ellymelly’s fanfiction

“The curiosity of unaccounted time is little more than a deep, creeping silence awaiting inevitable disturbance…”

RED DUST – BLUE BLOOD March 26, 2009

UNTOLD SANCTUARY

RED DUST – BLUE BLOOD

by ellymelly


TABLE OF CONTENTS

01 Beautiful Chaos

02 Blood Relations

03 Lovers of the Past

04 Smoke and Sand

05 Accidents and Acquaintances



1

BEAUTIFUL CHAOS

18th December, 3082

Helen watched the world escape beneath her, shrinking into a hazy ball of blue. Milk white clouds lulled by, apparently unaware of the seas shimmering beneath, plotting to transform their casual clusters into cyclones. It was always like this during the sun’s peak solar cycle – a beautiful catastrophe.

Another of the passengers roughly deposited a file into her lap. She startled, glancing up for the culprit but all she found was a bored looking bureaucrat doing the exact same thing to the next person. Raising an eyebrow, Helen Magnus flipped open the top sheet and started skimming.

It was a summary, detailing the purpose the team’s mission. She rolled her tied eyes and threw the folder onto the spare seat beside her, returning her gaze to the window. The shuttle skimmed out of the atmosphere and followed the curve of the Earth until it escaped the sun’s bombardment. In the shadow of her home planet, Helen saw the cities come alight, trailing along the coasts of continents like lonely stars.

She smiled, letting her eyelids fall closed. A moment later she was peaceful, finally asleep after a long day.

*~*~*

The man staggered backwards, holding onto the handle of the knife embedded in his stomach. Pain blurred his thoughts as his eyes searched feverishly around the room for the safe. He had dragged himself halfway through the building like this – gasping for air. Finally his hand found the keypad beside the silver box. He fumbled his pass code, slipping over the keys.

The door unlocked slowly, sliding across as the man coughed up another gush of blood. He was dying and knew it.

As soon as the safe was open, he reached into the small box and withdrew an old paper manuscript. There were footsteps coming down behind. They were tracking him, following the trail of blood straight towards him.

Panicked, the man threw the manuscript into the small, mesh wastepaper bin. He poured the remainder of his vodka over it and set the whole thing alight. The combination burned fiercely, blackening into ash as he watched.

“Found you…” announced a sinister voice, slipping into the small office behind the man. The pursuer carried a set of knives around his belt identical to the one in the man’s stomach. With an air of fascination, they withdrew another, slowly turning it between their fingers.

Flames reflected off the metal edge, dancing over the blade as it cut through the air.

The scientist, still on his feet, rested against his desk as he waited for the inevitable.

*~*~*

Mars wasn’t half as impressive as the brochures led you to believe. It wasn’t so much red, as pastel orange up close. Rust, by its very nature, was not particularly attractive. Neither was traipsing through it. There were reasons Helen rarely visited the new city and this topped them – miles and miles of sand getting into the air and over her skin. She couldn’t see what John and Ashley found so appealing.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said another member of the team, falling into step beside her. He was a young gentlemen dressed specifically for the walk rather than the orientation afterwards. Despite it all, he seemed to be enjoying himself as evidenced by the enormous grin hogging his face.

Helen didn’t respond. She shifted her shoulder bag, wondering if there’d be time to change when they reached the outer building.

“Really a marvellous feat,” the irritating man continued. “A terriformed planet, habitable to humans. Extraordinary.”

Hardly, thought Helen. Despite their best efforts, apart from breathable air, Mars was still the same lump of iron oxide it had always been. The ‘city’ held as the pride of the human race’s achievements was a smattering of buildings huddled together inside a small crater. In the beginning, when the promotional photos had been taken, they were stunning white pillars, capped in polished sheets of limestone. They glittered in the soft light, going pink at dawn and dusk. Granted, they had been beautiful then. Now the dust had got to them, reddening their edges and smudging into their facades.

Despite its three thousand permanent inhabitants, Prosperity appeared a ruin in the sand.

It was twilight before they reached the first building. The sun, a weak mew at best, had dipped behind the wall of the crater casting a shadow over the city.

The team of fourteen led by a tall man in green, filed into a squat building at the edge of the city. It was warm inside, a pleasant change from the freezing winds on the surface. Helen ditched her coat, stuffing it into her bag. She whipped her head forward, trying to shake her hair free of dust.

“Welcome to Mars,” said the leader of the group. His ginger hair was straight to his ears where it took on a light curl. “No time for sightseeing I’m afraid, we have a lot of work to do and no time to do it. Break into your teams and follow me.”

*~*~*

The scorched wreck was still smouldering when the first team approached. Level 4 of the Ecological sciences building had been badly damaged by the fire as it raged most of the night. A cloud of ash could still be seen on the horizon as the last of the light faded from the sky, revealing a glittering sky of stars. With no moon, it was their light that cast shadows after the sun was gone.

Helen was the last into the room, slinking around the burnt out doorway.

“Nice of you to join us, Magnus,” the team leader lifted his eyes to hers. Her inclusion on the team was not his choice. As far as Smith was concerned, Helen Magnus was nothing but a red flag for trouble. No-one knew anything about her except for ridiculous rumours.

The other five had lined themselves along where the windows had once been. Behind their feet was a sharp fall to the city streets. Helen joined them, waiting for the leader to continue.

“Two days ago this level was burnt to a shell. The forensic scientists have found a set of remains belonging to Dr. T. Edwards. He was of course, Mars’s chief climate engineer. This knife,” Smith withdrew a plastic bag with a blackened knife, “along with another like it, were found in the victim. It is your job, ladies and gentlemen, to find and bring this murderer to justice. Now, we have reason to believe that they are not working alone and that their ultimate goal is to destroy the terriforming equipment, making Mars uninhabitable. This must not happen. Work fast and diligently. Dismissed.”

Helen immediately made for the exit. She was stopped by a hand latching onto her coat sleeve.

“What are you doing? There’s work to do,” said Smith.

“I have contacts here,” replied Helen, tugging herself free. “You’ll have your answer inside the week.”

With that, Helen Magnus vanished out the door, descending the flight of stairs to the building’s foyer and out the double glass doors into the night.

*~*~*

Nikola adored this century.

It was a fresh, uncomplicated bed of corruption. He smiled, a thick moustache accentuating his grin. It was not so much that he loved corruption, more that all the major organisations were so busy watching each other that they left him in peace – a peace that he used to his advantage designing ever greater technology.

He sold patents whenever he needed money. Most of them ended up on space ships or Martian technologies and indeed, had he not blown the last wad of cash on this machine, he would be quite the wealthy gentlemen. Instead, he was as impoverished as he had ever been. But that was okay.

This was the main reason that he was surprised one night by the sound of the locks on his door thumping to the ground. There was another loud bang, bringing him to his feet just in time to see his door fly from its hinges and a group of people file in, covered from head to combat boot in black.


2

BLOOD RELATIONS

She ran her hand along the sand that lapped at the destroyed building’s edge. Helen felt the night through her coat – it was bitterly cold as if on the edge nothing. Martian life clung to existence by silken threads of atmosphere constantly ripped away by solar winds. The artificial magnetic shielding set up to protect the planet was fragile and in constant need of attention.

The street ahead of her led directly to a set of tall apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city. Behind them, the rim of the crater rose up, cutting a silhouette against the sky. Laneways criss-crossed in front of her, but they were all empty. She had to keep to the road as the footpaths had been consumed by unstable mounds of red sand, blown there in the recent storm. It was a constant battle against a planet that seemed set on burying them all.

More than a thousand years had passed since Oxford – since that night. It was a dream to her, a faint set of memories of times past and feelings lost to history. The only thing still sharp was the moment the needle had pierced her skin – it hurt, even now.

Helen spun silently, raising a sleek gun to the night air.

Something had darted behind her, rushing into the shadows. She eyed the parked cars nestled against the line of buildings. Helen could hear heavy breathing and the frantic heartbeats of the person cowering against a rise of sand.

“Come out if you want to live,” she took a step forward, backlit by an ocean of stars.

Whoever it was scurried around the cars and vanished into a side street.

“Or you could just run away,” Helen sighed, lowering her weapon. “Everybody else does…”

*~*~*

The black-clothed people in Tesla’s lab caught sight of the imposing scientist and froze, watching as Nikola buttoned his jacket calmly. There was an ever-present menacing air circling Nikola and the intruders could feel it tense.

“Do you have any idea,” began Nikola, his voice rising just shy of subdued fury, “whose Sanctuary you are breaking into?” He gave a cord dangling above his head a tug and the room was engulfed in a bright light which crackled, rife with scattered lightening.

Usually, this party trick was enough to startle would be thieves into leaving, but the team of whatever they were simply pulled a set of goggles over their eyes and converged on Nikola.

They were keen, he would give them that.

“I tried to be fair,” he sighed, sharpening his claws. Nikola’s eyes blackened into smooth domes as a set of sharp teeth grew from his jaw. He cocked his head, clicking several vertebras back into position as his vampirish form stirred.

The closest attacker quickly pulled out a small gun, aiming it at Tesla’s heart. Nikola raised his eyebrow. Would they ever learn?

He had expected the bullet to hurt – they always did, but this one was different. Instead of burning through his flesh, it was cold as ice, shocking his torn skin into uncontrollable shivers. He staggered backwards, inspecting the trivial hole in his coat before his knees buckled and he crumpled to the floor in human form.

“Clever little birds…” he gasped.

Nikola was paralysed, hardly able to breathe as the unknown group began emptying his draws of documents into bags, smashing anything they could reach in the process. His masterpiece, a delicate system of copper disks, met its demise at the hand the group’s leader.

When they were finished, one of them strode over to Nikola. Seeing that the scientist was conscious, he knelt down.

Nikola’s eyes caught a flicker of silver where a set of ornate knives hid along their waist.

“It has been a pleasure doing business with you,” they said. One of the others had a bottle of flammable liquid and was busy splashing it over the room.

A moment later a match was struck and Nikola was left to watch as his life’s work caught alight and burnt furiously before him. Even though he couldn’t move, a tear slipped down his cheek and onto the dusty floorboards.

*~*~*

“By God, you look exactly the same.” John stepped aside, allowing Helen into the small apartment.

He didn’t. Time had taken its toll on John in the form of scars networked across his face and neck. His hair had started to silver in patches behind his ears whilst his nose was slightly larger and his eyebrows – a little longer. He was still alluring though, in ways Helen had always struggled to understand. All she knew was that she had missed him, these last years.

“It’s been a long time,” she said, still with a very British accent, as he closed the door gently.

They stood in silence, observing one another until John broke a shaky smile and said, “I called you, twelve years ago when I was back on Earth. You were in the papers again and I –”

“I know,” Helen cut him off. “We were very busy then.”

The silence returned. She didn’t mean to be harsh, there was just a lot of things that needed to be said – centuries to recover but as it so often turned out, she didn’t have the time.

“Is Ashley here?” she asked, catching sight of a female coat hanging on the back of the door. Ashley had been offered a job with a Martian security firm, so they shared an apartment.

“She went out earlier, hunting a petty thief. I shall tell her that you’re in town. Do you have a number that I can contact you on?”

“Ecological Science Building – Level 4. I’ll be there tomorrow morning. John?” John lifted his eyes from the floor, a place that they had chosen to settle to avoid Helen’s cold demeanour. “Is there anything that I need to know about the city?” she asked. “Nasty surprises that wouldn’t have been included in my briefing? I don’t have long for this job and I can’t afford diversions.”

He smiled, ever so slightly. This place has been his home for a long time, and he knew it well. He’s never grown particularly fond of it, but he can feel its blood rising and soul stirring with every new day.

“The food shipments have been delayed two months,” he began. “I help to distribute it, what little there is left. You might also want to keep an eye on the hydrogardens, they’re in poor condition after a rupture in the main water pipe. The firm Ashley works for suspects sabotage but I don’t know Helen, whoever did it lives here as well, and if the gardens go, then they’ll die like the rest of us.”

So basically, thought Helen, chaos as usual. He opened the door for her, and she slipped out, lingering in the hallway. “Give my love to Ashley,” she said, wanting to say more. “Tell her to write again.”

“No one writes any more, Helen,” he replied, closing the door.

*~*~*

She was knee deep in water and not happy about it. The thick pipe running along the roof of the tunnel took up most of the space leaving just enough room for her to walk below, scanning it for damage.

Ashley found cause of the problem a third of the way through the tunnel. The rivets holding each section of pipe together had been half unscrewed and then hit by something, smashing them back into the pipe at strange angles. Water leaked from each one in a process that would eventually flood the whole tunnel.

“Great,” she whispered, taking out her camera and snapping away for her employer. “All I need is sabotage…”

“Progress?” Her caddy, for lack of a better description, had finally made it to her position carrying the rest of her equipment. He was a young boy new to the concept of hormones, and seemed content in his job of trailing Ashley.

“Your father’s tunnel’s buggered,” she said, focusing her flashlight on the torrents of water pouring out. “He’ll have to turn the water off and replace the whole section unless he wants to start an underwater colony…”

“Was it like he said – on purpose?”

Ashley nodded. “I reckon so. Rivets don’t usually bash each other to pieces after a late night party. Not that you’ve ever been to one of those. Bad parenting tip.”

The boy took her camera from her and stowed it away. “It’s starting then, just like they said it would.”

“I hope not,” replied Ashley, sloshing through the water back toward the exit.


3

LOVERS OF THE PAST

It started with a ‘click’. A sharp, sudden snapping of metal as one of the rivets holding the pipe in place dislodged and hit the water. Ashley froze mid conversation when the pipe above her head groaned. She could hear the thousands of litres of water gushing through the pipe, swirling, trapped in endless currents. It was begging to be free and as a second ‘click’ rang out, it might just be about to get its chance.

Ashley closed her eyes as the entire line of rivets popped, flung out into the tunnel with the enormous force of the water pressure. She stumbled forward, taking the young boy with her as the pipe shuddered and cracked, unleashing a torrent of freezing water over them.

They plunged into the water, submerged by the pressure above them. The boy’s arms flailed wildly, his feet finding the bottom of the tunnel and kicking off, propelling him back toward the surface. He emerged in a nightmare of white spray.

“Ash!” he screamed, convulsing as water stuck in his throat. He coughed it out, treading water as he spun endlessly. The air was indiscernible from the water, heavy and thick in his lungs. His eyes stung, pierced by the saline edge of the unrefined liquid pumped out of the Martian crust. The lights above were blurred into a monotonous, disorienting glow.

He couldn’t see her. All he could hear was the great roar of the fractured pipe and the pounds of another series of rivets hitting the walls of the tunnel as they exploded from their holdings.

The water was rising around him, developing a current as it searched for an exit. He was no match for it, tugged and thrown about as the dark waters gathered speed. Eventually he slipped under, no longer able to fight the drag.

The boy opened his eyes in the water, madly searching for escape. He found a thousand tiny creatures, aglow in the murky water. Their limbs were delicate, notched by several joints and feelers. They drifted peacefully by him as the last of his breath bubbled away, rising in perfect spheres through the creatures.

*~*~*

Helen felt the city rumble beneath her. It was a soft shudder, rattling a tray of refreshments servicing the huddle of investigating officers. She hung back from them, strolling in and out of the morning light coming through broken windows.

“Five minutes…” Smith reminded her, pointing at his watch. The mysterious woman wouldn’t tell him what or whom she was waiting for, but he couldn’t keep the team waiting on her behalf – well, not for much longer anyway.

She nodded back, running a hand nervously through her hair. Helen had not seen her daughter for decades, ever since she moved to this horrid planet.

The building rumbled again, hard enough for the others to glance around in confusion. Mars was supposedly geologically dead. No plates, no continents grinding against one another – no reason at all to shiver its skin.

“What is that?” Helen asked Smith, as he joined her at the window. They kept back from the edge, out of reach of the wind kicking along the edge of the building.

“No idea,” he replied, as the trembling ceased. “But it feels like it’s right below us.”

Helen’s eyebrows furrowed, peaking out under a mass of unrestrained dark hair. “Do I need to worry?”

“Shouldn’t think so. Been here five times now and on every single occasion this place throws us a curve. You can’t get settled. She’s got life left in her yet, this world.”

“Are my five minutes up?” she craned her head to get a look at his watch.

“I can’t let you stay. The company wants you out examining the shield.”

“I know,” she folded her arms and turned back to the room. Two of the team had moved towards the door, waiting. Helen and Smith joined them with a sigh audible on her lips as she spied the red haired enthusiast from orientation.

*~*~*

“So beautiful,” he grinned. The wind buffeted his red hair as the dune buggy bounced and skidded over the sand hills. The dirt was coarse and slippery, falling away from the tires as the rickety piece of machinery navigated its way to a metal outcrop on the horizon.

There were eight shield generators placed equally around the rim of the dome-shaped enclose keeping the city safe from Mars’ vacuous atmosphere. This one was nestled between a low rise of ironstone, gnarled and ghastly as it poked through the ground in melted columns.

The buggy dipped over the last of the wandering dunes and found a gravelly expanse. It wasn’t like the rolled whitestone of estates back on Earth; this stuff was a razor sharp mixture of boulders and daggers from a mountain range that no-longer existed.

“God. Damn.” Helen gripped the metal bar over their heads harder, doing her best to remain inside the vehicle as it bounced again.

All of a sudden they were stopped. Smith swore, slamming the wheel with his hand in disgust. It wasn’t the wheel’s fault that the buggy had stopped, rather the exceedingly flat tire drooped over the gravel. He ordered everybody out and they went ahead on foot while he laid himself down on the painful gravel and began jacking the tire off.

As Helen had feared, the gingerbot was tracking her, striding up through the others so that he could not so subtly fall in step with her.

“Mike,” he introduced himself. Helen muttered her name half-heartedly at him. “Oh, I know,” Mike seemed amused. “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”

Helen couldn’t help but wonder if this was a trick question to get her attention.

“Most people say I look just like him – my grandfather.”

That made her take a second look.

Pale skin mottled with blemishes, thick eyebrows with loosely curled edges forming a permanent expression of wonder, scrawny disposition made worse by well-worn attire, disarming eyes – Helen tilted her head.

Maurice Newton. Through and through. How could she have not seen it?

“Now you see him,” he said. “The rumours about you are true I see.”

Her eyes snapped away defensibly.

“If it makes any difference at all, it was my grandfather who told me about you. He thought very highly of a Ms Helen Magnus, perhaps he was even a little in love.”

Helen picked up the pace, almost falling on the uneven ground.

“She couldn’t help her curiosity – that was half the thrill of a lifetime with Helen,” as his grandfather used to say with a sad smile. “He died a happy man because of you.”

Her breath caught. She swallowed a sob, brushing away the beginnings of a tear. Of course he was dead. She knew that. Hearing it though – having it confirmed as an absolute certainty, that was something else.

*~*~*

Nikola coughed. A thick layer of black smoke oozed around him full of singed paper. He couldn’t move, forced to lie there on the floor and wait for the encroaching flames. Vampires were hardly creatures with exceptional healing power, but even the most resilient of them could not survive an inferno. Nikola was only half-vampire, if that. He could see the end of his life coming – taste it in the smoke and for the first time since that night in Oxford he realised how much he wanted to live.

They had been young then, a thousand years ago hidden away in their ad-hoc laboratory. The terror he had felt then as the needle’s contents spilled into his veins had returned to him. He could see auras of red inside the smoke and feel fronts of heat creeping toward him. This is not how the great Nikola Tesla wanted to die – helpless and alone.

His work bench collapsed. He heard it slam into the ground and snap in half taking what remained of its contents with it.

“Not like this!” he screamed out.

*~*~*

“So this is the one of the famous shield generators,” she ignored Mike’s previous comment as they reached the metal cone. It stuck out from the ground, angrily pointing at the sky with its sharp tip.

“Clever little thing,” said Mike, kneeling down beside it. As it turned out, Mike was the shield specialist, taking after both his father and grandfather. Technology was in love with him, obeying his most gentle touch.

He traced his finger over the machine’s sinister tip, carving out an intricate pattern on its cone. It was a form of code – unlocking the outer shell of the device. Helen watched closely should she need to mimic him later.

“It really shouldn’t do that,” he commented, frowning in concern as the usually invisible shielding above them flickered.

Helen looked up, catching a ripple of purple ride along the roof of the dome, showing her its contours for the first time.

“Power fluctuations,” he said, inspecting a readout on the machine’s screen. “It’s been going on for months now. I’m not talking about slight changes in output,” he shook his head at her. “Just then we lost 87% of the power required to keep the roof up, the module shifted to its backup batteries to maintain the shield which is what caused the flicker.”

“How long do the batteries last?”

“A hour, maybe. It depends on how often they’re used.”

“But we’re back on mains now,” Helen looked up to where she knew the shield was. It was back to being an invisible curtain against the morning sky.

“Yes. For the moment we’re back on the main power supply but I hate to think what would happen if it failed for any great length of time.”

“It was only this unit that was affected,” Helen noted.

“On this occasion. I have a live feed back to my lab on Earth. Nearly every unit has reported similar power fluctuations. It’s why they called me. Why did they call you?”

Helen was taken aback for a moment. Mike wasn’t nearly as pleasant as she had summarised. “They need me,” she answered, “for all the things you can’t predict.”

“I thought it was because of him,” replied Mike. “They say that you’re the only one he listens to. The only one that can control him. No one would ensure this operation without you along to babysit.”

“What on –” she was about to say, ‘Earth’ but stopped herself. “What are you talking about?”

Him. The man who built these this system in the first place. Nikola Tesla.”

Helen stopped dead. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“He should have been here to meet us,” said Mike. “As I was to understand it, the man’s never late.”

4

SMOKE AND SAND

“God, you’re an absolute mess. You’ll have to lose that moustache, singed to bloody oath.”

“Yes, thank you for your – ” Nikola rolled over, coughing violently. The smoke had worked its way deep within his lungs, blackening them. “Assistance…” he finished. Nikola’s long suffering neighbour had dragged him from the burning laboratory, down the stairs and out into the freezing snow.

Rome never changed. Millennia had passed it by calmly, as if wandering in and out of its marble streets while the rest of the world dug its feet in and battened down the hatches. Nikola buried his hands in the white powder. This was not the first time his life’s work had burned to the ground, reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. It certainly wasn’t something that got easier to watch.

“Is there any good news?” he asked, ignoring the painful burns on his hand. They would heal.

His neighbour shook his head in amazement, “You really are an optimist.” Nikola assured him that he was just crazy. “Well, aside from the obvious fact that you’re alive – still. I swear I’ve known you for forty years and you never look any different. Yeah I know, don’t ask,” he caught himself, “the only other positive thing I can think of is the letter left for you this morning. I was on my way to deliver it to you when I found the whole place ablaze.”

“A letter?” Nikola lifted his head from the ground. Flecks of ash drifted over, spiralling with the snowflakes.

The neighbour eyed Nikola’s burnt hands, “Would you like me to open it?” Nikola glared, snatching the letter before growling, dropping it in the snow. “That’d be a yes then.” He unfolded the letter carefully, holding it up to the glow of the burning building.

To Mr Tesla, owner of patent 3029A0,

Your presence is required for immediate repairs…”

“That’d be right,” hissed Nikola. “They never pay me for anything, skimp on materials, make drastic changes to design, and then want help when it breaks.”

“Are you going to be quiet so I can read this?”

*~*~*

The shuttle dropped him roughly in the desert, miles from anywhere. Nikola eyed the landscape. It was eerily quiet and choked by peripatetic dunes. Sol was at its brightest, shining high above but at this distance it was more like a light bulb than a star. Had it not been for the shield encapsulating the area he would have frozen to death very quickly in the faint milieu of light.

He waved sardonically at the awkward craft as it rose back into atmosphere with a storm of sand. The red particles embedded themselves in every nook of Nikola, staining him a general red. He hadn’t been on Mars five minutes before he decided against it.

“Horrid planet…” he muttered, attempting to dust himself off.

The rendezvous appeared to have failed as there was nothing to ‘rendezvous’ with other than a curious rock which Nikola approached, tilting his head in curiosity. It was a vaguely round protrusion, weathered on one side by the endless grinding of sand storms. Tesla had seen a lot of rocks in his time. During those few decades he’d spent seducing a geologist, identifying rocks had become an unwanted skill. This was no rock.

He got within a nose of it, rubbing away at its surface with the sleeve of his Victorian style jacket. Underneath all the grit was an ochre colour – naturally smooth. Nikola stretched out his tongue, resting its tip on the strange surface. Instantly he felt the pull as the surface tried to suck all the moisture in. Bone – a very large lump of ancient bone.

*~*~*

These doors ain’t gonna hold the water,” an engineer hurried through the unground facility, upsetting piles of paper scattered over the office desks. “We closed them as soon as the pressure spiked but we’re losing integrity in the tunnel. It’s going to bleed out into the surrounding rock and when it can’t do that…” He came to a halt in front of the senior engineer. Professor Robert Hill was newly appointed after the sudden death of Dr. T. Edwards and currently having the worst possible day.

“We’re going to have a very pretty water feature in the middle of town…” Robert rubbed the vein between his eyebrows. By, ‘very pretty water feature’ he mean that the entire city would be drowned in thousands of litres of raw Martian water and they would lose the food gardens, essentially bringing an end to humankind’s attempts at colonisation. “What about the expert we sent in to assess the damage?”

“Ashley Magnus,” the engineer shook his head. “We had to close the tunnel doors. She didn’t make it.”

“What aren’t you telling me?” Robert took a step closer to the rattled man. “Come on, I don’t have time to be subtle.”

“It’s the boss’s kid. Video footage shows him following Magnus into the tunnel just before the accident. He didn’t come out either.”

Robert felt ill. “The force of the artesian basin will eventually break our pumps. Get those drills working on an evacuation tunnel for the water – I don’t care how rough it is, as long as the water has another option. At least we won’t all drown.”

*~*~*

The dune buggy skidded over the sand in a crazy curve, nearly tipping over before coming to rest beside Tesla. Lowering their sunglasses, the driver eyed the man running his hands over a rock. It appeared that the rumours were true – the man was a complete nutter/eccentric –whatever.

“You Tesla?” the buzz-cut Major asked, well aware that the possibility of it being anybody else was slim.

Nikola spun around with his eyes agleam, “Did you know that there was life on Mars?”

The Major did away with his shades completely. “Yeah…” he replied slowly, as if it were the most obvious thing ever said. “Get in.”

“Fascinating,” said Nikola, as he slipped into the passenger seat.

“Someone wants you dead.” The Major shifted the car back into gear, racing down the side of the dune. They were headed for one of the shield generators on the outskirts of the liveable area, a good ten minute drive.

“I would be offended if they didn’t.”

“The government has taken extra precautions, changed most of your arrangements since the incident at your laboratory. We, your security, would prefer it if you didn’t lean out over the door like that whilst the vehicle is moving…” The Major grabbed the back of Tesla’s coat with one of his enormous hands and yanked the man back into his seat. “Appreciated.”

“You should be more worried,” said Tesla, preening himself, “about what you’ve already got in the car.”

That made him laugh. “They warned me you’d be trouble.” Nikola stretched out, resting his feet on the dash. “It’s a rough ride,” he cautioned.

“And so is life,” Nikola replied, closing his eyes.

*~*~*

Helen was not pleased by the news and had set to pacing around the shield generator as Mike sieved through its error log.

“I’m going to make a catastrophic error if you keep that up,” Mike lifted his eyes to the distressed woman. “They said that he was a colleague of yours – your reaction suggests that there is more to that story.”

“Got a thousand years?” she hissed back. Mike mistakenly took that as a joke.

“Oh, here he is now – or is that our car… no, it’s definitely him.” They both stood as the buggy approached with a red trail of dust swept up behind, stalking it.

As the car stuttered to stop, Helen couldn’t help but think about a similar scene back in Egypt, 1929. Humans may have moved to another planet, but they didn’t change.

“You’re going to regret this,” Helen whispered to Mike, as she caught sight of Nikola sporting a moustache.

*~*~*

John Druitt took the stairs three at a time, gliding down toward the depths of the Ecological Science Building. He was trailed by a security team two flights above, doing their best to catch him.

“Oy!” one of the grey-suited men yelled, puffing as turned and began the next set. “I said stop!

He could see the final emergency door. John hit the landing and pushed into the engineer’s level. Half a dozen shocked scientists froze at the sight of the imposing man who was scanning the room.

“Where is she?” John growled.

One of the men, dressed in white pants and matching lab coat, shifted to the front. He was wearing a bright red hard hat, clutching a clipboard. “I am Professor Hill,” the man said.

The pursuing security team finally caught up, piling in through the door behind John in a grey blur. Several of them grasped onto John, pretending to have him captured.

“No, no…” Robert raised his hands, trying to calm the security detail. “Let him go. I was about to call him anyway.”

They did – but very reluctantly.

“Please, my office is this way.”

With the news Robert was about to deliver it wasn’t going to make a difference whether or not he had protection. Druitt was either going to help him – or kill him. It was as simple as that.

5

ACCIDENTS AND ACQUAINTANCES

The dust swirled in front of the buggy, temporarily enveloping it in a red blur which stung Helen’s eyes as its edges wafted out. She heard two doors slam. Mike straightened up beside her, wiping his greasy hands on his shirt as they both watched the dust.

A tall silhouette was the first to emerge. Like a slender shadow, it slinked toward them with a confident air. There was no mistaking that strut – the way each foot seemed to glide before landing or the rigid line of his shoulders greeting the world like a wall.

“Nikola Tesla,” said Helen, self-consciously fixing her hair.

A gentle wind kicked the dust away revealing Nikola, his escort and the buggy that was parked crookedly on the embankment. Helen had to do a double take – sporting a thick moustache and attired in an early 20th Century suit, he appeared as a distant reverie – a shadow from her past merging with the present. It was the same feeling others must experience upon seeing her.

“Did you know,” he announced as soon as he had come to a stop in front of them, “that there was life on Mars?” Nikola seemed genuinely taken with the concept, eagerly awaiting her answer.

Helen couldn’t quite believe it – three-hundred years and that was the first thing that he chose to say to her. She frowned and briefly looked away, running her eyes of the desolate border between the sky and dirt.

“Do you,” she inquired, whipping her head suddenly back with a storm of hair flying over her shoulder, “participate in television, newspapers, radio?”

Nikola ran a finger thoughtfully over his moustache. “You mean, other than inventing it?”

“It’s a worry…” Helen trailed off. Nikola took a few steps closer, dipping his head in.

“What is?” he asked, menacingly.

“You, Nikola.”

He went quiet. Yes, he was the first to admit that he led a solitary life, often cutting himself off from the rest of the world for exceptional lengths of time but he had always figured that that had something to do with the world ignoring him. Mutual apathy. Thus, the world’s events were often lost on him and the passage of time made trivial.

“But you still love me,” he ventured quietly, almost too privately for this very public meeting.

Helen couldn’t help it – she rolled her eyes dramatically and let a grin slip over her lips. “A thousand years,” she began, “and you think I’m going to admit to that in the middle of a god-awful Martian desert?”

He matched her grin with a line of sharp teeth. “It really is awful, isn’t it? I thought that Mars would be more pleasant, like a beach in the southern ocean.”

The far-too-cool-to-be-standing-here-ignored Major stepped forward and slapped Nikola on the back. “Introductions are over, time to work.”

Helen twinged, aware of Nikola’s dislike of physical contact. The military officer was just lucky that Nikola’s attention had already roamed to the field generator behind them.

“Look what they did to it…” Nikola exclaimed, pushing past Helen and Mike (whom he was yet to acknowledge). He ran his hands along the outer casings of the machine, stroking it like a favourite pet. “What a disaster.”

The rest of them assembled in a semicircle around him. “Can you fix it, Nikola?” Helen knelt beside him.

“I could re-design it,” he muttered. “But this needs to be put out of its misery.”

“We can’t do that, Nikola,” she replied. “The life support for the planet would fail – thousands of lives.”

“What did they do?” he asked himself out loud. “Scrounge up the cheapest, flippant excuse for an engineer and let him violate this beautiful design.”

Mike cleared his throat loudly. “That would be my grandfather.”

Tesla snapped his head up and narrowed his eyes madly at the scrawny, red haired individual. He looked vaguely familiar, like a bad scent that had embedded itself in the fabric. “You’re a Newton,” he hissed, as if the very words left a sour taste.

“Nikola…” Helen cautioned, sensing trouble. “Fate of the planet…”

Mike and Nikola took an instant, violent dislike of one another.

“Fine,” Nikola said at last. “It will take me a while to determine what’s wrong. You will have to leave me with it.”

Mike snarled, unhappy with the thought of his machine being left in the hands of this horrid person. “I don’t trust him.”

“Thank you,” snapped Nikola, “for the vote of confidence. I might just destroy it to spite you.”

*~*~*

“Please take a seat, Dr Druitt,” the Professor extended his arm in the direction of the minimalistic chair, half pulled out from the desk. Hill’s office was brightly lit and lined with one way glass . At its most basic, it was a corner of the lab that had been sectioned off, pretending to be an office but really, Robert Hill had only been here a few days and none of the items inside the room were his. Mostly he felt like a trespasser, borrowing his superior’s office.

John sidled into the office, ducking under the low doorway. The scientist ducked around the other side of the desk and sat awkwardly in the chair, hinting for him to do the same. John didn’t sit. He knew that something very serious had gone amiss and he was going to find out.

“As you wish,” said Robert, folding his hands nervously in his lap. “I have just been informed that the water pipes connecting the underground water with the gardens has ruptured. We are taking measures to avert damage to the city but we’re still not sure if we will succeed. The danger to the Martian colony is quite real.”

“The whole city felt the rumble,” said John simply.

“For some time now – several months, we have suspected foul play on our technologies. Someone has been sabotaging our basic services. The last case was anomalous damage to the water pipe. A Ms. Ashley Magnus was called in under contract to assess this damage.” The man opposite shifted uneasily as his dark eyes glossed in unsettled fear. “She was doing this when the first pipe ruptured. We waited, as long as we could,” Robert protested, as John turned and went to leave, already understanding that his daughter must be dead, “but we had to close the doors to save the city.”

Unchallenged, John raged out of the office and back up the stairs to the main building’s foyer. It was large and sleek, with granite walls and twisted columns with no purpose but honouring the early human architecture. The sun had risen high now – its pathetic light streamed in the heavy glass doors betraying the emptiness of the building. Everything seemed hollow on this planet. It had about every feature a loneliness. Though a few inhabitants tried to makes homes out of it, Mars had lost its life long ago and it spent its time in mourning, crying through its red tides.

As he pushed out the doors and into the street, John made a vow to the planet itself – he would find who was responsible for his daughter’s death, and he would make them suffer the unimaginable loss.

*~*~*

“Do you think he’ll be all right – out there alone?” Mike tried not to squash Helen into the opposing door of the vehicle as they turned the corner sharply. They hadn’t left Nikola entirely alone – the Major was there, watching over the landscape like some kind of predatory bird keeping its prey.

“You mean,” said Helen, over the noise of the engine, “do I think that your precious shield generator will be okay left alone in his company?” Mike shrugged in the affirmative. “Yes. You may not like him,” she continued, clinging onto the head rail for dear life as their driver came too near a protruding rock, “but there is no soul in the human race better at what he does.”

“Yet still I worry,” he sighed. “Is he really the man that –”

He was stopped by Helen’s vivid eyes, glaring at him. “Yes. But don’t say anything. There is one thing that the man’s ego doesn’t need, and that’s stroking.”

“I wanted to ask you something else –” Mike began, but he did not get to finish for the buggy was thrown sharply to the side where it reared up on two wheels and threw its two passengers onto the sand. After this, it flipped entirely with the driver still fighting the wheel. It careened along the side of a mound until burying its bonnet and pivoting upright. The driver toppled limply from his seat, snapped his back on the bars protecting the seats, and then hit the ground.

Helen stirred first. She had not lost consciousness, but her vision was blurring and several parts of her body throbbed with the impact. Something had happened, but she couldn’t recall anything but the frightening rush of sand next to her.

There was a black shuttle hastening toward them, gliding silently over the broken landscape. Helen lay there, watching it approach – unable to move.

 

SANCTUARY OF THE MOON

UNTOLD SANCTUARY

SANCTUARY OF THE MOON

by ellymelly


  1. Nothing but Lies
  2. Tracks in the Mud
  3. Empty Tombs
  4. Buried Cities
  5. Lockdown
  6. Room with Columns
  7. Blue Eyed Monster
  8. Awakening
  9. Vampire Stories
  10. The Second Bite
  11. Storm in the Desert
  12. Deeper into the Caves
  13. A World of Whispers
  14. Silver Dreams
  15. Silk
  16. Darwin’s Spiders
  17. Playing with Silver
  18. On the Edge of the Abyss
  19. Throat of Thoth
  20. Dead Walking
  21. Rivers in the Snow
  22. Ice Cliffs

 

1

NOTHING BUT LIES

It was a humid afternoon, clinging to the end of summer. Ashley ducked under the roar of the helicopter as it flung a fresh sheet of water over her face. The blades beat the surface of the nearby river, sending shallow waves onto the bank which was thick with weeds and unpleasant refuse from the last town before the rainforest.

Finally, the noisy machine lifted off the ground and headed toward the low lying mountains behind her. Dripping, she rung her pony tail onto the ground, flicking it over her shoulder before doing the same to her coat.

She waved at the pair of small children who had moved in for a closer look, half hiding behind a stand of shrubs. They had strayed from the village, following the black chopper as it sailed in close. The pair ventured out and waved back at the blonde woman, grinning with bright eyes against dark skin.

Ashley knelt onto the damp grass, slipping her backpack off. She dug through it, quickly finding her grandfather’s journal. Flipping through the delicate pages, Ashley scanned each one until she caught sight of it – a map, roughly drawn by her grandmother and beside it a line of instructions. It didn’t look particularly forthright but if her grandfather could find the Sanctuary of the Moon using this, then so could she.

Turning it around so that the North symbol lined up with her compass, Ashley started searching for matching landmarks and soon found the Smouldering Match – a dark line of smoke leisurely trailing into the sky from a volcanic outcrop. An eagle soared over head, catching her eye as it enjoyed a warm air current. She wished that she could join it, play on the air for a while away from the world and all its trouble.

Instead, she gazed at the jungle in front. The knee length grass field that she was standing in ended fifty or so metres ahead. The dark green jungle loomed beyond, like a wave rearing up on the shore.

*~*~*

They relocated detective Joe Kavanaugh to one of the guest bedrooms where he happily fell into a deep sleep. His injuries were minor and not in any immediate need of attention. Helen closed his door and turned to John, Henry and Nikola who had been shadowing her through the corridor.

“Follow me,” she said sternly, though they didn’t need to be told. All of them could feel the air tensing around the brunette as she strode ahead, clearly upset by the turn of events.

She led them to the medical lab, ushering them into a line along the glass enclosure where Will sat on the edge of the hospital bed. When Helen had seen John and Tesla appear in her foyer, she had been inches from Will’s skin with the tip of the needle. Its contents would have killed him quickly and painlessly but her instinct told her to stop, that this couldn’t possibly be the end for him, and she had been right.

“I want you to tell me again,” she said to Nikola, who had broken the line and instead reclined against the desk containing print outs of all his files. He eyed one of the piles, folding his arms across his chest with disapproval.

This one,” he nodded at Henry, “has parroted my research correctly. I have strong reason to believe that there is a small community of vampires living in the Peruvian rainforest. The closest civilisation is the water-locked city of Iquitos. If Ashley’s smart, she’ll stop there for a guide. Sadly, Ashley has the only map so once we get there, we’ll be wandering blind.”

“How did she get her hands on a – you gave it to her… If this is one of your desperate attempts to get your claws on vampire blood, Nikola, then I am going to kill you myself.”

“I assure you,” he replied, “that although it might be true that I’m making the best of the circumstance presented to me, I did nothing as advantageous as orchestrating it. It was your pet sand creature that attacked me in the middle of the night, remember?”

He had a point. “There are no copies of the map I presume…”

“None.”

“Helpful, Nikola.” Helen glanced at Will as he bent forward in pain. It was starting again. He didn’t have long. “You’re coming with us. Pack light everyone, we have a plane to catch. Not you Henry –” Helen caught his arm as he headed for the door with the others.

“But I’ve been researching this. Helen, I know the data. You might need someone with this information – you can’t just trust that man.”

“And you trust his research? For all you know Henry, he may have left that there for you to find. We have Nikola, and for the moment at least, our goals are the same. The fewer people we have with us, the faster we can move. I don’t want Ashley out there alone.”

“You know, ‘that man’ is standing right here…”

“Stay out of this, Nikola,” Helen glared at him. He bowed out of the room with a smirk.

“Helen, you’re going to need me,” pleaded Henry.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But Will needs you more.”

*~*~*

Ashley surveyed the river cutting through her path. There had been unseasonal rain, and now rivers were popping up that were not labelled on the map. This one was about three metres wide but gushing with a frightening velocity. If she missed the bank, Ashley would be washed in its current god knows how far off course.

There was no choice though, she would have to cross it.

Her backpack went first, flung across the gap where it landed safely on the other side.

“See, not so hard,” she said to herself. If her backpack could do it…

Ashley backtracked, taking a run up through a patch of clear, but muddy ground. She took one last look at the murky river as it raged past and then dug her heals in, launching herself at it in full run.

Her legs stretched out, striding through the air as her arms clawed forward until she hit the opposite bank. She landed on the ground hard and immediately started sliding down its inclined bank toward the river. The ground was covered in silty mud that was nearly impossible to get a grip on.

“Urgh, come on!” she hissed, as she felt water rushing over her boots.

*~*~*

Helen tightened her belt, drew her long, weatherproof coat around her and concealed an assortment of weapons on her body. John rested against the wall beside the front door, watching the large clock tick away the time as they waited for Nikola. Their bags were ready to go and the car was out front, prepped to take them to Helen’s private jet parked in a dark corner of the airport.

“What could possibly be keeping him?” Helen paced over the floor.

“He was never particularly reliable,” commented John, readjusting the tape Helen had strapped over his face where the creature’s claw marks cut deep.

“Will you two ever get over each other?” she shook her head. “Sometimes I think that this jealously was more about competition than actually loving me.”

Henry bounded into the room, kitted out in jeans and a jacket with heavy boots and a bundle of bags.

“Henry, we discussed this,” said Helen sternly, eyeing his travelling clothes.

“Mr. Tesla is gone,” he panted, out of breath from the run down the hall. “I checked all of the motion senses and security cameras. He disappeared into the library and never came back.”

“Typical,” grinned John.

“Don’t you dare enjoy this,” Helen instructed. “The reality is that without him, we’ve got no chance of finding Ashley – what is it Henry?”

Henry held up a bundle of papers. “I know where he’s going, Helen. I can do this. Will’s dead if we don’t leave now. Worse than dead.”

Helen shifted her gaze between the expectant Henry and the impatient John, who shrugged his approval.

“Ready to leave?” she nodded at Henry’s bags. “Let’s go then. Next time I see Nikola, he better have a bloody good explanation.”

*~*~*

Ashley looked like a mud monster that had crawled out of some festering swamp. She sniffed her arm where the mud was starting to dry into a shell and crack off. This was just like the old days, she thought, tracking abnormals in their native environment. The only difference here was that she knew that the abnormal in question was way smarter than her, worse still, she wasn’t just hunting it, she wanted to talk to it.

“Right map,” she held the book with slightly muddy hands. “A little help would be good.”

There was no path to speak of, only a trickle of water running over a twisting line of boulders cutting through the foliage. She clambered over each one, sliding on their rough surfaces until she reached their top and could stare out over the next fall of jungle.

Suddenly, the ground underneath her gave way. All she saw was the stunning view vanish to black as her body curved, free-falling. She held onto the journal, pulling it to her chest as she hit the soft ground. Ashley’s vision blurred, her thoughts fractured by the fall. Above was the bright hole where she had fallen through the weak earth. Tree roots dangled around her, one brushing over her face. She moved it aside, sitting up with a groan.

An avalanche of dirt drained off of her – not that she could get any more filthy…

“Urgh…” she rested her head on her knees, closing her eyes. “Ouch.”

It was a while before she located her torch and began inspecting her situation which couldn’t possibly be a good one. The ground which had given way was four – maybe five metres above her head. Initially, she thought that she might be able to climb up the sides of the hole, but the earth was too soft. The tree roots, though prevalent, pulled free every time she tested their strength.

With the obvious route of escape failing her, Ashley turned her attention to the ground level. The hole extended into the earth around her, almost like a cave. On closer inspection, she found that one of the side walls had been propped up by timber. It was soft and mostly rotten but at one stage it had definitely been a doorway of sorts. The inside of it was blocked by a recent fall of dirt from above, flowing out into the main room. Perhaps it would be possible to clear a space through that.

The rest of the floor was bare. There was nothing at all that she could use as leverage to climb up toward the hole at the top, not even a well placed bolder like the thousands that she had trampled over to get this far.

“I refuse to die in a hole,” she told herself firmly.

Returning her attention to the ominous doorway of wood, Ashley began to dig into it with her hands. She kept her torch off, conserving its battery unaware of the tunnel waiting beyond.

 

2

TRACKS IN THE MUD

Helen waited on the phone, impatiently tapping her fingers against the plane’s window until the tone rang out and Ashley’s message service clicked on. Helen ended the call; another message wouldn’t make any difference to the eighteen unread ones already in there – no doubt having a nice chat about why their intended recipient wasn’t answering.

“Her phone does work, doesn’t Henry?”

Henry was tucked into the chair opposite, watching the clouds waft past as Helen’s private jet skimmed in over the mountains. He had an unsightly blue rug scrunched up under his nose which he had to fold back to speak.

“Yes, like I said,” he mumbled, simultaneously hungry and sleepy after the sixteen hour flight. “She’s set up on the global roaming thing. If her phone’s not working it’s because she’s dropped it, or drowned it, or one of the many other new and interesting ways that Ashley Magnus had discovered to damage technology. I’m a particular fan of her work on the microwave.”

“Sorry Henry,” Helen realised that she’d been pestering everybody on board for hours and it was starting to grate. “I’m just worried.”

The plane shook again, falling through an air pocket. Unstable weather went with the territory. High mountains created turbulence – at least it meant that they were getting close.

“Me as well, doc.” He didn’t admit to leaving a few of his own messages on Ashley’s phone. “But we’re gonna find her. We know where she’s headed –”

“Roughly…” added Helen, with an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow.

“I can do a little better than ‘roughly’.” These days Henry was constantly in the presence of a large pile of paper. He had brought Tesla’s print outs with him – not all of them of course, only the ones that were difficult to acquire. At the moment they were neatly filed away in his shoulder bag. “As long as she doesn’t get lost, we should all end up at the same place and you can ground her then.”

Helen really hoped so, otherwise her daughter was out there alone, about to wander into the lair of the most dangerous Abnormal that ever lived.

*~*~*

Far from walking, Ashley found herself clawing forwards through the dirt – torch clenched between her teeth whilst she tried not to dribble all over it.

She was in a bit of a tight spot – lodged between a mound of dirt and the roof of the tunnel. The hole that she had dug for herself was on the small side and so she had to squeeze painfully through it, nearly getting stuck on the way.

“Come on hips,” she grunted.

Finally, she emerged, dusting herself down unnecessarily. They layers of mud and dirt on her were never going to leave her voluntarily.

She perched on the tunnel side of the mound, with her legs dangling over the rise of dirt in front. Prying the torch from her teeth, Ashley panned its light over the area in front. What she found was a narrow, half collapsed tunnel lined with the same trestles of wood as the entrance. Whatever this place had been, its previous life was long buried.

Ashley slid down the mound onto the semi-solid ground, landing in a puff of dust.

“Well, this is better,” she said to the tunnel. At least it showed promise – in other words, she couldn’t see the end of it which meant that it had to lead somewhere.

She progressed through it, slowly at first but soon her patience wore thin and Ashley entered a jog. The air got staler as the tunnel took her down further beneath the ground. Maybe she had been wrong, perhaps this was a mining tunnel and the exit was back the way she had come. What if it was an abandoned shaft, a hunting trap, some useless idea or any number of unhelpful things?

Always look before you leap…’ Wise words she usually chose to ignore. In her defence, it was more of a ‘fall’ than a ‘leap’.

Not ready to give up, she took a few more deep breaths and settled into a pace. She was mid-step when she felt it – the lower part of her ankle buckle and roll. Orthopaedics. She couldn’t count the number of times her mother had begged her to wear them yet still she insisted on going without. It was times like these, when she was trapped in a collision course with the eager ground, that she wished she’d listened to her mother.

“Ow…” she skidded to a halt, losing her grip on the torch as her hands spread out, taking the impact. “No, no, no –” Ashley watched as her torch began to roll away from her, catching the sharpening slope of the ground. “You get back here!”

She was on her feet, half-limping half-hopping in pursuit of the escaping torch, grimacing every time that she tried to put useful weight on her sore ankle. It wasn’t seriously injured, just refusing to co-operate with her. Her torch seemed content to continue this chase, gaining speed and distance from Ashley.

Soon Ashley couldn’t see the ground in front of her – only ahead where the torch’s light bounced, unhelpfully illuminating more walls of dirt.

“Don’t make me replace you with a Maglite,” she stumbled on.

It didn’t seem to care for her insults, vanishing from sight as it dropped over the edge of something that Ashley was yet to reach. Darkness, pure and black engulfed the tunnel around Ashley. She brought herself to a sudden stop, reaching out to the wall beside.

“Shit…” she whispered.

*~*~*

They took a boat upriver from Iquitos. Their petrol motor jutted and spluttered its protest at being picked for the trip, but Dr. Helen Magnus had paid good money for its services so their guide whacked the plastic cover with his stick and it quietened.

Henry sat up front, cross-legged on the bow of the small fibreglass boat. He gripped the pale blue bars, dislodging the old paint that had never really adhered in the first place. The wind was pleasant, whipping across his face in something that felt awfully like freedom.

The Amazon rainforest sprawled out ahead, climbing up a set of mountains in front of the river. Beside them, the last field of grass was swiftly running out. Farmers waved to them from the shore and packs of children gave playful chase along the bank.

Helen had her phrase-book out, doing her best to direct the guide to the place on the map they needed to be. It was slow going, like her father – Helen had always been mediocre when it came to foreign languages.

The guide was shaking his head at her last suggestion. At first she thought that it was her poor pronunciation, but the grey-haired man took the phrasebook from her and flipped it open to a page.

No thank you,” he said. What he meant was that he would not take them past open field. The boat was already slowing, making a gentle curve toward the muddy bank thick with reeds and animal tracks.

John suddenly reached over and relieved the arguing pair of the map.

“We knew we’d be in for a walk,” he said, stoically. “Ashley will have done the same so our chances of tracking her are better if we start where she did.”

Henry’s sense of freedom soon took a turn when he found himself face to face with a sinister line of trees reaching out to him with sticky leaves. The boat had pulled up right on the edge, where the rainforest reared up at them.

“Buck up little one,” John’s hand startled Henry, as it landed on his shoulder. The tall – strange man shook Henry in a ‘friendly’ manner, no doubt his version of encouragement. “It’s not the trees you need to be afraid of.” He leant right down to Henry’s ear and lowered his voice to a whisper, “It’s me…”

Henry gave a small yelp and bounced away, finding himself in the shade of the rainforest. It was cool and surprisingly enticing after hours baking on the runabout. John gave a quiet chuckle, glancing over his shoulder as Helen came marching toward them.

“That’s the spirit Henry,” she said, striding past him and John.

*~*~*

Detective Joe Kavanaugh opened his eyes with a groan. The world hurt and his head most of all. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep in the strange room, but there was daylight creeping between the drapes as the smell of fried eggs swirling around the bed.

The blur of last night began to take shape as he sat up. Tunnels and creatures; gunshots and bickering voices – finally he remembered.

He stumbled across the dark room, took hold of the heavy folds of material and pulled them open, revealing a bright morning over the city. His eyes stung in the sudden light. Joe blinked furiously, turning his head away until he felt his skin warm.

There was a silver tray on the table beside the bed. Its contents were covered by an ornate lid with steam creeping around its sides. Breakfast.

*~*~*

“She never ever listens…”

Helen Magnus had her knees buried in a soft layer of mud beside an angry river. Rough tracks, half washed away led into the current.

“They continue over there,” John pointed to the opposite bank where a skid mark had dislodged a section of weed and leaf litter. “Give me your hands…” he stood between Helen and Henry with his palms outstretched.

They were both hesitant at first, but soon clasped tightly to John.

It was over in a flash. A sharp, dreadful moment as they teleported to the other side of the river. Henry fell over, clutching his head in pain. Helen shook it off, forcing her eyes to focus and not slip into the enticing darkness.

“That’s nasty…” Henry whimpered, clambering back to his feet. “Don’t ever do that again.”

“You would rather take your chances with the river?” said John.

“Yeah,” replied Henry, straightening, “that’s what I’m saying.”

Helen was frowning, twisting the map in every direction possible until she turned to the others. “This is the wrong way,” she said, holding the map up for them to see. “We should be further that way,” she pointed to their left, “up where that line of rocks starts.”

Henry leant backwards, trying to see around the large tree beside him. He didn’t know how Helen could find anything in this mess. There were trees, ferns, creepers, spiky plant things he didn’t know what to call, and general obstacles everywhere. He was struggling to find his own feet.

“It could be the map,” said Henry. “Ours is something that Mr. Tesla drew himself. Ashley has the original.”

“This,” began Helen unhappily, “is why I don’t trust that man.” That, and he had a habit of disappearing when he was needed most.

“Do we follow the map, or Ashley?”

Helen’s eyes flicked between Henry, John, the map and the tracks in the mud.

3

EMPTY TOMBS

“You are very late,” Tesla inspected his nails. He was seated on a large boulder, perched at its top high above the pair approaching through the undergrowth.

Helen stopped, panting as she lifted her head. Through the light covering of leaves she spied an individual who was soon to die.

“Nikola…” she whispered, narrowing her eyes at his preened form. He did not look like he’d spent hours trudging through muck but then again, Nikola had a talent for cleanliness.

Henry beat his way through the forest behind Helen, swearing at a particularly sticky plant that refused to let go of his arm. It suckered onto his skin, stuck fast.

Nasty little good for nothing piece of ancient shru-” he ran into the back of Helen, nearly knocking them both to the ground. Helen stumbled forward.

“How many times, Henry,” she said, without taking her glare off Nikola. “Eyes up.”

Henry pealed the possessive frond off of his skin with a displeased grimace. He hated forests, trees, large wild cats, slippery rocks, humid air, insects – anything that crawled, really. It was only the two of them now; Helen had sent John off after Ashley’s tracks while they stuck to the map. Helen had wanted to go after Ashley herself, but Henry wouldn’t leave the map and she couldn’t trust John on his own with Henry. At least this way, John’s motivations were headed in the right direction – find Ashley.

“Oh great,” Henry’s mood deteriorated further when he saw that ‘Tesla person’ impossibly balanced on a boulder.

“I’m been here for whole hours,” Nikola gloated, pulling his knees up to his chest, enjoying the pleasant breeze and vantage over the jungle. They were at the summit of a small hill that wanted, ever so desperately, to be a mountain.

Helen fought through the remainder of the ferns and strode out into the clearing, planting herself at the base of Nikola’s rock. She tilted her head back to speak. “I’m going to need a very good reason not to kill you,” she said, unhooking her gun. Helen snapped off the safety and aimed it straight at him.

Harsh, thought Nikola. “Only one?” he challenged. “My dear Helen, I can give you many reasons to keep me alive but I dare say one will suffice.”

“I am still waiting for it,” Helen ignored Henry, who was trying to remind her that Nikola was useful and possibly better kept alive.

“Impatience? That’s a new one for you.”

A loud ‘crack’ startled hundreds of birds who took to the air in a great curve of white, screaming as they flapped away.

“You know, that hurts my feelings…” Nikola dusted flecks of limestone off his suit. Helen had made a sizable hole next to his leg.

“Whoops…” she muttered darkly. “I appear to have missed. Care to go again?”

“Ashley’s not here,” said Nikola. “Haven’t seen her and that’s a bad sign because she had a decent head start on us.”

“Where is she?” Helen’s gun lowered slightly as Nikola edged himself forward and slid off the rock. It was quite a distance to the ground and he landed rather ungracefully in a heap.

“Ow… Well, if we’re lucky she’s gotten a bit lost – you know what girls are like. Map reading isn’t their strongest attribute.” Helen’s gun re-aligned with him. “Or,” Nikola decided that being shot at point blank range wouldn’t be fun, “she’s already inside.”

“Inside what?”

Nikola’s arms stretched out, beckoning them forward. “The sanctuary,” he grinned. “This way…”

*~*~*

Joe checked his appearance in one of the full length mirrors scattered throughout the Sanctuary’s hallways. There was a nasty cut above his eye but the stitching was holding. It was very important that he looked normal. Airlines were picky these days.

Making short work of a flight of stairs, Joe turned the corner into Helen’s office, gently opening the door and slipping inside. He felt like a small child, breaking into the headmaster’s office as he crept over to Magnus’s desk, eyeing every shadow with suspicion.

The flowers on her desk were dying, dropping petals over her desk. One unopened bud wept, dipping down where it hung over a mournful statue. Joe was looking for something very specific, hidden amongst her records which she kept locked in the desk drawer. A small black granite figurine on her desk caught his attention. He reached for it, holding the object firmly as he smashed the lock on desk with one, quick blow.

There wasn’t time to waste now. Someone would have heard that.

Joe pulled the drawer open and shuffled through a pile of papers until he found a thick folder. He pulled it out and opened on the desk. Yes, this was it; information on a camp site in the desert dated three days ago. He took the whole file, folding it under his arm as he made his way to the window.

*~*~*

Nikola pulled his unhappy entourage to a halt.

“Four – hours – of torture,” Henry gulped from a water bottle and then continued. “And this is where you take us?”

There was an eerie layer of mist burying them from the waist down. Towering above, sheltering the forest world from the fading afternoon light was an imposing cliff face. Its black surface was smooth and shimmered, as if moving with a life of its own. It looked like black glass excised from the bowels of the earth.

Nikola reached out, touching one of the carvings which framed the entrance to the cave. It was a small white circle embedded like a jewel. There were hundreds more clustered along the vertical edges. Some of the markings were circles like the one he had beneath his fingertip, the others depicted stages of the crescent moon.

“It looks real,” remarked Helen, eyeing the cave’s entrance. “I’ll give you that.”

He lay against the rock, pressing his cheek and palms onto the cool surface. This felt like home, thought Nikola. His ancestors had found a measure of sanctuary within this cave, he wondered if it would bring the same peace to him.

Henry’s head had developed a worrying slant as he watched Nikola embrace the sinister looking façade. “He’s gone all strange and stuff on us…” he said.

“No,” Helen corrected him. “This is normal. Let’s go Nikola,” she plucked him from the wall and deposited him in front of the cave entrance. “Vampires first.”

“I could – I could just wait out here…” Henry hadn’t moved from his spot in the mist. Everything about this idea smelt bad. There was something sinister swirling around him – and it wasn’t the mist.

“There’s no point in remaining outside, Mr Foss,” Nikola straightened his coat, buttoning it all the way to his neck. “They know that we’re here.” He darkened his eyes so that he could see better in the half-light of the cave. Helen took a more practical approach, fishing out her torch as she stepped into the shadows.

Henry shivered involuntarily. “Well, that makes me feel much better about the whole, ‘let’s wander into a dark, scary cave’ thing.” He lost sight of the other two as they ventured into the cave. Suddenly alone, Henry’s feet kicked into action, propelling him in pursuit despite his common sense telling him no.

*~*~*

Ashley curled her fingers over the mossy edge, gripping the delicate roots of dark-loving plants. The tunnel in front ended where the ground had been torn away. Her torch was far below, a tiny point of light glowing like a distant star.

“Shit…” she whispered, running her hands over every surface that she could reach. There had to be a way down and it wasn’t long until she found it – a damp strip of wood tied onto two lengths of rope. Moving her hands down further, she found more pieces of wood forming the basics of a ladder.

Ashley was eternally grateful that she couldn’t see this ‘ladder’. Given the way it felt in her hands, she never would have allowed herself to clamber over it, grimacing at every tremble and crack it gave in protest.

This is such a bad idea,’ she reminded herself halfway down. The ladder agreed, one of its boards snapping away from her foot. Ashley clung onto the ropes tighter, feeling for the next step as they groaned – squeaking and unravelling.

Eventually, her feet hit the ground and she was reunited with her torch. Ashley shined it back over to the ladder she had traversed. Damn, she wouldn’t be going back that way.

The ground beneath her was odd in that it bared no resemblance to the tunnel above. Down here she had to fight to find her footing on the smooth bed of river stones, polished by the small stream at the centre. It was clear that at some point the river had raged down here, filling the entire chasm.

She wanted to whistle her awe of the size of the place, but decided that the last thing she needed was a startled flock of bats freaking out. The water at her feet was running, trickling with distinct purpose over the white rocks. It had found a way out, Ashley was sure, so she followed it.

Ashley’s ears pricked up and she paused, turning slowly back toward the ladder. She listened carefully to every drip of water and shuffle of dirt. The more she concentrated on the silence, the louder the tunnel became but she didn’t hear it again – her name whispered in the darkness.

She avoided the water, clambering over the rocks and pebbles. Without sunlight, the cavern, cave, mine – or whatever this place preferred to call itself, was freezing. The water carried ice-crystals along in its current. Whenever she panned her torchlight over its surface, the beams scattered into shards of colour. There was something else in the water too – flecks of gold, tumbling over the stones and accumulating in pools around the edge of the river.

Rivers of Gold, that reminded her of something. She took a moment, seating herself on the rocky ground. Ashley pulled out her grandfather’s journal from her jacket, flipping through the damaged paper until she came to the map. There was nothing written on it about falling down large holes, which confirmed her suspicions that she was well and truly lost but a few pages on, she found an entry that peaked her curiosity. It was about the Seven Cities of Gold, searched in vain for by expeditions since 1150. Apparently her grandfather suspected its location to be in South America rather than North America but never had any success in finding it himself. Here it was, the part that she remembered, the cities sat by the edge of a golden river which carved out shimmering tracks across the land.

“Rivers of gold,” she whispered, eyeing the water. “Another day, perhaps.”

*~*~*

Ash-leeeey!”

John extended his top half over the hole, careful not to let his weight tilt him over the edge. It was a long way down and from what he could see, someone had taken the plunge into its depths recently. Ashley’s tracks ended at this hole and he had scouted the area ahead to no avail.

He called her name again, but there was no reply from his daughter.

*~*~*

“Why haven’t you been here before?” Helen stayed a few paces behind Nikola as they explored the entrance of the cave. “You clearly knew how to find this place. I’m surprised you could resist visiting the homeland of your ancestors.”

Nikola lowered his eyes to the glittering floor but didn’t say anything.

“Don’t tell me,” continued Helen, with a look of satisfaction. “An army of vicious killers born from your blood no problem but one full blood vampire – you wouldn’t dare face them alone.”

He stopped, and whispered very quietly to her. “If you knew what you were really walking into,” he said, “you’d be afraid too. Now please, a little hush.”

“What did he say?!” shouted Henry from behind, dashing into the cave after them.

Nikola sighed.

*~*~*

The plane touched down twice. Its first landing was brief, a mere taste of the ground as it bounced from the gravelly airstrip back into the crosswind which nipped the plane’s wings. The second time, the pilot grounded the plane with such force that the passengers gripped their seats in alarm.

Bit rough, Joe looked out the window, checking that nothing had caught fire.

Travel was like that around these parts. You arrived and you had to be happy with that.

Joe stepped out into a desert wind, bracing himself against the funnels of sand burning his exposed skin. The rest of the passengers scurried away, ducking into waiting cars parked in the open by the airstrip. The terminal was dark inside its locked doors and broken windows bandaged with helpings of duct tape. It was a god awful place with nothing between it and the full force of the desert lurking just over the rise.

“Doctor Kavanaugh – of Oxford University?”

Joe hadn’t noticed the tall man approach from the side. Most of his body was covered with layers of cloth, a sensible idea. Joe waved and nodded.

“I am Professor Lierdly from the expedition. We spoke on the phone. My car is over there,” he pointed at the only vehicle still braving the dust. “This way please, there’s a storm coming.”

 

4

BURIED CITIES

 

The black mountain range stuck out from the sand like a set of knives. Its thousand faces of polished rock interlaced to form a sinister barrier – sometimes catching the sun in a blinding glare. Joe could see the remains of Magnus’s camp site nestled at the base of one this monstrosity. From what he could tell at this distance, there was nothing left but ruined tents and a makeshift airstrip, gradually disappearing beneath the sand.

“We told them,” said Lierdly, from the driver’s seat. He was barely holding the wheel as the car shook its way down the gravelled track, riding a ridge. There was a dune to their left, working its way toward the road in a surge of burning sand. The professor pointed at the speckling of tents obscured by a layer of ‘liquid-air’. It’s what they called the turbulent air hugging the ground which distorted anything further than arms reach. “We say, ‘nothing to find there but dirt and rock’. My associate even offered them a share in our site – we could use the extra funding, but that crazy woman wasn’t interested and now look, all that’s left of them. They abandoned less than a week ago. In a month there’ll be nothing.”

“Crazy indeed,” replied Joe. That sounded like the Helen Magnus he knew.

They pulled up at Lierdly’s archaeological site, framed by a tent city. White linen flapped in the breeze, snapping sharply like whips cracking in Joe’s ear. People hurried everywhere carting books or screaming instructions at their satellite phones. One man tripped in his haste, scattering a box of identification tags in front of Joe and Lierdly. He swore in Dutch and then set about plucking each one from the sand while at the same time hissing behind him at someone in a tent.

On this side of the mountain range to Magnus’s camp, Lierdly and his team had set up shop beneath a series of tunnels burrowed into the rock. There more than a dozen of them poking out in no particular arrangement.

“We thought they were tombs,” said Lierdly, pointing at several starting barely a foot off the ground. Each was just over a metre high and roughly made. They could have almost been mistaken for natural caves except the rock cleaved in hexagonal pieces, and these were circular holes. “But they just go on and on. I had one of the boys take a wander and he found nothing for kilometres. Whatever’s buried in there, if anything at all, it wasn’t meant to be found.”

“Superstitious?” Joe raised an eyebrow.

“No…” he averted his eyes to the sun, “You can’t do what I do for a living and give in to that kind of thinking.” Lierdly shifted, resting his hands on his slender hips. “I’d never have made it into my first tomb. Some of my workers, locals, they think that this place is cursed. It’s the same story wherever you go in this country. This is cursed. That is cursed. Don’t touch that, the sky will fall. Mostly, I think that they don’t want us sniffing around in case we find something about their past they don’t want to know. Perhaps that is the curse.”

“Do you mind if I have a look for myself?”

Lierdly shrugged. “Go ahead. Let me know if you get attacked by a mummy. Can make good money out of that sort of thing.”

Joe’s laugh turned into a shiver as he hopped up the rocks.

*~*~*

“Is it supposed to be doing that?” Henry backed away from the cave wall nervously, as another flicker of electricity sparked into life next to his ear. There was an ever-present crackle in the background getting louder as they progressed.

“You ask me,” said Nikola, sniffing out the darkness, eyeing it cautiously, “as if I do this kind of thing often…”

Helen had her gun raised, realigning it to every sound no matter how small. “It wouldn’t be a first, Nikola,” she said in a whisper, as she stepped behind him. “You’re always claiming an affinity with these creatures.”

“Ancestry,” he corrected her, shuddering as her hair tickled across the back of his neck. He hated that she did that – always on purpose, to unsettle him and remind him who was really in charge. “A different thing altogether.”

“If you like,” she grinned, as he ran his hands over the back of his collar.

“Seriously though,” Henry had stopped at one of the walls and was entranced watching the electricity flow along tiny tracks in the rock, almost like veins. “This is not normal.” He reached his hand out to the surface, lowering it slowly to the fluid patterns until – “Ow…” he shook his hand. “Ow, ow, ow…”

The spark had been quite spectacular, lighting Henry in a sudden flash.

“You once hand-picked this thing as a protégé?” Nikola widened his eyes in disbelief as Henry muttered something about, ‘being okay’.

Helen shook her head. “It was more like an adoption,” she confessed. “What do you know about real vampires?”

Nikola shrugged, “Not much. Their records are, regrettably, destroyed or lost.”

“But you have your suspicions,” Helen prompted.

“They were civilised,” he said, “but civilisation millennia ago is not what it is today.”

“You really are worried, aren’t you? Meeting our sand creature deepened your fears that vampires have a – how would you put it, viscous side?”

“They had a talent for survival in an age noted for its brutality. Yes, it worries me. As does this…” He pointed at the currents of electricity running over the walls.

“Nikola…” she reached out and grabbed his arm with her free hand. He stopped, turning to find her eyes wide, glistening in the torchlight. “Where’s Henry?”

*~*~*

Ashley stopped, balanced on the bank of pebbles to the right of the stream. The water ended at two giant doors which towered to the roof of the cavern, out of reach of her torchlight.

Sheee-it…” she exhaled, taking a step back to take in the sight.

The doors were made of a heavy wood, intricately carved with a life-size freeze of the jungle stretching across them. Plants with their curled leaves protruded while hidden beneath them, creatures prowled. Carved trees stood at their real height, vanishing into an elaborate canopy. Two snarling jaguars faced each other in the middle, gnashing their curved teeth at each other mid-pounce. It was unlike any artwork she had seen. It was so real that Ashley hesitated to take her eyes off it in case the creatures came to life and leapt free.

The doors were not infallible though. Along their base, the water had cracked and discoloured the wood. Fragments of gold caught inside the fibrous surface making them look as if they had been dipped in liquid gold. It was like an embroidered curtain, sealing the cave. Ashley had never felt so small.

The water had not backed up at the door. Instead, it was running under it. Ashley stepped into the freezing water, grimacing as it sank through her boots and swelled around her ankles. Her skin reddened, burnt by the cold as she waded in deeper. The river’s depth had been deceiving. Soon it was up around her waist as she reached the centre of the door, holding her arms up above her head.

“Bad idea,” she grimaced as the cold became a stabbing pain. Her backpack was waterproof, and floated defiantly as she threw it into the water. It followed the current and hit the doors, bobbing against them.

There was a second current in the water. Ashley could feel its tug on her lower legs in the deep water, beckoning her forwards.

“Moment of truth,” she said, more to convince herself than the empty chamber. Ashley reached down under the water, following the line of the door. Her fingers slipped over the golden edge. A foot under the water, the door ended leaving a gap just big enough for her to slip under.

Ashley gripped onto her bag, forcing it down under the water. It fought against her but as soon as it crossed onto the other side, Ashley took a breath and submerged, following it through.

The cold was unbearable, piercing her with such force that she thought she must have fallen victim to an ancient death trap. She kept her eyes clenched shut as she hugged her backpack to her chest, letting it pull her up through the water.

They broke the surface together. Ashley coughed, wiping the water from her face before opening her eyes. She was swimming now with the water deepening beneath her. Ashley brought her torch above the water. As with the previous room, there were banks of rock on either side. Ashley swam, forcing her stiff arms to stroke their way toward the shore.

*~*~*

They turned around together but neither could see any sign of Henry.

“Henry?” whispered Helen, about to backtrack before Nikola caught the back of her coat.

“No, no… wait,” he said. Nikola tilted Helen’s torch, pointing it up toward the ceiling of the cave. There was nothing but a small flock of napping bats, swaying in their sleep. “I think this is a mistake,” he said, not letting go of her coat. Helen wasn’t sure if it was for her own safety or his.

“Where’s Henry?” Helen demanded.

“I don’t know,” he replied truthfully. “But nothing got past us, I am sure of it, which means that whatever it was didn’t have to.”

“Teleporting? Like John?”

“It wasn’t John,” said Nikola. “Stay close, I mean it.” He didn’t just mean ‘within an arms distance’. Nikola wouldn’t let Helen stray any further than their shoulders touching. They stepped in time with each other, following the cave as it sloped downward.

“There is something down here,” she said, blinking at the darkness. Helen could hear movement, subtle but quick as it changed positions. “I think that you should say something.”

“Like what?” he had morphed slightly further towards his vampire form. Nikola was a ghastly combination of pale skin, sharp teeth and large, black eyes that Helen hated to see.

“Anything. Otherwise whatever’s home is going to think that we’re trying to sneak in…” Nikola was silent, trying to work out how that differed from what they were actually doing. “All I know,” continued Helen, “is that when things sneak into my house – it doesn’t end well for the ‘things’.”

“Well you say something then!”

“This is your idea!” she prodded him sharply. He buckled temporarily, curling his claws.

“Fine. Tell me what to say and I’ll say it.”

“God, you are such a child.”

*~*~*

The desert light was absorbed by the tunnel until it was nothing more than a bright circle in the distance. Joe had to duck, crouching his body to fit inside the tunnel. It smelt stale which was no surprise given the fragile bones of desert creatures he continuously crushed under his shoes. They had curled up and died all over the place, hiding from a sandstorm and forgotten to leave.

Lierdly had given him a small amount of supplies including a strong flashlight and tent pole, ‘for the cobwebs’. Joe could think of other uses for a length of wood. He gripped the stick with one hand, aiming it at the tunnel like a prehistoric caveman might have done.

The tunnel worked its way into the mountain, sometimes constricting into a space barely big enough to crawl through and at other times intersecting with several tunnels in large, domed spaces. Joe left himself messages in the sand floor so that he wouldn’t end up walking in circles. The deeper he progressed, the more well-worn the tracks became almost like he had been skirting through the side streets and only now finding the highway.

Eventually he found himself in a tunnel tall enough for him to stand with three others beside him. He was not the first to venture down these catacombs. Many kilometres inside, the air became putrid. Joe buried his nose in his sleeve as he closed in on the source of the smell, fighting the urge to by physically sick.

A skeleton, partially decomposed had reclined against the wall. It was difficult to know how long it had been there. With dry desert air and few scavengers, his decomposition might have been greatly slowed. His clothes were native to the area and he looked peaceful, like the remains of the animals.

Joe did not linger, pushing past the horrible sight before a mysterious urge to sleep befell him.

*~*~*

Ashley sat on the bank with her knees pulled to her chest, shivering. Her body had the slightest tinge of gold from the water and she could still taste its metallic edge. If Henry had been here, he would have made a quip about that James Bond film.

This room was different to the last. Instead of a rough cave surface, she found perfectly cut stones stacked tightly together to form smooth walls. She couldn’t comment on the ceiling because it hung well out of reach of the torchlight.

Instead of a river, there was a deep pool of water filling the cave edged by a low wall, maybe half a foot tall at best. On the top of this barrier was a trail of crescent shaped lights embedded in the stone. They did not shine brightly but like glow-worms, their collective light gave the water which they encapsulated a soft aura.

As her eyes adjusted to the softer light, Ashley saw the first hint of structure emerge from the far side of the underground lake. There were buildings, several stories high, packed tightly together in a crowded facade. Her torched flickered. She hit and cursed it until its light reappeared. She may as well have held a candle to the room. There was city down here, buried away from the world. It was silent – abandoned long ago.

This, Ashley presumed, was all that remained of the Sanctuary of the Moon.

