Helen rummaged through her drawer, hands hunting in layers of silk and lace until she felt glass beneath her fingertips. The vial was unnaturally cold, resting heavily in her palm.
She watched it swirl against the glass, begging to be free. It came from creatures of destruction yet somehow it was beautiful – part of her. It was blood that built cities and empires. Blood that conquered the world. Blood that started all this mess...
Helen was born to hunt it. When she closed her eyes she could hear Nikola's heart beat fiercely in her ears. Three blocks of Oxford stone could not silence it. The urge to kill him had faded but that steady thud would always be there.
"Have you found it, Helen?" Gregory lingered by the door.
It was night. The lamps had been lit and windows shut. A fire in the the lounge room brought a feeble warmth to the house but it was out-paced by the broken windows. The moon rose through the heavy fog, shattering its light into an eerie glow that left the buildings of Oxford ghostly.
"Yes, father..." she replied, holding it protectively to her chest as she joined him at the bedroom door. Her velvet skirts dragged across the floor boards, rustling. Tangles of golden hair fell nearly to her waist, bouncing lightly as she tilted her head up to him. "The last one, I believe."
He nodded. The rest were lost, stolen or hidden.
The house grew darker as Gregory led his daughter into the attic. He held a candle aloft creating a sad halo in front of them. Sunlight never touched this place. It smelled like the caves of Hollow Earth with animal bones littered on the bookshelves beside specimen jars whose eerie captives stared blankly at the night. Newspapers rotted into dust, piled next to overturned trunks. Gregory sat behind one of them, using it as a desk. It bore Helen's mother's name embossed on the silver plate set into the leather.
"Light the rest of the lamps..." Gregory instructed, passing her the matches. The light from a newly struck match caught his daughter's face and for a moment he swore he saw the warm eyes of his long-dead wife gaze back.
Helen did as she was told, setting each of the lanterns into life until they hung like fallen stars, sad and dim from the low ceiling. She returned to find her father on the floor. He had unlocked a wire-covered bookcase and gently pried open its doors. The books were pushed aside to reveal another miniature cabinet hidden inside. He withdrew the ornate piece which rattled dangerously as he moved it to sit upon the trunk.
It was a foot long and delicate. The two shelves inside each had six holes drilled into them, into which had been placed empty test-tubes. Gregory transferred each of these to a rack then undid their cork stoppers.
"Father... what are you doing?"
"The blood will keeper better this way," he explained, uncorking the main vial and decanting it into each test tube. Helen helped, replacing the stoppers and setting them back in the shelves. They looked beautiful, lined up like jewels. Gregory closed the doors and hid the cabinet inside the bookshelf again.
"Where are the other samples?" Helen asked, sinking to the attic floor in a puff of dust. The lanterns flickered unsteadily, breathing shadows into life.
"One is in an ancient city," Gregory chose to sit behind the old trunk, running his hands affectionately over the dried leather. "A vampire outpost once known as Bhalasaam. It will be safe there from the rest of the world – and from your friends."
Helen frowned, "I do not understand."
"You are too young, Helen," Gregory whispered, wiping sweat from his forehead with his jacket sleeve. "Knowledge must be earned and I'd wager it takes a lifetime to earn the secrets of the vampires. You have more seasons of life ahead of you than any other human can claim, except perhaps your Mr Tesla. The blood will be waiting for you and your friends. It will take all of you to free it."
"You do not trust us..." she replied dryly.
"Do you blame me? The minute I turned my back you had injected yourselves with the most dangerous substance known to biology without so much as a second thought. You are still young, foolish and your friends are part-vampire." Of course he didn't trust them.
Helen felt her heart clench in her chest.
"Have I failed you?" she whispered, her eyes glossy in the dark, irises large and black.
Gregory chose not to answer her.
"The one sample is destroyed and another placed in safe keeping. From now on we return to our work. There are hundreds of Abnormals in the world that require our assistant – beautiful creatures that linger on the edge of evolution. This house will be their sanctuary."
"Going to bed so soon?" John's deep, silken voice drawled as he emerged from shadows that lurked at the corner of Helen's room. The darkness around him seemed hollow – an endless void threatening to swallow him.
"John..." she whispered, closing and locking the door. She was always trapped by him, sometimes willingly. Helen wiped away the last of her tears, shaking off the sinking feeling in her stomach. "Father has you three rooms from mine for a reason..."
John kept walking towards her until he was close enough to back her against the door, pressing his body against her skirts and bodice.
"Yet here I am," he murmured, head slowly tilting, lips drawing closer to her neck. The vampire blood that lingered in him tempted him to bite but he lacked Nikola's fangs...
Helen took him gently by his arms, trying to hold him at bay.
"Your treatments – we agreed that if you were to be my – patient then..." Her sentence was fragmented by each brush of his lips against her skin. She couldn't resist moving her hand to cup the back of his head. "If James finds out – he will tell my father."
"James is at the university, your father is upstairs. No one will hear us..."
Helen slipped against the wood as her knees went weak. His hands went straight for the ties at the front of her dress, loosening them.
