THE AGE OF LIGHT
A warm breeze trailed through the open window, kicking an unfurled letter across the wood. It disturbed remnants of glass, sending them tumbling onto the world below as a faint snow that glistened in the morning light. The paper curled, creased and read a thousand times since the evening post.
The National Telephone Company invites you to undertake preliminary work in Budapest. Sincerely, Tivadar Puskás.
There was nothing left in Oxford for Nikola except a curtain of golden hair and sharp pair of blue eyes. His studies were drawing to a close, prospective jobs were rarer than Cabal agents these days and if he stood any chance of changing the world he knew that he must thrust himself upon it.
A skinny figure lingered on the university rooftop, gazing out at the navy expanse of pre-dawn. The sky was banked by a fierce orange stripe, glowing brighter and brighter as the earth fell towards its star. He imagined the fire burning at the heart of the vacuum, tendrils of charged particles ripping through the atmosphere, setting it alight. The magnetic fields of the earth, immense though they were to creatures like Nikola, paled before such a creation. He would give his life to hover above the dome of sky and gaze on the mechanism that would create and end this world.
If Tesla held anything as a god, it was this churning ocean of fire.
Nikola's teeth caught the light for a moment. He was like any other vampire, drawn too close to the sun.
The stonework around him was black. Green bundles of copper wire twisted into a nest surrounding the remains of his first experiment in Oxford half a decade ago. He knelt down to it, running his fingertips over the sad creation.
"The science department has long ago lost hope of its materials being returned, I assure you."
Nikola spun around, his blue eyes finding a set of grey ones, dark and old as the world.
"Professor..." Nikola breathed in reply, keenly aware of the roof's edge behind him. Only a frail guard rail stood between him and the pavement below.
The Professor hid his tall, skeletal body under several cotton gowns. They layered in black and grey, sweeping against the ground as he stalked slowly towards the young scientist.
"Do you know much of history, Mr Tesla?" the Professor asked, trailing his hand over one of the sandstone gargoyles as he passed. "I suppose you must, given your nature."
Nikola's heart quickened against his chest. He curled his hands into fists to stop his claws emerging, fighting the urge to run or fight with every step the Professor took.
"I know a little of classical history, more in its relation to our engineering advancements -"
A bony hand waved through the air, silencing the student.
"Lying is plainly not one of your many accomplishments. If I were you, I would leave truth bending to Miss Magnus. You, Mr Tesla, are a vampire – or as close as the world has come to one in several hundred years."
"You are Cabal..." Nikola accused, his back touching the railing.
"No. I am your balance. Careful..." he added, "you'll upset that balance if you take a tumble off this roof."
Even at his full height, Nikola was not as imposing as the Professor. Vampires were tall but Immortals were statuesque. They were surreal...
"If you are an Immortal," Nikola began cautiously, the light in the sky gradually turning the buildings into golden blocks. Sleepy pigeons ruffled their feathers, blinking out at the morning as they filled the air with soft coos. "Then you are here to kill me."
The Professor could not help but sigh. Even vampires were like children, far too young in the world.
"I am not the first Immortal of your acquaintance, Tesla. Statistical data should lead you to the logical conclusion – that Immortals are capable of living beside vampires. If I wanted you dead, you would be." He added frankly.
"Probability and Statistics were always my weaker subjects..." Nikola replied flatly, earning a smile from the Professor as he turned to watch the sun rise behind the vampire. He lingered, resting his hands on the railing for some time before speaking.
"I knew of you the moment you entered the world. I was in Paris when I heard the faint heart beat come from the West, so fast and soft. It was unlike any I had known before, different even from the half-lings."
He paused to loft his eyebrow suspiciously at Nikola.
"I will probably never know what you and your friends have done but five years ago that heart beat grew stronger. You have become closer to your true form. Show me."
It took Nikola a few nervous minutes before he shifted into his vampire form. The Immortal looked almost disappointed as he picked up Nikola's wrists to inspect him.
"Short claws – not particularly sharp. No pairs of protruding fangs but you have the eyes exact."
"They are my mother's eyes..." Nikola replied softly.
"I suppose you will have to do, Mr Tesla. The world needs vampires. Apex predators are smart, determined and despite their blood lust they have been responsible for the rise of democracy across the ancient world."
