Lara Croft and the Torch of Rao
Written by Gincognifo :: [Saturday, 31 January 2015 00:09] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 29 May 2021 15:51]
Lara Croft and the Torch of Rao
Lara Croft felt every bump through the passenger seat of the mud-stained Land Rover. The driver didn't speak much, but when he did, his accent was South African. His haircut and choice of sidearm suggested he was ex-military, which meant he was the pricey kind of mercenary.
The rough path hacked through the rainforest didn't look like much, but clearing that much jungle would have been an expensive project. When her old professor, George Falkland, had asked for her help, he'd told her that he was working for an unnamed university. She didn't believe him.
The location of the excavation made no sense. Hundreds of miles further south than any other Mesoamerican site and too far from the coast or a river to be on a trade route. But there it was: a stone ziggurat in the middle of the rainforest. The familiar thrill of oncoming adventure rose in her chest. If Falkland had a reason to lie, then the trip promised to be interesting, maybe even fun.
Falkland's team had made camp a few yards from the temple. There were two more Land Rovers and five armed men. Falkland dozed in a canvas chair, his bald head sunburned and beaded with sweat, behind a folding table covered with books and maps.
Lara fiddled with the underside of her seat before she jumped out of the vehicle. "Get up, you old fossil."
Falkland woke with a start. "Lara. Excellent. Welcome to our little excavation."
The gun thugs said nothing, but kept a careful watch on her. The twin pistols holstered on her hips didn't seem like much compared to their automatic weapons. If it came to a fight, she would be outgunned and alone. She was used to it.
She nodded towards the closest mercenary. "Graduate students?"
Falkland's face went red. "The university wanted the site to be kept secure. These… men are a necessary evil."
"Hmm. You haven't been in the field for twenty years. What's got you out of the office?"
"The Torch of Rao."
"Who the bloody hell is Rao?"
He shrugged. "Not a clue, but his torch is in that temple."
One of the books contained an illustration of the artifact. It had a tapered cylindrical handle and a teardrop-shaped head made of gold. Five gemstones were set around the base of the head, and one more was set in the tip. All of the gemstones were different colors. Even if the body was pure gold, the value of the torch and the gems was a fraction of what this excavation must have cost so far. Someone wanted the torch for more than its intrinsic value.
"No point gabbing. Let's be about getting it."
There was no illumination inside the temple other than what Lara carried: a pair of LED lanterns attached to her belt, and an LED torch strapped to her head. She adjusted her hair so the elastic strap went under her ponytail. She was in a dank passage, the walls were black with lichen and the floor was slick and moist. There was the smell of fresh decay.
Beyond the first turn, the floor was a checkerboard of black and white squares. Lying across the first row of tiles was the body of a man with the same haircut and weapon as the mercenaries, riddled with bronze darts.
A zigzag path had been marked through the checkerboard with a trail of coins. Somebody had gone through ahead of her. The dead man had stepped onto the first marked tile. Either the safe path had changed, or whoever had placed the coins had played a deadly trick.
She worked her way across the trapped floor, testing each row of tiles with one of the small lead weights she carried for this kind of thing. If the weight didn't trigger the darts, the tile was safe. She settled into an easy rhythm. Avoiding and disarming traps was second nature to her.
The temple's traps were in good working order and lethal. She avoided trap doors and leaped over pits of razor spikes. She rolled beneath poison-tipped spears launched from the walls. She avoided pressure plates and trip wires.
When her attention wavered for a moment, she reacted a fraction of a second too late to the whirr of a hidden mechanism. A spinning blade cut a shallow gash in her arm. Not poisoned, thank goodness, but still bloody and painful. She tore a strip from the bottom of her green tank top and bandaged the wound.
The corridor ended in a small room. Mounted on the far wall was a series of eight concentric golden discs mounted on a golden rod. The size of each disc varied according to some unknown pattern. Unfamiliar symbols were carved around the circumference of each disc.
A puzzle. Rotate the discs to align the symbols correctly and push the central rod. If she got the pattern wrong, something bad would happen. She committed the symbols and the discs to memory and then closed her eyes. In her mind, the discs spun around as her subconscious made connections between them.
The solution was impossible. She discarded it and tried again. The impossible solution emerged again. The spacing of the discs was based on the eight major planets of the solar system, including ones that had been discovered centuries after the temple had been constructed. With that as a given, the correct alignment was obvious.
She spun the outer disc. A slab of stone fell from the ceiling and blocked her path back. Gas hissed from hidden vents. She held her breath and worked the rest of the puzzle. When she was finished, she pushed in the golden rod. The wall slid aside as if mounted on greased rails and the hiss of gas stopped.
Ahead was a large circular chamber. The Torch of Rao stood on a gray stone pedestal in the center of the room. Gold glinted and her heart skipped a beat. There was nothing to compare to the feeling of being the first human being to have laid eyes on an ancient artifact in centuries.
"Hey. Who's there?" The voice came from the left.
He was tall and lean, built like a greyhound with skin the color of milky tea. Lara recognized him as Jackson Hayes, treasure hunter for hire. They'd crossed paths a few times, and she'd saved his life once. He was trapped in a small cell behind thick iron bars.
"In a spot of bother, are we?"
"Hey, Lara." His tone was casual, as if they were friends who had run into each other on the street.
"Why are you down here?"
