Chapter 11: Written By The Winners
"A... penitent... man... oh, come on now..."
The archaeologist's brow furrowed as she finished dusting off the wall inscription. She was fluent in most living languages and many more dead ones, but it would not take a cunning linguist to figure out where this carved warning came from. All one would need is a stomach for overpriced popcorn, really.
Rising to full height and pushing back up her sunglasses, the explorer took another glance around and tried to make some type of sense out of everything up to now.
Lara Croft, famed archaeologist and adventurer, was stumped. Someone was playing games with her, that was for sure. Someone with massive amounts of time and money to throw at things they clearly knew nothing at all about.
This place was obviously designed to mimic an ancient ruin ripe for exploring. To make her feel "at home", perhaps? The problem was that whoever was overseeing this overblown art project apparently knew about such ruins solely through Hollywood movies and last-minute Internet searches, making the result a blind mix of everything thrown every which way.
She had started in a series of Parisian catacombs, which ascended into what apparently was a replica of the Sedlec Ossuary. Because bones are bones, right? Leaving that, she found herself at a fork with three paths.
The left one was filled with valuable loot; mountains of priceless metals and gems piled around the room. The coins were quite a laugh once you actually stopped to examine them. Doubloons, denarii, shekels, and silver dollars all mixed together? Really? By the time she reached an idol base -- with pieces of a silver monkey statue scattered around it clearly meant to be reassembled to continue -- her patience for this brand of idiocy was at it's end and she turned back.
The right branch was less outright gaudy, but still pretty terrible. Lara walked past alternating lines of Chinese terracotta warriors and full suits of European plate armor, set up as if they were troops in one of the most bizarre standing armies conceived. Behind them was the treasure they were protecting: Flanked by a Roman gladiator statue on either side, an Egyptian sarcophagus stared back at her with it's golden face. King Tut's, to be exact. Of course it was.
Then there was this, in the center path. A short walk to a dead end referencing a fictional trial for a fake archaeologist. She wished that she could chalk this all up as a misguided, theme-park version of the real deal, but her mind had been gnawing at a rather unsettling set of details:
Everything was checking out as legit.
Sure, it all being in one place was a melting pot of stupid, but every individual piece she had examined held up as the real deal. As far as she could tell with her currently limited equipment, the bones in both the catacombs and ossuary were both real and around the right ages they would need to be for their respective origins. The coins were of proper make and material for their given eras, complete with the wear that came from long-term circulation. The terracotta sculptures were made up of individual pieces slotted together, instead of sculpted as a whole like a replication would likely be. She was pretty sure that no one would build a fake of Henry VIII's armor -- with it's hilarious codpiece and all -- just to use it unceremoniously in a line of lesser suits. When she ran a handheld ultraviolet light she kept in her backpack over the Greek statues they showed signs of their original paintjobs; a detail few forgers would even know about, let alone want to replicate considering how iconic they are bare. And the Sarcophagus of King Tut still sported a crack between it's jaw and golden beard; a flaw recently created when a caretaker accidentally snapped it off and hastily glued it back on with quick acting (but damn near irreversible) epoxy.
So she was not quite dealing with a lunatic who would mock up a fake ruin for the hell of it. It was a lunatic who would steal actual historical treasures and use them to make his own real-fake ruin for the hell of it. Strangely enough, this made her even less at ease.
It did raise an interesting possibility, though.
Turning back to the warning wall, Ms. Croft mulled over the implications. It was just as likely that this was exactly as authentic as the other items of note. As in, an authentic movie set prop. As in, a couple inches of cleverly disguised styrofoam and plywood.
Croft reached down for a reliable friend hanging on her hip -- to test hacking through it with -- but partway thought of a better idea and instead diverted her hand to another tool. No need to get all hot and bothered if it wasn't necessary.
Over her adventures she had experimented with several types of grappling devices, eventually combining all of their strengths into the personal gadget she carried now. Attached to her belt, so she could throw and use it as a climbing line at a moment's notice, this portable nanofiber rope had several different methods of finding purchase. The tip's default form was akin to a small metal disc, but on command it could extend hooks from its sides or front to either serve as a more traditional grapple or firmly spear itself into a surface. And if all else failed, it could also magnetize itself quite strongly to stick against unpenetrable metal.
With a practiced flick of the wrist, Lara flung her grapple at the wall and watched with vindication as it plunged straight through the "stone" without issue. Then, activating the side prongs as it exited the other side, she set herself solidly and yanked back to pull the whole farce down.
This path was no dead end; the false wall was just as much a deception here as it was on the silver screen. Waving away bits of plaster as she did so, Lara stepped through the new opening and into the next room.
It would take a lot to catch off guard such a seasoned and storied explorer.
This... was getting there.
Lara found herself in a library.
No, that was not even close to a good enough description. Lara found herself in the library.
Hot, dry air flowed around support columns drawing in equal measures from Roman and Egyptian architecture The walls were lined with shelves, within which innumerable papyrus scrolls were stacked upon one another. In the room itself tables and seats were dispersed almost as an afterthought, clearly improv locations to set down and examine codices than any permanent installments. Whatever doubts she had were swept away as she noticed the inscription above every shelf: ψυχῆς ἰατρείον. Translated into modern English, it roughly meant "Clinic for the Soul."
The madman behind this had outdone himself beyond measure. Lara Croft -- despite all reason screaming otherwise -- was now wandering the study halls of the ages-lost Library of Alexandria.
