Madoka Magica: A Last Drink with MephistophelesMaybe it's the alcohol, but Junko swears she just saw a white stuffed animal toy trot past the window.
She leans over the table of her corner booth, squinting out the street-side window of her favorite lounge. Junko normally parks herself at the bar when she needs to relieve her sorrows, but Kazuko has gone home for the night, and she has no desire to make small talk with the servers. There's nothing, not a single passerby under the city lights, so she slides herself back into the plush leather and releases a sigh.
Just what I need - hallucinations. As if she didn't already have enough on her plate. Preparing the disastrous quarterly report for the shareholders, the meetings with the finance committee, and on top of all those surmountable obstacles, life had seen fit to gift her daughter with unspeakable cruelty. Madoka's best friend, missing for almost a week, had been found dead in a downtown apartment.
Fourteen years old… Junko reflects. Death is cr
This content is intended for mature audiences.
or, enter your birth date.*
The climb axe sprayed sparkles and stone shards as Lara's magic helped it bite into the rock.
"One. I've found proof of the existence of magic. And of extra-terrestrial life, for that matter."
New splinters stung her skin and she hoped they stung the little white animal as well. But he sat on her shoulder without as much as a blink, conscious of his invulnerability. Was he really invulnerable or he just lacked the ability to feel fear?
"Two. The island is full of magical creatures, including myself."
It was a diverse problem. On the top of that most of these creatures were hostile.
The crack that she had been following ended. Should she find another one or completely rely on her magic to traverse the sleek rock wall?
Other creatures had uncertain intentions.
"The Incubator who knows about Himiko."
Who was repeatedly sprayed by rock shards and who didn't seem to care the least bit.
"The raptor who's unknown even to this Incubator."
What could Mathias know about this facet of magic? He talked like a generic zealot. Did he know what it meant to give Himiko a new body to begin with?
"Three. Himiko used to be a magical girl. Or an insane witch who could move from body to body. It may be the same."
Could it be her special ability? Or, perhaps, anyone could do it who had her soul removed and nailed to a fancy piece of rock by the Incubators? Anyway, the name of the gem couldn't be a coincidence.
"Four. The aliens brought this technology to Earth. But when did they first contact humankind...?"
If she'd get out of this island alive she'd plough through as much of written history as she can. They surely couldn't operate on the planet without leaving traces. Magical girls and their escorts must have been hiding where the line between history and legends blurred. Witch and her cat. Bargains with the Devil. Wizards, warlocks, shamans.
She kept inching across the rock wall. Every beat of her climb axe brought the cave entrance closer. The Incubator on her shoulder looked ahead patiently or completely indifferently, with the purple gem in his back.
Even here, holding on to her axe's handle Lara needed all her willpower not to wince at the thought. Letting her hand slip and accidentally dropping the furry creature into the thousand feet abyss could have its benefits. But that very gem was the reason she wanted to keep an eye on him.
Of course the jewel was another problem. She deduced that it must have been a soul gem just like her own but she didn't know if it belonged to a magical girl or another alien. For what she had seen the owner had at least one fake identity on Earth. Yonbey seemed to be at loss and so did the aliens' computer system or whatever he gained his information from. They probably knew their contracts, provided that they didn't have conflicting factions, rivals or criminals among them.
She reached a niche that disturbed the rhythm of her climbing. She needed her full attention to get around it but then she had more time again, to think and to ask.
"Do you know who contracted Himiko? What abilities did she have back then? Is it normal for a magical girl to possess other bodies?"
"Of course we know. This area belongs to me, Himiko is my contractee. She's been very strong since then though her magic is not typical combat magic. But she could easily persuade her people so she could easily become their ruler. And she could always control weather to ensure the safety and prosperity of her country. Her being able to move into other bodies surprised us too. In theory any of you could do it but you'd have to overcome the resistance of the original owner which is difficult even for the likes of you. At the first time she was nearly kicked out of her new body. But we couldn't observe her subsequent takeovers because we were kept away from her shrine."