"I'm looking for that." Jackson nodded towards to the Torch of Rao.
"You're working for Falkland?"
"I'm working with Falkland. Cassandra hired me first."
Her chest tightened. There was only one Cassandra with the resources to have funded an expedition into the middle of the Central American rainforest: Cassandra Lofthouse. She and Lara had been at university together. It had been ten years, but the enmity between them was still potent.
"What's she paying you?"
"A lot. What about you?"
"She couldn't afford me. I'm doing a favor for someone I thought was a friend. Why does Cassandra want the torch?"
He shrugged. "She's a rich, crazy Englishwoman. You tell me."
"Funny guy. You want to get out of there or not?"
She tapped the bars of his cell. There was some corrosion, but not enough. She unclipped a sticky bomb from her belt and placed it on the wall where the bars went into the stone. Sticky bombs were one of her favorite toys: moldable plastic explosive charges backed with a powerful adhesive. The red LED on the remote detonator flashed to indicate the bomb was armed.
"Bomb. Take cover."
She retreated to a safe distance and triggered the detonator. The charge went off like a thunderclap in a phone booth. Shards of rock flew around the chamber and the iron bars toppled over.
"You still alive in there?"
Lara didn't wait for a response. She walked over the the Torch of Rao and examined the base of the pedestal.
Jackson came to stand beside her, brushing dust from his tactical pants and jacket."It's perfectly balanced. Take the torch and something bad happens."
"I can see that."
The torch was topped by a diamond. Although there were five settings around the base of the head, only one of them was filled, with a sky blue gem. She waved a finger just above the head of the torch. The diamond came alive with light.
She stepped back. Projected above the torch was an accurate holographic globe of the Earth. A pulsing dot of blue light marked the location of the temple. A red dot pulsed in the South Pacific. As she focused on the red dot, the globe zoomed in on a small island a few hundred miles east of Pangun.
"The missing gems?"
Lara ignored him. The projection disappeared. She grabbed a large chunk of stone thrown off by the explosion and weighed it in her hand.
"That'll never work," said Jackson.
"Negativity is bad for team morale. Please try to stay positive."
She rolled the stone onto the pedestal as she grabbed the torch. She knew at once it wouldn't work: the torch weighed a lot less than it should. It looked and felt like gold, but was almost as light as aluminium. There was a roar of rushing water coming their way.
"Plan B. Run like hell."
The way out was similar to the way in. As they ran through the stone corridor, she kept an eye out for traps, but there were none. They were close to the exit when the floor ahead fell away. A hundred-foot deep chasm lined with spikes lay between them and safety. It was at least twenty-five feet wide. The roar of rushing water was louder now.
"I can't jump that far," said Jackson. "Can you?"
"I can try."
She gripped the torch in her left hand. If she didn't make it to the other side, then at least she'd die with the satisfaction of denying Cassandra Lofthouse something. She took a run up and leaped across the chasm, landing at least ten feet past the edge. It had been easy, almost as if she had flown over the gap.
She tied one end of nylon rope to a pistol and threw it across to Jackson. He threw the pistol away and tied the rope around his waist. Lara backed up and anchored herself, digging her boot heels into the floor. Jackson jumped and swung across the chasm. He climbed up as Lara pulled.
"You threw away my gun! The other one will get lonely."
"I don't like guns."
"Well done, old girl," said Falkland, his eyes focused on the torch in her hand. "I knew you could do it."
"Why didn't you tell me you're working for Cassandra effing Lofthouse? You of all people should know…"
"I'm sorry, I had no choice. I also have no choice about this."
Two of the mercenaries pointed guns at her. "Hand over the torch," said one.
Lara had lost count of how many times she'd had a gun pointed at her and it no longer fazed her. There were two mercenaries in front of her and two others by the camp. The last one was sitting on the hood of the Land Rover she had arrived in. She felt a twinge of guilt as she triggered the sticky bomb she had placed under the passenger seat when she had arrived. She didn't want to kill anyone, but would if she had to. She hoped that Falkland and Jackson were smart enough to keep their heads down while she tore throught the gun thugs.
The explosion flipped the vehicle over. The other mercenaries were distracted for long enough for Lara to draw her remaining pistol. She shot the men closest to her in the legs. Her guns were optimized for accuracy rather than stopping power, but a shot at that range would keep them out of the fight.
The remaining mercenaries opened fire, but she was already a moving target and their shots went wide. She took cover behind a Land Rover and fired the rest of the clip without hitting anyone. She was reloading when a grenade sailed over the Land Rover and landed a few feet away from her. It wasn't a smoke grenade.
She had to move, but the men would be waiting for her to break cover. Her chances would be better if she could jump over the Land Rover rather than running to either side, but she couldn't carry off a standing jump that high. Years of experience had given her an instinctive understanding of the capabilities and limitations of her body.
Except, she had made one impossible jump already that day. There was no way she should have been able to leap across the chasm, but somehow she had known she would make it. There was something new inside her, like a door had opened inside her brain to reveal a new branch of nerves and impulses.
The torch felt warm in her hand. The blue gem glowed as energy flowed through her like single malt whisky on the back of her throat. She understood what she could do. With a triumphant yell, she soared up into the sky. She looked down as the grenade exploded far beneath her.