"But John – what if I end up with child?"
Only then did John stop, one of his hands slipping down to her narrow waist. He did not answer her but as they made love against the door he kept his hand on her stomach.
When they were done, Helen pushed him off, straightening her skirts. She took a candle from her drawer and set it into a holder, lighting it.
"What are you doing?" John whispered, sliding down the wall. Sweat plastered his dark hair to his forehead giving him an unnatural sheen in the candlelight.
"Working," Helen replied, striding past him heading down towards the basement.
Nikola glared out at the evening. One of the cotton mills was on fire, spewing black smoke into an already choked world. He watched its innards glow as the air churned and the walls collapsed in. The distant sound of sirens would not be able to save the Cabal factory and Nikola very much doubted that the fire was accidental. There were new players in town and the ritual purging of the older order had already begun.
Ranna ducked, shielding herself from the flames clawing out of the building. The streets of this surface city were clogged by people fleeing the collapsing structure. Burning wood hit the ground around them while glass shattered high above then rained down with a constant storm of paper, ash and tiles.
She was being led by a group of men, each of them trying to protect her from the carnage. One of them swore, tugging her sharply as a brick wall tumbled into the alley, blocking their escape.
"This way..." another said, turning the group around. They hurried through side streets until the smoke thinned and the growl of the burning cotton factory faded.
They were all covered in soot, looking more like poverty stricken street workers than scientists.
"Whatever it is that you have brought," the small, slender man wearing a white lab coat, whispered. "I hope it is enough to turn the tide of this war."
"If you stay true to your promise," Ranna replied, coughing the retched air out of her lungs, "it will change the course of the world."
"A good thing you washed up then..." another added, before all four of them vanished into the streets.
Ranna tilted her head up, catching sight of the stars through the smoke. It was a sight her people had not seen for thousands of years. One day the surface would be theirs again.
Nikola drew the heavy curtains open sending sunlight pouring through the room, bathing the bare rock. A haze of smoke lingered on the sunrise, turning the world crimson.
The scene had all the hallmarks of a lecture.
The Five had migrated to a residence more fitting of their title – or more correctly, during their senior years they had taken over one of the large labs on the top floor. The room was narrow but long, spanning several banks of double windows, all of which opened out onto the park side of the university. They were above the canopy of trees which now sprouted tufts of green against the cool Spring weather.
Nikola paced the room in front of the blackboards. The others, all four of them, were scattered around the few remaining desks. Even John was there, seated furthest from Nikola, presumably a safety precaution.
The vampire had several piles of open books littering the floor and desks and the blackboard was full of stories from the ancient world – of cities of blood and reservoirs of knowledge.
"So this is where you have been, Tesla," Nigel said, keeping his own set of notes in his diary.
Nikola paused, settling his hand rather dramatically on his hip. He was in a crisp black suit, white shirt and silk cravat. Those bright eyes of his were still sharp and playful.
"Dr Magnus and I have seen some of these things and heard a great deal more. Our knowledge of the ancient world must be entirely re-written. History has been monstrously corrupted, far more than we had feared."
"The flood..." James added quietly. "Are the ancient Cabal destroyed?"
Nikola shook his head. "I am afraid that is unlikely. The woman, Ranna, she stressed to Gregory that this city was an outpost, small in comparison to the other settlements scattered under the earth. For the moment, we have no reason to assume that they will come to the surface. After all, they have happily spent thousands of years underground showing no interest in us."
Nikola withdrew a small glass container from his bag and set it onto the desk with a gentle 'clink'. The clear solution looked like water, though slightly more viscus.
"Ancient vampire blood may be very dangerous but this... this is useful," Nikola whispered, enthralled by the substance.
"Oh good," John muttered boredly. "The great Mr Tesla has found something to hold his attention."
"If that's water..." James started.
"Vampire venom," Nikola corrected. Nikola didn't have venom – clearly something missing from his resurrected vampire DNA. He tried to ignore nagging fear that he was an inferior vampire. "The Vampires built the underworld and its cities. Like many ancient cultures they were collectors – of knowledge, art and in their case, abnormal creatures. They thought that they could use such creatures to control the tides, the air – to transform the deserts into -"
"Again – is there a point Nikola, or is this another lesson on how wonderful your fanged relatives were?" John had a small pen knife out and was chipping away at the wood on his chair.
Nikola didn't like interruptions and he liked John even less. Two years on there was no evidence that he had returned to killing but Nikola didn't believe that Helen's treatments were truly curing him.
"The point is when the Cabal vanquished the Vampires and took over the city, they kept the abnormals, including the few remaining vampires and their sand creatures. This is fresh venom, from what Gregory tells me, directly from a resurrected vampire."
"What does it do?" James asked curiously, leaning forward.
Nikola shrugged, "It cures an ancient disease running amok in the underworld. Dr Magnus has given it to us to study."
You mean to distract us, James thought as he stood, strolling over to the table. He crouched down, his eye level with the glass vessel.
"We do not possess the technology to study this properly," James breathed, straightening up. "But the world is growing closer to it. We should keep it safe – sealed until it can be handled correctly."
