I have honestly lost count of the amount of times I have drafted and redrafted this chapter! I got the idea from a dream I had years and years ago and the entire story slowly grew from it, so you can see that my subconscious is a very strange bunny indeed. But also quite diabolical too.
But yes, I'm afraid my penchant for evil cliffhangers just continues. I've kept the events of this chapter a closely guarded secret for so long now that it feels very strange to be posting this, but it's also quite exciting! Please do let me know what you think. I really appreciate all the reviews and faves so much ^_^
The faucet came on with a dull creaking of pipes.
For a long time Kurtis watched the water as it streamed noisily into the sink, swirling about the basin with indifference. Then he gave a sigh, cupped some in his hands and set about washing the blood from his face.
As the water slowly turned red he studied his reflection in the mirror. There was a hard cut across the bridge of his nose, and bruising was starting to appear beneath his eyes. Kurtis had broken his nose plenty of times before, but this time it was different. Somehow the physical pain did not seem so intense.
At times like this Kurtis usually took his motorbike out for a spin. It was currently parked in the small courtyard outside his building, where it had sat covered over with a tarp for several weeks. Like most European cities he had visited over the last decade Prague was heavily congested, and during his stay here Kurtis had often found it easier to simply walk across Charles Bridge to reach the Strahov district upon the western bank.
It had been two years since he had begun following the police investigation into the ruins of the Strahov complex. Frustration had dogged him at every turn, for the case had been nothing but a mess of bureaucratic red tape. To finance his stay Kurtis had taken odd jobs on the side to pay the rent, most of which were not strictly legal. Several times he had also been found by the police sneaking around the Strahov in the dead of night. One day his impulsiveness would be the death of him.
The water soon ran clear again. With a grimace Kurtis steeled himself before snapping his broken nose back into place with a series of cracks; the pain of it forced him to steady himself against the edge of the sink to stop from passing out. As soon as the weak feeling in his legs had faded he turned off the faucet. There was a low creak from the doorway as he reached below the sink and fished out a towel.
Kurtis massaged his tender nose, wincing slightly as he felt the bruised flesh. As he carefully dried his face he took in the sight reflected in the mirror. He did not betray any emotion.
"Are you okay?"
Kurtis ignored her question as he folded up the bloodied towel and slung it across the edge of the sink.
"You're back," he muttered. Lara stood framed in the doorway behind him, one hand lingering against the door jamb. Kurtis met her eyes in the mirror as she quietly closed the door behind her.
"What do you want, Croft?" Kurtis turned and looked at her in disdain. "Please stop fucking me around and just come out with it. I'm getting tired of these games."
Lara did not answer at once. With her eyes cast down she walked the length of the room and approached him. Before Kurtis could react she had stepped right up to him, forcing him back against the sink. Her face was hovering just inches from his.
Kurtis grinned uneasily.
"So I take it that you changed your mind, then?"
Lara gave a wry smile as she reached out a hand to run her fingers through his wet hair. Kurtis closed his eyes and tried his best not to succumb to her touch, but he could feel the warmth of her form pressing against him so invitingly. Before long any resolve that he had once had simply crumbled.
Kurtis pulled her close and kissed her in despair, ignoring the pain from the injuries she had inflicted upon him. Before she could protest he had hoisted her up so that her legs encompassed his waist, and they both turned about and roughly slammed into the sink behind him. The mirror shook where it hung against the wall, and Kurtis accidentally knocked over the mug holding his razor.
Soon they had to break away for air, and Kurtis drew back and held Lara against him. The support of the sink was the only thing keeping them both upright at that moment; his knees had gone decidedly weak again.
"I know what you're gonna say," Kurtis told her. He was breathing hard. "This is just a glitch. Bit of comfort before you run back home again. And if I had any pride at all then I would…" He gave a sigh. "But that's the problem, isn't it? I have no pride when it comes to you."
She regarded him quietly for a moment.
"Just what every girl likes to hear."
Kurtis knew that the words had come out wrong, but before he could open his mouth to speak again he felt her finger brush against his lips.
"Let's not ruin the moment," she murmured.
And she pulled him back in for another kiss. Kurtis was surprised at how tender she was, and the way in which her hands came up to frame his face so delicately. He ran his own hands along the curve of her shoulders and down past her hips. Then he pulled her away from the sink and down onto the bed.
Lara's arms encompassed him as Kurtis kissed hungrily at her neck. Slowly her hands trailed across his back and along his shoulders, coming to brush lightly at the nape of his neck as they searched for purchase. When one hand found his throat he knew instinctively that something was wrong.
Kurtis opened his eyes with a start. His hand flew out and seized her wrist, and Lara suddenly froze beneath him. He stared at her in shock. Her face bore a soulless expression which chilled him to the bone. He had barely stopped her from snapping his neck.
She smiled up at him.
"Not even close."
And before he knew what was happening her hands were wrapped about his throat, attempting to throttle the life out of him. With frightening strength she rose onto her knees and held him fast, and Kurtis gasped in terror as the world swiftly began to sink out of focus. Somehow he managed to find the strength to strike out and shove her roughly across the bed.
