Chapter 1: Part One
Sherlock Holmes, the great detective of London, surveyed his surroundings dismally, his mood a black cloud that could easily swamp even the haze of tobacco smoke. He lay on his settee completely oblivious to the ills of the world, as he was completely immersed in his own.
What could be loosely termed as the ‘country’ Sentinels were often completely appalled by the ‘city’ Sentinels predilection for tobacco smoke; but then again, they didn’t actually live in the great, bubbling, smoking, fermenting cesspool that was London. The sheer insult of foul odours that seeped into every crack and crevice - the mildew, human waste, mould, rot, refuse, decay - offended even the noses of normal, everyday people. To a person that could scent the faintest trace of perfume and follow it’s trail across the city it was an olfactory hell Dante` could not have conceived of in his worst nightmares. The only thing to do was block out the worst of it with whatever pungent but likeable smell was available. Tobacco smoke was utterly ideal, as it also took care of taste as well. It was amazing how often people, even Sentinels, forgot how interconnected the two were.
His sensory fugues had been steadily increasing for the last few months; to the point where his brother was foisting all manner of Guides upon him. It was an act of kindness that Holmes the junior feverishly plotted to repay in the most diabolical way possible, when he wasn’t driven half mad with sensory chaos or on a case. The former, he noted with mulish displeasure, was happening with far more regularity than the latter these days.
Guides. The only punishment that came close to boredom in the hellish spectrum of his existence. Sherlock Holmes had become an active Sentinel at the ripe old age of seven, the only significant event where he had surpassed his brother Mycroft; and wasn’t it just typical that it had brought him no joy. Holmes couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t felt sickly, itchy or pained with whatever new reaction his enhanced senses brought. But he had learned iron control quickly, oh yes. He hadn’t had a choice. His mind, brilliant and broad and alight, insisted on making note of everything he saw, tasted, smelt, heard and felt, examining and analysing every tiny thing ad nauseam. The overwhelming flood of sensory input was matched, torrent for torrent, with his deductive talent; to the point where he was nearly insane from the sheer, unceasing flow of information. He could barely sleep, barely eat, barely keep up while his mind burned and crackled like a lightning storm.
But the brilliance worked on both sides; young Sherlock picked things up fast. With some help, he managed to shore up his mind, damming and blocking and routing the input and subsequent analytical processes into a workable system. In his mind it was a vast, complex aqueduct system, twisting and turning the flood into controllable streams that paralleled and crossed and recrossed; but bordered by stone that was under his control.
It had taken long, painful years. He had travelled the knife edge of utter madness and destruction more than once; but he had managed it, and turned it to his advantage in becoming one of the foremost investigators in London. And he had done so without a Guide.
Who wanted another person underfoot, in the way, demanding attention and companionship for what could be the rest of one’s life? Holmes could see no merit in it. Unlike the lesser Sentinels who needed a Guide to enhance whatever faculties they might possess, having a Guide would only diminish him. He had been in total control of his senses for the better part of his life now, which served as compelling evidence of this fact. He knew that by choosing not to bond with a Guide, he was depriving the London clan of an Alpha Sentinel; he had known for quite some time now that he was not like the other Sentinels. The explorer Richard Burton had, from his latest expedition to Paraguay, discovered a new type of Sentinel which he had called a Dark Sentinel.
Well, Burton thought he had discovered it; but most clans, tribes and prides had known about the Dark Sentinels for hundreds of years, though there were hundreds of different names. Every so often a Sentinel would come into existence that was exceptionally powerful; they practically ruled the clan from the moment they became active. The last recorded one in England before Holmes was a most rare one indeed, for it had also been a female; none other than Queen Elizabeth herself. She had been powerful enough not only rule the largest pride in Europe at the time, but the entire empire as well. She, of course, had a Guide in the Lord Robert Dudley, as she could not have risen to such a height in her clan without one.
That, to Holmes, was simply another reason not to have a Guide. He, for one, was a solitary creature and had no interest whatsoever in dealing with clan politics. Guide-free, he could not come to the attention of whatever mediocre Alphas the city clans had now.
The fact that his whole strategy, so painstakingly built and so stringently maintained, was now failing nettled him. His mind waterways were full of leaks and overflows for no apparent reason, the fugues were happening daily now and the sense chaos, the complete control over his once clockwork perfect senses shrivelling, was overwhelming to the point where he, on top of everything else, now had to drive out a character-less trained dog Guide every few days while his brother continued to press the matter.
Not that the Guides would stay; they had never stayed his entire life. Quite apart from his waterway metaphor, the Guides that had tried to bond with him had been driven out of his mind almost instantly by what one described as ‘being submersed in an ocean of fire and repeatedly struck with lightning’. The huge, horrible, overwhelming ebb and flow of Holmes unstoppable intellect, sharpened and not blunted by his senses, defied any attempt of control, containment or understanding. The empathic Guides who tried to build a wall around this cosmos sized storm of light and noise found themselves so completely out of their depth so quickly that the only thing they could do to avoid madness was to retreat; oft times literally running screaming out of the door. No one could shield or soothe that cataclysm of thought. They might has well have tried to drink the ocean with a teaspoon.
Well what did the Guild of Sentinels expect? These days, while Guides were no longer considered the human shaped pets they had been a few centuries ago, they were still sheltered and contained from a very young age. They were trained, much like young ladies were groomed for marriage, to be useful and dutiful and unobtrusive and quiet. They were similar to highly trained servants; everything they were taught was for the sake of the Sentinel they would bond with, which made them ignorant of most of the rest of the world. They were dull, without opinion and without personality. Holmes loathed the very idea of sharing a life with someone who was, to put it mildly, a companion who knew nothing and could add nothing.
Holmes glared dully at the drawer which held his supply of morphine. It was tempting; he had used it before for the drugs ability to detach his mind from the searing discomfort of his body, and allow him to process matters away from his sensory input for a time. But now it was a danger. His senses were, for the first time since adolescence, spiralling out of his control and the risk of hallucination was far too great. The last time he had been immersed in a drug induced fantasy, he had ended up in an asylum for something he couldn’t even remember and it was just lucky that someone had been able to identify him and summon Mycroft, a humiliation he had yet to live down.
So he lay here in a black mood, his body now an enemy. His mind yearned for something to do.
At times like this he would try to stretch out with his senses, as far and as wide as London, gently coasting the hustle and bustle, listening, learning, observing. Such a thing was always an education in human nature, if nothing else.
Aware he was taking a foolish risk with his sudden daily fugues, Holmes reached out.
He stretched past Mrs Hudson, bustling around in her kitchen, past the street urchins fighting on the street while a constable tried to restore order, past the argument one block over Camden House, past the nest of starlings in the tree near the park, past the religious service halfway finished, spittle flying from the preacher’s mouth in sharp stacco drops, past the carriage wheels and the footsteps, the infants crying, the yelling, the moaning or both love and hate, the mundane conversations, the anger, the joy, the despair, the hatred, the passion, the laughter, travelling down the slick wash of the Thames until the clank of construction on the....
Holmes was up as if he’d been struck by lightning, his shoes and coat on before his brain even registered, down the stairs and out the door with less strides than there were steps. He didn’t bother with a cab, his long legs fell into a sprinting stride and he sped off, heedless of people jumping out of his way.
He didn’t even know why he was going. All he knew was that it was impossible not to go.
John H Watson, MD, gratefully took the help offered to him by the fisherman to get off the small boat; his wounded leg had been healing nicely but he was still shaky on it, and not nearly stable enough to travel the short hop from the portside to the wharf jetty. It ached in the cold anyway. It might have damaged his pride slightly to be half lifted down, but Watson’s pride had sustained worse blows.
The fisherman, Drewitt, was a Sentinel; and was quite abnormal as Sentinel’s go. He and his Guide, Pendley, eschewed the usual wolf pack approach to life of most Sentinels; the sea was their territory. They barely ever set foot on land and spent sometimes years at a time with only themselves for company; trading for food variety using the fish they caught with other ships passing in the trade lanes. They were quite well known to most captains and crews cruising the Channel, the North and the Atlantic seas.
Watson had been astonished when they had drawn alongside the vessel that had been taking him home from the war, demanding from the captain that he send down the Guide who was in distress, as they would take him the rest of the way. It was true he had been becoming overwhelmed with the emotions bombarding him from the other passengers but he’s had no clue any other empath had been able sense his pain.
It hadn’t been so bad when first setting out from Bombay. Watson had still been quite sickly, even a month after being released from the hospital, and had spent the majority of his time curled in his cabin, too exhausted, emotionally and physically, to do anything else but lay there. The enteric fever had sapped the last grains of fortitude that the war, Maiwand and subsequent events had ripped from him. He had needed the rest.
But then someone, somehow, had found out he was a Guide. He would never know how anyone had discovered the fact; he bore none of the marks, crests or other indicators that would have spoken of his status. He hadn’t been given them yet; he had barely been active for six months and most of that time had been spent recovering from one thing or another, away from any Sentinel authority.
The whispers had started; then the wariness, the fear, the resentment, the affront, the disgust. A Guide could feel the most intimate and private emotions from those around them, that was an antithesis to Victorian sense of privacy and properness. Ignorance of how a Guide’s spiritual and emotional awareness of others worked lead to fearful assumptions of perversion, promiscuity and sin. The falsehoods people were willing to accept about Guides were inbuilt, based on years of superstitions, misunderstandings and misconceptions, exaggerated by fanatical Puritanism in the past and cultural tendencies towards such things as proper restraint and deportment at present; and the fear of having these things stripped away. Even the popular reign of Elizabeth had done little to shift these prejudices; and modern day scientific thought was hard pressed to override the deeply held beliefs of the centuries. They did make some headway, but it was slow going and a hard struggle.
Watson hadn’t been trained from a young age. The art of shielding himself from the constant projections of emotions around him was not an automatic reflex. He hadn’t been taught the method for blocking them out, for ignoring them, or blunting them. All his military training in defending his body, all his medical training in fighting death did him no good against these weapons. All he could do is retreat, never emerge from his cabin, and do his best to ignore the shouted epithets and pounding on his door. The scratched libel and foul things smeared on his door and the hateful notes shoved underneath had eventually driven the captain to post a man outside his door. Food and water were brought to him, but he was barely coherent enough to eat or drink, he could barely even sleep. Half crazed from fatigue and hunger, Watson knew he must have looked a sight when Drewitt had forced his way aboard, using a Sentinel’s superior strength and speed which was helped greatly by a fitness borne of a life of hard labour. He had removed the obstacle of the door in one blow and had half carried Watson off the ship and onto the small fishing boat that he and his Guide called home. Watson had nearly cried with relief when Pendley’s spiritual shield had closed around his own mind, finally granting him respite. He had slept for two days; Drewitt and Pendley had apparently forced him to consciousness periodically to get broth into his stomach, but he had no recollection of it.
Watson had enjoyed his weeks aboard the Farsight, as the boat was appropriately named; even in spite of the fact he had never been a great admirer of the ocean. Watson was definitely happier with solid earth beneath his feet than near bottomless depths of water. But Drewitt and Pendley were both excellent if quiet companions and a vast improvement over that hellish ship.
He had watched Drewitt and Pendley with fascination. He had known many Sentinels and Guides in the army as many of them were attracted to military service. He had, somewhat without choosing, become something of an expert in Sentinel medicine. He had had close contact with a Sentinel bloodline when growing up in Edinburgh, so he already had intimate knowledge of dealing personally with Sentinels. Because he had this experience, the Sentinels and Guides in the army had sought him out for medical help when they could. But Drewitt and Pendley were completely different from what he had experienced previously.
For one thing, they were both older men; most Sentinels fighting on the front lines were young, brash, adventurous; not tied to a territory or a clan strongly, which made them ideal for foreign deployments. The pair of fishermen had been bonded for forty years. They had reached a point where they barely needed to talk to one another anymore; they could read each other’s moods and intentions long before they needed to put it into words. It was riveting to watch them work, wordlessly assisting and anticipating each other, looking almost like one person inhabiting two bodies. It was unfathomable that they should tire of each other’s company; it would be like tiring of your own arm or leg.
Drewitt barely spoke at all anyway; he was one of those quiet, reticent characters, who would offer only a word or two in explanation or reply and fill the rest of the communication in with silent nods or gestures. Pendley was more loquacious, but not by much; he was the one who brokered the trading deals with the ships, but while on the boat he seemed to be content with the silence his Sentinel produced.
It was Pendley who had explained to him how he had felt Watson’s distress; how he had frantically had Drewitt turn the boat and make a beeline for the ship. Watson felt a flush of embarrassment when he realised he had been projecting so much, but Pendley reassured him calmly that Watson had obviously been in no shape to stop it, and shouldn’t have even if he was. No Guide should have to suffer like he had suffered.
Watson made himself useful on the boat, because being useless was not his nature; helping with what hand chores there were to do, daubing ointment onto rope burn on Drewitt’s hands from pulling in the netting. He’d been able to help a seriously ill man on another sailing ship they passed on their way, cleaning an infectious wound and having medicines on hand for the fever. The fishermen had gotten a fairly good deal on fresh fruit from Watson’s assistance.
Finally, they had arrived in London. Drewitt and Pendley wished him well on his voyage, and told him to send letters via ships leaving from the harbour; eventually, one would reach them. He left them with as many medicines and bandages as they would accept, and even hid a few when they weren’t looking. He could think of no other way to repay their kindness.
Drewitt and Pendley watched the still wounded man silently as they travelled back out towards the sea. Pendley turned to his Sentinel and they shared a moment of profound communication, completely silent. Pendley hadn’t been able to tell Watson; hadn’t been able to find the words to explain that after he had felt the distress, it had taken them five days and well over a hundred miles to reach the ship to find him. Pendley had never felt a signal so strongly; he’d never heard of any Guide being able to project that far, even at full strength; and the doctor had been half dead when they had arrived. John Watson was immensely powerful.
Watson paused for a moment on the docks, taking in the intimidating skyline of the city of London. The Farsight had been small enough to gently slip into the mouth of the Thames, so Watson didn’t have to go through a lot of paperwork with any officials. He took a deep breath (regretting it slightly, as he was on the rather pungent docks), his cane in one hand and his medical bag in the other and walked into the city. Every step he took almost physically hurt and not because of his leg. It was like a weight was dragging his back to the docks. Watson thought maybe a part of him wanted to remain with the Farsight, because it had been the first time in a very long time he had felt truly safe. But he knew he could not linger there. He had to face this. So he forced himself to move onwards. After so many hardships, one more burden to carry barely registered.
Mere minutes later a dishevelled and scruffy dark haired man surged onto the docks, breathing hard, his eyes darting fiercely left and right. He was so unbalanced by what he had felt that he made a critical error, and stretched out with his senses. This was a mistake in the putrescent air of the Thames mouth. He slipped into fugue.
By the time he was brought out of it, and much to his chagrin, whatever had pulled him here was long gone.
End Part One
Chapter 2: Part Two
Watson meets his Matchmaker....
Disclaimer: All owned by the estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and associated folk. Written for fun and not for profit
The Sanctuary was the headquarters of the Guild of Sentinels, which itself dominated the entire area of what was once known as Hyde Park, overlooking the Serpentine. It had been standing since the reign of Elizabeth, and had her noble sentiment was etched in the stone lip of the massive circular structure that dominated a good part of the London skyline. All Those Who Hath Great Heart To Stand Guard At The Borders, All Those Who Hath Great Strength To Restore The Innocent, Might Find Sanctuary Here.
Aside from the massive round domed main building which acted as a meeting place, the rest was composed of a wide, multi-acre stretch of smaller buildings and parklands, filled with fragrant gardens, shifting reeds, high walls, beehives, lapping water fountains; any soothing sound and scent to blot the din and stench of the city. It was practically a small, self contained village. It had been maintained just as it was for centuries by a crew of diligent caretakers and was strictly forbidden to general public. This was the Sentinels domain.
The Guide House was a more recent addition to the Sanctuary. It was a grouping of nondescript buildings really; wedged inconspicuously behind the massive main dome of the Sanctuary, bordered on its sides with a quadrangle cloister of rectangular, functional structures. Some wags would say the cramped, tiny structures pressed against the massive dome said everything that needed to be said about the relation between Guides and Sentinels.
Watson thanked the Gate Guard who had escorted him to the House from the huge front gates of the Sanctuary’s border wall. The man, a Sentinel in a smart, royal blue and silver uniform, nodded respectfully and pointed him towards the head office; a small, slope roofed building which was the only one truly adjoined to the dome. Watson took a breath, and walked inside.
Once within he was faced with a rectangular room, low roofed, bordered on three sides by long benches and on a forth by long front desk manned by smartly dressed clerks, surprisingly of both genders. A further look revealed they were all apprentices of the Guide House. Long, smooth strips of silk were affixed neatly around their necks. That particular rank insignia for Guides, the silk ribbon around the neck, was a remnant of the centuries old practice of leather collars once worn by Guides. It was no longer particularly fashionable; the leash or chain that had once gone with the collar had been banned by the Sentinel Queen Elizabeth, and the leather collars themselves had fallen out of fashion some twenty or so years hence after the American Civil War, which highlighted even to the international community the idea that a truly modern country had no need for slaves. But still, the collars remained after a fashion, in those silken torques.
Other than the clerks, a mismatched gathering of people waited, talking only softly. There were poor, well scrubbed country folk in their Sunday best, waiting timidly; they all had a child or children with them, so they were most likely here to have them enrolled or accepted into the House, where all young empaths were trained. There were older youths, apprentices and students of the House, perhaps here to speak to the heads of their schooling. There were haggard, tired looking folk there also, unbonded Guides who reported here. It was hard going, without a bond. Even the most skilfully built spiritual shield could not be maintained indefinitely. That was why Guides needed Sentinels. The shield the Sentinel could wrap around his or her Guide was permanent, and could bolster a Guide’s own shielding ability. Without it, Guides maintained as they could, but were constantly harassed and flooded with emotions and pains of others, which wore down the shields eventually; all that could be done it to shore them up, and hope that a Sentinel would come before insanity and death.
Watson could sense the young empaths more clearly than the other, ordinary people in the room because they projected emotions more clearly; they glowed like fireflies in Watson’s mindscape. Their more ordinary family members could not project as their children could, but all humans do to some degree, and Watson was aware of them nevertheless; like the distant wash of the ocean – emotional tides ebbing and flowing. Watson was very careful not to focus attention on them, because he could not fully control his ability to block out their emotions, and he respected their privacy. The young empaths he could do nothing about; but because they were young their emotions were...uncomplicated. Simple tunes and lullabies, rather than the complex symphonies of adults. There was nothing harmful or secret about how they felt. Most of them were thin, high ringing bells of trepidation; there was a huge atmosphere of tension in the room.
There were also, Watson realised, a few Sentinel-Guide pairs in the room. Not many, only two or three; but even without his keen ability to sense the bond between them in how they echoed each other emotionally, the way they sat close together or moved together spoke of their status even without the insignia denoting it.
Watson strode up to the main counter before the main clerk. The clerk, a young man, asked him his name and business.
“Doctor John Watson,” Watson replied quietly. “I was told to report here.” He held out a folded and slightly battered letter to the clerk, who started in surprise as he read it.
“You’ve just become active, sir?” the clerk looked him up and down, clearly taken aback.
Watson nearly winced as he felt eyes turning on him. “Yes.” Was all he could say. It was extremely rare for anyone to become active as a Guide past the age of seventeen or so. Guides generally went active empathically very young. For Sentinels the active age scope was much wider, but it tended to get less likely the older they were past forty years or so.
Flustered, the clerk hastily wrote down his name. “Take a seat, sir. Er...someone will be out to see you directly.”
Watson retreated. Well that went well, he thought ruefully. He supposed he’d have to get used to that reaction; his case was an unusual one.
Watson chose a chair nearest to the front door because soldier’s instincts are hard to suppress. He took a seat next to a cluster of the aforementioned well scrubbed country families. All the Guides in Britain were trained here, so some young ones had to come from a long way away.
Watson in fact sat next to one said young Guide; a fresh and sweet faced country child of about twelve years, in a clean, plain frock with severely neat hair. She was ringing with nerves, her face pale. She maintained a white knuckled grip on the hand of her mother, who every so often would reach her other hand over to pat her daughter’s arm. Mothers, empathic or not, tended to know what their children felt instinctively.
