"Dead..." Gregory whispered, reaching out to touch the wet stone walls. "What is this place?"
The hooded figure remained half-hidden in the steam that was lifting off the rocks. Their voice was flat, its tone difficult to judge as it spoke in the ancient dialect of humanity.
"A tomb. A monument. A gateway..." they replied. This place was many things to many races. To some, it was a sanctuary.
Gregory took a measured step toward the figure but they retreated, determined to remain out of reach.
"And what does that make you?" he asked suspiciously, trying not to show his nervousness. In many ways, this figure was more frightening than a vampire. At least Gregory knew what their cold, calculated motivations were. The pure blood vampire he had met back in South America had been more than fair despite its insatiable hunger.
"An envoy," the figure whispered.
Their hands emerged from the robe, smaller than Gregory had expected and delicate, like those of a woman. Slowly, they lifted the hood, folding the heavy material to lay over their shoulders. Her long, dark hair fell free. She couldn't be more than twenty, realised Gregory. He was wrong.
"Come with me..." she beckoned him to follow.
Nikola, James and Sherlock continued through the hallways inside the house. Faint screams lingered on the air, dying to silence as they turned each corner. They found an empty lab and stole inside it for a moment, hiding there as a group of scientists swept down the corridor in a pack of white coats and thick-set glasses.
"This place is like a bloody nest," whispered Nikola, as he rested with his back to the door, holding it closed just in case. James, meanwhile, had opened one of the storage closets and taken out three spare lab coats.
"We best wear these..." he said, throwing the coats at the other gentlemen.
Sherlock perused the files laying open on the desk, sniffing the paper rather than reading the print.
"This is mad," Nikola added, buttoning up the lab coat. They had no plan and no way of finding Nigel in a maze like this. "We're going to end up experiments in one of those rooms."
What the Cabal would give to have another member of the five... School children that had played with things behind their understanding.
Now somewhat camouflaged, they crept back into the main hall. Of the three of them, only Sherlock made a convincing scientist. Ironic. He just had a way of walking like he owned everything.
Then, there was a faint crunch of snow outside the building and without warning, Nikola grasped at the two gentlemen and tugged them out of sight around a corner.
"What is it?" James demanded in a whisper.
Nikola simply hushed him and a moment later, the others heard it too. The front door was thrown open with a heavy slam, several maids rushing up through the house to take muddy coats from the men at the door. They ushered them inside, fussing and talking softly as if to calm a wild beast. There were three of them; strong, roughly cut men. They were independent contractors that specialised in catching things. You had to specify if you wanted the catch alive...
"Is – is he back?" one of the maids asked shyly, barely looking up at one of the men. The only reply she received was a crooked smile. No one escaped them. "That's the second time," she whispered.
Sherlock broke away from the other two and started off down the corridor towards the door. The other two reached out after him but missed.
"Crazy son of a -" Nikola hissed, and then glared at James for bringing him along.
The contractors were led to the parlour where they lounged around the table, fresh from their last hunt.
"Tough bastard, that one..." one of them said, waving his hand to ask for wine. "Can' even see the littl' bugger."
"He's lucky we found him. The frost would have got him eventually," another of them added, before turning his attention to the door. There was a scientist lingering there – tall, scrawny looking creature with a long nose and sharp eyes. Another arrival from mainland Europe, no doubt. The Cabal seemed to have an unlimited supply of them. "What do you want?"
Sherlock remained at the door, carefully scrutinising each man, learning more about them in a few calculated glances than they could in an hour of questioning.
"Where is my patient?" Sherlock asked dryly, with a distinct air of disapproval. The contractor rolled his eyes.
"Back in his pen – it would be nice if you kept him there this time. I thought he belonged to that American, Mr Fort?"
Inwardly, Sherlock smiled but his outward expression was a distasteful sneer.
"I am – borrowing him. Perhaps if the security in this facility were better, I would not have missing patients and you would not have to go find them."
"Careful with your tone..." the largest man replied, lifting his gaze from his glass. He could break that scrawny arse of a doctor without blinking.
It was a quarter of an hour before Sherlock returned to others, looking very pleased with himself. Nikola was resting back against the wall, arms folded and eyes nearly black.
"Second level – third door," Sherlock said brightly. He'd always said the more brute in the man, the softer their mind and he had manipulated the three bounty hunters beautifully. "He is under the care of one of the Cabal scientists... A Mr Fort."
Nikola's gaze snapped up.