 

5

LOCKDOWN

 

“Neat…” whispered Ashley.

She probably should have gone for something a little more epic, but as she clambered over the low wall of lights and onto the paved streets of the city, words refused to form in her throat.

The Sanctuary of the Moon was empty, deserted long ago by whatever creatures had chosen to make their homes here in this underground world. There were, however, remnants of them. Ashley had stumbled across a pile of bleached bones cluttered in a corner where two buildings didn’t quite meet. The sad skeleton was the first of many as she progressed up the main street.

There was a steady trail of rats ambling along the gutter, scratching against the stone floor as they headed toward the pool of water Ashley had climbed out of earlier. She avoided them, keeping to the centre of the road where her torchlight mingled with the occasional glowing shapes on the dwellings.

It was more like a hive than a city, with its buildings scrunched together, rising and falling with the uneven floor underneath the sinister dome of the cave. Some of these had crumbled, bleeding onto the streets with rivers of rubble and dust.

Very soon, she found her eye drawn to claw marks etched into the walls and ripped bodies with scattered weapons. The procession of time could not conceal the violence of their deaths.

Ashley stopped at three intertwined remains, tilting her head from side to side as she circled them like some wandering bird of prey that had missed the feast.

“Unpleasant,” she commented, nudging one of the outlying bones with her boot. The trio had killed each other in some kind of brutal fever. Bony fingers could still be seen clasped around the neck of one, locked in an embrace even through death while the victim had plunged a short dagger through the chest of a hacked skeleton which, to her surprise, sported a sizable tail.

The extra limb was a collection of naturally duplicated vertebra, tapering toward a softly curved tip. The last few bones had been pulled out of line, no doubt by hungry rats.

Ashley retrieved her gun and then secured the backpack around her waist with several of its buckles. This place gave her the creeps and it was a long, lonely walk through it to the back wall. She didn’t know quite what she would find up there, but all the roads trailed off in that direction – it was the rats fleeing from it that made her worry.

*~*~*

Bigfoot’s gentle breathing was interrupted by a snore. Not quite stirred from sleep, he rolled over on the uncomfortable lab floor and curled into his coat. He couldn’t see Will, crouched at the glass in front of him, deciding how best to escape from the glass cage.

The restraints that had held him to the bed were now lying, chewed through, on the floor. His transformation into a sand creature was complete. When Will looked down at his skin he saw it ripple with uncertainty as it adjusted to the changing background. There was a strange dryness to the back of his throat that made it difficult to do anything but grunt at things while the lights of the room glowed especially bright. The details of the world had become intense; feeling – smell, touch – everything was a thousand times stronger.

Will sized up the sleeping creature on the other side of the glass. He rocked forward and touched the glass with an extended finger. The surface was cool – fragile even…

Bigfoot woke to the sound of shattered glass raining over him. He opened his eyes and saw a thousand scatterings of light reflected off the tumbling beads of glass as the window of the observation room fell forward with Will flying through its centre. Bigfoot had just enough time to roll before the larger shards of glass stabbed into the floor around him.

“Argh!” he groaned, as two jagged pieces cut through his fur.

Will hit the ground with the glass. Sensing the first whiff of freedom, he straightened and surveyed the room with golden eyes slit through the middle. His original abnormality – the gift of observation, had now become a serious weapon. Will could pick out every tiny detail of an environment in one turn of his head. Possible escapes leapt out at him while he kept a watchful eye on the figure writhing in pain on the ground.

“Will…” said Bigfoot, trying to stand. He clasped his paw over his arm to stop the bleeding, but the brilliant red dribbled around his fingers and onto the floor. “Will,” he repeated, pleading at the creature who was presently eyeing the door to the lab.

Will’s lips curled into a sinister grin as his body flickered in and out of camouflage.

“Listen to me,” continued Bigfoot, stumbling to his feet. He made it three laboured steps before he had to fall against one of the tables for support. “You’ve got to fight it.”

Will felt that he should know this hairy creature struggling to stand so he closed his eyes for a moment and tried to think. There was a flicker of something. A memory? A thought – he didn’t know. He wanted to be free and that desire overwhelmed everything else.

Instead of finishing off the creature, Will simply turned and pushed through the lab doors – throwing his head back in the sudden escape.

Bigfoot let himself crumble back to the floor where he crawled through the scattered glass to the other side of the room. He pried open the cabinet and dug out a set of bandages, wrapping several layers of them tightly around his arm until he could feel neither the pain nor the seeping of sticky blood.

He had to warn the detective sleeping down the hallway before Will got to him and somehow protect the other Abnormals but first, he had to lock the Sanctuary down and prevent Will from escaping into the city where he would no doubt begin picking out prey.

The computer in the lab did not have security access, so Bigfoot injected himself with a large dose of painkillers and made for the door. He paused at their ajar surfaces, sniffing the air for any sign of Will before gently pushing them open.

The hallway was empty save for a broken vase that had been knocked off a hallway table. Bigfoot, barely able to walk, threw himself at the opposite wall of the hallway, fumbling for the door to Ashley’s office. As someone mostly unaware of their office, she had not bothered to lock it.

It was a room neglected, ignored by its reluctant owner and left to sit in solitude most of the year. Its desk was bare save a lamp and computer with a wandering screensaver. The bookshelf on the opposing wall was not Ashley’s but her mother’s, built to house a special collection of bound letters written by her many associates over the years.

Bigfoot woke the computer, which, overjoyed by the attention, jolted into life with a cheerful beep.

A few minutes later, Bigfoot heard the bars on the windows clang shut and the double bolts on the doors lock firmly into place. Steel doors were sliding over the larger areas and coded doors between levels locking into place. The Sanctuary had turned itself into a prison, with him and Will locked inside.

Will, already on the ground floor, dropped to all fours and hurtled along the ground toward the main entrance. The carpet beneath him folded and slid off to the side as he rounded the corner and ploughed into the solid door as the large steel bolt slipped into place. The door shook with the impact, but remained resolutely closed.

Trapped, Will snarled, baring several rows of razor teeth to the security camera above. Bigfoot watched on, busily wrapping his wounds tighter.

*~*~*

“Do you trust me?” whispered Nikola, taking her free hand within his clawed paw. His skin was freezing, sending unpleasant shivers over her skin whenever his claws grazed her.

“Is that a trick question,” she replied softly, still holding her gun firmly to the darkness in front.

“Whatever happened to us, Helen?” he said, as they edged very slowly deeper into the cave. The light of the entrance behind them had almost vanished and now it was his torch and the electrical currents over the walls that lit the way. “You used to like me.”

“I do like you,” she hissed back. “I would have shot you already if I felt anything less than affection – as perverted as it may be. Incidentally,” she continued, “I believe it was you who last tried to kill me. This little expedition of yours may well end both of us.”

“Oh please… this wasn’t my idea. You have that ‘detective’ to thank for all this.”

That caused Helen to come to an abrupt halt, ripping her hand away from him. “What on earth are you going on about?”

Nikola’s black eyes gleamed in the torchlight which he pointed directly at her. She ducked away from the glare.

“Seriously?” he said, almost unable to grasp Helen’s naivety. “You don’t see it? Vampires – even that bastardised sand creature you tried to keep as a pet, are not animals. They are highly intelligent beings that don’t waste time. If the detective was bait, then he had already served his purpose. I for instance, would have killed him once I reached the tunnels but instead, what do we find? He is safe and well after half the night spent alone with it. There was a reason for that, Helen.”

“He wouldn’t…” but, she realised, then again Joe had more to gain than any from the sand creature. This was personal for him. He spoke ancient Egyptian, he was not afraid of the creature and after she had refused to disclose the location of the tomb, he had become especially curious. “I,” she sighed heartily, truly unimpressed with herself, “never learn.”

“An endearing quality,” Nikola grinned. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“For the sake of argument, then,” she flinched as he took her sharply by the arm, anticipating her answer.

“Close your eyes…” he said darkly, leaning toward her.

For the last five minutes, Nikola had sensed a presence hunting them through the caves, scant feet from them at any given moment. Despite his considerable observation skills, he was yet to catch a glimpse of his pursuer. Something had changed though. The assailant had gone from observer to assassin, more than once he had felt something brush over the back of his neck, considering how to sever his spine. Nikola Tesla may be hard to kill, but he had a sneaking suspicion that ‘beheading’ might just do it.

He didn’t want her to see what had to happen next.

With considerable force, Nikola knocked Helen to the ground. She stayed down, flattened against the cave floor perfectly still with her eyes slammed shut.

Nikola’s ears twitched as he heard fabric swish to his right and a shadow turn out of sight. He reached out with his clawed hand and ripped a strip free – the first tangible proof that there was, indeed, something else with them.

The rippling of electricity intensified, flickering and flashing in the air accompanied by a continuous crackle.

He bowed his head, and when he lifted it, his transformation into ‘vampire’ was absolute. Barely recognisable as this creature of the myths and fear, he leapt up to the roof, lingering on the cold rock amidst a few sleeping bats, before falling on top of a tall, slender figure.

Nikola had not expected the frailness. The creature crumbled beneath him, groaning as Nikola’s hands tightened around their body. Layers of cloak and a muddle of movement rolled down the slight incline of the cave until they hit a wall in a huge flash of light. Electricity poured from the cave wall through them in a shower of light.

Helen, unable to resist, opened her eyes a crack to see two heads glare at each other, encircled by shards of artificial lightning. One was Nikola as she remembered him – true and frightening in his vampire form. The other was an older man with twisted features and a permanent snarl. As she looked closer Helen saw that the other man’s features had sunk toward his bones in a horrid venture between life and death.

The two vampires rolled off the wall and the cave fell back into darkness. For a moment, Nikola thought he had the pursuer beat.

“We don’t want to –” he started to say, but found himself thrown off in a sudden surge of power. Nikola yelped as he slammed into the wall next to Helen and hit the ground in a shower of glittering dust. “Hurt you…” he finished to himself.

“Look out…” whispered Helen, as she saw the other creature straighten and turn to face them.

Nikola pealed himself off the ground.

“You should not be here…” the creature hissed. Its voice was cluttered with age, scratching through his throat. The ancient vampire blinked its sharp eyes and then disappeared from sight.

Nikola swore.

“This is bad, isn’t it?” said Helen, moving to get up.

“Stay down,” he snapped sharply. “The only reason I’m not dead is because he’s curious.”

Swirls of dust kept kicking in the air, disturbed by the vampire’s feet as he teleported from corner to corner to unsettle his uninvited guests.

Maybe, thought Nikola, it was time that he tried Helen’s approach. “This is a Sanctuary?” he asked the darkness, not sure if he should expect a reply. “We come here only to search for a missing friend. We mean you no harm.”

Silence. More crackling from the walls.

“We know what you are,” Nikola continued. “We desire your help. This isn’t working…” he shot at Helen.

Helen sat up, but didn’t go so far as to stand. “For your help we can trade information on the history of your people.”

Though they couldn’t see it, the vampire’s interest peaked.

“And what of them?” said the disembodied voice, bouncing off the uneven surface of the cave.

“Grant us safe passage, and we will tell you all we know.”

“Safe passage?” the voice scratched and died off with amusement. “You have intruded into sacred ground, we are now negotiating the manner of your demise.”

“Please,” Helen said, “a friend of ours has inadvertently trespassed. We are here only to find them and return safely home. We mean you no harm.”

“Harm?” the vampire hissed darkly. “Do not speak to me of harm.” In the cave ahead, they saw a faint outline of movement as the ancient vampire slowly paced toward them. “For thousands of years I have watched my people die – cut down, tortured,” it paused to take another laboured breath, “hacked apart in fields as they fled. You cannot know what it’s like to watch children burn, smouldering into the dusk while the skeleton of your empire blackens.” They could see the creature now, standing tall with its full length cloak dragging on the ground. “You may forgive me then, if I grow wary of human promises.”

A tear steadied in Helen’s eye. “I have seen such carnage,” she replied. “But please, she is my daughter.”

This seemed to stir a memory – and a distant smile. Not so long ago there had been another like herself bravely venturing into this cave. “There was a man here once before, on behalf of his daughter. You remind me of him…”

 

6

ROOM WITH COLUMNS

 

Joe’s body froze mid-step. The catacombs had come to an abrupt end – miles of narrow tunnels culminated in an empty, circular room which was bare of everything except its sandy floor.

“Impossible…” he hissed, turning in endless circles.

He had been so sure, absolutely positive that this would lead him to the tomb of the Priests of Amun, lost for thousands of years. They were not tombs for sleeping bodies dreaming of dead worlds, but crypts to keep monsters in – monsters who were very much alive at their time of imprisonment. If he was ever to find his father, it would be amongst the angry faces of its prisoners.

The walls were painted in ochre colours and scrawls of ancient writing marched up and down it, raving stories about underworlds and gods that now lay quiet. Joe advanced, stepping carefully through the sand, holding his torch aloft.

“Urgh!” he cried, as Joe felt the sand beneath him fall away. His stomach lurched and his arms flailed wildly as he was sucked through the floor into darkness. He had just enough time to gasp a breath of air in the light and catch sight of one of the wall murals laughing silently at him.

Then, the only proof of his existence was a torch half buried in the sand in the empty room, with its light gradually yellowing. Eventually it clicked off, and the room returned to its sinister peace.

*~*~*

The ancient vampire’s eyes were black like Nikola’s, but in the depths of their pits were hints of red. These blood-stained flecks ran over Helen, inspecting every inch of her as she spoke. The tiniest beads of sweat on her skin wreaked in the vampire’s nostrils while the grazes on her cheek and neck gave way to trickles of blood. Every minute that this breathing creature survived was a testament to the vampire’s strength of will.

“Quiet now…” the vampire curled his lips into a snarl. “My manners have slipped in these long centuries alone. If you wish to leave this place, you must do so now. Leave me be.” His voice cracked like the electric currents behind him – deceptively fragile in its fluctuations.

Helen and Nikola glanced at each other.

“I cannot leave,” insisted Helen, “until I find my daughter and the man that was with us before.”

You cannot stay!” it screeched, vanishing and reappearing at the far wall where electricity swelled around it. Its plea echoed over the walls in horrid waves of agony. The vampire hid his dripping fangs behind his cloak which he raised over his head, blocking his guests from view. “You cannot stay…” he whispered to himself. The oaths of peace he took long ago were brittle now. Hunger and despair had weakened him and now he could feel the clawing of his nature begging him to kill.

Nikola recognised the symptoms and took Helen by the arm. She resisted but he lifted her toward him and growled into her ear, “Don’t…” He dragged her from the cave and led Helen back out into the mist-laden clearing. A few birds called bravely, piercing the air in short stabs.

The cave entrance was still within sight, leering at them from the cliff face.

As soon as he let go of her, Helen raised her hand and clouted him hard across his face. This time, he did not react. His vampiric form made him stronger than her, though he usually chose not to show it.

“Helen,” he said, gradually fading back to the Nikola of old. “He was going to kill you. Me as well, I suspect.”

“I don’t care…” she replied, turning and heading back to the cave. He shook his head and caught her jacket, clutching the leather firmly. Helen whipped around, striking him again and with her other hand, raising a knife to his throat. “Out of my way,” she warned.

The cold blade on his neck was a familiar touch. It was not the first time that Helen had threatened his life, and he doubted that it would be the last.

“You will have to use it,” he assured her.

“I’ve lost two people in there,” Helen steadied herself, pressing the metal harder onto him, “and I am not leaving them to die!”

“I hear you,” Nikola replied, if anything, gripping more tightly. “There are other ways into this Sanctuary, I am convinced of it. He,” Nikola referred to the vampire, “had not seen Ashley or Henry. His thoughts were loud enough for me to hear fragments of them. He is an old creature, tormented by the world and he will not let us pass.”

“Where are these other entrances?” she said, loosening her hold on the knife. It caught a beam of sunlight, blinding him with the brightness.

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “Though I believe our only course of action is to return to Ashley’s tracks and proceed from there. The Sanctuary of the Moon runs deep through these hills, tunnelled out beneath the ground. It is possible that she has inadvertently found a way in.”

*~*~*

Although Will could no longer speak, he managed an unmistakable nod at the security camera. I am coming for you it said.

Bigfoot set the computer to monitor all cameras for motion so that he could detect Will’s progress through the mansion. He could no longer see him on the screens though, as Will has mastered the art of camouflage and torn off his clothes rendering him all but invisible.

He was more creature than human now, Bigfoot could feel it, and this hybrid species seemed always hunting for revenge. Bigfoot couldn’t stay in this room, though. There was no way to defend himself or capture Will amongst the computer, empty desk and lone bookshelf.

Taking a calm breath, Bigfoot opened the door and peered out into the corridor. It was too late to seek out the detective. Will was fast now, and it wouldn’t be long until he returned to this level. The great, hairy man swung around to the right and returned to the medical room where he gathered a large amount of sedatives, several needles and three rolls of bandages. He was about to go for the tranquiliser gun – locked high in the cabinets above the main work desk, when he heard the door at the end of the corridor slam.

With no choice, Bigfoot clambered toward the small, side door which led into the storage area of the level. In five steps he was in front of the equipment lift. Bigfoot slid open the door to the small enclosure and crammed himself painfully inside. As a space meant for trays of testubes, it groaned angrily at Bigfoot’s imposition.

Will, in a strange disturbance of light, rounded the corner and caught sight of Bigfoot forcing down the door of the lift amidst a tirade of curses.

“Come on…” growled Bigfoot, bashing the metal shell as Will raced towards him, claws digging into the polished floor.

Just when Bigfoot had begun to entertain the prospect of being ripped apart, the door shifted and the lift shuddered into action, taking its heavy load down toward the basement.

Will pulled up short as the door slammed near his nose. His sharp eyes flicked to the gage on the wall beside, betraying the destination of the lift.

Bigfoot knew that he would reach the basement first – there was no doubt of that. As fast as this new Will was, he couldn’t fall through the levels of the floor like John. That said, there would not be enough time to achieve anything before his inevitable arrival.

He clutched the lift control protectively to his chest, whispering and coaxing to it as the lift slowed towards its destination. When the final thump of motion sent painful ripples through his fur, Bigfoot hit the button for the top floor. The deceit would buy him some time. Not much, granted, but he hoped that it would be enough to save both Will and the Sanctuary from destruction.

When it released him on the library level, Bigfoot stumbled as fast as he could up the corridor toward the marble staircase. He left a nasty streak of blood behind him where it trickled down his leg. It was no good, he thought, knowing that a child would have no trouble hunting him, let alone an instinctual killer.

*~*~*

Joe grimaced and rolled onto his side.

He had expected darkness – the deep, constricting blackness of the world beneath the earth. Instead, he found the gentle din of a hundred wall lamps lit along the side of a great chamber. Their soft glows provided tiny halos of light against the immense stone walls that spread high above him and deep below the pile of sand beneath.

It was like the debris from a giant hourglass and he had been poured through it, landing at its peak.

He could feel a bruise spreading over his chest where he had hit the sand. It burned under his shirt as he sat himself up and took in the spread of the underground room. It was lined with red pillars, three stories high that were severed several times with ornate gold bands. Around their girths were painted figures cowering from the sun or drowning themselves in the blue hint of Nile.

Joe peered forward in search of their bases, but the floor of the room was difficult to make out in the faint light. With nowhere to go, Joe shifted himself forward on the pile of sand until he started to slide.

Just as a great sheet of sand dislodged itself around him, accelerating his motion into an unstoppable fall, Joe caught sight of several silver bullet casings tumbling along with him. He reached out and caught one of these heavy pellets as it hurtled past, staring at it curiously as the ground below approached.

 

7

BLUED EYED MONSTER

 

The bullet casing was dull in the low light. Reflections of the flame-lit room flickered across its slender surface until Joe hit the floor with a crunch and it was knocked from his hand. It bounced several times over the floor and then rolled casually from view.

Sand fell over his body, half burying him in its final rush. Joe scraped it away from his face before it suffocated him and crawled out onto the bare floor, coughing and spluttering it from of his lungs. Unlike the tunnels above, drowned in sand, the surface of this room was pure slate. It was polished into a flawless expanse of black and gave the appearance of an endless pit except for where the pillars reflected, perfectly tessellated in a fictitious second expanse beneath his feet.

Joe could hear his laboured breath echoing around the walls. It mingled with the sound of the flames licking their holdings and a few sand grains tumbling from his clothes.

It was only then that he saw it – a large rectangular slab of slate rising up from the centre of the room as if it had grown from the floor. Its contact with the ground was seamless and the beastly thing was gilded by a line of gold writing whose fearsome words he was able to read as he edged closer, trailing his finger across them.

My face is yours, my heart is yours as you are a protector to me, for my present condition is like one that is in need, all my limbs are dismembered as the sands of the desert upon which I lie have reached me.’

The script was a fragment, bordered by writings outside Joe’s limited teaching. The remaining columns of text looked far older and had been rubbed off in places by age and use. If he had not known better, he might have thought this burial coffin to be a re-use.

‘Sarcophagus’, literally flesh eating. It was only now, after the events of the previous days, that Joe appreciated its true meaning. This name did not describe the container, which was merely a prison, but its contents which would stalk the desert evenings if allowed.

As he paced around the imposing object, which exuded a strange kind of hush as if its very presence was silencing the room, he stooped and eyed the corner of its lid. The edge had been broken, cracked and crumbled away by some heavy impact. On the floor his feet knocked several more of the mysterious bullet shells which clinked loudly.

Something had gone on in this room other than the mutterings of the dead and he feared that it wasn’t over yet.

*~*~*

Nikola rubbed his cheek. It was still sore from Helen’s multiple outbursts and had now taken on a distinct red tint – a foreign colour in the usually pale Nikola. Oh well, he figured, at least it proved that he still had a little life left in his veins.

The undergrowth was thick and difficult to pass through, even via the ‘path’ which Helen and Henry had cut earlier. Nikola had, of course, taken the easier route through the rocky back slope of the mountain. Certainly the gravel was loose and riddled with sun-basking snakes but when creatures of all sort fled from your presence, it made the going much easier.

“I should never have let you talk me into this,” moaned Helen, as the log she was balancing on creaked and shattered. She quickly skipped over it and landed on the solid ground, flicker her damp hair out of the way. “You were lying.”

“No,” he corrected her, “I was guessing. Are we near her tracks yet?”

Helen pointed at the stream gushing angrily beside them. “A few more minutes this way and we should be there.” Her bare arm was covered in pale streaks of blood where vicious mosquitoes buzzed over her in a frenzied haze, sucking and stabbing every time she paused.

“I would never betray you without cause,” said Nikola suddenly, wiping away a line of mud from his face. “I want you to know that. My ancestral species may be riddled with violence and malice but much the same can be said of yours yet I do not assume you to be distrustful – except of course, when experience differs…”

“Was that a slight, Nikola?” asked Helen, amazed that he could turn a plea into an insult. “One does not beg for their life through offense.”

“Merely an observation.”

“Fine,” she snapped. “Call my distrust of you an observation, then. Here we are…” Helen pulled up at a particularly muddy area.

At first Nikola thought she was lost, but soon his eyes drifted to the ground and he saw the definite imprints of small feet set off balance and the resulting slip marks. There was another set of tracks in the mud – these were distinctly larger – belonging to someone tall, imposing and, Nikola guessed, ill tempered.

“So you sent Johnny after her – brave…”

“Not the time, Nikola,” Helen waved him off, sensing an onslaught of jealousy. “When we’re all home and safe back at the Sanctuary, you can mope all you want and I promise I shan’t mind.”

“Now that is a lie,” Nikola averted his eyes to her. “As I have no home to speak of,” he added quickly.

They followed the tracks, (which was hardly a difficult task) until they ended abruptly at a large hole in the ground. The moss and fernery trailed down into the abyss where it had been ripped off suddenly. Water could be heard dripping somewhere below as tiny streams trickled down the exposed roots of trees.

“That would have hurt,” noted Nikola, crouching down and peering over into the darkness.

“Careful…” Helen muttered, and then trailed off when he glanced back at her with a curious smile.

“Don’t suppose you brought a rope?” he asked, spying a nearby tree with a decent girth. Indeed she had. Helen quickly whipped off her backpack and unhooked a nylon rope, holding it up for his inspection. “A woman for all occasions.”

She dropped the rope on the ground beside him. “That’s what you said in 1885.”

*~*~*

Bigfoot faltered and fell to the ground, groaning as his paw-like foot went numb and became unresponsive. He could guess at the cause but right now there was no time to stop and investigate. Bracing himself, he crawled over to a door at the top of the staircase and used its handle to haul himself back to his feet.

From the landing at the top of the marble staircase he could see his own trail of blood, dotted like a line of breadcrumbs leading straight to his pitiful figure. It got deeper and thicker half way up the stairs where pools of it dripped back down, running along the joins in the rock. He was starting to feel the effects of the painkillers and he was thankful for it even though they made the world a tad blurry.

It didn’t take long for him to be joined by the thumping of feet down the corridor. As they got closer to the open area and high ceilings of the main room outside the library, they slowed and finally stopped.

Although Bigfoot hand little hope of seeing Will, probably camouflaged, but he did catch the carpet runner slipping slightly to the side. Will was close now and Bigfoot had no way to defend himself – neither could he run.

He waited, frozen to the ground for a sign of movement. The great room was quiet – but not silent. It was amazing the things you could hear with your ears pricked up and your breathing slowed.

There – no… that was the tapestry catching the air conditioner. Bigfoot’s eyes continually flicked over the various surfaces of the room, not noticing that his trail of blood through the very centre of the room had been smeared by a new set of prints as Will slinked toward him, hiding in plain sight.

*~*~*

Joe’s hand was still on the coffin when one of the flares on the wall went out. The room dimmed as darkness reclaimed the space between two of the large pillars. There was no breeze in here – he was hundreds of metres underground so what, wondered Joe with a chill creeping over him, was that?

He headed straight to one of the well lit walls and stole the torch from its holdings. Joe brandished it in front of him, slashing through the air in warning to whatever was hunting him. He heard something scratch over the floor near the giant mound of sand and a few layers of it slip to the floor.

His stick – it was half buried under a fall of sand but well within reach. Joe jogged across the room, sending orange flickers over the wall as his torched flattened in the rush of air. He squatted and reclaimed the stick from the ground, taking it firmly in his grip.

Come out…” he whispered, in the sand creature’s native tongue. Joe had guessed that he would find them here. He had waited his whole life for this moment but he had imagined more light – less dark corners where sinister things could hide.

Shadows, sand and another mysterious gust of wind turned his head. Something scattered the loose bullet casings by the sarcophagus and for the first time he heard a grunt. Six – ten – fifty? He had no idea how many there were but one would be enough of a match so it did not matter.

You – will – die…” the words came, scattered, from all over the room.

I come to offer you freedom,” Joe replied, peering into the blackness with his torch held aloft.

He hadn’t expected it to be inches from his face, snarling as it shimmered into view. The sand creature’s cold blue eyes seemed to hate the world and all that it had done while its crimson skin, scared and burnt, told why. Its face, resting on the flame, jarred away from the heat and began to circle Joe. The creature was dressed but only barely, by a grey strip of fabric around its waist held together by a gold clip belonging to centuries past.

Another creature appeared, reclined against one of the walls directly below a torch and then another and another, all encroaching for the edges of the room. The one closest to him had bent low down to the ground and scattered away into the room, vanishing back into the walls. Joe clutched onto the stick tighter.

That was when he saw his father lumbering towards him. More blue eyes, torn shreds of clothing and fragments of humanity clinging to the thin skin covering its bones.

Childhood fear was a persistent thing – it lurked inside you, pretending to be nothing more than an embarrassing memory right up until the moment you were forced to face it. Then the claws came out. Then the fear returned – and it was real fear – a form of monster that stops your heart and seizes your muscles; your mind, overcome with blurred memories and embellished nightmares, falls silent and with it, all hope of survival.

*~*~*

Nikola and Helen made short work of the hole and, with the help of Tesla’s sharp claws, made their way through the derelict mining tunnel. The soft earth and groaning boards holding it up unnerved her as they took it at a half-run, following the bright speck of her torch as it bounced over the ground.

“Relax,” he said to her, as another light rain of dirt hit them, “this thing’s been here for millennia – it’s not going to collapse just because Helen Magnus is here…”

She didn’t look so sure. “You’d be surprised,” she replied. “Oh,” Helen pulled them both to an abrupt stop, “better and better…”

The pit below them made the original drop into the tunnels look like a small ditch. Her rope, which she had bravely left dangling through the first hole, wouldn’t have been any use down here with nothing to tie it to.

“Ideas?” she asked, honestly hoping that the rumours of his genius were true.

“Caving is not my thing,” he muttered, keenly eyeing his options. “Although…”

Although is good,” Helen crawled over to the edge of the pit and shone her torch down. She could make out the ground but only just. There was no doubting that it was a long way down.

“Fancy a ride?”

Helen nearly choked.

“With these claws I think there’s a good chance I can scale the dirt wall – you’d have…”

“Yeah, I get it.”

Their clever descent was successful. Once Nikola’s feet were planted firmly on the ground, Helen let go of his shoulders and slipped gently to the stones beneath. Nikola wiped the dirt from his claws, cursing when he found one of them chipped off at the end. Helen fought back a quip about ‘breaking a nail’, instead turning her attention to the river trickling behind them and the bright glow in the distance.

“Riverbed,” Nikola observed, stumbling over the smooth rocks loosely scattered over the cave floor.

Helen stooped and took a sip of water. “Fresh,” she remarked, and drank some more.

“Helen,” started Nikola softly, interrupting her refreshment. She stopped, cold hand to her lips with water trickling back into the running water. “That’s not a rock…” he pointed to a small, unnatural mound of rocks behind her.

 

8

AWAKENING

 

It was a grave…

A bundle of stones had been hastily packed together in a primitive pyramid which, like its ancient cousins standing guard over fallen empires, had begun to collapse into a pile of misshapen rubble. Tumbled down beside the ailing monument was a bleached skull cracked in three places with an arrow head embedded deep within its bone. Helen retrieved her torch, smacking it against her hand until it clicked obediently back on, bathing the object in light.

She knelt down and traced her fingers lightly over the skull’s smooth surface. Nikola sighed heavily, wishing she wouldn’t interact with every sinister object of curiosity. He crossed the shallow stream and came up behind her, shifting his gaze nervously around the enormous cavern as if the very walls were watching them. He didn’t want to delay in the darkness – best they move through it as quickly as possible.

“Helen…” he whispered, his voice laden with chill and reverence. “Do you believe there’s any credence to those stories about the caves around here being passageways to the underworld?” Nikola may not have been able to see her face but he felt her eyes roll. “Just checking,” he mumbled. Maybe she was right about him – maybe he did read too much.

“You are supposed to be the scariest thing down here,” she straightened and shone the torch straight between his eyes. He flinched irritably. “So start acting like it.”

She handed him the skull – which he dropped immediately and furiously wiped his hands on his coat in disgust.

“And why are you so pleased?” he finally gave in and asked after they had followed the meandering creek for a while. She had done nothing but grin and hum since they had entered this horrid place whose high, spiked ceilings and distant black walls gave Nikola the shivers.

That skull belonged to Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett – greatest explorer who ever lived – went missing in the Amazon when we were still working for that uncle of Watson’s.”

“Are you trying to comfort me?” He shook his head then tripped, rolled his ankle on a loose river stone and had to make a rather ungraceful recovery. “How you can tell that from one nondescript skull I will never know…”

Helen promptly stopped, spun slowly and revealed a gold locket laced around her hand with an elegant set of initials engraved on its front.

“Stealing again…” he muttered. “Isn’t that –” Nikola stopped, pointing to a faint glow ahead of them where a figure stirred, barely more than another mysterious shadow.

They found John crouched at the edge of a pool of water, staring up at a mighty set of wooden doors carved with all kinds of terrifying things that could be thought of by the primitive tribes that carved them. He couldn’t help but admire it – the beauty in the danger.

“I take it the front door didn’t work,” John dipped one of his fingers in the water as the crunch of feet approached. A faint shimmer of gold left its residue in his skin making it glisten for a moment until the water dried and the gold fell off back into the water like dust.

“No sign of Ashley…” Helen had to step back to take in the enormity of the doors which were more like gates to the underworld itself. Maybe Nikola had been right after all…

“I followed her tracks to the water,” John prodded at several intents in the ground.

“And you just – stopped…” Nikola was pretty certain there was only one place that Helen’s daughter could have gone and yet, here John was, pondering eternity by the side of a lake.

“Well I would have continued only I heard the two of you bickering miles away and decided to wait.”

“We do not bicker,” snapped Helen in a whisper, even though it was not the first time she had endured the accusation.

Nikola looked from John – to the door and then back again. “Aren’t we going to just…”

John breathed heavily – or it could have been his favourite – drawn out laugh he used to disturb victims before the kill. “Oh yes, Nikola, as much as I would love to let you materialise inside a solid object I suspect Helen might disapprove. We will have to swim.”

Nikola fancied a swim about as much as he fancied Thomas Edison.

“What’s the matter,” John de-cloaked and rolled his shirt sleeves up, “electricity and water not mix?”

“Like love and murder, Whitechapel…”

There was an almighty splash and they both ended up in the water – crawling on their hands and knees as Helen stepped over them with a look of long-suffering detest.

“Just stop!” Helen sloshed past them and vanished under the water, leaving a trail of bubbles in her wake.

*~*~*

Joe risked a shaky step backwards as his father approached. The others were swooping and creeping behind, circling impatiently as Joe’s father lifted a clawed hand up into the air, prepared to rip the flesh from Joe’s body and end the intrusion into their world.

“Father – please…” Joe held the torch higher into the room so that the flames roared into a fresh layer of oxygen. “I have come to free you,” he insisted, “all these years, I promised I would come back for you and I have. Don’t give up now, you can’t.”

Waves of sand tumbled around the room. The coffin at the centre protruded like a wall of sea-rock, steadfast against all the ages time could muster.

His father was barely alive. The skin around his features was stretched tight, sunken and cracked. There were long locks of grey hair twisted up together and tossed over his shoulder while a deep scar cut diagonally from his forehead to his cheek. Though it had healed decades ago, it kept a record of the torturous years lived as one of the most hated creatures in existence.

Joe’s strength dissipated when he saw bone protrude from beneath the tattered rags of clothing, the remains of the brown pants and white shirt he had worn on his final dig. Finally, the truth unfurled and Joe realised that he had come back to save a dream – nothing more. All that remained of his father had withered away and he, forever a foolish child, had held onto a vision of something he could never have back.

“Father…” he whispered, with tears dripping down the side of his face and into the sand. Joe was content. He would die down here, with his father. The freedom overwhelmed him. “It was good to see you,” he said, slowly closing his eyes to the world, replacing all its darkness with a picture of his father waving goodbye through the glare of the desert.

Waiiit…” one of the other creatures slipped beside Joe’s father, tilting its head back and forth. This one looked younger, more alive and dangerous. The curve of its lip glistened and its sharp pair of blue eyes reflected the light of Joe’s torch. Joe’s eyes peaked open. “You want your faaather?” its skin rippled.

Joe’s heart quickened fearfully. “Yes,” was all he managed. As the creature inched closer, the grand room shrank – it seemed claustrophobic and chocked by scented smoke belonging to another time.

Do something for usss,” its words carried a modern accent that matched its surprisingly new clothes. Now that Joe looked closer, he could see the same crest sewn into the breast pocket of the creature’s tattered shirt as he had seen on the camp site tents. “And maybee you can leave this place – with your faaather. We are not simply monsssters, you see.”

“What do you want?” Joe realised that he had been gradually backed against one of the walls. “I have nothing to give you.”

Surely you have heard,” it replied, creeping its claws along one of the walls, as if fascinated by the joinings of the stones. “We are vampires.”

*~*~*

Helen emerged from the water first, breached through its freezing surface like some mythical creature breaking free. She ran her hands over her face and down through her hair, wiping the water away. Gold flecks formed a second skin over her own which held a subtle glow in the almost complete darkness of the pool. It was an impressive expanse of deep water. Only the top layer of which was bearable to swim in – whenever she dipped her legs too deep she felt the vicious stabs of cold warning her not to venture further.

Nikola and John surfaced with a flurry of bubbles and coughing – apparently they had been trying to beat each other on distance and thus nearly suffocated in the attempt.

“Extraordinary,” Nikola wined, treading water in circles, “this lake is cold and huge.”

They crawled out onto the stony edge, Helen and John dragging their heavy coats which had done an excellent job half-drowning them. Helen disposed of hers, throwing it to the side.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said, pointing at the deserted city sprawling between the cave walls ahead of them. Its derelict condition was somehow made more beautiful by the unsettled mist licking the edges of its walls.

“Precisely how old were those scrolls, Nikola?” John couldn’t help but notice the way the remains of the sanctuary crumbled on their approach.

The low stone wall which separated the lake form the city was aglow, softly lighting the edge of the water. They approached it, scrambling over it and onto the abandoned streets of the sanctuary.

“Look!” Nikola pointed to the roof of the cave where a small hole in the rock revealed a crack of the outside world filled by the full moon. The day had ended and night begun without any of them noticing.

What…” John jarred suddenly, pulling his right shoulder away to find a small arrow embedded harmlessly in the leather, “is that?” he finished, pulling the offending item out.

“Here comes another one,” Nikola ducked out of the way allowing it to strike again at John’s chest.

“Automatic defence?” Helen offered. “We must have triggered it when –” she watched John remove a third arrow from his coat, growling at the holes. “Is it just me or is it only shooting at John?”

“It’s very irritating,” said John, sidestepping a small volley of the things which clattered on the floor in the distance. “I think we should get a move on before I am annoyed to death.”

Helen, curious, ventured toward the origin of the arrows until one whizzed past her neck, tangling in her hair. “Yeah,” she agreed, “let’s go.”

*~*~*

Joe shivered as his hands touched the freezing stone. The lid was heavy and stuck fast by more than just its weight. He was surrounded by a crowd of sand people, sneering and hissing at each other as the lid made its first crack of freedom. A rush of air escaped the crypt and the lid slipped further opening, nearly off-balancing the detective.

The innards of the coffin were as black and mysterious as its stone. Joe took his torch from the sand creature that had spoken with him and held it over the opening where he caught his first, frightful glimpse of creature slumbering inside.

“It’s dead…” announced Joe, his eyes rolling over the decayed skin and bone staring lifelessly into nowhere with surprising glassy eyes. With its lip shrunk back, an impressive line of sharp, tapered teeth protruded from the creature’s mouth.

Oh,” hissed the sand creature, inching close enough to sniff the air above the coffin, “he is only sleeping. A long and dreadful sssleep. You cannot imaaagine.”

Joe pushed the lid again, revealing more of the creature’s body. It was shrunken and racked by age like its face and wrapped in a white sheet of linen bloodied by some ancient conflict. The remains of herbs and flowers scattered through the box collapsed into dust as the fresh air brushed over their delicate forms.

As instructed, he dutifully held out his arm and with a small blade, cut across his skin. The sickening drips of blood spread over the corpse but evaporated upon touching the skeletal form. It took a while for Joe to notice the subtle changes occurring below him.

The creature was waking up, reviving, reforming as Joe’s blood continued to fall over it. Eventually it resembled the sleeping man the creature had described and Joe was allowed to wrap his arm in a length of material as they waited.

It gasped, a terrible, strangled rush of air into its lungs.

Joe staggered backwards, shoved aside by the converging crowd of sand creatures who gathered eagerly around the coffin, writhing and whispering in a dozen languages he had never heard before. His father was somewhere amongst them, teeth bared in expectation.

 

9

VAMPIRE STORIES

 

Henry Foss rolled over with a groan. The long, flaxen grass of the open field rippled around him, hissing back and forth in the wind. For a moment all he could see was navy – pure ink where the sun’s beams had vanished for the day and left the world with a blank canvas of night. Gradually though, the first pricks of light seeped through until he was face to face with a literal carpet of stars.

Blinking back the surprising glare, Henry coughed and tried to sit up – too fast. The world spun a bit, made worst by the infinite carpet of grass rearing up for several feet above him.

“W-what…” he said, ignoring the overwhelming urge to sleep. He could smell a running body of water somewhere to his right – a river? Thick, succulent leaves – some kind of fruit bird – people – the faintest tinge of diesel…

The last thing he remembered was pacing through the cave, not far behind Helen and Nikola when there had been a brilliant flash of light.

This time, Henry lifted his head from the ground gently, letting it adjust to the new altitude before he even attempted to stand and get a better idea of where he was. Instinctively, he felt for his radio.

Helen, it’s Henry – are you there?”

Static – lots and lots of it. It was a long shot at best. She was probably still in the tunnels, well out of radio range of wherever he was.

Henry stumbled to his feet, rising just above the field of grass. It went on for acres – the soft tide, barely a blur on the evening. It was bordered on his left and in front by a dense rim of darkness. Behind him he could see a derelict tractor with a few hanging lights ploughing its way through with a bronze-skinned farmer at the wheel still working and to his right – yes, there was the river. He knew where he was.

No matter how hard he tried, Henry’s mind kept wandering back to The Lost World as he ran through the long grass. Stupid – irrational fear, but he could not shake it and so had no choice but to run harder until he emerged on the muddy bank and was met with the glorious hull of their boat.

“Hola!” Henry exclaimed in absolute joy, when he saw that their guide was asleep across the back seat, basking in the night like some kind of mythical creature. The man did not stir. Henry swung a leg over the side of the boat and clambered in, reaching for the satellite phone. He had been gone for hours.

He dialled the Sanctuary at once to fill The Big Guy in on their situation and check on Will’s condition.

The phone rang out.

Henry returned it slowly to the cradle and considered it for a few minutes with the steady snore of the guide in the background. Shaking his head, Henry tried again, carefully dialling the number. Again, the phone rang out and Henry was left with a sinking worry. Something was wrong. Bigfoot never missed a call, ever.

He was so lost in his worry that he didn’t notice the tour guide behind him wake, cracking open his sun-worn eyes to the night.

*~*~*

A horrible wail scratched through the room with such ferocity that Joe Kavanaugh dropped his flaming torch to the ground and swiftly followed with his hands clasped over his ears to stop them from breaking as he bowed his head to the dirt.

The creatures joined in, hissing with the voice as they moved together around the sarcophagus in a kind of sickly tide. Soon, they were crying too – pawing at the sand with their tapered fingers. Joe, unlike most, had always thought of the sand creatures as the people they were once – but now he saw what everyone else did – their animal nature. Truly, they were some bastardised existence between humanity and the ancient past – one that was afraid.

Finally taking hold of himself, Joe reached for the torch, still burning on the ground in front of him, and scrambled to his feet, backing away toward the large tower of sand in the centre of the room. Without realising what he was doing, Joe started backing up onto it, climbing it as best he could with one hand clutching into the shifting surface.

He was too transfixed by the frightening mass of wailing creatures to realise that he was no longer progressing, merely dislodging avalanches of sand like some kind of bewildered beetle. The room had never seemed so impossibly big. There was just no way conceivably out of it, no way to escape the eternal imprisonment it was designed for.

Suddenly, the flame flicked backwards across his hand. The heat scorched him for a second, before straightening and Joe realised that the rest of the room was dead silent. The sand creatures were parting, breaking away to reveal the hunched figure of their master.

“T – time,” the word nearly died on full-blooded vampire’s lips, he had been asleep so long, “shall keep us, death – pursue us but never,” he clasped his chest as the beat of his heart grew stronger for the first time in several thousand years, “end us.”

The vampire let the words settle. His strength was growing with every moment. He could not believe that his eyes could see again, that his perpetual world of darkness was removed by the unbearable brightness of a few torches. Oh – the world, how he ached to see the arching dunes and the crystal waters of the shore, hold his child in his arms again after – but – then the memories swept over him. His child was dead – all of his people were gone. Lost, slaughtered. He raised his head. Brother, he whispered to no-one, your time is up.

Breaking free of his murderous trance, the ancient vampire straightened up, laying one of his clawed hands lazily on the coffin that had been his tomb. He eyed the sorrowful crowd of half-creatures around him, more beast than vampire as they cowered at his feet and – how interesting, a human flayed out on the sand in front of him, trying to escape.

The vampire tilted his head and lunged through the crowd in several long steps, stopping short of Joe’s terrified gasp.

*~*~*

“Skeletons, dust – ancient ruins,” Nikola picked a small chunk of rock from his hair with utter disdain, “all of my favourite things…”

John’s glower darkened as he dislodged and threw the last mini-arrow to the floor where it lay innocently. “Is he being serious?” he grumbled.

“No…” was Helen’s swift reply, as she began to regret leaving her jacket by the pool. If nothing else, it left her quite extraordinary array of weapons naked to the world.

“Then is it possible to shut him up for a while?” John matched pace with the others and they continued up the main street of the deserted city, three abreast.

“This is worse than those crypts below Rome,” said Helen. “It’s like a ghost city,” she continued, navigating her way around a twisted skeleton. “They’re all still here,” she pointed out a pile of a dozen skeletons or more blackened in a side street. “It’s horrible.” It was clear to her that the skeletons were those of Abnormals, hundreds of them collected and destroyed.

“Reminds me of Pompeii – minus the imposing mountain. Ah, here we go…” John bent to the ground and lightly grazed a footprint with his hand. “Ashley,” he muttered, “casually strolling by the looks of it.”

“She’s about the only thing that’s been here in a while,” added Helen, as another row of bleached bones peaked out from one of the crumbling building’s window.

“This sanctuary,” said John, lifting his arms and with them, the heavily soaked coat, “whatever it may have been once, is gone. I doubt Ashley will find what she’s looking for in a place like this.”

“Rash child,” Helen snapped so sharply that the two gentlemen paused and glanced at each other. Helen was wiping her cheeks quickly, brushing aside a few surprise tears. “Whatever would convince her that this was a good idea?”

John and Nikola were exceedingly quiet behind her, passing dangerous glances at each other, neither willing to betray their part. There was too much at stake for both of them to risk the truth now.

Instead, Nikola cleared his throat and paced ahead of Helen, reaching the large set of doors ahead of them first.

“The intended entrance to the sanctuary,” he said boldly, noticing that one of the doors was slightly ajar – enough for them to slip through into the darkness one by one. Ashley’s footsteps led directly through the gap.

Behind the doors they were back into familiar territory – dark, cold and every-so-slightly damp walls. They were definitely back in the tunnels. Their voices automatically fell to a hush. John, having not encountered the vampire first hand, followed the others’ lead and clicked his flashlight on.

If Helen and Tesla are this nervous, he rationed, then it must be bad.

“Helen…” Nikola whispered in something barely more than a breath on her ear. She looked at him, waiting for him to continue. “If we get caught again – I don’t think our gracious host is going to let us leave alive.”

“Thank you Nikola,” she brushed him away, “I am aware of that.”

His eyes wandered down to Helen’s waist where her pale hand had settled on the handle of a rather sinister-looking knife. It warmed his heart.

*~*~*

She was surrounded by billows of black rock, glistening in the wake of her weak flashlight with something that wasn’t quite water. With the great doors to the city well behind her, she couldn’t help but notice a few skeletal remains brushed against the cave walls. Whatever violence had transpired, it had not been confined to the city.

Ashley backed up against one of the cold walls in the tunnel system and felt into her pocket. There were still several blood samples snuggled in there which she had entirely forgotten about since the first sample had tumbled and smashed, uselessly, over the train line. She wondered now, what had been the purpose of these? They seemed of no use to her now and she was tempted to abandon them completely – destroy them but they had belonged to her grandfather and keeping them was like keeping a little bit of him.

She let them clink against each other, rolling around in her fingers until she expelled a heavy sigh and turned her attention back to Magnus’s journal, flipping it open. Ashley scanned the untidy page for the next set of instructions, hoping that although she had literally fallen from the path, there was some guidance left for her.

There is no greater gift in this enterprise than English manners.’

Ashley frowned. Manners? In a cave? Who was she to be polite to – the bats?

What are you doing here Ashley? She asked herself. It had been a while since she’d been so far out of her depth. At least hunting monsters she knew where she stood – but this, how was she to convince a vampire to help her? More to the point, how to acquire its blood and fill the empty vial in her other pocket?

Hunt it

Her mind mused. Stick to what you know best. Hunt the vampire and try not to kill it.

*~*~*

Two dark eyes bored through Joe’s face like pealing back the skin and though the vampire’s lips did not move, Joe could hear a faint whisper on the air – or in his head, he couldn’t be sure.

What is your purpose here, human?” it asked, still speaking the ancient language.

“I – ” Joe stuttered, and then realised he would have to reply in the same language if he were to have even the slightest shot at surviving. “I came to make a trade,” he said slowly, and with very poor pronunciation.

The vampire snarled in amusement, indicating that Joe should continue.

I resurrected you from your tomb in the hope that you could restore my father to human form.”

The red behind the vampire’s eyes flickered wildly with fascination.

Your father – is among us?” he asked, as the sand creatures crept in closer around them. Several rows back, Joe’s father watched the proceedings dispassionately. The vampire smelt, rather than looked at the mass of half-creatures behind him. A moment later, he smelt the blood relation. “I see…”

I bestowed upon you your freedom,” Joe lowered the torch to a less threatening position.

What you say is true…” the vampire cocked its head to the side. “You should know that not all men are honest, young human, and even less of those are fair. What can be said of men is double for our kind.

Joe fought to keep his breath steady. Maybe he was going to die after all…

But as it so happens I am bound by law to return the favour.” The vampire turned to the crowd and, with one horribly clawed finger, beckoned Joe’s father forward. “Is this your father?”

Joe nodded.

Then he is yours.”

The vampire lowered his claws to Joe’s father’s neck, casually gliding down it leaving an angry red slice that began to drip with scarlet. The man did not flinch, his blue eyes glistened, staring into nowhere without change.

It happened so fast.

The vampire dipped its head and sunk its teeth through the creature’s next. Joe’s father squealed – then gasped for breath as the vampire dug in deeper. The victim’s blue eyes turned glassy and vacant. After a few dying gasps, his body went limp and the vampire let it fall to the dirt.

“No!”Joe screamed, falling to the ground beside the crippled body of his father.

 

10

THE SECOND BITE

The ancient vampire curled his claw and beckoned the half-creatures to follow. A few minutes later, they were gone – escaped from their prison like shadows and back at large in the new world leaving detective Joe Kavanaugh and his father alone in the tomb.

Father…” Joe whispered, cradling the tortured body in his arms. His father was human again but humans were fragile things that clung ever so softly to life. The man was old and withered without the ever-vengeful vampire blood coursing through his veins.

The tomb around them was softer now with its dozens of flaming torches flickering against the wall and the black sarcophagus laid open in surrender. The glassy walls reflected the flames down onto the sand in sad halos where Joe sat.

I never stopped trying…” Joe whispered, rocking slightly with his father. “Never.”

At least his father was human, free from an eternity cowering at a vampire’s feet. Is that not what humanity had spent millennia fighting for? Joe hoped it was freedom that the human race bled for…

My son,” a weak voice cracked onto the air. “…Joe…” the old man whispered, stirring in Joe’s arms.

Joe gasped softly as his father’s eyes opened, pale green and unblinking. It was as if he had not seen the world for thirty years.

A terrible dream…” the old man breathed, gripping Joe’s hand tightly.

Hours later, Joe and his father stumbled from the last of the narrow caves and out into the vanishing light of the desert. The rim of the horizon was starting to glow. Stars peaked through the veils of shimmering air while a few lone jet trails faded.

The remains of a canvas tent tumbled past, swept up in an angry curl of air. Shreds of it caught on the rocks beside Joe and his father, tearing with a loud rip before flapping off in pieces. Sand clawed impatiently at the edges of the decimated camp site.

My god…” Joe breathed in horror at the sight before him. The faces that had wished him well only hours ago were strewn over the ground – fed upon. His stomach lurched at the deep fang and claw marks in the corpses whose eyes were left open in terror. “They killed everything.”

The vampire and his entourage of sand creatures had left nothing alive – not even the camels tied up in the south pen.

We have to get back to the Sanctuary and warn them,” Joe realised, helping his father down the sharp rocks.

The faint flicker of settlement was visible a long way off, catching the last of the light. Joe and his father took one of the Jeeps and headed off on the gravel track, chasing the sun. The sand was already blowing over them, preceding the rise of dunes creeping ever closer to civilisation. The cities may have forgotten the desert but it had not forgotten them.

*~*~*

The Sanctuary of the Moon was not a place to wander.

It was an enormous sprawl of natural caverns, trembling walls of rockfall, mirrors of freezing water that seeped deep into the earth and complex tunnels designed to confuse even the most determined human. Its undoing had left the beautiful archways of stone that spanned between the walls of an ancient promenade in decay. Some of them had eroded, returning to their natural state of rubble while others protruded from the black rock, defiantly hanging in half-broken protrusions.

The ancient vampire could feel the others hunting about in his Sanctuary, scratching from tunnel to tunnel, fumbling about in the darkness. One lone child was drawing close to his private quarters whilst the larger party that he had already warned away once, was heading toward the crypt in the centre of the Sanctuary.

There they were again – soft, hesitant footsteps, slightly uneven as they approached the thin holographic barrier hiding the entrance to his lair. It looked like rock – felt like rock. The technology was an illusion. All the vampire need do was reach out…

Instead, the vampire laid silently against the wall beside and waited. Even from here he could hear the young creature’s heartbeat on the air. Humans, they were so fragile.

Ashley hesitated.

Slowly, she turned on her heel, dragging the torchlight over the wall. Nothing. She cautiously took another step and – and the breathing returned beside her. Ashley faced the wall, trailing her gaze from where it merged seamlessly to the ceiling down to the oddly clean edge it formed with the tunnel floor.

She reached out, grazing her fingertips over the rough surface unable to see the vampire in front of her mimic her action, ghosting his fingertips in front of hers like a twisted mirror.

*~*~*

Helen’s torchlight fell on another pile of rubble and bones.

Look…” she whispered, directing John and Nikola’s attention. They were hardly a few minute’s walk from the ruined city, their progress slowed by Helen’s constant distraction. “Draconis-aelianus, the Ethiopian elephant eater.”

A dragon?” John whispered, looking at the small pile of bones. Obviously this one was an infant.

Like that hideous furry thing you used to keep in your basement?” Nikola started but Helen cut him off as she knelt to the ground, trailing her fingers over the white bone.

These things have been extinct for a thousand years. Goodness, the line of spines on its back is intact.” When the relevance failed to register with the others, she elaborated. “All its brothers and sisters were hunted to extinction for the high quality ivory in their spine. I have some ancient human artefacts made from it. They cost me a small part of my fortune.”

Nothing has changed then… It’s definitely still extinct,” Nikola quipped before he was knocked by John’s rather large, deliberate and imposing shoulder.

You’re very nearly the last of your kind, Nikola. It would be my pleasure to hasten your extinction.” John winked rather disturbingly at Nikola who could do nothing but raise a claw. “This Sanctuary is ruined…” John bent down to the ground, sliding his fingers through the layers of cave rubble until they curled around an ancient knife that had been the source of the creature’s demise.

At least in this, Nikola could agree. “I’ve counted at least three flood lines, an earthquake or two and -” he frowned, his wiry figure edging closer to the wall. He ran his fingers along an ominous crack in the black stone patched over by thick cobwebs. “Gunfire…” he murmured, as his fingers dipped into the small indents sprayed across it.

Helen found one of the cartridges, holding it in her palm. “Muscat shots… Very old gunfire…” She turned to Nikola, tilting her head in a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. “Would it be too bold of me to presume that the reason for the demise of this great sanctuary made it into your research, Dr Tesla?”

She only called him ‘Dr Tesla’ when he was being thoroughly mocked. Tesla – shifted.

It may have touched on – passed across – brushed over…”

Nikola…” Helen levelled her gaze at him.

What can I say?” he shrugged softly. “Cats guarding the pigeons – they got hungry.” A Sanctuary run by vampires? Of course that was going to end in a flurry of feathers.

I thought you liked pigeons?” Helen lofted her eyebrow, prodding him sharply as John took a step closer, narrowing his eyes at the vampire.

He’s making it up,” John hissed softly.

Nikola turned, arms folded. “Yes, I’m making it up,” he admitted theatrically. “How on earth or otherwise would I know? Don’t give me that look – I wasn’t even born when this mess went down.”

Oh believe me,” London’s most notorious murder stooped to look the scientist in the eye. “I will find a way. Somehow, this will all trail back to you.”

Black ink seeped into Nikola’s eyes. That was an incredibly awful scientific principle, not to mention a wholly unfair comment on his character as a gentleman. “I’m confident I can outwit you,” he whispered, too soft for Helen to hear. “I always could.”

Won the game – lost the war, young vamp,” John smirked. Tesla would never get what he really wanted while ever John was around.

What is Ashley trying to do here?” Helen was several paces ahead of them, peering down into the long cave. “She’s got no chance against a full-blooded vampire, has she?”

She’d leave more than a few holes in it,” Nikola replied.

I can’t help but wonder…” Helen let her hand rest on the wall beside her. “My parents spent many months of my childhood in South America – here, in the nearby city. I think my father has been here – in these caves.”

Suddenly, Helen Magnus looked vulnerable.

What if he’s sent Ashley to finish whatever it was that he started?”

*~*~*

Bigfoot dragged himself up the marble stairwell one blood-stained step at a time. Will – well, creature Will had sunk down onto all fours, preferring to crawl slowly over the ground. It was difficult to make his form out. His skin had learned to mimic its surroundings near perfectly.

Will…” Bigfoot whispered, still backing up the stairs.

Will’s skin trembled unsteadily for a moment, the natural scarlet red of sand creature skin flickering into view.

This silent stalking dragged on until Bigfoot reached the top of the stairs. There was a door behind his furry form and beyond that, the rooftop and freedom. Will wasn’t truly interested in Bigfoot – it was the door…

Without warning, Will pounced. His lean body leapt through the air, bouncing off the wall with claws outstretched. He landed heavily on Bigfoot, bringing him to the ground. Bigfoot tried to hold onto Will, keep him inside but he was simply too strong now. Will broke free and pushed the door off its hinges.

The air was beautiful as it hit Will’s face. His golden eyes tracked over he sprawl of city beyond the roof – the endless tunnels that must lay beneath them… He growled, low and deep in something akin to happiness.

Will clawed at the stone floor, setting off at a run. Bigfoot’s cry of protest was lost in the wind as Will scaled the small wall of stone and launched himself off the roof and out into Old City.

*~*~*

This way…” John whispered. He had found something – another smaller tunnel diverging.

Nikola frowned as his feet suddenly found water. Great, the tunnel was half flooded… Helen sloshed up to him, unaffected by the freezing water that was flowing slowly forwards.

Oh yes, let’s all just follow blindly…” Nikola muttered at her. He had been leading, following the scattered writing on the all of the main tunnel. Afterall, he had gone to all the trouble of finding this place, you know, built by his ancestors. Not that he was possessive about these things.

Stop pouting,” Helen whispered, giving him a gentle nudge. “Jealously doesn’t suit your ego.”

I’m not jealous, I’m annoyed,” Nikola muttered, stepping over an ill-placed bolder which turned out to be the decapitated head of an old statue. At least for a little while, he stayed close to Helen. John was further ahead, under the illusion that he was leading. “Helen…” Nikola lowered his voice. “This isn’t the way Ashley came.”

Helen looked at him softly – more like she used to when they were alone. In silent reply, Nikola reached down with his free hand and brushed it gently against hers. His soft touches, however rare, were always disarming…

Helen – here…” John stopped ahead in front of a large, curved wall.

Helen walked away from Nikola leaving him standing alone. He sighed softly – and inevitably followed. He always did.

The wall was a mosaic. Millions of tiny fragments of brightly covered pottery covered the glass-stone, stuck there by some kind of translucent resin. It was a sharp clash of styles; the layout of the wall was distinctly Egyptian with rows of slaves, horses, food and ships faithfully detailing an event but the style – there was no denying the breathtaking realism of the Greeks.

Good heavens…” Helen whispered. The animals in the mosaic looked almost real with their riders whipping them hard to get them to board the ships. It was their eyes that haunted Helen.

It’s a door,” Nikola murmured. He was standing the furthest back, in ankle deep water. “There are numbers, all along the edge.” He pointed to them. “A combination lock by the looks of it.” A very pretty one.

There must be something important behind it to go to such trouble -”

Nikola hissed at John to get him to shush. “I’m reading…”

Helen couldn’t help laughing softly at Nikola as he started muttering under his breath, eyes tracking over the tiny lines of text riddled amongst the frightening images of vampires and humans.

Nikola…” Helen whispered, walking up to him and tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention. He frowned and tried to shoo her away. He was busy trying to translate. “Nikola…” she insisted, tapping his shoulder insistently.

Helen please… I’m trying to – that really is annoying,” he protested as she switched to tugging on his sleeve. “Seriously wha-oh…

Nikola had been so focused on the text that he’d utterly failed to see the bigger picture. Strewn across the otherwise beautiful mosaic was a bloody scene warning all thinking of opening the door. Open this tomb and you’ll end up like the butchered bodies – open this tomb and you’ll release its scourge upon the earth.

A touch melodramatic, don’t you think?” Nikola breathed softly.

Helen couldn’t help her lips curling in a smile. “A distinctly vampire trait, then…”

Nikola frowned as Helen returned to John’s side at the wall. “What are you doing?”

They looked back over their shoulders as they leaned against the wall – hands outstretched. Helen’s eyes were bright with mischief. “Opening it, of course…”

Honestly – people thought Nikola was bad?

11

STORM IN THE DESERT

The wall started to grind against the stone floor.

That’s it…” Helen whispered encouragement to her boys as they grunted and growled, steadily moving the enormous door with an ear-splitting screech.

As usual, the token vampire was right – brute force hadn’t been enough. The entire wall was an intricate combination lock that stumped the other two Oxford majors for the better part of an hour. Nikola had waited patiently, inspecting his claws while they tried every primitive thing they could think of.

Humans…

Nikola…” Helen had finally drawled, calling him forward. With only the very slight advantage of a private collection of ancient texts stolen from the British Museum’s vault, Nikola picked out the numerical sequences hidden in the mural, slid his long, tapered claws into several sets of holes burrowed through the rock and listened to the satisfying ‘click’ of the door unlocking.

Physically opening it regrettably required something a little less demure.

Come on, push harder…” Helen insisted.

By all means, chip in at any time,” Nikola replied airily. There was actually a layer of sweat on his brow – how distasteful. Gods and the dust… don’t get him started on the dust.

Helen tried not to think about the elusive, full-blood vampire lurking about. It had warned them not to return and here they were, raiding his cave like common tomb raiders having some kind of party in his vaults.

Well, in fairness, at the present they were common tomb raiders.

Honestly, if you’re just going to stand there and watch, could you at least be more encouraging?” Nikola gasped, trying but failing to get a better grip on the granite. This was going to ruin his claws.

Helen smirked.

Twenty minutes later, the door was open.

The rock gaped in its wake revealing a void that was presumably a room. Helen stepped forward, shining her torch into the black. Its light tracked up the floor until it scattered over a stone sarcophagus.

No one touch anything…” she whispered, stepping carefully over the threshold and into the room.

Steady on, Indy…” Nikola followed, closely trailed by John and his ridiculously long trench coat. “Step on something here and a wall of spikes tries to impale us.”

It’s not funny, Nikola…” Helen cautioned.

Nikola thought it was, judging from his large, fang-filled grin. Ah memories.

What the devil have we got here…” John asked, approaching more cautiously than the others. Caving had always been their thing, not his.

The devil indeed, according to the entrance foyer – a creature of unimaginable danger, locked away from the world and – oh…” Nikola reached the sarcophagus and frankly after all the paraphernalia at the front, it was rather unimpressive. “I was hoping for more.”

Don’t sulk, Nikola…” Helen warned him, throwing a spare flashlight at Nikola while she stepped forward with a lighter, catching several of the ancient torches with its flame. Their oily mixture exploded into flame rendering the room instantly bathed in light, enough for them to see that it was big and empty with nothing but the rectangular stone slab at its centre. “Bloody hell.”

Nikola slipped the useless flashlight into his pocket. Sometimes he thought Helen used him as a glorified backpack.

There’s no way that’s good…” Nikola said, bending down to get a better look at where the stone sarcophagus had been ripped open. He ran his claws along the crack. It was deep and weathered. “From the inside too…”

Helen picked up a fragment of the broken tomb. “Like alien – but with stone, in an Egyptian tomb – in South America and – “

Totally not like alien…” Nikola shook his head playfully at her, flirting as always. “You don’t suppose this pissed off creature escaped and wreaked havoc on the Sanctuary? It would explain why we’ve found it in tatters.”

A single creature destroyed them?” Helen replied, her hand resting on the capstone. She’d certainly come close enough to that inside her own sanctuary. “The walls don’t elaborate on its abnormality. We have no way of knowing what it was capable of – or what became of it.”

Except…”

John looked to Nikola. “Except?” he prompted. John had been wandering around the remainder of the room but had found nothing but a few spare torches.

Nikola twirled around to face him, arms folded across his chest. “Well, think about it. We’ve got one person here who was around in that time. Someone who remembers it. The vampire…”

I really don’t think it’s a good idea to hunt him down, Nikola.”

Just how many vampires are there?” John sighed. Was the world bloody crawling with them now? One vampire was quite enough for him.

We need to get back to finding Ashley,” Helen whispered. “This place has a dark history that is better kept hidden from the world before it seeps into it…”

Nikola smirked, pacing menacingly around the ruined coffin, leaning on it casually. “Helen… you know as well as I do that a full-blood vampire is too dangerous to leave roaming free. You could offer him Sanctuary.” How many times had she used that line on him?

Helen’s hands settled on her hips, her eyes narrowing at Nikola. “And when did you develop a responsible attitude? Nikola… I’m not kidnapping a vampire for you to study.”

You kidnapped me….”

We discussed this – no vampire species resurrections. The vampires had their time and unless you find a mate-”

John coughed sharply, somewhere between a laugh and disgust.

Nikola had the good grace to look flustered. “Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of saving that pet protege of yours. The one you’re so fond of. If anything holds the key to his survival and unfortunate return to his old, whining self – it’ll be our toothy friend. I’d bet all your best wine, that’s why Ashley’s here.”

John had stolen one of the flaming torches, stalking around the room with it. “A sample of its blood -”

Nikola’s hand waved John to a hush. “It may have nothing to do with his blood. Helen – we need the whole creature if you want to play this game – and somewhere under all that morality, you know I’m right.”

Helen stared back into Nikola’s sharp, blue eyes. Damn, she hated it when he was right. “I should have shot you when I had the chance…” she sighed, shaking her head.

The vampire winked at her. “You missed.”

Tragically,” John sighed.

*~*~*

The doors slammed coldly as they stepped out of the Jeep.

Jesus…” Joe whispered, at the devastation approaching.

Rising behind the ruined airport was a storm. Murky clouds had risen up from deep in the desert to stretch out along the horizon. Stained red, they swirled into a great wave of sand casting a long shadow over the desert that was, even now, creeping over the outskirts of the airport. Joe could hear a whisper of its approaching roar, the vibration making the broken windows in the nearby building rattle and fall onto the ground.

There were people inside the building nailing boards across windows and bolting the doors closed. The hanger was full of planes and cars squeezed in together. Its heavy iron doors were fastened with chains and then abandoned. All that was left in the open was a small aircraft perched on the tarmac like a dragonfly on a lily-pad. The pilot was arguing at the entrance of the airport, glancing nervously at the storm every time he paused for breath. It was obvious they weren’t going to let him park his plane – he’d have to take his chances outrunning the storm.

Joe only spoke fragments of the native language but he approached them anyway, pointing to the plane and flashing what little cash he had left in his wallet. The man didn’t seem interested, brushing him off to resume abusing the airport staff until Joe said two words, ‘Helen Magus’. The man paused, turning slowly. There were a few moments of silence between them in which nothing could be heard but the growing rumble of the sand storm. Finally, the man waved Joe and his father towards the plane, refusing the money.

Came from nowhere…” the pilot grunted, his English broken as they strapped themselves in. Parts of the plane were held together with thick wads of duct tape. Generally, it looked like it had been compiled from war scraps picked out of the desert. “Never seen them at this time of year,” he continued, not bothering with – well, most of the preflight checks that ordinary aircraft went through. There wasn’t much point when the answers would be, ‘broken’ ‘not functioning’ ’empty’. “Fierce bastards, tear this thing apart.”

Joe gripped both his father and the seat. They had to get out of this place. A pure blood, ancient Vampire had been free for two hours and already there seemed to be a terrible power unleashed over the land.

In ancient times, the world sighed for them not because of their fangs but because they could call the desert to their will and tumble cities into dust.

*~*~*

On the other side of the world, the phone rang.

Bigfoot grunted and sidled off the infirmary table leaving a mess of blood and bandages behind him. He balanced the phone in his paw, answering the phone with that same polite, indifference he always did. He was met with static.

Say again…?” he growled.

It was Detective Kavanaugh – little bastard. By the time Bigfoot put the phone down, he was shaking his head. There was a sand-Will on the loose, missing boss with two of the most untrustworthy men on the planet and now, an escaped pure blood vampire.

Begrudgingly, he made a few phone calls to the Sanctuaries based in Africa to stay on the lookout for suspicious behaviour. He didn’t mention vampires… Best they keep that to himself for now. In all Magnus’s years building Sanctuaries around the world there was one piece of information she’d left entirely out of the records – vampires.

*~*~*

Will curled up under the streets of Old City. The train tunnels were cool and dark, perfect for his freshly created body. Despite the aching hunger, he needed to rest, making himself a nest at the side of the track where part of the tunnel wall curved generously. Like a cat, he hid amongst the stones with his dark red skin rippling into grey to match as he closed his eyes.

He still had memories of who he was but that was all that they were – a distant awareness that he had once been something else. He could remember people but they were just names now. Helen Magnus, Henry Foss, Ashley – the Sanctuary itself, none of it meant anything to him. This wasn’t William Zimmerman, no, this was a creature of the sand, like all the others. When he finally woke up – he would feed.

By the time Joe reached the Sanctuary in Old City, his father had grown too weak to walk. A small medical team flitted around them, ushering them through the foyer.

He needs to reeest…” Bigfoot drawled, laying the fragile man onto a bed before wheeling him down the hallways. Joe followed, filthy and dishevel from the rigmarole of getting here. “Few weeks of food and sleeeeep should be enough.”

Bigfoot spent the remainder of the afternoon in the lab, drawing samples of blood from Kavanaugh senior and analysing them.

…it’s a virus,” he grunted, holding up the delicate glass slide to the light. The only other creature in the underground lab that was still awake at this hour was the Sanctuary’s mermaid. She shimmered in the water, her scaled tail never settling on a colour. Gently, she placed the palm of her hand against the glass, tilting her head curiously. Mermaids did not exactly speak but they did have a way of making you aware of their thoughts and without knowing how they did it, you answered their questions.

Hiiiis blood is littered with the carcasses of the things,” Bigfoot continued, turning slightly to the tank. “Whateeever that vampire did, it killed the virus.”

He put the slide down and sighed, staring into the empty lab. On the table in front of him were photographs of Joe’s father, most pointedly of his neck which bared a row of puncture marks – a vampire bite. He nudged one of them with his fur-covered finger.

*~*~*

Henry put the radio down in disgust. No answer from anyone. The cave had rejected him and he couldn’t say that he was surprised – there appeared to be some truth to those ancient stories of vampires and werewolves not mixing and frankly he was mildly insulted. It was a Sanctuary for all – except him. Typical. Oh, finally, the boat driver was awake…

Henry reached for the map, spreading it out on the crate serving as a table to show the tour guide where he needed to go when the man suddenly lurched forward, rocking the boat sharply.

What in the-” but Henry didn’t get to finish as he ducked out of the way of large piece of wood. It hit the map, tearing it and smashing through a small lantern hanging on the boat. The guide straightened up, quickly moving in again.

You’ll make a nice addition to the collection, Wolf…” His words were thickly accented but unmistakable. The man’s eyes were white in the moonlight. He worked for a shamble of an abnormal black market – trading what he could for cash. Usually, he only happened across strays or if he was lucky, his forest traps picked up humanoid abnormals living on the fringe. Tonight, he had himself a werewolf. Pay day.

Not good…” Henry stammered, cornered. There was nowhere to go in the tiny boat except into the black water. Close by, a bird screamed into the night and splashed against the thick reeds along the river bank. Henry didn’t fancy a swim in that water…

The guide brought the blunt handle of a machete down on the back of Henry’s head, sending him to his knees. Henry was dizzy, sharp pain rushing down his spine as he turned to see the driver of the boat grinning in the night air. His teeth were eerily white.

He had no choice but to let the wolf take over, growing to his full height – his clothes tearing away as fur sprouted over his skin and long, sharp canine teeth glinting in the moonlight. Henry growled, swiping at the man who ducked, missing Henry’s paw which went on to shatter the glass windscreen.

Several of the children that Henry had seen playing in the daylight – running beside them had assembled on the bank. They crept up amongst the reeds, watching with hungry eyes the strange beast and man fighting. They knew that their forests were full of devilish creatures – it had always been so. The land of monsters some called it, a place for things of the night to hide.

The boat lurched under the weight of the werewolf causing both of them to stumble and the last lantern to fall onto the deck, shattering and catching alight. The fire ripped along the spilled oil heading dangerously close to the fuel tanks.

Holy shit…” Henry growled – the other man pausing from his attacks to stare in horror. Both of them turned at once, leaping into the water as the boat exploded in a ball of fire that lit up the night.

*~*~*

Ashley stepped back from the wall. Something was wrong. She could feel a tingle in the air, like static electricity running over her skin.

She lifted her weapon, stepping back and pointing it squarely at the wall in front of her. A cold whisper of laughter filled the air as the rock wall flickered into nothing, revealing the ancient vampire.

It was only now that Ashley realised how ridiculous her gun looked. She could empty it into this creature and it would merely straighten its robes and grin back – so she lowered it.

I’m not here to kill you,” she said quickly, with that same measured tone as her grandfather. “I’ve come for your help.”

What is it these days with humans wanting my help….?” the vampire drawled back, his tone somewhere between menace and curiosity. “I could have used your help fifty years ago.”

12

DEEPER INTO THE CAVES

Ashley lowered her weapon, deliberately letting the vampire see the safety click on. She holstered it at her waist, out of sight.

What happened fifty years ago?” she asked carefully.

The vampire retreated, sinking into the cavern and its comforting dark. He was old. Every feature on his pale face had shrivelled to the bone, reflecting the cave-light along sharp, jutting angles. His black eyes were vulnerable. Their glossy domes sat high, accommodating a multi-layered lens which refracted the light differently to humans. The adaptation caused a red glow to leak from them giving him an unfairly sinister disposition. It was easy to see how an ancient culture may have confused them with devils.

A small flicker of electricity licked the cave wall around them with a short snap.

I – I do not remember exactly,” the vampire whispered, his voice cracked. “The city fell. I read of it, scratched into the walls with my very own claws. The memories of that time are gone. I cannot explain it. I must have seen…” He turned away – flashes of something storming through his mind but he couldn’t focus on them.

Ashley shifted uneasily. “Are you the soul survivor?”

If I wasn’t then, I am now.” The vampire dragged his broken claws down the cave wall eliciting a shower of sparks. “The Sanctuary is dead. This dream…” Such a young creature could not understand what he had lost.

