If I had a penny for the amount of fist-shakey reviews I received for the last chapter... then I'd have a whole bunch of pennies! I'm so glad that the plot twist(s) came as a huge shock to everyone and that I didn't accidentally give anything away prematurely :D I do love it when a plan comes together •chomps on a cigar•
Alas, I am afraid that evil happenings are still afoot. I did warn you that this story was going to be dark...
The Church of Our Lady Victorious loomed before her, an imposing shadow set starkly against the skyline. It was a magnificent Baroque building, heavily whitewashed and topped with an ornate spire which reminded Lara of her last visit to St. Petersburg. A set of stone steps led up to its double doors, and above the entrance hung an image of the Virgin Mary beset with golden stars. Before it the tree-lined grass verge was dusted with the light snow that had fallen that day.
Lara did not know how or why her feet had brought her here. She was not exactly the religious type, and had failed to attend church since she had been to finishing school at the age of eighteen. There she had increasingly found ways to duck out of prayer service whenever the opportunity presented itself. Now she studied the opening hours next to the doors of the church in frustration. It had been closed for hours. She had been hoping to slip inside for a late service and find a quiet corner in which to collect her thoughts, but the night had slipped away before she knew it.
Lara descended the stone steps in defeat, her bomber jacket and her satchel swinging forlornly from her folded arms. Her thoughts were swirling in confusion as she settled down upon one of the benches in front of the church. It was extremely late. A roadblock at the end of Karmelinska Street meant that the area was devoid of traffic—despite the tram lines which ran parallel with the sidewalk—yet the lights of the city were so bright in the distance that Lara could not make out any stars in the night sky.
It soon grew cold. Lara slipped first one arm and then another inside the warmth of her fur-lined bomber jacket and pulled it close. It was the same jacket she had worn so comfortably during her adventures in Tibet. She sighed at the memory; it felt so distant and almost surreal. It was as if that woman had not been her, or at least not as she now knew herself to be. Lara would give anything to have that kind of innocence again.
She put her head in her hands and smoothed back her hair, burying her face in her lap. It wasn't long before she felt the tears beginning to fall. As she wept Lara failed to notice something moving in the shadows across the street.
Often in recent years Lara had tried to blame her troubles upon her experiences in Egypt, but somewhere deep down she had been running on empty long before she had stepped foot in the French capital with that emotional baggage in tow. In those few short months she had spent cloistered up in Prague, however, something had changed irrevocably.
Lara worked alone. That was the way it had always been, and the way she had expected it to remain. But Kurtis was different. He knew her struggle. He understood her like no one else ever had, and he did not patronize her because of her celebrity. She had never met anybody like him before, and yet the feelings he evoked in her frightened Lara immensely. She had never truly been in love before - had relationships, yes, but she had never experienced that real and messy kind of love that no amount of life experience could prepare you for. Not for the first time since Egypt Lara had felt the weight of her own mortality pressing upon her.
Footsteps echoed from across the street. Lara lifted her head with bloodshot eyes; self-consciously she smoothed her hair as she searched for the source of the noise.
"Kurtis?" she murmured softly.
She did not receive an answer. With a quiet sniffle Lara turned this way and that to check if anybody was there, but the street appeared to be empty. A strange sense of foreboding suddenly washed over her, although she could not explain it.
Her satchel sat upon the bench beside her. Cautiously Lara reached inside it and removed a pistol from its depths. Her well-worn gun license had served her well when arriving to check in for her flight at Heathrow, along with her story that she intended to take advantage of the Czech hunting season. Many of the blue-blooded aristocrats she had mingled with in her earlier years had spoken of the quality of the hunt in this country.
The sound of footsteps came again, but this time from right behind her. Lara turned with a start to find Kurtis standing beneath the trees before the church, half immersed in shadow. For a moment she did not know what to say.
"Kurtis?" she ventured quietly.
"You've been crying." He did not move towards her. He simply stood there, his expression hidden in the darkness.
Lara lifted a sleeve to her face and brushed away her tears in shame. She had never let anybody see her cry before. She had always put on a façade of strength around others. Not even Kurtis had seen her tears during those intense few months she had lost herself in this city.
"No." Her heart was not in the lie, but she did not let her doubt seep into her words. "No, I haven't. I'm fine, Kurtis. I'm just waiting for my taxi to take me to the airport."
"So you're leaving then?"
