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eavy footsteps echoed down the dim corridor behind Lara. She scolded herself for not being more careful. She’d let her guard down, and the price was blood. Her blood.
rcheologists working for the British Heritage Foundation (BHF) recently unearthed an ancient roman tile kiln. While sifting through the site, they recovered a tablet that referenced events around the time of the Trojan War. It seemed that the helmet be-
longing to the slain Trojan champion, Hector, lay hidden under something related to the sun god, Apollo, near a city called Buthrotum. BHF’s Director, Henry Lauder, often contacted Lara whenever something interesting came along; Lara’s regular donations at BHF’s fundraisers earned her some modest preferential treatment. Mr. Lauder invited Lara to his office to inspect the tablet. Lara scribbled a copy of the translation and thanked the director for the information. This was the most promising lead that Lara had in several weeks and she was growing restless. Between the internet and the library, Lara learned that Buthrotum was modern-day Butrint, Albania. Lara also learned that in 1949, an Italian archeologist discovered a small, unremarkable Temple of Apollo in the hills close to Butrint, but his funding depleted before he excavated beneath the temple.
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War began when Paris of Troy stole Helen from her husband King Menelaus of Sparta. Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, led a decade-long siege against Troy; during which, Achilles of Greece challenged and defeated Hector of Troy in a legendary duel. Eventually, the city fell to the famous Trojan Horse. Many Trojans were slaughtered, but some escaped and survived. For example, Roman historians claim that the mighty warrior Aeneas led a group of Trojan refugees to Italy where they settled. Did Aeneus
smuggle Hector’s helmet out of Troy? Lara thought. Only one way to find out!
Before week’s end, Lara flew to Butrint and retained an Albanian dig team to meet her at the site. Several tiresome days crawled past before the team unearthed a sealed door that contained an ancient but functional locking mechanism. Amazing that this has remained undis-
turbed for so many centuries, Lara thought as she brushed her hand over the exposed stone
surface. She paid the diggers and sent them away; Lara preferred to work alone whenever possible. The door’s intricate carvings and clever mechanisms fascinated Lara, such that she didn’t notice a pair of scouts quietly watching her nearby. Lara was so eager to continue her adventure that she disregarded her typical vigilance. That mistake would cost her dearly. Lara had always been a quick study, and within moments she’d aligned the mechanisms and the heavy stone door slid back several feet. She clipped her LED lamp onto her belt, grabbed her backpack, and slid into the musty, ancient passageway. Meanwhile, the scouts had radioed their main group which promptly arrived. One by one, several figures squeezed through the entrance and melted into the shadows after their prey. The series of passageways honeycombed in various directions, many of which lead nowhere. The ancient builders probably converted a network of natural caves into these tombs. To keep from wandering in circles, Lara periodically dropped phosphorescent glow-sticks to mark her route. Eventually, she reached a section of passageway that seemed much older than the rest. Lara’s whole body teemed with anticipation as she stooped beneath the low ceiling of the meandering corridor. Moments later, she emerged into a spacious chamber filled with rows of stone sarcophagi. Her flashlight beam swept the room as she gazed about. On an elevated
stage toward the rear of the chamber sat a white marble table covered in various items. “Bingo,” Lara whispered as she trotted down the rows. Elongated shadows glided silently over the walls as the hunters stalked closer. They knew that their prey remained oblivious to their presence, which made the hunt even more exhilarating. These hunters were professionals; their footsteps were deliberate and their senses keen. The moment to strike was near at hand. Lamplight illuminated the items arranged on the marble surface. Lara used her camcorder to carefully document each artifact before approaching a bell-shaped bronze case. She gently blew away the dust around the base of the bronze lid and found a fine groove in the marble that encircled the case. “Suspicious . . . maybe it’s a pressure plate?” Lara’s gaze dropped to her feet. The stone tiles beneath her didn’t exactly match the surrounding tiles. Cautiously, Lara planted her feet on either side of the odd tiles and lifted the heavy bronze lid with both hands. As the lid rose, the odd tiles fell downward into a deep pit. Lara laughed, relieved. “How predictable,” she mused. Setting aside the lid, Lara gazed in wonder at a marvelous golden helmet perched on a black marble stand. Could this really be Hector’s helmet? she wondered. Lara could see that the helmet had been repaired often, but dents and gashes still marred the surface. Obviously, this helmet was worn in battle. Lara wondered whether any of those scars were inflicted during Hector’s fateful duel with Achilles. More excited than a six-year-old on Christmas morning, Lara catalogued and packaged the helmet along with a few other tiny artifacts into her backpack.
