PEOPLE OF THE SAND
TABLE OF CONTENTS
05 Tag and Bag
06 Chaos and Sand
10 Buried in Glass Cabinets
11 The Beginning of Helen Magnus
12 Changing Skins
13 Bits and Pieces
15 History Creeping
16 Whispers of the Tombs
17 Interview with a Vampire
18 Roaming Free
19 Beneath the Streets
20 Ancient History
21 Confessions of Murder
22 Friends for Life
The cobble street was difficult to pick out from the buildings that leant towards the road, drawn in by the occasional lamp post. The feeble gas flames flickering inside tried their best to warm the stone surfaces of their audience, but the dew was turning to frost. A delicate flake of snow slipped through the air, melting into a drop of water above the light. It hit a passerby who wiped the freezing liquid off her cheek, unimpressed by the weather.
Helen Magnus walked around the soft circles of light, preferring to hug the dark walls out of sight. Curious eyes watched from their bedrooms, safely tucked between the shadows.
Her sharp gaze scanned the abandoned street. The clawed feet of plump rats scurried away followed by the careful placement of a man’s footsteps.
Leather scuffed the pavement and her head snapped around, following the sound with her eyes.
“Why don’t you come out and get this over with?” she snarled, withdrawing a slither of metal from her waist band.
Almost seven feet of man reclined against a wall, John Druitt’s eyes peering up at the hollow ring of the new moon. “You can do better than that…” he spoke, not afraid of the night.
He was right, she could.
In a slick movement, her free hand slid into her belt and withdrew a pistol. Aiming it at the sound of his voice, she pulled the trigger, her eyes slamming shut with the noise.
“Are you certain you don’t need a doctor?” Will, cold washer in hand, felt her temperature once more. Helen’s cheeks were flushed and her dark hair matted with sweat. “Other than me, of course.”
She raised a hand and feebly pushed him off. “Immortal, remember?” she groaned, her headache worsening. “Where’s Ashley?”
Will placed his arm around her back, helping her sit on the edge of the four-posted bed. “You’re not going to like it,” he said. Will tried to wrap a blanket over her shoulders but she batted him away.
“It better not be Romania,” she muttered.
“Egypt, hunting the un-dead.”
“I don’t suppose she mentioned when she expected to be back?”
Will shook his head.
Not surprised, Helen exhaled with exhaustion. “No regard for anyone else’s plans. I brought her up better…”
There was a soft knock and the bedroom door creaked open. Bigfoot entered carrying a silver tray. The tea cups and saucers rattled against each other as he crossed the room, stepping carefully over the books littered around the floor.
“Mail as well,” he announced, after setting the tray down. He lifted up the serviettes and produced a worn envelope.
“It’s from Egypt,” said Will, astonished.
Helen frowned and opened it at once. “How long have I been out of it?” she asked, discarding the envelope which lacked a proper address.
“I was just getting to that. Eight weeks, give or take. We found you unconscious in a church graveyard.”
“Damn goblins again,” she muttered, sliding her finger nail through the top edge of the envelope. It slipped apart, revealing a soggy scrap of paper. Helen unfolded it carefully, laying it over her knees.
Will nudged in closer, tilting his head to the side to make out the paper. Lines darted everywhere in what appeared to be an erratic display. Trails of writing he couldn’t read were obscured by dribbles of whatever liquid the stains on the paper had been in another life.
“Pack your bags,” said Helen, taking a hurried sip of tea. “We’re going to Egypt.”
Will hunted out his glasses from the bed and replaced the on the bridge of his nose. “Never unpacked,” he grinned, helping Helen to her feet.
“There’s unsafe,” Will shifted on his arse so that the ceiling grazed his nose. The shaft or tunnel or whatever Helen said this was could barely fit their slender figures as they descended into the darkness. “Which I would define as unwise, possibly stupid behaviour resulting in injury,” he pointed to the weather-worn rope around their waists as the only thing keeping them aloft.
The crevice they were abseiling down wasn’t quite vertical but it was close enough to it that their feet failed to find footings.
Helen was in front, peering into the oncoming tunnel with a flashlight as best she could. “I can see where this is going…” she muttered.
Will twitched his head to the side. “Really?” he replied, wondering how she could see anything in that pitch.
She turned and pointed the light directly between his eyes. “I meant you train of logic.”
“Oh,” he blinked, temporarily blinded. “Well, after unwise we have ‘risky’ which I think we passed way back at those sinister doors at the opening of the tomb.” His feet slid on the polished surface. Egyptians really knew how to build their shit and worse, knew how to protect it.
“And what is this, then?” she asked, sneezing at a wafting of dust.
“Bad,” he sighed, shaking a sore hand. “Do we even know that this is the right tomb? It’s not like she’s sent us a GPS location.”
“She sent us plenty. Ashley’s down here all right, so is the thing she’s hunting which means we have to stay on our guard.”
“I’d feel much better if the big guy was here too.”
“He is here,” and with that she called out up the shaft. Bigfoot answered straight away, apparently they were almost out of rope.
“What do we do when this runs out?”
Something sinister crept over Helen’s eyes. Already at the end of her rope, she reached into a slip of leather on her calf and withdrew a blade. It caught a fragment of light as she held it to Will’s rope and sliced clean through it.
Will’s arms flailed as he started to slide down the shaft. Dust and sand flew into the air, blanketing him in a dense cloud. Holding his breath he splayed his limbs out and searched frantically for a hand hold. It was all over very quickly. Will hit the ground with a distinct thud, landing next to his flashlight which rolled lazily away from him as if nothing had happened. Unlike him, the maglite was indestructible.
“Watch out!” he heard, before Helen landed on top of him, knocking him to the ground again with a fresh layer of sand.
“Urgh…” Will rolled out from underneath Helen, gasping. “Magnificent plan, truly brilliant – just one flaw –” he pointed to the black hole that they had fallen through. “How does one get back now that the rope’s cut?”
Helen, already on her knees, rolled his flashlight back to him. “Our man at the top is tying our two ropes together as we speak. The new rope should make it to the bottom no problem, besides, Ashley will have more when we meet up with her. Who knows, there might even be another way out of here.”
‘Out of here’ was an interesting way of putting it, thought Will as he skimmed his light over the room. It appeared that they had fallen into some kind of large, empty stone room.
Attired in a mixture of nylon and leather, Helen paced around the square enclosure, running her hands along the walls. The fact that they were currently trapped in a dead end did not seem to bother her as she knelt down in the far corner.
“There are no mummies in Egypt – right?” Will blurted out, continuously scanning the dark edges of the room. “No walking dead wrapped in bandages poised to bring about seven plagues or anything. I mean, we are dealing with human mutations after all, not the supernatural.”
She smiled. “You are quite right,” she replied, pressing down on a stone with a small inscription at its corner. “What I think we’ll find down here are the People of the Sand. No-one’s ever actually found one before so it’s quite exciting. It’s no wonder Ashley packed and left when she heard.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Sand…” she whispered. “Ashley put a fair amount in the envelope.”
The blocks beside her rubbed and ground against each other until one fell loose, crashing to the floor leaving a human sized hole through to the next chamber. Will examined the hole warily with a frown. He could not help but note the assortments of weaponry poorly concealed around her hips, chest, thighs and arms. The backpack in its own right carried more ammunition than food which helped to feed the worried thoughts in his mind.
Will glanced down at his meagre flashlight until he realised that he was being watched.
Helen pointed at his hands and asked, “Out of interest, what did you bring with you?”
He thought for a moment, before answering, “Batteries…” They were for the flashlight. His biggest fear had always been being left alone in the dark. Helen though, simply nodded with a concerned look.
Will decided to change the subject as they ducked and shimmied their way through the opening, brushing curtains of century old spider webs aside. Hollow exoskeletons crunched on the ground as they walked. “Are these ‘People of the Sand’ dangerous?”
Helen shrugged, “No one knows. I presume so, otherwise, why hasn’t anyone caught one?”
“I’ve never heard of them before.”
“There have always been stories, passed along from tomb robbers all the way through caravan travellers who speak of a desert creature that comes at night. Usually they’ll take a camel or horse. The most interesting stories though, come from within the tombs.”
“I don’t like where you’re heading with this explanation.”
“Your objection has been noted,” she continued.
The low passageway ended and suddenly they found that they could stand. Helen’s ear piece crackled and Bigfoot’s voice was just discernable from the static.
“He says that he’s fixed our escape,” she relayed to Will as she paced ahead of him into the darkness. Will wanted to mutter don’t go but resisted. “Right, okay,” she turned back to Will. “The rope’s tied off and he’s going to throw down a couple of bottles of water. I’m just going to go and get them. You stay here.”
She scurried off before he could protest, leaving him alone in the unexplored chamber.
“I hate this,” he muttered, kicking the shallow layer of sand covering the floor. Will took a few steps backwards until his back hit the cold wall. It made him feel better, knowing that nothing was going to pounce on him from behind. The other three points of approach still bothered him though. He skimmed his light over the ground. Helen’s footprints were clearly visible in their tight circle and eventual return to the passageway, his own ended at his feet. There were a few small trails belonging to some kind of tomb dwelling critter, but nothing bigger than a beetle.
Will jumped forward in fright, throwing his flashlight at the sound in defence.
Helen caught it in one hand, a little offended. “These things can hurt,” she said, throwing it back at him just as hard.
“Ow…” he had missed. “I thought you were – something else.”
Helen bent over and plucked him off the floor by the scruff of his jacket. “You’re very skittish,” she commented. “Good thing I didn’t give you a gun or I’d be dead.”
“Tomb raiding is just not my thing,” Will dusted himself off.
“Well,” she smiled, pacing into the dark, “I hope you’re better at hunting because that’s what we’re really doing.”
“Morning baby,” Henry paused at the tank of murky water until a silvery face appeared. “Yeah, I know you love me,” he whispered at the mermaid who flicked her hair gracefully. Her features shimmered as the light struggled to get a hold on her skin.
Her deep eyes kept him there, staring dumbly at the tank. Henry often caught himself lingering here on his way through to the main office. The floor was full of all kinds of unimaginable creatures staring out from their enclosures yet he always ended up here, with his hand to the glass.
“Brought you something,” he muttered, breaking her mournful gaze. Henry opened his laptop, balancing it awkwardly on his arm. The screen flicked on revealing a grainy image of something remotely human. “Sandman,” he grinned, outlining the human figure with a finger.
She pulled away at first, swimming back into the safety of the water with a flick of her tail.
“No, it’s okay!” he put the laptop on the ground and pressed his nose to the glass. “Please…”
The mermaid tilted her head to the side before drifting closer.
“Just a picture,” Henry continued to whisper, until she was back in front of him.
Helen ran her hand along the wall as they walked forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the next. “The Egyptians weren’t just smart,” her voice had already begun to lower as they moved further into the tombs. “They were paranoid. Sand traps and spiked drops are the most common form of obstacle in places like this,” she held an arm in front of Will’s chest, preventing his forward motion.
Will raised an eyebrow curiously as she tapped the ground lightly with her foot where his next step was going to be. The ground fell away at once with a miniature avalanche of sand. Will coughed and leant over to the hole with his flashlight. A rather nasty set of spikes protruded after a short drop with sinister looking tips begging to stab something.
“Point made,” he said, stepping around it.
“You should have been there in Rome when we did the Colosseum. We had wild cats as well as ShiftCreatures – you know,” she put her hands up, “those things that grab you by the head?”
“What sort of coffee do you like?”
Helen stopped and frowned. “Creatures that grab you by the head and what sort of coffee do I like?”
Will shrugged. “Either you tell me what sort of coffee you like or I run back down that corridor and hide.”
“I hate coffee,” she sneered, “but I would be happy to discuss the long and magnificent history of tea if you –” Helen raised a fist in front of them and stopped dead.
Will had no idea what that meant but presumed that he was supposed to stop. Feeling very naked, he raised his flashlight aggressively as Helen withdrew a long knife.
“What?” whispered Will, sinking behind.
Helen flashed her light across the ground. “Footprints,” she pointed at the dips in the sand in front of them. They were small but far apart, made by something running.
“They just begin,” she whispered, stepping forward. “Unless –” she lifted her eyes to the ceiling and found a small opening. “Ashley came through here.”
“This is Ashley?” Will asked, wondering how some non-descript indents in the ground could be identified.
“Size six-and-a-half, slight in-turn on the left foot; can’t tell you how many times I’ve told her to wear her orthopaedics.” Helen picked up the pace to a brisk walk. “Wherever she’s going, she went there in a hurry – and with company…” she pointed to a second set of prints which appeared every ten metres or so in a tight bundle of three.
ERROR – search results = 0
Henry glared at the screen – Google rarely failed him so spectacularly.
“But I don’t want to go upstairs,” he mumbled, sliding out his chair and grabbing his coat. Henry blew a kiss at the tank as he left, warmed by the flash of silver.
Three flights of stairs (because he refused to use the lift while alone) took him to the library. A level exclusively for books, many protected behind wire framed cabinets or hidden in wall crevices, circled a central desk. He tried his search again at the lonesome computer and this time was directed to a small row of books at the south-east end of the room.
The city shimmered outside with a thousand trembling points of light. They would start to go out soon as the hours lagged on, the office buildings first and eventually the angry taillights of cars. It was almost time to let the wanderers out – the abnormals allowed to roam freely. Henry preferred to call them ‘pets’ but was usually clipped sharply over the ears for doing so.
Tucked away in a dark corner, Henry found what he was looking for. Grunting, he extracted a dusty A3 book and flopped to the floor with it. Deciding that ‘here’ was as good a place as any, he flicked to the index and scanned for anything scary.
“Mummies…” he repeated, finding something interesting. “Close enough. Yo Bigfoot,” he spoke into his earpiece. The simple looking communicator was actually a complex set of relays connecting him directly with his colleagues at the scene in Egypt. He waited patiently for the satellite delay, skimming through the text.
“Foss,” the signal was a bit crackly, but it was defiantly the big man. “You took yooour tiime.”
“How’s the sand?” Henry smiled, scratching his chin. He’d forgotten to shave and appeared, by his standards, a bit scruffy. He made a note to look into that before the boss got home.
“Good for the liice,” Bigfoot joked, although he really wasn’t much for jokes so it could have been a serious comment. “Did yoou find that book?”
He winked though there was no-one to see it. “Tell her to load the heavy stuff, these things she’s onto aren’t very friendly. This book calls them, ‘wall climbers’ but I think they’re the same thing. Claws and teeth – sensitive to light, the usual aggressive temperament of an abnormal…”
Bigfoot growled a little, resulting in a smile from Henry.
“Cool it fuzzy, you don’t count, obviously.” He flipped over to a random page. “Oooh… hope you don’t run into any of these.”
“Goodbye Foss,” the radio crackled out.
“Nasty little beasts with fangs and everything ouch,” he ripped the device out of his ear as it pitched. “You could’ve said you were hanging up…” he pouted, rubbing his ear.
“Maybe I could help with that…” the silken voice trailed off as its owner paced out of the shadows. John Druitt’s leather coat caught a few traces of the city light filtering in through the cob-webbed windows.
Henry dropped the book and spun around to find Helen’s creepy ex lingering by the window.
“She used to keep this place better,” John dragged a slender finger through a trail of dust on the top of a low shelf. “Many things change over time.”
“And what are you planning to do with that?” Helen watched curiously as Will rolled his thumb over the lighter’s metal wheel. A sharp spark later and a slender flame dented the torchlight.
“I lied before – when I said I only brought batteries. I have this too.”
“All our problems are solved – we can finally go home because Will possesses a lighter.” She shook her head in amusement. “Seriously, what are you doing with that other than wasting time?”
“This…” he grinned, holding it up to a small crevice in the wall beside. For a few moments the flame did nothing except tremble. Then, in a sudden rush of light, it caught hold of an accelerant and zoomed off in a trail of light illuminating their surrounds.
Helen clicked her flashlight off, highly impressed.
“You’re not going to say anything?” Will failed to conceal a proud grin. “It’s okay, I know when I’m brilliant.”
“Ashley…” whispered Helen, stepping forward on shaky feet. The size of the tomb was immense – at least thirty feet to the roof and a hundred foot long. With several layers of steps weaving in around the lines of paint flecked pillars, there were many corners left hidden from view.
A steady creak came from above. Helen, momentarily forgetting the danger, descended the sand covered stairs and screamed up to the roof, “Ashley!”
Ashley was curled around a rope, dangling from a small metal ring in the ceiling. Her head was slumped forward and one leg hanging limp with a gash through her leather pants. She swung gently, like a curious pendulum or angel not quite fallen from the sky.
Helen watched a steady trail of blood drip out a line on the sand. It looked as if Ashley had been here for some time, injured and alone.
Will skidded in behind the circling mother, glancing nervously about the unexplored room.
“We’ve got to get her down, Ashley!” Helen continued to call, trying to get her daughter’s attention.
Her persistence worked. Gradually, Ashley began to stir. It started with a strand of dirty blond hair slipping over her shoulder to brush against her face, tickling her nose. Ashley shifted as her eyes parted, laden with sharp deposits of sand.
“Mum?” she muttered, trying to focus the blurry shapes running frantic circles beneath her.
“Don’t move Ashley, I’m coming up there.”
Will frowned with his head aimed at the ceiling. He wasn’t sure how Helen planned to get up there. Ashley was hanging from the centre of the room out of reach from everything; indeed, he still couldn’t work out how on earth she’d gotten up there in the first place.
He took a few steps after Helen and felt his ankle roll. Will landed on his arse in a cloud of dust and sand, coughing with surprise. That had hurt. Feeling around for the cause, he found a scattering of ammunition shells sinister enough to make him suspect Ashley as their owner.
“Helen, wait…” he said. Helen hadn’t even noticed that he’d fallen. It took him catching hold of her arm to gain her attention and even then, he wasn’t sure that she was listening. “Something went down here – these things are all over the place.” He pointed out several more piles of shells at variously locations all over the room. Either there had been a small war or Ashley’d found what she had been looking for.
Ashley renewed her grip on the rope, grimacing as her nylon-warn wrists and hands burned. Almost a day, that’s how long she’d been hanging on, hoping that the rusted metal would hold her in place. The left side of her shoulder was useless with a shard of hot metal burrowed into it. Damage from the scuffle itself was widespread and ranged from severe to superficial. To be honest, she was more worried about the claw marks leaving a scar than potential infection. That was the one thing the desert had going for it. Her adrenaline was all but gone and the actual pain was well established, seizing whatever functions remained.
“Get out of here…” she croaked, lifting her head up. Her mother and Will were scurrying over the floor beneath like a pair of rats, sniffing and hunting.
“I’m coming, Ashley…” Helen repeated, searching for anything that she could use to reach her daughter.
Underneath the layers of sand was an exquisitely tiled floor. Most of the walls displayed intact hieroglyphs, several of which Will paused at, if only in fright. Now that he looked hard at the room, there was something wrong with it. Tombs were tributes, houses for the dead to live on in – that much he had picked up from the History Channel. Will seriously did not want to meet the person who had chosen to live in this place for all eternity.
The trail of fire that he had lit in the corridor, circled the whole room. “Wait…” he breathed, eyeing the ochre urns nestled in several corners. The sand on the ground wasn’t flat as it should be, nor were Helen and his trails visible. The ground was chaotic – a whisper of what had taken place and was still going on…
There – it happened again, another set of footprints appeared in the sand from nowhere.
“Get out of here,” Ashley repeated, trying to catch sight of her mother. All she found was Will, standing rigid against the far wall with his head jolting at every new movement.
“Helen!” Will said, panic rising in his voice. His plea echoed through the room, creating a few more footprints over the floor.
Helen felt the cool snap of breeze on her neck before anything else. Turning, gun and knife drawn, she saw only a frightened Will limping to the side. Her eyes betrayed her – she knew that her guard had dropped and that now they were in deep trouble.
“Talk to me,” she instructed Ashley.
The figure on the rope wiped sweat and tears onto the back of her hand. “I’m really sorry, mum,” she leant her cheek against the rope. “I never should have come here without you. They all told me to wait but I wanted –”
“I’ll deduct it from your allowance,” Helen was turning in very slow circles, gradually edging back into the centre of the room urging Will to do the same. “Right now I need to know what you found down here.”
“You seeing this,” said Will, watching smears of sand stain the air. Helen nodded, tracking each one.
“Why do you want to find her?” Henry swallowed harder than he meant to, clutching the book protectively across his chest like a shield.
John Druitt continued his expedition through the room, turning things over with his elegantly long fingers. So far he thought that he was doing a good job of appearing friendly.
“Because, little Henry,” John leant over the low bookshelf behind Henry, sliding his elbows over the wood. “She’s about to walk into something that she can’t handle and I don’t much fancy the prospect of spending eternity alone.”
Henry scoffed. “You want to help her? I don’t believe you.”
“I may not be the ideal husband, but there are worse things in the world than me.” He watched the city lights start to blink-out through the window behind Henry. A pretty scene – the new moon peeking out from a cloud, silhouettes of night birds cruising overhead, kept his eyes aloft for a moment. “And she’s about to meet one of them,” he said, as if to the night.
He could be sincere, Henry would grant him that much. Still, this smelt of a set up. He’d had no indication from the others that there was trouble and for all he knew, John’s other personality was the approaching danger. “She told me what you did, all those years ago. We all know. Boss told us so that we’d never believe a word from you.”
John’s eyes flicked down, quietly burning. “I’m being pleasant right now, as an act of good faith but there are more ways that we could do this. My daughter’s in trouble – so are your friends. I’m prepared to cut you a deal on this.”
“A deal, like you slit my throat after I tell you what you want?”
“I wouldn’t make suggestions if I were you, Mr. Foss. They don’t do your imagination justice.”
“Hey, can you hear me?” Helen tapped her earpiece, still clutching a knife.
Will continued to limp toward her, his eyes darting at the sporadic movement around the room. She was beckoning him forward, trying to reassure him with her gun while wiping the area with it every few seconds. Neither of them had seen anything but sand – and you couldn’t shoot at sand.
“Juuust,” came Bigfoot’s reply in her ear, amongst a shower of static.
“Get out of there and meet us at the campsite. Leave the rope.”
Will’s eyes went wide as he listened.
“Are you iin trouble?”
Helen kept her gun high. “Just go!” she yelled, satisfied when the radio clicked off. “He can’t help us anyway,” said Helen to Will. “Ashley, I want to know if you can see anything from up there.”
Ashley, barely awake, lifted her head up and looked down on the scene. Her mother was in the centre of the room with Will cautiously making his way toward her. He was about to start his descent down the steps when Ashley croaked, “Wait – they’re all around you.”
Will stopped, his foot hovering above the sand. Helen’s eyes moved more gradually this time, lingering on every turn of stone.
“I know what you are,” she whispered to the room in a silken voice not dissimilar to someone she had once known. Helen was certain that the walls could hear her. “Have you ever used one of these?” She reached behind her and withdrew a charcoal hand gun with an inscription scratched over the butt. Will thought it looked an awful lot like the one usually found resting on the hip of a certain Detective.
“Present from a friend,” she explained, holding it up for him to see. “Safety is on,” she twisted it around. “As soon as you’ve got it, I want you to slip this clip and aim it at the wall behind me. Whatever you do, don’t shoot me.”
“I-” Will didn’t get a chance to finish the thought. Helen threw the gun towards him in a steady, underarm action. It cleared the first ten feet between them. Will extended his hands toward it in expectation, cowering as the weapon spun in the air barrel first.
A line of sand ripped up from the ground between them, plucking the gun from midair as if it had hit an invisible wall. It fell to the floor with a shower of sand and a new set of footprints. Will’s outstretched hands clutched the air dumbly as he stared down at the fallen weapon.
His hairline broke into sweat. “I really don’t like what’s going down here.”
“Don’t panic,” Helen replied, “just walk towards the gun very quietly and pick it up.”
“You said you knew what these things were,” said Will, clambering down off the first step. It was a difficult thing to do carefully as his limp and the stone’s uncertain edges hindered his movement.
“Chameleons,” she replied, unable to pick any out yet. Helen knew that there were at least three in the room; one behind her, one to Will’s right and another skirting around the ceiling.
“The best I’ve seen,” added Ashley, trying to keep her eyes focused. If she could be of help, she would. “At least fifty of them though they were a tad difficult to count properly.”
“Not a time for jokes, Ashley.”
