It was getting dark when they left the stronghold. The return trip had been easy, with the skeletons leading the way, though Lara felt awkward about following a bunch of bones who treated Kurtis with great respect, and was mostly miffed when she noticed the traps didn’t react to his presence. She commented about taking Kurtis everywhere from then on to avoid booby-traps and also something about her work no longer having any intrigue or passion.
The sunlight blinded their eyes when they came out. Jean, who was there leading the excavators, ran towards them: “How did it go? Sacré bleu!” He said, looking at Kurtis. “What happened, Monsieur Trent?” Kurtis had half of his face black with clotted blood.
“Occupational hazards,” said Lara. “Is the infirmary already set up?”
“Yes, by there.”
Upon entering the stronghold, they had left behind a wasteland devastated by the sirocco, but now there was a real camp.
Kurtis refused help and began to tend to himself. He wiped off the crusted blood and examined the wound. It was pretty ugly, swollen and bruised above his left temple. “Another string of stitches,” he muttered, annoyed, looking at it in the mirror.
“Let me help you,” Lara said, approaching him.
He turned and waved her off with his hand. “Hold it right there, Miss Croft. You’re pretty competent as a partner, but as a nurse you’re terrible. I had enough of your ‘help’ at Brasov.” He turned back towards the mirror, wet a cotton swab in alcohol and applied it to the wound. Before Jean’s horrified eyes, he began to sew the gash himself without even flinching.
“Wow, that is one tough guy,” Jean said quietly to Lara.
She frowned and responded disdainfully: “Yes, really tough.” Then she turned and left the tent.
Lara caressed the Periapt while copying its symbols on a piece of paper. They were neither letters nor hieroglyphics, just a messy map of signs with no relation between them: mystical, religious, natural... An Egyptian Ankh. An Isis’ Knot. Horus’ Eye. The Christian cross. The Muslim crescent. The Chinese Ying and Yang. The Lux Veritatis’ anchor. The symbols of the pagan gods: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury...the Jewish star. The Hindi Eye. The Illuminati’s triangle. The swastika of the Celts. Lucifer’s pentacle.
The symbols were endless and different, such a fascinating mixture that Lara felt puzzled. For the first time in her life she had in her hands an artefact depicting the symbols of all religions, cults, and myths ever existed on Earth.
She closed her eyes, overwhelmed. Kurtis was right: there was no fortune in the world large enough to buy such a magnificent object. A perfect, universal orb. An indestructible artefact. A crystal able to kill angels...
“Where did you come from?” She whispered, stroking its rough surface. It was the dream of every archaeologist and tomb raider. It was her dream. The most beautiful device which had ever existed.
A sound took her out of her meditations. Kurtis had just lifted the canvas’ tent. “May I enter?”
Lara nodded and left the pencil on the scribbled papers. Apparently, Kurtis had been able to heal his wound correctly. He wore a cotton patch on his forehead. “I know you’re angry.”
“Great,” she said, glaring at him. “By the way, I’d also like to know why on earth you had to risk yourself like that. You almost killed Karel with your flying blade.”
Kurtis smiled calmly. “I won’t have that monster, under any circumstances, take something so beautiful and precious from me.”
“I wouldn’t have let him steal the Periapt!” Lara jumped.
Kurtis looked at her with his piercing blue eyes. “I’m not talking about the Periapt.”
Lara felt a wave of heat rise throughout her body. “You’re mad,” she said, looking away.
“Just what he said.”
“And he’s right!” She yelled, turning to look at him. “You could have died!”
Lara blinked, confused. “So what, you say? You mean you don’t care?” She jumped to her feet. Her anger was increasing. “If I’d known you didn’t give a single fuck about your own life, Mr. Trent, I wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble to solve this mess! So next time you see Karel, you can cut him into pieces if you want and die with him! Less hassle for me!”
She walked towards the exit, but Kurtis grabbed her arm. Lara pursed her lips and hissed: “Let me go.”
“Not before listening to me.”
“Don’t make me hit you.”
“I won’t give you the chance.”
“Ah-ah!” She said, raising her chin. “You might have caught me off guard at the Louvre, but that doesn’t mean you can...”
“I know what I can and what I cannot do,” Kurtis said. “Will you stop acting like a brat?”
Lara’s eyes threw sparks. She reflected a moment and then pulled away Kurtis’ hand and crossed her arms over her chest. “Ok. I’m listening.”