I’ve seen the city,” Ashley added softly. “They killed each other. You didn’t kill them, if that’s what you – ”

The vampire wasn’t listening. He stepped forward and lifted his withered hand up to her face. Ashley held her ground as he mimicked the contours of her skin with a sweep of claws.

You are a child of the blood – I can smell it in you.” His head tilted to the side as if she were a curious piece of prey. It was his blood flowing through their veins – a very strange sensation. “The same blood as the woman and that mongrel vampire. What brings you to such depths as to seek my help?”

My friend is sick,” she whispered, her features softening. “He was mauled by something we call a ‘sand creature’ – a person, bitten by a vampire and turned into a mad half-creature. I need your blood to save him.”

The ancient vampire threw his head back in chilling laughter, withdrawing from her as the sound screeched off the cave walls. This human child had wasted her time. There was no cure for the plague.

Go home – forget your friend. He is a slave to the flesh.”

*~*~*

Detective Joe Kavanaugh set the glass slide down beside the microscope. The virus was inactive – as dead as something that was never technically alive could get. He levelled his gaze at it.

So there is a cure.” Joe turned to the sasquatch. The creature was lingering amongst the delicate glassware on the opposing bench, furry paws prodding the odd slide. “There’s hope for Dr Zimmerman, if we can find him.”

And if we can fiiiind another vampire,” Bigfoot drawled. “This did not come from hiiis blood – it’s from his bite. There’s some kind of venom in this sample. I managed to isolate a small sample but hardly enough for Will.”

…the others are trying to collect blood samples. That won’t be enough…” Joe paced around the room, passing in front of the mermaid’s tank. She watched curiously, remaining little more than a silver shadow in the water. “We have to tell them.”

Beeeen tryin’ to reach them for days,” Bigfoot muttered, shaking his head. “They don’ answer their phones.”

How long have they been gone?” Joe moved to the printer, catching another analysis as it printed. Biology wasn’t exactly his thing but he’d spent enough time lurking around the lab at the department to pick up the basics.

They’ve been out of contact nearly three days,” Bigfoot replied. “Magnus must have found somethin’ out there in the jungle.”

I have to go and find her.”

You’re stayn’ here,” Bigfoot growled firmly. “We’ve got to catch Helen’s protege.”

*~*~*

Henry dug his claws into the mud and dragged himself onto the bank. Burning fragments from the ruined boat rained around him, splashing into the water or striking the bank, erupting in tiny grass fires. The smuggler’s corpse floated down stream until something pulled it beneath the water. Henry shivered, dragging himself further into the long grass.

He lay there, staring up at the night sky. The reeds whispered against his fury body, bending and sighing in the wind. The explosions from the boat were dying as it too sank into the dark river. When it was gone, only the grass fires lit the world.

Henry thought about changing into human form – of seeking out the few children hiding not far from him and asking for directions – but there was something about this world that frightened him.

The werewolf rolled over and crouched on all fours, tilting his nose to the air. A village – to his left – boats, cars and houses. Henry could smell them through the smoke.

*~*~*

We’re not equipped to take down a vampire…” Helen shook her head, hunting through her pack. There was precious little in it that could neutralise a creature that powerful.

Good to know,” Nikola flexed his claws.

Nikola, you’re only part vampire. I can bat my eyelashes and take you down.”

That caused the Serbian scientist to stumble mid-strut as he sauntered into the alcove. He was always so dramatic. “Neither of you have considered the obvious.” Nikola received blank stares from both John and Helen. “We talk to him. It. At the end of the day, vampires are rational creatures. Pissed… but still highly intelligent.”

John scoffed.

What scheme are you concocting, Nikola?” Helen straightened up, hands on her hips. “Weren’t you the one rabbiting on about how dangerous ancient vampires are? You’re up to something, I can feel it. You’re always up to something.”

Not everything your protege says is true,” Nikola insisted.

He’s a profiler…”

Nikola grinned, his fangs visible against his lips. “Perhaps I just wanted to spend more time in your company, Dr Magnus.”

Nikola…” she stalked towards him with a scowl on her lips. It was getting airless down here if only because the vampire used it all up on his bite-less flattery. “If I find out that you’ve manipulated us into coming here for one of your pet projects – endangered my daughter – I’m going to clear out your old cell in my basement.”

His grin only got wider. “Me – you – chains… Why Helen, you should have said. Ow.” He rubbed his cheek where she’d slapped him again.

Focus! God.

Nikola’s gaze settled on John, lurking against the cave wall. The man was the very embodiment of nightmare and at the present, amused by Tesla’s rejection.

Tesla ran his fingers through his spiky hair which was tainted by dust. “I can feel the vampire, he’s not far from here.” His cheek was still red when he turned back to the tunnel. “There are electrical fluctuations in the air and they’re getting stronger this way. He can smell us from miles away and evade us easily if he wishes. About our only advantage is – “

A serial killer that can teleport?” Helen interjected helpfully.

I was going to say – a genius.” Nikola pointed at himself. “Come on, Helen…” he added in a whisper, eyeing her hungrily. “We both know who he’s most interested in. How could he resist?”

Helen frowned and then shook her head at Nikola, her stomach flipping unsteadily. “Nikola – no.”

Yesssss…”

He moved towards her until his face was within inches of hers. Nikola tilted his head, lips moving to her ear to whisper. “For over a hundred years we were a world apart and yet I could still hear your heart beat – my immortal…”

Helen’s eyes closed at his whispered words. They felt as if they had fallen from another time. For so many years they’d said nothing, hidden under professional endeavours of cheap insults. Nikola was right. Helen could feel the other vampire like a cold breath of air on the world. He wasn’t like Nikola…

What if he kills me?” she murmured, her eyes opening in time to catch Nikola’s gaze. He was far too close to her, those playful eyes of his dangerous.

I won’t let him.” Opportunistic bastard that he was, Nikola stole a kiss from her neck and headed off down the corridor. “Come along…” he insisted, and continued rattling off geological facts about the cave system.

John watched on, his eyes darker than before – his smile gone.

*~*~*

The flames licked at the sky, ripping from tree to tree as a bundle of fur tore into the village. Its inhabitants were assembled outside, forming a network of water buckets and barn shovels, awaiting the wall of fire.

Henry took the door of the post office with one heavy impact. He tumbled inside, thrashing around on the ground as his fur and claws disappeared back into this skin leaving him naked on the ground.

Urgh… Ow,” Henry rolled onto his side and then used the counter to haul himself back to his feet. People screamed outside as Henry foraged through the desk drawers until he found a satellite phone.

Biggie!” he sank down into the chair with relief when he heard the familiar grunt on the line. “I’m in the middle of nowhere – I need you to track the – what?” Henry leaned forward sharply. “Are you kidding me?”

Bring the vampiiiiire back,” Bigfoot repeated. “We’ll find Will.”

When the line went dead, Henry hugged the phone to his naked chest. It was his only possession in the world.

Bloody hell. I better find some clothes.”

*~*~*

Helen couldn’t take her eyes off the vampire.

Their party of three were heading deeper into the Sanctuary, following a series of neglected tunnels that wound their way down, following ancient streams. Nikola had spent the last hour rabbiting on about the geology of this underground world, taking particular interest in the limestone caves which they passed through every so often. It was a strange mix of nature and carefully cultivated beauty, bleeding together – both equally ravaged by time.

Enough about the rocks,” John hissed, boots splashing through the water at their ankles. There was something about this place that made him uncomfortable – as though it weren’t quite dead yet. “Are we any closer?”

Helen rested her hand against her chest; her heart was beating too fast. It had been so long since she’d felt the darkness resting at the edge of her vision or felt that whispering desire. Succumb… It begged. Kill the vampire. Restore the balance.

She was startled to find Nikola frowning at her, his hand holding her at arm’s length and her knife at his delicate throat.

Wrong vampire…” he murmured, gently helping her lower the knife.

Helen nodded, slurring an apology.

John didn’t understand what was going on between the two of them. There had always been something different about Helen. The Source blood had changed them all but he’d never been able to discover how. She was ageless, at least on the surface but beyond that, she was a mystery. It killed him to see that Tesla knew her secret.

What are you not telling me?” John asked, stopping abruptly. The water rushed by his feet leaving tiny flecks of gold on his pants. “It’s been over a hundred years, I think it’s time I knew.”

Helen and Nikola exchanged looks, neither saying anything.

For heaven’s sake, Helen. You honestly trust Tesla to keep your secrets? He’s a vampire with an ego the size of Mars who’d sell you out for five minutes of fame.”

Nikola remained silent.

He left you,” John continued, “sixty years of silence after you saved his miserable life. God knows I’m not perfect Helen, but he uses you for his own cause. You’re a convenience. A rescue service with a pretty face, bottomless bank account and cellar full of wine.”

There was a long pause, Helen’s gaze locked firmly on John.

Yes, I trust him,” is all Helen would say.

John shifted uncomfortably. “The least you could do is tell me the plan. How do you envisage us walking out of here alive? And what about Ashley – or have you forgotten about our daughter?

Helen reeled around, eyes as dark as John’s.

Either you stay and help or leave, John. My secrets are my own, a hundred years won’t change that just as the years can’t wash the blood from your hands.”

I’m not the only one with blood on my hands…” John loomed over Helen. He was easily half a foot taller than her and strong enough to knock her to the ground with one blow if he chose.

I didn’t kill innocent women-”

No – just people that disagreed with you.” John snapped back before Helen could finish.

Nikola was ignoring their bickering. Something wasn’t right… He could hear whispers on the air that weren’t real, unkind voices murmuring imagined insults, egging them on. They were being played with.

Quiet!” Nikola hissed at the pair, shoving them roughly apart. “Listen… We’re not alone down here.”

13

A WORLD OF WHISPERS

The only thing holding Helen and John apart was Nikola’s firm grip. His black eyes scanned the darkness over their shoulders. He was looking for a creature. Any creature. Dry wind echoed through the caves around him, kicking up his cloak. The Sanctuary felt empty. Hollow. He startled when material ripped against his claws.

Tesla, get your claws off my coat,” John growled, attempting to free himself of the vampire. Tesla held firm – stronger than his slender frame suggested.

Only when the pair of you calm the fuck down…” he hissed. Those two could tear the world apart over the origins of English tea. Personally, Nikola would prefer to argue the merits of coffee though neither conversation warranted the end of life as they know it.

I AM CALM!” Helen screeched – then took a deep breath and had another go at sounding calm. She looked the vampire square in the eyes and whispered, “I’m calm…”

The hell you are,” Nikola tugged her closer until their noses brushed. Helen instinctively turned her head to the side. “We’re standing in the ruins of a city that tore itself apart. I think I’m starting to understand why. Now, if I let you go, do you promise not to kill your ex?”

She pulled a few inches from him. “Nikola…” Helen cautioned, eyes fierce. Her dark hair framed her face in messy tangles. He remembered when they had been lovely shade of blonde.

He sighed and set them free. John put his fingers through the claw-holes in his coat, scowling.

I think I know what destroyed this Sanctuary,” Nikola returned his eyes to the ruins of the Sanctuary. He shifted nervously, fighting the desire to un-sheath his claws. There wasn’t enough light down here – quite an admission for a vampire. “A creature of terrible persuasion.”

From the crypt?” John offered, then added darkly, “The crypt we just opened.”

For once tag along over here is right. According to your field reports, Helen, you’ve encountered abnormals that can make powerful suggestions to the mind before – why not a creature that does it softly? The vampires are history’s collectors, they might have – ”

You’ve been reading my field reports?” Helen interrupted with a scorn. Her gaze paused at the faint outlines of ruined columns and piles of rubble. “A Magoi – of sorts. Or something worse. Do you think it will attack us?”

It doesn’t need to. It felled a civilisation with a whisper. I’m sure it’s perfectly capable of dispatching us.”

If we’re dealing with a Magoi we could very well be standing in an empty room right now.” Helen reached out to touch one of the ruined columns. It felt real enough beneath her fingertips. “We stay together at all times. It’s in their nature to part us.”

*~*~*

At Nikola’s insistence, they also kept a silence as they trudged through the freezing water.

In Helen’s opinion, it was an ill-advised plan. The absence of conversation let her mind wander into dark corners she’d rather leave untouched. Paranoia creeping from the edges of her mind laced with vivid, horrible memories dredged from her soul. Another hour of this would be too long, let alone a day.

Stop – stop…” Nikola hissed. He held out his clawed hand expectantly. “Give me your weapons – come on, all of them.”

Nikola…”

I’m serious, Helen. Immortal or not, I am in no mind to end up embedded on the wrong end of your hunting knife – JESUS!” Nikola’s eyes went wide.

There it was, hovering behind Helen’s shoulder, using its sharp claws to hang from the roof. It’s skeletal hand was poised near her throat, ready to wrap its fingers and claws around her skin.

Nikola pushed Helen sharply. She crashed into the shallow water leaving Nikola to face the creature. Terrible grey skin hung off it’s jagged bones; the flesh barely alive. It opened its mouth displaying row upon row of fangs as it levelled a sharp hiss at him. Nikola lunged, claws drawn and fangs gleaming.

It evaded him.

Nikola cracked his elbow on the sharp rocks beneath the surface of the water, landing beside Helen.

What’s gotten into you, Nikola?” Helen growled, perplexed. Blood dripped down Helen’s forehead. The nasty cut had already started to heal.

Nikola’s thrashed around in the water, looking wildly for the creature. “You’re seriously telling me that neither of you saw that?”

John was equally unmoved. “I think it might be you going mad, old boy. Not us.”

The vampire scrambled to his feet, flinging himself at the darkness. He scanned his torch over every crevice of the roof corner behind the crumbled columns. “We’ve got to get out of these tunnels and back into the rooms,” he insisted. “It’s hunting us down here.”

What is hunting us?” Helen shook the water off her gun and re-holstered it. “Nikola, we didn’t see anything.” The hell she was surrendering her weapon.

Claws – withered looking body – bit like a bat with a bad attitude?”

We’re here to find the vampire,” John rescued Helen’s torch from the water. “Can we stick to one devil at a time please?”

Trying to capture an ancient, hungry vampire was the least of Nikola’s worries. He couldn’t get those cold eyes out of his mind. Whatever it was, it had been down here in the dark for a long time and now it was waiting for them.

It’s in your mind, Nikola,” Helen tried to brush some of his wet hair out of his eyes. “It’s playing tricks on you – making you see things that aren’t here. You have to concentrate on what’s real.”

My mind is perfect,” he growled, storming away from her.

The tunnel turned and headed back onto dry land. There was more light here and the narrow walls of the man-built passageway gradually turned into a corridor.

‘Nikola…’

The voice unfurled in his mind, calling him. His mother’s voice. Nikola looked up to the stone ceiling but of course, she was not there. Those grey eyes had left him long ago.

Watch it, Tesla!”

Nikola bounced theatrically off the mass murderer’s back. The vampire stepped aside, straightening his damp cloak without an apology.

We’re here. According to the blue-prints in your notes, this should be the entrance to the living quarters – hopefully where we’ll find our vampire.”

The entrance to the – I never had any blue-prints in my notes!” Nikola frowned. Helen was unfolding a water-logged map, holding it against the wall. John leaned over her shoulder, nodding. “Give me that!” Nikola snatched it away and held it up to the light.

Nikola!” Helen hunted after him, retrieving it. “Please, you’re starting to worry me.”

That’s not my map, Helen,” he insisted.

Henry printed it before we left, said he found it buried in your secret archives.” She shook her head at the vampire, then flashed her torch into his eyes. He ducked away, glaring. “Your eyes are dilated.”

It’s dark.” And now he couldn’t see.

You’re ill.

You’re the one playing with an imaginary map.” Nikola stalked toward the door and pushed. It opened.

What’s in there?” John asked.

Living quarters…” the vampire muttered.

*~*~*

Ashley ducked, sliding down the wall as the vampire’s claws scraped through the rock above her. Granite dust stung her eyes. Tears ran down her cheeks as she kicked forward, striking the vampire’s shins. He tumbled backwards in shock, rolling away in a shadow of cloth. Ashley rolled as well, finding her feet and taking off through the corridors.

A sharp crack of electricity chased her. Blue light flared for a moment, then died. Again. Again. It drew closer as she tripped down a rotten set of stairs and hit the stone floor. Her knee cracked but did not break.

Up!” she hissed at herself, dragging her body away in time to evade a fan of claws.

The vampire had turned, taking her by surprise. One minute they were discussing her grandfather and then next his eyes were red, his fangs salivating at the sight of her. He’d lunged at her neck but she was too fast.

Her torch slid free of her grip. She had to leave it, flying further down the ancient corridors. Soon the darkness was absolute save for the occasional flare of electricity. She reached out, letting her fingertips brush against both sides of the corridor as she ran.

It was behind her, dragging its claws along the stone.

Never trust a vampire. Never trust a bloody vampire. Isn’t that what her father had said? She remembered her mother in Rome. Tesla was meant to be one of her oldest friends and yet, for a moment he’d turned on her too.

She lunged forward when its claws caught her jacket. The test-tubes inside her pocket rattled dangerously against each other as the material ripped straight through and she was free again.

*~*~*

God god, there it was.

Henry tilted his head to take in the wall of black rock, arching up over the forest like a ghastly wave. The mist swirled around his waist, hiding the ground entirely. The first rays of sunlight struck his skin. It was the beginning of an angry dawn. New light was stretched by banks of smoke turning it crimson and gold. It was obscured by a stain of smoke from the village.

Let’s try this again,” Henry whispered, morphing into his wolf form. He vanished into the mist, padding silently over the ground and into the mouth of the Sanctuary.

Henry felt his claws slide as rock replaced dirt. They tapped against it, sliding uneasily. He didn’t like this place. It stank of death and dust. A few tunnels in he turned a corner and backed away. There was a pit of bodies, swept into the natural depression and left to rot into bones.

He growled, scaring a few rats.

Henry

Henry looked up, searching the darkness He could have sworn that he’d heard Helen call his name.

Henry – over here…”

No, he’d definitely heard Helen. Her voice was coming from somewhere deeper in the tunnels.

*~*~*

Someone’s coming – in quite a hurry.” Nikola looked toward the door. “It’s Ashley.”

Helen turned. “Ashley…”

Mum!” The blond girl fell into the room. She was drenched, covered in dirt and cuts with her hair tied back in a matted pony tail. She pushed herself off the ground, stumbled towards her mother and threw herself into her arms.

Helen drew her arms tight around her daughter, burying her head against her shoulder. “My little girl,” she whispered.

John ducked his head out the door and eyed the tunnel suspiciously. He found it empty but closed the door anyway.

I’m sorry…” Ashley whispered.

Don’t you ever do that to me again,” Helen murmured, kissing the top of her head.

Over her mother’s shoulder, Ashley’s eyes met her father’s. He shook his head. Neither of them would ever tell Helen what really happened all those years ago.

There’s no cure,” Ashley pulled back gently from her mother, wiping her face with what remained of her sleeve. “I found the vampire – begged him to help me – but he just laughed…”

Is that who’s chasing you?” John asked. Ashley nodded. “We can’t stay here – we’re cornered. This whole Sanctuary is a giant maze.”

Perhaps the vampires never solved the blood disease,” Nikola added cautiously. “It was the Praxians that unleashed it on them and this is an ancient vampire, from before the complete fall of the empire. He probably knows little, if anything of the modern world.”

He’s crazy, mum,” Ashley whispered. “One minute we were talking and the next – he just turned on me like I was some kind of snack.”

He’s hungry…”

That’s enough, Nikola,” Helen said quietly.

We should leave while we can,” John motioned to the door but Nikola stepped in front of him.

We can’t leave without the vampire. Remember why we’re here, Helen. Your protege will live out his life as a cursed sand creature if you walk away now. This vampire is old, all of us could take him if you’ve still got those silver-tipped tranquillisers you’re so fond of.”

Are you hurt?” Helen asked. Ashley shook her head. She handed her daughter another clip for her gun.

I’m all right,” Ashley nodded.

Nikola inspected his claws. “Are we ready? Remember – we need this one alive,” he levelled his gaze at John, who lifted his hands innocently.

Alive – as you command…” John mocked.

There was a sharp crack of lightening and then something that sounded like thunder rumbling down the corridor outside.

Here he comes…” Nikola whispered.

Ashley shifted, checking her gun. Helen withdrew a slender gun from her holster and started sliding silver-tipped bullets into the shaft. Nikola tilted his head, watching her closely. It always worried him that she kept that particular weapon close – as if she didn’t entirely trust him.

John lingered at the door – a butcher knife clutched in his fist.

Ready?”

14

SILVER DREAMS

Ready,” Helen nodded, clicking the last silver-tipped bullet into place.

Electric light flashed outside the door, branching wildly along the corridor in front of the vampire. He was starving and old. He could smell the blood, fresh and warm and he craved it. Gods to taste again – to feel again. His oath seemed meagre in the face of hunger.

The ancient vampire didn’t see Nikola pressed against the wall beside him. The young vampire hit him hard across the back of the neck, sending him stumbling to the floor with an angry growl, fangs glistening and wet.

Foolish child!” the ancient one screeched, dripping silken venom into the dirt. He turned on Nikola, long claws going straight through Nikola’s chest, dragging the young vampire up the wall with a trail of blood. “Stay out of my way.” He tossed Nikola aside into the shadows.

Nikola hit the floor to the sound of his left leg snapping. The bone shot through the skin. “Son of a…” he growled, looking down in horror.

John was next, ducking under the vampire’s sweeping claws and delivering a powerful hit to his chest. Then again, slamming his knee up into the vampire and taking him down to the ground with a quick succession of powerful hits. Ashley swung down from the ceiling, firing off two carefully aimed rounds into the vampire’s shoulders.

The bullets hissed into the vampire’s flesh, silver leaching into his blood. He reached up, cold blood running down his wrists. It was almost black.

Forgive – me?” the vampire whispered, feeling an ice take hold of his blood. Dark eyes closed, his withered body giving way to a deep, dreamless sleep.

Helen, John and Ashley stood over the bloodied vampire.

Piece of cake,” Ashley grinned, slipping her gun back into it’s holster.

We need to get him on a plane, fast. Let’s pack up and get out of here,” Helen whispered, kneeling down to restrain the vampire with ties. She looked up at a soft growl from the corner of the room. “You all right over there?”

Nikola scowled. “Oh yes, just peachy,” he hissed, pushing the bone back into his leg with a cry of pain. He held it there as his skin healed over. That hurt. “What about your puppy dog?”

Henry’s here?” Ashley asked, smiling a little.

He’s already en-route back to Old City,” Helen replied. “He checked in with Biggie a few hours ago. We’ll meet him back at base.”

Nikola limped over to the others looking paler than usual. Ashley offered him a sympathetic look. “Nasty – dude,” she nodded at his leg.

*~*~*

‘The plane’ turned out to be a helicopter picking its way through the mountains. The heat had burned off all the mist leaving a clear divide between the dark green expanse of jungle and pale blue sky. Nikola carefully eyed the rises and fall of the mountains as though looking for patterns in the chaos.

Penny for your thoughts…?” Helen asked, sitting opposite him. John and Ashley were chatting and the vampire was tied up in the cargo.

Nikola didn’t turn towards her, preferring his current view of the ancient world.

Doesn’t it bother you?” Nikola replied quietly.

Helen frowned, tilting her head. “What?”

Why did he stay there, starving in the darkness for thousands of years… Something was keeping the vampire there, Helen.”

She shrugged. “Perhaps you can ask him later, if it bothers you so.”

Nikola was quiet for a moment, tapping his claws against the glass. “Perhaps I will…”

*~*~*

Henry padded over the stone floor, leaping from side to side to avoid the rubble of ruined columns. There was water seeping from the walls, coating the floor in an ankle deep, freezing river that tumbled down stairs and trailed off into the darkness.

He had decided to remain in wolf form, covering ground quickly as he chased the echoes. Helen was here somewhere, he could hear her voice getting softer.

He barked, leaping up onto a marble block. Stretching out in front at the base of the ruined city was a deep, black lake. It was walled by a smooth, marble capped rim with glowing symbols that lit the room. There were great swirls of golden dust curling over its surface, moved by the deep, freezing currents like ribbons destroyed galaxies. The enormous door loomed behind – its ghastly figures as dead as the city.

Henry crossed the city and strutted along the marble wall, sniffing the air. The world had gone quiet again. His head lifted. Something was in the water on the far side. Henry barked.

Henry…” the voice whispered.

He broke into a run, skidding over the marble until he found a figure struggling in the water, slipping deeper into darkness. Helen’s long hair was plastered to her skin, her eyes wide and frightened. She was pale like a vampire, her strength failing as she saw the werewolf appear.

Help,” was all she managed to murmur. Helen didn’t even have the strength to reach out to him.

Henry curled his claws over the marble edge and took hold of Helen’s coat in his jaws. He pulled, tugging her out of the water and onto the dirt. She stroked his soft fur, closing her eyes as the wolf laid over her. All she knew was warmth as the wolf wailed softly.

Helen had been laying in the water for days.

*~*~*

Doc?” Henry, dressed and sitting beside a warm fire, brushed his hands over Helen’s cheek again. “Come on now, I saw you stir,” he whispered.

Helen groaned, opening her eyes. She tried to shield them from the firelight but the warmth got the better of her.

Thought I lost you there for a while,” Henry added, helping her to sit up.

She pressed her hand to her forehead in a futile attempt to stop the throbbing pain. “Where are the others?” she whispered, reaching for her gun – but Henry had everything laid out and drying on her coat.

No idea. They were here, several days ago by the smell of it. I found you alone,” he added quietly.

She accepted the heated water, sipping it carefully.

Something tried to kill me,” she whispered. “John, Nikola and I – we came under the door,” she pointed to the enormous structure that had once been the city’s defence against the world. “When I was under the water something latched onto my legs. It pulled me deeper, hooking me onto something beneath the water.” Helen looked away with a shiver. “I thought I’d drowned,” she whispered. “The next thing I remember, I was floating on the surface.”

Helen looked morbidly at the water, wondering if the others were still beneath its surface. Henry shook his head.

They definitely went through the city,” he whispered. “I’ve smelled them up in the tunnels.”

She frowned at once. “Nikola and John continued without me? No…”

Come on Doc – a vampire and history’s most notorious murderer?”

You better believe it, Henry,” she replied seriously.

Several hours later, Helen had scavenged a pair of torches from the outer walls of the city. She lit them from Henry’s fire and handed him one.

This place is huge,” Henry whispered, creeping up the main street with Helen. “And seriously creepy,” he added, passing more bleached skeletons.

What does this remind you of – Prague?”

That was a crypt,” Henry shivered.

Helen shrugged, that grin of hers stretched over her lips. “Bones, ruins – torches,” she waved hers about playfully. “Come on, those were the days, Henry.”

Hey – it was my first tomb. You took Ash and I out for a family outing. I thought we were getting ice-cream but no. Creepy dead things.”

And a giant lizard,” Helen added proudly.

Yeah – and that. Nice parenting touch.”

You called it Frank,” she smiled softly.

Well… He needed a name.”

Frank was a girl.”

Henry looked utterly guttered. His childhood robbed. “But…?”

She had two clutches of eggs while you and Ashley were at university. Oh that is unfortunate…” Helen paused, leaning into one of the ruined buildings. “It’s all right,” she brushed Henry off when he tried to tug her back. “It’s been here for hundreds of years, I’m sure it’ll survive me.”

Helen stepped into the crumbling building, avoiding the pair of skeletons huddled in the corner, their heads scattered on the far side. “Don’t you find it strange, Henry? Every one of these creatures has been killed violently – by each other – and yet the city shows no sign of invasion. If it were Conquistadors, all this would be gone,” she ran her hand along a gold embossed border in the wall. “Oh…”

Shit…” Henry finished for her. “Those – look familiar.”

They both tilted their heads up at the roof to see three perfect, white cocoons nestled against the stone. Helen bravely prodded one with her torch. The silk threads unfurled in the heat, falling to the ground and with it a pile of bones.

Dead,” she whispered. “It’s far too warm for Magoii to reproduce down here – but not enough to kill a full grown.”

I really hate those things,” Henry sighed, kicking some of the silk cocoon.

Now now Henry, what have I taught you?”

Henry rolled his eyes. “That even the most dangerous Abnormals have a right to exist,” he dutifully repeated the words Helen had drilled into him as a child.

Even Magoii. We have no idea how long these things can live but preliminary work by the Russian Sanctuary suggests they could have lifespans of hundreds of years, especially if they are left to hibernate.”

How many do you think are still down here?”

Helen looked carefully at the cocoon shell. “This could have come from a single Magoii. Come on, we better find out what happened to the others.”

Helen and Henry followed their tracks through the ancient sanctuary. After nearly a day of crawling through tunnels and wading in freezing water they realised that this place was completely dead. There was no life left here at all and whatever dream had started inside these walls had died here.

Shall we check in with the Big Guy? Maybe have him order us a nice private jet?”

Helen shook her head. “I don’t think so, Henry. We’re going the long way home this time.”

*~*~*

Nikola was milking every last ounce of sympathy out of his injury, limping toward Helen’s wine rack. He ran his claws over the dusty bottles, making a soft tapping sound. Truthfully, he’d expected her to stop him by now or at the very least issue him a warning in the form of a bullet to the back. Instead, his old friend was oddly absent, presumably down in her basement playing with the ancient vampire.

He forced himself not to be jealous, drowning those destructive thoughts in another Bordeaux.

Nikola set a clean glass on the window sill, uncorked a fresh bottle with his claw and tilted it over the crystal edge. Sand poured out of the lip, tinkling against the glass.

The bottle smashed against the floor, red wine splashing over Nikola’s shoes. He looked at his glass again.

Wine.

I’m losing my mind…”

15

SILK

Nikola knelt down, soaking the spilled wine up with a cloth. He was embarrassed by the mess, carefully attempting to draw the stains out of the rug with varying success. The remaining shards of bottle were collected in his palm until Nikola returned to his feet, relieved to see the damage mostly alleviated.

His nerves remained frayed.

With a great deal more care, he fetched himself another bottle and retreated to the safety of the sofa, lounging in front of Helen’s fire to think. He was dwarfed by the marble mantle, ironwork chandelier and tapestries that carpeted the walls.

Nikola’s mind was his greatest asset and the only thing in which he had absolute faith. If it was unravelling then he was lost. There were many things that Nikola could endure – idiocy was not one of them.

Reason your way out of it,” he told himself firmly, taking a firm swig of his wine straight from the bottle. “What do you know?”

He smirked, licking his lips.

That this is cheap wine.

What’s the matter with you?”

Nikola sneered at the interruption strutting into the office. Joe Kavanaugh was not his favourite person in the world although he had to give him credit for single handedly unleashing a vampire plague upon the Earth. Nikola would have gone for something more refined than a den of diseased half-breeds but it was a step in the right direction. Maybe. Only time would tell whether humanity would find shackles again.

This is Helen’s office,” Nikola replied dryly, as though he were the only other creature allowed to inhabit it.

Oddly enough, I noticed,” Joe kept an even tone with the moody vampire. “Actually, it’s you I came to see.”

That was even worse. Nikola twisted his lip up in disdain, downing another sip of wine. “How unfortunate.”

Joe’s look was one of infinite patience. “I was hoping to enlist your help in the search for Zimmerman. Ashley and Henry are following a lead in the subway -”

You mean the hunt?” he corrected. “No, I think not. When and if you manage to find Helen’s protege I will endeavour to return him to his former, pitiful state as per my arrangement with Helen.”

How very generous of you.”

Believe me, this is not an exercise in charity.” Nikola had his reasons.

Joe cast his eyes over the array of artefacts littering the side tables. Helen was a collector at heart and in true Victorian form she liked to decorate her world with each conquest. She wasn’t half as noble as she pretended to be.

I’m surprised,” Detective Kavanaugh added. “I thought you’d be the first in line to interrogate the full-blood vampire downstairs. Isn’t he what you’ve been searching for all these years?”

Nikola’s look was one of disdain. Not only was his business private, he resented Kavanaugh’s intimate dealings with the ancient ones, experiences which greatly exceeded his.

Our ancient friend is heavily sedated and I doubt Helen will wake him until her precious protege is well.”

And you are perfectly capable of biding your time.”

Something like that.” Claws tapped against the bottle.

Kavanaugh wasn’t finished.

And you have no designs on my father either, then?”

Nikola made an inhuman sound that could have passed for laughter. “The half-ling? Ex-half-ling actually… From what I’ve read of your report he spent most of his last four decades in a trance with little or no memory of either his cave or the vampire he kept guard over. No. Unsurprisingly I have no interest in him.”

That made the Detective feel more comfortable, sinking into the cushions, enjoying the warm glow of the fire.

You’re still here…” Nikola glared.

I’m still here.”

Nikola sighed tiredly and set the bottle of wine down with a clunk. “Are you going to make me guess?”

Actually, it’s easier if I show you.”

*~*~*

Al’right, Doc?”

Helen held her head between her hands. She could hear several heart beats in the world now – three of them clashing against each other inside her mind. Too many vampires. The balance had been lost with the awakening of two more. Nikola and the ancient one from the Sanctuary of the Moon were closest. She’d know Nikola’s heart anywhere.

I’m fine,” she lied, laying back against the car as it wove its way through Old City. She had not felt like this since Oxford.

Are you going to tell me why we’re not going home?” The Sanctuary was several blocks behind them.

We can’t go home yet, not if I’m right.”

You’re starting to worry me…” Henry turned to her as a downpour smashed against the car’s windows.

Nikola and John would not have left without me. I suspect they brought more than our souvenir vampire back with them.”

The Magoi – bloody hell.”

She tossed him a newspaper folded open to an article.

‘MISSING: The Suspected Trade of Old City’s Homeless’

‘…in the last week a suspected four people have vanished from slums around the city. Well known in their underground world, police have been unable to account for these sudden absences. The Town Hall is opening its doors this evening in a bid to offer shelter for the easy prey of what many suspect to be a human trafficking ring…’

Henry closed his eyes. “Will…” was all he said.

The Magoi will want to go home but it’s desire to migrate is going to interfere with our effort to save Will. Once we enter the Sanctuary we’ll have no way of telling who is real. The less people in there the better. I don’t want my Sanctuary to end up a pile of rubble and bone.”

Doc…” Henry added quietly. “Are we going to kill it?”

It’s too dangerous to live.”

We don’t really know anything about them, do we?”

In a hundred years we might be intelligent enough to have a conversation with them,” she replied, a dark shadow over her features. “I hope this city is worth the life of one Magoi.”

*~*~*

A gunshot rang out in the tunnel. It was absorbed by the distant rumble of a subway train, trundling through the dark.

A body fell from the ceiling. It landed with a crunch on the gravel in front of Bigfoot.

Ashley knelt down, nudging the sand creature with her boot as its body shimmered back into the visible spectrum. It was dead.

How many more of these do you think there are?” she whispered, standing up and re-loading her gun.

No ideaaaa,” Bigfoot whispered, his eyes searching the tunnels ahead. “Will has been down here for days – whatever he doesn’t kill is turned.”

There’s going to be a plague of these things.”

They worked their way through the tunnels leaving a trial of bodies for the other teams to pick up. This was getting out of hand. “We may need to contact some of the other Sanctuaries.”

Your mother wouldn’t like that,” Bigfoot replied. “She’s gone to great lengths to keep the truth of vampires from the world. They’ll ask questions when they see the fangs.”

The one Abnormal she hides…” Ashley whispered. “I used to think that the Abnormal world was a dark place but these last few weeks have shown me something else.” She paused as she climbed up onto an abandoned platform, helping Biggie up. “It’s mum’s world that is dark. I barely know her.”

Something their claws against the concrete. Ashley and Bigfoot turned, panning their flash lights over the walls.

Will sank away from the halos of light.

This world made your mother,” Bigfoot replied softly.

They both prowled closer, weapons raised and their torches sweeping back and forward. “There’s something she’s not telling me.”

Her torch caught a pair of golden eyes.

Will…”

*~*~*

Nikola stood in front of the freezer in Helen’s main lab looking greatly put out. He folded his arms crossly, reading the sign taped to its sad, stained surface.

‘OUT OF SERVICE – please use freezer on Basement Level 2’

The vampire shrugged. “So? What am I supposed to do, fix it?”

It’s not broken,” Joe replied, stepping forward. He placed his hand against the door’s surface. It was cool – the gentle hum of the freezer’s engine steady like a pulse.

Someone forgot to take the sign down, honestly, did the wolf put you up to this? I have a gnawing feeling that I’m being purposely annoyed.”

Henry’s still on a plane.” Compared to the psychotic criminals Joe was accustomed to, the vampire had a long way to go in petulance. “Ah, but that’s not the really cool bit, Doctor Tesla – pardoning the pun.”

Nikola groaned as Joe reached up to where the sign was and went straight through it. The surface was smooth – entirely sign free.

Nikola swayed back, staring at the empty freezer door. He was seriously starting to think that there were a few loose wires between his eyes and brain.

Ah, now I have your attention,” Joe whispered, lowering his hand to the handle of the freezer. He gave it a decent tug but the door refused to budge. “Now, I don’t know about you but I’m not particularly comfortable with objects coming and going from reality.”

It’s the Magoi,” Nikola whispered, feeling a cold shiver run down his back. “It must be here – it has to be.” The vampire turned on Joe with a suspicious glare.

What? Hey – no…” Joe lifted his hands innocently. “I don’t even know what a – what did you say it was?”

Magoi,” Nikola growled.

That. I have no idea what it is.”

If nothing else, Nikola doubted the Magoi would be pointing out things it had tried to hide so he gave Joe the benefit of the doubt. “Obviously it doesn’t want us to get into this freezer – so that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

It was not easy and after an hour of prodding, bashing and general abuse of the freezer door, they discovered that it was not actually locked. The mind was easy to manipulate, especially for an ancient Magoi.

Flustered from exertion, they pushed open the door and were met with a thick mist of frost. Joe waved it away from his face, squinting through the freezing air. Their sweat shattered as droplets of ice on the floor. “What, in the name of god, is that…”

Nikola inched toward the seven foot bundles of silk. They glistened in the frosted air, beads of ice adoring the fine threads like jewels. There were three cocoons stuck to the far wall closest to the air ducts with a faint shadow of something moving inside each one.

Baby Magoi,” Nikola replied, voice catching. “What a nightmare.”

We should go to Helen,” Joe whispered, but Nikola caught his arm sharply, claws out.

No. We don’t go to anyone,” he growled softly, as though afraid the cocoons would tear open any minute. “First, we shut this freezer down then work out what the hell is going on. Anyone in this Sanctuary could be a Magoi – anything you see. You trust your hands and nothing else, understand?”

*~*~*

Will clawed straight up the wall, sticking to the ceiling like an oversized gecko, hiding behind the shadows of steel thick beams. His skin rippled from crimson to grey rendering him invisible.

Shit!” Ashley hissed, looking up at the dark void above. She switched her gun to stun mode and started pacing forward, tilting her head sharply trying to catch a glimpse of the sand creature. “He’s completely turned.”

Yeah, reeeeeal little piece of work,” Bigfoot growled, moving to the opposite side of the tracks. “Tried to rip me in shreds before.”

Five minutes until the next train,” she warned, stepping carefully between the tracks. The rumble of the train was already shaking the gravel around them. “I don’t want to lose him again.”

Ashley moved fast and light through the tunnel. She used the side wall as protection and kept her head up to the ceiling. Damn these things were quiet. Her torch light was obstructed by a column of dust wafting down from the ceiling. She took a shot.

Missed it,” Bigfoot hissed from the other side of the tunnel.

Yeah, but not by much,” she replied, lifting her gun again.

This time she took three shots – chasing the flurries of dust. Her last shot hit Will on the back of the leg. He let out a screech of pain, scratching frantically at the roof before falling between the tracks. The thunder of the oncoming train started to roar like a wave building up against the reef. Bigfoot grabbed the semi-conscious sand creature by one of its thrashing limbs, dragging it over the tracks.

Hiiiit it again!” he yelled.

Will twisted and writhed, scratching at Bigfoot’s furry hand. Mid run, Ashley pulled the trigger again and the creature became a dead weight.

One minute!” she hissed, picking up the pace. “Platform’s not far.”

Bigfoot lumbered along with Will’s unconscious body. Ashley reached the platform before him, throwing her gun up over the edge before vaulting over the cement barrier. She laid on her stomach and took Bigfoot’s gun first – then started to haul Will up. He was visible again – his crimson skin heavily scarred already.

Come on, hurry up!” she urged, feeling the wind whip her hair up.

Too old fo’ this,” Bigfoot muttered, barely managing to get his enormous body clear as the express train rocketed through, its horn blaring angrily.

The sound of slow applause filled the platform. Ashley frowned – then turned to see Henry and Helen standing shoulder to shoulder – Henry applauding with a smirk on his lips.

Ashley rolled her eyes at the closest thing to a brother she’d ever get. “Two vampires – two days, count says I win.”

Henry shook her head. “Nah – I brought mum home; trumps a vampire and half-vamped-protege every time.”

What on earth are you talking about?” Ashley slid her gun back into its holster.

Helen was grinning at her daughter – only just fighting the urge to rush over and take her into her arms. She hadn’t seen her in over a week. “Let’s get Will somewhere secure – then we can talk.”

*~*~*

It was perfect. Transparent, tightly bound tubes danced under the glass slide. Nikola peered through the microscope, increasing the magnification again. Millions of tiny hairs appeared, interlocking like velcro – terrible, grotesque claws binding the silk together.

Nikola straightened up slowly, his hand shifting to his hip, the other resting on the edge of the table for support. His lab was meagre in comparison to the rest of the house but it was the safest place to be. Joe was standing by the window, leaning against the sill as the sun started to set over the city behind him.

This will change the world,” Nikola announced, holding up the glass side. The fragment of Magoi silk was difficult to make out except when it caught the sunlight and shone pure silver. “Darwin’s spider, eat your your heart out. Inch by inch this is the strongest material in existence.

Joe didn’t look so impressed. He’d prefer not to fawn over a creature that was trying to kill them. “I’m not sure that farming Magoi is high on our priority list, Tesla.”

Nikola shook his head impatiently. Mortals were just so … preoccupied with the present.

I don’t think that you quite grasp the material point,” his fangs peaked out. He was about to launch into a brief history of natural substances that changed the course of human history when Joe held up both hands.

You’re not going to be making any more world altering discoveries if you’re dead,” Joe pointed out bluntly.

Nikola sighed and set the slide down. “Producing those offspring would have used a great deal of energy. It’ll need to feed – it’s probably started on the abnormals already – possibly even the staff.” Nikola strutted over his desk drawer. He pulled out a couple of prototype handguns. “Combination electric stunner and laser pulse. The pain of the small burn is enough to get the attention of medium sized prey while giving their nerves a bit of a work over.”

This is what you do for Helen…?”

From time to time. Depends how quickly I run out of money, really… We’re going to stun everything and anything walking the hallways and start making good use of the cells.”

16

DARWIN’S SPIDER

…we should have started with someone else…” Joe whispered, pressed up against the wall.

Quiet!” Nikola growled under his breath. Damn humans.

The vampire tilted his head, peering through the guest room’s battered doorway. John Druitt’s immense form was stretched out on the floor, sprawled over the rug like some great feline after a feed – presumably asleep. Odd but to be fair, John had never displayed normal behavioural patterns.

Joe leaned against Nikola’s shoulder. “I know a lot of detectives that would give their right arm to hang that man – the Ripper – most evil man in history.”

Would you stop your prattling,” Nikola turned back, flicking Joe off his shoulder with an impatient glare. Humans were dreadful at stalking. “Firstly, even if you successfully marched old Whitechapel down to HQ – which better men than you have failed to do,” he added pointedly, “there’s not a lot you can do with someone who committed crimes over a century ago.

Secondly, starting in 1958, Mao Ze-Dong oversaw the murder of seventy-eight million people; Hitler raked in twelve of his own countrymen and three million Russians on the side. Leopold II, Stalin… “ Nikola trailed off, hands waving theatrically about.

One hundred million died in the Taiping rebellion, one and half slit their own throats in ancient Mexico for a religion that left little in its wake save stains of blood on temple stairs. John is a novice in the art of evil. It’s only doe-eyed detectives like you and your predecessors that have lorded him into the rarefied atmosphere.”

Joe lofted his eyebrow slightly. The vampire seemed… miffed that Druitt was famous. More famous than him. “He fooled the man who invented my profession.”

Everyone has their weaknesses, even James.” Nikola averted his gaze, not wishing to open that particular chapter in his life. The history of the Five was not for mortals to pick apart. “Come on… enough fucking about.”

Nikola crept back up to the door.

Bloody hell…” John was gone. “Christ!” Nikola jumped when John appeared in the doorway, glass of scotch in hand.

I never had you pegged as a voyeur Tesla,” he took a slow sip of scotch. “Quaint, is that a pet?”

Detective. We’ve met but… you appear to have forgotten me.”

John made a point of eyeing the weapons in their hands.

Did I miss something?” he drawled, in that sickening tone used to lure innocent women to the blade of his knife. “Last time I checked, we were on speaking terms and this is Helen’s house. You know the rules o’l boy. This is Switzerland for us.”

It’s not personal this time, Johnny,” Nikola smirked, levelling the gun back at him with a fang-laden grin. “And despite our better judgement, we’re not here to kill you.”

John laughed coldly, pointing his glass at them.

You think that I’m just going to let you shoot –” John was interrupted by a scalding pain in his chest. He looked down to find his pocket smouldering. “What the devil…” he growled, before crumbling to the floor accompanied by the dull thud of a scotch glass.

Joe slowly lowered his sparking electric weapon. “That was a lot easier than I’d envisioned…”

Come on, grab an ankle,” Tesla muttered.

*~*~*

Mum, this place is ancient…” Ashley complained. She helped her mother break through a hefty iron door, pushing it open with an angry screech of metal and rust. Bigfoot stood back, Will’s deformed body limp in his furry arms.

It’s one of Tesla’s old haunts,” Helen explained, dusting off her hands and holding her torch up, scanning the room with it. Broken pipes, air ducts, feathers. “Should still work,” she added, flicking a switch on the wall. A deep buzz rang out through the metal wall as rows of electric lights flickered into life.

Old – like from the 4th Dynasty.” Ashley tilted her head, inspecting the carcass of an experiment.

Helen cleared one of the work benches. Bigfoot laid Will’s body onto the surface and the pair of them bound him with duct tape and chain. Crude but effective.

He’s going to wake up soon,” Helen whispered, listening to the steady beat of his heart falter. “This room was built to keep in vampires – I’m sure it’ll be able to handle a sand creature for a few hours.” The duct-tape… probably not. She injected him with the last vial of sedative. It would keep him quiet – for a while.

Mum… We can’t just leave him tied up here. It’s cruel.”

You’re going to stay here and look after him, both of you,” she added sternly, when Bigfoot went to protest. “The less people in my house the better. If you don’t hear from me before nightfall, you call the London Sanctuary and ask for Declan.”

Seriously, Mum?”

Ashley… don’t fight me on this.”

I’m much better at hunting creatures than you,” she tried following her mother but Helen pushed her firmly back into the room.

That’s why you’re staying with Will.”

*~*~*

Well string me up with the garlic…” Nikola’s deep, vampire voice purred on the air. He ran his gloved fingers through the threads of silk swaying in the air-conditioned breeze. Someone had turned it up to full over the whole mansion leaving Nikola and Joe to resort to snow jackets and gloves.

Growing from the ceiling of the corridor were long tangles of silk. Like ancient vines, they’d twisted into ropes that bonded to the floor to form flexible, sticky columns.

God, it’s like a bloody spider web,” Joe whispered, sidestepping an ominous trail of silk.

I didn’t know Magoi did this,” Nikola admitted. “It’s like a nest.”

Yeah, well the more I learn about Magoi, the less I like’m, Doc. Give me your regular psychopath any day.”

Together, they had taken out most of the Sanctuary staff and locked them in cells. There were still a few small abnormals wandering the corridors but nothing big enough for a Magoi to bother imitating. There was, however, one noticeable absence from their collection. Helen.

You’re worried about her, aren’t you?” Joe asked, as they made their way through the freezing tunnel toward the fire stairs that took them deeper into the building. The further they went, the colder it became.

Nikola kept a few steps ahead of Joe, his black eyes focussed on the sticky hallway in front. “I’m worried I left my oldest friend in a South American tomb to rot, yes,” he snapped.

The walls were entirely silk now, glistening like ice.

It doesn’t take a detective to work out that you and her were -”

Joe didn’t get to finish. In front of them a very displeased (but admittedly distracting) Helen Magnus blocking the hallway, arms folded. She levelled a stern glare at Nikola.

Nikola – where are my staff?”

Nikola lifted his home-made weapon, steadying it at her chest. “I’d be happy to show you.”

You’re not going to shoot me,” she tilted her head like a bird of prey. “We’ve got a very serious abnormal incursion,” she nodded at the silk strangling the walls.

And here I was thinking it was your new wallpaper,” Nikola quipped, no intention of lowering his weapon. “That’s close enough…” he whispered, when she started walking towards him.

Are you feeling all right?” Helen lowered her voice into a tender lull. “Even for a vampire, you’re pale. Perhaps you should lie down?”

I don’t think so,” Nikola kept the gun steady. He was pale because he was cold and naturally disposed to looking like a shard of porcelain. “Detective – whatsyourname-”

Kavanaugh…” Joe filled in helpfully.

Whatever… What do you see?”

Joe tilted his head, “Dr Helen Magnus – or a very good copy.”

Copy?” Helen snapped, indignant. “Nikola!” she clicked her fingers to get the vampire’s attention. “My house is freezing, the staff are missing and my wallpaper’s been replaced by this sticky Magoi residue. Now, what the hell is going on?”

Nikola ignored her.

Be more specific,” he whispered to Joe. “Her eyes… hair – what does she look like.”

As Joe started to describe her, the Sanctuary alarm pierced the air. Its angry ringing made Nikola flinch.

We’ve got company,” he whispered.

Could be a trick?” Joe offered.

He was right. “Bloody Magoi.” Nikola nodded at Helen. “This is why I never joined your little creature-collecting mission.”

Not as salubrious as ruling the world?” she ventured another step closer.

I offered you the world…” Nikola reminded her, eyes bright.

She took another step, lingering dangerously close. “It wasn’t yours to offer…” she purred.

NIKOLA!”

He turned at once toward the angry voice to find another Helen standing behind them, smeared with dirt and greese. Nikola did his best to ignore his favourite fantasy made real. Two Helens… My, my, my.

Helen… meet Helen,” he said.

The two Helen’s eyed each other. One of them was a Magoi, the other was not…

Stop grinning, Nikola,” the Helen covered in dirt scowled. “She’s a Magoi…”

Joe lifted his weapon, levelling it at the newly arrived Helen. “Actually Doc,” he said, “one of you is. Which one is still in question.”

If you shoot me with that, I’ll break both your wrists,” she promised darkly. “You’re still grinning, Nikola.”

He shrugged innocently.

We’ve been re-decorating,” Nikola added, his weapon still trained on the original Helen. “What do you think?”

This isn’t funny, Nikola. She will kill you.”

Don’t think so,” he replied lightly, giving Joe a meaningful look. “And on three…”

Before either Helen could move, both guns went off and they dropped to the floor. The dirt-laden Helen groaned, holding her chest. The other body shimmered, its lie crumbling until the body of the Magoi emerged. It was unconscious. Nikola curled his lip in disgust. He’d flirted with that.

He was going to add ‘Magoi hunting’ to his list of skills.

*~*~*

Son of a…” Helen stirred. She was back in her bed, tucked in amongst the soft silk sheets with a fresh tray of tea steaming on the table beside her.

Slowly, she turned to see Nikola lounging on the bedspread, a book open against his chest. He was asleep, purring softly as only a vampire could. Such cheek!

Nikola!” she nudged him gently, poking his ribs. The movement made her groan. Her chest was tight and burned from the weapon. “God, what did you shoot me with?”

Nikola turned his head, opening his eyes. They were bright blue, grinning back of her. “New toy. Don’t worry, the effects are temporary. Technically, your pet detective shot you, not me.”

You shot the other me,” she groaned wearily, “so it still counts.”

Helen closed her eyes again, rubbing her chest softly with her free hand. It hurt.

I take it you’ve restrained the Magoi?”

Tagged, restrained and waiting in the SHU,” he put the book aside, turned over and rested on his arm. Nikola was all too comfortable, lounging beside her on the bed.

…and Ashley?” Helen added, not meaning for her voice to slip into such a soft tone.

The corner of his lip curled up into a smile.

Good of you to hide them in one of my old haunts,” he replied. “I called them in as soon as our guest was contained. Your protege is restrained and awaiting treatment. You’re lucky he’s still alive. There have been police crawling all over the city looking for him.”

I should -” Helen went to get up but Nikola nudged her gently back down.

Will can wait a few more hours.”

She lofted her eyebrow at him. “And what are you going to do?”

Oh you know, the same,” he shrugged. “Rule the world from your bed.”

Nikola’s smirk was hit by a well aimed pillow.

…I still can’t believe you shot me,” she whispered, closing her eyes again.

Eh – it’s like, one-to-fifty. You shoot me all the time.”

She couldn’t help a small smile. “You usually deserve it.”

*~*~*

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The sand creature eyed the machine beside him. Will’s eyes were gold and bulging out from his skull like some kind of reptile. His skin was scarlet, dry and cracked into a scaly pattern that resembled a riverbed ruined by a thousand years of ravaging drought. He flecked his claws, watching the black extensions reflect the bright lights of the infirmary.

He snarled, trying to retreat but a heavy set of chains held him still.

Sh…” Helen whispered, stepping into view. Her white coat made her form blur against the room. “You’re safe – you’re home.”

Will opened his lips, displaying several rows of razor sharp teeth. He hissed at her.

Ashley, Bigfoot, Henry, Joe and Tesla were all seated in the gallery behind, watching the procedure. Tesla had shifted to the edge of his seat, leaning close to the glass in curiosity. It had been difficult extracting the clear, vampire venom from their new guest. Helen was holding a refined sample up to the light. She pierced the seal with a long needle.

Do you think it’ll work?” Ashley whispered.

I hope so, Ash,” Henry replied, holding her hand.

The liquid entered the drip, slowly seeping into Will’s body. He thrashed irritably against his restraints, hissing again as Helen set the empty vial down and checked him over.

Elevated pulse, temperature steady. Patient is agitated but not in pain.” Helen flashed her torch light across his eyes. “Pupils are sluggish. Will, can you hear me?”

More snarling.

Dr Zimmerman, do you know where you are?”

Will arched his body up as far as he could off the bed. There was something cold sneaking into his veins. He felt – calm… His body gently lowered itself, slowly shedding its violent red for cream.

Patient’s skin is reverting back to human form. Heart rate lowering – body temperature declining.”

The fangs retreating into his jaw sent searing pain through his nerves. Will cried out, an almost human scream shattering the quiet room. Helen fumbled for another vial, this time consisting of pain killers which she fed through the drip.

He started to convulse. Helen used her weight to press his body back down against the bed.

Stay with me, Will,” she whispered, fighting for control. She pushed his torso firmly down, pulling another strap across him.

Will struggled to breathe, gasping between ragged cries.

17

PLAYING WITH SILVER

Subject stable… pupils, sluggish but okay. Will?”

Dr Will Zimmerman, entirely human, was laid on the bed. He stared blankly at the ceiling, focused on the infirmary lights which leered at him with neon claws. Helen hovered, carefully monitoring his vitals. He could sense her now… distinguish her from the others. She had a name and fragments of memories. Helen Magnus, yes, he remembered her now. Remembered her hitting him with a damn car.

Will, can you hear me?”

Slowly, his head tilted to the side. Will nodded at her in recognition, blinking slowly as if to say something. His wrists strained against the leather restraints causing their buckles to creak.

For a while there, we thought we lost you,” she added quietly, laying her hand on his arm in soft assurance.

Nine hours later he was sitting up, flicking through Sunday’s paper in his own room. His skin itched but aside from a few nasty scratches and bruises, he was unharmed from his adventures as a sand creature.

Quite the trail of destruction, eh?” Henry said.

Henry was perched on the end of Will’s bed, playing with one of his half-built experiments. Beams of sunlight fell over the Gothic room, warming it as the afternoon started to fade. Tesla’s stolen research towered in several looming piles of paper, some arching alarmingly toward the edge of the bedside table.

It’s not exactly a badge of honour,” Will sighed, setting the newspaper down.

Yeah, but you go to be a vampire,” Henry insisted.

Can you try to be less excited by this?” Will managed a grin though, nudging Henry with his foot. “Besides, I was even less of a vampire than Tesla.”

Don’t let him hear you say that, he takes his vamp-ness very seriously. He’s having a hard enough time now that we’ve got a full blood in the basement.”

A what?” Will’s eyes went wide.

Picked up a vamp in South America. They’re real ugly,” Henry added. “Trust me, Tesla’s the plushie version.”

That must have hurt his feelings…”

Yeah, he’s sulking in my lab,” Henry looked down at the gadget in his hands. “Made you this, though. It’s a hand-light – better than a torch. Long as you’re holding it, it’ll keep shining.”

Will took it and laid it in his palm. A few minutes later the silver ball started to glow. “That’s quite cool. I’ll put it in my ‘tomb raiding’ kit for the next time Helen decides to go on holiday.”

You know what else we picked up in South America… A Magoi – fully grown pain in the ass.”

Will’s face fell, a deep frown folding across his forehead. “Man, I hate those things. It’s not still here…”

Turned the SHU into a comfy nest,” Henry cut in. “Full house. Seriously dude, we need to start having words with the boss about the type of creature she brings home. Vampires are okay but I draw the line at creepy telepathic ice creatures.”

Me too.”

Will scratched his arm until it hurt.

*~*~*

Nikola had grown bored of picking through Henry’s lab. Truthfully, there were only so many items he could break or sabotage before he got bored or felt guilty – which wasn’t a familiar. Empathy – urgh, that was for humans not semi-immortal geniuses.

He wasn’t allowed near either the vampire or the Magoi so he sulked his way back through the lofty corridors of the Sanctuary and inevitably ended up in Helen’s office. He retired to her desk, strutting around to sit in her leather chair with a glass of scotch nested in one hand.

Sometimes he regretted signing this house over to Helen to settle a few bills. He was sure that he knew its secrets better than her – even down to the compartment hidden in the wall behind the desk. Nikola had his most treasured possessions five feet from Helen and yet she’d never even noticed.

What were you doing in Old City?”

Nikola jumped at Helen’s voice, spilling his scotch. “I – what?” She may not have adopted the claws or fangs, but Helen could sneak like the best of them.

Helen sat on her desk, eyeing Nkola suspiciously. “The night the sand creature attacked you in the subway… You said you didn’t organise this situation but why were you in town? Last I heard you were in Moscow digging around in some old Cabal base. Strange co-incidence that you should be found lurking at my back door the very night a sand creature appears. Were you following me?”

Nikola set the scotch down. “No. I was following Ashley.”

Nikola!”

Though you may not believe me, it was for her own good. When I heard where she was going I knew she was in trouble.”

Helen’s eyes were nearly as black as a vampire. She leaned forwards, curling her hands over Nikola’s side of the desk, furious. “You knew that there were vampires sleeping in the desert?”

One vampire and a den of diseased humans. Yes. I knew.”

And you didn’t wake them? After all your crazy plots to revive your precious species…”

Are you crazy? If you had spent even a moment on your history Helen, you would know the tale of the brothers.”

…Brothers?” she whispered, pulling back a fraction.

Both destined to be Pharaoh, one conspired with humanity to take over the throne by dealing in Abnormals. The other led the last of the vampires out of Egypt towards the untamed North but he never made it. The vampires were slaughtered and he was entombed by his own brother for thousands of years. If released, his anger would set a rage upon the world. I want to rule the earth Helen – not tear it apart despite what you may think.”

How very noble of you.”

Whatever my intentions were,” Nikola ignored the slight. “You’ve got a pissed off ancient vampire on the loose. I’d bet your entire wine cellar that he’s headed here.”

Here?” Helen whispered.

You have his brother and I for one don’t want to be around when this ancient shit hits the fan.”

Helen hung her head, her beautiful long hair falling over her face. “Bloody hell…” she whispered.

Have you been following the reports out of the African Sanctuaries? There’s something out there, in the desert. The locals call it, ‘voices on the wind’. The vampire has hundreds of sand creatures. He’s smart, arrogant and has nothing to lose. It’s only a matter of time until he finds us.”

Dammit, Nikola… You saw how hard it was to take on the other vampire – and he was starving and weak.”

His brother will be feeding on every human he comes across. He’ll be stronger than you can imagine.”

Nikola stood suddenly, placing his hands gently over hers. Without warning he kissed her – only for a moment but it was soft and loving, his head tilting a fraction to push her gently backwards.

N-Nikola…” Helen stammered, looking up at him from under thick lashes when he pulled back. He’d tasted of scotch and wine, with something of the storm in his lips.

Don’t say anything,” he insisted, lingering for another moment – letting his cool lips tease hers. Then he walked away, leaving her in possession of the office.

*~*~*

…no, no more reports since Thursday. The locals say the voices are gone and the sands have stilled. I’d bet they’ve made it as far as Europe by now…”

Thank you,” Helen replied, and set the phone down.

She brought up a map of Africa and marked the vampire’s progress on the screen. If her reports were accurate, they were covering ground fast. It would only be so long before the ancient king worked out how to drive and fly. Helen rested her fingers over her lips. Her eyes closed.

‘Sup boss?” Henry wove through the piles of books and paper littering Helen’s office, extending his electronic tablet to her. “Fresh off the wire, one of the Parisian Sanctuary scouts has returned. It’s not good news…” he added, seeing her face fall as she started to read. “They’ve stumbled across a blood-bath in one of the illegal factories. Early reports indicate at least eighty workers with their throats torn out.”

God…” Helen trembled, handing it back to Henry. “Nikola was right about the bloodshed.”

We need to wake our vampire up.”

You honestly think he’ll help us? We kidnapped him, if you remember. Vampires didn’t rule the world because they had long fangs and a decent set of claws. They’re smart, Henry.”

I don’t think we have a choice. We just want to talk to him. If you think everything’s going south, we’ll knock him out again.”

Helen shifted uncomfortably.

*~*~*

This is the worst idea you’ve ever had…” Henry muttered to Helen.

They were both sitting above the interview room, hidden behind heavily tinted, one-way glass. The ancient vampire was tied to a chair with yards of silver chain that clinked softly every time he breathed.

The creature shifted uncomfortably against his restraints, looking at his chains with dark eyes. A few minutes later he glanced up and Henry’s stomach turned with realisation that it already knew how to break free.

Nikola sat on the opposite side of the narrow table looking tense. He’d dreamed of questioning an ancient vampire for so long, asking it the secretes of the world – this was not what he had in mind. His eyes flicked to the silver chains. They looked little better than a rope around a tiger’s neck.

Welcome to the the 21ist century,” Nikola purred, in an Ancient dialect of Egyptian. “Apologies for the chains.”

The vampire took another strained breath. His frail physique was more obvious under the harsh light. Bone protruded from his skin, cutting dark shadows over his angular form. Ivory fangs rested against his jaw, one of them chipped badly at the edge. His complexion wasn’t quite so ashen now Helen had been drip feeding him for several days. “There is no need, I speak your language fluently. You are not skilled in mine.”

Nikola flinched.

Helen…” Henry whispered warily.

He’ll be all right,” Helen replied quickly. She hoped.

Very well,” Nikola answered evenly. “We know your history and your past relationship with humanity,” he continued. “Your work establishing a sanctuary for abnormal and human creatures was noble.”

It did not end well…” the vampire cut in darkly.

That was not your fault. Magoi are very powerful creatures, more ancient than you. Causing the destruction of others is how they exist. Your sanctuary died because you were unlucky enough to stumble across one.”

That tempered the ancient vampire somewhat. “Am I to understand that you intend to let me go?”

I would like to,” Nikola replied, honestly. “We have our own Sanctuary networks indeed, this building is one of them. Your thousands of years of experience dealing with abnormals would be invaluable to us.”

You would have me a consort,” the vampire eyed his distant descendent. “In return I presume I am not to feed from the residents.”

About that,” Nikola set a crystal glass on the table and then started to pour silken, red wine into it. He nudged it toward the vampire – who was still chained and unable to accept the gift. “You have something to thank the humans for, they invented wine. I find it quite useful in curbing other cravings.

Above them, Helen rested her hand over her chest. It was tight and painful, the heartbeats in her head crashing against each other. She’d been taking light muscle relaxants to calm herself down but it wasn’t enough.

The vampire was smiling.

Why don’t you ask me what you really want to know Nikola…”

Nikola sat back, alarmed by the red pits burning in the heart of the vampire’s eyes. “I…”

There’s an army of half-lings on their way here with my brother at their bow.”

Can you stop them?”

The vampire shook his head. “No – but I can teach you how to find them.”

18

ON THE EDGE OF THE ABYSS

KASHMIR, PENSI LA MOUNTAIN PASS

Blue rock, weathered and cracked, jutted out from under the ice. Nikola slipped, landing with a muffled thud in another drift of snow curled around a wandering boulder. Their immense, cockled forms dotted the ice like sentries keeping a watch over the frozen world.

God dammit…” Tesla muttered, arms sinking into the freezing wet as he tried to push himself up. Helen backtracked, grabbed hold of his arm and tugged him free.

The hum of their helicopter faded as its tiny dot picked its way between a forest of mountain peaks, returning to base leaving them stranded on the narrow pass. Above, the skies were clear blue, arching in a perfect dome. Nikola tilted his gaze, watching the black dot move beyond his range.

Ahead, the full-blood vampire swept over the snow. He was tall, close to seven feet and slender. The creature barely made a dent in the rough terrain as he headed up the icy slope toward towering facades of cliff with their narrow pass nestled in the middle.

This isn’t what I had in mind, Helen,” Nikola lingered for a moment, letting the vampire gain ground so they could talk privately.

What else could I do? At least if he’s out here, his murderous brother won’t be drawn to my Sanctuary.”

True but if he is right, his brother and accompanying vampire fanboys have already reached these mountains – we could be walking into an army of invisible sand rats.”

He’s closer,” Helen agreed. “I can feel him. Nikola, I’m not sure how much longer I can go on like this – before I kill a vampire.”

…and I’d rather that wasn’t me,” he said quickly. “I know you’ve shot me several times, stabbed me once or twice but Helen – you’ve never truly wanted me dead. Not really…”

That’s what you think…” Their eyes locked. Nikola’s lashes were full of snow and half his face hidden under a scarf. Helen’s cheeks were wind-burned, flushing pink.

They were disturbed by Kavanaugh, who slid on the same icy patch as Nikola, stumbled and landed on Helen.

Sorry,” he mumbled, regaining his feet. “Chopper’s clear, they didn’t see anything on the ground. That’s not saying much. Those creatures are probably camouflaged.”

No, in these conditions even sand creatures will need to be clothed. They’re probably working their way through the fissures in the glacier,” she replied.

Joe frowned at Helen, then glanced nervously at his feet. The thought of sand creatures crawling underfoot made his stomach lurch. “Yeah, that doesn’t make me feel any better.”

We should catch up,” Nikola nodded, the vampire was getting too far ahead of them again.

*~*~*

The Drang Drung glacier coiled behind them. They were heading away from it into deeper snow toward the next bank of cliffs. Half the time they fell to their hands and knees, skidding down steep slopes only to climb to the other side with ice picks – except for the vampire, who used his claws.

Nikola struggled the most with the cold, shivering so hard he lost grip on his ice pick several times before hauling himself onto the flat of a particularly sharp rise.

You okay?” Joe asked, dusting snow off Nikola’s ski gear.

It’s just the cold,” he replied, sitting up and flexing his gloved hands. They were numb and sluggish.

As the officially least genetically blessed member of this expedition, I’m the only one allowed to pass out in the snow,” Joe insisted lightly, even managing to break a smile from the mongrel vampire. “Come on, your Magnus is looking this way.”

She’s not my anything,” he mumbled back, letting the detective haul him to his feet. “Please tell me it’s not looking up at that cliff with intention of climbing it.”

Joe kept in step with Nikola. The ancient vampire was eyeing the rock face with interest, pacing around in front of it – kneeling down and digging with his claws where its black rock vanished into the snow.

Think he left his keys under the door?” Nikola quipped.

He wasn’t far off. The vampire soon found what he was looking for. There was a flicker of brass against the black rock beneath the vampire’s hand. He dug deeper, revealing an intricate spiral of inlaid metal that resembled a Pharaoh’s seal.

We’re not idly wandering in search of your brother, are we?” Helen narrowed her eyes, using the same tone often used to scorn Nikola – except it didn’t work on this vampire. He was focused on inserting his claws into a series of tiny holes, sinking them in until he heard a soft click. “What are you doing?” she insisted.

The mines run deep in these mountains,” the vampire’s silken voice replied. He stood back, motioning for the rest of the group to do the same as a large section of the cliff started to shift. “They’ve not been opened for many aeons but if my brother is making passage, it will be through here.”

God, what is it with vampires and caves?” Helen hung her head. Just when she thought she’d seen the last of tunnels…

Nikola didn’t look too pleased either, gawking at the vast oblivion where the rock had opened. It was only a crack six feet wide but the fissure ran nearly eighty above their heads.

Joe clicked on his helmet light. “What are we waiting for?” he asked. “Let’s go caving.”

*~*~*

The cave door crashed shut behind them. Joe’s headlight revealed the way ahead to be a rough-cut supply route with dangerous cleaves of rock hanging from the roof, looming above them like Damocles’ swords.

Nikola and Helen clicked on their torches, shedding more light on the uninviting terrain of cracked, ice-damaged pavers placed there by the vampires. There were chariot markings in the stone but it was impassable except on foot.

Where do these lead?” Nikola asked.

The vampire turned, his long fangs glinting in the torchlight. His eyes were blacker, his bony frame suddenly imposing. “Manly places – the ground beneath your feet is hollow. There are thousands of networks like this and only some of them are vampire in origin.” The next part was in an ancient vampire language which only Nikola seemed to understand.

You think this is how your brother is passing through the modern world undetected?” Helen whispered, when it was clear Nikola would not offer a translation.

It is his natural way to travel. All young princes lean the trade route – he will not have forgotten.”

It was just as cold down here and after several hours delving deeper into the caves, the group had to stop for a rest. They were in a severely damaged area with the track broken by large pieces of rock and ice that had bled down through fissures above and frozen into eerie claws of blue ice.

Joe staked out the vampire, hovering around him asking questions despite his ever-increasing probability of ending up a snack. Helen and Nikola sat opposite each other, sipping water.

Helen, seriously – what are our chances of actually pulling this off – if and I stress if – we are able to find this vampire?”

She threw her backpack at him. It landed against his chest, making Nikola groan and frown, rustling through it for the blood-packs Helen kept in there. He took two before handing everything back to her.

Bit worried, Ms Magnus?”

Nikola… your complexion has been competing with the snow for some time now. You have to eat.”

It’s the cold,” he replied softly, flexing his fingers inside the gloves. “It doesn’t agree with me at all.”

It used to. You have a beautiful home in the snow-covered mountains.”

Had…” a long time ago. He pulled his knees up to his chest, fending off the cold air. “Maybe I’m finally getting old.”

She whacked him. “And what does that make me?”

Ancient…”

Helen glared at him but her eyes were shining. “Have a thing for older women, do you?” she teased in her very best English accent.

Nikola laughed softly – a slight curl of his lip into a smile as he lowered his gaze, dragging his over Helen. She was only four years older than him. “Next time you bring home a dangerous pet, Helen – can you try to make it something from a tropical island?”

If this is part of your long standing plot to see me in a bikini…”

Always, my dear – Detective Kavanaugh… Still alive?”

The detective wandered over to them, kneeling down onto the rock. “I don’t think this vampire’s on the level,” he warned. The three of them all glanced over, watching the vampire rest against a boulder on the far side of the passage. “What did you promise him?”

A life in the modern world, work as an advisor to the sanctuary network and the ability to continue his work studying abnormal species.”

Not enough,” Nikola purred.

Joe observed them. “Any intention of letting me into whatever this plan of yours is? No… Well, give me a heads up, will ya if my head’s in danger.”

Maybe,” Nikola grinned. He paused and turned suddenly, looking down into the depths of the passage, listening intently. The other vampire was doing the same, rigid and focused. Helen put her hand on her chest, feeling her heart stop for a moment – then start with a rush.

He’s here…” Helen whispered.

*~*~*

John Druitt lowered his large frame into the chair. Opposite, his daughter lingered by the window, keeping guard over her mother’s sanctuary. Her blond hair was dirty, pulled back into a half-arsed pony tail. This was the other side of Ashley Magnus – the business side which was slowly starting to emerge.

You wanted to see me,” he announced his presence when she did not acknowledge it.

Ashley walked towards him, carrying a small, leather journal in her hand that had once belonged to her grandfather. It was laid on the desk with a soft, accusing thud. John’s gaze settled on it and he knew why he’d been called.

My grandfather died more than a hundred years ago – but for me, it was a month ago… I found this.” Ashley showed him a slender oak box. She opened it to reveal the pistol which had killed her grandfather. “Mum kept it.”

He didn’t say anything.

Why did you take me there?” she hissed darkly, all the pain and darkness in her eyes. “I ruined mum’s life and for what – this journal? Tesla knew where the Sanctuary of the Moon was anyway. I didn’t need this!”

It wasn’t – about – you,” John replied. “It was about your mother. She needed to be set free.”

You’re even more twisted than she described,” Ashley spat, sitting back against her chair, eyeing the person she shared half her DNA with. “What’s in it for you?”

Do not attempt to understand me,” he replied, soft and slow. “I thought you had a Magoi to babysit?”

It’s secure, although I was thinking perhaps I should have left you in the SHU.”

He chuckled. “My second home.”

Tempt me – and I might just tell mum what happened.”

Tell her,” he replied, unafraid. “You won’t… because you know she’ll look at you as she looks at me. It’s our little secret.”

*~*~*

Henry stood in front of the large tank in the creature enclosure. It was an enormous wall of glass that towered three stories to the roof. It had pebbles at the bottom and twisted clusters of seaweed nearly as long as the tank was high.

Afternoon precious,” Henry whispered, placing his hand on the glass as the silvery form of the mermaid shimmered closer. “Miss me, eh? Knew you had a soft heart underneath all that cold scale.”

She didn’t seem offended, tilting her head curiously at him as she always did. The mermaid cast her eyes down to the floor, indicating the Magoi locked up several floors beneath. She was a telepathic creature and its presence, even sleeping, was of grave concern.

Yeah, I know – not much I can do about that.”

The mermaid swam down further so that she was level with Henry. She twisted some of the seaweed in her bony fingers, clearly upset.

I’m sorry,” he insisted, as she grew more distressed. “I’ll go check on it soon – promise. Hey,” he looked at her more brightly, “I should change that water filter for you. Fancy a swim?”

*~*~*

How many?” Joe breathed.

Tesla listened again. “Many…” he whispered. “I can hear them scratching over the rock but they’re a lot deeper.”

Several levels beneath.”