Watson felt moved by the poor child’s terror. Bad enough she was in this huge, intimidating city that was so different from everything she’s ever experienced before; she was also carrying the burden of the knowledge that she would be left in the hands of the House today, and may not see her family again for months, maybe years while she was trained; maybe not ever again, if a Sentinel came to her early and then was deployed overseas. She bore that terrible weight with an admirably tearless stoicism that earned Watson’s respect, as her plight both mirrored his own and surpassed it.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he asked politely, keeping his voice calm and level. He quieted his own uneasiness and filled his being with a confident calm, one which years of medical training and battle field surgery had taught him to call at will. He could use his inability to control his projecting to his advantage here. “May I ask you something?”
Her head snapped around; as did her mother’s. The woman watched Watson with a hint of wariness. “Ye...” the word came out a dry throated croak. The girl swallowed. “Yes, sir?’
“I’ve only just become a Guide,” he explained softly.
“Really?” Astonishment broke through the nerves momentarily. It was echoed in her mother, who raised her eyebrows. “Just now, sir?”
“Oh, yes. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this,” he leaned closer, as if giving a confidence. “But I don’t know what any of the colours mean on the insignias,” Watson discreetly pointed to the silk collars, which were indeed different colours. “Do you know what they mean? Oh my, how rude of me,” Watson added, as if just remembering. “My name is John Watson.”
He held out a hand for the girl to take, which she took after an encouraging nod from her mother. “Jane Blakely, sir.”
“Miss Blakely,” Watson shook her hand, and passed all the calmness he could across in the moment of contact. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s really very embarrassing.”
The girl gave him a tentative smile. “It’s all right, sir. The Sentinel who leads the clan in my village told me about it before I came here. The plain white ones,” she pointed to the white strip around her own throat; though it was rough cotton, and not silk. “Means you are not bonded and not trained; you have no shield.”
“That’s you and me,” Watson nodded encouragingly.
Jane nodded back. “Yes, sir. The plain yellow ones mean you have been trained, but are not bonded.” The clerks wore yellow ones.
“So you get them after you finish training?”
“That’s right,” Jane nodded, becoming more animated. “The red ones are for guides who have bonded with an ordinary Sentinel, and there’s a blue one for guides who have bonded with an Alpha Sentinel. I think Beta Sentinels Guides are red with a blue stripe in the middle.”
“Beta Sentinel?” Watson asked.
“A Beta Sentinel is a sort of second in command, Mister Watson,” Jane’s mother broke in. “There is a rank within most clans. Isn’t that right, Jane? The Alpha’s lead the clan, and the Beta’s are next in the line, then the Gamma Sentinels – there aren’t many of them – they are much like priests or doctors; they have authority in certain areas of the clan life, like health or bonding rites. The rest of the clan are Delta Sentinels – their Guides are the ones who wear the red collars. And the Gamma’s collars....can you remember Jane?” she nodded to her daughter.
“Red with a green stripe,” Jane answered confidently. Her grip had loosened greatly from her mother.
“Well, you certainly know much more about this than I do!” Watson smiled at her, and the girl beamed back at him, nerves forgotten. Her mother mouthed a ‘thank you’ over her daughter’s head at the doctor, who tipped his head respectfully to her.
“There’s a plain green one too,” Jane added, frowning. “But I’m not sure what those ones mean.”
“Green is for the Consorts,” a young lad, white ribboned, broke in. Their conversation had drawn the attention of a few others in the room.
“Consort?” Jane asked.
“You know, a Guide who is too weak to actually bond with a Sentinel,” the lad waved a hand.
Mrs Blakely looked surprised. “There are empaths too weak to bond?”
“Sure, Missus,” the lad shrugged. “Lots in the city. They’re used as nanny-Guides for Sentinels until they can bond, and for Guardians sometimes.”
“What’s a Guardian?” this came from another man, who had accompanied his family to the city also. The crowd was getting bigger; the levels of tension in the room were unwinding slowly.
“You know,” this came from a haughty girl in a student’s grey uniform. “A person with one or two heightened senses, but not all five. You need all five to be a Sentinel. Guardians can’t bond like Sentinels,” she sniffed. “But they still sometimes need help to control the sense they do have.”
Even though Watson knew all this, he still wanted to keep the discussion going. The lack of nervousness in the rooms was going all the empaths therein the world of good, which in turn helped the ordinary people. A nervous empath could make others nervous by unconsciously projecting. “So, how does one tell the difference between a Sentinel and a Guardian?” he asked the group.
A Sentinel came up, his male Guide walking the proper one step behind him, half blocked by the Sentinel’s body. This was the accepted way for Sentinels and Guides to move on the streets and in company. “That’s easy enough sir,” the Sentinel held out his hand for all the young people to see. “All Sentinels and Guardians wear the arm band. Five coloured pips, studs, weaves or bands denote the rank of Sentinel. One colour for each sense. Blue for sight, red for hearing, yellow for scent, green for touch and purple for taste. Guardians will wear one to four pips or studs, and wear whatever colour reflects their enhanced senses. If the armband is black, then they are an Alpha; Beta’s will have black edging on brown. Everyone else has ordinary brown leather.”
“I’ve seen a few who use beads though,” one woman added thoughtfully. “Beads, and sometimes embroidered threads too.”
The Sentinel shrugged. “Every clan has their own styles, of course.” He turned to Watson with a calculating look. “Are you really John Watson? The papers all said you’d been kidnapped off a liner.”
Watson blinked in surprise. “Excuse me? When did they say that?”
The eyes of the lad who knew about Consorts were open wide. “You are the Guide that was kidnapped? That was in all the newspapers weeks ago. A Guide kidnapped of a liner by pirates!” he looked excited by the very thought.
“Pirates?” Watson repeated in disbelief. “They weren’t pirates, they were fishermen. I...I was ill. They were a Sentinel-Guide pair who took me on because they could care for me.”
“As I live and breathe,” the Sentinel shook his head. “You may want to stop by the Times and have that sorted out.”
“The Times?!” Watson’s mouth opened at the nods around him. “Good grief!”
A clerk had come up, and broken into the group. “They are ready for you now, sir.”
Watson felt his uneasiness return, and felt a small hand pat his own. He looked up to see Jane Blakely giving him a brave little smile. Watson gave her a proper salute, which made her giggle, and slowly rose, gripping his cane.
The clerk led him silently through a door past the front desk and down a hallway to an anteroom holding a chair behind a desk, which had a huge thick ledger on it, and filing cabinets lined the walls. There were two doors aside from the one Watson entered, one straight ahead and one off to the left. A thin, nervous sort of man with a green band around his throat greeted him in the dull, silent chamber. He really was very nervous. He was almost twanging with it, the vibrations hovering in the aura around him, which Watson did his best to ignore.
“Mister Watson?” the bespectacled man came up, worrying his hands together.
“Doctor,” Watson corrected. “Doctor Watson.”
“Oh! Oh, yes, of course,” the man gave a nervous smile. “I hope you aren’t offended by the wait; it’s just that your coming has been so very extraordinary. We were quite unprepared for it.” The man took off his spectacles and polished them. “I am James Carmichael, by the way. I am the archivist here, as well as the personal secretary to the Matchmaker.”
Watson extended a polite hand.
“Oh, no, you shouldn’t,” Carmichael shook his head. “Unbonded empaths shouldn’t actually touch anyone unless absolutely necessary. Emotions are transferred so much more easily through touch, as I’m sure you know. It’s vital they maintain as much distance as possible so that they can avoid any potential overloads.”
Watson lowered his hand. “I see,” he replied uncertainly.
Carmichael, as if to illustrate his words, retreated back around his desk, putting distance between them. “We...er, we have your belongings. The liner company had them sent here after your...er, abduction.” Flustered, Carmichael coughed.
“I was not abducted,” Watson denied firmly. “I was ill. The fishermen who took me off the boat were a Sentinel and a Guide. They had the knowledge required to care for me.”
“Oh. I see,” Carmichael blinked.
Watson continued. “Mister Carmichael, can you please tell me what is to become of me? I was told to report here by the Guild once I was...was discharged from the army, but I don’t know why. And while I may have some personal and professional experience of Sentinels and Guides, I have no knowledge of how they are trained or anything of that nature. I don’t know quite why I am here.”
Carmichael gave a nervy little smile, which suggested he felt like he’d just been put into a frypan. “Ah yes, well...ah, you see,” he started nervously. “Your becoming active has presented us with some difficulties, you see. Your case really is quite, quite unique, and there has never been another like it. You became active recently and you are twenty four. Empaths usually go from inert to active at a very young age, you see.”
“Yes, I know that,” Watson replied.
“Yes...er, yes. Well, you see our first difficulty; all of our training programs are designed to teach the youth. We take in children as young as two, and mould them from there. I think the oldest that has been admitted to the House in the last twenty years has been sixteen at most. Our students all live and eat together, they share rooms, classes; and it just wouldn’t be appropriate for an adult man to share rooms or classes with children; especially since they are not really adept at blocking out complicated emotions from adults. Our teachers are all bonded Guides or specially trained Consorts, so they have a certain amount of self-control.”
Watson felt his stomach drop. “So...you can’t help me?”
Carmichael waved his hands. “Oh no, no, no. We will help you; all empaths are required to be given assistance, by law if nothing else. That’s almost the whole idea of The London Pride Act of ’43. It’s just,” the man looked wretched. “We’re not entirely sure where to start. Training will have to be by private tutor, which we are still sorting out for you. After training most unbonded adult empaths gain employment of some sort; it’s very important to gain useful skills outside of training, and such employments often give Guides experience in dealing with the outside world. Otherwise they will be of no use to a Sentinel. After at least a year of employment, then they are sent to the Matchmaker, who assesses them and finds them potential bondmates.”
“Hang on,” Watson frowned. “I thought bonding was a spontaneous event. It’s not like marriage; it has nothing to do with status or wealth.”
“Well, yes, in a way,” Carmichael explained. “The Matchmaker doesn’t just force two people together, you know. He or she groups together selections of Guides and selections of Sentinels that seem compatible; that have comparable experiences and education, that sort of thing. The groups meet at specially crafted events throughout the year. That way bonds can be formed within peer groups; where each participant in the bond has similar knowledge and skill sets, thereby making the bond much more likely to succeed.”
Watson said nothing, because that was news to him. He’d seen some bondings in the war, because threat and danger were often very strong triggers in inert Sentinels and Guides. They had been completely opposed to the usual standards of polite society – they had been intense and savage and passionate and unrestrained. Many found the idea of bonding, especially of the same gender, to be offensive or disgusting, an anathema to proper civilised behaviour. It was unfair to judge it so because, while it might take days to really build up, once the bonding heat took hold, you had as much hope of controlling it as a fish had of flying. Watson, always concerned with the pain and suffering of others, had never been reviled by it. He’d found the raw, primal event to be sincerely honest, and oddly beautiful. It generated so much joy, so much love; and Watson knew well how little there was to be found of that in the world. One thing he did know is that the bond didn’t care about rank, knowledge or experience. Lords could be bonded with farmers, learned intellectuals with illiterate labourers; but that wild, savage love was common throughout.
“Well, I know I have to be trained,” Watson replied to Carmichael. “So I’ll be happy with any teacher you can provide. At least employment won’t be a problem.”
Carmichael grimaced. “Er...it may be er...a problem. You see we’re not sure if you would be allowed to er...practice medicine in your current state.”
Watson’s jaw dropped open. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well...as I said you case is extraordinarily unique...and you are unbonded. The Guild hasn’t decided anything yet, mind you,” he reassured hastily. “But because medicine is such a highly skilled profession that requires mental and emotional stability to be professional, they are not sure whether you are stable enough to act as a medical doctor. Many unbonded Guides act as nurses...”
“I am not a nurse!” Watson exclaimed. “I am a trained army surgeon!”
“Yes, but, well,” Carmichael sighed. “Your circumstances have changed from when you were in college, yes?”
Watson forced himself to calm down. He knew it wasn’t the man’s fault. “Isn’t there some sort of law in place about this? The Abernathy Ruling?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Carmichael nodded. “The famous lawyer and a late bloomer like yourself. You are correct, he sued and won the right to keep practicing law; and yes, many Guides as well as Sentinels who have had their careers diverted by going active have now been allowed to stay in their professions without mandatory military or civil service but...you see...there has never been a Guide medical doctor. Sentinel doctors, yes, but no Guide, ever. They are not sure quite how that affects things. And in any case,” Carmichael added. “The Abernathy Ruling only applies to bonded Guides; while you are unbonded it does not apply. After bonding, maybe you would have the right, with your Sentinels permission of course, but er...not...not at the moment.”
Watson stepped back, stunned beyond belief. “How long exactly will it be before I can bond?”
“It will rather depend on how long your training will take, and if you will be allowed to do it concurrent with your employment, but if so, then at least a year.”
Watson could barely think. A year? A year of drudgery at some low skill position before he could be a doctor again? It was like his world had crumbled around him.
“Of course, you may bond spontaneously before then,” Carmichaels voice came from some distant place. “That has been known to happen on occasion. We do try to prevent it as much as possible, because untrained Guides may not be able to assist their Sentinels in the way they should.”
“What...happens now?” Watson asked weakly.
“Er...well, the Matchmaker, er.....wants to assess you. This will give you a rank level. Once she has done so, you will be given a physical examination by the staff doctor, to assess your general health. And then we will see about finding you somewhere to stay. As I er...mentioned, we can’t put you in the student barracks.”
“I see,” was all Watson could say.
The door in behind the desk opened, and a demure young woman dressed completely in white addressed them with her head bowed. “The Matchmaker is ready.”
Watson gripped his cane, and followed the young woman in, still reeling from what he’d just been told.
It was a sumptuous chamber. No longer low roofed like the rest of the building, it was a more expansive space, lined with deep carpets and velvet drapes, though there were no windows. It was rather like a wealthy sitting room without the proper furniture; a sideboard held enormous vases of flowers, and a chandelier hung from the uppermost roof. It looked like an enclosed space, but there must have been a door behind the drapes at the back of the room, because the young woman who led Watson in disappeared behind it silently, after dropping a curtsey to the other person in the room.
The whole thing was rather like a scene on a stage; the impression was helped by the raised dias at the end of the room which contained the only piece of furniture other than the sideboard. A well padded arm chair with a dramatically carved back rest fanning out like a peacocks tail sat like a throne in the centre of the dais. There sat the other occupant, an expansive woman with a regal air of authority about her. She was dressed expensively and with an unfortunate tendency toward gaudiness, and wore an abundance of heavy jewels. The crowning glory of it was a red leather collar with intricate silver loops, a sort of ornate throwback to the era of leashes and chains. She fanned herself laconically with a feathered fan, rustling the expensive silk of her dress.
Watson felt something hard and sharp brush against his mind, followed by a flash of annoyance that wasn’t his.
“I,” she spoke slow and deep. “Am the Matchmaker Guide of the London pride, the Lady Beatrice Ascot. You may address me as Matchmaker or my Lady. You,” gestured with one thick arm. “Are John Watson, are you not?”
“Yes, my lady,” Watson answered politely. He was feeling a sharp sense of irritation from the woman, as if she’d been somehow insulted. She rose and came down, walking around him with a critical eye.
“Why do you bring that,” Lady Beatrice jabbed an imperious finger at the cane. “Into my presence? It is disrespectful to carry such things within the House.”
Watson unconsciously straightened into attention. The day was not improving. “I need it mada... Matchmaker. My leg was recently wounded.”
Lady Beatrice sniffed. “Very well. How long have you been active?”
“Six months, Matchmaker.”
“Six months? Why did you not come earlier?” she demanded.
“I wounded in battle, madam. After which I was captured, and when I was returned to the army I was struck down with enteric fever.” The simple statement of events was all perfectly correct, but no amount of time or words could really describe what happened to him.
Lady Beatrice sniffed again. “My Lady. My Lady, or Matchmaker. Very well,” she seemed almost disgruntled at his reasonable excuse. “I assume you have received some modicum of training, for you would be quite mad without it.”
“Yes Matchmaker,” Watson replied, shifting his weight. He had been on his feet a long time now, and after the walk through London his leg was voicing complaints. There was nowhere to sit, though. “I was...rescued from my captors by a band of wandering Afghani folk. Their leader was a Guide of sorts, and she...helped me.” Help didn’t begin to describe it. The old woman had saved him, protected him, and taught him to control his sudden gifts to whatever degree possible in the mere month it had taken them to find the regiment. A month in the real world, and who knows how long elsewhere. But Watson wasn’t thinking about that. He still hadn’t sorted that...dream world out in his mind yet.
A spurt of amusement bloomed in Lady Beatrice that made Watson look up. “Surely you cannot believe,” she scoffed derisively. “Those heathens truly understand the methods of being a Guide? I think perhaps you were lied to. Understandable, I suppose. You must have been in a vulnerable state. But you know nothing about being a Guide.”
The sudden patronizing dismissal pricked Watson’s temper, though it was only a brief moment of annoyance. “British historians have confirmed the traditions of Sentinels and Guides in those countries were common a thousand years before the Romans were even here, my lady. That I do know.” He spoke calmly and without accusation.
Lady Beatrice’s face twisted sourly. “Do not be impudent to me. I know more about the ways of the Guides than any poor bred foot soldier from the countryside.”
Watson was more than just a soldier and a doctor. He was a gentleman. Not by birthright or by wealth or by bloodline, but by the simple, honest decency of a good man. And gentlemen, no matter the provocation, never raised their voices to a woman. So while he felt insulted and hurt, he merely replied quietly and firmly. “I was a surgeon not a foot soldier, Matchmaker. I gained my degree in the University of London and further training at Netley. I may know nothing about being a Guide, but I do know the most famous words of the greatest Guide in history. ‘I judge not by what other Guides may know, but only in their willingness to stand steadfast in the service of their Sentinels who protect all’. Lord Robert Dudley, my lady. I am here at you request my lady, willing to learn.”
Lady Beatrice flushed, her mouth opening and closing as she realized she had been neatly thwarted and had no means of retaliation. “Well then,” she snapped eventually. “We must assess your levels. I must warn you not to have high expectations. Most empaths who become active at your age are not powerful enough to shield properly or to bond. I can tell just from my own survey that you are extremely poor at shielding your projections,” her tone was dismissive of any other conclusion. “You will most likely be classified as a Consort; but first we must complete the tests. Tell me where the farthest Guide you can sense is.”
Watson took a deep breath, like the old shaman had taught him. Make yourself like the web of a spider. Spin your threads, catch what you need, let all other things pass through. Watson stretched out, the thin threads he pictured in his mind waving like the silken threads of a spider seen on a summer morning. Every soul they touched was a delicate vibration in the web, moving and shifting it like it was a breeze. Some were heavy, destructive vibrations, others were light, playful; some were clean, sharp high notes and others were complex, murky, full of strange tangles and discords. It was hard to keep track of it all. Every vibration shook his foundation – only very slightly, but enough waves can, with enough time, wear down even a mountain. “I can sense....eight Guides, in a circle around us.” He said eventually.
Suddenly all his threads snapped together, so sharply that Watson nearly fainted. Along the sudden tangle of threads dragged in one direction, Watson had a sudden sense of...music. Complicated, multilayered symphonies, every thread a different sound, beautiful and clear and perfect, tangled in one place. Watson was mesmerised, drawn to it like tide. Suddenly he pulled back, disorientated by the event. He wasn’t confident enough in his abilities go somewhere so unknown.
The sudden reflexive jerk hurt. Gasping, his head pounding from the shock of it, Watson came back to the Matchmakers rooms. For a moment he pressed his hand over his eyes, trying to compose himself. His heart felt like it had been ripped out of his chest.
As such, he didn’t notice the flabbergasted look on Lady Beatrice’s face. “Eight Guides....you mean the on Wall Towers around London, with the Sentinels?”
“I...don’t know. Possibly,” Watson scrubbed his face. The ripping loss in his chest had numbed, but his head felt squeezed in a vice.
“Ridiculous,” came the unexpectedly shrill response. Watson looked up in surprise. It was almost if the woman was suddenly afraid, though her normal sense of insulted disdain quickly replaced it. She repeated more calmly. “Ridiculous. No unbonded, untrained Guide could reach that far. You must be sensing Guides in the House.”
“The House has many Guides; dozens that I could feel. I felt only eight. My lady,” Watson added hastily. It was hard to tell how distant they were. Distances were....different in the mental realm. God, his head really ached. The light from the chandelier was like knives in his eyes.
“Humph. Then you are feeling Guides on the streets surrounding the Sanctuary,” she insisted. “Or you are lying.”
Watson drew himself to attention. “No, Matchmaker, I do not lie.” His voice was flat as a plank.
“Of course you don’t,” Lady Beatrice replied patronizingly. “I know men like you. Your pride is wounded from being outranked by a mere woman. You puff yourself up like a tom cat to salve puncture.”
