Screams and gunfire woke her up. Lara jumped out of bed and took the shotgun from under the bundle of clothes she was using as her pillow, then she decided she couldn’t go out in her underwear and hurriedly put on some clothes. She secured the Periapt in her backpack and left the tent.
“What the…?” She exclaimed... and then she saw it. Several Jeeps were arriving, from which men were jumping off and invading the camp, armed with submachine guns, led by... “Gunderson!” Lara cursed a thousand times for not having killed him when she had the chance.
Chaos erupted. The terrified excavators fled to the only place that seemed safe: the stronghold. The Bedouin, who felt war as if it were in their own blood, took up arms with savage cries and rushed to meet the invaders. The result was one group bumping into the other and forming a maze of terrified and angry people, all yelling amidst the fuss.
“Oh, c’mon.” Lara muttered, annoyed.
Gunderson’s men ran between the tents and surrounded the people, targeting them with their weapons. The Bedouin faced them, but panic was rising.
Lara hid behind a tent, waited until one of the mercenaries passed by, and then she pounced on him and knocked him down. Both rolled down in the sand. After a brief struggle, Lara knocked him out with a punch to the temple.
She stumbled and looked around. The mercenaries had set fire to some of the tents and there were several corpses laying in the sand. Suddenly, someone pushed her towards the floor and threw her down, leaving her breathless. Gunfire rained down around them.
“Have you lost your mind?” Kurtis’s voice rang in her ear. “Do you want to become the most beautiful strainer ever?”
The Bedouin’s war cries echoed throughout the camp. Lara and Kurtis crawled through the sand and took cover behind a dune. He took the Boran X and adjusted the scope above the barrel. A mercenary went towards them, but Kurtis brought him down with one shoot, then repeated the action twice more on two more mercenaries.
“Where are you going?”
“Cover me, Kurtis! I’m going to find Putai!” She sprang forward and ran between the tents. Kurtis swore.
The mercenaries rushed towards her, having orders to capture her, but they didn’t even touch a single hair of hers. Kurtis, fast and lethal, wiped out one by one from his parapet before they could reach her.
Lara found Putai kneeling behind a Jeep, with pursed lips and gripping her robe, watching the battle. “Lara!” She cried. “Who are these men? What do they want?”
“It’s me they want,” Lara gasped. “Putai, please, you must leave. Both you and your people. Immediately.”
The Bedouin shaman frowned. “My people have never feared an enemy. We’ll fight.”
“You can’t fight them!” Lara kicked up a tuft of sand. “Their weapons are better. This will be a slaughter!”
Then the gunfire stopped. Gunderson gave a curt order from an elevated position on a dune and immediately the mercenaries ceased fire. The Bedouin did the same, waiting for the parley.
Gunderson’s booming voice was heard throughout the camp.
“Nomads! Workers! We’re not interested in you. We want a woman named Lara Croft. Deliver her to us and you’ll have no more deaths to mourn.”
“I knew it.” Lara muttered quietly.
Putai rose. Black as ebony, she was a beautiful woman, and shone with the pride and dignity of her race. “Come with me, Lara,” told to her friend, and walked towards the head of the mercenaries.
Lara looked at her and wondered if she was losing her mind. She reluctantly followed her, with the gun raised and the finger on the trigger.
Putai stopped a few steps from Gunderson. “Who are you?” She snapped, lifting her chin.
“Marten Gunderson, at your feet, ma’am.” He said mockingly. Then he looked at Lara. “And here’s that slut.”
Lara fired. The shot fell just at Gunderson’s feet and made him jump back. The Bedouin laughed and applauded enthusiastically.
Gunderson flushed with rage. “Last time you make fun of me, woman. Now’s your chance to show your class, if you’ve any. Dispose of the weapon and surrender, and I swear on my honour as a mercenary we won’t hurt anyone else. I’ll tell my men to withdraw and spare this pathetic company of diggers and this bunch of filthy ragged beggars.” He said looking at Putai with contempt. “However, if you still resist no one in this whole damn place will make it out alive.”
“What’s he saying?” Asked Putai. Gunderson was talking in English and neither she nor any Bedouin understood it. Lara quickly translated his words. Putai indignantly turned to Gunderson and spat in his direction. “Let them come if they want! We’ll face them!”