Jesus!” Joe jumped, when the ancient vampire appeared behind his shoulder without a sound.

Come on,” it continued, beckoning them with a sharp claw. “Let’s go welcome them to the new age.”

They reached a vertical shaft. Like a well it ran deep into the mountain allowing air in to all the levels. Looking up, they could see the tiny prick of light where it was open to the world at the uppermost point of the peak. Tiny flurries of snow drifted through the air, falling away into the abyss.

Even Joe’s human ears could hear the sound of claws in the darkness.

They didn’t speak, taking the side track through treacherous black ice and loose rock less than a foot wide. Joe and Helen kept their hands on the wall, clinging onto jagged outcrops when their feet failed to find solid ground. The vampires fared better with even Nikola resorting to claws.

Louder… The scratching had its own echo now.

There was a soft, white glow coming off the rocks where a fluorescent moss followed fresh water fissures. It was enough that they could turn off their torches for a while.

A wave of the vampire’s hand brought everyone to a stop. Something moved in the corridor ahead, shuffling out of sight around a corner. The vampire went first, undetectable as he crept up to a large boulder blocking the way. Helen, Nikola and Joe were not far behind, each with a gun loaded and drawn in wait.

They didn’t need them.

The vampire returned with a small cave mouse, dangling by its tale. It squeaked angrily until it was dropped and allowed to scurry off.

Deeper again… but soon they were far enough inside the caves that neither ice nor life bothered to linger. It was just cold rock and they were forced to turn their torches on.

They’ll see us coming a mile off,” Joe whispered to Helen.

19

THROAT OF THOTH

Helen slipped.

Her boots lost their tentative grip on the frozen ground, scraping against sharp chunks of rock. During her swift descent, one of them tripped her up entirely and sent her crashing against the tunnel wall. She landed on her side and curled against the rock-face in a foetal position with one hand caught awkwardly underneath. A sharp pain ripped up her arm, striking through the bone. Helen whimpered in shock, dragging her arm free.

Dr Magnus?” Joe gasped in alarm, quickly navigating the black ice as he rushed to her side. He rolled her over, tapping lightly at her cheek until her blue eyes fluttered open. “Are you all right?” he asked.

She groaned. Helen’s wrist hung loose against the floor, the break obvious beneath her pale skin which was quickly staining with bruises. A fragment of white bone had pierced free above her joint. “Hurts like a bugger…” she gasped.

Nikola swooped to join them, ditching his backpack on the ground. He rifled through it for the med kit.

Helen turned her head, which was rested in Joe’s lap and gave him a pleading look. Without a word, Nikola took her arm carefully and laid the broken wrist straight against a splint. Positioning it took a painful minute in which Helen bit through her lip to stop a scream. Her muffled gurgle mad both men uneasy as Nikola prodded the bone back under her skin. Nikola wrapped it tightly then nodded for Joe to bring her to a sitting position.

You’ve got a concussion,” Nikola murmured, their voices hushed. He was no doctor but he’d been friends with James long enough to make a passable go at it. At least members of The Five required band-aids rather than surgery and his pension for perfection made him halfway decent at fixing a straight break.

Everyone’s voices dropped lower when another wave of sickening claws scraping against rock shivered up the tunnels. The vampires were moving – slowly.

Like god-damn termites,” Joe muttered. It was as though the sand creatures were inside the granite walls.

We take a break,” Nikola insisted. “Our friends aren’t going anywhere in a hurry, not in this cold.”

Helen accepted the pain killers. “I’ll be all right in a minute,” she replied, shooting Nikola a meaningful look.

He sat back slowly, catching his breath. Nikola remembered all too well Helen’s extraordinary ability to heal. She should have died long ago, falling from the university roof but Immortals were as their name suggested, difficult to kill. The last thing they wanted was for the vampire to know that. Their ancient friend was some distance ahead, keeping watch or plotting his escape – it was impossible to tell.

Just a sprain, then…” Nikola eyed her sternly.

A sprain?” Joe objected, until he was hushed, lowering his voice. “Tesla I -”

A sprain,” Nikola insisted firmly. “Nothing more.”

Half an hour later, it was time. “Help her up,” Nikola directed. “We need to keep moving.”

Helen stood gingerly. She wasn’t sure what caused more agony – the initial snap or her bones knitting together again. With her good hand, she felt the back of her head where she was sporting a fresh lump. “Bloody caves…” she growled.

You dropped this,” Nikola handed over her pistol, which she slipped back into its holster.

Really, I’m okay,” she insisted, inspecting her bound wrist. “It’s not my right hand so I can still shoot things.”

Just – make sure it’s not me,” Nikola winked, even if he still looked concerned. “I won’t believe you if there’s an accident and you blame it on ‘poor aim’.”

Noted,” she agreed, as they all started up the steep rise back to the path. At least she’d fallen towards the cave and not into the abyss on the other side. Even an immortal would struggle to survive such a fall – possibly a vampire too if Nikola were nudged into it. She eyed it as they went past, a chill rippling up her spine. “We’re getting deep in the earth now – I remember the stories you told, Nikola. Hollow Earth… Cities buried beneath our feet.”

They were just stories, Helen,” he whispered back, purring against her ear while they walked.

You are not a man of stories,” she countered easily. “Dreams perhaps but not fiction.”

How wrong she was, Nikola thought, his greatest fiction was currently holding onto his arm as they walked. “I didn’t think you were listening to my stories. No, as I recall it you were too busy being practical.”

You know, you never did tell me what you and father found under the mountains at your home.”

He reply was delayed. “Didn’t I?” Well, perhaps not the whole truth.

*~*~*

What in god’s name is it doing?” Henry set down a tray of tea beside Will, then poured himself a cup and sat with their resident shrink.

In front of them was the four inch thick glass of the high security observation room. Inside, the Magoi had taken the unusual step of letting them see its natural form. They gave Henry the creeps. If you squinted a Magoi looked a like a human wrestler made from wax then left out in the sun to semi-melt. With its head tilted to the ceiling, eyes closed and breathing lowered to a near undetectable level, it could have been a statue.

Will shook his head. “Nothing good. It’s concentrating all of its power onto something, that’s why we can see it.”

I guess it’s an improvement. Still, I don’t like it one bit – neither does the mermaid and she is an excellent judge of character.”

Magnus is right though, we can’t exactly set it loose.”

Can’t we sedate it again?” Henry asked.

We’ve been trying but it hasn’t responded. I’m starting to wonder if we ever really had it sedated in the first place.”

Well,” Henry sighed, sipping his tea. “We’re going to have to do something about it eventually.”

Not until Magnus gets back. You go,” he added, when Henry reminded him about the supplies meeting. “I think I’ll stay a little longer. If we’re going to babysit this thing, we should at least endeavour to learn something about it.”

As you wish,” Henry sighed. “Just promise me you won’t name it or anything. I’m pretty sure the doc is of a mind to – you know…” his finger swept over his throat.

*~*~*

They caught up to the vampire. His skeletal figure lingered by a fork in the path. One track went East toward an exit leading to extinct mountain village. They went North-West, following the path along sharper declines. It descended many levels further until the sound of claws was hushed somewhat by the roar of an underground river.

What is that?” Joe quickened his pace to fall inline beside the solitary creature leading them.

Glacier melt,” he hissed back, fangs glistening more than usual, covered in a fine layer of saliva. He was hungry from the trek and the supplements Magnus offered did little to sate him. “These pathways can flood in Spring or Summer on short notice. Most do not make a journey at this time of year.”

The vampire may have taken a vow not to feed off humans but he still took liberties with warm-blooded animals from time to time.

They soon found the source of the roar. Their tunnel abruptly ended at the edge of black, gushing water. Whatever rock or bridge had once traversed the gap between their tunnel and the opening opposite was long gone.

We’ll be swept clear off!” Joe paced to the edge of the rock and shone his torch down. The water was rough, seething into foam where it slammed against the cave walls. They were nearly shouting to hear each other, the impending danger of the sand creatures momentarily forgotten.

The half-ling and humans won’t make it,” the vampire offered dryly, implying that he could make the jump, which Nikola highly doubted – until he remembered the damn thing could teleport.

Maybe you could go have a look, see what’s on the other side?” Nikola suggested.

The vampire laughed. “I’d rather not end up half-embedded in a wall. One does not use such a gift in uncharted territory.” He paused, peering around with his blood-rimmed eyes. “Here,” he carefully stepped out to the thing seams of rock at the side of their tunnel. At the edge was the smallest of outcrops that could only be scaled if you were holding onto the slippery wall. “We can climb down here and move over the boulders obstructing the stream.”

Are you nuts?” growled Joe, eyeing the ‘boulders’ in the water. They were the worst form of slippery – rounded and smooth from centuries of abuse by the currents coated in fresh throws of glowing moss. “I am not going over those.”

Perhaps you could swim instead?” the vampire snipped, lowering his tall body down onto the very edge of the river where he sank a few inches into the loosely piled pebbles. He could tell that the ground dropped away into the river nearly immediately. Water flowing that fast had a tendency to gouge deep passages.

Helen struggled the most, nearly losing her grip with only one good hand to cling onto the rock. Nikola all but lifted her down until they were lined along the bank, their backs pressed to the wall and water snapping at their boots.

A sharp crack and the ancient vampire was gone. There was a faint trail of purple energy fading in a ghostly silhouette before he reappeared just as suddenly on the closest boulder adrift in the stream.

Fucking, goddamn vampires!” Joe gasped, startled half to death.

The vampire spread his arms wide. His fingers tapered into sinister claws while his eyes formed black voids against his skin. “Come…” he purred at the Detective.

Worst idea ever…” Joe muttered, inching closer to the water. As soon as his boot touched the edge, the course river sand started falling away. No room for error then. He turned, paced the two measly paces to the wall and then took a flying leap at the deadly water.

Joe’s boots hit rock – then moss. Suddenly he was dropping sharply. His boots, ankles and legs submerged in a freezing froth of water.

Oh shit! he thought, flailing in panic. The current was a brute slap against his skin, jerking him sharply to the side. A bony hand grasped at his jacket, pulling him sharply back toward the rock. The ancient vampire lifted him from the river and placed him on the boulder. Joe checked his limbs – all were still present.

Helen was thrown over by Nikola. The Vampire was able to catch her mid flight, setting her down lightly beside Joe until finally Nikola joined them, slightly damp. They crossed the remaining boulders until all of them were settled in the tunnel entrance.

My brother’s army is just beyond this tunnel,” the vampire whispered. “Are you still willing to make good on your gamble, Dr Magnus?”

When Helen nodded curtly, the vampire’s gaze flicked worryingly to Joe.

What…?” the detective frowned. “Why are you all – oh come on!” his concern shifted to revulsion when he realised he was a pre-war snack. Now he knew why they’d agreed to bring him along.

*~*~*

The change was remarkable.

Joe was unconscious, resting on the dirt with a bandage around his wrist stained from the vampire’s feed. He was pale but alive, his body slowly replenishing what had been taken. Nikola was on the far side, leaning against a wall looking just as ghostly. He’d been sick watching the display.

The ancient vampire was no longer a dried shell. His flesh had instantly padded out as years of his life faded away. Instead of white, his hair was deep grey with black streaks rippled through it while all of his fangs now glistened pearl white. Vampires stole their youth from other living creatures and this one was freshly feasted.

He was handsome, Helen noticed. The regal blood lines married strong bones and deep, blue eyes which the vampire now showed, blinking up at the glowing cave-moss. They’d not been blue for hundreds of years but now they were sharp and clear like ice. Nikola had exactly the same eyes – which Helen found troubling.

Ah…” he whispered, stretching his body like a panther. “Now I remember – youth.”

Don’t get used to it,” Helen replied, approaching cautiously. “Now, for your part of the bargain.”

Nikola had made it to his feet, kneeling over the detective’s unconscious body. “What about him?”

He’s safer here,” Helen whispered.

*~*~*

There was a true abyss ahead of them. Following their tiny cave to its end, the vampire, Tesla and Helen discovered that narrow corridor of rock ended at a chasm. At least fifty feet across and another down it was as though a giant, Dune sandworm had slithered its way through the mountain and birthed this tunnel.

What is this place?” Helen demanded of the vampire. It was clearly not a natural formation in the rock.

The younger looking vampire knelt by the opening, spying over the darkness.

Don’t you know, Doctor Magnus? I had rather thought your father would have shared some of my stories. We did a great deal of talking, you see, him and I… A great deal indeed. Extraordinary man especially considering he was a mere mortal like your detective back there.”

Helen stomach was starting to turn at the sight of the vampire. They needed him strong to quarrel with his brother but right now he looked too strong for Helen’s liking. “He shared a great many stories with me but not all of them.”

A small smirk of the vampire’s lips. He knew exactly what she was. Gregory Magnus was intelligent enough to know that vampires knew of Immortals but not smart enough to deduce their volatile relationship worked both ways. Clearly the old man never told his daughter what he’d been doing in the Sanctuary of the Moon all those years ago either. This other half-ling vampire was more curious… What was it doing befriending an Immortal?

This is the ‘Throat of Thoth’,” the vampire curled a slender claw at the tunnel.

Thoth, the moon deified,” Helen whispered, earning a proud curl of Nikola’s lip.

Indeed,” he agreed. After the darkness of the cave they could see why this tunnel had earned such a name. Its walls were riddled with the glowing moss, weaving through its fissures. The whole thing looked like a great slab of marble – well, marble carved from the underworld perhaps. It had an unsettling aura about it. A threatening presence that lured them onward. “He had a fondness for knowledge and magic.”

He was real,” the vampire curled his hands around the very edge of the opening. “An ancient king, before the dawn of our civilisation had truly risen.”

Nikola’s eyes were wide and black, awestruck. “Is he still alive?”

I doubt it,” the vampire replied. “These things were legend before the first city rose out of the sand. My brother knew more about him than most. Perhaps you can ask him?”

Nikola levelled his dark look at the vampire.

Bloody hell,” Helen whispered. “How much of our history is a lie?”

How much of it was written by human hand?” the vampire countered, giving Helen her answer. “We are not here on a sight seeing tour. My brother is down here. Come, there is a way down.”

The vampire led them into the final depths of the earth beyond the reach of any help.

20

DEAD WALKING

The three figures were positively tiny against the arching throat of the granite tunnel. From above, the floor of the cavernous expanse had appeared smooth but now they were properly acquainted with the a deluge of rubble collected in its throat over the millennia.

Boulders, sand and carpets of deep, thousand year old moss made the passage difficult to scale. The challenging terrain was interrupted by sheets of melted iron which sliced into the bedrock like growths of coral. If the vampire’s brother and his legion of sand creatures were down here, they would have a hell of a time picking them out from the forest of rock.

Tesla eyed the chunks of iron warily. He knew what they were – fragments of a large meteor either naturally laid to rest or more likely dragged into the depths of a mountain for a reason. Forget treasure, the unassuming lumps of metal were worth a fortune on their own. Helen saw that look on his face and rolled her eyes. Ever the vampire.

Nobody spoke. Their torches were off, guided instead by their hands and feet scrambling for purchase on the rock. Helen struggled with her injured hand while her heart thrashed against her chest inducing a nerve-crunching headache. Three vampires – it was too much for a solitary Immortal to bear.

Breathe…” Nikola murmured cautiously, climbing beside her.

She nodded but her mind was a writhing mess. At least one vampire had to die and soon. In the past hour she’d twice found her hand on the Browning in her belt. Its cold shaft could easily pick off one of the vampires next to her.

Nikola kept searching the walls and tunnel ahead for movement. A hundred or more sand creatures were somewhere nearby. He could smell their filthy, diseased bodies. The other vampire had his nose tilted to the air as well. They were close.

Tesla stared at the next rise of flat-topped boulders. The dim glow of the moss was unbroken over the polished surface. He shook his frozen hands, trying to get them to work properly. Where the hell were they?

To Nikola’s left, the full-blood stopped. He was half a metre above, clutching at a particularly gnarled slab of meteorite, peering ahead. Something had caused him to hesitate. Nikola climbed up, perching on a smaller outcrop of rock.

Well shit!” Nikola barely whispered, instinctively curling his claws into the rock for a firmer grip.

The ground flattened out ahead into a bed of river stones. Several hundred metres along this expanse was a figure silhouetted in the faint light. It was the vampire. There was no mistaking its towering form held so rigid it could have been part of the rock. Its arms were out at its sides, claws extended like sets of carving knives. The vampire’s head fall back, tilting up at ceiling in prayer. A faint glimmer reflected off his two sets of fangs.

This vampire was not slender like the rescued vampire beside Nikola. He was a warrior. His broad shoulders were made for swinging swords and riding chariots. He’d found his old armour too – Nikola could see smooth, scale-like segments woven together over his shoulders with heavy links of metal.

A small stream of dust and pebbles rained down on Helen as she joined the two vampires. No – three, she realised, seeing the figure looming ahead. Her eyes dilated into large, black pits. This was her prey – her purpose. Instinct demanded she kill the strongest of the vampires to restore the balance and by a long way, this creature was it.

What’s it doing?” Nikola asked.

Waiting,” the vampire replied, calmly.

The brother in the distance lifted its head and slowly turned. Nikola could hear the rustle of its cloak and the thud of the leather boots against stone. It faced them, a pair of blood-red eyes glowing in the dark.

*~*~*

The Magoi screeched. Above, the mermaid thrashed in her tank, beating her fists against the glass as the sound tore through her delicate telepathic link. She couldn’t take it. Desperately, she clawed at her body ripping bloody lines down her arms and face.

Alarms blared. Heavy, automatic fire doors started to descend over the enclosures. One by one they vanished behind impenetrable grey walls. Will rolled out from underneath one moments before it crunched into the concrete.

What the hell is going on?” he coughed the dust out of his lungs.

Henry was by the mermaid’s tank, hurriedly feeding a sedative into the water. It took on a purple tinge, the mermaid jolting a few more times before her eyes closed and she drifted into sleep, sinking to the bottom of the tank. “Buggered if I know. The whole place is shutting down. Where’s Biggie?”

Feeding the birds, last I saw.”

The pterodactyls whooped about the enclosure, gnashing their teeth at the emergency lights flashing along the ceiling. Cloned during one of Helen’s more en-vogue phases, they flapped wildly over the sasquatch. He batted them away with a furry paw, making his way to the door. He closed the iron gates just as one of the creatures landed, curling its talons around the bars inches from his face.

Told you ‘id be troubl’, didn’ I?” Bigfoot grumbled, when the other two caught up to him.

You don’t think it’s the Magoi – surely?” Will asked.

Aw man that is not going to go down well with Ash,” Henry added, shaking his head. “She wanted to shoot that thing moment we found it.”

They all made their way through the sanctuary, clearing one security gate at a time.

Where is she, anyway?”

Probably down there with the damn Magoi,” Henry replied to Will. “It’ll take more than some fancy mind tricks to stop her putting a bullet through its camouflaged ass this time.”

But Ashley wasn’t down with the Magoi. She wasn’t anywhere to be found and Druitt was not help. He’d been broadening his knowledge of the library all afternoon. Or so he claimed.

Shut it up for Christ’s sakes!” Will had his arms over his ears, staring at the glass enclosure with the shrieking creature.

Screaming at the tech is not helping!” Henry spat back, both simultaneously trying to shield his ears and poke buttons on the computer board. The sirens abated first and then finally a thick smoke filled the Magoi’s glass cage. Eventually the screaming stopped followed by a thud as it hit the floor, mercifully unconscious. Henry wiped his brow. “Blood-y-hell!”

They assembled in front of the cage, waiting for the smoke to clear.

I wonder what that was all about…” Will said.

Bigfoot huffed. “Nothin’ good.”

*~*~*

There was no point hiding in the shadows. All three of them picked their way over the river stones, inching closer to the waiting vampire general. He was shrouded in darkness, an outline accentuated by glistening claws and two red points where his eyes should be. Nikola’s eyes had never been red so either it was a ‘full-blood’ thing or a sign of a well fed vampire. Either way, it wasn’t good.

Their vampire took the lead, striding up towards his brother. The two had not met since before the great killings. It was almost yesterday for one – aeons for the other.

As they grew closer, Nikola was awed by how young the larger brother, General Apries looked. No more than thirty, even with silver scars running across his bare arms, crossing bulging veins swollen by fresh blood.

‘Brother… you look – well,’ Apries sneered at his elder looking sibling. He spoke the ancient tongue of which Nikola only understood a little. ‘I knew you collected things but this -‘ his red eyes wandered over the woman, ‘-is a jewel in that crown of thorns you call a home.’

It was a frosty reception but so far free of blood.

What’s he saying?” Helen leaned close to Nikola, not liking the way the vampire gazed at her.

He shook his head. “Nothing good – something about a crown and collecting things. I presume he means us.”

Not quite what we’d agreed.”

Indeed,” he purred, flexing his fingers as if preparing to shift.

There was a drawn out silence until Apries continued. ‘When I heard you in my head, I admit I was surprised.’

‘These people have a creature,’ the vampire explained. ‘Its powers amplify our telepathy, to what end, I am unsure.’

Helen whacked Nikola in the side but he shook his head. “I don’t know what’s going on!”

The brother’s considered each other, Apries speaking again. ‘Immortals are still in the world, I guess that was to be expected. Do you know how many?’

‘This is the only one I’ve seen.’

‘She must know the key to Hollow Earth. An Immortal can always move between the worlds.’ His sharp claws dripped with the moisture in the cave. More flurries of dust rained down as though the whole tunnel were unsteady.

Nikola stiffened, glancing at Helen. “I think they’re talking about you.”

We should really run,” she took a step backward but the ancient vampire snapped out of reality in a crack of thunder. A purple glow lit the cave, flaring again as Apries appeared, arm outstretched, claws inches from Helen’s throat. She startled, stumbling over the river stones.

The vampire could smell her glorious blood – feel it pounding around her body, thumping faster and faster. Such torment. Such bliss. His claws uncurled toward her throat wantonly before he withdrew his hand. She was poison. A rose amongst a bed of thorns.

She was also young, too young to kill him.

The corner of the vampire’s lip curled up when he heard the half-ling growl protectively.

Curious,” Apries spoke, this time in heavily accented English. He had not the centuries of practice of his brother. “Is it like this for you too? How can you stand it…

Nikola did not answer him.

Amasis, still standing beside Tesla, raised his hand. “Careful brother.”

Apries hesitated, red eyes locked on him. It happened so fast. He reached forward, wrapping his hand around Helen’s throat and yanking her away from Tesla. Apries held her close, claws biting into her skin. Helen raised her gun but it was knocked easily from her gloved hands.

Let her go!” Nikola fumbled for his gun, levelling it at the General. He looked over his shoulder to the other vampire but hit was impossible to tell which side he was playing. “I said put her down!” Nikola repeated, inching closer.

The vampire drew away from him. “By all means, continue if you want her throat ripped out.”

Nikola stopped.

Another column of dust fell between them. Helen’s frightened gaze flicked between Nikola and the vampire they’d brought along. Would he honour their bargain?

Amasis, you bastard, come on!” Nikola hissed at the vampire beside him.

Swear on her life, Mongrel…” Amasis replied, dark eyes darting to Nikola.

I swear, I fucking swear!”

The general’s confidence faltered. Was he betrayed twice by his brother? The answer was ‘yes’ he realised, as Amasis lunged toward him. Apries tossed the immortal to the side, ducking out of his brother’s clawed swipe. He rolled and cut a blow upwards, landing it in the vampire’s chest. Then another, harder this time. “If you want me this time, you’ll have to do the work yourself!” growled Apries.

Nikola dragged Helen as far as he could, helping her sit. “Come on Helen, shake it off,” he begged. He could hear the vampires trading blows behind them and it was already clear that Apries had the upper hand. Which didn’t bode particularly well for them.

Helen shoved Nikola and grabbed the Browning, slipping the safety off. “We have to keep them busy,” she hissed, using a nearby boulder to help her stand. “There’s still an army down here.”

That’s what’s troubling me,” Nikola replied, peering at the dark tunnel. It was too immense to pick anything but the largest features out. He clicked on his torch, shining it up toward the roof but it couldn’t penetrate fifty feet. “Shit!”

Ahead, General Apries thrust his clawed hand into his brother’s side, clothes tearing and growls erupting from Amasis who pushed him off angrily and followed with a crack of lightning arcing off his cloak. The General dodged it, hissing and brandishing his fangs.

‘Two thousand years and you still want me dead? Wasn’t my suffering enough!’ Amasis stumbled back to avoid his brother’s knife-like claws. Apries kept coming, hatred burning through his red eyes. ‘You turned on your own kind – sided with the Cabal…’

Amasis shook his head, holding his bloodied arm as it healed. The vestiges of youth were draining from his face as he tried to heal. ‘They were never meant to win,’ he insisted.

‘You were playing the humans and you lost.’ Apries stopped for a moment, his claws held up in a moment of peace. ‘It is not too late to turn the tide against them. Join me. I’m going to rebuild our father’s empire.’

Amasis turned to look at the half-ling and Immortal scrambling back toward them, their tiny, fragile figures paling in comparison to the mighty, vampire built tunnel around them. Vampires were empire builders, preservers of the world’s knowledge. Imagine what they could do if they had another chance. ‘I want to – but…’ He looked nervously at the darkness.

‘What – Amasis?’ the general demanded.

‘Kill the half-breed – I’ll find you again, I swear.’ Amasis had just enough strength left in him to leave the world in an almighty crack of purple lightning. The sound boomed around the cavern, shifting a rain of dust from above. He was gone, leaving Apries hissing in shock.

Bloody hell…” Helen gasped, finding herself and Nikola the focus of the General’s attention.

The General didn’t come for her. In a shadow of claw and fang, it wrapped its hand around Tesla and threw him through the tunnel. He bounced like a rag doll over the stones, his gun flying off into the darkness.

Nikola!” Helen shrieked, firing off three rounds into the vampire. They clinked harmlessly off his armour.

Nikola rolled onto his back, gasping as his lungs fought for air. He titled his head away from a column of dust. He could have sworn he saw something move against the darkness above. There wasn’t time to find out what as the general threw a large rock at him. The iron hit Nikola in the chest, breaking one of his rips.

He rolled over, spitting blood onto the stones. Nikola rolled out of the way in time to avoid another rock, smashing into the ground where he had been. He heard a shot from Helen’s gun and a whistle of air as it sailed passed the vampire and missed his shoulder by inches. “Careful!”

Nikola stumbled to his feet then ducked, claws slicing the air above his head. Instinct lunged him forward, his firsts laying two heavy hits into the general’s stomach between the armour plates. A casual swat from the ancient vampire’s arm sent Nikola flying off toward the wall. Instead of hitting the unforgiving rock, Tesla landed in a mass of bony limbs that writhed beneath him.

Oh god…” he whispered, as he found himself amidst a mass of sand creatures who sank back into the tunnel like a wave receding from the shore. There were thousands of them, waiting patiently to be called by their master.

His stomach turned in terror but it was too late, Apries had hold of his ankle, dragging him back into the centre of the tunnel.

Now tell me, half-ling,” Apries growled against the side of Nikola’s face, his fangs cutting deeply into Nikola’s neck and shoulder. “Why’ve you got the Immortal, hmm?”

Nikola stumbled, unable to hold his own weight on his broken ankle. It burned painfully as the vampire held up steady. “She’s a hell of a looker…” he managed, blood running down the edge of his lip.

The vampire shook Tesla roughly, another crack of bone coming from his leg. “Can she open the door?!” he demanded violently.

The – what are you talking about?” Nikola replied, in genuine confusion.

Apries dropped him onto the sharp rock then yanked him back to his feet and started dragging him down the tunnel. Tesla struggled, leaving a smear of blood over the stones.

Helen followed, picking her way along in the darkness. She could hear the sand creatures now, clawing over the walls and ceiling, dislodging dust as they moved. They didn’t seem interested in her, creeping after their master instead.

21

RIVERS IN THE SNOW

Blood tumbled in rivers over the snow, freezing before the bodies at their source could die. One man blinked away a stray snowflake, its crystal form catching in his eyelashes. His fingers twitched against the ground, leather rasping against the snow and then went still. The black cliffs hung behind him, a demonic curtain of rock and ice framing the horror with a stark blue sky beyond.

Ashley pushed herself off the snow, groaning as pain ebbed from her bloodied arm. She inspected the trio of claw marks torn through her hiking gear, the force of which had sent her flying down into the soft snow behind some stray boulders. Her blood was still smeared on the nearest one where she’d clipped it with her head.

Staggering through a knee-deep drift, Ashley surveyed the remains of her rescue team. Even from this distance she could tell that all sixteen were dead, strewn over the area in various states of dismemberment with smears of carnage between them. Bullet casing littered the ground, gleaming like a bed of stars under the harsh sun.

The vampire had appeared from nowhere in a crack of purple light, electricity spewing forth in angry shrieks of thunder triggering micro avalanches. The rest was a haze but Ashley remembered seeing him feed from several of the team, stooping over their dying bodies with claws and fangs dripping red. The bloodshed was confirmed as she reached the top of the glacier and the bodies of her friends.

Oh god… Williams,” Ashley whispered, kneeling beside a middle-aged man. She’d been on many missions with him, including her first through the swamps of Eastern Europe when she was still a child. “You were right – I’m sorry. Mum’s gonna be so mad but I couldn’t let her go into the mountains with two vampires and a cop as cover, no chance in hell…” Her gloved hand brushed his eyes closed.

She peeled open one of the first aid kits, wrapping the cuts on her arm. Frostbite could start fast and she was no good to anyone if she let it cripple her. Ashley sighed, holding her bandaged arm for a moment then picked up one of the radios and tapped it. Nothing. A gargle of static. She swore and delved deeper into the bag. There was a locator beacon inside which she slipped into her jacket. There was already enough weaponry concealed in her combat clothes to take on a small army to which she added a flare and stun grenade.

Right, vampires – here we go,” she whispered, boots crunching against the snow. “Just like old times.”

Her dead friend seemed to smile at her as she trekked toward the cliffs.

*~*~*

As the minutes passed, Nikola could feel his body healing. Bones were knitting together, blood welling up and drying on his skin – torn muscles numbing. The ancient vampire sneered, taking care to shove Nikola roughly against the rock wall every now and then, breaking something new.

Tesla groaned softly as a fresh stream of blood ran down the side of his head. He was a scientist, not a warrior. Though it pained his ego to admit, he knew very well that he didn’t stand a chance against Apries.

No-” he protested weakly, covering his face just before he was thrust into the rock again. It cut through his hands and arms, shredding what was left of his sleeve and adding a bloody tear along his forearm.

There was water under their feet. Nikola could feel it biting at his ankles. There was something else too – snow – it was wafting through the air, gently colliding with his cheeks. How could it be snowing?

He didn’t know how long they walked for but eventually the General came to a stop. Nikola opened his eyes. The first thing he saw were two beacons of fire erupting from the floor, burning in spirals of flame and wind. The base of its jets electric blue where it was feeding off natural gas locked in the rock. The heat from the enormous pillars of fire banished any hint of ice from the rock around them, scorched off the moss and left a sooty residue over the enormous door looming beyond as though it were the passage to hell itself.

Between the two flames lay the famous granite door built to a monstrous scale. Houses could have skimmed through its breadth with room to spare. Deep grooves and a large flat landing suggested that it was designed to open towards them but nothing had shifted its weight in tens of thousands of years.

It was not ornate. Instead, simple inscriptions were scored into the gleaming black surface read, ‘Immortal Lands’ in a language few could still read.

The door.

I don’t understand,” Nikola whispered, when Apries held him close, pressing one of his sharp claws to Nikola’s fragile neck. He reached up, weakly gripping the General’s arm. “I know nothing of this – I swear.” Nikola was still taking in the shocking find. It was beyond anything he’d ever imagined finding buried under the earth. Its gleaming symbols meant nothing to him.

I believe you,” Apries hissed. His army of sand creatures shivered against the walls and ceiling, waiting, hungry. “The woman you’re with -”

Helen?”

Yes… She knows how to open the door and if she wants you back in one piece, she’s going to open it for me. Isn’t that right?” He lifted his voice, addressing the tunnel.

Helen’s response was another bullet, sheering off a nearby rock making the vampire laugh. The vampire curled the edge of his lip. “Immortals – always so testy.”

Nikola tried to pick her out against the rock. He could feel her – that rapid patter of her heart and the sound of her breath catching. She was there. “Don’t listen to him,” he managed. If this vampire desperately wanted what was behind this door then opening it was a very bad idea. “You hear me? Guh…” He gasped for air as the vampire thrust three of his claws through Nikola’s back and out his chest. There was a gurgle from Nikola’s mouth as blood welled up his throat and dripped from his lips.

Stop it!” A very angry, British voice bellowed from the cave. Helen Magnus strolled out of the shadows, gun in hand. Her eyes were like steel, fixed on Apries. “Leave him alone.”

Do you know what happens when you bleed a vampire dry?” Apries dragged his claws a few inches through Nikola drawing out a gargled screech from him. Helen could hear his blood dripping down onto the rock – his heart starting to fail. “It’s a very slow death,” he continued. “Losing your mind, drip by drip until insatiable hunger takes hold.”

Helen watched as Nikola’s head lulled back into unconsciousness.

I know that you have to kill a vampire today – all of that, ‘restoring the balance’ shit that you Immortals have been peddling since the sun first rose but it doesn’t have to be me.” Apries withdrew his claws and let Nikola fall to the ground in a damaged heap against one of the boulders. “Or him, as I see you are quite fond of the mongrel.”

Then who – Amasis?” she sneered. “He is long gone,” Helen did not lower her gun but she was running out of shots. She doubted the silver tipped rounds were enough to kill him.

I can bring you my brother,” Apries walked past Nikola’s body without so much as a glance. “I’ll even do it for you, for old time’s sake. I had a age to think things over in my tomb. Genetic memory is a powerful thing, Immortal,” he reached out to brush his claws over the stone door. “I searched mine, for hundreds of years until it started to unlock… The things I saw – glimpses of what lays beyond this door.”

Helen frowned, risking a cautious step closer. She resisted the urge to look at the sea of sand creatures churning around the walls and ceiling. They made their presence known by a constant rain of dust. “You weren’t coming for my Sanctuary?”

The vampire laughed, turning. He lounged back against the cold, rock of the door. “Did you really think that my first port of call after thousands of years imprisonment would be revenge?”

Helen was silent.

He shook his head. “Disappointing… There are much grander prizes than retribution.” Apries tapped his claws against the granite. “Can you read it?”

Helen lifted her gaze to the symbols cut into the door. She’d never seen the language before but her mind instantly translated. The flicker or recognition in her eyes was enough for Apries.

Good. Now, if you’d be so kind – how do I open it?”

Helen shook her head. “I have no idea.”

Slowly, the vampire stalked over to Nikola’s body, stepping on his neck – pressing down with his sandle until another moan escaped Nikola. “Answer carefully, Magnus.”

*~*~*

Werewolves in a hole – what happened to you?” Ashley sat down beside Detective Joe Kavanaugh. “You look like you got bit by a vampire.”

Joe, deathly pale, rested against the tunnel wall, gulping down half a bottle of water before he replied. “I did. Your mother forgot to mention I was a walking snack.”

Ashley flinched. “Sorry. Mum does things like that.”

Clearly,” he pointed at the angry fang marks on his neck.

She rested her hand on his shoulder. Ashley didn’t know Joe particularly well but he seemed like a nice enough guy and so far he’d handled the onslaught of the Abnormal world much better than any of the other institutional forces she’d come across. Maybe he might consider working for them one day. “When was the last time you saw them?”

Half a day ago?” he guessed. “That bloody ancient pain in the neck looks a lot younger now he’s freshly fed.”

Yeah,” she agreed. “He tore through our guys up top no trouble. No wonder mum won’t let Tesla feed.”

Something’s gone wrong. Amasis was on our side far as I could tell.” Joe had a terrible feeling that they’d find Magnus and Tesla’s bodies deeper in the caves.

*~*~*

A veil of dust fell over Helen, the sand creatures above shifting restlessly.

Stop it… or I won’t tell you shit, Apries,” she scowled. “Thank you,” Helen watched Apries back away from Tesla. There was just one gaping problem in Helen’s plan – she didn’t have the faintest clue how to open the door. She surveyed the enormous slab of rock, shining her torch up its facade. The surface of the stone was unnaturally smooth, certainly polished by hand and then set into place. The slab beneath Apries and Tesla was equally worked, almost like parts of a machine. Hell – what she really needed was Nikola. He was the engineer.

Apries narrowed his blue eyes at her. “What?”

The secret of the door was lost long ago,” she lied casually. “Yes, I can read the language but I need Tesla,” her hand waved at the vampire, “to help open it.”

Those blue eyes went black. “The mongrel?” he spat. She nodded. Apries snarled something untoward.

Helen nodded, her eyes betraying nothing this time. “Didn’t you wonder why an Immortal would allow a vampire to live?” she let the revelation hang in the air until it stuck. “Now you know. You’re not the only one trying to open this door, vampire.”

Apries picked Tesla up by the back of his jacket like a kitten. He glowered at the barely conscious half-breed. “That true?”

Nikola had just enough presence of mind to nod weakly.

*~*~*

Still nothing,” Joe slipped the radio back into his pocket. “We’re not officially missing for another two days.”

I’m not missing for three – I was supposed to be your backup.”

Well, thanks, I guess.”

Ashley lofted her eyebrow at him. “I heard about your dad, by the way. Now I know why you were always hanging around the gates while I was growing up.” They were nearly the same age – Joe three years her senior.

It’s why I became a detective in the first place. There is some seriously weird shit going down in Old City but most of the Force keeps their eyes closed. They don’t want to know what’s really going on. Or they’ve been told not to look. I’m not sure which.”

The corner of her lip curled up in a smile. “You know, if we both manage to live through this perhaps we could help each other out a bit. You drop me a few hints – I reel in the abnormals. Lower body count all round.”

Let’s live through this first,” he managed a proper smile, a bit of colour returning to his skin now. “Now, if you really are my back up, you better give me a hand.”

*~*~*

Nikola was sitting against one of the polished rocks in front of the door indulging his obsessive compulsive behaviour. He was using a shred torn from his jacket to wipe away as much dried blood from his face as possible but the rag was filthy, merely spreading charcoal across his flesh. Most of his bones were mended even if the pain hadn’t subsided. Still, he was in a black mood, scowling at the other vampire.

It was still snowing, tiny crystals wafting through the Throat of Thoth. He realised now that it was the constant stream of snow which caused the water to collected in the tunnel’s floor.

All right Nikola, enough now,” Helen whispered, standing a few feet from him. Her gun was back in its holster and Apries paced around the door, lost in thought with his army of sand creatures hissing in the cave behind.

This is not going well,” Tesla pointed out, tossing the rag away.

Like all of your evil plans go smoothly,” she automatically snapped back.

Usually they do – until you drop by and start unravelling them.”

Really Nikola, can we focus on the task at hand?”

He surveyed the door, polished stones and breadth of the tunnel behind. Despite his reservations, Nikola couldn’t stop his mind from attempting the puzzle at hand. “I’m not sure it’s something I should be setting my mind to.”

It’s that or he kills us,” Helen whispered.

He’s going to do that anyway. Come on Helen, you know how this goes. We help the bad guys get what they want – they return their gratitude with a few well placed bullets, or in this case fang marks. Ow!”

She’d swatted him over the head, messing up his hair. “Focus!”

Focussing…” he sighed, using the rock to help him to his feet. Several of his bones cracked back into place. He dusted off his tattered clothes and strutted up to the door. Apries narrowed his eyes at the mongrel. Such half-bred creatures were forbidden under his father’s rule.

Nikola had spent his whole adult life trying to meet a full blood vampire but the reality was rather underwhelming. “It’s not vampire in origin,” Nikola started, touching the cold stone. There was a faint current of electricity almost like a pulse coursing through the veins of imperfection. “Nor is it from Hollow Earth.”

Nikola looked over his shoulder at Helen. For the first time he saw her for the creature that she was. An Immortal. A different race entirely. A race with a past lost beneath the world – all but erased from it.

Helen shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. “What?”

He smirked. “Nothing, Ms Magnus…” His smile was stolen when he saw some of the sand creatures’ eyes peering out from the darkness at him. Nikola cleared his throat. Focus, he reminded himself before Helen could hit him again.

Whatever the answer was, it wasn’t on the door itself, so Nikola walked away – right away, down the steps and back into the tunnel of river stones.

Where the hell is it going?” Apries growled.

Patience,” Helen insisted. “Let him go. This is what he does.”

22

IMMORTAL

The ground shook. Ashley and Joe stumbled, lunging for the rough wall opposite as rock and dust consumed them from above. The stones beneath their feet bounced like popcorn, wildly smashing against their ankles. Joe yelped, boot rolling – pitching him sharply to one side.

Quick!” Ashley grabbed Joe by the sleeve of his jacket, pulling him into a cramped alcove several feet above the floor. They sandwiched themselves into it, staying above most of the debris.

Cracks tore through the volcanic bedrock with a thunderous boom. Water gushed out through the fresh fissures and froze into jagged outcrops of ice. The daggers sheered off instantly joining the rubble on the floor.

The whole place is coming down!” Joe squeezed himself deeper into the alcove to avoid a freezing spray of glacier water.

*~*~*

Nikola held his hands up innocently.

It wasn’t me!” he insisted, despite the dubious glares from both Helen and Apries.

The earthquake may have subsided but the passageway was not left unscathed. The Throat of Thoth continued to rumble overhead, boulders the size of cars slamming into the floor making Helen glance warily up the the ceiling. Eventually they stopped falling and she resumed her glare.

At least not on purpose,” Nikola amended, shifting under Helen’s sharp gaze. That woman terrified him far more than the brooding vampire.

Idiot!” the vampire raged. “You nearly brought the entire mountain down on our heads,” Apries looked flustered, his claws covered in an unappealing film of dust. His sand creatures were crawling around in a daze on the floor, licking their wounds or dragging themselves out from the rubble. Some had been swatted like flies beneath falling boulders, their innards dragged over the stone. Agonised screeches suggested some were still alive.

Hey it was a guess,” Nikola’s ego out-stripped his instinctual fear of the general. “And a darn sight better than anything you’ve come up with so far. It was a result, perhaps not a particularly desirable one but…”

If you’re going to tell me this is like your earthquake machine,” Helen joined into the chorus of disapproval, “I’m going to shoot you in the leg just like New York!”

Aw come on… that was only one iddy-bitty city block. They barely noticed!”

So help me Nikola!” Helen glowered, hair full of bits of cave.

When he first entered the tunnel, Nikola had noticed that the smooth boulders positioned in a semi-circle in front of the door were not granite. Despite the dull gleam of their polished surfaces, they were carved out of meteorite which in its own right was an incredible technical feat by the ancient builders. Nikola was beginning to hatch a theory that all the meteorite fragments passed on the way in were also deliberately placed – even if they hadn’t been tidied up to look pretty.

There was something special about this outer space corpse. Nikola didn’t claim to be a professor of geology but the magnetic and electric fields on the surface were odd. On closer inspection of the giant door he discovered the imperfections running through the granite to be the remains of the asteroid. It was probably melted together and fused by half-hearted mountain building geology. It still carried an electric charge after thousands of years. Tens of thousands… The important question was why?

Nikola had a theory about that too.

How much do you know about these ‘beings before time’?” Nikola asked Apries. “The Egyptian vampires portrayed them as gods. Were they a particularly advanced race for the ancient world or was it all just a bit of wishful myth-building?”

Apries frowned. “You should ask the Immortal. They are her ancestors, not mine.”

Helen shrugged. “Don’t look at me, Nikola. Your Egyptian mythology was always better than mine. I was too busy chasing werewolves.”

Which was totally true. Nikola sighed and carefully looked around the cave again. The only way any of them were getting through that door was if he worked how to open it. Ancient race – how hard could it be? They probably didn’t even have a refined version of the wheel…

Refusing to be outsmarted, Nikola clambered up onto a fresh outcrop caused by the earthquake. He nudged a few dazed sand creatures away as he emerged on the flat top of granite. He had a perfect view of the door and the fragments of meteorite curving around it like a series of crescent moons. They instantly reminded him of a bar magnet hungrily sucking in a storm of iron filings. The fragments of meteor where more densely clustered towards the edges of the door and every single one of them had a slight tilt to their left. No doubt they were only half the picture with a mirror image on the other side of the door.

This tunnel is a lock,” he said, standing on his large, makeshift platform. He pointed out the main rock markers for the two below. “And it has a primitive power source drawn directly from the meteorite fragments. They’re scattered all the way through.” He pointed them out.

It doesn’t look very electric,” Helen shouted up at him.

He rolled his eyes in her direction. “The circuit is open. We have to find out where it’s been broken then fix it.”

And the door will open?” Apries stepped forward.

Well – I presume so. They wouldn’t be a very clever ancient people if their doors don’t work.”

*~*~*

Hey – hey, no one’s meant to be takin’ the trucks ’til they’re cleaned and – hey!”

One of the security guards that Helen had left in charge of their temporary base thumped his hand on the solid window of the SUV. The driver ignored him, the young man hunting for keys.

I’m talkin’ to you!” he continued, moving his hand down to open the door. It was locked. The guard swore and lifted the but of his automatic rifle. He slammed it against the side of the car with an almighty clang. “You hear me in there, kiddo?!”

Amasis had left his vow of human abstinence in tatters. The moment that glorious blood touched his lips he’d felt life returning to his tortured limbs. It welled through his body, reversing the thousands of years of decay that had taken root in his bones. Now he looked more like a young prince.

The vampire turned at the banging and snarled, a full row of jagged fangs shining back at the security guard.

What the f-” the security guard started to say, lifting his gun and fumbling for his radio. The car door opened, hitting him before he could make the call. The guard flew backwards into a fire extinguisher with a dull thud. The brackets connecting it to the wall collapsed. It and the guard met the floor together before the red cylinder rolled away.

Amasis stepped carefully over it. He considered the human, one of his fangs dripping sticky venom. “I am a future king. Will you serve me?”

The guard lifted his head up in equal measures pain and amusement. “You’re ‘ff your ‘ead, mate,” he replied. “Off your bleedin’-”

Two silenced gunshots thwapped into the guard’s chest. The vampire reached forward, taking the unused weapon from the guard’s hands while he desperately tried to gargle out his last words. They never came.

Amasis steered the truck out of its metal cage and launched it onto the snow-covered road. He’d driven plenty of chariots and horses in his time but the car wiggled under his hold, slipping along the treacherous mountain road.

He was heading for the village nestled in the valley. Precious more than a litter of farms and houses, Amasis was interested in its airstrip and the plane that Magnus had brought them on. It was crucial that he return to her Sanctuary. While ever the Magoi lived, he could not outpace his brother. It had to be killed. Only then would he stand any chance of disappearing into the shadows.

*~*~*

The earthquake left the once rushing glacier torrent dividing the cave’s tunnel a ruin of rock. Ashley and Joe inspected the freshly collapsed section of ceiling to their right, blocking the river’s path entirely. The ice wall plugged its source, for the moment. At its thinnest, it was a sheet of blue-green sitting in stark contrast to its overall imposing presence of blue, white and black. It creaked eerily, tons of water quickly backing up behind the crude ice-plug leaking through only a few tiny crevices.

That’s not going to hold long,” whispered Joe, starting over the rock-filled chasm. Their surfaces were extremely slippery, both of them fumbling for grip. Joe lost his, slid down the face of a curved boulder and landed on a fresh mound of ice. “Is this a bad time to mention my claustrophobia?”

Ashley vaulted over the rocks beside him. “Trust me, you’re not. Found myself on a mission with a claustrophobic guy once – nightmare!” she drawled lightly, picking the detective off the floor on her way past. “Mind you, can’t say I’m a fan of our lovely ice-dam,” she shone her torch over it. Even the beam of light seemed to make it more unsteady.

Let’s just hope that if it breaks, it’ll follow it’s old path and not chase us down the tunnel.”

Least resistance…” A cursory glance between the river’s two options didn’t fill either of them with much confidence so they both returned to silence – until they heard it.

Ashley stopped, gun rising beneath her torch. She narrowed her eyes at the darkness in front, slowly tracking the halo of her torch across its breadth. Nothing.

What?” Joe whispered, then frowned as he heard the rustle of claws against stone. “Oh shit! I’ve heard that before.”

So’ve I…”

*~*~*

The vampire lazily chucked another pebble into the depths of the tunnel, missing the mongrel by a foot or two. He and the Immortal were sat against the door, boredly watching Tesla hunt around another outcrop of meteorite. The initial flurry of excitement was over.

If he’s stalling for time, I’m going to turn him into an orderve,” Apries hissed.

I’ve never met a vampire that bored,” Helen replied, letting her head rest against the stone. Now that it was clear their lives weren’t in any immediate danger, she was starting to wonder what was behind this damn door that made so many ancient creatures hunt for it. “How long have you known about this place?”

Apries glanced at her but never for too long, his crystal eyes fixed on the half-breed. He didn’t trust Tesla. “Since my imprisonment,” he replied, his voice sounded as young as he looked, something which Helen found quite disconcerting. “There were vague references to it buried in the temple archives but very few gave it any credence in my father’s reign.”

But before that?”

There was a time when hunting the lost world of the Immortals was the favourite pastime of young Pharaohs.”

Bit like the Grand Tour then,” Helen managed a smirk. She was watching Nikola too. He was laying his hands on various fragments of rock, no doubt trying to feel the electric current. He didn’t look as though he was having any luck. Not yet. “And your brother?”

Apries risked returning his gaze to her. It wasn’t just that he wanted to keep an eye on Tesla. It was that Magnus was enticing. She was genetically tailored to appeal to him and he was determined not to slip into that trap.

You are keen to kill him,” he pointed out, not revealing any emotion either way. “There is nowhere in this world that he can run where I won’t find him. Don’t worry, Immortal, you will have your vampire bounty before long.”

Good,” she nodded, drawing her knees up. “I have this insatiable urge to kill something coming on again.”

Both of them craned their heads and Tesla ducked down behind a particularly large hunk of meteorite almost centred to the door. It was roughly egg-shaped though little attempt had been made to polish it up. This particular rock had the faintest spider webs of gold tangled through it.

There are stories that survive today,” Helen continued, “of an ancient, advanced race – the Atlantians -” she was about to continue when Apries broke into a shrill laugh. “What?”

Those Greek whores?” he seemed genuinely amused. “Vampires were well acquainted with them, some even unwisely married into their royal family. Believe me, they are not a particularly memorable part of this planet’s history. The whole thing ended in tears and a bang.”

Serves them right for building their empire on a volcano…” Helen had to admit.

Humans always think that nothing will happen to them, that the movements of the world and space are irrelevant but I have always supposed that is due to their tiny lifespans. They cannot see the world like you or I. It breathes. Magnus was staring at him. “You believe that I am a simple warrior? I am the son of the Pharaoh, raised to rule,” he purred, eyes shifting back to their natural black for a moment.

She was momentarily caught by them. For a moment she saw a flicker of who he truly was, an emperor of the ancient world and she was way out of her depth. “You cannot rule over humans any more – those days are dead.”

You’re wrong,” Apries made her shiver. “Humanity is born to be ruled. They cannot exist without hierarchy. I may never sit on a throne but I sure as hell will rule them.”

Helen sighed. Why were vampires so god damn preoccupied with ruling the Earth?

*~*~*

Jesus motherfukin’ christ!” Joe leapt back in terror as the sand creature fell from the roof and landed in a heap at his feet. It was alive, barely, writhing in agony. It flickered between visible and invisible, desperately clutching a bloody stump where its foreleg was missing.

Ashley lowered her gun.

Jeeze…” she whispered, considering the creature. “Must have been hit by a rock during the earthquake.”

It was whining, huddling against the wall only partially aware of the humans in front of it. Somehow in its pain the deeply buried seeds of its humanity crept through. Once that had been a person, just like Will.

Ashley lifted her gun to kill it but found Joe’s hand on her arm. “Why not?” she asked.

If that were me, would you still shoot?”

The fact that she didn’t answer straight away made Joe frown and turn his attention back to the cave in front of them. Every now and then the earth shook again, the belly of the mountain clearly suffering indigestion from the people disturbing its slumber. “Leave it alone,” Joe repeated softly, as the creature’s wails grew softer. “We need to get to your mother. Whatever those vampires are after, they’re not going to keep her alive once they have it.”

Every tunnel was in a worse state than the next. Rubble, ice and running water obstructed their path and more than once the pair of them had to shift boulders the size of tables to get through. “I think we’re getting closer to the source of the quake…”

Joe raised his eyebrow but said nothing.

Finally, the narrow passageway ended – albeit in a sheer drop into a vast cavern. The walls and ceiling constantly shifted with the camouflaged bodies of sand creatures, their scarlet bodies picking up the firelight from below. Two jets of flame framed a giant door and in front of it were three people in the midst of a heated discussion.

*~*~*

I’m not wrong, Helen…” Nikola pleaded, gesturing back at the rock behind him. “I know I’ve had my fair share of daft ideas but most of them are right even if they’re not in the best interests of humanity.”

Why do I get the feeling that this is one of those times?” she hissed. “Well come on, you better show us what you mean.”

Nikola led them over to the back of the meteorite chunk. He’d been digging away at the rubble around its base, going down several feet. “These things are a lot bigger than I thought. The tunnel has filled up with debris over the years – a lot, actually. It’s a bit damaged but I don’t think that matters.”

He’d uncovered a trio of indents in the rock, egg shaped depressions with metal clasps set into their bases. Very unusual, especially as they showed no sign of deterioration.

I never thought I’d say it, Nikola – but you might actually be right for once…” Helen whispered.

Nikola tried not to look put out as the vampire knelt down, taking a closer look. “Keystones,” he said, brushing his claws over the indents. “So much for the myths. Those ancient quacks were right all along.”

You know what these are?”

Apries nodded at Helen. “I even know where one of them is provided the tomb hasn’t been raided. What…?” he lowered his voice when the Immortal shifted uncomfortably.

Most Egyptian tombs have been ransacked,” she admitted. “If you hadn’t built such huge monuments to your egos more of your civilisation might have survived.”

He was put out but not put off. “Surely humans kept some of the treasures they stole?”

The British Museum,” Nikola interrupted. “It was a long time ago but I swear I saw a strange smooth stone with indecipherable markings on it.”

Apries looked at the door, then to the room full of sand creatures. “You’d help me open this door?”

Nikola and Helen looked at each other. “You know what, I think we might on the proviso you stop snacking on humans for the time being.”

Apries was about to agree to the irritating terms when he heard crack in the distance, then a small landslide of rocks followed by a surprised yelp that certainly didn’t belong to a sand creature.

You are not here alone?”

We brought another man with us, a snack for your brother. He must have woken up and come looking for us.” Helen looked nervously up to the dark end of the tunnel where they’d emerged.

Ashley dragged Joe frantically back from the edge when the ground had given way under his weight. They froze, eyes locked on the trio beneath them who’d stop talking and turned to face them. So much for sneaking to the rescue.

Wait – what’s that?” Ashley whispered, her arms still around Joe’s waist.

There was a fourth figure in the cave now. At first she thought it was just a shadow against the wall but it had crept closer to the door. It was tall, slender and nearly inhumane in the way it moved. “MUM!” Ashley yelled, instantly giving away her position.

Helen was startled, flashing her torch toward the end of the cave but unable to see anything. “What the hell are you doing here?”

There’s something else down here!” she continued, as the shadow ducked out of view.

*~*~*

What’s it doing?” Will collapsed into the couch with a beer and tray of hot chips. It was nearly nightfall and he was drained from cleaning up the Sanctuary. Bigfoot was baby sitting the Magoi while Henry got all the security systems back to full strength. Druitt – well, he was doing bugger all as usual.

Nothing…” came Bigfoot’s reply over the radio.

Will leaned forward, turning on the monitor to confirm it. Nothing. Hours and hours of nothing since they’d knocked it out with gas.

Nothing is what I like to hear. Come on up, have some dinner. It’s not going anywhere.”

The lack of reply suggested that Biggie agreed.

Will tapped on the keyboard lazily, switching to another screen. He logged into the archives, trailing through folders until he came to one marked, ‘Tesla’. Curious, he clicked only to be confronted by a password prompt. None of his worked.

Typical,” he muttered. Magnus trusted him but obviously not completely. Not when it came to her past or anything to do with the true history of vampires. He made a mental note to berate her about that when she came back. Speaking of which, she was supposed to check in around now.

Henry strolled into the room. “Hey dude,” he said, not looking up from his ipad.

Has Magnus checked in yet?”

Nope. Helicopter returned to base on schedule and she left a few text messages before going into the mountains. Nothing since then but that’s hardly surprising considering she ended up in the mountain. Ashley checked in though.”

Where the hell is she?”

Where do you think?” Henry sighed, turning the ipad around so that Will could see the snow-laden world of the Pensi La Mountain Pass.

Great. Magnus is going to kill us either way now.”

Nah,” Henry assured. “You need to stop worrying about Ashley. She can take care of herself. I’d worry about Helen before Ashley. Hate to say it but that girl has more than a share of her father’s stubbornness speaking of-”

In his room, sharpening his knives.”

Henry shifted uncomfortably. “Really?”

Will shrugged.

Creepy. Well, I’m off for a nap – don’t let the place fall down around us, eh?” Henry slinked out. It was full moon tonight, maybe he’d go for a bit of a howl.

*~*~*

Apries was okay with a few more stray humans but not uninvited guests.

Not me…” Helen whispered to both Nikola and the general. “Maybe someone else followed you here?” she asked the vampire, but he shook his head as well. “Everyone back to the door. Can I have my gun now?”

Apries rolled his eyes and handed her the weapon. It wasn’t much good against him anyway. He flexed his claws, narrowing his eyes at the tunnel. “I didn’t hear anything – it’s not Amasis.”

Nikola, armed with only his half-sized claws, looked especially uncomfortable, raising his torch defensibly. “Can’t you sic your sand creatures on them or something?”

I already have,” he replied smoothly.

It would do them no good. The creature hunting them could make itself undetectable to anything with vampire DNA. The Immortal professor rested against a large boulder, watching the tunnel with black eyes. One vampire had to go.

Can you see it?” Joe craned his head.

Nah,” she whispered back. “If it ain’t one of ours then it’s bad news.” There was a nasty creak behind them. They turned, listening for a sudden rush of water but it didn’t come. “I don’t like this. Not one bit.”

23

ICE CLIFFS

Nikola worked it out. His stomach sank, fear spreading through his ancient blood as he realised what Helen had done – what she’d been planning all along. He should have known that she had some insane scheme, pursuing the General deep into unknown mountains. She’d made a serious miscalculation.

He tried to catch her eye without Apries noticing. Helen was edging forward into the belly of the cave under the guise of hunting out the intruder, firelight flickering over the barrel of her gun. The intruder she’d bloody well gone and invited along, thought Tesla crossly. If he made it out of here alive and in this case he really meant if, he was going to give her a right piece of his mind and possibly make a snack of her protege.

General Apries was none the wiser, black eyes darting at shadows in the tunnel. His ears pricked up at the sound of bodies hitting rock. Sand creatures – falling one by one from the roof to the floor of the tunnel. Dead.

What the hell is going on?” he demanded, as something shredded his army into a rippling carpet of bone.

Buggered if I know,” Helen lied, incredibly well, Nikola realised.

Something’s killing your army,” Nikola filled in.

The sand creatures were falling faster, several hitting the ground at a time, necks snapped. Some tried to slip away into the corners of the room but they were pursued to bloody ends. The last one put up a fight, screeching and hurling rocks until it was snatched into the darkness. An eerie silence followed.

Nikola never thought that he’d miss the sound of sand creatures scratching about but he did. He looked around, not at the tunnel but the door behind. Its stone was unyielding, offering no glimpse of its secrets or chance of escape. He was going not going to make it out of here alive. If Apries was anything like his brother then he could teleport his arse to safety. Nikola had no such luxury.

Everyone’s eyes were drawn instantly to movement.

Pacing through the centre of the tunnel was Nikola’s old Professor from University. The world’s last true Immortal and keeper of the balance between two dangerous species. His long coats swept over the stones with a soft hiss. Tall, slender and surreal, the firelight licked around him as though greeting an old friend.

Priest…” General Apries tensed, claws flexing slightly as he caught sight of the Immortal. It was not their first meeting. He tilted his head, eyes blacker than the tunnel. His amour glinted. “Well, well, well…”

Nikola’s Professor arched a narrow eyebrow.

*~*~*

600 BCE, MEMPHIS, EGYPT

Limestone pillars reached up toward the heavens, shining in the morning sun like rays of the immortal god himself. Most of the temple was buried by seas of mist, lost in the rising surge that left the walls – several hundred metres long – gleaming with moisture. They were capped with decorative carvings doubling in purpose both to scare and impress the thousands of pilgrims that traversed the known world to visit the library within. Its guests were met by eight statues guarding the gates, towering half the height of the wall. They held spears with flags flapping against the wind, empty eyes gazing at the festering city. Lines of sphinxes sat either side of the walkway, lounging like lions on the savannah.

Hut-Ka-Ptah, birthplace of the empire’s name – ‘The White Walls’, enduring and beautiful were crumbling into the sands. Its glory was lost but not its heart. The empire may have moved to Thebes and Memphis later captured by the Assyrians but the grand temple survived by the grace of local Egyptian Princes who still made the journey to pray at its alters and peruse its secret documents, too fragile to be moved.

Two of these young princes, eight and twelve, raced through the granite hallway with torches nearly blown out by the speed of their bare feet against the stone. They skidded around each corner, laughter echoing through the complex until they scampered into the depths of the main library.

The Head Priest turned slowly, lowering his patient gaze to the boys as they assembled in front of him. To them, he was so tall that the boys called him, ‘statue’.

Amasis… Apries…” he drawled each of their names so that they knew they were in trouble. Prince Amasis, by far the most curious, set his torch in a holder and scurried over to the shelves, running his sticky hands over the papyrus until he found the scroll that they had been reading yesterday. Apries was less enthusiastic, seating himself at the table, boredly flicking the edge of his quill. He was the future King but like most young Princes, he much preferred to be outside learning the art of war rather than locked in a cellar with dusty parchments.

The recent wars had lowered their numbers but there were still many Immortals left in the world, thousands even and just as many vampires. It was important to keep a close eye on the vampires, shaping the young ones and thus the next generation. The Immortals had taken up roles in the temples and nurseries, rearing baby princes and princesses.

These two though, the Priest had to admit, were a real pair. It was never a good idea to have polar opposites for heirs. It usually ended in war unless he could manage to knock a bit of sense into them – even out the balance, so to speak.

Apries stabbed the table with the sharp nib of his quill. The Priest sighed softly. This was going to be harder than he thought.

*~*~*

I might have guessed,” Apries shifted at the sight of his former Priest. There was not a day of the thousands of years on his face and he couldn’t help but wonder how Immortals ended up looking old. Unless they were immensely old. “If you’ve come to give me a lesson I think you’ll find your precious libraries burned down long ago. Humanity… what can you do?”

The Professor flinched. Apries was quite right. Humanity had destroyed the troves of knowledge carefully collected by Immortals and Vampires alike. “You know why I have come.”

Nikola was doing his absolute best to become invisible against the door. A vampire was going to die and he was determined that it wouldn’t be him.

I might have gone after Amasis – even Tesla,” the Professor glanced briefly to the scientist, “if you hadn’t come here. You know this is a forbidden world – forbidden for all of us. Now I have no choice. Tesla -if you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave this place and never return, he added, directed at the scientist.

Y-yes…” he stuttered, backing away from the door. Helen took him by the arm and tugged him out into the tunnel away from the two ancient creatures. “You could have bloody told me what you were up to!” he hissed at Helen, stepping over the corpses of slaughtered sand creatures.

Nikola, you can’t keep a secret to save your life.”

True.

Don’t suppose you gave any thought to what’ll happen when Apries teleports out of here and I’m the only vampire within claw’s reach?”

Oh Nikola – the Professor is not going to kill you. You’re only half-vampire, remember?”

It was the one and only time Nikola didn’t snap at her for pointing that out.

I wasn’t even sure he would come. It’s not like he has a phone or anything. We need to get to Ashley – and Joe.”

Yeah, he’s probably left your fan club after you fed him to Amasis…” Nikola pointed out.

He’ll forgive me,” she hoped rather than knew. “I can’t believe it, he’s killed every sand creature. I was banking on saving a few.”

Ashley and Joe were far above in the mouth of the small passage however the land bridge that had allowed Helen and Tesla into the tunnel was gone, destroyed by the earthquake.

Mum?” Ashley called cautiously, waving.

For the record, you’re grounded,” Helen muttered at her daughter. “Did you bring rope?” Her question was answered when Ashley threw down the end of a nylon rope.

Are we coming down or are you guys coming up?” she asked, not sure which was safer.

It’s snowing in here,” Nikola whispered to Helen, pointing up at the soft flecks wafting around them. “There must be an exit nearby. It’ll take days to get back to the pass and I doubt we’ve got that long.”

He had a point. Helen waved down Joe and her daughter.

*~*~*

Amasis held the terrified pilot at gunpoint, watching the mountain peaks fade away until they were indistinguishable from the puffs of white cloud. The bodies of the co-pilot and crew littered the plane, stains of blood flourishing the walls with a grisly reminder of the terror a few hours before.

*~*~*

Apries and the Professor were still talking as the group snuck down, winding their way through the Throat of Thoth toward a speck of daylight at the end of the tunnel. Nikola was right, it was snowing in the tunnel and the snow was getting heavier as they traversed the rubble.

What are they doing?” Ashley asked, glancing back over at the two figures slowly circling each other.

Preparing to fight,” Helen whispered back. “It is no light thing for two immortal creatures to duel.”

Another soft quake shook the tunnel. All of them stumbled falling amongst the rocks as more fragments of roof caved in and crashed down around them. A rock the size of a car landed next to Joe, shattering into a dozen pieces next to his head, falling away from him into the cave. He was too shocked to move.

I don’t know what you did, Nikola – but this place is unstable.”

Seriously, I just shifted one rock.” He was about to continue his defence when he heard it. Another rockfall, far in the distance. Water pushing past it. Ice snapping. “Oh shiiiiiit…” he hissed, hustling back to his feet. “Run, now!”

They barely made it fifty metres when the first surge of glacier water poured through the hole into their tunnel. It slammed into the ground, shifting boulders out of its way. The freezing water frothed, forced out of the tiny hole in a roar.

Everyone paused to watch. There was silence then a cold wind rushing over them, blowing away the snow.

Apries and the Immortal were hit first, the torrent knocking them down like bowling pins. They thrashed against the water as it threw them into rocks along with the bodies of the sand creatures, swirling around them like shrivelled Autumn leaves.

The others ran, cold spray on their backs and the first trickles of water rising underfoot as they bolted toward the end of the tunnel. The light in front grew bigger. The mouth of the tunnel opened out with a jagged edge gaping at the world. They could see the beginnings of mountains. A smear of blue sky. Nikola looked over his shoulder – and screamed.

*~*~*

Dr Will Zimmerman was asleep. Bits of chip were sprinkled over his shirt, ground into the couch as he rolled onto his stomach. The TV was on but the original program had finished hours ago. Something obscure was playing now – the kind of thing that the networks pretended they didn’t buy then sort to hide in the wee hours of the morning when only very drunk people were awake.

Druitt had been prepared to render the irritating protege unconscious but there was no need. He stepped silently through the office toward the monitors. John bent over, knocking the mouse to wake it up. A few clicks and he was scrolling through the Sanctuary’s files, hunting until he found it.

The screen prompted him for a password.

John hesitated, clearly changing his mind after a moment’s thought. The folder unlocked though he seemed slightly disappointed.

That hurts…” he whispered to Helen.

He inserted a USB drive into the computer and started copying. A snore from the couch told him he was in no danger.

*~*~*

The water hit Nikola like a wall, dislocating vertebrae as it churned against him, pushing him through the cave. He was helpless as the others sank into the water. He reached for Helen just before she went under, their fingertips brushing. Then she was gone.

Nikola had no time to think. Suddenly the world became impossibly bright. He was outside, the glare giving way to a perfect vista of the ice locked valley. He was still going forwards, flying through the air – then dropping sharply. Nikola looked down and saw nothing but white beneath. They’d been thrown clear of the tunnel and entered free-fall over the mountains.

He yelped, flailing uselessly at the water.

Boulders started dropping out of the wave, snatched from the torrent by gravity. They seemed to fall for an age before smashing into the snow below, rolling down the mountainside until they looked like fluffy white snowballs.

Nikola fell faster. The water around him was losing all its strength. Other bodies were falling, sand creatures raining down. Amongst them was a flare of dark brown hair.

Helen!” he screamed, trying to move toward her.

She was groggy, blood running from her forehead. It took her a moment to realise what was happening. “Nikola!”

They all smashed to the ground together – a brand new waterfall forming at the mouth of the cave above. It tickled down in a serene curtain, giving now indication of the violence of its birth.

*~*~*

Joe was amazed to find his eyes open. Daylight. Snow – god lots of snow. He tried to turned his head but the perfectly Joe-shaped hole in the snow was a snug fit and deep, at least ten feet. Nothing seemed to hurt but it was impossible to tell if that was because he was unscathed or more likely, very cold.

A shadow passed over his hole – then a rope dangled in. Surprised that his hands worked, Joe took hold, wrapping the nylon around his wrists. The slack vanished, a sharp tightening of the rope into his gloves – then he was pulled free.

Ashley found Tesla knelt over her mother’s body, his hands cupping her face tenderly. She stepped back, not sure what to do as Tesla leaned down, whispering something against Helen’s ear. Helen awoke a moment later, reaching up to hold Tesla’s wrist, squeezing it softly, dare she believe it – affectionately.

Where are the others?” Joe rasped, kneeling down to pick a broken vampire claw out of the snow. He held the curved, sharp object up to the light, then cringed. “Ew…”

Apries is alive,” Helen replied, kneeling now. “And I don’t have any increased desire to kill Nikola, so I guess our Immortal is too.”

Gee thanks, Helen… What about -” Nikola pointed up toward the cave and its fresh waterfall dribbling into an ice lake.

There’s no point going back until we have those stones.”

Then we are going back,” he replied carefully.

 

PLEASE DON’T TOUCH

“Where did you say that you were from again?” Will eyed the short-haired blonde suspiciously. She was taller than him, quite brunt in her approach to conversation and determined on breaking the very delicate electronic device on Henry’s desk.

“I didn’t,” Samantha Carter replied,recoiling as the object let off a series of sparks and began to smoke. “Crap.”

“Please don’t touch anything. Technology’s very sensitive about its feelings around here.” Will re-opened the folder that she had given him, skimming over the fine print. It looked decidedly like a poorly written cover up.

That was exactly what it was – an excuse for Colonel Samantha Carter to sniff around this so called ‘Sanctuary’ for their missing Goa’uld that had been running amok in the city.

“Listen,” Sam took a few steps forward, more than invading Will’s comfort zone. “You don’t have to like me, you just have to show me around a bit. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”

“It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s that I don’t trust you. That, and my boss isn’t keen on me giving the grand tour to unnamed military personal.”

“I’m a doctor,” Sam corrected him. “Military’s a hobby. Now tell me once and for all, do you, or do you not have an Abnormal with glowing eyes and nasty temper?”

Will was about to reply when Sam pulled a zat gun from her within her coat and fired it just shy of his head. He turned in time to see their newly acquired (and supposedly safely secured) Abnormal buckle and fall to the ground, eyes aglow.

“Never mind,” said Sam with a satisfied grin. “Found him.”

“You know,” said Will, “you remind me of someone.”

 

LOVE IN THE TIME OF SCIENCE



UNTOLD SANCTUARY

LOVE IN THE TIME OF SCIENCE

by ellymelly


TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Storms and Lecture Notes

  2. Universe in the Lake

  3. The Start of Something

  4. Breaking In

  5. Taking a Turn

  6. The World’s an Experiment

  7. Vivisection

  8. Secrets, Lies and Stolen Truths

  9. Sanguine Vampiris

  10. Child of the Storm

  11. Unbreakable

  12. Rats to the Slaughter

  13. First Impressions

  14. The Invisible Man

  15. Dampier’s Notes

  16. Haunting Immortals

  17. Sherlock

  18. Missing Time

  19. Dreamscapes of the Insane

  20. Nigel Walks

  21. Bloody Nights in London

  22. Trill Mill Stream

  23. A Shot in the Dark

  24. Pushing Boundaries

  25. The British Museum

  26. Nature’s Balance

  27. Nigel’s Diary

  28. Crimson Torment

  29. Beautiful Disaster

  30. Wild Roses and Empty Boxes

  31. Prince of Blood

  32. Starting From Scratch

  33. A History of the Underworld

  34. Black Water

  35. Hollow Ground

  36. Apology in Blood

  37. An Honest Gentleman

  38. Bowing Out Gracefully

  39. Creatures of the Sand

  40. Ruffle of Feathers

  41. Heart of the Storm

  42. Feed

  43. A Crypt for the Damned

  44. Pieces of Modern Science

  45. Cities of the Ancient World

  46. Reservoir of Dreams

  47. Outpost

  48. Returning to Oxford

  49. A Father’s Return

  50. Classical Chaos

  51. The Age of Light

  52. The Five

  53. Daughter of Time

  54. Revenge at its Cruellest

  55. Revelations of Love

1

STORMS AND LECTURE NOTES

A ruffle of wings settled on the window. Their blur of white faded from the air as the creature turned its elegant head and nestled its beak between the layers of feathers, knocking the rain free.

The storm over Oxford hadn’t decided what to do, so instead it loomed, slowly grazing over the twinkling gas-lit streets. The glow of the city was just enough to light the underside of the storm in the absence of starlight.

A pair of bright eyes watched the sky, scanning the clouds as they rolled through each other. He could feel their friction and smell the droplets of water tumbling – ripping electrons free as they rose and fell in a maddening struggle. It was a scene alive with expectancy, like two lovers drawn apart, desperate to rejoin in what could only be a beautiful disaster.

He breathed in the energy, waiting for –

A river of light cut through the heavens and dove into the earth with perfect silence.

The air around it burnt.

Expanded.

And began reverberating through the sky towards his window.

Nikola felt the world shudder. His shutters rattled and the pigeon hopped onto his outstretched arm in a frightened flutter, clawing its way up his suit.

Sh…” he cooed, tracing a finger down the back of its neck. It nipped him affectionately. “This is the best part.”

“You’ll catch something from that thing,” Helen climbed into the university’s attic, sitting on the floorboards before swinging her legs up through the hole.

“I thought I told you not to come up here?” he replied, still petting the bird.

“You say that every day, but you never mean it,” she closed the hatch and strolled over to the window, keeping her distance from the stray bird scaling Nikola’s shoulder. There was a storm raging over the city but it had not reached them yet. She could feel its cool wind kicking through the open window onto their faces. “We’ve got evening class.”

Tesla lifted an eyebrow. “You’re here because?”

Helen shook her head, turning her back on the window. Nikola had transformed the attic into a dormitory. A bed had been pushed against the far side of the misshapen room – meticulously made. The rest of the space he had proceeded to fill with whatever he could scavenge from the engineering laboratories. Mostly it comprised a concoction of wire – bundles and bundles of it.

“I’m here because I was the only one our lecturer could convince to come and get you.”