“My last commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Sentinel Annie Hay, Matchmaker, and she was a leader of the best kind. I was proud to serve under her.” If he closed his eyes, he could still see her falling with her guide and husband in Maiwand. It wasn’t the worst thing about that day, because it had all been worst. But it was one of the deeper stamps in his mind.
The sheer ice cored in steel in his voice drove the Matchmaker back a step. “Well,” she said uncertainly. “Perhaps I am too quick to accuse. You are untrained, so you may not be able to fully appreciate what you sense. Very well. The next step is a spiritual gaze. That is, a Guide will sense and measure you intimately in order to get a true survey of your level of mental discipline. This will give us an idea of the training you will need.” She closed her eyes for a moment.
The drapes moved, and the young lady reappeared silently.
“Guide Lily will perform the gaze,” Lady Beatrice explained.
Watson gripped his cane firmly. “I must request a male Guide, Matchmaker.”
Lady Beatrice blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“A male Guide must be the one to gaze, my lady,” Watson repeated, trying to will his headache away. “It is no reflection on you or Guide Lily. There are parts of my mind I would never inflict willingly on a woman.”
“I’ve never heard of such...!” Lady Beatrice’s rage was incandescent. “I outrank you. You must register and submit to the rules of the House in order to legally stay in the city on London. You will either submit to the gaze or I will have you arrested as an illegally entering empath!”
“I accept the gaze, my lady,” Watson replied. He looked over at the white clad Lily, who was staring meekly at the ground, looking young and breakable. “But I insist that it must be to another man, with military service experience if possible. I cannot...I cannot justify the horrors and burdens I carry being given to a woman, who will feel them much more deeply than a man.”
Lady Beatrice pursed her lips, expressionless. “Very well. If you insist on being difficult. Guide Lily!” she snapped sharply. “Go to the Sanctuary. There are always a few police Sentinels there!”
She looked back at Watson triumphantly as the girl left. She fully expected Watson to crumble at the threat of police involvement, but Watson merely waited impassively. He felt her sudden frustration. There was another quick, hard sweep across his mind, no doubt looking for fear. She had been trained for power rather than subtlety.
Watson said nothing, and tried to shift weight off his leg, which throbbing in time with his head now.
Lily came back soon after, unexpectedly escorting a woman and a man. The woman, fair coloured and of the tall willowy proportions of an Amazon, was dressed in a proper dark blue uniform and unexpectedly trousered, but there was a roll of a blue skirt overlaying the masculine accoutrements that stopped above the heavily booted ankles, acting as a sort of sop to proper feminine fashion. A female Sentinel then. The man with her, large and broad shouldered, must be her Guide.
“Sentinel and Guide Bradstreet,” Lady Beatrice’s voice could have soured milk. “This...creature...has refused to submit to a spiritual gaze, and therefore is defying the rule of the House. Such an act is illegal in London. I demand his arrest.”
“Lady Beatrice,” the woman nodded, before turning to survey Watson. She glanced at her Guide.
The large man stepped forward. “What about it, sir?”
“I can allow the gaze. I simply insisted on it being a man, and not a woman,” Watson tried to explain.
“He is an ignorant buffoon who has never been trained,” Lady Beatrice broke in derisively. “He doesn’t even realize that we cannot see memories. A woman could see nothing that would offend her! Unless you have some disgusting perversion you wish to keep hidden.”
Watson did not turn to face her. He focused instead on the couple before him. They were an excellent team, he could see. They had decided between them that the husband would question him, because men are more likely to speak frankly to other men. “I know they won’t see memories...Inspectors?” They nodded, and Watson continued. “But I have just returned from a war. Some of the things I felt there were far uglier than what I saw. Those things are still fresh in my mind. If anyone must experience it, I would prefer strongly that it be a man, with military experience if possible.”
The pair shared a silent communication, before Sentinel Bradstreet turned to Lady Beatrice. “Far be it for me to run the workings of the House, Guide Ascot,” the Sentinel loftily ignored the angry intake of breath that came from the title. “But that not only seems practical, but also quite sensible.”
Watson sighed in relief. Lady Beatrice gaped in shock.
“I followed my own into battle before, sir,” Inspector Bradstreet shared a nod with his wife. “Would you object to me performing it?”
It was the best offer Watson was going to get. “Not at all, Inspector.”
“My husband, Inspector Roger Bradstreet,” the woman introduced formally.
“Inspector Bradsteet. Lady Sentinel Bradstreet,” Watson nodded formally, and took her hand to shake. “Doctor John Watson.”
“Consort Watson,” was Lady Beatrice’s sharp interjection. “You are a doctor only on your Sentinel’s grace.” Watson flinched internally at that.
The couple’s eyebrows rose. “Doctor?” Inspector Bradsteet asked in surprise, while Lady Bradstreet gave him another quick survey.
She held up a hand. “Wait right there,” and strode out. She returned momentarily with a chair that looked like it had been taken from Carmichael. “Please sit, doctor. That leg of yours looks painful.”
Watson was so grateful for the weight being taken off his leg he forgot to feel the sharp sense of humiliation about his wounded body being assessed by a lady.
“Really! This is most irregular!” Lady Beatrice snapped.
“Lady Beatrice, he is conforming to the law, and my Guide was trained here. He is more than suitable for this.” Lady Bradstreet’s voice was entirely firm. “I see no harm. Shall we get on with this? Inspector Bradstreet and I have business to attend to.”
Outranked and stymied, Lady Beatrice stayed silent.
Bradstreet’s mental presence was quite different than the Matchmaker’s. It was a strong, earthy, solid thing; not exactly subtle, but that was the way of male Guides. It was also careful and gentle; he was exactly aware of how strong he was, and like most big men he had an extremely light touch when necessary.
Watson quelled his reflexive instinct to protect his mind against an invader. He relaxed and allowed him to see...
It happened in an instant. The Inspector backpedalled as if punched in the face, staggering against the wall and knocking over a vase. His Sentinel dove for him, wrapping him in her arms from behind, trying to physically brace him against whatever mental blow he had sustained.
The large man bent over the sideboard like he was ill, his shoulders convulsing in an effort not to gag.
“Oh really now! This is against all proper decorum!” Lady Beatrice started forward, only to be blocked by Watson’s cane.
“Get out,” Lady Bradstreet’s voice was a growl.
“Out!” she roared, tightening her grip on her husband, her eyes darkening to deep pools of Sentinel rage.
Horrified, Lady Beatrice retreated with Lily through the drapes. Watson went the other way, to the archive room. Carmichael was not there.
He shut the door behind him, shaking and white. God, he really was a monster. He had a monster’s memories. “I can’t tell you how very sorry I am, Lady Sentinel,” he whispered to the empty room, putting his head in his hands
“Roger,” Lady Bradstreet pressed her forehead into her husband’s broad back. The Sentinel in her raged and roared, demanding an enemy to kill for harming the Guide.
“It’s all right, love,” the Inspector was breathing heavily, but the tremors were fading. “It was plain, commonplace stupidity on my part. The way he felt when he said it was bad should have warned me to shore up the shields but like a credulous fool, I didn’t. Why on earth did you marry an idiot like me?” He turned and brushed her face gently with his fingertips.
She kissed his hand. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” she replied to him wryly. She sobered. “Was it really so bad?”
Inspector Bradstreet shuddered. “You know I don’t hold with fancies, my dear; and for once I am right glad that I do not. I don’t want to imagine what he went through. I am truly amazed the man isn’t dead or insane! There is....so much pain there. I’ll tell you one thing though,” he held up a finger. “If he’s a mere Consort, then I’m the ruddy Queen of England. I have never felt anything so powerful.”
“I don’t think he feels powerful at the moment,” Lady Bradstreet cocked her golden head, listening. “He keeps whispering how sorry he is to me, poor man. Did you see how thin he is? He has been though the wringer many a time.”
“He can’t stay here, love; even he knows it. The nightmares he must have must be spectacular. There are unbonded, untrained children here, and he’s got not talent for shielding. He was right to reject the girl. His mind is so overwhelming, it would have destroyed her.”
“He sounds a little like Mister Holmes,” Lady Bradstreet smiled.
Bradstreet made a face. “Well, at least I can say he’s not quite as bad as that. A point in his favour if ever there was one.” He squeezed his wife’s hand.
She giggled a little. “Well, Inspector, what shall we do with the good doctor?” her eyes softened to compassion as she looked at the door. “We do have that old spare room...”
Bradstreet took both his wife’s hands in his. “My sweet, I respect you, I love you and I cherish you, but I think you perhaps miscalculate when it comes to a man’s pride. That Guide,” he pointed at the door. “Is not just starting a new life, he’s trying to piece together his battered soul. Charity from us will do nothing for his pride.”
“What do you suggest then?” she demanded archly.
“We recommend to the House that he can’t stay here, and let him get out from under their influence. One thing I did learn from him is self respect is important to him. Lady Beatrice and her cronies can’t stand anyone more powerful than they are; they’ll tear him to shreds if he stays here.”
“Yes, they will won’t they? I could tell just by looking at her that foolish woman sees him as a threat. But after that?”
“After that....we’ll think of something. He needs our help. And we might need his power, because let me tell you this, my own. If ever there was such a thing as an Alpha Guide, John Watson is it.”
End Part Two
Chapter 3: Part Three
Holmes on the case....everyone's case
Disclaimer: All owned by the estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and associated folk. Written for fun and not for profit
Inspector Sentinel G. Lestrade, Scotland Yard, was in an unenviable position.
There was to start with the much sung policemen’s lot, which was an unhappy one by all accounts. Lestrade was overworked, underpaid and underappreciated, even with the Sentinel’s Allowance added on the pay scales. Of course, he did get to work alongside his beautiful and accomplished wife and Guide; so there was a silver lining there; though after spending days been treated as some sort of sensory machine, going hither and thither to every crime scene in the city to see what was what, literally, the greatly touted nobility of the Sentinel way was extremely hard to fathom. Especially, he thought darkly, with men like Inspector Guardian Gregson lording it over him, never a slave to his nose because his only enhanced senses were touch and hearing. Oh, how Lestrade envied the ordinary people with their ordinary sense of smell in this city! The only way you could describe it was...ha! Unenviable.
His most unenviable position was of a political kind though, as follows thusly; they had no official Prime Alpha in London. There were clans in every district, of course, but the pride - the Sentinel population that guarded the ‘tribe’ as a whole – was lead by the Prime Alpha. Because Prime Alpha’s who were powerful enough to hold onto the position through all the challengers for any length of time were rare, the city mostly got along without one and clans that covered each district all squabbled amongst themselves for position and space within London. Society may pretend to put the lacquer of civilisation over Sentinels, but when push came to shove Sentinels fought to death or crippling when it came to becoming an Alpha. Outlawing it would do nothing; Sentinels recognised the strongest and the most powerful as the leaders. It may not be democratic, but Sentinels were of an era far, far removed the invention of democracy.
Sherlock Holmes was the Prime Alpha Sentinel of London. Everyone who saw him knew it. Even Sentinels he’d never met before unconsciously recognized his authority; when he gave an order or asked for assistance, they fell over themselves to obey. There was absolutely no mistaking the sheer, distilled Sentinel presence when he entered a room, none at all.
But he wasn’t bonded; which automatically dismissed him from taking the top job on a permanent basis, because Sentinels as a whole tended to only permanently follow a Sentinel who had a Guide. They would respect his demands temporarily, but he could not change the inner workings of any clan as an unbonded Sentinel, in the same way a Captain would not follow a Private, even if he took a Private’s advice.
Here’s where the problem came in. He was, unofficially, considered an Alpha; despite being unbonded. There was too much...well, too much there for him not to be. And like all Alpha’s, he had at least one recognised Beta.
Guess who was lucky?
It hadn’t been anything deliberate; at least Lestrade hoped not. You never could tell with Holmes, he seemed to live and breathe on the deliberate destruction of others personal presentiments and assumptions.
It was just...when he was starting out in his criminal investigations, Lestrade was the one he came into contact with the most. Almost against Lestrade’s will, the Inspector had been drawn into Holmes’ strange, sharp magnetism and had unconsciously bowed to his authority. By the time Holmes true nature as a powerful, Dark Sentinel was truly clear (and Lestrade was sure it had been clear to Holmes long before anyone else; the man was a hugely talented deceiver), it was too late. Holmes had, unconsciously, recognised Lestrade as his Beta.
Of course, unbonded this was all unofficial and would have not a whit of consequence in any of the clans. However, the very instant the Dark Sentinel bonded to his Guide, he would be above them all. All the clan leaders knew it and feared it. Some of them were the product of political influence rather than brute strength, because politics gets in everywhere; these were the ones that feared the coming of the Prime the most. Holmes, and by association Lestrade, were threats.
Everyone knew how Sentinels reacted to threats, didn’t they?
Lestrade was currently under the thumb of the Alpha Sentinel Thomas Ascot; the Superintendant within his division Scotland Yard. He was, technically, Lestrade’s own Alpha; each division had a clan of it’s own. He knew of Lestrade’s unofficial status; and therefore made his official status a living hell. That was why he was on crime scene duty every moment under the sun.
Ascot’s rise though the ranks had been helped by being bonded and married to Lady Beatrice Ascot; who had been appointed the Matchmaker by the Lord Royal Sentinel. All royals in Britain had a Sentinel and Guide advisor pair known as the Lord Royal Sentinels, who ran the Royal Sentinel Guard; tasked with protecting the court. In political and aristocratic circles it made them quite powerful, but their authority with the Sentinel clans was mostly titular. They followed the Alpha Prime just like everyone else, if necessary.
Holmes was, technically, part of Ascots clan as he lived in Ascot’s division in London. But Holmes was...well, Holmes, and not truly subject to any conventional authority. So if Holmes bonded and therefore became the Prime, Ascot would lose his position as an Alpha, even if he kept the title of Superintendant. Holmes, infuriatingly, had neither joined the military or the Yard as almost all Sentinels did. But then, Holmes had never been normal.
What made the whole ghastly situation worse was that Holmes’ work with Scotland Yard had made Ascot more esteemed; to the point where Ascot couldn’t get rid of Holmes, could not expel him from the clan area and most definitely could not challenge him physically.
To be fair, Ascot wasn’t one of the political Alphas. He was a large, heavyset Sentinel who had earned his place in combat, breaking the knee joint of the former Superintendant right in the police training yards after working his way up to Inspector from Constable.
But if anyone had seen Holmes fight, that meant nothing. Holmes truly roused was a force of nature and in a fight a vicious and savage dancer, blood caked poetry in motion. The worst thing – the absolute worst thing – about it was that it wasn’t the mindless, uncontrolled berserker rage that was normal for Sentinels who went feral. Holmes still thought even his most violent episodes. That’s what separated Dark Sentinels from Alphas; Dark Sentinels maintained a perfect sense of self, even while dismembering their opponents. Their decisions were calm, considered, even sensible; just completely removed from civility and conscience. It was as if they had hammered a cold, hard diamond of rationality out of the raging storm pressure of their anger.
Lestrade remembered – oh, yes, he remembered with a shudder – the one instance where he had seen such a thoughtful cataclysm of rage.
There was only one tenet every Sentinel on every land had in common; Protect the Guide. Given Holmes’ opinions of Guides, one might form an opinion he cared for them not a whit, and was barely a Sentinel at all. You would be mortally mistaken.
Lestrade had the whole sordid case etched into his memory. A pack of ruthless men under the direction of a lordly Puritan aristocrat had been snatching Guides from the streets and taking them to the manor of said aristocrat, so reviled by the ‘unnatural’ and ‘satanic’ ways of Guides and of the perversions he ascribed to them, that he was compelled to ‘purify’ them before putting them to death; the Guides had not died quickly, or painlessly. They had been the recipients of the kind of indefensible torture that had not been seen since the Inquisition; the half-mad Inquisitor even had some of the implements in his hellish den.
Almost the whole pride had assisted in hunting him down. Holmes had gotten there first.
He had calmly and collectedly removed the surviving Guides from whatever diabolical instrument held them, ignoring the preachings of the Puritan. And then, while the whole clan watched, he had turned around a broken every single bone in the man’s body.
And it hadn’t been a figure of speech. The Dark Sentinel had been quite methodical about it; starting with the toes and armed with nothing more than fists and fingers he had mapped his landscape of pain upwards, deaf to the hideous animal screams of the torturer. He broke leg bones in multiple places, shattered knees, snapped hip bones, destroyed ribs, cracked spines; working his way along as he crushed shoulders and fractured elbows, turned wrists all the way around in a circle and fingers pointing backward before fracturing his way past the neck and even managing to break the tiny bones of the inner ear before reshaping the skull.
The torturer had been barely human by the time the Dark Sentinel had finished and he still wasn’t dead. He been irreversibly crippled, blinded, deafened; he’d been covered in his own blood and bone spurs and waste, barely able even to make a sound. The Dark Sentinel’s hands were split and wounded, and he was bloody to the elbows. He walked out of the manor silently, leaving the still living wreck of a human being behind him.
There was one other thing, besides that horrifically rational punishment, that had made such an indelible impression in Lestrade. It had been the other Sentinel’s expression. It had been as tranquil and pleasant as a man resting in his sitting room; even with his ruined hands. The twisted preacher had deserved to die; there was no doubt of that. Some of the remaining Guides had begged the Sentinels who came to rescue them, had pleaded with them to be allowed to die. It had been sickening.
But still, they were oddly thankful the man hadn’t lasted long. Without any orders from anyone, they had cleared the house and burned it to the ground.
Oh yes, Holmes was a Dark Sentinel. No one ever doubted it after that. And not Sentinel in the Empire would challenge him to a fight. At least a feral Sentinel would want his target dead as quickly as possible, he would have no inclination to inflict suffering as well.
His lovely, dark haired Guide looked up from her paperwork; she, like all Guides, shared an L shaped space with her Sentinel in the main room, the desks set up in such a way that the Guide was tucked in behind the Sentinel nearest the wall. Sentinels required boundaries wherever they were; they required some sort of area that was clearly delineated; especially when accompanied by their Guide. Giving the whole force of Sentinels their own rooms was deemed impractical; so the Sentinel offices were just large spaces, each with it’s own separate province of desks.
“Your favourite Alpha enters, Inspector,” Lady Guide Lestrade warned with a hint of a smile. “And he is in a fine fettle today.”
“He’s always in a fine fettle, my own,” Lestrade grumbled, before linking his smallest finger with hers for moment. Sentinels constantly needed to ground their senses in their Guides; that grounding, and the fine control it offered, was why Sentinels required Guides; otherwise they would be trapped into a sensory fugue and die, or be driven mad by the influx. Of course, it was best done by tactile means; but constant public touching was considered extremely vulgar. Sentinels and Guides had to, as much as possible, keep from offending public sensibilities. As grounding rituals went, theirs was a subtle, unobtrusive one that staved off any scrutiny.
He rose to meet Holmes; and yes, Lestrade could tell just by Holmes’ impatient stride as he entered that he was in one of his mercurially changing black moods. “Mister Holmes,” he greeted, trying to keep neutral. “I see you got my message.”
“Yes I received your message, Lestrade, as evidenced by the fact that I am here. You really should be an Inspector or something,” Holmes snapped. There were dark bags around his eyes. “What plebeian journey into the depths of dullery have you in store for me today?” Was the acid riposte.
That was unusually blunt even for Holmes. Lestrade looked him over, and didn’t like what he saw. He knew the other was having trouble with his senses lately. It had been worrying the clan. They may not like him personally, but losing a Prime Alpha Dark would be a tragedy for any pride. Lestrade stopped scanning when we saw Holmes dark warning glare. “Superintendant Alpha Sentinel Ascot has asked for you,” he explained quickly, to get it over with. He knew it would not go over well.
He was right. Holmes waved a dismissive hand and turned to go. “Well you can inform the Superintendant that I am on a case at the moment; and will be for the foreseeable future. Something has been stolen and I am trying to find it.”
Lestrade was momentarily diverted. “What? And from who?”
Holmes stiffened. “That,” he replied icily. “Doesn’t matter in the slightest. Now if you are finished draining my intellectual reserves for the day...”
The man was being his usual insufferable self, obviously. “May I speak with you?” Lestrade broke in and herded the dishevelled man towards the Mute. Holmes must not be close to an answer on his case, because Lestrade would never have been able to get him there if Holmes had been set on being elsewhere.
He led the consultant through the outer door and stepped over the heavy jams of the inner door, waiting for Holmes to follow. The Palace, Lestrade had once been told, had a Mute room made of glass, but the Yard one was made of metal and wood.