Too perplexed by the original revelation to notice her at first, Lara's gaze now settled on the only other occupant of these supposedly forgotten halls. In a way, she was the most out-of-place addition yet.
"Junk, junk, junk..."
An oddly dressed woman of Korean heritage; South if Croft were to wager a guess, due to the other region having several, uh, emigration issues. She sat sloppily on one of the available chairs, slouched into it as her bare feet rested on the table with a partially-unfurled scroll for cushioning. To the right of her sat a pile of carefully rolled documents, and to the left of her sat a pile of tangled papyrus steadily growing larger as the woman added to it.
"Aaaand more junk." The Korean added, tossing her latest scroll aside and picking up another. "All this stuff and not a single readable word. Amazing."
"Language evolves over time, and these writings are centuries old" Lara interjected, walking up to the odd woman to examine the text of her 'footrest'. "Even if you knew the current-day versions of Greek or Egyptian, you probably would not be able to read most of this."
"Great, a library for old dead people." the Korean griped, throwing away her latest scroll and turning to the new face. "Something catch your fancy?"
"I think this work you're using as a foot pillow..." Lara mumbled, her brow furrowing as she read, "...is an original transcribing of Aethiopis. Up until now, only five lines of it have survived to present day."
"Must not have been very good if no one bothered to keep it around" the Korean replied, putting her hands behind her head and leaning back more into her seat.
Lara looked up at the woman, her quizzical eyes peeking over her sunglasses with one eyebrow raised. "It is literally an epic comparable to Homer's works."
"So... it was about donuts and power plants?"
Lara let out a deep sigh, more of disappointment if anything else. It was getting harder and harder as time went on to tell the difference between someone playing dumb and having dumb as their 9-to-5.
"So..." Lara continued, stretching out the word like a kindergarten teacher trying to get the attention of her class, "...when are you going to tell me what's happening here?"
"Me?" the girl asked, raising her shoulders and clutching her chest in an exaggerated display of ignorance. "What makes you think I know anything?"
"Simple. You're the only bit here that doesn't belong."
The Korean's head cocked to the side, and her eyes narrowed slightly. "You know, this is why most of your colonies hated you."
"Cute", Lara replied with a wag of a finger. "But not what I meant."
Croft flung an arm out, sweeping over everything around them. "Treasures, relics, artifacts... and a half-dressed lady in purple. You don't fit the 'theme', as tenuous as it may be. That means you're either the one who set this all up in the first place, or the one who set it all up had a very good reason to place you down here for me to find."
"Hm..." the Korean woman murmured while rubbing her chin in thought. "You do raise a good point. Alright!"
Rolling her knees up to her chest before simultaneously kicking up and pushing off her seat, the purple-clad lady landed on top of the table between them. Crouched down on all fours, she was at the perfect height for her bizarre violet eyes to lock with Lara's.
"First tidbit: My name's Han. Juri Han."
Juri playfully dragged a finger across the top of the explorer's round sunglasses, following the frames back to her face and then trailing down her cheek. "But if you want anything more..."
Juri's hand wrapped itself around the explorer's throat and pulled her in until their foreheads touched.
"...You're going to have to work for it."
So it was going to be one of these conversations.
It was by no means Lara's first choice so far as diplomacy went, but if this Han expected to cow her so easily she was in for a hell of a wake-up call.
Croft set a foot against the table and pushed off it as hard as she could; sending her flying back, with Juri along for the ride as she refused to release her grasp. Lara, being the most in control during this motion, landed cleanly on the flat of her back. Juri, significantly less so, was winded as she came down on her opponent's upturned knees.
Lara continued her roll backwards, simultaneously throwing the rattled Juri off her and coming to her feet in a crouch. She turned expecting to find Han in a heap, but to her surprise the purple Korean had recovered and stood up during the fraction of a second it took her to do the same. This woman was clearly no slouch; Lara would have to remember that going forward.
"Ooh, you've actually got some meat to you." Juri mused, easing into a pose Lara recognized as a slightly modified taekwondo stance. "How much are you willing to put out for me, though?"
"Now now..." Lara chided, assuming a battle ready stance herself as they began to circle each other. "One never goes all the way on the first date."
Following that, they both stepped forward and started in earnest.
Lara quickly took in her opponent's fighting style as they tested each others defenses, and came back... well, slightly confused if anything. There was certainly taekwondo in there, and it was not long until Lara could fairly accurately predict upcoming attacks and move accordingly to deflect them. But it all seemed a little off. While Croft was holding her own just fine, Juri moved in a deceptively lazy manner that made her swipes and sweeps seem slow to come out despite keeping pace with Lara's efforts. If she didn't know better, she might have guessed that this woman was not even taking the fight seriousl-
Her concentration was broken as a high-pitched whine filled the air, emanating from some source surely nearby but for now impossible to pin down. The distraction was only for an instant, but in a fight that is often all the opening needed.
Juri shot out with a semi-stomping kick to one of Lara's kneecaps; the explorer saw just enough of it coming in time to roll with the blow and avoid too much strain on the joint, but the resulting loss of balance caused her to stumble around the other way. Casually, but firmly, Juri finished off Lara's already shaky footing by planting a sole between the explorer's shoulderblades and giving her a push.
Lara stumbled for a few steps before colliding with a library wall, sliding down it as her hands searched for purchase but only found scrolls to pull down on top of herself. She eventually came to a rest with her face against the shelf base and half buried in documents; mostly uninjured, but slightly dazed and more-than-slightly humiliated.
