The train rolled through the Portuguese Ribatejo with only a grinding murmur. Through the window Lara could see elegant pines coming down to the banks of a blue-gray river that ran a short distance from the tracks. Low gray clouds coated the sky with a sullen glare, the kind that threatens rain and throws even a noonday sun into oblivion while the rest of the world holds its breath in the dark.
A small jolt from the tracks below brought the suffocating pain Lara had been trying to forget for the past two hours to the front of her consciousness. She shot her hand down to the duffle bag between her feet and fished out some painkillers. She took them dry not willing to wait for water. The pains were constant now, pills only granted her minutes of comfort but they were minutes she would need to finish her current crusade. Hopefully they were not bought at too great a cost to her health. As the drugs moved into her system she took a moment to stretch out her arms and legs. She'd been on the move almost constantly for the past twenty-four hours and there had been no chance to rest and recharge. Sleep was out of the question; just getting past the insomnia and the stress was so much work and all of it just to immerse herself in more nightmares. But then again it was all a nightmare now wasn't it?
With a groan and a spurt the train eased into the station at Tomar. Light rain had begun to fall forcing the people waiting on the platform to unfurl umbrellas for their loved ones debarking the train. In spite of the pain and fatigue Lara couldn't help but enjoy the beauty of the little city as she stepped onto the worn paving stones of the platform. The older part of town sat ensconced in the base of a little river valley while newer apartment buildings rose off to her right. On the other ridge to her left sat the Convent; more a castle than a convent really. In the mid 12th century it had been built to fend off attacks from Moorish caliphs Lara recalled from the bits of reading she'd managed during the trip.
The oppressive cloud cover forced Lara to pull Shark Man’s cell phone from her pocket in order to check the time. It was almost one in the afternoon. Less than two days to meet the deadline. Lara turned out the lethal arithmetic with an ease that disgusted her. I shouldn’t have to count down their days. Who am I to play God with my friends’ lives? Not for the first time Lara contemplated an early retirement.
With renewed determination Lara hoisted the duffle onto her back and made off for the Convent. Lara wrapped her black overcoat tightly around her as the cold rain began to fall more heavily. Her chestnut tresses began to fall into her face as they filled with water. Underneath her boots water had begun to collect in little puddles on the white cobblestone sidewalks . Spaced evenly in the walks were Templar crosses, their black stone inlays contrasting with the pale worn white. The storm had now all but obscured the Convent above her as she began to climb. About halfway up a large tour bus sped past Lara casting a cold spray on her face and neck. “Tourists,” she grumbled. The Christmas holidays were little more than a week away but that was still too far off to have so many vacationers around.
Vacationers. Tourists. They were coming to see the castle of an order of knights that had been extinct for almost six centuries. Could this really be the place, the nexus of a reincarnation of that same order? Lara shuddered. No. It had to be here. It had to be. She pulled some scraps of notepaper from her coat pocket. Tomar—Pagan tomb—West. What does it mean? Her methodical mind churned over these pieces looking for a place to fit them. This assembly process was taxing her more than any other she could remember. Lara trudged upward.
As the road she walked neared the top it passed a little church of dull, yellow-pink stone. It was sat on a small terrace on the western slope of the castle hill. “West,” Lara whispered. But there proudly on the top of the pediment was the cross, this was no pagan tomb. Yet instinct propelled her forward. The doors were locked and there was no mention of when it might be open.
“I’m already a highly-pursued criminal. What’s breaking and entering?” Lara mused wryly. Grateful that the rain kept any potential tattletales away Lara stepped back and crashed her foot into the left door just above the handle. It shuddered but did not give way. She hit it again. Nothing. A third time and the door gave way. Once inside she saw the reason for her difficulty. A wooden beam had been placed over the doors and was padlocked to brackets on either wall. “I suppose this place isn’t for tourists,” Lara mused and the thought heartened her. The chapel was even smaller inside. There were no pews just an altar by the understated apse and four small sarcophagi, two against each wall. The air was clean and dry, not the dead, musty kind of air Lara was expecting for an off-limits building like this one. No cobwebs, not even dust. Over the sarcophagi were short inscriptions in Old Latin. Lara scanned them for clues. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Then again that was assuming there was anything out of the ordinary in the first place. There could be a cipher, a code she didn’t have or know, or—and this thought put ice into her stomach—nothing at all.
Hope began to fail as Lara scanned through the inscription of the last sarcophagus. As she turned to leave seven characters, thinly carved and scarcely visible, caught her eye: N F F N S N C.
