Beta dubbed it the eternal chapter... no idea why.
Lara cast a last glance at the stormguards standing sentinel in front of the merchant gate before she bowed respectfully to the queen and retreated towards the dilapidated administrative building in order to wait for the empress to finish whatever matter of importance she needed tending to. Leaning heavily against a weathered pillar that carried nothing but the darkening sky as a porch roof, Lara watched Himiko addressing the two Samurai in their black armour. Their dark shapes towered over the queen's small frame that looked frail in contrast while her white robes appeared almost gossamery in the unsteady light that spilled from the braziers illuminating the gate area. Yet as soon as the protocol had been satisfied and formalities performed there was a change, at first subtle but increasingly stark when it became clear there was a disagreement between the queen and her acting second in command. Despite the lack of raised voices or threatening gestures or even so much as movement on the part of the Stormguards, the commander gave the impression of wanting to raise his shield while his companion seemed to cower behind his own motionless facade, disconcerted by the display of displeased power and charisma.
And there she was. For a split second, Sam angrily flipped her hair while leaning forward to drive home a point, her left hand resting on her hip while she planted her feet firmly on the ground, the white robes suddenly almost hugging her figure as they swirled around her with the undignified motion. The unmoving Samurai seemed to recoil into the background before the overstrung, furious girl.
Lara's breath caught in her throat; yet the transformation flickered out of existence in the blink of an eye. Himiko's posture forthwith regained its familiar dignity before the onset of the apparent illusion: calm, regal and in control; her devoted soldiers acquiescing to her will. Their accustomed statuesque comportment now appeared appreciably chipped on their auras' edges, though. Sam's best friend blinked a few times, then pressed her hands to her temples and clenched her fists in her hair, furiously shaking her head. The resulting pain that shot through her sore fingers and down her arms provided her with a welcome jolt back into what she presumed went for reality. She slumped against the building and slowly let herself slide down the weathered plaster, the broken pieces of masonry that littered the ground under her feet shifting with soft, grinding noises.
Averting her eyes from the scene, she rested her head against the wall and gazed upwards to let her wary mind seek refuge in the velvety night sky, appreciating the distraction caused by the discomfort induced by sitting on coarse rubble while wearing fine, silken breeches. The young archaeologist gingerly picked up a piece of masonry that still had some brittle remains of timber attached to it, slowly turning the aggregate in her left hand while stifling a yawn. She detachedly watched as it crumbled under the slight pressure of her thumb, the dust drifting away in lazy wisps while some fine grit formed irregular patterns on her leg. As she let go of the granular, mealy remains and slowly wiped her dusty hand on her exquisite garments, she felt her eyelids become increasingly heavy, her head beginning to tilt sideways and backwards on its own accord. A soft breeze blew a few strands of hair across the face of the slumped figure that was already too far gone to notice.
Mathias sat across the campfire, fading in and out of her vision as her drained body demanded rest and respite while her senses were lulled by Sam's soft voice retelling the story of her ancestor. Sleep came like a soft blanket, cushioning her frayed senses…
With a hoarse gasp, Lara shot upright and stumbled to her feet, her dark-rimmed eyes darting back and forth over the courtyard in alarm as she instantly pressed herself up against the wall, with the palms of her hands flat against the crumbling surface, tensioning the coiled up spring of her body. Some grit trickled through her fingers with a faint murmur, just about audible in the twilit stillness that soon after was filled with the sound of a drawn-out, shaky exhale. The survivor took a small, halting step into the open space before her and wiped droplets of sweat from her brow, leaving dirty smudges across her forehead. Forcing her breath under control, she closed her eyes and massaged her temples in an effort to calm down again.
The coarse, anglo-saxon syllables felt oddly out of place in the peaceful surroundings of faded splendidness that her mind kept refusing to accept as free from danger despite her instincts insisting on the fact that there was no immediate threat apart from Himiko's wrath; something that she by now accepted to a considerable extent was hers to provoke or assuage.
She clenched her fists with a small gasp at the satisfying pain from her sore hands that blocked out the unwelcome deliberations before she set about to find something else that might be amiss conceivably; to find focus for the unease that had been growing ever since they had left the inner palace remnants' confines. She neither found it in the greying shapes of the old pines reaching up behind the decaying, overgrown outer walls nor in the gaping holes of the hollow window openings in the ancient buildings, both images having become disturbingly familiar since her arrival on Yamatai. The western palace wall did also not deliver on her efforts, in the last reddish light unthreateningly displaying a sombre gradient from muted orange to late autumn grey on its upper reaches as the shadows in the courtyard deepened and began to disappear in the reticent dusk. The faint murmur of concluding formalities taking place at the gate carried no trace of impending hostilities either.