“I’m not,” she coughed, her throat dry and sore. “They’ve got a community – if you could call it that. Pack, yeah – a pack of them.”
Helen’s heart revved up a beat, not only was the sand moving but the walls as well. Pillars, stairs, ceiling – every surface was shivering, refusing to settle.
“Pick a spot and stare at it,” instructed Helen, as Will reached the gun and saved it from the ground.
He flicked the safety off with trembling fingers and pointed the gun at the wall behind Helen.
“I don’t want to alarm you,” she began, her voice miraculously steady, “but you’ve got to wait for a clean shot.”
Will wasn’t confident that he could get off any kind of shot at all. He’d never been a gun man – he was a flashlight man, a book man – a penknife man even, but not guns. They were too heavy and unpredictable and added to that, he hated the thought of what might happen if he scared and squeezed the trigger or even worse, if he did nothing at all.
Picking a spot on the wall behind her, he asked, “Why?”
“Under these circumstances – small enclosed space with stone walls, bullets bounce.”
Ashley nodded in agreement though no-one could see it. Her shoulder pained again and she remembered seeing the sparks of her bullet ricocheting off the pillar and coming back for more. Flashes of limbs, dust and an air you couldn’t breathe, it was surreal to see the room so quiet when she knew the same creatures were there, waiting for their chance.
“You got anything left up there?”
“I’ve got a clip,” Ashley replied, though she doubted that she could reach into her waistband to retrieve it.
Helen did the math. “This is going to be tight.”
Emerging from the wooden ladder stronger than its looks, Bigfoot’s hair-laden hands gripped the stone opening and hauled himself out into the sun. A dry wind kicked over his fur, lacing it with sand.
“Good for the lice,” he grinned, as best his face would allow. He’d waited years to use that line and he was damned if he was going to let a lack of audience stop him. Foss didn’t count, he was just practice. Bigfoot ran all his best lines through him before using them in public.
Rolling onto his knees, he pulled the equipment up after him and set to work unpacking the satellite communication. He strapped the remainder of the equipment onto his back and held the transceiver aloft for signal which would be undoubtedly better up here above the ground.
A rich carpet of red stretched out in front of him. The dirt of this dust bowl was mixed with iron oxide – literally rust. At the edges of the impressive red sweep was a stark range of mountains, clawing up into the sky with water-stained sandstone which had turned a sinister black. The rendezvous point was at the base of the spire-peak. In the shadow of the cliffs, Bigfoot could see a few fires burning.
“Foss, are you there?”
He walked for a few minutes, re-adjusting his luggage until he settled into a comfortable pace. Something was in the process of going wrong in the tomb, he could feel it. Danger worked its way down his spine in a shiver; a prickle of hair lifting to attention at the slightest whiff of trouble. The big man knew that he was of no use to them on his own. The shafts were too small for him to fit through. If he could bring the camp site back with him fast enough, maybe that would help.
“Arrre you even listening to me? There’s trouble about. I’ll send you through what we aave as soon as I get to the camp. You better be online by then.”
Thousands of miles away, John Druitt set the radio back on the desk. Henry rubbed his fists over his brow, trying to press the correct decision into his head.
This time, Helen caught an outline seething into focus half way up the wall. A torso was twisting as its chest exhaled. The creature’s camouflage re-adjusted with the slightest delay giving her a tangible outline with which to track her weapons on.
It knew that she could see it. What bothered Helen most was that it didn’t seem to mind.
She followed its motion as it slipped along the wall only pausing when a pair of eyes widened in terror. Her gun had ended up aimed at Will’s nose with the creature dead behind.
Will was sure that he could see the bullet, nuzzled inside the barrel ready for its turn in the air. His body shifted to pause – no air, no thought, no movement.
“Helen…” he whispered, not sure of her intention.
“Do you trust me?” she steadied her arm and tilted her stance so that her shoulders and feet were square to him.
Will wanted to swallow but couldn’t find the courage. “I hardly know you.”
“Probably a good thing,” she curled her fingers around the trigger.
This is going to be bad, thought Will, in what was potentially his last thought.
Helen held her line of sight with sheer audacity. She would not miss. Helen Magnus didn’t know how to miss.
TAG AND BAG
Will did as he was told and ducked as a bullet ripped over his head. He slammed his eyes shut and brought his hands over his face as he hit the ground, surprised to find himself alive.
Helen’s shot hit the stone wall in a shower of sparks, missing the camouflaged creature by inches. She swore as the bullet made a return trip, flying past her right ear before she could tilt her head away and then continued on to embed itself in a pottery urn behind.
The room moved at once.
“Get up!” she yelled at Will, as every surface shifted.
Will uncovered his eyes and saw a clawed hand skim over his skin before disappearing into the sand with a rush of air. He yelped and fumbled for the gun he’d dropped, picking it up backwards.
“Arse off the ground right now,” Helen screamed, as a blur of movement headed in Will’s direction. He rolled when Helen took a shot at the ground, both of them shielding themselves as it bounced off the floor and headed toward the roof.
Ashley condensed herself into a tight ball as the stray bullet made a close pass. That horrible sound had returned to the room, the one that sounded like sandpaper on wood. They were all moving now, more than before. She had listened to the creatures slip into the room for hours in the darkness as she hung on the rope, hovering out of their reach. The ‘People of the Sand’ the books had called them, but these were neither people nor sand. They were far more dangerous.
“Heads up mum!” Ashley called, as one of the sand people launched themselves from a nearby pillar.
You could see them better in the air.
Slender arms which ended in four clawed fingers, stretched in expectation of Helen’s person. Their skin was sleek and beautiful, rippling through colours during flight. The contours of their body suggested a muscular physique – supple like a feline but human enough that Helen could make out a wicked smile, spreading as their eyes opened.
They were blue – an icy contrast with the sand. Both were trained on her as their limbs closed in and the claws fanned out in a pre-grab motion.
The creature reached her before she could move, dragging her across the floor and down a step with the impact.
Will did a double take as Helen was wiped from view. On the step beside him, a figure sat up calmly and grinned. It had been there all along and now it was ready to play. Will heard it tap its claws and fold its knees in preparation for an attack. Without thinking, he pulled the trigger at point blank range, not bothering to aim. The creature snarled as its arm went limp. A steady trail of dark blood ruined its perfect camouflage.
This upset the others. Breaking their silence, they all stepped forward, crouching or crawling.
Helen used her feet to keep the creature at bay. It was held back by her legs, forcing itself towards her. Its long arms swiped, falling just short of her face but were getting closer with each pass as it used its weight to weaken her. Her instinct was to bring her gun around and shoot, but her weapon had been lost during the collision and all she had nearby was her five inch knife.
Turning her head to the side to avoid the creature’s attacks, she stretched her arm and groped for the knife.
“Damn,” Ashley whispered, as she tried to make it to her weapon. Her shoulder melted into pain as she unclipped the strap holding her gun in place.
Knife firmly in her fingers, Helen brought it toward the creature’s face. “Last chance,” she said, wondering if it could understand her.
It understood the serrated edge along the blade and the way that it caught the firelight.
Struggling for control, Helen called out to her daughter, “What do you want to do with them?”
Ashley, gun free and loaded, picked a target. “Tag and bag,” she called back. “That’s why we’re here.”
“I guess we’re taking you with us,” she goaded the creature currently trying to detach her face.
“Take them where?” Will gasped, backing away from his injured creature which continued to crawl toward him. It was taking its time, something that bothered Will greatly.
“Take them home,” replied Helen, gathering her strength.
Will shook his head. The room was full of them, most still watching the proceedings curiously as one might watch a fight. He had no doubt that they would join in when the temptation became too great. “Uh un… count me out of that one. You take this,” he pointed at the wild-eyed chameleon, “home then you can leave me here.”
The floor was covered in a constant layer of airborne sand as things raced across out of sight. Helen, mouth full of sand and eyes stinging, gathered her strength.
“Get. Off. Of. Me!” she huffed, bringing her knees to her chest before jettisoning the creature off across the room.
It squealed, shocked at the sudden action. Before hitting the pillar behind, it managed to twist its body in the air and land, clutched around the curved surface. With a wide-eyed glare, it quickly mimicked the pillar behind, barely visible as it scrambled up toward the roof.
A few others cried out, including the one closing in on Will. He brought the gun back up, aiming it at the creature’s head.
“Don’t kill it!” said Helen, getting to her feet. “We need one alive.”
“Does it have to be this one?” he replied, trying to ignore the cold eyes staring back at him. His question was answered when the creature slumped to the floor in a pile following a loud crack. Ashley nodded from her lofty position.
“Sorry, but that one was about to rip your throat open.”
“Ashley,” scorned Helen, “shoot to wound.”
“To hell with that!” Will leapt to his feet, seeing at least four more advance upon his position. He turned his head to the side and gripped the weapon with both hands. The trigger gave way beneath his fingers and suddenly he was spraying the room with bullets.
“No!” Helen went to ground, unable to do anything but hope.
The creatures darted, scattering away from the initial line of fire. Will realised his mistake too late as five rounds took on trajectories of their own. The first clipped his arm and he yelled out in shock. A creature on the wall fell to the ground, writhing in pain and a final shot found the nylon rope securing Ashley to the ceiling.
Her first thought was that it had missed. As Ashley continued to swing, the rope appeared unharmed. It wasn’t until the first strand snapped that she realised that she was in trouble. Even if she survived the fall to the tomb floor, her injuries would be serious.
Enraged, a creature behind Will hit him on the back, tearing strips from the back of his jacket along with several layers of his skin. Helen rolled onto her back, sore and winded. She saw Ashley swinging high above and the rope holding her there, unfurling strand by strand.
CHAOS AND SAND
On her feet at last, Helen screamed at the ceiling.
“Don’t move! There’s rope in the entrance room, Will and I will – urrumph,” a creature, appearing from the side, took hold of Helen’s arm – sinking its teeth through her leather jacket. Its jaws clenched down onto her bone, extracting a shriek from her usually brave exterior. Another slammed into the back of her knees and she slumped back to the ground in pain.
The creature’s head was black now, flaunting a dull sheen and crinkled surface. It horrified her that she appeared to be wearing it, like some aggressive accessory she might have owned a century ago. She tried to pull her arm away but found herself drawn toward the creature instead. Screaming, Helen kicked sideways at its head, hoping to dislodge its teeth from her arm.
Will made it to his feet, half limping – half falling forwards with motion. His back was searing from the creature’s claws while his arm dribbled over his shoes and into the sand. He could see Helen on the floor, struggling against a creature unsure if it wanted to be sand or leather. Its back legs were digging and scratching at the floor behind as Helen tried to drag herself from its hold.
Another ‘crack’ reverberated off the walls. A creature lost its footing, rolling down the steps beside him. Will looked up and saw Ashley re-aim her weapon at the creature attacking her mother. It was clear from her growl that she couldn’t get a clean shot.
Ashley’s eyes kept the creature lined up but she couldn’t stop her hand from shaking. She wasn’t nervous, or scared – her body was going into shock most likely from all the blood she’d lost. Added to that, she knew that her legs were well and truly tangled in the rope. She had made sure of it so that she could drift in and out of sleep whilst waiting for help. Now though, it presented her with a problem; with the rope gradually breaking, she would go down with it.
Will, with a decent line of sight on Helen, brought his weapon up and took a shot at the creature. Nothing happened. Wiping away the sweat stinging his eyes, he tried again, rolling the trigger as Ashley had shown in on his first week. This time he felt the click but it was soft and empty. He was out of bullets.
“Shit…” he muttered, tucking it into the back of his jeans without thinking. “What do I do?” Will yelled at the room, not caring what answered him.
Helen shouted Will’s name as she rolled on top of the creature. “At your feet! At your feeeeet!” Then she was gone again, with two creatures on top of her slashing and screaming.
Will looked down at his feet, wondering what help they could possibly be. There, to his surprise, he found the sleek form of his flashlight. He couldn’t help but grin.
Scooping it from the ground, Will hopped over the last few feet until he was right on top of scuffle. Raising it behind his head, he let loose, bringing a heavy blow onto one of the creatures. Now with one arm free, Helen took a swipe of her own, knocking the other one off of her.
“Thank you,” she said, gripping her arm with her hand to stop the blood gushing out of it.
They both looked up and saw Ashley staring anxiously at what remained of her rope. There couldn’t be more than a few strands left. Instead of swinging, the rope had started to twist in tight circles, putting even more strain on the nylon.
The twang from the final snap dragged a heavy silence after it. Helen saw only her child, suspended on the air with a rope snaking off in a wild curve, thrashing out toward the wall. Ashley’s hands let go, reaching out like wings as the downward pull took hold of her. It was an action too slow to be real, as if the world had changed its motion.
“Ashley!” Helen threw her body carelessly forward, dodging a stray creature. Will followed, propelling himself with such force a creature bounced off his chest in fright.
“No…” Helen stood beneath her daughter as a scream filled the room.
Will, realising that Ashley didn’t stand a chance, knocked Helen out of the way of her fall. As they headed to the ground together, Helen frantically grouped over Will’s shoulder at the sight of her daughter sailing through the air. Then, a rush of wind kicked every granule of sand from the floor and the room vanished under a hazy veil.
It was if a jet liner had decided to take off beneath them except that they could see nothing as the roar encompassed them. Like lightening in the distance, Helen and Will were vaguely aware of a blue flash bleeding through the chaos. They couldn’t hear Ashley’s scream and yet they hadn’t heard her hit the ground.
Shielding their faces in each other as the sand and wind peaked, they felt themselves tugged sharply. Will held on tight as they both slid over the floor, unable to breathe or see. They were drowning in it; the sand and the chaos. Overwhelmed with the noise, Will failed to feel the creature’s claws, digging into his ankle with no intention of letting go.
Without warning – the room went quiet.
The wind stopped as abruptly as it had begun and the sand fell back where it belonged amongst the shattered remnants of urns and bone. Sand creatures were scattered everywhere, dazed and clumsy as they staggered about with their skins in flux, upset from the disorder.
The first thing Helen and Will did was breathe.
Helen opened her eyes. She found a pair staring back at her. They were blue – but not icy and clear like the sand people. These eyes were murky with flickers of grey and green blurring into watery disks. They were stark against the expanse of pale skin, sunken under a strong brow ridge as if sheltering from the world.
“Let’s go,” they said, reaching out a hand.
Without meaning to, Helen took hold and the world faded to black.
“Foss, you better aaanswer your damn headset or I’m coming over there to-”
“We are so, so – I can’ believe how utterly and totally, phenomenally, I mean TOTALLY screwed we are!” Henry’s panicked voice had trouble deciding what to confess to first. Unable to stop the topple of words spilling from his mouth, he continued to despatch information in fragments ranked via severity. “And then – he was gone. Druitt was outta here with a mean look and I think he was headed your way.”
“Back up and slow down.” Bigfoot waved the rescue party to leave without him. They were still unsettled by his appearance, most normals were. It was something he had gotten used to. It hurt, but less and less as the years wore on. “What do you mean ‘Druitt’? I thought we were dealing with Sand People.”
“I know,” Henry was surrounded by open books and handwritten notes, “and we are. But I was just sitting here and suddenly he appeared from nowhere and I mean one minute there was a window and the next minute – damn, scary bastard – my arse is so gonna die.”
“He triiied to kill you?”
“No – well, yes, but I mean that the boss is gonna kill me when she gets back. If she gets back. Of course she’s getting back – I didn’ mean that.”
Bigfoot finally found what he was looking for – a large, nicely curved slice of metal. He threaded it through the straps of his pack and headed out the tent flap. Evening was finally starting to approach the desert. The surrounds were darker than they should have been, sheltered by the wall of rock behind the camp. Permafrost clung to the tents, thicker at the posts. By the time they reached the buried tomb, it would be night. Bigfoot’s main concern was that the desert stories were true.
Most of the camp was on the move, heading toward the strange bump poking through the sand in the middle of absolutely nowhere. They are armed to the teeth, in some cases, literally. As residents of the desert, they had a pretty good idea of what was under the sand.
“Listen, we’ve got a few problems of ooour own. If Druitt turns up, we’ll deal with him. Call you back when we’re done.”
Henry gripped his headset, as if squeezing the life out it would keep it on longer. “Don’t hang up on me, don’t hang up on me, don’t -! Guh! Damn fuzzball, I hadn’t finished yet.”
There was a not so subtle scowl over the headpiece.
“You – still – there?” whispered Henry.
Henry had forgotten about that. “Did you,” he cleared his throat, “have something to add?”
“Yeah, prep the biggest cage we have. Helen’s bringing home a new pet.”
The world reappeared with a sharp flash of light and jolt of electricity that raced up her spine and played havoc with her nerves. Helen clenched her eyes shut as she felt her head split into two. The sheer agony of jumping through a gash in space and time was overwhelming and it never got easier.
John held her hand, folding it beneath his fingers while he waited for her to wake up. He watched as she murmured and frowned, no doubt suffering through the pain.
Will was unconscious, draped over the lower half of Helen’s body whilst a sand creature twitched, teeth embedded deep in his ankle. It was currently a dusky orange, unaware of the deep mahogany floor boards of Helen’s library.
John tilted his head and eyed it curiously, wondering what new pet Helen had been hunting in the desert. Suddenly he felt Ashley start to slip loose from his shoulder. Shifting his daughter’s limp weight, John whispered Helen’s name. He wanted her to see this – wanted her to know.
Helen’s eyes shot open.
“Don’t,” she rasped, coughing and struggling for breath.
John let her hands slip from his hold as he stepped back, his placid look evaporating into a comfortable state of malice. He revealed Ashley, slumped carefully over his shoulder.
“Ashley…” Helen tried to get up but Will was heavy and her body was weak.
“Don’t bother,” he said softly, stepping out of her reach. “I just wanted you to see her – know that she was safe,” John finished with a strange smile forcing its way over his harsh features.
She eyed him in warning, “What do you mean – John!” Helen hid her face beneath her arm as John tore another hole in the universe. It was a violent action which ripped pieces from his soul, scattering them across time. To blame him for a gift that devoured the John she remembered was unfair but sometimes she couldn’t help it – especially when he had their daughter in tow.
“Stupid, stupid…” she beat at the ground. Ashley was gone again, dragged well beyond her reach.
“Ow… that hurts,” Will staggered into consciousness.
Helen tried for a second time to roll him off of her sore body but it was an action that was going to require his input. “Teleporting tends to hurt,” she said, slapping him hard across the face to snap him out of delirium.
“Oh god, that hurt more.”
She half heartedly apologised, helping him to lift his head and roll to the side. “You were crushing my bruised ribcage.”
“Remind me not to do that again,” he coughed up a mouthful of sand. Will’s face contorted in pain, “It really hurts…”
Helen rolled her eyes but then realised why Will was whining.
“Will,” she half-whispered, making a point of keeping her voice steady. “Keep still and – uh, tell me how many books are on that shelf over there.”
Will’s forehead crinkled up. “What shelf?”
Helen glanced over her shoulder and re-adjusted her point to a non-descript library shelf. “Just do it.”
Helen slipped her knees out first and then, with Will’s assistance, shuffled out from underneath him. She crawled around his body to the point where the sand creature had attached itself. Its body rose as it inhaled, causing a ripple of colour to propagate from its shoulders down its bony back. Helen’s hand stopped short of touching the alluring surface.
Craning her head, she saw a set of small, sharp teeth embedded in Will’s ankle amidst a mess of blood. Even in sleep this thing was biting down hard.
“Little bugger,” Helen cursed, to which Will tried to whip his head around and have a look, still unaware of his travelmate.
“What – what?” he demanded, squirming in vain.
“Nothing,” Helen roused. “Stop moving and count the books.”
Will’s attention was instead drawn to a set of footsteps approaching from the right. Puffing, a dishevelled Henry rounded the entrance to the library, stopped at the site of them and placed his hands on his knees breathing heavily.
“How – the hell – did you get – what is that!” Henry pointed at Will accusingly.
Will frowned, offended. “What do you mean, what? I’m not a ‘what’ I’m a ‘docto-ooraaargh!’” he yelled in fright, seeing the creature conjoined to his ankle. “Get it off, get it off, get it ow!”
Helen held him down with one elbow digging into his throat, “If you keep moving like this, you’re going to wake it up. Henry, go get the tranquiliser gun and load it with 4’s.”
“Hi Henry, how was your week? Good – yeah, heard you had a bit of trouble. No, it was nothing. Your deranged ex only tried to rip me into little pieces and feed them to the exhibits while you were gone but I’m over that now, no permanent damage. He did, however, take down most of our security network and release a few abnormals for good measure but other than that everything here is –”
“This century please!”
“Aren’t you going to help?” Helen and Will grunted their way down the corridor toward the lift, dragging the snoring body of the sand creature. It was heavy and awkward made more difficult by the fact that both of them were injured and sore. Indeed, the only reasonably healthy individual was waiting at the lift doors, holding them open with an impatient look.
“Nope,” replied Henry, one hand in his jean pocket. “Creature goes in the cage. Computer guy stays by the computer.”
She loved what Henry had done to the place whilst she was away. All the flowers were dead, weeping over the edge of the vases stationed along the corridors. He’d left the curtains drawn, most likely out of fear whilst several mice had escaped from her lab and taken up residence under the Inquiries desk.
“You’re perfectly replaceable,” she grunted, hauling the sand creature’s arse into the lift. Both she and Will fell against the iron-grated walls in exhaustion.
Henry hit the basement level button causing the lift to lurch into action, overbalancing Will who fell on top of the sand creature – squeaked in panic, and then returned to the elevator wall with an embarrassed look.
“Not likely,” Henry acted decidedly dejected. “One look at the job description and you’d have to increase the pay which brings me back to –” He stopped when Helen pushed herself off of the wall to tackle him with a hug.
A mass of dark hair obscured his view.
“Hi, how are you – missed you,” she grinned into his shoulder.
They deposited the sand creature in maximum security. The door to its cage clicked shut but Helen didn’t sigh with relief until the double locks slipped into place. It looked sad, lying there on the floor. In what she guessed was a rarity for its kind, the creature looked out of place – starkly alive against the dreary cell walls.
“One down. You’ve got about three more high security threats on the loose though,” Henry moved to one of the inbuilt display systems on the wall. A floor plan of the manor appeared on screen decorated with three flashing dots.
“First,” she straightened up, sweat streaming off of her. “I’m stitching the pair of us up,” she pointed at Will who continued to drip blood wherever he went, ruining her good carpet. They both looked a mess and in need of a decent cup of tea, or in Will’s case, coffee.
Henry watched nervously as the red dots moved about the screen. “I don’t suppose that I can…”
“Yes,” she wacked him on the back as she left the secure area. The whole level was too dreary for her liking. “You can come too.”
“You’re thinking about Ashley,” Will winced, as Helen smeared alcohol over the deep claw wounds on his back. “We could go and look for her.”
Helen shuffled through a metal tray. She was dressed in a white coat with her hair tied back while she attended to Will’s injuries which were quite impressive for someone who ‘didn’t fight’. Finally happy, she selected a dangerous looking implement with a sharp hook on its end. Will suddenly wasn’t so sure that he wanted to be fixed.
“John’s too clever for that,” she said, lining the horrific thing up where the bullet had clipped his arm. “He knows which strengths to play on – he’ll take her where I can’t follow.”
“She’s inured though?”
“I imagine so – though I didn’t get a good look.” It was clear that Helen didn’t want to talk by the abruptness of her answers.
“For what it’s worth,” said Henry, sliding off a nearby gurney, “I don’t think he wanted to kill her.”
Will looked away as Helen picked a layer of his skin up with the tool.
“Even so…” Helen trailed off. With John, even his best intentions had a habit of attracting the worst outcomes.
An alarm went off over by the door to the lab, filling the room with flashes of red. The emergency lighting kicked on a moment later, bringing the room back to full brightness. Henry tapped away on a nearby computer and frowned, deep with worry.
“One of the loose abnormals is having a go at the windows. They managed to trip the power in the process.”
“All right,” Helen’s eyes were back to their steady façade. “We better go and round them up before they do any real damage. Yes Henry, you’re coming too. Without Bigfoot or Ashley it’s going to take all three of us.”
“I’ll try and contact him again before we go,” said Henry, hunting around for his headset. “He said he was heading off back towards the tomb looking for you. Hopefully we’ll catch him early and save him the walk.”