Lara carefully filed away everything she heard about Himiko and focused on what she could read from between the lines. There was no sign of competition or opposition among the Incubators. Yonbey's choice of words painted a single organization so if the purple gem's owner was a magical girl they should have known about her.
"Would you entrust a crazy girl with the protection of Mitakihara?"
Lara froze for a moment. The irony-filled voice wasn't a figment of her mind. It was low-key and dull but crystal clear, impossible to mistake for the alien's childishly happy messages. It wasn't too hard to link this voice to the picture she had accidentally got a glimpse of. She was sure that it portrayed the gem's owner and that this voice had to be hers. Thanks to the time she spent with Samantha Nishimura Lara could identify the language with absolute certainty: the raptor girl spoke modern literary Japanese.
The alien had most probably noticed her start and deduced that she had heard the fragment but he didn't show more reaction than when the rock shards hit him. Lara felt uneasy. She wanted to feel solid, level ground under her feet then slam the climb axe into his head and properly dissect him with a hunting knife. One thing held her back, the same that didn't let her throw him into the gorge. It was the inhabitant of the gem, the crazy Japanese raptor girl.
"Gott ist hilflos!"
Dr Whitman's betrayal was a fresh wound, Lara couldn't trust any furry or feathered alien. But the feathered one had apparently helped her. Even that shady argument with the other alien had implied that she saved Lara's life. The furry one saw it as an interference with his experiment. And it apparently wasn't even the first time. Would Lara be better than the professor if she abandoned her secret guardian angel?
The entrance came closer and closer and Himiko's temple awaited right beyond the cave. She had no time to waste, that insane Mathias could start the ceremony any moment. Yet she hoped that they wouldn't meet so soon. She didn't know enough of the raptor girl and she was afraid of letting loose a second Himiko. After learning about the Sun Queen she shuddered at the thought of finding herself alone with a literally disembodied soul gem. The Incubator called the reptilian bird a host body. Then the gem's owner could be a reverse selkie who shot the wraith that spotted Lara then took off the dark haired archer girl costume and hid it somewhere on the island. Lara hoped that another fragment would show her if she was right.
And Yonbey sat on her shoulder all along, just a few inches from her treacherous thoughts. She shivered from the touch of the alien but at least she felt his softness and warmth. It relieved her unease. He felt just as vulnerable as the animals she killed to appease her hunger or the humans she murdered because she preferred her and Sam's life to theirs. She just had to make a quick surprise attack to prevent him from sealing her like the raptor.
But she waited in vain. She heard no new fragment, neither Japanese nor German. The swallowed angel remained silent. Lara nervously raced along the rock wall, grabbed the ledge with a jump and pulled herself up in the safe shelter. She still couldn't believe how easily she had traversed that distance dangling in the roaring wind above a near bottomless chasm. She had been thinking all way, pondering her chances. But she needed this safe place for what she planned. She knew that the winding passage before her cut through the rock until it opened into a torchlit cavern, an outpost of undead samurai. Even the Incubator urged her to fight them and it was just natural to scout the battleground before the attack.
Yonbey jumped off her shoulder and scratched his ear indicating that he had stepped aside. Lara closed her eyes and lifted her bow. That pale green glow ran along her arm again and covered the tips of her weapon in St. Elmo's light. She let the alien think that she was focusing on the oncoming battle. Her senses spread and felt around. She found seven wraiths in the cavern. Three hid on both sides under the gallery and the last one guarded the exit. They waited without a sound or even a thought, apparently in deep meditation, clueless of her presence. So she turned back to find the silenced soul gem.
First she instructed her body to lean against the rock then she turned her inner vision toward the alien and focused on the cavity in his back. His glowing furry body became translucent. There were no bones inside, just a single gem tightly fit in a transparent force field the shape of a twenty sided die. The gem's radiating energy cast winding purple ribbons of polar light around the tips. The sight wasn't unexpected and Lara hoped that she could see through the Incubator's force field. She gingerly felt around the imaginary icosahedron and tried to reach through its wall. She felt a hit that nearly rendered her precaution futile. Her ethereal hands slipped through the barrier but somehow they slipped too far. For a moment she became someone else. She lived in another world, in lonely isolation, with a mission she had already begun to doubt. She had lost someone very close to her. More than close. That person had been her friend, her lover, her God. Then that person ceased to exist, disappeared from present and past, from everyone else's memories. She would have done anything to bring her back to existence. She longed to be close to her, desired her touch, longed to give her body and soul to her. But she denied it from herself knowing she could ruin everything in an instant. Lara recoiled and fell back into her own body, scared for her sanity.