Lara nodded, her eyes glistening with resolve. The snow crunched softly beneath his boots as Kurtis strode across the grass and emerged into the light of a nearby streetlamp. She saw now that his nose was pouring with blood and both his eyes were bruised and blackened; Lara was frightened by how terrible he looked. Surely she had not caused all of that damage with just one punch? She suddenly felt incredibly guilty for what she had done.
"Please, Kurtis," she said. "I don't want to fight again. I've said everything I needed to say."
"Is that so?"
"Yes." Her voice strengthened a little. "Yes, Kurtis. I don't want to do this anymore. It's too hard."
He came a little closer. Lara abandoned her satchel and stood up from the bench, careful to keep it as an obstacle between the two of them. The distant sound of traffic carried faintly upon the breeze, but Kurtis did not answer her. Her pistol hung forgotten at her side as Lara turned and started to walk away in the opposite direction. She soon heard footsteps following her.
"Stay away from me," she said. A shadow flitted across her path. Lara stopped dead and found Kurtis standing in front of her, blocking her path. Her back was now to the church steps. "I'm serious, Kurtis. I need to go."
He still did not answer her. There was an evil look in his eyes as he stepped in a little closer as if to kiss her. Lara jerked back and brandished her pistol. There was a loud click as she released the safety and aimed it at his chest.
"I am not kidding, Kurtis," she whispered, staring hard into his eyes. "Back the hell off." Her hands were shaking. The look in his eyes truly frightened her. There was simply no emotion there at all.
"What's wrong, Lara?" His face twisted in a hideous smile. "Feeling guilty about something?"
And Kurtis turned back and violently shoved the bench upon its side. It crashed to the ground and made Lara jump in fright. She retained enough of her senses to keep her gun trained upon Kurtis, but she could barely make any sense of what was happening. She had never known him to be this angry before.
"I'm sorry that I hit you," she conceded. "You didn't deserve that. But I just-"
"You filthy whore!" he snarled. "Is that all I am to you? Just flesh?" As his voice rose in anger his features began to change. A crude pentagram gradually faded into being upon his right cheek, and blood trickled steadily from its five points and ran down to stain his shirt collar. "I mean, you claimed to love this man, and yet you just left him there to die…"
Lara's eyes widened in horror as a horrific gash opened up along his throat. It yawned wide and poured blood as he spoke once more in an anguished voice: "How could you do that to me, Lara?"
Lara stumbled backwards in shock, her gun clattering uselessly from her hands. The image of Kurtis before her gave a chilling smile, and then suddenly his features slid away. Standing before her now was Joachim Karel. He lifted a gloved hand to his face and touched his cheek, making any traces of the bloody pentagram vanish instantly.
"The human façade," he mused. "It still amazes me how affecting it can be."
Lara stared at him in complete and utter shock. For a long time she could not even speak. Karel shook his head and took a firm step towards her.
"Well, now. It is not everyday that Lara Croft is stunned into silence. Do you not have something clever to say?"
Lara's voice faltered as she spoke.
"W-What did you do to Kurtis?" When Karel did not answer her, she swallowed past the lump in her throat and said again: "Where is he?"
"He is right where you left him." Karel reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew a silk handkerchief. It was soaked through with blood. He read the question in Lara's eyes before she even had a chance to voice it. "I would say that he did not suffer to spare your feelings, but that would be a lie." He smiled again. "And I do so enjoy causing you pain."
"Stop it." Lara's eyes were threatening tears again, but a bitter anger laced her words. Karel shrugged and then returned the handkerchief to his inner pocket.
"I don't believe you," she whispered.
Karel studied her closely for a moment, clearly amused, and then opened his jacket again and reached inside for something else. Lara tensed for a moment, fearing that he had a gun of his own, but instead he pulled out a familiar weapon with a burnished blade and strange etchings along its handle. Lara's eyes widened at the sight.
"I must thank you both, really, for going to the trouble of retrieving them for me." Karel returned the Periapt Shard to his inner pocket, his eyes never leaving Lara's face. "I have waited so long to hold them again."
As he spoke Lara's eyes darted towards the gun lying forgotten on the ground between them, but Karel had not forgotten it. He casually kicked it aside and sent it skittering across the street. It was much too far away for her to reach now.
"Let's not spoil this moment," Karel said. "I have waited such a long time to regain my full strength."
Then he raised his hand before Lara could react. A white hot flame sprang into being from the centre of his palm, and the world around her became instantly silent. It was as if somebody had turned off a volume switch. There was a sudden flash as energy crackled all around her, beginning as a small orb and then expanding to strike out in all directions as a solid shield swept out across the entire street.
