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A New Thread To Pull

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The apple sits on the gym manager’s desk, just like it always has. Lara snorts, stepping lightly across the office and tossing it into the air before grabbing it and taking a bite. Just because she’s got enough money to set her table like a queen doesn’t mean she wants to become civilized.

As she turns back toward the door, an envelope lying on the desk catches her eye. The angular triskellion looks exactly like the Patna logo, although what Patna or Trinity might be selling to a boxing gym is a little beyond her. Still, she’s reestablished herself at the gym because she wants the exercise (and to pound her opponent’s face into the mat, but she’s trying to set realistic goals for herself), but also because she wants to do something in her life completely unrelated to the clusterfuck that is Trinity.

Even so, getting caught in the office reading stolen mail while eating a stolen apple is not something she needs to deal with. Lara tucks the envelope under her arm to hide the symbol and sneaks out of the office. There are some more suckers she wants to punch before she calls it day.

***

Lara stops at a coffeeshop on the way home to pick up a caffeine boost and read the letter. Waiting until she got home would probably be smarter - and cheaper, not that she had to worry about that anymore - but the need to know was overwhelming.

She ordered and took a seat at one of the window tables, too small for anyone to join her but positioned so that it would be hard for anyone outside to see what she was doing.

The envelope itself was entirely unremarkable, just a typical business letter that would manage to bore the reader with several paragraphs embellishing on what could be summarized in one or two sentences. The only thing that didn’t fit was the address, which was for the office supply store two doors over from the gym.

Thank god.

“Lara!”

Lara shoots up from her slouch, eyes scanning for who called for her before it registers that the barista is holding a drink with her name on it. Letting out a short sigh, Lara collects her coffee and works her thumb under the seal of the envelope, the feeling of each little tear in the paper helping her calm down.

The calm that comes from opening something secret - even something as simple as an envelope - is short lived once Lara starts to scan the contents of the letter.

Once she reaches the end, Lara goes back to the beginning to read more carefully, taking a sip of her coffee while she makes sure she isn’t interpreting the letter incorrectly.

Far from being a simple invoice or payment, the letter is addressed to someone who goes by the title inspector, which Lara has a sinking feeling does not refer to a quality assurance manager or the like. This inspector has been asked to visit a small island off the coast of Italy just north of Sardinia which was reputedly home to an important temple from an ancient warrior culture. Trinity has heard a legend that this culture possessed a terrifying weapon that they never had the opportunity to use prior to their fall, and wants to know if there might be anything they can weaponize left in the temple.

The letter sounds confident in the fact that a temple exists and its location, which means that Trinity has done enough research into this project to be willing to invest manpower into it. Lara snorts. Given the manpower she’s seen Trinity employ, it’s entirely possible that they’re sending some schmuck on a dead end mission he’s never going to come home from.

On the other hand, if the information really is correct, she can’t afford to lose this opportunity. Once Trinity figures out that the letter hadn’t reached its original recipient they’ll send another one - or visit the inspector in person to make sure the message is delivered - and she’ll have lost the window of opportunity to beat them to the punch.

And isn’t that a satisfying thought. Getting there first and not having to deal with the patrols and guns and lead ‘archaeologist’ who thinks that signing up to work for a company vying for the title of evil overlord gives him a sob story.

Draining the last of her now lukewarm coffee, Lara carefully folds the letter and tucks it back into her bag. First stop: the Croft home.

***

As it turns out, there is a tiny little island just north of Sardinia holding ancient ruins. In fact, there are multiple tiny little islands that fit the description. When faced with the question what should I do with this little spit of land the most popular answer must have been build a temple and dedicate it to the gods.  

Fortunately most of these have been documented and have peer reviewed articles speculating about their exact purpose in the culture of the region and their influences on the creation of later pantheons in Rome and Greece. Well documented temples are pre-looted temples, which are unlikely to have anything of interest for Trinity. At least not something of interest on this scale.

Lara sifts through the maps in her father’s underground study. He’d kept detailed copies of maps of every continent and major island chain with notes marking some of the more exceptional archaeological finds. An incredibly useful habit, and one Lara plans to continue once she identifies which maps are out of date and need replacing.

Thankfully the maps of the Mediterranean are both recent and very detailed, which helps her initial search immensely. The letter gives some details on which ports to use and expected travel times, so it thankfully doesn’t take long to narrow down the search area.

