The Romanian Professor
Despite what one might expect, Bran’s castle didn’t look like a typical dark fortress a Nephilim or Count Dracula would hide in; instead it was an elegant summer palace, with white walls and red roofs. A unique monument that stood proudly on a rocky cliff, overlooking a view of Brasov which was considered the most beautiful city in Romania.
Professor Vladimir Ivanoff had spent so many years studying Bran and had become an expert on the subject. He felt attached to the castle to the point of considering tourists as invaders that threatened the royal monument’s survival. In his concern he spent whole days there, instructing, counselling, and chiding guides and tourists, so much so that locals said the similarities between the Transylvanian count and the professor went beyond just the name.
That day a couple of tourists caught his attention: a man and a woman, foreigners no doubt. The woman, dressed in shorts and tank top, was a real beauty. Having a bandaged arm, she was holding the arm of a dangerous looking guy: he wore an expression on his face that was capable of souring fresh milk. She, however, acted pleasantly and charmingly talked to him.
I’ll follow these two, decided Ivanoff, and walked up behind them. “Excuse me,” he said, “do you need a guide to the castle?”
The man stared at him, inexpressive, but the woman smiled. “It would be nice to find an expert on the subject,” she said, shaking his hand.
“You found it. I’m Professor Vladimir Ivanoff,” he replied. “It’s a pleasure, Miss…?”
“Croft,” Lara said.
“One and the same.”
Professor Ivanoff panicked. It was known that Lara Croft did not leave a stone unturned. Moreover, she hadn’t been building a good reputation lately... “Nice to meet you in person,” he continued. “If you’d like to follow me I’ll lead you through the castle’s rooms.”
“My pleasure,” Lara smiled.
The professor then looked at the man. “I don’t remember your name, sir.”
“That’s because I didn’t tell you,” he replied dryly.
Lara elbowed him discretely. “Excuse my colleague,” she said. “We had an accident a couple of days ago and he’s a bit uptight.”
A bit uptight? He almost bit me, thought Ivanoff, and proceeded to guide them across the monument.
“What are you doing?” Lara whispered to him as they followed the professor.
“The guy’s annoying,” Kurtis growled. “He’ll be on our ass all day. Let’s get rid of him.”
“Yeah, just what I need: another corpse!”
“I don’t mean kill him! Just a pistol-whip to the head...”
“Right now he could be useful. We’ll see...”
The professor explained the fortress had been remodelled between 1920 and 1930 to become a royal residence. The luxurious rooms were connected by narrow staircases. There were elegant furnishings and tapestries sectioned off by silk rope to prevent tourists’ access. “The high crenelated tower windows only show merlons from the very edge of the rock, so that any attempt to attack is doomed to fail. This defence is repeated in the pleasant courtyard, under which lies a labyrinth of underground passages,” Ivanoff was saying. Underground passages, Lara thought, that’s interesting.
When passing by a room, a certain tapestry caught her attention. It depicted a devilish figure in front of a beautiful woman dressed in rags, and between them, a radiant monk.
“What does this mean?” Lara asked the professor.
“Just a local legend.” Ivanoff said. “Are you familiar with the Nephili and the Lux Veritatis?”
“Somewhat.” She smiled.
“It’s about a prophecy. The Nephilim defeats the monk - a Lux Veritatis - and then takes the woman - the so-called Amazon. Isn’t it amusing?”
Kurtis and Lara exchanged a glance.
“Yeah, very funny.” Kurtis snorted with sarcasm.
“Your ignorance is bold.” said the professor. “This is nonsense like most legends, since neither the Lux Veritatis nor the Nephili are real. But you look like you’ve no clue about the matter.”
“You might be surprised with how much I know.” Kurtis slowly replied. Lara elbowed him again, but then the professor laughed.
“Ha-ha! Delightful. If there was even one member of the Lux Veritatis, I’d kiss his feet and crawl at his presence.”
Kurtis’ smirk widened into an evil grin. Lara decided that had gone too far and pulled her partner’s arm. “My, look how late it is! We’ll come back another day.” And they went away, leaving the surprised professor.
When they were out, Kurtis said: “Damn. It would’ve been fun to teach him a lesson.”
“Fun but not prudent.” she said. “We’ll take care of him later. I think the clue is in that tapestry, but as long as there are tourists and professors in the middle, we can’t do anything.”
“Well then.” He said. “Tonight we storm the castle.”
Gunderson put on his gloves and loaded his machine gun. Karel’s orders had been precise. Tonight they’ll enter into Bran’s castle to get the clue they need. You know what to do. He spent some time reviewing his men. They were fifteen, exactly those that remained after the slaughter at Cappadocia. Those bloody manticores had known very well when to stop killing.
He was upset and frustrated. Finding out that blond man, whom he regarded as Eckhardt’s favourite, was actually the centre, beginning, and end of the Cabal, was a shock for him. Not only had Eckhardt – the true Meister - been merely a pawn, but also when found no longer useful, the Nephilim had used the British explorer to kill him.
