"You are particularly smug..." noted Nigel, when he finally found James lounging at the back of a coffee house. Granted, it was not the one which he had left him in but Nigel appreciated the gesture.
"Smug?" James raised his well kept eyebrow, "Surely not..."
His dark hair, usually swept neatly over his head and around his ears, was out of place. Several repressed curls had broken free and twisted at will, acquiring odd angles with the side of James's cheek. Nigel spied patches of dirt on James's jacket which also bared the glaring addition of a gold pocket watched pinned to his breast pocket – very unlike the Watson he knew.
Nigel collapsed onto the chair beside him. The room was pleasantly dark and warm, quite 'den-like' and full of swirling clouds of cigar smoke. He was feeling moderately better and quite enjoyed the dim light.
"What did you do?" he asked with an air of suspicion, placing a small parcel on the table and calling for a drink.
"Nothing that would interest you," James replied. "Your work is done, I presume," he said, observing the brown paper item tied half-heartedly with ribbon, "but I am sorry to say that I cannot leave London yet."
Nigel frowned, taking a second look at his friend. His drink clinked down on the table as he leant forward and replied, "Come again?"
"Business of my own will delay me for several days. I will catch the train back to Oxford when I am finished."
A quick breath of laughter filled the room as Nigel raised his hands aloft in cheer. "Nice try," he grinned, hunting out a glass of water lingering on the edge of the table and taking a sip. "Nice try... Time we left I think, this London air's getting to you," but James was sincere and merely matched Nigel's glass with a wink and drained it – ignoring his bewildered companion.
"And where is he now?" John and Helen sat in a quiet corner of the garden.
The sun was high but its weak sphere lacked the warmth of the months past. It hung over them wearily as the Earth spun ever away from it in a constant slight. Everything was gradually going quiet – the trees turning to skeletons, crickets silencing their calls and the dogs of the street retreating to their hovels in the bleak patches of thicket behind the town.
Helen adjusted her white gloves and then pulled her shall in tight around her shoulders. It kicked up in the breeze as she turned to John with her soft reply. "In his room," she said, "I cannot wake him."
"Call the doctor-"
"I daren't," Helen replied quickly, taking hold of John's arm as he went to stand. He looked back at her, confused. "If you could see the state of him – Nikola scarcely looks human. Anyone we call would ask too many questions." She was quiet for a moment, "I do not believe his life is in danger," she added.
John slowly settled. "He is sleeping, that is all?"
"A deep sleep from which he can't be stirred."
"You should have James attend to him. He is the best doctor of us all."
Ordinarily she would take offence but as much as it vexed her, there was more than common skill in James's touch so instead, she nodded.
"I agree, but both he and Nigel are in London." This time it was Helen who left her seat and began to pace across the fading lawn. John followed, coming to her side where he felt for her hand. "I have blocked out the light from his room as best I can and wrapped a blanket over him. The darkness seems to calm his sleep."
John tangled his fingers in hers, stopping her progress towards the path. She was leaving him already, heading back to the main building. Worry was draining her complexion of all its beautiful colour, sucking the very life from her. He feared that she would wilt and die like the flowers had around them and fall back to the earth one petal at a time.
"Then we must wait," he lowered his mouth to her hand and kissed it affectionately. "Please, do not worry – all will be well," he insisted.
She caught him by surprise, dragging him toward her and draping herself over his shoulder in a desperate embrace. Helen wove herself around him, clinging passionately until he gave in and dipped his head toward her neck.
"I wish that I could believe you," she murmured, as his arms tightened, "but this is all my doing. If I had not insisted that night –"
"Hush," John drew away enough to see her face. He had always known Helen to be a strong force, fearsome even as she traced her way through the university halls like she owned their marble floors, but what he saw scant inches from him was a frightened girl. "I give you my word, Helen, everything will be fine. We will fetch James as soon as he returns and he can see to Nikola. For now – let him sleep."
