“Ian, it's Ryan.”
“What is it?” The voice sounded groggy.
“She found me.”
“Lara Croft. She found me at the Convent. Carlos sent her to bring the Idol and me in exchange for her friends.”
“How do you know this?”
“I had to perform an exorcism. I felt it while I shared her mind. You realize what this means don't you?” Ryan couldn't keep the excitement from his voice. The end is almost here. Absolution.
“There will be a trade. And both parties will expect you to be present,” Ian Fisher's voice had lost its fatigue. “Are you sure Carlos will be at the exchange?”
“He won't miss a chance like this. He'll want the kill to be very public.”
Ian paused for a moment. Just as at the cafe in Lisbon Ryan could sense his tension. Despite Ryan's disgust for Fisher's leadership style he had to admit that he was a good strategist. Some of the time. “I'll make some calls. Call me when you have the details.” The line clicked off.
Ryan powered off his cell phone. He turned to look at the cot where Lara lay. She was still deep in narcosis. Let her rest, Ryan thought. She'll need all her strength if she is to have a chance of surviving tomorrow.
Again that likeness haunted him. How similar they looked. He could remember times when he'd laid still next to Natalie for the first few minutes of the day, watching her sleep from a perfect trance that was only in part from his rigorous military training.
Ryan shook his head in an effort to clear it. Now was not the time for attachment, now was the time for retribution, absolution, death. If her blood was spilt tomorrow...she had presumed to turn him over to Carlos. She had to know what that meant.Retribution, absolution, death.
The end of the war.
But still, her face was so similar. No. Stop it, stop it! Focus, control. Isn't that what you told her? But there was no denying what he'd seen, what he'd felt, when he roamed her consciousness. The ache of losing someone you loved. The anger of betrayal. He didn't doubt that she too saw faces in her dreams; the pain he'd seen when she recalled her first kill...
Dammit all! I sacrificed Natalie for this. I sacrificed everything. What's one more sacrifice? I'll end it, I have to. And if she gets in the way...
Lara awoke gradually, for the first time in recent memory enjoying the onset of reality. The hellish descent of the past few weeks seemed only a dark dream. She felt renewed to a degree that sleep had never before renewed her. There was strength again in her body, her mind felt clear. Lara took a deep breath that filled her entire chest, held it, savoring it, and let it pass slowly between her lips.
Opening her eyes Lara saw she was lying on a cot at the edge of the large chamber. Ryan was nowhere to be seen. Nor were her twin pistols. He had even taken her revolver, ankle holster and all. He must have been very thorough. The thought of him searching her unconscious body revolted her, but at the same time she could sense that he had not taken any liberties. It was very strange how she could sense that, sense him. Hadn't he said that common ground in the mind-world got kind of muddled?
The memories from that joint hunt for the demon within her—how long ago it seemed—came freshly to her newly reinvigorated mind. The methodical, churning assembly of her trained mind mulled over the pieces of that hunt seeking to make sense of it all. But there were pieces in the puzzle that she did not recognize. They were there but they were not hers. Phantoms in the assembly. Ryan's phantoms. The more she focused the less clear these mysterious pieces were. It was as if she had been there, experienced something, and yet she definitely had not. She could see the cut and shape of these phantom pieces but they had no color. She knew what they were but was at a loss for where to place them.
The sound of footsteps interrupted her reverie. It was Ryan. He appeared from the tunnel corridor that she had used. Lara reflexively wondered if there was in fact any other way to come in and out. He carried some bundles of greasy newspaper in his hands. Two of these bundles landed unceremoniously beside her on the cot with the admonition to “eat up.” Inside Lara found half of a fried chicken and a suitable accompaniment of greasy chips. Ryan took his own repast on a stool on the far side of the central altar, about as far from her as he could be.
He had definitely changed Lara decided. Gone was the cold confidence, the swaggering facade. But why? Was he trying to piece together what had happened between them just as she had done? What a foolish way to think of it—between us, Larahuffed inside. Then again what is more intimate than sharing someone's mind? Maybe he's aware that he's lost his shell and is trying to bury his head in the sand. At that thought a wan smile crossed her lips. Ryan noted it, Lara saw him and he abruptly turned away. Why this conflict?
After eating his meal in silence Ryan stared at the oily newspapers for a few minutes as if he were reading tea leaves. He eventually stood with all the natural ease of a Greek kouros statue and walked deliberately to where she sat on the cot. With observance that had become second nature Lara noted the slight limp in his walk and filed it away for future reference without even realizing she had done so.
“You can take the Idol to make this trade for your friends,” Ryan said stiffly. “On one condition: I'm going with you.” He did not look at her at all, instead choosing to fix his gaze on some point in the gray-tan stone wall.