"Aw, where's that famous English stoicness?" Juri taunted while trying to stifle chuckles. "Didn't have a grandma from London to teach you how to keep a stiff upper lip when foreigners blow you out?"
"I don't know..." Lara replied slowly, regaining her wits. "...did you have a gran from Goyang who taught you how to properly kneel and lean into the bullet?"
Juri's giggling halted, and her grin withered as she momentarily stared off into nothing.
"Wow. That actually stung."
Lara spun on her knees and threw her grapple at Juri, but despite the distraction she was easily able to step out of the way in time.
"Your first mistake was thinking that you could out-snark a historian..." Lara began.
She then pulled the line with all her might; sending Juri into an ungraceful pratfall as the table her grapple buried into uprooted and splintered against the Korean girl's back.
"...your second mistake was thinking that you could outwit a Croft."
Juri Han shook her head to clear the stars, and found herself down on all fours.
"Alright, I gotta hand it to y-"
Fireworks exploded across Juri's vision as Croft's foot connected with her jaw, snapping her head back and forcing her up to a kneel.
"-hand it t- hand i-"
Her continued attempts to finish her thought were for naught, as the alternating punches against her cheekbones jangled her brain and made her repeatedly lose her place.
Fair enough. That's what she got for going in slow.
Lara heard that strange, high-pitched whirr again, and as it sounded off her right fist stopped mid-strike. Juri had apparently caught it in her own palm, and was now clamping down her grip with a force far surpassing someone in her position.
Turning back to the woman herself, she found Han absolutely beaming. Her wide, toothy smirk set off quite a few alarm bells, but it was the eyes that really stole the show. Or rather, a single one. Her left eye -- which now Lara saw in truth to be some sort of advanced prosthetic -- twinkled like a violet star as unseen engineering inside it emitted that up-until-now mysterious whine.
"That was a good warmup," Juri purred, "but let's get to the main course."
No matter how hard she tried later, Lara could not entirely figure out what happened next. And it wasn't completely because of the resulting concussion, either.
Still holding onto Croft's arm, Juri wrenched it painfully as she assaulted Lara's chest and face with upward kicks. From both feet. At the same time. It was all a bright purple blur from the baffled explorer's point of view, but judging from the increasing tension in her held limb some sort of circular movement was in play.
Following this the Korean girl pulled her down to a stoop, allowing her to step on the top of Lara's head and force her down onto the floor. She completed her motion by walking across Lara's back, leaping off, and turning midair to punt the explorer's upturned rear with enough force to send her rolling head over heels.
Lara only had a moment to herself after the world stopped spinning before a foot came down on her upturned neck; the arch of the sole pressing down on her windpipe hard enough to block off her air. The tomb raider's vision was beginning to grow hazy, but the single glowing eye in the silhouette above her left very few possibilities to who it could be.
Juri leaned down, watching the woman below her struggle to breathe and enjoying the pitiful nature of the pleading hands pawing at her face. After a few moments, she reached down herself and plucked the sunglasses off of her paling toy.
"Mind if I have your specs? After all, you won't be... Be..."
The glasses dropped from Juri's slackening grasp. Something was wrong. Jabs of neural feedback raced through her now-spasming nervous system, and she began to feel woozy. Only when she partially lost her vision did she finally put two and two together.
Reaching up to her face, she found a strange metallic disk stuck to her left temple. Try as she might she could not pull it off, and with every tug her prosthetic eye shifted slightly and sent fresh shocks through her body.
That limey little tramp just stuck a magnet on her. A magnet scrambling her Feng Shui Engine just as well as it would any other electronic.
"Take them." Croft replied with a sputter after forcing up Han's foot. "We'll get you a white cane to finish the set later."
Technically speaking, Lara Croft could have finished off Juri right there. Magnetization was only one of the functions her grapple was capable of. With a single press of a button she could have also extended the front spear of the device, shooting a spike of metal through Han's temple and deep into her brain.
Lara did not want a corpse at that moment, though. She wanted answers. In the very near future she would probably come to regret this, but that's the funny thing about history. Everyone knows the best choice, given enough time and distance. Hindsight is always 20/20 and whatnot.
But here, in the present, a certain purple-clad woman would have been fine with any stable fraction at all.
Juri Han tried her best to stay upright as the malfunctioning prosthetic played havoc with her equilibrium. Apart from the hazy, jarbled mess now taking up half of her vision, the feedback her Feng Shuei Engine fed into the nerves it was hooked up to also meant that her brain was also taking a ride into funtown. Her head pounded, her one real eye struggled to maintain focus, and background functions such as natural sense of balance were the first to throw up their hands and just call it a day.
She probably would have toppled over all on her own, if Lara wasn't willing to help her along.
Croft pulled on her line to bring Juri in, then sent her reeling back with a haymaker from her free hand. Han crumpled, but was not allowed to fall as the line grew taught again and she was pulled back for another blow. It continued for a while like that, with Juri being used as a glorified sparring bag, until Lara's punching hand grew too sore to continue and she finally let her opponent drop.
Right. Maybe now she'd be ready to answer a question or two.
Lara straddled Juri's waist and gave Han's bruised face a few light slaps, attempting to rouse her.
"Wakey wakey. Mommy has some questions for you."
Juri's one good eye managed to lock on to Lara, meaning that she was conscious at least, but the gaze was loose and unfocused. The Korean tried to say something, but it was slurred beyond all comprehension.
Upon further thought, trying to interrogate someone under the effects of an artificially induced seizure was probably not the smoothest of moves.