ingerly placing the last item into her backpack, Lara closed the zipper but then froze. Had she heard a noise? Something didn’t feel right. Cautiously, Lara peered around. The chamber lay silent, but she felt . . . exposed. CRACK! A blinding flash of light
and then Lara felt herself flying backward. She smashed against a sarcophagus, knocking the lid completely off. She rolled onto her hands and knees; the impact had kicked up a cloud of dust that made her gag and cough. What happened? Lara wondered, bewildered.
More deafening noises and flashes. Gunshots. Damn. Lara deployed one of her 9mm pistols, firing blindly over the top of another sarcophagus with one hand and grabbing her backpack with the other. She turned off her lamp and darted between the rows of coffins, ducking and shielding her eyes from the dust and debris that exploded around her as bullets struck stone. In the dim light, Lara couldn’t see very well, but judging by the different sounds of gunfire Lara guessed there were three or four attackers. The gunfire originated from the main passageway. She needed to find another route. Peeking over some rubble, she scanned the dark room as muzzle flashes illuminated the walls like strobe lights. Toward the far side, opposite the ambushers, she noticed an area that might contain a passageway. Lara heard someone moving to flank her. She’d have to take a chance.
Moving as low and as fast as possible, Lara reached the far side of the room. Nothing. Just a shadow on the wall. Shrapnel erupted around Lara as a burst of gunfire sprayed a statue mere inches from her. Leaping over a sarcophagus, she rolled into a forward handspring with enough speed to vault over a pile of rubble. Lara landed in a particularly dark corner of the room. A current of cool air flowed against her damp skin, giving her goose bumps. Turning around, Lara distinguished something that made her want to laugh out loud; she’d landed right in front of a narrow hallway.
CHAPTER II I
arco thought he scored a hit, but now he doubted himself. “She didn’t stay down!?!” he hissed to the figure beside him. “Shh,” It was Tirana. Marco grimaced. Tirana was the most lethal operative he’d ever encountered—himself excluded, of course.
She was also one of the few women Marco genuinely respected. “She’s moving,” Tirana whispered. “I can hear her. THERE!” she cried, pointing toward the opposite wall. Marco looked but didn’t see anything; his eyes were still adjusting to the darkness. “When are you going to put a flash suppressor on that damn . . . toy?” Tirana demanded in disgust. Marco snorted but didn’t answer. Marco liked his weapons big, loud and ugly, but he liked his women small, quiet and beautiful. “Easier to train when they’re tight and tiny,” Marco often boasted to his comrades. And easier to dispose of when I tire of them, he added to himself. Marco wanted to “dispose” of someone today, but his target was escaping. Lara sprinted in complete darkness, praying that she wouldn’t run flat into a wall or fall into a pit. She’d already bumped her head several times against the low ceiling, but she didn’t dare use her light until she distanced herself from her opponents. She still hadn’t seen any of her assailants, which meant they were either cowards or well-trained. Fighting against cowards would be amusing, but fighting against talent could be thrilling. Slowing to a rapid jog, Lara relit her lamp. Whoa! She’d stopped just short of a solid wall. That was close. Lara thought, smiling to herself. Her skin glistened with sweat, making the cool underground air feel downright frigid. The passage continued to the left, but when Lara turned to continue, a burning pain erupted in her side. I can’t stop to stretch now, it’ll
have to wait, Lara thought. She kept moving, but the pain grew more intense. Lara usually walked-off side aches, so she tried massaging her side as she jogged. Ouch! A sharp pain
stabbed through her abdomen. Lara detached the lamp and turned it toward herself. “Oh no . . . .” Lara’s voice trailed off in shock. Sweat wasn’t the only thing making her shirt damp. A dark stain grew beneath Lara’s shirt a few inches above her left hip. “Bloody hell. Those buggers!” Lara gritted her teeth and winced as she applied pressure to the wound. “This complicates matters.” Flashlight beams scoured the path ahead of the assault team. Four mercenaries had entered the tomb, while the two scouts—who volunteered for the dig team to spy on Ms. Croft— guarded the entrance in case she doubled back. The mercs didn’t know their client’s identity, nor did they care. They were well-paid because they didn’t ask questions. Marco had multiple clients who kept him very busy doing anything from passive security to contract killing. This was the first job for his newest client who only wanted whatever Croft was looking for, but never mentioned what to do if Croft resisted. Marco always implied permission to kill, unless someone told him otherwise. Of course, accidents did happen.