Her reaction was just as revealing as it had been last time. Her ears rang, her field of vision contracted and shiny specks danced before her eyes. Her skin felt hot and she clutched her hand between her thighs, feeling tingling that just wasn't right in this situation. She wasn't a little girl anymore, wasn't easy to embarrass. She was much easier to anger. Now she was furious. She didn't even want to know what the alien did to the gem's inhabitant but she was sure that he crossed the line. Did he have any idea about the feelings of human beings? She drew the string and held the glowing tip of the arrow against Yonbey's face.
The Incubator looked back without the slightest sign of fear, he even had the nerve to wag his tail. He seemed toying with her, waiting for an excuse to dispose of her. He could probably choose thousands of other subjects to restart his experiment. Lara watched him for a while, eyes burning with hate, but lowered her bow in the end.
"If you know what's good for you... just don't get in the way of my arrows.", she grunted and stepped over him.
She still wanted to kill him but first she wanted to see what she was capable of with her magic, what she could rely on when her life would depend on being faster than the alien's thoughts. She put her new magical senses to use too. "Ancient combat archers never bothered with quivers.", she murmured the mantra. She exactly knew the number and position of her opponents so she covered six more arrows in a veil of green energy and grabbed the whole bunch in her right hand. She felt every single piece like she didn't take her eyes off them.
With a casual move of her hand she picked one arrow and shot it while running. Her bow was drawn again before the first projectile reached its target. She landed every hit with deadly accuracy and the battle didn't take a moment longer than dashing through the cavern. She finished the last wraith with a point-blank shot between the eyes. In a few seconds the cave was empty. Only carbonized sugar cubes, remains of the toga-clad shadow figures left tumbling on the ground. And the alien knew what was good for him, he never got in her arrows' way.
"You used your magic efficiently and received no injury.", he summarized her performance. "The darkening of your gem must be minimal. You should save the cubes for later, you'll probably need them. After use please deposit them in my grief cube compartment."
Lara thoughtfully stared at her pendant. It was the same green jade as it had been a few hours ago. What would it look like dangerously dark?
"Depleted soul gems are completely black.", the Incubator answered the question she didn't ask. "But black is an unstable state."
"I think you can put yourself to test against a stronger opponent soon. We hoped you wouldn't meet its kind again before realizing your abilities.", he added after a short pause. "Wraiths are diverse and capable of development. Some grows much bigger and stronger over time. These can even physically affect their environment, for example its temperature."
She didn't feel like chatting with him so she left the cave with firm steps. She found herself back in the river of wind, at the base of a crumbly stone bridge. Weathered roofs of a carved rock temple grew on the other side of the gorge like fungus on a decaying log. A wide gate stood ahead and behind it Lara sensed her way to the top.
She fought her way through the empty bridge, leaning against the storm. Chunks of debris pelted the structure around her. She didn't even notice that the wind blew snow and little ice needles scratched her skin. Suddenly, something stirred in the corner of her eye. Two figures emerged from the blizzard, right in front of her. A hooded figure with his hood torn by the wind, tugging a girl in a white ceremonial robe and floral headdress.
Lara froze. She had been looking for them for days but she was thunderstruck now. Mathias stopped right in front of her and sneered at her from the cover of his human shield. He hid behind her so perfectly that Lara didn't even try to shoot him. She couldn't count on Sam's help either. Her friend didn't seem to perceive the world around her, not even the blizzard. The high priest had probably drugged her to make taking her to the sacrificial shrine easier.
"Mathias, why are you doing this? Do you think that the Queen will reward you for your service?"