Lara sat there for a moment, weighing her options. She clearly was not going to get much info out of this woman as long as her grapple was frying her brains. But if she turned it off that whole superhuman nonsense might come back onto the table. Damned if you do...
Maybe she was overthinking this. That device might be done for good by now. And even if it wasn't, there would certainly be a stretch before it became fully operational again. All she would have to do is -- pardon the pun -- keep an eye on her well enough to give it another wipe in time...
But still, there was no reason not to err on the side of caution.
Reaching down to her belt to both deactivate her grapple and pull out a handgun, Lara decided to split the difference.
Juri fully came-to face up on the ground and with the taste of metal in her mouth. She at first assumed this to be blood, and was partially correct to do so. After a few moments more, though, she realized that there was also the cold steel of a pistol barrel.
"Alright." murmured the pistol's owner, hovering over her. "Talk."
Juri's functional eye looked up at the explorer. Then down to the gun in her mouth. Then back up to the interrogator.
"Y're 'n id't."
Croft rolled her eyes and let out a small sigh. "Point taken."
The pistol pulled away -- the front now glistening with Juri's saliva -- but remained trained on its target. Slowly the tomb raider rose to her feet, keeping her gun on on her target and her free hand over her grappling device.
"Make any sudden move and you'll regret it. Maybe. If you have enough time. For right now, just focus on explaining what the hell we're doing here."
Juri sat up -- slowly, as to not make trigger fingers any more itchy -- and mulled over her possible choices. She could come clean about this place as much as she knew of it, but that would hardly give Croft any incentive not to shoot her. What she really needed was to buy enough time for some functionality to come back to her Feng Shui Engine, but her European friend was clearly growing impatient.
Well, this "arena" was built to interest an archaeologist. And while Juri had no idea what Croft found on her way here, Han went past at least one item of note in her path...
Juri broke into a grin, teeth stained slightly pink with blood.
"You wanna see something cool?"
Juri lead the way; not seeing it, but absolutely certain of the pistol aimed at the back of her head.
"You better not be wasting my time." Croft warned, as they started down a winding staircase.
"Oh trust me, this will be-"
"If you actually say 'To die for' I'll shoot you purely on principle."
They soon reached the end of their descent, and as they walked out into an open area Juri turned and gestured forward.
"I don't see the point of..." Lara began, before realization set in and she was rendered speechless.
The area they were in now was not a room, so much as a cavern. They stood on a stone protrusion made via centuries of water erosion, and past that was a sharp drop into inky blackness. One narrow line of stone remained, forming a natural bridge to the only structure here obviously touched by human hands.
At the end of the "bridge" crude, worn steps led up to a chest. Whatever was inside it was giving off light at such an absurd intensity that it's container glowed and pulsed, barely masking the splendor within.
Lara had seen this chest before. Fought over it. Killed over it.
But after all this time, Pandora's Box reared its head once more.
It seemed like ages ago when she last dealt with this "Treasure". Supposedly the same item of mythical fame, the only thing which remained within it was the antithesis to existence itself. Manifesting as a terrible and unstoppable plague in the past, the taint inside could easily wipe out all of humanity if allowed free.
Lara had foiled the plans of a bioterrorist wishing to harness it's power for his own ends, and let it sink unopened into a pool of supernatural acid. Their mysterious host being able to locate and retrieve it not only spoke volumes of his capabilities, but also of how little he must care for human life as a whole.
"You like?" Juri asked, filling in the silence. "Told you you'd find it neat."
The last thing Lara ever wanted to do was touch the accursed chest again, but she just had to make sure that it was real. Motioning for Juri to stay put, and keeping the pistol trained on her even as she moved by, Lara carefully traversed the pathway and stepped up to better examine this echo from her past.
Juri kept her mouth shut as Croft started towards Pandora. Every second that woman spent mulling over it was another second closer to Juri getting back in the game.
Come on... Come ON...
She was as casual as she could be outside, but inside she was trying to start up her Feng Shui Engine with all the aggravation of a lumberjack with a bad chainsaw.
She could feel it starting to get itself back together. With each try, it worked just a fraction of a second longer.
All she would need is that final rev, where it catches and starts in earnest, and then the fun could truly begin.
Lara dragged her fingers across the box, taking in it's every detail. This was it without a doubt. Everything was exactly as she remembered.
...Well, everything except for this.
There were new sets of scuff marks on the edges of the lid, as if something was working against them for an extended period of time. To say that this was a worrying detail would be quite an undersell.
"Did something happen here?" Lara called back to her "companion", taking a closer look at the scratches.
"Oh, I tried to get a peek inside earlier. Pretty good lock on that thing."
Lara turned and stared at her hostage in shock. "You what?"
"Oh, don't get your short-shorts in a bunch" Juri replied with a dismissing flick of her hand. "I can't open it by myself. Need two to tango. But now you're here."
An all-too-familiar whine cut through the air, and the Korean's smirk grew almost wide enough to cut her head in two as her left eye began to glow once more.
"Well, would you look at that."
As to be expected, the following moments were quite a spectacle. But, as with all things, it is much simpler to follow if taken step-by-step.
Lara, now realizing in full the intents of her opponent, stepped back onto the pathway to body-block it and opened fire with intent to kill. Juri however was back in the swing of things, and easily swayed around the bullets as she advanced.
When Juri reached the explorer she sent the pistol flying down into the abyss with a high sweep to Lara's wrist, and while Croft was already in the process of letting loose her grapple Han caught it mid-flight in the palm of her hand.
"Nice try, but that isn't going to work agaAH GOD DAMMIT!"