A desert wind had blown itself in from nowhere. Bigfoot was certain that whole dunes were gusting over their heads. Their flashlights were utterly useless against the turbulent layers of sand swishing around like schools of ocean fish.
The desert people whom he had brought with him as part of the expedition were huddling on the ground with thick layers of cloth pulled over their heads. Whenever he passed one, he thought that they looked like boulders, thrown at random by the ancient volcano on the other side of the dune.
Bigfoot stopped when he felt a hand reach out and grab hold of his leg. Bending down, he saw another of those ‘rocks’. This one appeared to be shouting at him, though it was difficult to tell through the noise of the wind.
“Go to ground, mate,” yelled the man. Only the profile of his nose was visible underneath the layers wrapped around his head. “Only thing to do.”
For all Bigfoot knew, they had been walking in circles for hours. The desert man was right. Not even sand people would be out in this…
The room was lit by a series of kerosene lamps stationed on mahogany desks, cut glass coffee tables and marble mantelpieces. A fire joined the glow, burning behind its ornate iron grate. There was a heavy smell of varnish on the air – almost intoxicating as it mingled with the vase of roses.
Some of the furniture was huddled to the side, pushed out of the way to make space for a central table covered in soft layers of bedding. Ashley shifted on top of it. The pillow supporting her head smelt like her mother’s coat.
Eventually her eyes opened, catching a glimpse of the firelight playing over the ceiling. She waited for the inevitable stab of pain to hit her forehead but it never came. Her body was numb, trying to move she realised that nothing but her eyes would respond.
Her heart picked up a few beats as she took a more careful look at the roof above. It was painted a shade of green her mother wouldn’t touch with a shorn off shotgun which meant that she wasn’t at home. Ashley breathed again, confirming her mother’s scent.
Concentrate Ashley, she instructed herself. Don’t panic, you’re not dead yet. Now where the hell are you? Closing her eyes she tried to remember the last thing that had happened.
A length of unravelling rope – sand creatures closing in underneath – her stomach turning…
A door closing to her right snapped her out of it. Ashley kept her eyes shut and pretended to be asleep as something bumbled about the room, tinkering with the lamps.
Minutes passed until the footsteps walked straight toward her and came to a stop. She kept her breathing steady but couldn’t stop the occasional twitch of her eyelids.
“Almost lost you there for a moment,” a deep, warm voice said. It belonged to a gentle looking man who walked off in the direction of a solid-looking desk behind her head. Its edges were handcrafted while its centre was inlaid with green leather. “I know that you are awake,” he continued. “No use pretending, young lady.”
Ashley opened her eyes to a brightened room. “I can’t move,” she stated, almost accusingly.
Although she couldn’t see it, the man smiled and retrieved a pair of spectacles from his desk drawer, stopping to skim through a few loose sheets of paper.
“You should be thrilled to be alive,” he replied, dipping a gold nib into a pot of ink before scratching across one of the pages. He gave one of them a small nod. “The state you were left in, even I’m surprised and let me reassure you – I’m not easily surprised. The things I’ve seen – ” he sighed and trailed off.
Ashley felt helpless, unable to move or see anything other than a small patch of ceiling.
“Now,” the old man said, grinding his chair over the floorboards, “have you got a name? Or shall I continue to refer to you as, ‘curious’?”
He tottered into view, leaning over her. His appearance made her smile, though she couldn’t place why.
“Ashley,” she offered, blinking as he waved a heavily creased hand over her eyes.
“Well, Miss Ashley, you’ll have to wait until that dose I gave you wears. Your movement will return in time so too, I suspect, will some of the pain. In the meantime, why don’t you explain to me what you were doing left in a crumpled heap on my front step?”
“I thought that you said this would be easy…”
Helen closed her eyes, inhaling deeply as she had taught herself. The action calmed her enough to respond to her winging accomplices.
“Will, have you ever known me to use the word, ‘easy’?”
Will re-adjusted his grip on the stunning stick that she had thrown at him on their way here. “Yes,” he replied.
“And what happened then?”
“Total carnage,” Henry filled in. “What – we’re talking about the snake thing right? Why are you all looking at me – is there some law against talking now? If there is you’re going to have to start issuing memo-upd-”
Helen reached across Will and covered Henry’s mouth with her hand, combining it with a stern glare. Will, now hemmed in, peered into the dark room in front. He could hear something scratching around.
“Ah…” he mumbled, hoping the others would follow.
What he could hear was a three-legged abnormal ripping its way through Helen’s lounge room curtains. Nicknamed, ‘Pain’ mainly due to its numerous irritating escape rampages, it had been a resident of the Sanctuary for many decades.
“Not my good curtains…” whispered Helen, releasing Henry and shuffling closer into the room. The clawed fur-ball was busy tearing its way between the folds of fabric.
She’d purposely plunged the manor into darkness to confuse the abnormals let loose by John. Usually it made them disoriented and easier to catch. It also made Will prone to falling over objects and landing splattered over the floor like some work of modern art.
“He’s not going for the cage…” Henry sighed, as Helen poked her nose around the corner, tranquiliser gun raised.
The ripping stopped and was replaced by a patter of tiny feet across the floor. Helen sharpened her eyes, trying to pick the creature out from the darkness. The group jumped at a loud ‘click’ followed by a sizeable clatter as the cage door snapped shut.
“Or maybe…” Henry clicked his flashlight on and ventured into the room. “We got it!” he yelped excitedly, as his light trailed over the cage now full of fur.
“Henry, would you just wait. We’ve talked about this!” muttered Helen, cocking her weapon before following. Will raised his stick and did the same.
“He’s kind of cute when he’s all locked up – aren’t you?” Henry tapped the edge of the cage as Helen flipped the lights back on. The curtains, as she had feared, were reduced to shredded strips of fabric.
“Don’t play with him – he’s not a pet. He is a form of human being.”
“Speak for yourself,” retorted Henry. Half the time he felt like another one of her pets.
The scruffy pile of fur had two sharp eyes and stood upright in the cage, feeding its spindly arms through the trap trying to pick at the cage lock. It knew what it was doing and, given enough time, would be out and free to continue its reign of terror.
“Come on,” said Helen, retrieving the cage. “We’ll put Pain back and leave SAM where he is. Ashley can deal with him when she gets back.
Pain rattled the bars, chirping loudly. Helen shushed it with such force that it cowered into a corner.
Will fell into step beside her as they travelled down the hallway. “Wait, who’s SAM?”
“Subterranean Animal Menace. By now he’s probably nesting in the attic.”
“We’re just going to leave him there? I thought that these were high security creatures?”
Will looked worried, Helen could tell by the way he gripped his stun stick. If he gripped it any harder he’d stun himself.
“He won’t be dangerous until he starts looking for a mate which won’t be for – two weeks?” she looked at Henry for confirmation. He shrugged. That sounded about right. “Besides, I want to take a look at our new guest before he – it, whatever, wakes up.”
Henry broke away from the party and headed off back to his office to try and raise Bigfoot’s camp. There was no answer from the man himself but he did manage to catch a woman at the campsite. The line was riddled with static but he heard her say that there were strong winds in the area interfering with communications and that she would continue trying to reach the party and call him back with any news. Henry wanted to leave it there. It had been a long day, for everyone, but his stomach had been sinking all afternoon.
“Feeling better I imagine,” the doctor helped Ashley take her seat at the desk. He had been right about the pain returning. Apparently in this place you got a choice between mobility and comfort. The choice was simple for Helen Magnus’s daughter.
“I can walk, if that’s what you mean.” Her eyes tracked over the room. What was absent was far more interesting than what was present. No computer, light bulbs or powerpoint’s of any kind. There was not even so much as a pen in sight. The sounds of the world outside the glass windows were different too. It was quiet except for the occasional rap of what sounded like hooves.
She shook her head, there was no way that –
“Are you all right, my dear?” The doctor leant forward in concern with eyes that seemed so familiar. “You shall have to remain here this evening. It is my professional opinion that you are not in any condition to wander about and if my suspicions are correct, you’re not from around here.”
Ashley wondered what had led him to that conclusion until she noted the differences between their attire. His jacket was an olive green, tapered in around the chest where it was buttoned up to a silk neck tie, held in place by a delicate gold clip.
“Who are you?” she asked. If she didn’t know better, Ashley thought that she might be on the set of an historical English drama. Indeed, the doctor sounded an awful lot like –
“Doctor Magnus,” he smiled, “but you can call me ‘Gregory’ if you like.”
Helen held the needle up to the light, checking for any stray air bubbles gliding through the liquid. There were a few, so she flicked the glass and pushed the plunger until the freezing liquid squirted out the end, splattering over the cement and down her fingers.
“All right, let’s see if you’re as hot as Will thinks you are – genetically speaking of course,” she said to the sand creature, as she approached the crumpled form on the bed.
It was still a sandy colour with granules of light and dark dots mimicking the surface of the tomb. Several scratches on its shoulders and ankles had healed but a deep gash under its ribcage remained open. She would have to attend to that when she finished collecting samples for her research.
Presently, Helen Magnus was after the creature’s blood – not much, just enough.
With its mouth open drooling over the sheets, the sand creature’s breathing remained steady and shallow as she slid the needle into its neck. A ripple of colour propagated from the spot where the tip went in – hitting the sides of its body and circling its limbs. It twitched a bony finger or two but did not wake.
“You’re not such a bad patient,” she cooed, withdrawing the first needle and taking another from the trolley beside her. This time it was a syringe with a hollow tube, ready to collect a sample. “Last one, I promise.”
There was something very old about the sand creature – like the musky smell on closeted jackets. They looked fresh but every now and again there was that hint of age, brushing over the air.
Its skin rippled again as she began to draw the sticky blood out. Through her plastic gloves she unintentionally felt the texture of its skin. It was fine, almost tissue paper and far more fragile than she had imagined. One slip with a sharp knife and it was open, as evidenced by the gashes.
The creature’s breathing deepened to something reminiscent of a snore. Every time its body deflated, a low drawl flowed out of its razor lined mouth like words.
Her needle full, Helen withdrew the metal from the creature and snapped a lid on its top. Satisfied, she pried off her gloves and placed everything in the trolley, preparing to leave the cell.
“All done here for n-” Helen blinked, looking back to the bed where the creature had been. It was empty though she could still hear the deep rustle of the creature’s breathing coming from the empty space. Helen checked the cell door, it was closed and the rest of the small cell remained bare.
This time, Helen forced herself to look more closely at the empty bed. Sure enough, there was a slight rise and fall to the air where the camouflaged body exhaled. Its disguise was near perfect.
Beautiful but deadly, she thought as it began to wake up. Helen decided it was time to leave.
The creature agreed, whispering something under its breath.
She let go of the trolley, pushing it aside as the sand creature’s hand scratched across her neck, throwing her to the floor. She hit the opposite wall hard enough to blur her vision. Everything was slurred, images and her thoughts. She was barely able to pick out the rising form of the creature as it stretched its injured limbs, licking a wound on its arm.
There was a rattle as the trolley and its contents sped toward her, pushed by the creature. Helen stirred and lifted her legs, taking the impact. It hurt like hell, but she refused to slip into unconsciousness.
“Bollocks…” she whispered, as the creature advanced. Her tranquiliser gun was on the table outside the cell – well out of reach. There was a set of keys in her back pocket and she hoped to death that the sand creature hadn’t learnt how to use them because in a moment or two, they would be at its disposal.
The sand creature fell to all fours as it grew closer, slinking from side to side. Helen wished that she could see something more than a quivering of air. It wasn’t right, dying in silence like this.
“There are other ways – to do this,” she pleaded, trying to hold her voice steady. She could hear the tap of its claws as it moved through the room and eventually the sound of its skin contorting with a subtle effervescence.
Its lips moved again, accompanied by a rolling tone.
“You’re right,” she closed her eyes, as a paw snapped her neck to the side.
Ashley had been watching her grandfather speak for the last half an hour without saying a word. He’d grown used to her stunned silence and resigned himself to offering her biscuits and tea instead. Whenever she accepted an item of food, he felt that they had made progress.
A shadow wiping over the room interrupted them as someone passed in front of the arched window. Ashley scared at the sound of the front door shaking on its hinges and then slammed decidedly shut. Her grandfather folded his glasses, placing them gently atop a leather-bound book and then nodded at her.
“If you’ll excuse me – that’ll be my daughter returning from the lecture. She’s a doctor you know, a better one than me. I should get her to take a look at you – check up on my needlework.”
His daughter? Oh, Ashley’s eyes went wide. “Wait –” she panicked, catching hold of his sleeve as he went to leave. “I-” she fumbled for an excuse, “would rather just rest, if you don’t mind.”
Dr. Gregory Magnus’s bushy eyebrows curled even more eccentrically. “Sure? I guess you’re right. It’s best Helen stay out of whatever’s going on – it’s a delicate time for her and you’ve got that look of trouble about you.”
Ashley couldn’t help herself frowning. Her grandfather thought she was trouble? That hurt a little.
She could hear her mother’s muffled voice after Dr. Magnus closed the door. It was utterly bizarre – she sounded younger – different, as if she were a completely different person. Well, she was a different person, Ashley figured. People were made out of their experiences and there were some crucial parts of Helen that were yet to happen.
Shaking her head, Ashley rose from her seat and stumbled painfully around the room.
“This can’t be happening,” said Ashley, astounded. Everything that she touched was real, too real to be a construct of her imagination. Turning a delicate china ornament under her fingers, she paused to read an inscription under its base.
“Curious – isn’t it.”
Ashley almost dropped it. Saving the precious object in her palm, she rolled it back onto the mantle and twisted her head to the side. Her matted hair fell across her shoulder as her eyes picked her elusive father out of the shadows in the corner of the room.
John stepped out from the servant’s door, leaving it open should he need to leave in a hurry. His clothes matched the period – a heavy, multi-layered coat and shirt that ruffled toward the neck. The man though, was out of his time. His eyes were cruel and sad from too many lifetimes alone.
She turned warily, eyes flickering to the poker resting against the fire place.
“Curious how time can be walked through again and again,” John continued, edging forward “– trampled over like one of your grandfather’s exquisite gardens.”
“What are you doing here?” she hissed, afraid for the voices in the hallway behind the other door.
“Steady…” he cracked across the room without moving, teleporting to the fireside before she could move. He wrapped his hands around the poker and lifted it free. John slipped the warm iron between his fingers, turning it curiously. “That’s one way to thank me for taking you to see your relatives. It can’t be easy, having only one for so many years.”
“You didn’t answer my question. I’m what – kidnapped and you take me home? That makes no sense.” If she didn’t know better, she’d say he was taunting her, begging for a challenge. Then again, from what her mother had told her this could just be his natural mood.
“Your mother,” he began, using the poker to lean on, “she does medical examinations of all the abnormals in her possession?”
Ashley frowned. She was trapped in the past and he wanted to chat about work? “Most of them are struggling to understand their condi-”
“Even the dead ones?” he grinned, interrupting. “She kneels down beside them with a needle, those icy hands of hers picking a spot on their neck.” John laughed quietly, as if he could see Helen doing that very thing in front of him. “The way she lingers on them, wondering if this one will be different. You never thought to ask –”
“It’s for her research library – she told me. We document the abnormal gene pattern and I know that you know that because she told me herself.”
“Why?” he drawled the word out as if its meaning were crucial to his very existence.
Ashley frowned, “Why did she tell me?”
“No.” His reserved anger was forcing its way to the surface, “Why the research?”
She opened her mouth to give the ‘tour group’ response when he pushed forward into the room and raised a hand inches from her face.
“Wrong!” his eyes swirled, wild. “Your mother’s research began in this room when she was still a child. Living forever is a terrible curse – her father saw that early and used every facet of his knowledge to help his daughter. As she grew up, they discovered a whole world of people like us – twisted forms of human, creatures with talents to rival her own.”
“I don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“You’ve made it painfully clear that you’re old enough to know the truth but you have no idea what goes on behind the walls of your home,” his snarl was fierce, held back by something only just stronger, “and I don’t think that you really want to.”
Dr. Magnus kissed his daughter on the cheek after she’d taken a moment to calm down. “You were away for a long time.”
“Please don’t start,” she replied, sternly. “I don’t have the energy left.”
“So I take it they weren’t so keen on our research?”
“Narrow minded sparrows,” she threw her umbrella at the hallstand.
He couldn’t help but smile as his daughter tore the foyer apart – hats, coats and things flying roughly to their place. “It has been my long held suspicion that the world isn’t ready for you, Dr. Magnus.”
Helen shook her head. “I’m not a doctor, still an unwanted student I’m afraid. Is there someone here?” she added, hearing an object unsettled in her father’s study. Helen crossed the floor and stretched her gloved hand towards the doorknob.
“A patient,” he stepped in front of her. “They’re tired. I think it be best we leave them be. In the meantime, you can tell me about these sparrows.”
She sighed, the first lines of a smile creeping onto the edges of her eyes. “Very well.”
BURIED IN GLASS CABINETS
“You like the tropics, don’t you? Yeah…” Henry grinned. “I wouldn’t want to spend all my time in arctic water either I don’t care what Helen says about your native habitat,” he adjusted the dial, spinning it up a degree or two.
The heaters in the mermaid’s tank spun into action. She swished her tail, distancing herself from the huge outlets riddled with bubbles.
Will was ‘seated’ at the desk in the centre of the room. Well – more correctly, he was balanced precariously on the back wheel of the office chair which looked as if it would slip at any moment and vomit him onto the concrete.
“Is it wise to play with that?” snapped Will, nose deep in a folder. He hadn’t been with the Magnus household long but he presumed that there were rules against tinkering.
Henry stroked the glass. “What she doesn’t know can’t get me into trouble.”
“I may not be aware of the planet’s imminent destruction – doesn’t mean it won’t be trouble. What’s the deal with you and the mermaid? You’re always over there, whispering…”
“I don’t whisper,” replied Henry defensibly. “We talk. She gets lonely.”
Will suspected that it was something a little more than compassion. “If you don’t want to tell me that’s fine, I’ll just ask Helen when you’re not here.”
Henry smiled softly at the shimmering face in the water. She smiled back and then turned, vanishing into the depths of the tank. “Speaking of Helen, how’s she going with our friendly sand monster?”
Will dragged his eyes off the report to glance at one of the surveillance screens mounted over the desk. His face froze in a look of shock when he saw her crumpled against the back wall, a trail of blood beneath her.
A high pitched yelp preceded a thunderous crash as Will’s chair overturned.
“That good, eh?” Henry half-hopped, half-paced across the room with an extensive set of keys jingling on his belt.
Will pressed a hand to his head and felt something hot and sticky. He kicked the chair off and rolled forward onto his knees, taking a moment to rest his head on the savagely hard ground.
“Oh…” Henry paused, seeing a dribble of blood down the side of Will’s face. “Hey, you look awful.”
The injured Will glared back. “Thanks Henry,” he said, hauling himself to his feet. “We need guns.”
“Guns I can do,” he chirped. “But you’ll have to bulk bill the rest,” he pointed at Will’s pretty head. “I want it known that I was opposed to the whole ‘adoption’ thing from the start. Some abnormals were just never meant for captivity.”
The house was pitch. Lamps at each hallway had burnt down hours ago, their bitter smell sinking with the cold which snaked its way through open windows. All of the curtains were drawn against the full moon, though they billowed occasionally, caught by the evening breeze. As they parted, cracked rivers of light flashed over the floor, lingered for a moment and then vanished as the house returned to darkness.
Ashley stepped forward, her ears pricked in horror. Each footstep was like the earth shattering so she timed them with the ‘tick’ of the grandfather clock. After twenty minutes of this, she fell into a rhythm – step, breathe, wait, step.
Creeping up the centre of the hallway, she snapped a flame into life from her lighter. In the back end of the house, the snores of the Magnus household grew louder until she could pinpoint each sleeping body behind the closed doors lining the hallway. She wished that this was a different house – or if not, that she didn’t know one of the residents so well. Her mother’s hearing was as sharp as the knife under her sleeve.
Ashley’s delicate flame flickered as another gust of wind kicked the curtain at the end of the narrow hall behind her wide open. Suddenly ever surface glowed with moonlight, layers of dust scattering the light into halos. Relived, she caught sight of the attic door.
Holding her breath, she crossed past her mother’s door. A few more feet and she was slipping her fingers around the brass handle of the attic door, pushing it open. It revealed a darkened stairwell. Ashley extended her lighter in front of her but couldn’t see past the first flight of bare wooden stairs. She left the door not-quite shut and took hold of the banister, thankful that every step took her further away from detection.
Just when she thought the narrow stairway would go on forever, her head smacked into a low lying beam and she found herself slouching in under the roof. She could hardly see anything with her tiny flame – just the occasional outline of a shelf or an unlit lamp hanging dangerously low from its hook.
She took hold of the nearest lantern and held her lighter to it. In a rush of light, the room lit up and Ashley realised that she wasn’t just standing in an attic; she was standing in a laboratory. Lighting a few more lanterns on her way toward the main desk, she couldn’t help but notice the precariously stacked bookcases lining every wall, blocking out the windows behind them. Instead of books, most were filled with piles of notes. Ill-bound files with crumpled and stained edges threatened to teeter over lopsided shelves while several fragments of bone and teeth posed as ‘bookends’.
A series of desks, some merely overturned travel trunks, set the stage for a major experimental operation. Ashley recognised the familiar stench of formaldehyde and quickly discovered a row of glass displays filled with shrivelled forms. She held her hand over her mouth, trying not to look into their glassy eyes as she slipped behind the main desk.
Tossing aside useless pages, she rifled through until she found an unopened letter. Slipping it inside of her jacket, Ashley turned to her right and eyed the wall. As her father had said, one of the ‘bookshelves’ was covered in a wire-frame mesh, originally to protect against earthquakes in its native Italy. Now, it simply obscured the titles of the medical books squeezed inside.
Sliding a knife blade between the doors, she pried the latch free. They fell open with a drawn out cry and puff of dust. Waving the air clean she pulled out the books on the bottom shelf in threes and placed them gently on the floor. Halfway across the shelf, she found what she was looking for.
A small wooden cabinet with glass doors was slotted into the shelf, hidden by the books. She quickly slid the remaining books aside and examined her find. Ashley pulled the heavy item free of the shelf and carried it back over to the table where there was more light. It was a well used object, no doubt with many lives lived, none as obscure as its current one.
One of the cut glass panels fell out in her hand as she set it down on the desk. The contents behind rattled – not used to disruption. Ashley’s breath caught. At least a dozen vials of blood were lined up in a purpose built rack. She had been so sure that it was a lie – that everything her father had told her was poisonous rubbish – but he was right and here was the proof he had promised.
Shaken by the discovery, she hadn’t heard the hesitant footsteps or noticed the pair of horrified eyes watching her remove one of the vials and slosh the liquid around under the lamp. It wasn’t until Dr. Magnus gathered the courage to speak that Ashley realised that he was there, metres from the desk with a lamp in hand.
“Put it back,” was all he said at first. Ashley froze, staring back at him blankly. He continued, “What you have taken has no worth to anybody but me. You can have anything in this house, except that.”
Guilt crept in from nowhere – unlike anything she had experienced before. She could feel any chance of a relationship with her grandfather slipping off into the night like smoke, torn apart by the air. It hurt her to do this but for once, her father had a point.
“No,” she backed away from the desk non-threateningly. “I don’t want to hurt you. Let me leave and I swear I –”
“You cannot have what you have taken,” he interrupted, passion rising in his voice. “I will not let you take it. Return it and be on your way.”
Ashley shook her head, on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, reaching into the waist band of her pants where she found an antique gun. Study desk, third draw –anther thing John had known. She held it at her grandfather but made a point to aim slightly off so that should accident befall, he would not be hit. This was strictly for show. With her other hand, she hid the vials safely in a padded pocket.
Dr. Magnus recognised his gun but did not enquire. His hands trembled as his mind settled into a quiet kind of peace. There was something about the barrel of a gun which brought clarity.
He stepped to the side until he was able to touch a low table. He trailed his fingers over it, moving towards a silver letter opener.
“Stop!” said Ashley, barely breaking a whisper.
His fingers paused, scant inches from the ornate handle. “Young lady, I already know that you’re not going to shoot me,” he said, changing his hand’s direction until it slipped under a pile of paper, withdrawing a journal. It was a small book, frayed around the edges. Deep scars formed the only pattern on its leather cover. “You want treasure?” he raised the book. “It’s yours but I must insist you return that sample.” He threw the book at her. It landed on the desk but she didn’t move to claim it.