Kurtis sighed. “Lara, I really appreciate your help. But you can’t understand. I’ve been dealing with this my entire life. But you? Just since a month ago. So far you’ve proven to be really skilled in handling this, in fact, I can’t help but admire you. Experience has shown me I wasn’t wrong when I trusted you and left you leeway to defeat Eckhardt.” He walked to the desk and looked at her papers. “But this time the issue is more serious and terrible than you can imagine. I appreciate your interest, I thank you for answering my call and I thank you for each time you were by my side, cuz I know if you don’t discover the True Option, nobody will, and neither will I.” He stared at her. “That’s why I’ll be with you and we’ll go on looking for the clue together, I assure you.”
He raised a hand to silence her. “It may seem that when I saw Karel I lost my mind, blinded by hatred or something, and I thought only of revenge. Not at all. I was perfectly aware of what could happen to me if I killed him. But I simply couldn’t waste that chance. It’s so rare to be underestimated by a demon to get enough advantage to hurt him. If I hadn’t been so exhausted, I’d have halved him right then and there,” he shrugged. “Instead, I failed. Now he’s angry and won’t underestimate me again. Too bad.”
“My life’s not important. What really mattered at that moment was to destroy him, or at least prevent him from taking the Periapt...and you.”
Lara looked at him in silence. That philosophy was totally incomprehensible to her. One had to cling to life if they had a chance. And Kurtis had a chance. Having a True Option...why should he die?
“You’re right,” she said, “I can’t understand. But at least I hope next time you won’t engage in a duel to the death, at least not until we find the damn clue.”
“I promise,” he smiled.
“Truthfully, you’ve been quite impressive,” she said, looking askance at him.
Kurtis laughed. “C’mon! Did you see how pissed he was?”
The next day was harsh. Jean and his workers wanted to enter the stronghold, but Kurtis refused. The place was sacred and he wouldn’t have them looting, plundering, and defiling Loanna’s tomb. There was a riot and the workers stormed the stronghold, but came running back with their tails between their legs when the first booby trap activated. Lara yelled until she was hoarse, kicked a few unruly workers, and locked herself in her tent to study the Periapt.
“Dear Lara, we can’t leave without seeing the grave...” Jean complained. “We’re archaeologists! Please, try to understand, my dear, if all persons were like your friend, Tutankhamen would remain forgotten and nobody would’ve uncovered the Sphinx.”
“I know, but he’s right. Anyway, if you can pass through the traps and a couple of undying knights...”
Jean shuddered. “Could you convince him? You said both the guards and the traps obey him...”
“There’s no time for that,” she cut him off. “Give me a hand with this, Jean. I’m tired of going in circles.”
The Periapt had her more and more fascinated. She’d copied, grouped, and classified all symbols, written down everything she knew about them...and all she’d achieved was even more convoluted gibberish.
“Well, dear, I’m an Egyptologist, not an expert in symbolism,” he said, examining the stacks of papers, “so I don’t see any connection here. There’s a lack of information...and I’m afraid this orb is so overtaxed.”
“But the Golden Seal hasn’t changed. It still shows us this place.”
“Maybe you missed something, or you went to the wrong place.”
“No way,” she said, throwing a pencil and clenching her fists. “This place is perfect! Where could we have gone wrong?”
Jean began to review the endless list of symbols. “The True Option...” he muttered. At that moment he was interrupted by a scream.
Lara and Jean ran out of the tent and found the workers running and pointing back. There, marked on the horizon, were several rows of riders enveloped in white robes, waiting in silence. In front of them seemed to be the leader, wrapped in a large black cloak. All were armed.
“Mon Dieu,” Jean gasped, terrified.
Kurtis had appeared, and made a gesture to get the gun. “No,” said Lara, and prevented him. “They don’t come to attack us. They’re Medjai.”
“Med-what?” Kurtis said.
“Medjai. North Bedouin people. I’ll talk to the chief.”
Lara walked toward the rows of riders. People in the camp had gathered around Jean and Kurtis and looked frightened at the nomads.
The leader looked at the woman as she approached. Kurtis, however, quietly drew his gun and kept it hidden under his arm. A single act of hostility towards Lara...and bye bye, leader.
“Salam alaikum,” greeted Lara. “Why did you come so far from your land?”
“Times are harsh,” said the black figure, with a soft and warm voice. “I’m glad to see you again, Lara Croft.”
She blinked, surprised, recognizing the voice. “Putai? Is that you?”
The leader uncovered her face. She was a woman.