"You speak as if you are my father," the vampire whispered.
"Nikola..." the Professor used his first name. "Your father does not even remember what you look like. Immortals are the only constant things in the life of a vampire and you have two of them. We are only dangerous if the vampire population grows."
That was when the blood started to flow across the ground. In the end it had been humans who brought about the end of the vampire world, not Immortals – and this world was teaming with them. Nikola suddenly became very aware of the population below, humming through the sleepy streets. It was that same sinking in the pit of his stomach that he had felt in the underground city.
"Then I will never have children and you shall never hunt them," Nikola swore, resting his hands on the railing.
"That is your choice," the Professor replied.
The vampire and the Immortal watched the sun rise together over Oxford. They spoke of cities rising and falling through time, the constant turn of the world and the ancient landscape which glittered as brightly in Nikola's mind as the sun creeping up into the sky.
He had to move on from Oxford. The future was waiting for him.
John's leather coat creaked as he rested back against the sandstone wall. Branches of new leaves hung down over the foot path, obscuring his view to Helen's house. Oh, he remembered this city – how it smelled in the morning, cold air rising with the rancid odours from the night before. He knew the nights better than the day.
There she was, stepping from the carriage. Helen crossed quickly to her door, looking back over her shoulder with a dazzling smile. A warm breeze kicked her curls up as she waved to the coachman and vanished.
John cast his gaze down to the pavement.
This was his past.
John had not killed a whore in years. Almost fifty, now that he thought about it. The John he was watching stroll through the avenue of fading gas-lights toward Helen's house, however, had journeyed fresh from a kill. He could smell it on the air, stinking in his nostrils. His younger self was sneaking off to different times, burying his dead out of reach, even for the Great Holmes and Watson. They were talented men but they could not police the pages of history.
The future John turned, pacing back through the first flickers of the morning crowd. He turned a corner, slipping into one of the hundred of alleys before vanishing in a blinding flash of violet light.
"John..." Helen looked up from the table at the centre of the basement. She was clearing bundles of paper from it, stacking them in piles on the floor beside empty cages and burned-down candles. She returned the two large candlesticks to the table and lit them, shedding a brighter, warmer light across the room.
John looked darker than usual, something swirling under his brown eyes as he took one of the few chairs and returned it to its proper place. He wished they could conduct these sessions of theirs upstairs in the comfort of the lounge room with its sinking arm chairs and warm fire but Helen was adamant, her work was to be done down here amongst the skeletons and specimens. He was sure that she did this on purpose, to remind him that at the heart of it all, he was her experiment. Her pet project.
He sank into the chair and waited for her to finish. Eventually she laid her heavy journal on the desk and opened it to their last session. He'd politely asked her not to keep notes but she ignored him in the interests of science. If she had been a real doctor like Holmes or Watson, Helen might have noticed the faint specks of blood underneath his sleeve, wet and fresh – or the graze on his palm made between a woman and gravel path. London's streets were safe. Women were not.
"Shall we begin?" Helen asked, settling herself. She looked more like Gregory every day. For a brief moment Helen had been the scientist John hoped she could be. She'd since slipped with the influence of James, Nikola and at times, Nigel, back into this ethically murky world where he knew she'd stay. How he rationalised her morality against his murder was a mystery even to himself. Then again, John had never claimed to be good – he simply needed her to be.
"Where were you last night?" he asked instead, levelling a suspicious gaze at her. "You did not come home until just now."
Helen frowned, her quill lingering above the page.
"With Nikola," she replied innocently.
"James left the pub early – I know he returned to the university before eleven as I followed him there. What were the two of you doing so late into the evening?" His imagination haunted him with thoughts of them alone in that dormitory, hands wandering from glass equipment to clothes...
"I – I don't know," Helen stumbled over her words, shocked by John's admission. "Nikola and I did not -"
"Liar..." he hissed, slamming his hand against the wood. The candle shivered with heavy beads of molten wax dislodged, oozing down onto the table. "It is bad enough that you spend your nights with that vampire but at least I know that Tesla is too terrified of the real world to touch you. James is different – I see the way he watches you. How many times has he had you against the bench in his room..."