An ordinary person would have heard faint sound of the water, rushing though a complex system of pipes and pumps, flowing all around them, walls, ceiling and floor. To a Sentinel it was a din of white noise, designed for delicate conversations in a city where a small part of the population could hear a pin drop at a miles distance. It was always cold and stank of damp, but it was a remarkable commodity. There weren’t many like it.
It had a bed in it. Most people who weren’t Sentinels found that odd. But they were ignorant of how the bonding heat worked.
“I sure I am about to receive an amusing lecture of using proper Alpha respect to Ascot,” Holmes voice was sardonic and facetious.
“Whatever you may think of my deductive faculties Holmes, even I am not blind enough to flog a dead horse,” Lestrade replied wearily. “Whatever your current bonnet bee is, don’t blame me for it. How are your senses?”
Holmes sniffed. “Well enough, if entirely none of your concern.”
“It certainly is my concern, Sentinel,” Lestrade snapped, losing patience. “As you are of my clan, for my sins; whatever evidently unforgivable ones they must have been. We all know you are having trouble with them.”
“What you all know,” Holmes replied derisively. “Could nary fill a teaspoon, Inspector.”
“Maybe so, but we all know it nonetheless,” Lestrade retorted levelly. “You will have a choice soon whether to bond or to die, and for reasons completely unfathomable to me, most of the Yard Sentinels would rather see you bonded than dead.”
“However would I know these most blindly obvious things without you Lestrade!” Holmes yelled, losing his temper, pacing the room.
Lestrade felt his heart sink. If the man was actually admitting it, it must now be extremely bad. “There must be some Guide who can help you, Holmes,” he replied quietly.
Holmes snorted derisively. “You mean those obedience trained lap dogs from the House?” he sneered. “A statue has more acumen. I think I would sooner die.”
“Yes, well, we shall see on that as that possibility looms,” Lestrade muttered. “If Ascot gets wind of this you will never find a Guide. His wife is the Matchmaker.”
“Ascot,” Holmes spat dismissively. “Is a joke of a Sentinel. If I wanted to walk into the palace and kill the Queen, he could not stop me. He could not stop a single drop of water from running uphill. Defeating him in combat would be a disgrace to the winner. If I am to find a Guide he will be of no concern. It does not matter a whit to me what he thinks he knows, so you, as his lackey, are free to tell him.”
Lestrade felt a spurt of temper. “Oh you can’t give me that, Holmes. I have never acted against you even if you believe I never assist you. And Ascot blames us when you insult his leadership,” he took a risk in poking the Sentinel in the chest. “I am just following orders. For all our sakes if not for your own, I suggest you do the same.”
Holmes glared at him, before scrubbing already askew his hair. “Very well. I suppose a moment of hellish mind destroying boredom here will at least make me appreciate the finer things in life.”
“That’s the spirit,” Lestrade muttered sarcastically before opening up the door.
They adjourned to the Sentinel office; Ascot was standing over Lady Guide Lestrade, who was stubbornly denying him access.
“My Sentinel,” she intoned firmly. “Will return momentarily and I do not allow other Sentinels into his space. That would be most improper.”
“Guide!” Ascot snapped at her.
“Alpha,” Lestrade’s interjection was quiet as a stone, but also about as hard. If a Guide was being threatened, Alpha or not, the Sentinel would eliminate them.
Even Ascot recognised this, and stepped backwards to show he was no threat. His lips turned to a sneer. “Sentinel Holmes, how good of you to obey my summons.”
“Alpha Ascot,” Holmes replied, smiling like a shark. “How good it is to see that you maintain proper standards of behaviour around Guides of your division.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the ensuing silence. Lestrade nearly groaned.
“Holmes,” Ascot repeated, this time through gritted teeth. “The Yard requires your assistance today. Since you are so clever with spotting deceptions from trifles and such. Come,” he marched imperiously away.
Holmes gave Lady Lestrade a respectful nod before following. Lestrade brushed his fingertips feather light on her shoulder before doing likewise.
He led them to a questioning room past a pile of travelling boxes and through a door where two men, one bulky and heavyset and the other thin and phlegmatic, both dressed expensively, sat behind a heavy table. A bowl had been placed before them, which was bubbling and hissing with some chemical effervescence. It made do for white noise in a pinch.
The larger man gave an offended glare and rose, speaking in an accent clearly from America. “I do protest this damned treatment. We’ve been waiting far too long for our interview. Who is this, then? The Sentinel who was supposed to question us hours ago?”
Ascot pursed his lips at the man. “Yes, Sentinel Drebber. If you will kindly take a seat, we will interview you and you may leave. Sentinel Holmes?” He turned to the other smugly. “As you know, all foreign Sentinels must be interviewed by the clan when travelling through Britain, for state secrecy and all that. If you would interview Misters Drebber and Strangerson.” He gestured to the other chair in the room.
It was a job any half trained Sentinel Constable could have done. Technically the Alpha could call on any member of his clan for any purpose, but calling in a Sentinel of Holmes’ calibre in here was a calculated insult.
Holmes expression didn’t change however. He merely viewed the men impassively, taking a token sniff, before turning back to Ascot. “I’m finished Alpha.”
“What in the hell?” That came from Drebber.
“I said,” Holmes spoke slowly, as if to a child. “I have completed the necessary fact finding, Alpha.”
Ascot was flabbergasted. “But you haven’t done anything!” He accused.
Holmes gave him a special smile. “They hail from Cleveland, Ohio, as evidenced by the dye in their coats. They originally hailed from Salt Lake City in Utah, though, judging by the leather of their boots. They have travelled most of Europe; I see wool from Russia in the socks and a distinct flavour of Italian cigarettes in Mister Strangersons breast pocket, the silk laced cotton of the shirts in distinctly Spanish and, of course, there’s an ornate silver buckle on Mister Drebber’s belt that suggests Switzerland and a very professional French shine on his fingernails; they arrived on the...lets see, the ten fifteen berthing steamship at the Tilbury docks before taking an open carriage into Whitehall judging by the mud on their boots; the pamphlet protruding from Mister Strangerson’s coat pocket indicates their destination is Liverpool, and their last stop before reaching London was Copenhagen, though admittedly I took that fact from the tags on their luggage outside.”
He grinned while the rest of the room gaped. “As to their characters...well, I personally would not share a meal with them at my club, but they are not spies. Judging from the bible verse notation jotted on Mister Drebber’s hand for memory, they are men of a religious sort. The sheaf of cue cards that creates the rather unflattering bulge in Mister Drebber’s pants pocket is no doubt a stirring address to the congregation they are going to speak at. Mister Drebber is our Sentinel but judging by his ribbons he is neither Alpha nor military; Mister Strangerson is not his Guide, but his secretary as the marks on his nose left by his oft used reading glasses and the calluses of his thumb and forefinger indicate a great deal of letter writing. You would do well to instruct them on proper customs procedures as they did not come straight here as required. They shared a very large steak meal at the Royale – don’t they just make a divine pepper sauce, Mister Strangerson – followed by a raspberry torte and a good amount of extremely fine brandy and a walk around the Botanical Gardens – the city is quite a dreadful swamp for the nose is it not, Mister Drebber? As to their religious persuasion,” Holmes shrugged. “Who can truly fathom the workings of the fanatically faithful? Some degree of Mormonism by the religious insignia embroidered rather neatly on the good Mister Strangerson’s handkerchief, though it must be a strange, new interpretation of their usual tenets. Mister Drebber has had, shall we say, extremely close, even intimate encounters with...” he sniffed delicately. “Two women and one man since his arrival. Not a bad tally in such a short time, I suppose, but very unusual for a priest.”
Drebbers chair was nearly flung into the wall as he rose in outrage. “You damned mountebank!”
Holmes leaned in, dominating with his height and presence. “Correct me if I am wrong, sir,” he purred silkily. “But every Sentinel’s first lesson is how to tell when others lie.”
Drebber’s face was a red and purple masterpiece of impotent rage, but something in Holmes’ eyes backed him down. “No, sir,” he half snarled. “We have nothing to add.”
“Well then, the interview is complete and you are free to go,” Holmes replied cheerfully. “Of course, you must pay a late reporting fine, is that not right Superintendant Sentinel Ascot? Oh, I’m sure you noticed the hundreds of other little trifles that indicated their current lifestyles and histories; I just pointed out the painfully obvious ones for the benefit of reporting.”
Ascot was struck utterly dumb, gaping like a buffoon at the sudden tide of deduction.
“Well gentlemen it has been a time consuming waste to see you,” Holmes gave a little wave. “Mister Drebber; you so much as harm the hair on the head of any one of my tribe and I will personally run you down like cat with a rat; with much the same results. You gentlemen have yourself a nice day. Goodbye.”
He strode out, Lestrade in his wake and Ascot was left with the two red faced men to deal with.
“There,” Holmes said pointedly. “I have followed orders. Now I must get back to actual work.”
Lestrade cocked his head as they approached the Sentinel offices, hearing the ringing laughter from all the amused Sentinels listening in. “You certainly make an impression, Holmes.”
“Ha!” was the only reply.
There were sudden running footsteps and Lady Lestrade burst from the offices. “Sentinel. Can you feel it?” she demanded breathlessly.
Lestrade took his wife by the shoulders. “Feel what, my own?”
Lady Lestrade closed her eyes as if she had just had a strange thought, and that’s when they felt it.
There was an undeniable presence moving though them like a slow, treacly wave. Lestrade felt it, but couldn’t describe it properly. It was almost akin to a beam of sunlight, warm and harmless, but powerful.
“What is that?” Lestrade breathed.
“I am not sure. Guides are feeling it all over the place. I’ve sent the Bradstreet’s down to the Sanctuary to see if they know.”
Lestrade heard a sharp intake of breath from Holmes, quick and almost panicked, and quite unlike him.
The presence vanished. Holmes keeled to the floor.
It was so out of character that Lestrade froze as he watched. Holmes folded up around himself, huddling almost like a child; pressing his arms to his chest. There was another choked of gasp that spurred Lestrade. “Holmes! Sentinel can you...”
Holmes gaze snapped to him and Lestrade leapt for his wife, dragging her back and away. Those eyes weren’t the playful, powerful eyes of a deductive genius; they were the bottomless pools of the Dark Sentinel.
They didn’t remain though. Lestrade actually saw him wrestle it back into some cage deep in his admittedly extremely disciplined mind.
Holmes rose, breathing hard like he’d run a race. His limbs were uncertain; for the first time Lestrade saw him move with less than a hundred percent grace. His self control was iron, though; it passed quickly.
His finger jabbed toward Lady Lestrade like a knife. “Where,” he growled lowly. “Did it come from?”
Lestrade stifled the urge to block his Guide from view. Holmes, Dark Sentinel or not, had never raised a hand to any Guide.
“The Sanctuary, Sentinel,” Lady Lestrade replied quickly. “All I could sense was the Sanctuary.”
Holmes muttered under his breath so only Lestrade heard it. “Well that helps me not at all.”
“Never mind,” the Sentinel straightened abruptly. “I’ll take the case, Lestrade,” he said before striding away.
“What case?” Lestrade called after him, puzzled.
“The Disappearing Guides case,” the man replied calmly, still walking away. “The photo of the deceased man in connection with it was clearly a boxer. Just look at the ears.”
Lestrade’s mouth opened and closed. “You mean the one where a suspected group is kidnapping Guides for export? The one where one of their comrades was shot while they fled the scene to keep him from talking? The one that was upside down on my Guides desk at the far back of the room with no accompanying paperwork?’
“Yes, Lestrade,” Holmes’ voice drifted up from the stairwell, unseen. “That’s the one. I’ll take it.”
Lestrade gave up. “You’re welcome.” He cocked his head and felt his Guide’s hand on his shoulder, anchoring him as he stretched out his hearing to listen.
‘Really Lestrade; you are the one thanking me; not I you.” Came from the street.
His wife’s eyes asked the question, and he shrugged in reply. He didn’t know what the hell just happened either.
End Part Two
Chapter 4: Part Four
Brotyherly discussions of the Holmesian variety
Disclaimer: All owned by the estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and associated folk. Written for fun and not for profit
London was a city which ran on rumour. Newspapers were more or less a means of recording the official versions and were only the tiniest fractions of the amount of gossip passed from ear to ear, moving more rapidly than a blink. It was said that if a person stood up and screamed a word in the middle of the city, the rumour would have reached the Sentinel manned Wall Towers before the echoes died away.
Of course, it wasn’t the most perfectly clear or accurate source of information. There would be a thousand different ideas about what word it was, a hundred thousand reasons why it had been screamed and a lingering tale that it hadn’t been a scream at all but a sudden impromptu arcane dance. It was like the ocean. It may every kind of loud, silent, deserted, teeming, it might be roaring and violent as well as mirror tranquil. The only thing you could say for absolute was that there was water.
A tale – small at first, like a seed – was slowly creeping across the city. Two stories actually, but they wound and tangled around each other like ivy, masking the roots and knotting vines of the story beneath the whispering, chattering leaves. Stripped bare, the only points of commonality remained throughout were as follows.
A Dark Sentinel stalked the city, emerging and disappearing in sharp burst of violence and power in some of the darkest and most pit like areas of London. He lurked in the dangerous places, came the whispers, he glided into the worst iniquitous dens like some black phantom. It was said that if he was coming for you he was like the Reaper himself, except all the Reaper could do was kill you. It was said that if he hunted you, you would never see him coming. By the time you saw his shadow, it was too late to hide. It was said that he could track you from a speck of dust, that he could see all the lies you told like other men saw colours. It was said that he would be nothing but a blur in the fighting rings of the city, so fast and strong that his opponents wouldn’t even see the face of their enemy before they were groaning on the floor.
But on the other side, balancing and enhancing this tale was another. There was a stranger wandering around the poor districts. It was said he healed with but a touch, but a handful of words. It was said that disease and pain fled any house he entered, driven out by his very presence. It was said he could feel prayers and cries for help, even from those whom all help had long turned. It was said that hearing his footsteps, the echoing tap that followed them, was a sign you were protected, that no more ills would visit this night. It was said he could save a person all but dead, could practically turn death itself away from a household, could get half rotting lungs to draw sweet breath, could close a fatal wound to a scratch. It was even said that after he had long gone, good fortune stayed in his wake. It was as if the world was cleaner and brighter wherever he went.
Those that heard both stories muttered to themselves ironically. If the agent of Hell wanted to walk the streets of London, they said, then just as well an agent of Heaven chose to walk as well.
Holmes lay on his couch, wreathed in tobacco smoke. If witnesses had been transported simultaneously from a moment a week ago to this, they would have sworn the man had never moved.
For his part in the scene, Holmes stared unblinkingly at the ceiling, his mind elsewhere. Many of his Sentinel trainers had worried about his doing this, about being physically immobile and letting his mind go elsewhere. It was a fugue, they argued, just without the overwhelming focus on one sense.
But Holmes had never ascribed to any habit which was hard to break. What was the point of having one, he thought, if you simply changed it week to week? And he would not give this up. This absolute meditative state was a haven from his increasingly uncomfortable body. He walked through his mindscape.
Throughout the centuries, it had been called many different things. The spirit world. The country of the soul. The dreamtime. It was many things to many cultures. Every person in every land had one, though levels of access varied. It was totally inaccurate to say that human lived in one world. They lived on one planet, and it contained more worlds that could be imagined in a lifetime. Most of them, however, were invisible but for the individual that made and travelled within them.
What is was, at heart, was the sum total of the thoughts and memories that shaped a soul, all the familiarities that gave it it’s character, and the hopes and purposes that gave it direction. Most of them didn’t have a shape as such; they were more a mix of feelings and impressions, all swirling in a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, flavours, memories. If they had a shape, then they were a strange, interconnected maze of childhood bedrooms, familiar streets, pictures of places you wanted to see, the susurrus of stories you’d been told, places you’d imagined....it was the strange and tumultuous crossroad between what you had and what you wanted.
Most were quite small, relatively. Most people, no matter how far they travelled, clung to the same memories. It made them feel safe. Holmes’ contained more space than most could even grasp in a lifetime.
This was his mindscape. Close too, it was rushing water. It was mostly clear, because anything murky soon became clear enough to him. It rushed like a rapid rushed, a boiling, roaring mass of power, fed from a hundred thousand falling waterfalls of sensory input. Step back a little, and it was a water works system, insanely complex, twisting and turning, diverting, connecting, boiling and freezing, great gouts of steam came as unnecessary facts were stripped away and vital clues were preserved. Thin streams of vapour hissed from the weak joins of faulty logic from the pipe works of his deductive faculties. It whistled and sang like music, strumming thin wires of his consciousness which in turn pulled water wheels and spun cogs and rattled ratchets and strange devices which were connected to other parts of the systems – the memories, the knowledge stored in his brain attic; his mind, literally, ticking like clockwork.
But take a step further back.....
See the streets and alleys through each clicking, interconnected mechanics of thought and deduction. See the buildings shaped flowing stone and intricate pipe shapes. See the river, snaking silent but faster than a sprinter, flowing out into the dark night, shrouded in a fog of miscellaneous theories and errant thoughts which were discarded. See the towering heights of the skyline, the deep pits and dark passages of the underground. Huge. Detailed. Controlled. Chaotic. Methodical. Familiar.
Sherlock Holmes held a map of the entire city of London in his head.
It was as if the ancient aqueduct builders of Rome had met with the greatest engineers of Greece, and built the city stone by stone within a pit of waterfalls. It was marvellous, powerful, exquisite; every tiny, intricate little working part intermixing with the flow of information from his senses, spinning and threading and working refined knowledge from the raw material flooding in.
Walking the streets, Holmes could see the information his senses fed him from the London on the outside. Around him, people who walked the streets at this very moment, their shapes made up of smells and footstep sounds, the rustle of fabrics and the tap of canes, moved like ghosts. They were never distinct images, they were colourless; they sometimes disappeared entirely as their sounds were drowned by a passing carriage or by a breeze shifting the scents around. They left footprints behind them, made of words. Patent leather, new, ink smell, bank clerk. Indian rubber, soldiers stride, riding crop at side. Married lady, pregnant, paper rustling of letter in coat pocket. Child, street arab, lives in Fleet Street area. And so on. The words glowed briefly behind the ghosts and faded.
The carriages and machines were constructed of words. Wheels made of hansom cab, left axle recently mended and cabins of society lady, elderly, walks with a cane, rolled in and out amongst the ghosts, almost solid but still colourless.
The footprints appearing and disappearing across the streets did so across shadows on the flagstones and walls that looked like water stains on cloth. Here was where they found the body of the Hon. Jackson Debrett, his silhouette a murky mark on the flagstones, murdered by his brother in law for the sake of a hidden cache of doubloons in his estate fish pond: there was where he’d taken on the Silent Six, the vicious robbery gang, dark splatters of shadow blood sprayed across the alley walls, here was where Lady Heathley hid her daughter and here was where the gold bracelet of Miss Benton had unluckily fallen and here, and here, and there, and here....shadows marks of memories added texture to the forbidding backdrop of the night lit city. Holmes’ mindscape was a night place, full of fog, stars, bursts of gaslight streetlamps and shadows.
Small wonder no Guide had stayed. How could you wall the entire city? How could you build a dome all the way across that sunless sky?
He surveyed the deserted docks in Wapping and then tracked his way to the ghostly shadow of Billingsgate. Yes, the waters of thought filled this place bubbling up like silvery mercury gently between flagstones where he stepped before vanishing as he moved past, filling the air with the absolute stench of old fish and oil and damp woods. He took his mind back to a week ago, the shadowy remembrances of the people that he had noted in passing suddenly going about their business, the moments frozen in his mind like a fossil. He closed his eyes and focused, focused so hard that the ghosts all disappeared, the smells and sounds; nothing existed but what he had tried to find.
It was difficult. A lot of what he had recorded was almost obliterated by the fugue, the overwhelming input of stink from the fish markets which had caused him to over focus and go into that terrible, near breathless catatonia that was the disadvantage of these five enhanced senses. Lose control, let yourself get overwhelmed then the world would vanish and your entire being would be tied to the impression of one sense, eschewing all others. Many Sentinels would survive the worst wars and battles imaginable, only to be run down by a cart when they suddenly had a fugue in the middle of the street, and were so far gone they had no sense of danger. Or worse, they simply vanished mentally and slowly, inevitably, over days and sometimes weeks or months, stopped breathing.
Of course, bonded Sentinels barely had to be concerned about this. Bonding was more or less imprinting a Guide with every sense, having a living anchor for your senses and therefore your mind. Even sunk deep within a fugue, a Guide could bring you back.
Holmes focused. The scent trails painted vividly across the street showed him where everything is, had been and was going. He went through dozens of them, taking them in and discarding them. There, a tiny scrap among the tangle....
