James tightened the cord of his dressing gown and then lit all the lamps in the dormitory. Next, he strode up to Nigel's bed and prodded the air approximately where his friend should be. The 'thin air' yelped and then scowled loudly, lashing out with stubby fingers until James stepped back, hands raised, and apologised.
"Just checking..." James excused himself, retreating from Nigel's grasp. "I-" he tried to speak but eventually settled on, "I am speechless." He wasn't quite sure what else he was to think. His friend's skin had taken on the patterns of its surrounding, constantly shifting to match either the bed sheets or the paint-stripped wall behind. About the only thing remaining to prove Nigel's existence was the shadow stretching out over the floor.
Nigel was taking the progression of his condition poorly. He had James's mirror clasped tightly in his hands and persisted in moving it about, analysing himself from every angle. No matter how many ways he tried to see himself, Nigel had to admit that he simply wasn't there.
"This is terrible!" he declared, tossing the mirror across the room where it hit the floor and shattered. Nigel looked expectantly at James but quickly realised that he would have to speak if he wanted attention.
"What do you expect me to do about this?" James replied, tucking his hands into his dressing gown pockets. "It is the middle of the night – sleep on it, and we will think of something in the morning."
"You aren't serious," Nigel tucked the sheets around his legs. It had become cold of a night now – bitterly so. "I can't just forget about it and go back to sleep!" he protested. "I'm in-god-damn-visible!"
"Then you best get used to it," snapped James sharply.
Nigel's resemblance to the background was not perfect. Whenever he moved it took a fraction of a second for his skin to catch up to the change which meant that when moving the wall seemed to lag. However, when perfectly still as he was now, you could not pick him even when you knew where to look.
"We wait 'till morning," James insisted, folding himself back into bed. "Then I will provide you with all the assistance you require. I swear it; you shall have my undivided attention."
It was an exceptionally long, awkward silence. None of them were sure what to say or do and it seemed that James's idea of 'help' was simply to deliver Nigel to Helen's doorstep and absolve himself of the matter.
"He looks fine," said Helen, finally. It was true – Nigel sat in the oversized armchair with both hands clinging onto the leather arms like grim death. His clothes were oddly pulled about him as if he had dressed in a hurry and he was a bit pale – Helen would admit to that.
"Well it's stopped now, 'asn't it..." Nigel scolded. He knew that he should be pleased with the sight of his skin but he knew that this present state would not last.
"It's true," confirmed James, standing by the fireplace. There were a few hot coals left glowing from the previous night. "I swear, when we set out this morning he was a walking suit – nothing more."
"She doesn't believe us," said Nigel, reclining into the chair. "I told you this would happen. We should have come when it first started."
John was alarmed by the sudden turn of his head as a hurrying passerby caught the edge of his shoulder. He scowled at once, looking for an apology which he realised would never come as the short man hurried off down the morning street, weaving between the high-hats.
He was about to turn and continue on to his lodgings when he felt his breast pocket and found it light. The miscreant, whomever he was, had taken his purse and papers. With no choice, John dodged two old gentlemen calmly and then launched into a pursuit of the creature he could just catch sight of in the distance.
It was a noble pursuit – spanning many Oxford blocks. At times John felt that he was within arm's reach of the man and could make out the flurry of heat to his cheeks, perspiration sticking his hair to the broad forehead and the darkening collar of his coat. The hat had long ago departed him, lost somewhere in the street behind as the pair took a turn around the busy corner and found themselves directly in front of the university gates.
"Stop!" John cried out, as the assailant pushed through the iron gates (which were as yet unopened) and dashed along the path leading to the main doors. John could not understand the man's sense, for surely the university was a trap for any thief to enter.
In the straight, the man was quick and reached the door with extra time to breathe. The heavy wooden things, ornately carved and difficult to open had just begun to close when John slammed his hand firmly into them and heaved them open once again.
To his great distress, the foyer was empty. Without students pattering through it, the room felt harsh and cold with little love shared by the swirls of marble. He had all but lost hope of pursuit when a distant slamming door set him back on the trail. The thief had run up the main staircase and along the passage to the old section of the library – which was also shut up at this early hour. The doors had been forced and were easily re-opened. Once inside John's eyes trailed across the intricate networks of shelves that were lit only by the morning sun coming through the windows. This effect cast long shadows through the room where one could easily sneak.
He spent the next two hours – until the librarian shrieked in horror at the damage, trying to find the thief but there was no trace of him unless he had made himself into a book.
A great plane of sand stretched out in front of him. It was neither brown nor red but some shade that couldn't settle in the morning light. His body was freezing. The cold twisted into his limbs and turned his sinews rigid. It wasn't until he felt the rising sun behind him that he felt his joints shift and his legs able propel up over the ridge and down the other side of the dune.
There was a line of shadows following him. As they drew closer – gaining on him, he realised that they were caused by a struggling group of woman and children. Their exhaustion had wrenched their faces into soulless masks which traipsing endlessly toward the horizon though it always seemed to stretch out of reach.
They were running from their past. An entire civilisation had taken foot and fled and he was among them – leading them. A great sorrow washed over him. The only thing that awaited them was a slow, drawn out death which he moved them ever forward toward.