She was flying. The mercenaries stared up, their jaws slack in disbelief. She flew up until they were dots on the ground. She whooped with joy as she flew away from the temple towards the airport. She shook with nervous energy, not just because of the ability holding the torch gave her, but at the prospect of an old-fashioned treasure race. The holographic projection from the torch had pointed to an island in the South Pacific. Whatever was there, she was determined to get to it before Cassandra.
"Blow the bloody things up," said Cassandra.
Jackson Hayes wished she was joking, but her icicle-sharp tone suggested otherwise. She wanted to blow up a pair of Moai statues over seven-hundred years old. They blocked the entrance to a tunnel that ran into the base of the dormant volcano that dominated this small Pacific island. They had no heavy equipment with them, but they had explosives.
"They're ancient monuments. We can't destroy them."
"Do as you're told."
The only thing he was sure about what had happened in Central America was Cassandra had been furious when told about it. Especially the part where Lara Croft had flown away with the torch. Telling her about the second location on the holographic globe he and Lara had seen in the temple had mollified her a little, but she had insisted on supervising the expedition in person.
She had been easier to work with from a distance. A part of him wondered if he should have kept quiet about the island and let Lara beat them to it. Another part was counting the bonus that Cassandra had promised him. He weighed the money against history and it wasn't close.
"Don't call me that. Makes me feel like an old woman."
Dressed in a black tanktop and green shorts, nobody would have mistaken Cassandra for an old woman. She could have been Lara Croft's blonde sister. He wondered how angry she would get if he told her.
He didn't trust Cassandra's goons not to blow them all to pieces, so he placed the charges himself. He positioned them where there was a chance the explosion would knock the statues over without destroying them, but when they went off, the statues crumbled into rubble. Behind the wreckage was an arched tunnel entrance.
"I'm coming with you" said Cassandra.
That explained the outfit.
"No, you're not."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're no tomb raider. If you go in there, you'll die, and I won't get paid."
She glared, her eyes as hard and blue as sapphires. "Steal from me and I will end you. Understood?"
He adjusted his headset. "Falkland, can you hear me?"
Falkland was at camp close to the cove where the seaplanes were anchored. He had his books, notes, and a satellite internet connection. Jackson had ignored the old man's advice in Central America and would have died had Lara Croft not rescued him. He didn't want to go through that again.
"I can hear you. I also heard a bloody big explosion."
"Cassandra had us clear the statues out of the way. Boom."
"Good god. Are they damaged?"
"They're in pieces."
Falkland responded with a stream of invective.
"Don't say that to Cassandra. She'll fire us both."
"That was a crime against history. I'll not let you or her escape the consequences."
Jackson doubled-checked his gear and turned on the LED lamp strapped to his head. "Just wait until I get paid before you piss her off. All right, I'm going in."
The tunnel followed the contours of the volcano. His lamp showed black walls as smooth as glass, as if the tunnel had been burned out of the rock with a massive laser drill. A hundred yards in was a checkerboard of black and white tiles, identical to the one in the temple He threw a coin onto one of the tiles which triggered a fusillade of darts.
"First trap is exactly the same as at the last site."
"That's odd," said Falkland. "They were built centuries apart. The traps must have been placed sometime after construction."
Jackson made his way across the trapped floor, testing each row with a dropped coin. "They're integrated into the structure. Would have been hard to do that after the fact."
When he had crossed the checkerboard, a razor-sharp blade dropped from the ceiling. He rolled forward and the blade only took a vertical slice from the back of his boot. His path back was blocked by the blade, which was too heavy for him to lift.
"Can you still hear me?"
"Barely." Falkland's voice was almost buried beneath static.
The tunnel emptied into a hemispherical chamber. At the far end was a seven by seven grid of gold squares embossed with strange symbols. Each square but the center one had a round hole. Ten silver rods were scattered across the floor. They were a perfect fit for the holes.
"Looks like we have a puzzle. Time to get your British on."
"Forty-eight holes and ten rods. Over six billion combinations. Anything special about forty-eight?"
"Atomic number of Cadmium. International dialing code for Poland. Exactly ten divisors."
"Are you getting this from Wikipedia?"
The divisors thing sounded good. He inserted rods in positions one, two, three, four, six eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty-four, and forty-eight. A vertical crack appeared in the wall and widened until large enough to walk through. On a pedestal in the center of the large chamber beyond was a torch. The only difference between it and the one in the temple was the color of the gemstone: red instead of blue.
All he had to do now was get out alive, give it to Cassandra, and collect his paycheck.
Lara Croft crouched behind a tree, not far from where Falkland sat. Her old mentor was talking into a headset and typing on a laptop. There were a couple of bored-looking and well-armed gun thugs, but no sign of either Jackson or Cassandra. She struggled to hear what Falkland was saying, but it sounded like Hayes was in the middle of things.
She had flown only a few feet above the waves on her way to the island and her lips were salty from ocean spray. Cassandra's team had beaten her by a few hours, but the power of the torch made it easy for her to sneak up on them. Her plan was to steal anything that Cassandra found and fly away without getting shot.
A wall of ice blocked the tunnel ahead of Jackson. A tide of slow-moving lava, released from deep within the no-longer dormant volcano when he had taken the red torch, blocked the tunnel behind. The lava creeped towards him. It would melt through the ice eventually, but would burn him to death first.