"No! I think she'll be busy enough enjoying her shiny new body not to care what the hell I do!", he shouted through the din of the storm. "What do you think you'll achieve by getting yourself killed? You play the hero but you're just destroying everything in your way! You're just as arrogant as your civilization but you can't defeat a whole island! I know when to bend and I'll be the one to get home alive!"
She furiously slammed the arrow into the pillar by the sect leader's side. Mathias recoiled but didn't fail to keep the empty eyed Sam between them with his holy staff made of driftwood and a circular saw blade - a primitive symbol of the Sun. The pillar bent and gracefully collapsed between the girl and the priest who opened the gate without hesitation and darted in ducking through between the exiting behemoth's legs.
The giant in frosty samurai armor and mask clicked the padlock behind them then stepped over the remains of the pillar and brandished his Lara-sized iron club. The girl didn't even know if he was a leader of Himiko's undead army or an abbot of the wraith monks. She was only sure that they had been there on the island for aeons. According to the records in the island's deserted houses and bunkers they were feared by the soldiers of the second world war Japanese outpost and Mathias' followers alike. Lara had been trying to stay low in their presence so far but this time she couldn't avoid the fight.
She aimed at the middle of the giant's breastplate and prayed for her magic to be effective enough. The magically strengthened arrow broke through the iron plate and stopped halfway in with a hiss. It couldn't bring down such a huge opponent but at least held him up for a moment. The raging hurricane crashed a chunk of scaffolding where he would have stepped if not for the annoying thorn. When the wind blew the debris away the samurai just stomped on his dropped breastplate. The projectile was still there, embedded in the metal sheet. Where the wraith uncovered his body even his rotting meat was missing in chunks and colorful cubes spun and danced in the cavities.
"I shouldn't have shot him...", Lara grunted. She had no other choice but keep fighting. At least she had breached his defenses. She backed slowly while she perforated his armor with more projectiles. She hoped to make him drop the remaining pieces too but the giant seemed to get wind of her plan because he simply broke off the new arrows.
"To hell with magic!", Lara snarled and switched to assault rifle. She rolled through under the striking iron club and emptied the magazine into the behemoth's bared flesh. Then she unpinned a hand grenade and shoved it in the cube-filled opening.
She sprang behind the monster's back and darted as fast as she could. While the wraith sluggishly turned in his heavy armor she threw herself to the ground. Shards of charred metal and frozen flesh exploded from the undead monster's stomach but thankfully the hurricane deflected the smaller fragments.
It couldn't deflect the thousand pound club, though, it hit the ground just a hair's breadth from the girl. The bridge shuddered and Lara threw herself through the edge, out of the immense weapon's way. She stayed dangling over the abyss while the club slowly followed. As it reached the edge she focused her magic into her arms and jumped aside, slamming her climb axe into the next pillar. She climbed up with loud ringing and looked down on the remains of her enemy from the top of the pillar. The grenade wasn't as destructive as she hoped. The wraith was still standing and lively enough to reach up for her ankles and drag her down right in front of his feet.
Lara crashed down hard and rolled quickly out of the gargantuan iron-clad foot's way, back to behind the samurai's back. She stood up with great difficulty but still faster than the heavy giant turned. She felt stabbing pain at every breath but ignored it and pricked the armor's back with a straight row of arrows. Then she used this makeshift ladder to climb up the titan's shoulder. She wedged her axe under the rim of his helmet and pried it with all her might. The straps snapped, the head gear and mask fell revealing a naked ice tetrahedron instead of a head. Finally she noticed the undead monster's cold but tried to ignore it. She hammered her magically sharpened climb axe into the strange geometric shape again and again with savage determination, holding on to the swaying monstrosity with her thighs, defenseless against its deafening screams. Cracks ran through the crystal from the countless stabs and the entire object crumbled to dust. The empty armor collapsed under Lara and the huge chunk of metal that froze to her pants dragged her off the bridge again. She shot her makeshift grapple at the wooden railing in midair and quickly wrapped the rope around her arm.