She shook her head. “I can’t give it to you,” each word forced its way out against her will.
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” he raised his voice. “I am offering you wealth that you will never see again and you are willing to give it up for something you can’t possibly use?” Her grandfather approached her, step by step over the squeaking floorboards.
Ashley forced herself to bring the weapon in line with his sparkling eyes.
“Ashley… Being different doesn’t mean that you have to hate – it doesn’t matter I guess. It is clear you made your choices long ago.”
“What are you talking about?” Ashley took a step back as he grew closer. Her blurred eyes were hot and the back of her throat caught on every breath.
“Isn’t this quaint…”
Both Ashley and her grandfather startled as John appeared in the room. He was beside her grandfather, pacing with his gloved hands clasped out of sight behind his back.
Dr. Magnus forgot all about Ashley at the sight of his former ‘patient’. “Mr. Druitt, what are you doing and how did you get here?”
“It’s all right doctor, I just want to have a nice, friendly word with your granddaughter…”
Dr. Magnus turned back to Ashley, “What-arr,”
Before either of them could move, John was behind Dr. Magnus with one hand under his chin, tilting his head painfully toward the roof while the other brandished a long, slender blade which he pressed to the doctor’s neck.
Ashley stepped forward at once, gun centred between her father’s eyes.
“Let him go!” she shouted, not caring who heard. This was out of control. “I said, let him go. I’ve got what you asked for, just leave him.”
“She’s a bit rough around the edges,” sneered John into the doctor’s ear. “That bit’s from me. Look a little harder,” he bent the doctor forward so that he could see Ashley better. “Recognise those eyes?”
THE BEGINNING OF HELEN MAGNUS
Dr. Magnus swallowed. The feeling of the cold blade over his delicate throat was nothing compared to the glint in the young girl’s eyes. Yes, he had seen those eyes before – every time he paused in front of the mantle where the spotted mirror reflected his own aging face. They were his eyes. Unmistakable. Hers were clearer with flecks of someone else but still –
“I don’t-” he went to speak, but John pressed the blade more firmly to the doctor’s skin.
“It doesn’t matter how,” John said, bony fingers pulling one of the doctor’s arms behind his back so that he could not struggle. Ashley’s father made sure that his body was shielded by the old man, should Ashley take a shot. “I know that you don’t believe me, Dr. Magnus, but this is all for the best. Now Ashley, please come over here and we can be on our way.”
“Not until you tell me why they’re doing this.” She meant the research. According to John, her mother and grandfather did more than nurture an interest in abnormals – they sought them out, hunted them down if necessary, all for this small vial of blood.
“He does it,” John meant her grandfather, “because he loves your mother and wants her to have a normal life. He doesn’t see her like I do – recognise what she is. It would be a crime to rip away a gift like hers. A billion average lives so that just one random mutation could deliver her to the world. I – on the other hand, am not so fortunate. My body is breaking down, unable to cope with its ‘gifts’ as unnatural as they are. She helps me when she can but for others like myself, what we require is a genetic stabiliser. That’s a rare thing, Ashley. So rare that throughout your mother’s extensive life she has only come across one creature that possesses this trait and it’s right there…” he lowered his eyes to where she had concealed the vials of blood.
Ashley turned her body, sharpening her aim.
“So you see, doctor, although it’s a noble set up that you have here, for these samples to be of any use, they have to take a little trip through time. I promise that we’re not really stealing them, after all, from one Magnus lab to another… Take the book as well Ashley, it was, after all, a gift from your grandfather.”
Ashley let a tear roll down the side of her cheek, not game to loosen the grip on her weapon to wipe it away. “What creature,” she hissed.
“John, whatever you, Helen and the others did– it doesn’t matter anymore.” Doctor Magnus knew that his daughter was not like himself. She was never satisfied by the answers he gave her or the natural progression of the scientific community. He also knew that she had not been at a lecture this afternoon – nor any Thursday afternoon. She was with them – with John.
“It matters to me!” John roared. “It’s killing me and Helen knows it! She said that she would help me – that she would search forever.”
“I hate you,” Ashley interrupted her arguing relations. “But I don’t want to shoot you,” she said to her father. “I want to know everything, your side. Please, leave my grandfather alone. I will come with you if you just let him go.”
John eyed her with such ferocity that her skin went cold. “All right,” he rolled the words, lifting the knife from the doctor’s throat. “Give me your hand.”
Ashley lowered her weapon, not quite to the floor as John’s blade hovered at a safer distance. With the journal in her free hand, she inched closer, stepping around the desk where the lamp continued to fill the attic with soft light.
“See,” whispered John. “All friends here.”
He had almost released the doctor completely when Ashley reached his hand. Fingers brushing over each other – the door at the bottom of the stairs slammed open with a crash that shook the room.
Ashley’s finger, still resting on the trigger of the heavy gun, jerked.
She felt the ‘click’ before it was drowned under the blast of the gun which jolted her arm upwards. Everything paused – the haze of smoke from the barrel, her father’s mouth locked open in shock and the breath in her grandfather’s lungs. Ashley blinked, her lashes falling over her red eyes releasing another sticky tear.
The world was black. Forever rolled past and she was sure that the universe had forgotten her, leaving her in the dark where she belonged. Her head split with pain as if part of her was breaking off. She screamed, dropping the gun as the darkness flashed to white.
Helen Magnus, half dressed in her pale blue cotton dressing gown, slammed the door open and took the steps to the attic three at a time. Her bare feet were cut by the nails and splintered wood, leaving smears over the steps. She didn’t notice as she neared the glow at the top. Hushed voices mingled with the dusty air, one of them belonging to her father.
It was past two in the morning when she had heard the footsteps creep past her door. Helen lay awake after that, listening to the sounds of the house, thinking that she had imagined it. Then – then she had heard her father’s bedroom door creak open and him shuffle out.
The noises persisted. She was certain that she could hear papers shuffling somewhere above her head and floorboards groaning.
Fearing the worst – an academic thief after her father’s research, Helen slipped out of bed and followed the voices down the hall.
Now, rushing up the steps, she felt the crack of the bullet rip through her. The noise echoed off the small space. Her thoughts became a world of their own, deafening her. Pressing against the wall with one hand she screamed, “Father!”
Before she could reach the final step and see around the corner into the attic itself, the room flashed a bluish white. Shielding her eyes, she stumbled into the brightness. Helen thought she saw two figures evaporate. They were gone a moment later, taking the light with them.
The lanterns were little better than candles afterwards. It was under their soft glow that she saw her father, his back to her, standing in front of one of the desks. Helen stopped at the top of the stair, her breath coming in laboured heaves.
“Father?” she repeated softly. The gush of air that had accompanied the flash had set the papers into the air. They continued to flutter down around her father.
Doctor Magnus’s legs crumbled beneath him. He lunged for the desk but his body had no strength. It was as if it didn’t belong to him anymore. The world had reclaimed it and all that was left to do was shut his eyes as the floor approached.
Helen threw herself forward catching her father just as he hit the floor. She cradled his head in her arms, calling his name over and over even that she had known that he was dead from the moment the gun was fired.
That was when she saw it – the sleekly shaped metal lying unwanted on the floor beside the desk. Placing her father gently onto the floor, Helen Magnus crawled forward toward the gun…
It was scorching hot at the edge of the barrel so she trailed her fingers down toward the butt. Wrapping them firmly around its base, she lifted the item from the ground, feeling its weight in her hands. There was something alluring about it.
“Come on Magnus – Henry – stun it again!”
With one hand over her chest to stop her heart breaking through, Helen rose to her feet. Her eyes skimmed over the room as if it were a dream, the edges blurred through her tears. She would find who did this. Helen felt strength welling up inside of her. Her eyes flicked to the lantern swaying in front of her. The flame wavered as she reached out her hand to it –
“She’s coming ‘round, get that damn thing off of her!”
Henry stabbed madly at the air around Mangus’s legs. Finally, he felt a jolt as the stunning stick founds the sand creature. It flickered into vision, screaming and clawing in pain as Henry slammed the cage door shut and Will pulled Helen free.
Helen mumbled something as she came to. Will, exhausted, was seated on the ground with the top half of Helen in his lap. Henry stumbled over to them, panting as he swung the stunning stick over his shoulder and rested it there.
“Close,” Henry breathed, as the sand creature continued to growl in its cell.
“What happened?” muttered Helen, her eyes finally open. Will’s hand was over her neck where a nasty scratch mark continued to bleed.
“You had a run in with the sand creature,” he replied. “Close one too.”
They helped her to her feet and began stumbling toward the lift. Helen had to be propped up on both sides, her arms around their shoulders in order to walk.
“Nearly killed ourselves getting you out of that damn cage,” said Henry. “Seriously, you should consider giving us a pay rise for life endangerment.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Henry,” replied Helen, with just enough strength left to chide them for taking their time to rescue her.
The sand creature shook off the stun, folding in all of its limbs as residual shudders rolled over its body. It narrowed its eyes at a camera just outside the cell bars. People were watching it, it knew that – but were they listening?
Ashley curled herself into a tight ball, rolling onto her side where she spent a few minutes just breathing. She was back in her house – left in one of the many corridors. Eventually she let out a sob, burying her face in her hands. She had killed her grandfather.
Helen checked the plasters on her neck, replacing one that had soaked through whilst she’d been attending to Will’s head. It was amazing how much damage you could incur without leaving home.
“What I can’t work out,” began Henry, hanging around the edge of the medical room whilst the other two continued to patch up. He juggled a few objects he had found on a nearby desk, ignoring a stern warning from Helen that if he broke anything his neck would be next. “Is why we can see it all of a sudden.”
About an hour ago, the sand creature, recovered from its ‘electro-shock therapy’ as Henry liked to call it, had taken on a maroon disposition. Instead of mimicking the surrounds of the cell, it seemed content to sit directly in front of the camera in full view as if it knew what the curious device outside its cell was for.
“It’s so creepy,” continued Henry. “I preferred it when it was invisible.”
“I don’t,” said Will. “At least we know where it is and what it’s up to.”
“You’re only sour because you shot yourself back in that cave.”
“It wasn’t a cave,” Will raised his finger threateningly, “it was a tomb – ow, that hurts.”
Helen held his ankle firmly as she poured liberal amounts of antiseptic over the teeth marks. She’d given him three shots as well, in case the sand creature was carrying anything nasty. Will was most worried about rabies, especially as Henry delighted in reminding him of all the adverse side effects.
“Do we know what it’s saying yet?” Will changed the subject.
“Got progress on that actually. I’ve had the digital recorder going the whole time,” he caught all of the objects he’d been playing with and returned them safely to her desk. “Live feed-” Henry tapped the keyboard in front of the monitor and then leant forward, adjusting the sound system.
A hoarse whisper filled the room. The baritone voice rolled in and out of the speakers, slightly out of sync with the creature’s lips. It was a continuous drone, sometimes hissing beyond their hearing.
The grin on Henry’s face was irritatingly bold.
“What?” Will slipped on his glasses, finally free of Helen’s sadistic repair work.
His grin broadened into ‘allknowingness’. “Ancient Egyptian…” he threw a small book at Helen, who caught it without looking. “Very old dialect. Want to know how I know?”
“Let me guess,” Will and Helen exchanged a grin, “you’re brilliant?”
“Yep – and more. I can speak it.”
Helen sighed wearily. “No you can’t,” she corrected him. “You can say two words and they’re the same two words I know, namely because you were in the room at the same time I was interviewing the college student with cognitive powers. Shocked you remembered them actually. Then again, she was a-”
“Beautiful lady?” Will finished Helen’s sentence.
“Hey…” Henry was somewhat offended by the implication. “I learn lots of things living in this place.”
“In any case,” Helen switched the sound off but left it recording. “Two words isn’t going to be enough to maintain a useful conversation with it – especially considering the words… We need someone with more experience. It’s going to be tricky though, considering the level of clearance they’re going to need…” Introducing a sand monster to a professor wasn’t top of her list of things to do this week. When she failed to return the last one, the university had not been very pleased with her.
“We could send the recording to one of the universities – have them translate it for us?” suggested Will.
“Good plan, until the creature says something classified,” Henry rolled his eyes.
Helen stared at Will for several minutes. He was resting his sore forehead on his knuckles, face scrunched up in thought. “What are you thinking?” asked Helen, slipping off her white lab coat. She threw it in Henry’s direction. He caught it and folded it neatly, laying it over her chair.
“Uh…” Will started, but wasn’t sure if he wanted to share yet. “It probably won’t work though.”
Henry slid off the desk and pointed to the door with both hands. “Can we move this conversation while he sorts through mindfiles?”
Helen nodded. They all headed out the door and down the corridor, en-route to Helen’s main office where comfy lounge chairs and warm fires waited.
Will kept one hand on the wall as they walked, not noticing as it trailed over mirrors and doors. “I know someone who might be able to help us and, as a bonus, he seems to be aware of some of the craziness going on.”
Helen narrowed her eyes, pulling Will away from the wall in time for him to avoid her good urn. “Please tell me that they’re cultured and charming…”
“More like sceptical and good looking…”
She sighed. “Close enough – urg, what was that?” It sounded like something scampering away into one of the hallway rooms as they passed. “The rats get bigger and bigger every time we leave the house in your fine care.”
“So I don’t like using mousetraps,” Henry retaliated as they continued. “Poor little things, all crumpled and fury. I can’t stand to see them like that.”
“Use one of the residents. There are several that come to mind who might be interested in a walk.”
“That is just disgusting,” muttered Henry, as the group disappeared around the corner.
Everything settled as the footsteps trailed off with the arguing voices. There was no sign of any rats – nothing hunting along the skirting boards or gnawing cosy homes into the wiring. A few withered petals tumbled to the ground from a crystal vase left unnoticed. One of the electric lights flickered, threatening to resign.
Tucked in one of the darkened rooms with only the bluish glow of moonlight for company, Ashley exhaled, collapsing onto the cold brickwork. Her mother, Will and Henry had heard her rushed escape but been too caught up in their own problems to investigate. Lucky for her as the only plausible hiding spot was under the desk – far beneath her dignity.
Her cheeks were dry but her eyes stung from crying. There was a subtle shake accompanying every action she performed which sometimes rolled over her, usually when she breathed.
Composing herself, she snuck a look at the hallway to confirm its empty status. Satisfied, she returned to the curious crack in the main hallway. Ashley ran her nails along it, following it until it ended abruptly behind one of the enormous, gold-edged portraits. She eyed the ancient duke up and down before embracing his frame, heaving him off the wire behind.
The portrait was taller than she was and heavy. Grunting, she struggled to keep it aloft for the few seconds it took to unhook it and lower to the ground. Ashley took a breath and then shifted it out of the way.
There it was. A door cut into the hallway wall. Its construction had splintered the plaster resulting in the telling crack. She’d walked past it a thousand times as a child, never questioning its presence. From now on she would question everything.
It wasn’t difficult to open. Finding it was clearly part of its security and being located in the Magnus household was another. Ashley pushed it inward. The motion carried her over its threshold until she threw her weight backwards – grabbing hold of the entrance way before she fell into the black emptiness inside the doorway.
“Woah… That’s a hazard,” she whispered, heart racing. The secret door appeared to open into one of the elevator shafts. Peering in, she could just make out the elevator amongst the steel scaffolding. Underneath her was the a three story drop to the basement floor and opposite, a small metal platform a good few meters away over the gap.
There was just enough room on her side to pull the secret door shut and balance on the plank of wood someone had cleverly built onto the wall. Getting back over the gap would be a bitch, but at the moment all Ashley was interested in was finding out what the hell was going on in her house.
She braced herself and then leapt over the elevator gap. There was a moment in the air when she didn’t think that she would clear the gap. Before she could panic, she hit the steel platform, landing rather gracefully on her feet.
There was sand everywhere; through his fur, under his skin and embedded in the delicate tissue at the back of his throat.
Bigfoot lifted his head free of the mound that had all but buried his body. It poured off of him, scattering in the light breeze. He coughed and rasped as he climbed out of the sand. Bigfoot rolled over onto his back and smiled.
The stars were out. It was a clear night in the desert and, most importantly, he had lived through the hellish storm which had raged for most of the night.
BITS AND PIECES
Detective Joe Kavanaugh dug his heels into the bitumen at the sight of an oversized hat tilted away from the sun. Its owner, a sleek – tall woman, lifted her eyes with a smile. He wasn’t fooled. Instead, he raised his hand and pointed, starting to back away.
“I knew -,” he accused her, in a tone unsure whether it wanted to be disbelief or curiosity. “Magnus…”
All the while Helen Magnus continued to approach, slinking along the sidewalk with her hands clasped delicately in front. “You know me?” she asked quietly.
“Know of you,” he corrected, backing into a street light. “I live here. No one with their eyes open can take a quiet stroll in this place without running into you.”
“Shame,” she whispered, closing the distance now that the detective was cornered. Helen stopped half a step past him, turning her head to speak. “We’d set out tea and everything.”
Kavanaugh rolled his eyes, leaning towards her. “You’re lucky that you’re cute and I’m curious, otherwise I would have ignored that not-so-subtle invitation.”
“I’m starting to hate this stuff,” sighed Bigfoot, pulling his paw free of the loose sand. No longer planted, he began to slide down the side of one of the ‘waves’ of sand. He dug his claws in but with nothing to grip, it took an ungraceful tumble to bring him to a stop.
Washed over by a passing dune, the entire area had been slashed into a blank canvas. It had even parked its shifting arse right over the entrance to the tomb, making a real nuisance of itself.
This would take him hours – perhaps days to find the tomb again, let alone excavate it. He tried once again to reach Helen and Will on the radio but there was nothing but scratchy static.
Three days – four tops they had left, buried under all that sand with a couple of bottles of water let alone what else was trapped down there with them.
Don’t think about it, he instructed himself. Find the rest of the group, start digging.
Find the rest of the group… Bigfoot shook his head free of sand and cast his sharp eyes over the area. Under the soft light from the stars, he could see several hundred metres easily and not one of them had so much as a footprint.
“Come on…” he muttered at nothing in particular.
“You know, when I was little I tried to climb over that wall,” Kavanaugh grinned, as he and Magnus strode through the electric gates. Just to the right, the wall was obscured by a large elm tree, knotted and scared from its many years enduring its patch of dirt between the wall and carpark. There was a little world created in the shadow beneath its limbs where several branches rested on the brick wall creating a canopy.
“Nearly killed yourself. I remember because your mother voiced her disapproval of my wall whilst retrieving you.”
He sighed with a light, embarrassed laugh.
“I’ve never seen so much blood come out of something so small,” she continued, as the gates clicked close behind them. They made their way toward the enormous double, half foot thick doors of the house.
“Jeez, they’re right about you – never forget a thing.” He stood to the side as she typed in the code to the door. It swung open with a warm breeze escaping from inside and a gentle glow that did not care for the cycles of the sun or moon.
“Shall we?” Helen turned back over her shoulder to make sure that he was following.
Kavanaugh stood stupidly in the doorway, just absorbing. He’d dreamt about the insides of this house his whole life – fantasised about what was kept behind its walls out of reach from the rest of the world.
Finally he nodded, returning to his adult persona as he paced into the foyer.
“Niiiice,” he eyed a set of antique chandeliers dangling down above a sweeping grand staircase. Ignoring Helen, he lingered in front of a gargoyle statue, mildly disturbed by the eyeless sockets peering back at him above fanged jaws.
“If you’re going to do this in every room…” she eyed him disapprovingly.
“I like old things,” he patted the statue. “Though this one might caution on the edge of creepy.”
Helen Magnus hustled the detective toward the nearest lift via the shortest possible route. His ability to wander around the fringes of locked doors was only matched by his unending need to touch everything. Finally in the lift, she exhaled, no longer having to hawk-eye his every breath.
Kavanaugh had his head down, peering into his crossed arms. The lift lurched, but neither of them jolted. In a way, they were very similar. They both stood in their quiet worlds, wondering and reflecting until the lift stopped and creaked open. The barred door rolled out of the way and the two of them stepped into a bare concrete corridor.
He couldn’t help but wonder what he’d gotten himself into as the labyrinth of corridors deepened and all the while they were watched by a security camera at every turn.
“It’s in here,” she said, pulling them both to a stop outside an unremarkable door.
Surprisingly, there were two people inside the room, both standing in front of an empty cell. One of them, a scruffy looking creature, waved. The other, Kavanaugh had already met.
“Ah, thought you’d be around somewhere Mr. Zimmerman,” he said. “Got your letter – obviously,” he raised his hands to the ceiling, palms up, as if to say, ‘I’m here!’
Joe Kavanaugh’s eyes fell to a bloodied bandage on Will’s shoulder where his sleeve had been rolled up out of the way. Actually, now he looked, all three of them were covered in injuries ranging from very serious to humorously trivial.
“What happened to you?” he asked Will, nodding at the shoulder.
Will glanced at it, winced and replied, “I shot myself.”
“And…” Kavanaugh continued, pacing right up to Will. He reached around behind him and retrieved the gun, still tucked into Will’s waistband. “Isn’t this mine?” The detective turned it over in his hands, brushing his fingers over it as if it were a precious object.
Helen took Kavanaugh by the shoulders and steered him toward the cell. “I was going to give that back to you. I swear.”
Kavanaugh opened his jacket and tucked the gun away. In front of him was a distinctly empty cell, something he’d travelled all this way to see via the unusual request of a doctor he hardly knew. There better be a good reason for it.
“An empty cage?” he said, unimpressed. Kavanaugh tried to move a little closer but Helen kept a firm hold of his shoulders. “You brought me all this way to see an empty cage?”
Henry fidgeted. “It was there a moment ago. Vanished when it heard the door go.”
Kavanaugh frowned, “Vanished?”
Will was being eyed sternly by Helen.
“I told you to keep it calm,” she hissed at them.
“We did!” they replied in unison, before Henry finished. “At least it’s still here.”
“Hold back, vanished?” the detective peered into the cage and thought that he caught a glimpse of something move. “What’s going on Magnus and why am I here?”
Helen reached forward and tapped the cage bars. “Don’t stuff around,” she yelled at the emptiness, and was promptly answered by a roar. The deep, guttural noise hurt their eardrums, distracting them as the sand creature made itself visible by leaping forward at the bars with its mouth open in warning. It wound its fingers around the metal rods and eyed Kavanaugh coldly.
Unlike the others, the detective didn’t flinch. He stood his ground, nose to the cell where the creature continued to hiss and scratch.
“Now this is something interesting,” he whispered, staring right back at the creature.
Bigfoot stared down at the ground at his feet. Grain by grain, it seemed to be draining away into a point – funnelled off into nowhere deep below.
He stepped back and knelt beside, just watching. Eventually the depression grew so that he had to shuffle out of the way where the ground became unsteady. A freezing wind backed over him and he considered leaving the curious phenomenon until, from its centre, a small mound appeared and the sinking halted.
Bigfoot raised his hand, ready to slap whatever was welling up through the sand. It grew closer and closer to the surface until three fingers burst through into night air, clawing their way upward.
He startled before clambering to his feet, standing over the hand, and pulling whoever it was free of their prison. A head popped up, shortly followed by the rest of the human body. Frans, one of the members of the expedition, ripped the material away from his face and gasped.
Bigfoot sat on the ground in front of him, shaking his head in disbelief. “Frans, you’re lucky my boss makes me look first, kill later.”
Frans nodded, holding up a ‘peace’ sign while his skeletal body enjoyed breathing.
‘Expedition Team, this is Base Camp, come in please. Over.’
Bigfoot frowned. After hours of radio silence, his mind had begun inventing its own. It wasn’t until the message repeated and Frans tapped him on the shoulder that he realised it was for real.
“Base Camp, this is Expedition Team. Over,” he replied, standing up for better signal.
‘Finally!’ the voice exclaimed. ‘Expedition Team, you are requested to return to base immediately. Magnus and team are safe repeat, return to base immediately. Over.’
“Confirm message,” he replied. “Expedition Team has been compromised by a sand storm. So far only Frans and I are accounted for. Suggest course of action. Over.”
There was a pause as if she were relaying information to someone else. ‘Expedition Team, head back to Base Camp. We’re sending out an aerial team in twenty minutes. Over.’
