Romania had plenty of castles, but only one was considered to be Dracula’s home. It was Bran’s castle, in the city of Brasov, near where the Carpathians and Transylvanian Alps met.
Lara and Kurtis had discussed how to get there. A journey across the continent was immediately rejected: it would’ve taken too long to cross Bulgaria and better to avoid the police if somebody recognized Lara. By plane there were scales and they didn’t trust the airline’s security, so finally they decided to go by ship, which took them from Istanbul to Constanța, from where they would travel to Bucharest before making their way to the Alps.
In order to go unnoticed, they dressed as a pair of tourist guides working at the Balkans. While they were walking along the deck, Lara was explaining to her partner: “The so-called Count Dracula is, in fact, just a myth. The writer Bram Stoker was inspired by a real, historic person: The Transylvanian prince Vlad III Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler for executing his enemies in this manner. Another name he’s earned is Vlad Drakul, ‘the Devil’.”
“And that turned into Dracula.” Kurtis said.
“Exactly. He’s been known to drink human blood, to enjoy watching torture and executions as if they were a spectacle, and to even invite his enemies to dinner and then afterwards kill them.”
“Sounds like a perfect Nephilim.”
At night, Lara locked herself in her cabin with all the papers she had brought from Selma’s apartment and spent the whole night sketching maps and diagrams, to help herself clarify the data. Her friends used to say it was the boring side of her lifestyle, but she enjoyed wracking her brain as much as shooting or jumping over booby traps.
“This doesn’t make sense.” Lara whispered to the deaf pile of papers. “What on earth does an Amazon have to do with all this?” She took another page and started writing all she knew about this legendary figure.
Suddenly, she heard a cracking sound. She got up and retrieved her shotgun from under her pillow. She approached the bathroom -where the noise had come from- and kicked the door open. But she only saw her face in the mirror. “I’m paranoid.” She said. “I hear noises everywhere.” She was about to go back when, suddenly, she looked in the mirror again.
There was somebody behind her. She screamed and turned, but then she felt an Uzi’s barrel at her temple. “Silence!” She heard a male voice, speaking in Greek. “Drop your weapon. Your time is up.”
Kurtis was at his cabin sharpening the Chirugai’s razors when he heard the gunfire. The short burst of a submachine gun. And after that…only silence. The noise had come of Lara’s cabin, and he doubted she would shoot without a reason.
He jumped to his door and opened it in a pull, and after having run over a poor steward, he started banging on her door. “Lara! What’s up? Lara!!”
People were coming out of their cabins, attracted by the fuss. Without paying the others any mind, Kurtis rushed toward the door and knocked it down.
He was very lucky, since as he fell down he also avoided the bullets that were aimed directly where his head had been. He stood and rushed the man and threw him to the floor, wrenching the arm back that held the Uzi. The gunman screamed in pain when his arm broke with a cracking sound.
“Call the ship’s police!” Screamed a lady who was watching the scene.
Kurtis quickly dropped the magazine from the well into his hand and threw it into the gangway, racked the slide to eject the last round and dropped the weapon to the floor. “You won’t be needing that anymore, asshole!”
The man struggled against him and landed a punch on Kurtis’ face. When he reeled back from the blow the man got up and ran away through the gangway.
Lara was lying on the floor, motionless.
Kurtis took three seconds to make a decision. He chased after the man even though his stitched wound was hurting so much, but the other man was in pain too, with a broken arm that dangled at his side and bounced this way and that as he ran. He finally caught him at the deck, and cornered him against the rail.
“Don’t move!” He shouted, “What the hell are you doing?”
“It’s her!” The Greek screamed, hysterical. “She’s our doom! She’s destined to give birth to a demons’ race!”
“If you killed her, you son of a bitch,” Kurtis shouted, targeting him with the Boran, “I swear you’ll remember me for the rest of your life!”
The Greek didn’t answer. He quickly took a knife from somewhere in his coat, and, before Kurtis could stop him, stabbed himself in the heart. His body fell back over the rail, and splashed into the Black Sea.
