CREATURES OF THE SAND
The cold air stung against their skin. Shadows encroached on the pavement like nightmares on the edge of dreams. Every dried leaf tumbling against the cobblestone was a footstep making Nikola glance over his shoulder and peer into the night.
Sherlock, Watson and Tesla had spread out through the streets of London, centring around Whitechapel. If they had to search every whore house and alley they would. The Ripper was their mistake, their creation.
Tesla stopped beneath one of the gas-lit lights, glancing up at the feeble flame, flickering in the wind. Its glass enclosure was choked with ice while a long, slender crack spread through one of its panels. Nikola would change the world – very soon. These streets would be bathed in artificial light, not just from lamp posts but spilling out of windows. There was nowhere for darkness to hide in his future.
James was four streets over, silently descending the brick steps to the waterfront. He could hear the soft lap of the tide against the wall as he followed it under a small, derelict bridge. Anger, so fierce he didn't understand it, made the world waver like some kind of desert storm approaching. James couldn't focus when the truth was so sharp. He was plagued by vivid memories – her soft hands reaching around him to unlatch the hooks of his waistcoat drowned out by twisted pile of flesh strewn over the bed. His lover in ruins.
Did John hate him that much? To not just kill the woman he loved but have her himself and then torture her... As long as he lived, James could never forgive this. He wanted John to hurt.
Nikola moved with a silence that scared him. Vampires were predatory, he knew that well. Claws, fangs and black eyes that made the night thin – it was the feeling of hunting that he had been unprepared for. Instinct told him how to track John, how to hold his faint scent of burnt parchment on the air and pursue it.
There was no-one out here save fat rats and drunkards too heavy to roll from where they'd fallen. Sherlock had said that tonight John would kill – and so they had to keep searching. Nikola turned down another street and swept over the road.
Nikola fell back against one of the sandstone walls, glistening from a fine coat of ice. His leather trench coat clipped against the back of his heals making the vampire look like another shadow. He'd heard something – a crackle of energy on the air, yet he knew of nothing that could produce such a sound.
Slow, careful steps started down the street. Nikola pressed himself harder against the stone, sliding into a small gap between two buildings. Nikola was a vampire, Nigel was invisible, James was far too smart for his own good – but what was John? The truth was, none of them really knew. He had kept so quiet, all these months.
...and there he was. John Druitt – Jack the Ripper, strolling the half-lit street as if lording over an empire. His soft curves of brown hair had been shorn off leaving a bare skull. It made him taller, colder – drawing attention to the slender red scar cutting down half his face.
Ranna drew him deeper into the caves, sweeping down corridors and through heavy metal doors that she unlocked using a green jewel on her bracelet. He followed without a word, only stopping when the last door slammed shut behind him.
A shiver ran down his back at the sight. This must be her lab.
It was a large, circular room with an ornate, gold trim. He couldn't read the script etched into the precious metal although the strokes looked faintly Sumerian. Along the walls, cylindrical containers stood from floor to ceiling filled with an eerie, grey liquid. Floating inside them was something that made Gregory's stomach turn, his feet stumbling backwards until his back hit the door.
Each tank contained what remained of a vampire, stripped naked and preserved in all their tortured glory. Most were badly injured, limbs shredded or their throats slit open. Unseeing eyes stared blankly out, mouths full of sharp teeth accentuated by two, slender fangs that reached past their chins. One of them still had a necklace of jewels around its shrivelled neck, fused to its skin.
Gregory swore under his breath, slowly pacing forward towards one of the containers. Even in death, these creatures were pure fear, humanity's hunters. Gregory understood now that he lived in a world without balance. Humanity was free – but to what end?
"Is this what you came for, Dr Magnus?" Ranna was knelt down by the bench, pulling out folders of documentation. The folders looked comparatively primitive in her lab compared to the eerie glow of light coming from the walls as if by magic.
"Actually, I was rather hoping that they'd be more – alive..." he replied in a whisper, his eyes following the long set of claws on this particular vampire. One of them was snapped in half, dangling by a fragile thread of skin.
"Over the centuries, vampires have come for us, breaking through our defences. The one in front of you is Geb, ruler of a great many lands above but it was the underworld he wanted. He came alone and killed four-hundred of us."
"By himself?" Gregory whispered.
"All without a sound. He had a fondness for taking the life from his victims in pieces, leaving their bodies scattered through our city." Their blood had never come out of the rocks. "If it is vampires that you seek, I strongly dissuade you, Dr Magnus. Be thankful that they have left you in peace."
"Why are they here?" he asked, slowly pacing around Ranna's showcase of dismembered vampires. "Do you study them?"
Ranna stood back up, leaning against the bench as the man strode around. "There is -" but how to put it? "A disease amongst our people, spread by the vampires. Half-creatures..." she trailed off. "It makes monsters out of men."
Anyone would think that John wanted to be followed. He was pacing brazenly under the street lights, one hand resting on the wall as he walked. Nikola could see the white dust coating his hand from the chalky stone.
Nikola followed at a safe distance, keeping to the shadows as he tracked John to an unassuming building pressed tight between the others. Its facade had seen better centuries, the brickwork stained black from the smog. At the moment, the black layers of air were settled knee-height, pushed down to ground by the dense, freezing air. It was disconcerting, being unable to see your feet through the unsettled, grey sea rippling over the ground.