Big foot agreed. Deciding that the best course of action was to cut toward the desert cliffs in a straight line, heading for the firefly lights of the camp, they set out at once. After all the noise of the storm, the world seemed so quiet.
The big, fury man kept his ears pricked to the ground beside and his eyes searching for other survivors. Occasional trails of wind kept them turning in circles, checking their backs for another approaching storm. All they found was a calm, clear night and still ground, slumbering under the stars.
“Over there,” Frans pointed toward a small lump in the sand, incongruent with the surrounds. They picked up their pace, stopping just short of it.
Big foot reached down and, after a moment’s hesitation, brushed the sand off to reveal a sight that made Frans stumble to the side and hurl.
The severed hand tumbled to the ground when Bigfoot realised that it wasn’t attached to a human. “Jake,” he muttered, noting the tacky jewelled ring.
Frans coughed, trying to straighten. “There’s another one,” he pointed ahead to a longer bump in the sand, and again to their left where a tuft of hair was caught above the sand. “What in the gods…”
The silken dunes were littered with imperfections – rises and falls, specklings of colour belonging to shredded cloth.
“By the sands,” whispered Frans, “mus’ be the whole lot of them.”
Frans, pitiful creature that he was, happened to be correct. Dozens of bodies slept, ripped apart and left in tatters by something fierce. Bigfoot kicked a layer of sand over the severed hand and turned back toward the cliffs where the settlement’s lights flickered. Above, a chill sank from the sky, immersing them before it settled at their ankles.
“We go now,” said Bigfoot solemnly, pointing at the spot beneath the black cliffs. Frans didn’t offer resistance, happily trailing him less than a step behind.
Bigfoot may have looked relaxed, settling into a firm pace, but he kept a sharp eye on the sands, inspecting every murmur of movement. Whatever had been locked in the tombs beneath was roaming free – hungry for sport since Helen had disturbed them.
“How your friends get out?” whispered Frans, slipping down a dune. He finished the distance on his arse, hands trailing over the cool dunes for stability. Beating the carefully trod Bigfoot to the flat, he scrambled to his feet and waited.
Bigfoot glared in Frans’ direction as he passed, silently instructing him to keep quiet. Behind, Bigfoot could hear restless movement, kicking through the sand. Strange, considering the breeze had died hours ago.
“Tried to tell you, the desert things never sleep. Been here since the gods’ time. They come, they kill and then they all creep back into –”
The big man, who was busy eyeing the night with caution, pricked his ears. Frans’ incessant chattering, nuisance that it was, had fallen quiet before reaching its natural end.
Bigfoot did not stop, nor did he turn around. If Frans was silent, then he was dead.
Helen watched Kavanaugh tilt his head, trailing his sharp eyes over the sand creature’s face. His calmness worried her almost as much as the creature’s curiosity toward the detective. It had chosen to remain visible, picking a reddish brown for skin which might be its default setting.
“Didn’t think I’d see one of these again,” he whispered, sliding his hands down the bars. “Been a long time…” Kavanaugh spoke directly to the creature which remained transfixed by him. It wasn’t clear whether it wanted to kill or speak with him – at least it was calm for a change instead of trying to rip their throats out.
“I’m – sorry,” Henry ventured a few hesitant steps forward. “You met one of these before?”
Will had that, don’t all look at me, I invited him because he reads and writes ancient Egyptian look about him while Helen moved in closer, slinking through the room until she appeared over Kavanaugh’s shoulder.
“We should talk,” she whispered into his ear, so that the others couldn’t hear.
The detective turned away from the cage to face her, a dangerous glimmer in his eye. “Something I’ve been trying to do since I was seven. Why else do you think I clambered over your wall?”
Heaving for breath, Bigfoot leapt from one crest of sand to the next, stretching his arms out like wings until he hit the ground and scrambled down the other side. The camp lights were bright now and the mountain well above his head, strangling the night with its imposing blackness. There couldn’t be more than two-hundred metres left to cover.
He was pursued by a haze of sand, whipping up in great swirls behind him. It was clawed into the air by a dozen sand creatures, scaling the dunes with incredible speed. They would catch him easily before he reached safety – rip him limb from limb.
Bigfoot pushed on, withdrawing a long knife from the folds of his desert cloth. He had waited until the last moment to do so because it made running difficult. With a final look at the camp, he stopped in his own storm of sand, and waited for them to arrive.
A line of sand cut diagonally in front of the others, thrown up by a rogue creature as it hunted impatiently. Bigfoot watched it, tightening the grip on the blade as the creature paused, then shifted direction. This time it headed straight for him. Seconds away, he swung the sword over his head and slashed down where the creature would be.
The ‘crunch’ never came. Instead, the creature dove into the sand at his feet and tunnelled beneath him, bursting forth from the ground behind. It wasted no time lashing his back, ripping his clothes open with liberal smears of blood.
Bigfoot howled, pulling the sword from the ground and throwing it in a sweeping arc behind him. The creature ducked, easily missing the blade. It fell backwards onto its arms and used its feet to kick, forcing Bigfoot to the ground without any breath left in his lungs.
Gasping, he sensed the creature circling him. Playing with him until the others arrived. Bigfoot could feel the group approaching. Their attack was calculated, calm even. The scout had gone to great trouble not to kill him, which the sand creature could have done easily on the first strike. No – this was revenge – and the group wanted it.
Sensing a chance, Bigfoot gasped, filling his lungs with air. Then he rolled onto his knees crawling forward a few paces. The sand creature guarding him snapped its head around. Keeping a careful eye, it crept closer, deciding how best to disable the prey.
In the split second it took for the creature to consider its options, Bigfoot ran his sword along the ground, inches from the sand. The swipe was so fast that its only mark was a metallic scrape upon the desert air.
The creature howled, collapsing to the side, separated from its feet.
“I’m not so easy,” Bigfoot muttered, throwing the sword away as he made a dash for the camp.
Helen’s study was warm. She kept a large fire burning in the corner, framed by a marble mantle and iron grate. The curtains were open, tied back with silk ropes so that the city could be seen to shimmer beyond.
Detective Joe Kavanaugh had imagined standing at this window, peering out at the world through Helen Magnus’s domain. What a different world it seemed, full of monsters and magic.
“This is not the first time that you have been in my house, detective,” Helen flicked through a creature profile lying on her desk before setting it aside. She dug through a desk drawer, retrieving several crumpled letters. “Your mother was very concerned about the time you spent here. She wrote several letters to that effect.”
“Can’t think why,” he chuckled, stepping back from the window. “She took me to Egypt when I was four on one of her college projects she and dad worked on during the holidays. According to her, this one was a little different.” Kavanaugh seated himself in one of the leather chairs opposite Helen’s. She sat as well, folding her hands in front of her on the desk.
“Your mother worked on translation catalogues while your dad kept records of the –”
“I know what my parents did,” he interrupted sharply. “When my father didn’t return that night I thought of it every day for the rest of my life. My mother lied to me about how he died, so did everybody else.”
A strange smile crept over Helen’s lips, barely detectable. It wasn’t sinister, merely one of understanding. “You saw one of them…” she said, her dark eyes glistening.
He ran a slender hand through his hair. “It came to the tent, just before – the creature was like nothing I had seen, rippling between disguises as if it lived in another world. I remember freezing, unable to breathe as it moved around the tent searching for something. The thing that gets me, even now, is that it saw me – I know it did, but it didn’t touch me.”
“You were only a child,” Helen said softly. “Not a threat to it.”
“But that’s not it at all,” he continued. “because it killed three other people that night, two of them were female students and the third was a baby left alone on the bed to sleep. You know what I think? They’re intelligent and vengeful. Old as well, I imagine, as they speak the dead language. That’s why you brought me here – as a translator. Isn’t it?”
Her lack of reply was all he needed.
“I’ll help you, but I want some answers, starting with why you haven’t aged in three decades.”
What Bigfoot couldn’t see from the dunes was a small plane, prepped and ready on the dirt road outside the camp. As he half-ran, half-fell along the road, he saw that the lights were an empty gesture, not belonging to tents at all but carefully placed flares. Everything was gone, packed away and evacuated.
A woman stood next to the plane, waving him forward.
Bigfoot risked a look over his shoulder and saw the creatures still following him a minute or so behind. With the last of his strength, he made it to the woman at the plane who pushed him into the craft as it started to move. She followed shortly after, locking the door as the plane picked up speed along the runway.
Nobody said a word until they were airborne.
“Magnus’s orders,” said the woman, shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe it was still attached to her body. “She’s not usually one to run and hide, but these sand things are fierce. There’s one waiting for you back home.”
Bigfoot didn’t bother asking how Helen and Will had made it out of the cave. He would have his answers after the flight. Right now, he was happy just to sleep.
“Those are the terms,” Helen held out her hand. Kavanaugh took it, shaking firmly. He agreed to follow them and soon after, they returned to the lab where Henry and Will were busy running the blood samples Helen had collected from the creature earlier.
“Definitely human,” Henry pointed at a chart on the wall. “Granted, it’s a nasty, under-evolved pain in the arse with sharp claws and a hangover…”
Joe noted that the room smelt of disinfectant and blood. On the bench running along the back wall were the scattered remains of surgical equipment, no doubt from some hurried patch job. Helen, at the very least, had a white bandage around her neck with lines of red seeping through in a distinctly claw-like manner. Injures from the creature downstairs, he presumed.
He didn’t say anything, instead Joe chose to slink back and observe. It was something he was used to, hiding in the shadows and letting the truth surface during its natural course.
“They’re not, under-evolved Henry,” snapped Helen irritably, as she nudged his scruffy form away from the computer screen displaying the results of the blood-work. “Far from it. Look at the telomeres…” she zoomed in on one of the sub-screens. It quickly filled with sets of stunted tubes that looked a bit like hacked earthworms after an early morning feeding session – except that they had been stained blue. These were the creature’s chromosomes, and the white segments on each end, the telomeres. “They’ve hardly degraded at all and they are exceptionally long compared to modern humans.”
“I don’t understand,” Henry leant on the table beside her, examining the screen.
“Telomeres,” she explained, “are believed to be responsible for the ageing process. They are, for lack of a better term, ‘disposable buffers’ at the ends of chromosomes. When DNA replicates itself, it is not a perfect process. Bits are lost of the ends of the complex strands – the telomeres cap the chromosomes taking the brunt of this process. If not for them, the body loses information and thus, begins –”
“Aging?” Henry cut in.
“Exactly. This limiting factor is like a ticking clock for life forms.”
“If cells could replicate perfectly, there’d be no limit on their age?”
She shook her head at Will. “Sadly, that condition is called, ‘cancer’. These samples suggest an organism that has found a trade off between the two extremes which allows it a greater maximum lifespan. The People of the Sand will age and die like anything else, but it will take them a while. A long while.”
“What about you?”
“Different again, I’m afraid. These things possess a unique abnormality – if you could call it that. More likely they’re a rare species that bottlenecked into this isolated group living in Egypt.”
“Didn’t exactly get a good look,” said Will, throwing another file on the desk, “but I’d say that they have extensive chromatophore organs, allowing them to shift the colours of their skin like a squid. Nifty adaptation,” he added, “common in water dwelling creatures although there are examples of it throughout all branches of the animal kingdom.”
“So, how old is this thing?” Henry looked worried.
Helen was quiet for a while, running a stray hand through her hair up into where the black strands vanished into a clip. “It’d be a guess, but I’d say the sunny side of six millennia give or take a decade.”
Henry and Will stared at each other. That couldn’t possibly be good news.
Joe, who had kept quiet at the back of the room, finally spoke.
“Why don’t you tell them what it really is,” his voice rolled over the air, low and calm. It was directed at Helen. The detective returned a bleached jaw bone to its place as a paper weight and raised his eyebrows expectantly at her.
Will took exception to Kavanaugh’s tone.
“You don’t think that Magnus would tell us if she-” Will was interrupted by Helen’s hand on his shoulder. She nodded her head gently at him until he stepped aside.
“I merely have suspicions,” she replied quietly. “I would have to cross check them and even then –”
“Helen?” Will searched her eyes, but they were difficult to catch as they glanced to the ceiling, searching for something that wasn’t there.
“These are vampires,” Helen said finally. “Pure blood vampires.” She looked back at the screen where the test results glared back at her. It had been so long, she’d almost forgotten how much it meant to her to see vampire blood smeared between glass slides.
“You better be sure,” said Will, breaking the silence that had settled.
Helen agreed. “I’ll run the checks at once. If we’ve got a vampire, then we’ve undoubtedly got problems.”
Ashley had learnt more about her house from ten minutes inside its walls than in her twenty-odd years traipsing about the corridors. Passageways tracked all over the place down here – some were old and decrepit while others had been maintained. The banisters she used to cross the last set of electric cables had been put in recently. She could tell by steel nails – still shining proudly, clearly believing themselves to be platinum or some precious jewel.
Yes, thought Ashley, there was definitely something worth finding buried in the walls.
She ducked under an established spider web. The resident was busy folding silvery threads around a distressed bug and did not flinch as one of Ashley’s hairs caught on a sticky strand, sending shivers through the delicate structure.
Descending many levels of ladders, Ashley reached what she presumed to be the ground floor – maybe even just below it. The innards of the building were on display. Pipes and cords were tacked onto the walls, snaking their way in all directions. One of them was dripping, somewhere off in the darkness to her left. The hum of the cooling fans droned over her footsteps and every now and then, the lifts screeched into life, showering the area with sparks which zipped brightly through the air before flickering out.
In front of her was a maintenance door. She quickly scanned it with her torch and then pushed the handle down. It clicked but Ashley had to force it open, shielding her eyes from the sudden brightness within.
Her pupils shrank to tiny points as she blinked furiously, trying to accustom herself to the harsh lighting coming from several large fluorescent strips. On the far side of the room was a metal shelf divided into dozens of narrow segments. Each one was packed with files – many of which looked ‘well-loved’. Holding most of the attention though, was a heavy wooden desk in the centre of the room. It was a beautiful desk with inlaid leather and deep red-brown hues where its lacquer had aged.
This was her grandfather’s desk.
She approached the slab of wood slowly, unsettled by its presence.
The back of her throat went dry. It was as if he was there, peering at her from the other side with striking grey eyes made cloudy by too many years of despair. He had been dead for more than a century but she had only killed him hours ago. Her breath caught as she stood there for a moment with hot tears slipping silently down her cheeks.
Deciding to avoid the desk, Ashley turned her attention to a slender bench top at the other end of the room.
Open on the stainless steel surface was a folder with Nikola Tesla’s photo unclipped and lying loose over a set of typed pages. Her mother’s writing was scrawled in the margin of the top page and then again on the back of the photo.
‘Apologies,’ said the script on the reverse of the photo.
Also in the folder was a letter dated in 1889 and signed by Tesla. The barely legible writing scrawled to the edges of the page. It was smudged along an old fold-line and washed out at the edge. Still, Ashley could still make out some parts-
‘Not quite what we expected. That said, the outcome has intriguing application which I need not instruct your mind to speculate on. This changes everything … yours always, Tesla.’
Ashley shook her head and roamed over to rack of glass vials. She didn’t have to be a student of science to recognise the substance congealing in their bases. For each vial there was also a corresponding file stacked beside most notable of all however, was a file without a vial.
‘Subject Unknown – Pure Sample 0049’
Frowning, Ashley reached into her pocket and retrieved the set of vials that she had taken from her grandfather’s lab. Each one had a slender label wrapped under its lip. 0030 – 0009 – 0162 and 0049.
“Back slowly away from there and-Ashley?” Helen lowered her weapon, stepping into the room.
Ashley slipped the vials back into her jacket before turning around to find her mother in shock.
“Ashley!” Helen tucked the gun into her waistband and jogged across the room to scoop her daughter into a vigorous hug. “I thought – I don’t know what I thought,” she whispered, rocking Ashley gently.
“I was going to show you this place, I just – we never found the right time.” Helen pulled a couple of chairs up to the old desk in the centre of the room. Her daughter sat opposite but was strangely distant as Helen took her place on her father’s side of the imposing wooden object.
“How about now?” said Ashley sharply, flicking through several folders presented to her.
Helen, though composed, was wavering on the edge of her painful memories. This room was her soul – a reminder of everything that she had lost and why it was gone, those who had betrayed her and even worse, the many she had deceived. There were parts of herself that she had not intended to share with her daughter and they were all in here, scattered over the shelves.
“There are things I would undo if given the chance again,” Helen had Tesla’s file in front of her. She glanced down at his photo but not into his dark eyes. “I’m not proud of what we did all those years ago. We were impatient for progress and I was angry,” she had briefly touched on the experiments her and her colleagues had run on themselves, “– anyway, each of us has paid for the mistake. Some of us have fared worse. It’s killing– ”
Ashley’s eyes flicked up as her mother caught her sentence with a sharp intake of breath. It didn’t matter. Ashley knew how it ended. ‘It’s killing your father.”
“And you came down here to run a blood sample from one of those creatures?” Ashley deposited the files onto the table, flinching as she felt two of the vials in her pocket knock together softly.
“I have to be sure,” Helen folded her arms. “I keep this place a secret because even a rumour of what I do down here could tear the world apart. Organisations like the Kabal and motivated individuals would do anything to run their filthy hands over this information. Nobody but you knows of its existence. Nobody-” Helen eyed her daughters seriously, “Nobody but you knows of it.”
Ashley nodded. “Run the samples,” she instructed, rising from her seat and turning to wipe a tear before her mother caught sight of it.
Helen Magnus hunts vampires. She hunts them all of the time, in the back of her mind – stalking them while she sleeps. It possesses her and has done since the death of her father. They were his private passion, a species of human so biologically inexplicable as to tempt him into their lairs for a drop of heavy blood.
Vampire blood: it is a substance promising drinkers mythical powers. Helen has seen a whole vial of the mysterious red syrup. One night, along with four of her closest friends, she injected it into her veins and slipped into a horrible nightmare.
The stories got it wrong. Vampires are hunted for their blood, stalked in the day they are forced to roam by night, scurrying away from the moonlight in case it betray them to a human waiting in the shadows.
WHISPERS OF THE TOMBS
A young Gregory Magnus wiped a thick splatter of mud from his cheek, streaking it down his face. He was soaked through, dripping from what felt like his soul though it was only his half-unbuttoned shirt.
There had to be a way to reach the next rocky outcrop jutting from the forest five or so feet above his head. Constantly checking the intensity of the light filtering from the canopy, Magnus took a running leap at the lowest rock, grazing it with slippery fingers.
“Argh…” he winced, as his body fell against the wall with enough impact to bruise his ever-diminishing ego. “The things I do for that woman,” continued his muttering.
He rung out his shirt, which presently entered a state of temporary, unpleasant dampness. It wouldn’t be long until the next afternoon shower drenched him. The weather here was like London in that way, delighting in neglecting its populace – except here in this sprawling jungle, Magnus was the only populace. It made the continual misery too personal for his liking.
He flicked his eyes to the tiny patches of sky visible through the dense foliage, wondering if it could glance at him with a touch of pity.
A distant rumble of thunder laughed back at him.
It was hardly a path. The occasional conspicuous stone – a gnarled tree that if he squinted only just looked like a jeering face – a shallow stream of black and white pebbles; these, in his opinion, failed to constitute a path. ‘Wishful thinking’ was a better approximate.
Suddenly the strap of his leather shoulder bag snapped away from the rivets holding it to its overfilled contents. Magnus’s precious items scattered into the leaf litter, instantly speckling with droplets of water from the shivering leaves above.
“Excellent. Simply excellent.”
He scooped his things up, folded the soggy flap over them and then tied his useless shoulder strap around it.
Sarah Magnus had spoken nothing but nonsense to him, but she had delivered it with pleading eyes. The gangly man had never refused those eyes anything, not even when they swirled out of control, following a theory planing above reason.
“Three weeks,” Sarah’s eyes glanced down at the tea cooling. Wafts of steam lifted off the tea, swirling. Her silver spoon rattled on the saucer. “The translation is correct. We’ll find it, I promise.”
Gregory Magnus shook the memory of his wife’s eyes off, hoping that she was right. He couldn’t bear to meet those eyes if he failed to please them.
With strength he had never been credited with, Magnus hurled his injured bag into the air. The water-stained leather climbed through the light drizzle, up and over the rocks where it landed out of sight.
“Only one way now,” he said to himself, digging his foot into a moss-covered gap in the rock. Magnus curled his fingers around an exposed tree root and held on tight, lifting himself from the ground.
Storms threatened with the approaching evening. The world beneath his hips was buried in a heavy mist. It was like creeping through the clouds.
Gregory Magnus extended one of his hands into the intangible carpet. It was cold, coating his skin until it dripped with silvery vapour. Gregory Magnus had left Sarah in Iquitos – a water-locked city stretching out into the Peruvian rainforest. Distant relatives on her grandmother’s side were rubber farmers. Their descendents had agreed to let her stay with them locked up in a multi-levelled dwelling by the port with a view of the serpent-like river boats carting produce into the city. Her Spanish was close to fluent so she’d organised a guide to take him as far as the beginning of the map she had drawn for him.
Gregory looked at the pencil marks scratched into the paper. His map seemed more concerned with clinging onto life than it did with pointing the way.
Stumbling, he realised that he had ventured into a shallow creek, concealed by the mist. Now he shoes were as wet at the rest of him and the jungle experience was complete.
Hungry, exhausted and on the verge of giving up, Gregory vanished into the mist – smashing against a damp log. Slaters zoomed past his face, frightened by his sudden arrival in their domain. From below, the mist was even more euphoric than the world without a floor. Crawling over the log, he rolled onto the ground in a heap, panting and beaten. His bag proceeded without him, pushed forward by gravity’s irresistible longing.
There was a brief decline in front of him which ended in a gaping rock face. The bag, unfazed by the approaching cave entrance, tumbled into the dryness of the tunnel system.
The fate of his bag faded from his mind as Gregory stood up, crystal green eyes trailing over the ferocious cave. Severed away, the rock had been split open against the natural grain of the cliff. Along the vertical edges of this enormous incision were a serious of circles and crescents, accentuated by some kind of sticky white paint. These symbols appeared to glow free of their black canvas, wandering between forms like the phases of the moon.
He had found it.
Gregory located his bag marooned against a boulder a few feet inside the entrance. A shudder of coolness laid itself over his bare chest as soon as he stepped into the cave’s shadow. He bent down to his bag but paused –
The cave floor was dry and covered in a shimmering dust. Minerals in the walls had become powder but not lost their sparkle to time. He pressed his dripping fingers into the dirt, withdrew and held them to a stray shard of light.
That’s when he felt a breath on his shoulder, inches from his neck. In his fascination, Gregory had turned his back to the cave and faced the encroaching forest. Shuddering, he turned slowly.
Silence. Darkness. Cold.
He was alone with the cave and an imagination drowning in paranoia.
Magnus wiped his hand on the remains of his shirt and squared himself up with the cave. From his bag he extracted a cone shaped, wrought-iron object with a polished wooden handle. Into the top, Gregory stuffed a mix of dried roots and material which he quickly drowned in lamp oil. Holding a match to it, the top exploded in a ball of flame and Magnus had himself a torch.
Firelight wavered, reflected off the smooth surface of the cave walls. It was as if they had been polished. Even the ceiling, which towered above him into an endless peak, ever-narrowing out of sight, was smooth.
Lair came to mind as Gregory progressed hesitantly deeper. The forest and its dim, afternoon light had become a grey smear in the distance. Where his torch’s light faltered, blackness encroached until Gregory felt as if it would consume him and he would be lost forever to its silence. It was like an ocean that never moved – a wave captured before crashing over the deck of a listing ship. He cowered before its sinister expanse.
The torch’s flame bent sharply, flattening into an orange line. Darkness edged forward. The mysterious gust of wind switched course, whipping past too fast for the flame to catch its oxygen. Gregory turned away from the wind, protecting the flame with his back. It reached once again for the ceiling and the cavern brightened.
His shoulder was warm.
Gregory gasped, turning in tight circles.
In his frantic movements, his eyes caught flecks of white from the edges of the room. Strewn against the cave walls were pieces of bone – bleached by time or crushed into the shimmering powder they had been scattered over.
INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE
Ashley held the remainder of the vampire blood to the light while her mother waited for the final print out of the test results to stutter from the machine.
“Okay, let’s go,” said Helen, ripping the flimsy sheet of paper free. Ashley placed the vial with the others on the rack and followed.