“Come here…”

She frowned. “Not if you-” but realised her mistake, Nikola was talking to the pigeon. Helen watched as he cupped the creature in his hands and knelt down onto the floor, as if hiding from something.

A moment later Helen screamed but no-one heard it above the roar that shattered the windows. She fell to the ground, holding her ears and slamming her eyes shut as the small room became a beacon of light. The accompanying thunder pounded through her very soul until she thought it would break.

Suddenly, there was nothing…

She opened her eyes to a ball of light several feet across, spinning slowly in the centre of the room. It shimmered with what looked like shards of lightning branching off in quiet rumbles. The sphere’s surface rippled with burning veins that pulsed in brightness – humming.

The ball-lightning didn’t stay suspended for long. At length it rolled lazily through the air and Helen had to leap out of the way as it collided with a solid wall – dissipated and vanished.

The room was returned to darkness. Helen turned her head to Nikola’s quiet laugh. He opened his palms and the pigeon flew out into the storm just as the first sheet of rain hit the walls.

“Can we go now?” Helen hissed, clearly frightened by his little show.

Nikola nodded. “I’m done…”

“You’ll be well and truly done when they university finds out you put a lightning rod on the roof!”

*~*~*

Night class was easily the most poorly attended of all the physical science classes. A quick turn about the room made its avoidance plain.

The lecturer, stunted and balanced on a high stool at the front of the room, slanted over the black board scratching illegible diagrams in-between a series of annotations that lacked internal consistency.

By default, the front bench was left empty.

It wasn’t that the few students that bothered to show disliked being close to the board, or feared looking too keen – indeed, in different circumstances the front would be an ideal seat if only to have a fair chance at deciphering the board… In this case though, the stench leaching out of the lecturer’s jacket was almost visible on the air. Like a noxious gas, it kept students at a safe distance.

A rumble of thunder woke Nigel Griffin. Snorting, he rubbed a hooked nose on his sleeve and nestled his head back in the warm ditch of his arm. Several of his books were considering a leap of faith from the desk but there was one book the world would never take from him; his diary. It was not because he kept secrets in it – he was not a particularly secretive person – no, this book contained a detailed list of all his appointments and lesson times, observations and ramblings of the world. In his first year, he’d misplaced this book, spent the day wandering around in a lost state and finally ended up locked in a cupboard. Not something he was keen to repeat.

At the back, right corner sat the rigid figure of James. Unlike the others who were either asleep or scribbling madly, James Watson narrowed his eyes and observed his peers. Every so often he tilted his head, changing subjects. The lecture board continued to fill but he didn’t feel the need to lift his feathered pen for there were far more interesting things afoot than the eternal motion of the planets.

The twin doors of the lecture room flew open with a gush of wind, startling those that had been napping. A young woman with a dishevelled mop of golden hair dragged a wiry gentleman behind her, depositing him in the nearest seat. She nodded at the lecturer and then collapsed next to Tesla, opening her book where she quickly set to work copying the board.

Nikola rolled his eyes, spun around so that he was lying lengthways across the bench, and promptly went to sleep with his head irritatingly in her lap. Helen ignored him, brushing her hair out of the way.

“Mr Tesla?” the lecturer had stopped writing to stare expectantly at the empty section of bench hiding Tesla.

“Yes, sir?” came the half muffled, mostly bored response.

“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about a bolt of lightning hitting the south end of the building, would you?” his very large, white eyebrows furrowed. The lecturer knew that the young boy was fascinated by the sheer intrigue of raw current – with good reason. He had what could only be described as affection for it; a relationship that was proving dangerous for the integrity of the building.

There was a long silence in response. The lecturer shook his head slowly and returned to the board.

“Let me know if you remember…” he muttered, picking a new piece of chalk.

Nikola, blissfully looking forward to his sleep, shut his eyes and started planning frictionless power systems. He’d just managed a smile when all the air was forced out of his lungs by the sudden impact of a heavy book on his chest. Coughing, he sat up with a start.

“What the…” there was a sizable text book in his lap.

“Niiice of you to join us,” a deep voice undulated over the air. It belonged to a tall, strong-cut face with a square chin and deep brown eyes. Eyes which trailed to Helen, hovered there for a moment, and then returned to the shocked Nikola.

“And who are you?” Nikola dusted off the book and laid it on the bench. He coughed again and then groaned, feeling his skin burn from the impact.

“I’m new,” replied John. “Well, not that new. This is my fourth class but the first one that you’ve attended since I started. Helen said that I should return your textbook and thank you for its use.”

Nikola opened the cover and saw that it was, indeed, his. Not that he’d opened it. His name was written in Helen’s careful handwriting.

“Thank you John,” whispered Helen, risking a glance.

“You leant him my book?” Nikola frowned, lowering his voice so that the ominous student couldn’t hear.

“Don’t worry, I relocated the spiders nesting on it,” she smirked. “It’s not like you missed it, Nikola. Now quiet, I have to get all this down.”

“It’s rubbish anyway,” Tesla shifted the book to the side as he scanned the board. “There’s a new theory about to be published that shows the earth is much older than that.”

“Maybe, but right now I need you to stop speaking.” She prodded him with the tip of her quill, which hurt quite a bit more than she meant it to.

It worked though. For at least two minutes Nikola did not say a word.

“Helen?”

“Sh…”

“Can I plagiarise your assignment on Inheritance and Mendal?” he inched in a bit, rocking ever so slightly until Helen flicked her damp hair over her shoulder and glared. “That’d be a no then,” he sighed, making the bench back into a bed.

*~*~*

Helen’s essay on Inheritance and Mendal mysteriously made its way into Tesla’s attic accommodation several days later where it was promptly skimmed, re-worded and presented in class where it received a B-.

According to the professor, Nikola had been marked on his ability to acquire answers discreetly.

James Watson, a creature who Nikola rarely spoke to except to taunt, held his own paper up so that its A was glaringly obvious.

“Your motor still bursting into flames?” inquired Tesla casually, ripping his own assignment into a thousand pieces.

James seldom bothered with more than one word, “Presently.”

“Excellent news. Let me know when your life goes up in smoke.” He tipped his hat and headed out the main doors to the garden.

Watson watched the strange man vanish into the morning. “Indeed…”

He was about to waltz off down to the dining hall when something beautiful caught his eye. Miss Helen Magnus, daughter of the currently discredited but once well-thought-of physician, was making her way toward him. At first he thought he must have been inadvertently standing in the way of her target but every time he took a subtle step she realigned her trajectory.

“’scuse me,” she started, quite out of breath.

He’d never spoken to her before now, except when handing out things in class and that one time they’d said an awkward, ‘good day’ in the corridor. James tried to look as pleasant as he could, shaking off his usual icy disposition and general dislike of conversation.

“Yes?” he managed, slipping his brass glasses into a more stable position, higher up the bridge of his nose.

Helen’s hands settled on her hips as she caught her breath. “I’m not wanting to disturb you,” she began, albeit a little suspiciously, “but – I was – wondering. You’re good at anatomy, if I remember?”

Not the first question he thought he’d be asked by the daughter of a doctor. “Presumably.”

“Would I be able to borrow you, for a little while? No more than an hour or so. If you have the time, of course.”

James clasped his gloved hands behind his back and nodded, curiosity getting the better of him.

2

UNIVERSE IN THE LAKE

James Watson crossed his legs, collecting his things into a neat pile beside the library table.

The university library was a conglomerate of too many years spent tacking buildings onto one another without the slightest nod to style. This haphazard maze was divided into two main sections known to the students colourfully as, ‘old’ and ‘new’. Anything vulgar built within the last fifty years fell into the latter category.

The old section was where James preferred to spend his precious time. He liked the sandstone walls, tinted green from centuries of rain and moss – it wasn’t attractive but they brimmed with character. Its aisles were cave like, dwarfed by thousands of books recording a history of human thought. Gothic chandeliers were strung between the towering bookshelves where a single librarian sorted through a trolley of books, painstakingly ordering them onto the shelves.

Today, however, he had been dragged to the new section of the library. It was bustling with near-sighted students snerching books from the shelves and piling them into towers on their friends’ arms. James raised his nose. The smell of varnish and ink permeated the air and tested his patience as he waited for Miss Magnus to return from the cabinet housing recently published papers.

“Still alive,” he made the observation of himself, when she finally returned.

Helen Magnus held several folders tied together with green and gold ribbon.

“They don’t like us borrowing these,” she began, sliding them onto the dark wood table before taking her seat opposite. “New publications except for this one,” her finger tapped the folder on top, “unpublished work by one of the university patrons. We’re especially not allowed to borrow this.”

His eyes tracked over the name on the cover, ‘Karl Landsteiner – On Red Blood Cells’ James had never borrowed anything from the library before, so this restriction did not concern him.

Helen undid the ribbon and gently spread the folder’s contents into a fan as you would a pack of cards. They were roughly printed on fine tissue-like paper with sketchy diagrams and hand-written annotations scattered throughout the text. Hesitantly, she folded her arms onto the table and leant toward James, searching him for something.

He stared curiously back with mellowed-brown eyes. A casual passer would not guess their sharpness but Helen was no casual bystander.

“I’ve been working on something for a while,” she said softly, “but I am wise enough to recognise my limits. The subject which intrigues me is young to the world and so the information I have been able to acquire is either scattered, incomplete or contradictory. Truth is, I need someone who has spent time on their own investigation of the subject matter.”

He wondered how she had known.

“Like me?” he replied, his voice softening to silk.

Exactly like you.”

Helen Magnus had surprised James Watson already. His private obsession into the workings of the human body was not public knowledge.

“You intrigue me, Miss Magnus.”

Helen, please,” she corrected him.

Helen, then. You have my attention but not my trust. Frontiers of science are often a viper pit and my good sense is telling me that you are a cunning participant in the workings of the world.” James paused. “However,” he added with a smile when he saw that she did not flinch at the accusation, “there are worse partners to be had. I would like to know one thing before I agree to help you. How did you find out about me?”

Her eyes shone.

“That was easy my dear Watson. Someone had been borrowing the campus’s supply of glassware – that, and I cornered your dorm mate, Mr Griffin, in the corridor.”

“Secrets do not become him,” said Watson of poor Nigel. “The universe has entrusted him with the awful burden of honesty and no way to hide it.”

*~*~*

Nikola found himself hovering over a small stream trickling its way around the rocks at the front of the university. He followed it through hedges and encroaching lawns all the way around the side of the building and out into the rear gardens where it ended in a freezing pond.

The back of the university looked like a long, blonde-stone rectangle lounging on the iridescent green slope. Several floors high, it was dominated by a library at its centre with sweeping iron windows and Juliet balconies.

The garden was hemmed in by the city on all sides whose noise and dirt was kept at bay by a cast-iron fence too tall to scale and capped in fleur-de-lis. A planting of plane trees hid most of the city in the warm seasons with their dense branches of soft foliage. It was nothing like home, but Tesla preferred it to the building.

He glanced back at the rock prison with a grin when he saw the shattered windows and singed stone from the lightning strike. It would take them some time to dismantle the lightning rod adhered to the roof above his room.

Nikola Tesla knelt down to the eerie pond. The creek fed into it via a gentle, metre wide channel with a steady current at its centre and slow water lulling by the banks. Croaking in the long grass Tesla could hear his prey – namely smallish green frogs. He would need at least four for his next experiment and he had just the thing to acquire them.

*~*~*

James shook his head to quiet Helen’s constant stream of hushed questions.

“It is not safe, in my experience, to mix the blood of species,” James flipped through Landsteiner’s notes. “This explains why it is even dangerous to attempt transfusions between humans. The success rate is a little under half – not a mortality rate that appeals to me.”

Damn,” Helen whispered, defeated. She had read the same thing a thousand times but she had been really hoping that the papers had been mistaken. She was about to pack up everything and vanish when James withdrew one of the folders and spun it around to face her.

“With an exception,” he said, enjoying the way her bright hair slid over her shoulders as her head snapped up. “I have found a measure of success in swine. It is an undocumented phenomenon drawn from principles in this report.”

“Could you show me?” her elbows took the brunt of her mass as she bridged the distance between them.

“Of course. I highly doubt that your motivations are sheer curiosity and I guarantee that you’ll find nothing further but mysteries until you start asking honest questions.”

Helen frowned. James Watson would not be as easily manipulated as she had hoped.

“Show me this experiment and you may ask your questions of me.”

Two great minds sized each other up and settled upon a joint disquiet.

“Tonight then,” he said. “My lab is always prepped. If you can stand the disorder, you are welcome to join me.”

*~*~*

Tesla’s frogs croaked to themselves, hopping around the woven basket that he had borrowed/stolen from Helen.

He lay on the grass, staring into the black water with an absent set of eyes. He thought about the rocks of the building grinding into dust, melting and being remade into mountains only to be pulverised at the end of the world. Then they would be a swirling cloud of particles, wandering into energy until even that dissipated – stretched to infinity. As far as he could determine, nothing was permanent in this existence. A life, memory and even the very soul was gone in the whisper of a breath.

Except for this.

Nikola sat up to watch the eddy currents swirl along the bank like tiny galaxies following the tide. He imagined the speckles of dust on the waters’ surface as the endless bank of stars sliding by and the ripples of the insects touching its tension became the endless propagation of gravity waves. Suddenly, what no man could ever hope to see was before him. Nikola looked at it and smiled, blowing a leaf across the water.

The scene was spoilt by a splash.

A muddy ball bobbed in the pond, destroying the subtle patterns of the water with a series of concentric waves. Tesla took hold of a nearby tree and stretched over the water until his cuff dipped into it.

“Urgh…” he muttered, dragging the ball back to the bank where he found a short, untidy student rubbing their nose in expectation. Tesla held the ball up to the snivelling creature who moved to take it, but Tesla withdrew, holding it well out of reach. “And who are you?” he asked.

The boy was visibly out of breath. Behind him, a line of others were assembling at the top of the hill, clearly waiting for the ball.

“Ni-gel,” he puffed, reaching again for the ball. “Com’on, give us the ball back.”

Tesla, who was both slender and tall, had no imminent desire to oblige him.

“I know you,” he said. “Aren’t you the one that snores through late class?”

“Hey man,” Nigel Griffin replied, “at least I bother to attend.”

Tesla considered this but was sure that there was little difference between absence and snoozing. Bored of this creature, Tesla threw the ball over his head, back up to where the others were waiting.

“Run along now,” Tesla shooed the student away from his presence. When he was gone, Nikola sat back on the bank only to notice a trio of frogs hopping happily to freedom. His basket had been knocked open by the ball. “Wonderful…” he growled.

“What is?” A flurry of black lace and blonde hair settled on the grass next to him. Helen lifted her hand out of the path of an escaping frog and soon found her basket upturned and suspiciously empty. “Did you steal my basket?” she raised her accusing eyes at Nikola, but he was engrossed in the stream bubbling along at their feet. “I’m going to pretend that you gave me an eloquent apology and believable excuse,” she picked up her possession, dusting the grass of its lid.

As usual, Nikola had not said a word to her. She liked that. His silence was approval. Had he wanted her gone, Nikola would have made her keenly aware of it.

“You’ll have to find your own way to class tonight,” she continued. “In my opinion, you should make an effort to be there. It’s the least you can do after causing damage to campus property.”

Nikola lost interest in the water and instead, lay back onto the grass, staring at the grey bank of clouds rolling over them. He felt a fleck of rain on his cheek as Helen joined him, stretching onto the lawn.

“Good,” Helen sighed.

*~*~*

The night was thick. Instead of raining, the clouds had fallen to the ground in a cold mist that hid everything but the uppermost level of the university.

Helen rested against the window, seeing nothing but a grey blur from the ground floor. The clock behind her ticked loudly and then chimed. Evening class was starting but Helen had no intention of attending. Instead, she waited by the window for James Watson.

3

THE START OF SOMETHING

He lingered in the foyer behind, watching her for several minutes. James couldn’t explain it or even reason why, but there was something distinctly sinister about Helen’s silhouette against the arching window that made him hesitate.

“Oh,” Helen was startled when she found James leaning on a doorway. “I worried that you wouldn’t come.”

“I am a man of my word,” he said, offering her his arm in a gentlemanly manner.

He led her up the double marble staircase and around to the main student living quarters. Helen had never been allowed here partly because she was a young lady in Victorian England but largely because she still lived at home with an overprotective father.

“There is nothing to concern yourself with,” James assured her. “The dormitories are as dull as any level.”

She rolled her eyes, far from threatened as he pulled up at his room. He knocked first but as he expected, Nigel was downstairs, nodding off happily in the lecture.

*~*~*

John was surprised by the entrance of Nikola Tesla, gracing the lecture with his presence halfway through. What surprised him more was the absence of Helen.

“Damages to the structure of the university tower have been deducted from your account,” the lecturer informed Tesla as he took his seat. “And the engineering lab would like their coil of copper wire returned as soon as you’ve untangled it from the roof.”

Nikola ignored the lecturer, instead flipping open a journal. Much to the astonishment of the room, he diligently began copying the contents of the board in a tidy font.

John found his eyes glancing at the door throughout the lecture but Helen never showed. There was another conspicuous gap in the bench belonging to an ever observant, rarely spoken James Watson. John narrowed his eyes, no-one had dared to take up Watson’s seat. It couldn’t be a coincidence.

*~*~*

Helen held a handkerchief over her mouth and nose as she stepped into James’s room.

There was a bitter smell on the air that slipped down her throat, sticking halfway where it became pure vile. She gagged, bending over in shock as she simultaneously struggled for breath and tried to avoid it.

“You get used to it,” said James, closing the door behind them. He slipped a hand around Helen’s waist and lifted her back to her feet, holding her until she regained her composure. “Please, this way.”

The room was a narrow rectangle, more like a tunnel reaching for the small window at its far end than a proper dormitory. Someone had jammed a cloth in the window’s frame, sealing out all light and air – or maybe, Helen reconsidered, sealing the terrible stench inside.

Two beds, one immaculate and the other a mess of blankets and notes, were pushed as far as possible toward the door in such a way that she hit her leg on one as she followed James deeper into the room. A line of oil lamps burnt along the right hand wall, sitting on a narrow shelf. Each one had a bulb of oil beneath them, glowing in the firelight. She could smell the citronella now. Helen followed a black trail of smoke with her eyes and saw that the ceiling was stained by a series of black circles to match each lamp.

Four desks hugged the back and side walls in a U shape. A single line of glassware spanned them. Beakers, tubes, flasks, burners, heat mats, distillers, stirring devices and scaffolding were joined in a fragile arrangement. Liquids of different colours bubbled, cooled or trickled in their respective containers.

Rats. Filthy, wild, black street rats scurried about in cages stored beneath the desks. She could hear their claws on the soiled newspapers and their teeth testing the strength of the wire. Beside them was a roughly made wooden box open at the top. Helen approached it cautiously, half kneeling on the dusty ground. It was full of hay which, to her great worry, was moving.

“Our lucky winner for today,” said James, sliding the crate out into the open. Something small and pink was moseying about inside, trying to forage for a stray piece of carrot. “Hold this please.”

James handed Helen a slender knife so sharp that it cut through the air as she took it from him. He pushed her back gently as he reached into the box, his hands disappearing into the dried grass.

“Come on,” he muttered, as the animal slipped out of his grip with a high pitched squeal, thrashing its chubby legs. Once captured, Watson expertly wrestled it onto the nearest table, holding it down with one hand whilst waving Helen over with the other. He clicked his fingers at her without lifting his eyes from the piglet.

Helen realised that he was after the knife. She placed it in his outstretched hand, turning her head sharply when he cut down into the creature’s neck.

*~*~*

Paler than usual, Helen moved quietly through the empty corridors of the university. It was almost eleven and far too late to return home. Her father wouldn’t be pleased but he expected it – Helen was often absent on Thursdays after late class. Usually Nikola would drag her back to the attic to bear witness to his latest show. He wasn’t one to enjoy the company of people, but he still needed someone to share the world which he discovered with – someone other than the snowy pigeon that haunted his window sill.

Her stomach was still turning, but she could not deny the excitement she had felt as the first real science in her life began to unfold. This was it, she was doing something of worth; discovering, investigating and it thrilled her in a terrifying sense.

Helen found a small notebook at the foot of Tesla’s attic but no Tesla. That was odd. She had never known him to be anywhere but here outside of class – or perhaps the roof though he always left the stairs down in case she dropped by. Not that he’d ever admit to it.

“You’re drenched!” Helen exclaimed in a whisper, as a decidedly wet Nikola traipsed down the corridor toward her half an hour later, seemingly caught up in his own mind. He didn’t notice her concerned frown until Helen put a hand to his head to check his temperature. He was freezing.

“Did you know that the university has a pool?” he said, louder than was acceptable for the hour.

“No I didn’t,” she eyed him with great concern. “Don’t tell me you went swimming in the middle of the night! Of all the things to do…”

He fished around with a hook for the latch to the attic. Finally he caught the ring and pulled hard, bringing the ladder-like stairs folding from the ceiling in a loud groan. Without a word, he scaled the stairs leaving a trail of water behind him. Helen hitched up her lace skirt and followed him, carrying the book under her arm.

“This yours?” she held the leather bound item aloft as soon as she reached the attic. Nikola was busy lighting oil lamps – most of which were scattered over the floor. The book looked like a possession of Tesla’s – immaculate and generally unused, but the handwriting was conspicuously legible. Out of curiosity, she gave some of the pages a quick read and found that they were lecture notes. Very un-Tesla indeed.

He continued to ignore her, strolling straight over to a tangle of wires she presumed to be his latest experiment, dripping all the way as a stream trickled from his woollen trench coat. Helen shook her head, put the book on the floor along with her bag, and came up behind him. Before he had the chance to protest, Helen had slipped the coat off of his shoulders and hung it by the window to dry. He was left in a white collared and cuffed shirt which stuck to his wet skin. Semi transparent, hints of muscle and skin were visible as he crouched down. His silk tie – blood red with gold oriental patterns, was still snuggling around his neck.

Helen’s own clothes hung around her ankles as her full length embroidered skirt caught a gust of cold wind sneaking in through the now glassless window. Taking a bundle of pins from her bag, she tacked her ringlets out of the way and changed into a spare pair of rubber boots that Nikola left in the corner. It was a necessary precaution when in Nikola’s presence to insulate one’s self from the ground should he take a fancy to a passing electric current. It wasn’t particularly ladylike, but then Helen had never been a typical lady.

Nikola began handing her things as soon as she sat down on the floor as if she were an extension of him. He didn’t ask her where she had been for half the night, but she felt the need to explain herself.

“I’ve got a little project of my own,” she began, though he didn’t stop to listen. “Of a different kind to yours. More in biological sciences – Watson is –”

“Not worth your time,” he interrupted, “and not as clever as he lets on.”

“Yes, I am aware that the two of you disapprove of one another. Do you want to hear my story or not?” she reached out and touched his hand, trying to get his attention. A light jolt of electricity jumped through her skin, dissipating down her wrist.

“Sorry…” he muttered, moving his hands away from her. “It does that. When you’re on the floor the boots don’t –” He had a habit of not finishing sentences.

“I’m going to go,” she said quietly, putting the experiment gently on the floor. “You’re busy and you don’t need me disturbing you with senseless chatter. Goodnight Nikola.”

Nikola felt the layers of her dress ruffle past him, dancing over his skin. The flames of his lanterns dimmed as she walked by them, striding through the room. He stared down at coil of wire in his hands, closed his eyes, and then put it down.

“Stay,” he whispered, just loud enough for her to hear. “Please.”

Helen stopped, halfway through changing her shoes. “You don’t need me,” she said. “And you never wanted me here in the first place. I should have left a long time ago.”

Nikola got to his feet. In the moon and lamp light, still drenched, he looked strangely off guard. He was more alive when he had a brilliant idea, she could see it in his eyes – that glint of something she wanted so desperately to see. A truth on the horizon, revealed in an instant. It was what she searched for, why she wanted to be a scientist and what excited her about Nikola.

“I need you to hold this…” he pointed at an object on the ground but kept his eyes on her. The truth was that Nikola didn’t require anyone to help him, but he needed her. Ever since she had found him at the beginning of the year, staring out from his attic window, he had needed her. “Your experiment, tell me about it,” he offered.

Helen eyed him for quite some time before finally rolling her eyes, deciding to stay.

“Later,” she said, returning to his side. They sat down together, their eyes occasionally flicking to each other but never at the same time.

“Don’t leave me,” he said softly, not daring to look at her in case she disapproved.

Helen didn’t leave. She stayed there all night by his side as he created a motor with a new kind of electricity, one more powerful than any the world had seen. By the time he was finished, Helen was asleep on the floor beside him, resting her head in her hands which still clutched onto the useless piece of wire he had given her to hold. He smiled – something he would not let her see him do.

Finished, he picked her up gently and carried her to the small bed in the corner of the attic, laying her on it. He found a warm blanket and placed it over her, then blew out all the lamps, and reclined against the floorboards for the few hours remaining before day broke.

*~*~*

Helen returned home before breakfast, depositing various items in the foyer before staggering upstairs to change. Her father, Dr. Gregory Magnus, was waiting for her at the breakfast table, reading through a newspaper. He didn’t say anything, but Helen could feel his disapproval glaring at her through the print.

“I have to leave in an hour,” he announced, as Helen sipped a cold cup of tea. “Will you be back this evening?”

“Will you?” Like father like daughter. Gregory was often missing, out on expeditions or simply gone without explanation.

Gregory sighed, folding his paper. “You’re too much like me,” he muttered.

4

BREAKING IN

The latch on the front door of the Magnus apartment dropped, crashing into the lock. Shortly after, her father’s shadow tracked over the leadlight windows in the morning glow. A horse drawn cart rattled over the cobblestones, skidding on the dew. An old man with a curved spine hushed the gas streetlights while a trio of feral dogs sniffed the curb, hunting a long vanished mouse.

Helen finished her tea, calmly draining the china cup. Her heart was beating fast as a shiver worked its way across her skin. Finally, she thought, now that she was alone with the house.

Helen’s hand hovered over the brass handle leading to her father’s study. Hesitation – something she was known for. The door would be locked. Her father always locked his study door, mainly to keep prying eyes like hers at bay. Sure enough, upon trying the handle Helen found it stuck firm.

Undeterred, she slipped her fingers into her hair, pulling out one of the pins still nesting amongst her curls. With practised ease, she fed it into the lock, turning it slowly until one of its bent ends hooked over the locking mechanism.

She leant against the door, pushing it open despite the angry squeal unleashed. It was like trespassing on sacred ground – crossing her father’s office. Helen did it quickly, heading straight for his desk. She skirted around the side of it to the front section, nudging his leather chair out of the way. There were three beautifully carved drawers along its front. Helen picked the one in the centre, jiggling it open. The old wood was damp and stuck to the tracks but she wrestled with it until it jarred forward and her eyes fell over its contents.

A dozen or so letters were scattered on top. Digging through them, Helen’s fingers expertly hunted for the silver key hidden at the back of the draw. She held it up to the light and smiled. It was attached to a gold-thread tassel which would hold its own against any respectable treasure.

*~*~*

Watson reclined against the cool brick wall behind his bed. He was seated on top of the covers, fully clothed with his feet hanging over the edge and a silk scarf around his nose to dull the stench. He liked to consider himself an early riser, never wasting a moment of the day, but Nigel Griffin put him to shame, up well before the sun even considered peaking over the cloud banks.

With half an hour before breakfast, James kept himself busy reading through the folders Helen had been so kind as to point out to him in the ‘new’ library. He borrowed them, in the more loose sense of the word. Nikola would call it ‘acquiring’ and Helen might go so far as ‘stealing’ but Watson considered it a necessity for the greater good of knowledge. Besides, he would return them well before anyone noticed their absence.

Helen had been right. The information on the subject of their study was a mess of internal contradictions held back by the technology of the time. Several writers expressed frustration at their equipment while others had spent a good portion of their research time building more sensitive equipment rather than running tests. Work was going slowly. Helen was interested in knowledge at the very edge of the horizon, perhaps even beyond it.

“Awake already?” Nigel Griffin had opened the door tacitly, slipping into the room unnoticed. He headed for his makeshift wardrobe, ducking into it, searching for his overcoat.

“Of course,” James replied, choosing the last folder.

Nigel slung the coat over his shoulders, retrieved a satchel – checking specially for his diary, and then returned to the door frame.

“We need to open that window,” he said, resisting the urge to hurl. After the fresh air of sports field, his dormitory was almost unbearable except for – he sniffed again, more carefully this time. There was a new scent wading through the usual putrid haze. It was a faint perfume – oddly familiar. “Someone’s been in here…” he said accusingly, wrapping his fingers around the door. “That blonde woman – you haven’t…”

James lifted his eyes from the file. Their meaning was clear, but he backed them up with a stern, “Of course not.”

His dormitory companion raised a scruffy eyebrow. “Right…” he decided to leave the subject alone. “Well, four of us are going into town after breakfast to replace our quills. We’ll divert to the river if we can. I’d invite you along to join us but your default answer in cases such as these seems to be an irritated, ‘no’.”

James’s silence confirmed Nigel’s assumption.

The silence was too silent.

Their room was usually a quiet raucous of animals, buried in crates and cages along the far wall yet all Nigel could hear were the rats chewing at their bars.

“What happened to the George?” he asked, worried.

“Can you obtain a new pig whilst you are in town?”

Nigel had his answer, and he was not happy about it. George was a pet, though apparently not to James who seemed to lack affection for anything alive. “I’m no errand boy,” he glared, forever sensitive of his less than privileged upbringing.

Perhaps they should have asked first, thought Watson, but he had not been aware of Nigel’s attachment to the creature. “But you can?”

“Of course I can,” muttered Nigel, slamming the door shut.

*~*~*

Helen climbed the stairs to the attic, ducking under an ill-placed beam. She struck a match and the dark landing flickered into light. With her spare hand, Helen slipped the key into the lock and entered the attic. Before progressing, she lit one of the hanging oil lamps.

The attic was not your typical laboratory. It had a makeshift feel about it, accentuated by the overturned trunks posing as desks and the tightly packed crates lining the wall in a bookshelf of sorts.

She breathed deeply, inhaling the smell of knowledge. It was a heady mix of parchment, ink and burning oil. Helen thought that it was beautiful, in a forbidden manner. Her father never brought her up here. When she was eleven years old she assembled the courage to ask about the room at the top of the stairs. He told her that it was empty. Helen Magnus learnt two important lessons that day. One; Gregory Magnus was an accomplished liar and two; there was something of great value hidden away in the attic.

It was another three years before she found herself standing in exactly the same place, staring out at the room with a flame working its way down her match.

Ouch…” she dropped the match. It burnt itself out before hitting the floor.

Helen stepped over it, striding to the largest of the trunk-desks. In the low light, she skimmed over its chaos of objects. Her father had never been neat, but this place was an exceptional mess, even by his standards.

It was odd then, she thought, when she saw a cleared segment of desk with an envelope laid out with its writing facing the attic door – opposite to the rest of the items. She bent down toward it, struggling to read its address in the waning light.

Helen’, it read.

She jerked backwards, glancing nervously at the door behind to make sure that she was alone. Helen checked the writing on the envelope again. It was definitely addressed to her. She looked more carefully at the way it was presented on the desk and it became clear, it was left there for her to find.

Predicting that she was already going to be in trouble, Helen lifted the letter up, turned it over and then slid her nail under the wax sealing it. It snapped off and the letter unfolded.

To my dearest Helen,

Time was short for us. I imagine that I have become one of your father’s stories by now, woven about in that restless imagination of his. You enjoy his stories I’m sure as it gives him pleasure to tell them well. It was my hope that one day he would tell you our story – maybe that day has passed. It is difficult, addressing a time that will not come for so long and for me, never at all.

It was my instruction that he keep one story in particular from you for as long as possible. If he has given you this letter, then you have already begun to notice the subtle changes within yourself – they said that in time you would.

Helen, you have a gift. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise. It is precious, unique and it is yours alone.

When you were fourteen months old you crawled onto a window sill and fell, three floors to the street. Against all expectations, you lived – unharmed save a scar behind your left ear. Indeed your injuries were mild and what little of them you had, you recovered from in days rather than months. The doctors did not know what to think, and so abandoned your case, putting it down to an act of God but your father and I watched you very carefully from then on.

You never got ill, Helen.

Your father studies, or I should say, has an interest in the extremities of humanity. He has seen variations on our form which test the very definition of what it is to be human. Some of his creatures are beautiful, others frightening.

He learnt that a small percentage of us have an abnormality. In all of his creative genius, he called these people, ‘Abnormals’ and began to devote a great deal of time and money studying them. Soon he discovered that he was not the first to cross this path, and together we uncovered a history of human diversity through antiquity documents up until the present day.

It became clear, like a flash of light across an evening sky, that you too, are one of them.

Time for you, will be an endless walk. It is your gift to move through its ages, free of the fear mortality brings.

Forgive me, for not being there with you.

Your mother.

*~*~*

Helen stood in front of the small oval mirror. She lifted her hair away from her ear, and turned her head to the side. A thin red line curved across her skin. Her fingers hovered over it. Was it even possible? To live forever – Helen refused to believe a word of it.

5

TAKING A TURN

She stacked her notebooks calmly, tying them together before slipping them inside her father’s leather satchel. Nothing had changed. It was only a letter. A letter from the past which meant nothing. Helen Magnus repeated her thoughts, wanting more than anything to believe them.

The tears on her cheeks had gone cold. She wiped them off, unsure of how they had gotten there without her approval.

It was mid-morning and the city was thick with bodies trying to reach their respective destinations. The university was within walking distance, visible where it rose above the other buildings. She could see its two sandstone spires, reaching up toward the sky with their tops stained, almost like the smoky peaks of mountains.

The sight of its steadfast walls drew her in. She had never felt an attachment to the place that she’d had to fight to step into and even harder to stay, but all of a sudden there was no place that she’d rather be than inside its hostile walls.

Helen joined the crowd of students trailing in through the gates. Aside from the wives of professors taking a turn around the gardens, she was the only lady making her way toward the building. The men noticed this, turning their heads ever so slightly as she walked by them. Most averted their eyes, returning to their conversations, maybe even throwing in an aside about the outrage of allowing a woman to study. It was a select few that greeted her with a smile, tipping their hats.

The truth was, the university had never officially allowed her to study within its walls. She was neither enrolled, nor on any attendance lists. She was just a woman that happened to sit inside the lecture rooms, furiously taking notes and handing in assignments for the interest of the professors who read them, not out of duty but curiosity.

“Helen,” a friendly voice approached. It belonged to Mr. Druitt, the mysterious student she had met several weeks ago, lurking in the hallway outside night class.

“Still lost?” she raised her eyebrow challengingly. They were both supposed to be in class already.

“Would your opinion of me lower if I confessed to it?” he smiled, a few strands of soft hair falling over his eyes. It made her return the smile with a slight flutter in her stomach.

“It would make me suspect of your directional skills,” she confessed, climbing the steps in front of the main doors to meet him. John was hiding in the shade of the overhang, watching the crowds scurry by. It was a favourite past time of his.

“Truth hurts,” he offered her his arm, which she took, wrapping her fingers gently around the stiff fabric of his coat.

Helen rolled her eyes, letting John escort her around the passageway which hugged the edge of the building protected by an outcrop of ornately carved wood. “This is not the way to class,” she noted, to his amusement.

“No it is not,” he admitted. “But I could not resist taking the long way.”

They did not say anything else, content to walk quietly in each others’ company.

*~*~*

Nikola kept a vigil by his attic window, brushing the remainders of the glass from its frame. He didn’t care that the shards tumbled over the roof tiles and onto the passersby below. She had not come to class and Nikola could not understand why it bothered him so much.

He had been alone all of his life, ever since the horse had reared up and pounded his brother from this life. Every time he closed his eyes he heard those hooves and saw his frightened sibling scream, reaching towards him. That had been his life until Helen had appeared, slipping into the back row of night class.

Now, when he closed his eyes, sometimes he saw her smile.

Nikola’s bony elbows dug into the corners of the window, propping his head up as he stared out at the city beyond the university’s gates. A few pigeons played on the breeze, soaring high above, hunting scraps. He watched them wistfully.

One broke from the flock to cruise by his window, buffeting his face with the flap of its wings.

“Not now,” he whispered to it, waving the attentions of the beautiful creature away.

*~*~*

They sat on the seat beneath one of the ancient plane trees. Its limbs spread out over the lawn, decorating it with shadows that shimmered in the breeze, rearranging themselves in an endless tessellation.

Helen’s arm was still locked beneath John’s, kept safe. He wanted to say, ‘You’re very beautiful…’ but didn’t dare. This woman’s reputation preceded her by two city blocks with screams of genuine terror so he settled for, “It’s a beautiful day.”

She agreed, stretching her free arm along the edge of the bench. Neither of them cared about the class going on inside the building. It was a sacrifice worth enduring and it was completely unintentional.

“Oh my,” Helen half-jumped at the chiming of the clock tower as it rang out over the university garden. “I should have been in the library hours ago.” Poor Watson, he would be waiting for her. “I really must go,” she said, freeing herself from John.

He stood with her, still smiling at the way she fussed.

“Would you like company on your long journey?”

“No, I don’t think so,” she replied quickly. “I find the walk reasonably short under normal circumstances. There has been enough diversion for one day.”

“Harsh,” John stepped back, allowing her passage.

She gave him a little wink, “The truth always is.”

*~*~*

James Watson had forgotten all about Helen Magnus.

His nose inched further and further toward the bindings of his latest find – the published journal of Claude Bernard. It was in French, which suited James. Languages were like songs to him. He learnt their rhythm until their lyrics unfolded and he could hum along in tune.

Medicine, like any other form of science, can be reduced to its mathematical base. Quantifiable principles, natural laws, predictable results – all of these should be applicable to the natural sciences as readily as to the mechanical world. It is only that the laws of natural things outweigh their counterparts in complexity that we are yet to discover their detail.’

Watson trailed his finger over the lines of text. He agreed. The world around him was full of detail, some of it too small for him to make out. There had to be laws to govern it otherwise the world he knew would fall to chaos.

It is possible to observe the crossings of these two worlds. Inside the human body are systems not unlike machinery. Their processes are quantifiable – especially those of the heart and blood. Like a machine, the heart pumps the life source around the body in accordance with a set of laws detailed in the following. Vivisections reveal these internal movements of the body. Pealing back the layers of a living organism such as a frog allows us to study these mechanical phenomena in great detail.’

Watson would copy these experiments, cruel as they were. He had to know about the world – every detail he could pry from its claws. His hunger for it would not rest. The secrets of life, more than anything, satisfied his ravenous curiosity and allowed him nights of peaceful sleep in a world he would one day be able to explain.

“Splendid, you are still here.”

Helen dragged a heavy chair halfway across the floor in a loud screech. The librarian glared viciously at the blonde, but Helen Magnus wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention. She settled her seat beside the window that James had chosen to occupy and collapsed into it, digging through her bag for a notepad.

The dreadful noise of old wood grinding against polished floors shattered the world he had retreated into. James looked up.

“I apologise for the –” she checked the clock hung above the desk where the librarian was stamping a pile of books with more force than was necessary. “It really is getting quite late,” she realised.

“It depends upon the length of your day,” replied James, returning his nose to the pages.

Helen was not used to being ignored, which was exactly what James did every time his head sagged toward the pages of a book. He had more interest in the writings of dead men than her bright eyes and curious mind. This realisation did not distress her, if anything, it intrigued her. Being taken for granted was refreshing.

Without a word, Helen produced a small, loosely bound book and balanced it atop her notepads. She made certain that its title was concealed as she began to read, giving her best impression of intrigue.

It took half an hour before James could bare the secret no more.

“I must know what you’re reading,” he said, attempting to lift the cover. Helen slid her hand over it, pinning it down.

“Nothing that would interest you,” she replied, flicking the page over.

“You are a tease, Miss Magnus,” James closed his own document, holding its cover up for her inspection. “I see that we will have to learn to share if we are to get on.”

She did the same with hers, and the pair exchanged documents.

“How very generous of you, Mr Watson,” she opened the new book dramatically. Her victorious smile shrivelled when she realised that the book was in French. Too embarrassed to confess, she suffered, skimming for equations and trying to make sense out of the few words she could understand.

“Are you unwell?” James touched her hand gently, catching Helen’s attention. She looked pale, though her cheeks had flushed bright pink. The combination made her eyes more blue than any he had seen.

The world blurred a little and Helen realised that she was not well at all. Her head was light, tasting the edges of sleep while her limbs dragged, feeling heavy.

“I don’t,” she stammered, raising a hand to her head as her books slid down her dress to the floor. “I don’t know…”

James lunged forward in time to catch the young woman as she tilted, falling from her chair.

6

THE WORLD’S AN EXPERIMENT

The students at the table opposite looked up, quills hovering over their pages dripping ink as they watched the woman collapse into the waiting arms of a young man.

Blonde ringlets scattered over James’ shoulder as her head settled on his coat. He was on one knee, easing Helen out of the chair and fully into his arms so that he could lift her. Although Helen was a slender thing, her dress and adornments with their yards of fabric tested James’ strength as he carried her through the library, curled over his shoulder.

Helen wandered in and out of consciousness, sometimes opening her eyes a crack to see the hallway flood past in a haze.

He did not delay, turning and making short work of the staircase leading to the top floor of the university. She mumbled something that he couldn’t make out as he reached the end of the stairwell, reshuffling her in his arms as she began to slip.

James arrived in the narrow corridor, barely wide enough for him to carry Helen through. There was an arched window at the far end, dusty and scratched from centuries of neglect. Above him there was a square opening in the ceiling, blocked by a folded set of stairs. With Helen still in his arms, James wrestled with a hooked rod, stretching it up to the ceiling where its sharp end caught the hoop of metal. He yanked it down and the stairs unfolded, revealing the entrance to Tesla’s attic.

What in the…”

Watson heard a voice above startle.

“Mr Tesla, your assistance please,” James called out, moving Helen to his shoulder so that he could climb the ladder, albeit awkwardly.

Tesla tripped and fell at the sound of his stairs unfurling. Someone heavy was climbing them, about to peak in through the hole in the floor. Nikola picked himself up and raced over, sticking his head through the attic where he found James heaving an unconscious Helen toward him.

“We cannot both come through. Can you reach her waist?”

Nikola was caught off guard by the intrusion, muttering and spluttering that he could. He reached down and took hold of Helen. Seated at the hole’s edge, together Nikola and James managed to navigate her into the attic. She ended up in Nikola’s lap, laid across him.

“Move your legs, Mr Tesla,” James shoved the dangling legs to the side as he tackled the last few steps of the ladder. He was out of breath but far from broken. “Come on, we need to lay her down properly.”

Nikola stared at Helen’s limp body, struck dumb. He didn’t notice the gentle rise and fall of her chest, or the pink flushing beneath her cheeks – all he saw was her still form, dead in his arms.

“It’s Helen…” he whispered, not able to tear his eyes away.

“Well spotted. Now bring her over to the bed. Today, please!” James added sharply, when the young man refused to move.

Staggering to his feet, Nikola made his way to the bed, laying her onto the carefully folded sheets. James knelt down beside Helen, taking hold of her wrist. Nikola sat on the floor next to James, leaning in toward Helen with a frightened look. He had never seen anyone faint before. Its similarity to death alarmed him.

“She will be fine,” said James, moving to her forehead. She was hot, but not worryingly so. “Do not fuss,” he waved Nikola’s hands away from the sheets he was trying to clear. “She needs air, not panic.”

“What happened?”

“I have no idea,” admitted James. “We were in the library talking and she collapsed. It is not an uncommon condition amongst women – there is probably nothing wrong except it being a particularly warm day.”

Nikola shook his head. “She’s not like that,” he insisted.

“Well,” said James, “she is today. Bring me some water.”

That disgruntled Nikola. He was not used to being treated like a common servant but for Helen’s sake, he obliged the brusque man. James took the glass from him and roused Helen with a splash of water. She sat up with a start, gasping for air.

“Steady on,” James tried to calm her as she clung onto his arm with such force he thought it might break.

“Urg…” she coughed, rasping for air as if it wouldn’t go in. James supported her back with his free arm, pushing her ever so slightly forwards.

“Nikola,” he hissed in the young man’s direction. “Take her other hand.”

Nikola’s eyes wandered to Helen’s flailing hand. He reached out and she caught it.

*~*~*

Helen sipped the glass of water, wrapped in an unused blanket Nikola excavated from the cupboard. She had stopped shaking but still looked unwell. James was over by Nikola’s experiment, kneeling down for a closer look at the unfinished motor. Ordinarily, Nikola would have shrieked and chased him off, afraid of intellectual theft but on this occasion all he did was give a disapproving glance in the other man’s direction.

“Where were you?” he asked Helen, taking the glass from her as she finished. She didn’t seem to understand the question so he asked it again.

“Oh,” she had forgotten about John and their time spent in the garden. “I decided not to come. I was running late as it was and I didn’t want to disturb the others.” It was a bold lie, and Nikola wasn’t fooled. He had lost count of the amount of times Helen had pulled him through the doors of late class with no regard toward the other students.

“This motor will never work,” observed James from in front of the small, metal and wooden object. It looked nothing at all like his own project which, incidentally, had a habit of catching on fire.

“Yes it does,” Nikola snapped over his shoulder. “It’s finished – has been for some time now.”

“Impossible.”

“A certainty, I assure you.”

“Show me.”

“Never.” Nikola was on his feet, about to pace over to James and remove him from the presence of his precious motor. “That is the future,” he declared. “Careful you don’t tread on it.”

“It is a school project,” James corrected. “And just like the rest of us, the professor will grade it and send you on your way.”

“Leave it, Nikola…” Helen had reached up and caught hold of Nikola’s coat. “He is just playing with you. James – enough. Nikola is not one for your games.”

Though neither Helen nor Nikola caught it, James had smiled, satisfied. He had proved something about Nikola that he had always suspected. The world was an experiment to James. He showed no distinction between places and people, if there was something worth learning, James would find a way to learn it regardless of the social consequences.

“And what about your little project?” Tesla tilted his head in a bird like manner. He asked Helen, not James.

He was interested now, thought Helen. Jealousy did that to Nikola.

“It’s not your cup of tea, Nikola,” she replied, letting go of him. “Wishy-washy voodoo, I believed you called the science once.”

“Well, now I am interested,” he was speaking to Helen, but glaring at James, following the man’s every movement as he paced around his floor-bound lab. Nikola just knew that he was going to step on something important. Some people had no respect for other people’s property or the delicacies of –

“I can hear you thinking, Nikola.” Helen scorned. Sometimes Nikola’s eyes betrayed his thoughts more loudly than his lips. “You know, if the two of you could get over whatever it was that set you against each other in the beginning, you’d be the best of friends.”

“An event that will never come to pass,” Nikola assured her. James agreed, accidentally crushing a small coil of wire with his boot.

“All right,” Helen spilled out to avert disaster as James kicked the object aside, “we’re investigating blood compatibility amongst species.”

Nikola spun around, running a wandering finger through his moustache. “Why?” That sounded like a perfectly horrid thing to do.

“Why anything…” she retorted, getting a little snappy herself. He was always like this with anything she did, as if she didn’t have as much right as him to possess curiosity. “The topic was raised in one our assignments and –”

“We did an assignment on blood?”

“No Nikola, you didn’t, but the rest of us did. As I was saying, my father helped me a great deal with the research – it’s a passion of his.”

“Blood is a passion of your father’s… now I really am worried.”

Helen shook her head in frustration. “You can be cruel, when you want to.”

*~*~*

“Remind me what he’s doing here…” James stood in front of his dormitory door, unwilling to open it with Nikola so close by. It was night, ten minutes before their lecture but instead of assembling in the corridor they had decided to carry on with last night’s experiment. Helen’s idea, though she had hidden it well, prompting James into the suggesting through a series of calculated questions. He had forgotten though, how he had agreed to have Tesla present.

“He’s going to have a look at your equipment – see if he can fix that electrical system so that we can carry on with the experiment. Remember? It didn’t work last time.”

Nikola grinned menacingly from behind Helen’s shoulder. No doubt the medic had it all wired backwards. Nikola wasn’t thrilled about spending more time in James’ company but he was curious to take a look at what these little Frankensteins had been up to.

“Well, you are responsible for it at all times,” James eyed Helen sternly, unlocking the door.

*~*~*

The professor was somewhat dismayed. He was used to empty seats. It didn’t bother him that students dragged their bored bodies into his lecture at all hours, hobbling and grumbling as they took their seats. He accepted the empty front row as a compromise between knowledge and social standing. Their lack of interest in the natural world would evolve and one day they would all become decent scientists.

He sighed, turning to face what remained of his room. There were four seats in particular that he didn’t like to see empty yet there they were, abandoned. It wasn’t what they were missing that worried him, it was what they were up to. Even though they didn’t know it yet, the professor could already see that the absent four possessed the streak of curiosity at the heart of brilliance – a dangerous thing to leave alone.

John Druitt had been racing to keep pace with the writing on the board when the professor threw a piece of chalk at him.

“Check your hearing,” the professor said, before adding in his soft, wafting voice, “Would you mind finding the others?”

John frowned, “Find who?”

The professor flicked his eyes to the empty seats. “Off with you,” he turned back to the board, picking a new piece of chalk.

John blinked dumbly, waiting in vain for further instruction. He closed his text book and packed away his things. Find all of them?

*~*~*

“You’re late…” Nigel folded his newspaper, throwing it off to the side as the door to the dormitory opened. His eyes widened when a young woman followed James in who in turn was trailed by the horrible man from the pond.

“Urgh…” Nikola held his nose, “It smells ghastly in here.”

“It passes,” said Helen, stepping between the beds as she followed James toward the laboratory end of the room.

Nigel waited for them to settle in front of the desk at the far end.

“I’m not gonna name this one,” said Nigel, pointing at the box of hay.

“Probably wise,” replied James.

Nikola eyed the box, catching sight of a hint of pale pink flesh. “Why aren’t we naming the pig?” he asked, but found no answer amongst the scientists.

7

VIVISECTION

“Ouch…” Nikola shook off a large spark that snapped over his skin. It left a nasty scorch mark which he attempted to rub off on his jacket to no avail. “There,” he declared finally, as the tangle of equipment spluttered into life. The room was brighter now, baking under the glow of the arclight. “All it takes is a little bit of love.”

“He’s not bad, Helen,” James muttered, nudging the young Nikola out of the way. “I’ll give you that.”

The four of them closed in on the large experiment table which sprawled along the end of the room. It was creaking under the weight of the new equipment Nigel had been busy setting up for their experiment. Despite his manners and clumsily large hands closer in nature to paws, Nigel was a perfectionist when it came to science. His rough approach yielded reliable results, much to the frustration of James.

“Shall we?” James beckoned Helen closer. She came to his side, followed instinctively by Nikola who squeezed himself in next to her.

Soon, all four of them had arranged themselves into a crowded line either side of James, staring intently as Nigel produced a basket. He reached inside and withdrew a startled creature. Nigel passed over the squirming frog, holding it steady as James wrapped his fingers tightly around it like a clamp. Nikola smiled at the frog, peering back into its dark slit eyes. It was a beautiful creature with two oversized yellow orbs for eyes and extremely long legs which it was using to bat at James’ hand leaving trails of sticky liquid on him.

James flinched, appalled by the creature.

“The book, Helen…”

Helen knelt to a large pile of books on the side wall, scanning down their spines until she dug her fingers between them and extracted her desired victim. She laid the book open on the experiment table next to James.

Nigel unrolled a leather satchel to reveal a sinister arrangement of implements tucked inside its pockets. Nikola’s breath caught as he scanned the faces of James and Nigel nervously.

“What kind of experiment are we doing, exactly…” he asked. Helen was packed in tight beside him, staring on eagerly as Nigel loosened the buckles holding the metal objects in place. The look that laced her eyes frightened Nikola – he had never seen that grin upon her lips before.

James tipped the frog onto its back as Nigel selected four long, tapered needles – holding their slender shafts up to the light.

“Good quality,” commented James, as he unfolded one of the frog’s legs, holding its squirming appendage to the table.

“Only the best,” Nigel replied, threading the sharp metal through the frog’s skin, nailing it to the wood beneath. The creature croaked in protest. Panic rippled through its body as Nigel selected another needle.

Helen gasped quietly, finding Nikola’s hand. He barely noticed the brush of fingers over his skin as he stood transfixed, watching as each of the frog’s legs were secured. Next, James selected a medical scalpel and cut a shallow slit down the centre of its chest. Nigel pulled the skin open, pinning it out of the way to reveal its inner workings.

“Oh my god!” Nikola’s throat clenched over. His stomach lurched as the little creature’s heart beat steady, pumping the lifeforce through its splayed body. It was still alive.

“Now,” said James indifferently, “we inject the sample.”

Nikola’s body convulsed. He broke away from Helen, stumbling halfway through the room before hurling his lunch over the floor.

Nigel’s nose tweaked. “Nice,” he muttered over his shoulder. “Do us a favour Helen, don’t bring your friends along for the show next time.”

“He’s not like us,” she snapped, before venturing toward Nikola who was coughing and shuddering. “Calm down,” she whispered, placing a hand on his back.

“This is wrong,” he rasped, pushing her off. “What are you doing here Helen? God…” Nikola fell to his knees, cradling his head. Helen caught him. Her arms slid to his waist and she held Nikola tightly from behind.

“Get him out of here,” hissed James, trying to ignore the distraction. According to the book, they didn’t have long to complete this experiment before the frog gave up the last of its life.

No one had noticed the door to the dormitory creak open. John, with his hand still clutched around the door’s frame, was taken aback by the scene. The stench of the room was unbelievable, toxic and nauseating as he breathed it in. Helen was over by the wall, clutching a very ill Tesla. His pale face was the first to spot John. Nigel and James stood with their backs to the door, leaning over some kind of table immersed in the bright glow of the electric light.

What…” John opened his mouth, but no more words came out.

Nigel’s eyes rolled dramatically as he swivelled around, turning to face the confused figure lingering in their doorway. “Another friend of yours?” he accused Helen, clearly displeased by the constant interruptions.

John stepped forward, dodging the beds cluttered in the walkway. There was something struggling on the table. Something small –

“It’s a living creature,” he said in horror, when he saw the tortured body of the frog breathe. Half a dozen elegant needles held it in place, quivering. A set of organs were nestled in its open body on display for the room. “This is the work of demons,” he growled at them, before striding over to Helen. “Come on,” he grabbed her sharply, pulling her away from Nikola. “We’re leaving.”

“John!” she struggled, trying to free herself as she was dragged unceremoniously through the room.

“Take him too, if it’s not too much trouble,” James pointed at Nikola, who had managed to stumble to his feet.

“Let – me – go!” Helen wriggled free, flicking her hair back over her shoulder. “What are you doing here John?”

“What am I doing? Our lecturer sent me to find you. I’ve searched half the university and where do I find the elusive Miss Magnus? In the men’s dormitory with these three!” He pointed at them, angrily.

“That’s not fair,” she replied. “What we’re doing is important.”

John shook his head. “This is not what science is about. That poor creature – what good will it do you other than a passing curiosity? What does its suffering buy you, Helen?”

“I can show you, John,” she said calmly, offering him her hand. “If you’ll let me.”

*~*~*

The carriage rattled to a halt. Its two passengers alighted, stepping into a torrent of rain which had buried the footpath beneath a sheet of rancid water. There was no thunder or lightning in tow, just clouds choked with moisture, alleviating themselves on the city of Oxford.

Helen hid under a hooded jacket, dodging a stray dog as she opened the ornate door to the townhouse and disappeared inside followed closely by John. Dripping, she turned up the gas lights. The hallway flickered into view. John undid his soggy coat and hung it on the hallstand.

“Come on,” she beckoned him down the corridor toward a set of stairs leading up toward the ceiling.

“My father is more than a doctor,” she confessed, taking the steps carefully. Helen held a lamp aloft in one hand and gripped the fragile railing with her other. She ducked under a stray beam of wood at the landing. John only ducked lower, already slouching his tall figure. “His passion for the workings of the human body led him to startling discoveries…”

He watched her slide a silver and gold key into the lock. Its beauty put the old door to shame. Helen turned the key until it clicked. “He likes keys,” she added, “something about the unlocking of secrets.”

“And treasure,” added John, as the door creaked open revealing a dark expanse.

After lighting the hanging lamps, Helen rifled through one of the upturned desks until she found a leather diary.

“My father’s life work,” she said, running her thumb lovingly over the book’s spine. “Treatments and cures to all manner of afflictions. The deeper he dug into the intricacies of humanity, the more disturbed he became. John, we’re not divine beings – humanity is greater than that, more diverse.”

“This is not good for you,” John approached, but she stepped away, opening the journal to reveal a detailed sketch of a frightening form. It was a creature, hunched with hardened skin, cracked like scales with spines of bone along its back.

“What he found shocked him,” she continued. “A world full of monsters.”

“There are more things in this life than we should know,” he replied. John’s voice was low and steady, as if trying to coax a wild animal out of its den. Helen was not one to be lured. “Just leave this,” he said softly, “and come with me.”

“You don’t understand,” Helen replied firmly. “They were not monsters – what my father found. They were people born with anomalous conditions. There is so much to learn – how can I ignore it?”

They made their way back downstairs and seated themselves in Helen’s modest lounge room. The room was dim, lit by the hallway behind. The rain outside fell harder, pounding into the glass windows with such force that Helen could feel each drop pounding through the air. John edged forward beside her.

“Listen to me,” he eyed her sternly, cupping her tiny hands in his. “There is something higher than science –” she was about to groan, “and that is morality. Before every step ask yourself not, ‘is this progress’ but ‘is this right’. That is the mark of a true scientist, something your friends have yet to grasp. You have talent. Do not waste it on these digressions.”

“Hardly a digression,” she protested. “This is the work of lifetimes.”

“But not yours,” John’s hand moved to her cheek, tenderly stroking it. Amidst her vehement defence, a tear had slid down her cheek and was going cold when he brushed it away. “Find a better way to study them, these anomalous conditions. You are brilliant,” he grinned, and she finally smiled. “So prove it.”

Eventually she nodded.

“Will you help me?”

They stood up together. He let go of her and allowed himself to be led to the front door.

“Nothing would please me more,” he admitted, collecting his coat and stepping back out into the storm. He descended the first of the three steps from the door, levelling his height off so that he could stare directly at her. He lingered, a breath shy of her lips. Helen blushed and retreated into the house, ducking behind the door.

*~*~*

It was no easy thing to sell benevolence to the others…

“Absolute absurdity – the woman’s gone mad – women in general,” James had said, snapping his book shut before finally relinquishing it.

“We’re returning this one to the library,” Helen replied sternly.

Eventually they came around. Helen’s talents extended beyond science into the realm of persuasion. As for Nikola, he seemed content as long as they weren’t torturing frogs. They set a regular date to meet and explore the world of science beyond their lectures – every Thursday evening. The unnamed pig became a pet, saved from an unpleasant fate.

Helen set about organising the dormitory into a proper laboratory. She pilfered whatever she could from the old man in charge of the university’s supplies, stockpiling it along the walls of the dorm. The library suffered heavy losses with all of its lost books ending up safely piled in Nikola’s attic except for one casualty, sacrificed in the name of science or as Nikola often insisted, ‘a completely accidental accident’.

Their collective name also came about via accident. As they made their daily strut from the lunch rooms to the garden, one student set to calling, ‘them five!’ as they passed. They travelled in a pack now, and the name stuck. James tweaked it a bit of course, improving on its grammar.

‘The Five’ made them feel like they were part of something. They weren’t really but that didn’t matter.

Nikola’s opinion of Nigel improved, if only because he found the strange man particularly skilled at acquiring equipment. Honestly, Nikola had never had so much wire to play with which resulted in weekly direct hits to the building by cruising lightning storms. Helen had less luck with Nigel, choosing to keep out of his way. He made no secret of his dislike of her; often neglecting to greet her is she arrived in a group of flat insulting her intelligence at every opportunity. James and John – now there was a curious bond. They were never particularly fond of one another, but their intellects delighted in the challenge. Deconstructing the other was an entertainment that they could sustain happily for hours and whenever they got bored with that, they returned to their other favourite past time, a shared dislike of Nikola.

*~*~*

It was another late night. Helen was tucked into a chair, half asleep as she read through a stolen library journal. A loud ‘crash’ startled her when the front door flew open and her father hurried in, slamming and locking it behind him. Gregory Magnus went directly to his study where he collapsed into his chair and began furiously writing a letter.

Helen closed the book on her lap and crept to her father’s study. She hung in the doorway, watching him tilt a candle over the folded letter, letting its wax drip. He pushed a seal into it and sighed heavily, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.

Her father was filthy. His clothing had been torn and soaked in mud. There were scratches across his forehead, some of them bleeding, and a deep gash over his hand which he’d covered with a piece of fabric torn from his shirt. She could smell the remnants of a peat bog and an overpowering dose of kerosene in the air.

“Father,” she whispered, catching Gregory’s attention. He looked up at Helen as if he’d forgotten all about her existence.

“Helen – go to your room at once and lock the door,” he instructed. Gregory undid the lid on one of the crystal vessels containing scotch. He did not bother with a glass, swigging directly from the bottle. “Quickly!” he hurried her, when she failed to move.

Helen hadn’t seen her father in weeks and now he turned up, looking like he’d spent that time crawling through sewers.

“Why?” she asked, stepping into the room. Gregory would have none of this, flaring into a rage uncharacteristic of him.

This is no time for, ‘why’!” he yelled, swiping the letter off the desk and burying it in his coat. “Do as I say and I’ll come back for you.” Gregory fled toward her, snatching the metal poker from beside the fire on his way. “I am sorry,” he said, calming enough to kiss his daughter on the head. “But you must hide. Promise you will do that for me. Take this,” he added, withdrawing a small package wrapped in damp brown paper and fastened with string. “Hide it. Keep it safe.”

There was a terror in his eyes that halted her questions. Helen simply nodded and let her father vanish back onto the streets, consumed by the night.

8

SECRETS, LIES AND STOLEN TRUTHS

Helen turned and took the corridor at a run, flinging the door to her bedroom open, not caring as it slammed against the wall. She held the mysterious parcel tightly as her eyes searched the room. Shelves, trunk, lamp-lit desk – all too obvious. Her heart pounded. She had never seen her father afraid before – fearful, yes, before any new experiment his eyes would widen, darken with the wonderful dread that the unknown provoked but tonight he had been truly afraid.

She caught the door as it bounced back and locked it, sliding down its surface until she hit the ground.

Think…” she eyed the room until a smile flicked across her lips. Cedar drawers; well loved in this and their previous life. Helen crawled over to them, sliding the bottom one open. She buried the parcel deep in the back, concealed by veils of lace and garters where no self-respecting thief would dare follow.

Helen had intended to stay put – hidden safely away as her father had instructed, but as the seconds itched on she couldn’t bare it. Helen unlatched the door and returned to the foyer where she pulled a jacket from the hallstand and wrapped it around herself.

The trees, sparsely placed along the avenue, shivered. Their wet leaves glistened like a thousand mirrors to the moonlight until they broke loose and fell away just as fickly, blanketing the ground. A wind kicked over Helen as she dodged soggy newspapers, tumbling over each other. She stepped between the soft circles of light beneath each lamp post. Her father was ahead, paused at the crossroad, unable to choose between the cracked veneers of stone walls.

Few people had the courage to venture into the streets after dark. Thieves swarmed like rats over the city, driven to desperation by an uncompromising age of enterprise. Even Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, could not escape the modern age with its silent class, rippling through the evening, flickering and dying. Helen knew that she hovered only just beyond their reach, only a few pounds from poverty.

Gregory Magnus chose the side street on his left. Helen closed in, bringing herself to a stop at the corner where she found a shadow and sunk into it. Archways and barred windows leaned over the street, boxing her and her father into a tunnel. The public lighting ended halfway down the cobble stone road leaving a sweeping shadow cutting off the remainder from existence. Beyond that curtain of darkness lurked all kind of street creature. Gregory approached it, tentatively walking along the dark edge.

Helen stepped back, making sure that she was hidden as the forms of several men emerged out of the shadows in front of her father. First, they appeared as a series of ghostly faces but gradually they grew into a set of well dressed businessmen. Her father turned to face them, drifting backwards cautiously, drawing his company out into the light.

“Doctor,” said one of them in greeting, slinking ahead of the others. He was a tall man with a leg that threatened to buckle with every step. He leant heavily on his cane as he spoke, “Trying to escape?”

Gregory chuckled nervously, checking the buttons on his coat before wiping a smear of mud off his neck with a handkerchief. “Of course not,” he replied. “I was – was looking for you.”

The remainder of the ‘pack’ waited behind, never quite making it into view. Helen stretched herself along the wall, inching closer. She was able to make out most of the conversation even though all parties kept their voices hushed.

“I am curious to see what our money had bought,” the man continued.

“You lied to me,” Gregory pointed sharply, white handkerchief still in hand. “I have done some of my own research – run into a few old friends. The Cabal may be a private research organisation but you are also in partnership with one of the most evil businesses this side of the century.” A train rattled past in the distance, screeching to a halt at Oxford’s new station. “You think that people won’t learn what you’re doing? The money that you paid me was no better than blood.”

The man glanced down at the pavement, lowering his voice into a harsh drone that broke intermittently as if his veneer of civility was cracking with it. “Enough of this time wasting.” His eyes returned to Magnus. “Where are the samples?”

“I destroyed them.”

He laughed. “That is your plan, Doctor?” he sneered, with an air of disbelief. “Poorly execute a lie and then expect me to simply let you go? You are a man of science, Magnus. I know what that means. Those samples are too important to your personal agenda to simply destroy. If you hand them over now, I may even let you keep one – as a gesture of good faith for our future business dealings.”

“I already told you, I destroyed them. Our arrangement is finished.”

There was a subtle tap of his cane on the ground. The others jumped forward, taking Gregory by the arms. They flung him against one of the walls so hard that he groaned, jarring in pain. The man rubbed his face, tired of people who fought the inevitable. Progress didn’t pretend to be pretty – it was brutal.

“One more time, Doctor.”

This time, a curl lingered on Gregory’s lips as his weather worn face grinned at the night. “You will never find them…” he whispered in defiance.

The man reached into his coat and brought out a gun, cocking it with a sinister click. Helen gasped loudly, covering her mouth too late to stop the noise reaching the huddle of gentlemen. They heard it, snapping their heads around to see a blonde woman hiding on the corner of the street, watching events unfold with more than a passing interest. Gregory saw her too and his heart sank.

“Bring her…” muttered the man.

Helen turned, hitched up her skirt, and bolted through the street, narrowly avoiding the hooves a a passing night-carriage which skidded to a halt behind her in a cloud of dust. The two men to follow navigated around the whining horse as it reared up.

“Whoa, whoa…” the coachman hushed, as the carriage tilted dangerously.

The park wall’s sandstone ripped her skirt as she half-jumped, half-fell over it, leaving tattered ends of lace flapping in the wind. Her pursuers cleared the wall easily, hitting the grass at a run as they searched and quickly found her not far ahead.

At night, the park was pitch black, protected by walls of trees keeping it well out of reach of the street lights. There were people moving about within it; lovers hiding away from the world, beggars curled up against the cold with animals stealing scraps from the grass beside them.

The ground was soft under her feet, and though Helen was a strong runner, her dress tangled and caught under her feet. Soon she was tumbling down a gentle hill with her arms flailing as wet mud coated her. She was headed for a shallow pond which lay under the only gap in the trees. A perfect reflection of the moon was disturbed by a drifting duck, leaving a wake behind its furry form.

Helen’s world was a blur of cold, pain and blackness until the men plucked her from the ground and held her until she could stand.

“A little ‘thank you’ would be nice,” said one of them, still panting. Helen was trying to scratch her way free of them, shouting to anyone who would listen. “Water that cold, you might be dead.”

They dragged her back to the alleyway where the leader had been prompting Gregory for information, as evidenced by the fresh bruises.

“Claim’s she’s a working girl…” they said in unison. Helen looked the part with filthy, torn clothes, and ratty hair limply blowing in the wind. Her father didn’t dare look at her.

“Bring her with us?” it was a question posed by one of the men that had stayed behind. His knuckles were red.

The leader waved them off. “She’s cheap.”

“So what do we do with her, leave her here?”

Helen averted her eyes as the leader left her father and hobbled toward her, leaning heavily on his stick. “What did you see, sweetie?” he asked her, suggestively.

“Nothin’,” Helen mumbled, wincing as the two beside her tightened their grip.

“We better be sure,” he whispered back, leaning over her. She didn’t see his free hand raised above her head, about to come down sharply.

“Wait,” Gregory pushed off from the wall, stumbling forwards. “Wait,” he repeated. “Let her go – I’ll get your samples back.”

“Back?” the tall man withdrew his hand and eyed Gregory curiously.

“I scattered them so that you would never be able to locate them should precisely this happen.”

“But, if I let this working girl go – you’ll get them for me? Why?”

“That is my business,” said Gregory. “I need two weeks.”

“You try my patience, Doctor. I’ll give you one week and if you don’t present with the samples you promised and we paid for, then our next meeting will be less pleasant.” The man flicked his eyes up and his company threw Helen unceremoniously to the ground.

*~*~*

Helen and Gregory sat opposite each other, staring across Magnus’s desk in silence for a long time. She realised now that the secrets she thought that she knew about her father were pitiful in comparison with the truth.

He had taken hold of his quill, running the white feather through his fingers in an endless pattern. Gregory had no idea how to begin an explanation for his actions – his entire life. He tried several times but none of these attempts reached beyond a small clearing of his throat.

The firelight flickered behind them. Helen could not take her eyes off of her father. She decided to approach the issue from the side, step carefully around the elephant.

“The Cabal, they are a private research facility – research into what exactly?”

This is the conversation that Gregory had spent his life avoiding, ever since the death of his wife Patricia, all those years ago in South America. “I am not certain,” he replied. “Though I suspect their interests are similar to mine.”

“Which are…” he was being intentionally cryptic, and Helen was sick of all the secrets.

“Helen,” he replaced the beautiful quill in its holder. “You have tremendous potential as a scientist. The lecturers must agree, otherwise they would have chased you off long ago –”

Helen stood from her chair, pacing away from the table in frustration. Slowly she turned, approaching once again but this time with an expression somewhere between tears and desperation.

“You,” she started, placing her hands on the table, “are the most talented medical researcher I have ever known and yet you keep your most important work hidden from the world. From me.”

Gregory didn’t know how to respond. Somewhere along the way his daughter had grown up, changed from a little girl with a fascination of the world into a scientist as driven as him. Her questions had simmered for a decade and now they burnt their way past him. He looked away as she continued, unable to face her sharp eyes.

“If you truly believe that I have potential father,” Helen leant even closer, resolute in her plea, “please help me achieve it.”

He had sworn never to do this but he had never been able to refuse his daughter anything. She was intelligent, a little too much so for her own good. If he didn’t share with her his secrets, she would hunt them out anyway. Without guidance – Gregory shuddered to think what she could become.

Gregory took his daughter’s hand. He led her to the far back corner of his office to a door that she had never been through.

“The attic you know about by now,” he said plainly. “I admit, I let it happen but it is nothing but a storehouse for old notes and relatively benign research.”

Helen couldn’t explain why, but she felt betrayed.

“This,” he continued, as he unlocked the door revealing a staircase leading down to an underground level, “is the reason the university will no longer let me step inside its walls. Do you remember, when you were a small child the two men who came to visit me on your fourteenth birthday?”

“They were afraid of you,” said Helen. She remembered the argument.

He nodded. “Maybe. I told them that they had limited their imagination. In truth, I think it was their wallets whose limits I had reached. The board at the university could no longer endorse my research and so I was forced to look for financial assistance elsewhere. The Cabal offered me a grant that I could not turn down. There was no money, Helen. It was the only way that I could continue.”

“I still don’t understand what it was that was so terrible.”

Gregory led Helen down the stairs. She held a kerosene lantern in her hand, lighting the way for both of them. Her father switched keys and unlocked the final door but stopped shy of opening it. Helen thought she heard scratching and crying from behind the door, not unlike the sounds of James’s room that first night.

He handed her the key. “Once you enter this door, you are on a path that cannot be reversed.”

9

SANGUINE VAMPIRIS

Helen raised the lantern, extending it into the room. Yards of heavy fabric lined the walls, tacked on to the ceiling and left to hang all the way to the dusty floor. Occasionally there was an outcrop of shelves made of solid, dark wood. Some of them had fine-netted wire nailed across the compartment and locks through their handles. As she stepped toward them, she realised why; rat-like creatures scattered away from her light, huddling in the corners of the bookshelf amongst scraps of food.

She panned the lantern across the laboratory where it caught the edges of a table. It was a bare thing, lonely at the heart of the room. There were networks of grooves carved into it which led to a tin bucket on the ground where dark patterns of a mysterious liquid were layered in stains.

In the far corner, the light picked out a pair of golden eyes which opened slowly, staring back at her. Helen stepped closer, slipping from her father’s grasp. She had gone this far – Gregory could not stop her. All of his secrets were now hers to share.

Two curved horns, half a foot long, tapered into sharp summits. They protruded from scarlet fur, bunched tightly together in uneven tufts. Like a cat’s pelt, it had two layers – a harsh, needle-like exterior with yellow tips and a second, downy coat which kept the creature warm. Except – it wasn’t fur, but feathers.

Gregory lit two of the lamps hanging from the ceiling and the room flickered into light. Helen raised her hand to her mouth to cover a gasp. A pair of wings – fragile sheets of skin, were folded onto the creature’s back. She could see two enormous paws as big as tea-saucers which it used to rest its head on while a tail curled around its body, twitching as Gregory whispered thing to it.

Helen thought that it looked just like a –

“Dragon, yes,” Gregory whispered. “At least, that’s the conclusion I have come to. I found this poor thing four months ago while I was in London. It was, well, smaller then, but how could I leave it in alley? My guess is that it was dumped by a black market animal trader – they swarm around the Cabal, making their pickings on capturing and selling Abnormal creatures.”

“No,” she whispered, unable to get over the ‘dragon’ part of her father’s sentence.

“It is an Abnormal, Helen.” He took his daughter’s hand, resting beside her as she continued to watch the creature. It eventually grew bored of the intrusion, closing its golden eyes and returning to sleep. “The cornerstone of monster stories since man picked up a pen. This,” he pointed in particular at the dragon, “is a species of reptile yet sadly I do not know where to return it. I doubt that it was born in London’s streets… There are hundreds of creatures like him, hidden away or captured by agencies like the Cabal for private research. They – they torture them and destroy whatever’s left. I can’t keep him forever, though,” Gregory added, frowning as he lowered his eyes.

Helen read her father’s journals but this – this was beyond what she could have dreamed. Worlds were unlocking, secrets unravelling and she found her heart pounding against her lungs.

“Helen, the blood samples that I acquired are from an Abnormal that not even I believed could exist. I stumbled across them once, many years ago now and decided that they were too dangerous to approach again. Vrykolakas, strigoi,upír, impundulu, Sanguine Vampiris,” Gregory rolled the words, hushing them as if each syllable was fear enough. “Vampires…” he whispered to her, like a bedtime nightmare crawling into a corner.