"Any ideas?" He tried hard to keep panic out of his voice.
"What about the torch?" asked Falkland. "Does it do anything useful?"
On their way out of the temple, Lara had made an impossible jump. The torch had given her the power of flight, which was what she had needed to escape. Maybe the new torch would give him a power he could use to escape.
He gripped the torch tight. He pushed on the slick, cold block of ice, to no avail. The torch had not made him strong. He glowered at the ice, willing it to disappear or melt or something. Clouds of steam filled the tunnel, condensing onto the glassy tunnel wall. When the steam cleared, there was a hole in the ice wide enough for him to crawl through.
Cassandra and two of her goons waited outside. She snatched the torch from him.
"Mine," she said. "All mine."
He wasn't sure what the torch did, but it had melted several cubic feet of ice in a few seconds. It was powerful. He had a horrible feeling that giving it to Cassandra was a terrible mistake.
Lara watched from her hiding place as Jackson, Cassandra, and two more armed men arrived. Cassandra had a torch like hers with a red gem. Jackson was dirty, sweaty, and appeared to be deep in thought.
She hadn't seen Cassandra in person since they had graduated. She was as Lara remembered. Poised and immaculate in an expedition outfit that had probably been hand-made in Italy, she was an aristocratic beauty. She could have been carved from a solid block of white marble by a great artist.
Cassandra turned the torch over in her hands. "What does it do?"
"Temperature control of some kind," replied Jackson. "Hot enough to turn ice to steam very quickly."
Falkland marched over to Cassandra. His face was red. "That bauble doesn't justify what you did. Destroying those monument is unconscionable. A crime against history."
"I don't care and I don't pay you to care."
"You selfish brat."
Falkland emphasised each word with a jab of his finger into her shoulder. Cassandra gasped and stepped back, her eyes wide. She opened her mouth but said nothing.
Two beams of bright orange light burst from her eyes and struck Falkland in the middle of the chest. He didn't have time to scream before his body disintegrated into a cloud of black and gray ash. The wind scattered his remains across the camp. Cassandra was shaking. Jackson looked horrified.
"I didn't mean to... It was an accident." Her tone was pleading at first, but it soon transitioned to commanding. "Idiot. He shouldn't have touched me." She was no longer shaking.
Lara felt queasy. She pushed her feelings about Falkland's death to one side until she had time to deal with them. He had been a friend for far longer than he had been an enemy, and she would mourn him, but the red torch was the priority. She had to get it away from Cassandra before anyone else was hurt or killed.
She had Cassandra in her sights for clean head shot, but couldn't pull the trigger. She was a treasure-hunter, not an assassin. She re-holstered the gun. New plan. With the element of surprise, she might be able to snatch Cassandra's torch and fly away before getting shot. It wasn't a great idea, but it was all she had.
She hovered up and soared towards Cassandra. The blue gem in her torch flared bright and the handle shook as if trying to work its way out of her hand. The red gem in Cassandra's torch was also glowing. Each torch was reacting to the presence of the other.
Alerted, Cassandra turned before Lara was close enough to grab her torch. Her eyes lit up brighter than the sun with twin beams of fiery plasma. Lara corkscrewed to one side and evaded the attack, but radiant heat from the near-miss burned like a bucket of hot coals had been piled on her thigh.
"Get her," Cassandra yelled.
The mercenaries drew their weapons. Jackson ran for cover. As Lara flew up and away from the camp, she fired a few quick shots to encourage Cassandra and the mercenaries to keep their heads down, but her shots were answered by a hail of automatic gunfire.
Cassandra tracked Lara across the sky, lashing out with her heat vision, getting closer to a direct hit with each attempt. There was sudden pain in Lara's hand and foot. The gun burned like a hot plate. One of Cassandra's energy beams had caught the barrel and heated the weapon to the point it was too painful to hold. At the same time, a lucky shot from a mercenary had drilled through her left foot.
Blood streamed behind as she retreated. She was out of her element. This had turned from an adventure to a war, and Cassandra had the big guns. Lara would have to find a bigger one.
Lara Croft was in the Himalayas, where her life as an adventurer had begun. Somewhere out there was the wreck of the plane that had crashed ten years before. Lara had walked away from the crash. Her parents had not. She had fought to remain alive and find a way home, and that fight had forged her into a new woman. She hadn't just survived, she had thrived. The indolent pleasures of high-society, the life for which she had been groomed, held no attraction from that point on. She craved the edge.
She often returned to the Himalayas in her nightmares, and being there in person always felt unreal. Flying up the side of a mountain under her own power did nothing to dispel the dreamlike quality of the experience.
Lara had been dressing her wounds when her torch had come alive projected another holographic globe with a new flashing dot. She assumed that Cassandra's torch would do the same thing, and she was determined to do better than second place this time.
She crested a peak and descended towards a hidden valley. Laid out on a series stepped plateaus was a small city of stone buildings. She might have guessed that she had found the lost city of Shangri-La, if she hadn't found it already a few years before. This was somewhere new. She'd checked satellite imagery of the region and the area was always obscured by clouds when a camera went overhead. It fit the pattern of things that didn't make sense: a Mesoamerican temple too far south and Moai statues thousands of miles west of Easter Island.