The door of the secret lab took the brunt of Helen’s strength before it finally squealed on its hinges, opening into the gloom. An elevator had just passed by; showering the area in sparks which bounced like fireworks before vanishing into cinders.
Helen brushed one over enthusiastic fizzle of light from her shoulder but not before it left a scorch mark on her taped neck. All too quickly the underground was returned to darkness with only the occasional drip to keep them company.
“This way’s faster,” Helen caught her daughter’s arm, pulling Ashley under a low section of pipe. She pulled a torch from her coat and shined it at the damp corridor in front. The white circle caught a series of stairs in the distance. “There’s a stairwell to my study at the end. I find it more convenient than clambering through the elevator shafts.”
Ashley was going to ask how her mother had guessed, but she was interrupted.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Helen asked, without turning around. She kept her eyes on the tunnel in front, stepping over scattered pieces of pipe. Ashley’s absence had worried her – all the more so because of John’s presence. She wasn’t convinced that he would physically hurt their daughter, but Helen knew that his words were the most dangerous facet of his personality and John had never been shy of words.
“I already said,” Ashley nearly slipped on the wet floor. Her free hand felt for the wall, clutching onto a grey circuit box. “I don’t remember what happened. Did you hear that?” Ashley spun around, sliding on the same puddle of grime. The way they had come was almost pitch black without her mother’s small torch. Ashley could have sworn that she had heard a moan come from behind. A howl even. “Mum, really…”
“What is it Ashley?” Helen backtracked as her daughter ‘shushed’ her. She peered into the darkness, listening.
Helen was about to move on when she heard a soft cry in the darkness. It came in a low drone, moving through the hallway as if approaching. “I-” Helen started and then realised what was creeping toward them. “Oh no… I forgot all about him.”
Helen grabbed onto her daughter’s jacked and pulled her away down the corridor toward the exit.
“We have to go,” she muttered, in answer to Ashley’s protests. “We left SAM out. He’s roaming free – probably made a nest somewhere down here that we stepped through. It’s not import now.”
Ashley’s eyes widened. That horrid creature that she’s spent days and half a pint of blood catching was back on the loose? She shook her head in disgust and picked up the pace, overtaking her mother. She could see the door at the top of the stairs, glowing at its edges. A few minutes later they both emerged in the far corner of Helen’s office which seemed decidedly warm and cosy after the dank innards of the building.
Helen didn’t bother to catch her breath.
“Let’s go,” she instructed, and the pair of them dripped their way to the cells.
It shivered when they approached, darkening its skin a shade. In the time the others had been away, the sand creature had become a new entity. Certainly its appearance retained the same simmering ferocity, but its sinister intelligence – something that they had missed the first time, had overtaken its sharp facial features.
Now the sand creature sat opposite the bars of its cage, calmly picking shards of pottery from its skin. Every so often it lifted its eyes to Henry who paced back and forth, waiting for Will, Helen and Joe to arrive with translation material from the library.
“Stop it…” Henry whispered to the creature, whom he was sure could understand him. If it could have smiled, it would have. Instead, it lifted its tightly stretched upper lip to bare a glint of white where a set of sharp teeth waited.
Henry turned away and continued pacing, checking his watch for the thousandth time as Helen rushed into the room with Ashley in tow.
“Finally – Ashley?”
“Long story,” Helen waved him off.
“Cool, cool,” said Henry, “whenever just, good to see you in one piece.”
Ashley gave him a smile before she followed her mother to the edge of the cell where the creature had returned to a rather large piece of shrapnel embedded in its skin.
“Oooh…” Ashley exhaled as if something horrid had just crossed her vision, “Just as I remember them. Horrifying. Why on Earth did you bring one back with you?”
“It was an accident,” Helen explained, taking a second glance at the creature when she saw that its mood had shifted. “A lucky accident,” she trailed off, frowning at the cell.
“If you mean that trying to bite my ankle off is a ‘lucky accident’,” Will entered the room on the tail end of Helen’s explanation, still limping a little from his wound. “Then yes, it was lucky.” He nodded in Ashley’s direction.
“What’s the police escort for?” Ashley moved aside so that Joe could stroll by, calm as anything despite the creature in the cell.
Joe had arms full of heavy Ancient Egyptian text books. They weren’t exactly texts you could pick up from your local library. At least two of them were hand written by a collection of scholars but they would have to do. Helen’s book shelves weren’t famous for stocking the most up-to-date works. “Sorry to disappoint but I’m here in translating capacity only.”
Will pulled a small desk in front of the cell opposite the creature’s seat. Joe quickly deposited his load onto it and collapsed in the chair directly opposite the creature while the others arranged themselves around the room, Henry leaning against the opposite wall as far away from the cell as possible.
“So,” began Joe, “what do I say?” flicking the first book open to a random page.
“Best find out if it really does speak this language before we get too carried away,” suggested Will, handing Joe a cumbersome book. Joe frowned.
The creature didn’t stop picking things from its skin, but it did flick its eyes up every now and then as the detective whispered things to himself, hunting for the right word.
Apparently satisfied, Joe inhaled before letting a phrase roll into the air. It was an elegant sound, regally shifting its tone.
The sand creature suddenly caught the group with its piercing blue eyes. It was if their curtains had been drawn to reveal a sinister soul smiling back at them, shifting in the darkness. Quietly and slowly, the sand creature repeated the word, accentuating different parts of it in what was the correct pronunciation of the dead language.
The rest of the room breathed sharply as one.
“What – what did you say?” asked Will, slipping his glasses on and leaning over Joe’s shoulder.
Joe hadn’t let his gaze move from the creature who was now repositioning itself in its chair, apparently curious.
“’Hi’ I think,” he replied, picking another line just to be sure.
“It defiantly speaks the language,” Ashley noted. “Much good that does us. This will take forever.”
“I hate this,” Henry shook his head as Joe and the creature began an awkward discussion. “It’s creepy.”
“Are those tracking devices operational?” Helen asked. Henry shook his and then realised that she was giving him an ‘out’.
“I’ll go – do…” he muttered, hurrying away.
“I want to know everything,” Helen whispered in Joe’s ear. “As long as you need.”
A boy, three days from his fifth birthday, waited for his parents to return to the sand-clogged valley. Burrowed into the ancient shale and dirt was a network of tombs now flagged by excavation markers flapping in the evening breeze. Through the small hole his father had chiselled earlier in the day, the child had seen the walls littered with pictures, plated in gold on the red paint.
They had to wait, his parents had said, to open the last room. Part of the structure had collapsed during their excavation. If they opened the magnificent final cavern in the day time, the sunlight could damage the delicate ink on the pile of scrolls sitting in the far corner.
Kerosene lamps shivered like pearls under the water as they led the way over the ridge before disappearing into the final sharp drop where the tomb was nestled. A party of workers led by a pair of dishevelled but recognisably foreign archaeologists shimmied through the sand until they reached the open section of tomb.
The boy who was safely left in the main tent, tip-toed across the room so as not to wake the baby asleep in a wooden cradle. It was early enough in the evening for a cool breeze to billow the tent walls, occasionally finding a way in around the ill-repaired holes. Moonlight patterned the floor, almost as bright as the lamps scattered over the rugs.
Somewhere in his parent’s backpacks – lined along behind their beds, was his birthday present. He was not going to take it, no, Joe just wanted to know what it was. That was all.
“You in bed, child?”
Joe ducked and then rolled across the floor, slipping into his bed before Mrs. Hibbet pulled back the main flap. Her nose entered first, considerably longer than most human’s noses. The little boy, with his covers pulled up to his chin to disguise the fact that he was still fully clothed, thought that she must be a witch.
“I’ll leave this up for a while,” she continued, tying the flap of the tent open before vanishing back into the small colony of tents set amongst the evening desert.
At once, the tent began to cool.
Joe threw his sheets off and was straight into his mother’s pack, prying through the layers of dust ridden clothes. Reaching the bottom, he found nothing but an inch of sand. He quickly moved to his father’s things, proceeding more cautiously.
The baby coughed, startling Joe.
It coughed again, still contently asleep. The breeze was rocking the cradle ever so slightly, causing a shadow to track backwards and forwards across the tent. The lamps, burning low, flickered with the wind.
“Sh… baby,” Joe whispered. If she woke Mrs. HIbbet would be back and then he’d never get the chance. He scrambled over to the cot and pulled the baby’s blanket back over its chest, tucking it gently in. It seemed satisfied by this and quietened.
The cradle shadow crossed over Joe’s bony body as he headed toward his parents’ beds. He walked slower this time, dragging his bare feet. His excitement had worn off and now he was wondering if perhaps he should just go to bed. It was his father’s bag –
Sighing, he removed his filthy shirt and yawned. Just as his mouth reached maximum gape, his eyes caught a second shadow stir across the tent in front of him.
“Well,” announced Joe, as Helen returned to the cell. He had a pile of notes scrawled in various books on the edge of the desk and a line of sweat under his hairline. The sand creature was camouflaged again but she could just make out its outline in the corner of the cell near the power outlet.
“Well?” Helen copied.
“I’ve learnt the Egyptian word for, ‘Vampire’.”
“Four hours,” she eyed him worriedly. “Tell me you got more than that.”
Everyone else had abandoned the room except for Ashley who continued to eye the creature as some kind of unclaimed prey. She’d spent days hunting these things – it was a difficult emotion to switch off.
“I’d say that I have a version of the truth,” Joe continued. “These aren’t the vampires you think they are. According to this one,” he nodded at the empty corner where the sand creature was concealed, “vampires were the pharaohs of Egypt. By the way he constantly snarled when referring to them, I take it they didn’t get along. ‘He’ belongs to a family group of vampires which possess an infectious strain of the abnormal gene. Along with the others, he began life as an infected human. This is not his natural form…”
Helen lowered her eyes. This was not a pure blood sample. It would not do. Indeed, it was useless. She should have known that this creature was not one of the original civilisation of vampires. Yes, it continued to display a high level of intelligence, but its behaviour was too chaotic, unplanned, animal even. There was a desperation about it that could only be human.
“Thank you Detective Kavanaugh,” she pushed his desk aside leaving him feeling rather exposed. He quickly got to his feet and carried his chair to the wall where the desk was now discarded, some of his notes floating to the ground. “If you head upstairs, Will will show you out.”
Joe looked confused, “And when do you want me back?”
Helen withdrew a set of keys from her lab coat as she moved toward the cell door. The sand creature flickered momentarily back into view, sniffing the air.
“That won’t be necessary,” she said under her breath. “Ashley, your weapon please?”
She reached for her sidearm but remembered that all her things had been taken from her in the 1800’s… “I don’t have one. What are you doing?” Both she and Joe watched as Helen slipped the key into the cell lock. A second later there was a faint, ‘click’.
“Getting rid of it,” was all Helen said.
“Thiiird time today, Will. Are you all right?” Since his return, Bigfoot had been in the medical lab, repairing the various wounds he’d picked up in the desert. Will kept him company, hobbling around the room on his sore ankle, moaning about the creature downstairs and how they should have left it in the damn desert.
“I better be,” he replied, lifting his leg onto the bed. They’d changed the dressings three times but the bite mark continued to fester. Bigfoot pulled the light over and began peeling the layers of fabric away. “I’ve got months of work accumulating on my desk and the last thing I need is rabies. How about you,” Will eyed a bloodied patch of fur on Bigfoot’s arm, “you okay?”
“Was that a, ‘yes’?” Will prompted, but Bigfoot was engrossed in the discoloured bandages. With dexterity not obvious by the size of his hands, Bigfoot carefully attended the sore.
Will winced as the final layer revealed his skin. It was a mess of liquids and torn pieces of flesh which had flaked away from the stitching.
“Wiiiill…” Bigfoot fished a metal tool out of the medical tray.
Will laid back on the bed, covering his forehead with his hands. “What?” he exhaled, trying to block out the searing pain from the creature’s bite mark. There was a burning heat working its way from his ankle, up his leg and into a knot somewhere in his thigh. He was already two tablets over the sensible painkiller dose. Bigfoot had confiscated the packet half an hour ago and refused to reveal its location despite Will’s flawless impersonation of Shrek’s Puss in Boots.
Bigfoot wiped the sore clean. It was as he had thought – healed.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Will sat up and examined his ankle. A zigzagging line of black stitching was a little puffy at the edges, but otherwise in good condition. It didn’t stop it stinging like hell though.
“Look agaaain,” Bigfoot pointed to the skin at the centre of the wound. They waited a few minutes with Will glancing at his watch and then back to Bigfoot until he saw it too – a shimmering sensation in time with a particularly large wave of pain. His skin flickered, mimicking the white sheets beneath his leg.
“Shit…” he whispered, as Bigfoot reached for the intercom.
“Mum, what are you doing?” Ashley repeated, striding over to the cage door, holding it shut. Joe remained frozen, a few notes crumpling as his grip tightened.
Helen blinked slowly, “Let. Go.”
The creature shifted in the cage, sensing Helen’s intention.
“This is a sanctuary,” whispered Ashley, leaning against the cell door to hold it shut. Her mother had withdrawn a large blade from her leather boots and was brandishing it at the bars, letting the creature know that she was coming. “We don’t kill things unless we have to.”
“Trust me Ashley,” Helen’s voice was low and silky. She moved her head from side to side, a few strands of hair falling across her face as she followed the sand creature’s pacing. “This one has to die.”
Ashley didn’t fancy the sand creatures for their murderous personality, but still, they were last of their species. All the things that they must have seen. Their intelligence, it was possible in time that –
Helen had seen Ashley distracted and gone for the cell door but her daughter was too quick, launching herself at the bars, snapping the door shut once again. The creature hissed, changing its skin.
“This is wrong,” Ashley shook her head. “What’s gotten into you?” Her mother was like a different person, turning the knife through her fingers.
“Heeelen. Need you in the infirmary. It’s Will.”
They both glanced up at the TV screen bolted to the wall. It was filled by Bigfoot looking very concerned, urging them to hurry up.
Helen released her grip on the cell door. “Stay here,” she instructed, handing Ashley the knife. “I’ll be back in a minute. Detective,” she nodded in Joe’s direction. He was still holding his notes protectively to his chest, having difficulty swallowing.
“She always like this?” Joe breathed once Helen had left the room.
Ashley shook her head. “No.”
“I don’t know Heeelen. It’s spreading like an infection.”
Will’s worried look got worse as Bigfoot took Helen on a guided tour of his ankle. It wasn’t long before her hand jumped to her mouth which had never been a good sign.
“I know what this is,” she said, quietly. Her green eyes returned to Will. “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“You mean,” Will kicked them off as he sat up. The vampire virus was spreading through is blood stream, mutating every strand of DNA in his body. Already the skin on his ankle shifted with his mood, stretching into its new ability. “I’m going to become one of those? There’s no way…”
“I’m going to start you on a course of powerful anti-biotics,” she pointed to the far end of the room. Bigfoot nodded.
“Will that do any good?” Will caught the sleeve of her lab coat. His hand was shaking. “I don’t want to be a –”
Bigfoot returned, passing Helen a needle brimming with a yellow liquid. She wasted no time piercing Will’s skin, plunging the cool substance into his system until his eyes rolled back.
“The sand creature said that this was a virus, but the translation could be inaccurate. If this is a bacterial infection, we might just be in luck.”
Ashley’s hand was still resting on the cell lock.
“Is she really going to kill it?” Joe laid his things on the table and edged toward her. He folded his arms across his chest, beginning to feel the cold of the underground rooms.
“Looks like,” Ashley replied. “Detective?”
Joe was staring past her, apparently frozen. The shuffling noise that the creature had been making was suddenly absent from the room. “What’s it doing?” he asked, the question falling out of his mouth as Ashley turned.
The creature was behind her with its claws curled around the bars of the cell door. It was no longer camouflaged but a reddish brown with deeper patches of red along its spine which curled around its back legs.
Helen hadn’t locked the cage door.
“Hold him steady!” Helen and Bigfoot rolled Will onto his side as he began to shake violently. The bed rattled. Bigfoot took hold of Will’s knees and put all of his weight on them while Helen threw herself on the top half of his body.
“He’s going into shock….” said Bigfoot, struggling to keep hold.
“It was a large dose. There’s nothing we can do except keep him still as possible.”
It became harder and harder to hold Will down and soon he was shrieking in agony. Ten minutes later, he finally fell silent, passed out on the bed with beads of sweat rolling down his forehead. Helen and Bigfoot collapsed onto the bed, exhausted both by the physicality of holding Will to the bed, and the horror of hearing his cries of pain.
“He wooon’t stay long like this.” Bigfoot breathed.
“Damn…” Ashley muttered.
Her eyes opened, squinting in the sudden brightness of the cell. Her head felt as if it would crack apart – it nearly had. She was crumpled against the cell wall, bleeding onto the concrete where the creature had thrown her. The cage door was locked, trapping her inside while the room was empty except for a streak of blood along the floor where Detective Kavanaugh had been standing.
Not sure how long she’d been out, Ashley rolled onto her knees. Her lungs lurched in protest, coughing up cement dust.
“Detective?” she managed between rasps. “Joe?” Her words echoed off the cold room. “Joe, are you all right?”
Ashley crawled to the bars of her cage and used them to pull herself to her feet but she got no answer from the empty room.
Her mother unlocked the cell door, pushing it open harder than she needed to.
“What happened?” Helen demanded, still cloaked in her lab coat. She looked tired and withdrawn – not in the mood for this kind of catastrophe.
“You left the cell door unlocked,” Ashley spat, with a more venom than she meant to. “It pushed the door open and that’s all I remember. Joe’s gone. We have to go and look for him now – before it’s too late.”
“Joe’s dead,” Helen paced away toward the exit.
“I don’t believe that,” Ashley took off in pursuit. “Why not just leave him here? It makes no sense.” Ashley caught up to her mother at the elevator.
“If he’s not dead yet, he will be soon. You have to go and find that thing before it kills anybody else. I can’t come with you – not now that Will…” she trailed off, relieved by the glowing orb of the elevator button and its doors sliding open.
Helen paused, she hadn’t told Ashley about Will yet.
“You better come and see him before you go.”
Ashley left the house soon after, carrying more ordinance than Lara Croft. Five hours later, it was well and truly dark with storm clouds covering the half moon.
“Ah, thank you,” Helen smiled at the doorway as Henry entered carrying a tray of tea. It was his tray of tea, ready for the nightshift so that Helen could get some sleep. “Will you be good to stay until the morning?”
Henry set the tray down on the desk and looked over to where his friend was sleeping. Will must have been in the middle of a horrible dream as his head kept falling from side to side with a frown cut across his forehead.
“Sure,” he said, nudging Helen out of the way of what was now his chair. “Get some sleep. Ashley’ll find that thing – I mean, it was her who found them in the first place.”
Helen nodded, squeezing Henry’s hand in thanks before she began the long walk through the hallways of her house toward her office. The inviting glow of her fireplace crept out from under the door. She clasped the handle, almost falling into her room as her tiredness took hold of her.
Except, there was something wrong with her office.
The fire was glowing even though she hadn’t lit it, the curtains were drawn yet she hadn’t had time to do so and her chair was facing the fireplace, rocking ever so slightly as someone prodded the coals with an iron poker.
“You have a problem,” the chair announced, before spinning around to face her.
BENEATH THE STREETS
The gentleman in the chair drew the poker between his fingers in his very best version of seduction until the metal neared the reddened end, causing him to hiss and return it to the fireside.
Helen approached her desk cautiously, mouth slightly agape. “What happened to your face, Nikola?”
Tesla, smartly dressed in his best 19th Century suit, ignored the mystified woman, determined to control the topic of conversation.
“So,” he began, folding his hands into his lap, “I was prowling through the train tunnels, minding my own business when –”
“How did you get into my house?” she interrupted him. Helen’s stern expression hadn’t cracked under his pert mood. It was an acquired ability.
Nikola Tesla’s eyebrows lowered themselves into a disapproving grimace. “This was my house, remember?”
“I bought it,” Helen made it to her desk but was forced to sit in her guests’ seat when Tesla gave no indication that he would move. “Paid real money for it and everything.”
“Yes well,” it was clearly a sore topic, “you can’t be famous and live forever. People, nosy creatures that they are, ask too many questions. Now,” he leant forward over the table causing Helen to retreat to the cushy back of her chair. “Do you want to hear my story or not?”
“I just hope you locked the door behind you,” she muttered. Any number of things could wander in off the street. This house was like bait for cockroaches, even the well dressed ones.
An unopened note on the desk caught Tesla’s attention. He could have sworn that it was in old Nigel’s cursive. Ever inquisitive of other peoples’ business, he went to possess it but Helen swiped it from under his hand and a moment later it had vanished into one of her lab coat pockets. Short of undressing her, he would never see it again.
His eyebrows returned to their preferred lofty positions, slightly independent of each other. “Whoever said I use doors?” he quipped, instead choosing to finish off a glass of port that he’d poured himself from her private stash.
“God, you’re exhausting.”
“I’ll take that as my cue to kiss you,” he leant forward like a flash of lightening across the turbulent atmosphere, but she was too fast for him, ducking out of his reach.
“Uh ah… once is quite enough for this century.”
“Remind me to book you in for the next one.”
“You said something about a story?” Helen eyed him impatiently. Running from Nikola’s left ear and across his cheek were a series of gashes. The doctor in her wanted to stitch his skin back into place but she knew that he would heal on his own – quickly too. She could already see the edges of the cuts closing, healing themselves. He was in pain though but doing a reasonable job of concealing it.
“As I said,” Nikola was serious now, a rare condition for him, “you have a problem.”
“I have many problems, could you be more specific?”
“You’re in an atrocious mood,” he quipped, but was undeterred and perhaps even a little amused. “If you insist though, I had a bit of a run in with … something. Ah!” he raised his hand just in time to stop Helen from flinging a snide remark in his direction, “before you ask me to be more specific, I can’t because I’m not sure what it was. Tell you something for free, it had to be pretty game to try something on me considering my, well, night-time demeanour…”
“Is it dead?”
There was a gleam in Tesla’s eyes. She’d answered his question without knowing it. “So you do know what it is then,” he grinned. Craning his neck around to the point where Helen though it might snap. He shut his eyes as the electric lights in the room flickered. “Care to share?”
“Perhaps, but how do I know that you’re here for good?”
“I don’t understand the question,” replied Tesla. “Do I translate ‘good’ as ‘forever’ because I believe we’ve already sorted that out but if –”
“I don’t have time for your games,” she snapped, her patience for his charms wearing thin. “If you’re going to help us, then stay. If not – well, you’re in my chair.”
“There’s only one way to turn the virus back on itself,” Tesla refilled both of their glasses with the crimson liquid. They had relocated to the couch behind the double arched windows – a more comfortable position with a pleasant view of the floor to ceiling bookshelf.
To Nikola’s dismay, Helen had drawn the curtains open to reveal the moonlight. Sometimes she was afraid of the outside world, and liked to keep herself boxed in the safety of her manor but on nights like these Helen Magnus wanted the world to know that she was watching it.
Helen wove herself into the far end of the couch, well out of the scientist’s reach should he choose to try something. There was a knife under her cushion and a gun taped to the underside of the coffee table. Plenty, she hoped, to handle an old friend.
“My research – which, I realise you deplore but in this instance you will find quite useful – indicates that a pure sample of vampire blood will stave off, maybe even cure the virus. DNA records taken from the Ramesses tomb show immunity to the virus after it spread through the ancient city before the great culling.”
“Wait, you knew about this group of vampires?”d
Tesla lifted his hands above his head, surprised by Helen’s lack of faith in his ability. “I’ve devoted my pleasingly long life to this topic, of course I knew. I didn’t tell you because I thought they were all long dead – and even if they weren’t, there’re useless to me.”
“I don’t know, you could have your army of vampires. Isn’t that what you want? Indeed, is it why you’re here?”
“My my, how you misunderstand me. I feel like that homeless child begging with my bowl, but all I want is a little trust.”
“That was deep.”
“Okay, put it this way, the vampires this virus creates are animals compared to what I’m after. They lack, fineness. Still, it disappoints me that you found an ancient colony of vampires in the desert and didn’t bother to call.”
“You don’t own a phone.”
“Fact,” he sipped his port. “Listen, I can’t help you with what’s-his-name…”
“Will…” she corrected him.
Tesla waved his free hand, “Whatever. But I might be able to get that little problem back for you, if you ask me nicely.”