She pulled away. "Still... this has gone too far. Our rash actions are starting to exhibit consequences that we're not prepared for. Nigel – I can't even begin to understand what is happening to him. He may not show it but he endures hideous pain and James is disturbed by the heightened state of his senses. He sees things, smells them and hears them long before the rest of us. The minute details of the world are overwhelming him and unless he finds a use for his gift it will drive him mad."
"Are..." he stammered, cleared his throat and started anew. "Are you all right, Helen?"
Helen nodded. "And you? I see so little of-"
"Do not worry, I am fine," he insisted.
John waited with Helen as long as he could but as afternoon came and went, he was called away by an insistent professor and had not returned. It was now early evening and she was seated behind James's desk in the dormitory. The room was much cleaner now that his animal captives had been let loose. Even the unnamed pig had been freed to Nigel's farm where, she had heard, it played alongside her dragon – Helen could see that relationship ending in tears...
James had not given away his obsession with chemistry though – glassware littered the benches and if anything, had grown to plague proportions. Their bubbling contents released heavens knew what into the air whilst she was certain that he had left something growing in the Petri dishes nearest to her. The combination left her drowsy as she stared blankly at the wall in front of her.
She was startled when the door shuddered. It creaked open then closed and locked on its own without a soul passing through it.
"Helen?" exclaimed the empty room in fright. "What are you doing here?"
Blinking back sleep, Helen made out the faint outline of Nigel moving toward the cupboard where he promptly fished out a coat and wrapped it around himself causing a peculiar sight.
The bodiless coat approached.
"Not again..." sighed Helen. "That's three times in a week." His spells of invisibility were becoming more frequent.
"I know," he replied. "And I had to leave my best clothes in London. People tend to stare at floating outfits. Had a hell of a time catchin' a ride home like this."
"Where is James?" she asked, setting the feathered pen which she had been using down on the desk.
"As always, I am glad to see that you desire my company." If he hadn't been transparent, she would have seen him avert his eyes to the floor in real despair.
"It's not like that..." she insisted.
Nigel and Helen stood against the far wall of Nikola's attic. Their backs were pressed painfully against the cold stone as they shivered, unnerved by Nikola.
He was awake and seated on the floor between two oil lamps. The curtain over the window had been pulled back to reveal the swelling moon, creeping into the sky above clouds. Layers of mist worked their way up the walls of the university, hiding the grounds in undulating river of cloud. Some of it had settled inside the room and snaked around Nikola, almost affectionately.
Nikola was reading from an old scroll which tumbled onto the floor with its unread end curled up. He had not given any indication that he was aware of their presence, nor had he spoken since they had begun watching him.
Helen and Nigel were speechless. If Nikola had appeared inhuman before, he was positively fictitious now.
His skin had sunk away from his bones and lost its colour. As he finger trailed along the lines of handwritten text it was followed by the scratching sound of his overly long fingernail which tapered into a claw-like hook. By far the most frightening change in Nikola's appearance was his eyes. They were large expanses of jet black where his pupils had consumed the whole eye leaving only pits. They bared no expression as they diverted from the page to the faces of his audience.
Nikola lowered the scroll.
"You must leave," said Nikola, in an impassionate voice that sent cold chills over the necks of Helen and Nigel. It was not a request, but a warning.
Nigel, who had been visible for a while now, stepped protectively in front of Helen. "We need to examine you, Nikola. I believe that you are experiencing a side effect of –"
"You must leave," Nikola repeated.
Nigel hastened a glance at Helen before replying, "Why?" He knew his question to be unwise the moment he had asked it, for Nikola's eyes expanded slightly while his head tilted to the side. If he was not mistaken, there was a row of sharp teeth glittering beneath the man's lip two of which extended well beyond the others.
"Because I can hear your hearts thumping in my ears," Nikola lifted a taloned hand, pointing at them. Though he kept his voice steady, it peaked ever so slightly with urgency.