Lara smiled as the lectures from Early Christian history flooded back to her. “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. Where I went I know not nor do I care.” It was a common inscription for those pagans who did not believe in the Christian concept of afterlife. This was the pagan tomb! Lara got down on all fours and looked for cracks or openings she could exploit. Her hands caressed every surface feverishly, hope in them once again.
No crack, no keyhole. With a shove Lara removed the lid. Inside was that dead musty air she had been expecting when she entered the church and along with it a rusted sword blade, tatters of cloth and some bones. “So sorry,” Lara muttered as she moved the contents around hoping to find an opening. There was none. Lara rapped her knuckles hard on the stone bottom. There was a faint hollow sound. Lara smiled again. Using the wall behind the sarcophagus as a brace she pushed at the bottom corner of the stone box with her legs. It gave way ever so slightly. Lara positioned herself lower and with a grunt dislodged the sarcophagus a couple feet. Cool damp air rushed up to greet her from the uncovered hole. A few shoves later there was a three foot by six foot opening. Small worn stairs descended into the dank dark.
Lara’s attention temporarily shifted to the duffle bag. Skilled hands withdrew the gun belt with its twin chrome-plated H&K .40s and strapped it on over her jeans. The snub-nosed .38 revolver she attached to her right ankle. She opted to leave the Uzi; she needed Ryan Caruso alive and it was definitely not the most careful negotiation tool in her arsenal. Her black overcoat was tossed in alongside the submachine gun. It was cool in the tunnel but right now she needed stealth and maneuverability. Her long-sleeved, gray cotton top would have to suffice. Last of all Lara donned her worn rucksack and tossed flares and notes inside.
To Lara’s surprise the stairs only descended about twelve feet. At the bottom she cracked a flare and tossed it a few feet forward. The tunnel itself was barely six feet tall and half that in width. The walls were smooth and joined at the top in a barrel vault. This was definitely an escape route. Lara walked carefully and quietly forward. Just because it was a commonly used path didn’t mean it wasn’t rigged. After a few minutes of slow progress the flare spat and guttered out. Lara lit another and continued on quicker. The cool wind she had felt coming from the tunnel at the entrance was warmer now. It whistled and hissed by her as she walked. Hissing. Gas! Lara stopped dead and hurled the flare forward. The passage in front of her ignited as successive gas jets coming from the walls caught fire. The fireball rushed toward her. Lara spun and ran back down the tunnel. She could smell the fuel that would ignite around her within the next few seconds. After fifty meters she could feel the heat against the back of her neck. Realizing she would not make it to the entrance she threw herself to the ground. The fireball passed above her and within moments was gone. The walls popped and crackled; steam rose from Lara’s rain-soaked tresses.
Whoever used this passage would have to know it well enough to travel it in the dark. She couldn’t help but marvel at the cruel brilliancy of its construction. They must have shunted natural gas from a pocket deep in the hill to this tunnel. Already the passage was filling again. Lara picked up her pace. Redundancy in old security systems was not unusual but she had to take her chances. Passing out from gas inhalation was not an end she could afford right now, not that any were ever particularly affordable.
After several minutes of half jogging half walking Lara felt the walls around her melt away as the passage opened up. She groped around for a point of reference. She found a wall and followed it until she came to not one but two passages, one going slightly up and the other slightly down. Lara chose the former and walk-jogged along it. After what seemed like an eternity—Lara’s nerves sizzling the entire time with that tomb raider edge that kept her alive all those years—the corridor bent sharply to the right and ended in a set of stairs like the ones she had first encountered. Still there was no light and Lara dared not risk a flare. Carefully she climbed to the top. Her head and hands connected with cold rock. The ceiling. A stairway to nowhere. Maybe the other passage…wait. There were grooves in the stone. Handholds! She tugged at them and the stone came free. A splinter of light dropped into the tunnel. More grunts and tugs and the lid was off. Lara emerged from the tunnel both pistols drawn, her body and mind set on that tomb raider edge.
Lara found herself at the end of a tall and narrow corridor that stretched on for about fifty meters. At the far end she could see a narrow shaft of light mingling with the flames of candelabras as it passed a door that was slightly ajar. Her weapons shimmered as she walked quietly to the door and peered through the crack. The room on the far side was immense, a drum fifteen feet tall and eighty in diameter. It was supported by eight, massive columns in the center of the room. Within the columns was an altar. What—or rather, who—Lara saw next to the altar filled her with a satisfaction that was as sickening as it was sweet. Even from the depths of the underworld she brought with her—the underworld that had gotten her out of state custody, pumped a terrified man for information, and evaded capture by police—she could see how twisted this moment was. She refused to play God with her friends’ lives but she was about play God with this man’s.