Violent coughs racked him as Kurtis drew breath again. Her hands had left terrible purple bruises forming at his throat, and tears were starting in his eyes as he leant heavily across the bedcovers and gazed up at her in distress.
"What the hell?" he cried. "Lara…?"
But she was not there. All she did was smile at him as the pallid colour rose up her body, followed by the eerie sight of black leather encircling limbs and traveling up into a well-defined collar.
"So," said Joachim Karel, "are you still happy to see me?"
Kurtis just stared at him in horror, completely stunned at what he was seeing. He was so taken aback that he did not even register the fist which smashed into his jaw until he was sprawled senseless upon the carpet.
Karel sprang away from the bed with ease. He was dressed in the same leather jacket, dark gloves and blood red scarf that he had favoured so many years ago; his ghostly blonde hair was scraped back to reveal a pair of penetrating eyes which now gleamed with sadistic pleasure.
"I have to say," Karel said, still wearing that horrible smile, "I've had much better than that."
"Shut the fuck up!" Kurtis growled. As realisation hit him his expression turned from anger to complete disgust. He coughed and spluttered as pain exploded in his back, hauling himself to his feet with difficulty and stumbling towards the sink to gulp down copious amounts of water.
"What in the fuck is wrong with you?" Kurtis managed, once he had pulled away. "Jesus Christ…"
Karel stood quietly, continuing to smile as he watched Kurtis wipe the back of his mouth with his shirt sleeve. He seemed completely unmoved as he opened his jacket to reveal a wicked-looking knife resting in the inner pocket.
"How easily you mortals forget," he said.
At this sight Kurtis scrambled blindly along the windowsill behind him for his Boran X, but it was gone.
"Are you looking for this?"
Kurtis turned back to find Karel casually dangling the weapon in his hand by its trigger. As he watched the Nephilim opened the chamber and allowed all of the bullets to clatter uselessly to the floor. Then he tossed the gun away. Kurtis watched in distress as it slid underneath the bed, but his eyes also caught the glint which emanated from the dresser behind Karel.
The Periapt Shards.
Kurtis had always been an impressive liar, and somehow he managed to keep his face impassive as his eyes flickered back towards Karel.
"I thought you were dead," he muttered.
Karel drew out his knife and ran a lazy finger along its blade.
"Appearances can be deceiving," he said. "Then again, you've already learnt that tonight, haven't you?"
"Where is Lara?" Kurtis snarled. "If you've hurt her I swear to God…"
"She's alive, for now." Karel idly spun the knife between his fingers. "I passed her as she was walking down the stairwell. She seemed quite upset." He smiled again. "Just imagine how devastated she will be when she returns to find you dead…"
Kurtis did not care about the knife; he lunged blindly at Karel and tackled him about the waist. They both went crashing into the dresser as the knife clattered to the floor. Desperately Kurtis tried to grab one of the Periapt Shards, but Karel raised a hand again and blasted him across the room with a bolt of green energy.
This time Kurtis slammed hard into the far wall with a sickening thud. Karel climbed back to his feet and raised a gloved hand to his lip. It was bleeding profusely. Before him Kurtis tried and failed to stand up again, doubled over in pain as broken plaster rained down upon him.
"I was just going to snap your neck," Karel said, lowering his hand, "but now I think I am going to make it a slow and painful death…"
His words trailed off as a faint whirring sound filled the room. Kurtis had struggled to his knees, and his eyes were now closed in intense concentration. The next moment they opened with a flash. The Chirugai swept across the room with a surge of orange sparks and leapt at his enemy's head.
Karel gave a sigh of displeasure, reaching up and snatching the bladed disc from the air with ease. The weapon jerked and quivered heavily in his hand, struggling to escape from his grasp, but it was no use. Kurtis' connection with the weapon faltered and broke as Karel calmly crushed it in his palm. The pieces fell to the floor like shattered glass.
"Mortals," Karel quipped. "You're all so fragile."
Kurtis stared at the remnants of his Chirugai in horror. That weapon had been forged generations ago from Ferilium, a rare meteorite alloy. It was supposed to be unstoppable; it was also all that he had left of his father. At this thought Kurtis' gaze flashed towards the Periapt Shards again.
Karel must have noticed this, because he raised his hand and sent another blast of energy across the room. This time Kurtis was ready for him.
The sound of splintering plaster filled the air as he ducked and rolled out of its path just in time. The resulting blast tore a gaping hole in the wall behind him, and Kurtis roughly clambered back to his feet.
"I've gotta say," he riposted, "you immortals are extremely predictable."
And Kurtis landed a brutal punch which brought the Nephilim down onto his knees. As his fist came down again, however, Karel simply caught it in his outstretched palm. He reared back and punched Kurtis hard in the mouth, and then followed this blow with a kick to the ribs so violent that Kurtis was left sprawled upon the carpet, gasping in agony.
Slowly Karel stepped around his opponent and retrieved the discarded knife. Kurtis was still struggling for breath as Karel pulled him roughly onto his knees, grabbing a handful of his hair and twisting it round and round until it was pulled so taut that Kurtis gave a cry.
