CITIES OF THE ANCIENT WORLD
Nikola held his lantern aloft. Inside the glass case its flame wavered unsteadily, barely more than a trembling blue glow against the darkness. The tunnel fell away sharply in front domed by the rotted remains of wooden pillars. The roof crumbled constantly as he passed, muddying the air, making him cough into his sleeve every few breaths.
His hand flailed out to the wall to steady himself as his feet slipped over stretches of black ice. It was a nightmare. At one point he gave up and fell to the the ground, sliding from bolder to bolder with the lantern between his teeth. No one had been into these catacombs for centuries... Helen and her father must have come via a different network of tunnels.
Nikola growled as his lantern flickered out and darkness quickly engulfed his tiny figure.
"Bloody hell," he whispered, shaking the lantern in frustration. There was nothing left of its oil. Nikola threw it aside angrily and heard it shatter against a nearby wall.
He tried to remember what he could of the cave in front, feeling his way through the next dozen or so yards until he entered the unknown. All he could do was slip deeper into the earth and hope it didn't swallow him.
He gasped sharply when his hand smeared through something on the rock. The liquid was freezing at first but quickly started burning through his skin like acid. Frantically, he wiped it over the dirt, cursing and groaning as his blood mixed with dust. Nikola held his fingers to his nose and jolted away in revulsion. That explained the foul smell on the air. It must be seeping out of the rocks...
Nikola cradled his throbbing hand in his lap,trying not to imagine what it must look like.
"Was it – quick?" Helen asked quietly, a generous glass of whiskey cupped in her hands. She hadn't touched it yet.
James nodded, pacing beside the fireplace in Helen's living room. He'd been doing that for the past half hour, wearing the oriental rug thin.
"He was executed cleanly. Several gunshots, one to the head. The Crown wasn't taking any chances." James was an accomplished actor, even remembering to flinch at the mention of the invented wounds.
Helen felt cold sink through her skin despite the shawl draped over her shoulders. She couldn't shake the idea that they were all just like the lab rats from the original experiment, dying one by one. John was dead because of her and that was difficult to swallow...
"It is better this way," she murmured, determined not to let him see her cry. "John was always the most gentle among us."
James fought the urge to scoff. He'd seen a different John, right from the start. It was all in the mannerisms of the man. Everything felt – calculated. Cold. False...
Helen closed her eyes, remembering the way John's hand had brushed against her cheek back on the university lawn. He'd promised her the world and she'd very nearly agreed, falling into his soft, stolen kisses.
There was a shuffle of paper as James started rolling a cigarette.
"Where is Holmes?" Helen asked, taking a sip of her whiskey. James wasn't telling her the whole story, of that she was certain.
James lit up, quickly filling the room with lazy clouds of smoke.
"He's off on another tour of Africa. One of his old military friends has funded an expedition to investigate the murder of a wealthy investor. You know Holmes... Can't resist a trail of violence."
"No, I don't." Helen snapped back quickly. She didn't know Holmes at all but the little she did know suggested that he was a bad influence on James. Case and point, his new habit of filling the room with smoke. "Are you staying the night?"
James leaned against the wall beside the fire place, exhaling another white plume that lingered over the strange forms of Gregory's collected artefacts. He had no choice. John was free again and he knew exactly where he was headed. Right here.
"The week – if I can."
Nikola stopped when his feet vanished over a jagged edge of rock. He swore in Serbian, shuffling backwards. The drop could be two feet or fifty...
For the past few hours he'd been following the sound of running water. Now he could hear it rushing over something close by, crashing over rocks and swirling down below. There was even a light spray on the air that tasted fresh against his lips.
"You're a vampire," he reminded himself, shaking his painful hand again. "It's not like this will kill you. Well, it shouldn't kill you."
He edged forward, feeling his way through the drop. His entire leg up to his thigh was dangled over the edge before he relented. The further he went the more slippery and wet things got. Cautiously, he moved his other hand over the ground beside him, dislodging a few small stones. He hurled them as far as he could and then listened to them fall.
They hit water.
Nikola's heart beat faster. If it was a deep pool his odds of survival went up a few notches.
"This is not one of your best ideas," he muttered in yet another language, flitting between them the more nervous he got. Nikola could still feel the occasional flicker of warmth from James's blood still in his veins. It made him reckless.
He launched himself off.