She felt a loud crack and the world went dark for a moment as the rope diverted her fall and slammed her right into the rock wall. She broke something again, perhaps her arm or a few ribs, maybe both. Her entire body burned, she couldn't even distinguish her most serious injuries. Luckily she had fixed a reel to her bow so it could pull her up from the abyss because she probably wouldn't be able to climb back on the bridge on her own.
Cubes. She dizzily dug into the clattering pile of metal, scraping the snow for the little black cubes with frozen hands. She couldn't have cared less about her contract but if they could really help her it was high time to use them. The Incubator watched her without a word and she staggered past him just as silently. She fell against the gate, pulled herself up to the padlock and somehow managed to yank it off with her climb axe. Then she tumbled into the spacious hall surrounded by a ring of statues of the queen, crawled to the feet of the closest and collapsed. Half-dozen passages bored into the bowels of the mountain and she had no idea which one led to Sam and that deranged cult leader. She laughed hard at her own misery as her magical costume vanished leaving only her bloodstained, torn tank top and pants.
Then she fought back her despair and closed her eyes to find the two human figures far ahead. But her ability proved worthless here. The faint signs of normal humans were lost in the dazzling noise of an army of wraiths. They stood outside, waiting just for her. And behind these small specks shone a massive blinding magical signature, the presence of the Sun Queen. She painfully turned back to see if the alien followed her. He had just slid through the gate that she left slightly ajar then sit down a few steps from Lara. The gem was still gleaming inside his torso, though its light seemed to have faded a little.
For a moment Lara forgot even about Sam. She imagined to fly in panic, right to the speck of purple light and reach through the force field. Still trembling, she took the gem in her ethereal hands. She knew that she couldn't take it out of there but at least she wanted to tell her that she wasn't alone nor forgotten. Which of the two names could belong to her mysterious guardian angel? Akemi Homura felt just right.
In a flash she found herself sitting on the ground in a city park, right behind a bench. Looking through the gaps she saw a playground full of children and their parents. It was an astonishingly peaceful scene after the brutality of the island. But something was wrong with this world too: nasty blur sat on every face and faint black smoke oozed from everything, the people, the trees, the skyline. Lara saw a whole family in front of her. She guessed an adult couple, two adolescent girls with waist-length hair and a little boy. The mother stayed standing to brush one of the girls' hair while the other sat down to take notes. The brushed girl was the only one with colors and details, the others were mere silhouettes in front of the smeared background, speaking in strange half-words.
When the girl finally got her ribbon back from her mother and escorted the child to the sandbox Lara followed her. The important things had to happen around the dreamer and who could it be if not the only sharp figure among the blurred shadows?
"Even I can't believe that we've only known her for a mere two months! And she was so familiar when we first saw her, I still don't understand!"
Strange. She heard real words in the gibberish as she passed the bench. Were they talking about the mysterious girl?
"I'm worried about her."
"Me too!", she snapped but the blobs didn't react.
Lara leaned against a tree to keep an eye on the girl in dark skirt and beige sweater. She looked painfully thin and suspiciously graceful even doing as mundane things as helping a little boy to build a sand castle. Perhaps she used her magic all the time. It didn't take too long for the girl to notice that she was being watched. She jerked up her head and looked right back at her stalker. There was no mistaking, that accidentally intercepted image had portrayed this very face.
It had only been a few hours ago but Lara's world had fundamentally changed: now she was deliberately spying behind the alien's back. But the girl's face had changed too. It lacked the cheeky confidence that made Lara mistake her for Himiko. She looked but a weary teenager trying to do normal things at a hopelessly abnormal place. Could she sense the trap around her, or her captor made sure that she couldn't realize? Perchance disclosing it to her would help. Lara hoped that the dream world would permit...
