Brief Candle

by

Phil Jones


Chapter 1: Lost

The wind screamed through the mountain pass like a tortured animal, ripping at the jagged rock and firing splinters of ice into the girl's exposed flesh.

She had been wearing her school uniform, but her hat was gone, her blazer was shredded and the exposed flesh on her legs was red from the streaming icicles. If she had known, the blackening on the tips of her fingers showed the final stages of frost bite.

The only thing she knew was the pain, her fingers would first be cold and then flames would shoot from her hands to her shoulders leaving her gasping with pain. The plane, the crash and the loss of her mother were being crowded out of her brain by the agony of exposure. Slowly but surely she was freezing to death.

The pass was narrow and the path she was following hugged the right side of a cliff face. To her left the cliff plunged away to a thousand jagged pinnacles of rock far below. Her numb fingers groped along the side of the cliff, her mind was filled with the screaming of the wind and the shrieking of her own senses.

At last she stumbled around a corner and collapsed into a cleft in the rock. The sudden shelter from the wind brought a rush of heat through her body; she lay down, exhausted, watching the snow flit past her tiny shelter. Slowly her eyes closed and she slept. It should have been her last time.

"Who are you?" The voice was there in her mind, gentle and calm.
"Lara." By comparison her voice was distant and weak. She opened her eyes and saw a young bald Tibetan man standing in front of her, he was dressed in a thin orange robe and seemed unaffected by the cold.

"Do you know where you are?"

"No," she shook her head weakly, "I'm lost! Please help!"

The voice paused as if considering her request.

"Follow." He said and walked past her. Lara turned her head and saw a cleft in the rock. Struggling, she crawled after him into a cave, collapsed and fainted.


Chapter 2: Found

She slept fitfully, she was vaguely aware of hands carrying her, hands placing her into some sort of platform with soft coverings, the occasional bumping as it went over a bump in the road. The pain in her fingers burned making her wince. "Rest," the voice said and touched her forehead. The touch was cool and comforting and she drifted back into sleep, this time more deeply.

She didn't remember how long it was but eventually the journey was over. The same hands that placed her onto the bier lifted her up and carried her up many steps and through many doors until she was placed in a soft, warm bed.

Lara drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes her fingers would burn with pain and a round friendly face would appear and apply a cooling balm and the pain would drift away.

Days passed, bodies busied themselves around her and slowly the pain left her and the room began to come into focus. It was decorated with red and gold tapestries in the classic Tibetan manor and beside the bed had a low table surrounded by soft, thick cushions.

An elderly Chinese woman visited her often to bring her food and water, dress her sore and frost bitten fingers and apply more of the cooling lotion that was healing her hands. Her name was Shang Whei and she didn't speak much and when she did it was in Chinese which Lara didn't understand.

Over the days that followed Lara's fingers changed from dark blue to livid pink and finally back to normal. Shang Wei clucked around her like a mother hen, plumping pillows, helping her in and out of bed to eat at the table, and helping her to recover in a hundred little ways.

One morning after she finally managed to get out of bed on her own and dress herself in clothes that Shang Wei had brought for her, the man she had seen at the pass came to the door and smiled at her.

"Your strength has returned," he said smiling. "I am Master Chen."

"Lara," he smiled again.

"Yes I know, you said." He looked out through the lattice of the window. "The sun is shining, do you feel up to a walk?"

"I'll try."

Master Chen took Lara's arm and guided her through the door, down a short flight of stairs and out into the sunlight. The sun's brightness stabbed at her eyes and she covered them with her free hand. Chen waited until she had recovered and then helped her along the top of the steps and around the side of the house into a garden.

Here, he let her sit on a stone bench to gather her strength. Birds sang in the trees and beyond the low wall mist clung to the far side of the valley. The sun shone throughout the valley yet beyond the neighbouring mountains the clouds were dark and menacing. Sparse houses clung to the slopes, each with its own garden. The valley was patch worked with fields where people and animals worked and children played. At the head of the valley, almost lost in the mist, lay the huge sprawling shape of a Llamasery.