Nikola gasped – awaking in a fit of tears and despair. He had been there – marching across some wasteland with a child clinging to his shoulder.
"God..." he whispered, catching sight of the first weak beams of morning light through the open window. His breath swirled up through the air, condensing in the cold. It had been more than a dream – it was as if he had actually been standing in the desert, conscious that he would die soon. That desperate sense of hopeless determination took a while to shift as he gathered up the blankets and buried himself, trying to return to sleep
Eventually he gave in. Dressing quickly, he washed his hands again and again before making to the library where he sneaked a few books under his arm.
The librarian, old lady that she was, watched him suspiciously – craning her neck every now and then in his direction. Nikola fitted himself into the rock-lined window sill which looked out across the oval and onto the main gates. The grass was starting to die off and its brown threads had a pink lustre about them in the early light. Two pigeons picked over the expanse, fluttering at each other in jealous love.
He had a heavy book in his lap. Toward the end of it, he found a passage on the great ancient land of the early rulers. His finger slipped along the map from the old city of Cairo west, toward Minqar Abd an Nabi. Where expired rivers baked to dust, the old map showed nothing but unnamed desert – poorly drawn. Still, he could not shake the feeling that he had been there, touched its sand and watched the sun rise over its horrid scene.
"To ne može biti..." he whispered. 'It cannot be!'
"What of this other complaint," offered Helen, unsure of how to proceed with no symptoms apparent, "is it possible to examine you again?
Nigel was reluctant at first, but did not desire to be turned away. As much as he despised the fact, he suspected Helen to be the better medic of them all. Her father's blood was strong in her veins and sometimes even, he could see a bit of him in her eyes. His own father, Professor Samuel Griffin, had been a great friend to the elder Magnus. They shared a friendship whilst on the Oxford board but Griffin, like all Griffins throughout their generations, were wise with money and reluctant to watch it drain into endless pits. Nigel did not know of Helen's knowledge on the matter but it had been Professor Griffin who first suggested that Magnus's funds be cut in favour of the more lucrative organisation – the Cabal.
They laid him out on the table in the lab – a thing which disturbed Nigel greatly given the morbidity of the object. It was cold and hard beneath his bare back and brought alive all the hairs of his skin so that they stuck up against the air. Helen did not seem to take much note of him as she approached with her hands covered by a pair of cotton gloves. In so many ways, she looked like a magician about to conjure secrets from the world before their eyes.
"Lay still," she cautioned, as she pressed down on his chest, feeling his ribs one by one before moving to his stomach. Soon he noticed that she was counting, carefully inventorying his innards in a manner that would have disturbed him had he not expressly allowed this.
Then she paused, feeling again and again the same area of his side. As she prodded, he felt a sharp pain.
"Intriguing," she said curiously, digging further into his side creating great, stabbing, violent pains that racked the centre of his body.
"Careful – Helen," James lifted a hand towards her arm, but she avoided him easily muttering, 'Yes, yes, James – don't fuss around me.'
Then she did something that surprised the others. Without explanation, Helen ducked out of the room and hurried through her father's office and into the main hallway where she quickly began the ascent of the stairs toward the attic. Since its uncovering, she had not bothered to lock it. It had become another dead secret between her and her father which no longer required breath or keys.
Once inside the dark room, and after lighting a single lantern, she fetched a single precious letter from beneath a heavy book. It was the sole survivor of Nikola's collection. On it was an impressive piece of ink-work. Stretching to the very edges of the page, which were of the thinnest paper, was detail of a sea creature. The hand that had written details along the margins was not the same as the one whom had written Nikola the letters. This was a piece from a coveted collection – which is why Helen chose to protect it.
A small life-like sketch in the bottom corner represented the octopus in its pre-autopsy glory with the ever-so-slightest humour in its eyes and twist of its tentacles which curled into a border. Beside it was the signature, W. Dampier.
She returned to Nigel who had now straightened and begun engaging in harsh words with his companion. Helen interrupted them, presenting the document.
"It is as I suspected," she said, thoroughly pleased with herself. She drew them to a detail of the creature's skin which under extreme magnification showed sacks of something which the detailed key explained were responsible for the animal's camouflage. She directed them further to an addendum which wrote, 'other examples of this cause are the contractions of specific muscles which can alter the pigment of the skin'.
Without warning, Helen sharply stuck her hand into Nigel's stomach. He winced, contorting his face in sudden pain – though the others couldn't see it. With a wicked grin upon her lips, Helen surveyed the bodiless suit which writhed about on her table.
"Do you require a repetition, or are we convinced of the lump's purpose?"
"Quite convinced," hissed the air where Nigel sat.
"Indeed, indeed..." repeated James, finding a new sense of respect for the woman.
"And they have taken the rest of the letters?" Nigel asked, as the pain grew less and his skin gradually found its form, first in waning patches but eventually settling into a solid covering.
"Everything, I am afraid," she lied. Helen had saved the smallest of samples – a single vial, once fluid ounce; practically nothing...
"Am I dying?" asked Nigel. He replaced his white shirt and began latching it closed. Helen shook her head kindly. He didn't think that he would ever see compassion drip from her in his direction but in this case it overflowed and spilled into the corners of her eyes.
"No," she said firmly. "You are very much alive."