She landed next to the largest building.The entrance was a stone arch, flanked by a pair of large golden statues polished to a mirror sheen. The statues were posed sitting down, legs crossed. She'd seen a lot of statues of Buddha in her time and these weren't quite right, their moulded physiques too muscular..
She floated towards the arch, her feet a few inches above the ground. She had cleaned and bandaged her wounded foot, but it hurt like hell when she tried to walk on it. She had severe burns on her thigh from the near miss from Cassandra's heat vision. Burn dressings and the cool, high-altitude air were some relief.
As she approached, the statues came alive and stood up. They raised their thick golden arms and punched down with sledgehammer fists. She reacted on instinct, using a combination of flight and gymnastic skill to dive above the attack and roll forward into the archway. She flew into the building. Heavy metal feet stomped after her.
Jackson's skin crawled when Cassandra gave orders to everyone around her like the
embodiment of a reborn British Empire. Her cut-glass accent chivvied government officials and rebel warlords alike. They were in an area of the Middle East where the political situation was fluid and the site the holographic globe had directed them to was in a region controlled by one of the rebel factions.
Cassandra had bribed officials for safe passage to a town just inside government-controlled territory. It was a free town, where trade between the government and rebel groups, forbidden by both sides, occurred. She then bribed a rebel commander, "General" Ajam, with weapons to escort them across his territory. Jackson didn't think the region needed any more guns, but Cassandra didn't seem to care. She had delivered half of the guns up front and promised the rest upon their safe return.
The site was known locally as "the lost fortress" and was the source of wild stories that always ended with the death or disappearance of those who tried to go inside. Built into a rocky hill, it looked like a small Crusader castle. None of the Crusaders had reached this far east.
"My men will not go inside," said Ajam. He directed his soldiers to take up positions around the main gate.
"He's going to to ambush us when we come out," said Jackson, when they were out of earshot.
"If he does that, he won't get the rest of the guns."
"He's gambling that we're going to find something worth a lot more than guns."
"Bugger. He's right."
Inside the building was a black and white checkerboard of pressure plates like the one in the temple. Lara flew over the squares without incident. Behind her, the golden statues blundered onto the checkerboard. Darts ricocheted from their metal bodies.
Ahead was a maze of solid blocks of rock. There was a clear path through, but the blocks moved, sliding past each other as if on greased rails. A new path opened up and the old one was crushed. Every few seconds the blocks shifted.
The golden statues were close. She didn't have time to observe the maze and figure out a pattern, but it looked like every time the maze shifted, one square would remain unchanged. If the could determine which square was going to stay safe, she could get through the maze. She took a deep breath and flew in.
Jackson didn't try to persuade Cassandra to let him explore the fortress alone. She wouldn't trust him not to steal what he found, now that the potential power of the torches had been revealed. It was also possible that her heat vision would be useful.
"I'll go first," he said.
The inner doors were old, solid wood, reinforced with iron studs, and secured with a heavy iron bolt. Cassandra's eye beams melted the bolt like ice cream under a blowtorch. When he pulled the door open, he yelped as a drop of molten iron caught his leg and burned through his pants like a cigarette.
Past the door was a familiar checkerboard of white and black pressure plates, decorated by a handful of human skeletons. The most distant had made it two-thirds of the way through the trap before succumbing to a poison dart. Getting across would be slow and tedious, and he worried about testing Cassandra's patience..
"Out of the way," said Cassandra.
She aimed her heat vision at the closest tile. Marble shattered to reveal a delicate mechanism beneath, which was soon reduced to smoking slag. Jackson tossed a stone onto the remains of the tile.
Cassandra burned a safe path for them. With every burst of heat vision, her grip on the torch became tighter, until the whites of her knuckles were pressed against her pale skin. When they weren't firing death rays, there was a twitch around her eyes that he hadn't seen before.
The passage ended at a crossroads.He looked around the corner and pulled his head back just in time to avoid decapitation. A giant ball of shining gold rolled past. More balls followed, one every half-minute or so.
"Think you can melt one of those things?"
Cassandra stepped into the passageway and fired her heat vision. The beams were reflected back by the metal ball and almost hit her. She jumped to safety before she was crushed.
"That didn't work," she said.
"Then we'll do this the old-fashioned way. Run like hell and hope we can find a door in less than thirty seconds."
Lara had no time to think and no room to make a mistake, a combination that had almost killed her in the past. Her flight through the maze was pure instinct. She listened for indications that a block was about to move. If she heard nothing, she stayed where she was. So far, it was working.
The animated statues walked through the maze unmolested as the blocks moved aside to let them through. They were slow, but they were catching up. When she reached the end of the maze, one of them was almost close enough to touch her. She paused for a moment and then somersaulted forward. Cold metal fingers brushed against her ankle. There was a screaming crunch of stone against metal.
The blocks slid apart and the other statue stepped over the wreckage of its comrade. The blocks closed. There was now no way back into the maze, just a wall of hard gray stone. There was no other exit visible.
On a pedestal in the middle of the room was a torch. As she approached, a green gemstone flared to life. The blue gem in her torch responded in kind. The new torch rose into the air and flew towards the other as if there were a magnetic attraction between them. She was unable to maintain her grip and the torch flew out of her hand towards the other one. Without the torch, she fell. She screamed when her wounded foot slammed into the stone floor.
The two torches orbited each other for a few seconds and then slammed together in an explosion of white light. Where there had been two torches, there was now one, with both blue and green gems set into the crown. The torch fell a few feet away from her.
