30

CROWN OF THE UNIVERSE

"Just like old times, my dear..." a sickening voice purred through the air. The blade shifted, sharp steel digging into Helen's delicate throat.

"You and I remember the 'old times' very differently," Helen replied slowly, wincing as the blade pressed harder. Her throat had felt his blade many times; firm, trembling, teasing on the deadly edge of threat but it never dove into murder with her flesh. It wouldn't dare. "What are you doing here, John? Last time I checked, vampires were at the bottom of your charity list."

"This is not charity."

"Amasis promised you something?" Helen turned her head a fraction, catching a glimpse of John's eyes. Their warm brown was ringed with crimson as though the demons that clung to his soul were bleeding through into reality. "What have you done?"

"Do you remember James's favourite saying, 'better the devil you know?' Well Helen, I'm your devil –"

"Sometimes I wonder if I know you at all," Helen interrupted. John sighed – she was right.

"Oh but how hard you've tried. How many months did I submit myself to your careful study, doctor Magnus?" John withdrew his knife from her skin, stalking around in front of her. In the dark, he brandished the knife, enjoying the way the fragments of light played off its polished sides. "The Great Sherlock Holmes and his puppy Watson couldn't unravel me – I guess you never stood a chance."

She lifted her gun, toying with the image of his lifeless body on the floor. Helen Magnus didn't need to understand John to control him. That was truth which Sherlock and James never appreciated. Nikola understood; he was well versed in the nature of mysteries. "You've been experimenting."

"As I said, like old times."

"This is not vampire blood," Helen edged closer, also lifting her torch. She shone it at his eyes. John didn't even flinch. "Magoi?" she hazarded a guess and knew at once that she was right. "It's a narcotic, I should have guessed as much. It explains the spread of their species along human trade routes despite the climate being all wrong for their survival."

"Fascinating," he mocked.

"It is – though what it's done to you is perhaps more so."

"Pandora never had a finer box. Enjoy your vampire captives," he bowed low to her – the knife still in his outstretched hand. "Three's a crowd, Helen. They'll be at each other's throats before you reach that cave. I hope you know what you're doing because Tesla sure as hell doesn't. It's Wardenclyffe all over again. I hope you're ready for the fall because he's going to take everyone with him on the way down."

A sharp crack tore the air. Helen shielded her eyes from the purple glow as reality stitched itself back together.

Helen deflated. "I guess you don't intend to be of any help..." she muttered sharply at the dark. "Just like old times."


"Yeah – all right – very funny. You can release me now, half-ling brat." Apries swatted at the cell bars keeping him captive in one of the Sanctuary's holding cells. He knew that damn part-vampire was on the other side, enjoying himself. He almost wished that the vampires had been wiped out so that he'd be spared the tenacity of their inbred litters. "Hey! Tesla! I know you can hear me..."

Tesla couldn't. Dr Nikola Tesla was two floors down perusing the wine cellar, trailed by Helen's pet sasquatch. "Excellent year – 1965, plenty of hot days, freezing nights. This particular vintage survived one of Helen's famous parties. Oh, you should have seen this house back then – room after room of well," he stopped when the fury creatures growled. "It would be a shame to empty it without occasion." He put the crimson bottle back in the dusty rack, fingers lingering on it a moment.

"I thought you didn' see Magnus for fifty years?" Bigfoot grunted, fielding the vampire away from an expensive collection of whites. "You're sayin' she lied?"

A private smile curled his lips. "She didn't lie – and yet she's not correct."

It was one thing to fool her proteges and pets but Nikola riddled out her secret. The moment she strolled through his door in New York he knew that Helen Magnus was playing the universe twice.

Bigfoot tried a different line of question. "So, how's it feel to find out that you're actually a virus?"

Nikola glared. "Been reading Helen's notes again?" he replied. "Technically you can make an argument that humanity is a virus but yes, all right," he was forced to conceded. "Actually, it doesn't bother me too much. Virus's are a very successful life form on this world. They are smart and hard to kill – I take that as a compliment. There's something of the artist about them, sneaking into other creature's DNA – re-writing bits of it to suit their needs."

"Like a parasite?"

Tesla slipped another bottle of wine into his arms. "Totally different."

"I don' know Tesla, them sand creatures seemed parasitical, living off whatever they could sink their fangs into."

Tesla paused, hovering beside one of the ancient wine barrels. A dozen empty barrels were piled up along the walls as decoration, adding to the general charm of the cellars. He was considering making a rudimentary desk out of one of them. Few knew that Helen's Sanctuary was an old vineyard. Nikola bought as the city threatened at its boundaries nearly a hundred years ago. He used it as a lab and hideaway during the second world war until Helen took it off his hands – something about drawing too much attention to himself when he was meant to be dead. Since then the city had encircled it with concrete. The sprawling, soft hills were dug away and the vines left to rot in the ground. Too bad, the wine was good.