The mysterious girl stood up from the sand castle and came over to her. She stopped right in front of her and looked her in the eye from a good four inches lower. Lara unwittingly compared her to Sam and by comparison this girl was small and pale. She seemed to be a completely different character too: it was hard to imagine her visiting party after party in the city night, bathing in the crowd with beer bottle in hand like Samantha Nishimura often did. It was her gaze that made all the difference. One piercing glance of the impossible lavender eyes could have sobered up her half-Japanese friend's average company. This color had to be the side effect of her magic because she was doubtlessly a magical girl or even more. Something in her presence dwarfed Himiko's blinding magical signature to faint candle light. This sensation could hardly fit the skinny little teenager who had submitted to hair brushing so obediently. It was a truly intriguing dissonance.
"You are Akemi Homura-san.", she broke the silence.
She didn't really need confirmation. Somehow she felt that only one answer was possible.
The mysterious girl gave a brief nod. Lara didn't know if the gem's messages were censored or she just happened to be the silent type but at least the message had gone through.
"You are not alone. I'd like to help you."
Homura tried to answer but the world jerked like picture of an old broken television. It felt nauseating and threw Lara back into her body that still rested against the legs of a statue in a cavern, with her left arm uselessly hanging by her throbbing side. How much time had she spent in the other world? The visit was probably shorter than it felt but she'd have liked to know how long she had been vulnerable.
Thankfully no one attacked her. Only the Incubator was there, sitting by her outstretched left leg and looked into her opening eyes wagging his tail. But his presence didn't really feel safe now. She felt an instinctive urge to hide behind her folded right knee but she decided to fight it. She didn't want to show any sign of weakness or guilt. The only one who should have felt guilty was sitting in font of her. Lara's eyes gleamed with anger.
"Believe me, shooting me would be pointless. You shouldn't waste your magic.", the alien cheerfully warned. "You're in almost as bad shape as a day ago."
"I don't need magic for that.", she answered but her limbs felt too heavy for as much as a jerk. Her weapons hung from her body, hopelessly out of her reach.
"It's high time to cleanse your gem. You used your magic too many ways."
Was it an implication or an attempt to lure her in a trap? Lara laboriously lifted her left hand in her lap and placed it on her ring. Every muscle in her arm objected wildly but she felt that this was the pain of healing. Perhaps this was the reason for the gathering clouds inside her soul gem. Regeneration used a lot of energy. She fisted her hand around the small jewel and didn't intend to let go.
"The usual method is building a circle of cubes with your gem at the center. The cubes draw the darkness out of your gem in visible streams. Each of them can only absorb a little amount of taint. But their range is limited and they aren't effective if placed too close to each other so there's a limit on how many you should use simultaneously. The optimal configuration is 12 pieces around a circle of 25 centimeters in radius. Based on your gem's state it won't be enough so you'll need at least one more circle."
"So they're usually used by the dozen. Does a single cube work?"
"Of course. But it's quicker to use a group at a time."
"You tell me to let go of my soul and seal it in a in a circle of dark energy with my own hands. How convenient! I won't."
The alien didn't even flinch. His smile was impenetrable, it didn't tell Lara if her suspicion was right, whether Yonbey had been intentionally silent about the true nature of the gems, whether he cared about her distrust, whether he had any idea about trust to begin with.
Just to be on the safe side she approached her gem with one single cube, alert and ready to throw it away in an instant. But it seemed to work, a narrow stream of black smoke wound out of the gem and targeted the remains of the wraith. The flow of darkness meandered on for a few seconds then it faded away leaving her gem a little brighter.
Yonbey turned his back to Lara and opened his drop-shaped trapdoor. The girl strained her eyes in vain, the darkness was perfect on the inside. So she just dropped in the cube and took another.
This time she looked into the bottomless cavity with her eyes closed. The purple gem was there, inside the cat-sized creature and far away at the same time. She held her hand back from reaching for it.
"...I'd break your neck right away!"
It wasn't Yonbey. The voice inside her head belonged to Homura. But who could she threaten, what dream could she see?
Lara's eyes shot open. She searched her pockets in a hurry. She piled up the cubes at her feet, dropped a spare magazine, a box of matches, a coil of line, a switchblade and finally the GPS. It couldn't show her location here a hundred meters below the middle of nowhere but kept counting the passing seconds in the corner of its screen with perfect indifference.