“I don’t know if I need your help with that. Ashley’s already out there.”
“Take a look at my face, Helen.” Nikola shuffled forward over the couch until he was right next to her. He caught her hand reaching for the knife and instead lifted it to his face so that she could feel the depth of the wound in his skin. “Do you really want her out there alone?”
A train rumbled in the distance, grinding through one of the hundred tunnels beneath the streets of London. Ashley was black from the grime which had slathered itself onto her hands so thick that she had to wipe them on her jacket just to keep a hold of her guns.
She didn’t use her torch. Sticking out like a sugar coated treat wasn’t a good plan so she kept her back against the wall of the tunnel, using it to guide her while her ears picked out faint sounds scattering into the passage.
Ashley was excellent at this kind of thing. The years spent playing hide and seek with first her mother and later, Bigfoot had been excellent training. Mind you, she was infinitely better at the seeking part. Hiding was more of her mother’s speciality.
It was definitely down here. There was an occasional smear across the gravel floor – a few bloodied rocks only just lit by the weak tunnel lighting. Mostly it was dark, especially where side tunnels dug away at the walls. A freaking maze was what she had down here, a cumbersome network that had been added to and re-ordered so many times that no-one had the faintest idea what was going on.
The blood belonged to the detective – at least, that was its most likely origin. The sand creature could have taken another victim on its way down but she doubted it. This thing was using Joe as bait. Something it knew the Sanctuary would come after.
She jolted, training her guns on the roof. The milieu shuddered, a mixture of the lights failing and a hot wind kicking down the tunnel.
“Relax,” she whispered to herself. “You’re the one doing the hunting, remember?”
But Ashley wasn’t the only one hunting. Nikola had been following her footsteps for more than an hour, cautiously gaining ground on her until he decided that he better announce his presence or risk getting shot. It might not kill him, but a bullet through the heart still hurt.
“Hold up…” Tesla took a hold of his overly long trench coat, preventing it from flapping around in stray air currents so that his silhouette was less bat-like.
Ashley almost lost her footing in shock, flicking on her torch and pointing it at the approaching figure. It was that man her mother used to know, crazy scientist. Great, that was just what she needed – another vampire to deal with.
“How long have you been there?” she kept her weapon trained on him as he came to a stop at her feet looking terribly pleased with himself.
Nikola shrugged, “A while. Lady of the house sent me.”
That sounded exactly like something Helen would do. Send in the cavalry. “Mum needs to put a bell around your neck or something.”
“And take all the pleasure out of sneaking? Any luck with your own project?”
Ashley rolled her eyes and pointed her torchlight at the ground where it caught a blood covered stone.
“I see,” Nikola knelt down, dabbing his finger in it. “Don’t worry,” he added, when Ashley’s nose crinkled, “I’m not going to lick it or anything.” He rubbed the substance between his fingers until there was nothing left of it but a brownish smudge. “This is close to the place where I had my little run in earlier,” Tesla pointed to his face as Ashley flicked off the light.
“You better be quiet then,” she turned away from him and continued hunting.
“I’m quieter than you,” he reassured her.
After several minutes of traipsing through the tunnel, Ashley pulled up to a halt. Tesla nearly ran into her, hopping to the side just in time to avoid her loaded weapon. She had a growl on her face.
“I can still hear you!” she shushed him irritably.
They stood their collective ground, eyeing each other suspiciously for a moment until they both realised that the noise they could hear was coming from further in the tunnel.
“You know,” Tesla murmured, redirecting Ashley’s gun toward the dark passageway in front, “I thought it’d be quieter than that.”
The owner of the noise emerged into the semidarkness, a grin spread across his face. John’s hands were clutched behind his back and his boots allowed to drag in the gravel. “Believe me,” he began at the pair, one of whom exhaled in disbelief, “if I didn’t want you to hear me, you wouldn’t have.”
“Oh wonderful,” Tesla had never particularly liked John, and now he remembered why. “The father of convenience. Mr. Druitt, let me introduce you to your daughter…” he theatrically presented Ashley.
“Quiet Nikola, why don’t crawl back down into that cave you call home?”
“Charming as always,” Nikola clicked Ashley’s light back on so that he could get a better look at his old rival. “If you don’t mind, we’re a little busy at the moment doing, ‘work stuff’.”
A spark shot across John’s shoulder. He bent over, grimacing in pain. It was clear that though he could tear the fabric of time, sometimes it turned and snarled at him, ripping away the layers of his soul. His little trip back into the 1800’s had done a lot of damage. John had to believe that it was worth it.
“You just can’t stop can you?” Tesla showed no sympathy as the tall man was reduced to a groaning mound on the floor. “Helen told you not to keep jumping about the universe.”
“She. Told. You.” John grunted, lifting himself back to his feet. “Not to be such an arse but since when did either of us start listening to Helen?”
“’scuse me?” Ashley swiped Nikola across the back of her head with the butt of the gun causing him to yelp. “Could the both of you just get over it!”
“What was that?” Tesla narrowed his eyes at her jacket, tilting his head suspiciously.
“What was what?”
He’d definitely heard something clink together inside her jacket pocket. It didn’t take the genius long to piece all the fragments together. Indeed, Watson would be proud of him.
Tesla went for Ashley’s jacket but John was there, gripping onto Tesla’s wrist no doubt hoping to crush it.
“Don’t touch her…”
“I suppose,” his slippery voice pondered, “it was you who got her into this mess. I can smell it-” he lowered his eyes to Ashley’s pocket. “Yesss… I should have noticed it before but there’s so little of it left. It was more like a memory on the air, difficult to place.” Tesla had wondered what had happened all those years ago. It was lifetime away but the mystery of Dr. Magnus’s departure from the world had ripped the five apart. “You obviously didn’t tell your mother that you shot poor old Gregory. I can’t see her taking that too well.”
“He’s getting worse,” Henry leant against the isolation room with a mixture of sleep and dirt trailing down from his eyes.
Sirens wailed past outside, dimmed by the layers of walls and offices that kept this room from the rest of the world. They were looking for the detective, he guessed. Since Helen had called his department they’d heard nothing but noise from the streets. Shame they were looking in all the wrong places, though Helen wasn’t about to help them.
Will was inside the glass-sheeted room, sprawled across one of the hospital beds that Bigfoot had bolted to the floor. The leather straps over his arms, legs, torso and neck strained and cracked as he arched his spine in agony. Ripples of colour spread over his exposed skin until his whole body disappeared in a veil of camouflage. A minute later, it had passed and Will coughed and cried back into human form.
The computer projections trailing over Helen’s screen suggested that the virus was working its way from the outside in, burrowing through his body. Her initial doses of anti-biotics had prevented separate infection of the initial wounds but as she predicted, had proved utterly useless against the virus.
Most of his pain was stemming from the calcium deposits building up along all of Will’s bones. His teeth, in particular, were literally growing, curving inwards as their tips sharpened to needle-like points. To achieve this, the virus was re-aligning his jaw which explained his need to chew and bite anything in reach.
Whenever she let her eyes wander over to the bed, Helen caught a glimpse of a sand creature rather than a frightened man. Even his eyes had been slit by dark ovals and his iris’s turned amber smudging out what little remained of him.
He was ravenous. In a couple of hours – morning at the latest, the IV bags would be useless. After that, they’d have to find something more substantial for him to eat to prevent his body sacrificing its integrity for the changes.
“The treatments aren’t doing anything…” Henry pried himself from the glass, paced across the room, collapsed into his chair and buried his head, nestling into his arms. He had been injecting Will with Helen’s blood to no effect. It was last time they were going to try as the result was always the same; instant loss of blood pressure, difficulty breathing, skin rash, increased anxiety, seizure, cardiac arrest.
“I am immune,” Helen told him for the thousandth time. Henry believed her but could do little else but shake off an unwelcome yawn. “Bet my life Tesla is too. Neither of us are pure blood vampires so the solution must be somewhere in this mess.” She was referring to the enormous string of her DNA the computer was trying to process. “But the code is huge. No chance of finding that kind of needle. I need years, not hours.”
“You could cross check with bloodwork from the other five,” Bigfoot suggested, struggling into a labcoat. The awkward garment nipped at his fur, dragging a few of his bandages free. “Look for common patterns.”
Helen shook her head. “Those were stolen a long time ago. James and Nigel are dead, Nikola – if he comes back, will be gone for days and as for John, your guess is as good as mine.”
Helen sighed. “Ancient history.”
A quiet snore wafted through the lab, barely audible over the hum of a dozen machines. Henry was asleep. More accurately, he had passed out from sheer exhaustion. Helen waved Bigfoot over from the other end of the lab. The big man nodded as soon as Helen gestured to the scruffy bundle on the desk.
Helen rested her head on her palms, staring at the far wall. It wasn’t just Will. Ashley was out there too, somewhere in the dark. Even Joe… all those years and now he was gone. She should have paid him more attention when he was a child, listened a little harder but she was always so busy. The work never ended. It never would. Not for her.
She returned to the computer screen, clogged with endless windows. As a scientist she knew that there was no chance that she could do this by herself in the time that Will had left. It irked her to admit it, but she needed Tesla.
Nikola looked as if he’d peered into the cosmos and torn out all of its secrets.
“René Barjavel would love to meet youuu-” he grimaced on the last word as John clenched down on him tighter, bending Tesla’s wrist bones toward each other. “I’m just saying,” Tesla continued, shaking off the pain, “you travelled back in time, killed your grandfather and lived to tell the tale. That’s impressive.”
Ashley’s eyes had gone red and suddenly her gun was levelled between Tesla’s eyes, daring him to go on with his taunting.
“Say it again,” she jeered, terrified by the raw emotion threatening to break free. All of her guilt had finally seen a vehicle of release and she welcomed it.
John let go of Tesla as Ashley pushed the scientist down the tunnel, led by her loaded gun. He didn’t say a word but managed to maintain a satisfied smirk.
“Ashley,” John said quietly at first, left behind as his daughter marched Tesla off in a simmering rage. “Ashley!” he said more forcibly, staggering in pursuit. His body was falling apart, like smoke swelling over the ground at night, about to meet the rising sun. “You mustn’t kill him. God I’ve wanted to in the past … and present.”
Ashley could feel her father over her shoulder. She didn’t want to listen to him either. If he hadn’t –Her grandfather was there, every time she closed her eyes. Seated behind his desk, scribbling intently at something. Then he would look up, kind eyes and a warm smile offering her a biscuit –
Her eyes opened. His were gone.
You had to give it to the man, Tesla knew his worth – when to push a person and when to lay off. Emotion was a complex thing, something he preferred to study from a distance as it had never been a friend to him.
“We need him,” John moved slowly for her gun, but Ashley spun around to face him. Two tears broke, seconds from each other, and vanished along the curves of her cheeks.
John could see the bullet, barely more than a hint of silver in the dark tube.
The air felt thick as Ashley struggled to see through rivers of mascara. The darkness of the tunnel was suffocating and the poorly lit face of her pleading father was difficult to make out.
“But I don’t need you,” she choked.
Ashley’s finger rolled over the trigger. Her heart pouring out with the bullet as it broke from the barrel with a whiff of smoke.
Young Joe Kavanaugh shivered at the shadow outside. With the lamp lights burning low, his tent was relatively dark compared with the moonlit evening. To the shadow, Joe was just a dark piece of cloth strung between metal rods, rippling in the wind.
The boy couldn’t move – he barely breathed.
Something was very wrong with this humanesque form. Joe followed the profile of the hunched shadow with his eyes. Clothes of some description were hanging in shreds, flapping free, two arms were loose at its sides and at the end of each of its fingers were dark, slender shadows that looked awfully like claws.
He was already afraid of the desert. The older children of the group had told him stories of creatures that lived in the sand, invisible things that moved with the moon to hunt small children. Joe was no fool, the older children had made that last bit up for his benefit. What cemented Joe’s limbs together were the echoes of their stories in those of the camel herders – monsters that ripped their animals apart, whispers in the evening hours around the ancient tombs…
He believed them all now.
There was nothing between him and the creature except the fragile cloth and his silence. Trembling, Joe watched on as it began to saunter away from his tent, apparently more interested in the Robinson’s tent opposite and their large collection of small dogs.
He was about to collapse onto the floor when the wind kicked the baby’s cradle, and the little girl cried.
The shadow stopped. Joe’s breath froze. Crying and tears screamed out from the cot. The sand creature turned its head back toward Joe’s tent, tilting it at the disturbance.
Joe sensed its eyes on him though he knew it was impossible. A moment later, the shadow began to move again but this time it didn’t go away – it circled his tent. Joe’s head followed the shadow, the rest of his body still itching to move. Once he caught a glimpse of it passing a small hole in the tent and it dawned on Joe that this thing was real and he didn’t have long before it found the open flap.
Using the child’s screaming as cover, he scurried across the tent floor, headed for the trunk beside his father’s temporary desk. There were papers and things inside, but when he heaved open the lid it looked large enough for him to crawl into.
Kneeling inside, Joe lowered the lid of the trunk as the creature stepped through into the tent, sniffing the air.
“Did you see thiiis?” Bigfoot returned after putting Henry to bed, pulling up a chair to the desk where he found Henry’s laptop open. The screen was littered with password cracking programs, some of them still dutifully prying into private servers. “He’s hacking something.”
“If it’s got a government stamp on it, then I don’t want to know.”
“No,” his hairy mitt buried the mouse, dragging it around until he’d tidied up the screen. “This – might be, no I think it iiiis. Tesla’s files. You didn’t say that he had a database…”
Helen rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t own a phone but he manages a high-speed internet?”
Bigfoot ignored Helen. “He’s working out of various organisations. Engineering companies, museums, libraries, the FBI…”
“Well, they did start confiscating his work a while back. What is Henry doing moseying around in there?” she rolled her chair over for a better look. Literally hundreds of windows were open, all of them in relation to vampire history – everything from ancient texts, supposed locations of artefacts, famous researchers and professors right up to the Underworld original movie script. “What a mess…”
“Looks like Henry’s started to filter through some of it, listing it in order of relevance and difficulty to acquire.”
Helen raised her eyebrows. That sounded like Henry to her. “What tops it?” she asked, as Bigfoot minimised a dozen useless windows and killed a security warning. Helen checked her watch. They had three hours until Will recovered from the sedative.
“Something his crackers haven’t gotten into yet.”
Helen tilted her head, a curious smile forming just under her lips. “p1g30N…” she whispered, typing over Bigfoot’s shoulder. The line went green and dozens of pages loaded onto the screen. “He never changes.”
Bigfoot mumbled for a while, skimming pages of text until he came upon a curious entry. It contained a dozen or so scanned images torn out from an old book. The typeset was clunky and the pictures barely more than smudged etchings. Helen remembered a time when that was considered swish.
“…three separate uprisings in a single reign finally forced the pharaohs to abandon their beloved cities.” It began. “Six of the royal family lay dead, slain in the streets and temples until finally Ramesses XI was cornered in a library with three of his scribes. The unfinished letter to the priests of Amun was never sent. It pleaded mercy, but the peoples of the land had no mercy left in them from decades of invasion and starvation. They left an ankh through his neck and conquered the land in the name of the gods and their people. Ramesses took his final breaths bleeding into the cold stone of the palace at Thebes with the vacant eyes of his scribe staring back.
“Those that escaped travelled north along the river and then east into the barbarian world. They followed the Silk Road, vanishing into the safety of foreign mountains. The second wave were too late to make their way on foot. Hunters, keen to seize on bounties, picked off straggling royals, driving spears through their hearts and dragging their corpses back into the cities for show.
“Frightened, the last of them crossed the desert on foot until they fell into the sea. Two ships set sail but only one made it to be reunited.
“The groups met each other in the Indian Himalayas and settled once again, building the city of Bhalassam with the remainder of their wealth. It was a last stand, a memory of all that they had once been. But the two-hundred room palace was empty and later turned into a great vault for their knowledge. Surrounding it were streets of houses and temples, also empty save the forty-five survivors. Perhaps it was their hope that the scale of their city would frighten off attackers like a ruffle of colourful feathers at a predator.
“Around their city they built six towers and capped their pyramidal tops in polished marble. Every morning they shone like the evening stars, inviting their kind to join them in isolation and safety.
“One ship had been lost during this evacuation. The wind took it through the islands and across an even greater ocean. Injured from several vicious storms, they drifted in circles until even their resilient bodies were skeletons for a beating heart.
“Finally, years later, they reached the shore of a new world. Frightening cliffs hugged the ocean, splintered into the water as they crawled up the beach. Beyond this they found a dense jungle of creatures as ferocious as themselves. Eventually they happened upon a city, built out of the solid river rock. It shone in the afternoon – a pyramid of gold as beautiful as they remembered their own. As they approached, six more cities flickered into view, each one as brilliant as the next. Thinking that they had found their ancestors, the once-rulers of Egypt wove their way through the mountains and followed the river to the first and most beautiful city.”
“Does this story have a point?”Helen interrupted Bigfoot’s reading. “Because we’re pushed for time here…” Tesla had always been a history buff. Even at college. If he wasn’t trying to kill them all with bolts of lightning then he could be found with his nose in an antiquity book.
Bigfoot scrolled through the battered pages, some of which had sections missing. “Weeell… there’s this;
“Eventually they returned across the sea to India where they found their brethren and the city of Bhalasaam under attack. A wave of humans had hunted the others, determined on their destruction. Fearing the worst, a core group escaped, travelling back to the new world seeking sanctuary there. And thus began the final stand – the Sanctuary of the Moon.”
“So that’d be a no,” Helen pushed off the ground and rolled her chair back to her own desk. “As usual, Nikola’s living his life in the past – the ancient past. So he’s looking for vampires … what a surprise. Fascinating as his hobbies are, they don’t help Will.”
Bigfoot kept reading, figuring that Henry had a good reason for his efforts.
“You missed…” Tesla sounded distinctly disappointed as John flashed away from Ashley’s bullet, disappearing in a rip of time only to rematerialise behind Tesla.
John crumpled to the ground in pain. His body could not take much more of this.
Tesla stepped aside, displeased with the idea of himself as a shield. It was so demeaning. “You think another dose of that stuff will help you?” he asked John, who was still heaving, coughing up blood onto the gravel. “If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll transform you into something unpleasant…”
“He-l-en didn’t thi-nk so,” he replied, bending his knee up to his chin. He took a few deep breaths and then returned to his feet, trying not to sway.
Ashley was still in shock. She’d been that angry with the world that she had taken a shot at her own father.
“Helen’s learnt a lot in the last century,” quipped Nikola, circling John menacingly.
John ignored him, waiting for Tesla to pass before stepping toward Ashley, placing a gentle hand on her cheek. She didn’t recoil. It was as if the world had stopped and she was all alone in a moment long passed.
“Ashley,” he cupped her face until he found her eyes. “You need to prepare the blood as it was done the first time, over a hundred years ago. The instructions are in your grandfather’s journal but you must hurry. You’re all I’ve got in the world,” he wiped another tear from her face, finally seeing his daughter stare back at him.
Tesla’s eyes flicked to Ashley’s jacket. Beneath its crinkled surface he could make out the line of a book. The book. For nearly a century he’d wondered where that had gotten to.
“I’m sorry, for the way everything happened,” John continued. “But we don’t know each other, not really. You never would have helped me if I hadn’t –”
She didn’t say anything.
“Shame about Will…” Tesla trailed off, deliberately breaking the silence.
Ashley blinked, awakening from her trance. “What?” she leant around her father.
“Pure vampire blood; the only known cure for what these bastardised creatures give you. It’s a very small vial though – a single sample, only enough for one of them I should think…” he smiled at John, whose face had fallen.
“Nikola…” he whispered, realising the game’s end. It had been well played.
“Your father or your lover? Tough choice. I’d off them both –”
“He’s not my lover,” Ashley snapped. “Are you telling the truth? Is this,” she broke free of her father and withdrew vial 0042 from her jacket, “going to save Will?”
Her father’s eyes followed the vial and its red liquid sloshing inside.
Tesla nodded. “I am certain of it. And that is no light word for a man of my profession.”
“Ashley… Please.” John blocked her vision of Tesla and his promises. “I am your father.”
“We’re immune,” Tesla spread his arms. “John, Helen, me – the answer is in that vial.”
“She’ll know…” Ashley retreated slightly. “If I take this back to the lab she’ll recognise it. She’ll work it out like you did and then – I don’t know if I can…” It would be so much easier to save her father in secret but Will – he was there, screaming in her head. If she hadn’t of gone to Egypt chasing that stupid tip off then none of this would have happened.
“Blame it on your father,” Tesla instructed. “He’ll be dead soon any-”
“SHUT UP!” John screamed, launching himself as best he could at Tesla’s throat.
“What’s wrong John,” Tesla hopped easily out of the way, “Helen’s blood not good enough anymore?”
John hit the gravel, grazing his hands. “It doesn’t work. I don’t know why,” he growled, getting back to his feet.
“He’s going to die either way, Ashley.” He turned to John, “Maybe Helen’s not giving you the real stuff anymore. It must be a terrible drain, a leech like you-”
John caught Tesla’s coat, jolting it toward him. Nikola tried to escape, but he was dragged into John’s range with a squeak. He was a slippery creature, sliding through John’s hands but not out of his grip.
The scientist snarled, his features tinting into a concrete grey.
“Don’t push me John, you won’t like what comes out…” Tesla said, his eyes going black.
John squeezed his throat harder, “How about we see for ourselves?”
CONFESSIONS OF MURDER
Tesla’s fingers tapered into claws. His eyes became jet black voids. The cheeky smile he often flashed sharpened into a sinister crest of teeth until finally his true nature surfaced.
His vampirish form broke free of John’s grip with a snarl and before John could do anything to stop him, Tesla had lashed out at his shoulder, knocking John to the gravel.
John rolled, protecting his bleeding shoulder as several gashes appeared, seeping through his leather jacket.
It was funny, John thought whilst lying there, after all the years he and Tesla had known each other this seemed inevitable. There were too many levels of betrayal, jealousy and rivalry between them for common civility. Sharing love – it destroys the soul.
Nikola wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, flicking it to the ground with disdain.
“No!” Ashley yelled, diving toward her father.
“Get back,” John pushed her away, struggling to his feet as Tesla came in for another go.
Gregory Magnus gripped the handle of his torch tightly as his eyes scanned over the bones on the cave floor.
“Animal bone,” he murmured. “Get a grip of yourself. There’s nothing here but ruins and –”
He didn’t need the shivering of his flame to tell him that something was looming behind, having crept out of the depths of the cave. Gregory could hear a fine sheet of material skimming the dust and the slow, steady breath of the creature at his shoulder.
The air around Gregory crackled. Flecks of electricity crepitated into life with a thousand bright sparks. He felt that soft tickle over his arms as his hair stood to attention. It was like there was a current running through the cave, making molecules dance over one another, bouncing through a sea of electrons.
“Turn slowly,” said the creature in Spanish.
Gregory heard a soft, low voice slide in over the air. He didn’t understand its words, so he spun around, shaking with his torch held aloft.
“Slowly…” the voice repeated, before it saw the pale expression of the man. It was the face of a frightened and fragile creature, still stumbling about in the world; a brave young human with no idea of the danger eyeing him curiously.
The vampire was tall but hard to make out from the cave. It was as if the shadows curled around him, lapping at the edges of his towering façade, threatening to devour what was left. The top of his cloak glowed with a fine stream of hairline sparks, undulating in ferocity with the vampire’s shifting mood.
The initial terror faded quickly as Gregory settled his eyes on the vampire. It was not that the stories had lied – indeed, this was a fearsome figure to behold – more that their descriptions were incomplete. Their writers had neglected to note the sadness of its dark eyes and the horror shining out from their pits, overlooked the fractures through their skin and understated the smoothness of their manner.
Put simply, the creature before him had seen ages die and was the wiser for it. His existence terrified the world and that hurt.
With courage Gregory had been unaware of up until this point, he held the torch back and stepped forward in a non-threatening but firm manner.
“I am Gregory Magnus,” he started, “and I have come for your help.”
For the human’s spirit, the vampire decided not to kill him. Instead, it turned its back and began a retreat into the cave taking the electric air with it.
“No, wait…” Gregory abandoned all sense to follow. “Please. I have come a long way.”