"We're not going to inject it this time?" John curled his lip up in a smirk.
"Oh, I don't know..." Nigel stretched in his chair. "Might cure that nasty outcrop of hair either side of your cheek bones."
"Sideburns..." John sneered.
"Gentlemen..." Helen glared at both of them. Her father's words still rang in her ears. Too young.
"It is too precious to corrupt," James straightened. "Nikola, a friend of mine has facilities capable of holding and preserving such a sample. He doesn't ask questions – and he owes me a rather large favour."
They might as well be asking Nikola to part with his pigeon. "But..."
"To protect it," James insisted.
It took all of them a good week to wrestle and reason the sample off Nikola. The vampire venom was eventually whisked away to a facility in London where it would lay undisturbed for the next century, buried and forgotten.
The Five turned their attention to pushing the boundaries of known science, in particular some of the more useful properties locked in vampire blood. A strange, short and Nikola was convinced, slightly unstable student made frequent attempts to join their closed group.
"A Mr – Ward? No – Worth," Nikola sighed, locking the door to their laboratory. It was mandatory now with that creature hunting about – following them from class with a pitiful look. "He's like a lost puppy. Helen..."
"It's not my fault," she protested, making Nikola hold two beakers for her. "If anything, it was James's."
James huffed. "He defeated me in chess, regrettable but hardly a cause for his curiosity in our dealings."
"Well his curiosity is vexing..." John lit all the lanterns as the sunlight faded. His hair was long now, soft and wavy as it had been when they'd all first met. "Has anyone seen Griffin?"
There was a hurried knock at the door. John strode over, his hand on the lock.
"Hurry up, man," Nigel's muffled voice hissed. John released the lock and Nigel all but tumbled into the room.
"Adam?" Helen asked. Nigel nodded.
"When is it not these days. He's down by the pool, chalking the walls with a proof on circulatory theory. He knows we're experimenting with blood – he just doesn't know what kind of blood. Shame all we have is yours now, Tesla. Are you leaving?"
John had gathered up his coat and hat.
"I have to be in London for a case this evening. Good luck with Worth..."
John left. Several hours later, so did Nigel. He had a property to manage and extensive green houses where he tended to rare abnormal plants found on Gregory's expeditions. He even accompanied him sometimes. It was well and truly dark when James bowed out, retiring to a game of bridge with Mr Holmes who was finally back in town gloating about his latest case.
Helen and Nikola worked in a comfortable silence, taking notes – passing each other equipment all with practised ease. They stood shoulder to shoulder as the lanterns burned down. Nikola stole silent, lingering looks at her, his blue eyes seeing a great deal more than anyone else. He knew when Helen was tired – when she was frightened. He could tell if she and John had been fighting again or if she was worried about her father. On this occasion, she was lonely. Her experiment had finished hours ago and yet she was lingering.
"You can stay tonight," he whispered, his hand suddenly pressing gently against the small of her back.
Helen's hands trembled as she set the glassware down, a deep sigh leaving her lips. She turned, heavy golden curls falling over her shoulder as she looked up at him.
"My father wouldn't -"
"He never approves," he cut her off with a lopsided grin and just a hint of fang. Their all night escapades were harmless. She listened to his stories and he let her fall asleep hearing them. He had always been her best friend and despite everything that had happened to them, they had returned to each other – slowly. James had told him to steal her heart but he was starting to accept that he might have to share it.
"Come on," he murmured, taking her hands. "You haven't heard the one about Queen Nefertiti yet."
"The queen that seduced the son of the Pharaoh into leaving the city and starting a new world order?"
Nikola couldn't help the way his eyes shined as he blew out the lanterns leaving them in moonlight. "Yeah but – that's the human version..."
"Oh Nikola..." she sighed playfully, letting him lead her sleepy form up to his attic.
Helen fell asleep to the sound of Nikola's voice. They were on the small bed in his attic, buried in a tangle of sheets. He remained mostly dressed with the exception of his discarded jacket and vest but Helen had removed her outer skirts and corset. He pretended not to notice the outline of her breasts or the natural arch of her waist as she laid down with him.
Nikola shifted behind her, gently wrapping his arm around her, spooning him against her back. This was always how they slept. Just friends. Friends that shared a bed from time to time. Every week.
It was torture...
He laid his head on the pillow, watching the new moon tracking up the sky and reflecting off the translucent layers of her under garments. She was an immortal and he was a vampire – two creatures that should never meet except to end in violence. Helen fascinated him. Every detail of her was like another mystery branching off into the night sky. He'd happily spend the rest of his life exploring her.
Nikola's lips turned in a frown when he caught a glimmer of something on her skin. There were tiny horizontal silver lines cut into her arm. They crossed her shoulder and headed down towards her back. It looked like marks from a blade -
His breath caught as she turned, her body rolling over to face him in sleep, his arm naturally sliding around her waist.
Nikola couldn't stop staring at the cuts across her skin. If John had touched her, by all the gods that had ever been dreamt up by the world, he would come for John and wipe him from time itself.