"John," Helen replied sternly, heat rising through her cheeks. She was well used to his moods, they fluctuated like the tides. He had good days and then there was this... the jealously. She should not have locked the doors today. "This is ridiculous, you are talking of James."
The jealousy was there in his eyes, burning. Helen could not tell if it was for her or for the other man...
"I wanted to ask if you have started taking the new remedy Nigel has created. He recently brought back a selection of plants from the new world, some of them appear to be promising in preliminary studies to control mood swings and aggression."
John leaned back in his chair, eyeing Helen darkly. Sometimes he loved her – sometimes he despised what she had become.
"I am not an experiment – I refuse to be medicated like one. We have discussed this already. I do not need or want Griffin's foreign poison."
'Patient avoids medical treatment of any kind. Whether for physical or psychological reasons, it is not yet clear.'
"Stop," he commanded, voice deep and harsh. His chair screeched over the tiles as he stood, advancing on her before she could finish the next sentence in her journal. He placed his enormous hand on the open book, smearing the wet ink. "I did not come here this evening to be studied."
Helen kept her professional demeanour but inside her heart beat faster. Her father was not home, her friends were in Oxford. She was entirely alone with John in a circumstance of her own construction.
"We agreed that -"
She didn't get to finish as hot lips crashed to hers, pushing her painfully into the back of her chair. Helen reached up, gripping at his arms to push him away.
"No..." she insisted, standing and fleeing several paces from him so that the table stood between them. "I want to help you. John, you have not been well since the experiment. The blood changed us all – why don't we talk about your gift instead..." she offered, enticing him to sit again. He refused.
"It has its limits," he replied, not particularly interested. "I can go further and further back into time but never past the present."
"Nikola was theorising about that. He thinks that it has something to do with the element of uncertainty in the -"
"I don't want to hear about what Tesla thinks," he cut her off again. "For all his grand talk he's still loitering around Oxford like a lost cat. Define – monster..."
"What – why?" she asked, moving in he opposite direction to him as he started to stalk around the table towards her. She wanted to keep distance between them.
"You have all these books, Miss Magnus, surely they contain a simple definition."
"John..." she implored him. "You are not a monster, none of us are. Do you remember, long ago now... It was you that sat me down and taught me of morality – the difference between knowledge and torture."
A bright light filled the room. Helen gasped, covering her ears as violet and blue sparks erupted from where John had been standing. In the same instant, the universe opened again and he appeared before her. John gripped her arm and threw her down against the desk. The candle fell, erupting in a river of fire over the desk which burned furiously then extinguished leaving them in darkness.
Helen felt cold, sharp steel against her throat, pressing into her delicate skin. She did not struggle, barely breathing as he whispered against her ear.
"I am one of your monsters, Helen."
It was a great deal warmer now, the trees lush and soft as they brushed against the ancient walls of the buildings, snuggled against each other in the afternoon light. The ladies were back on the street, sweeping past Nikola in brightly coloured dresses adorned with lace and pearls. Each one had a gentleman, closely guarding her.
Nikola knocked on Helen's door, checked his watch, then knocked again. He had been suspicious when she failed to show for the morning presentation on the Americas. Helen had talked feverishly of it all month but he had not been able to find her before or during the lecture. He'd even bought her a few trinkets for her shelves and acquired a copy of the gentleman's book. Nikola only had enough money for one copy. Predictably, it was held in his gloved hand, intended for Helen.
"Helen?" he called to the door, leaning against it. There was warmth behind it, too faint for a human to detect. Somewhere inside, her fire was aglow.
Getting in was easy. He roamed casually around to the side, hopped up on a small wall and slipped in through a window. Not wanting to frighten her, he announced his presence to the house as he hunted through it in search of Helen.
"Helen?" Nikola called again, striding up to the attic then back down. There were cups out in the lounge room, embers glowing in the fire and jackets left thrown over the couches. The basement was the last place he looked, descending the stairs carefully with one of Gregory's lanterns held aloft. This place was dark even in the middle of the day. He had never been a fan of its vault-like appearance or the smell of death that permeated from the samples on its shelves.
Nikola pushed open the heavy door, nearly falling into the room with the effort. The oil in his lamp lapped dangerously, making the firelight flicker for a moment across the dark room.