Lara briefly considers following the exact instructions in the letter and pretending to be the Trinity inspector, but that has far too much potential to come back and bite her in the ass. No, she’ll just have to go to Cannigione and find her own passage.

It’s too bad Lu Ren’s new boat still docks in Shanghai, Lara muses as she rolls up the maps. It would be incredibly convenient if she could use a captain who wouldn’t question her destination.

***

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard that right,” Lu Ren’s voice sounds just as incredulous over the phone as it does in real life. “You want me to fly to Italy so I can sail a boat I’ve never seen before - in waters I’ve never been to - to some unnamed more-or-less uncharted island. So that you can dig around in the dirt and uncover another ancient curse. Are you crazy?” 

Lara ignores the insult. “You can do it though, right? If it’ll make Trinity mad - which it will - you can do it.”

Lu Ren sighs. “For money and to make Trinity mad, yeah, I can do it.” 

“No problem,” Lara says, a smirk forming on her face. “I’ll even throw in the added bonus of making Trinity unwittingly bankroll this project.”

“For that I can make it by next week,” Lu Ren says, and she can hear the laughter in his voice. 

Her smirk transformed slowly into a smile. Perfect.

***

The water north of Sardinia is surprisingly calm, and they make good time to the first of the three islands Lara wants to investigate.

It’s the closest to the main island but for some reason all the shipping routes make a special effort to avoid sailing in the close to it. She’s not sure why, since the waters are perfectly calm and not all at like the last time she went sailing with Lu Ren.

“Looks like there’s already someone out there,” he comments as they come around the tail of the island, nodding towards the small boat anchored by the beach.

“Maybe someone out for a joyride?” Lara tries to sound hopeful, but she’s pretty sure she just sounds jaded.

Lu Ren shrugs. “It’s not a big enough ship for a full expedition, but something tells me we’re not going to be that lucky.”

She gives him a look. “You could at least try to be optimistic.”

“I’m optimistic about our chances of not crashing and dying on poorly hidden rocks.”

“We managed to crash and not die on rocks in the middle of a storm, I don’t think this calm, beautifully sunny day is going to offer any navigational challenges.”

“Just because you said that we’re going to end up getting stuck here and have to deal with a volcano eruption or typhoon,” Lu Ren says, returning her look. “And when it happens I’m going to blame you.”

“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that, but if it makes you feel better go right ahead.”

Lu Ren doesn’t reply, but she hears him mutter under his breath about her dangerous lack of regard for superstitions. She hides a grin, because she knows he’ll follow her through hell and high water no matter what traditions she ignores, but also because it’s sort of adorable that he’s managed to come out this end of the debacle with Himiko and still believe in something like superstition.

***

They anchor just off shore without any incidents and without any communication from the other boat. The water is just deep enough to warrant taking a dinghy to shore, and she helps Lu Ren pull it up above the high tide line. He insists on tying it to a tree because you’re here and things like to happen around you, which she lets him do without comment. If someone is going to steal their boat a knot isn’t going to stop them, and she’s hardly capable of making the tide come in far enough to wash the boat away. But if it makes Lu Ren feel better, it’s worth it.

“So, what are we looking for, exactly?” he asks, giving the rope one last tug to make sure it’s secure.

“A temple,” Lara says, eyes scanning over the few rolling hilltops that make up the interior of the island. It’s not big, but it will still be a pain to search if they don’t find what they’re looking for quickly. “Given the proximity to Roman culture, I’m hoping for a crumbled structure, or at least a large entrance or ruins of a building we can find easily. I think we should start by following the trail.”

She nods toward a wide footpath leading into the shrubs near where the other boat is anchored. Lu Ren’s raised eyebrow says he knows as well as she does that they’re likely to run into people if they take the path, but they’re also likely to find whatever attraction drew them to the island in the first place. And if it’s the temple, so much the better. Or maybe the boat will actually contain vacationers on a private tour and they can ask some questions.

That would be nice.

***

The boat was not used for tourism, exactly.

On the other hand, it wasn’t being used by active Trinity agents either, so things could definitely have turned out worse.