Lara shook her head, exhausted, and looked around. The Bedouin were waiting, motionless. The workers were hiding in the wreckage of the shops, terrified. Kurtis was near, and beside him, she noticed a shocked and trembling Jean.
She exchanged a desperate glance with Kurtis, who slowly shook his head. Don’t ever surrender.
But that meant a slaughter. The nomad’s rickety old revolvers and machine guns couldn’t compare to the mercenaries’ modern, sophisticated weapons. It would be a bloodbath. She could avoid that. She...
“I don’t know where you come from or why you want her.” Putai then spoke in French for Gunderson to understand. “But you’ll have to step over our dead bodies.” She raised high the rod, powerful, exultant, and then she launched the Bedouin’s war cry, a shrill whistle made by striking the tongue back and forth on the sides of the mouth: the zagharit.
That was the signal. Then the Bedouin attacked all together.
Kurtis kicked a mercenary on the stomach, and struck another with his elbow. He caught the Chirugai on the fly after cutting a few throats and then drew his Boran. “Like cockroaches.” He grunted. “The more you kill, the more appear out of nowhere.” He knew how competent and tireless they could be, having been one of them once. Gunderson’s new mercenaries were equipped specifically for the desert, and had express orders to spare him; so he felt allowed in doing carnage.
The killing spread throughout the area. The Bedouin fought and defended themselves vigorously; after all, that was their land. But they could do little against the trained and well-armed soldiers. “They’ll kill them all.” Kurtis said quietly. “They have no choice.”
Jean, who was at his side, shuddered. He carried a small revolver in hand, but he looked like he’d be killed rather than dare fire it.
“Where’s Lara?” Kurtis said.
“I just saw her over there.” Said the Frenchman. “She was protecting mademoiselle Putai.”
Kurtis fired in Jean’s direction. The bullet passed near his head and struck a mercenary who was about to stab the Egyptologist in the back. “Be on the alert.” He urged to the terrified Jean. “I can’t look after you.” He turned and started to run for Lara.
The French archaeologist stood alone amid the chaos, holding the gun with trembling hands. “Mon Dieu!” He whimpered. “I should have never left Cairo!”
Half an hour later it was over.
The camp was quiet. A deadly silence. The sand was soaked with blood and covered with corpses. Bedouin. Egyptians. Mercenaries. Many bodies of different nations...mixed together in the same final embrace.
Amidst that bleak scenario, a man devoted himself to the unpleasant task of checking the bodies. He was unscathed, and so was the short, fat man behind him.
“They captured her...” Kurtis repeated again and again, his teeth clenched in anger, “they took her!”
Lara was missing. His anguish and concern were increasing, and for once, he didn’t bother trying to hide it.
“Look! Out there!” Said Jean suddenly.
They ran to the place he’d indicated. Putai was lying face down on the sand. Kurtis turned her over gently, and immediately he knew he couldn’t do anything for her. The shaman’s bloodstained body was riddled with bullet holes.
She opened her eyes, coughing. A trickle of blood slipped out of the corner of her lips. Kurtis took her in his arms and held her so she could breathe.
“Demon Hunter...” Putai whispered.
“Where’s Lara?” He said.
The Bedouin’s cloudy, glassy eyes squinted, and she coughed again. “She tried to defend me.” she stammered. “She ran out of ammunition and fought until the end. I tried to help, but I’m not a fighter. That bald man approached her from behind and knocked her down. They took her. I tried to stop them...” A convulsion shook her. The pain was an excruciating torture. She again coughed and expelled a new spurt of blood from her mouth.
Kurtis, still holding her, moved his hand to the Boran. One shot, fast and accurate, would suddenly end her suffering and give her a better death. He’d often done that with some fellow legionnaires in the battlefield.
Putai saw his gesture and apparently understood what he was about to do. She raised a trembling and bloodied hand and put it on his shoulder. “That won’t be necessary.” She gurgled. “I’m about to join my ancestors. Find Lara...please swear you’ll find her...and you’ll destroy those who have done this to us.”
“I will.” He vowed, “I swear it.”
Putai relaxed. She dropped her hand down and grabbed a handful of the faintly red sand of Egypt. She took it to her lips, making a last tribute to her land and breathed her last time. Then her green eyes moistened and remained staring into space.
Kurtis rested her gently on the ground and closed her eyes. Taking the edge of her dark robe, he completely covered her and stood up.