That evening, both nomads and workers dined together. Certain members of the expedition felt pretty suspicious of those armed-to-the-teeth Arabs, but they weren’t hostile at all.
“It’s been a long time,” Putai said, seated next to Lara around a campfire, “I thought I wouldn’t see you again, Tomb Raider.”
The Bedouin woman was a shaman and unlike her peers, was not Arab but rather Ethiopian. Her skin was dark as ebony, she had very long black hair braided in a complex hairstyle decorated with colourful beads. She wore a robe as dark as her skin and she was carrying a wooden staff. The most fascinating thing about her were her eyes, green as emeralds, framed by henna tattoos. No individual of her kin had those eyes.
“What happened, Putai?” Lara said. “You were the shaman of your tribe, not its leader.”
“My father died a few months ago,” she explained, speaking in French with a strong Arabic accent. “My brother was killed two weeks ago by the fundamentalists. I’ve assumed his leadership.”
Lara didn’t know what surprised her the most, the Bedouin having accepted the command of a woman or Putai, so peaceful and spiritual, having consented to taking a role involving fighting and power.
After dinner, people retreated to their tents. Finally, there was only one fire alone in the camp. Around it gathered Putai, Jean, and Lara. Kurtis, in accordance with his habit, sat somewhat apart from the others, smoking in silence but still listening to the conversation.
“How did you meet?” Jean asked the Bedouin.
“I found her wounded in the Great Tomb of the Ancient King.”
“She means Cheops’ Pyramid,” Lara said, seeing the Egyptologist’s confused face.
“Then it was her who rescued you!” Said the Frenchman. “What happened?”
“If Lara doesn’t mind...” Putai said politely.
She shrugged. She had spent two years silent because of the media, but now she was among friends.
So Putai began her story.
It was a January afternoon. Putai and her father had ridden to the Great Tomb of the Ancient King, which the Westerners called “pyramid”. There, hidden behind a dune, a team of archaeologists were working hard. An elderly man with a limp, dressed in white, was leading them.
“Look at those thieves plundering the holy places again,” grunted Putai.
“No, daughter. This time they’re trying to find a missing explorer,” the old leader said, pointing towards the crippled man. “That’s Werner Von Croy. He’s trying to rescue a former protégé, Lara Croft.”
Putai spat on the ground to ward off evil spirits. His father did the same. “The woman who freed Seth!”
“Yes, my daughter. For those people there’s nothing sacred.”
“Then let her remain buried! She must pay the price for her profanation!”
“Seems that’s what they’re doing. Look at that,” her father said.
Indeed, the camp was being uprooted. Operators were collecting tents and materials and carrying them back into the Jeeps.
Von Croy was standing in front of the pyramid. He pressed a dusty backpack in his hands, his face expression showing deep sorrow and dejection.
“Come, child. They have left her for dead.”
“Yes, father. Let those Westerners take care of their affairs.”
The young shaman never came to know what prompted her to return to the pyramid. Maybe the earth spirits, who spoke to her in dreams. Maybe the compassion inspired by the old cripple’s look. Maybe his sorrowful face, like the one of a father who’d lost his daughter. Maybe the warmth and longing with which he gripped that backpack. Maybe his mourning when they took him away.
Anyway, the next night Putai entered the underground tunnels of the Great Pyramid. Her Bedouin eyes were able to guide her in the dark, a faithful ally of her people for generations.
She reached the end of the tunnel dig, set by Von Croy’s team. Then she started to remove stones, until her robe was torn; her arms were injured, but she still didn’t stop for a while. When she cleared the tunnel she was dirty with dust and soaked with sweat. But she didn’t stop trying. She struggled to unearth the opening and dragged on despite that she’d begun to feel a kind of claustrophobia - she who’d been raised by people always living outdoors and whose only shelter was that of the corpses when buried in the sand.
When she believed she wouldn’t be able to go on, she saw her.
The explorer was a dark shape lying half-buried in the dark, looking like a broken doll, her arms and legs twisted at impossible angles, dirty with dust and soaked with blood.
Putai crawled to her and pulled her hair away, uncovering her face. She’d a swollen eye, her lips and face covered in cuts and scrapes, the skin had a greyish hue.
“What should I do?” Putai said to the empty darkness. “She’s dead. Take her to her people? Leave her here?”
The last option was the easiest, but she nevertheless grabbed her leg and started pulling her. Almost instantly the wounded woman screamed and convulsed in pain.