“Oh, yes!”says a cheery red faced man who had introduced himself as Luca, the captain of the ship anchored out in the bay. “I’m being paid to mark out a route to the ruins up on the hill. We Sardinians mostly avoid it - it’s bad luck, you know - but I was contacted by a company who wants to make it a tourist attraction! They said if I built a road I’ll get exclusive rights to operate the transportation lines once they begin advertising. Exclusive rights! Can you even imagine?”

“That sounds like a fantastic deal,” Lara says placatingly. “Which company did you say it was again?”

“Patna! Definitely Patna. Did you know they had a tourism division?”

“I hadn’t heard,” Lara mumbles, mind already connecting the strings. “Well, good luck with your endeavor. Would you be willing to point us in the direction of the temple? We’d love to see it before Patna gets here and starts attracting crowds.”

“But of course! It’s up the road a little ways and off to the right. I just finished setting the blazes down to mark where the road will be going in. It’s a little longer than the traditional way, but it’s much safer.”

Lara holds in a sigh. They probably need to go the traditional way - whatever that means - to get to whatever it is Trinity is looking for. But she really doesn’t want to spend more time with Luca than she has to.

“Does the traditional route just follow the road?” Lu Ren asks, and Lara holds back a wince as Luca opens his mouth to reply.

“Oh no, no, no. There’s a small path you have to follow after the road dead ends at the cliffs that comes into the site from above. It’s very steep and full of loose rocks; I wouldn’t recommend it at all.”

“We’ll take your advice then, Captain Luca,” Lara cuts in before Lu Ren can say anything else. “Thank you so much for your help.”

“Not at all! It’s always good to help a cute young couple out on an adventure. Perhaps I’ll see you when you get back to port!”

“Maybe,” Lara allows, making a note to avoid any ships that look like they might have any overly friendly captains once they get back to Sardinia. “Ciao.”

“Oh, a lady after my own heart!” Luca laughs. “Ciao!”

He waves happily at them until they round the bend and he disappears from sight, and Lara breathes a sigh of relief as the quiet settles over them again. Lu Ren doesn’t say anything, but gives her an amused and knowing look as they ignore the red blazes leading into the trees and continue along the path to the cliff.

***

“Do you think Trinity investing in building a road on an untraveled island means they’ve already determined that this temple has what they’re looking for?” Lu Ren asks as they carefully make their way down a scree slope. Luca hadn’t been lying about the traditional path being steep.

“Maybe,” Lara admits. “But it definitely means they don’t have it yet, whatever it is. And that they think it’s going to be a process to get it out.”

“Great,” Lu Ren says with a snort, followed by a short yelp as he scrambles for his footing after a rock slides out from under him. “That sounds great.”

Lara squints and looks at the trail ahead. Down below them, but still above what looks to be a large hall lined with pitted and crumbling pillars, is a small flat area with a flat sealed rock. “Do you think that’s what we’re looking for?” she points, making sure that Lu Ren is squinting in the same direction she is.

“Might be,” he says. “I’m not going in though; not even if you can get the door open.”

Lara has to admit she’s a little surprised. “Why not come with me? Two sets of eyes are often more useful than one.”

“How many people went in with you last time? And how many came out? I’d feel a lot better just staying at the door. Keeping tabs on our way out.”

“Last time I went in with a power hungry minion and his gun toting monkeys. We aren’t going to get trigger happy or shoot the architecture,” Lara says with a roll of her eyes. “Besides, there may be something that needs more than one pair of hands.”

Lu Ren looks at her dubiously, but he doesn’t say no.

***

The flat rock she saw from a distance is, in fact, a giant slab of stone. It also contains no keys or ciphers and is simply leaning against the rocks that actually make up the hill behind it.

“So we just… knock it down?” Lu Ren asks, sounding puzzled. “That’s it?

“That’s the start of it,” Lara corrects, pushing at the slab to test it’s sturdiness. “We might need to do some digging; it seems pretty well settled in the dirt here.”

They take off their packs and get to work. Shovels, pickaxes, saws, flashlights, snacks, and pen and paper were all important parts of their preparations. And this time they didn’t get dumped in the ocean on the way to the island.

It takes about half an hour, but between the two of them they dig out the bottom of the slab and pull on it just enough to get it to tip over. The resulting thud is probably loud enough to be heard across the island, but, well, it’s a good thing they’re alone.

