Nigel vaulted over the low stone wall and out into the storm leaving a volley of papers churning behind him.
Every echo of thunder made his body shudder as it continued to rumble in the sky above. The ancient gods were at each others' throats, tossing bolts of light and snarling into the dark. He could hear their violence – the clashing of swords and procession of Grecian boots through the clouds.
The lawn was partly submerged and Nigel struggled to cross its muddy expanse. Once he stumbled, landing on his knees amidst a blur of water. That's when he saw it again – a horrible image that he could not shake. Nigel grunted and made it back to his feet. He pushed forward, heading toward the other wing of the building where he had seen a shadow fall.
He raised his arm against the weather, inhaling more water than air. Nigel couldn't understand why the world moved so slowly or how it was possible to count the heartbeats out of step with his breath while the droplets of rain hesitated, lingering for a moment before striking his face. Whatever tempo the world was supposed to dance to, it had been offset since that lightning strike.
Nigel found her almost at once, laid awkwardly on the cement pathway surrounded by broken roof tiles. The sky flashed again and again, vanishing the world in an eerie light. Nigel paused, water streaming over his eyelashes. Helen's blond hair had scattered around her head, glistening in the rain as if full of jewels. Beneath this carpet was a dark puddle, diluted by the rain into a general crimson aura.
She must be dead. It was all he could think. Her stillness held back his breath as he bent down to Helen and placed his fingers lightly beneath her chin.
He waited, ignoring another dart of light above as he searched for a faint glimmer of life.
"Oh gods..." Nigel startled, as Helen opened her lips and took a gasp of air. He whipped his hand away when her eyes slowly opened, staring blankly into the night.
"Nikola?" Helen whispered. Her vision was a muddle of indistinct forms but she could sense someone leaning over her, shaking.
"Nigel," he corrected Helen, reaching behind her head. He wove his fingers through her blood stained hair until he cupped her skull gently and eased her off the ground with his other arm around her shoulders. He searched for the wound responsible for the bloody mess on the pavement but found nothing except an acute tenderness to his touch.
She flinched away from him.
"I feel – strange," she said, as he forced her to sit.
"I am amazed that you feel anything at all," he commented, glancing up at the roof of the university. It was a long way up to the damaged pipe, jutting out from the rest of the gutter. Beneath Helen was a sea of blood from a so far phantom wound. He had to get her somewhere safe and dry and inspect her more closely. A fall that large – there had to be repercussions.
"Wait," she protested, as he lifted her from the ground. It was a struggle for Nigel. He had never been a strong man but in this he was determined. "Nikola..."
Nigel searched the dark walls of the university but the pathways were empty. "He's not here," he said, heading for the main gates where the occasional coach hurried past with a crash of hooves.
Helen turned her head, gazing over Nigel's shoulder back at the silhouette of the building. There was no light in Nikola's room. She remembered his hand, trembling with her weight as she swung from the building.
"He was..." she started, but Nigel had reached the road. He waved a one of the coaches over and bundled Helen inside of it.
He took her home.
Nigel set Helen onto one of the wooden chairs in the dining room and quickly fetched a basic medical kit from Doctor Magnus's cupboard by the stairs. He returned to find her inspecting a ringlet of hair, curiously gazing at the red tinge that it had taken on.
"Let me," he said, pulling a chair next to her. Nigel held a warm washer to her forehead, wiping the mixture of mud and blood off her porcelain complexion. For the first time, he noticed her beauty. He'd always thought of Helen, perhaps unfairly, as a vindictive woman manipulating men to her causes via her obvious charm. John thought that he was crazy, but Nigel held firm to his belief that there was a sinister edge to Lady Magnus. He often saw glimpses of it in the corners of her eyes when James slit his way through another test subject. She had even swayed the impersonal Tesla, coaxing some form of affection from him however reserved it might be.
Nigel wouldn't go so far as to say that he was entranced by her, as the others were, but maybe he could admit to being just a little curious.
"How perplexing," he said, running the washer down her neck following a trail of blood. "You appear to be unharmed."
"Maybe it's not my blood?" she offered, catching his hand as it dipped a touch too low on her neckline. She would never guess that it had been an honest accident.
"It's yours all right," Nigel discarded the cloth in the tray, "but search me as to how."
They were both soaked and starting to feel the cold. Nigel was the first to rise, unbuttoning his coat as he headed to the fireplace. He busied himself lighting it, preferring to keep occupied as the awkward silence continued between them. Though they had spent many hours in each other's company, they had never spoken alone and found themselves completely at a loss as to how to behave.
Finally, a flame flickered up through the logs and the first radiations of warmth spread into the room.
"You should change your clothes," he mumbled at her. She nodded and vanished out the door. He heard her footsteps trail down the corridor until a door creaked open.
So this was the house of the great Robert Magnus? Nigel had already picked out several unusual ornaments hanging from the opposite wall. He hovered overed the fire, drying his shirt and pants until she returned to the dining room looking more like he was used to.