Juri knew of the grapple's magnetic abilities, but the prongs that now shot through her hand and impaled themselves into her flesh were a new surprise she was less than thrilled to discover.
Lara took this moment to body-check her distracted opponent; taking her off balance and sending her tumbling from the walkway.
Then, wasting no time at all, drew her remaining pistol and leapt off the opposite side.
Despite the pain, Juri managed to piece together what was happening and grab hold of the cord with her good hand before the prongs retracted. If Croft thought that she'd be dealt with as easily as letting go and allowing her to drop, she was in for quite a rude awakening.
Her brief feeling of tactical superiority was cut short, though, as Lara herself swung in from the other side with a handgun in one hand and her line in the other. The Brit did not expect Juri to fall for that. In fact, she banked on it.
Juri silently cursed, and hoisted herself up on her side just in time to dodge the first volley of gunfire. But as the arc of both their swings crossed each other, a plan began to form in her mind.
Lara obviously expected some type of struggle when they closed in on each other, as that was the only chance Juri would have in this scenario. She was caught somewhat off-guard though, as Han only used the opportunity to push off of her like a springboard.
With the enhanced power of the Feng Shui Engine behind it, enough force was added to both of them that they cleared all the way around and started on another loop. Lara opened fire as they neared again, but the added acceleration made it even harder to land a good hit. Juri, continuing her indecipherable strategy, merely pushed off of Croft again to spin them around even faster.
This continued for several more loops, with Lara eventually losing all track of her current position as everything stretched into blurs. But eventually there was just no more line to play with, and the two of them rolled back onto the walkway's top at the peak of their final spin.
"That was quite a ride..." Croft said woozily, trying to figure out which Juri she was seeing at the moment to fire at. "But it's time to get off."
"Couldn't agree more." Juri shot back, and let go of her side of the line while stomping down with all the power her engine could supply.
Curious as to what the point of this was, Lara watched as cracks began to form in the natural stone bridge they both stood on. As they grew in depth, it soon became clear that the middle segment was going to break off and fall under it's now improperly supported weight.
The section that Lara just so happened to be firmly tied to via her belt-grapple.
Lara let her pistol drop as she brought both hands down to her belt. She winced slightly as she heard her weapon clatter off the side and vanish forever, but it was a necessary loss. If she had any hope to avoid joining it, she needed both hands free and she needed them now.
Leaning backwards against the growing tension, she worked the buckle as fast as her panicking fingers could manage. She tried her best to ignore the fact that her heels were slipping, knowing that panic would only doom her to a grisly end dashed across unseen rocks.
Almost... Almost... There!
With a final maneuver, Lara's equipment belt came free and pulled itself out through the loops of her shorts. She landed flat on her ass due to her previous angling against the pull, but gladly took it over the alternative.
She took a moment to catch her breath, then looked up to have it stolen away right away.
Juri Han was on the other side of the chasm. The side with Pandora's Box. And she already had the lid halfway open.
Juri paused for a moment to look back at her unwitting accomplice. "This thing reacts to combat. Thanks for the help, by the way."
Lara took that fact like a punch to the gut, but this was no time to mope about being played. With most of her equipment now at the bottom of some ancient chasm, and herself on the other side of said pit, the only chance they had left was to try to talk reason into this maniac.
"Don't do this! You'll kill us all!"
Juri, with a chuckle, turned back to the chest in front of her.
Lara knew that turning and covering her eyes would do nothing to help her here, but just couldn't help it as Juri flung the chest open. Some reflexes are just too deeply ingrained to reason away.
Bracing herself, she waited for her insides to boil and her lungs to fill with blood.
That was not the reaction she was expecting to hear.
"In your face, Bison! In your face!"
Her curiosity finally getting the better of her, Lara risked a peek at what exactly was going on.
Juri Han stood triumphantly over the opened and discarded chest, now lacking the eerie lustre it sported up until now. This was probably because it was previously supplied by the item Juri was now cradling in her palm, holding it up as if bragging about it to God.
"What..." Lara managed to finally get out, "...is that?"
"Hm?" Replied Juri, seemingly just remembering that she was not alone. "You don't actually know?"
She held out the item for better examination: A stone cube, covered in engraved patterns that gave off a sickly glow.
"Pandora's Box. What were you expecting?"
Lara Croft's mind was racing with questions, and her mouth just couldn't decide what to go for first.
"But... How did y... What i... The chest wasn't Pandora's Box?"
"Tongue tied, little explorer?" Juri cooed. "That's okay..."
Taking the loose length of her belt in hand, Juri wrapped the end around her prize multiple times and tied it in a knot afterwards. Then she let it drop to sway lazily around her legs.
"...A first-hand example oughta clear things up a bit."
Juri must have jumped the chasm between them at some point, but Lara didn't see it despite not even doing so much as blinking. One moment Han was on the other side, and the next Croft was being buffeted by rock shards and dust as something plowed into the ground in front of her.
A hand cut through the cloud and grabbed her by the throat, but it was something the explorer had never seen before. Simultaneously glowing and pitch black, it looked as if it escaped from a photo negative.
As the dust settled, Lara realized that it did indeed belong to Juri. Or what was at one point Juri, at least. Her entire body had undergone the same inversion, except for eyes that now pulsed blood red.
"This'll be a good enough test run", it growled in several voices at once.
Lara could have sworn that she heard her own skull crack as she was brought in for a headbutt, but it was drowned out by the sound of her solar plexus creaking as she stumbled back and got a piston of an elbow to her chest.