Karel trailed the knife roughly along Kurtis' cheek.
"I think," Karel said, punctuating his words with a slash, "I want to leave a mark on your corpse. My own personal calling card, if you will. Just like the Monstrum." He laughed at this. "What a fool Eckhardt was. He had you. He knew you were Lux Veritatis…" Kurtis winced. A rivulet of blood trickled down his neck. "And yet some people cannot see what is right in front of them."
Karel drew back the blood-stained knife. Then he seized Kurtis' arm and hauled him to his feet, shoving him across the room and up against the dresser in the corner. A few oddments fell off and broke, and one of the drawers was jammed up painfully against Kurtis' ribs. The Periapt Shards mocked him with their proximity, but Kurtis could not reach for them. One arm was wrenched painfully behind his back, whilst the other was pinioned firmly between Karel's chest and the dresser.
"I was there, you know," Karel continued. "On the bridge tonight. I watched you as you ran from the police." He stilled Kurtis' struggles and smiled widely. "I've been watching you for months. You were completely oblivious. And then you brought your girlfriend back into the picture…"
"Her name," Kurtis said through clenched teeth, "is Lara."
"Yes, of course." Karel tilted his head. "I suppose it is painful for you to argue semantics when she obviously does not return your love-"
"Shut up." Kurtis could barely contain his anger. "You have no fucking clue what you are talking about."
Karel shook his head.
"Oh no, I really do. I see more than you might think." Karel twisted the man's arm a little higher, eliciting a sharp cry of pain, and then he dragged Kurtis roughly towards the sink.
"Can you see now?"
Kurtis gazed reluctantly into the mirror before him. On his right cheek Karel had carved a crude pentagram which was dripping blood in a steady stream down past his collar. Karel drew close and licked his neck with a satisfied growl, savouring the taste of his blood and his fear. Kurtis struggled a little, but he could not get free.
"What's wrong?" said Karel. "Do you not wish to face the truth?"
"What are you talking about?"
Karel drew in close and then whispered: "You're part Nephilim."
"Where do you think the Lux Veritatis got their powers from?" said Karel. "Did you ever wonder why they waged war against the Nephilim for centuries? They were outcasts, traitors. They mixed with infidels. Their blood became tainted, but they retained some semblance of their powers." He met Kurtis' eyes in the mirror. "In your blood there is untapped potential. A shame, really. You could have been something magnificent."
"Magnificent?" Kurtis laughed. "Like you? All you are is a magnificent piece of-"
Karel seized him by the collar and slammed him hard against the wall. A picture frame shook dangerously upon its hangings nearby.
"Hold your tongue," Karel hissed. "Because of you, because of your order, my race is dead. I was almost dead. And then I saw Ms. Croft. She led me out of that desolation. I was nothing but a shadow of my true form, but then I came upon the blood that you had left behind. It sustained me, gave me new life. Soon I craved it. I knew that with it I would regain my full powers, once I had recovered my strength." He ran a finger threateningly along the blade of his knife. "And now I get to drain the rest of it."
Kurtis kicked backwards off the wall and swung for Karel's head. The knife went flying, but his enemy dodged the blow and pain exploded across Kurtis' back. He fell to his knees with a grunt. Karel dropped to his knees and imprisoned him in a headlock.
"Do not try anything like that again," he snarled.
Kurtis managed to laugh, despite the pressure on his throat. He licked his lips and whispered: "You can't run from death forever, asshole."
Karel did not answer, but he did release his hold. Kurtis collapsed onto his knees, coughing loudly. In the reprieve which followed the flash of the knife caught his eye, immersed in a pool of his own blood. Vainly he reached out a hand towards it. Karel blocked his path and stomped down upon his outstretched fingers with a tut.
Kurtis recoiled with a scream of pain. Two of his fingers were broken, and he cradled his ruined hand to his chest as Karel bent down before him and recovered the knife. The Nephilim straightened again as he spun the blade lazily between his fingertips.
"Well then," he said. "I guess I'll see you in hell."
And Karel struck out and violently slashed Kurtis across the throat with his knife. Blood went everywhere; it splattered across the walls and stained the tattered carpet red. Kurtis seemed to hang there for an eternity as blood congealed at the gaping chasm below his jaw, and then his body jerked and fell heavily to the floor.
A sudden silence fell, marked only by the steady dripping of blood upon the carpet. Karel reached into his pocket and took out a silk handkerchief to wipe at his lip. Slowly he knelt down and dipped a corner of his handkerchief into the blood rapidly pooling beneath the body at his feet.
For a good few minutes he remained motionless, balanced perfectly upon his ankles, before standing up and striding over to the Periapt Shards resting upon the dresser. He ran a reverent hand over the etchings on their surface. It had been two years since he had held one of the Periapt Shards in his hands. Two years since he had taken one by the handle and plunged it into the forehead of his moronic puppet, Pieter Van Eckhardt.
Karel slipped the three Shards inside his jacket with immense satisfaction. The keys to his own destruction finally lay in his possession, and that was where he intended for them to stay. It now only remained to dispose of the last person who knew of his existence.