The door creaked when Lara pushed against it just as she knew it would. Ryan Caruso would hear the noise and turn, perhaps go for the Glock 18 he carried, but it would be too late. The cat had stalked her prey and now for the pounce. But he did not turn; he did not even acknowledge her presence with a twitch of some reflex. She walked forward until she was within the columns, merely ten feet from where Caruso knelt. Thirty seconds passed. Lara grew impatient and clicked back the hammers on her pistols simultaneously.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten that not too long ago I had a shot that I didn’t take,” Ryan said quietly. He did not move so much as an inch.
“You wasted an opportunity,” Lara replied.
“I didn’t think so.”
Lara frowned at his frankness. “I want the Idol.”
“Yeah,” Ryan sighed. Placing his hands on the altar for support he rose to his feet, crossed himself and turned.
“I thought you weren’t religious.”
“You have to have a religion for that.”
“So the Knights Templar answer to no ecclesiastic authority?” Lara asked caustically.
“Unfortunately no. Not even God.” As he spoke Lara could see that same sad gleam in his steel blue eyes. Her commitment to using him as a bargaining chip suddenly wavered. The stress and pain coupled with her guilt leaving her at once void and bursting. She clenched her jaw, blinked a few times and tightened her grip on the pistols.
“The Idol. Where is it?” Lara choked the words.
“Do you even know what it is?” Ryan asked; his voice retained that same quiet, resigned calm.
“That’s not my concern. My concern is for my friends.”
Ryan paused. “So you’re working for Carlos now.”
“Carlos Vicente. He leads the Shadow Kingdom.”
“How much do you know already?”
“I know enough, now where is it?” Lara bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling.
“Do you think it was just some prank when those shamans put the Idol in Porto Seguro? That Idol was designed to go right to Lisbon, to the heart of the world's then-superpower. It was designed to control the world's most powerful rulers. The Shadow Kingdom didn't get killed off, they went underground. God sunk the Idol to the depths but they stayed and waited, waited for someone like you. And because of you they'll get what they want.”
“Spare me your old wives' tales,” Lara spat. “Where is the Idol? I need it now.”
“What is Carlos' deal with you? The Idol for your friends? You can't believe him.” Ryan took a step forward. Lara shot once. The blast glanced of the room's cavernous walls causing Lara to start slightly. She caught herself in the act and mentally scolded herself for such a show of weakness. The color drained from Ryan's face.
“The next one won't miss.” Lara struggled for calm.
“The Idol's over there,” Ryan gestured to a metal case under a cot by the far wall. Keeping her pistols trained on him Lara backed over to the case. She knelt down and opened it. Instantly the pain resumed. Lara felt noxious; her mouth began to water and her vision clouded over. She stumbled away, her pistols clattering to the floor. Both hands clutched her head as she crawled away trembling.
“Do you believe the old wives' tales now?” Ryan was standing over her, pistol in hand.
“What's happening to me?” Lara whispered.
“The same thing that will happen to more people if you give that thing to Carlos. That's something you should consider before you run off to trade it for just two lives you may or may not get in return.”
“I don't expect you to understand the value of a friend,” Lara countered quietly but intensely as she pulled herself to a kneeling position. One hand trailed back to her right ankle where the .38 revolver was hidden.
“Don't lecture me on the value of friendship Lady Croft,” Ryan growled. “I've spent my whole life sacrificing people I love and their faces visit me every time I close my eyes. Don't think it's easy for me.”
Lara drew the revolver and pointed it squarely at his chest. “Then I hope you understand why I'm through sacrificing. I can't stand it anymore. Now, drop the gun and pick up the case. You are going to deliver it for me.” Lara got to her feet slowly, her gaze shifting between Ryan's gun and his sad blue eyes.
“Are you going to hold that gun to my head the whole way?” He made no move to pick up the case.
“If I have to,” Lara said as she carefully stooped to recover and holster her twin pistols.
“Then there's something I think you should read before we go.”
“Pick up the case!” Lara shouted. Her voice surprised her. It seemed foreign, icy.
“I'll pick it up but you won't make it very far,” Ryan said calmly.
“Stop it! Stop your games!” Lara's head began to pound again. Her ears rang, her vision blurred. A stomach full of ice. Agony. Fear. “I've been acquainting myself with your dark place. That dark place you hardly know. And that is what gives me license to be your teacher. Don't fear the darkness Lara. Embrace it. For what you are least willing to have, that is what you are. Come, I've been waiting for you.”
“No, no, stop it,” Lara cried. She raised the revolver to her head.
Ryan aimed and fired.
She felt a trickle of blood at her neck. Fire and ice. And then, blackness.