“Miss! Miss! Are you ok?”
Lara awoke, helped by the waiter. By sidestepping the Uzi’s bullet spray – though she still got grazed by one in the arm - she’d collided with a corner and knocked herself unconscious for a short while.
“I’m fine, it’s nothing.” She said.
The waiter was pale and trembling. His life had never been so exciting, and the sight of a woman with a blood dripping down her arm was more than he could stand.
“What happened here?” Said the captain entering the cabin, surrounded by policemen.
“A murder attempt.” Lara said, very calm. “May I have a doctor?”
Wow, thought the captain, this woman’s one hell of an ice queen. “Call a doctor.” He said to the guards, “Where’s ...?”
“My partner chased after him,” she answered.
Kurtis arrived at that moment, walking hastily. Although he was a man who didn’t show his emotions easily, Lara noticed the relief on his face when he saw her alive. “He committed suicide.” He exclaimed. “The crazy bastard stabbed himself!”
Some hours later, everything was solved. Most of the passengers could testify that the alleged terrorist had attacked Lara, fled and finally killed himself. Now the rest was in the captain’s hands.
Lara, now with a bandaged arm, was still among her papers as if nothing had happened. Kurtis sat nearby and watched her. After a while, she looked up and smiled at him.
“No need to watch me all night like a bodyguard.” She said. “The guy’s dead and I can take care of myself.”
I can tell, thought Kurtis. “I couldn’t sleep now even if I was knocked out.” He said.
At that moment, the phone rang. Lara picked it up and instantly heard an older male voice: “Are you okay, miss Croft?”
Lara nodded to Kurtis and he came nearby. “Who am I talking to?”
“Just calling to apologize for the attack. Karolis was one of us, but he went astray and decided to take matters into his own hands. I’m really sorry.”
“Who the hell are you?” Kurtis said, taking the handset from Lara.
“We’re the ones who brought you to the hospital, Mr. Trent. The same people who bribed the doctors to keep fighting for your life, which they had already decided to let go. The ones who gave their blood to you, for you’d almost bled to death. That’s why I’m so sorry: it has been one of us who attacked you. But this won’t happen again.”
Kurtis, dismayed, could only say: “But why? Why did you do that for me?”
“Because we’re on the same side, Mr. Trent.”
And the old man hung up. Lara and Kurtis remained in silence a few moments, looking at the phone, wondering what on earth was going on.
At dawn, the ship arrived at Constanța. Lara and Kurtis said farewell to the passengers - in a single day they had become the most famous couple on the ship, which was annoying for the both of them - and left the harbour on Kurtis’ motorbike.
“We need to get to Bucharest as soon as possible.” Lara recalled. “And there we’ll take the road to Brasov.”
I don’t feel like climbing mountains, Kurtis thought, but he didn’t complain. It wasn’t his style. “Have you found anything out about the Amazon?” He asked instead.
“Nothing yet. What does a warrior woman from Greek mythology have to do with a race of hybrids from Hebrew mythology? They’re like day and night. But I’m not giving up; I have to find a connection.”
“You won’t like the answer.”
Kurtis stopped the motorbike and turned to look at directly at her. “I didn’t want to tell you until I had some proof, but after what happened last night, it doesn’t make sense to keep it from you anymore.”
“Keep what from me?”
“Who the Amazon is.”
Gunderson entered the building. He wished the earth would open up and swallow him when he saw Karel waiting in the hall, his face an unreadable mask.
“Your work at Cappadocia was magnificent.” Karel said sarcastically. “A pair of idiots left you and your men trapped in an excavation. How many were you? Fifteen? Twenty?”
“Thirty.” The Nephilim said, rolling his eyes. “Maybe next time I’ll hire a fire brigade, at least they’re supposed to extinguish a fire.”
“Meister,” Gunderson protested, “we were trapped. We would’ve come quickly if we hadn’t been attacked by a herd of beasts!”