"Thank you," she said, not taking that last step into the room, "for your help. I shall be fine now."
"Helen, you are about as far from 'fine' as is possible." Another silence. Nigel stifled a cough with his fist, turning back to the flames. His nose wanted to run, a curse from his childhood that led people to believe him perpetually in ill-health. "Now that I'm here," he spoke to the fire, forcing Helen to venture into the room to understand him. "Would it be possible to see this mysterious sample of yours? I admit to being curious."
Distraction – she welcomed it. "Certainly."
Helen led him through her father's office and down the stone steps to the basement. She caught him linger at the sight of the lab door, running his eyes over the solid planks of wood sealing its contents away from the world. They both held lanterns to the darkness as she unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The door revealed a black hole not unlike the gaping mouth of a cave. Nigel's nose tweaked at the musty smell, heavily laden with mould spores. Helen dashed in front of him, wasting no time lighting several lanterns. The room now revealed certainly looked the part of a mad scientist's den. As James had described Robert Magnus, this scene suited him well – mysterious curtains, hanging lamps and equipment he didn't want to know about. He'd almost accepted this as quite respectable – until a creature in the corner of the room growled.
"Holy – you did not mention that," he raised his lantern in the direction of the frightening creature.
"When I said, 'Abnormal creatures'," said Helen, with a smile he had seen used on unwitting victims of hers before, "what exactly did you think that I meant?"
She had him there. In truth, he'd never really taken her stories seriously. "Honestly Helen, what is that?"
Eventually Nigel got over the dragon – even daring to stroke its feathered coat. Finally Helen presented the sample of blood and even his untrained eyes could see that it was special with its silken liquid swirling gracefully, its colour more rich than pure ink and its viscosity something between mercury and honey.
"I – wanted to apologise," he offered, brushing his fingers over the glass holding the sample. "We did not have the best start."
Helen nodded, but did not offer an apology of her own.
It was late afternoon of the following day when three gentlemen met in a dormitory, exhausted.
"Did you find him?" said John to the others, holding his side. It pained from running circles around the hundreds of intertwined corridors, ducking into every door in search of the missing man.
James and Nigel shook their heads, equally dishevelled.
"He's not here," James folded his arms, "or if he is, he's lost a good deal of weight. I asked everyone I could find. Granted," his hidden hand couldn't help but dip into his coat pocket where a small gold watch nestled. "Most of them had no idea who Nikola was in the first instance..."
"I called him the 'mad one'," quipped Nigel. "Mostly they just shrugged. If they did see him, they apparently don't remember. It's like he's completely invisible to other humans."
"I think that we should try to take this seriously..." James frowned in Nigel's direction.
"What is there to do?" Nigel retaliated. "He is gone and short of searching all of Oxfordshire –"
"Helen's not going to be happy," John sighed, interrupting Nigel. "We'll never hear the peace of it if he doesn't show tonight."
John arrived at Helen's door first, just on the edge of dusk. The streets were full of business men making their way home from work and small children frisking pockets with nimble hands. The gas-lighters had started their rounds, cruising between the lamp posts with a taper as the smoke of the factories sank back to the earth, tarnishing Oxford's air with a bitter taste.
The city's forest of spires prodded at the darkening sky. Their sandstone had blackened in the relentless weather which chose to rain most of the time making them appear sinister against the skyline.
"Did you find him?" was Helen's first question, as she let John step past her into the house. He shook his head.
"Helen, I am sure that he is fine," he tried to reassure her.
"You clearly don't know Nikola," she replied sharply. "He is never fine."
"Tomorrow I will speak with the university heads myself if he does not arrive within the hour."
She seemed to be satisfied with this – for the moment.
"Helen," he reached down for her hand, which he took gently in his own. "There was something that I have been meaning to discuss with you..." he trailed off, glancing nervously at the floor rather than her confused expression. "Before all of this."
His skin warming beneath her palm distracted her from John's words. She found it difficult to focus on anything other than the slightest movement of his fingers and his quickening pulse.
"When I heard about what happened yesterday – I – I realised something – important that," he ventured a glance at her, regretting it almost immediately as his throat closed over. He coughed, swallowed and tried to continue. "And my timing is – well – regrettable but – James?"
Mr Watson strolled into Helen's foyer with an air of importance. He had changed his waistcoat, apparently reverting back to his wealthy upbringing outside the university walls. This particular item of clothing was a luxurious shade of red, edged in golden thread.
His sudden arrival caused Helen and John to part, retreating to opposing walls of the entrance hallway.
James tipped his hat at them before removing it entirely.
"Afternoon," he said in greeting – fully aware that he had just disturbed the pair. "Nigel will be here shortly. Are you certain that you are well?" James tilted his head slightly at Helen. She was paler than usual except for a bright flash of pink through her cheeks.
"Not you as well," she turned away. "Honestly, I am surrounded by three old women."
"Only two at the present," James winked.