Cursing under her breath she slowly turned, scanning the dark mountainsides with rising frustration until her eyes came to rest on the high peaks to the north west. The first stars had begun to show over the distant, steep inclines that she had scaled not even two weeks ago, still just about discernible in the murk. Staring towards the darkened horizon, she finally nodded curtly with a grim and reassured smile on the thin line of her lips: there was a complete lack of stray light on the firmament. The island's most prominent landmark, the world war two era radio tower's ever present red glow, had vanished from the night sky.
"Come." Came the brief command.
The merchant gate gave the impression of having tried to preserve its splendour over the centuries; its hardwood pillars still glowed a soft red, stiffly and unyielding holding up the curved cross section that carried the elaborately carved designs thought up and created by artisans gifted with great skill and sufficient money. Barring the metal gate that shone in the colour of golden steel lay the bronze lock bar, displaying the insignia of Yamatai's great merchant families placed around an embossed crest of the sun that proudly sat on the circular mid-section.
Yet the tired mind of the archaeologist had no capacity left to admire the gate's efforts to impress since it was focussed on the immediate danger of the two black clad guards in the foreground, their dark armour plates part blocking out, part reflecting the light of the two metal braziers positioned at either side of the gate. Their bearing gave as much impression of hostility as a pair of statues made from rare black marble, still enough to not change the angles at which the firelight reflected off them. Unconsciously calculating her chances against them anyway, Lara's already halting pace slowed further when she had made it halfway across the courtyard.
At the coldly spoken word, the feeling of acute peril instantaneously transformed back into the previous gnawing unease, made worse by the sudden realisation of possibly once more having angered the Sun Queen. She drew a deep breath and quickly closed the remaining distance, her last step already the beginning of a stiff bow towards the queen, followed by another one towards the samurai.
After she had straightened up again she addressed the empress in very carefully pronounced Japanese.
"What is it you wish, Your Majesty?"
Three slight nods of approval cleared the tension while Himiko's disapproving gaze mellowed, a transient smile touching her becalmed face.
"I see your alertness has not left you." The queen stated neutrally before turning slightly to her right and indicating the high ranking samurai. 'This is Takema-no-Chojiro who will be your master while you strive for an understanding of Kenjitsu. Meet him here at daybreak in a fortnight.'
For a few moments, the only movement and sound came from the burning embers in their metal vessels.
The young scribe's garments matched the colours of the setting sun in the firelight, the soft orange glow reflecting off the warrior's demon mask as she turned towards him and shakily performed a respectful bow. Her head remained lowered after standing up again with conflicting emotions vying with her intense exhaustion. She even caught herself trying to suppress a little smile which struck her as outlandish in her situation. She did not catch the slight reluctance in the commander's curt half bow that marred the usually perfect motion.
Himiko sounded pleased with herself.
"Light a torch and lantern and follow me."
Having gingerly taken a torch out of its holder with her abused left hand Lara hesitated for a second before drawing a breath as she turned to light it in the nearest brazier, having to face the samurai again in doing so. As she looked up from the torch sputtering to life she saw that her master had turned his head towards her, waiting. She paused, her gaze hardening.
Keeping her red rimmed eyes fixed on the warrior's mask she bent her knee, reaching for the heavy brass lantern sitting on the ground beside the brazier with her right hand. She grit her teeth, gripped the handle with index and middle finger and slowly rose, a fine sheen of sweat forming on her brow as the weight visibly pulled at the swollen limb.
When, after a few moments, the stormguard had turned away to resume his guard position without any further reaction; Himiko inclined her head towards her in a small gesture of acknowledgement before heading off towards the former registrar's office.
With every crunching step that the queen took in silence toward the looming ruined buildings, her companion increasingly tensed until she finally was unable to any longer suppress an incredulous and agitated whisper and almost forgot to stay at her place behind the empress' right shoulder.
"Kenjitsu. The art of the sword... Are you serious?"
First when they reached the entrance, after sufficient time to have Lara remembering her tiredness and burning right hand that was currently unfit for any weapon, Himiko finally stopped and turned around to address her in a measured voice.
"I wish that you learn to fight."
"I know how to fight." Lara retorted.
"No. You know how to kill; although the two are often confused sides of the same well-worn coin. Kenjitsu will teach you how to control yourself and to have patience. It will teach you discipline. And in the process you may even learn from a master how to wield a blade forged by one of Yamatai's finest sword smiths; something I gather should be to your liking."