“Why?” Lara hesitated even though this was what she wanted. No. This was what Shark Man wanted. What was his name? Carlos Vicente, yes that was it.
“So I can track it. You can have your friends but that weapon cannot stay in the hands of the Shadow Kingdom for long. I've fought too hard to let it go now.”
“You want to have your cake and eat it too is that it?” Lara quipped but there was no levity in her tone. She knew what could happen if Carlos even guessed that she was trying to have it both ways; fingers in boxes and executions. And who knew if it would even stop there.
“Carlos won't know that I'm tracking him. I promise you.”
Lara rose from the cot and stood toe to toe with Ryan catching his eyes completely in her own. What she said next pricked her to the very core. She was trampling on sacred ground for Ryan. Sacred ground that had become common ground and somehow a common pain for both. “Swear on Natalie's grave.”
Ryan stiffened beyond his already statuesque bearing. His jaw clenched and he fixed her with his eyes, cringing as if he were holding them open in front of a naked flame. “I swear it.”
Lara kept his eyes searching for the truth in them but all she could see was that black headstone and 'Natalie Caruso. Beloved Wife.' She wondered what he saw in her eyes. Did he see that she planned to turn him over to Carlos? Was that part of the common ground that he could sense? Was it a phantom piece in his puzzle? Or could he already make out its shape and color?
Lara closed her eyes and turned from him. “I accept.”
“Good.” There was considerable strain in Ryan's voice as he said it. Lara knew she had just cut him deep. “I suppose you'll need to tell Carlos you've got what he's looking for.”
“Yes,” Lara whispered. She pulled the cell phone from her pocket and dialed. I'm coming Paul. I'm coming James.
But at what price?
Clouds had rolled in from the Tagus River blanketing Lisbon in a bleak, rainy mist. The sun, as if exhausted from his efforts to pierce through the clouds, sank into the ocean as Lara and Ryan emerged from the Santa Apolonia train station. Lara recalled the awful satisfaction she had heard in Carlos Vicente's voice when she had announced that she had what he wanted.
“Your success is timely,” he had said. “In a few more hours I would have felt it necessary to send you reminders.” He drew out the last 's' making it apparent that he hadn't forgotten his end of the deal, right down to the last horrific detail.
Shortly thereafter Ryan had given her a large leather-bound tome that reeked of musty air and relentless decomposition. “Before you go any further there is something you should see,” he had said. On the first page in richly-formed handwritten Latin had been the following text:
Rules of Demonry
I. Possession can occur between any unaligned demon and any unaligned Host.
II. Prolonged possession can lead to the Submission.
III. The time of possession leading to the Submission is dependent upon the willpower of the host, the purity of the host, and the strength of the demon.
IV. Possession can be ended by intervention of the proper Authority.
V. For an Alignment to occur there must be cooperation between Host and demon in the form of the Submission.
VI. An aligned demon grants its host body certain powers.
VII. The powers of an aligned Host are varied and dependent on the type of demon.
VIII. An aligned demon can project itself onto other hosts while remaining aligned.
IX. Projection can only be halted by resistance of the surrogate host or an attack on the aligned demon projecting.
X. When a host body is killed the aligned demon loses the power of possession.
The translation had been tough to make and Lara was not quite sure if she was correct on some of the terms but the subject of the text had been very clear. “This is the sum of all of the knowledge we have collected about the Shadow Kingdom and how it works,” Ryan had stated again matter-of-factly, again avoiding her eyes. “Carlos is not playing a game here. He wants control of the demons in the Idol. What was happening to you will happen to others if he gets it.”
Lara had shuddered just thinking about the pains and nightmares of the past weeks. And now she shuddered again thinking about those words: Submission, possession, Alignment.
“Are you cold?” Ryan's tone of voice was not solicitous, more like he was asking what time it was.
“No it's not that,” Lara replied. She looked askance at him as they walked along the sidewalk toward the Praça de Comercio. He still refused to look at her. She wondered if this advent of coldness arose from his knowing that she was going to betray him.
It was a deadly game now. If he suspected what she was going to do, what she had to do in the exchange for her friends...she'd seen what he was capable of. And even if he suspected nothing to avoid violence while turning him over to Carlos would require action in a very narrow window of opportunity. One misstep could result in her death or the death of her friends. Or all of us. It was a grim prospect. Less than twelve hours ago and Lara would have almost welcomed death. Now with hope surging anew in her veins she feared death as much as ever.