A flashlight beam illuminated something on the floor. Marco reached down and dabbed.
Blood. “Told you I hit her!” he
sneered triumphantly at Tirana. She rolled her eyes and pushed past him. “It could’ve been any of us, you swine,” Tirana snapped. Marco frowned but conceded that she had a point. A faint greenish-yellow glow emanated from the intersection ahead. Lara had reached the path she’d taken into the tomb. Now she needed to backtrack and get to a hospital. As she went, Lara kicked dirt over the glow-sticks to delay her pursuers. A beam of sunlight pierced the darkness ahead. The light eclipsed for a brief moment. Then again. Someone is
pacing in front of the exit, Lara
realized, drawing her pistols and removing the safeties. Tirana rounded a corner and checked her compass. She was going the proper direction, so the exit should be nearby. Gunshots rang down the passageway. Tirana dropped to the floor, ready to shoot at the tiniest movement. More gunshots echoed from up ahead, but evidently were not aimed at her. “Croft is at the exit. She’s getting away!” Tirana called back to the others. Scrambling to her feet, Tirana surged forward at full speed. Tirana was a different kind of mercenary for various reasons. Female mercs were uncommon, but young attractive female mercs like Tirana were extremely rare. She was in her late twenties, and five-feet eight-inches tall with an athletic build. Information about Tirana’s past was scarce; she always avoided the subject. Marco was curious about everyone’s past because such information often allowed him to predict, manipulate, and control his subordinates. But Tirana wisely denied Marco that advantage, which forced him to treat her more as a partner than as a pawn. However, Tirana wasn’t totally immune to being used in other ways. One of the reasons Marco recruited Tirana was for her reputation as one who trained harder, longer,
and with more focus than any of her peers. Marco wanted to form an elite team to attract exclusive, super-wealthy clients, and few things motivate a group of cocky men to train diligently than seeing a woman out-do them all. Heavy footsteps echoed down the dim corridor behind Lara. She scolded herself for not being more careful. She’d let her guard down, and now she paid the price in blood. Her blood. There had been two guards at the exit, but they went down quickly. Must be the greenies, Lara concluded as she leapt lightly over a body wearing mismatched fatigues, but sporting stateof-the-art weaponry. Bandits usually don’t have such expensive gear. These must be mercena-
ries, but who is paying them and why? Echoes emanated from the passageway, interrupting
Lara’s thoughts. She didn’t have time to reverse the lock and re-seal the chamber door; the mercs were too close. Blood streamed down Lara’s thigh and calf, staining her sock bright red. Running is not
helping matters, but these bastards are relentless! Okay, what are my options? There is good cover here, so I could stay and fight. However, these people obviously know how to use cover, so they could just hunker down until I bleed out. Even if I win I may bleed out before I can get to a hospital. Or, I can evade them and go to my jeep where I have a medic pack, drive a safe distance before bandaging myself, and then find a hospital. Lara’s mind raced. She
wanted to fight these people because—frankly—they had pissed her off. Lara glanced down at her wound one last time before making her decision. Tirana emerged into the blinding sunlight. She had already donned her sunglasses and was scanning for movement. The others emerged seconds later and checked the casualties. “I told you they were baggage,” one of the assault mercs remarked coldly. Some loose rocks skipped down the hillside behind them, and
without a word they all bolted up the hill after Lara. They knew that Ms. Croft was wounded, which meant that she probably wouldn’t go cross-country on foot unless forced to do so. Earlier, the scouts had mentioned that Ms. Croft parked a jeep near the hilltop ruins. She’ll be dead
before she can start the ignition, Marco smirked as he slung his gun and retrieved something from his pack. I’ll see to that!
