Thanks for the reviews everyone! My posting schedule is meant to be one chapter a week, but because I had some editing to do on this update it was a bit delayed, so I'm sorry about that! The events of this chapter will probably seem a bit rushed and anticlimactic, but there are reasons for this which will become clearer in future updates.
Again, I did a lot of research into the National Museum in Prague but have yet to go there myself, so quite a bit of artistic license was needed to write this chapter. My frequent googlings of 'how to raid a museum' were to no avail, but I did dig up a lot of myth-busting information about lasers, so as a result my depiction of such should be pretty accurate :D
They spent the entire day planning the raid on the museum. Lara did not wish to stay in Prague any longer than necessary, and Kurtis seemed to oblige her; he had been studying the layout of the building and its security system for months, ever since the museum had taken possession of the Shards for study. They spent all afternoon sitting at a table in the back corner of a quiet café, poring over the blueprints which Kurtis had acquired. Lara did not bother to ask him how he had gotten hold of them. She had made her weary peace with his extra-legal activities a long time ago.
It seemed that the security in place at the National Museum was nothing compared to that which they had encountered at the Louvre. Lara was relieved to hear this, and once they had finished going over the basics of their plan she used the payphone at the back of the café to book herself a flight home the next morning. She intended to help Kurtis retrieve the Shards, change her clothes and then leave the country before news of the raid broke the next day. She did not wish to take her chances with Interpol again.
Lara ate little that day, unable to quell the feeling of unease which had settled heavily in her stomach. Long after the sun had set she found herself standing alone next to the statue of St. Anne where they had met that morning. The surface of the Vltava glistened below her, bathed here and there in the orange glow of lantern light which illuminated the length of the bridge. Kurtis had left to retrieve the equipment they would need from his apartment on the west bank of the river, but Lara had refused to go with him. She had absolutely no intention of putting herself in such an awkward situation. Instead she waited upon Charles Bridge as the sky steadily darkened, watching the people going about their business with a keen sense of detachment. The snow had long since ceased to fall.
It was almost an hour before Kurtis reappeared, dressed now in a white shirt and his leather jacket; a dark bundle was under his arm. He was smoking a cigarette which he quickly discarded after a last urgent drag. As he came to a stop before Lara he stomped it out and then swapped the bundle to his other arm.
"You ready?" he asked.
"I've been ready for ages, Kurtis," she said bitingly. "And if I'd known you would take this long to get ready I'd have saved myself the trouble and simply thrown myself in the river already."
Kurtis raised an eyebrow as he shoved the bundle into her folded arms.
"And good luck to you too," he muttered in disdain. Lara looked down at the bundle he had given her with a frown. "Hide this in your backpack, will you? I'm gonna need my hands free for this."
They reached Wenceslas Square in less than ten minutes, weaving their way through the thinning crowds as they headed for the museum upon the east bank. The square was a busy area at all hours of the day, but Kurtis was quick to reassure her that Monday evening was the best time to attempt such a daring raid, when the streets were likely to be at their quietest.
The museum soon loomed over them again, its many windows illuminated by a bank of floodlights against the dark vault of the sky. As they approached the statue of St. Wenceslas the crowds gradually tapered off. Many were tourists who preferred to stick to the brightly lit areas furnished with restaurants and bars, and Kurtis crossed the main street and led Lara through a myriad of alleys and narrow backstreets until they had skirted the museum's lengthy perimeter. Along the building's north wall they found a barred window set just below street level, where a flight of steps plunged down towards a basement access door. The exterior floodlighting along the museum's façade was missing here, revealing a rare weakness in the building's design. The only lighting in the area was a lantern upon the street corner. The basement door was heavily barred and locked with a security keypad, but that was not their target.
"Okay," Lara whispered, glancing around once the area was clear. "Now would be a good time for you to use those powers of yours, Kurtis."
She saw his smile flicker beneath the ghostly light of the nearby lantern. It promptly disappeared as the street was plunged into darkness. Pausing to check that nobody had noticed the lantern extinguish within its holdings, they swiftly ducked down the flight of steps and stopped in front of the barred window. A low wall obstructed the view from street level.
Lara reached up and took one of the metal bars set across the window in each gloved hand. She glanced back and turned in Kurtis' direction, her braid cascading over her shoulder.
"I'm ready," she said.
And with a nod of acknowledgement Kurtis raised a palm and closed his eyes in concentration, quietly focusing his power. Lara braced herself as she felt the bars begin to violently shake. They came away from their hinges with a crack, and she cursed softly as the full weight of the frame fell against her and threatened to knock her off-balance.
Kurtis rushed forwards to help her with the bars, but Lara simply shot him a look and shouldered the weight herself with a grunt.
"Drop the chivalric act, Kurtis," she muttered. "Just get inside before somebody sees us."
He stepped back and raised his hands in mock surrender.
"As you wish, m'lady."