"Helen are you -" he stopped when he heard muffled cries from the other side of the room. Nikola hurried over, navigating the upturned table and chairs that littered the floor until he found her, curled up to one of the bookshelves, sobbing quietly.
"H-Helen?" Nikola's voice trembled as he knelt carefully in front of her, setting the lantern down on the ground. When he reached for her she flinched sharply away, trying to hide amongst her father's books. "It's only me," Nikola whispered, withdrawing his hand at once, resting it on his knee. "Your Nikola..." he added softly.
Hours later, she let him carry her up the stairs. She held the lantern while her tears ran afresh down her cheeks flushed. Nikola set her down on the lounge amongst the pillows.
In the light he could see that she was injured. There were open wounds on her neck and arms, some of them healing but others still bled onto her dress which was torn in a worrying fashion. Dark bruises ruined her wrists which he did not dare to touch.
Nikola did not venture any questions while he set about tending to her. Nikola's soft, cool hands used cotton to wipe away the blood and perfumed oil to sooth it. There was no need for stitches on an Immortal, so he simply covered her wounds with cotton bandages.
"There..." he whispered, finishing by using his silk handkerchief to wipe away her tears. Nikola was deeply worried but she was not ready to talk to him, so he distracted her instead. "I have something for you," he offered her a bright smile, hunting out the book and small bag of trinkets.
Her gaze lowered to the items, fingertips gently touching the book's cover.
"Treasures of the New World," she whispered, looking back up to Nikola. "The lecture – I forgot."
"Yes, you did," he smiled softly, opening the cover of the book for her. It was inscribed to her. "Nikola... you didn't have to."
"Of course I did," he was kneeling beside the couch, her hair brushing across his cheek every time she moved. "Sadly, he was not quite as dashing as you were hoping."
She laughed softly. "No? That part was an exaggeration then..."
"A complete fiction, madam," Nikola teased. "Though he did look as though he had seen a great deal of the world. I asked if he might wait for you this afternoon in the tea house."
"This afternoon," she whispered, looking over to the clock. "Nikola I -"
"They're already gone," he nodded to where the bruises had been on her wrist. "Let me walk you."
"What of our dear friend, Doctor Griffin? I thought that he would be stuck to Fawcett like a leech..."
"Nigel? No... he has his own expeditions. James has barely left his side. Apparently they share a mutual friend, Sir Conan Arthur Doyle."
"I've not heard of him," Helen replied, as they strolled through the university gates. They headed left this time, walking along the sandstone promenade towards the smoking rooms and tea houses humming with activity.
"Nor have I but – ah, there they are now..." Nikola pointed over to one of the weeping cherries. It's bowers of pink blossoms waved just out of reach of two gentleman. James, ever observant, looked up and offered them a subtle wave which Nikola returned. James and Doyle resumed their conversation, discussing one of Sherlock's latest escapades.
They found Percy Fawcett – a tall, serious creature with firm eyebrows and a moustache that curled back on itself like one of the mythical creatures out of his books. He was leaning awkwardly against the window, enjoying the afternoon with a full serving of tea and cakes littered over the table. He'd been cleaned and patched up – but not too much. It did his image good to look as though he'd crawled straight out of the jungle and onto the stage.
Helen and Nikola approached nervously, feeling quite small against a man that had lived every thirty-nine of his years.
A pair of chocolate eyes averted from the window to look upon the two young students. He shifted, a streak of hot pain running through his arm again.
"Miss Magnus and Mr Tesla, I presume," Fawcett said, lighting his pipe again. Its soft, fragrant smoke hunted out the window and soothed his ravaged skin. "James told me to expect you – or warned me, more correctly. Please – sit, you make me tired just watching you stand there."
When they were settled, Tesla worrying a piece of cake with his fork, Fawcett levelled his gaze at the youngsters.
"I take it the pair of you are not here for tales of golden cities..."
"Well – actually," Tesla started, vampire eyes all bright and excited. Helen nudged him sharply in the ribs.
"No. I have a more particular interest in your other tales – of unknown zoology..."
"Most skip over those parts of my story," Fawcett puffed his pipe casually.
Helen leaned forward over the table towards the explorer, her wild beauty more than enough to disarm him. There was something not quite human about her.
"Tell us your stories," she whispered, fascinated. "The parts the others do not wish to hear."