A strong breeze through the window upset the lanterns. The room hovered in and out of darkness. Nikola was now standing as a single shadow, imposing on the room as he lingered by the wall where a couple of feathers tumbled by. They had not seen him move there.
Helen's eyes strayed to a dark stain on the floor. Great streaks of crimson were smeared over the floorboards in front of Nikola, and, as the lights brightened and the chill-laden air settled, Helen saw a bundle of feathers in amongst the shadows.
Nikola remained deathly still.
"You best hurry..." he insisted. "My reading of our condition disturbs me but there is nothing we can do this deep in the night."
"What are you on about?" Nigel progressed cautiously into the room. Helen had been right about Nikola, his body was riddled with something foreign – a dark spell or ancient curse.
Nikola ignored the dangerously close Nigel.
"Helen," he did not look at her, instead choosing to turn his back on them and speak to the empty wall, "lock the hatch and don't come back here until the first light of morning."
"Com'on now," Nigel was barely an arm's length from him, "you're scaring her, Nikola, let us take a look at –"
John stirred. The room was dark and empty save for a destroyed mirror resting against the wall and an odd collection of specimen jars. He rolled over, clutching his head as it throbbed in his hands. John swore, certain that he could feel his skin peeling back and laying itself over the dust-ridden marble.
He was in the spare classroom where he had met the professor only it was much later in the evening and all the lights were out. The professor too, had left long ago and now there was only John writhing on the floor in agony.
These headaches had worsened over the last week. At first he had thought them to be a side effect of the large volumes of wine he had taken to consuming but then they began appearing at all hours, increasing in severity. Two days ago he had had his first blackout – a complete wipe of his memory. He had found himself alone in Oxford's park, asleep on the grass near the lake with no idea of how he had arrived there.
The truth literally hurt – he was suffering ill effects of the experiment. Like the others, pain seemed to be a common feature in their reactions. So far John was hoping it would be the only thing that he would have to endure.
Eventually the pain subsided and he was able to pick himself up off the floor. He headed to the double glass doors and leant against them, staring out at the evening. The moon lit the heavy fog and a few skeletal branches criss-crossed the star patterns. The nights were getting longer as winter edged its way in. Before long twilight would be the new day and the stars their main light.
Sherlock had brought his new companion to an empty room. There was nothing particularly special about the barren expanse of floorboards or single window that broke the otherwise grey walls, but the tall man retreated to an abandoned corner and puffed away expectantly on his pipe, motioning for Watson's opinion.
James Watson waved away a thin trail of smoke and eyed the room carefully. The centrepiece of the room was a very obvious streak of blood smudged into the thickly layered dust.
"There has been no-one in this room," added Sherlock, as James remained fixated on the floor, "since I followed the man whom I believed to be the killer here."
"You've seen him?" James snapped his head around as his companion puffed another cloud into the room.
"After the first murder I took to lurking through London's streets after dark. I was ready to give up my new hobby when I heard the poor lady's screams. By the time I reached her, the man had completed his hideous business and was fleeing through the side streets. This townhouse has one entrance – down the stairs and through the door we entered. When the man did not reappear after many hours, I risked a peek inside and found things as you see them. He, whomever he is, vanished."
"It wouldn't be the first time a criminal has evaded capture."
"No..." Sherlock replied, amused. "But I do believe it may be the first time that one has literally vanished into thin air..."
James followed Sherlock's sharp eyeline and realised the reason that he had been brought here. The deep sheet of dust in the floor told the story of the night's events. Like a book, it could be easily read. The man, the killer, had entered the room hastily with long strides and come to rest by the opposing window. He had lingered there, no doubt watching the sky until he stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. There were slide marks and great sweeps of clean floor near the blood stain where someone had sat and then – that was it. There was no more to the story. No tracks returning to the door or body in the room. The man had vanished, simple as that. Which was impossible.
"I see..." said James, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his forehead.
Sherlock lifted his head and exhaled a long trail of smoke. "I thought you might," he replied.