So now he was a Nephilim’s servant, forced to call him Meister, a name he considered worthy only of the Black Alchemist. Once I’m done with all this, Gunderson thought, I’ll administer justice.
No matter that Eckhardt had served him to the end. No matter that Gunderson had devoted himself to the Cabal’s cause, in body and soul, lured by promises of immortality that he already realized would never be fulfilled. As Kurtis said, Marten Gunderson had spent his life selling himself to the highest bidder. After all, what else was expected from a hired gun?
Lara slowly and quietly placed an ear on Kurtis’ hotel room door. She heard running water in the distance, as if he were in the shower.
Night was falling, and they had everything settled to storm the castle. Took a couple of hours planning, developing strategies and possible ways to avoid the monument’s poor security. But now Lara was bored to tears – as she always was when idle – and found herself spying like a naughty schoolgirl. As if this guy even has something worth spying on, she told herself, while not moving from her spot.
The running water stopped. She heard footsteps. What are you doing? Go away! Lara told herself, but instead she leaned a little more against the door. And then the door opened wide with a creak.
Lara landed on all fours in the middle of the room. “Dammit!” She yelled, jumping up like a cat.
In the centre of the room, a soaking wet Kurtis with a towel tied around the hips stared at her. If she had been one for blushing, her face would have been as red as a tomato at that moment, but that wasn’t her style. “What’s going on?” she snapped instead, lifting the chin.
“I was hoping you could tell me.” He said, suppressing a laugh with a grin.
Lara ran a hand through her hair and looked around distractedly. “I was passing by when this shoddy old door opened...not by itself, of course...I leaned on it...”
“Do you want something?” He said, folding his arms across his bare chest.
“Yes.” She said, and quickly pointed to his wound. “You need to have your stitches removed. You’ve had them in too long.”
Even the dumbest excuse sounded reasonable on her lips, thought Kurtis. “Thanks, Mom,” he said wryly, “but I’ll remove them myself.”
“Oh, really?” Lara said glaring at him. “We’ll see how you fare with the ones on your back. You must be a phenomenon of contortion.”
He rolled his eyes. “Alright, fine. Can I at least get dressed first?”
“If you need to...” she said, looking at her nails.
While he went inside the room to dress, Lara went to search for iodine, cotton, and scissors. A quote Von Croy often said to her surfaced to her mind: Seriously, child, if you don’t find trouble, the trouble finds you.
Kurtis lay on the couch and reluctantly allowed Lara to remove the stitches. If the slight swelling was any indication, they had been in too long as Lara said. Using her nimble fingers, she cut a stitch and pulled it with the necessary force, thus hurting him.
“You’re killing me.” Kurtis protested.
“What a whiner, Mr. Trent.” Lara smiled. “Have you really been in the Foreign Legion, or was it Kindergarten?”
“It was the Legion, and you should know I was about to be promoted when I quit.”
“Why did you quit?” Lara said, remembering she’d been expelled from the British Army for having used a tank to pick up an ambassador - a bet with her roommates.
Kurtis grinned again. “That’s none of your bloody business, miss Croft.”
Lara took a stronger pull on the next stitch. She’d already removed all from the stomach. “It’s not going to be a pretty scar.” She said.
Truth be told, it was going to be a terrible scar, just as the wound had been. A red and swollen line that will forever mark the spot where Boaz’s stinger went through.
“Whatever.” he replied. “Just one more for the collection.”
And he turned to show his back. There stitches were thicker, and the scar looked even worse. Lara wondered how he survived it...and why that mysterious group had fought so hard to save his life. Although she was reluctant to admit it, she was more than grateful to them for that.
“By the way,” she said, while still removing stitches, “I never thanked you for helping me escape from Boaz. You had no need to do that, killing Eckhardt belonged to you, not me. I suppose after what happened, you regret your decision.”
Kurtis smiled, still resting on the pillow. “Never. I’d do it again.”
There was something in his voice that made Lara remain still, with open scissors still in hand. Then she sharply cut the last stitch and removed it. She got up, quickly picked up the material and said: “Be ready in half an hour. The sooner we’re done with this, the better.”
She left, slamming the door, grateful that Kurtis was upside down and hadn’t seen her face.
Professor Ivanoff took off his glasses and dropped them on the book, yawning. It was late; best go to sleep.
For months he was granted permission to stay overnight in one of the castle’s unused rooms, in order to study in situ, he said, but in actuality he didn’t trust the security systems.
That night’s events proved him right. When he looked out the tiny window, he saw two figures moving in the dark down there. He heard nothing though, but when he thought he must have been dreaming, he saw them again. One was agile and slender. The other seemed heavy and stronger.
Thieves! Should I call the police? No, he decided. It was known the police were incompetent. Furthermore, the idea of having the entire police squad running around his castle made him feel sick. Better to get rid of those two thieves personally.
He turned off the light and slipped out of the room. Then he thought it would be better to be armed and took the only weapon at his disposal: a small Swiss army knife. That should be enough, he thought, and went across the corridor.
He would soon discover he was going to need more than that to challenge the two “thieves”.