Helen raised the lantern, extending it into the room. Yards of heavy fabric lined the walls, tacked on to the ceiling and left to hang all the way to the dusty floor. Occasionally there was an outcrop of shelves made of solid, dark wood. Some of them had fine-netted wire nailed across the compartment and locks through their handles. As she stepped toward them, she realised why; rat-like creatures scattered away from her light, huddling in the corners of the bookshelf amongst scraps of food.
She panned the lantern across the laboratory where it caught the edges of a table. It was a bare thing, lonely at the heart of the room. There were networks of grooves carved into it which led to a tin bucket on the ground where dark patterns of a mysterious liquid were layered in stains.
In the far corner, the light picked out a pair of golden eyes which opened slowly, staring back at her. Helen stepped closer, slipping from her father's grasp. She had gone this far – Gregory could not stop her. All of his secrets were now hers to share.
Two curved horns, half a foot long, tapered into sharp summits. They protruded from scarlet fur, bunched tightly together in uneven tufts. Like a cat's pelt, it had two layers – a harsh, needle-like exterior with yellow tips and a second, downy coat which kept the creature warm. Except – it wasn't fur, but feathers.
Gregory lit two of the lamps hanging from the ceiling and the room flickered into light. Helen raised her hand to her mouth to cover a gasp. A pair of wings – fragile sheets of skin, were folded onto the creature's back. She could see two enormous paws as big as tea-saucers which it used to rest its head on while a tail curled around its body, twitching as Gregory whispered thing to it.
Helen thought that it looked just like a –
"Dragon, yes," Gregory whispered. "At least, that's the conclusion I have come to. I found this poor thing four months ago while I was in London. It was, well, smaller then, but how could I leave it in alley? My guess is that it was dumped by a black market animal trader – they swarm around the Cabal, making their pickings on capturing and selling Abnormal creatures."
"No," she whispered, unable to get over the 'dragon' part of her father's sentence.
"It is an Abnormal, Helen." He took his daughter's hand, resting beside her as she continued to watch the creature. It eventually grew bored of the intrusion, closing its golden eyes and returning to sleep. "The cornerstone of monster stories since man picked up a pen. This," he pointed in particular at the dragon, "is a species of reptile yet sadly I do not know where to return it. I doubt that it was born in London's streets... There are hundreds of creatures like him, hidden away or captured by agencies like the Cabal for private research. They – they torture them and destroy whatever's left. I can't keep him forever, though," Gregory added, frowning as he lowered his eyes.
Helen read her father's journals but this – this was beyond what she could have dreamed. Worlds were unlocking, secrets unravelling and she found her heart pounding against her lungs.
"Helen, the blood samples that I acquired are from an Abnormal that not even I believed could exist. I stumbled across them once, many years ago now and decided that they were too dangerous to approach again. Vrykolakas, strigoi,upír, impundulu, Sanguine Vampiris," Gregory rolled the words, hushing them as if each syllable was fear enough. "Vampires..." he whispered to her, like a bedtime nightmare crawling into a corner.
"Their blood is one of the most powerful substances on Earth and the Cabal would like nothing better than to get their claws onto it. They paid me exceptionally well to collect samples. You, have one of them."
Helen guessed it to be the mysterious package her father had left in her care earlier that night.
"I entrust you to study and learn from it in my absence, while I hide the remaining two where the Cabal will never find them. All of this," he waved his arms over the room, "is in your care. Now, listen carefully, these are resourceful people. They are going to come looking for me after the week is up – but you are a woman, my daughter. Use that, feign frivolity, make them believe that you know nothing more than needlepoint and they will leave you alone."
She nodded very slowly. That night, her father was gone. He left a half-dried bundle of petals, shrivelled but alive as they clung to the vine creeping out from the pot. The wild rose had suffered from its journey, but its tortured form perked as Helen drizzled water over it.
James and John were displeased with each other after a minor disagreement over the origin of Vampires.
The five of them had found themselves an abandoned corner of the library – the old side, of course, as it was James's turn to pick a nook for their weekly discussion. He paced in small circles between the shelves, a book resting open in his hand as he read the lines of text aloud to his audience.
Helen was listening, but with an air of discontent. They were mocking her, all of them in their own subtle ways, ever since she had told them of her father's research. Nikola was at her feet, apparently preferring the floor. He was asleep and snoring quietly with his head balanced uncomfortably between two encyclopaedias of ancient history.
It was John who took the greatest interest in James's speech. He was reclined in one of the library chairs which they had stolen from the main room and stowed in their private corner. Over the hour, his feet had stretched out on top of the table allowing him to balance a book on his knees which he glanced at several times, awaiting his turn to rebuff James's argument.
"And as softly thou art sleeping
To thee shall I come creeping
And thy life's blood drain away."
James was enjoying this, far more than was reasonable. He had always be a showman, albeit only to a select few. He traced the lines with an outstretched finger –
"And so shalt thou be trembling
For thus shall-"
"Really," interrupted John, aware of the poem's conclusion. "Is this appropriate, considering our company." He deliberately kept his eye away from Helen, knowing that her frown had twisted into scowl. James ignored him.
"For thus shall I be kissing
And death's threshold thou' it be crossing
With fear, in my cold arms."