It was intoxicating, overwhelming. Billingsgate was nothing compared to the power of this, nothing at all. There he was.
It would be poetic to say the Dark Sentinel roamed the Underground tunnels like some dragon in it’s cave; bursting forth when necessary and subsided back to his lair when the deductive prodigy came back to the fore. The power of that viscerally primal being was indeed mostly suppressed in the spaces beneath the cobbled streets, that was true. But the city was the territory of the Dark Sentinel; he was the night in the sky, the marks and scored lines of old memory fights on the walls and floors, he stalked silently through the fogs and mists. The Dark Sentinel was a part of it. The Dark Sentinel watched from every shadow.
Holmes struggled to think past the world filling roar of Mine! It rattled the ground beneath his feet, caused the rushing river water to shudder and froth. But Holmes fought down the instinctive reaction, making the gaslights flare like fireworks. The Dark Sentinel settled briefly, but it watched intensely.
Male, he began with the obvious. Adult. Faint traces of medicinal scents. Carried with him. Orderly; likely. Sea salt, seafood, hemp ropes. Entered on a boat; small. Did not report to customs. Wood scent. Likely carries a cane or wood case.
Holmes drew back a little. Frustrating was his most powerful impression at the moment. All he had was a scrap, which told him nothing. There had been no scent with that sudden, searing connection he had felt at the Yard. All that had been was an overwhelming impression; it had contained fear and pain and an aching sense of loss, but underneath there was so much more. Warmth. Wonderment. Beautiful, tantalising silence. Holmes would have traded anything for something as simple and elusive as silence.
The Yarders would all have been amazed at Holmes’ easy acceptance of the sudden manifestation of what very well could be his destined Guide, especially considering his history. But Holmes did not dither in sentimentalities and comforting lies. Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains must be the truth. Senses; control deteriorating. Deterioration; more sharply evident in past week. Connected event; pulled to docks with no prior warning or evident reasoning. Second connected event; a spiritual presence felt on same day, had no effect on any other.
Solution; a Guide has recently arrived in London who calls to me.
The logic chain was as simple as that. Holmes did not believe in shouting about unfairness to an uncaring universe. Not only was it undignified, it was also a fruitless, thoughtless waste of energy. Did it mean that he had to partner with a complete stranger for the rest of his life? No evidence was apparent, though it was possible. But even that possibility wouldn’t deter him. Holmes both loved and hated a problem he couldn’t solve, and this looked to be a particularly interesting one.
Holmes examined the docks of his mind, but there was little else to be found there. Ah, his damned senses. If not for the fugue he could have tracked the elusive and magnetically attractive Guide before he’d even vanished into the House. Homes couldn’t go there. Not into the lair of Lady Beatrice, who was itching to be the Matchmaker for the first Dark Sentinel since Good Queen Bess.
He could feel the pull of that sweet scent even here, in this place built of echoes. All Guides were attractive, of course. Opinion was divided on whether they were congenitally made so as a sort of evolutionary strategy for drawing in Sentinels, or if their empathic abilities could project the attraction into others spiritually, making the impression of them attractive. Guides drew people to them, even people repulsed by their gifts. It was one of the reasons people were repulsed. They saw Guides as a walking incarnation of carnal temptation, which is why they were, almost without exception, cloistered within the House until bonding. For Sentinels it was much worse, because the scents unbonded Guides gave off were like nectar to a bee. When they were in a bonding state, Guides were irresistible. Many a fight to the death between Sentinels had been triggered by it.
He surveyed the horizon of his mindscape, the mirror image of his city as the towering clockwork of his thoughts clicked like a metronome. This was his city. Oh, there were those that ran it, those that had the paperwork and those that brandished it to other nations. But in every way that counted, this city was his. Others may claim the land, but the tribe was his. And without the tribe, there was no London. It belonged to him. Every footstep, every squabbling voice, every rattle of a closed in carriage with rich rococo finish and professionally silenced wheels...
Holmes opened his eyes. “Ah Mycroft,” he spoke Sentinel soft as the ghostly image in his mindscape melded with the sound of the carriage that had pulled to a stop outside 221B. “Still dining at the Grand I see, from the scent of that horrifically woody brandy.”
“Sherlock,” came the deeper and slightly amused voice of his brother. “Still getting into fights at the Punchbowl I see, from the sweat on your clothing.”
A rustle of fabric. “Still getting gifted with silk from the Chinese embassy, I see.”
“Still smoking that awful shag by the bag full, I note.”
“Mycroft, have you actually been taking constitutionals around the Sanctuary gardens?” Holmes sniffed the air.
“As surely as you’ve been scouring the Knightsbridge as recently as four hours ago.”
Holmes tuned into the other person in the carriage with his brother. “Wilikins really needs to see a professional about his back. He’s using more of that ointment again.”
“And the bloody split in your knuckles? I expect you haven’t had those seen to.”
Holmes listened to his brother’s feet shift. “Really, brother, a man who strains his ankle climbing the marble stairs of his residence should be in no position to criticise my medical needs.”
“Neither should a man covered in welts deny good advice, brother mine. That salve won’t help.”
“Landlady using lilacs again?”
“I see your own had switched from Earl Grey to Darjeeling.”
“Your barber was most careless with your shaving this morning, judging from the scraping.”
“At least I have shaved in the last few days, brother mine. And washed!”
“It is an excellent disguise. People expect Sentinels to be clean. I suspect cleanliness helps you when you suck in the foul hot air brayed out by the Parliament at your meeting with them this morning. Lord Holsting has really started to drink heavily, hasn’t he?”
“No worse than Shinwell Johnson whom you have met with again. Disappearing Guides?”
“Interestingly, not entirely from the House. They’re scouring the asylums for new inmates.”
“Money is changing hands.”
“Oh yes. Far more than any smuggler would usually have access to.”
“Hmmm....they find likely candidates on the outside.”
“Obviously. Then they stick them into the asylums.”
“Hiding them away...”
“And then collecting the crop,” Holmes lit a cigarette, feeling disgusted. “Harvesting them...”
“Packing them in a boat...at the Wapping Basin, obviously, where they have access to the London Docks.”
“And sailing them away....more likely West than East.”
“There are Sentinels involved in this.”
“Well clearly! How else would they be able to spot potential Guides? What is bothering me...”
“Is that the process is backwards. Usually Guides stolen from tribal peoples are shipped here.”
“Indeed. Every scion of hereditary snobbery is aghast at the indiscreet emerging of Sentinel gifts. They seek...”
“A discreet solution, which spares them...”
“Having to deal with common folk in the House,” Holmes snorted. “Lord knows what happens to Guides born into such families.”
“We both have a few ideas, I imagine. And as Sentinels, possibly and most probably foreign are involved, this is why I’ve had report of a spectacular amount of fist fights and generally violent behaviour you have been involved in over the past few days.”
“A Sentinel out of his territory is usually quite out of sorts. Tense and aggressive. These ‘Guide Hounds’ are most likely unbonded, which only adds to that reaction. They most likely seek some release.”
“Whore pits and fighting rings. You do keep interesting company, brother mine.”
“I have narrowed down the possibilities some. There must be some sort of warehouse or other space near the docks where they can gather their...cargo. Somewhere close to the fish markets, where the stench would mask a lot of frightened and upset Guides from Sentinels passing by. Once this is found, I can most likely find the gentry who are profiting from this trade.” Holmes rose abruptly, wincing at the way his once soft cotton shirts were now like sandpaper across the irritated welts of his back. “But you didn’t come here to speak to me about my little deductive forays, brother. Not with the perfume of the House reeking around you.”
He heard Mycroft sigh, which was a bad sign. “Your senses are getting worse, Sherlock.”
“Yes, well,” Holmes muttered, not liking where this was going at all. “A day or two in your estate will set me to rights, I am sure. As soon as I have finished....”
“Sherlock,” Mycroft voice was a warning. “This is not a minor sensory quibble. You are descending into full sensory chaos. The fugues are happening hourly. You barely sleep. You do not eat.”
“Surely,” Holmes spat acidly. “A man so far up in governmental affairs has far better things to spy on his homeland. Really, brother, you are wasting resources.”
“Hardly wasted,” came the mild retort. “As you said, my talent is omniscience. That, unfortunately, includes you. This cannot continue, brother. I have asked the House to arrange an event. Every eligible Guide in London will be there. You will be there, even if I have to have you dragged there in shackles.”
Holmes leapt to his feet, outraged. “Ah, there it is!” he snarled. “The sheer compassion and care of a sibling revealed!”
Mycroft snorted from the street. “You aren’t moved by compassion or provoked by care, Sherlock. It has no effect on you. You ignore sentiment until it departs in disgust. Threats – the idea that you cannot control the outcome at least motivates you. Far more than even the risk of your life.”
“Ah, you see,” Holmes jabbed a finger in the air even though his brother could not see. “You have hit upon the key fact. It is my senses, my health and my life! Mine to waste and mine to save.”
“Sherlock,” Mycroft interjected. “Before you vent your no doubt impressive spleen, please note that this was not my preferred course of action. The Royal Sentinel, on orders from the Queen herself no less, has impressed upon me that something must be done. You are...unique.”
“I am a Dark Sentinel, you mean,” Holmes replied through gritted teeth. “Which France and Germany and even America do not have. That must make the politicians jump with glee. Mycroft, surely you are not suggesting that I bond to make Parliament happy?”
“They have pressured me for it long before now, as well you know,” Mycroft retorted. “And I have ignored them. I have gotten you private trainers to keep you out of the clutches of the Sanctuary. I even arranged for special dispensation for you to live here at Baker Street, with no Guide and no Consort. It is never the will of the government that made me acquiesce, Sherlock. You need this. It is necessary. Give me a good reason to stop it.”
Holmes rolled his eyes. Having Mycroft arrange this was a clever trick from those stuffy fools. He was perhaps the only man in London who could match him in wits. “I,” Holmes gnashed his teeth in frustration for a moment. “I might have found a Guide.” There. He admitted it. It cost him a great deal.
“That’s wonderful, Mister Holmes,” came a calm feminine interruption from below, breaking the stunned silence.
Holmes felt Mycroft jerk in surprise at the sudden addition to their argument.
“It’s not polite to eavesdrop, Nanny,” he pinched his nose.
“Your landlady is a Sentinel? Why did I not know this?” Mycroft demanded.
“Guardian, Mister Mycroft. And for your information, Mister Holmes, eavesdropping is lurking at doors and listening to whispers,” Mrs Hudson sniffed. “It is not standing back and putting your hands over your ears to keep from being deafened. I’d hardly need a pair of extraordinary ears to hear you two yelling at each other. Tea, Mister Mycroft?”
Holmes was perversely amused to see Mycroft slightly taken aback. “Uh...no thank you.”
“And your Guide?”
“No, it’s fine. We are leaving momentarily. Sherlock!”
Holmes shrugged, amused and unseen. “You never asked, dear brother.”
Mycroft muttered something even Holmes could not pick up. He did hear a brief breath of a laugh from Wilikins, Mycroft’s nearly silent Guide. “I was wondering about your loitering near Knightsbridge. I can go down to the Sanctuary and...”
“You will do no such thing,” Homes growled. “No such thing, Mycroft! You will not tell the Sanctuary you are looking for my Guide.”
“Unbonded, you can’t enter without leave from the Matchmaker. Ah, I see...”
“Yes, I should hope so. Lady Beatrice would give quite a lot to have me bonded to one of her minions; this close to sensory chaos I might merely respond to any bonding scent, regardless of actual connection. And then the entire political animal of the Sanctuary has access to my every affair. But if they find out I am actively searching for someone particular, they will do everything in their power to keep him from me.” The Dark Sentinel growled, low in his throat. “That is unacceptable.”
“You are certain then, that this man is not already one of her minions? Ah...yes, the incident at the docks. He has recently arrived.”
Holmes grimaced. “Nothing is private in this city.”
“Of course not, Sherlock. What a foolish thing to say.”
Holmes snorted. “No enquiries, brother. Not even your famous discreet ones. You are watched.”
“Sherlock,” Mycroft sighed. “You realise I cannot call off the event. To do so would look suspicious.”
Holmes waved a curt hand at the empty air. “Well obviously, dear brother. I suppose I must thank you for once again putting insurmountable difficulties in my way.”
Mycroft tapped the roof of the carriage and replied sardonically. “You are not at all brilliant unless you are truly challenged, brother mine. You have one week.” His voice faded at the carriage rolled into the wash of London.
“Wonderful,” Holmes muttered, running fingers through his hair. “It wasn’t as if I was used to the idea of wanting one at all.”
Mrs Hudson’s voice came from below, quietly. “Is it really so awful, Mister Holmes? Sharing your life with someone else?”
Holmes grimaced. “Eavesdropping, Nanny.”
The woman gave an unembarrassed sniff. “My house, Mister Holmes. You don’t seem at all pleased about the prospect of bonding. It’s not some terrible prison sentence, you know. I may not have been a Sentinel, but I don’t regret a single day I had with my husband. Not one single day.”
Holmes huffed out a breath. “Nanny, I almost appreciate your sentimental attempts to comfort me, but there is no comfort to be found in the knowledge that some romantic soul will be forced into collusion with me, probably to the detriment of their sanity. Guides don’t stay, Mrs Hudson. They never stay,” Holmes voice was bitter. “And nothing is without regrets. You may have treasured every day with your Consort, but I suspect with some accuracy that you dearly regret the day he died.”
He heard the woman’s sharp intake of breath, but he didn’t allow himself to feel sorry. He savagely snatched his coat. His life as he knew it was shifting under his feet and neither he nor the Dark Sentinel liked it. “Do not bother with dinner. I will be out most of the evening.”
He desperately needed to hit something.
End Part Four
Chapter 5: Part Five
Watson being his usual chivalrous self...which leads him to Holmes
It was a simple blade. Functional and well maintained, it’s edge was kept professionally sharp and it was cared for diligently. Until just recently Watson had found it to be a rare and cherished item. No amount of gold, silver or rare gems would do for you what this blade could do for you on a battlefield. Wealth was only useful in peace. In war, the rarest and simplest and most wondrous thing aside from just being plain alive was just to feel clean.
Now this once giver of simple pleasures had become far, far worse than any fearsome, wicked instrument of death that Watson had ever faced on the battlefield. Watson would have faced any of those today with a smile on his face, had it meant he didn’t have to face this one.
The straight razor sat innocently on his table, oblivious to all this.
Was this all his life was now? He wondered. Was everything he was, everything he earned and everything he had fought for to be washed away in an instant?
Was there nothing he could keep?
Watson closed his eyes in the dimness of his room, his ears still ringing with the stilted interview with the lordly Master of Etiquette. The Etiquette Mastery was unique among the rest in the House as it was chaired, by statute and tradition, by an everyday normal person and usually a scion of one of the old aristocratic stock whom was neither Sentinel nor Guide. By all accounts it was a position of some political influence within ordinary circles as not many ordinary people were allowed into this closed world.
He had haughtily sniffed when Watson, for what felt like the hundredth time now, repeated the story of his trip home and his very late active status. Etiquette Lord Stackham had pronounced him a ‘most difficult case’ and a ‘coarse and uncouth ruffian as ever stepped into the House’. Just as Watson was ready to lose his temper altogether, the man had placed the final, devastating straw across his back.
“When you next come here, Consort,” the man ordered nasally, his voice saturated with disapproval. “I insist you come with the disgusting accoutrements on your face quite gone.”
“Sir?” Watson asked, his jaw still trying to unclench.
The man gave an offended sniff through his overlarge nostrils in his beaklike nose. “Those horrid moustaches. This is not a House filled with vagabonds and ruffians. All of our Guides must be clean shaven. Surely you are aware of how sensitive a Sentinel’s skin is? Any unnecessary hair growth must be eradicated. I find it quite offensive that you did not remove them before ever entering the House.”
Watson’s brain had more or less stopped working at that point. He’d finished the interview on rote and had stumbled away. Now he sat in his room in Charpentier’s and stared at his reflection in his shaving mirror, after yet another mostly sleepless night.
Watson put his head in his hands. Not for the first time, he wished he’d died in that God forsaken place far away. Some days he thought he had died. He’d died and gone to hell. This city was a hellish place. The Wisdom Master said to his face there was very little to be done for him. His mind was too open, and had been for too long. There was no walling it like it was supposed to be. He’d tried every technique for shielding but every attempt was as flimsy as paper. So much was felt in the city, there were so many people, so many passions and agonies and hatreds. It was like standing between two armies and receiving bullets from all sides. And Lady Beatrice ran the House; Watson had irrevocably alienated her and therefore made himself an outcast in the only place that would welcome him.
He should never have come here. But where else was there?
Watson’s hand slid from his face and he looked at himself in the mirror. John Watson, he thought. Consort. Untrained and untalented empath. Crippled and connectionless. Lost soul.
But beneath the sorrow and despair, anger bubbled. Watson may not be a flamboyant, attention drawing soul but within him, hammered by years – by a lifetime – of struggle, was a core of steel. And from that core came an epiphany.
John Watson, the anger answered back. Doctor. Surgeon. Soldier. Nothing he had learned before was gone from him now. The entire Afghan army had tried and failed to kill him. Be damned if he let England succeed now.
It was shocking to realise underneath all that quiet politeness, all the drive to be accepted and acceptable, there was the heart and soul of a revolutionary.
So Watson calmly washed and dried his face, made sure his hair a moustaches were regulation military neat, and stepped out of his room.
It wasn’t a bad place. It was a huge, rambling wood boarding house and well kept. It was one of the few places outside the Sanctuary that was welcoming of Sentinels. Foreign Sentinels stopped there, a few bonded Sentinels called it home. Some unbonded Sentinels, unwilling to stay at the barracks in the Sanctuary, stayed there before bonding. It was a bachelors place, for the most part.
It was run by Madame Charpentier; a tough and no nonsense woman who could dominate a room full of unbonded Sentinels with a mere glare. Watson was her personal guest; he stayed in the guest room of the Charpentier private apartment at one wing of the building. The rest of the place was filled with mostly unbonded Sentinels, and Madame Charpentier would not have an unbonded empath, even a Consort, wandering among them.
He entered the dining area of the apartment, which shared space with the small kitchen that Madame Charpentier ran for herself, separate from the larger one that cooked for the residents.
“Good morning, young man,” was her greeting. “Take a seat. Breakfast will be ready shortly.”
“Thank you ma’am.”
The handsome old woman short him a grin that was quite forward, but she bossed around Sentinels almost daily, so forwardness was no detriment to her at all. “I see your toilette remains unchanged.”
“Yes, well,” Watson flushed. “There’s regulations about the facial hair of Guides, not Consorts. And as they continually remind me, I am not a Guide, so...” Watson shrugged.
Madame Charpentier laughed, her amusement flowing over Watson, warm and sincere. “Good for you, lad. That will get right up that Lady Beatrice’s nose and no mistake.” The lady flipped a pancake on the skillet expertly. “She and I have cordially hated one another for years now.”
Watson raised an eyebrow.
“Because I took my Arthur out of the training course before he was finished,” she explained, waving a spatula derisively as she took a plate over. “He was set on going into the Navy and deeply unhappy at the Sanctuary. I did what I could for him. His nose, you know, was his most sensitive sense and that is no advantage in this city. Guides were sent to him, but the sea helped him far more than they did. Well,” she rolled her eyes as she sat at the table also. “Wasn’t Miss Hoity Toidy Matchmaker insulted by that!”
Watson chuckled at that. He fished his bite before asking. “Have you given any thought to what I advised yesterday? Again, I am sorry if I overstepped by bounds...”
Madame Charpentier waved a hand. “Not at all, lad – in fact, I feel exactly the same about it.”
“Mister Drebber is....I don’t like to say what I feel from him but he should not be here, Madame Charpentier.”
The good woman nodded. “’T’were it up to me, lad, I’d send him away with a flea in his ear. But there are few places a foreign Sentinel is permitted to stay in London. Like I said, Lady Beatrice thinks nothing of me. I’ll wager her Sentinel Superintendant sent them both here to offend my sensibilities. If I send him away then I would have to explain the Sanctuary why. Lady Beatrice would just love that.”
“His conduct with the maids seems reason enough,” Watson commented sourly. “And his lack of moderation with his drinking as well.”
“’Youthful high spirits’,” Madame Charpentier mimicked a nasal voice mockingly.
“Youthful?” Watson placed his cutlery neatly. “Hardly. I do not speak for myself, ma’am, but for Miss Alice. I don’t like her being subjected to him, given her circumstances.”
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” the woman sighed. “But there is little to be done. She and Arthur bonded spontaneously, which did nothing to mollify the Matchmaker. A bond forming without her direct meddling?” Madame Charpentier tossed her head. “A travesty of epic proportions. Practically criminal.”