The force of the energy expended nearly knocked Lara off her feet. With a crack the noise and lights of the city returned with a startling suddenness. As she regained her footing Lara glanced about anxiously, the fear evident in her expression.
"Do not trouble yourself," said Karel. "That was just a little something to ensure we do not wake up the neighbours." The Nephilim clenched a fist at his side, flexing the muscles in his arm. "I do so hate to be disturbed."
Lara had no chance to defend herself. Karel reared back and punched her hard, sending her sailing through the air. She slammed painfully into the steps before the church and sprawled down them like a rag doll. Karel surveyed her calmly as he slowly advanced upon her with deliberate steps. She turned onto her back with a moan of agony.
"No one can hear you," he said, coming to tower over her. "Feel free to scream all that you like. It took me two years to regain my strength from our last battle, but only a few drops of Lux Veritatis blood to restore my powers of old." He chuckled a little. "This entire street is now shielded from the world outside. Nobody will hear or see you suffer. Nobody will watch as you die."
He squatted down beside her. Lara raised a shaking hand to her bruised cheek, but she did not answer him. All of the breath had been knocked out of her lungs.
"Have you forgotten our last fight?" he said. "I guess so. Two years can seem like an eternity in this mortal coil." Karel was leaning in close now, taunting her. "Do you even think about all those you have killed? It must run into double digits by now. And not one of them warranted even a second glance. No wonder you never bothered to come back and finish what we started."
Despite the shame and helplessness that Lara felt a surge of anger blazed within her. She lifted her chin defiantly and spat blood onto the steps with a grimace. Her jaw was throbbing from his punch.
"That's very rich coming from a psychopath like you," she bit back. "Don't tell me you're having a moral crisis after living like us for so long." Her expression hardened as she pushed herself up with the palms of her hands, wincing slightly at the pain in her back. "Life is hard. People fight. They move on." Her words became heated as she felt her conviction strengthen. "Your race is extinct, Karel. Get over it."
He seized her by the throat with a snarl. Lara let out a strangled cry as she tried to prise his hands away, but she did not have the strength. Karel pulled her in close and lifted her up with frightening strength so that her feet were dangling helplessly in the air. They were now almost face-to-face.
"Somehow," Karel said with a smile, "I think I am going to enjoy killing you just a little bit more."
Lara's eyes flickered with fear as his grip upon her throat tightened. She thought that she might pass out, but then Karel turned around and flung her through the glass-paneled door behind them.
The sound of breaking glass engulfed the air. Lara landed hard and crumpled upon the floor of the Church of Our Lady Victorious, barely conscious. Karel stepped through the ruined entrance after her. As he went he carelessly kicked aside the splintered remnants of wood which had once made up the doorway.
The empty church was very dark. Only the moonlight shining through the high windows served to illuminate the rich interior sweeping up towards a vaulted ceiling. A series of elaborate altars dominated the nave, each inlaid with golden insignia and images of Carmelite saints. Lara opened her eyes with a gasp to find herself staring up at a bejewelled chandelier, with shards of glass piercing her back and her hands. A long gash ran across her forehead and blood ran into her eyes. She grimaced at the pain which throbbed throughout her being and attempted to stand, but her legs simply buckled beneath her. She was lucky not to have been thrown into one of the wooden pews.
Slow deliberate footsteps echoed throughout the church. Lara knew that nobody was coming to help her. She was completely at Karel's mercy as he appeared in front of her. The smile was now gone from his face.
"Where is your God?" He gestured mockingly with his arms. "I thought this was his house, but he does not seem to be in."
Through the fog in her mind Lara somehow struggled on, dragging herself backwards until she could rest her back against one of the ornate pews. Sharp pains were shooting down her right arm.
"I am just like you, Ms. Croft," Karel continued. "I know your type. You like to hide in the shadows, never clinging to anything for long. You fear that it shall all be cruelly ripped away." He stopped in his tracks. Lara stared up at him from her place upon the floor. She was no longer fighting. "But that is the crux of the problem, is it not? Death stalks you from the beginning. It is just a matter of time before it finds you." His hand began to glow with green energy. "And yet some small part of you welcomes it."
Lara was utterly spent. More tears were threatening to fall as she bowed her head. She wished that she could deny his words, but deep down she knew that he was right. And there it was: that deep-seated truth she had spent so many years trying to suppress. It hit her with the strength of a locomotive.
And then there was Kurtis…
A sense of calm suddenly washed over her. The crackle of green energy filled the church as Lara closed her eyes in resignation. She no longer felt the pain of her injuries, or the tears now falling freely down her face. She no longer cared.
Lara Croft embraced her death wish.