She crawled towards the torch, as the golden statue closed in on her. She grabbed the torch. The metal monster raised its fist. Shards of stone pelted her as she flew forward, but the punch had missed its mark.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. Had the green gem given her a new ability? The torch was twice as heavy as it hard been before, as if the two torches had literally merged into one. The extra weight was not uncomfortable. The torch was heavier, but she was stronger. A lot stronger.
Lara flew above the golden golem's head. She pirouetted in the air and landed behind it. She grabbed it by the shoulder and lifted it with one hand, tonnes of metal as easy for her to handle as a feather pillow. She threw it as hard as she could against the far wall. It smashed through stone like a golden cannonball until it was buried up to its waist.
She worked two fingers between the stone blocks that had closed behind the statue to trap her. She pushed and an entire row of stone blocks moved. Hundreds of cubic feet of solid rock were like playthings when she held the torch. Getting out would not be a problem.
Jackson and Cassandra found a door after twenty-five seconds. It was bolted shut, but a quick burst of heat-vision reduced the lock to slag. Jackson shoved the door open with his shoulder and they ran to safety with a second to spare. Cassandra laughed. Something he hadn't heard before.
"That was amazing," she said.
In the middle of the treasure room was a torch with a purple gem. When Cassandra came close, both torches glowed. Her torch flew out of her hand and merged with the other in a flash of light. She picked up the torch.
"It's heavier. Two gems instead of one."
"What does it do?"
"Let's find out."
Behind them was a crash of collapsing masonry. They ran away from it, with Cassandra in the lead. Jackson hoped that the new power granted by the purple gem would allow her to get them out.
Cassandra triggered a trap just short of the exit. A curved blade swung down like a pendulum. He expected to hear the snick and swish of sharp metal slicing through flesh and bone, but there was a clang like metal striking metal. The blade rested against Cassandra's arm, twisted back on itself where it had collided with her bare skin. She wasn't even scratched.
Ajam and his men were massed around their trucks, distracted by the fortress collapsing in on itself.
"We could try to sneak around," said Jackson. "Steal a jeep while they're gawking."
"Leave this to me."
Jackson followed her at a distance and took cover behind a pile of rocks as Cassandra strode towards the soldiers.
"Ajam," said Cassandra, "We're taking a jeep."
Twenty men pointed an assortment of guns at here
"Miss Cassandra," said Ajam, "That will not be possible. Please give me the item." He gestured at the torch with his semi-automatic.
"Give me the treasure you have found. I will not ask again."
Cassandra burned one of the soldiers to a whisp of dust with a burst of heat vision.
Nineteen men opened fire. Cassandra stood there, weathering the storm of bullets as if it were nothing more than an April shower. She examined the manicured nails of her right hand, glistening with bright red nail polish, as bullets shattered into clouds of shrapnel against her.
When Cassandra fired back, she was like an alien war machine dredged from the imagination of an old B-Movie director. She disintegrated the men one after the other. Half were dead before the rest accepted the evidence of their eyes that their guns were useless. Some ran, but she cut them down. The others dropped their guns and raised their hands in surrender. She made a show of considering her options before she burned them as well.
His men gone, Ajam's face was a twisted mask of fear and anger. Cassandra strolled towards him as he emptied his clip into her chest to no effect. He reloaded. He kept firing until he was out of ammunition, then threw his gun at her face. She reduced him to a wisp of black smoke and sighed with pleasure.
Jackson's stomach churned. He bit back on nausea as his limbs shook. A primal part of his brain was pumping "run away" signals throughout his body. He was a helpless mammal in the presence of a large predator.
Cassandra smiled, revealing a row of perfect, pearlescent teeth. "Wasn't that fun?"
Lara Croft was familiar with the Quigley Museum from her boarding school days in Edinburgh, but landing on the roof was a new experience. Back in the day, the artifacts on display had fascinated her. She never could have imagined that she would spend her adult life chasing after more of them.
To avoid tripping alarms, she didn't pull the steel access door from its hinges, but instead punched a hole in the concrete wall and crawled through. She would make a donation to cover the cost of repairs.
She checked the equipment hanging from her belt: a tranquilizer gun, a couple of sticky bombs, and a hunting knife. All illegal in Scotland, but that wasn't a problem for a woman who could fly. She had brought one more item: a bronze shield polished to a mirror-like shine, a souvenir from one of her earliest adventures. She strapped it to her left arm. The living statues had given her the idea that a reflective surface might offer defence against Cassandra's eye beams.
She started the search on the top floor. She floated, silent as a mime, from one exhibit to the next, watching her torch. If it reacted to the torch she was looking for, then she wouldn't have to break into the exhibit cases until she had to. Her search was interrupted by a crash of breaking glass from the entrance of the museum.
The front third of the museum was a grand gallery that stretched the full height of the building. Enormous sheets of glass, suspended between silvered metal beams, gave it the look of a modern international airport. She flew to the mezzanine, which gave her a side-on view of three whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling of the gallery like a squadron of bony blimps.
One of the massive windows was broken, a plume of shattered glass strewn across the marble floor. She floated down to the ground floor to get a closer look. The metal beams that should have held the window in place had melted like candle wax. Cassandra had arrived.