Watson smiled slightly at the woman’s dramatic dismissal of the whole affair.
“What is criminal, mother?” Alice Charpentier entered, smiling slightly and toting and fairly large wickerwork basket. She was young, sweet faced, petite; almost girlish, but there was a solid capability in her eyes that belied that.
“The fact that you go to that foolish place every day,” Madame Charpentier snorted, rising from the table. She brushed the young woman’s hair with her fingers. “Take care, Alice. Arthur coming home tonight, and you know how he would get if he thought you hurt.”
A smile lit up Alice’s face, practically a lantern in the room. “I can scarcely wait. Consort Watson? Are you ready?”
Watson rose. “You’re not eating?”
Alice shook her blonde head. “I have already eaten. Shall we?”
“So we shall, Miss Alice,” he offered her his arm, and she took it with smile. They said their farewells to Madame Charpentier, and headed out of the boarding house.
“You must be happy to have your fiancée returning for a furlong,” Watson smiled at the young lady as they strolled out the front door.
“Absolutely thrilled, sir,” she gushed excitedly. “It’s been months since I last saw him!” Around her ring finger was an engagement ring. Around her middle finger was the red woven band of a Guide who was spoken for by a Sentinel – but not yet bonded.
The sight of it made Watson shake his head his disbelief. “I still am bewildered that your gallant swain must finish his enlistment with the Navy. Surely there must some dispensation for this kind of thing.”
Alice shook her fine haired head. “If he were in the army, of course it would be different. And, if I were a man,” she blushed. “Then I could join him. But...”
“The Navy,” Watson finished. “Does not want women on their ships.”
“No,” Alice Charpentier gave a wan smile. “But....it’s not so bad, sir. I have my Sentinel and...and many are not so lucky as me. We must always be thankful for whatever happiness we have.”
Watson simply stared at her. He wanted to say something. You cry at night, he thought, I have felt every ripping, gouging tear. You cry like a wounded thing, because it hurts like torture to be apart from him. You came active all of a sudden meeting him while he was on leave and visiting the country. Your family was so reviled by it they threw you out without a thought or a care. You were so overwhelmed by the sudden empathic influx that you were half mad with it. He carried you here. He walked miles and carried you all the way and God only knows he managed to avoid going completely feral in the process. And after all that, the Matchmaker decreed – mostly out of insult – that you could not bond before he had completed his enlistment and you had been trained, trained for something you do absolutely perfectly on instinct alone. You barely sleep, you are treated poorly at the House because they see you as some sort of rogue element. They force you to wear a chastity belt in the kind of medieval thinking that was out of vogue years ago. When he comes home, you can’t actually see him or touch him; you are salved by his presence in the next room, where you can hear him talk. None of which was necessary or normal; just a result of the Matchmaker’s wounded pride. It’s torture, torture without a knife or a hammer, without a touch at all. But isolation was torture for an empath.
Thank goodness for Madame Charpentier. She took the young woman in with only the rock hard decency that was at the core of her soul. She took her in, insisted she be her mother, take on her son’s name, and treated the girl as she should be treated.
He came back with a jolt as he felt a filthy, greasy emotion wash over him. Alice shuddered soon after.
Drebber smiled at them as he turned into the boarding house, casting a too-familiar eye over Alice. “Good morning, my lovely.”
Watson’s grip tightened around his cane. “That’s a terrible way to greet another man, Mister Drebber,” his voice was cold. “Do try to be more polite.” He glared.
Drebber ran a snobbish eye over him, his eyes lingering slightly too long, sighting the green silk band and then dismissing him. He tipped a hat to Alice and strode inside.
Watson could feel the sheer lust hammer him from behind. The man was practically undressing her from behind. “Blackguard.” He hissed under his breath.
“It’s alright,” Alice gasped. She looked physically ill. “It’s alright, really. He,” he hands were cold and shaking. “He...has no control.”
“Acting decently,” Watson intoned firmly, hurrying the girl away from Drebber as fast as was possible. “Should not be a matter of control, but course.”
Alice took several minutes to compose herself. Watson kept a grip on her arm, passing all the calmness he could. “I’m glad you didn’t shave,” she said, half a whisper. “You look quite dashing that way. I’m sorry!” she went unexpectedly red. “That was quite forward of me.”
“A man is never sorry to receive a compliment from a lady as pretty as you, Miss Charpentier,” he smiled at her warmly. She gave a slightly flustered smile in return. Alice Charpentier was, by a tangibly measurable margin, the sweetest person in the entire city of London. “Come, what news have you from the gossip circles?”
“Have you heard the story about the angel yet, sir?”
“Apparently there’s an angel walking the streets,” Alice grinned at him. “Healing the sick, treating the wounded. They say he wanders through the night, answering prayers and pleas for help.”
Watson choked internally. He tried his best to suppress any empathic tell that would reveal that he had been walking the streets, playing doctor. The moustaches weren’t his first revolutionary act. So much of his identity, his sense of purpose, had been tied up in his profession. He hadn’t been able to just...cast it off as ordered. He was careful, he always warned them that he wasn’t legally practising medicine but the people who asked for him were in no hurry to argue semantics. He was there and he helped. That was more than they usually hoped for. He walked with his medical bag, reaching out for the wounded like he was taught. It started small. Helping limping old men and tired workers returning from labouring jobs with minor wounds and old hurts. He was running low on medicines and his stipend was not enough to replace them all at once. He was forced to fall back on his other medical training. He kept wondering when he would attend classes about this at the House, because it would be actually interesting to see the Western interpretation of such talents.
He shook off his thoughts. “Ah, here come your customers.”
He had been quite heartened to see this when he had first started to escort Alice from her home to the House. Constables bearing arm bands or throat bands would find some reason to be walking a beat or in the area of the route she took. The clans all protected and sheltered Guides; it was a firmly held conviction. Now she bought them doughnuts, handing them out from her basket as she went. It was nice to see he wasn’t the only one who thought she needed looking after.
His day at the House went as usual. Most of what his so-called tutors had him doing was reading books and not actually showing him anything (he suspected Lady Beatrice’s hand in his ‘training’ or lack thereof), so he passed in the small library, working his way through dry old tomes.
The trouble started when he got back to the boarding house. He went for a brief nap, hoping to go out to the sick again tonight. The day had been both tedious and frustrating. And, oh yes, in the middle of it all, the proposals. All four of them. He was working up quite a collection by now.
Now Watson was well travelled. It was one of the reasons he was less inclined than most of male society to pass disdainful judgment or to offer a lofty opinion. He’d seen too much, had learned too much, from people who lived so many different lives to apply the usual rigid requirements to decency and grace. Some of the most decent people he had ever known lived lifestyles that would offend the sensibilities of his homeland.
Nevertheless, his wider than most scope experiences had not taught him how to deal with courtship from the other side of the equation. He had been educated in courting – not in being courted. He even realised before this that bonding in the city was not always totally sudden. So many Guide and Sentinels mixed while not being in full bonding heat, so it almost took on the shape of the marriage market of the upper classes. It was disorientating to have his assumptions so challenged.
It was bewildering, shocking and mortifying. More so because he was being approached by other men and while Watson may not pass judgement he certainly had no practical knowledge of that...particular world. When the first Sentinel had come up and calmly offered his services for bonding along with that dreaded red band to put on his finger, Watson had been struck completely dumb for more than a minute. He had stammered....God knows, something, and had practically run in retreat. He could not even fathom how to respond to such things. Watson had frantically leafed through the Guide’s Guide to Etiquette alone in his room, looking for the acceptable practice for rejecting proposals, and was most distressed to find there were none. He wasn’t even going to think of asking Lady Beatrice. Not just because he felt it....well, not improper, just very, very strange to ask a lady about rejecting potential suitors; but also because Lady Beatrice, he was well aware, clearly thought very little of him.
He seemed to be fending off proposals by the hour now. Lady Beatrice had not been involved in the first few, but Watson suspected she now sent them his way out of some petty sense of insult. There was no way to stop it. She was the Matchmaker, and she could do as she liked in that particular area. He could feel her watching through her lackeys as unbonded Sentinels came his way constantly. All he could do was be polite and endure; she made sure he knew that.
Watson lay on his bed still fully clothed, trying to sort out this bewildering new world in his head. It seemed like the more he became immersed in it, the less he really knew how to deal with it.
He must have fallen into slumber, because the sharp, icy burst of panic from Alice drove him to his feet before he had even had time to think of it. He shoved his feet into shoes and snatched his cane up, wrenching open his door.
The panicked empathic projection was shifting into sickening fear, which was coated in a filthy layer of something else so repugnant that it was almost violating. Watson followed it hurriedly, and found the source.
Alice, her face utterly white, was being accosted by Drebber in the big main kitchen. She was scrabbling at the empty countertop for a weapon while Drebber forced her down, his hands moving in completely inappropriate places, his whole being radiating lust and desire.
“Drebber!” Watson bellowed in his best Major voice. “Unhand her, you blackguard!”
Drebber spun around, surprised by the interruption. Alice clawed her way over the table, her breath coming in panicked sobs as she wrenched free of his grasp and over to the other side, landing in a curled ball on the other side.
Drebber sneered at him. A wave of hatred and lust washed over Watson, making him feel as if he’d never be clean again. No doubt Drebber knew something about how to handle Guides’ sensitivities.
Watson knew something about handling enemies. His cane struck the man’s knee and he stumbled, raking a row of hanging pots with one flailing arm.
But, whatever else he was, Drebber was a Sentinel. He recovered quickly, lunged at Watson and stuck, his arms a blur of speed and power. Watson blocked but was knocked backwards, barely managing to keep his balance. Drebber snarled and went for him, but Watson was a melee fighter of old. Ignoring the fiery agony from his leg, he pivoted, dragging the other man with him. He tried to straight arm the Sentinel in the stomach, but Drebber was fast. His hand blocked the blow and yanked Watson’s arm outwards. Watson swung his other arm with the cane knob heading for Drebber’s temple, but Drebber blocked that as well, dragging Watson forward and off balance.
Watson stomped on the Sentinel’s foot, hard, and brought his forehead into contact with Drebber’s nose. The Sentinel stumbled backwards, pulling Watson with him. Watson tried to pull his cane from Drebber’s grip, but the Sentinel held fast, adding his other hand to the grip. He jabbed an elbow into Watson’s cheek, painfully.
Then he hit the table from behind. He fell backwards, and as he went down Watson followed him. Watson gripped the knob of his cane and pulled as he landed.
The sword half slid out of it’s hidden place. Watson’s weight pressed it across the Sentinel’s throat and pinned his hands. Drebber froze at the thin, sharp line of cold pressure.
“You’re...” Drebber stuttered in disbelief, stinking of drink. “You’re an empath.”
Watson could feel his bewilderment. Most people believed empaths couldn’t be violent, because pain they inflicted was bounced back to them. It was like a scorpion stinging itself. Watson knew for a fact what an utter fallacy that was.
“Yes,” Watson growled lowly. “Some days, I am an empath. Some days, I am a doctor. And some days,” he increased the pressure of the blade, leaning in so he was immersed in the stench of drink on Drebber’s breath. “I am a soldier. Which do you think I am today, you reprehensible scoundrel?”
The door burst open, carrying with it a pack of Sentinels, inmates of the boarding house, and Strangerson, Drebber’s phlegmatic secretary in their wake. Watson stepped back, fully drawing his sword and pressing the point against Drebber’s throat. There were cries of ‘what’s all this’ and ‘where is the Guide’. They had heard her distress and reacted.
There was a painful keening noise coming Alice, her hands fisting her golden hair in agony. The whole group paused in shock at the tableau.
“Guide,” one of them approached Alice, responding a deep seated need to protect her.
“Don’t touch her. He shields are almost gone,” Watson ordered him sharply.
“You! Unhand him!” Strangerson broke in, his thin face flushing with outrage. “Unhand Mister Drebber immediately!”
“He accosted a young lady, sir, and he’s drunk,” Watson snapped in return. “I’ll unhand him only to make sure he leaves. Sentinel!” he barked to the nearest one, who almost snapped to attention at the voice of command. “Get this contemptible reprobate out of here. Now.” His sword flashed as he smoothly withdrew it, sheathing it neatly.
The Sentinel gave a rough salute. “Yes, sir.”
“You can’t do that!” Strangerson protested, blind to the glares of the Sentinels being directed his way. “You don’t own this establishment!”
“I do,” came the razor sharp riposte of Madame Charpentier, breathing hard from her run from her apartment. “And if you are both not gone from my sight in ten minutes, I will summon the police! You two,” jabbed her twig like fingers at two Sentinels. “Make sure they pack their possession and leave. The rest of you out. Out, out, out!”
She chivvied and bullied the lot of them out the door, Sentinels manhandling the two protesting Americans with them.
Watson huffed out a breath. “We really could have used you in Maiwand,” he commented as the last of them emptied from the room.
“Of course you could have,” the woman responded as if there was no greater truth. Then her signals became a long, low bass note of pure concern. “Oh, Alice! Oh it’s alright now, love, it’s alright...” she knelt by the young lady and gathered her up like a child.
“Get him off me, get him off, get him off...” Alice nearly wailed, clawing at her own skin. That revolting oil slick of base, animal attraction made one feel soiled all over, even on the inside.
Madame Charpentier hushed and crooned, gently restraining the clawing hands by the wrists.
Watson came over and knelt down next to the wounded and fragile Guide. She was projecting her sickness and terror like a scream; he could feel the tatters her shields were now in. He leaned forward and gently pressed his hands to either side of his face. He did ... something easier to do than to really explain...and pulled the terrible wounds from her mindscape. She sucked in a breath, and calmed, tears beginning to trickle silently down her face. But that was a good thing; it meant the emotional pressure was being released.
“Better?” he murmured gently.
She squeezed her eyes shut and nodded. “I...I’m sorry, I must look dreadful...” She did look dreadful, dishevelled and grey faced, tears leaving streaks down her cheeks.
“Darling, I wouldn’t give a brass farthing’s worth of care for how you look at the moment,” Madame Charpentier responded firmly, hugging her. “You’re safe.”
They got her back into the apartment. Watson sat at the table, his hands shaking as he worked through the awful burden he had lifted from her mind, settling it and cleaning it, discarding it piece by piece. Madame Charpentier whisked Alice to the bathing room, helping to scrub off the stink and the panic of the event off her, holding her as she cried and cried. Watson sat sentry at the table, his head in his hands. This city was a filthy cesspit at times. He could feel the Sentinels in the boarding house listening in; they were tense and aggravated, their territory had been breached and it was upsetting. Gloom settled on the boarding house.
He was only dimly aware of it at first, but an incredibly strong signal was moving into the sphere of his empathic awareness. It was powerful, molten hot as a volcano, wild and uncontrolled. Watson hadn’t felt anything quite like it since...Maiwand!
Watson was on his feet at the splintering crash of the front door, and gripping his cane in readiness at the sound of rushing feet up the stairs. He ducked backwards as the door to the apartment burst inwards, half ripped of it’s hinges. In the doorway stood a young man, tall and powerfully built, panting like a bellows and soaked to the skin. His dark brown hair was plastered to his dripping forehead, his Navy uniform, clung to his muscular figure and water sluiced over his Lieutenants badge and dripped to the floor. His eyes held the sheer solid fury of Sentinel well on his way to going feral.
“Guide!” he bellowed. “Guide! Alice! Where is she?! Guide!”
There was a distant answering cry of “Sentinel!” from deeper within the apartment, followed by running footsteps.
Watson swallowed as the burning rage ignited over his skin. “Calm down,” he forced himself to be still. Young Sentinel Arthur Charpentier stank of the Thames. He swam here, Watson realised. The boat must have been close to the dock, but he literally jumped ship and swam here, pulled by his Guide’s distress.
Madame Charpentier burst into the main area. “Arthur! Arthur, calm down!” she lunged for her son, putting both hands on his wet chest. “Calm down now! You’re upsetting Alice!”
Watson could practically feel the bond, like a taunt steel cable winching the two toward each other. Alice was writhing with it, half mad with her Sentinel’s rage. The House had tried to get in the way of this? “Lieutenant Charpentier, ‘tention!” he barked.
Charpentier’s body reacted without his chaotic mind’s intervention. His arms snapped to his sides and his shoulders lifted.
“Listen to me,” Watson spoke firmly. “Listen to me!” he repeated more harshly as Charpentier’s head snapped towards the sound of his Guide’s sobs. “You are hurting her, do you understand? If you don’t compose yourself you will harm her further. And if you allow her to be hurt then you are no Sentinel. Please, calm yourself.”
“Listen to him, my boy, listen,” Madame Charpentier pleaded, gripping his shirt front. “I told them you could be a great Sentinel without the Sanctuary’s training. Don’t make your poor mother a liar! She’s perfectly fine, she’s not hurt. She’s not hurt,” she repeated again as Charpentier appeared to respond to her.
Charpentier’s face showed the struggle he had with his Sentinel self, who wanted nothing more than to rip something limb from limb. But he was winning, because his vibrating drum beat of rage subsided, beat by beat. “What happened?” he demanded in a growl. “She was frightened for her life.”
“She...she was attacked,” Madame Charpentier explained tentatively. “She’s alright Arthur. Consort Watson here and the rest of the Sentinel’s ran him off. He’s gone now. He’s gone.”
“Not far enough,” came the clenched fist snarl. “He was a Sentinel, wasn’t he? I can smell him. I’m going to hunt him down and kill him for touching her!”
“No! They’ll arrest you for that!” Madame Charpentier protested. “Please don’t, Arthur!”
“I’m allowed to kill for bond interference!”
“Only,” Watson interjected. “In the event of your Guide’s immediate physical danger! He’s gone. If you hunt him down, that’s murder. If you get arrested, what will happen to her? Think!”
Arthur looked and felt like he was being rent in two. “I can’t let him wander the streets, not with my Guide here!”
“I’ll go,” Watson offered quickly. The Sentinel’s head turned towards him. “I’ll go and make sure he doesn’t come back. Alright? The clans will have ousted him by tomorrow anyway, once they hear of this. Stay here, Lieutenant. Care for your Guide. She’d the most important thing to remember here.”
Charpentier sighted the green silk around his throat. “But you’re...” he started, frowning.
Watson revealed his sword. “I’ve taken him on once already. I am prepared and even happy to do so again.” He slid the sword away again with a sharp click.
Charpentier looked at him with renewed respect. “Thank you. I owe you a debt I can never repay.”
“You can start by remaining here,” Watson replied. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“The doors will be open for you,” Madame Charpentier nodded to him.
Watson nodded to her, and hat in hand set out into the twilit and chilly city, tendrils of night fog already twining around the streetlamps.
Sherlock Holmes had an excellent turn of speed, even bruised and battered as he was. His legs could outdistance a carriage, at least within the city limits.
Just as well, really.
It had been an excellent, satisfying night. The fact that he was now pursued by a pack of rabid, half feral Sentinels he considered a mitigating circumstance. He had found them. Oh, yes, he had found them.
He’d had a night of fighting in the rings. The Dark Sentinel in him delighted at the violence and the bloodletting of the bare knuckle pits, and he blew off his frustrations and irritations through merciless pounding of a dozen or more opponents, all more than willing to try their luck and test their prowess against him.
His actual prey hadn’t been hard to spot. They bore the foreign dyes on their clothes and foreign smoke from their cigarettes. Their fighting techniques were clearly from across the pond, and they were tense and angry opponents, far more visceral and brutal than even the rings demanded. They barely spoke, trying not to draw attention to their accents, but their aggressive manner of a transplanted Sentinel was as clear the wind. Tonight, they relieved themselves in bloodletting. He’d noted them, their habits, what they ate and drank and smoked, where they bought their accoutrements, the mud and dirt on their shoes. They may have well have been wearing huge signs, showing their every mood, habit and location in London.
He allowed himself to be temporarily knocked unconscious. It took all his not inconsiderable skill to get there, because his opponents were such clumsy fighters and barely knew the proper way to strike. He couldn’t fake the condition, not in a room full of Sentinels.
As expected, they dumped him at the back of the room to sleep it off while the matches continued. And as expected, the pack of foreign Guide Hounds had gone back there to quietly murmur to each other about plans and such, hidden by the roar of the crowds. Crowds did make the best Mute.
Holmes had sat in the colourless mirror of the fighting shed in his mindscape, and listened to their murmurs streaming in, clear as a bell. No even his Sentinel trainers had ever realised this – the senses never sleep. If you knew the way of it, you could pick up things asleep, unconscious, half dead...they never stopped working. And he never allowed his brain to stop working.