"Think of them as a secondary infection. Sand creatures are a reversible state, as you saw with young Mr Zimmerman. We're not quite sure how but the vampire virus has diluted over the aeons. It's littered throughout humanity's genome – recessive, like blonde hair and blue eyes, it'll die out eventually. Gregory never had the chance to work out how it arose in the first place. An accident, no doubt – an initial mutation that spread through a small population."

"An incestuous disease – rings a bell with Egyptians..." Bigfoot paused, horror ruffling his fur. "I know what you're after, Tesla." Bigfoot shifted, looming taller over the slender half-breed.

"So... you did read my notes. You're not just all big paws and fur."

"You shouldn' leave sensitive information on your desk."

"Locked in my drawer. No, clearly not."

"Amasis found somethin' in the City of Stars," Bigfoot continued to guess. He had been trying to work out Tesla's game for quite some – ever since he had appeared on Helen's doorstep. There were no co-incidences with him. Every move was calculated, every play to his advantage. "There's a story about the origin of vampires in one of his records."

Nikola smirked. This creature was wasted on Helen's staff. "The City of Stars is the oldest store of knowledge in the world. I may not have seen the story with my own eyes but I know enough to guess that Amasis thinks the origin of the vampire species is buried in the mountain range behind those damn doors. It's my history – the truth about one of the greatest species that this world has given birth too. Apries may or may not know."

"And the Immortal doesn' want you to find it."

"He's terrified of it." Knowledge is treasure. "No pure blood vampires are ever going to born again – we ran out of queens..."

"You bastard." Bigfoot snapped, as all the penny's fell at once. "You're going to re-populate the world with vampires!"

"Same old story, fur ball." Nikola backtracked to the exit, slamming the door and locking the cellar with Bigfoot trapped inside. He could hear Bigfoot pound against the door with his fists but through the solid oak door, it was little more than muffled thuds that no one would hear. "Sorry Fuzzy, I'll leave a note for someone to come let you out after we're gone. Hey – you should try the 1992 Yale Valley red – I find it very calming."

Nikola Tesla strolled off casually as Bigfoot cursed at the locked door.


KASHMIR, PENSI LA MOUNTAIN PASS

It was frozen hell – a wall of shattered ice, trapped in its terrifying plunge from the black cliffs. At the mouth of the cave, the waterfall of ice was frothed and soft, like storm clouds swelling in a volcanic bloom tinted steel-grey and blue. Beneath, the ice bled into ropes and daggers, reaching toward the valley – most not quite touching the snow. They swayed, snowflakes bouncing off with soft clinks.

The vampires and Helen stood at the base, gazing up at the carnage. Some unfortunate sand creatures were trapped in the ice. Their horrified faces were preserved, bits of their limbs protruding from the ice. More littered the ground below but they were buried under several weeks worth of snow.

"There's no way we can get up there with climbing equipment," Helen said, dropping her useless backpack to the snow. There was no point carting it any further. As she'd feared, they would have to relay on the vampires to take them into the cavern.

"What if the whole place has frozen through? We'll never be able to break through a tunnel of solid ice."

Helen turned to Nikola. He was framed by a ring of snow-dusted fur from his ski jacket. "You better hope that's not the case, Nikola. Have you brought the stones?"

"Have I brought the stones..."

"Just checking!" she backed off, taking another wary glance at the caves. There was a break in the chilling blue – a dark void running along under an overhang of rock. "Apries, interested in doing a spot of scouting?"

"If you'd be so good as to untie me," he nodded, thrusting his wrists forward. Both vampires had been fitted with Tesla's latest invention prohibiting the use of their teleporting gift. Strictly, it didn't stop them from actually teleporting but it sufficiently scrambled the magnetic fields around them, destroying their ability to navigate. Nobody wanted to end up half-embedded in a wall.

Helen typed a pass-code into the wrist bands, whose lights flickered from purple to blue, indicating standby mode. Apries eyed them warily before stalking ahead of the group, carefully eyeing the top of the waterfall. "There's not much space up there. Let me borrow a torch." Nikola threw one at him before the vampire vanished in a flare of purple light leaving the base of the waterfall trembling.

They saw another flicker of purple high up on the ice. Apries vanished for a moment, hopefully finding enough cave for them to climb into.

Nikola stared at the sight before him. This was the birthplace, the heart of his race. Beneath that ice was a world order waiting to rise and bring order to the chaos. The planet had lost its way, tied down with tribal warfare, no direction and insular goals. There was a universe waiting to be explored and Nikola was damned if he'd sit around for eternity, cooling his heels in this backwater.

He'd always heard that the claim to the throne of the universe rested with the most vulnerable and frail of creatures – well, Nikola Tesla was having none of Montaigne and his Renaissance prattle. It was time for the vampires and a new age of peace.