It did not take them long to find their way through the darkened basement offices. For all of the museum's spendour it did not employ a bevy of security staff, relying instead on an elaborate CCTV system and infrared laser-grids to protect the most valuable acquisitions. There was, however, a security booth with a bank of camera monitors watched over by two uniformed guards. From the safety of an empty side office Kurtis used his farsee ability to enter this room and cloak the monitors in a mystical shield, locking the cameras overlooking the Pantheon into an infinite loop. Lara had a horrible feeling that he had stolen the idea from an action movie.
On their way through the winding corridors they were almost caught out by a patrolling guard nearing the end of his shift. Lara heard approaching footsteps and seized Kurtis by the sleeve of his leather jacket, dragging him down a corner and pushing him up against a nearby vending machine. Before he could protest she had placed her finger to his lips and given him a stern look to keep quiet, their bodies pressed close together in the shadowy alcove. Not until the guard had disappeared down the corridor did Lara withdraw her hand. Kurtis' mouth pulled into a smirk as she moved away from him and glanced anxiously over her shoulder.
"You know," he said in a seductive voice, "if you'd wanted to put your hands on my hot tight body all you had to do was ask…"
"Shut up, Kurtis," she hissed, turning back with an angry look upon her face. "I was just being practical."
Lara fought the urge to kick him very hard in the shin. The smirk was still upon his face as he walked away and continued on down the corridor. She followed him only grudgingly, eventually halting before another door. Thankfully it was not locked upon this side.
"We should be near the entrance hall now," Kurtis whispered. "Let's just hope I've interpreted the blueprints correctly."
Lara raised an eyebrow at this.
"Men," she said with derision. "Always too proud to ask for directions."
Kurtis ignored her jibe. He cautiously pushed aside the door and emerged slowly into the cavernous entrance hall near the main staircase. The museum was shrouded in almost complete darkness, save for the occasional glow of artificial lighting from sconces set against the walls. The low hum of the heating system permeated the empty space.
"So far, so good," he muttered. "Let's just hope my shield upon the camera system holds…"
Lara remembered the two security cameras in this room, disguised amongst the stone busts which were set along the banisters of each landing. For her own peace of mind it was not enough to trust in Kurtis' mystical interference in the camera system; they would have to hide in the shadows as they moved.
From the safety of the doorway they watched the cameras as they slowly turned this way and that. Once there was an opening they started out across the entrance hall, rushing towards the grand staircase which led up to the Pantheon. Lara felt her heart racing as Kurtis rushed past her, taking the steps two at a time. The carpet beneath their feet dulled their footsteps as they reached the first landing, canopied by a set of stone archways. Here they ducked into the shadowy corner of the landing and flattened themselves against the wall.
No alarm sounded. They had not been spotted; Kurtis' shield had held after all.
"Excellent," Lara whispered with a smile. "Now let's go and get those Shards, shall we?"
Quietly she slipped away from his side, emerging from the shadows lining the walls and stepping through the doorway into the Pantheon. Latticed shadows played off the linoleum floor beneath her feet, reflected from the circular skylight set in the immense dome above. The case containing the Shards stood alone in the centre of the floor, lit from within by a set of artificial lights. Lara walked softly through the echoing dome—she had changed into a pair of flat boots earlier—alert to the slightest of sounds. Once she had reached the Shards safely she gestured to Kurtis to follow her.
The security system surrounding the Periapt Shards was elaborate, but not nearly so complicated as the laser-grid system she had encountered at the Louvre. This glass case was mounted by a small black box in each corner fitted with a red light, and although invisible to the naked eye Lara knew that a bank of infrared lasers crisscrossed the entire display. If she attempted to cut the glass without first disabling the lasers then she would set off the security alarms.
"Are you sure that you can do this?" said Lara.
Kurtis positioned himself in front of the case.
"Absolutely," he told her. "Just check with the infrared that the lasers are down first. I'm not sure how long I can hold the window, so you better hurry."
Lara rolled her eyes as she swung her satchel down from her shoulders.
"That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, Kurtis."
She worked as quickly as possible, prepping the circular glass cutter and pulling out the infrared goggles that Kurtis had acquired especially for the task. They were very heavy.
"Okay," Lara muttered, adjusting the straps before pulling the goggles down over her eyes. "I guess this is the moment of truth…"
Kurtis raised an eyebrow at her.
"Please, spare me your infectious enthusiasm."
The world appeared a bright green to Lara through the goggles, the lasers a grid of bright lines in her vision. Beside her Kurtis lifted a hand towards the case. It took a few tense moments before the low buzzing which characterized the security system suddenly cut short and died. The red lights flickering inside the case switched off as the laser system failed before her eyes. Lara breathed a slow sigh of relief in the silence which followed.
Kurtis remained motionless—his eyes closed but occasionally flickering—as Lara quickly removed the goggles and took up the circular glass cutter. It mounted the case with the help of a suction cup, and an extendable metal arm with a small wheel attached served to mark out the circumference of a circle. She was highly skilled in the use of such equipment, and it was not long before she had scored a clean circle in the glass just big enough to slip a hand inside. Carefully Lara disentangled the glass cutter from the case and returned it to her satchel, along with the goggles. Then she reached out and gently but firmly pushed the circle of glass inwards inch by inch, making sure that her fingertips did not touch the glass and leave any fingerprints.
