RETURNING TO OXFORD
Their lips clashed together without warning. Helen moaned, John stepped forward and pressed her against the basement wall. Green silk slid through his fingers. The candles dripped onto the floor, near death. She placed her palms on his chest, feeling John's ragged breath and heart beat wildly.
Helen mumbled his name. It started as a protest but slipped into surrender when he brushed his tongue over her lips and beckoned them to part. He was the first to kiss her like this – to possess her so entirely. Now that she knew what it felt like to belong to someone, her body was helpless to stop his advances.
This was wrong – it had to be wrong. All those women... The hands that had slain them touched her body, moving to the lace-work on the back of her dress, intent on unravelling it. She should push away -
"John..." Helen gasped. He lifted her easily, using his body to hold her against the wall. Blonde ringlets tumbled free, bouncing beside her face. His kisses ran hot down her neck until another moan reverberated from her throat. "He'll hear..."
His blunt teeth grazed along her vein. The world felt like it was falling – falling toward him.
He silenced her by stealing her lips, kissing them until they were red and swollen.
In the next room, James curled his fingers around the arms of his chair. His nails stabbed into the leather, marking it with dozens of tiny crescents. Muffled cries filled the air, not quite drowned by the wall or the fire burning down beside him. It wasn't just revulsion that made his breathing shallow. Jealousy was an insidious emotion and he loathed himself for it.
Tesla was so bloody quick.
The sand creature sprawled over Gregory didn't stand a chance. For a moment it thought about retreating into the jungle of glowing columns, clambering up their smooth surfaces out of sight or even diving down into the water but Nikola speared it with his claws, driving them deep into the creature's withered flesh before it could move. It thrashed back, scratching at him, squealing. The thing wasn't strong enough to stop a vampire – even a half-breed like this one.
The poor sand creature twisted, screeching at the holes in its body. Blood dripped out of its mouth while its eyes, their rims burning gold, flared with one last ember of humanity. Dark blood sprayed over Gregory as Nikola lifted the creature above him and pulled it apart in a revolting death. There wasn't much left of it when it slipped off his claws and fell to the ground with a wet slap.
Gregory stared at Tesla, who was standing above him, claws dripping.
"It was evil..." Nikola whispered.
Gregory didn't say a word.
Professor Samuel Griffin felt a cold breath on the back of his neck. There was a draught crawling through the rotted window of the manor house. It had been weeks now that he could barely stand on his old bones. He hated the way they creaked as he shuffled between the fireplace and his favourite desk, crunching together like ancient boulders. The sprawling leather chair had become his preferred perch from which he watched the row of poplars quiver, dusted by fresh snow.
The manor itself was more than a thousand years old. Its Roman ancestry could be seen in the plinths guarding the front gate. Their decayed stone towered over those that made it past the walls, hedges and gates that kept the outside world at bay. Mist clung to the ground, refusing to lift with the morning light trickling through the empty branches of oaks and elms.
The Cabal left him to this – to die. His embarrassing loss of the five school children and the precious sample of vampire blood hastened his demise. A vote was held. Their new leader was rash and terrified of the world. It would be a disaster, Griffin could tell. How could you study something, learn from it and appropriate its gifts if you killed it on sight? Foolish. He'd been there with Gregory Magnus at the start... The first time they'd dreamed of a world beyond this one – a world of monsters and science, a world of endless possibilities and they hadn't been afraid.
It wasn't the money that Samuel resented, he'd given that to Gregory knowing full well he'd never see it again, it was the recognition. The last vampire outpost, buried in the Amazonian jungle was his find. Months of his life were played out in libraries across the country, buried in dust. Nights and days vanished as he chased down fragments of rock that no one else could translate. He had cracked the language of the vampires, translated their thousands of scrolls. In the end, it was Gregory Magnus that had stood inside the Sanctuary of the Moon, Gregory who had brought back its secrets to London and refused to share them with the world.
They had been friends once.
Griffin frowned, shifting in his chair. The gates were open.
Nikola washed his hands in the water – then washed them again as if the blood refused to shift. Instinct was a terrifying thing, especially if you were an apex predator.
Gregory shifted uncomfortably nearby, standing with a definite tilt, trying to protect his sore shoulder. He examined one of the columns but could not determine what made the stone glow. At first he thought that it might have been gas – he'd seen amazing experiments with vacuum tubes lighting up when electrical currents were passed through their gas but no – the very stone itself was emitting a bright glow. He couldn't decide whether it was some kind of technology, a naturally occurring substance or if the rock had been artificially engineered.
Neither of them mentioned the sand creature as they wove their way around the pillars. Everything about this second chamber dwarfed the first. Nikola felt ill whenever he looked up, trying to see where the pillars met the roof. They tapered in to each other, perspective warping them into a ceiling of light. The Cabal city was a creature wracked by old age but this – it was pristine.
"This way," Nikola murmured, slipping through a final pair of columns. He stopped at the sight before him, reaching for the warm surface of a column to steady himself.
It was grown out of the rock, clawing up in layers as if it had flowed from the mouth of the earth. The majestic city glowed, basking in its own warmth like a pearl clutched protectively between two gaping jaws of cave. They overlooked it, standing on a small outcrop of rock.
Fist sized balls of light – hundreds of them – floated in the air surrounding the city. They were magnetically repelled from both the rock in the ceiling and the ground, lingering between the two in a thick band.
"The City of Stars," Nikola whispered. "Heart of the ancient world."
"Nikola – it's huge," Gregory shook his head in wonder. Most incredible of all were two protrusions of white rock, thrusting out of the ground and reaching up toward the ceiling. Fangs... They tapered to sharp points almost like a gateway.
