They were not far now. The ground beneath the desperate human convoy had begun to thin, giving way to grey stone beneath. Glimpses of sapphire stole their eyes where hints of water blinked in the dips of the horizon. This great river system which waned in and out of flood, spurned the people into a final surge despite its desperate salt encrusted banks.
The strongest of the group overtook Nikola as they clawed up a ridge of sand then stopped, gazing out over the sunken land beneath. There was a long, distorted mirror of the sun in the snake-like tract of water which ran as far as they could see from curve to curve. A small port waited for them somewhere on its edge and beyond the white sails – the promise of freedom.
It was a long way to those ships.
Nikola let the others pass him. He turned away from the beautiful scene back toward the desert they had just survived. The sound of drums and marching feet was still creeping closer. Even through the sharp wind that kicked at his ears, he was able to make out the distant clink of swords and shouted words from the fearsome commander.
He set down the child in his arms. It smiled and ran off in chase of the other children tumbling down the last dune with cries of delight. Nikola searched the sand, whispering curses into the air until a blinding point of light burst into life like the sun itself, rising to great the day.
His body froze and for a moment all he could do was watch as more and more flecks of light emerged until they formed a definite line backed by a darker smear of men. It was an army.
Nikola ran his tongue through his sharp teeth and out across his cracked lips. The deep pits of his black eyes erupted with a flash of red as he snarled and dropped everything save his knife to the ground.
"Don' – don' touch me," Nigel retreated from her, falling toward the dormitory wall where he collapsed, shaking and clutching his shoulder. Several deep gashes cut through his skin which splayed out in horrific sheets. It was difficult to see the extent of the damage as his body shimmered, rippling in and out of focus.
Loud crashes barely made it through Nigel's haze of pain as Helen rooted through James's possessions in search of the medical kit, scattering its contents in her careless haste. Nigel wasn't sure how much time had passed but there was a large pool of sticky blood forming on the ground by the time she returned to him with a bottle of whisky.
This time, he did not fight her off. He groped for the bottle, held it to his mouth and gulped the raw liquid until the fire in his throat distracted him from the lacerations on his chest. When he woke he found a somewhat untidy track of stitching tying him back together. The bottle of whisky rested half-empty beside him so he reached over but it was snapped away.
"No," said Helen firmly, shifting it out of his reach. "When I've finished, you can drink the remainder." She unfurled several strips of ripped sheet, frowning – they were not as clean as she would have liked.
"Doctor?" It was a request, not an observation.
This distressed her. "I can't," she whispered, sloshing the alcohol over him. He groaned and fought back a cry when she silenced him with a gentle hand over his mouth. "You mustn't," she cautioned. "It is late and they will hear you."
"Give m'that!" he muttered, snatching the bottle. Disgruntled neighbours were the last of his worry. Helen wound the bandages tightly around his girth as best she could, fastening them with pins. "I'll lie," Nigel continued, "tell 'em it was an animal or somethin' – nobody has to know it was'im..."
It was too much for Helen; kneeling, she bowed her head to the ground and choked back several deep sobs.
"Helen..." prompted Nigel finally. She raised her head and he was taken aback by the tear stains down her furiously red cheeks. "We don't have a choice. You have to find him."
Helen wiped her face with the hem of her skirt only to find it soaked through with Nigel's blood. There were rivers of it over the floor, staining the timber.
"I don't know where he is," she replied quietly.
"Your father is the only one tha' can help us," he continued, watching in despair as the fresh bandages turned a violent red. "Abnormals, they're his life, Helen. We've had this knowledge for a few short weeks an' look at the mess we've made of it. There is no choice – he is the only person who will believe us."
"Except for the Cabal," she had already begun tearing new bandages. "I kn – I suspect that they have found him, why else would he have not returned?"
"Oh, dear Helen –" Nigel stopped, frowning as the alcohol blurred his vision so that two Helens approached, shifting next to him. "You do not understand the first thing about hunting. A dear must be invisible from everything if it is to survive, including the grass."
John locked the door behind him, lit the lamps and collapsed onto his bed. The first light of morning was threatening to topple over the horizon when he turned over, fully clothed, and fell into a deep sleep. It was to his great surprise then that he awoke on the floor, curled into a foetal position with his jacket doubling as a blanket.
"Good gracious!" the lecturer exclaimed, with a look of bewilderment. Helen led him over to Nigel's bed and pulled back the sheets so that he could see the extent of the wounds crisscrossing the young boy's chest.
"I didn't want to move him," she said hastily, stepping back. "When I found him I-"
"Miss Magnus," the lecturer interrupted, "to save the asking of awkward questions like, 'what are you doing in the gentlemen's dormitories at this hour?' I'm going to pretend that you aren't here." Helen paused. Nigel was asleep – or too intoxicated to open his eyes. "Which means," continued the lecturer over his shoulder, "that you shouldn't be here..."
Finally she took the hint and quietly left. Once the lecturer heard her safely down the stairs, he placed a cold hand on Nigel's shoulder.