Oh yes, he had heard the whole damning, sordid business. There was a shipment being readied in the next few days. The harvest was being picked and stored.
When they had gone, he had forced himself into consciousness. That was another trick few bothered with. It would cost him later; it led to sensory fugues and chaos as the healing threw the body for a loop, but he would worry about that later. The Dark Sentinel had a threat to track.
He had intended to track them back to their cache of kidnapped Guides, but he had not anticipated an actual Guide meeting them on the way to the docks, another accomplice to the whole thing. The actual Guide had sensed him. It was far easier to fool a physical than mental senses. Holmes could do both, but the mental side usually required preparation.
The alarm raised, Holmes thought it best to vanish. As long as they did not find out who he was, they would not panic and change their plans. He knew them now, by scent, by sound, by location...he could easily find them again.
Of course, outrunning a pack of hunting Sentinels was no easy task. But he had the advantage. London was his city, his territory. They could not step as confidently as he through a London fog.
Holmes ran on. He actually had bigger concerns that the pursuing footsteps of the Sentinels. His feet were going the wrong direction. He had a plan, an intention, but his instincts were driving him the wrong way, down into areas he never intended to go. He stretched out with his senses, trying to clarify just what it was his hindbrain had noticed that his forethoughts had failed to uncover.
He felt it.
Holmes nearly skidded to a halt, his whole being vibrating like a violin string.
He felt it.
Holmes new turn of speed made his former one seem a crawl. He blurred his way through the fog, gaining distance on his pursuers, turning through streets carelessly and effortlessly. Within him, the Dark Sentinel rose like a wave, flooding the city mindscape with dark shadows.
There, ahead of him...
For his part, Watson had scoured the streets, ensuring Drebber was not loitering around. He felt sure he could sense that blackguard’s filthy signal easily enough.
As he’d searched, Watson became aware of the faint, tugging sensation in his chest. Within moments, it had gone from barely there to inevitable. Dazed, he had allowed it to pull him along, into unfamiliar streets. He couldn’t begin to fathom what it was. It was magnetic, impossible to struggle against.
There were running footsteps ahead of him, which echoed his own suddenly racing heart beat. There, a swirl of moving fog, then a formless shadow, then a shape, then a silhouette and then...
It hit Watson like a hammer, like a bullet. He had always read and heard of pure, unconditional love at first sight. He had respected it, but had never once dared to apply such a circumstance to his own life.
He now saw his Sentinel – his Sentinel – standing there, both enshrouded in the embrace of the fog like it was their own private place. He was wiry and dishevelled and battle worn, his eyes were so dark they were black pools, suitable for drowning in. He was raw and visceral and perfect, the fighting marks only added to the sheer beauty he exuded like light. Watson now believed it. Love at first sight. Watson felt the air leave his lungs, and could not force himself to draw more.
Noises intruded on their world of silence. The fog rippled around them, and the Sentinel spun around with a guttural growl at the interlopers. Watson never heard the click of the gun hammer being cocked, but the Sentinel did.
He spun and threw himself across the Guide so fast he could barely be tracked with the eye.
What happened next penetrated much deeper than anything ever had, ever. Deeper than Maiwand. Deeper than everything that had happened to Watson.
The explosion of noise. The silent, unflinching movement of his Sentinel.
The hideous spray of blood from that ruffled head of hair, splashing across Watson’s face, as they both fell...
End Part Five
Chapter 6: Part Six
Watson gets to examine his Sentinel at his leisure...of course, it would have to happen while London comes under attack....
The soul, the mind, the heart; these are not always full, complete things, not from the beginning. Sometimes they are chained, hard shelled things that must be broken before they can be made whole. Some are directionless and light as air, unrestrained but unconnected, and need an anchor to truly understand the beauty of the flight. Most are riddled the awkward corners, blind spots, unseen layers and holes. Holes...yes, some were riddled with them.
There was a very important, near essential, hole in the souls of certain people. Enhanced senses, physical and mental, came at a heavy price. It wasn’t really spoken of or written about, but the culture itself was aware of it, to varying degrees of clarity. Within each Sentinel and each Guide, there was a huge hole – a canyon, tear in their fabric that gaped like a wound – that they struggled against daily. Where did Sentinels go when the last, deep fugue took them? Where did the mind of a Guide flee to, when the outside world overwhelmed them? Some place within, deep and dark. As close to death as you could go, without actually crossing the borders.
Throughout history, it had been called various things. The Hollow. The Soul Cavern. The Death. Watson’s teacher, a child of deserts, had called it the Well. Deep, dark, cold.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad news. The Well could be filled. It was just a space, half of a connecting device, waiting for a bond to fill it. Some souls were made broken; the pieces had to find each other.
Of course, none of this meant a damn thing to Watson as his back hit the cobblestones, the weight of his Sentinel pressing on his chest. For a moment it was like he was back at Maiwand, the smell of it, the feel of it and the horror of it, transplanted into a foggy London night.
Watson lost his mind. He wasn’t proud of it. He had watched comrades – friends – hacked to pieces before his eyes and had still held his nerves, but now they splintered like brittle glass, his thoughts scattered like leaves in the wind.
No! It wasn’t even a thought; it was a pure scream of emotive anguish. No, no, no!
His arms reflexively went around the body lying on top of him, warm and limp. His heart raced, it hummed it was going so fast. His breath came in panicked little gasps, his chest could barely move it was clenched so tight. He felt shattered and full of sharp edges. His body slowly tightened around the jagged pieces. It was agonising.
The Well inside him became more of a sinkhole, sucking him down, expanding to the edges of his being. For a brief, torturous moment Watson was bare before the city of London. All the emotions, every petty, spiteful, angry, joyful, ecstatic, loving thing felt was suddenly pouring in. The emotional detritus of four million souls struck him from all sides.
Ironically, it saved their lives. Because all Watson could do was cast it back out, all the terror and hurt and revulsion and pain – and because there was just too much to dissipate, it earthed like lightning into the nearest available receptive minds. And Sentinel minds were receptive on certain levels. They had to be, otherwise they couldn’t bond.
The hunting pack of Sentinels dropped to their knees, yelling in pain. Of course, the sudden spiritual upheaval didn’t translate into Sentinels empathically, as they didn’t have that ability. For them it was sensory chaos of the highest order, the din, the stink, the taste, the blinding lights, the grittiness and revolting slimy feeling of the city.
But the influx did tell Watson one thing...
His mind snapped back into focus, and his fingers sought blindly in the darkness for the neck of the Sentinel. Watson never prayed, never. On the battlefield he’d always felt that whatever role God played, it certainly wouldn’t include appearing to save anyone. Better, then, to bandage than to pray. But after feeling that faint echo of frustration and protectiveness....
Please, Watson begged frantically. Please, please, please, please....
He found it! There, under his questing fingertips, a steady pulse under that precious skin. Watson blew out a breath in sheer relief. Thank you, thank you, thank you. He pressed his face into the dark haired head under his chin, nearly laughing in hysterical joy. His hands carded through the hair worriedly, and drew a hiss from him as he found a warm, damp and sticky mass of hair near one temple. He gently prodded the area, and mapped out the shallow gouge in the scalp. Creased, Watson diagnosed, struggling to reassemble his professional demeanour. The bullet clipped his temple.
Lucky, was his first opinion. Followed closely by I as well.
The sounds of the outside world suddenly intruded on his focus. There was moaning, swearing, the smell of vomit and blood. Watson felt a snarl rise in his throat. They had tried to kill him, the magnetic Sentinel that had ripped the breath from him.
Watson’s leg was a fiery rod of agony, it had twisted as he fell. His cane was somewhere...it had skittered away from him at some point. His revolver – damn it – was back at the boarding house. There were at least five Sentinels there. They were still recovering from the sense chaos, a Guide flitting between them to assist them free of fugue, but eventually they would be coming to see what had become of their prey and Watson’s cursed crippled body was not up to those kinds of odds.
But leave the Sentinel here, helpless? Never.
Watson thought frantically. How could he escape, how could he save them both? Escape....
Watson sucked in a breath at the sheer enormity of the idea that occurred to him. Surely he couldn’t do it. He’d only ever seen it done a few times, had tried it even less, and even then never unassisted.
The hunting Sentinels began to stagger to their feet.
Watson’s grip tightened around the fallen man.
What would you do to save him? Came the question.
Anything. Everything. Was the only answer.
Watson took a breath, and focused.
“Sentinel...” he whispered, barely a breath of sound.
The Dark city was in shambles. Great pieces of clockwork machinery had crashed to the chipped ground, the buildings were sagging, water was gushing from holes and gouges. The city was sinking into itself, it’s Underground tunnels collapsing, making each exquisite construction smash into each other like dominoes. The city was half flooded, the falls washed and plummeted into pipes that could no longer channel them. Damage had been done.
Holmes struggled to right it, piecing it together stone by stone, stubbornly determined not to give in. He needed to get a clear picture of what was happening, he needed to get out of here. He needed to protect the Guide!
The voice fell across him, as soft and mesmerising as starlight. “You....” Holmes replied.
Pipes begun to bend and twist back into shape, aqueducts began to repair in a flurry of flying stones, taking with them the machinery. Holmes would accept nothing else. He forced his own mind to obey. His Guide was out there, alone and vulnerable and....yes, he snarled, he could see their echoes in his mindscape now, those crude and primitive Sentinels, walking unencumbered near his Guide. The Dark Sentinel roared, still half trapped in the crumbled city. It screamed in rage. If they so much as came within spitting distance of his Guide, then every battle they had ever been in combined would seem like a light scuffle compared to what he would visit upon them. He would erase them from the world....
“Sentinel,” came that soft, world filling, beautiful voice again. “Do you trust me?”
Flowing out from the now crooked and bent street lamps came tiny points of glowing lights; fireflies, by the dozens, streamed into his mindscape like glowing, ever floating snow. It was astonishing. Nothing living existed in his mindscape. The ghosts and echoes weren’t alive; they were just records, moving ideas.
It was brilliant, stunning.
“Do you trust me?”
“With everything,” Holmes replied. There was no other logical answer, not to that voice.
“Then follow me.”
“Anywhere,” Holmes tracked the fireflies, which were heading for the Thames in a radiant stream of flowing lights. He chased them.
He chased them to the city limits, to the banks of the silent, fast flowing river. He sprinted out across the water, because this was his river and it wasn’t deep here. He ran, faster than eyes could track, glowing lights spinning around him.
As the city faded into blackness behind him he heard it – the roar of water always somewhere in the back of his mind. The river of his city didn’t flow into the sea. It instead turned into a roaring waterfall, dropping into a bottomless abyss, the white water of the churning falls over the jagged, abrupt edge a stark contrast to the back, glassy smooth river preceding it and the fathomless depth it vanished into. This was the very edge of his mental world.
Holmes could see what needed to be done. He didn’t hesitate.
Fireflies now spinning and swirling around him like armour, he dove...
Watson, his mind wrapped around the Sentinel’s, pulled them both down the Well.
It was hard to describe what happened to the clan that night. Lestrade and his wife were yanked from a sound sleep. The Bradstreets, working late at the Yard were both struck with a bolt of terror that made them both drop whatever was in their hands. Constables, walking the streets, all faltered in their strides.
A world splitting blast, that nearly shook the ground, burst out into the night.
But the sudden shock didn’t have time to settle into them. Screaming started to echo at the Guide’s House. Dozens, maybe more Guides started transmitting distress. Sentinels even at the edge of the city were startled awake by it. Without exception, they ran to the streets, looking to the Towers.
Ah, yes, the Towers – the Wall Towers, the Watch Towers. Sentinel manned since the reign of Elizabeth, the Royal clan watched over the city. They listened to it’s cries and heartbeats. They were nearly useless in stopping actual, individual crimes because London was a din of noise. Even the best pair of Sentinel ears had difficulty saying with any certainty exactly what was heard. But the point of the Towers was just to be there. They jutted out of every clan territory, across every district, rich and poor, they marched in a line down the Thames all the way to Tilbury, Gravesend and the sea, matching the ancient stone Watch Towers along almost the entire English and Scottish coast, picketing the entire continent. The skyline of London itself was shot through with them. They spoke a warning to all who saw them. We Are Listening.
Before the telegraph came into it’s own earlier in the century, the Shout was the best way of delivering messages throughout England. Messages were yelled from Sentinel mouth to Sentinel ear up and down the coast. Once used only for watching for invading armies, it became a crude intercommunications network throughout England. The telegram had gained ascendancy now, because it was more reliable, less likely to be garbled and messages were kept more private, but clans throughout England still used the Shout. A machine couldn’t tell if you were lying, but a Sentinel could.
In times of trouble, Sentinel eyes turned to the Towers....
There, atop the Sanctuary Tower, a red flare lit the fire pit like an ominous low star. Breach. Attack. Assault. Throughout the city, Sentinels turned towards the Sanctuary and ran.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The Royal Palace Tower suddenly lit up crimson as well; but there was little help for them. The Sentinels were heading for Guides in distress.
The drama happening on the fog shrouded street was lost in the sudden tumble into chaos. The Guide Hounds circled their fallen prey.
“They’re dead,” one muttered. “Both of ‘em. Cain’t hear no heartbeats.”
“I can’t sense nothing, neither,” the one faceless Guide added. “Come on, we got somewhere to be. That damn writer man should be just free o’ the palace by now.”
“We should probably check....”
“No! Don’t touch ‘em. Our smell will already be on the street!” Something small and glassy smashed onto the cobbles. “Come on, we gotta go. We have to be ready to help the others with the...” a snigger, “Spoils of war.”
They withdrew into the fog, just as the Towers across London started lighting up with white, magnesium fire in their fire pits. White, white, white, across every tower in the city. Responding, responding, responding...
The city was filled with white fire at the tips of it’s crown.
Watson suddenly gasped in air, like a man surfacing from an ocean. He sucked in another, and coughed. There was an overwhelming smell of peppermint in the air around them.
As close to death as you could go, with crossing borders....
Watson felt bone tired, cold and sick. The Well was a deep and dark place, not somewhere to venture lightly. But it had worked, it had fooled the hunters into leaving them. He sat up carefully, the Sentinel still cradled in his arms. Between the injury and the sudden dive in the Well, he wasn’t quite strong enough to regain consciousness yet, but he was safe. His mind had been held as delicately as the most fragile treasure in the world.
And what a mind! It had been like wrapping himself around a raging storm, a cataclysm full of violence and force. It had been overwhelming, electrifying. He had never felt anything quite like it. He’d been utterly stunned at how fast it had moved – no shock, no hesitation, just movement faster than Watson could track and a heartrending trust in him...
More than that. Protectiveness, overpowering and irresistible had poured across him. It had burned like fire, had blocked out pain and hatred, had kept him from every hurt, every bad memory. It had been indescribable how safe he had felt.
Watson clutched as the hard body and tried to reassemble his thoughts. He had to get the Sentinel inside, had to see to the wound. He cursed his crippled body as he never had before. There was no way he could carry him to safety.
“Yer alive?” A voice came from behind him.
Watson snapped around it, trying to keep his body between the intruder and his Sentinel.
A tall, broad shape appeared out of the fog. Watson couldn’t tell at first, but as the man stepped closer it became clear he was a Sentinel himself. There was something about him, something Watson was too distracted to really pick up on. Something about him was...painful, sad.
“I felt y’all’s heart stop,” the strange Sentinel added. He held up his hands to show he was no threat. “I saw yer walking the streets, I heard the Sentinels givin’ chase, I thought you might need some help. I ain’t with them others.” He added, seeing the wariness in Watson’s eyes.
He became clearer as he stepped closer – big, tanned, red haired. His accent was American, his clothing suited towards outdoor life than indoor. His face was florid with cold, his nails weren’t well kept, and he wore a broad brimmed hat which dripped with moisture. Watson’s empathic control was shaky, but he didn’t feel any hostility from the stranger.
“I...” Watson’s voice was a croak. “I do need help. Can you carry him? He’s hurt, I have to help him.”
“Sure, no problem,” the red head tipped his hat, and lifted the injured Sentinel up effortlessly.
Watson, limping badly, directed the American Sentinel back towards the boarding house.
“What happened to y’all?”
“I’m not sure,” Watson replied quietly. He was feeling a little more in control now. “I...he was being chased and they shot at him,” his grip tightened on his cane. “I don’t know who they were. They weren’t the police.”
The stranger, who seemed a fairly quiet man, spoke after a thoughtful pause. “Heard the gun. Came runnin’. But I heard your hearts...fade. How’d ya do that?”
Watson scrubbed his face. “It’s...complicated,” he replied. “I don’t know that I can really explain it.”
The stranger seemed to accept this. “This the place?”
“Yes, this way,” Watson lead the stranger to the front door. He stopped to look around London. Up until now he had not even noticed the scenery, far too focused on the injured Sentinel. “I wonder why the Towers are all lit up like that.” He said idly, still trying to clear his blurred mind.
The American shrugged. “Dunno. Ain’t been in the city long.”
“Hold it,” came a snarl from the door. Charpentier stood there, changed into fresh clothing and in full bristle, defending his territory from the foreign Sentinel.
“It’s alright, Charpentier,” Watson held up his hands quickly.
Charpentier growled, his eyes fierce. “No. No Sentinels.”
Watson replied, his tone steely. “This man needs medical attention, Lieutenant.”
Charpentier pursed his lips, and relented slightly. “He can come in,” he said eventually. “But not him.” He jabbed a finger at the American.
Watson was about to protest, but the stranger broke in first. “Whatever ya want, kid. C’n ya take him?” He held out the limp form of the injured Sentinel.
Charpentier grudgingly took possession of the wounded man, and chivvied Watson in behind him so he was blocked from the foreigner’s view. The stranger tipped his hat and silently vanished into the fog.
Charpentier manhandled the unconscious form upstairs and back into the Charpentier partition of the boarding house.
“How is Alice?” Watson asked softly, fussing gently over the injured Sentinel’s head.
Charpentier grumbled. “Asleep. At rest. Mother’s curled up with her.”
Watson blinked. “You’re not...” how in the hell had Charpentier kept from fully bonding with her?
Charpentier gritted his teeth. “Three months to go. If we bond now they’ll treat her like dirt forever. She deserves to be treated like the saint she is. If we go along with what they want, then they won’t have any excuse for treating her badly.”
Watson sighed. But Charpentier was young. He didn’t know yet that most people don’t need or even apply excuses for their bad conduct. He saw no benefit in Charpentier holding his self control, even if he admired what it must have cost the younger man. But he said nothing. He was still too thoroughly rattled by tonight’s events and Charpentier was too clearly teetering on a knife’s edge for making an issue of it.
He had Charpentier hold onto the injured man while he dug around in his trunk for...ah, here it was. Most doctors in Afghanistan had kept a roll of silk with them; sometimes it was the only bandage or bedding that could be used for a fragile Sentinel. His was ragged edged from being ripped up for bandages, but even after Maiwand he hadn’t the heart to discard it.
He unfolded the roll and lay it on the floor. It was just about big enough. Charpentier lay the other Sentinel down on it. He stepped back abruptly, clapping a hand of his nose and mouth as he did.
“I have to go,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, it’s the blood...I can’t...” the young Sentinel was backing up almost fearfully. “I may lose my mind if I keep smelling the blood.”
“Go, it’s alright,” Watson waved him out. “I can take care of him.”
Charpentier retreated with speed.
Watson was left alone with his Sentinel.
He was handsome, Watson noted. Beautiful even, but in a strange, unsymmetrical way. His face was filled to the brim with character and energy even in repose. Watson lit candles in the room, watching the soft light glow across those sharp, lightly lined features. He was stubbled and rumpled, his clothing relaxed and almost improperly used; there was nothing straight or neat about him, nothing that would indicate rigid deportment so prevalent in this day and age.
It should have made him rough and uncouth, but instead it made him alluring, attractive, unbridled by normal constraints, liberated from the everyday world, unique, utterly captivating and charismatic. Watson thoughtlessly curled his fingers across the plains of that fascinating face and the rough skin. His hands were shaking.
Watson sharply got a hold of himself. He rose from the floor, dug out his medical bag and a handful of silk handkerchiefs, and after placing them near his patient went out into the kitchen, returning with a pan of warm water and soap.
He washed the wound as gently as possible, drawing any of the pain away from the injured man. He placed a careful, excessively neat row of stitches across the wound, and then proceeded to wash the entire head of hair, lathering and rinsing away any dirt and mud from the streets.
Watson was slow, he was methodical and thorough. He cared too deeply to want to miss anything, so he gently washed the face, fingers brushing a split lip from a recent fist fight. But it didn’t stop there.