"Where are we?" Lara asked when she had regained her breath.

"We are in the western Kun Lun Mountains." Chen said. "Behind the silken veil".

"What's that?" Lara asked.

"It is the curtain that separates us from the rest of the world."

"How?" Master Chen looked at her quizzically.

"So many questions!"

"Sorry." Lara looked at her feet.

"Questions are good," said Master Chen sitting down at her side, "they fill in the gaps in our knowledge and shape our world."

They sat in silence for a while.

"The veil has protected this valley for three thousand years. None of us that live within it may leave; to leave would mean that we could never return."

"Why?" Chen smiled at her innocent inquiry.

"It is written that the valley remains hidden to all but the truly lost. The veil remains closed to all who have left and know the location." He looked at her closely. "You are tired. Rest for a while and I will take you back inside."

"If you can't go outside, how did you bring me here?" She asked finally.

"Some of us have learned to project our minds beyond the veil. What you saw and heard was in your mind. You crossed the veil on your own and then I went and found you." He paused for a minute. "You should know that time passes very slowly within the veil, for every candle that is burnt within, five will burn outside. This is how it has been for centuries; the world outside progresses whilst within the world stays the same." He let this information sink in, not knowing whether she had taken it in at all. "And now I will take you back inside, - before Shang Whei organises a search party." His smile was suddenly broad and Lara couldn't help but smile back. He helped her to her feet and guided her back into the house. "Tomorrow when you are stronger we will come outside again."


Chapter 3: The Llamasery

Weeks passed and the weeks turned into months. Lara's strength returned and before long she was running through the fields, playing with the other children, it was as though the outside world had never existed and all memories of it were pushed to the darkest corners of her mind.

There was one house all the children avoided, it was ill kept and overgrown with bushes. Master Chen said it was inhabited by an American scientist called Gerber who in his few conversations with him had said how they were all prisoners. Gerber didn't talk to anyone except when he went out for supplies.

Master Chen began teaching Lara a sequence of movements that were graceful and smooth and increased the strength in her legs and body, and then he began teaching her what the moves were for. He called them Ch'uan fa, an ancient form of self defence.

Auntie Whei, as Lara had come to call her, busied herself around the house and garden and when Lara wasn't training or learning Tibetan and Mandarin, she helped her with the chores. Time slipped by and a year had passed before she knew it, her hair grew to the point where she had to tie it back. She was growing, beginning the transformation from child to teenager. One morning Master Chen found her standing on one leg, practicing her spring kick.

"You're improving." He said as she executed the kick.

"Thank you." She was about to perform another when he stopped her.

"Someone has asked to meet you."

"Me?" For a moment Lara wondered if she had done something wrong. "Who?"

"The Llama." Chen gestured towards the Llamasery at the head of the valley.

"Why? Have I done something wrong?" Chen laughed.

"No, there is nothing wrong. He has taken an interest in your development." He held out his hand and she took it, relieved yet apprehensive of what was to follow.

They walked down the long flight of steps and crossed the fields to the road. They walked unhurriedly along it, stopping to talk to other people as the road meandered along the bottom of the valley. After a while they came to a series of terraces covered in gardens with a single long staircase climbing to the entrance of the Llamasery, they climbed the stairs and entered through the large wooden doors. Beyond was a courtyard and then another set of doors leading onto another set of stairs. At the top of these stairs was a long corridor flanked by dozens of prayer wheels. At the far end they passed though another set of doors and entered a large columned hall. The walls were draped in tapestries and at the far end, propped up on many cushions was the Llama.

They both stopped until he looked up from his meditation, he smiled and beckoned them forward, gesturing for them to be seated upon the cushions at his feet. Master Chen and the Llama exchanged pleasantries and then the Llama turned his attention to Lara. "I am glad that we have finally had an opportunity to meet." He said. "I understand Master Chen guided you to us from the outer world. Tell me, how did you come to be in the mountains with so little warm clothing?"

"Our aeroplane crashed." The Llama looked at Master Chen who explained in Tibetan what an aeroplane was. Lara watched his eyes widen at his explanation.

