a brain to her surprise. The second was an almost ethereal cylinder the size of the column, but it seemed to ripple, almost as if it was a piece of a plane of existence not shared by everyone on the planet. The third pillar's symbol had a red background and a pair of crossed swords. The fourth was green with a leaf pattern on it. The fifth had a purple-black background and light purple lightning. The sixth symbol had a brown, almost sepia background and hourglasses on it. The seventh had the image of an enraged wolf's head and a vampire bat looking ready to drink. The eighth in the half circle had skulls. Lara turned to look at the ninth and found it to be a swirling mist of color. It never stayed the same, yet always seemed to have a balanced effect.
"What do you think?" Jials asked finally.
"They're beautiful," she replied. "But what are they?"
"Not a clue."
Lara stepped up to the main pillar and placed her hand against it. She could feel a tense vibration in the air, and when she placed her hand against the cool stone, it changed slightly. For the first time, Lara felt an instinctive feeling of welcome, of a bid to rest. It was almost like she belonged here. She shook her head abruptly and turned to look at the portal which was about ten feet away from the pillar. She stepped over to it. It was roughly the size of a human and a half. It looked pretty oblong, but the edges wavered slightly, and it seemed to change to more of an oval shape or a circular shape at times.
"This is the famous portal?" she inquired. Jials nodded.
"Lara, it's time I be blunt. I have a huge favor to ask. I want you to stay here tonight, to see what we're up against. I want you to see the creatures that are coming out of the portal. You see, we can't destroy the pillars. They won't come down. More over, they won't let us take them down. Most people can't get anywhere near them, which is why I'm surprised you were able to.
"Let me put it this way and take after you and just get down to business. We can't shut the portal at all, which means it probably has to be shut from the other side. We need someone to go through and shut it. Someone who has a chance of getting there, surviving there, and getting back. Someone who can take of herself."
"You're not getting down to it yet," she pointed out. "So let me do it for you. You want me to go in and shut this thing?"
"If at all possible, yes."
She sighed deeply. "I'll tell you what. I'll stay here for the night and see if these things are really as scary as you say they are. If they are, I'll do this just for you and to save these poor people. If they're not, I'm gone."
"Agreed, Lara," he jumped on the arrangement quickly; perhaps too quickly. "Agreed. Just stay the night. That's all I'm asking."
There was a sudden commotion and one of his men came out and called his name. He nodded and turned to Lara.
"You'll have to excuse me, but I need to go fix this. You'll be fine out here? No vampires ever come through the portal during the day, but even if they did, I'm sure you can handle yourself."
"Go, go," she replied, waving a hand at him. "I'll be fine."
He headed gratefully into the building as she turned back to the ninth pillar in the middle of its comrades. Again the feeling of welcome washed over her. Strangely enough, she felt almost . . . happy here. It was almost like she had been here before. But that was insane. Wasn't it? What would she find so attractive about the pillar?