"Are you going to tell me what really happened?" he asked Nigel. The boy replied with a defiant grunt, gradually opening his eyes. They were bloodshot and began to weep as the soft light pierced his irises. "I guess not," the man sighed. "Your father," he muttered, as he cut through Helen's makeshift bandages, "would have my soul if he knew the trouble I've let you get into. You'll forgive me, but this is going to hurt."
They came on them like thunder – first a violent crack of sound and then a succession of ever more powerful waves that shook their bones and eventually, broke them.
Nikola ducked as a bronze figure lept over him, slicing through the air with a hooked sword. It hit the stone ground and turned, glaring back at him with a victorious grin. A thousand more of his kind rushed past, storming toward the screaming flock of vampires on the final flats before the river. The soldiers cut them down as easily as running through them. Nikola felt every sickening blow as the children grew silent and a pink foam formed in the water.
The commander spun his sword menacingly as he approached Nikola. His necklace of lapis and gold glimmered like a giant, godly sundisk as his chest heaved.
"You cannot run," he hissed at Nikola. "Your evil will know the dust before this day is out."
"And yours will endure," replied Nikola, lunging.
The battle was swift.
The last woman to fall stood in front of a group of children brandishing a sword that she had stolen from one of the soldiers. She screamed at them, cried and finally fought them off until her throat was slit and she collapsed in a lifeless mound.
Nikola was the only vampire that they left alive. For three weeks they carted him across the desert bound to a camel. Eventually he saw a rise of frightening mountains loom out from the sand. Their black edges were sharp and jagged as they stretched in the sun.
"No..." Nikola whispered.
As they approached the sound of chisels and workman roared up in his ears. An entire civilisation crawled, pulled and swore as they dug deeper into the mountain. Nikola was transferred to the ground and forced to walk into entrance of the tomb surrounded by the commander and his men.
"You'll live – it surprises me to say."
Nigel thanked the lecturer. His father's old friend tucked him back into bed and went to leave as morning stumbled into the sky.
"Whatever it is," he said, with his weathered hand paused on the door, "that the five of you are up to, it ends – you understand? Rest, and then I want you back in class where I can keep both my eyes on you. Feel free to pass that along."
They brought him to a black slate room, deep under the mountain range. A line of priests, gilded and half dead in a collective trance, had their eyes rolled back in their head as they chanted spells into the air.
What frightened Nikola most was the stone coffin rising out from the floor. Its lid rested on the ground beside and seemed to wait for him – beckoning him toward it. At the edges of the room, between the enormous columns, were the caskets of his friends. They were all dead. He guessed it long ago, but to know it sent racking sobs through his heart. The Priests of Amun were entombed and awaited him in whatever life might succeed this one.
"One day," sneered Nikola, to his brother, "far from this one, I will find you. It does not end here."
The commander ignored the cursed creature as it was wrestled into the sarcophagus, chanting and screeching. He gave the order and the slaves moved forward, sliding the lid over the coffin.
Nikola gasped, his eyes snapping open as the bright sunlight burnt into his face. He was on the floor of his room, staring out the open window. A ratty curtain had half fallen down and flapped in the freezing wind. It was day and Nikola had had the most terrible dreams.
It was mid-morning when the lecturer nearly died of shock. His white hair fell across his astonished face (which had not slept) and his piece of chalk snapped in two as Helen, Nigel and John presented themselves for class. His surprise paled in comparison to the look on Helen's face when Nikola strutted in, immaculate as usual and slipped in next to her. For a solid ten minutes she did little but stare at Nikola, quite unable to believe his serene figure scribbling notes from the board.
"Come Miss Magnus," said the lecturer, catching her attention. "He won't bite."
She wasn't so sure.
Nigel grimaced. It was a struggle to stay upright but he'd rather be out here than suffocating in his room. Still, the slender figure of Nikola calmly seated next to Helen was almost more than he could handle.
Nikola wasn't copying notes from the board. Instead, he was engrossed in a letter which he ripped from his book and folded several times before sliding it across the desk, sneaking it under Helen's hand. Her eyes flicked up as he pushed the note further under her palm.
"Don't make me beg," he whispered to her, in a familiar, warm tone.
"Leaving, so soon?" Sherlock perked up from the couch where he had spent the previous day in a delirium of sorts. The pipe smoke was still thick in the room, clasping at the furnishings and choking the room with its scent.
James shooed the courier away and set the letter down on the desk. He frowned and shook his head, taking a seat by a cold tray of tea and biscuits. "I should, but I'm not going to. A friend of mine is ill, but it has all been taken care of. They can do without me for a time."
"Excellent, as I have planned for us tonight a mission of sorts – an experiment in chance. Care to partake? Ah – don't bother, for I already know your answer. You would not be here unless you felt the heat of the chase. Perhaps and if we're lucky, the moon will be bright and the dark figures which prowl the streets, easy to pursue."
"You think the killer is going to kill tonight?"
"Come Watson, he has a proper name now. 'Jack the Ripper' he professes, in poor English I might add, and his need for blood has returned and so too, shall we."