"And you alone survived?" He asked finally.

"Myself and my mother."

"Where is your mother now?"

"We found a temple in the mountains and sheltered there. I put this sword into the stone and a big ring thing came up from the ground and turned into a big mirror, there was talking from the other side. Mummy tried to pull the sword out but when she did there was a flash and she vanished." Tears began to well in Lara's eyes. The Llama and Master Chen looked at each other seriously.

"And the ring itself was destroyed?" Lara nodded mutely.

"We know of this place. It was built long before the Tibetans colonised this plateau. It is a place of evil, built by a civilization both ancient and evil." The Llama sat back and sighed. "This ring you speak of, what do you think it was?"

"I don't know what it was!" The tears started again, the two men looked at each other, life as a monk did not prepare you for a crying child. Master Chen hugged her to him and dried her eyes with his sleeve.

"We will tell you what we know of this place," said the Llama. He drew a deep breath, "as I have said it is known to be a place of evil, the civilisation that built it lived far to the west but kept an outpost here to guard their temple. For reasons known only to themselves their temples could only be built in certain places. They brought people with them to act as their slaves and when this was not enough they enslaved people from the east and brought them here to work on their temples and palaces. After a thousand years of subjugation they brought their people from the west and opened the ring with a sword that they had brought with them. They all went through the ring and commanded that their slaves should follow them, many of them did but then the slaves revolted and overthrew their masters. They pulled the sword halfway out of the stone where it stuck fast and the ring was closed. They tried to damage the sword and the stone it was in but it was made from an indestructible material. The people barricaded the entrance to the temple and returned to their homes on the plateau. It was long held that there was evil in the mountains and they shunned the place until they forgot the reason why." The Llama sat back, at some time during his explanation Lara had stopped crying. Now she was sitting listening intently. "Your mother may still be alive." Lara looked at him, shocked.

"What? But I saw her-"

"Vanish. There was no body; the simplest explanation is that she was carried to the other side."

For a moment she couldn't believe her ears.

"I do not know where she has gone; this place is hidden from me. I have tried many times to pierce the barrier that separates this world from theirs and have always failed." The Llama looked at Master Chen. "Master Chen has been training you in his way. He is a warrior, but a gentle one. His way is the way of grace and flexibility. His are skills you will need in your life ahead." His gaze moved back to Lara. "I am just an old monk, but I may also help you in my humble way." He stood up slowly, with Master Chen rising to assist. "I wish to show you something."

They made their way into an antechamber and turning left they made their way up a long staircase to the top of the Lamasery’s central tower. "Here is the source of our silken veil." Said the Llama as they reached the top.

Atop a stand, floated a triangular piece of rock which glowed greenly. A gold spike extended down from the ceiling and arcs of greenish light were writhing across its surface.

"We call it the source, it fell to the earth from the heavens thousands of years ago." The Llama began. "Zhong Wu, a monk lost in these mountains found it and discovered that when brought into close proximity with gold it slowed time and created a bubble around him. Eventually he settled here and built this Llamasery with some of his followers. By experimenting he found a way to magnify the source's effects to enshroud the entire valley." He swept his hand across the valley. "It has protected us since that time."

The Llama led the way back down the staircase and into the hall. He bade them goodbye and they walked in silence back to the house.


Chapter 4: The Theft

Shang Whei was singing her songs as Lara helped her in the garden when the veil collapsed. There was a feeling of electricity across the skin and then the dark wall of the storm clouds held at bay by the source came rolling down the sides of the mountains and suddenly the air was filled with flying shards of ice.

Master Chen came running from the house and stared in disbelief at the weather tumbling into the valley.

"The source!" He shouted against the storm. "Someone has taken the source!"

He took off running in the direction of the Llamasery. Lara helped Shang Whei into the house where she set about closing all of the windows against the snow. As she was closing the last one, Lara saw a shadow outside heading towards the cave where she had been found over a year ago. She called to Shang Whei.

"It's Gerber!" She said, "He must be trying to escape the valley." Lara looked at him struggling against the wind; he looked like he was carrying something.