Thrown off her feet, dizzy and winded, Croft rolled onto her stomach and tried to crawl away. However, this merely gave Juri the opportunity to pull her up by her ponytail.
"Leaving already?" It taunted in it's legion-voice. "We're just getting warmed up!"
The adventurer's world flashed a dazzling red as Juri stomped down on the back of her head; smashing her face into the stone ground and causing the rest of her body to seize and flop from the trauma. Juri pulled on the braid once more to raise up the battered brit, then drape her trembling body face-up over her knee.
Lara was just starting to fully regain consciousness, but soon came to regret it as Juri began to punch down into her stomach. Her insides churned with every superhuman blow, so strong that as she bounced with every blow saliva from her agape mouth spattered across her face and chest. Juri took her time here, pausing between each strike to caress Lara's face and smear about her eyeliner.
Eventually Juri began to bore of this, though, and decided to move on. Finishing up with one last elbow to her gut -- packing enough force to make Lara cough up blood -- Han let the raider hang and choke on her own spit for a moment before unceremoniously shoving her off to the ground.
Lara's body twitched and spasmed as Juri grabbed hold of her ponytail again and began to drag her; limp and unprotesting even as her face and chest scraped along the cold, rugged floor. Eventually they reached their destination, and Juri held her opponent up in front of her by the hair like an old cartoon caveman.
Croft was on the verge of passing out entirely, but she knew from the way that her feet dangled that she was being held over the cliff.
"Any parting words?" Juri asked, her stark whiteness of her smirk contrasting sharply against the pitch black of her skin.
"Well said" Han replied, before letting go and allowing her captive to tumble into the void.
Han stepped back from the cliff edge, pleased with how things turned out.
Sure, it was a little rough there at first, but it all turned out great in the end. Hell, better than great! Who would have thought that she could even walk away from one of these matches packing...
...Where the hell was it?
Juri Han's body began to slowly shift back to it's natural hues as she patted herself down, trying to locate the box. She found the end of her belt undone, once again loose and free to flap in the wind.
How did it fall off? She tied the bloody thing on, there's no way it just...
...Oh God dammit.
Juri stepped forward and peeked over the cliff edge. Then let out a resigned sigh, and started to carefully lower herself to begin her climb down.
Seems like it was time to go spelunking for a thief.
The world was rushing by Lara Croft at quite an alarming rate, but she didn't care. Just imagining the look on that arrogant brat's face right now was enough to put aside everything she'd just been subjected to.
She had saved the world from the wrath of Pandora before, and she was not about to let some one-eyed freak in pajamas besmirch her track record. While Juri was letting all that power rush to her head Lara undid the tie she had around the box, and the idiot didn't even notice that it was missing until it was far too late. Glowing in the darkness, the cube in her left hand was the only way Lara could see the racing cliffside in front of her.
And in her right hand was the item she would use to save herself.
An old, reliable friend from her formative years, Lara trusted the climbing pick she now held so much that it was attached directly to one of her beltloops instead of the belt itself. Thus when the rest of her gadgetry went plummeting into the void, this one tool still remained.
It had been quite a while since she'd used it like this. Here was hoping that she was not too rusty.
Lara struck the wall with her pick, and let out an unwilling gasp as her arm was almost pulled from it's shoulder socket from the force of stopping. She dangled there panting for a few minutes, and when she was sure that neither the pick nor her hand were in danger of giving out started to look around for anything of possible use.
It seemed that there were tunnel systems of some sort, and every so often there was an opening on the cliffside where someone either wanted some fresh air or just lost track of how far out they dug. She could see several above and to the far sides of her, but she was in no shape for her usual wall-climbing even if her hands weren't occupied with a box and pick respectively. There was one below her, but the drop was far too long to even consider. But hold on... there was a rock outcropping partway down...
Alright. This had to be done. No way around it.
Bracing herself for the oncoming pain, Lara undid the pick's hold and dropped toward the rock.
In an ideal situation Lara would have landed on her feet on the outcropping and then lowered herself down to the opening.
This situation was far from ideal.
Croft took in a hiss of air as she collided against the outcropping, her side bouncing off it with an audible crack as she ricocheted from it like a pinball against a bumper. Cartwheeling after the rough momentum-break, it was a small wonder that she crashed down into the floor of the cave opening instead of just hurdling past it to certain death.
Lara was in no mood to count her blessings, though. She curled up into a fetal position and cradled her side, tears flowing down her face as she silently sobbed from the pain. The may have broken an arm doing that. If she didn't, it certainly felt like it at least.
After taking several deep breaths to calm herself down, Lara pushed herself up with her good arm to take inventory of her surroundings. This cave did indeed go further in, turning into a legitimate tunnel system. Clipping her pick to her beltloop so that she could hold up the cube as an improvised torch, Lara forced herself up with a groan and began to limp deeper into the unknown.
Juri leapt from handhold to handhold, using the violet glow of her eye to force back the darkness all around her. It wasn't the best of light sources, but every little bit helped.
How far down could she have gone? Did she miss every possible ledge and splatter on the absolute bottom floor? Hell, was there a bottom floor?
Luckily, Han was able to push that question aside as she spotted a bloodstained outcropping. And after she moved over to examine that, she could also tell that an opening a little further down sported similar splatters.
So despite everything, Lara still hadn't given up the ghost yet. Juri had to give her points for determination at least.
Lara slumped down against a wall and stared into the cube that had cost her so dearly. And may still cost her so much more. Things were... not looking too well.