"Charles..." he whispered. "It couldn't be." Not the man that his sister was so dearly in love with. 'I have been contracting to a very persuasive organisation...' those had been Charles's words, all those weeks ago. Nikola was furious. "Where is he?" Nikola all but growled.
"I just said – second level, thi-"
"No," Nikola interrupted Sherlock. "Mr Fort..."
Helen Magnus was packing.
The few things she had brought with her had been stuffed into a bag mostly filled with books and notes from the ruins. Her father was gone but she simply could not face that hideous truth right now. The others needed her and she could not let them face the Cabal on their own, not when the experiment was of her doing.
"You cannot leave..."
Helen startled, whirling around to face the door. John was there, silent as always. He had a way of appearing without a sound.
"John – you know I must," she replied simply. "Nikola was going to London to find James. If Nigel is trapped somewhere, I need to help them find him."
"And your father?" John drawled. There was something about John's manner; his long, dark hair falling in an unruly tangle around his face, a glint of something dark in his eyes...
"Milka will be here," she said simply. "She will write as soon as she has word."
John didn't say anything. The house had been unnaturally quiet all afternoon – with Milka nowhere to be seen.
"And how are you planning to get all the way back to London, Helen? You have no money."
She paused. A small oversight. She had been planning to stow away on the train, befriend a gentleman if she had to. There were no lines for Helen, she would find a way.
"I thought as much." John paced into the room, letting his fingers trail over the cracking wallpaper. It left flecks of red under his nails. "I think it is time I showed you my gift in all of this."
"Your – "
"Tesla is a vampire, Griffin can vanish at will and I – " he opened his arms dramatically, "can go anywhere I choose."
There was a sudden crack of purple light, their air splitting violently as John vanished from the room. Helen gasped softly, her hand going to her mouth. Some part of the universe had twisted and snapped letting John fall through it into – into goodness knows where. It was not possible.
"John...?" she whispered, but the room was empty.
"Do you have a name?" Gregory asked, still in Latin. For a 'dead language' it seemed to be doing just fine even with his limited vocabulary.
He had been following the young woman down through the caves for more than an hour, passing through several more glowing stones. It was only when they had come to an enormous gorge that the true scale of this place hit him. It was as if they were wandering through the underworld itself with fissures steadily venting steam and gas from the walls. Gregory felt – precarious, lingering here between the two worlds. It was no place for complex life to linger.
The woman looked back over her shoulder at the man, her face framed by waves of auburn hair. There was no harm in him knowing her name – he would most likely be dead soon. The council were cautious in these turbulent times. Their leader was dying.
"Ranna," she whispered, her eyes as dark as the grey walls.
Gregory had to keep one hand on the wall to steady himself on the uneven ground. He lacked the young woman's grace to scale the rocks that had caved in from above, obscuring their path.
"I take it that you do not come down here often," Gregory said, sitting down so that he could slide safely off one of the boulders. This place was like a ruin itself.
"We have little need of the surface. You – disturbed one of our sensors."
Sensors... like the delicate needle of an earthquake detector.
"You felt me coming as a spider feels the silk of its web tremble..."
Ranna paused, looking at him blankly. It took Gregory a moment to realise he had slipped into English. He shook his head in apology and they continued on in silence.
"John...?" Helen whispered again, turning on her heel. The room remained empty, sunlight filtering through a gap in Nikola's curtains, the air thick with dust. Minutes passed and Helen resumed packing.
She gasped, nearly falling as a crack, thunderous as a lightening storm, ripped through the air behind her.
"For God's sake, John!" she held her heart desperately as it beat unnaturally. He was frightening her – intriguing her.
Cupped in John's hand was a tiny, fragile and delicate rose. Its burgundy petals already beginning to wither.
"From your father's office," John said, and Helen knew that it had to be true. Only her father knew where that ancient species thrived. "Did you know – they are growing wild through your house?" Helen shook her head softly, cautiously reaching forward – brushing her fingers over its drying petals. "Let me show you..."
Her eyes slammed shut. She kept a deathly grip on her bags and held her breath as John wrapped his arm around her waist and - and Helen didn't even hear the snap as she fell through the universe.
The ground came to her feet all too fast but she felt nothing. No shift, no speed, no movement. One moment they were in Nikola's house, half a world away and now they were somewhere dark. At first she thought she might be blind as John's arms slipped from her waist. Helen set the bags down on the ground but did not try to move.
She could smell the remains of a fire place, old books, leather couches that had seen too many visitors and a dampness – like a cave.
"The house is boarded up," John whispered, stepping away from her. "From my understanding, Tesla's doing..."