“I sent those beasts myself,” Karel said, “to punish your ineptitude.”
Gunderson felt shocked. This monster is a sadist. He wants to kill us all. “Excuse me, but I can’t understand our role in this story.”
“You’re just a pawn,” Karel said, “you’ll be the bait to hinder the Lux Veritatis and the woman as long as I need until I’ve completed my plan.”
How nice, thought Gunderson, I love it. “What should I do now?”
“Chase them. Hinder them. You’ve still enough men to serve my purpose. Remember, I do not want you to hurt them, especially the woman. I understand that a Greek terrorist attacked her recently. Your mission is to keep that from happening from now on.”
What? Protect that bitch? “You mean to chase them and at the same time, to protect them, Meister?”
“It will be your life’s grand purpose, Gunderson. You must hinder them until they won’t be sure who their enemies and who their allies are. And when we get them separated...I’ll do the rest myself.”
In a pub in the outskirts of Bucharest, Lara and Kurtis were sitting in the darkest corner, arguing quietly and looking askance at who came too close to their table. It was unlikely the locals understood them, as they were talking in French. English was too widespread, so anyone who wanted to remain unnoticed needed to avoid it in a capital city.
“I can’t believe I didn’t notice before!” Said Lara, “I’m losing my instinct. The Amazon was a metaphor...”
During all her life, the spiteful mass media had compared her to a brave Amazon. And she still remembered Eckhardt’s words in the Strahov, where he’d been waiting for her. ’Congratulations, miss Croft, you are positively Amazonian. That Vault has defeated us for months’.
“The Nephilim are fond of metaphors and prophecies,” said Kurtis, “which would be a weak point if they hadn’t that damn ability to match it up with their plotting. He probably had chosen you a long time ago. Maybe even before he murdered your mentor.”
Lara couldn’t bear being the centrepiece of Karel’s plan. Kurtis had also revealed her an ancient Cabal prophecy: And the Amazon will bring the Nephilim defeat, but her fate is to give birth to the race she will attempt to destroy in vain.
“He’s been using me since the beginning.” She said, banging on the table with her fist. Some patrons turned to look at her, but she ignored them. “I’m sick of him! It’s over now. I can’t believe Karel’s so arrogant to think he can lay a finger on me. And all that because of a stupid prophecy!”
“You can’t underestimate him, Lara.” Kurtis noted. “I haven’t faced him yet, but if he’s pure Nephilim as you said, then I can say with certainty Eckhardt was nothing compared to him.”
She stood, visibly upset. Every step they took was being controlled by Karel and served his intentions, but they had no choice. “We need to go now. We’ve no time to lose. I’ll ask the barman the quickest way out to the north.”
Kurtis went out of the bar and sat on his motorbike, searched in his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. The bar’s front door was propped open, so he saw and heard exactly what happened next.
Lara came up to ask the barman. While he was giving her directions, a rather fat middle-aged man passed behind her and dropped some Romanian words that made everyone in the bar burst into laughter. Kurtis didn’t understand Romanian, but judging from Lara’s facial expression, it was an intolerable obscenity. To make things worse, the man had the nerve to follow his words with a sharp slap on the ass.
On an easy day, Lara wouldn’t have reacted like that. But that day was not an easy day.
The barman would never forget how the tall, athletic woman punched the man with such force he flew back against the slot machine. The impact was brutal enough to silence the laughter in the room at once. The guy remained sprawled on the floor, unable to move.
The cigarette fell out of Kurtis’ open mouth.
Lara took a deep breath, swept the hair away from her face and, after sweetly smiling to the customers, left the bar with the greatest of elegance.
“What did he say?” Kurtis asked later, when he finally recovered himself from the shock.
“That’s none of your bloody business, Mr. Trent.” She answered, still maintaining her charming smile. “And you should know I remember perfectly well what happened at the Louvre: consider yourself very, very lucky.”
Image chapter by Scheroff and comic by the amazing Hydraballista.