Jean had witnessed the scene in silence. The archaeologist was quietly sobbing and tears ran down his cheeks.
For a moment, Kurtis wished he could do the same. To take out his rage. To mourn and howl with anger at the pointless carnage. But no tears came to his eyes. So many years ago tears dried for him...so many years he spent living in the shadow of death and destruction...so he had been forced to become desensitized to it.
He looked at his arms. They were all covered with blood. He looked at the Bedouin’s corpse for the last time and strode away while saying: “Let’s go. No time to lose.”
“But the bodies...” Jean hesitated. “They’re unburied, and the desert’s beasts...”
“It’s the living who need our help,” Kurtis replied dryly.
Jean followed Kurtis through the desolate wasteland, trying not to step on anybody. “What are we supposed to do? The Government...”
“You’ll take care of the Government,” Kurtis replied. “Take a Jeep back to Cairo and tell the authorities what happened here.”
The Egyptologist made a face of horror. “What should I say?”
Kurtis was gathering his things at full speed and stowing them in the baggage attached to his motorbike, which was still intact despite everything that had happened. “Tell them that the responsible party in all this is Marten Gunderson, who recently escaped from a prison in Romania. Tell them that he and a sect known as the Cabal are also responsible for the crimes committed in Paris and Prague.” He got on the motorbike and looked at Jean. “Seeing the way you look, I’m sure they won’t doubt your word.”
Indeed, the Frenchman had his clothes torn into pieces; his body was covered in sand, scratches, and bruises.
“You must make contact with European police. Tell them that The Monstrum is not Lara Croft, but Joachim Karel. You must remember this name.”
Jean nodded, feeling dizzy. “Lara told me about two people...Selma Al-Jazeera and Vladimir Ivanoff. She said they knew the truth.”
“Indeed,” he confirmed. “Try to contact them. It will be easier with their help.”
“Good luck, monsieur Trent.”
He saluted and started towards the road. Jean took one of the Jeeps and, without looking back, returned to Cairo.
Upon reaching the Nile riverside, Kurtis halted and scanned the landscape around him. His tracker skills had served him little in the desert, for the tire tracks of Gunderson’s Jeeps had soon been erased by the wind. He was in a stalemate.
Not far from the shore of the great river there was a small village with a gas station next door. Along the shore there was a group of playing children, running and throwing mud at each other amid a cacophony of screams and squeals in general. One of them left the group and went towards Kurtis. “Wow!” He exclaimed. “What a cool motorbike!”
The man looked at the child. He wasn’t more than ten years old; skinny and dressed in rags, one of those street children who lived to rob tourists and knew English because of that. “You want to ride it?” He said. The child widened his eyes and nodded excitedly. Kurtis got off his bike, picked up the little body and placed him on the seat. He wasn’t really interested in kids, but experience had taught him that if one knew how to deal with them, they could become a valuable source of information.
A girl, also dirty and ragged, made a fearful gesture and came up to them. “Amir!” She shouted with a trembling voice. “Come here!” Obviously, she was afraid of Kurtis. But the boy wasn’t willing to get off the motorbike so soon. “Oh, shut up, Fadila!” He replied, then he told Kurtis: “She’s my older sister and believes she has the right to command me. She’s so suspicious! Before you arrived she did the same with the other foreigners.”
“What foreigners?” Kurtis asked casually.
Fadila looked at him suspiciously. “Hundreds of foreigners come here every day.” She murmured. “Why should we distinguish one from another?”
Bravo, thought Kurtis. Smart girl.
Again it was Amir who intervened. “Don’t play dumb, Fadila. Not all foreigners bring a dead woman with them.”
“Amir!” Screamed the girl, shocked.
Eureka, thought Kurtis, and added: “A dead woman?”
Enjoying all the attention, Amir told him: “There were hundreds of men, with several Jeeps. They stopped to refuel at the pump. I went into one of the Jeeps when no one was looking and I found the dead woman.”
“So you robbed them.”
“Yes!” Proudly admitted the child. “I’m the best here. No one has caught me yet.”
“You’re stupid.” Fadila said. “Those were evil men. If that bald one had caught you...”
“He was about three meters tall!” Amir continued enthusiastically.
Kurtis spoke again. “And how was the woman?”
“She was beautiful. She had braided hair and was dressed in a very weird way, for an archaeologist. Those bad guys had tied and gagged her.”