Cold air rushed over his body as he dropped. It felt like he was falling forever... and his mind didn't help, unconsciously counting the feet he was falling. Soon it had racked up numbers Nikola doubted he could survive, even if he hit wa-
He hit three inches of water – then solid bedrock. A thousand things snapped inside his body in blinding streaks of pain until Nikola's mind went blank.
Helen sat alone in her father's office as night fell.
The world outside had entered an eerie still as if it were waiting for something. Every detail was snuffed out by a heavy fog of smoke that ate away at the sandstone walls. It made the bark of the trees black and hid untoward residents from sight, wrapping the whole city in a filthy blanket. Even the moths had changed the patterns on their wings to match the misery. She'd seen them on display when she was a little girl. Even now she smiled at the memory of her father walking her through the glassed exhibits.
"Everything changes," he used to whisper to her, lifting her up onto his shoulder. "All the creatures you see today will be different tomorrow. Even us."
"Will I be taller?" the little blonde girl asked. Her father just smiled.
The memory snapped her back to reality. Her father had been gone so long she was starting to worry that he might not return.
Helen glanced at her father's old journal laid open on the desk. Its pages were full of sketches. Most were of the strange creatures he'd encountered on his early travels but amongst them was a rough drawing of her mother. Her lip curled up into a smile. Helen looked more and more like her, except for the waves of long, dark hair that fell carelessly to her waist.
Something move in the corner of the room, over in the shadows.
At first she thought it was Nikola's damn pigeon again but no – this time there was a flicker of brown eyes. She knew them intimately.
Helen slammed her eyes shut and took a few, slow breaths, only then did she lock back at the empty room. John was dead and he wasn't coming back. She was chasing shadows.
"Bloody thing won't bloody - Helen, would you mind coming here a moment?" James muttered from another room.
Helen sighed, closing the journal.
After she was gone, the shadows stirred. A cloaked figure ran his fingertips along the wall, tracing a pattern in the wallpaper until he reached the desk. He opened one of the drawers, casually nudging paperwork aside until he revealed the slender letter opener. The fingers stroked the blade lovingly and then removed it from the drawer.
Nikola rolled over onto his stomach, groaning as bones locked into place. They knitted back together as cold water lapped around his face. It was black, like a shallow sea at night stretching out into forever.
His fangs were extended and claws at full stretch, dripping with his own blood. Black, vampire eyes picked out the faint glow of ancient lichen from the rock. It wound over the walls in patterns – following the creases in the rock, providing the pool of water with an edge.
A carved edge of stone. Deliberate. Ancient.
Of course... This was the realm of vampires – you had to be one if you wanted to weave your way through it.
When he was able, Nikola stumbled to his feet. He focussed on what he could see. The cliffs surrounding the body of water turned out to be the ruins of a reservoir. Limestone growths blurred the edges of the granite blocks and the shifting of the earth had cracked its sides beyond repair. Still, when he tilted his head up he could even see where the water line once sat. This was meant for a large settlement. A city.
He decided to follow the edge, staying in the shallows. The sound he made wading through the water echoed across the walls, drowning out any hope he might have of hearing anything else. Nikola couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't alone down here. In a world of monsters, it was entirely possible that something had survived the long centuries down here.
Soon, the water rose to his knees and it kept getting deeper. He tried scrambling over the submerged boulders, clinging to collapsed sections of roof and overhangs but eventually he was left with no choice but to swim through open water.
He passed a waterfall. Nikola could hear it frothing and growling to his right but all he saw was a void where the glowing lichen ended. Nikola guessed that it must be fed from snow melting on heated rocks.
There was something about the water he didn't like. It wasn't just that he couldn't see it, it felt like it might betray him at any moment and suck him into the darkness.
Up ahead there was hope in the form of a faint blue aura. He swam quickly, wading when the water grew shallow. He emerged on a thin strip of land separating the black water he'd come out of and the eerie pool of softly glowing water ahead.
Nikola couldn't even hazard as guess as to what made it glow like that but it illuminated this small cave beautifully.
"By gods," Nikola whispered, catching sight of all the mad scrawls etched into the walls. It was Egyptian, an ancient dialect of it literally clawed over every surface. He tried to read fragments of it, following it around the alcove but none of it made any sense.
What mad thing had written this using its claws?
His eyes closed at a faint whiff of perfume on the air. Helen's...