The cold damp air clung to her black overcoat and sunk into it down to the jeans and cotton top she wore. Over her shoulder was the dufflebag which held her arsenal. She half wished it hadn't been necessary to bring it. The graveyard of her mind had been a stark reminder of what her weapons could do; had done.
“We have an hour before the exchange.” Ryan's voice remained cold, distant. “We should wait indoors until then.” He led the way to a cafe not very far from the place where he and Ian Fisher had met less than a week before. It was a larger establishment with wet weeds and cigarette butts choking the cobblestones in front. Inside the crowded cafe/bar the lights were turned low. Towards the back was a small stage with a couple empty stools and microphones. This was one of the area's fado clubs. Lara and Ryan managed to find a small, unoccupied table in a dark corner to the left of the stage and ordered coffee. Both remained silent, their thoughts focused on the deadly game that would begin in less than an hour.
Shortly after the coffee arrived a man and a woman took the stage. The man brought with him the twelve-string Portuguese guitar; the woman brought the black shawl of the fadista draped around her strapless dress of purple silk. The man was slightly balding, slightly overweight and boasted a face pitted with the effects of some skin condition. The woman was plump, with full lips and long dark hair. The pair was a modern rendition of beauty and the beast.
The guitarist began a melancholy tune, teasing the sorrowful notes from the many strings. The singer swayed slightly, letting the music sink into her pores and fill her with its sadness and longing, the key components of fado. The song began at a low wail and grew into a mournful plea. The singer's voice was strong and clear and carried straight into the heart of all present. Lara looked at Ryan. His jaw was clenching, tears were beginning to form in his eyes. Deep within Lara could sense a sadness of her own rising. It was vague but powerful, teased from her depths by more than just the music, which she could only half understand, it came from Ryan; something unknown that they shared.
“What's she saying?” Lara whispered to him.
He shut his eyes, like he was trying to block everything out. Lara was about to ask again when he spoke, his own voice a trembling whisper. “She says that her love is gone. She wonders how he could have died so young. And now she lies down full of sorrows at night and cries alone. She longs for the days when they were together. Where have you gone my love? Where have you gone?” He shut his eyes again.
Lara could now almost see the source of the mysterious pain in Ryan's eyes. He had brought to the surface what she had seen so submerged at their first meeting. Her next question came of its own accord, there was no forbearing. “How did Natalie die?”
Ryan bowed his head. The tears receded, his jaw loosened; he had resigned himself to what came next. “Carlos killed her. Natalie and I were driving in downtown D.C. and some of his men crashed a car into ours. My seatbelt locked and kept me from getting out. Carlos projected his demon onto Natalie and she drowned herself in the nearby river.” Ryan recited the events as if it were someone else's tragedy.
“And she was pregnant with your first child.” It was Ryan's turn to be surprised by the common ground. “Why didn't he kill you?”
“It was a feint within a feint. I killed his wife and child. The leaders of the Order knew he wanted revenge so they used me as bait. Reinforcements arrived before Carlos could finish me, but not before he took my heart. He did kill me that day.” For the first time since she awoke from the dream world Ryan was looking at her. “Lara don't go through with this,” he pleaded.
“I have to.” Lara's own voice was plaintive. She felt Ryan's pain as if it were her own. Oh God, how can I go through with this? But if I don't...
“Don't go to the exchange. Give me the Idol. I'll make the trade. Please don't go.”
“I have to,” Lara repeated. “My friends need me. I...I...” The words wouldn't come, they couldn't. She stood, dufflebag in hand, and fled to the bathroom. In the small closet of a bathroom she let the tears flow. It was either deliver Ryan Caruso to be killed or let her friends die. The decision had been somewhat easy until she came to know Ryan's pain, feel his pain. It was a pain they both shared, the pain of losing someone you loved.
Another patron banging on the door jolted her from the guilty reverie. She turned her attention to the dufflebag. With expert hands Lara quickly armed herself—twin H&K .40 pistols, .38 revolver, and Uzi. She was careful to pull her overcoat tight around her to hide her arsenal. As she emerged from the bathroom and passed the peeved patron the cafe burst into applause. Beauty and the beast had just finished their song. Lara deftly made her way through the other patrons—who were now on their feet—to the table where Ryan sat. He looked at her as she came near but before he could react she pulled the case containing the Idol from under his chair and bolted for the door.
She knew it was probably futile and more than a bit foolish to try this; Ryan knew where the exchange was going to take place and what was more Carlos wouldn't be willing to make the trade without him. Out in the dark, wet street Lara hailed a taxi and jumped in. “ Praça de Comercio,” she ordered. As the taxi sped off she could see Ryan emerging from the crowded cafe.No, Ryan. It's too late. I'll do this alone. I have to.