That was a loud snap from above. On instinct, she darted to one side in time to avoid being skewered by the elongated skull of a humpback whale. As pieces of whale skeleton rained down around her, mocking laughter echoed around the gallery.
Cassandra leaned against the railing of the second floor mezzanine, the picture of casual landed gentry in yellow cords and a green wax jacket. Lara noted the torch in her hand now had a purple gem alongside the red. What new power did the purple gem grant?
Lara drew her tranquilizer gun and fired a dart across the room. The dart hit the side of Cassandra's slender neck, but bounced off as if she were made of steel rather than flesh.
"Sorry, darling," said Cassandra. "I'm bulletproof."
Cassandra fired her heat vision. Twin beams of fiery energy raced towards Lara. She raised her shield and deflected the beams into the gift shop where books and museum trinkets exploded in a shower of burned paper and plastic. The shield was warm to the touch, but it had worked as Lara had wanted.
"Well, aren't you a clever girl?" said Cassandra. "Not to worry, you'll be a smoldering corpse before long."
Lara backed away until she was in reach of a pile of stone cannonballs, part of a display of medieval siege guns. "What do you want with the torch?"
"What does any woman want? Power."
"You're one of the richest women in the world. Isn't that power enough?"
Cassandra sneered. "No. Not when tabloid hacks can write whatever they like about me with no comeuppance. Not when idiots can sue me when a few stupid birds get oil on their feathers. Not when spineless politicians refuse to do what I bloody well tell them to no matter how much money I've contributed to the party!"
"So what? You're going to use your powers to kill anyone who gets in your way? You're a bitch, but I don't believe you're a killer."
"I killed Falkland."
Lara tried to keep her tone calm and even. "I saw what happened. You weren't in full control of your powers. It was an accident."
"A happy accident." Cassandra closed her eyes for a moment, as if recalling the memory of burning Falkland to dust. She re-opened her eyes and fired another blast of heat vision at Lara.
Lara deflected the beam into the cafe's espresso machine, which melted into a mess of metal and coffee grounds. "The torch is too dangerous. You have to see that."
"I see a way to take control and lead Britain to a new golden age. Empress Cassandra the First. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"
Cassandra had been a bully and a queen bee at university. The feud between the two women had started with Lara's refusal to join her entourage of sycophantic posh girls. Lara didn't trust Cassandra with the power of the torch, but she didn't believe that Cassandra would abuse it to the extent she claimed.
A security guard stumbled into the main gallery and looked aghast at the destruction.
"This wasn't what we agreed," he said. "I'm calling the police."
"No you're not." Cassandra sighed and blasted the guard to a cloud of ash with a casual burst of heat vision.
"You didn't have to kill him."
"I know, but I wanted to."
Either the power of the torch had driven Cassandra over the edge, or she had always been insane and the torch had given her new ways to express it. Whatever the reason for Cassandra's madness, Lara had to stop her before anybody else got involved. Lara was the only one who stood a chance of taking Cassandra down.
Lara grabbed one of the stone cannonballs and threw it across the room as hard as she could. The solid stone sphere shattered into a fine powder against Cassandra's invulnerable chest. Cassandra staggered back, but she stayed on her feet.
"Is that the best you've got?" asked Cassandra. "This is going to be even easier than I thought."
Lara might have the most powerful right arm in the world, but Cassandra's heat vision and invulnerability gave her the edge in a firefight. Lara's bronze shield was already warm to the touch and it was only a matter of time before Cassandra burned through or caught her with a lucky shot.
She retreated from the grand gallery and flew to the back stairwell. One advantage she had over Cassandra was her knowledge of the museum floorplan. She flew up to the top floor and took position on the mezzanine above Cassandra. With a firm thump of her good foot, she smashed a hole in the floor.
Lara dropped through the hole. As Cassandra turned to face her, Lara drew back her fist and landed a solid uppercut under her chin. The impact send Cassandra flying up and away, through the glass frontage of the museum. She traced a lazy arc across the sky and fell to earth somewhere in the depths of the city. The fall probably wouldn't hurt her, but it would take time for her to get back to the museum. Lara intended to find the torch before she did.
It took fifteen minutes. When she came close to a lacquered Japanese trunk, her torch started to glow, and the rattle of its agitated partner came from a hidden compartment inside the trunk. The new torch smashed out of the trunk and merged with hers in a flash of light. She now had three gems on her torch: blue, green, and black.
She didn't have time to explore any new abilities the black gem had given her. A massive crash of breaking glass and masonry came from the front of the museum. Cassandra was back. Whatever power the black torch had, it was about to be put to the ultimate test.
The front wall of the museum was gone. The edges glowed with residual heat from Cassandra's energy beams. Cassandra stood on the threshold of the rubble spread across the ground floor. Next to her, bound and gagged, was Jacksons Hayes. Cassandra pushed the man forward and he fell to his knees amid broken glass and twisted metal.
Cassandra's voice echoed around the ruined gallery. "Lara, Lara, Lara Croft. I think it's time we discussed this like adults. Let's make a deal."
Lara hovered a few inches above the second floor mezzanine, shield at the ready. "What kind of deal?"
"You give me your torch and I don't kill your friend."
"He's not my friend. He's your lackey."
Cassandra tilted her head. "Really? I caught him in the bathroom of my executive jet trying to call you. Very embarrassing. He's your little spy and he's going to die unless I get what I want."