She was in unfamiliar territory. She was badly wounded. Almost all of her tools were gone. And she was being hunted by someone out for her blood.
After all the quests and trials over her amazing life, could this be where it ended? A final chapter, dying alone and afraid in the uncaring dark?
She focused on the patterns of the cube, almost seeming to ripple like flames in a bonfire, and came to a conclusion.
With that single declaration, she began to feel better. It was as if a great weight was lifted off her, and even her wounds felt as if they were mending. She chalked this up to a new surge of adrenaline, but perhaps the box increasing in brightness as if reacting to something also had a hand here.
She was not going to die here, scared and mewling like an abandoned pet. She was an adventurer. She was an icon. She was a Croft.
But most important of all?
She was a survivor.
Juri stepped into the new room, scanning it for what she knew must be here somewhere.
This was the end of the line, in more ways than one. The path terminated in a plain stone wall, meaning that there was nowhere left to go from here. Well, nowhere one would want to go.
The two remaining walls were lined with large metal spikes, decorated liberally with skeletons clothed in the remains of ancient armor. Scattered around their feet were weaponry of similar dating; bows, swords, ect. Apparently this room was once a booby trap, with the walls closing in to skewer the occupants. Looks like it was a one time deal, though, although if one was careless in here it would not make much of a difference.
All this was interesting, but it didn't answer where the hell her target went. It's not like she could just vanish into thin air.
As slowly and quietly as possible, a skeleton was pushed away and set down to allow the person hiding behind it stand. And, raising her weapon in anticipation, she stealthily crept up on her befuddled pursuer.
Juri sensed something was wrong just before the blow came down, but was still too slow to dodge it entirely. Han's turning around did happen to spare her a pick to the shoulder, but the spike still grazed her face and tore open her cheek.
Stepping back and bringing a hand up to her face, she silently reprimanded herself for allowing Croft to...
...Wait, was this Croft?
She understood what must have happened. Sort of. Maybe. Pandora's Box used it's owner just as much as the owner used it, twisting their minds and bodies to better suit it's needs.
But still, usually that meant you got some glowy tribal tattoos slapped on you. This was a whole other level.
The woman Juri had to now assume was Lara Croft was almost an entirely new person. Gone was that aloof haughtiness, instead replaced with a mixture of youthful fear and rage. A dangerous fire burned in her eyes, that of a cornered animal finally forced to fight for its life. While still liberally covered in wounds and dried blood, they served to enhance her bestial appearance more than anything. And her body had undergone a transformation as well; in some ways subtle, while in others...
"Wow..." Juri mused, picking up on the most obvious alteration immediately. "What happened to your chest?"
"What happened to your teeth?" Lara growled in reply, before reversing her swing and smacking Han in the mouth with the side of her pick like a baseball bat.
Juri spun in a complete circle from the force of the blow, facing forward again just in time to be knocked onto her back with a boot to the gut. Her instincts screamed at her to roll to the side to avoid the inevitable followup, but remembered the spike walls and was in no hurry to skewer herself. Taking a third option, she kicked up and rolled to her feet backwards right before the pick embedded itself where her chest just was.
Juri spat a bloody loogie and stared down her opponent. This was a problem. She was already harnessing her Feng Shui Engine just to see, and Lara was now just about on-par with her in terms of speed. That box was well off on working it's magic.
She understood the implications of that, but it would not matter any if she couldn't buy enough time.
Juri dashed by Lara and made for the room entrance, but skidded to a halt as the doorway burst into flames. She turned back to find that Croft had scooped up a bow and quiver from an ancient warrior, and had just finished cocking another arrow. After a moment of concentration the arrow tip alit, and she loosed another "charged" bolt at Han's feet.
Juri tumbled forward and to the side to avoid going up like tinder, just barely correcting her momentum in time to not careen right into the spikes. This did put her off-balance, though, and Lara dropped her bow to instead sweep at Juri's legs with her pick.
The weapon embedded itself in one of her calves, forcing Juri down onto one knee. Pulling her weapon free and advancing from behind, Lara braced one knee between Juri's shoulder blades, held her pick on both sides, and lowered it across Han's throat to strangle her with it.
Croft's mind raced as her foe thrashed and gasped below her. This was it! She had her! As she pulled back harder and tightened her grip, Juri's chokes turned to gargles and her tongue lolled out of her mouth. Those violet eyes stared up at her in astonishment, before eventually rolling up into the back of her head. All she needed was to hold for a few more seconds, until even the convulsions came to a halt, and then... and then...
The color rushing out of her world, Lara croft buckled and toppled back.
For a stretch of time all was still; the only sign of life being the dancing shadows caused by what remained of the flickering fires. Both women were dead to the world, without so much as a twitch to prove otherwise.
But, given time, one began to rouse.
Jerking awake with a sudden gasp, Juri Han coughed and wheezed as she massaged her aching neck. That was close. That damn box got her in quite a mess.
Of course, it also got her out of it.
Juri crawled over to her unconscious foe, and flipped her over for access to her backpack. It only took a few moments of rooting around inside it to find what she was looking for.
The stone cube was dormant now, the engravings now just as mundane as the rest of it. Having pulled all of the energy it could out of it's current host, it now waited for her to either recover or for a new victim to claim it. That was the drawback to using this device: You had near unlimited power, but it ate away at you while active. Either you did what you needed fast or not at all.
Lara had no idea about this, and had been worked until she dropped. This was a fight against the clock more than it was against her.