John knocked at the cracked door, waiting patiently until a young woman opened it. It was clear that she had been expecting him, inviting him in with a nod and closing the door.
Gregory came back to stand opposite Ranna, leaning on the marble bench top.
"We are not sure exactly how it happens," she continued, handing Gregory a blurry, black and white photo from one of the security cameras. It was the only image that they had of one of these creatures – these People of the Sand as they had been called, long ago. "They were human, once – but something in the vampire venom changes them. There were reports, in ancient times, of sand creatures that the vampires used to guard their tombs. They used to escape in the night and decimate desert caravans."
A blood disease of some kind, it had to be... Gregory thought quietly, examining the image. The creature in it was distinctly human and yet its limbs hand lengthened to allow it to climb with ease. Its back was arched, the bones of its spine pronounced.
"And this is the only image you have of one?"
Ranna nodded. "The creatures have a unique adaptation – one that the vampires themselves do not possess. Their skin can perfectly mimic their surrounds, rendering them all but invisible. We will need one alive if we wish to study it. If you ware what you say you are, Dr Magnus, perhaps you can help me find a cure."
"And if I do?" Gregory asked, closing the folder.
"I will give you your freedom – and all the information I have on the Immortals."
Gregory's gaze snapped up sharply. How did she...?
"When our system scanned you, we found traces of the carrier gene. If you have female children then it is likely they will manifest the true immortality. Our last immortal was killed a hundred years ago by that..." Ranna pointed at another of the vampires. This one in distinctly worse shape.
"And what about the rest of your people? They'll know that you are missing."
Ranna just smiled. "They will be far too busy worrying about geological shifts to trouble themselves over one missing priestess."
As if to solidify her point, the ground beneath them rumbled again. This entire place seemed to be on the verge of tumbling into the underworld.
"There is more that I should tell you..." Gregory said quietly, resting on the bench. He could not help his eyes catching one of the ghostly vampires behind Ranna. "My daughter and her colleagues experimented with Vampire blood."
Ranna's eyes went almost black, although Gregory could not tell whether it was with horror or intrigue. "Pure blood?" she prompted softly.
Gregory nodded. "It was given to me freely by a living vampire."
Despite Ranna's display of vampires, their blood was still a rare and precious substance. It fell to dust shortly after their death unless kept in airtight vials.
"It is rumoured to have remarkable properties..." she whispered. "Including the healing of this plague."
Gregory shook his head slowly at her. "I do not have it with me. There are other samples but they are back in England." When she looked at him blankly, Gregory had to explain briefly about the world, its countries and its cities. It had changed a great deal since the last notes were made on it. The underworld changed, but it rarely grew. Cities migrated at the earth shifted, following the cracks of heat.
As Ranna explained her world's history in turn, Gregory started to feel uneasy.
"There was an uprising," she continued, far more animated now than he had ever seen her. The young woman had taken off her long priestess robes and draped them over the bench leaving her in a suit similar to what a man would wear though slightly more fitted with more feminine details around the collar and cuffs.
"In Ancient Egypt – against the Vampires," Gregory agreed. Yes, he had read that. The ancient Cabal had led the uprising, coaxing the population to rise up against the vampire race and overthrow them in a very human way – with bloodshed.
"It took years of planning but our people found a way to convince the others to join us – to be free."
"Your people?" he asked carefully, his eyes lifting back up to the strange text around the walls. Gregory had seen some of those symbols before. They were pressed into an old, heavy door almost like a cartouche. Samuel Griffin's door. "You are the Cabal," Gregory whispered, carefully keeping his tone even.
Ranna nodded, repeating the word in its ancient tongue – pointing to the words above the door.
"Despite our numbers, many of the vampires escaped. We took the cities, the lands and the creatures that they had brought from the ends of the Earth. Decades later, the vampires regrouped. We had no choice but to retreat under the ground and leave the others to their fate. From what we understand, the vampires never truly recovered, eventually falling under subsequent human rules."
"Greek descends came to rule Egypt, common humans that tried to emulate the ancient ways, but it was all smoke and mirrors. Rome conquered soon after," Gregory added. Ranna was taking notes.
Nikola had no choice but to knock on the door. The lady was in trouble, whoever she was and there was no time to rustle together any backup.
A slight, mousey sort of a girl answered it. She had small, grey eyes – wild locks of unkempt hair and a tattered dress held together by years of untidy patching.
"Not tonight, sir..." she said almost boredly. "If Leeton sent you over, I already told him that I'm working all evening."
There was a shuffle of clothes or bedding from the room behind. These houses were narrow – a door then a hallway barely wide enough to walk down. Steps branched off to the side, leading to the upper level while the hallway twisted left, ending in a room only big enough for a single bed, small desk and wardrobe.
"Madam, you are in a great deal of danger," Nikola whispered, not realising that his foreign accent, towering height and long trench coat made him fit the latest newspaper description of The Ripper. Oblivious to her growing wariness, Nikola extended his hand to her. "You must come with me."
She stepped back, half-hiding behind the door. "I think you should leave..."
"I cannot," Nikola insisted. "There is a gentleman here with you, he's -"
The woman cut him off, slamming the door in Nikola's face.
"Dammit!" he hissed.
"Who was that?" John asked, seated on the bed, his shirt already hanging open.
"A man – foreigner type..."
Tesla... John smiled. "By all means, show him in."