"What is it, exactly, that you are doing?" Nikola finally looked up from his leather-bound book. John was on his stomach, attempting to see under a set of shelves pushed flush against the back wall.
John withdrew his hands from under the shelf and propped his sizable figure onto his knees. "Nothing," he replied evasively, clawing his way up the shelf to stand. A large cloud of dust flew off him, wafting into the air where several beams of light cut through them. "Shouldn't you be up in your attic, playing with the birds?"
Nikola was prepared to ignore the insult. It was John's usual custom to construct as many of them as possible until one stuck and this morning he would have to do better if he wanted a reaction.
"It is not like you to wander from your domain..." John continued, wiping his hands on his trench-coat.
Nikola inspected his unwanted company with disgust and then said, "I don't have a 'domain'." He turned the page of the fragile Atlas calmly, "You make me out as some kind of bat kept to its cave."
"Ah but Nikola," John grinned, "you cannot fly away."
"True, but I am uncommonly good at sprinting from harm. Give me walls and I shall scale them, have no fear. Good morning," his tone changed as his eyes flicked away from John and travelled over to the clutter of desks beginning to fill with nervous students. Amongst them, Helen Magnus weaved her way through until she arrived at Nikola and John.
"I hoped to find you here," she said to the both of them without preference. "I have news that you must hear at once – but not here..." she added quickly. "Nigel has inadvertently made a discovery that I think shall intrigue you."
Nikola had already closed his book and laid it on the stone windowsill with no intention of returning it to its proper place but John bowed his head and said, "I'm sorry, but you must excuse me. I have an urgent matter to attend to that cannot wait." Without further explanation, he hastened past them and vanished out of the library, trailing a hand over the side of the doors as he went.
"Urgent matter?" asked Helen curiously, as Nikola slid off the sill.
"No good asking me," he said. "John shares only what he thinks will injure me."
"Perhaps it is best that we are alone," she stepped to the side, hinting that they too, should leave the library. "As we have that other matter to discuss."
Nikola did not appreciate the crispness of the morning until he found himself strolling through it with Helen by his side. Added to his usual attire was a warm white scarf that hung evenly over his buttoned coat, a set of black gloves and a tall hat which made him appear unnaturally lofty and ever so slightly elegant. He had not offered his arm, so instead Helen stayed close with her hands clutched in front of her.
The limbs of a beautiful oak bent in front of them, infringing on the path with red leaves. Some of them had fallen loose and scattered over the stone. Nikola ducked, reaching up to his hat as they navigated it.
"I have practised so many ways of telling you the following," she started, "but in the end I decided that it would be best just to show you this-" Helen fetched an old letter from somewhere in the folds of her dress. She offered the sad looking envelope to Nikola until he took it from her.
Without any discernable change in his countenance, he removed the document from its casings, unfolded it carefully and read it through. He handed it back to her as they disturbed the pair of pigeons he had seen earlier – they were still playing in the dew laden grass, fetching each other gifts.
Although he did not say anything to her, Helen could tell that he believed every word that he had read.
"Your letters," she offered, after it was clear he would not make a comment, "I am ashamed to say, have been stolen."
This time Nikola stopped and dipped his head. Helen was not sure if it was anger or despair that ripped a sigh from his chest.
"I am sorry, Nikola," Helen said earnestly. "They took everything, including the blood."
For the first time since the night of the experiment, Nikola caught her in a fierce gaze. The curtains that hid others' souls were absent from his steel eyes. Whenever they chose to look, they betrayed every flickering desire he had ever dreamed.
"It is of no great matter," he replied, even though she saw a kind of torture wrack his heart. "I fear that there is worse awaiting us."
Helen shivered with the turn of breeze.
"Our ages past are full of blood," Nikola continued, "so much that the ground must be stained by it and rivers flow below the earth in gushing torrents of sorrow. Life approaches like an ocean stirring in the distance. Its crests mark our suffering and the next wave is arching up to meet us, I can feel its icy spray on our necks."
She reached out for his hand but instead he took hold of her wrist and stepped closer.
"The answers are inside us now," he held on to her tightly. "Their manifestations will either be salvation or destruction."
"And me?" she asked, combating his imposition by lifting her free hand and laying it on his cheek.