“Allahu akbar!” Gasped Putai. “She’s alive!”
The Western woman opened her eyes and tried to speak, but her mouth was dry and full of sand. Putai took a tiny jar of water from her tattered robe and brought it to the woman’s chapped lips. She made a concerted effort to swallow the water, then she dropped her head again, exhausted.
“Lara Croft?” Tried Putai.
She nodded slowly.
“I should let you die,” Putai said then, speaking more to herself than to Lara. “You freed Seth. You brought evil to Egypt.”
“No...” said Lara then, speaking with a gurgle, “I fixed my mistake...he’s locked up again...” Then she experienced a brutal coughing fit and winced in pain, struggling to keep still with her broken ribs as every movement was torture.
Putai looked at her in silence. Her wounds were serious but not fatal: nothing that her wisdom couldn’t heal. If she rescued her from that place, she’d live. If she left her there, she’d die.
“This is it. Allah has left her to me.”
It was useless to try to move her, so she began to retreat. The injured woman glanced at her desperately. The Bedouin said: “Don’t worry. I won’t leave you. I will return with help. I’ll get you out of here. Hold on.”
And she returned. They got Lara out of there. Putai took her into her tent and became responsible for her cure and care. Months passed before she could walk again. By the fifth month her bones were positively healed, but she’d lost her agility. She limped, looking rather crippled like Von Croy, unable to move for long distances. She took long to be again what she used to be.
Some Western doctors had hardly believed that healing wisdom of a nomadic and primitive tribe could heal such bad injuries, but the fact is that Lara fully recovered. She and Putai became friends. They rode together through the desert and were together from that time. The Bedouin taught her to live with her people, their wisdom and tradition. As for Lara, she told her experiences throughout the world and taught her to speak French, since it was the second official language of Egypt.
“I’ve to return to England,” Lara said one day. “My people still believe I’m dead.”
“That crippled old man...Von Croy...” Putai hesitated.
“Once he was my teacher and mentor...now he’s my worst enemy.”
“But he tried to find you.”
“He abandoned me,” Lara made a sneer. “He’s a traitor. He came so close to me. I could hear his voice but I hadn’t the strength to call him. He stole my backpack and left.”
Furious, she spat to one side. She’d been so long among the nomads that she was now used to mimicking this particular gesture to show one’s distaste when mentioning something or someone who brought them bad memories.
Putai wanted to tell her that Von Croy had not abandoned her, that he was forced to leave. That his grief had been real. But she knew about the power of hatred, and her friend was full of hate.
Lara would never forgive.
“I still remember the day you returned from the dead,” Jean said when Putai finished. “We were celebrating a memorial in your honour.”
“Who had the brilliant idea of carving that hideous statue of mine?” Lara said.
Jean shrugged. “I think it was Father Dunstan.”
They laughed remembering that moment. Lara went running into the chapel and interrupted the service. Winston almost had a heart attack and Lara’s parents were slow to recover from the shock. As for Father Dunstan, he always said from that time on Lara’s return was due to his prayers, though at the moment he saw her he sprinkled her with holy water, as if she was a ghost. After all, she’d been missing for months.
“Did you solve the differences with your mentor in the end?” Putai asked then.
Lara shook her head. “He was murdered. That’s why I’m here, stuck in the greatest mess of my life, being the main suspect of his murder and with the police investigating me.”
“But he never told you why he left?” Jean said.
“He had no time. Everything happened too fast. At first I wasn’t even sure if I’d killed him myself. In any case, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Suddenly, Putai said: “What about you, Demon Hunter?”
Kurtis looked up, surprised. He’d already realized it was a Bedouin habit to nickname everything, but the coincidence was too blatant. “How’d you know that?”
“My people still tell tales about the days when your kin lived in the stronghold. I can recognize a warrior when I see one. And you’ve been through many battles.”
Lara and Jean were staring at him. So much attention unnerved him, as he was used to remaining unnoticed. “I don’t discuss personal issues,” he replied sharply, then got up and walked away.
“Nice fellow,” Jean said sarcastically. He didn’t like Kurtis after being barred from entering Loanna’s tomb.
Lara smiled mischievously. “He likes to play the mysterious man role.”
But she didn’t admit he succeeded in it. Kurtis was still a mystery to her. She wondered what kind of life he’d endured and why he insisted on closing himself off like behind a wall of bricks. That wasn’t shyness; Kurtis was anything but shy. Might be another way to remain unnoticed.