She drew another trail of darkness out of her gem and threw another depleted cube through the trapdoor. Then she took a short look at the display and submerged.
The playground was gone without a trace. The new scene took place in a spacious modern living room. The windows were shaded and three silhouettes sat in the dusk. Then a beam of light pierced the darkness and lit the mysterious Homura's face, drawing dark circles around her tired eyes.
And she began to tell a story. Lara leaned against the wall, unseen in the omnipresent shadow, and listened spellbound. No matter how she racked her brain she couldn't find the tale's parallel in any mythology known to her. It wasn't because of the extinct creatures that took the roles of ordinary animal characters. Homura had her own unique mythology and the story looked more like a confession in cypher.
Like Homura had come from another world and tried to let her friend in on her different reality without disclosing her secret to a hidden enemy. Her uneasiness infected the other adolescent girl too. They glanced around in suspicion but simply overlooked the interloper in the shadows. Their anxiety was contagious. Lara walked around the room, searched every nook and cranny but she couldn't find any other spy. Did the alien need to be embodied here to interrogate the captured soul gem? If not, he could easily know about her presence by now. For a moment she lost her grip on the dream world. She felt fading but strangely it made her visible for the little boy. She felt his startled look on her but in the next moment he disappeared together with the whole world in a chaotic flash.
Lara sat in her own reality, surrounded by the cold, empty and still colorless walls of the cave. But she saw little glowing rectangles around the edge of the ceiling and inside the statues. How could she have failed to notice them? Her eyes shot open and focused on the GPS' screen.
"One single second...", she murmured in astonishment. She had listened her guardian angel's tale for minutes. No, that girl wasn't even an angel anymore. She turned into a princess, held captive by a pint-sized alien dragon. And she wasn't even the only damsel in distress in this story. The other was locked up in the top chamber of the tower of the island's ancient witch. Lara was here for her rescue and was finally getting close to save both. This hall was the basement of the witch's castle and the little dragon sat right by her feet wearing his perpetual smile.
Hanging on to the statue she struggled to her feet, lit a torch and carried it along the arc of the wall. She had already suspected that the cavern wasn't a mere back entrance to the shrine on the peak. The statues weren't decorations either. They were all different but faced the future and the empire's enemies with the same determination.
The same name was written on the wall behind every one of them, only the letters became older and older. The farther Lara looked into the past the harder it got to decypher the ancient Japanese script. One thing remained the same: the queen was always called Himiko. But every chapter ended with a new name. Zakuro, chosen. Aya, chosen. Minoriko, chosen. Wakana, chosen. Names and more names. Then she completed the circle. Hoshi was the last of them, the one that toppled the queen. Her name wasn't wiped out, only chiseled through with a single line, as a memento for the future, a symbol of eternal disgrace. Traitor, told the hasty marking. Someone engraved it in a hurry, yelling through the din of the collapse of Himiko's country.
While the walls held the records of the queen's glory the pictures on the metal floor told another story. Lara began to see the big picture and she was sure that Mathias saw it too. The plants of the island made a recipe. Some of the ingredients were familiar, all poisonous or hallucinogenic. The court doctors brewed an elixir that the chosen priestess had to drink to the queen. Then the queen gave something to her. The queen was laid on a bier, the priestess sat on the throne. The corpse was entombed inside its stone effigy.
Lara looked up to the towering statue and ran her fingers along the edge just above the pedestal. She felt a tiny crack, hardly visible in the torchlight. She stuck the tip of her climb axe in the crack and prized off the front of the sarcophagus. The Incubator watched with expectant eyes and the stone block almost smashed him as it crashed down. The girl didn't even blink when he gracefully jumped aside. His reaction was quick but not instant. She noted this information and shoved the torch in the statue.
The light revealed a mummy in decaying ceremonial clothes. It looked back with accusation in its dark eye sockets. Its hands were tied together on its chest, still grasping a foggy grey glass egg with its skeletal fingers.