"He's taken it!" Shang Whei looked at her shocked.

Without saying another word Lara ran out of the door and after the fleeing figure. The snow ripped at her light clothing but she was no longer the girl who was lost in the cold and she ran through the snow with a speed that would have been impossible a year ago. Ahead she saw the shadow of Gerber head into the caves and braced her head against the wind as she ran.

She reached the mouth of the caves and ducked inside. A sharp pain arced through her back as Gerber swung the bag with the source in it.

"Chen's brat!" He shouted, "I might have known."

"Don't do it, people will die!"

"Rubbish!" He picked up the sack and ran through the caves towards the entrance. Lara got up and chased after him. He stopped at the entrance and drew a gun, firing wildly in her direction. Lara threw herself at the ground and picked up a rock. She threw it and he staggered back, letting go of the source and clutching his head. He steadied himself against the wall and fired again, Lara threw herself against the opposite wall and let go another rock which caught him on the chin. He fired blindly into the ceiling and with a sharp crack a slab of rock fell from the ceiling and cut off his scream. Rocks filled the chamber.


Chapter 5: Brief Candle

Lara sat staring at the pile of rocks until Master Chen came running into the cave. Before long more monks arrived, and when Lara told them what had happened they started digging and found first the source and then the body of Gerber.

The source was returned to the top of the Llamasery and the veil restored. Gerber's body was taken high into the mountains and laid on a bier in the tradition of Tibetan burials. The snow melted quickly and life slowly returned to normal.

The inhabitants treated Lara with a new respect when they learned what she had done, and she often went up to the Llamasery to learn from the Llama. Master Chen often left her to train on her own stopping by sometimes to correct a minor point of technique.

The Llama told her more of the history of the region and more of the Civilization that bore her mother away. It slowly dawned upon her that she would never be content without knowing what had happened to her. The Llama and Master Chen had known from the start and had been quietly preparing her for the day when she would realise for herself.

She spent her days training and reading, Shang Whei no longer allowed her to help her. "I can manage child." She would say and Lara would go back to her studies.

One morning Master Chen stopped by as she was reading.

"Have you given any thought as to where you will go?" He asked.

"Home, I thought, and then who knows?" He nodded sagely.

"We will miss you." She hugged him briefly and then released him with some awkwardness.

"I will miss you and Auntie Whei, and the Llama and this place."

"Six years have passed outside since you came to us, only two within. When you leave you will begin to age at a faster rate." Lara nodded.

"You once told me that for every candle that burns here, three will burn outside." Master Chen looked out across the valley and up at the storm clouds above the mountains. A storm his apprentice would soon enter.

"Perhaps the brief candle shines the brightest." He said at last.

Soon the day was upon them. Lara dressed warmly for the world outside. Gerber had left behind many things that were salvaged; among them an old green canvas rucksack into which she placed all of her possessions.

The population of the valley came out to see her off. She carried a staff that Master Chen had given her, at the mouth of the cave everyone stopped and only Master Chen, Auntie Whei and the Llama continued with her through to the veil. Lara stood before the silver curtain and turned to the Llama.

"I can never return?" The Llama smiled.

"It is very rare for people to find their way back through the veil. I myself have managed to do so, but then I never did have much of a sense of direction." He laughed. "One thing that may help is not to look back. If you do not know the way then you are truly lost."

Lara hugged Auntie Whei. "When I return I may be an old woman." She said.

"Good! Then we can swap stories."

She hugged the Llama, and then Master Chen. "If there is a way I will return."

"I hope you find your mother." Said Master Chen. "Remember your training and it will serve you well."

"I will."

She shouldered her bag and looked over her shoulder smiling. They all waved at her and without looking back she stepped through the silken veil.

Turning left she made her way down from the mountains, alone but unafraid.

THE END



NOTICE: This story is a work of fiction. Lara Croft, her likeness, and the Tomb Raider games are all copyright of EIDOS Interactive. There is no challenge to these copyrights intended by this story, as it is a non-sanctioned, unofficial work of the author's own.