“Well, then she was not dead,” said Fadila, circumspect. “No one ties and gags a corpse.”
“You’re so sure, aren’t you?” Amir snapped, annoyed. “The woman was dead! I kicked her in the shin and she didn’t even blink. Dead like a stone!”
“You know where they went?” Kurtis said, abandoning all discretion.
“They took the North Road,” Fadila said.
The man nodded sharply. He turned, lifted the child from the bike and then left him on the floor. “Gotta go, guys. Farewell and good luck.” He jumped into the vehicle, took off and got lost on the road, leaving a trail of dust.
Amir stayed silent for a moment, remembering the metallic touch of the motorbike. Then he turned to his sister and said accusingly: “You’re annoying! First you act suspicious and then you made him leave!”
“Oh, shut up,” said Fadila. “Didn’t you notice he was her boyfriend?”
Amir blinked, confused. “The dead woman’s boyfriend? How do you know that?”
She narrowed her eyes. “A woman knows about these things.”
“Bah!” Cried the child, and threw a handful of mud in her eyes. “You women know nothing!”
They engaged in a new battle of mud.
Lara regained consciousness, slowly and laboriously. All her bones ached, and when she tried to move a pang pierced her temples. Her head spun continuously. She tried to breathe, but she found her mouth gagged with a flexible band that was mercilessly sunk between her lips.
When attempting to open her eyes, her blurred vision found cloudy pictures and dancing lights, so she closed them again. She heard nothing except an annoying ringing in the ears and something resembling airplane propellers.
She vaguely remembered what had happened. She was trying to shield Putai when a group of mercenaries had attacked them: a great moment to run out of ammo. Both her and Putai had fought like lions - the shaman’s rod had opened more than a skull, but in the end they had been defeated. Lara could have escaped easily, but something inside her rebelled against the idea of abandoning the Bedouin to her fate. And then she felt that brutal elbow to the temple. And the darkness that followed.
“What’s up, Miss Croft?” That mocking voice made her open her eyes, and through the mist that clouded them she saw Gunderson’s face. She tried to move, but was thoroughly tied, and every attempt to move made those shackles cut into her flesh like blades.
“The plane is about to take off,” the man told her. “In a few hours we’ll be in Munich. The Meister sends you his regards and anxiously awaits your arrival.” He laughed.
Lara closed her eyes. They hurt her too much.
She didn’t fear for herself. At least not until she was before that monster Karel. At the moment, there was no use worrying about it. She’d been seized, beaten, bound, and gagged like a thousand times before. That didn’t frighten her. However, she must find some way...maybe if she pretended that...
Gunderson was alarmed when she began to cough. After a few seconds, her face was red and her eyes bulged.
“She’s choking!” Said the mercenary who was watching her.
“Nonsense,” Gunderson replied. “She can breathe perfectly fine.”
But Lara was still coughing and uttering muffled gasps, and the mercenary said: “She may choke with all that cotton.”
Gunderson grunted impatiently. His greatest wish was that bloody woman died there, but that wasn’t convenient at all. He approached her; withdrew her gag and pulled the cotton out of her mouth.
Everything happened at breakneck speed. Lara grabbed the index and middle finger’s Gunderson with her teeth and crushed them with the molars. She heard Gunderson’s scream, but she didn’t release him and bit with all her strength, closing her eyes. She noticed how his finger bones crunched between her teeth and instantly a brutal impact on her cheekbone almost knocked her unconscious. Stunned, she dropped Gunderson’s hand and fell back. Above the deafening ringing in her ears she heard the bully bawling: “You dirty little slut!” She opened her eyes and saw Gunderson’s bloody hand, which he was grasping in rage and pain. His fingers were bent at an impossible angle. Out of himself, the bully kicked her in the stomach. Lara curled, gasping for breath.
Marten Gunderson would’ve killed her right then and there if it weren’t for several mercenaries pouncing on him and taking him away from her side. The hitman was yelling like an animal: “Enough! Get her out of my way! Get her out of my sight or I’ll kill her! I swear I’ll kill that damned whoooooore!”
Thousands of hands fell over her, so she started biting, spitting, and kicking out of control. Only then she realized how much her joints were hurting. How exhausted she was. That struggle was useless. She was going to lose. She was going to...
A brutal blow to her head cut off her dishevelled thoughts.