"I can't make you out," Nikola leant slightly into her touch. There was warmth beneath the leather gloves and a gentle comfort.
Two sets of wings brush past them, grazing their clothes in a white blur as the pigeons scattered into the greying sky. The morning's beauty had passed and now the clouds revealed their true, solemn shapes as they lapped at the city.
John waited patiently for his coach to wrestle through the traffic. The horses fidgeted at the long stops, pulling at their leather reins and shaking their heads as if in despair at the line of carriages in front of them. The street itself was soft from the past rains. Wheels venturing too near the gutters found themselves digging great grooves or veering violently.
It was well after ten when John was jerked forward. The coachman alighted and opened the door. A storm of discarded newspapers scraped past him, churning against the buildings in a filthy storm.
There was a crowd in front of the police station's doors, with at least a dozen officers reaching over their colleagues to retrieve some form of handout. Once they obtained this document they retreated along the front wall, reading it intently with fingers brushing over their moustaches.
"Excuse me," John said, merging into the seething crowd. He was taller than them and easily located the front desk. "I would like to report a theft," he announced loudly. The chatter of the crowd was overbearing.
One of the crowd's elbows accidentally stabbed into his back as they swelled, knocking John into the desk where he dislodged a tower of paper. The pages slid over each other as the fanned out over the bench in front of the disapproving secretary. John muttered an apology, quickly straightening the paper when their heading caught his attention. While the secretary processed his theft report, John plucked one of the pamphlets free and began to read.
31 August 1888
HORRIBLE MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL.
WOMAN SHOCKINGLY MUTILATED.
HEAD NEARLY CUT OFF.
A tragedy, even more revolting in its details than that of George-yard, and surrounded apparently with circumstances fully as mysterious, has just occurred at Bucks-row, a low class neighbourhood, adjoining Whitechapel-road. Passing the Essex Wharf, in Bucks-row, at about 4.30 this morning, Constable Neale, 97J, found lying on the pavement there the dead body of a woman. On further examination her head was found to have been very nearly severed from her body. A horrible gash, fully an inch in width, extending from one side of the neck to the other, completely severing the windpipe. The lower portion of the abdomen also was completely ripped open, causing the bowels to protrude. The woman was at once conveyed to the mortuary, where she now lies. She is apparently about five and thirty years of age, with dark hair, of medium height, and with small features. Her clothing, which was examined by Inspector Helson, is scanty, consisting only of a threadbare cloak with a hood, a brown dress, and a petticoat, which bears the mark of Lambeth workhouse. The woman has not yet been identified.
It is thought that the woman was assailed by some man with whom she had been in company. Her front teeth had been knocked out, the woman probably having received a kick in the mouth from her assailant.
"Horrid, isn't it?" said the secretary, handing him a form to sign. Momentarily stunned, John stared at the story.
"Yes," he finally said, setting the paper back down with the others.
"When is your father coming home?" John asked Helen, later that day.
Helen was seated opposite him at the dining table, sorting through armfuls of notes while he quietly sipped a cold cup of tea.
"Lord knows, he doesn't tell me," she replied, as another pile of papers were deposited in the box on the floor – successfully sorted.
"It is not good for you to be alone," he continued, finishing his tea. "A young woman, by herself – there must be some relative with whom you could stay?"
"John," a grin crept in, "you wouldn't be worrying over me, would you?" He was silent to her accusation. "The Cabal have been at my door for weeks, sometimes beyond it – what has brought about this sudden sentiment?"
"Nothing, only – well I read of a terrible thing that happened in London yesterday and it just made me think." He didn't know why, but Helen's house never seemed safe to him. The windows were too high with easily broken glass, the doors were not set with heavy hinges and any man of reasonable fitness could manage to climb the outer wall to the unprotected windows above.
She set aside her work and reclined in the chair. "James..." she cautioned.
The dune fell away with every step, sucking in his feet and allowing them to be lost in the unbearable heat of the sand. In the distance he could hear the steady approach of drums.
"Stop it!" he yelled, hitting the wall fiercely with his hand. Nikola forced his eyes to see the empty room around him rather than the shimmering expanse of desert sky that refused to shift from his sight. It was like another reality was trying to creep into his world and take over. He felt anger with every part of his body – overbearing hatred that wasn't his, and thirst, the likes of which he had never known.