“Their blood is one of the most powerful substances on Earth and the Cabal would like nothing better than to get their claws onto it. They paid me exceptionally well to collect samples. You, have one of them.”

Helen guessed it to be the mysterious package her father had left in her care earlier that night.

“I entrust you to study and learn from it in my absence, while I hide the remaining two where the Cabal will never find them. All of this,” he waved his arms over the room, “is in your care. Now, listen carefully, these are resourceful people. They are going to come looking for me after the week is up – but you are a woman, my daughter. Use that, feign frivolity, make them believe that you know nothing more than needlepoint and they will leave you alone.”

She nodded very slowly. That night, her father was gone. He left a half-dried bundle of petals, shrivelled but alive as they clung to the vine creeping out from the pot. The wild rose had suffered from its journey, but its tortured form perked as Helen drizzled water over it.

*~*~*

James and John were displeased with each other after a minor disagreement over the origin of Vampires.

The five of them had found themselves an abandoned corner of the library – the old side, of course, as it was James’s turn to pick a nook for their weekly discussion. He paced in small circles between the shelves, a book resting open in his hand as he read the lines of text aloud to his audience.

Helen was listening, but with an air of discontent. They were mocking her, all of them in their own subtle ways, ever since she had told them of her father’s research. Nikola was at her feet, apparently preferring the floor. He was asleep and snoring quietly with his head balanced uncomfortably between two encyclopaedias of ancient history.

It was John who took the greatest interest in James’s speech. He was reclined in one of the library chairs which they had stolen from the main room and stowed in their private corner. Over the hour, his feet had stretched out on top of the table allowing him to balance a book on his knees which he glanced at several times, awaiting his turn to rebuff James’s argument.

And as softly thou art sleeping

To thee shall I come creeping

And thy life’s blood drain away.”

James was enjoying this, far more than was reasonable. He had always be a showman, albeit only to a select few. He traced the lines with an outstretched finger –

And so shalt thou be trembling

For thus shall-”

“Really,” interrupted John, aware of the poem’s conclusion. “Is this appropriate, considering our company?” He deliberately kept his eye away from Helen, knowing that her frown had twisted into scowl. James ignored him.

For thus shall I be kissing

And death’s threshold thou’ it be crossing

With fear, in my cold arms.”

The book snapped shut, waking Nikola.

“You get the general idea,” Watson laid the book on the table beside John. “And that, my dear John, is the beginning of the Vampire in Literature. Case closed.”

John sighed heavily.

“There are no such things as ‘vampires’ – except perhaps in farm boys’ drunkin’ stupors.” Nigel squeezed between two shelves with a fresh arm of books. “And perhaps your literature,” he conceded, handing James another book.

“I don’t know,” James inspected the man on the floor beside Helen, as Nikola yawned at the room. “Nikola’s pale enough to be one, especially with those sharp teeth he likes to flash.”

“Excuse me?” Nikola replied, sleepily. “Did I provoke you in some way?”

“Your existence provokes me.”

“Your reading bores me,” he retaliated.

“I agree with Nikola, for once,” John added, flipping through the pages of his own book. Stirring the room was the pastime he liked best.

“Enough. Enough. Enough.” Helen rolled her eyes and fell against the wall of books, sliding down it in defeat. She landed beside Nikola in a swirl of dust. He flinched in alarm, holding his breath.

James was not finished with Nikola yet. “I particularly enjoyed cruising through your latest work of poetry-” he said, slipping a scrap of crumpled paper from his coat. Nikola recognised it at once, and coughed in panic, stumbling to his feet – an action which failed as one of his legs had fallen asleep.

“My – what?” Nikola grunted as pain constricted his leg muscle, rendering him useless as James straightened the paper. “How did you – where did you get that from?”

“It was just lying on your floor last time you invited us to that spectacle of yours.” James’s finger still hurt, burnt by an ‘accidental’ passing of current which Nikola had spent hours making certain that it would do precisely that.

“That is private,” Nikola hissed.

James began to read. It was a scant few lines of scattered birds and thunder storms, beautiful enough in construction. Nikola clawed his way back to his feet, his cheeks reddening with every word falling from James’s lips.

He lunged once, but James dodged him easily. John threw his head back in a silent laugh, delight ripping the corners of his mouth into a broad smile. Nigel turned away. It wasn’t that he liked Tesla – more that he didn’t hate him.

“Fine,” Nikola’s voice wavered, his usual pride shaken. “Keep it.”

He left, sidling out between the rows of books and back into the main library where he finally vanished from their sight.

“Excellent,” Helen curled her knees up to her chest, pinning her skirt down beneath her arms. It billowed uncomfortably around her. “Look what the two of you have accomplished – not very clever considering neither can coax a current from a coil… You realise, Nikola was going to help you. He wrote up the notes on his motor, they were in his pocket.” Helen returned to her feet and collected her things from the table beside John. He shifted his feet as she approached. “Enjoy your spoils, gentlemen.”

Before leaving, she approached a stunned James and took the paper from between his fingers.

Nigel had kept quiet, his arms still laden with books. Often, especially at times like these, he liked to think of the other four as elements of nature – as strong in their opposition as their passion. They did not mix but could not keep apart either. It was an impossible system that would eventually destroy itself. Nigel could see that day approaching but he hindered its arrival as best he could by keeping the shaky peace.

*~*~*

Their way of apology was to entertain Helen’s ‘vampire’ tale as truth. Nigel’s idea.

“We’ll have to get a look at it,” James said, lowering his voice though the four of them were alone in the dormitory. “See if this sample really contains special properties.”

Helen had not forgiven them, but was nonetheless keen for their help.

“I won’t move it,” she replied. “The Cabal could be watching the house – you would have to come to it.”

“It is not as if you live in India,” smirked Nigel, hinting that the others should show more enthusiasm. They did, eventually acknowledging that they could probably meet in two day’s time.

“What about Nikola?” asked James, feeding the pig rooting around its box.

“I will speak with him,” said Helen sternly. “It’s been almost four hours; maybe he’ll have forgotten your joke.”

Helen doubted it, but she went to the hallway where Nikola’s attic lived anyway. The stairs were up, pulled well out of her reach.

“Nikola…” she called, loud enough for him to hear. It was afternoon and last classes of the day were drawing to their end. All but one room in his hallway was empty, and it was far enough away not to be troubled by her efforts to catch Nikola’s attention.

He didn’t respond, but she knew that he was up there.

“If you proceed with this, I will be forced to climb out the window and up into your room the hard way,” she threatened, casting her eye over the window to gauge whether it was possible to carry out the threat. To her amusement, it seemed that it was. A latch, not a lock, secured the window and when open, it would be big enough for her to scramble through.

“Nikola?” she tried again.

*~*~*

“Will he come?”

John was packing his things, preparing to leave. It was a decent ride to the inn which he was calling ‘home’ until the university approved his residency.

“Why are you asking me?” John paused, turning to Nigel. “I guess, Helen will probably convince him – she usually does. Tomorrow?” he changed the subject. “The meeting’s on the grass by the oak tree. I’m hoping for a fine day.”

*~*~*

She heard the footsteps first – light and quick across the ceiling. Helen turned as the hatch to the attic rattled, opening out into the hallway. A set of stairs slid down to her. She couldn’t see Nikola anywhere above. Usually, he waited for her with a smile, or outstretched hand beckoning her up.

Nikola was located by the window, brushing fragments of broken glass of the sill. He had been doing that for weeks, but there always seemed to be more of it.

“There you are,” she said, approaching cautiously.

10

CHILD OF THE STORM

The first soft flecks of rain hit Nikola’s cheeks, lingering for a moment on his pale skin before sliding along the contours of his face. They dripped onto the window sill as Helen paced slowly along the opposite wall, carefully unfurling the scrap of paper with Nikola’s poetry. She placed it on the floor beside his bed before making her way to the window.

“Leave…” he said coldly, staring out at the city. It was growing dark now. The thick clouds quickened the hours, sending Oxford into premature night. For once, he didn’t want the storm. His experiment was not ready, left as an unfinished heap of metal on the roof.

She was going to tell him that the others were sorry but there was little point – it was not true and he would certainly not believe it.

“I know that you need help,” she said instead, “and I already promised.”

Sometimes he hated her memory.

“It’s too late,” he said, staring at the swirling clouds. “The rain is here and next – the lightning.” If it attracted a stray shard of electricity before he could fix it, then there’d be a great smouldering mess on the roof to contend with.

“When did a little rain hurt anybody…” she smiled, crossing the room.

To his confusion and distress, Helen nudged him away from the window and quickly climbed out of it, ignoring Nikola’s protests.

“Helen!” he said, in distress, as she clung to the wooden joins and searched for three stones protruding from the building’s facade. She had seen him use them a dozen times to climb the short distance to the roof. The light drizzle was cold and made the rocks slippery but her grip was firm and in a flash, Nikola was left with an empty window. “Mad, mad woman,” he muttered, stepping onto the sill in pursuit, forgetting his anger.

*~*~*

“Hypothetically,” said Nigel, pulling another blanket around his back. Their room was always cold despite the dozen or so lamps they kept lit. “If this sample of blood really is what Helen says, how are we going to test it?”

James tapped the nib of his quill on the edge of the ink bottle. He was seated at a desk shoved unkindly against one of the walls near their beds, scratching out a late assignment.

“Really, Nigel,” he said, with a measured voice, “I didn’t think that I would need to remind you of Doctor Magnus’s reputation.”

“I don’t follow,” replied Nigel, even though he did. Tales of Helen’s father were colourful and abundant, but he was interested to know James’s take.

That was enough to distract James. He set the feather down and turned up the lamp next to him so that its flame flickered brightly.

“Doctor Magnus,” he began, with a theatrical air, “was head of the medical board here – until four years ago. He drove several colleagues to resign their post and a further to be transferred. Word was that his experiments made the money men squeamish – not an easy thing to accomplish. Officially, he retired into obscurity but a man of his standing and position should have been enjoying his glory years. No one in the industry would touch him after that. Most think that he lost his mind, myself included.”

“You’re a harsh judge of character. Still, I’m curious – hypothetically of course… Is it possible that there could be a shred of truth? Doctor Magnus may have been insane but Helen –”

James shrugged. “If this blood of hers is real, we would have to test it on a living thing.”

“Good luck getting that idea past John, he has a tight grip over Helen these days and Nikola will probably hurl again.”

“I thought that rats might be an acceptable halfway point to all parties.”

“Inject a rat with ‘vampire’ blood. Now there’s a notion for your fiction books.”

“You are enjoying this…” James couldn’t help but smile. Nigel rarely found pleasure in life, so to see his lip curl in wicked plotting was a welcome change. “I guess we shall find out.”

*~*~*

It was higher up that she had expected. The university’s roof sloped sharply and Helen found that she had to slip her hands between the terracotta tiles to steady herself against the wind as she worked her way toward a contraption of wire mounted on a relatively flat rise ahead.

Nikola had been right about the storm. From up here, she could clearly see it brewing over the city – churning into a dark mass of vapour. Every now and then it rumbled.

“Careful,” Nikola muttered behind her, scampering across the roof. He had done this a thousand times and navigated the slippery tiles easily.

“They just let you leave all of this up here?” she said, pointing at his experiment. Helen regretted letting go of the roof, stumbling before Nikola caught her hand and led her to the relative safety of the platform.

“Strictly? No…” he admitted. “But I think that one of the professors is curious so they let it go.”

“Our professor? Maybe he just wants a decent excuse to have you expelled,” she lifted an eyebrow curiously, as she stepped onto the platform with the experiment.

“I am undecided,” Nikola grinned. He handed her several wires and balanced a long antenna on her lap while he dug through his experiment, connecting bits of it. “You’re no help at all,” he said to her, when he tried to retrieve the antenna. Helen had the wires twisted around it in infinite loops which he struggled to undo.

Nikola worked frantically, with the rain getting heavier. She hadn’t meant to, but Helen found the sight of Nikola in a full suit, perched on the roof like a curious bird – dripping wet and tangled up in cords to be highly amusing, especially when he overbalanced. She stifled a giggle, dodging his glare as cold wind made the rain more unpleasant.

Soaked through, they finished setting the experiment. Helen and Nikola took a step back, staring for a moment at the fragile thing reaching up toward the crazy expanse of sky. It was hard not to feel the enormity of the world behind the city – to see civilisation as a small scramble on the landscape sheltering under a sky to which humanity could lay no claim.

“I see why,” she started, “you spend your time up here.”

*~*~*

James jolted, smearing ink over his page as the thunder continued to roll on outside their window.

“That was close,” he said. The walls of the building were vibrating softly, rippling with the thunder. “I don’t think that James is going to get his meeting outside tomorrow.”

“Must be a beautiful show,” Nigel pointed to the only window in their dormitory which remained blocked by cloth and wood. “A shame – I think I may go and watch the storm for a while.”

James shrugged, attempting to salvage the page. “As you please,” he said. “Would you mind,” he nodded at the pile of paper beside Nigel’s bed, “if I skimmed through your notes?”

*~*~*

Three rivers of light appeared from the cloud above and snaked their way in jagged steps toward the ground. Their light cut through the heavy rain as they intertwined, crossed each other and flashed several times in silence.

Nigel watched the shards of light, waiting for the inevitable lashing of air which always coupled the beauty. He held onto his notes tightly, not daring to leave them unattended in James’s company.

*~*~*

After the light, Helen could barely make out the dark lines of the roof. She blinked the rain from her eyes and turned to Nikola.

“Can you hear that?” he said, staring out into nowhere. Helen frowned, all she could hear was the rain lashing at their faces and the occasional gasp of thunder as the lightening approached. “That sound…” Nikola seemed lost to the world as he raised a hand up to the storm, moving it through the rain. He could hear hooves pounding into the wet earth – a distant cry as a horse rose up on a child.

“Nikola!” screamed Helen, as he tilted dangerously forward.

Nikola snapped out of the memory as another flash of light strangled the darkness from the sky.

“We should go,” he said, fearing that he had waited too long. The storm was here and they were still balanced precariously on the roof next to a lightning conductor.

*~*~*

Nigel was on the ground floor, pacing along the protected walkway of the eastern wing of the building. He thought he heard a woman’s voice cry over the thunder of the storm. Frowning, he edged toward one of the archways, leaning into the rain enough to see the opposing rooftop.

He saw two shadows make their way across the rooftop. They looked so fragile, scampering in the face of such a storm.

Helen and Nikola, it could be no-one else. Nigel shook his head as they neared the edge of the roof. Then, from nowhere, a stream of light ripped through the air and blinded him. Thunder, so heavy that Nigel felt his soul take shelter as it beat against his body. He dropped to the ground in a scatter of paper, holding his ears as the ground shook.

*~*~*

The tiles on the roof shattered beneath them. Helen fell first, grasping desperately as she began to slide toward the edge. The world was so bright – she could not see. The air splitting beside her was so violent that the end of all things may have only been a step behind. She couldn’t hear Nikola, falling behind her, his hands forgetting the roof and reaching only for her.

Suddenly there was nothing beneath her. The light vanished leaving only the violent reverberations and the sound of tiles plunging four stories to the ground, exploding on the pavement below.

Her body jerked as Nikola caught her arm. The sudden weight pulled him over the edge with her until he wedged his hand between the guttering and brought them to a stop. They hung there in the rain, swinging gently.

Out of a daze, Helen realised that she would soon hit the ground far below them. Nikola had caught onto her sleeve and fabric was stretching, beginning to rip away from its seams.

There was nothing Nikola could do except grimace through the pain as the sharp gutter edge cut into him.

The rain beat down harder as another wave of thunder brushed over them.

Helen tried to reach the wall with her other hand, but she was too far out to do anything but graze the cold rocks with her fingertips.

Now the gutter protested, snapping two of its bolts sending Helen and Nikola two feet closer to the ground. Nikola hung on, but Helen’s sleeve ripped open. She reached up with her other hand just before Nikola lost his grip.

There was blood trickling down Nikola’s wrist. Even with two hands, Helen could not hold on. Another gust of wind would be enough to knock her free.

“Nikola!” she shouted over the noise.

Nikola swallowed, feeling her slip further. “Helen…” he whispered, as she fell from his hold.

11

UNBREAKABLE

Nigel vaulted over the low stone wall and out into the storm leaving a volley of papers churning behind him.

Every echo of thunder made his body shudder as it continued to rumble in the sky above. The ancient gods were at each others’ throats, tossing bolts of light and snarling into the dark. He could hear their violence – the clashing of swords and procession of Grecian boots through the clouds.

The lawn was partly submerged and Nigel struggled to cross its muddy expanse. Once he stumbled, landing on his knees amidst a blur of water. That’s when he saw it again – a horrible image that he could not shake. Nigel grunted and made it back to his feet. He pushed forward, heading toward the other wing of the building where he had seen a shadow fall.

He raised his arm against the weather, inhaling more water than air. Nigel couldn’t understand why the world moved so slowly or how it was possible to count the heartbeats out of step with his breath while the droplets of rain hesitated, lingering for a moment before striking his face. Whatever tempo the world was supposed to dance to, it had been offset since that lightning strike.

Nigel found her almost at once, laid awkwardly on the cement pathway surrounded by broken roof tiles. The sky flashed again and again, vanishing the world in an eerie light. Nigel paused, water streaming over his eyelashes. Helen’s blond hair had scattered around her head, glistening in the rain as if full of jewels. Beneath this carpet was a dark puddle, diluted by the rain into a general crimson aura.

She must be dead. It was all he could think. Her stillness held back his breath as he bent down to Helen and placed his fingers lightly beneath her chin.

He waited, ignoring another dart of light above as he searched for a faint glimmer of life.

Oh gods…” Nigel startled, as Helen opened her lips and took a gasp of air. He whipped his hand away when her eyes slowly opened, staring blankly into the night.

“Nikola?” Helen whispered. Her vision was a muddle of indistinct forms but she could sense someone leaning over her, shaking.

“Nigel,” he corrected Helen, reaching behind her head. He wove his fingers through her blood stained hair until he cupped her skull gently and eased her off the ground with his other arm around her shoulders. He searched for the wound responsible for the bloody mess on the pavement but found nothing except an acute tenderness to his touch.

She flinched away from him.

“I feel – strange,” she said, as he forced her to sit.

“I am amazed that you feel anything at all,” he commented, glancing up at the roof of the university. It was a long way up to the damaged pipe, jutting out from the rest of the gutter. Beneath Helen was a sea of blood from a so far phantom wound. He had to get her somewhere safe and dry and inspect her more closely. A fall that large – there had to be repercussions.

“Wait,” she protested, as he lifted her from the ground. It was a struggle for Nigel. He had never been a strong man but in this he was determined. “Nikola…”

Nigel searched the dark walls of the university but the pathways were empty. “He’s not here,” he said, heading for the main gates where the occasional coach hurried past with a crash of hooves.

Helen turned her head, gazing over Nigel’s shoulder back at the silhouette of the building. There was no light in Nikola’s room. She remembered his hand, trembling with her weight as she swung from the building.

“He was…” she started, but Nigel had reached the road. He waved a one of the coaches over and bundled Helen inside of it.

*~*~*

He took her home.

Nigel set Helen onto one of the wooden chairs in the dining room and quickly fetched a basic medical kit from Doctor Magnus’s cupboard by the stairs. He returned to find her inspecting a ringlet of hair, curiously gazing at the red tinge that it had taken on.

“Let me,” he said, pulling a chair next to her. Nigel held a warm washer to her forehead, wiping the mixture of mud and blood off her porcelain complexion. For the first time, he noticed her beauty. He’d always thought of Helen, perhaps unfairly, as a vindictive woman manipulating men to her causes via her obvious charm. John thought that he was crazy, but Nigel held firm to his belief that there was a sinister edge to Lady Magnus. He often saw glimpses of it in the corners of her eyes when James slit his way through another test subject. She had even swayed the impersonal Tesla, coaxing some form of affection from him however reserved it might be.

Nigel wouldn’t go so far as to say that he was entranced by her, as the others were, but maybe he could admit to being just a little curious.

“How perplexing,” he said, running the washer down her neck following a trail of blood. “You appear to be unharmed.”

“Maybe it’s not my blood?” she offered, catching his hand as it dipped a touch too low on her neckline. She would never guess that it had been an honest accident.

“It’s yours all right,” Nigel discarded the cloth in the tray, “but search me as to how.”

They were both soaked and starting to feel the cold. Nigel was the first to rise, unbuttoning his coat as he headed to the fireplace. He busied himself lighting it, preferring to keep occupied as the awkward silence continued between them. Though they had spent many hours in each other’s company, they had never spoken alone and found themselves completely at a loss as to how to behave.

Finally, a flame flickered up through the logs and the first radiations of warmth spread into the room.

“You should change your clothes,” he mumbled at her. She nodded and vanished out the door. He heard her footsteps trail down the corridor until a door creaked open.

So this was the house of the great Gregory Magnus? Nigel had already picked out several unusual ornaments hanging from the opposite wall. He hovered over the fire, drying his shirt and pants until she returned to the dining room looking more like he was used to.

“Thank you,” she said, not taking that last step into the room, “for your help. I shall be fine now.”

“Helen, you are about as far from ‘fine’ as is possible.” Another silence. Nigel stifled a cough with his fist, turning back to the flames. His nose wanted to run, a curse from his childhood that led people to believe him perpetually in ill-health. “Now that I’m here,” he spoke to the fire, forcing Helen to venture into the room to understand him. “Would it be possible to see this mysterious sample of yours? I admit to being curious.”

Distraction – she welcomed it. “Certainly.”

Helen led him through her father’s office and down the stone steps to the basement. She caught him linger at the sight of the lab door, running his eyes over the solid planks of wood sealing its contents away from the world. They both held lanterns to the darkness as she unlocked the door and pushed it open.

The door revealed a black hole not unlike the gaping mouth of a cave. Nigel’s nose tweaked at the musty smell, heavily laden with mould spores. Helen dashed in front of him, wasting no time lighting several lanterns. The room now revealed certainly looked the part of a mad scientist’s den. As James had described Gregory Magnus, this scene suited him well – mysterious curtains, hanging lamps and equipment he didn’t want to know about. He’d almost accepted this as quite respectable – until a creature in the corner of the room growled.

“Holy – you did not mention that,” he raised his lantern in the direction of the frightening creature.

“When I said, ‘Abnormal creatures’,” said Helen, with a smile he had seen used on unwitting victims of hers before, “what exactly did you think that I meant?”

She had him there. In truth, he’d never really taken her stories seriously. “Honestly Helen, what is that?”

Eventually Nigel got over the dragon – even daring to stroke its feathered coat. Finally Helen presented the sample of blood and even his untrained eyes could see that it was special with its silken liquid swirling gracefully, its colour more rich than pure ink and its viscosity something between mercury and honey.

“I – wanted to apologise,” he offered, brushing his fingers over the glass holding the sample. “We did not have the best start.”

Helen nodded, but did not offer an apology of her own.

*~*~*

It was late afternoon of the following day when three gentlemen met in a dormitory, exhausted.

“Did you find him?” said John to the others, holding his side. It pained from running circles around the hundreds of intertwined corridors, ducking into every door in search of the missing man.

James and Nigel shook their heads, equally dishevelled.

“He’s not here,” James folded his arms, “or if he is, he’s lost a good deal of weight. I asked everyone I could find. Granted,” his hidden hand couldn’t help but dip into his coat pocket where a small gold watch nestled. “Most of them had no idea who Nikola was in the first instance…”

“I called him the ‘mad one’,” quipped Nigel. “Mostly they just shrugged. If they did see him, they apparently don’t remember. It’s like he’s completely invisible to other humans.”

“I think that we should try to take this seriously…” James frowned in Nigel’s direction.

“What is there to do?” Nigel retaliated. “He is gone and short of searching all of Oxfordshire –”

“Helen’s not going to be happy,” John sighed, interrupting Nigel. “We’ll never hear the peace of it if he doesn’t show tonight.”

*~*~*

John arrived at Helen’s door first, just on the edge of dusk. The streets were full of business men making their way home from work and small children frisking pockets with nimble hands. The gas-lighters had started their rounds, cruising between the lamp posts with a taper as the smoke of the factories sank back to the earth, tarnishing Oxford’s air with a bitter taste.

The city’s forest of spires prodded at the darkening sky. Their sandstone had blackened in the relentless weather which chose to rain most of the time making them appear sinister against the skyline.

“Did you find him?” was Helen’s first question, as she let John step past her into the house. He shook his head.

“Helen, I am sure that he is fine,” he tried to reassure her.

“You clearly don’t know Nikola,” she replied sharply. “He is never fine.”

“Tomorrow I will speak with the university heads myself if he does not arrive within the hour.”

She seemed to be satisfied with this – for the moment.

“Helen,” he reached down for her hand, which he took gently in his own. “There was something that I have been meaning to discuss with you…” he trailed off, glancing nervously at the floor rather than her confused expression. “Before all of this.”

His skin warming beneath her palm distracted her from John’s words. She found it difficult to focus on anything other than the slightest movement of his fingers and his quickening pulse.

“When I heard about what happened yesterday – I – I realised something – important that,” he ventured a glance at her, regretting it almost immediately as his throat closed over. He coughed, swallowed and tried to continue. “And my timing is – well – regrettable but – James?

Mr Watson strolled into Helen’s foyer with an air of importance. He had changed his waistcoat, apparently reverting back to his wealthy upbringing outside the university walls. This particular item of clothing was a luxurious shade of red, edged in golden thread.

His sudden arrival caused Helen and John to part, retreating to opposing walls of the entrance hallway.

James tipped his hat at them before removing it entirely.

“Afternoon,” he said in greeting – fully aware that he had just disturbed the pair. “Nigel will be here shortly. Are you certain that you are well?” James tilted his head slightly at Helen. She was paler than usual except for a bright flash of pink through her cheeks.

“Not you as well,” she turned away. “Honestly, I am surrounded by three old women.”

“Only two at the present,” James winked.

12

RATS TO THE SLAUGHTER

They waited the full hour but Nikola did not show. With the evening well underway and the moon striding above the city, the four young scientists descended the stairs to the underground laboratory.

Settled into various locations around the room – John by the door, Nigel knelt beside the dragon, James in front of the wire-faced bookshelves and Helen leaning on the central table – James theatrically spread his arms as if introducing some great Shakespearean work to his audience.

“I give you,” he bowed low, to the others’ amusement, “Exhibit A.” James Watson lifted the lid of the heavy wooden box by his feet. His surprise was a collection of furry creatures running from wall to wall of the box in a messy clamber.

“Rats…” Helen eyed James warily, leaning over the box with her mouth turned down in repulsion. “You brought me rats?”

James did not understand her dejected tone until Helen held a light to the shelves beside them where five well fed rats, significantly higher in class, were busy devising their escape. He merely waved her off and said, “The more the merrier.”

He rounded hers into his box and placed them on the experiment table. The scratching and squeaking intensified until John had his doubts that the box would hold.

“I still don’t like this,” muttered John, watching Nigel prepare the metal needles and Helen walk the sample of blood over. James dipped the needle carefully into the enticing liquid, slowly drawing it up.

“Rats are a menace,” said James, tapping the shaft of the needle, “the city will be well rid of them.”

There was a rose leaning over the lips of a vase, slowly dying in the softly lit laboratory. It had dropped several petals on the main table but its perfume remained heavy, sweet and intoxicating. It masked the sour smell of the air and had not been there the last time Nigel had called.

John smiled at the wild rose, admiring its fragile and fading beauty. He wanted to hold the delicate thing in his hands but he knew that the slightest touch would destroy it.

Nigel held the squirming rat securely in his hands. It lashed out at him with sharp teeth and knife-like claws, but he expertly clamped down, rendering it still as James pierced its side. The creature screeched unhappily, kicking its toes as James injected a small amount of the source blood into it. Once finished, Nigel carried the rat to an empty compartment on the bookshelf and locked it inside.

The four scientists closed in, observing the shocked creature for several minutes. To their surprise, the rat did nothing – absolutely nothing of interest except clean its ear with a flexible paw.

“That was anti-climatic,” remarked Watson, still brandishing a full needle of blood. “Shall we do the others?”

“Of course,” replied Helen. “One subject is hardly a balanced test. We shall do them all.”

John closed his eyes and rested back against the closed door. He heard them repeat the process again and again with all seven remaining rats and set them in the cage together. When John finally roamed over to the others, he found the rats seated quietly on their back legs, sniffing the air.

“Those are the most docile rats I have ever seen,” he said, staring through the wire. The rats didn’t even notice him trace his hands over their enclosure or feel his warm breath on the air. “Are they in shock?”

“Quite possibly,” said James, handing the empty needle to Nigel who wiped it, wrapped it in cloth and tucked it back in the medical bag.

“Give it time,” Nigel said, joining them. “When we administer medication to animals on my parent’s property it can take up to – did you hear that?”

The others looked at him curiously.

“Hear what?” queried Helen. Her blond hair was hitched out of the way, fastened by dozens of soft metal pins. Every now and then the lamp light caught one, making it flicker.

“Could have sworn I heard some kind of banging.”

It dawned on them as a collective.

“The Cabal?” whispered John, as Helen moved toward the door.

“They watch the house,” replied Helen. “A man in a brown suit, topper and cane stands at the corner in the mornings and late afternoon.”

“Was he there today?” John handed her one of the lanterns.

She shook her head. “No, I thought that it was strange.”

“Let us go,” said James, hinting at John and Nigel. “Perhaps they won’t be so bold.”

“Absolutely not,” she said sternly. “The last thing that I need is to cast suspicion on myself by entertaining three men at this late hour.”

“Very well,” said John, “but we will accompany you to the door all the same.”

*~*~*

Helen waved the shadowy figure she assumed was Nigel off as she approached the tortured surface of the front door. She could see the others, scattered in dark corners ready to pounce on her command.

The door knocked again. It was urgent – demanding and not what she had expected of the Cabal whose figures had always been imposing statues.

She took a breath, holding it in her chest as she unlatched the door and drew it open a crack.

Although the night was clear and the rain of late banished to the edge of the horizon, the first thing that Helen heard upon opening the door was the steady drip of water. She stepped to the side, opening it further to reveal a man shivering in her doorway.

“So,” he started, his voice shaken, “it is true then.”

He had seen her eyes still and glazed, covered in a layer of mist – her hair about her face mingling with flows of blood as she lay there. The sight of her, shattered on the pavement below him amongst the ruined tiles was one that he could not move. Helen Magnus had been dead. He had seen it, felt it – mourned it and, until this point, believed it.

“Nikola…” she said, but he avoided her hand, edging away. “You look as if you have drowned,” Helen observed his state. “We have been so worried, Nikola, where have you been?”

Nikola did not wish to talk about his whereabouts. What he wanted was a very particular answer from the woman glancing nervously behind her at the house.

“I know what I saw,” he said softly.

“We,” she stared, stammering as movement stirred in the house. “We shall talk later, I swear.”

*~*~*

After, Nikola was ushered in and offered a change of clothes – which he naturally declined. Nearly against his will, he was herded to the basement. James managed a vicious aside, sprouting something about ‘wandering souls causing trouble’ to which Nikola darkened his offended temper.

“I take it that I have missed the show,” said Tesla, observing the empty table with Nigel’s bag already packed and stained brown in patches.

“The opening act, perhaps,” replied Nigel, waving Nikola over to the ‘bookshelves’ where the four of them had assembled. “Oh dear…” he sighed, upon arriving. At the edges of the cage were two suspiciously still furry bodies, feet-side up with their mouths left agape from a final breath. “We lost two – not that I can say I’m surprised. They were scrawny things to begin with.”

Though he was positive that Nigel had just insulted his choice of test subjects, James kept quiet and instead observed that there was a drizzle of blood on both the deceased rats’ noses. He deduced, therefore, the cause to be internal bleeding from one or multiple organ failure.

“And what of the others?” Helen asked.

James shrugged. “They seem fine at the present. That one,” he pointed at the rat huddled in the far corner, scratching feverishly at something, “is a bit rabid for my liking.”

“I don’t know,” said John, tapping on the wire near a particularly docile rat. It was plump, seated and staring off into space. “This one looks about ready to depart from life.” It did not bother to flinch as John proceeded to rap beside it. The creature’s beady eyes gazed up at the soft lamplight beyond its bars, considering the world it had never noticed before and reflecting on its captivity.

Nikola refused to come any closer being generally repulsed by rats and all other creatures of the gutter. He did, however, notice the gentle tickle of hairs lifting from the back of his hand, standing erect. Static electricity he mused, though he could not determine its source.

Suddenly there was a snap and coruscation near the edge of the wire where Helen and James were leaning in close. They both jumped back, as did the rat which had grazed the wire with its claws and caused a serious spark of electricity to erupt.

The rat was as shocked as the humans. The action itself had not hurt but it had certainly been frightened by the loud crack.

This time, Nikola rudely parted his way through the others and folded his lofty figure over to bring his eye in line with the rat. It was not fat as John had assumed, but rather ruffled. All of its wiry hairs were sticking out making it appear like a pompom with teeth and a tail.

Do it again…” he goaded the rat, which to everybody’s surprise seemed drawn to Nikola’s keen eyes.

Slowly, its paws hopped closer – stopping all the time to sniff the air and shake its whiskers.

“What are you doing, Nikola?” asked Helen, bending down beside him.

“An experiment of my own,” he replied. “Here we go…”

Again, the rat touched the wire mesh producing a violent spark of electricity. This time it squeaked angrily, and retreated back beside the two dead rats where it set about cleaning itself.

“Well,” observed James, “it certainly wasn’t doing that before…”

“Incredible…” said Helen. “The source blood must have – I don’t even know how, allowed it to – Nikola, could you help?”

“I am not a naturalist,” he said frankly. “Though I can only presume that it is drawing on the natural potential difference between the ground and air and converting that into static potential energy.”

“But what Helen asked was how,” John grinned menacingly.

“Perhaps you would be so kind as to take a stab yourself … or is your position in this group merely ornamental?”

“Not to interrupt,” said Nigel, “but that rabid one of yours James, is getting rather close to – oh!”

They all watched on in horror as the rat in question flexed its claws, creeping up behind one of the ordinary rats and then, without warning or hesitation, leapt on top of it, sinking its teeth hungrily into its kin’s neck.

“That’s horrible!” Helen held a hand over her mouth as the rat drew blood, crushing its victim with powerful jaws and unusually sharp teeth. Its eyes were jet black orbs, enlarged as if someone had cut a planet in half and stuck them in place between the fur.

The victim rat expired. Its final kicks died silently while its plight went unnoticed by all but the blasé rat which backed away when the murderous gaze of the rabid one fell upon it.

“Christ,” said Nigel, “did you see that? Ferocious furry bastard. Sorry, Helen…” he apologised, for swearing in the presence of a lady.

“Amazing –” began James, but he was interrupted.

“Not my first choice of words,” John said, as the violent rat set its eyes on the electrically charged one.

“Well, if you would allow me to finish,” he turned away and roamed over to the experiment table as if in some kind of enlightened trance. “Amazing how it displayed characteristics reminiscent of rumoured vampirial behaviour. We can only assume that there is some truth in the myths and that, more importantly, this is indeed a pure sample of vampire blood.”

“Two results,” said Helen, “two deaths, one uncertain and three nil results, then.”

“No…” James pointed at one of the previously unnoticed rats. “Not uncertain. I don’t know what it is but this specimen has changed.”

“So what do you think?” Helen joined Watson at the table. She laid a hand on the satchel of equipment, stroking the leather suggestively.

“I’m in…” James could hardly contain his grin.

“In what?” Nikola shifted his gaze between the pair, trying to make them out as they began to pace around the table.

“Helen, you cannot be serious,” John came up behind her, reaching for her hand. “See sense.”

“My decision, whatever it may be,” shot Helen coldly, “does not require your consort.” Her interest returned to James, “The possibilities are wondrous.”

“Excuse me,” Nikola began to pace from person to person, “what are we discussing?”

“Helen has a point,” admitted Nigel. “What we have just discovered, it is an opportunity that may well pass us by in a hurry. With the Cabal due on your doorstep,” he turned to Helen, “we are not guaranteed possession of this sample indefinitely.”

“I do not want to spend my whole life wondering…” James carefully picked up the vial of source blood, holding it to one of the hanging lanterns. A thing this beautiful had to be dangerous but there was more to its silken liquid than horror, he was sure of it.

John’s temper rose. “This might be your whole life,” he pleaded with her, “if we get this wrong. It would be unwise to make our judgement in haste.”

“Judgement on what?” Nikola slammed his fist down on the table, causing the vase with the rose to shudder and fall, crashing to its demise in a storm of petals.

13

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Three of the petals skimmed off the edge of the table, caught in a swirling current of air and then, after several graceful tumbles, they were laid to rest on the dusty floorboards.

Helen and James’s shoulder’s brushed. They stood united in feverish curiosity. The source blood had ensnared them with promises. It was a trap carefully laid with delicate snares that shuddered every time their eyes wandered in its direction.

James tilted the vial. He watched as the blood moved in luscious currents. Inside he saw a shimmering universe of stars, hidden places and secrets yet missed the darkness which crept out of sight.

While James’s motivations may have run to his physical advancement, Helen sought only knowledge. She wanted to know how far the human blueprint could be pushed – where the boundary between us and the beasts lay – why she was different and if, as her father had hinted, this blood posed a cure for her condition.

“They are going to experiment on themselves,” said John, pulling away from Helen. He was deeply disappointed in her lack of self restraint. Maybe he was foolish, but he had believed her to be different from the others.

Nikola’s face faded even further to a shade approaching pearl.

“That’s right, isn’t it?” John directed his accusation at Nigel, who looked away and muttered something that sounded like, ‘yes’.

John waited for Nikola to break into objection – dissolve into one of his fits of logic declaring Helen and James to be insane. Instead, Nikola clasped his hands behind him, catching his damp cloak so that its violet silken lining quivered elusively in the candle-light.

“Why?” Nikola asked calmly, as if inquiring on the nature of two chemicals reacting.

“What kind of a question is that?” snapped John fiercely.

“A valid one,” replied Nikola in a sudden sharpness, “which was not directed to you.”

“If we go around calling ourselves ‘The Five’, pretending to be a unified group, secret society or whatever it is we’re calling ourselves this time, then the question was directed at the room.” John raised his finger accusingly in Nikola’s direction. “The proposal is preposterous! Inject ourselves with something rumoured to be the most dangerous substance on earth – after watching several of the test subjects die and another turn murderous? No – it should not be done. We make fools out of ourselves, not scientists. The sacrifice,” he looked especially at Helen, desperately seeking for the woman he remembered from the park in her cold blue eyes, “is too great.”

“Everyone makes sacrifices for their profession,” said Nikola simply, sensing that Helen had begun to sway to John’s passionate words. When it came down to it, that was all the man was – one of words. John had never had any scientific credit in the group. He was always the organiser, liaison or walking map to the various towns he had travelled through. His contacts had been useful but now he was beginning to see the other side of science and its practitioners – the side that stood on the cusp of white cliffs, pondering the fall.

“Your coat is a beautiful weave,” Nikola observed. “Tell me, do you often think of those who cowered in the half-light, spinning its cotton into delicate patterns before giving out their breath?”

“To know…” said Helen simply, in reply to Nikola’s question. Her answer was elegant but true – the answer that she should have given him the first time he had asked her about her work.

“And you – Nigel?” Nikola was not surprised when he reluctantly agreed with Helen. Nigel always sided with the majority, like a swing voter trying to not to get swept away by a rip tide. “Then we are in agreement?”

Four of them nodded but the fifth shook his head angrily. “Certainly we are not!” shouted John.

“You want to know about Flash,” said James, highly amused by the way Nikola had been courted by the biological sciences. ‘Flash’ was the name he had decided to give to the electrically charted rat. “Morality is not a question you care to consider, then. You prefer old fashion intrigue.”

“Begging your pardon, but my morality is in a better stead than yours at the present.”

James frowned. Nikola couldn’t possibly know about… James’s eyes searched Nikola’s but he would have had more luck with a lump of coal. No-one had seen him leave those nights, escaping over the university lawn in the soft moonlight except perhaps for Nikola, whose window faced the gates and – and James had to admit that it was possible.

“And yes,” Nikola finished, “naturally the behaviour of the rats intrigues me. I consider it my duty to discover the unknown,” smiled Tesla, “and I suspect that Helen would proceed with this experiment whether we were present or not, gentlemen.” He was right, she would have. “Which leaves us little choice.”

*~*~*

“The rats?” Nigel asked, as he unwrapped his medical bag once again and prepped the equipment.

“No change,” replied James, who had isolated the vampire rat and was now watching it tear at the bars. It was a feisty thing. The others were disturbed by its constant, high-pitched squealing and gnashing of its teeth over every surface.

“Not here…” said Helen suddenly, stopping Nigel. “Hidden away like this, it is not a fitting setting for what we are about to undertake.”

“She doesn’t want to die in a cellar,” winked Nigel. “Not classy enough for the lady. Where then?”

They settled on the lounge room. James arranged the chairs, Helen lit the lamps, Nigel prepared the equipment, Nikola drew all the heavy drapes shut against the night and checked the locks on the windows while John made a nuisance of himself, sulking in one of the lounges.

Helen strode through the room. Her ornate dress dragged behind her, shifting the dust while her golden hair trailed down her back in soft ringlets, some of which had been messily pulled out of the way. All of them watched as she took her place on the chair. Her breath quickened, rising and falling with her chest as hear heart thrust her own blood faster.

She heard the scratch of material on the chair’s back as John knelt beside her. He had not said a word to her since the decision, instead choosing to bow his head so that his face hid beneath several stray strands of hair.

“What are you doing?” inquired Nigel, as Nikola paced over and relieved him of the needle.

“Forgive me,” he said, “but if anyone’s going to be injecting this into Helen, it is to be me.”

“But…”

“We can’t very well let John do it as he would likely waste the blood to vex us,” Nikola was satisfied when John’s head snapped up in scorn. “There’s a strong possibility that James would splay Helen’s arm for entertainment and you, I apologise for saying, have a heavy hand. No – I shall do this and that is the end of it.”

By the light, Nikola drew the heavy needle from the vial, twisting it slowly in his fingers. It brimmed with blood. A spare droplet formed on the needle’s sharp, metallic tip, fattening until gravity tugged it free. He turned slowly with the needle held aloft. The room had grown silent. As he moved slowly toward Helen, the sound of his shoes over the floor seemed to pound in their ears. Nigel shifted behind her chair, hawking the experiment eagerly.

She was frightened.

And fury shall become us,” said James, “knowledge, burn us and the world scorn us for the truth.” He moved respectively out of Nikola’s way as if he were carrying a newborn rather than a syringe.

“It’s ready,” said Nikola, coming to rest beside her. She stopped her breath entirely, desperate to appear calm. The colour in her face betrayed her to the others.

“You don’t have to go first,” Nigel offered. It was, after all, strange to let the woman place herself in danger ahead of the men, of which there was a considerable number present. “John or I could have a go to start…”

John lifted his eyes disapprovingly as he was yet to decide upon his own fate. Still, he would allow himself to go first if it would save Helen.

“He’s right,” said James, “no need for unnecessary heroics. The side effects are completely unknown.” In humans, at least.

“Thank you gentlemen,” she finally took a breath. Her voice remained steady as she spoke, “But this experiment was of my design. I should be the one to prove its worth.”

“Helen,” John took her hand urgently. “You are certain?”

“We’ve risked too much to turn back now. We need to know. You may precede, Nikola.” She looked down and took another breath as Nikola ran his finger over her arm, nudging her sleeve out of the way. The pit of her arm trembled as the needle poised above her naked skin and his thumb slipped into position, resting on the plunger.

She could feel his heartbeat through their touching skin. It was raging, tumbling blood around his limbs but apparently not into the hand that refused to move. Nikola’s eyes flicked up. They were large and clear, giving her this final, silent chance to withdraw. He waited but she held her gaze fiercely.

Nikola slowly lowered his eyes to her arm and, with a hesitation of his own, brought the needle to her skin.

Nikola did not wait. Immediately he pushed it through her skin and began to expel the blood. Helen flinched. It was freezing – like icewater flowing into her – seeping through her veins as Nikola’s thumb pushed down determinatively on the plunger. As soon as he was done, her body shook. A sharp pain pulled her arm muscles tight and she heaved in shock, reaching blindly for Nikola and John’s hands. They both held onto her as the muscle contractions worsened and she fought to keep the pain at bay.

Nigel shifted, unclasping his hands and circling round the chair and over to his bag where he hunted through it. James did not move, instead he committed every detail of her reaction to memory. Nikola hastened a glance at John, both were lost for action as the pain turned to agony too extreme for Helen to bear.

“We’ve got to make it stop,” said John, as Nikola threw the needle to the ground and placed his other hand behind Helen’s back, forcing her forwards. “What are you doing?”

“She cannot breathe,” he replied. “Help me…” his elegant fingers had begun unlacing the back of her corset. John tried to protest but Nikola raised his voice angrily, “She’s dying, Druitt!”

“Here,” James pushed through them and set about undoing the thousands of layers of ribbon with more skill than the others would give him credit for. He muttered halfway through about the absurdity of female attire until the bodice loosened and Helen gasped. “She looks better,” he said, when Helen’s breathing settled.

“Are you all right?” John lifted a hand to her face. She nodded.

“The pain is stopping,” she said. “Ah –” she closed her eyes, trying to concentrate on what she was feeling, “slight tingling in my arm and it was cold, very cold…”

“Metallic,” whispered Nigel. “Look at the way it glistens in the light.” He pushed the vial of blood aside next to the smelling salts which he had unnecessarily excavated.

“I am fine,” she let go of both men by her side. “It was just a shock. Well…” she flicked her hair back over her shoulder. “Who’s next?”

Nikola’s head fell into his hands as he collapsed to the ground beside the chair in relief. “A moment, please,” he begged her, as he leant against the chair.

“I shall go next,” James volunteered himself. “If you please, Nikola…” he pestered the man on the ground.

The others followed in quick succession, with John falling last – still muttering his disapproval as the needle sank through his skin. Their reactions were all the same – nothing. Aside from the initial prick, the four men had no supplementary side-effects to the injection. Much like the rats, they stood dumbly, inspecting their arms for irritation but found nothing except a small hole.

“That’s it then,” said James. “Whatever is done is done.”

“Now we must wait,” said Helen quietly. She still felt uneasy – ill even.

“We will stay with you tonight,” said John, and the others quickly agreed – as much for their own sakes as for her. Nobody wanted to be alone, for fear of what they had done and what they might become.

14

THE INVISIBLE MAN

“Urgh…” Nigel stumbled, dropping the books tucked under his arm as a sharp pain stabbed through his gut. It lasted for several minutes, pounding in ever-increasing waves. “Damn…” he whispered, kneeling down for his books once it had passed. Briefly, he wondered if it had been his ill-looking lunch but soon the dread sunk in and he realised the horrifying truth.

“Oh, it’s you – not a very polite entrance,” James commented, returning to his book as Nigel took his seat in one of the abandoned chairs. The screech of its wood over the floorboards was still busy reverberating off the tightly packed bookshelves when Nigel swallowed and rubbed his forehead.

“There’s something wrong with me,” said Nigel hurriedly, as his stomach turned again. “Are you listening to me?” he added, when James continued pacing disinterestedly, stopping only to pull another book free.

“I heard you,” he replied serenely, “I am only surprised by the length of time it took for you to reach this conclusion.”

“This is no time for jokes,” Nigel leapt up and snatched ‘Rights of Man’ from him. “I think I’m in serious trouble,” he added solemnly, “and I don’t know what to do.”

*~*~*

“They’ve been no more fatalities,” whispered Helen under her breath to her neighbour, as the lecturer scratched various instructions on the board for them to copy. James, who had never sat in the second row before, shifted uncomfortably. “However…”

“‘However’ is not good,” he replied, knocking his quill from the inkpot. “Great god…” he grabbed for it and then promptly shifted out of the way of the ensuing ink trail. “Would you mind moving up a little?”

The lecturer cleared his throat, scratching the chalk harder on the board as the students re-arranged themselves noisily.

“You’ve got it everywhere,” scorned Helen, as she inspected the black stains on her fingers.

“There are reasons why I sit alone,” he admitted. “The rats though, they are all still alive?”

“Yes,” she nodded, and then paused. “Except for the one that’s missing. Its health you’ll have to guess on.”

James mouthed, ‘escaped’ as Helen went on to explain that one of the rats had levered open the bars with a spare scrap of wood allowing a mass exodus. She had rounded them up by hand with John’s help but one of them could not be found.

“That’s not encouraging, on both accounts.”

“It scratched the floor of its cage up for the wood. I may not claim a great deal of knowledge on vermin behaviour, but it does seem out of the ordinary.”

James’s face twisted into discontent. He leant against the sloped desk, propping up his head with one arm. “And the macabre one?”

“Isolated,” she rolled her eyes and made a brief effort to copy the board’s notes. “Though it hasn’t touched its food. Why all these questions? You’re usually difficult to coax into speech.”

“Nigel…” he lowered his voice, doing his best to evade the pair eavesdropping from behind. “He didn’t feel well so I had a friend of mine examine him and they found a small lump growing in the left of his stomach.”

This time the lecturer did not attempt subtly. In an elegant sequence, he snapped his chalk in two and threw both pieces at James and Helen. The first they knew of this was the sharp impacts and white marks left on their foreheads.

“If you’re not going to listen,” he said to them, “at least keep yourselves to a hush.”

*~*~*

“Don’t move…” Nikola instructed.

Against her usually rebellious tendency, Helen froze at the top of the ladder. Nikola rarely joked and she had cause to fear his experiments. This particular contraption had all the marks of sinister device with its wiry limbs trailing onto the floor beside him and one particularly thick wire stretched between two structures like a bridge.

“Watching?” he asked her, without turning around or stopping his fiddling. Her silence was taken in the affirmative. “There’s a switch on the floor beside you, would you be so kind?”

Helen, still perched on the ladder, reached forward to the switch and flicked it. A snap of light gave way to an explosion of sparks. Nikola’s hands were caught on a live circuit which pushed raw current into him at such a rate that he couldn’t feel the pain. He jolted, shook and then fell backwards when Helen finally turned the switch off.

The blackened skeleton of the experiment smoked innocently as Nikola rolled over with a groan.

“I – never – said,” Nikola gasped between waves of muscle spasms, “to turn – it – on… argh!” he held his hands up for inspection. They were intact but lightly burnt around the tips.

“You need to be more specific!” Helen climbed into the attic. She swept the cords away from him as he sat up. The usually immaculate man was in quite a state with his mop of dark hair stuck out in a dark halo, black smudges of carbon highlighting his strong features making his eyes more clear than she recalled and he had acquired a slightly burnt smell to his person. “A right state…” she said, trying to clean him up. He merely removed a pristine handkerchief from his pocket and saw to it himself.

“That was a little too exciting for my liking,” he said, shaking off the incident. “Twenty kilo-amperes and I lived, that must be a record of some form.”

Helen shook her head in disbelief. Near death incidents seemed to be a frequent occurrence when in his presence. “I’ve come about Nigel,” she started, helping him to his feet.

He seemed surprised. “Oh,” he let go of her, “I presumed it was about that other matter. I have not forgotten your promised explanation, you see.” Indeed, Nikola did not forget anything that passed through Helen’s lips whether he desired to or not.

The roof, her fall – the thunderstorm. Yes, she did owe him an explanation. “It will have to wait,” she said, slinking over to the window which was still without its glass. “You really must see to this,” she added quietly, before giving the details of Nigel’s condition.

“No…” Helen caught him, before Nikola could speak again, “he’s not imagining it. I am aware of his tendency to accentuate his many varied medical conditions, but James had him inspected and there is a definite growth.”

“Nearly overnight…” Nikola said, slipping into deep thought. “There are creatures,” he started after a period of pacing from end to end of the room, “that have extra organs. A correspondent of mine has a certain interest in natural science. She has sent me several detailed drawings of –”

She?” Helen raised an eyebrow curiously.

Nikola ignored her. “We know that these vampires or whatever you wish to call them, possessed abilities beyond our human grasp. It is natural then, that their internal structure may differ from our own.”

Helen turned her head and eyed Nikola keenly. A spark of truth flashed over her and she pointed in his direction, “You’re good…” she said, “exceptionally so.” Then she rushed past him, disturbing a cloud of black dust at his feet as she vanished into the manhole as quickly as she had come.

Nikola inspected himself, horrified at the filth accumulated around him. He had always been a clean person but today he found the concept of dirt intolerable to the point of absurdity. This morning the feeling had been so strong that he had made his bed three times and spent an hour washing.

*~*~*

“I’m evolving?” Nigel had been sat down in a remote corner of the library. Helen and James lurked off to the side, stealing looks at each other as their captive fought another wave of pain. “Am I dying?”

“It is impossible to tell,” said James. “There is no precedent for one species changing into another.”

He thought on this for a while, mentally cursing his situation. Helen interrupted, stopping at first to re-order her words.

“There’s another –” her voice trailed off, “explanation…”

“Which is?” Nigel prompted, ignoring the beads of sweat forming on his hair line. “Dammit woman, tell me what it is!”

“Uncontrolled mutation,” she shot back. “Cancer.”

“I’m afraid our only choice is to wait,” said James, “wait and see.”

Nigel threw his head back in despair and then said, “I want to look at the rats.”

*~*~*

After half an hour of intimate staring, James Watson was convinced that the intelligent rat was trying to communicate with him. The scruffy ball had run repeatedly back and forward inside the cage, pausing on each pass at the ominous lock holding the cage shut.

Next, it took its sharp claws and began to scratch and rustle about in the right hand corner of the cage. It became quite obsessed with this activity, repositioning itself, squeezed tightly against the wall. Finally James heard it – the quiet click of something as the rat dug.

James bent down, scanning under the edge of the cage door. There, at the underside of the corner was a brass pin holding the door in place. The rat scratched again and James watched as its claws brushed over the pin, knocking against it.

“Clever boy…” he whispered to it, placing his nose to the wire-fronted cage. The rat scampered over to him, staring back with huge black eyes. “But I’m afraid that I cannot help you. She…” he nodded over his shoulder in Helen’s direction, “would lock me up beside you if I tried.”

“James,” Helen had been watching him for some time now, out of the corner of her eye, “please – people will talk…”

He departed the cage with a wink and roamed back over to the experiment table which was now lit brightly by a huddle of candles around its far edge. Two of them were large and old, congealed with layers of dirty wax. Their wicks were rough, trimmed low to the wax and their flames danced wildly with the slightest passing of air.

“Research, gentlemen,” Helen unfolded a series of private correspondence and laid the envelopes on the table. “Courtesy of Nikola.”

They were elegant sketches. Drawings of creatures, layer for layer through their workings right down to the cleaned bones.

“There are pages missing,” noted James, sorting through the elegant numbers at the corners of each page.

“This is all he gave me,” Helen said. “I believe that these might help us understand your condition, Nigel.”

“Fine hand, decorative curves on the tails and ever so slight pauses between sentences. A female – I would go so far as to say that the author is a lady.”

“It is not a mystery to be solved, James,” she warned. “Would you be so kind as to put your observational skills to the matter at hand?”

Nigel leant over the papers as if to inspect them, but diverted at the last moment to blow sharply on the mountain of candles, expiring several of them. “Bright…” he said simply, and then took several of the letters away to study. “I think that I shall write my family, just in case.”

“Have – you thought about a will?” James put carefully. Helen made a scornful sound beneath her breath, but Nigel was not offended – indeed, he was smiling more brilliantly than she had seen in weeks.

“Yes, James,” he grinned, “you can have the books but you’ll have all of hell to answer, namely my brother, if you try and strut off with the shelves that match.”

*~*~*

The pair of gentlemen left late that night. She lingered in the door, watching Nigel brave the softly lit street and James hail a coach from the corner beneath a streetlight. The seasons were changing, and the cold of the evenings was beginning to show a glint of tooth.

Exhausted, she fell into a deep sleep with the curtains drawn and her bedroom door locked. The windows rattled all through the night, jarring against the inconstant gusts of wind ripping the last Autumn leaves free.

They came for it that night. When she woke in the morning, the doors had been undone and the steps to the basement tainted with muddy footprints. She was not surprised to find the heavy wooden door kicked in, the lanterns overturned and the source blood absent.

The rats assembled themselves in a line along the cage, keenly observing as Helen stepped around the broken lamps and headed for the chest of drawers at the far end. There, she searched feverishly for Nikola’s letters but they were gone.

*~*~*

Nigel woke up screaming. The dormitory was dark – well before the approach of dawn into the window that Helen had cleared. James stirred in the bed opposite. He fumbled into action as the screaming subsided, fetching a match and striking it to the wick of the lantern on the floor beside his bed. He picked it up and blinked back sleep with bleary eyes.

“Nigel?” he asked worriedly, as shapes began to form in the soft light. Nigel’s bed was empty. Its sheets and pillows were piled oddly in a mound and as he inspected the rest of the room, he found that nobody was there.

Figuring it to be a reverie, James roused on himself and went to blow the flame out when Nigel’s voice spoke.

“Sorry to have woken you – bad dream, ‘been having them since that night.”

James sat up straight and took a second, closer look at the Nigel’s empty bed. After a few quiet minutes, he whispered to the room, “Nigel?”

“No…” came the sharp, half mocking reply at once. “Karl Marx – of course it’s me.”

“Where?”

“Where what?” replied Nigel, shrugging at the confused James.

Some truth dawned on James as he saw the sheets of Nigel’s bed stir, apparently of their own accord. “How are you feeling?” he inquired delicately, of the empty room.

“Much improved,” Nigel had not felt pain since he had gone to sleep that night.

James’s eyebrows furrowed. “Interesting…” he mused.

“How so?”

James tilted the wood-framed side mirror in Nigel’s direction. “You seem to be lacking a reflection…” he said quietly, as Nigel shrieked again.

15

DAMPIER’S NOTES

James tightened the cord of his dressing gown and then lit all the lamps in the dormitory. Next, he strode up to Nigel’s bed and prodded the air approximately where his friend should be. The ‘thin air’ yelped and then scowled loudly, lashing out with stubby fingers until James stepped back, hands raised, and apologised.

“Just checking…” James excused himself, retreating from Nigel’s grasp. “I-” he tried to speak but eventually settled on, “I am speechless.” He wasn’t quite sure what else he was to think. His friend’s skin had taken on the patterns of its surrounding, constantly shifting to match either the bed sheets or the paint-stripped wall behind. About the only thing remaining to prove Nigel’s existence was the shadow stretching out over the floor.

Nigel was taking the progression of his condition poorly. He had James’s mirror clasped tightly in his hands and persisted in moving it about, analysing himself from every angle. No matter how many ways he tried to see himself, Nigel had to admit that he simply wasn’t there.

“This is terrible!” he declared, tossing the mirror across the room where it hit the floor and shattered. Nigel looked expectantly at James but quickly realised that he would have to speak if he wanted attention.

“What do you expect me to do about this?” James replied, tucking his hands into his dressing gown pockets. “It is the middle of the night – sleep on it, and we will think of something in the morning.”

“You aren’t serious,” Nigel tucked the sheets around his legs. It had become cold of a night now – bitterly so. “I can’t just forget about it and go back to sleep!” he protested. “I’m in-god-damn-visible!”

“Then you best get used to it,” snapped James sharply.

Nigel’s resemblance to the background was not perfect. Whenever he moved it took a fraction of a second for his skin to catch up to the change which meant that when moving the wall seemed to lag. However, when perfectly still as he was now, you could not pick him even when you knew where to look.

“We wait ‘till morning,” James insisted, folding himself back into bed. “Then I will provide you with all the assistance you require. I swear it; you shall have my undivided attention.”

*~*~*

It was an exceptionally long, awkward silence. None of them were sure what to say or do and it seemed that James’s idea of ‘help’ was simply to deliver Nigel to Helen’s doorstep and absolve himself of the matter.

“He looks fine,” said Helen, finally. It was true – Nigel sat in the oversized armchair with both hands clinging onto the leather arms like grim death. His clothes were oddly pulled about him as if he had dressed in a hurry and he was a bit pale – Helen would admit to that.

“Well it’s stopped now, ‘asn’t it…” Nigel scolded. He knew that he should be pleased with the sight of his skin but he knew that this present state would not last.

“It’s true,” confirmed James, standing by the fireplace. There were a few hot coals left glowing from the previous night. “I swear, when we set out this morning he was a walking suit – nothing more.”

“She doesn’t believe us,” said Nigel, reclining into the chair. “I told you this would happen. We should have come when it first started.”

*~*~*

John was alarmed by the sudden turn of his head as a hurrying passerby caught the edge of his shoulder. He scowled at once, looking for an apology which he realised would never come as the short man hurried off down the morning street, weaving between the high-hats.

He was about to turn and continue on to his lodgings when he felt his breast pocket and found it light. The miscreant, whomever he was, had taken his purse and papers. With no choice, John dodged two old gentlemen calmly and then launched into a pursuit of the creature he could just catch sight of in the distance.

It was a noble pursuit – spanning many Oxford blocks. At times John felt that he was within arm’s reach of the man and could make out the flurry of heat to his cheeks, perspiration sticking his hair to the broad forehead and the darkening collar of his coat. The hat had long ago departed him, lost somewhere in the street behind as the pair took a turn around the busy corner and found themselves directly in front of the university gates.

“Stop!” John cried out, as the assailant pushed through the iron gates (which were as yet unopened) and dashed along the path leading to the main doors. John could not understand the man’s sense, for surely the university was a trap for any thief to enter.

In the straight, the man was quick and reached the door with extra time to breathe. The heavy wooden things, ornately carved and difficult to open had just begun to close when John slammed his hand firmly into them and heaved them open once again.

To his great distress, the foyer was empty. Without students pattering through it, the room felt harsh and cold with little love shared by the swirls of marble. He had all but lost hope of pursuit when a distant slamming door set him back on the trail. The thief had run up the main staircase and along the passage to the old section of the library – which was also shut up at this early hour. The doors had been forced and were easily re-opened. Once inside John’s eyes trailed across the intricate networks of shelves that were lit only by the morning sun coming through the windows. This effect cast long shadows through the room where one could easily sneak.

He spent the next two hours – until the librarian shrieked in horror at the damage, trying to find the thief but there was no trace of him unless he had made himself into a book.

*~*~*

A great plane of sand stretched out in front of him. It was neither brown nor red but some shade that couldn’t settle in the morning light. His body was freezing. The cold twisted into his limbs and turned his sinews rigid. It wasn’t until he felt the rising sun behind him that he felt his joints shift and his legs able propel up over the ridge and down the other side of the dune.

There was a line of shadows following him. As they drew closer – gaining on him, he realised that they were caused by a struggling group of woman and children. Their exhaustion had wrenched their faces into soulless masks which traipsing endlessly toward the horizon though it always seemed to stretch out of reach.

They were running from their past. An entire civilisation had taken foot and fled and he was among them – leading them. A great sorrow washed over him. The only thing that awaited them was a slow, drawn out death which he moved them ever forward toward.

Nikola gasped – awaking in a fit of tears and despair. He had been there – marching across some wasteland with a child clinging to his shoulder.

“God…” he whispered, catching sight of the first weak beams of morning light through the open window. His breath swirled up through the air, condensing in the cold. It had been more than a dream – it was as if he had actually been standing in the desert, conscious that he would die soon. That desperate sense of hopeless determination took a while to shift as he gathered up the blankets and buried himself, trying to return to sleep

Eventually he gave in. Dressing quickly, he washed his hands again and again before making to the library where he sneaked a few books under his arm.

The librarian, old lady that she was, watched him suspiciously – craning her neck every now and then in his direction. Nikola fitted himself into the rock-lined window sill which looked out across the oval and onto the main gates. The grass was starting to die off and its brown threads had a pink lustre about them in the early light. Two pigeons picked over the expanse, fluttering at each other in jealous love.

He had a heavy book in his lap. Toward the end of it, he found a passage on the great ancient land of the early rulers. His finger slipped along the map from the old city of Cairo west, toward Minqar Abd an Nabi. Where expired rivers baked to dust, the old map showed nothing but unnamed desert – poorly drawn. Still, he could not shake the feeling that he had been there, touched its sand and watched the sun rise over its horrid scene.

To ne može biti…” he whispered. ‘It cannot be!’

*~*~*

“What of this other complaint,” offered Helen, unsure of how to proceed with no symptoms apparent, “is it possible to examine you again?

Nigel was reluctant at first, but did not desire to be turned away. As much as he despised the fact, he suspected Helen to be the better medic of them all. Her father’s blood was strong in her veins and sometimes even, he could see a bit of him in her eyes. His own father, Professor Samuel Griffin, had been a great friend to the elder Magnus. They shared a friendship whilst on the Oxford board but Griffin, like all Griffins throughout their generations, were wise with money and reluctant to watch it drain into endless pits. Nigel did not know of Helen’s knowledge on the matter but it had been Professor Griffin who first suggested that Magnus’s funds be cut in favour of the more lucrative organisation – the Cabal.

They laid him out on the table in the lab – a thing which disturbed Nigel greatly given the morbidity of the object. It was cold and hard beneath his bare back and brought alive all the hairs of his skin so that they stuck up against the air. Helen did not seem to take much note of him as she approached with her hands covered by a pair of cotton gloves. In so many ways, she looked like a magician about to conjure secrets from the world before their eyes.

“Lay still,” she cautioned, as she pressed down on his chest, feeling his ribs one by one before moving to his stomach. Soon he noticed that she was counting, carefully inventorying his innards in a manner that would have disturbed him had he not expressly allowed this.

Then she paused, feeling again and again the same area of his side. As she prodded, he felt a sharp pain.

“Intriguing,” she said curiously, digging further into his side creating great, stabbing, violent pains that racked the centre of his body.

“Careful – Helen,” James lifted a hand towards her arm, but she avoided him easily muttering, ‘Yes, yes, James – don’t fuss around me.’

Then she did something that surprised the others. Without explanation, Helen ducked out of the room and hurried through her father’s office and into the main hallway where she quickly began the ascent of the stairs toward the attic. Since its uncovering, she had not bothered to lock it. It had become another dead secret between her and her father which no longer required breath or keys.

Once inside the dark room, and after lighting a single lantern, she fetched a single precious letter from beneath a heavy book. It was the sole survivor of Nikola’s collection. On it was an impressive piece of ink-work. Stretching to the very edges of the page, which were of the thinnest paper, was detail of a sea creature. The hand that had written details along the margins was not the same as the one whom had written Nikola the letters. This was a piece from a coveted collection – which is why Helen chose to protect it.

A small life-like sketch in the bottom corner represented the octopus in its pre-autopsy glory with the ever-so-slightest humour in its eyes and twist of its tentacles which curled into a border. Beside it was the signature, W. Dampier.

She returned to Nigel who had now straightened and begun engaging in harsh words with his companion. Helen interrupted them, presenting the document.

“It is as I suspected,” she said, thoroughly pleased with herself. She drew them to a detail of the creature’s skin which under extreme magnification showed sacks of something which the detailed key explained were responsible for the animal’s camouflage. She directed them further to an addendum which wrote, ‘other examples of this cause are the contractions of specific muscles which can alter the pigment of the skin’.

Without warning, Helen sharply stuck her hand into Nigel’s stomach. He winced, contorting his face in sudden pain – though the others couldn’t see it. With a wicked grin upon her lips, Helen surveyed the bodiless suit which writhed about on her table.

“Do you require a repetition, or are we convinced of the lump’s purpose?”

“Quite convinced,” hissed the air where Nigel sat.

“Indeed, indeed…” repeated James, finding a new sense of respect for the woman.

“And they have taken the rest of the letters?” Nigel asked, as the pain grew less and his skin gradually found its form, first in waning patches but eventually settling into a solid covering.

“Everything, I am afraid,” she lied. Helen had saved the smallest of samples – a single vial, once fluid ounce; practically nothing…

“Am I dying?” asked Nigel. He replaced his white shirt and began latching it closed. Helen shook her head kindly. He didn’t think that he would ever see compassion drip from her in his direction but in this case it overflowed and spilled into the corners of her eyes.

“No,” she said firmly. “You are very much alive.”

16

HAUNTING IMMORTALS

“What is it, exactly, that you are doing?” Nikola finally looked up from his leather-bound book. John was on his stomach, attempting to see under a set of shelves pushed flush against the back wall.

John withdrew his hands from under the shelf and propped his sizable figure onto his knees. “Nothing,” he replied evasively, clawing his way up the shelf to stand. A large cloud of dust flew off him, wafting into the air where several beams of light cut through them. “Shouldn’t you be up in your attic, playing with the birds?”

Nikola was prepared to ignore the insult. It was John’s usual custom to construct as many of them as possible until one stuck and this morning he would have to do better if he wanted a reaction.

“It is not like you to wander from your domain…” John continued, wiping his hands on his trench-coat.

Nikola inspected his unwanted company with disgust and then said, “I don’t have a ‘domain’.” He turned the page of the fragile Atlas calmly, “You make me out as some kind of bat kept to its cave.”

“Ah but Nikola,” John grinned, “you cannot fly away.”

“True, but I am uncommonly good at sprinting from harm. Give me walls and I shall scale them, have no fear. Good morning,” his tone changed as his eyes flicked away from John and travelled over to the clutter of desks beginning to fill with nervous students. Amongst them, Helen Magnus weaved her way through until she arrived at Nikola and John.

“I hoped to find you here,” she said to the both of them without preference. “I have news that you must hear at once – but not here…” she added quickly. “Nigel has inadvertently made a discovery that I think shall intrigue you.”

Nikola had already closed his book and laid it on the stone windowsill with no intention of returning it to its proper place but John bowed his head and said, “I’m sorry, but you must excuse me. I have an urgent matter to attend to that cannot wait.” Without further explanation, he hastened past them and vanished out of the library, trailing a hand over the side of the doors as he went.

“Urgent matter?” asked Helen curiously, as Nikola slid off the sill.

“No good asking me,” he said. “John shares only what he thinks will injure me.”

“Perhaps it is best that we are alone,” she stepped to the side, hinting that they too, should leave the library. “As we have that other matter to discuss.”

*~*~*

Nikola did not appreciate the crispness of the morning until he found himself strolling through it with Helen by his side. Added to his usual attire was a warm white scarf that hung evenly over his buttoned coat, a set of black gloves and a tall hat which made him appear unnaturally lofty and ever so slightly elegant. He had not offered his arm, so instead Helen stayed close with her hands clutched in front of her.

The limbs of a beautiful oak bent in front of them, infringing on the path with red leaves. Some of them had fallen loose and scattered over the stone. Nikola ducked, reaching up to his hat as they navigated it.

“I have practised so many ways of telling you the following,” she started, “but in the end I decided that it would be best just to show you this-” Helen fetched an old letter from somewhere in the folds of her dress. She offered the sad looking envelope to Nikola until he took it from her.

Without any discernible change in his countenance, he removed the document from its casings, unfolded it carefully and read it through. He handed it back to her as they disturbed the pair of pigeons he had seen earlier – they were still playing in the dew laden grass, fetching each other gifts.

Although he did not say anything to her, Helen could tell that he believed every word that he had read.

“Your letters,” she offered, after it was clear he would not make a comment, “I am ashamed to say, have been stolen.”

This time Nikola stopped and dipped his head. Helen was not sure if it was anger or despair that ripped a sigh from his chest.

“I am sorry, Nikola,” Helen said earnestly. “They took everything, including the blood.”

For the first time since the night of the experiment, Nikola caught her in a fierce gaze. The curtains that hid others’ souls were absent from his steel eyes. Whenever they chose to look, they betrayed every flickering desire he had ever dreamed.

“It is of no great matter,” he replied, even though she saw a kind of torture wrack his heart. “I fear that there is worse awaiting us.”

Helen shivered with the turn of breeze.

“Our ages past are full of blood,” Nikola continued, “so much that the ground must be stained by it and rivers flow below the earth in gushing torrents of sorrow. Life approaches like an ocean stirring in the distance. Its crests mark our suffering and the next wave is arching up to meet us, I can feel its icy spray on our necks.”

She reached out for his hand but instead he took hold of her wrist and stepped closer.

“The answers are inside us now,” he held on to her tightly. “Their manifestations will either be salvation or destruction.”

“And me?” she asked, combating his imposition by lifting her free hand and laying it on his cheek.

“I can’t make you out,” Nikola leant slightly into her touch. There was warmth beneath the leather gloves and a gentle comfort.

Two sets of wings brush past them, grazing their clothes in a white blur as the pigeons scattered into the greying sky. The morning’s beauty had passed and now the clouds revealed their true, solemn shapes as they lapped at the city.

*~*~*

John waited patiently for his coach to wrestle through the traffic. The horses fidgeted at the long stops, pulling at their leather reins and shaking their heads as if in despair at the line of carriages in front of them. The street itself was soft from the past rains. Wheels venturing too near the gutters found themselves digging great grooves or veering violently.

It was well after ten when John was jerked forward. The coachman alighted and opened the door. A storm of discarded newspapers scraped past him, churning against the buildings in a filthy storm.

There was a crowd in front of the police station’s doors, with at least a dozen officers reaching over their colleagues to retrieve some form of handout. Once they obtained this document they retreated along the front wall, reading it intently with fingers brushing over their moustaches.

“Excuse me,” John said, merging into the seething crowd. He was taller than them and easily located the front desk. “I would like to report a theft,” he announced loudly. The chatter of the crowd was overbearing.

One of the crowd’s elbows accidentally stabbed into his back as they swelled, knocking John into the desk where he dislodged a tower of paper. The pages slid over each other as the fanned out over the bench in front of the disapproving secretary. John muttered an apology, quickly straightening the paper when their heading caught his attention. While the secretary processed his theft report, John plucked one of the pamphlets free and began to read.

Echo
London, U.K.
31 August 1888

HORRIBLE MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL.
WOMAN SHOCKINGLY MUTILATED.
HEAD NEARLY CUT OFF.

A tragedy, even more revolting in its details than that of George-yard, and surrounded apparently with circumstances fully as mysterious, has just occurred at Bucks-row, a low class neighbourhood, adjoining Whitechapel-road. Passing the Essex Wharf, in Bucks-row, at about 4.30 this morning, Constable Neale, 97J, found lying on the pavement there the dead body of a woman. On further examination her head was found to have been very nearly severed from her body. A horrible gash, fully an inch in width, extending from one side of the neck to the other, completely severing the windpipe. The lower portion of the abdomen also was completely ripped open, causing the bowels to protrude. The woman was at once conveyed to the mortuary, where she now lies. She is apparently about five and thirty years of age, with dark hair, of medium height, and with small features. Her clothing, which was examined by Inspector Helson, is scanty, consisting only of a threadbare cloak with a hood, a brown dress, and a petticoat, which bears the mark of Lambeth workhouse. The woman has not yet been identified.

It is thought that the woman was assailed by some man with whom she had been in company. Her front teeth had been knocked out, the woman probably having received a kick in the mouth from her assailant.

“Horrid, isn’t it?” said the secretary, handing him a form to sign. Momentarily stunned, John stared at the story.

“Yes,” he finally said, setting the paper back down with the others.

*~*~*

“When is your father coming home?” John asked Helen, later that day.

Helen was seated opposite him at the dining table, sorting through armfuls of notes while he quietly sipped a cold cup of tea.