Helen carefully ventured forward, immediately ducking at the feel of a heavy, wet flower brush through her hair. At least, that is what it reminded her of but -
A match was struck, a bright spark settling into a warm glow near John's fingertips as he stooped to light the candles scattered over the table. It did not bring much light but it was enough for Helen to make out a low canopy above her head where the ceiling should have been.
They were standing in her living room but it was obscured by thick, thorny vines growing through the plaster above. The tiny specimen of wild rose that her father had left in the attic had escaped, flourishing in the darkness of the boarded in house.
"My gods..." Helen whispered, reaching up to touch the beautiful flower that had startled her. It smelled sweet and ancient. "It's taking over, some kind of unnatural acceleration in its growth. Roses do not grow like this, nothing grows like this..."
Not even the most prolific weed could sprawl across the world with such enthusiasm.
"My father said it was an ancient suppressant to a vampire's hunger," Helen continued, tugging the flower free. Its petals fell apart in her hand, slipping through her fingers and wafting to the floor. "Nikola proved as much."
Nikola - not Tesla. The distinction was not lost on John. Much had changed since Oxford.
"The vampires must have tinkered with its genetic make-up, accelerating its growth."
John chuckled almost coldly.
"They are far ahead of us in scientific understanding," Helen replied dryly.
"So Mr Tesla keeps insisting but..." John drawled, wandering by the boarded windows to light the fire place. "...it seems we inferior humans exceeded them in survival."
True. Helen was starting to wonder what that said about humans.
"Why would he board the house up?" Helen asked, ducking under a bower of roses that almost seemed to sway towards her. "My father sent him here to collect some things but -" she stopped when she realised why. The Cabal had been here again. The beautiful double doors that normally separated the study from the living room had been ripped free and smashed to pieces. Nikola had stacked them as best he could out of the way.
Helen felt irrepressibly cold.
"We have to continue onto London. There is nothing here for us."
London... John knew the place well.
The others tried to hold Nikola back as he stormed into one of the small labs on the south wall, damn near ripping the hinges off the door. He stalked straight across the room before the man behind the desk could even look up and, with an enormous grunt of vampire strength, Nikola lifted the desk with one hand and tossed it to the side with a crash. Charles Fort was left utterly stunned, still sitting in his chair, pen in hand.
"Mr Te-" but Charles didn't even get to finish his name as the livid vampire hit him sharply across the face with an open hand, sending him tumbling off his chair.
"Really, Nikola!" James growled, trying to lock the door but only half succeeding. It was in poor shape.
Nikola was about to rain down on Charles with another blow but Sherlock caught his wrist.
"Just a moment, before you break his jaw. I have questions."
The vampire's eyes were large and black, rimmed by a thin sliver of red like the last of a setting sun.
Charles had scrambled to his feet, backing against the freezing window.
"It is not what you think, I swear..." he gasped, hands shaking slightly. "Well – it was but I didn't know, Nikola – I didn't know."
The ground was bleeding. Thick, slow rivers tracked through the crevices of rock and then dripped in a sticky, black veil. It was a twisted waterfall, grotesque and yet oddly enthralling in its hellish-beauty.
"You must not touch," Ranna caught Gregory's hand as he went to touch a trickle of the liquid. "The rocks here are unstable. The pressure of the mountains above are crushing toxins out of the quartz, shattering it. It will burn through your skin like acid."
Gregory let his hand slip from hers. It was warm and soft. Just for a moment, he remembered what it was like to hold hands like hers, many years ago now. He only understood half of what she said.
"A lot changes with great passages of time," she continued quietly. "These tunnels are destabilising now, we shouldn't stay."
Ranna took him deeper, the ground beneath their feet hollow with layers of passages dug out by vampires. They were long gone though, leaving only the occasional scratch in the wall to say that they had ever existed.
Hours later, they reached the edge of the outpost. It was a metal box – not unlike one of the factories clinging to the banks of the Thames. This one was suspended sixty feet above the ground by some kind of metallic limbs burrowed into the cavern walls. The whole thing was humming, a metallic drone as its engines processed what it could from a small geothermal vent. It too would close soon.
Gregory could see other figures now, workmen frantically moving about under the building like a small troop of ants. Their clothes were similar to a military uniform but all of them covered in dirt and torn from months of work without relief.
"This will all be gone in a month," Ranna said quietly. "We save what we can."
"This is your world?" Gregory whispered, stepping forward, tilting his head back to take in the amazing structure. She simply laughed.