There was the reflection of contentment in the queen's eyes as she regarded the startled young archaeologist who cast her a glance of both disbelief and elation before inclining her head and fixing her eyes on the ground. Shame and anger crept onto her bruised features as she stood there, flexing her hurting hands until the pain drove everything else away, leaving only tired confusion.
"Why are you doing this?" She huskily said to the hem of the white robes before her.
The empress smiled.
A soft breeze sprang up in the cooling night air, carrying the scent of pine needles after a long summer day through the darkened courtyard, quietly whistling through the empty eye sockets of long since decayed passageways and windows. It made the queen's robes sway a little and delicately toyed with the girl's ponytail. A little bit of dust blew through the entrance that in the flickering light of torch and lantern displayed the bone white remnants of a once beauteous floral pattern on a smudgy, flaking background.
Himiko slowly reached out and rested the fingertips of her unblemished left hand on Lara's scarred right forearm, addressing her softly while doing so.
"You may even learn of ways to protect the life of others than just your own."
Lara regarded the hand with a carefully blank face, unmoving. When she finally spoke, her voice had found a little edge again. She looked up to meet the queen's eyes though she did not retract her arm.
"I can't do this. There are people out there who depend on me. I have to get them off this island no matter what. This graveyard. I cannot let them die here. If they're still out there I've got to find them. You understand? I have to."
Tilting her head backwards, she audibly exhaled.
"…Your Majesty." she added as an afterthought, meeting the queen's eyes.
"You will." Himiko confirmed quietly.
She felt Himiko breaking the touch, the queen's fingers leaving an unpleasant tingling sensation on her forearm that flowed downwards into her injured hand where it turned into a dull and throbbing heat. Startled, she brought her arm up in alarm, wincing. The heat in her hand peaked as she cradled it to her chest with a gasp, bracing herself for another round of excruciating pain that failed to materialize. Her ragged breathing calming down she opened her eyes, blinking a few times before slowly stretching the injured limb. The heat had subsided to a warm glow. Her hand was free of pain; only a slight discolouration remained where the bad swelling had been.
"Come with me. I have much to show you."
The queen beckoned her inside the building where the sound of pebbles and crumbling masonry under their feet changed to the quiet whisper of first sand, then fine dust on smooth stone. Nothing remained of the former splendour that once would have filled the entrance hall, only patches of moss adorned some of the cracks in the western wall. Below the moss a stairway led downwards into tunnels. The worn, smooth steps seemed to absorb the lantern light, leaving only a murky orange reflecting off their surface. They were hewn out of the same reddish black basalt that had devoured Mathias as he plummeted from the heights of the Ziggurat. An icy trickle crawled down the survivor's spine as they reached the dark bottom of the stairway where the blotchy remains of crimson candles where smeared across the floor.
The passageway they found themselves in stretched out in a southerly direction towards the palace building, showing the signs of frequent use. Soot clung to the ceiling and upper portions of the walls, some of it clearly very old while other patches had accumulated recently, still feeling soft and easily sticking to the archaeologists fingers as her scarred hands unconsciously brushed over them. Rusted torch holders created moving shadows in the soft light as the pair passed them by while the smell of damp and dry rot filled the cooling air.
Opposite doorways leading into light-less storage rooms lined the walls in regular intervals, some of the corroded hinges still clinging on to brittle wood. Debris and rotting crates filled most of the compartments although one of them had been cleared a while ago and decorated with crude wall paintings and hundreds of candles. Casting a look inside had the tense survivor instinctively feeling for the pistol at her hip, a frustrated grunt escaping her at the weapon's absence. She shifted the torch into her right hand and gripped it tightly, silently scolding herself for the signs of fear and willed herself to concentrate on following the queen. Himiko herself seemed completely oblivious to the recent inhabitant's marks, almost as if she wasn't able to notice them.
Slowly the dark stone began to loose its wet sheen and the wooden support beams looked more solid and increasingly unaffected by rot. Fine dust now covered the floor, swirling behind the queen's heels every time her robes swept over it, past storage room after storage room. A familiar stale metallic tang to the air emanating from further down the tunnel made Lara slow her steps, from now on continuously looking from side to side with growing unease.
A dim reflection caught her eye and made her stop dead. With a swift movement she was at the doorway to another side room, holding her breath, listening. Nothing moved, the only sound the quiet hiss of the torch that she now carefully held into the chamber, leaning further in to check its dark corners while being poised to jump.
"I do expect you to follow me when I tell you to do so."