“Lord knows, he doesn’t tell me,” she replied, as another pile of papers were deposited in the box on the floor – successfully sorted.

“It is not good for you to be alone,” he continued, finishing his tea. “A young woman, by herself – there must be some relative with whom you could stay?”

“John,” a grin crept in, “you wouldn’t be worrying over me, would you?” He was silent to her accusation. “The Cabal have been at my door for weeks, sometimes beyond it – what has brought about this sudden sentiment?”

“Nothing, only – well I read of a terrible thing that happened in London yesterday and it just made me think.” He didn’t know why, but Helen’s house never seemed safe to him. The windows were too high with easily broken glass, the doors were not set with heavy hinges and any man of reasonable fitness could manage to climb the outer wall to the unprotected windows above.

She set aside her work and reclined in the chair. “John…” she cautioned.

*~*~*

The dune fell away with every step, sucking in his feet and allowing them to be lost in the unbearable heat of the sand. In the distance he could hear the steady approach of drums.

Stop it!” he yelled, hitting the wall fiercely with his hand. Nikola forced his eyes to see the empty room around him rather than the shimmering expanse of desert sky that refused to shift from his sight. It was like another reality was trying to creep into his world and take over. He felt anger with every part of his body – overbearing hatred that wasn’t his, and thirst, the likes of which he had never known.

A hot trickle of blood rolled over his wrist. Its heat snapped Nikola back into the real world. He inspected where he had cut himself on a sharp protrusion of stone. The scarlet changed course as he turned his arm, spiralling around him. He tilted his head. Light refracted through its various layers giving it a jewel-like appearance. There was even a smell to it that he had never noted before – some kind of metallic underlay that infected the very rivers and towns of the modern world.

There was something else…

Nikola brought his wrist up to his mouth. He could feel his skin creep and a shudder through the edges of his fingertips – “No!” he jerked backwards, slamming against the floor.

*~*~*

Helen frowned wearily at her rat. It was laid out on the table of the basement, wheezing and twitching its whiskers with no real interest in life. Its features were skinny and sharp with numerous bones protruding from its fur which itself had become patchy. The murderous rat – which had hastily dispatched of its kinsman, was now barely able to draw breath.

She had provided it with a buffet of food but it refused to touch any of it. Fearing for its survival, she had even set it free but it would not leave her care. She sat with it through the afternoon and into the evening. Eventually it stirred and with great effort, crawled over to her hand, for she had fallen asleep on the table with it not far from her, and curled up against her skin then fell asleep. There they stayed, one asleep and the other, for eternity.

John opened the door quietly. The candle Helen had left burning was now a decorative mound of wax with a small flame. She was awkwardly sprawled between the chair and the table with her arm outstretched. Her face was obscured by a mass of golden hair but the gentle rise and fall of her figure told him that she was peacefully asleep.

He should have woken her, but he didn’t have the heart. Instead, he crept quietly to the table and gently quashed the candle.

*~*~*

“Does anyone else notice that we’re losing all the rats? I’m sorry to say it,” continued Nigel, during another uncontrolled fit of invisibility, “but that nagging fact does not bode well for us.”

“Well, so far – only you,” James pointed out.

Nigel shook his head, “Don’t tell me that you haven’t felt it – James…”

“I will admit,” said James after several struts around their dormitory. It was several days after the death of the last rat and Nigel’s invisibility had become more frequent and prolonged. His unexpected disappearances had frightened a maid, causing her to faint and to their great fortune, forget the reason. “That after the initial prick I had the strangest sensation. My mind was full to the point that I thought my scalp would give way to the pounding of my brain against it.”

“And then?” Nigel prompted.

“Then, something snapped. A floodgate opened and there was room for thought. Since then ideas which have been held stagnant for so long have evolved and spun themselves into tapestries ready to be written out.”

“You – are – so – full of it.”

“You asked…”

“It’s Helen I’m worried about,” Nigel changed the topic. “She seems – indifferent to the whole affair.”

“Are you certain?” James grasped a nearby quill and ran the feather through his fingers. “She suffered worse than all of us in the start.”

“Like a fever,” Nigel continued, “and fought it off.”

“A natural immunity to the blood. I wonder if she knows?”

“A woman always knows their body better than a man. I only question why she hasn’t told us yet.”

“Neither of us have been particularly kind to her. I often wish we’d started differently.”

James scratched the nib of the quill across the desk without ink. It left a single, slender mark from one end to the other. Nigel frowned at it, nudging closer for a better look. James made a second stroke, which crossed over the first in an elegant, two sided curve.

“Sanctuary,” James said, hinting at the design. “It was on the cover of the book I have just finished. I don’t know,” his voice seemed to linger slightly, “the thought appeals to me, of this place as a form of Sanctuary we can retreat to when the world fails to understand us. A house of knowledge.”

“Or a cramped, poor smelling dormitory,” Nigel corrected. “I think that you’ve been left alone with your books too long.”

“I find the need to guard them – you have heard, I suspect, of John’s theft. He lost a wallet and his travelling papers.”

“He’s not the only one to suffer a thief. I was down visiting my mother – she is regrettably ill at the present, and I turned to help her from the park bench when some shadow made off with my best knife from the medical kit – father will have me for that.”

“The age!” sighed James dramatically. “We shall have to bolt the doors and release the hounds…” He couldn’t help it if there was an eager glimmer in his eye.

“I think that it’s time we took you out,” said Nigel, hauling James from behind the desk.

17

SHERLOCK

London was bleak.

An unpleasant level of cold crunched his joints together in protest and forced James to retreat into the corner of the carriage where he enticed the little warmth that could be found between the worn leather and tattered curtain.

“See…” said Nigel enthusiastically, opening the window and sticking his head into the rush of air.

The coach made a sharp turn and in amongst the narrow streets they caught a glimpse of the Houses of Parliament – almost new with their cream sandstone blocks standing proudly. Only a few scaffolds remained, tangling at the far corners.

While there remained evidence of the 1834 firestorm in the approaching streets, the official grounds of the state had scrubbed and rebuilt diligently, burying the tragedy. The ruined buildings had been substituted with those of the modern age. Strong, tall and impressively intricate – these replacements were meant to represent the new era of humanity – the Victorian era. James thought them vile.

“You should not be doing that in your condition.”

“Nonsense,” replied Nigel, defiantly, ducking back inside with flushed cheeks. “I’m in agony – which means I won’t be vanishin’ into thin air anytime soon.”

“Is that your professional opinion or Helen’s?” James said, rubbing his hands together for warmth. It was rash to be acting on such whims at times like these. For all they knew, their altered state of health could present a danger to others and themselves – and he wasted no time reminding Nigel of it.

Just as James’s stomach decided that it had had enough of the constant rocking, their ride ended abruptly in front of a line of shops with people milling quietly about, ducking from door to door. The instant that he stepped down from the coach, James decided that he desired nothing better than to be back in Oxford, sitting quietly behind his desk with a book or two.

“Can I leave you here for a moment?” Nigel inquired, shepherding his friend toward one of the coffee houses nestled between the cold brick façades. The bitter smell was almost enough to turn James to the gutter. “I have a moment’s business to attend to and then we shall have the day to explore. You won’t – wander off… or get into trouble, I trust?”

James ignored the accusation – which hardly instilled confidence in Nigel.

“Go – if you will,” James stretched his arm out to the street in front. His warnings be damned. Nigel slowly took a few steps forward, apprehensively joining the crowd. “Foolhe muttered under his breath, after Nigel disappeared.

James pulled his coat in tight as another gust of wind ripped through the street, funnelled by the narrow lanes. ‘Grey’ was about the best compliment he could pay London. Compared to the seasonal mood of Oxford which melted between green and amber all the way through to snowy white depending on the season, these streets were inherently dull. The mess of the horses and the ever-present drizzle of rain made him sigh loudly with disapproval.

Bored, James slighted the coffee shop and instead began to pace down the street in the opposite direction, ambling into nowhere.

*~*~*

The pile of books in Nikola’s room grew. Documents that he had scoffed at, slept through or shunned now lay open on the floor where he sieved through them, nose to their pages which turned with such hurry that they disturbed the candlelight.

What was left of the morning had now passed over his window and sent his den into shade and cold. He lay across the floorboards, sheltered in this half-light. His mouth pained and, as children do, he had set to chewing things to quell the irritation as his teeth became more and more protuberant. Like a glistening row of knives, they grinned at him whenever he caught his reflection on a piece of broken glass from the window. The sight horrified him. His sullen cheeks and pale skin recoiled in fright and if he was not mistaken, there was a darkening of his fearful eyes with shadows as if he had stolen them from the room.

Nikola struggled with reality – sometimes he felt the hot sand slide beneath him, scorching through his stomach and tearing his skin away in vicious gusts but then at other times, the cold boards of the room in which he lay returned. It was a never ending reverie, a flickering mirage which could not settle – a disturbing place between two lives in which he felt tangled and yet further removed than ever.

His fingers slid over another paragraph as he tried to read its words again. It told of horrible stories and dark places of the earth’s soul where creatures of the twilight crept, kept alive by the blood of the living. Nikola’s body shook. Icy waves ran over his skin, draining its colour further. Somewhere in the distance there was a pounding of hooves, separate to these other dream worlds. Their rhythmic thunder bound his thoughts together as he shook his head and the pages of the books returned to sight as the candle burnt out.

There was a commotion at his window as a set of wings stirred, hopping along the sill. The pigeon ruffled its feathers and let out a gentle cooing as it danced around for his attention. Nikola did not detect the intrusion, and instead shook off another wave of pain until he noticed an unnatural taste on his tongue. Horrified, he felt a warm trickled down his chin and realised that his teeth had pierced through his gum.

“Hush – away, away!” Nikola waved his hand at the pigeon when it pecked him sharply.

*~*~*

Finally James made it out of the cluttered streets and into an open square. A bell nearby tolled, announcing the morning hour. Several people perked up and scurried away, realising their lateness as James strutted over the pavement.

He was halfway though, in the very centre of the square where two Peterhead granite fountains bubbled happily, when he felt the hairs on his neck twitch.

An enormous blur of grey, dirty looking pigeons flocked at his feet but refused to take flight as stepped through them. They bobbed their heads en mass and a few flapped as they skipped away. Filthy creatures, thought James, he could not understand the old women throwing seed at them from the edge of the fountains – but no amount of walking could shake the feeling off. Eventually, James was compelled to stop turn around where he found a sight that startled him.

“Excuse me, do you mind?” he said, to the tall man bent double with his nose almost grazing James’s shoe.

The strange man who had been casing James down the street and into the square stopped and, ever so slowly – like the wheels of a train first seeking motion, righted himself. He had at least a foot on James’s height but was so slender that a strong enough breeze would more than likely have been his demise. He wore a simple brown coat, sturdy shoes and carried a sharp gentleman’s stick which at present tapped threateningly on the ground.

“And you are?” James inquired, when the man did nothing but tilt his head and stare intently.

“I am not here,” he replied, with a scratchy voice.

James wrote the creature off as a poorly skilled thief. He eyed the man in warning and then continued on his way. He thought he was free until the tall man’s shadow sauntered up behind and resumed its pursuit. This time, James did not stop. He spun around, continuing his motion as he stepped carefully backwards. His, for lack of a better term, ‘stalker’ was not only following him, but mimicking his step in length and pace but all the while keeping his eyes locked on the muddy leather travel shoes.

Suddenly, the man’s head snapped up and he went to speak. James though, felt his heel catch in a misplaced stone and before he knew it, he was tumbling backwards. The ground was solid and cold. It dazed James for a moment when he found himself sprawled over it. A few Londoners grinned smugly as they passed to which James angrily glared.

“Are you all right?” said the thin man, not offering his hand.

James muttered under his breath as he staggered back to his feet and began dusting off his jacket. “Who are you?” James repeated sharply.

“The bigger question is not who I am as the answer to that is apparent to me, but rather, who are you, sir?”

“Someone who finds you intensely irritating,” James replied, deciding to step past the thin man and return back the way he had come. He had had enough of this city, and its inhabitants. This time though, the man extended his cane and tripped James who snarled fiercely as he landed on the ground again.

“Mind your step,” said the man, innocently drawing his cane behind his back, out of sight.

James didn’t bother getting up. “Fine, you have my attention,” he said, sitting on the pavement. “I am James Watson, soon to be a doctor in trade – now what is it that you want?”

“Oh yes,” the man replied, “I know that you a doctor. How long have you been in London?”

“This morning, but I assure you, I shan’t be back in a hurry.”

“From whence did you come?”

“Sorry –”James shook his head, wondering why on earth he was answering this rude man’s questions. He returned to his feet in a huff. “Good day to you sir, whoever you may be.”

“Sherlock Holmes…” the man offered, extending his hand before James could flee. “But you’ll excuse me if I don’t shake on it.” His hand trembled as he withdrew it and Sherlock quickly hid it in his pocket. The man’s fragility was not only due to his height – there was a definite fracturable quality about his features which, like a mirror, were sharp in their reflection but easily shattered.

“Oxford…” replied James, still wary of him. “Are those all your – where are you going?”

Sherlock Holmes had nodded at James’s answer as if some great truth had spread its wings before him. Now, he was making a speedy get away through the square, sending large flocks of birds into the air.

*~*~*

When Helen could not find Nikola, she retreated to the one place she could always trust to keep him.

Though it was mid-morning, she found his attic consumed by shadow. The candles he usually kept lit and the lamps that burned sweet, foreign oil had all been snuffed or burnt to the floor where they sat in sad yellow puddles.

From the darkest corner of the room, she heard a soft pigeon coo.

“Nikola?” she whispered, stepping through the scattered books littering his floor like some great ocean. He was there, curled up against the wall with a giant book held open in his lap. Nikola was reading intently when the pigeon scared and alerted him to her presence. “How can you read in this darkness?”

“I do not know,” he replied quietly, not leaving the page. “But I can.”

The sight of him brought her to a pause. He was half dead – drawn out and pale looking. Had it not been for the steady breath leaving his chest and movement of his lips, she would have assumed him lost. “You are ghostly…” she said gently. “Please, come down with me before you make yourself ill.”

“I fear,” he replied after a moment, “that it may be too late for that. In these matters, knowledge will be our greatest ally – and I must seek it out.”

She saw it now – it was a neither a mood nor a fever that had taken hold of Nikola these past days, but some dark force. “And what do you know?” she asked carefully.

Nikola’s especially dark eyes closed, blocking out the room as he spoke. A great curve of sand stretched across his vision and in the distance, he thought he saw a fleck of green nestled between the rises of glaring heat.

“Lives that are not my own…” he started. “I have been living these dreams for days now. They are too real – disturbingly so. I cannot shake them even in the daylight hours and they are full of approaching dread. My head is consumed by hatred but I cannot place its cause. I am thirsty and starving yet I cannot bring myself to eat because the thought of it sends me into fits.” He opened his eyes. “Where are your thoughts?” he asked her, when he saw that Helen had turned her head to the open window. A soft breeze was blowing her golden hair across her face, caging her features behind its ringlet bars.

“That the impossible is true,” she replied, “that you have lived these things before. I have seen accounts like these written in my father’s journal.”

“Either you are correct,” Nikola said, beckoning her closer, “and these memories will turn me mad…”

Helen sensed that he had not finished. “Or?” she prompted.

“Or you are wrong, and I am mad already. Will you sit with me a while? Maybe my grip on this world will be stronger if you are nearby.”

Helen hesitated. “Only if you let me light the lamps,” she whispered.

*~*~*

This time it was James who did the following. He tracked this, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ through the bustling crowd and down a main street where a smaller crowd of police officers were occupied with pushing back onlookers. They seemed to part as Sherlock approached. Two officers in particular nodded their heads at him.

“Holmes…” they said quietly together.

As this mass divided, James discovered the cause of their congregation. There lay at their centre a ghastly sight.

“Oh … Christ in hell…” James turned his head over his shoulder in horror. When he dared look back to the body on the pavement he had to fight the urge to collapse. In plain sight was the naked remains of what he could only assume had been a woman. She was laid open, sliced apart like a slaughtered animal. Dark pools of blood had dried around her form in a kind of grotesque halo. Parts of her were separate and others entirely missing.

Sherlock Holmes was not fazed by the atrocity of the sight. Calm as you like, he paced in circles round the corpse paying particular attention to the boot tracks left through the blood. He measured their spacing with his own step and shook his head solemnly in disappointment. There were a few muddy stains accompanying the footprints to which he paid particular interest.

“You are a police officer,” noted James, tapping Sherlock on the shoulder.

Sherlock had quite neglected to notice that his suspect had followed him. “Certainly not,” he scoffed at the idea. “My trade is private.”

James shrugged and returned to the body. “This is truly the most horrid thing I have seen,” he said kneeling close to the body. Several of the officers warned him away, but Sherlock appeared over his shoulder and hushed at the others.

After a great while, Sherlock spoke quietly, no longer able to bear the intrigue. “You have a thought,” he said, “I see it pacing about your mind.”

“These are not the incisions of a mindless violence,” admitted James finally. “They are purposeful strokes executed with patience and proper tools. I fear that you have here something more sinister than a crime of passion.”

Sherlock Holmes was not a man to grin. His features were too drawn for joy, his lips too thin to smile and the lines on his face unable to do justice to the mood – still, there was a flash of something across his eyes that betrayed his passion. There was nothing better for a man of observation than to catch onto the first scent of the hunt.

“Very good,” said Sherlock. “My conclusion also.”

“And for reasons I have yet to learn, earlier you suspected me of the crime but now – now you have learned something of the killer and of me.”

“You observe keenly.”

“As do you…” The air seemed to thicken with dark grit. Instead of grey – the streets felt decidedly dark and threatening.

“Come,” Sherlock beckoned James to his feet, “we shall speak more of these dark things.”

18

MISSING TIME

“You are particularly smug…” noted Nigel, when he finally found James lounging at the back of a coffee house. Granted, it was not the one which he had left him in but Nigel appreciated the gesture.

“Smug?” James raised his well kept eyebrow, “Surely not…”

His dark hair, usually swept neatly over his head and around his ears, was out of place. Several repressed curls had broken free and twisted at will, acquiring odd angles with the side of James’s cheek. Nigel spied patches of dirt on James’s jacket which also bared the glaring addition of a gold pocket watched pinned to his breast pocket – very unlike the Watson he knew.

Nigel collapsed onto the chair beside him. The room was pleasantly dark and warm, quite ‘den-like’ and full of swirling clouds of cigar smoke. He was feeling moderately better and quite enjoyed the dim light.

“What did you do?” he asked with an air of suspicion, placing a small parcel on the table and calling for a drink.

“Nothing that would interest you,” James replied. “Your work is done, I presume,” he said, observing the brown paper item tied half-heartedly with ribbon, “but I am sorry to say that I cannot leave London yet.”

Nigel frowned, taking a second look at his friend. His drink clinked down on the table as he leant forward and replied, “Come again?”

“Business of my own will delay me for several days. I will catch the train back to Oxford when I am finished.”

A quick breath of laughter filled the room as Nigel raised his hands aloft in cheer. “Nice try,” he grinned, hunting out a glass of water lingering on the edge of the table and taking a sip. “Nice try… Time we left I think, this London air’s getting to you,” but James was sincere and merely matched Nigel’s glass with a wink and drained it – ignoring his bewildered companion.

*~*~*

“And where is he now?” John and Helen sat in a quiet corner of the garden.

The sun was high but its weak sphere lacked the warmth of the months past. It hung over them wearily as the Earth spun ever away from it in a constant slight. Everything was gradually going quiet – the trees turning to skeletons, crickets silencing their calls and the dogs of the street retreating to their hovels in the bleak patches of thicket behind the town.

Helen adjusted her white gloves and then pulled her shall in tight around her shoulders. It kicked up in the breeze as she turned to John with her soft reply. “In his room,” she said, “I cannot wake him.”

“Call the doctor-”

“I daren’t,” Helen replied quickly, taking hold of John’s arm as he went to stand. He looked back at her, confused. “If you could see the state of him – Nikola scarcely looks human. Anyone we call would ask too many questions.” She was quiet for a moment, “I do not believe his life is in danger,” she added.

John slowly settled. “He is sleeping, that is all?”

“A deep sleep from which he can’t be stirred.”

“You should have James attend to him. He is the best doctor of us all.”

Ordinarily she would take offence but as much as it vexed her, there was more than common skill in James’s touch so instead, she nodded.

“I agree, but both he and Nigel are in London.” This time it was Helen who left her seat and began to pace across the fading lawn. John followed, coming to her side where he felt for her hand. “I have blocked out the light from his room as best I can and wrapped a blanket over him. The darkness seems to calm his sleep.”

John tangled his fingers in hers, stopping her progress towards the path. She was leaving him already, heading back to the main building. Worry was draining her complexion of all its beautiful colour, sucking the very life from her. He feared that she would wilt and die like the flowers had around them and fall back to the earth one petal at a time.

“Then we must wait,” he lowered his mouth to her hand and kissed it affectionately. “Please, do not worry – all will be well,” he insisted.

She caught him by surprise, dragging him toward her and draping herself over his shoulder in a desperate embrace. Helen wove herself around him, clinging passionately until he gave in and dipped his head toward her neck.

“I wish that I could believe you,” she murmured, as his arms tightened, “but this is all my doing. If I had not insisted that night –”

“Hush,” John drew away enough to see her face. He had always known Helen to be a strong force, fearsome even as she traced her way through the university halls like she owned their marble floors, but what he saw scant inches from him was a frightened girl. “I give you my word, Helen, everything will be fine. We will fetch James as soon as he returns and he can see to Nikola. For now – let him sleep.”

She pulled away. “Still… this has gone too far. Our rash actions are starting to exhibit consequences that we’re not prepared for. Nigel – I can’t even begin to understand what is happening to him. He may not show it but he endures hideous pain and James is disturbed by the heightened state of his senses. He sees things, smells them and hears them long before the rest of us. The minute details of the world are overwhelming him and unless he finds a use for his gift it will drive him mad.”

“Are…” he stammered, cleared his throat and started anew. “Are you all right, Helen?”

Helen nodded. “And you? I see so little of-”

“Do not worry, I am fine,” he insisted.

John waited with Helen as long as he could but as afternoon came and went, he was called away by an insistent professor and had not returned. It was now early evening and she was seated behind James’s desk in the dormitory. The room was much cleaner now that his animal captives had been let loose. Even the unnamed pig had been freed to Nigel’s farm where, she had heard, it played alongside her dragon – Helen could see that relationship ending in tears…

James had not given away his obsession with chemistry though – glassware littered the benches and if anything, had grown to plague proportions. Their bubbling contents released heavens knew what into the air whilst she was certain that he had left something growing in the Petri dishes nearest to her. The combination left her drowsy as she stared blankly at the wall in front of her.

She was startled when the door shuddered. It creaked open then closed and locked on its own without a soul passing through it.

“Helen?” exclaimed the empty room in fright. “What are you doing here?”

Blinking back sleep, Helen made out the faint outline of Nigel moving toward the cupboard where he promptly fished out a coat and wrapped it around himself causing a peculiar sight.

The bodiless coat approached.

“Not again…” sighed Helen. “That’s three times in a week.” His spells of invisibility were becoming more frequent.

“I know,” he replied. “And I had to leave my best clothes in London. People tend to stare at floating outfits. Had a hell of a time catchin’ a ride home like this.”

“Where is James?” she asked, setting the feathered pen which she had been using down on the desk.

“As always, I am glad to see that you desire my company.” If he hadn’t been transparent, she would have seen him avert his eyes to the floor in real despair.

“It’s not like that…” she insisted.

*~*~*

Nigel and Helen stood against the far wall of Nikola’s attic. Their backs were pressed painfully against the cold stone as they shivered, unnerved by Nikola.

He was awake and seated on the floor between two oil lamps. The curtain over the window had been pulled back to reveal the swelling moon, creeping into the sky above clouds. Layers of mist worked their way up the walls of the university, hiding the grounds in undulating river of cloud. Some of it had settled inside the room and snaked around Nikola, almost affectionately.

Nikola was reading from an old scroll which tumbled onto the floor with its unread end curled up. He had not given any indication that he was aware of their presence, nor had he spoken since they had begun watching him.

Helen and Nigel were speechless. If Nikola had appeared inhuman before, he was positively fictitious now.

His skin had sunk away from his bones and lost its colour. As he finger trailed along the lines of handwritten text it was followed by the scratching sound of his overly long fingernail which tapered into a claw-like hook. By far the most frightening change in Nikola’s appearance was his eyes. They were large expanses of jet black where his pupils had consumed the whole eye leaving only pits. They bared no expression as they diverted from the page to the faces of his audience.

Nikola lowered the scroll.

“You must leave,” said Nikola, in an impassionate voice that sent cold chills over the necks of Helen and Nigel. It was not a request, but a warning.

Nigel, who had been visible for a while now, stepped protectively in front of Helen. “We need to examine you, Nikola. I believe that you are experiencing a side effect of –”

“You must leave,” Nikola repeated.

Nigel hastened a glance at Helen before replying, “Why?” He knew his question to be unwise the moment he had asked it, for Nikola’s eyes expanded slightly while his head tilted to the side. If he was not mistaken, there was a row of sharp teeth glittering beneath the man’s lip two of which extended well beyond the others.

“Because I can hear your hearts thumping in my ears,” Nikola lifted a taloned hand, pointing at them. Though he kept his voice steady, it peaked ever so slightly with urgency.

A strong breeze through the window upset the lanterns. The room hovered in and out of darkness. Nikola was now standing as a single shadow, imposing on the room as he lingered by the wall where a couple of feathers tumbled by. They had not seen him move there.

Helen’s eyes strayed to a dark stain on the floor. Great streaks of crimson were smeared over the floorboards in front of Nikola, and, as the lights brightened and the chill-laden air settled, Helen saw a bundle of feathers in amongst the shadows.

Nikola remained deathly still.

“You best hurry…” he insisted. “My reading of our condition disturbs me but there is nothing we can do this deep in the night.”

“What are you on about?” Nigel progressed cautiously into the room. Helen had been right about Nikola, his body was riddled with something foreign – a dark spell or ancient curse.

Nikola ignored the dangerously close Nigel.

“Helen,” he did not look at her, instead choosing to turn his back on them and speak to the empty wall, “lock the hatch and don’t come back here until the first light of morning.”

“Com’on now,” Nigel was barely an arm’s length from him, “you’re scaring her, Nikola, let us take a look at –”

*~*~*

John stirred. The room was dark and empty save for a destroyed mirror resting against the wall and an odd collection of specimen jars. He rolled over, clutching his head as it throbbed in his hands. John swore, certain that he could feel his skin peeling back and laying itself over the dust-ridden marble.

He was in the spare classroom where he had met the professor only it was much later in the evening and all the lights were out. The professor too, had left long ago and now there was only John writhing on the floor in agony.

These headaches had worsened over the last week. At first he had thought them to be a side effect of the large volumes of wine he had taken to consuming but then they began appearing at all hours, increasing in severity. Two days ago he had had his first blackout – a complete wipe of his memory. He had found himself alone in Oxford’s park, asleep on the grass near the lake with no idea of how he had arrived there.

The truth literally hurt – he was suffering ill effects of the experiment. Like the others, pain seemed to be a common feature in their reactions. So far John was hoping it would be the only thing that he would have to endure.

Eventually the pain subsided and he was able to pick himself up off the floor. He headed to the double glass doors and leant against them, staring out at the evening. The moon lit the heavy fog and a few skeletal branches criss-crossed the star patterns. The nights were getting longer as winter edged its way in. Before long twilight would be the new day and the stars their main light.

*~*~*

Sherlock had brought his new companion to an empty room. There was nothing particularly special about the barren expanse of floorboards or single window that broke the otherwise grey walls, but the tall man retreated to an abandoned corner and puffed away expectantly on his pipe, motioning for Watson’s opinion.

James Watson waved away a thin trail of smoke and eyed the room carefully. The centrepiece of the room was a very obvious streak of blood smudged into the thickly layered dust.

“There has been no-one in this room,” added Sherlock, as James remained fixated on the floor, “since I followed the man whom I believed to be the killer here.”

“You’ve seen him?” James snapped his head around as his companion puffed another cloud into the room.

“After the first murder I took to lurking through London’s streets after dark. I was ready to give up my new hobby when I heard the poor lady’s screams. By the time I reached her, the man had completed his hideous business and was fleeing through the side streets. This townhouse has one entrance – down the stairs and through the door we entered. When the man did not reappear after many hours, I risked a peek inside and found things as you see them. He, whomever he is, vanished.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time a criminal has evaded capture.”

“No…” Sherlock replied, amused. “But I do believe it may be the first time that one has literally vanished into thin air…”

James followed Sherlock’s sharp eyeline and realised the reason that he had been brought here. The deep sheet of dust in the floor told the story of the night’s events. Like a book, it could be easily read. The man, the killer, had entered the room hastily with long strides and come to rest by the opposing window. He had lingered there, no doubt watching the sky until he stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. There were slide marks and great sweeps of clean floor near the blood stain where someone had sat and then – that was it. There was no more to the story. No tracks returning to the door or body in the room. The man had vanished, simple as that. Which was impossible.

“I see…” said James, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his forehead.

Sherlock lifted his head and exhaled a long trail of smoke. “I thought you might,” he replied.

19

DREAMSCAPES OF THE INSANE

They were not far now. The ground beneath the desperate human convoy had begun to thin, giving way to grey stone beneath. Glimpses of sapphire stole their eyes where hints of water blinked in the dips of the horizon. This great river system which waned in and out of flood, spurned the people into a final surge despite its desperate salt encrusted banks.

The strongest of the group overtook Nikola as they clawed up a ridge of sand then stopped, gazing out over the sunken land beneath. There was a long, distorted mirror of the sun in the snake-like tract of water which ran as far as they could see from curve to curve. A small port waited for them somewhere on its edge and beyond the white sails – the promise of freedom.

It was a long way to those ships.

Nikola let the others pass him. He turned away from the beautiful scene back toward the desert they had just survived. The sound of drums and marching feet was still creeping closer. Even through the sharp wind that kicked at his ears, he was able to make out the distant clink of swords and shouted words from the fearsome commander.

He set down the child in his arms. It smiled and ran off in chase of the other children tumbling down the last dune with cries of delight. Nikola searched the sand, whispering curses into the air until a blinding point of light burst into life like the sun itself, rising to greet the day.

His body froze and for a moment all he could do was watch as more and more flecks of light emerged until they formed a definite line backed by a darker smear of men. It was an army.

Nikola ran his tongue through his sharp teeth and out across his cracked lips. The deep pits of his black eyes erupted with a flash of red as he snarled and dropped everything save his knife to the ground.

*~*~*

“Don’ – don’ touch me,” Nigel retreated from her, falling toward the dormitory wall where he collapsed, shaking and clutching his shoulder. Several deep gashes cut through his skin which splayed out in horrific sheets. It was difficult to see the extent of the damage as his body shimmered, rippling in and out of focus.

Loud crashes barely made it through Nigel’s haze of pain as Helen rooted through James’s possessions in search of the medical kit, scattering its contents in her careless haste. Nigel wasn’t sure how much time had passed but there was a large pool of sticky blood forming on the ground by the time she returned to him with a bottle of whisky.

This time, he did not fight her off. He groped for the bottle, held it to his mouth and gulped the raw liquid until the fire in his throat distracted him from the lacerations on his chest. When he woke he found a somewhat untidy track of stitching tying him back together. The bottle of whisky rested half-empty beside him so he reached over but it was snapped away.

“No,” said Helen firmly, shifting it out of his reach. “When I’ve finished, you can drink the remainder.” She unfurled several strips of ripped sheet, frowning – they were not as clean as she would have liked.

“Doctor?” It was a request, not an observation.

This distressed her. “I can’t,” she whispered, sloshing the alcohol over him. He groaned and fought back a cry when she silenced him with a gentle hand over his mouth. “You mustn’t,” she cautioned. “It is late and they will hear you.”

“Give m’that!” he muttered, snatching the bottle. Disgruntled neighbours were the last of his worry. Helen wound the bandages tightly around his girth as best she could, fastening them with pins. “I’ll lie,” Nigel continued, “tell ‘em it was an animal or somethin’ – nobody has to know it was’im…”

It was too much for Helen; kneeling, she bowed her head to the ground and choked back several deep sobs.

“Helen…” prompted Nigel finally. She raised her head and he was taken aback by the tear stains down her furiously red cheeks. “We don’t have a choice. You have to find him.”

Helen wiped her face with the hem of her skirt only to find it soaked through with Nigel’s blood. There were rivers of it over the floor, staining the timber.

“I don’t know where he is,” she replied quietly.

“Your father is the only one tha’ can help us,” he continued, watching in despair as the fresh bandages turned a violent red. “Abnormals, they’re his life, Helen. We’ve had this knowledge for a few short weeks an’ look at the mess we’ve made of it. There is no choice – he is the only person who will believe us.”

“Except for the Cabal,” she had already begun tearing new bandages. “I kn – I suspect that they have found him, why else would he have not returned?”

“Oh, dear Helen –” Nigel stopped, frowning as the alcohol blurred his vision so that two Helens approached, shifting next to him. “You do not understand the first thing about hunting. A dear must be invisible from everything if it is to survive, including the grass.”

*~*~*

John locked the door behind him, lit the lamps and collapsed onto his bed. The first light of morning was threatening to topple over the horizon when he turned over, fully clothed, and fell into a deep sleep. It was to his great surprise then that he awoke on the floor, curled into a foetal position with his jacket doubling as a blanket.

*~*~*

“Good gracious!” the lecturer exclaimed, with a look of bewilderment. Helen led him over to Nigel’s bed and pulled back the sheets so that he could see the extent of the wounds crisscrossing the young boy’s chest.

“I didn’t want to move him,” she said hastily, stepping back. “When I found him I-”

“Miss Magnus,” the lecturer interrupted, “to save the asking of awkward questions like, ‘what are you doing in the gentlemen’s dormitories at this hour?’ I’m going to pretend that you aren’t here.” Helen paused. Nigel was asleep – or too intoxicated to open his eyes. “Which means,” continued the lecturer over his shoulder, “that you shouldn’t be here…”

Finally she took the hint and quietly left. Once the lecturer heard her safely down the stairs, he placed a cold hand on Nigel’s shoulder.

“Are you going to tell me what really happened?” he asked Nigel. The boy replied with a defiant grunt, gradually opening his eyes. They were bloodshot and began to weep as the soft light pierced his irises. “I guess not,” the man sighed. “Your father,” he muttered, as he cut through Helen’s makeshift bandages, “would have my soul if he knew the trouble I’ve let you get into. You’ll forgive me, but this is going to hurt.”

*~*~*

They came on them like thunder – first a violent crack of sound and then a succession of ever more powerful waves that shook their bones and eventually, broke them.

Nikola ducked as a bronze figure lept over him, slicing through the air with a hooked sword. It hit the stone ground and turned, glaring back at him with a victorious grin. A thousand more of his kind rushed past, storming toward the screaming flock of vampires on the final flats before the river. The soldiers cut them down as easily as running through them. Nikola felt every sickening blow as the children grew silent and a pink foam formed in the water.

The commander spun his sword menacingly as he approached Nikola. His necklace of lapis and gold glimmered like a giant, godly sundisk as his chest heaved.

You cannot run,” he hissed at Nikola. “Your evil will know the dust before this day is out.”

And yours will endure,” replied Nikola, lunging.

The battle was swift.

The last woman to fall stood in front of a group of children brandishing a sword that she had stolen from one of the soldiers. She screamed at them, cried and finally fought them off until her throat was slit and she collapsed in a lifeless mound.

Nikola was the only vampire that they left alive. For three weeks they carted him across the desert bound to a camel. Eventually he saw a rise of frightening mountains loom out from the sand. Their black edges were sharp and jagged as they stretched in the sun.

No…” Nikola whispered.

As they approached the sound of chisels and workman roared up in his ears. An entire civilisation crawled, pulled and swore as they dug deeper into the mountain. Nikola was transferred to the ground and forced to walk into entrance of the tomb surrounded by the commander and his men.

*~*~*

“You’ll live – it surprises me to say.”

Nigel thanked the lecturer. His father’s old friend tucked him back into bed and went to leave as morning stumbled into the sky.

“Whatever it is,” he said, with his weathered hand paused on the door, “that the five of you are up to, it ends – you understand? Rest, and then I want you back in class where I can keep both my eyes on you. Feel free to pass that along.”

*~*~*

They brought him to a black slate room, deep under the mountain range. A line of priests, gilded and half dead in a collective trance, had their eyes rolled back in their head as they chanted spells into the air.

What frightened Nikola most was the stone coffin rising out from the floor. Its lid rested on the ground beside and seemed to wait for him – beckoning him toward it. At the edges of the room, between the enormous columns, were the caskets of his friends. They were all dead. He guessed it long ago, but to know it sent racking sobs through his heart. The Priests of Amun were entombed and awaited him in whatever life might succeed this one.

One day,” sneered Nikola, to his brother, “far from this one, I will find you. It does not end here.”

The commander ignored the cursed creature as it was wrestled into the sarcophagus, chanting and screeching. He gave the order and the slaves moved forward, sliding the lid over the coffin.

Nikola gasped, his eyes snapping open as the bright sunlight burnt into his face. He was on the floor of his room, staring out the open window. A ratty curtain had half fallen down and flapped in the freezing wind. It was day and Nikola had had the most terrible dreams.

*~*~*

It was mid-morning when the lecturer nearly died of shock. His white hair fell across his astonished face (which had not slept) and his piece of chalk snapped in two as Helen, Nigel and John presented themselves for class. His surprise paled in comparison to the look on Helen’s face when Nikola strutted in, immaculate as usual and slipped in next to her. For a solid ten minutes she did little but stare at Nikola, quite unable to believe his serene figure scribbling notes from the board.

“Come Miss Magnus,” said the lecturer, catching her attention. “He won’t bite.”

She wasn’t so sure.

Nigel grimaced. It was a struggle to stay upright but he’d rather be out here than suffocating in his room. Still, the slender figure of Nikola calmly seated next to Helen was almost more than he could handle.

Nikola wasn’t copying notes from the board. Instead, he was engrossed in a letter which he ripped from his book and folded several times before sliding it across the desk, sneaking it under Helen’s hand. Her eyes flicked up as he pushed the note further under her palm.

Don’t make me beg,” he whispered to her, in a familiar, warm tone.

*~*~*

“Leaving, so soon?” Sherlock perked up from the couch where he had spent the previous day in a delirium of sorts. The pipe smoke was still thick in the room, clasping at the furnishings and choking the room with its scent.

James shooed the courier away and set the letter down on the desk. He frowned and shook his head, taking a seat by a cold tray of tea and biscuits. “I should, but I’m not going to. A friend of mine is ill, but it has all been taken care of. They can do without me for a time.”

“Excellent, as I have planned for us tonight a mission of sorts – an experiment in chance. Care to partake? Ah – don’t bother, for I already know your answer. You would not be here unless you felt the heat of the chase. Perhaps and if we’re lucky, the moon will be bright and the dark figures which prowl the streets, easy to pursue.”

“You think the killer is going to kill tonight?”

“Come Watson, he has a proper name now. ‘Jack the Ripper’ he professes, in poor English I might add, and his need for blood has returned and so too, shall we.”

20

NIGEL WALKS

They met outside the class, darting away from the main stream of students to lurk in a corner with Nigel cruising ominously in the background, never lifting his eyes from Helen and Nikola.

“Do you remember?” she asked him, as soon as the roar of footsteps had tapered off. Helen had her books clasped protectively across her chest. She leaned over them, balancing her chin on their worn spines.

“Not everything,” he confessed, “but enough to understand your –” Nikola instinctively reached toward her but she backed away, “fear…” he trailed off. “Is he going to be all right?” Nikola and Helen glanced at the pacing Nigel, who glared firmly back at Nikola.

“He almost wasn’t…”

“Helen,” Nikola quickly changed the subject, “as bad as things are now, they’re about to get a lot worse.”

“Worse than last night?” she shot, angrily. She didn’t mean to – it wasn’t his fault but still

“Our bodies are only beginning to adapt to their new, should we say, skills. Given a few more weeks even the lesser of us will be a powerful and alarming creation. Be assured,” he said, in a hushed voice, “we will lose control.”

John, delayed by the professor, finally made his way out of the classroom and into the foyer where he found Nigel waiting. The other man purposely rolled his eyes over to the far wall where John caught sight of Nikola and Helen locked in tight conversation.

“What happened to you?” John asked. He had been staring at Nigel’s prominent bandages throughout class trying to decide if Nigel had been hit by a coach or thrown under a train.

“Tell you in a minute,” he said, as Nikola and Helen made their way towards them, weaving around a few straggling students. Helen pointed to the stairs and the four of them headed off in a clump.

They reconvened in the sanctity of the library, hunting out their favourite haunt in a forgotten corner of knowledge. The layers of mould over the shelves were challenged only by the encroaching dune of dust that dulled everything with an eerie coat of grey. It got all over their clothes as they shuffled into their usual positions and waited for Helen to finish the horrific story of the previous night.

“You did what?!” John leapt from his chair toward Nikola.

Helen stepped in front him, pacing backwards as John continued to lunge forward, raising his fist at Nikola’s head.

“Sit’own John,” Nigel pointed to the overturned chair. “We’re supposed to be scientists, let’s at least pretend to act like’em.”

Helen, hands resting on John’s collar, pushed him gently off her. John wanted to crush Nikola into a thousand pieces but was eventually convinced to back off and retake his seat, albeit with a dangerous look. “This better be good.”

“Just to clarify,” Nikola strolled the length of the bookshelf with his hands clasped behind his back. He looked taller like this, ever so slightly more gentlemen-like as he surveyed the other three. “Am I the only one who has seriously researched the history of vampires?” There was silence. “So start from the beginning then – okay.”

John was deeply displeased, Nigel was in more pain than usual and Helen was nauseated by the very memory of what Nikola had been last night – all the same, they held their tongues and listened.

Nikola pulled a book from beneath one of the shelves and placed it, open on the floor, in front of them.

“Egypt,” he said, “first known occurrence of an Abnormal race known to us as vampires. After their brief mention they vanish from all record until they reappear in Europe, thousands of years later subject to a mass slaughter. Some must have survived because several hundred years after, your father arrives with a pure sample of vampire blood.

“It may surprise you all to learn that we are not the first fools to taste the temptation of vampire blood. Those in the ancient world thought of it as a river of youth – a glimpse of godly immortality.

“Fifth century BC – Herodotus writes of Ethiopians with exceptional long life. As it turns out, the last colony of vampires left in Africa settled the areas nearby and fell prey to frequent native attacks. The tribes that ingested their blood made extraordinary claims of being, ‘faster than the wind’ and ‘stronger than the lion’. I think,” he continued, “from our own experience, we know the cause.”

“But we inject’d it…” said Nigel, “straight in our arms – not the same as drinkin’ it.”

“No,” Nikola agreed with him. “We’ve reached a whole new level. I can only assume that our symptoms will not be temporary but permanent and more pronounced.”

Christ,” Helen swore. “If the Cabal find out they’ll want us for their labs. They collect creatures like us.”

“That too,” Nikola closed the books and returned them to the shelves. “Are they are already watching us.”

Especially you…” she caught Nikola’s eye.

“And what,” John stretched his arm across the table. The white lace sleeve peeking out from his coat trailed across the wood. On one of its beautiful edges was a tiny fleck of red. “Are we to do? They are sure to work out what we’ve done eventually.”

“We end it,” said Nikola. “We find your father,” he moved to Helen, and then returned to his pacing, “he will know of a cure, and then we finish this cursed business. Do you have something to add, Nigel?”

Nigel cleared his throat, tucked the edge of one of his bandages in, and then spoke, “It’s just –” he stopped and went quiet, thinking better of his comment. It wasn’t until he was prompted by the others that he continued. “Only that, well it is a unique opportunity,” he said.

NO!” John hit the table with his fist, sending the glasses of water bouncing into the air. “We’ve been down this road before and look where it leads.” He looked deliberately at Nikola, as if he were the source of all that was evil in the world of Abnormals.

“It’s easy for the three of you,” spat Nikola. “Nigel vanishes every now and then and John’s temper’s worse than ever, but I am the one who is becoming a monster – don’t try to pretend it’s anything else.”

“’scuse me, did I imagine having my chest ripped open?”

“Apologies,” Nikola quickly snapped back at Nigel, “I must have missed it while in a murderous trance.”

Helen raised her hands aloft and, as loudly as she could within a library, hushed them.

“This is not a game of, ‘whose worse off than whom?’ gentlemen,” she said sharply. “Urgh!” she collapsed into one of the empty seats, moving John’s arm off Nigel’s diary. The day was already beginning to wear on her – and it seemed as if it were ending too soon with the heavy rain clouds clogging out the sun leaving little to filter in through the gothic windows and around the cluttered library to their den.

“I know that we must find my father,” she said, “but he has either hidden himself away from the world or been captured by the one organisation we must steer clear of so what are we to do?”

“Eliminate our options,” Nigel’s waves of pain were getting stronger. It was a strange phenomenon – the more his wounds healed the more pain he felt. His body had things backwards. “I could have’a snoop and no-one would be the wiser for’it.”

*~*~*

Night – Nikola’s room was boarded up – the attic stairs strapped closed with belts and his sole window and lonely square of sky, hastily covered by planks. Helen, too nervous to sleep, kept herself busy in her father’s study, sifting through the few loose field notes she found in forgotten draws. The rose he had brought for her survived by a few ill looking leaves which wept toward the lamplight.

Nigel though, cursed the season for its cold. While walking the poorly lit streets, he dressed himself in a trenchcoat, winter pants, hat pulled low to the collar, gloves and a neck scarf. So long as he didn’t lift his head, the average passerby would not notice the absence of his neck and face.

His wounds were mostly healed. Even that had surprised him. Just under twenty-four hours to heal major injuries could not be written off as co-incidence. He risked removing the bandages. The grating of his clothing over the scars hurt, but did no further damage.

According to John, who’d been able to get his hands on some property development papers, the Cabal owned a large cotton mill on the other side of the river – one that worked all through the night, churning out exquisite garments. Oddly, they were one of the few factories not to change their workload over from human to machine as the trend had set. It was a glaring contradiction for the Cabal who seemed to take the future of human technology as a personal challenge.

In his present state, he could not risk a coach so he walked the distance briskly. The black smog that fell to the earth, compressed by the cold air of the evening, was even thicker between the towering walls of the factories. Mounds of earth on the side of the road, kicked up by passing traffic, had already begun to whiten with frost.

It was a desperate and heartless place whose score was the steady click of machinery behind the tin walls. The occasional infant screamed for its mother but she would not be home until dawn.

The Cabal’s factory, misleadingly labelled, ‘Empire Cotton’ was not quite as impressive as the name promised. All its windows were alight but there was no movement behind them, not even a lonely factory worker staring out at the other side of the city.

When Nigel reached the corner where the building reared up, flush with the pavement, he ducked out of the lamplight and into a narrow alley where he de-clothed and hid his belongs under a scramble of weeds. Now he really was cold. The only danger of detection were the shadows he left, so he clung to the walls, grinding up against their filthy surfaces as he approached one of the entrances.

There was no door to the alley at all – only a poorly lit hole in the wall of the building through which Nigel scampered, not wanting to linger in the narrow passageway. It felt more like descending into a mine than a factory as the passage continued, twisting around several times until it came to a set of stone stairs. These led both up and down.

Nigel hesitated. Surely down, he thought at first, would be the most natural place for any untoward activity that they might be carrying out for if you were going to hide someone, you wouldn’t do it on the main factory floor. Then again, he glanced up at the staircase leading up several flights, there was something very wrong about the factory itself.

He still didn’t have very good control over his invisibility, and he most certainly didn’t want to get trapped in a place like this – naked.

Goddamn!” he muttered, and then began to climb the steps.

*~*~*

“That boy stole your purse,” said Sherlock calmly, as he and Watson pushed their way through the evening crowd. It was the night shift of workers swarming to their twilight labour.

“It wasn’t my purse,” Watson corrected him, “it was a folded piece of fabric with two shillings I keep in my pocket that masquerades as my purse.”

“Paranoid – good, it shows the proper sense of fear for one’s existence.”

“Says the man leading an expedition through London’s most dangerous streets at night on the hunt for a murderer…”

“Point,” Sherlock whirled around, raising his cane dramatically, “taken…”

Eventually the streets quietened and London’s famous rains let go over them. The horrid downpour was on the verge of sleet when Sherlock caught hold of Watson’s cloak and yanked him into a shadow.

“What do you see?” he whispered, as a thirty-something woman sauntered down the opposite side of the road.

It took Watson a moment to see her. She was so used to blending into the background that even when keen eyes were after her, she failed to register as little more than a watermark. Elizabeth Gustafsdotter was tall for a woman of her age, but she hid this blessing under long black garments and a crepe bonnet. It was her checked scarf that gave her way, knotted loosely around her neck.

“Only a working girl,” replied James, pulling his arm free of Sherlock, who was still puffing away on his pipe. “Hold on a minute – where are you going?”

Sherlock merely winked and stepped out into the light.

*~*~*

A spotted rat scurried past him, leaping over onto his bare feet – a move which started them both. It squeaked in surprise at finding itself aloft before resuming its escape back down the stairs. He probably should have followed the rat…

It took three floors to reach the first landing. Up until this point it had been so quiet that Nigel didn’t think his invisibility would be enough to hide him if someone did happen along.

Finally, the low drone of hushed conversation leaked out from the walls. He could have just broken into an accounting firm for all the enthusiasm in their voices. The door at the top of the landing was slightly ajar with a bright band of light gushing out of it, spilling into the stairwell. Stepping into that would be as good as screaming.

He approached cautiously, one step at a time until he was beside the landing. From here he could glimpse through the door into the large warehouse floor.

There was a reason no-one was at the windows – they were all huddled in the centre of the room, congregated in a kind of ring around something that Nigel couldn’t see above their bobbing heads. Gentlemen and women, dressed in white, craned their heads and struggled on tip-toes until a frightening shriek silenced them.

Like a wave, they rippled back and promptly re-shuffled. Nigel risked another inch along the wall, edging his nose around the corner and into the room. He retreated instantly – for standing on a platform above the group was a man glaring down into the circle’s centre with cold eyes.

Nigel slammed his eyes shut. He felt his skin ripple uneasily and his wounds seer but it was nothing compared to the evil of the aging man, balanced by a black and gold cane, addressing the crowd with his soft but persuasive voice.

Professor Samuel Griffin was displeased. The creature writhing on the crowd in the centre of the circle of scientists was dying in pain.

“Another…” was all Professor Griffin said. He waved at the pack then turned and dismounted the podium. A young boy rushed forward into the circle and injected the deformed creature with a clear liquid that killed it.

21

BLOODY NIGHTS IN LONDON

“Evening, young lady,” Sherlock Holmes announced himself, falling into step beside her.

Elizabeth, well accustomed to the manners of men after dark, eyed him with disapproval and hurried her pace discreetly.

James watched on from the other side of the road, struggling to keep sight of the pair as the rain beat down harder and harder until the street became a miserable blur. The entire city of London was vanishing beneath a dark cloud which filled the air with restless rumbles and the occasional flash of light as if it knew the hideous events unfolding beneath.

Eventually Sherlock brought her to a stop. She spoke for a while, waving her arm vaguely at the road behind her as if giving directions. He bowed low, thanking the lady, and then kissed her hand and let Elizabeth pass.

“And?” James prompted, upon his return.

Both men were drenched and suffered streams of water pouring off the rims of their hats and the trims of their equally long coats. The smell of wet dog stuck in the air as the animals of the street sought shelter, scurrying past them in frantic dashes before hiding under weed beds or discarded crates.

“Naturally, she is suspicious of strange men,” Sherlock replied, “but she did mention that there was word of a tall, cloaked gentleman lurking about the area, sinister kind of creature that none of the other girls had seen before. He tried to enlist the services of a few working girls but they all refused him.”

“Turned away by a prostitute – that would rub.”

“Indeed it – Christ,” Sherlock spun elegantly and peered intently down the street, “did you hear that?”

The rain poured down in an impenetrable wall until all James could make out was the pounding sheets of water against the cobblestone. He wiped the water out of his eyes bit it did no good.

The intense gaze of Sherlock’s eyes could have split silver glass in two. The ordinarily reserved man screamed something at James that it was indistinguishable from the roar of the rain, then he threw his pipe to the ground and broke into a desperate sprint in pursuit of the woman who had vanished into the night.

*~*~*

Nigel pressed himself against the cold wall until even the smallest groove of the old brick surface dug painfully into his skin. He could still hear his father’s voice inside the room, occasionally rearing above the drone of the others, directing them – controlling them.

He should have left then, when the first flickers of light bounced off his skin betraying his presence – but he didn’t. Professor Griffin was inside that laboratory pacing from corner to corner like some kind of predator casing his territory and Nigel felt more like a child than ever. He could have been five years old hiding behind the barn door as his father killed the chickens, completely petrified, his arms and legs immobilised and heart shaking with every hushed word uttered.

That’s it everybody,” announced another, softer voice. Nigel didn’t have to see its owner to know that they were a born underling, the kind of creature that liked to lurk around the seat of power feeding off the scraps. “We’re done for the night.”

Chairs moved at once quickly followed by a shuffle of shoes heading for the door amidst the swish of thirty lab coats thrown into the corner.

“What a night – I’m getting too old for this shit,” said the first scientist to reach the door. The rest of the group swelled behind him in a flood funnelled directly to the place where Nigel had chosen to hide.

“Won’t be gettin’ old,” replied another voice, “if we keep this work up. If they didn’ pay like they do…”

It was too late for Nigel to move as the crowd rolled past, bumping and nudging against him. His breath caught as the first elbow caught his side and stuck there for a moment. A shoulder clipped his chest, shoes crushed over his feet and clothing brushed across his naked skin but not a single one of them noticed as they filed down the stairs. When the final stragglers trickled into the stairwell, he let himself breathe.

“Professor…” said the soft voice again, just shy of the doorway. “He is waiting for you downstairs.”

“It must be urgent if he is unannounced,” replied Professor Griffin, gradually making his way towards the door, flicking off the panels of lights as he progressed. “Word on the source?”

There was a slight pause and the glow from the room diminished again.

No… I believe he has come about your son.”

Nigel’s eyes flicked open so fast they nearly rolled back into his head. There was no time to creep along the wall. Shocked into action, Nigel pealed himself free and began his silent flight down the stairs before his father reached the door. By the time his father’s cane clicked out of the room, Nigel was off the landing and had started on the long corridor toward the black hole at the end streaked by the driving rain.

He was almost there, so close that he could smell the rain, when a cloaked figure stepped into the tunnel, swearing at the weather and completely blocking Nigel’s escape.

Nigel stopped and slammed himself against the wall as the man rung out the bottom of his cloak onto the floor where a sizable puddle was busy forming. His father’s voice, which had followed him down the stairs, was rounding the platform and entering the corridor. It was a narrow stretch and Nigel was hemmed in on both sides by the approaching parties. Though he was invisible from a distance, he wasn’t sure he wanted to test his ability in close quarters.

“Evening Bill,” Professor Griffin raised his hand in greeting as he and his assistant closed in.

To Nigel’s horror, ‘Bill’, not content to wait in the entrance, began pacing forwards.

“I came as soon as I could get away,” Bill replied, reaching to remove his hat. “It’s not easy getting coaches in this weather.” He pulled the soggy item on his head free to reveal a cluster of damp, white hairs. Nigel had to stop himself from gasping as the sleepy face of his college lecturer glanced meaningfully back at the rain.

The two encroaching parties were almost on each other now, neither more than a few yards away from Nigel.

“It’s not all good news, Samuel – your boy was hurt. He’s – he seems to be recovering fast but you asked me to watch over him and I have.”

“And I am grateful for the favour.”

“But it is not why I came all this way…”

“It isn’t?” Griffin’s eyes widened.

“I must confess, when you raised this other matter with me I doubted that I would be of any assistance to you. There have been a lot of years go by since those days at Oxford and I had my doubts.”

“Gregory asked your help?”

“I have not seen Gregory since the night we dismissed him. As for the object you desire, I have not come across that either, not directly, but I believe I have learned its fate.” He ran a nervous hand through his hair, unable to hide its subtle quiver. “I am quite certain of my suspicions.”

Griffin’s eyes flared dangerously.

“I don’t know how they did it,” continued the lecturer, with a touch of jealousy, “but a group of my students have had the source in their possession and have –” it took him a moment to garner the courage to make the accusation as its content was so filthy – so despicable even to the dark workings of the Cabal that he feared uttering it, “ingested it.”

Samuel couldn’t stifle the laugh cracking through his throat. “A group of school children in possession of one of earth’s most powerful substances?” he shook his head, whipping his cane against the wall beside where Nigel was hiding.

“Not just any children,” the college lecturer went on, “sometimes they frighten me – more than you,” he added, not quite in jest. “One of them is Gregory’s child. There’s something wrong with them – something different since all this started. I’ve spent my whole life watching children grow into adults but these kids, they grew up overnight.”

Griffin turned and whispered to his assistant.

Bill’s hearing was sharp. “You’re going over there now?”

“At once,” Griffin snapped, breaking into as much of a stride as he could given his bad leg. “And you shall accompany us.”

*~*~*

Watson and Sherlock hit the warehouse door at a run. The horses on the carriage storming up behind them startled – throwing their heads back in shrills, pulling against their reins as they veered and slammed to a halt on the side of the poorly lit street.

“Whoa, whoa girls!” the driver tried to calm them, as the creatures reared again. They stamped their hooves and backed away from the small alley beside the main road where two men pounded on a large factory door.

“Open the door, open the dooooor!” screeched Sherlock, rattling the large iron handles furiously before moving onto the hefty bolts attaching the door to the wall. Watson leant his knee, Sherlock climbed onto to it and stretched up to pull the top bolt free. Together, Watson, Sherlock, and the owner of the carriage took a run at the door.

It squealed and fell inwards, still attached via the lock. All three men spurned forwards into the lamp-lit shed which turned out to be a grain house full of machinery grinding and packing in the background.

The rain became a dull presence in the background and Sherlock was finally able to explain why they were breaking into private property.

“There’s a woman in here,” he said to the two gentlemen, who were struggling to catch their breath. “And we have to find her before…”

The carriage owner stepped forward and knelt down to the dusty floor where a dark smear of blood was glistening, still fresh. There was a crack – like lightening but inside the shed, accompanied by a quick flash of purple light.

“There…” Watson pointed to the sound, and the three of them darted around a giant set of grinding stones to find nothing but an empty corner.“Nothing,” whispered Watson, shaking his head. “He was right here, I know it.”

“He was here,” said Sherlock, creeping around the churning stones where he stooped to examine the elegant knife cast aside by the killer. Its blade was coated in a jewel-like liquid which trickled off its sharp surface.

Watson’s face lost all of its colour. “I’ve seen that before,” he said slowly.

A rush of frightened whispers filled the room as the carriage driver backed away, crossing his chest at the sight of Elizabeth, strewn across end of the room beyond the churning stones.

*~*~*

The carriage roared off into the night and Nigel followed, dashing out into the storm clear forgetting his clothes. His skin may have been mimicking the dreary surrounds of the derelict streets leading to the bridge, but the rain gliding over his body was just enough to create a shimmering outline like a mirage streaking through the dark.

He had no hope of catching his father and the lecturer on foot, so when Nigel came across an unattended horse tethered to a garden fence neighing irritably, he freed it and rode bareback through the night.

The horse galloped down the streets, over the bridge and back into the main city where the few people left outside parted in fright as the ‘unmanned’ horse tore madly past them. Once at the university gates, Nigel swung his leg over and fell down the side of the stallion and onto the muddy street. As far as he could tell, he had preceded their arrival but they could not be far behind. Terrified, Nigel made it through the main doors and flung himself up the marble stairs and along the corridor to Tesla’s attic.

The ladder was down and a soft glow lit the entrance to his room. Nigel had not expected that after the horrific and terrifying events of the previous night.

“Tesla?” he called, between gasps of breath. There was a shuffle in the ceiling and shortly after Nikola’s perfectly preened head popped into view looking quizzically down at the empty corridor.

The only thing out of place was a streak of water that ended at the base of the stairs put there seemingly by magic.

“Is Helen with you?” the empty space asked hurriedly.

Nikola narrowed his eyes and took a closer, more careful examination at the corridor. “Nigel,” he trailed off with an air of displeasure, “a sight for sore eyes I presume…” he snipped.

The ladder rattled as something grabbed on and started climbing. Nikola ducked out of the way of Nigel’s well camouflaged body as it protruded into the ceiling and caught sight of Helen seated by a rather mangled experiment.

“Who is it, Nikola?” she asked softly, still unaware of Nigel surveying the room.

Nikola straightened and leant his hand to the vacant air which took a hold and pulled itself into the room. “The great, invisible man,” replied Tesla lazily.

“We have to leave right now,” Nigel jogged over and took Helen by the arm, pulling her roughly from the floor. He dragged her toward the exit amid her protest until Nikola intervened.

“Steady on, Nigel!” he hissed, unable to detach him completely. “What’s all this about?”

“There’s no time to explain,” he whispered, reaching out to take hold of Nikola’s arm as well. “But if we don’t leave this building right now, we’ll be pets of the Cabal inside the hour. They know ‘bout us, what we did, and they’re comin’ to collect. Personally, I’d rather not be their latest attraction but it’s up to you.”

Nikola broke away and ducked over to the open window. He had a clear view of the front gates and soon after saw the carriage lights pull up at the gates. Nikola threw himself away from the window and nearly tripped as he pushed the others toward the ladder.

*~*~*

They were trapped.

The three of them had planned their exit through the lower levels and out the kitchens but as they had begun their descent of the stairs, the front doors were thrown open and three gentlemen hurried across the marble, coming to a pause in the grand foyer. Instinctively, Nikola, Helen and Nigel had recoiled and backtracked to the side of the stairwell where they could peer over the balustrade.

Nikola instantly recognised their natural sciences lecturer but couldn’t place the other two. Beside him, Helen had frozen and gone pale, glaring at the man tapping his cane over the stone.

“It’s him,” she whispered, hiding in the shadows at the top of the stairwell. “The man from the street. He is the one after the source blood and my father.”

Nigel was bitterly ashamed of himself, of his connection to the work of his father, so much so that he kept quiet as the gentlemen whispered to each other and the lecturer finally pointed at the stairwell where they were huddled.

You will find the Magnus girl and Mr Tesla this way,” said the lecturer.

“Our lecturer works for the Cabal?” Helen whispered.

“We have to go,” Nikola took hold of Helen and pulled her away down the corridor, flying over it as the gentlemen took to the stairs behind them.

“This way,” Nigel said, opening one of the doors along the corridor for the others to slip into.

Their pursuers heard the click of the door and followed easily, coming to a stop at the library doors several minutes later.

“Strange,” whispered the lecturer, pushing the doors open quietly, “there is no way out from here – it is a dead end.”

“Stay here…” Griffin directed his assistant to guard the doors, and then snuck into the dark library with the lecturer at his side.

22

TRILL MILL STREAM

I thought you were ‘aat home, Helen?” Nigel squeezed himself into the narrow space, lowering his rough, country voice to a hush.

They were huddled in a non-descript corner of the library, well out of sight of the entrance way, taking shelter where two bookshelves didn’t quite meet leaving a space for them to slip through against the wall and peer out from between the books. The thunder and rain outside hid the sound of their breath which, between them, was like a hoarse chorus behind the thudding of their hearts.

I was…” she replied, nudging one of the old books to cover a hole in the shelf. Helen felt Nikola’s sharp intake of breath beside her and stopped short of elaborating.

Your father is not their prisoner,” Nigel continued, as a few slender shadows streaked across the room. His own father and their lecturer were hunting about the reception area of the library, quite a distance from them. Still, their ghostly forms flicking through the room turned Nigel’s invisible skin cold. The others were blissfully unaware that this was the cruel face of his father, a man he had endured and feared. “They are still searching for him.”

Helen could not decide if she felt relieved or more concerned for her father than ever. It was very unlike Gregory to go without contacting her for this long. He must be in trouble.

And there was somethin’ else,” Nigel added, somewhat nervously. Helen could see a slight mist coming from where she presumed his mouth to be. His talent could hide many things, but not everything. “I doubt very much that it was the Cabal that robbed your house that night. They are still searching, quite desperately, for the source blood.”

What?” Helen whipped her head around, covering his face in a soft curtain of golden curls.

They do not have a sample of the source blood, which they would if it had been them.”

Who else could possibly know? Who else would –”

He’s still in Oxford,” said Nigel, solemnly. It had to be true. Helen’s father was somewhere within the city’s walls, scurrying in and out of the Cabal’s reach.

Hate to interrupt…” Nikola had been anxiously watching their own lecturer wander worryingly close, stooping down to check underneath the research tables. “But I think we should discuss this later, perhaps where there aren’t people trying to capture us…”

He has a point…” Helen whispered back.

We could overcome three men…” Nigel offered.

“No,” Nikola replied sternly, louder than he had meant to. Their lecturer flinched and briefly glanced in the direction of their hiding place. They fell silent for several minutes. “Best not to give them a demonstration,” Nikola continued, once the lecturer was out of sight, “as they’ll be back with things we can’t fend off – like bullets.”

Can’t hit what they can’t see,” none of them could see Nigel’s grin.

Congratulations on your luxury,” snapped Nikola, quickly losing patience with the man he’d never particularly liked in the first place. “And on that note, what was the second part of your brilliant, ‘escape through the library’ plan, or are you intentionally trying to get us trapped?”

You forget, this is my home,” Nigel shifted beside them. “My father –” he hesitated, he couldn’t tell them that it was his father currently hunting them, so he settled for, “worked here. Come on, follow me,” he tapped Helen’s arm lightly.

Nigel crept round the end of the bookcase and crossed the short distance to the opposing wall. Unable to see him, Helen and Nikola frequently had to hunt for shadows or swipe at the air to get a grip on Nigel’s location. Once, Nikola even whispered, ‘Steady on Nigel, remember we can’t see you!’ after completely losing him behind a bookshelf.

Finally, after escaping a close call with their lecturer, the three faced a wall in the old wing of the library, just short of where they usually chose to haunt.

“I don’t get it,” said Helen, her face laced with concern with their pursuer’s footsteps audible in the background. “We’re still trapped…”

An invisible force took hold of her hand and pulled her toward the wall, just before she hit its unfriendly surface, she noticed a gap between the shelf and the wall just big enough to slide through. The darkness of the library gave way to a spiral stairwell – open to the sky. The rain poured in from above, creating gushing torrents down the unsafe looking stone steps that led infinity downward. Nikola appeared behind her, ducking as soon as he felt the cold rain on his head.

Nigel stepped back and pulled Helen down a few steps in front of him before she stumbled, reached for the wall and swore.

“Nigel – what are you doing?” she hissed, balancing herself. Nikola followed, carefully navigating the slippery staircase that lacked any barrier on the right hand side, it was simply open to the dark hole with rain falling into nowhere.

“Keep going down,” the air around where Nigel stood muttered. “Then follow the tunnel, it will take you outside the university walls.” He reached through a spider web into an alcove in the wall beside them, dragging an oil lantern out. Using one of the old matches left there with it, he struck it under the protection of the rock and lit the wick. A small flicker of warmth suddenly revealed his shadow. He handed Nikola the lantern and said, “Look after her.”

Then Nigel scrambled past them, back into the library to delay his father and the lecturer for as long as possible.

For a moment Helen didn’t move, staring back at the entrance with the rain falling over her cheeks and hair.

“Come on,” Nikola said softly but firmly, taking her hand and leading her down the treacherous stairs.

“We can’t just leave him to-” but she was interrupted by Nikola, holding her more tightly as if he were frightened that she would vanish.

“Yes we can,” he said.

The rain poured down harder, clinking on the protective glass around the lantern and drenching Helen and Nikola. Nikola was hardly dressed to begin with, in only his white shirt, tied loosely at the top, and dark brown slacks and so he felt the coldness of the rain draining him. He was sure though, that Helen felt it worse with the heavy layers of her dress dragging on the ground, water logged and threatening to trip her at every step. Although she was now following him obediently, he daren’t let go of her hand in case she fell. Not that it would kill her, he reminded himself.

*~*~*

John threw himself against the wall of his apartment, gasping for air, his eyes running wildly over the room. Warm blood trickled from his clothes onto the floor, pooling in dark stains. It wasn’t his. His memory was a blur, a streak, a turbulent mirage that glinted in a sinister fashion but revealed nothing.

One moment he had been reclined in his chair with a book ready for sleep and the next he had stumbled through the door, soaked and panicked covered in someone else’s blood.

His head burned. John groaned and cupped his hands around his scalp, crumbling to the floor in confused agony. For some reason the flash of the crazed rodent’s teeth entered his mind. This vampire blood was sending him crazy.

*~*~*

James Watson leant against the shaking glass window of the train as it rattled violently against his head. He couldn’t see anything out of it with the heavy rain streaking across its surface other than the occasional gas light yet he couldn’t bring himself to sleep. There was something brewing in the air outside telling him that he had to return to Oxford as soon as possible. More than their lives depended upon it.

He twisted the item in his hands, turning the cold metal over and over. Nigel’s knife might be beautiful but it had done terrible things this night – and others. James wondered if its owner had done the same.

So many beautiful young women, torn and mutilated, left for the world to find, cast aside like rubbish. It had to end. He had sworn to Holmes that it would.

*~*~*

They flew off the last step and found themselves face to face with a low tunnel exhibiting an arched ceiling made of ancient bricks. It was the most foreboding sight either of them had ever laid eyes on and even Nikola, who often sought out the darkest corners to lurk in, hesitated.

He held the lantern out in front of them, temporarily letting go of her hand as he took a few cautious steps forward.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” he said, and tentatively entered the tunnel, ducking his head.

It smelt stale, dank and abandoned. He heard her join him, treading out of the rain into the tunnel. There was just enough room for them to walk side by side, something that neither of them objected to.

“What is this place?” she said, noticing the age of the bricks. “It doesn’t look anything like the rest of the building.”

“If I were to guess,” he started, running a finger over the tunnel’s surface as he moved through, “I’d say that the college has been built on top of Roman ruins. Not an uncommon practice in this part of the world.”

The thought made her shudder as she wondered how many other places there were like this under the city she lived in, forgotten remnants of the ancient world slumbering underground.

“That’s – a little eerie,” she confessed.

He smirked, “It never ceases to amaze me the disquiet your culture has with its past.”

Sometimes she forgot that he was so different to her – brought up far away in some part of the world she would never see – one that enjoyed its distant past.

“I can’t help it,” she said, letting go of her dress so that it dragged over the filthy floor. It could hardly make a difference, it was already well beyond ruined. She must have looked a frightful mess – all her curls hung limply by her face, dripping onto her clothes which were several shades darker. Her makeup was at best, a few sorrowful streaks down her cheeks.

Nikola turned his head to her, looked her up and down and said nothing.

She nodded, her suspicions confirmed. Yes, she was positively wild – something the great Nikola Tesla abhorred.

Then he did something very unexpected – he stumbled.

“Nikola?” Helen frowned in concern, stopping with an arm on his back.

He shrugged whatever it was off, including her hand.

“Let’s keep going,” he said, “I feel like one of your rats trapped in this tunnel – and we all know what happened to them, Helen.”

*~*~*

Nigel waited patiently, invisible against the wall.

Several more people from the Cabal entered the library, accentuated by the slamming door and grunted instruction to ‘search!

Resisting the urge to swear aloud, Nigel sidled his way along the endless rows of shelves toward his lecturer who was unwisely still checking the study desks alone, out of sight of the others. It was the perfect, and possibly his only chance to even the odds.

Though Nigel did not make a sound, some primordial reflex twitched inside the lecturer and his eyes shot up, scanning the rain stained gothic windows, following the dim light to the bookshelves opposite. He could have sworn – but there was nothing there. Nothing but rows of silent books, so why couldn’t he shake the feeling that he was being watched?

Begrudgingly, Bill resumed his task of searching the endless forest of desks and chairs for any sign of the students. Frankly, he was beginning to doubt that they were still in here. Perhaps they had doubled back behind them and they had … had missed them? Mind you, that was about as likely as Professor Griffin getting his hands on the source blood. It never ceased to amuse Bill how easily his old colleague underestimated him. Acquiring the source blood was a dangerous game, and he was playing for keeps, old friendships be damned.

Thud.

The lecturer’s world went blank as he cascaded to the ground, hit from behind by a single, heavy hand. Nigel could not believe that he had just done that. If he lived through this, he was definitely expelled.

His luck was short lived as two of the extras brought in to assist heard the lecturer’s demise and rounded a nearby corner to investigate. Nigel knew that they couldn’t see him, but he was keenly aware of his long, slender shadow cast across the room mingling with the tables. If you didn’t know where to look you would have missed it but should he so much as breathe the wrong way he was gone.

The two men, roughly the same size and shape except the closest to him had a long mess of straight hair, took a few steps forward toward the fallen lecturer.

“Heck!” exclaimed one in a whisper. “Quiet little buggers, then, aren’t they?”

The other man replied in a low, gruff slur of words.

“Leave him,” the first man finally decided, “keep searching, they are not far.”

*~*~*

“Nikola, Nikola – stop!” Helen fumbled for the sleeve of his shirt, catching the damp material in her hands, pulling him to a stop. He was not well and she could feel his skin trembling beneath her hands as she stepped in front of him and forced him to bring his eyes up to hers. She gasped. So that is what he had been trying to hide – two dark, glossy orbs belonging to something far from human.

Nikola didn’t say anything, he just turned away from the lamp’s light and lowered his head to the ground.

She let go of him and took a fearful step back. Not here, not now – he couldn’t.

“That’s correct,” he murmured against the wall as another violent wave took hold of him.

It took a few moments for reason to outweigh her fear.

“No…” Helen replied firmly, pushing the lantern back toward him and lifting his face so that she could see it better.

His eyes had returned to normal and his shaking had ceased – for the moment. She had no idea how long it would take for the transformation to take place but it could not be long.

“I am not leaving you,” she continued, seeing the fear welling up behind his steel eyes. “Now – come on.”

This time it was Helen who took the lead, clawing at the thick, sticky webs that littered the arched tunnel as darkness encroached both in front and behind them. Without warning, the floor of the tunnel took a turn downward and they had to use the walls to stop them from sliding over the mossy floors. There were constant rivers of water pouring past them, and they were getting larger – no doubt as the rain pounded harder down the distant stairwell.

“Oh…” Helen’s breath caught as freezing water seeped through her shoes and she realised her feet were submerged. She stepped backward, bumping into Nikola who had been uncommonly quiet.

The tunnel in front was still slowly heading downward, but the way ahead was flooded with a black expanse of water – one that they would have to navigate if they wanted to make it out.

“Don’t stop,” Nikola suddenly said behind her. He looked almost normal in the soft light, his hair a dripping fright of black and his cheeks flushed. It was a demeanour so far from what she was used to that she couldn’t stop the smile curling across her lips.

He frowned at her.

“You find our predicament amusing?” he queried, trailing his hand up the wall beside, straightening his posture so that he positively loomed. That was more the Nikola she remembered.