Lara’s jeep waited on the crest of the hill. Lara vaulted over a fallen tree trunk and darted through underbrush with the agility and ease of a deer, but her balance waned and her run devolved into a limping trot. A low-hanging tree branch cut Lara’s cheek as she pushed through the forest. The earth seemed to swirl around her; she shook her head to fend off the dizziness and double vision. Bullets flew overhead. Lara ducked but kept moving. Her jeep was only a couple hundred feet away. 100 feet . . . 75 feet . . . 50 feet . . . Darkness.
moke wafted from the grenade launcher’s barrel. Marco had “acquired” this launcher from a local militia. He could have sold it for a decent sum, but he wanted firepower more than he wanted money. Marco didn’t love firepower, he loved excessive firepower;
and he’d just used it to vaporize Ms. Croft’s only hope of escape. Blinking up at the clouds, Lara thought it was a lovely sky. Very picturesque. But she couldn’t recall why she had been napping on rough gravel. She also couldn’t remember why everything smelled smoky, or why her ears were ringing. The burning remains of her jeep lay strewn about in front of her. She blinked as reality returned. Coughing and disoriented, Lara struggled to stand, but her left leg gave out beneath her. Her wounds screamed in protest and she gasped in pain. Footsteps. Lara whirled around to see four guns panning toward her. Instinct and training took over. She pushed off with her good leg, rolling through a nearby stone entranceway. Bullets impacted against the stone doorposts. Lara half-limped and half-crawled as quickly as she could through the remains of the ancient ruins, but a bullet clipped her right forearm before she could reach cover, causing her to stumble and fall. All of the tiny artifacts spilled from Lara’s backpack when she hit the ground, but Hector’s helmet remained securely inside. Lara could sense she was being surrounded. Her vision wobbled and the world seemed to spin. Pushing herself to her knees she drew both pistols, aiming them in opposite directions. She couldn’t focus her eyes; she saw two or three of everything as she tried to draw a bead on a large bearded man with an M60 machine gun to her left. Despite his bulky gear, he moved shockingly fast. To Lara’s right, a merc with a shaved head was moving toward the small artifacts littered on the ground. Click. A hammer cocked behind Lara’s head. She closed her eyes. This was the end. Game over.
Tirana kept her pistol trained on Lara while confiscating Lara’s pistols and tossing them aside. “Thought you could escape from us, eh Bitch?” Tirana spat in distain. Lara couldn’t understand what the merc said. When Lara didn’t respond, Tirana kicked as hard as she could into Lara’s wounded side. Lara screamed in pain and fell forward into the dirt, coughing blood. Lara blinked away the stars that filled her vision and tried to push herself up, but Tirana jammed her boot into Lara’s back forcing Lara down. Someone wrenched Hector’s helmet from Lara’s backpack. Tirana lifted Lara’s head by her hair and listened to Lara’s breathing; it was labored and shallow. Most people surrender by now. This bitch is tough. Tirana thought, impressed. “Pain is my parting gift to you,” Tirana said as she drew a long slender blade, touching the razor’s edge to Lara’s throat. “Goodbye, Lady Croft.” “Stop! She’s mine!” Marco growled. “We don’t have time for this,” Tirana retorted angrily. “Like hell! If you finish her, then you forfeit your cut of the contract,” Marco threatened, but Tirana quickly responded, “The contract was for the loot, not for this bitch. She’s worthless to us.” Marco glowered as Tirana continued, “Ah . . . let me guess; you’re planning to play with her before you finish her, eh? Pig,” Tirana spat. She could tell that Marco wasn’t going to budge. She shrugged and stepped back. “Fine. But I’m not waiting around while you do this. I’m taking the truck back to camp, whether you’re in it or not,” Tirana re-sheathed her knife, stuffed Hector’s helmet into a duffle bag and stormed back down the hill. “That goes for the rest of you, too,” she called over her shoulder. No one—including Marco—dared to speak until after Tirana disappeared into the forest. “You! Go with her,” Marco ordered,