The book snapped shut, waking Nikola.
"You get the general idea," Watson laid the book on the table beside John. "And that, my dear John, is the beginning of the Vampire in Literature. Case closed."
John sighed heavily.
"There are no such things as 'vampires' – except perhaps in farm boys' drunkin' stupors." Nigel squeezed between two shelves with a fresh arm of books. "And perhaps your literature," he conceded, handing James another book.
"I don't know," James inspected the man on the floor beside Helen, as Nikola yawned at the room. "Nikola's pale enough to be one, especially with those sharp teeth he likes to flash."
"Excuse me?" Nikola replied, sleepily. "Did I provoke you in some way?"
"Your existence provokes me."
"Your reading bores me," he retaliated.
"I agree with Nikola, for once," John added, flipping through the pages of his own book. Stirring the room was the pastime he liked best.
"Enough. Enough. Enough." Helen rolled her eyes and fell against the wall of books, sliding down it in defeat. She landed beside Nikola in a swirl of dust. He flinched in alarm, holding his breath.
James was not finished with Nikola yet. "I particularly enjoyed cruising through your latest work of poetry-" he said, slipping a scrap of crumpled paper from his coat. Nikola recognised it at once, and coughed in panic, stumbling to his feet – an action which failed as one of his legs had fallen asleep.
"My – what?" Nikola grunted as pain constricted his leg muscle, rendering him useless as James straightened the paper. "How did you – where did you get that from?"
"It was just lying on your floor last time you invited us to that spectacle of yours." James's finger still hurt, burnt by an 'accidental' passing of current which Nikola had spent hours making certain that it would do precisely that.
"That is private," Nikola hissed.
James began to read. It was a scant few lines of scattered birds and thunder storms, beautiful enough in construction. Nikola clawed his way back to his feet, his cheeks reddening with every word falling from James's lips.
He lunged once, but James dodged him easily. John threw his head back in a silent laugh, delight ripping the corners of his mouth into a broad smile. Nigel turned away. It wasn't that he liked Tesla – more that he didn't hate him.
"Fine," Nikola's voice wavered, his usual pride shaken. "Keep it."
He left, sidling out between the rows of books and back into the main library where he finally vanished from their sight.
"Excellent," Helen curled her knees up to her chest, pinning her skirt down beneath her arms. It billowed uncomfortably around her. "Look what the two of you have accomplished – not very clever considering neither can coax a current from a coil... You realise, Nikola was going to help you. He wrote up the notes on his motor, they were in his pocket." Helen returned to her feet and collected her things from the table beside John. He shifted his feet as she approached. "Enjoy your spoils, gentlemen."
Before leaving, she approached a stunned James and took the paper from between his fingers.
Nigel had kept quiet, his arms still laden with books. Often, especially at times like these, he liked to think of the other four as elements of nature – as strong in their opposition as their passion. They did not mix but could not keep apart either. It was an impossible system that would eventually destroy itself. Nigel could see that day approaching but he hindered its arrival as best he could by keeping the shaky peace.
Their way of apology was to entertain Helen's 'vampire' tale as truth. Nigel's idea.
"We'll have to get a look at it," James said, lowering his voice though the four of them were alone in the dormitory. "See if this sample really contains special properties."
Helen had not forgiven them, but was nonetheless keen for their help.
"I won't move it," she replied. "The Cabal could be watching the house – you would have to come to it."
"It is not as if you live in India," smirked Nigel, hinting that the others should show more enthusiasm. They did, eventually acknowledging that they could probably meet in two day's time.
"What about Nikola?" asked James, feeding the pig rooting around its box.
"I will speak with him," said Helen sternly. "It's been almost four hours; maybe he'll have forgotten your joke."
Helen doubted it, but she went to the hallway where Nikola's attic lived anyway. There stairs were up, pulled well out of her reach.
"Nikola..." she called, loud enough for him to hear. It was afternoon and last classes of the day were drawing to their end. All but one room in his hallway was empty, and it was far enough away not to be troubled by her efforts to catch Nikola's attention.
He didn't respond, but she knew that he was up there.
"If you proceed with this, I will be forced to climb out the window and up into your room the hard way," she threatened, casting her eye over the window to gauge whether it was possible to carry out the threat. To her amusement, it seemed that it was. A latch, not a lock, secured the window and when open, it would be big enough for her to scramble through.
"Nikola?" she tried again.
"Will he come?"
John was packing his things, preparing to leave. It was a decent ride to the inn which he was calling 'home' until the university approved his residency.
"Why are you asking me?" John paused, turning to Nigel. "I guess, Helen will probably convince him – she usually does. Tomorrow?" he changed the subject. "The meeting's on the grass by the oak tree. I'm hoping for a fine day."
She heard the footsteps first – light and quick across the ceiling. Helen turned as the hatch to the attic rattled, opening out into the hallway. A set of stairs slid down to her. She couldn't see Nikola anywhere above. Usually, he waited for her with a smile, or outstretched hand beckoning her up.
Nikola was located by the window, brushing fragments of broken glass of the sill. He had been doing that for weeks, but there always seemed to be more of it.
"There you are," she said, approaching cautiously.
poetry from: 'Der Vampir" (1784) by heinrich August Ossenfelder