Something clicked. A new memory bubbled up from the gap in her past. It had happened after her mother disappeared. Lara holed up in a hidden corner in the immense and mysterious library of the Croft Manor. She collected ancient stories, different aspects of something her father was obsessively looking for. Did Lara try to help him... or, maybe, compete him? Back then she didn't realize the importance of those tales. But now she knew where to find her own kind in history.
"The legend of the lich... A mage hides his soul into an object so he'll always return when his body is killed. Many think that it's an invention of modern fantasy but in reality it's an ancient concept. The word itself stems in the proto-germanic language and predates Christ himself. And it's not even the only evidence of the knowledge of our existence! Koschei the Deathless in Slavic folklore had been a human but he had enough of mortality. So he buried his soul in a chest on a remote island. If you dug up the chest a hare sprang out. If you killed the hare a duck burst out of the corpse and flew away. Inside the duck there was an egg and Koschei's soul was a needle in that egg. If you broke the egg you killed Koschei. If you stole it you gained control over him. And this, here..."
She grabbed the jewel and tore it out of the mummy's bound hands. Phalanges bounced on the metal floor as she held it up before her eyes - then smashed it against the ground. The egg proved to be but a thin shell. It exploded into tiny shards, leaving an empty golden casing. Lara picked up the remains.
"...used to be Koschei's egg. But where's the needle?"
She walked around the cavern and pried every statue open. The Queen's heavy effigies fell one by one and Lara shone her torch into every standing back piece. They all contained the same mummy, except for two. One was empty and one had a corpse but its hands were missing above the wrist. The thief bound the bones of the forearm together with a leather strap adorned with a brass cogwheel.
"Mathias took and hid the real one long ago. But he needs Himiko's soul to complete the ritual!"
She submerged again to check up on the brightest light spot. It was still there beyond a thick layer of rock, shining on the horizon, waiting to be given to the Chosen. It had to be the place where Mathias' was heading. She could even see the faint lights along the path there. Little gleaming rectangles guarded both sides of the trail just like the inside of the coffins. Like a last line of defense. Like even Himiko was afraid of something.
"I don't know if Madoka comes for those who don't reach complete darkness."
Lara's hand twitched as she realized the meaning of the sentence. If she had been waiting for an interesting fragment now she got it. But she controlled herself. With artificially calm moves she plucked the charm from behind the mummy's head and held it into the light. If its function was keeping tomb raiders away then they'd have placed it on the front piece or the joint. But what purpose could it serve like this? What could the lich queen of Yamatai fear?
She saw an ambiguous Japanese script on the sheet. Law of the Circle, the greatest robber. Or something completely different. Lara raised her brow then she did the only thing she could think of. She stepped to the next, oldest coffin and plucked the first Himiko's charm too.
The text on this browned sheet was written somewhere in the first millennium. This was the crudest, most primitive form of Japanese writing. This syllabary used complex Chinese characters without any regard of their meaning. The previous charm was written more recently so its hundred possible readings could easily sidetrack Lara from the most significant interpretation, but this one revealed the first three syllables stark-naked. Madoka.
"Have you found something important?", the alien asked while he hopped on her shoulder. The fluffy tail flowed around Lara's neck with its end twisting in front of her nose and mouth, halfway between rubbing against and suffocating her.
Could the meaning of charms be unknown to a peddler of magic? Perhaps he couldn't he read it. He may have found it inefficient to learn obsolete versions of the most needlessly complicated writing system on Earth. Perhaps he tried to test her trustworthiness. Her thoughts bounced at the speed of light. The alien had said that they couldn't get close to the queen. Lara liked the idea. She could even tease the unpleasant animal a little.
"She surrounded herself with ofudas.", she answered while she pocketed the sheet. "It used to be a common belief that these charms could ward off evil spirits. Do they affect your kind?", she asked with the tiniest of a sadistic edge.
The insult seemed to fly over his head.
"I feel no effect at all. We weren't held back by these 'charms' but the wraiths. This piece of paper seems to be a product of superstition to me. Your ancestors made many attempts to copy the effects of magic. It may be one of them."
"It could still keep one thing away from her."