pointing at one of his men, “leave her at camp but return here with the truck.” The man reluctantly started down the hill after Tirana. Lara was struggling to remain conscious. She felt dizzy and couldn’t understand what they were saying, but she could tell they were arguing. It had been a while since she’d been so outmatched. She felt confident that she could prevail against almost any foe, but this team of mercs were another story. They worked together like an elite special ops squad. Aside from the blinding agony, Lara also felt a strange sensation in her chest and she couldn’t inhale properly. Lara looked up as a shadow fell over her; Marco grinned menacingly down at her. Marco reached down and grabbed Lara, dragging her toward the trees. Lara twisted and kicked, making contact with his jaw. Marco sputtered and staggered sideways a few paces, but quickly recovered. Growling with rage, he lifted Lara off the ground and threw her against a nearby wall. The impact blasted the air from Lara’s lungs and her vision went bright and splotchy. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t fight. All she could do was clutch her torso and listen to the mercs cackle and leer. Instinctively, she curled into fetal position. For the first time in a long time, Lara felt helpless. Marco grabbed Lara’s ankle and resumed dragging her toward the forest. Suddenly, he dropped her leg and began firing wildly toward the trees. Red-hot brass rained down from the M60, singeing Lara’s bare arms and legs. She clenched her teeth, still struggling to inhale. Her lungs burned for oxygen. More shooting erupted from another direction. Then another. Marco ran for cover. Lara heard several sets of footsteps pursuing him. She wanted to lift her head to look around, but she couldn’t move. Another shadow fell over Lara. “Hey Sarge, what do you make of this?” a soldier inquired as someone else approached. “Blimey, she looks dead to me, but what the hell do I know? MEDIC!” The soldiers spoke English!
hile the mercenaries retreated, UN vehicles skidded to a halt outside of the ruins. Marauding bands of thieves had been looting UN shipments to peacekeepers in neighboring war torn countries. UN forces were monitoring suspicious groups when
Marco’s team abruptly departed from their camp. Hoping to prevent another raid, UN soldiers scrambled to intercept the mercenaries before they could escape, but the foothills were a dangerous place to follow retreating combatants. The soldiers abandoned their pursuit and were securing the area when they discovered Lara’s motionless figure. Lara certainly looked dead, but the soldiers quickly discovered otherwise. One soldier, Pvt. Flinn, roughly prodded Lara with his boot to provoke a response and Lara answered with a back-hand to the groin. After that, everyone gave Lara a wide berth until the medics arrived to stabilize her. Once the UN determined that Lara wasn't actually one of the mercs, they transferred her to a civilian hospital. Lara recovered speedily despite her injuries: two gunshot wounds, three cracked ribs, one collapsed lung, a concussion, and some burns. While in the hospital, Lara received a note from the Albanian government. An English translation accompanied the message, which stated that because no one had clear ownership of the artifacts discovered at the scene when peacekeeping forces arrived, the Albanian government was entitled to seize the property. “Lovely.” Lara grumbled, crumpling the letter and flinging it across the room. Between the mercs and the government, all Lara would be taking
home was a stack of medical bills. Lara’s lung was on the mend, but the doctors prohibited airplane travel for another eight weeks, so she arranged to accompany a team of Red Cross workers travelling to England by ship. Lara thanked her physicians and rescuers. She also apologized for hitting Pvt. Flinn. One of Flinn’s jeering comrades informed Lara that Flinn had worn an icepack in his pants for two days.
The ship set sail the next morning. Lara made good use of her time aboard the vessel. She carefully reviewed her notes of the recent debacle, going over every detail in her mind to visualize ways she could have performed differently. Thinking about improvements was easy when everything went wrong. Lara’s mind grappled with questions. How did they know where I’d be? Who hired them? Why does that person want Hector’s helmet? Lara looked forward to her next encounter with these mercs, because she had a very important helmet to reclaim.