Everything was going so smoothly that Lara did not notice Kurtis' hand shaking with effort beside her. Suddenly his eyes opened and he stumbled backwards with a gasp. A high-pitched alarm sprang up and blared throughout the building.
Lara froze, startled into inaction.
"How did we trigger the alarm?" she hissed. Her voice was almost lost beneath the wailing noise which now engulfed the Pantheon.
"Window must have closed," Kurtis grunted. His features looked weary and drawn as he put a hand to his forehead in obvious pain. As the alarm continued to sound his eyes opened again and he said in an urgent voice: "Hurry up, will you? We have to leave, now!"
"I am aware of that, Kurtis!" she snarled in reply, clenching her jaw as she tried to finish working the circle of glass into the case.
Kurtis noticed this. In frustration he rushed over and pushed Lara aside, stripping off his leather jacket and bunching it around his fist. He ignored Lara's protests and smashed through the rest of the glass with one swift punch. It shattered everywhere.
Once the pieces had settled Lara stepped awkwardly through the debris to take the Shards, her boots crunching upon the wayward glass. Her face was red with anger as she straightened and shoved the three Periapt Shards into Kurtis' hands.
"You've shown off enough for tonight," she hissed. "Now let's get the hell out of here."
If the security alarms had not already woken up half the neighbourhood then the sound of shattering glass had surely done so, and Lara did not even wait for Kurtis as she turned on her heel and raced desperately for the nearest exit.
They finally stopped running when they reached Charles Bridge.
Lara had no idea how they had managed to get away, but she suspected that the cloak upon the camera system might have bought them some valuable time. The sun had long set upon the distant horizon, but the sky above still held traces of blue and dark wisps of cloud as they passed under the arch of the Old Town tower and emerged onto the bridge proper, slowing from a dead sprint into a staggering jog. It was now almost deserted.
Lara steadied herself against a lantern as she came to a stop. The bridge was still bathed in the orange glow of artificial lighting; across the dark expanse of water the visage of Prague Castle was illuminated like a beacon.
"That was close, huh?"
Kurtis came to a stop beside her, bending over with his hands upon his knees to try and catch his breath. It seemed to her that he was shaking his head with quiet laughter. Lara leant back against the lantern and closed her eyes in frustration.
"What on earth do you find so funny about this?" she growled, opening her eyes again and glaring at him. Her chest was still heaving for breath. "We could have been arrested. I could have been arrested, again. It took me months to clear my name with Interpol. What in the hell were you thinking?"
He just shook his head, still bent double.
"I just never realised you could be so gullible, that's all."
Lara opened her mouth to make a nasty remark, but instead she firmly shut it again and lowered her voice: "If I wasn't in a public place, Kurtis, I swear you would be in a world of pain right now."
"Oh, come on, Lara." He straightened up a little. "Did you really think I had some elaborate backup plan figured out? I thought you knew me better than that."
She rolled her eyes.
"And so did I."
Neither spoke as they sought to regain their breath, waiting as a young couple passed by strolling hand-in-hand. Eventually Lara spoke up:
"Are the Shards safe?"
Kurtis patted a hand against his leather jacket in affirmation. Lara looked at him for a long moment before turning and walking away. She did not get far before Kurtis reached out and seized her outstretched arm.
"Lara, where are you going?"
She whirled around in frustration, catching him by surprise. Anger was etched across her features.
"I'm leaving, Kurtis," she said. "This whole thing was a huge mistake."
He did not let go of her arm.
"Then why did you come?"
Lara found herself unable to answer this. She looked down and stared at the ground, trying to find the words.
"I honestly don't know," she said in a quiet voice. "Because I'm a fool, I suppose."
Kurtis edged a little closer.
"Do you still love me?"
Lara stiffened. She felt his grip upon her arm tightening just a fraction as she hesitated.
She did not have the chance to finish her sentence. Suddenly a siren rose high and shrieking in the distance. They both turned in alarm as a police car came speeding from the direction of the bridge tower, its red and blue lights washing over the walls of the narrow street.
"We have to go." Kurtis tugged urgently at Lara's arm. "Come on, Lara! We can hide at my place."
Swiftly Lara ripped her eyes away from the sight. She was vaguely aware that Kurtis was now grasping her hand as they rushed across the bridge to the other side of the Vltava. A lone man stood next to one of the many statues set along its length, and he turned to look at them as the two ran past. Lara prayed that he would not remember their faces. As they passed the statue of St. Nicholas of Tolentino the lantern hanging behind it suddenly died, leaving a trail of smoke to rise steadily into the night sky.
When they reached the Malá Strana tower on the west bank Lara and Kurtis broke apart and descended into a sprint down Mostecká Street. Kurtis was like a man possessed as he ducked down alleyways and took flights of steps with a single leap.
Lara followed him without once looking back.