Lara didn't believe anything Cassandra said, but she could tell that Jackson was hurt and afraid. From across the room, she smelled fresh blood on his knees, she heard the erratic thump of his heart, and she saw individual beads of sweat on his forehead. Her senses had been enhanced to incredible levels: the gift of the black gem..
"I see you found the last torch," said Cassandra, "Can't be anything good or you would have killed me already."
Lara could see the corners of Cassandra's eyes twitch. "I don't want to kill you."
Cassandra smiled as if recalling a private joke. "I want to kill you. When I have completed the torch, I'm going to use my powers to torture you until I'm bored. By the time I kill you, it'll be a relief."
"Why do you hate me so much?" asked Lara.
Cassandra shrugged. "I don't hate you, I pity you. You're the descendant of kings and barons, but you squander your birthright chasing trinkets. The Croft line is weak and your ancestors would thank me for exterminating it."
"What incentive do I have to give you my torch if you're going to kill me anyway?"
Cassandra kicked Jackson's in the small of his back. "The incentive is that Jackson gets to live. It's too late for you to get out of this alive, but he still has a chance. Surrender your torch to me or I will burn him to death. One final sacrifice from the heroic Lara Croft before she goes screaming into the long dark."
Jackson Hayes was a rival, not a friend. She appreciated his existence, because he provided competition, which pushed her to try harder. That was as close as she would come to admitting that she liked him. She had no intention of letting him die, but she also had no intention of letting Cassandra have the full power of the torch.
"I'm not a hero," said Lara. "I'm a tomb raider."
"Then why stand against me?"
"I don't like to lose."
While Cassandra had been ranting, Lara had calculated trajectories and timings. She'd always been a good shot and with her enhanced vision and kinaesthetic sense she could shoot the wings off a housefly, but hitting the target wouldn't do any good if she couldn't damage it. As long as Cassandra was invulnerable, there was nothing she could do.
"I think you're scared," said Lara. "Power is just a way of making sure that no-one will ever hurt you again."
Cassandra fired her heat vision in an arc around the base of the mezzanine. The structure collapsed beneath Lara, adding more wreckage to the ground floor, and leaving her floating in mid-air. Lara dropped to the ground floor and closed the distance between her and Cassandra to less than twenty feet. Sirens blared from somewhere nearby, growing louder by the second..
"You're running out of time," said Cassandra. "Once the police get here, I can't guarantee the safety of anybody. Give me the torch."
Lara smiled and tossed her torch towards Cassandra. "Here, catch."
The two torches strained to become one. Cassandra's flew from her hand to meet its partner in mid-air. Without the torch, Cassandra was vulnerable. As the torches merged, Cassandra reached out to take it and Lara threw her knife into Cassandra's hand.
Cassandra screamed as her hand flew back, blood streaming from the wound. The merged torch fell to the ground in front of Cassandra. As she bent down to pick it up, Lara triggered a sticky bomb she had attached to the handle of her torch before throwing it. The explosion sent the torch flying across the room and blew Cassandra back.
Lara released the breath she had been holding. She had calculated the plan with the benefit of super-senses, but had executed it without them. Her knife throwing skills were not as rusty as she had feared. She hobbled towards the torch, each step on her wounded foot more painful than the one before.
Cassandra picked herself up, groaning and cursing, and limped towards the torch as well. Spots of light blossomed in Lara's eyes as she pushed the pain to one side and forced herself to move faster. Trails of blood on white marble marked the progress of both women towards their shared objective.
Cassandra reached down for the torch as Lara dove towards it. They both grasped the handle at the same time, their hands almost touching. Lara felt powers surge through her: flight, super-strength, super-senses, heat vision and invulnerability. Having them all was intoxicating. From the near-ecstatic look on Cassandra's face, Lara knew the other woman had gained the same powers.
Her eyes met Cassandra's. They fired their heat vision at the same time. The beams met between them and the air crackled as the destructive energies cancelled each other out. Lara tried to pull the torch away, but Cassandra's strength was the equal of hers.
"We are at an impasse," said Cassandra "What shall we do?"
"Destroy the torch. It's far too powerful."
"I won't give it up."
Lara fired her heat-vision at the torch, but the artifact absorbed the energy as if it was nothing. She tried to crush the head with one hand, but the metal wouldn't yield to her super-strength. The diamond at the tip of the torch burst into light and projected the holographic image of a man in white and blue robes in the air above the two women.
"The Torch of Rao cannot be destroyed by its own power," said the holographic man, "but a worthy guardian has been found. Only those who are willing to give up the power of the torch can be trusted to wield that power. Lara Croft of Earth, you have been chosen to defend your world. Threats beyond your imagination lie ahead and all of your might will be required to defeat them."
The hologram blinked out. The torch warmed to the touch and melted into a thick golden fluid that flowed into Lara through her palms like water into a sponge. Her body tingled all over as the energies of the torch dispersed through her, rebuilding every cell, making her stronger, faster, and better than ever.
"No," screamed Cassandra. "It's not fair!" She smashed her fists against the rubble-strewn floor until her hands were bloody.
Lara floated up and hovered in the air. All the powers of the torch were a part of her now, forever. She had been transformed into a superhuman and tasked with protecting the entire planet.
"Well now," said Lara, "this might be fun."