She spun around at Himiko's calm voice directly behind her, only narrowly missing the queen's head with the torch.
"You should learn to temper your curiosity." Himiko asserted, who had barely flinched and was already turning away again.
Lara, blushing once more, clenched her free left fist but bit down a retort and nodded curtly before falling in behind the empress at her place one step behind her right shoulder.
The metallic tang she had noticed further up the tunnel sure enough soon turned into the stench of dry blood and the early stages of decomposition. It spilled out of a hallway at the end of the corridor where an iron portcullis had jammed in the upper third of its sliding path. Judging by the fresh scratches on stone and metal, somebody had very recently frantically tried and failed to shut it. The queen unceremoniously ducked under the barrier and stepped into the widening area behind the gate, its defensive design marking it as a guard post.
Lit up by the torch and lantern the domed ceiling showed an elaborate painting of two samurai in full regalia crossing swords before a stylized sun, remaining specks of leaf gold still faintly glittering in the orange light. Three Solarii lay beneath them at the western wall, two of the men with openly broken shins and a pair of arrows protruding form their stomachs; the last one impaled on a short spear that exited through his ribcage. His contorted hands still clutched an empty assault rifle while two reinforced metal shields and machetes lay scattered around his companions.
The stone floor around them was the darkest shade of red, interlaced with streaks of the shiny red wax of a hundred molten candles that had turned the wall and ceiling a sooty black. The sticky surface was criss-crossed by the patterns of the three men's final struggle. Emblazoned on the wall above them was the symbol of the sun, crude letters spelling out "Father Mathias will set us free" across it.
"Terminally…" Lara said in a tense voice as her eyes darted back and forth over the visible area.
Slowly approaching footsteps caused a hissing arc of light to illuminate the murky corners of the room as the survivor spun on her feet with torch in hand, trying to gauge the odds against the eight ashen faces emerging from a partially collapsed stairway on the side opposite the gate. Shifting her grip on the torch and holding it like a dagger above her head she took a step back, freezing on the spot as she ran into the queen who stood motionless and unyielding at the impact.
Himiko carefully laid her hands on Lara's shoulders in a feather-light touch, an immaculate thumbnail inadvertently touching her sweat drenched hairline. Visible goose bumps immediately appeared on the clammy exposed skin. The queen's voice carried a hint of friendly amusement as her soft breath grazed the neck of the girl who stood rigid with tautness.
"These are merely my servants. My ever alert young scribe may calm down as to stay her hand."
Her throat bobbing up and down as she swallowed drily, the survivor watched the ashen faced figures slowly approach and bowing deeply upon reaching a distance of three paces from the queen, their eyes fixed firmly on the ground. A little smile had begun to tug at the corners of Himiko's mouth as she lifted her hands off the younger woman's shoulders, with two fingers accidentally sifting through the ponytail still bunched up across her chest.
"There is also, at present, no need to protect me. You may take up proper distance again."
Lara shuddered, just enough to be discernible through the touching garments between them. Then she realised that she had been holding out her left arm as if to shield Himiko from attack and hastily slid away and out of the queen's reach to take up her station behind the royal right shoulder.
The empress watched her back away with a thoughtful yet unreadable expression; quickly replaced by the regal, emotionless facade as she turned her eyes away lest she follow the lowly scribe with her upper body. She irritatedly addressed her servants.
"Light the braziers. Clean this mess you have ignored. Bring sufficient lanterns to light the archive."
"Archive?" the archaeologist asked in a strained hush.
Himiko simply turned toward a wide entrance leading into an equally wide passageway on the eastern side of the guard room. The floor was covered in dusty footprints, pieces of plaster and skidding marks that continued towards the stairway leading up into the palace. At the end of the short corridor was an oval chamber, the far side a gaping breach in the otherwise flawless masonry. It smelled of excavation.
When the queen's lantern illuminated the space behind the gap it was filled with a soft red glow; the light diffusely reflected off a large double door, its crimson paintwork almost unblemished. For a little while she just stood there, her head lowered a tiny amount as if deep in thought. Straightening up she took an audible breath before standing aside to calmly address her companion.
"It remains intact, properly sealed according to protocol. It is yours to open."
With a dreamlike expression, Lara laid a hand upon the ancient wood and, after a long moment of hesitation, gently pushed it open; the hinges faintly creaking. From the murky darkness behind, the dry and dusty scent of centuries washed over her, carried on cool air trapped in a library of scrolls 600 years ago. The archaeologist swallowed heavily as she crossed her arms over her chest.
"I am making you an offer. Consider it well."