"I did not believe that it was real..." Nikola admitted, balanced on the precipice of rock. Something flashed across his memory – a sensation of being dragged through the corridor, of blood in his mouth as he looked over the city. A memory.
"Is it an outpost?" Gregory asked. The ground was rumbling above them but it didn't trouble this cavern.
"No. It is a storehouse of knowledge – a vault. It was built by the first Pharaohs, a pair of brothers, to store every precious piece of knowledge discovered or brought back from exploratory parties sent to the outer reaches of the world."
"Of sorts. Dr Magnus – the knowledge in those walls, everything that has been lost to us..." It made him tremble. "The Cabal lived right above it." Thankfully, they'd not laid a grubby paw on it.
Gregory's eyes wandered over the buildings and streets, searching for movement but it was like a skeleton, picked clean of life. "It's dead."
The words rang in Nikola's ears. Everything to do with his race was dead, all that remained of them were the vials of blood Gregory had scattered over the world.
Together, they stepped forward towards the city, maintaining a reverent silence as they descended the twisted staircase of rock cut into the wall. When they reached the base and found themselves on solid ground, Nikola noticed a curtain of air hanging in front of them like mist. It reached out in every direction.
"Some kind of scanning device, perhaps?" offered Nikola. He'd encountered one earlier. They decided to reach out at the same time. Their hands found a cold surface, smooth like glass. For a second, their fingers sank through it, reaching toward the other side.
Suddenly, electricity snapped through their bodies and the air in front of them fractured, ripped apart in a great purple flash eerily similar to John's gift. The thunder tore around the cave walls as Nikola and Gregory vanished.
Nikola landed in fresh snow. He laid on his back, staring up at the blue sky. The tops of trees swayed in the edges of his vision while an eagle circled lazily, high above. He was home. Nikola could smell it in the air. Gregory lay sprawled beside him, wincing as he tried to move his injured arm. The city was gone – it had rejected them, throwing them back out into the world. It wasn't going to share its secrets so easily.
The middle-aged butler couldn't see the man striding across the lawn. The sun was weak in these early hours and Nigel's pale shadow went unnoticed as he kept to the tree line. Being invisible had its advantages although he was beginning to wish that there was a way of keeping his clothes. It wasn't so much being naked that bothered him (although it did leave him feeling rather vulnerable), it was the inconvenience of not being able to carry anything.
At the moment, he'd found a way to cheat this flaw. Though desperately uncomfortable, he managed to fit a small vial inside his mouth. Safe inside his lips, it was definitely invisible like the rest of his body.
He slipped easily in through the front door. This was his child-hood home and he knew every corner of it. His mother's grave was on the back lawn in front of the lake next to the two dogs. The rooms on his left were for guests and entertaining. To his right, which is where his footsteps led him, was his old room. He ducked inside and silently closed the door.
Everything was as he'd left it three years ago for the start of university. Nigel was no longer a scrawny little thing but he managed to find trousers, a shirt and jacket to wear. He slipped the vial into his pocket and headed back out into the house, climbing to the third floor.
There was a time when he'd been afraid to venture up here into his father's domain. Now, it smelled of death and decay – of age not old enough to have lost its stench. The marble gods grinned menacingly from every statue set into the corridor. Their perfect human forms had always fascinated Nigel's father. If only he knew the truth of that great race...
"I knew that you would come."
Nigel froze in the doorway. His father's voice came from the chair in front of the windows, facing the world. The room was several degrees colder than the rest of the house despite the roaring fire.
"Observe, son, how the world turns onward."
"Not everyone has forgotten you," Nigel replied, striding into the room. He could see now that there was nothing left in his father to fear. "You imprisoned me," he added bitterly, moving over to the fire where he could see his father's face. "It is a blessing that my mother was not alive to see it."
"Or to see what you have become," Samuel whispered. His grey eyes shifted to look upon his son. The boy was stronger now – a man.
Nigel shook his head in disbelief. "I'm not a fool any more. You didn't torture me because of what I am, you did it because of what you want to be. I failed you, even in that. I am not immortal, father. It appears you picked the wrong young brat."
His father didn't say anything to that. The guilt in his eyes was enough of a reply. Silence followed until Nigel withdrew a tiny vial from his coat. Inside it was the unmistakable liquid that Griffin had spent his life hunting.
"Why are you here?" Samuel's voice cracked as his eyes focused on the crimson liquid.
"Despite everything, father, what Dr Magnus did was wrong. This belongs to you. He brought back several samples of untainted vampire blood, hiding them across the world. This is what remains of the vial we stole that night. There is not enough for the Cabal to make use of however, there is enough for one dose – one chance for you to see if the ancient gods think you worthy of their gift."
Samuel used all his strength to pry his ailing figure out of the chair. He leaned heavily against the window sill, staring at his son. Nigel looked exactly like his mother...
"Will you stay?" the old man asked.
"Yes..." replied Nigel. "I'll stay until it's done."
Helen returned to school. The walls were blacker than ever, polluted from the growing city of factories embracing Oxford. She ducked around the parties of gentlemen loitering by the gates, several of them trying to get her attention as she strode across the lawn.
"Morning, Miss Magnus," one of her professors dipped his hat at her, pleased to see one of his brightest biologists return. "Oxford has been dull without you."
She looked different – alive and ever so much more trouble than before. Helen had no fear of the male world any more – what was left to fear when she took its darkness to bed at night?
"Mr Griffin, well, well, well..." Helen sauntered over to Nigel. He'd taken refuge in an empty classroom and proceeded to graffiti the board with his latest mathematical theorems. He had turned into quite the genius despite the shaky start.
"Is that not a tone normally reserved for Helen Magnus?" he turned, eyes bright. His usual brown suit was gone, replaced with mourning black. Even his shirt was black, sleeves rolled to his elbows, lightly dusted with white chalk.