“Ready to go in?” Lara asks, switching on her flashlight and shining it into the dust swirling inside the entrance.

“Are you sure I have to?” Lu Ren asks, his wary tone belied by the flashlight already in his hand.

“Come on,” Lara says with a grin. “It’ll be fun.”

***

Fun is actually exactly the word Lara would use to describe this, although she thinks the word Lu Ren would prefer is creepy, if the way he’s sticking strictly to the middle of the path is any indication. 

“These murals are amazing,” Lara murmurs, aiming her light at the mosaics on the walls. “And the lack of traps and protections is also… odd.” The images aren’t even really violent, although they do have some of the war machinery typical of Greek and Roman motifs. Chariots, spears, and the like. But no one is being stabbed; it almost looks more like a celebration of power rather than an ode to war.

Odd.

“That’s encouraging,” Lu Ren says dryly, not wavering from his path.

“No, but it’s really strange,” Lara says, something niggling at the back of her brain. “It’s obviously not easy to get here, but it’s not exactly hard either. And it’s not protected; not like you’d protect something that needed to stay secret.”

“Or maybe this is like Indiana Jones where the protections only activate on the way out.”

Lu Ren flinches when Lara shines her flashlight in his face.

***

The first trap is a split in the path rather than a trap. So far the path has been easy enough to follow - it’s inlaid with marble and honestly rather difficult to miss - and the split is also well marked. Despite that Lara has a bad feeling about the pathway branching off to the left.

“Let’s go right,” she says, shining her light on the floor in front of them. To the right the marble continues just as it had before. To the left, the marble looks maybe a bit dirtier. Like it’s covered in something Lara doesn’t want to think too hard about.

Lu Ren points his light in the same direction, and the dirty color resolves into more visible rusty smears. “Yeah,” he agrees, swallowing audibly, “let’s go right.”

***

The second trap isn’t really a trap at all, but rather a pile of debris that stretches from floor to ceiling.

“I don’t think shovels will work on this,” Lara comments, flicking her light over the truly impressive pile of rocks blocking their path. “Maybe we can go around?”

By around she really means the slightly-smaller-than-human sized crawlspace by the wall, which she judges as probably stable by virtue of existing this long without collapsing in on itself. Lu Ren looks at it dubiously from his position in the middle of the path.

“I think,” he says slowly, his flashlight shooting up to examine where the top of the rubble seems to merge with the roof of the cavern, “that this is where I’m going to wait for you. I don’t think I’ll fit through there.”

Lara thinks he absolutely could fit, but decides not to push the point. They’re close enough now that she’s unlikely to run into anything too dangerous other than the weapon itself, and there is the slight possibility that he might be too big and cause the passage to collapse. Then they’d be stuck waiting for Trinity to come dig them out - which given Trinity’s typical speed probably means they’d starve rather than be brutally gunned down - but that’s still not how Lara wants to go out.

“Okay,” she says, taking off her pack. “But if I’m going through, I’m going to need you to keep most of my stuff in case I need to put something in my pack.”

“Fair enough,” Lu Ren says, opening his pack as well and shifting things around to accommodate the extra load.

“Wish me luck,” she says, shouldering the now mostly empty pack and heading over to the crawlspace.

“Good luck,” Lu Ren calls after her, his voice barely loud enough to be heard.

***

The final worship chamber is both exactly what she expected and nothing like she expected at all.

It does have the typical build of an internal worship room, with brazers for fires and a large statue of the patron goddess in the middle. It also have room for offerings and an area around the statue for devotees to pray.

The statue itself, however, is not like any god or goddess Lara has ever heard of. The statue is half female half male and looks almost like a combination of Minerva and Mars from the Roman pantheon. Clearly this is the deity of war, which explains the mosaics and reliefs that decorated the hallways, but the way gendered items are presented between the two halves is fascinating. The male side holds a shield with a basket of wheat at his foot, while the female side is leaning of a spear with a bundle of cloth lying by her side.

Lara approaches the statue to look for more clues, but the statue is exactly as it appears. While it is certainly unique and would make any archaeology professor weep tears of joy, it’s not exactly the weapon Trinity is looking for. It doesn’t even contain any hints of a cipher or code that could be used to enter further into the temple. No traces of an inner sanctum hiding more secrets.