Nikola knelt down to find a pair of women's gloves abandoned on the rock. Nikola held them to his cheek for a moment, they were soft and comforting. How many times had he felt these gloves tenderly brush his skin while they were in the lab working or taking a stroll through an Autumn afternoon in Oxford?
He slipped them into his jacket where they'd be safe before continuing onto the edge of the glowing water. This time he found Gregory's clothes abandoned by the water's edge. He looked carefully at the footprints in the dirt. This is as far as Helen had ventured but Gregory had continued into the water and not returned. Nikola knew that he had to do the same.
Nikola doesn't know that he's being watched from the back of the cavern. Folded up inside one of the crevasses is a violent red sand creature eyeing its ancient kin pick over the ground. It didn't dare approach as the vampire moved to the water's edge and dived in, swimming out into the currents before being dragged down beneath the surface toward the city beneath.
Helen slept fitfully, tossing and turning as she relived the moment her father was pulled under the water in the cave. He drowned, her mind whispered cruelly.
John sat beside her on the bed, spinning the delicate letter opener between his fingers. He used the sharp, silver edge to lift one of her locks of hair off her face.
"Why did you have to be so beautiful?" he whispered, leaning closer. "We could have been happy but now – we're all monsters. You most of all."
He had opened the window in her room, letting the moonlight and snow in through the curtains.
Nikola tried to fight against the water as it dragged him deeper. He was tossed between the currents until his lungs burned for air. His mouth opened, filling with water in a desperate attempt to breathe.
Suddenly it ended.
He was swept off the edge of some great waterfall, falling through sweet air which he greedily gasped. He made out a few lights below him before he plunged into another pool of water.
Nikola swam towards the stairs and climbed out, taking a moment to catch his breath before wandering over to examine the enormous colonnades of glowing marble. There were several of them, each warm to the touch as he pressed his hands to them.
"Beautiful," he whispered. They reminded him of jewels.
Nikola moved towards the only passage. Even down here the world was being shaken apart. Pieces of the decorated plaster walls were laying on the floor. He stepped over them, eyeing the corridor in front warily.
Just as the path fell into darkness another pair of marble columns emerged. They were gorgeous – more grand than the simple torches or mirror systems found in Egypt.
"So this is where you all went..." he whispered. "Down into the earth."
Nikola trailed off as he reached the end of the tunnel. It, like the thousands of other tunnels littered around the cavern, ended abruptly. They all looked out over an enormous cave and huddled in the the middle of it was a city. Its spires reached up four and five stories towards the roof, grazing against the ceiling. Buildings that looked as if they were plucked from the streets of Paris were packed in shoulder to shoulder among a rat's nest of roads and alleyways.
Running between these buildings was something incredible – like a train but one that hugged the sides of the buildings several stories up – and spherical. These bubbles of light whizzed around with a faint hum that reminded him of an electric motor.
There were thousands of people beneath him but none had noticed the vampire in the shadows.
Something wasn't right.
The city snuggled in the depths of the cave didn't feel like the product of thousands of years of vampire industry. There were no lingering hints of their grand columns like back in the passageway and no sense of scale... Vampires loved to be theatrical but this ancient city was disappointingly practical.
He stepped back from the edge and used the wall to steady himself as the ground shook again. The lights beneath flickered and people fled to the protection of the buildings. A few large rocks dislodged from the cave roof and tumbled down, crashing through a city tower.
Everything fell quiet again.
This place was on the edge of its demise – Nikola could feel it. The closer he looked the more clear it became that this was a decaying outpost.
He pressed on, making his way down the latticework of ladders and platforms that led to the ground. Nikola had taken the precaution of returning to his human form as he wandered through the streets. Gregory was here somewhere...
John ran the tip of the letter opener down the side of Helen's neck while she was asleep, following a vein that curved a few times before vanishing beneath her skin. The blade hovered, considering whether or not to follow.
Helen stirred at the press of the knife to her neck. At first, she thought it another of her nightmares. She'd woken to John at the foot of her bed brandishing a knife a thousand times.
"John...?" she mumbled. "You're – dead..."
The cold press of metal to her neck wasn't. It was very real.
"'fraid not," John replied, pressing the letter opener more firmly against her skin. "James was mistaken – not much of a doctor, it seems."
Helen's heart raced. She was terrified as he leant down, brushing his lips over hers. Her hand went uselessly to his shoulder, trying to push him back.
"...I'm not here to kill you..." he whispered, his lips nearly touching hers. "I've come for your help."