A hot trickle of blood rolled over his wrist. Its heat snapped Nikola back into the real world. He inspected where he had cut himself on a sharp protrusion of stone. The scarlet changed course as he turned his arm, spiralling around him. He tilted his head. Light refracted through its various layers giving it a jewel-like appearance. There was even a smell to it that he had never noted before – some kind of metallic underlay that infected the very rivers and towns of the modern world.
There was something else...
Nikola brought his wrist up to his mouth. He could feel his skin creep and a shudder through the edges of his fingertips – "No!" he jerked backwards, slamming against the floor.
Helen frowned wearily at her rat. It was laid out on the table of the basement, wheezing and twitching its whiskers with no real interest in life. Its features were skinny and sharp with numerous bones protruding from its fur which itself had become patchy. The murderous rat – who had hastily dispatched of its kinsman, was now barely able to draw breath.
She had provided it with a buffet of food but it refused to touch any of it. Fearing for its survival, she had even set it free but it would not leave her care. She sat with it through the afternoon and into the evening. Eventually it stirred and with great effort, crawled over to her hand, for she had fallen asleep on the table with it not far from her, and curled up against her skin then fell asleep. There they stayed, one asleep and the other, for eternity.
John opened the door quietly. The candle Helen had left burning was now a decorative mound of wax with a small flame. She was awkwardly sprawled between the chair and the table with her arm outstretched. Her face was obscured by a mass of golden hair but the gentle rise and fall of her figure told him that she was peacefully asleep.
He should have woken her, but he didn't have the heart. Instead, he crept quietly to the table and gently quashed the candle.
"Does anyone else notice that we're losing all the rats? I'm sorry to say it," continued Nigel, during another uncontrolled fit of invisibility, "but that nagging fact does not bode well for us."
"Well, so far – only you," James pointed out.
Nigel shook his head, "Don't tell me that you haven't felt it – James..."
"I will admit," said James after several struts around their dormitory. It was several days after the death of the last rat and Nigel's invisibility had become more frequent and prolonged. His unexpected disappearances had frightened a maid, causing her to faint and to their great fortune, forget the reason. "That after the initial prick I had the strangest sensation. My mind was full to the point that I thought my scalp would give way to the pounding of my brain against it."
"And then?" Nigel prompted.
"Then, something snapped. A floodgate opened and there was room for thought. Since then ideas which have been held stagnant for so long have evolved and spun themselves into tapestries ready to be written out."
"You – are – so – full of it."
"It's Helen I'm worried about," Nigel changed the topic. "She seems – indifferent to the whole affair."
"Are you certain?" James grasped a nearby quill and ran the feather through his fingers. "She suffered worse than all of us in the start."
"Like a fever," Nigel continued, "and fought it off."
"A natural immunity to the blood. I wonder if she knows?"
"A woman always knows their body better than a man. I only question why she hasn't told us yet."
"Neither of us have been particularly kind to her. I often wish we'd started differently."
James scratched the nib of the quill across the desk without ink. It left a single, slender mark from one end to the other. Nigel frowned at it, nudging closer for a better look. James made a second stroke, which crossed over the first in an elegant, two sided curve.
"Sanctuary," James said, hinting at the design. "It was on the cover of the book I have just finished. I don't know," his voice seemed to linger slightly, "the thought appeals to me, of this place as a form of Sanctuary we can retreat to when the world fails to understand us. A house of knowledge."
"Or a cramped, poor smelling dormitory," Nigel corrected. "I think that you've been left alone with your books too long."
"I find the need to guard them – you have heard, I suspect, of John's theft. He lost a wallet and his travelling papers."
"He's not the only one to suffer a thief. I was down visiting my mother – she is regrettably ill at the present, and I turned to help her from the park bench when some shadow made off with my best knife from the medical kit – father will have me for that."
"The age!" sighed James dramatically. "We shall have to bolt the doors and release the hounds..." He couldn't help it if there was an eager glimmer in his eye.
"I think that it's time we took you out," said Nigel, hauling James from behind the desk.