Lara moves past the statue to examine the far wall and her eyes widen slightly at the design on the wall.

It’s a mural in the same style as the rest of the temple, but instead of warriors and sports this one looks like a fantastical map. She recognizes the pattern of islands from her study of the area - the islands match perfectly with the small set of rocky outcroppings and little patches of dirt she had searched through looking for this temple. But instead of being empty like they were on modern maps, this map depicts a flourishing civilization, each island bearing at least one building and a handful of people. Ships appear in the waters between the islands, and even looked to be carrying goods of war.

But everything she’d read about the area indicated that the islands were uninhabited and ignored as useless by the residents of both Italy and Sardinia.

Tracing her fingers over the map reveals no additional information. No secret niches or levers to lead further in, just a mural celebrating a civilization that shouldn’t exist.

***

The trip out is - if anything - even less eventful than the trip in.

They walk in silence and make it back out to the stone slab by the entrance with several hours of daylight left to spare.

“I think we should go out by the blazes too,” Lara says as they finally reach the main road again. “I think it might shed some light on what exactly is in the temple.”

“If you want,” Lu Ren says, clearly relieved to be out of the cavern and willing to indulge what he views as a safe side trip.

“Great,” Lara replies, heading straight for the first red blaze on the side of a tree. “This shouldn’t take but a minute then.”

***

It takes more than a minute, but they still have a good half hour of daylight to poke around what is very clearly the ruins of a temple. Or maybe a shrine, Lara’s not entirely clear on the distinction.

This one is lacking in any great hall and doesn’t have a statue. It doesn’t even have a pedestal where the statue would have stood - which wouldn’t have been unusual for a temple that had been this exposed for however long it had stood.

Even stranger, the temple is in a recognizably Roman style and completely different from the odd works they’d seen inside.

“Wait,” Lara says out loud, eyes fixed on the depression in the middle of the room. “I remember reading about something like this before in one of my classes. It wasn’t a temple dedicated to the gods, it was more of… an offering place for Charon? Something that was supposed to be a waypoint for restless spirits and hold what they needed to reach the afterlife. For bodies that couldn’t be recovered or weren’t buried properly so they wouldn’t be stuck haunting their relatives.”

“Restless spirits sound like something Trinity would be interested in,” Lu Ren allows. “Although I’m not sure how you would weaponize a shrine like this.”

Lara turns that over in her head for a minute before it clicks.

“You wouldn’t,” she says, words rushing to come out as it starts to make sense. “They think there’s something in the caverns. Wait, hear me out. There was an entire civilization here, right? One we’d never heard of. So obviously they’re gone, but why have we never heard of them? And why do the locals avoid this place? And why is the temple out here completely different from the temple inside? It reeks of genocide. I’d be willing to bet that the Romans - or pseudo-Romans or whoever built this offering place here - destroyed the civilization who worshiped the deity inside the temple. And once they did, they probably built this shrine to alleviate their guilt and spread rumors about a warlike people with a terrifying weapon to justify what happened.”

“That’s a great theory,” Lu Ren says, looking around at the bare columns and empty floor of the temple they’re in. “But there’s no real proof, and it doesn’t necessarily preclude there being a weapon here.”

Lara waves away his concern. “There was nothing in the temple. At least, there was nothing I could find. And if I can’t find it, there’s no way Trinity can find it. Let them waste their resources looking for something that doesn’t exist.”

“I like the sound of that,” he says. “Maybe that means it’s time to go?”

“It is,” Lara agrees. “It’s just a shame that means Trinity will stomp all over this place before anyone learns about it. This is an archaeologist’s wet dream, and it’s a shame no one will ever really learn about the people who were here.”

A slow smile lights up Lu Ren’s face. “What if you told someone.” At her incredulous look, he spreads his hands out in front of him and hurries to defend his point. “Not like, you personally. But maybe a suggestion to a university department, or some evidence to a museum, to get them looking out here too.”

Plans bubble up in her mind, and Lara can see it happening. The island flooding with students, Luca’s delighted face as he escorts dozens of actual tourists in and out of the temple grounds, the absolute fury of Trinity’s board as they realize that the international archaeological community is preventing them from destroying more of the world’s history.

“You know,” Lara says, delighted smile spreading over her face as well. “That sounds like a fantastic idea.”