Juri could feel the box beckoning to her, urging her to accept it's gifts once more. It was tempting... but she just got a front row seat to why that was a bad idea. Maybe for a special event, but certainly not now. With a small flick of the wrist, Han tossed it away with just enough force to put some distance between her and it for now.
What truly interested Juri was the woman currently passed out behind her.
Pandora's Box had drained Lara, but it did not kill her. That was a job it left to the professionals.
Lara awoke with a groan, feeling more exhausted than she had ever been in her life. It was as if every breath -- no, every heartbeat -- was a massive undertaking in of itself.
She was being held slightly off the ground by the scruff of her neck, but was still for the most part prone and she hung limply without resistance. Juri's other hand was cradling her jaw, and she had turned Lara's head to face her at her side.
"Got a bit faint there, kiddo? Feel a little weak?"
The hand holding her jaw moved her head again, setting it forward so that she now was staring directly at a metal spike inches from her face.
"Nothing a good meal can't fix."
Lara's eyes widened with realization, and despite her utter lack of energy managed an attempt to shake her head as it drew closer to the spike's tip.
"Oh come on now," Juri chided. "Beggars can't be choosers."
There was a small tik as the tip pushed against Croft's teeth and halted.
"Come on. Open up."
Juri drew Lara's head back and tried again, with another tik as the same result played out.
"You're going to want to open up."
Juri tied again, a little harder this time.
"I'm serious here."
"You really should listen to me."
"Here comes the airplane."
"Alright then..." Juri murmured into Lara's ear. "I warned you."
Juri pulled Croft's head back one last time, and shoved it back down with the added strength of her Feng Shui Engine.
Croft let out a muffled scream as she was pushed onto the shaft, the spike plowing through her teeth and into her mouth. She convulsed as the shock set in, blood and bone fragments falling to the floor in drips and clumps.
"You see what happens when you don't obey?" Juri asked.
Lara could only mewl weakly in reply, too weak to speak even if she could.
"Now I had to punish you for disobeying..." Juri continued, as if nothing had happened, "...but if you listen to me a bit better, maybe I could afford to give you a treat. Understand?"
Lara didn't -- or at least hoped she didn't -- but at this point would do anything to make the torture stop and did her best to nod.
"Good." Juri replied, repositioning herself so that she now cradled Lara from behind.
"Work the shaft."
Lara let out a confused grunt, only for the hand on her jaw to lower to her throat and squeeze threateningly.
"You heard me. Work. The. Shaft."
Beginning to sob, and with tears streaming down her face anew, Lara did what she was told.
In between sniffles and hitches, the formerly proud explorer's head began to bob up and down the spike. Her tongue circled around it as it filled her mouth, despite her only being able to taste the copper of her own blood. Pink-hued saliva ran down the shaft as she worked, dripping to the floor and dribbling down her chin.
"Good girl." Juri cooed, bringing the hand not threatening to strangle her up to pat her head. "Good, good girl."
Lara could not believe this was happening. This was the ultimate degradation; nothing could possibly go lower.
But then the hand around her throat let go in order to trail down, and she was proven so very, very wrong.
"I'm a bit disappointed that I didn't get to try out your first set," Han admitted, "but I suppose these will have to do."
Juri snaked her hand underneath Lara's shirt, through the front of her bra, then pulled down in a single quick jerk; tearing both in half and releasing her sweat dotted breasts to glisten in the flickering firelight. Hungrily, Han set herself upon exploring and kneading her mounds.
"Oh yeah" Han muttered, her voice low and breathy. "Here we go. Work it and I work you."
To Lara's disdain and confusion, she could begin to feel herself... react to Juri's probings. Her breaths began to deepen, her nipples gradually hardened under her tormentor's hands, and her thighs started to rub against each other. In a way she was glad that her face was now a mess of ruined makeup and blood, as it at the very least hid the beet redness of her shamed blush.
"Good girl... very good girl..." Juri purred, lowering her hand even further to work it's way under her belt line and beneath her panties. Lara rocked against the intruder, repulsed but at the same time needing more.
"Show me how much you can take." Han whispered, as she pushed down with both hands. Croft's pleasured groans were cut off as she slid further down the spike, going "deep" as it entered her throat.
Now cut off from her air supply, all Lara could do was squirm and sweat. But to Juri's surprise and joy she went even further down without further goading, apparently assuming that she would be rewarded more for doing so.
Of course, she was right.
The former explorer's body rode Juri's hand like a bull, trying to milk as much as it could out of her wondrous caresses. Spots had begun to form in her vison, but she no longer cared. Only one thing mattered now, and she was racing to claim one last little death before the real deal.
With the shaft too far in to even gag, and with her eyes rolling back into her head, Lara's body spasmed silently as she finally reached what she wanted. And with no time left to spare, as she had not even finished her convulsions proper before her motions ground to a stop.
"Aaah..." Juri moaned, dragging her soaked hand up Lara's still body to rub the fluids over her cooling stomach and chest. "Now that's a sendoff."
She sat there for a time, cradling what was left of the famed tomb raider like a lover spooning in bed. Eventually, when she finally felt she had her fill, she rose to her feet and examined her handiwork.
Pretty good, but she felt that one last adjustment could be made.
Placing one foot on the rear of Lara's head, Juri pushed down until the spike bore clear through and out the back of her neck.
There. Just to be sure. And really, what kind of lady can't go to the hilt?
Scooping up her spoils as she departed, and with the fires long burned down to cinders, Juri left the archaeologist to be engulfed by darkness and finally become the history she so loved.