She thought about that for a moment. People hunting them so that they could perform horrendous experiments on them – vampire blood trickling through their blood transforming them into things she didn’t even want to think about – her father lost, missing somewhere on the run from a murderous organisation that would stop at nothing to find him and her own lecturer in on the whole thing – a man she had trusted with Nigel’s life.

“No,” she quipped, “I don’t think amusing is the right word.”

“Then let us get on with it,” nudged her forward, and her feet hit the cold water again. She nearly slipped, barely able to maintain her balance.

His heavy leather boots entered the water first and he felt nothing except a slight skid of his sole over the bricks. Finally though, as they progressed further and deeper, the water rose up over his ankles accompanied by a few green sparks.

Helen’s eyes widened as the water flickered and a tingle rippled over her skin.

“What…” she started, but Nikola’s sarcastic tone had returned.

“Water and electricity,” he drawled, “rarely mix.” When she continued to look confused he added, “Another gift from our experiment. It should worry you,” he added, “we don’t have much time.” And as if to prove it, a glossy sheen returned to his eyes.

*~*~*

Nigel had dodged his pursers for about as long as he could. They were smart, caging him into a corner by carefully sweeping and securing each alcove until he was left hiding in plain sight beside the entrance to the secret passageway. He really didn’t want to be here – it was stupid, they would find it this way but they had not given him a choice.

Now he could see all three of them, no more than ten metres away, whispering and signalling to one another.

This is it, he told himself, flexing the few lean muscles he had. He would make a run for it, head toward the library doors, draw them out, away from Nikola and Helen.

He was about to make his move when the unthinkable happened – the beautiful interlude from the pain that he had been enjoying, abruptly ended. He knew it before he saw it – his body stirring into view and the gaze of his pursuers suddenly settling on him with surprise.

*~*~*

The water only got deeper as they ventured further until Helen had to hold the delicate lamp aloft, scant inches from the arched ceiling. She convulsed, seeing the curtain of spiders – all black – tangled legs, as they hung out of the water’s reach. She felt a few of them fall onto her shoulders and neck but had long ago given up on removing them. They showed up worse on Nikola’s white shirt which was translucent as it dragged through the chest high water.

Oh god, she thought, it better not get any deeper.

It wasn’t just the cold – it was the stench of stagnant water that drove her to ill. They had slowed down, ploughing rather than hurrying until they heard a splash in the distance and several voices shout.

23

A SHOT IN THE DARK

The Cabal were in the tunnel.

Nikola clenched his fists together, trying to fight the pain of the transformation that had begun its hostile hold on his body. He could feel the ancient memories returning. The world around him had begun to blur between water and sand – a surreal landscape that he shook off with a sharp turn of his head.

Focus, he had to breathe slowly and concentrate. The water in the tunnel lapped at the top of his shoulders and beside him, Helen could barely keep the lantern from its surface. This was no time to falter.

“They’re coming,” she managed, thrashing about in the water beside him.

There were at least two Cabal pursing them through the tunnel – gaining on them. Neither carried a light and instead seemed to be drawn to the solitary glow of Helen’s lantern.

“I hope Nigel wasn’t lying about this tunnel meeting the river,” Helen peered into the blackness in front. At the moment it looked as if they would drown – lost in its depths. The water was quickening, enticing – luring – freezing around her.

“You have reason to doubt him?” Nikola’s hand was permanently clasped around Helen’s waist, hooked under her small belt– helping to keep her afloat with all her endless yards of fabric.

“Truthfully,” she risked a glance at him and was relieved to find Nikola there – rather than the creature taking hold of him, “how well do we really know him?”

“The only person I trust,” he replied, looking deeply into her, “is you.”

Nikola was quite serious causing her to look away at once, her cheeks blushing. Nikola had never been forthcoming – with anyone, but when he chose to be his confessions had more weight than open declarations of love.

It wasn’t that the water in the tunnel was getting shallower – more that the roof was getting higher. All of a sudden, the archway over their heads gave way to an enormous underground room.

They were wading through some kind of drainage system – a series of tunnels and chambers that channelled water from under the city back out into the river. It was an endless mess of dead ends and water.

On both sides of them, three or so metres away, were a series of floods steps onto a narrow pathway that ran along both walls and ahead of them was an old stone bridge, precariously traversing the water.

It was impossible to make out the ceiling now. Helen held the lantern high so that its glow on the dark water stretched far in front of them.

There was a strong current down here, and it was dragging them along almost against their will. Another foot of depth and they would be helpless.

“We should try for the side,” said Nikola, trying to drag Helen closer to the safety of the stone edge, but she shook her head and pulled him back.

“No – this water leads out, it must,” Helen protested. “It is the fastest way out.”

Nikola didn’t seem to agree. His skin was shivering again – and not from the cold. He had already bitten through his gum trying to stop the transformation but his will was breaking, faltering as the cold water weakened his resolve.

There they are,” said a breathless voice behind them. There was a loud splash as one of the Cabal henchmen crawled up onto the footpath and helped the older man up beside him.

Get them,” was all the Professor said, staggering to the wall for support.

Helen and Nikola turned to find their pursuers horribly close behind them. A man plunged into the deep water after them while the other slowly progressed along the walkway at the side, hissing instructions. Helen recognised him at once – it was the man from the street – the man that had threatened her father – and the moment he laid his eyes on her there was a flicker of recognition.

“Oh God,” Helen swore, and then threw the lantern into the water, throwing the underground world into total darkness.

*~*~*

The train pulled into Oxford’s platform – screeching against the water drowning the tracks. It was nearly morning when Watson dipped his head and raced through the downpour towards a lonely coach but not yet light enough to see without the gas street lanterns.

“James Watson?” the drenched man, wrapped in several layers of heavy fabric shouted. His hands kept a tight hold on the uneasy horses tied to the carriage.

James nodded, “The University, please – fast as you can!”

The driver whipped the horses as soon as Watson slammed the carriage door shut and slid across the leather seats.

*~*~*

Nigel beat against the small box containing him, thrashing about like a snared fox. They had him in a container no larger than a coffin – barely room to breathe as he pounded away at the lid, hoping to break the locks or hinges.

His efforts were repaid with a loud crash as one of the Cabal watching him slammed his fist onto the crate.

Enough!” a low voice growled.

Not on your life, Nigel thought defiantly, kicking and punching at every surface but it was too late. There was a strange lurch followed by a not-so-gentle rocking and he realised that he was being carried. He was vaguely aware of doors closing and the tilt as steps were descended until finally his body slipped sharply and he slammed into the top of the box.

The transport crate was thrown into the back cart and quickly began soaking in the rain. Nigel, dazed from the impact, whispered again and again.

No…”

He had seen what became of Cabal test subjects. Should he make it to the factory, he would be lost forever.

*~*~*

The Professor pulled one of the waiting lanterns from the tunnel wall beside him and struck a match.

Despite her best efforts, Helen was awkward in the water. Her garments dragged endlessly behind her and she felt herself sinking whenever her feet lost contact with the ground. Nikola was a short distance in front – one of his hands held onto hers, pulling her as best he could. They could both hear the Cabal agent as he lashed about in the water, growing ever closer and see the approaching solitary light of the Professor as he observed the capture.

Suddenly Helen felt a sharp tug on her dress, dragging her briefly under the water. The Cabal agent had her now. She slipped from Nikola’s hold and he frantically grasped at the water for her, shouting her name.

“Nikola!” she screamed, water flying in her face as the Cabal agent worked his way closer – pawing his way up her dress, strengthening his grip.

He pulled a knife and brandished it for Nikola’s benefit, warning him to let go but the violent movement of the three bodies lurched them sideways – Helen’s arm falling against the blade.

She felt it instantly – the unsettling tingle as the nerves were sliced and then, in a wave, the searing pain. Hot red blood trickled over her arm and the knife, dripping into the water she gasped.

Another Cabal agent entered the tunnel with a second lantern, sliding along the tunnel to the Professor.

Nikola finally caught her flailing, uninjured arm and Helen became the centre of a deadly tug of war.

Help him,” said the Professor to the second Cabal henchman. “I need them both.”

The Cabal agent nodded and waded into the water toward the fray.

She was slipping from Nikola again as they drifted under another stone bridge.

“Nikola…” she reached her other arm out to him. It was bleeding profusely but the constant gushing of water over it disguised all but the diagonal tear, “Please…”

Nikola knew what had to be done. He could not hold onto her against the two men. They would both be captured, killed – tortured. It had to be this way.

“Don’t stop,” he instructed her – his face wild with a mix of fear, hope and desperation.

At first she did not understand – but then she saw it – the dark veil fall over his eyes.

“No…” she pleaded, as Nikola’s human features faded and twisted. Helen could see him giving into it – the pain of the other world inside him.

He did not fight the transformation. With every moment his strength grew, the tunnel brightened and his fear was replaced with something quite unexpected – hunger.

The Cabal agent watched in mute fear but did not relinquish his hold.

In a surge of strength, Nikola ripped Helen from the other man’s grasp and threw her into the deep water at the centre of the tunnel where she was quickly caught in a torrent of gushing water, whisking her away.

Nikola!” she shouted back, struggling to stay afloat. “Nikola no!” but it was too late. The soft light of the two lanterns faded quickly to black and she was left alone, caught in the dark water. For many minutes there was nothing but her ragged breath and the churning of water.

Helen felt lost in some form of after world as she was taken along with the current. The water got deeper – the tunnel wider and the darkness more silent until a gunshot rang out – and shattered it.

“Nik-ola…” her voice broke into a sob, as she realised that it was too late to save him.

*~*~*

James Watson stormed through the university gates, his light travel case lifted above his head as an attempt at protection against the rain. He pushed past an old man, nearly knocking him to the ground in haste.

“Apologies,” James muttered, laying a hand on the man’s shoulder to steady him. “So sorry…”

Professor Samuel Griffin recovered quickly, nodding at the young man that he was okay before continuing to the road where his carriage awaited with the box in the accompanying cart.

“Did you get it?” Professor Griffin asked, before stepping out of the rain.

One of his henchman nodded, shaking some of the water off their face.

“Yes sir, just the one. Tricky bugger, knocked your associate out cold. Do you want us to go get him?”

Professor Griffin thought on it for a moment before, fixing his gloves before answering, “No… he is alive?”

“Oh yes, alive – unconscious but alive.”

“Then we leave him.”

*~*~*

Helen gave up fighting against the water. She let allowed the darkness to pull at her, the cold numbing her body of everything as she thought of Nikola’s lifeless body, following her. Or perhaps they would have recovered it – to experiment on him – it was just – too horrific – she could not think of it without shuddering.

She did not notice the exchange of the darkness of the tunnels to the darkness of night. With a gush of fresh air, she was propelled into a narrow stream bordered by weeds and long grass.

A man, pacing along the bank startled at the site of the woman floating by and ran along in front before sliding down the bank and plucking the sobbing woman from the water.

She gave no protest – barely acknowledging the gesture until she heard the soft word.

Helen…”

Helen blinked away the tears and tilted her head up to the face of the man whose arms she is protectively encircled in.

“Father?” she whispered, looking on his wearied but loving face.

“Yes,” was his quiet reply. He lifted one of his large hands to cup her face, wiping away a line of tears from her cheek.

Gregory Magnus had waited all night on a gamble, stalking the banks of the Trill Mill stream for the students. He had watched the Cabal storm the school but could do nothing but wait. It more than worried him that it was only his daughter to emerge from the tunnels.

“What happened?” he asked her, even though it was clear by her tears that many terrible things had transpired since his departure.

She wanted to tell him everything. The experiments, the blood, her condition, the Cabal but in the end all she managed was, ‘Nikola…’ before falling against his shoulder.

Gregory’s arms enveloped his daughter and held her as they sat together, strewn over the bank, the water still brushing over their feet. They stayed like that for several minutes – Helen burying herself in her father’s jacket, him, stroking her matted hair – his eyes falling to the trail of blood dripping from her arm. He knew, all too well, that no injury would kill her – and now she knew it too.

“Helen!” Gregory’s voice suddenly jarred, and he pushed her gently away, freeing himself – his eyes locked on the river behind where another body floated by.

It was Nikola – unconscious in the current, his vampire teeth protruding over his lips and his shirt a pale red from blood.

Gregory stumbled down the bank, catching hold of Nikola’s arm, pulling him to the edge. With great effort, he and Helen hauled the vampire up onto the bank and laid him out flat on the grass. Helen held her hand over her mouth. She was shaking with shock and cold at the sight of Nikola’s hollow eyes staring into nowhere. His shirt was ripped open in the front – slashed in several places.

“Is he…” she whispered, but couldn’t finish the sentence.

Gregory knelt down beside Nikola and searched for a wound but could find nothing.

“Helen,” he started, as he felt for a faint heart beat on the body. “Tell me the truth, did you experiment with the Source Blood?”

She nodded slowly.

“And Nikola, did he ingest – or…”

“We derived a serum from it,” she interrupted him.

If he wasn’t so horrified, Gregory would have been proud.

“We all took it, Nikola, John, James, Nigel and myself.”

Gregory’s eyes fluttered closed in horror.

“He is not dead…” he finally said, his hands reaching inside his coat. “Nikola is like you now.”

*~*~*

James Watson flung open the door to his dormitory so hard that one of the hinges snapped clattered to the floor leaving the door to scrape over the floorboards. The room was empty.

Nigel?” James asked the empty space, but he was not there.

If Nigel had been in London and slaughtered that poor girl, it would have been difficult to arrive first. Nigel’s absence only made James more suspicious of his roommate. The man was invisible – he could vanish without a trace – commit crimes and no-one be the wiser. In short, Nigel Griffin was the perfect profile for a murderer – but how was James to prove it? Not even Mr Holmes would entertain such a notion.

Whatever the case, he had to warn Helen of his suspicions. If she was still in the building, she was to be found in Tesla’s attic, so that’s where he headed. When he arrived, he paused at the sight of the stairs unfolded. Nikola never left the stairs down at this hour and though there were lights burning in the room, there were no soft voices accompanying it.

James stepped closer, eventually climbing the ladder. As his head emerged in the attic he saw that the lanterns were reaching the last of their oil and the room was abandoned and had been for some hours.

There was someone going on tonight – and it wasn’t good.

*~*~*

The carriage shook and rattled its way back across Oxford with haste – its precious cargo in tow. Professor Griffin sat resolute, like some kind of marble statue – his hands folded in his lap. Though he did not show it, his strength was failing fast. It took all Samuel’s strength to maintain his composure.

“Only one, one out of five,” observed one the Cabal agents, inspecting a vicious set of claw marks along his arm. The scars beneath burned like nothing else. “They are fast, and strong.”

“Of course they are,” replied Griffin, glancing out the window at the weak lights of the town.

“He’s – ” the Cabal agent hesitated before finishing, “your son…”

Griffin flinched with regret. He could hear the box on the cart behind rocking about, smashing against its prisoner.

“I know,” he said slowly.

24

PUSHING BOUNDARIES

Gregory Magnus was not dressed in his usual gentlemanly attire. Instead his simple olive coat – worn and patched, was buttoned over a cotton shirt. During the months he had grown a thick grey beard which stuck out from his chin in a three inch carpet matted against the oncoming cold. He looked both well travelled and bedraggled – like someone that had been living on the outskirts of society.

Kneeling on the soft, wet ground beside the ghoulish body of Nikola Tesla, Gregory carefully trailed his eyes over the claws, protruding teeth, pale skin and pitted eyes. The likeness was uncanny.

Sanguine Vampiris, in the flesh – or near enough.

“Extraordinary…” he exhaled, shaking his head slowly. “Are the others – like this?”

Helen had one hand over her stomach and the other across her mouth to stop herself from crying.

“No,” she replied softly, “it’s – different. Nigel is –” Helen had to think for a moment. What exactly was Nigel? What were any of them? “He’s a chromataphore,” she eventually settled on, “but he suffers terrible pain. Watson and John are changed also – but in more subtle ways I –” Helen could not bear to look at her father, “whatever their bodies are doing – they are not finished yet.”

“And you are unchanged,” Gregory added, when she neglected to mention herself. He knew that she would be – her abnormality was very specific.

Instead of rain, a few flecks of snow took to the air, tumbling helplessly around them before melting on the grass – but not Nikola’s cold skin – which suddenly flinched beneath one of the tiny crystals.

“Helen,” Gregory spurred into action, reaching into his jacket pockets as Nikola’s skin shivered and breathed. “There is much to tell you but this is not the place.”

“What is that?” Helen watched her father produce a small, corked glass bottle with a thick, silky liquid swirling like perfume. As the stopper was removed, perfume is exactly what Helen could smell. It invaded her senses with its bold floral scent – something that she faintly remembered from childhood but could not place.

Nikola was stirring again – his clawed fingers flexing against the mud, chest rising higher and his pitted eyes beginning to search the void of night above.

Gregory wasted no time. He took a needle from his coat, dipped it into the liquid and drew it into the syringe. It swirled lusciously like some kind of gold in the half-light. Next, Gregory re-stoppered the bottle and tapped the needle lightly against his fingers. He ignored Helen’s whispered questions, bringing the tip of the needle to Nikola’s skin and forcing it through in one quick motion. A moment later the liquid had vanished into Nikola’s body, caught up in his crimson currents.

“What have you done…?” Helen went to lay her hand on Nikola’s forehead as he began to shudder but Gregory grasped her wrist and stopped her.

“Don’t touch him,” he cautioned, as Nikola’s body sweated and shook more violently.

Nikola’s limbs pounded against the ground, his neck jarring sharply as a high-pitched screech left his lips. It was over as soon as it started. The black consuming Nikola’s eyes faded out revealing his frightened grey irises while his claws shrank back to nails. His teeth flattened and returned to their normal state until all that remained was Nikola, lying on the ground, raising a hand to his forehead awakening from a recrudescent dream.

Gregory fell back onto the ground, relieved while Helen rocked forward, catching Nikola’s flailing arms.

Nikola!” she breathed, her fingers trailing over his body and face, searching for the injuries she knew he must have. They flitted over his collar bone, down his chest and dipped under the edges of his open shirt and then back up to his face as Nikola tried to sit up, questions brimming on his lips.

“Stop – stop,” he begged, finally seated with both Helen and Gregory bookending him. “H-h-how?” Nikola stuttered, struggling to regain control of his body. He remembered the tunnel, the dark freezing water and the horrible moment when he had allowed the transformation of his body. Beyond that, the world was a blur of screams and pain.

Gregory swallowed the lump in his throat and held the glass bottle up for Nikola to see. “This suppresses the effects of the ancient blood.”

Helen’s warm arms wrapped themselves around Nikola’s waist and back, holding him upright. Her arm was still bleeding but it had already begun to heal from both edges in an unnaturally fast manner.

“It is not a cure,” finished Gregory, letting Nikola take the bottle from him and examine it. “Little more than the beginning of an idea, but it will have to do as it is all we have.”

“Then – I will always be like this,” Nikola said slowly, licking his dry lips and handing the bottle back.

This has always been part of you. A reaction this extreme…” Gregory had heard of such historical lineages but never seen one himself. Mr Tesla’s history was intrinsically linked to the vampire race, of that much he was certain.

Nikola felt overwhelmingly ill but the tight pair of arms around his waist kept him steady.

“I am sorry,” Gregory meant it, gazing down at the ravished body of the young man, barely alive, “but there is no time to delay. The Cabal grow bolder with every moment we waste. Nikola…” he waited until the man’s pale grey eyes returned to him. Then, Gregory withdrew a set of crumpled notes from his pocket, folded and tied together with a brown length of ribbon. They are Nikola’s notes – supposedly stolen.

His sister’s notes. “Where did you?”

“I stole them, from my own house. Nikola – they are incomplete. I must have the rest…” Gregory’s eyes were quite desperate. “I can fix this – I can but I must have your help.”

They couldn’t know that what Gregory needed to fix wasn’t the effects of the blood but the genetic curse bestowed upon his daughter. He had been searching more than twenty years and now he was within arm’s length. He could save her – he could – even if his own life was the price.

*~*~*

James Watson poked the library door with a single, elongated finger. The door squealed as it swung open, crying out at the night. All the lights were off but a crack in the storm-ridden sky allowed a few strong beams of moonlight to strike at the floor.

He edged in warily.

James’s eyes were caught by a couple of upturned chairs in the study area to the side. The heavy wooden things had been thrown out from their table and now lay strewn over the floor. Criss-crossing lines of moon-light lit the way in front of him as he moved around from the new library into the more familiar old section. Despite this alcove having become a second home to him, James Watson felt a prickle run along the hairs at the back of his neck as he looked around the deserted area. It too was littered with open books, thrown onto the floor and left like corpses.

God above,” James whispered, carefully stepping around the books, his eyes scanning the room for any sign of Nikola, Helen or Nigel.

He was about to lose hope – one hand brushing over his clean shaven chin in bafflement, when he heard a low, pained groan come from the floor behind him.

James spun around, his overly long travelling coat flaring out. There it was again – the rumbling of air through someone’s throat.

“Hello?” James offered tentatively to the room. It was unlikely that someone here to harm him would have announced their presence.

He backtracked to the clutter of tables and chairs – surprised to find a man writhing on the floor – something that he had completely missed on his first pass through the room.

“Sir!” he breathed out, kneeling to the floor beside the grey-haired man.

*~*~*

John emerged from a bowl of freezing water – hands clasped closely to his face, rubbing away the hazy tangle of memories. He had passed out on the floor again – awoken sprawled awkwardly over the scuffed floor surrounded by dried tracks of blood – someone else’s.

His dreams were terrible. They were vast stretches of darkness filed with an overwhelming desire – a lust of sorts. An insatiable urge to prey upon the innocent and even in waking it was creeping up on him.

He tried desperately to wash it away – to shock himself with the cold water into believing it to be just that, a dream but the tainted water, sick with blood, defied his will.

John’s hands shook, dripping with the pale red water. The only question on his lips, “What have I done?”

*~*~*

James held a handkerchief to the lecturer’s head, dabbing at a trail of blood working its way down the side of his face before dripping onto the shoulder of his jacket.

“Sir…” James began, helping the man into one of the nearby chairs. They sat there in the fractured moonlight. His continued silence was an invitation for the professor to elaborate.

A choice. Whatever had happened, it was clear that the lecturer’s old friend Griffin had abandoned him – left him for dead on the floor. Whatever business arrangements they had had in the past were clearly at an end.

“Someone – I heard voices shouting,” the lecturer lied, closing his eyes in pain as James pressed firmly on the wound, cleaning it. “It was that woman-”

“Helen?” James prompted and was met with a nod. He felt his stomach turn – unable to shake the image of all those slaughtered women in London.

“Yes,” the lecturer continued. “And men – several of them. I don’t know I – I dressed and came into the library. It was dark and then someone hit me from behind.” He was very convincing in his lie – a talent of his. “That is all that I remember.”

James collapsed back into the chair opposite, lost in worry. What could be done? He knew very well that there was nothing to be done at this hour of the morning except maybe – the thought occurred to him – John – yes, perhaps he could find John.

“Sir,” James started, leaning toward the old man who was busy inspecting the injury on his head. “We must find John Druitt – do you have his current residence?”

*~*~*

The urgent knock at the hotel door roused John from his tumultuous sleep. He quickly struggled out of the chair, striding past the fireplace which had burnt down to glowing coals. Looking more human in his dressing gown, he unlatched the door and opened it a crack. He was met at once by James Watson’s alert expression.

“John – thank god,” said Watson, pushing open the door and letting himself into the room. He had left the professor back at the university.

“James?” John said sleepily, closing the door behind them. Though they had known each other for many months now, he had never met with James outside the university walls and certainly had not disclosed the details of his residence. “How did you find me? Why have you found me? God, is that the hour?” the questions rolled out on top of one another.

“There is no easy way to tell you this, John,” James paced about the room anxiously, never settling for more than a moment on any one place. “It’s Helen,” he let her name linger before adding, “and Nikola and Nigel. They are all missing.”

*~*~*

Nikola clutched the bundle of papers lovingly – eventually folding them and stowing them inside his new jacket. Less than five hours had passed since his transformation. Gregory Magnus had wasted no time ushering him and Helen back to the house where he rustled up some clothes for Nikola and ushered them out of the house and into a waiting coach that was now shaking and lumbering down the morning road en-route to the train station.

Helen was beside him and Gregory opposite. No-one could bring themselves speak – instead they were lost in their own worry and plans at the enormity of the task ahead of them for which they were ill-prepared.

Despite the desperation of their situation – the utter hopelessness of it all, Nikola could not banish the flicker of comfort that he would see his family again – his mother and the youngest of his sisters still waiting at home. The notes were in her handwriting – Milka had always been the most like Nikola.

Nikola shifted and turned his head, glancing at Helen. She had drifted off to sleep, leaning against the leather interior of the carriage with a mess of golden hair tumbling everywhere.

*~*~*

ONE WEEK LATER

As they progressed further north the air grew colder and winter took foot. Permafrost made the ground hard underfoot while passing clouds dusted the steam engine with snow. Their windows were hidden beneath sheets of ice making the view outside a blur.

The world here was slowing, frozen under layers of white. Lines of trees stood bare against the world, stripped down to blackened tangles of twigs. Jagged hills and farmed valleys became part of the endless curtain of winter beyond the train window.

Nikola, wrapped in freshly bought clothes – a simple grey gentleman’s suit with a muskrat fur coat that was soft to the touch and long enough to bury your fingers in, was unbuttoned. He wore black, fur lined gloves and sturdy warm shoes with thick soles. Where they were going, his home, the cold was unforgiving. He had not been there in several years, not since leaving to further his education. He had missed the wildness of the place – the way it lingered at the fringe of civilisation, listening closely to the whispers of its past.

He felt the train take the slow turn as the tracks crossed one of the unmoving rivers and turned south. It was the final leg of the long journey.

Helen had been pacing through the compartment, travelling it end to end like a pendulum swinging back and forth. Her long gown of brown and black brushed against the walls as she passed, rustling. She lingered at the open door to Nikola’s compartment, her eyes watching him as he watched the world chug by.

“You are home,” she observed, crossing her arms over her chest. Despite her attire, she was cold. When Nikola did not reply, Helen eased into the compartment and seated herself opposite him. Her dress fanned out, settling in layers of lace and fur at his knees.

He did not move or acknowledge the world – so Helen reached forward and rested one of her gloved hands on top of his.

“Nikola…?” she said softly.

His eyes flicked first to her hand and then gradually roamed to her face. Her cheeks were flushed red from the cold but her eyes remained wild and blue – clear like the ice around them. He placed his other hand atop hers and was alarmed at the cold he felt through his glove.

“You are freezing,” he said, rubbing her hand between his.

The door of the compartment rattled as it was closed. Nikola and Helen turned to find Gregory Magnus, also dressed warmly, standing by the edge of the single bed. His expression was one heavy with regret at the task that awaited him at the same hour every day.

“I know…” said Nikola, before Gregory could say anything.

25

THE BRITISH MUSEUM

“Give him a minute,” Helen murmured, her hand still securely between Nikola’s.

“I daren’t.” Gregory moved over to them. “It is nearly twenty-four hours,” he said, “if we wait…”

The last time had been nearly as bad as the first. It appeared the longer they held off Nikola’s natural instincts, the worse their manifestation became. Four days had now passed since his last transformation and now the moon was high and the night approaching, they could not risk it. The injection had to be administered regularly and without fail.

“Helen…” Nikola untangled his hands – her cue to leave.

“This isn’t right,” she said, as she moved past her father, her hand resting on the brass door handle. The two gentlemen didn’t look at her and remained silent until she left.

Gregory withdrew the glass container holding the remainder of the rose-oil. There was less than half remaining. The train shook as Gregory took Helen’s place in front of Nikola who was already shrugging out of his heavy coat and rolling up the sleeve of his shirt.

“How long?” Nikola asked calmly, extending his bare arm out. How long until the bottle was empty?

With a needle in one hand, Gregory expertly undid the seal of the bottle and the pungent fragrance filled the air.

“A month,” he replied, “if we’re careful.”

Nikola nodded. A month of humanity left. A month before he became a monster. A month before he would end it all.

“Does she know?” Nikola flinched as the needle went through his skin. He couldn’t help but think of that night, long ago, when this had all begun.

“No,” Gregory answered.

Neither of them would tell her.

*~*~*

The old man sat by the cage – staring for hours at the emptiness behind the bars. His years had advanced horridly in the short week – disfiguring his face with deep creases and sagging layers of skin that hung under his eyes. White hair – too long for his face, hung limply by his ears while his wrinkled hand resting on the smooth top of his walking cane – continued to shake.

Coward…” jeered the empty cage. “Kill me, if you’re goin’ t’ kill me.”

There – a flicker – an imperfection in the air.

Samuel Griffin didn’t respond to the taunt. It had been the same for days now. Pacing – endless pacing and sneering like some kind of animal. Mostly, that was all Professor Samuel Griffin saw – when he could, an animal.

“It is not in my interests to kill you,” Professor Griffin eventually replied, as the outline of his son rippled in and out of view. The underground vaults at Empire Cotton were mostly bare rooms burrowed out of the earth and lined with concrete. Water stains down their bleak interiors broke up the otherwise grey expanse while oil lamps around the room made the air heavy with smoke. Occasionally the wailing of some other creature could be heard.

“Then what?” Nigel shot back, seated at the opposite side of the small enclosure with his knees pulled up to his chin, rocking with the cold.

“What you have done to yourself is…” Professor Griffin’s words faltered, weighed down by an insidious hatred, “is monstrous.”

Nigel’s skin rippled wildly until his figure reappeared. His eyes were bright red at their centres – a frightening contrast to his pale skin which was stretched thinly over his bones like tissue paper.

Professor Griffin breathed sharply. His son – no – this creature was a travesty of nature.

“Do you know what the Cabal are?” Professor Griffin composed himself. “Ten thousand years ago humans were enslaved by an abnormal race known as Sanguine Vampiris. We were the cattle of civilisation – preyed upon, slaughtered and used to build their sparkling empires but now,” Griffin’s voice lowered, “we shall have our revenge. We shall hunt them down – every last one of them…” His tone suggested that this now included Nigel. “This is a war,” he continued, “there is bloodshed, there is sacrifice – do not mistake me for a weak man because my body has failed me.”

Father…” Nigel moved to the bars of the cage, curling his fingers around them, desperation taking hold. “Please.”

“You stopped being my son when you became one of them,” Professor Samuel Griffin spat back. “My whole life – do you have any idea what-” but there was no point explaining the history of their family – the suffering that they had endured. It was over now. The Griffin lineage had ended – when Samuel died – and he knew that it would be soon – they would enter the pages of history and live no more.

A slamming door startled them both as several men entered, one of them grunting, “We’re ready, sir,” to Professor Griffin. Griffin merely nodded, and the men descended on the cage, unlocking its door and grabbing roughly at Nigel.

“Where are you takin’ me? Answer me!” Nigel screeched as cold hands wrapped around his naked body and something was injected into him, at once making his limbs numb and heavy. He didn’t remain conscious long enough to hear their answer.

*~*~*

The roof of the train carriage arched over Helen, ornately decorated with brass and wood fixtures. A deep red carpet underfoot matched the colour of the walls which were broken periodically by windows, oil lamps and silk curtains with oriental scenes hand sewn into them. She would have appreciated the luxury of her surrounds more had she not been able to hear the retching coming from Nikola’s compartment. The wild rose oil made him ill, horribly so. She cursed herself, raising the eyebrows of the few passengers scattered around her.

Helen ignored the young gentleman opposite her, pretending to read his paper while trying to catch her eye every so often. Her father had spoken to him several times during the week. He was a wealthy individual, well schooled and was presently interested in funding scientific enterprise. Her father was courting his finance but Helen didn’t trust him at all. The man couldn’t be more than twenty and was far too at ease with the world for her liking.

Half an hour passed in silence until her father stepped out into the lounge area and nodded in her direction meaning that Nikola was finally asleep. Instead of joining her, Gregory Magnus wandered over to the young gentleman and took a seat beside him.

“Mr Fort,” Gregory said politely.

The man lowered his newspaper, dragging his attention away from the article entitled, ‘MANSION HOUSE – A FOOLISH FREAK’ and the exert that had been of particular interest;

Clerks must have their jokes apparently, and there is reason to suspect that the Whitechapel murders may have prompted them to the making of some grim ones lately. The Lord Mayor, however, has widely laid it down that if stupid practical jokes are inevitable so should be their punishment. It had pleased a warehouse clerk, who came before him yesterday, to extinguish a lamp and so darken the access to houses in Upper Thames street at a time when all East end people are specially sensitive as to the necessity for abundant light.’

“Charles – please,” the man corrected Gregory. Though the man was clearly American in origin, his accent and physical features were Dutch.

“Is it the sense of adventure that finds you on this train or something else?” Gregory enquired lightly, making conversation.

Charles Fort folded his newspaper away.

“A woman,” he declared finally, his eyes drifting but never settling in Helen’s direction. Charles was endowed with a thick moustache and a firm build covered by an expensive suit that made him appear suave but adventurous. It was fair to say that Charles was handsome in the classical sense and charismatic to the point that a room would turn to his smallest gesture.

“From America, it is a long way to come,” observed Gregory. “She must be beautiful.”

“Very,” Charles quickly cut in – his dark brown eyes warm and friendly for someone his age. “Though it is her wit that I cherish,” he added. “She is a scientist, like myself.”

Gregory seemed to find this admirable and the two continued chatting for several hours. Helen meanwhile, excused herself and vanished into the adjoining compartments, inevitably finding herself lingering beside Nikola’s bed, watching him sleep.

He was turned awkwardly on his side like he had fallen there. His face was pale and his breath shallow and sharp.

“I’m sorry,” Helen said quietly, moving wayward strands of hair from his sleeping face.

Not wishing to leave, she retook her place in the seat by the window with the collection of Nikola’s papers. She flicked through them even though she had already read every word. How Nikola’s sister had acquired originals of William Dampier’s notes was a mystery. They were coveted and hard to come by. The great explorer had died nearly two-hundred years ago yet still his research and discovery of the natural world was mostly untouched. At times like these – with scores of people venturing out into the world to discover its secrets, there was a sea of information building up and not enough eyes to understand it.

*~*~*

Though James Watson had scoured the newspaper every day for news from the London about the killings, he had heard nothing for weeks. It seemed that the world was eerily quiet – as if waiting for something. Even Sherlock Holmes had dropped out of contact, not bothering to wire him for many days now.

Eventually, James discarded the paper on John’s drinks table with an exhausted, “Nothing…” following it closely. The afternoon had settled into the beginning of night and a crisp breeze worked its way in through the partly open curtains.

“James,” said John sternly, picking lint off his trench coat, “do not wish them dead.”

“You are right – as usual,” James replied. “Though the longer the quiet the worse I fear the storm will be.”

With the others missing, James and John had taken to each other’s company, attempting to unravel the terrible mysteries around them. John in particular had been affected by Helen’s sudden absence.

“Maybe it is over,” John offered, buttoning his coat, preparing to leave the house on business, “and The Ripper has lost his taste for the sport?”

“No…” James folded his hands in his lap. “Insanity like that – ravenous hunger for violence? It ends when his blood joins the floor. Whoever he is, he will return – and soon, I think.”

John paced across the room, collecting various items before waiting at the door with a serious expression.

“I hope you are wrong,” he said solemnly, and headed out.

James was left with the approaching night and the wall of newspaper cut outs pinned to the back of John’s hotel coach like a drawing board. He stared at it for hours on end, trying to find some kind of method amongst the brutal acts. So far, the only anomaly that he could make out was that the murders had stopped abruptly when Nigel Griffin had disappeared from the world.

It would be so easy to believe the worst and often he wanted to but there was something lurking at the back of Watson’s mind that didn’t add up – an irritating question that would not rest. Why? Why would Nigel kill?

James needed help. He would write to Sherlock Holmes and confess everything.

*~*~*

The British Museum of Natural History lounged out over London like some great ruin from a forgotten world. Its wings, held up by rows of white ionic columns and capped by elaborate freezes, stood out from the night with an eerie glow. Gas lights flickered along its exterior walls, flaring in the night air while the sheer size of the building dwarfed the streets and parks surrounding it.

It was formidable, in every sense of the world. This was a place that warned all who entered it that ‘hic iacet vostra historia’ whether you accepted it or not. There were things within its walls that had been scavenged from the furthest reaches of man’s exploration, excavated from time and dirt to be studied and wondered at.

The evening was well underway when the coffin-shaped crate was carted through the entrance foyer of the British Museum by two men. They trampled over the marble floors, passing by the brand new display of Pantheon Marbles that were still being unpacked. A few special collection handlers waved the pair of men on, directing them through to the private offices at the far end of the building where they found a door labelled, ‘Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan’.

They set the crate down and knocked.

“He’s not here,” said a voice, as the door opened to reveal a young, oily faced man. He was a student, left to look after the department during the long hours that researches spent either in the vaults or sensibly asleep.

“What do you mean, ‘he’s not here’?” replied the larger of the two Cabal men.

“Our specialist has chosen to spend some time abroad. I was instructed to tell you that your appointment has been delayed until next month. There is nothing I can do I am afraid.”

“What are we supposed to do with this?” the man pointed at the crate containing Nigel Griffin.

The man leant over the wooden box for a cursory inspection of its labels. “What is it?” he asked but received no answer. “We have an excellent storehouse,” he offered.

The men did not look convinced.

“This is not acceptable,” said the second Cabal man, stepping toward the greasy boy in an intimidating manner. “Cargo like this is fragile – difficult and expensive to move.”

“I am sorry,” is all the young man could say. “The Cabal are exemplary patrons and we extend to you are deepest, most sincere gratitude but the situation cannot be helped. Mr Fort is out of contact and will return by the end of the month.”

*~*~*

Nikola awoke to a pair of bright blue eyes.

“How long?” he asked, moving to sit up.

Helen pushed him back down firmly, preventing him from moving too soon.

“Four hours,” she replied.

“And I didn’t…” his voice trailed off, leaving his questioning eyes to finish.

She shook her head. “No Nikola, you did not hurt anyone. I promise.”

His eyes closed briefly in relief. Helen was sitting on the bed beside him. He could feel the slight depression of the mattress and the soft fur of her dress against his hand. The sickly-sweet smell of the oil had been replaced by her and he could feel his strength returning.

Something dripped onto the bare skin of his hand. It was warm and instantly shattered over his skin. Nikola opened his eyes to find Helen quietly crying. There was a sheen to her eyes which was shedding tears whenever she blinked.

“No…” said Nikola quietly, lifting his hand up to her cheek, sitting up as he did so. “You must not,” he insisted, wiping his thumb over her cheek as his hand cupped her face.

“Nikola…” another pair of tears fell and rolled over his hand.

He pulled her slowly toward him until their foreheads lightly touched and he could feel every shudder running through her.

“It will be all right…” he whispered.

“If I could take it back, I would,” she said quietly.

“I would not let you,” Nikola turned his head slightly, and she slipped onto his shoulder. She turned into his neck, trying to bury herself there. “Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, we are no more.”

Eventually Helen nodded against him.

“Helen, you did not fail,” he continued firmly, lifting her up and pushing her back so that he could look on her tear stained face. A pain, worse than anything his vampirical transformation could cause, ripped through him when he saw the unnecessary sorrow in her features. Nikola did not need her pity – he needed her. “Your virtue is your desire for knowledge. It must never be separated from you.”

26

NATURE’S BALANCE

The brick buildings loomed, walling in the paved streets that criss-crossed the inner city of London with their bleak facades. Webs of wire choked their way from rooftop to rooftop, sagging and rocking in the occasional breath of wind. Rubbish, scattered in the gutter, joined in – waltzing endlessly with itself in sad spirals.

A line of soft gas lights appeared like a string of lustrous pearls on dusk, accentuating the blue on a lady’s dress as she knocked on one of the non-descript doors. She waited, tilting her head up to the sky as it blushed pink.

He has watched her for several nights – always on the same doorstep when the evening begins. Then, half an hour later, she returns to the street and embarks on the short stroll down Miller’s Court, under the filthy curve of a small bridge before disappearing into the Ten Bells.

John slipped in amongst the other patrons of the bar, indulging in a drink. He sipped it slowly.

She was beautiful.

Her lightly curled blond hair was pulled up and then left to scatter over her shoulders and down her back. Whenever she caught John’s gaze, it was with piercing blue eyes that always seemed to smile. By all accounts, she was the superior of the room, somewhat of a breeze drifting through the dreary setting.

While the others drank, she chatted, courting several of the better gentlemen. It wasn’t until this particular night that she approached the tall man perched at the counter of the bar, quietly observing the room.

There was a peace around him and Mary liked that – it reminded her of someone she used to see back in Oxford.

*~*~*

Helen, Gregory and Nikola braced themselves against the cold as they stepped off the train and onto the small platform.

There was a light snow falling around them, dusting their fur trimmed clothes with white flakes. The air was cold but clean, buffeting them in occasional gusts as it ripped through the river valley, guided by the edges of the pine forests and cliff faces.

The dramatic scenery was like a drug that wooed the party forward toward the carriage that awaited them with four black horses and a rather intoxicated driver clutching a bottle of whisky protectively to his chest.

Having never been outside Oxford since she was a child, Helen took a moment to graze her eyes over the jagged black mountain range disappearing beneath a layer of low lying cloud. It was positively wild, a land free of the modern harnesses that cities imposed upon the earth. Then Helen realised – she had seen this place before, every time she looked into Nikola’s eyes. He carried it with him.

She sighed, her cheeks turning red with the cold.

“Helen, we’re late,” her father said quietly, nudging her toward the carriage where Nikola extended a hand to help her up.

*~*~*

The wire came for James Watson mid-way through morning. He was still at the university, shuffling through the piles of research and unreturned library books that Tesla had left behind when there was a knock at his dormitory door. His lecturer appeared and handed him a slip of paper.

“It came through my desk directed to you,” said the lecturer. He still had a bandage taped to the back of his head from the attack more than a week ago in the library.

It has started – Holmes

James folded the paper into his pocket. “Thank you, I shall join you in a minute,” he said, and closed the door.

So, it wasn’t over yet.

Though James knew it was morally ambiguous at best, some part of that message filled him with a rush of excitement – there was still a chance to solve this case, to outwit another human being – a monster in all regards. There was no choice, he would away to London at once and offer his assistance (and suspicions) to Holmes.

Before he could leave the city, James went to collect his research from John’s hotel room. They had spent most nights in each other’s company since the sudden disappearance of the others, sharing theories, trying to see through the chaos of the Ripper’s actions. John would bring home as many newspapers as he could find in the evenings and then James would rip them apart and pin articles of interest to the back of the couch. Their shared passion for the hunt had inadvertently sparked a friendship neither of them really understood.

James fumbled for the key and then slid it into the lock of the rather battered and sticky hotel room. It creaked open.

“Evening, James…” said John’s voice almost at once. He was waiting in his armchair with a larger than normal pile of newspapers on the table beside him. “You’re early.”

“Have you heard?” James slipped into the room and closed the door.

John raised an eyebrow and then purposefully glanced at the sheer volume of newspapers he had spent the better part of the afternoon collecting. “Evidently,” John drawled. “It appears the subject of your obsession has re-appeared.”

James crossed the room, collapsing behind the couch where he threw his briefcase to the ground, snapped it open and started filling it with the newspaper articles from the couch. This caused a flurry of paper, which John observed serenely, making no move to assist.

“You are going then, I knew you would,” said John.

“I can’t stay here and be a silent observer like everyone else,” replied James, with his fists full of paper.

“And you’re going to catch him?” James added, with his relaxed air of amusement. “Don’t forget these…” he tapped the newspapers beside him.

James muttered something and shifted the pile into his case, making it bulge unnaturally at the seams.

“This too…” John leant across the arm of his chair toward the coach, stretching out an envelope in Watson’s direction between his two long fingers. “It came for you an hour ago.”

With no time to spare, James snatched the letter and threw it in his briefcase with everything else.

“You could come,” offered James, closing the lid on the case and rising to his feet. His heavy trench coat swelled around him – it was the last of many layers of clothes.

John averted his eyes and shifted further into the warmth of his chair. “I have work, unlike you, I cannot abandon my life so easily. Be careful,” John added, before James could leave the room, “this killer is a nightmare in his own mind, mocking you from hell.”

James nodded earnestly, and left.

*~*~*

The snow continued to fall, turning the road into a dangerous, ice-ridden indent that the horses struggled to navigate. Their driver was on his feet, leaning forward to investigate the road ahead, carefully tapping the rumps of the beasts with his whip.

It was a slow, nervous journey that was taking more than twice as long as they had planned. The world around them was dimming – disappearing…

“Do not worry,” Nikola said to Gregory and Helen. “He has passed these roads in much worse.”

Eventually the weather cleared. The snow stopped and for the first time since arriving in Smiljan they could see patches of blue sky.

Nikola’s house comprised of two white buildings perched on a gentle rise, pushed up against the encroaching wilderness of thickets and low trees. The smaller of the two was the family church, no more than twenty paces from the front door of the main house.

The carriage pulled up on the flat between the buildings and released its travel-wearied passengers. Burdened with luggage, they trampled through the snow toward the house. One of the old trees strewn in the snow caught Helen’s attention. It was a large, gnarled creation that had been split into two and left in a blackened, horrific state for all to see.

“Nikky?” a small voice poked out from behind the front door, pushing the heavy thing open.

Nikola dropped his cases to the ground and strode forward to meet the young woman who threw herself into his arms.

The sight startled Helen, she was not accustomed to seeing him show such open affection.

“Missed you,” said Nikola, lifting his little sister off the ground, spinning her before returning her safely to her feet. “God, you have grown,” he added, she was nearly as tall as him.

“Come inside,” Milka beckoned. “Introductions can wait until you are all warm.”

*~*~*

“I received your letters,” explained Milka, as soon as the party was settled around the open fire. The letters in question were piled on the table beside her. “You were most adamant about the urgency, so I wrote to my trusted friend. He shall be here presently.”

Nikola stoked the fire with a large iron poker before returning to his seat on the couch beside Helen and Gregory.

“I do not intend to sound forward,” Gregory set his cup of tea down on the table in front of them. He couldn’t help his eyes wandering to the glass jars resting on every available surface. They were full of the preserved remains of creatures, yellowed with age. “But time is against us.”

Milka glanced at her brother who nodded discreetly. “You want to see the rest of Dampier’s notes,” she said. “As you wish – but first,” she flicked her clear, sharp eyes up at them. They were the mirror of Nikola’s and matched her pale, delicate skin. “You will tell me everything.”

*~*~*

Watson waded through the sea of navy policemen. Their faces were sombre enough to drown in London’s miserable grey as they relayed orders to each other.

“James! Let him through,” the tall, thin figure of Sherlock Holmes stuck out from the crowd like a giraffe, brandishing his cane. He pushed people roughly aside, allowing James Watson to claw his way to the entrance of the building.

“I’ve never seen such a fuss,” said Watson, as he was pulled into the shadow of the narrow hallway of the small terrace.

“It is warranted,” replied Sherlock in a tone that near froze the air around him. “Never, in all the long years I have spent on this earth, digging through the worst of humanity – and believe me James, I have dug, have I seen anything like it.”

They approached the bedroom at the back of the house. There was nobody in there except the crime scene photographer, folding up the tripod of his camera.

*~*~*

“Can you finish it in time?” Helen roamed around the small room at the back of the house. Her father was at the centre of a sprawl of papers on the floor, carefully leafing through them.

“I think so,” he replied after a few long moments. “Exquisite…” he whispered at the notes.

Helen leant against the wall beside the solitary window, bowing her head in the candlelight. “He’s getting worse,” she finally said. “Since we crossed the border he’s been paler – more withdrawn and sometimes I think he’s hovering on the edge of –”

“It’s the countryside,” Gregory replied, not letting his eyes leave the coveted notes. “I had wondered if bringing him back to this ancient place would have an effect.”

“And yet you let him come?” she snapped, surprised that her father would do such a thing.

“He has to be here, Helen,” this time, he did look at her. “Mr Tesla is the closest thing to Sanguine Vampiris that we’ll find in the time remai-”

Helen was shaking her head in disbelief, “You’re risking his life for your research? Father….”

“Helen,” Gregory worked his way to his feet, “I am only going to ask you this once. Are you a scientist? Not long ago you stood in my study and demanded that I share this world. You have to make a choice but know this, if I can complete my research I can help him but without him, it can’t be done.”

Her eyes fell closed.

Gregory sighed softly. “Now you understand. We cannot know where knowledge will take us or who it will sacrifice.”

“It’s time for his treatment,” she pushed off the wall and crossed the room briskly. Helen couldn’t stand to entertain the thought of Nikola as some form of ‘price’ to be paid in the quest for knowledge. “I’ll fetch him,” she added, closing the door more heavily than was necessary.

So this is how John had felt – that night he had discovered her with the others.

Helen shook her head sharply, flicking her long curled hair back over her shoulder as she checked the rooms lining the narrow hall, eventually ending at the empty sitting room with its raging fire burning alone.

“Nikola?” she offered the room, but found no answer. Aside from the fire, it was near dark, so Helen lit the lamps sending a warm glow through the room, playing off the specimen jars that cluttered every corner and shelf.

A bright flash of light through the window caught Helen’s attention. She had not noticed the storm lingering overhead, sitting mute over the nearby mountains. It was neither raining nor snowing and the wind was quiet against the plate glass windows. What struck her was a dark silhouette against the sky – a figure standing outside the window, staring out at the storm.

Helen paced down the hall and pulled open the heavy front door, stepping out into the night. She smelt a thousand foreign things on the air. Trees – the late fallen snow – the stables at the base of the small hill where wild roses clawed their way over headstones, they all mingled together as she padded through the snow.

“Nikola…” she announced herself.

The sky ahead was flashing silently with pink and green. Like far off sparks, the lightning played in the clouds.

“Can you feel it?” he asked, his body facing the storm. Every hair on his body was prickling, alive with the electric potential energy in the air. Nikola could literally feel the pull between the sky and the ground – like standing under a waterfall, threatening to drown him in its power. There had been no time to explore this particular change in his biology, indeed, he wasn’t exactly sure what it was – but there was a definite affinity with electrical force developing inside him. Nikola wanted to understand it and to do that, he had to experience it – share it.

The small house was aglow behind them, each of its windows hurling forth yellow light into the evening.

“I can’t feel anything,” Helen replied softly, swaying on her feet.

“It’s beautiful,” Nikola murmured, as a branch of light spilt through the inky space above them.

“No,” Helen corrected him, her voice dragging unnaturally. “I can’t feel anything,” she finished, as the world faded to black, slipping away from her as it had done back in Oxford.

Nikola turned in time to see Helen collapse into the snow, splayed out like a fallen angel.

*~*~*

At first James didn’t see the body.

The bedroom was small, barely more than four brick walls with a table and bed pushed against the far side. There were blood-soaked sheets strewn from one end of the room to the next, sitting in deep crimson puddles that were yet to be soaked up by the floor. A particularly large bundle had been left on the bed and on the wall behind there was a fan-shaped spray of blood that could have only be made in the initial attack.

James was about to ask after the body when the full scope of the scene struck through him. The pile on the bed was the body.

He stepped further into the room, careful not to disturb the evidence on the ground. James tilted his head to the side and found himself staring at the mutilated face of a woman.

“Christ,” he exhaled. “Christ – Christ…” James repeated.

“He’s getting bolder,” said Sherlock from behind, letting James make his own impressions of the scene.

Sherlock could have imparted the initial police report – explained what they already knew, but the more that James Watson came with on his own, the more valuable his input into the investigation would be. Sherlock was walking a fine line as it was. He was not officially a police officer. He was, at best, a self employed investigator that the police force tolerated – allowing yet more unknown guests wander through a crime scene was definitely stretching the line thin.

“We have to talk,” ventured Sherlock, after a good hour spent inside the room, “about this…” he produced the long letter Watson had sent him a few days ago detailing the experiment The Five had engaged in – and its consequences. “You are incorrect, my friend.”

James nodded.

“Do we know who she is?” James was still crouched by some of the woman’s remains. Most of her internal organs had been removed and placed with purpose around the room as were large portions of her skin. The stroke that killed her was undoubtedly the large gash across her neck, severing several of her major arteries.

“Yes,” replied Sherlock. “Mary Jane Kelly – she appears to have been well kn – James?” Sherlock launched himself forward in alarm as James staggered backwards, about to fall.

*~*~*

It was Nikola who ventured into Gregory’s temporary study this time, closing the door purposely behind him. He had left Helen asleep on the living room couch under Milka’s care. She was unconscious but breathing normally exactly as he had seen her the day Watson had brought her to his attic.

Gregory looked up and saw at once that Nikola had not come for an idle chat.

“What are you keeping from Helen?” Nikola asked seriously.

Gregory tilted his head, examining the young man. “She showed you her mother’s letter?” his question was answered with an affirmative silence. “I don’t know what you mean…” said Gregory.

“Helen may believe you blindly,” said Nikola, “but you know more about her abnormality than you let on. She is immortal – what else?”

The older man had to swallow hard. Since Gregory had discovered the truth, he knew that he would have to share it with Nikola eventually.

Nature’s Balance – have you heard of it?” asked Gregory, seating himself behind Nikola’s father’s desk. “It is a contemporary theory which states that just as physical forces come in pairs, so too do biological systems. For every species on this earth there is a counter – every predator has its foe.”

Nikola moved in front of the desk, standing rather than sitting in the opposing chair.

“You are a predator Nikola,” Gregory continued. “A divergent species of human that branched off from humanity leaving you a cut above our natural enemies. Nikola, you may not be aware of this yet and, believe me, it hurts me to tell you,” Gregory motioned for Nikola to take his seat which he eventually did. “My research has led me to believe that Sanguine Vampiris are an enduring life form. Now, I realise that you are not a pure blood vampire but judging from what I’ve already seen of your healing abilities, you have inherited their signature gift of immortality.”

“I can’t die?” Nikola replied, unsure of what he felt.

Gregory moved his journal into view, opening it. “Nikola, what I’m about to tell you, no-one knows but me. I need your assurances that you will keep it that way, especially from Helen. It is for her own safety.” Satisfied by the quick nod of Nikola’s head, Gregory continued. “Some time ago, I managed to track down the last living pure blood vampire. It had isolated itself in a cave in South America, hidden away from the world. It is only a guess, but I believe that vampire was nine thousand years old. I won’t lie to you – he was a weak and broken creature but I that is likely due to the vow he made to never take human blood.”

“It is a choice, then?”

“There is hope for you yet, Nikola.”

“But that is not why you are telling me this story…”

“No,” Gregory confessed. “What the vampire confided in me was something worse than I had feared. Helen is – she is an immortal – but it is not a benign gift. She is your balance, Mr Tesla, designed in every way to hunt and destroy you. Helen is still young, there is some biological process going on inside her, transforming her. She is drawn to you, I can tell but soon Nikola, very soon she will try to kill you and you will do the same.”

“I’ll-”

“The vampire described it as an irresistible urge to feed,” Gregory interrupted. “Her blood will kill you, Nikola – and likely not a lot else will but you’ll crave it beyond all reason, resolve and love.”

27

NIGEL’S DIARY

Several hours later, Nikola moved through the darkened house, striding silently down the corridor of his childhood as the sky flared outside. Its occasional rumbling sent shivers of electricity down Nikola’s spine, forcing his shoulders to shudder in response.

He stepped into the faint glow of the lounge room, averting his eyes to the source of flickering light. A single oil lamp was fading in the corner – its oil run dry leaving an empty vessel and smoking wick about to burn out.

The rest of the household had retired in his absence. Nikola could hear the harmony of sleep around him – the gentle rises and falls of delicate breath accompanied by the deep rumble of Gregory Magnus rising through the walls in waves.

Lurking in the doorway, Nikola could see the back of the leather couch and peeking out from one end, a curtain of golden hair. He closed his eyes, considering the gravity of what he was about to do.

*~*~*

Watson collapsed back into Sherlock Holmes, nearly bringing the wiry man to the ground but Sherlock was stronger than he looked and had braced himself for the sudden weight.

What in God’s name…?” Sherlock uttered, dragging the man out of the crime scene before any evidence fell victim, shocked at two thick streams of hot tears pouring down Watson’s cheeks. The man was inconsolable, breaking apart in a most un-gentlemanly manner.

“Decorum, I beg of you,” pleaded Sherlock, but his words fell to the ground unheard.

Watson could not speak. He failed to notice that he had been half-led, half-carried to the back of the house and deposited roughly in a chair. He didn’t even acknowledge Sherlock Holmes backing away, observing him clinically with his clear, hard eyes better suited to the murderous mysteries of the world. All James Watson could think of was that room and what remained of his lover, Mary Jane Kelly.

James’s head rolled back and suddenly he was off the chair, knees hitting the ground sharply as he hurled onto the floor, rasping again and again until his ragged breathing turned back into desperate sobs.

It was just – too monstrous to conceive – he simply could not.

*~*~*

She was peaceful now. Whatever force had taken hold of Helen earlier had dissipated. However, if Gregory was correct – and he had an irritating habit of being so, they would be seeing a lot more of this ‘new’ Helen.

Nikola didn’t want to think about that…

Finally he mustered the courage to open his eyes and sweep around the couch – his fingers running over the cracked leather. Helen was laid uncomfortably between its divided cushions and – Nikola hesitated, he had not expected that – his sister was knelt on the floor beside the bed, also asleep. Milka was just like their mother, a healer of souls.

It did not matter, this had to be done and there was not likely going to be another chance.

Gregory’s words weighed heavily on him as Nikola moved up beside Helen’s outstretched arm. Her sleeve had been caught and pulled up out of the way leaving an expanse of delicate, bare flesh growing cold as the fire lost its heat. His fingers brushed over the soft surface causing his breath to catch. Nikola’s own cold hands seemed to draw warmth from her. It was almost intoxi-no… He lifted the metal needle he had been carrying and steeled himself, bringing its sharp tip to her skin. Nikola placed his other hand over the top to steady the shake of his first.

It had to be done.

So Nikola did it in a fluid movement. The needle slipped through Helen’s skin and at once Nikola began to draw a sample of her dark blood up into the syringe. It wasn’t long before the vial was full and Nikola withdrew the needle, capping it and stowing it in his large jacket pocket just before she stirred.

He bent down, concealing his purpose for being there by disturbing the blankets covering Helen. She was waking now, her eyes fluttering open and closed thick with sleep. Nikola manoeuvred his arm under her back then his other roughly beneath her knees and suddenly he was lifting her gently from the couch. Instinctively Helen curled into him with a soft murmur – a natural reflex.

“It is beyond my manners to allow you to sleep on the couch,” he explained, when she woke enough to eye him questioningly. He felt her arms tighten around his neck as he carried her through the narrow hallway.

Helen mumbled nothing in particular, apparently choosing to slide back into whatever world she had been immersed in. She was sound asleep before he made it into his room.

He settled her on the bed, letting her fumble blindly about for covers and pillows until she stilled and returned to her deep, steady breathing.

Another brief current of white light flitted through the room, streaming in from the large window above his desk. He could see the mountain ranges from here. Often he had sat on his bed and watched the storms roll through like peaceful beasts grazing the sky but it was different now that he could feel them. He had never truly appreciated the frightening power suspended in the air but it was there, tantalisingly close.

His eyes drifted back to her a she shifted, her hair falling across her face, covering it in messy ringlets. Nikola’s lip twitched in a half-smile. She was his only friend; he didn’t want to live in a world where that wasn’t true.

Nikola?”

He hadn’t realised that she was awake again, quietly watching him as he watched her.

“Yes?” he replied, moving slowly over to her. After a brief hesitation, he dipped his hand down to her face, catching some of her wayward hair and gently lifting it so that he could see her bright blue eyes.

Helen leant onto his hand as it trailed along her face and then unfolded her free arm to catch hold of his sleeve.

“Thank you…” she said quietly. Thank you for taking us to your home, for trusting us with your work – for not hating me for what happened back in Oxford.

Nikola looked at her deeply. It was obvious that sleep had affected her sense of propriety but he could not ignore the truth that mingled with her words – cutting them into his soul.

“Good night, my lady,” he stated firmly, escaping her hold as he stood and left. Nikola hurried back to the main room which was now empty, where he reclaimed the lounge and fell asleep as the last life in the lamps expired.

*~*~*

Reality rippled like a strip of muslin on a lady’s skirt. Violet and Indigo flashes poisoned the air around John where passing beams of light were captured and split apart. The hairs running down the back of his neck prickled in expectation. He could not stop this – life had been ripped away from him enough times for him to understand that he had to let it happen.

John was seated in his hotel with a book open in his lap. He exhaled as colour filled the room, preparing himself for the torture that would surely follow.

It was swift and brutal, crippling his limbs and thoughts as pain seared through every facet of his being. John’s eyes slammed shut in agony as the sensation continued. It was like dying – every time. His consciousness was evaporating – stretched out too thin until it finally breaks.

The book fell to the floor in the empty room – its handwritten pages teased by a current of air that vanishedwith the purple light.

I followed the last of our party today…’ the page read, in Nigel’s untidy scrawl. ‘Most of the secrets I have learnt were unintentional. James and his lover, whom he visits when he thinks I am asleep – Nikola and his trips to the Hinksey Heights to watch the storms – my father and the many hell houses where he keeps his monsters locked away – but Montague… it was no accident when I glanced over and saw something I fear to even write … the very world shuddered and in a moment he had vanished more completely than I ever will.’

A few more pages flipped over and then back again, ‘I remained there in the street for hours in the rain and wind until I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. It was near eleven when the night was lit once again with muted tones of purple and green and there he appeared. His face was obscured by thick blood. I don’t know how or what I shall tell the others – but it is clear now that the vampire blood we injected does more than change our physical bodes – it permeates our mind, taints it and twists it into something that is not us.’

My pain returned to me and I became visible again – standing naked in the alley way. He saw me – and he knew… he knew…’

*~*~*

Sherlock Holmes guided Watson through the main streets of London as they wove between the swarm of top hats. It was a short walk from Miller’s Court to their accommodation but Sherlock decided to draw it out as much as possible, slowing his step as they roamed out of the heavy smog into the commercial district with its marble buildings and iron lamp posts.

“How…?” James choked, as they skirted around London’s park. A rush of dead leaves tumbled at their feet. He is still shaking – the image of Mary feeding a pool of rage inside him. “How can someone do that to another human being? Why her… She was -” that summarised her now – she was.

“You knew her…” for once, it didn’t take a genius. “You loved her… Who was she?”

James was about to reply when his eyes locked onto a grey-haired figure stepping out of handsome carriage. He knew that man – he had literally run into him the night everyone disappeared, outside Oxford university in the rain.

“Do you believe in co-incidence?” James quickened his step in pursuit. “I don’t…”

Ordinarily Sherlock liked to know who they were following and why but he was willing to let Watson have some liberty given the circumstance.

As a pair, they slinked along the streets, never encroaching on the old man as he swung a right past a grand fountain and hauled himself up the marble steps to the front door of the British Museum.

There were tourists and researches everywhere, crowding the lobby as Sherlock and Watson dipped their heads into the foyer – searching for the balding top of the man but he was gone.

*~*~*

The early morning brought with it a light snowfall, one that fell silently against the windows of the cottage. Nikola turned on the couch. It was freezing now that the fires had reduced to ash-laden coals and yellow milieu of candles replaced by the sickly white glow from the sun.

Nikola was only vaguely aware of the crunch of snow beneath the carriage and the quick trample of hooves outside. A moment later a quiet knock at the door finally woke him from sleep. As always his dreams were stained with places he’d never been to and fragments of blood-soaked lives.

Sitting up too fast, Nikola held his head for a moment – wondering why he was awake. The man at the door knocked again and this time Nikola found it within himself to leave the couch and cross the room muttering his disapproval in Serbian.

He unbolted the door and pulled it open.

“…Mr Fort?” Nikola said at length, astonished to find the man from the train standing in his doorway. Charles Font was dressed in heavy, dark furs and carried a bag in either hand. What had been an elegant moustache was now laced with ice from the journey and his cheeks red from the cold. “Whatever brings you here?” and how did you find us?

“Mr Tesla…” Charles nodded politely at the gentleman he’d scarcely met on the train. It was his understanding the Mr Tesla was taken ill for the majority of the trip and he could see evidence of it in his paleness. “I apologise for the earliness of the hour,” he began, “but I am in actual fact, unforgivably late.”

Late? Nikola mused to himself. He wasn’t even invited.

Nikola eyed the man with an air of suspicion.

“Gregory Magnus invited to you…?” Nikola eventually offered as a plausible excuse. It would be unwise to turn away a possible investor.

“Actually,” Charles looked very much as if he wanted to come inside out of the cold, but Mr Tesla was standing firmly in front of the door. “My invitation precedes the pleasure of making Gregory’s acquaintance…”

Ch-arles?” a lady’s voice behind started in delight.

Nikola glanced over his shoulder to see his sister fully – no – over dressed for the hour of the morning standing behind him.

Charles tilted his head to see around Nikola – an unabashed smile shaking off the cold.

Miss Tesla…” Charles replied, mimicking her tone.

*~*~*

“I am have been abroad for several months now,” Charles had stripped down to the suit he had worn on the train. Milka set a tray of tea in front of him with a warm smile before seating herself on a chair to his right. The two Magnus’s and Tesla watched on – Nikola with a piercing look that would have burned a lesser man.

“It took weeks of work, but the Accademia dei Lincei granted me access to their vaults. You have never seen anything like it – thousands upon thousands of prints, Milka, hundreds of volumes of the world’s natural history from the Roman era onwards tucked away in bundles. I wanted to look at them all…” he paused to take a sip of his tea.

Milka, it was now clear, was the woman Charles Fort had crossed continents for. He was her contact that had been acquiring rare documents like Dampier’s Notes to answer Nikola’s questions. It was also plain to see that they were very much in love.

“I wasn’t permitted to make copies but I kept diligent notes – everything I could remember.” Charles set his tea down and reached into his briefcase, opening its worn leather and fishing out a hefty pile of hand written journals. “Sanguine Vampiris though recorded history…” he said, presenting the notes to Milka.

Charles’s eyes wandered over to the figure of Nikola – running up the man’s pale features. “Really…” he near-whispered. Here sat before him a remnant of Sanguine Vampiris. Charles ached to see him come alive – reveal the abnormal that ran within their entire family. When he looked at Milka, Charles could see those same, clear eyes – eyes that held all the ancient mysteries of the earth. “Abnormalities,” Charles’s voice was low in wonder as he spoke to Nikola, “shed light on the true character of the normal…”

Nikola though, remained more concerned about his sister’s hand settling on Mr Fort’s knee than anything else.

Gregory, sensing trouble, cleared his throat and spoke up.

“I – I remember you mentioning the Cassiano dal Pozzo’s Museo Cartaceo … the ‘Paper Museum’,” George shuffled forward on his chair. “Their vaults are locked – I have tried myself for many years but my letters remain unreturned – did you…?”

“I enjoy the benefit of contracting to a very persuasive organisation,” Charles replied but stopped short of mentioning it by name. He reached once again into his briefcase and this time withdrew a set of heavy paper sheets, tied loosely together. On each one was a detailed collection of ink strokes, illustrating the various terrifying aspects of a vampire. “These are copies,” Charles said, “but they are yours – Nikola…” he finished, turning to hand the pile to Nikola as a form of peace offering. “Your sister is very persuasive – I fear that I cannot refuse her anything.”

Helen tilted towards Nikola as the papers changed hands.

“Remarkable…” said George. “You cannot know the honour that you show us, Mr Fort, or the profound difference your research will make.”

*~*~*

Professor Samuel Griffin easily evaded the crowd in the British Museum as it swelled around the newly acquired Greek marbles. Instead, he darted away down one of the unassuming corridors that led to department offices.

He was not pleased. When he lifted one of his wrinkled hands to knock on the door, it was with sharp – unfriendly strikes.

“Is he here?” Griffin growled, leaning heavily on his walking cane as the door opened to reveal a ratty, young man.

“Professor…” the young man nodded in nervous respect. “I regret to inform you that he has not yet arrived…”

“Not – yet – arrived?” Griffin repeated slowly, with an air of disbelief. His eyebrows crept up higher with each word. “What exactly is it that he is doing with my money?”

“I – I,” the man stuttered, he was only minding the office.

“I am a patient man – but there are limits. Feel free to pass this along,” Griffin shifted in the doorway. “Young Mr Fort will be back in this office by this time next week or we will take our business elsewhere.”

*~*~*

John collapsed onto the ground – his knees sinking into the foul smelling mud. He was in a marsh lit by the white glow of the full moon suspended high above, drowning out the stars. John’s face crumpled in disgust when he saw the sickening rises over the ground accentuated with spears and arrows.

Hundreds of bodies lay rotting around him. John pushed off the ground, stumbling to his feet. The smell of war was strong but it didn’t belong to his time.

The unsheathing of metal behind him, snapped John’s head around. Glistening armour on a man’s torso twisted and a blade came down on John’s face – slicing through his cheek.

John growled in pain, stumbling back before the world tore and vanished and he found himself returned to his hotel room.

28

CRIMSON TORMENT

John held his face as warm blood streamed through his fingers and down onto the floor, following him in a sickening trail as stalked through the apartment, seeking out a mirror. In his reflection he found a wretched creature gazing back – a stranger lurking in his brown eyes. Once soft, they had been ruined by misery – sick from the thirst of blood.

He tilted his head, raising his muddied fingers to a long arch sliced across his cheek where the sword had grazed him. The pain was nothing compared to the agony of ripping through the universe but it still stung fiercely, severing his nerves and leaving his face limp.

John groaned as he dipped his hands into a basin of water, cupping the cool liquid in his grasp before bathing the wound. The water beneath him turned red, spilling over the sides of the china bowl and onto the floor in scarlet tides.

Eventually, his eyes returned to the mirror. He prodded and pulled at the torn flesh. How many times had he dragged a knife over another’s skin – cut right to the bone, quartering them like animals in a slaughter house? How many had he killed through the centuries that he jumped across? John could not remember.

“What is wrong with you?” he asked himself sternly – searching for something in his destroyed face. Why did this thing – this creature inside him take hold? Where did its anger for the world come from?

It was definitely a remnant of some ancient world that lived within him. If this was what it did to him – what then, had become of the others?

*~*~*

Nikola’s cat wandered in tight circles around the base of Helen’s skirt, leaving a trail of short black hairs on the fine lace. She found it difficult to scorn the affectionate creature that was purring so loudly she could feel the vibration in the air.

“Macak…” she bent down, lowering her fingers to the feline who padded forward and sniffed at her hand before rubbing against it. “You are a mischievous thing,” she shook her head, unaware that she was being watched.

Her father, Nikola and Mr Fort had been in conference all morning – no doubt discussing the particulars of a business settlement. Milka, meanwhile, was somewhere in the church opposite the house or walking through the snow which had been falling all night. This left Helen all alone except for the persistent feline which took the bold move of leaping onto her lap.

Macak…” this time the cat’s name was said with practiced reprimand, causing its paw to hesitate.

Helen startled to see Nikola hovering in the doorway, relaxed against the wood as if he had been there some time.

“Is – the meeting finished?” she asked tentatively. They had not spoken since last night – since she had awoken in his bed. Her memory of the evening was fragmented at best but she did remember being in his arms…

“No,” Nikola remained in the doorway, “but, my part is.” He dipped his head, changing the way the mid-morning light played on his sculpted face. “Your father and Mr Fort have much to discuss, I fear we won’t enjoy their company for many hours yet. He has given us all we desire.”

Silence – broken only by the loud purring of his black cat beneath Helen’s fingers as it decided to take the risk and curl up in her lap.

“Are you-” Nikola paused as they both tried to speak at the same time. “Pardon me,” he excused himself for interrupting and hinted for her to go first.

Helen’s eyes dropped nervously. “Nothing – only,” she lifted her gaze to him with a waver of seriousness. She wanted to ask about what happened last night – but truthfully she knew. “I suppose he wanted to see your fangs…” she changed the subject and her demeanour. “Mr Fort was quite enthralled by you.”

One of Nikola’s expressive brows curved upwards. He started to edge into the room – pacing first around the walls and then to the window where he watched the snow falling. “That he was,” he answered, tapping the glass lightly with two slender fingers – playing with its cold.

“Nikola…” Helen eventually said, at the end of another awkward silence. “Sit with me.”

His grey eyes watched her again. She was the warmth of the room – a season out of step with the frozen world.

Nikola’s fingers trailed down the glass, returning to his side. His weight shifted – backwards first, as if he were considering retreating while a private war raged within. He knew that he should not feed the terrible curse that was growing in both of them. Nikola had hoped that distance would be their salvation but her warmth made him little more than a moth, circling hopelessly.

He rocked forward as the front door was thrust open with a gust of snow-laced wind. Milka flew in with it, running around the door and heaving it closed.

Nikola drew back to the safety of the window and Helen averted her eyes to the cat.

One Month Later

“Back to stay, old boy?” John drawled leisurely, as the door to the hotel room creaked open.

James Watson eyed him severely. “I have been here for three weeks, what notion makes you think I will up and vanish now?”

“You won’t be able to stay away from Sherlock Holmes indefinitely,” John stood and moved to pour them both a drink. He was prepared for their evenings now, in which they would sit and discuss the focus of Watson’s obsession. The deliberations seemed to calm them both – even if all they achieved was chasing their tails in circles in search of the elusive Whitechapel murderer. “I am a poor substitute for his wit.”

“Holmes is busy,” James replied simply, closing the door and shedding off his coat. “And you still haven’t answered my question from last night.”

“Which one was that?” John held out a glass of port; they were out of everything else. “The one about the Ripper’s choice of victim or – what was it? What sort of person could walk the streets with blood stained clothes and yet not draw attention?

James took the glass gladly and replied, “Both…” He sipped his port quietly for a moment. “It’s looking better-” he nodded to the scar on John’s face.

“Lousy thieves,” John quipped back. “I’m told there is little hope of finding them. The city is overwrought with scoundrels – though it is nothing compared to what the good societies of London must endure.”

James looked sadly for a moment – he had not told John that the last Ripper victim had been his lover or that the force that drove him now was closer to revenge than curiosity. He had to know what sort of a person could do such a thing. He longed to sit them down and ask them what part of their soul had broken to allow such evil through onto the world? “I sympathise.”

“Surely,” John sank back into his chair which was pulled close to the fire, “you’re not still on about Nigel…”

“Is it really so crazy?” James picked through a tower of newspapers with his free hand. “You’ve seen it – the man can make himself invisible – wander in and out of the world at will and where is he now? It was his knife John – I plucked it from the crime scene myself.”

“Your Holmes does not seem to agree with you.”

“No…” James had to admit that Sherlock’s firm rebuff of the theory distressed him. “…he does not.”

“He is a wise man,” John observed quietly.

“That does not make him infallible.”

*~*~*

Charles Fort deposited his hat, coat and travel cases roughly onto the nearest desk. It was one out of a half dozen littered around the walls of the British Museum Department of the Sudan office – most covered in towers of manuscripts and unprocessed artifacts from the deserts near Egypt.

Three large rugs hung over the walls, covering the cracked paint with muted reds and ochres. Half open crates, piles of unanswered