Still, the vampire gave no response as Gregory attempted to keep pace with it through the darkness. Gregory held his torch out in front as he struggled over the slippery floor of the cave. The dust had become mud and Gregory found his shoes fumbling through it. The vampire, however, seemed to have an unnatural ability to skim along its surface like a boat gliding through open water.
“Is this not a Sanctuary?” he finished desperately, shouting into the tunnel.
There was silence ahead and for a while, Gregory thought that he had failed his family. He had come all this way, to the other side of the world for a lie. His despair distracted him and he did not notice the return of the vampire just within reach of the light. Gregory couldn’t know that the vampire had fractured dimensions in perfect silence.
“You seek Sanctuary?” it said, in heavily accented English.
Gregory lifted his head, finding the vampire with its arms clutched behind its back. Its voice barely broke a whisper, either afraid or unable to speak over the water trickling down a nearby wall.
“I seek the Sanctuary of the Moon,” replied Gregory. “On behalf of my daughter.”
The boy ducked into his father’s box with the heavy lid resting on his back. The trunk wasn’t quite big enough for Joe. He had to leave the lid half an inch open – enough to make absolute stillness a necessity.
He had hid just in time. A moment later the creature ducked its head awkwardly and stumbled into the front of the tent. The desert air kicked in behind it, blowing the fabric walls about.
Joe closed his eyes, willing the creature away as children did.
The creature’s attention was on the screaming baby, waving its tiny hands in the air, hoping to be picked up and nursed. It couldn’t see the sand creature approach with crystal blue eyes and a sharp set of claws.
It was over very quickly. With his eyes still firmly closed, all Joe knew of the baby’s passing was a dull snap and an instant return of silence. Nothing in the room moved. The only thing left that Joe could hear was his own loud breathing. He felt his heart skipping through his chest and into his cheeks. Sweat started to dribble down his forehead and suddenly the trunk was very hot.
There was no air. His rapid breathing was sucking too much in before it could be replaced through the keyhole in front of his nose. He had heard nothing for more than a century, though it was likely only a minute. No footsteps or movement. No rustling through the ornaments littered across the tent. Joe couldn’t even hear the creature breathe anymore.
The darkness of his own little world finally got the better of him. Joe had to open his eyes. He had to know if it was gone – or had been nothing but a dream; a horrible, terrible nightmare to punish him for wanting to see his presents early.
His lashes unknotted and his eyelid cracked open. Instead of a pale, yellowish glow from the lanterns, Joe saw blue.
It was there.
One eye to the keyhole.
Trailing a clawed hand over the lid of the trunk.
Joe was frozen into place – wanting to bury himself into the darkness of the trunk, unaware of the immediacy with which it was about to be taken away. The creature pried the lid off the trunk in a single movement, flinging it open where it crashed onto the floor, completely separate from its hinges.
The boy inside crouched, tears flowing down his cheeks in terror. Even this young, he knew that he was dead. It was an inbuilt sense consummating in a moment of clarity. Joe had never felt so alive. He was motionless against time and yet his mind was busy streaming through a lifetime of thought.
His imminent death did not come.
Joe lifted his head. Above him, a ragged figure could do nothing but stare. The creature’s skin twitched, sometimes vanishing into nothing wherever it emerged from its tattered clothes. Its hair was laden with sand and had twisted into oily knotted lengths. Its jaw line was unnaturally sharp, struggling to accommodate a row of blanched teeth.
The sand creature opened its mouth in a howl, letting go of the box to curve backwards in pain. Its body rippled, changing forms as if unsettled on a design. Falling to its knees, the creature shook its head until the boy crawled out of the trunk.
Joe stood before the creature that had stopped writhing on the floor. The creature looked up at him, this time with soft eyes and lightly tanned skin.
The boy whispered, “Father?” and the creature wailed once again.
The pair of fighting gentlemen no longer cared that there was a sand creature lurking somewhere down the tunnel, or that Helen’s daughter was standing to the side, screaming at them to stop. Finally they had each other with no one to stop them ripping themselves to shreds.
“God, just stop!” Ashley tried to catch her father’s jacket as he spun, avoiding Tesla’s poorly aimed lunge. There was nothing she could do but watch. She’d tried threatening them with her weapon but neither appeared to care. For the first time since the tomb, Ashley wished her mother was by her side. She would know what to do with them.
“You know, I think you’ve actually gotten worse at this,” John’s fist thrust into Nikola’s chest, sending him backwards through the air and onto the ground.
Nikola hit his head hard. The impact blurred John’s follow up and he found himself rolling onto his side, curled out of the way of a powerful kick.
John was about to move in for the kill when his own body failed him. He lost control of his arms and had to lurch to the side at the last moment. Tesla unfurled himself and saw his chance, crawling straight for John with claws outstretched.
Ashley caught his wrist, startling Nikola for a moment.
“That’s enough!” she demanded, refusing to let go. Both Nikola and John were weak from fighting and far more manageable. “You can’t just stand here and kill each other,” she continued, yelling at them both. “Once we get this job finished, you can do what you like but right now everyone is counting on you to capture this creature. If I could do it alone, I’d leave both your useless arses here.”
Nikola and John heaved for breath, panting and exhausted with wounds burning over their bodies.
“Even if you don’t care about stopping this creature from killing – you were asked for help by the one person you have in common. My mother.”
Both of them acknowledge the mention of Helen in their own private way. John exhaled, averting his glance to the floor whilst Tesla stared intently at Ashley. Yes, there was more than a little bit of Helen Magnus in Ashley’s stern glare.
“Please,” she added, offering her hand to Nikola.
Nikola’s vampire accentuations began to fade and by the time he had taken Ashley’s hand, he looked relatively normal save the abrasions on his face. Soon he was on his feet, dusting his coat off while Ashley made the same gesture to her father.
John stared back at her but somehow all he could see was Nikola preening himself in the background – straightening his collar.
He couldn’t help it. Using Ashley as leverage, John launched himself at Tesla, reaching for his throat. Ashley’s arm got caught in the middle and her jacket ripped open. A single vial of blood slipped out, tumbling to the tunnel floor where it shattered in a cloud of sparkling dust.
Pure vampire blood splattered onto the gravel at their feet, trickling away into the ground.
Ashley stared at it in disbelief while John forgot his rage and fell in pursuit, trying to scoop it up into his hands to save it. It was futile, in seconds the blood was barely a dark stain.
“You broke it…” she whispered. “You broke it. YOU BROKE IT!”
John ran his hands over his face. That was his life and now it was gone.
“I…” John ran his hands through the shattered remains. It was his own doing.
Nikola thought for a moment. What an intriguing circumstance he had been presented with. He had never been one to orchestrate things, but Nikola had yet to let a decent opportunity sneak past.
“Ashley,” he said softly, eyeing the remaining contents of her coat. When she did not respond, he reached over and placed his hand on her shoulder. He repeated her name as he closed in a few steps. “Do you have your grandfather’s journal?”
This time Ashley turned around, narrowing her eyes at him. Nikola took that as confirmation of his suspicions. The diary had disappeared around the same time as Gregory’s death. Helen had always suspected that it had been the cause of his murder – but life was far more simple. Gregory’s death was an accident and Ashley’s acquisition of the diary – blind luck.
“It’s okay,” he stopped her from replying as it would no doubt be a lie. “You can still save your father, maybe that friend of yours as well.”
“You better not be stringing me along,” she replied. “Because I’ll find out if you are, and then I will kill you regardless of how fond my mother is of you.”
His eyes gleamed brightly because for once, he had honesty to play with. “No, this is pure truth. It won’t be free, but I assure its accuracy.”
John stood up to listen as well as Nikola began.
“Your grandfather kept an interesting journal,” he said, pointing to Ashley’s coat. She retrieved the journal and held it lovingly in her arms, protecting it. “John over here wanted it for information regarding that sadly expired vial of blood. I, however, have seen it before – flicked through its pages once or twice. He liked to travel, Gregory. When he was young and Helen just an infant, he went in search of the Sanctuary of the Moon – the last known refuge of pure blood vampires. And here’s the kicker, I believe that they’re still there.”
“That’s where the blood sample came from?” Ashley opened the journal and found the entry. “He collected it himself?”
“You never wondered where your mother got the idea of a sanctuary for abnormals from? Her father, of course, who in turn borrowed it from the –”
“No,” Ashley interrupted. “She never mentioned anything like this.”
“Helen keeps her secrets well hidden, especially from you.”
Ashley skimmed over the pages, flinching at some of the ink sketches scribbled between the text. Her grandfather had drawn eyes and shadows.
“If you leave now,” said Nikola, “you could be there in two days.”
“And what about the two of you?” she watched them suspiciously. “How do I know you won’t just get back to killing each other when I walk away?”
Tesla grabbed onto John’s jacket and helped him to stay on his feet. “Because we promise,” he replied, prompting John.
“Yes, yes…” John added, a little less than convincingly. “Hurry Ashley.”
Against her better judgment, Ashley turned and left the pair of them deep in the tunnel. When she was gone, the two men turned to each other in the dim light.
“Time to go and catch a sand monster,” muttered Tesla, pushing John off of him.
John wasn’t sure if he was amused or impressed. “You’re actually going to help?”
Tesla tucked his coat back in front of him and started on ahead.
“What did Helen do to you, all those years ago?” asked John curiously.
Nikola stopped but did not turn. “Same thing that she did to all of us,” he replied. “Now, are you helping or dying?”
John dragged his feet forward, “I’m coming, I’m coming…”
“I just have one question,” said Nikola, as John fell into step beside him. “Was it a lie? Did Ashley really kill Gregory Magnus? Helen was so sure that it was you.”
“No doubt by your encouragement.” The other man sighed. “I confess, though I did not shoot the old man, it was my fault. I brought Ashley to the past. It was selfish and stupid but I don’t want to die, Nikola. Not like this.”
“If she finds out, she’ll never forgive you,” replied Tesla.
“Then we will have something else in common.”
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
For an hour, Will was himself. He perched on the edge of the medical bed, head bent down focusing on the ground as he steadied his breathing. Helen was beside him, rubbing along his back and over his shoulders trying to settle the quivering muscles.
He’d been asking after Ashley, but no one at the Sanctuary had heard from her. At the present, Helen was counting that as a good sign.
The other two watched from the main lab. Henry’s desk was buried in a pile of paper work; mostly print outs from Tesla’s private files. Henry had carefully stapled relevant pages together and set about highlighting important passages. It was disheartening though, when Helen walked away from his work calling it a waste of time under her breath. Henry may not have the nous of his colleagues but his paranoia was second to none and it had him convinced that this Tesla person was up to something sinister. Helen tried to reassure Henry that that was just his natural state.
“I’ll just put it over here,” Henry said to himself, piling up documents in the corner of the back bench which was quickly becoming his library on all things Tesla.
“He’s changing again, Helen,” Bigfoot swiped his card over the door and it dutifully unlocked. The Perspex sheet swung silently open and then closed behind his furry figure. He paced toward Helen and Will, carrying a tray on one hand, presenting a needle laid on a white cloth. It was almost like the tray of tea and biscuits he had brought to Will so many times before.
Helen wiped the side of her eyes before lifting her head to her approaching friend.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “We can’t give him anymore. It will kill him.”
They’d found a measure of success in one of the sedatives. In large doses, it temporarily reversed the virus’s effects. She hadn’t decided whether this was doing more harm than good. It was a painful process for Will, returning to human form and then mutating back into the bastardised creature he was destined to remain for the rest of his life.
“Helen,” Will rasped. He struggled with a glass of water, sipping it slowly. “Helen,” he repeated more firmly. She held him tightly, wrapping another cotton blanket around his shoulders. “You know what this is,” he said. He wasn’t talking about the virus.
“Don’t even think it,” she replied, unable to tame a stray tear. “It’s never going to come to that.”
“We’ve already been there and back again,” he said, smiling slowly. “Please?”
She couldn’t do it. Will was her recruit. A protégé and friend handpicked from decades of candidates. There was no way that she was going to… Her stomach wasn’t strong enough.
“But it’ll still be you…” she said, holding his face gently in her shaking hands.
“You saw them, Helen,” Will took one of her hands. They were young and soft even though Will knew that Helen had seen more lifetimes than he ever would. “Whatever they may have been, good men – loving friends, they all ended exactly the same. I don’t want to become that. It is no way to spend a thousand years.”
After a very long time spent resting on his shoulder, Helen nodded.
“This way? No… He went down that dark, narrow looking one.”
Nikola rolled his eyes. “And who crowned you Lord of the Underworld?” He ducked into his preferred choice of tunnel, sniffed around and returned to Druitt’s side. “Lucky guess…”
“But lucky for whom, I wonder,” said John, lowering his voice when he heard something move ahead of them. “I do believe we’re about to have company. Would it be too much trouble to ask you to become a little more, how do I say,” John’s voice rolled over the words with amusement, “scary?”
Clenching his fists together, Nikola brought about his vampire side.
“Should even the odds a little,” he all but hissed, blinking as his eyesight improved. The wound across his face still stung from where the sand creature had attacked him the last time. It was a fast creature, faster than Tesla was comfortable with. He had never been fond of competition.
Joe Kavanaugh grimaced, holding his shoulder in pain as he lay against the cement wall of the tunnel. It was dark around him except for the faint nightlight at the far end. He kicked some of the gravel away from his feet as he tried to stand again. This time, he was able to use the wall for support as he struggled to his feet with a groan.
“Oh…” he inhaled sharply. His legs quaked and crumbled beneath him. He landed on the floor in a puff of dust, coughing as sweat dripped through his hair.
There was a blue set of eyes watching him. They crept about, slowly circling Joe.
The sand creature unfolded its limbs and stretched them out. Its claws scratched over the floor as the creature curved its back into an arch. Bones cracked back into place. Always, it kept its ears aligned with the passageway. There was a commotion further down the tunnels – it could smell the squabbling humans in the distance and they were getting closer.
The sand creature did away with its camouflage, revealing its truly beautiful natural colouring in the half light. Nearly crimson, it seated itself directly in front of Joe.
“Shit,” Joe coughed, holding his arm in pain, “you didn’t have to grab so hard.”
There was a dark bruise where the sand creature had seized and dragged Joe all the way from the Sanctuary. His leg bled from the initial scuffle in which the sand creature had knocked him onto the table outside the cell by accident.
“No choy-ce,” it replied, struggling to speak the awkward language. It didn’t like this new world. The air smelt of poison while strange noises paced through the night, wailing in the distance. “Ho-ome.”
“That is arranged for tomorrow. I can get you back to the desert but on the conditions we talked about. You say you know my father? I want to meet him in person and not be killed for the trouble. Can you ensure my protection from the others?”
“We are uuu-mans not mon-st-ers,” it snarled, dragging its claws through the gravel, tracing out an ancient pattern. “Take me ho-ome.”
“What is it?” Joe asked, when the creature suddenly camouflaged itself again. It didn’t answer him, instead choosing to scamper off into the darkness to Joe’s right. Suddenly, Joe heard the hushed voices approach.
There was a scuffle in the darkness. Claws and hands scratched at each other as the sand creature tried to fend off the two men that had been hunting it all evening.
“Urgh, ow…” moaned Tesla, as the creature ripped a line next to his spine. His jacket and shirt beneath it were both ruined and hung open revealing his bare skin as the three of them continued to rip and tear.
“Can’t see anything in this pitch,” said John, fumbling blinding for the creature as it whipped around them in circles, taking nicks out of them with every pass.
“Let there be light,” said Tesla, plunging his hand into one of the power sockets dotted down the tunnel. In a hail of sparks, the tunnel lit up, revealing its plainness in fine detail. It was a good deal less ominous, but the same could not be said for the creature that had vanished with the darkness.
“Still can’t see it,” said John. The sand creature had retreated in the sudden brightness. “Oh, it’s here. No need for you to worry about that.”
Back to back, John and Nikola surveyed the room. Nothing moved except their feet as they wore circles into the ground.
A nervous shiver ran down the back of Nikola’s neck as he realised.
“Above us,” he whispered.
The two of them lifted their eyes to the ceiling and then flung themselves out of the path of the falling creature. They all landed at the same time – John and Tesla in untidy bundles and the sand creature well poised on its feet like a cat.
It went for John first, leaping onto his chest and scratching at his face. John crossed his arms over his head protectively, trying to roll onto his side but the creature’s considerable weight had him pinned. Tesla crawled across the ground and grabbed hold of the air where he thought the creature’s ankle might be. It was a well calculated guess. Tesla pulled sharply, setting the sand creature off balance allowing John to finally breathe.
“Gotcha now,” he squeezed down on the creature’s limb as it tried to escape. “Little help would be good though.”
The creature spun around to face Nikola, narrowing its eyes with an angry sneer.
“You’re so impatient!” John growled, wiping the blood from his eyes. His face was covered in painful gashes.
Tired of all this fighting John, still laying on the floor, pulled a gun from inside his boots and held it over his head. Stretched out with his back on the ground, he lined the creature up and rolled the trigger.
A loud crack echoed in the tunnel, startling Tesla as the bullet whipped past his face and into the sand creature’s skull. It fell limp at once, slumping to the ground fee of life.
There was no final moment of life – no flicker of soul. Its body simply lay still, going cold on the ground. Tesla released its ankle, breathing heavily. John was still on his back, exhausted and injured.
“One sand monster,” said Tesla. “Delivered as instructed.” He didn’t want to admit a flutter of sadness in the pit of his stomach.
“Aren’t you forgetting someone?” John rolled painfully off his back onto his equally sore shoulder.
Tesla raised his eyebrows and then lowered them into a defensive frown. “You? I guess you helped a little…”
“No, you fool,” John rocked himself onto his knees, replacing the gun in his boot. “Helen said that there was a missing detective.”
“He’s dead,” assumed Tesla.
John knew that Tesla was only guessing. “Maybe so, but Helen asked us to make an effort and actually look for him.”
“Be my guest…”
It was therefore to Nikola’s great surprise that they found a crumpled body reclined against the wall not far up the next tunnel. The man was unconscious but alive. Nikola shrugged.
“Okay, okay…” He bent down and grabbed the detective by his feet and began to drag him over the gravel. The detective’s body slid down the wall until it thumped onto the floor with a shuffle of gravel.
“Stop,” instructed John. Nikola gave him the famous Tesla what? Look. “You can’t drag him all the way back to Helen’s.”
John had to be kidding. “Not a chance. You carry it if you want to be charitable.” Nikola didn’t like the way John’s smile curled.
“I’m dying – might kill me…”
“So could I,” he snarled, heaving the body onto his shoulders under protest. Nikola made certain to complain the whole way back to make life as unpleasant as possible for John as punishment. John thought about killing Nikola but didn’t fancy the prospect of carting both bodies on his own.
“God – you scared me.”
“Don’t I just.”
“Normal people use the door,” roused Helen, when she found Nikola and John in the hallway. It took her a moment to see Joe deposited in a heap on the floor behind, bruised but otherwise unharmed.
She didn’t like that Tesla wandered in and out of her house when it suited him, but even more so, she didn’t like that he’d brought John along for the tour. “Stop appearing in my house,” she continued, in a more agitated than usual manner. “And don’t teach him,” she pointed at John who was trying to look as innocent as possible, “anything that I wouldn’t .”
“Is that a challenge?” Tesla whispered under his breath but was interrupted by a groan behind them as Joe came to. He sat up, holding his head in his hands. “Now he wakes up…” muttered Tesla, pushing past Helen on his way to the drinks cabinet.
Helen knelt down beside Joe, sweeping his damp hair off of his face. “Are you all right?” she asked him, inspecting some claw marks and bruises. He replied that he was fine, trying to brush her off but Helen was determined. She had to be sure that there were no bite marks. Thankfully, the detective had avoided serious injury.
“I told you that I was fine,” said Joe, allowing Helen to help him to his feet.
Nikola returned with two glasses of scotch. The one with ice clinking inside, he handed to John.
“Hi, we haven’t met.” Tesla waved at Joe. “Let me introduce myself. I’m your friendly neighbourhood vampire who just carted your arse all the way down that lovely tunnel the city’s got tucked away under there. All that exertion made me a bit peckish – fancy a bite to eat?”
Helen shook her head. She was too tired for this.
“Ignore him,” she instructed Joe, who looked more than a little worried as Tesla sipped his scotch. “He’s only part vampire and not particularly friendly. Nikola…” she walked right up to him, leaning up to his ear. “Start behaving.”
“Happy to oblige,” he tilted his head toward her, but Helen darted out of the way.
“Where’s Ashley?” Helen asked, checking her watch. She had expected her to return with Nikola. She didn’t bother asking what John was doing around. He always had a knack for showing up in times like these. Questioning usually proved useless.
“About that…” Nikola prodded John sharply. He was the daddy – he could confront Helen.
“Helen,” John set his glass down on one of the coffee tables. She glared at it, eyeing the absence of its coaster. “Ashley has found a way to save Will.”
Helen’s eyes immediately fell to Nikola.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he raised his hands defensibly. “I’m trying to help.”
“Where is she, Nikola?” Helen demanded.
“The Sanctuary of the Moon,” interrupted Henry. He had seen the intruders on the camera network and immediately gathered together his papers. Henry appeared beside Helen, handing her a printout. “That’s right, isn’t it Mr. Tesla? I mean, it’s what you’ve been searching for all this time and now you’ve got someone with goals that match your own to help you find it.”
“Henry, please,” Helen interrupted him. “There’s no such thing as a hidden sanctuary of vampires in South America. Now Nikola, tell me where Ashley went or you’ll have more to worry about than the Kabal at every turn.”
John tapped Tesla on his shoulder when the silence dragged on. Tesla coughed and then ran a hand through his spiked hair.
“Are they my private documents?” Tesla took a step towards the scruffy individual, hand outstretched. Henry backed away in fear.
“Ah-” Henry opened his mouth.
“Where is my daughter? Last chance.”
“The airport,” said Tesla simply, withdrawing. All he felt next was searing pain where Helen had slapped him hard across the face.
The cobble street glistened with the fallen snow, reflecting the street lights in sad circles. A bullet cracked through the night air. People that had been huddled at their windows ducked out of sight, cowering on the floor. Helen’s eyes slowly opened, searching for what was left of John between the shadows of the street opposite.
He grinned back at her, lifting his hands to the side to show that he was unharmed by her ill-aimed shot.
“If you wanted to shoot me, I would be dead,” he said, leaning against one of the lamp posts.
Helen’s hair fell over her shoulder in a glittering sea of blonde underneath the lace hat. She placed another bullet in the gun and re-aimed, holding him firmly in line of the barrel.
“You are mistaken,” she whispered, unable to shake the image of her father’s body cold and lifeless on the floor of the attic.
The snow continued to fall around them, spiralling through the night like wayward stars crashing to earth. Freezing wind burnt her delicate skin as tears slipped from her eyes. John had killed so many since the experiment but she never thought that he would kill her father in cold blood.
“I don’t understand why,” she said, pacing forward to the edge of the pavement but deliberately not onto the road. “We were helping you. All this time, John. I have to know.”
He felt like laughing. The experiment that had destroyed their lives and he had ended up with the worst of it. His body and soul were ripping away from each other and every day he was one less shred of himself.
“The answers do not lie with me,” he replied. “Dead or alive I cannot help you in this, Helen.”
“Did you kill my father!” she screamed.
John crossed the road in four long strides, too fast for Helen to think or shoot. With truth and sincerity he answered her, “No…”
Sometimes she thought that the John she loved was just buried in those brown eyes, hiding somewhere amidst the violence and blood of the John she had created.
“No,” she repeated his words, first in a manner of hope, then again in disbelief and finally in a rage. “No, I don’t believe you!”
John turned as she unsheathed her knife again; lunging toward the man she loved. He didn’t move in time, groaning as the blade cut beneath between his ribs.
He staggered, pulling away from the knife.
“Helen…” Someone grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms to her side. “Sh – calm down,” the man muttered, desperately trying to keep a grip on the struggling woman.
“Let me go Nikola,” she snarled.
“Just go,” Nikola nodded at John. “I have her.”
John ignored the other man and approached Helen once again, but this time with an air of caution as Tesla held onto her.
“I did not kill your father,” he said solemnly, holding her face gently in his bloody hands before vanishing into nothing dragging the universe with him.
Both the gun and the knife fell to the ground at their feet while Helen collapsed into Nikola’s arms, no longer trying to break free.
“We’ll find who did it,” Nikola hushed her, stroking Helen’s hair gently. “I promise you that we’ll find them even if we have to search forever.”