It couldn’t stop there. Watson moved almost without thought, his fingers and hands moving slowly and carefully over every inch of exposed skin, from the face to the shell of the ear to the back of the neck, drawing soft lined around to the jut of the Adams apple and notch beneath, silk cloths stealing away any dirt and filth from the perfect skin.
He came and went, refreshing the water pan before undoing the shirt, hissing under breath and the vivid purpling bruises and contusions, interspersed with angry red welts of rashes. He stretched out with his senses, trying to get a read on any pain centred around the ribs, chest or back. Relieved at finding no strong ones, Watson continued his slow journey, cleansing the wiry shoulders and taut chest and abdomen, brushing fingers over the multitude of scar tissue twisting the already damaged skin in ways that hurt to look at.
He tenderly turned the insensible man on his side, cradling the wounded head as he did so, she he could access the back. He felt a sharp spurt of anger at what he saw there, more scars and more shadowy bruises. Who had dared attack him from behind?
Watson washed the back, the spine showing at too high a relief. The man was thin, underweight even if he maintained impressively strong muscle tone. He dug a salve out of his medical bag, one he reserved for Sentinels as it was mostly odourless, and salved the horribly welted skin. His clothes must have felt like sandpaper. Why wasn’t anyone taking care of you? Watson wondered.
He focused the same attention on the hands and feet, removing the scuffed shoes and cleaning each appendage, up to the shoulder and halfway up the shin to rolled up cuffs of the pants, massaging in scentless oil to the calluses on the feet and exploring each joint of the rough, working hands in intimate details.
The man was half naked and Watson’s ministrations went well beyond what could be considered medically necessary, but the Guide was entranced, hypnotised by the Sentinel’s presence, even to the point where he was completely insensible of the fact that the rippling emotional tide of London no longer drowned him or suffocated him.
It should have felt erotic, brazenly sexual, maybe even embarrassing, but all Watson felt was an all encompassing care and warmth and concern for this creature who had stopped a bullet for him, whose mind was a sheer force of nature, who deserved to be clean and comfortable and looked after.
Watson wished the other would wake. He wanted to see those eyes again. But he was keenly aware now of almost every exposed inch of the Sentinel, including the bags under his eyes. His whole body and mind was the very epitome and careworn fatigue. He needed a good sleep.
Watson hadn’t removed the trousers, even though a part of him wanted to. He cared far too much to expose the Sentinel in that way, to make him vulnerable while he was still insensible and defenceless. The shirt had been necessary, even medically, but Watson would not go any further without permission.
Instead he tidied up, bundled away the dirty cloths, the sutures and the medicines packed back into his bag, the blankets on his narrow bed were rolled down. He then cocooned the Sentinel in the silk sheet and, with some painful effort, managed to drag the Sentinel over to his bed, heaving him into it as gently as he could. The wiry, thin frame was heavier than it looked.
He tucked the man in warmly with the blankets, and took the time to dig out a vial of subtle perfumed oil from his trunk. He placed a few drops on a spare handkerchief and left it folded across the Sentinel’s forehead. It would provide a scent block to the odours of London, and let the Sentinel get some sleep.
The Sentinel stirred a little while Watson dug one last item out of his trunk, and Watson hurried back to see if he was waking. The Sentinel’s mind was still sluggish, but Watson could feel a rising tide of upset bubbling within. Sentinels did not react to being taken out of their own homes or territories well, and this place probably smelled and felt strange to him.
Watson’s hand seemed to move of it’s own accord, gently carding through the uninjured side of hair, brushing tenderly down across the temple and cheek. “It’s alright,” he whispered soothingly. “You’re safe.”
The Sentinel’s head turned to nuzzle his hand like a cat, making Watson blush. The Sentinel settled back into deep sleep, and Watson did not take back his hand. He settled on the floor, his still aching leg held straight out in front of him, his bones suddenly filled with a weary ache. He closed his eyes, just for a brief break from the lantern light, and was unexpectedly encompassed by sleep himself.
On the streets, Sentinels and Guides swarmed like a kicked ants nest. Police Inspectors scoured the streets while white flares cut through the fog. There was clamouring in the streets, as noisy as the day.
Police Sentinels in their blue uniforms grouped around the House, the courtyard now blazing alight with lanterns and lamps, glinting over a hundred thousand glittering shards of glass from where the windows had blown out.
The Royal Sentinel clan, resplendent in their rich red and gold uniforms, had formed a grim faced barrier around the entire circumference of the Palace, armed to the teeth, their Guides ramrod straight behind them, making it a double ring of bodies.
One group of many scouring the streets found splattered blood and an empty coat on Battersea Bridge. They dug through the pockets, revealing a small bible, and a sheaf of business cards for an Enoch J Drebber. Two distinct scent trails poured off from the grisly scene. One led to the Palace, where they were not allowed access. The other was backtracked through the streets, where they found more blood almost obliterated by the vial of peppermint oil smashed on the street. Most clever criminals were able to find a way around a Sentinel’s nose.
Reports were Shouted back and forth from Tower to Tower, station house to station house, great slabs of information that progressively painted a picture getting worse and worse.
Lestrade, half dishevelled from going from sound sleep to full sprint to the House, his Guide actually on his back, was dismally aware of the growing chaos.
Gregson came up, looking far more proper but, to his credit, just as worried. He was a big man, blond and bearded and bearing a leather arm band with two pips – red and green. “As near as we can tell, they stuck a rather crude incendiary device packed with dynamite in a leather bag on the flat roof of the student barracks,” Gregson pointed to the building in question. “The Sentinels are still tracking down pieces, but it appears to have been engineered with a timer – some sort of clock. Constable Sentinel Clark was able to discern a faint trace of gun powder residue on the upper window around the dome lip, which means some as yet unknown intruder got in through there, got to the window and threw the bag from the dome to the roof. No mean feat, but not impossible. Left it there, clock ticking and...”
“An explosion,” Lestrade finished grimly. “Blew out every window in the cloister, and conveniently deafened every Sentinel in a mile, or fugueing them. Then they just came in, snatched every child they could get their hands on. Simple, efficient, effective. Casualties?”
Gregson looked ill. “Two House Masters, who got in the way of the kidnappers. Several other Sentinels in training who gave chase despite being half crippled by the noise. Fourteen children,” Gregson’s mouth twisted in utter disgust. “Some by shrapnel, others were killed for fighting back.” Gregson broke off, looking physically ill. “It’s horrific. A sickening nightmare, to attack these children. I had to send the Sentinels away from the...bodies. Just the sight and smell of them made some nearly go feral.”
Lestrade’s eyes cut to his wife, who was across the courtyard, bandaging and managing injuries and frightened children who remained. She was dead white, like most of the empaths here. Her hands shook and her back was rigid with the fear and horror of it, but she soldiered on. They all did.
“I can imagine,” Lestrade replied softly.
“What of the Palace?” Gregson asked. “Has there been any word of what happened there?”
Lestrade grunted. “Nothing as yet. The Royal Clan are keeping tight lipped about it, and no one is allowed access.”
“You don’t think the Queen...” Gregson started, and trailed off.
“I hope not,” Lestrade spoke grimly. “But until we know, let’s deal with this. Where is Alpha Ascot?”
Gregson shrugged. “Consoling his wife, I think. He’s back at the Yard with her now. She was horrified by what had happened.”
So was my wife, Lestrade thought sourly. But she came, and she battled, and she endured. He didn’t deserve someone as truly exceptional as she was.
Lady Sentinel Bradstreet and Inspector Bradstreet came into the disaster area at the dead run. “Lestrade!”
“What is it?” Lestrade demanded, spurred by the urgency on their faces. Lady Lestrade hurried over.
“We found an assault scene on Battersea Bridge. There were signs of a violent struggle and an empty coat...the best we can figure is a man was attacked and thrown into the river,” Lady Bradstreet began, huffing in breaths.
“There were two distinct scent trails from the scene,” the Inspector took up the narrative. “One led to the Palace.”
Gregson’s eyes narrowed. “The attack, whatever it was, is connected to whatever happened at the Palace?”
The Bradstreets nodded.
“Who was attacked?”
“The coat seemed to belong to an Enoch Drebber...” Lady Bradstreet began.
“Drebber?” Lestrade broke in, stunned.
They all turned to him. “You know him, Lestrade?” Gregson demanded.
Lestrade exchanged a look with his Guide. “Not personally. He was interviewed as a foreign Sentinel at the Yard by Holmes a week ago. An American.”
“Holmes! That was the other thing,” Inspector Bradstreet’s voice was filled with strain. “We traced the second scent trail and it lead us to another street close by. Lestrade,” he took a breath, his voice heavy. “Something happened there. There was blood on the street. Someone deliberately obliterated scent trails with peppermint, but one of the Sentinel Sergeants was able to eventually get a scent off the blood.” Bradstreets face was grim as stone. “It was Holmes’ blood.”
“Holmes?!” Lestrade was thunderstruck. Behind him, his Guide gasped in shock. “Someone attacked Holmes? Someone actually managed to get close enough to attack Holmes? Dark Sentinel Sherlock Holmes?” It couldn’t be real.
“They’re absolutely sure, Lestrade,” Lady Bradstreet was pale. “It’s him. We can’t find him anywhere. We checked Baker Street, but Mrs Hudson said he’d been out all evening. She was half out of her mind with worry.”
Someone had invaded the Guide House. Someone had managed to infiltrate the Palace and do God knows what. Someone had actually left a wound on Sherlock Holmes, Alpha Prime in all but name...
Lestrade ran fingers through his hair. “Are they trying to identify scents on the street?”
The Bradstreets nodded. “They are,” Lady Bradstreet confirmed. “They seem to have a lead on a faint scent trail heading north. Superintendant Alpha Ascot is joining the search crews. The scent trail, what little can be discerned through the blasted peppermint, seems to indicate the attacker on Battersea Bridge has absconded with Holmes.”
“Absconded,” Gregson shook his head in disbelief. “Holmes is either dead or unconscious.”
Lestrade glared at him. “Lady Sentinel, Inspector,” he turned to the Bradstreets. “See what you can do about co-ordinating the search parties. Make sure every member of every clan in London knows what has occurred at the House. I’m sure Ascot will want us to scour every last inch on the city.”
Lady Bradsteet saluted. “As you say.”
Gregson surveyed the scene. “I’ll get full reports from here. I’ll also check if we can’t get the River Division out on the waters, make sure no Guides disappear by boat. The Royal clan’s already blocked off the roads.”
Lestrade nodded, and reached for his wife’s hand. It was cold in his, minutely trembling. He chafed it. “Come, my own. We’ll go back to the Yard, see if we can’t start unravelling this mess.”
Watson was startled awake by pounding on his door. The arm not currently in possession of the still deeply sleeping Sentinel shot up straight, gripping his service revolver.
“Open the door! Police!” came the yell through the wood.
Bewildered, Watson rose, gently disengaging his hand from the Sentinel and still holding his revolver loosely in his hand limped toward the door. He limped faster as the pounding started again, and wrenched it open.
“Please be quiet,” he hissed to the surprised, plain clothes police officer whose hand was still raised to pound again. “There is a wounded Sentinel in here, he should not be disturbed.” Watson looked out of the room. There had to be half a dozen Sentinels and their Guides coming through the still broken door of the Charpentier apartment. Pounding footsteps came from deeper in the hallway, and Arthur Charpentier appeared in the main room in stockinged feet, looking fit to be tied.
“What is this?” he snarled. “What are you all doing here?”
“It’s you,” came sharp, familiar voice out of the sudden crowd.
Watson blinked. “Matchmaker?”
Lady Beatrice emerged from the pack of Sentinels, dressed in a huge, gaudy silk dress that was ostentatious in the simple wood lined apartment. “I might have known!” she hissed, infuriated. “You, you uncouth foot soldier! What have you done with the Dark Sentinel! How dare you interfere in clan business!”
Watson was completely confused. “What?”
The pounding Sentinel, dark and heavy set, and the only one not in uniform, shoved on the door and nearly knocked Watson backwards. “Where is he, Consort? Interfering in clan matters is a serious offense.”
“Who are you?” Watson growled, regaining his balance and gripping his revolver firmly.
“I am Superintendant Alpha Sentinel Ascot!” the big man roared. “And you will answer my questions!”
Lady Beatrice let out a little scream when she saw the sleeping Sentinel on the bed. “What have you done to him?”
“Nothing!” Watson protested. “He was attacked...”
Ascot crowded into his personal space, nostrils flaring. “That’s his blood on your face, Consort. I have no doubt he was attacked! I am placing you under arrest! Someone fetch Sentinel Doctor Anstruther.” He grabbed Watson by the shirt front and tried to roughly haul him from the room.
Charpentier leapt in, and knocked the Alpha’s hands away. “Unhand him!”
“I am the Alpha, boy!”
“And his Guide was nearly indecently assaulted by the foreign Sentinel that you sent here, Alpha!” Came the scathing response. Madame Charpentier had entered, in a nightdress and a shawl and looking utterly furious. “You are no Alpha, sir! No Alpha would ever put any Guide in that sort of position!”
“How dare you!” Lady Beatrice shrieked, outraged.
“How dare I?” Madame Charpentier drew herself up. “Because I witnessed the consequences of what he did, that’s how. Now if you all will kindly shut up, please? You are disturbing a very fragile young Guide and I will not stand for it. Not in my own home!”
“Alice!” Charpentier spun to his mother in worry.
“Is fine,” the old woman raised placating hands. “As long as everyone stops yelling.” She added in normal if stern tones. She turned on her heel and strode out again.
The molten atmosphere of temper cooled some. Ascot took Watson roughly by the arm and pulled him out into the main room, ruthlessly yanking the gun from his fisted hand when Watson turned his head to check his patient. Still undisturbed, thank goodness.
“What is this?” Ascot demanded while the rest of the Sentinels were firmly asked to leave by Charpentier, though a pair stayed outside the broken door. The Alpha waved the revolver accusing, thumping it onto the table and forcing Watson to sit while he loomed overhead.
“A Webley Bulldog RIC,” Watson replied, irritated and becoming more so by the second.
“It’s a gun,” Ascot snapped. “Empaths are not allowed to purchase guns by law!”
“I didn’t buy it, sir, I was issued it as a part of my enlistment in the army,” Watson retorted. “I wasn’t always an empath. Those laws only applied to me recently. No one asked me to get rid of it.”
“You should have known!” Ascot blustered sharply.
Watson turned a flat look to Lady Beatrice, whose smug smile faded slightly. “Who would teach me that, sir?”
Lady Beatrice drew in a sharp breath, face flushed.
Ascot seemed to have realized he’d made a tactical error. He tried to redirect. “Well that is of no great importance compared to what else has occurred tonight. What did you do to the Dark Sentinel?”
“Treated him,” Watson bit out. “We crossed paths on the street. Men were chasing him, but I didn’t get a good look at them. One had a gun, he fired toward the Sentinel and the bullet creased his temple. I had him brought here to see to the wound and ensure there was no great damage.” Watson felt that perhaps he shouldn’t make his explanations too complicated and bypassed the Well and all implications therein.
Ascot laughed derisively, surprising Watson. “You? You would treat him? Do you really expect anyone to believe that? A trained doctor, are you?”
“As a matter of fact,” Watson replied levelly. “I am. I was a Surgeon Major in the army.”
The response was so unexpected that Ascot looked to his wife for confirmation.
“He said he was,” she confirmed sourly. “If we can believe a word which comes from that foul heathen mouth. But even if he was, he can no longer legally practice medicine.”
Watson sighed. “I am new to London. I was told not to wander the streets unchaperoned, by you yourself Matchmaker. I don’t know where any of the hospitals are. I didn’t know where I should take a wounded Sentinel in London, and even if I can’t legally practice medicine, I can still make an assessment of how serious a wound is. Rules of Nursing, Chapter Three, Clause Twenty Three,” he quoted. Those days over dry tomes hadn’t been a total waste. “Once I assessed the situation, I was forced to take action in order to prevent fugue or sensory chaos. He was already breaking out in welts across his skin, and he was bruised black and blue which demonstrated hypersensitivity of touch. A Guide is Obligated to Act on any Sentinels Physical Distress, Chapter One, Clause Fourteen.”
Ascot huffed out an impatient breath, unexpectedly thwarted. Charpentier and the other Sentinels were open mouthed. Lady Beatrice’s mouth was opening and shutting.
“So you are a Guide pretending to be a doctor?” Ascot scoffed. “Who ever heard of a Guide doctor?”
“If I were bleeding in some hidden place,” Watson replied coldly. “Almost dead and only detectable by a spiritual signal, I, sir, would certainly want to hear of one.”
“He’s got you there, Ascot,” came a sardonic reply from the doorway. A tall, thin man with a rather crotchety face and a medical bag strode in through the doorway. “My patient?”
Watson pointed into his room. “Pupil reaction and pulse rate normal, unconscious for about ten minutes, sleeping the rest of the time.”
Anstruther raised an eyebrow, but vanished within without a reply.
He strode back out not a minute later, this time looking thoroughly irritated. “This is a joke, surely?”
Ascot blinked. “What do you mean, Sentinel Doctor?”
“There are dozens of Guides who need medical attention at the House right now, and you bring me here to treat a Sentinel who has clearly already seen a doctor?” Anstruther’s voice was angry.
“The man’s one serious wound has been stitched as neatly as I have ever seen, the irritants have been washed from his skin, he is wrapped in silk and a scent has been used to ensure rest. Everything the medical journals say you should do for a wounded Sentinel,” his eyes searched Watson. “You were well trained.”
“And experienced,” Watson muttered. “Do you see, Alpha Ascot? Why would I have assaulted him and then brought him here for treatment?”
“That’s not what we’re arresting you for,” Ascot growled. “Scent trails leading to this boarding house have been connected to the street where the Dark Sentinel was injured, a presumed murder scene at Battersea Bridge and a plot to infiltrate the Palace, as well as an explosion and subsequent multiple kidnapping from the House. We are arresting you for suspicion of murder and high treason.”
“What?” Watson leapt to his feet. “What are you talking about? I don’t know about any explosion!”
“Well, you have been connected to suspicious activities on the same night as two savage attacks, sir. You may only be an accomplice, but scent trails prove you have recently been in contact with at least one of the suspects. We have the right in detaining you until it can be sorted. Constable!” he gestured a uniformed officer in, carrying a pair of iron derbies.
“This is madness!” Watson exclaimed. “I have nothing to do with any of that!”
“Even if you are not,” Lady Beatrice broke in imperiously. “You are still guilty of pair bond interference. The Dark Sentinel has been scheduled for a Bonding Event within days, and any approach by any empath is considered unlawful. I should have expected no better of a weak and uneducated Consort.”
Watson’s heart stopped. “He’s...he’s bonded?” the words came out a tortured whisper, as his insides were sliced open with a dull knife.
“It is a matter of time,” Lady Beatrice said smugly. “What did you expect? Did you expect him to bond with a lowly Consort like you?” She laughed with scorn.
Blood roared in Watson’s ears, and he bent double, struggling to breathe. His heart hammered. It couldn’t be!
In the next room, the Dark Sentinel’s eyes snapped open, and he leapt from the bed in one movement. Who threatens what is MINE!
The Dark Sentinel burst from the room in a flying flurry of silk. He ploughed through one Constable near the first doorway, nearly throwing him all the way through a wall, leaving cracked and bent boards in his wake.
“He’s feral!” Anstruther roared, snapping open his bag. “Hold him down!”
The Constables all came running and joined the scrum, but it was like holding back a tide with a teaspoon. The Dark Sentinel raged silently with no roar or yell; just sheer, bloodthirsty brutality.
“Wait, wait!” Watson exclaimed over Lady Beatrice’s scream of terror as Constables went flying left and right. Even Charpentier was thrown all the way down one hallway, landing at his startled mother’s feet as she re-emerged from her room from the noise.
Watson ripped free of Ascot’s shocked grip, and the Alpha himself dove to protect his wife as the Dark Sentinel turned into a blur of fists and feet, blood spattering where he struck.
Watson hit the enraged man in a full body tackle. “Sentinel!”
The Dark Sentinel froze, breathing hard, his arms suddenly full of distressed Guide. They locked eyes, and the Sentinel was lost – completely lost, in the colour of his Guide’s irises. Suddenly he sagged to the floor, even as Anstruther withdrew his syringe from where he’s jabbed it into the torso.
Watson grabbed a hold of the suddenly unconscious Sentinel. “What did you give him?” he demanded angrily.
“Morphine, just morphine,” Anstruther held up his hands. “That’s all. No enough to do him any harm.”
Watson glared at him, but was abruptly yanked backwards by the scruff.
“Take care of him, Anstruther,” Ascot growled, hauling a suddenly fighting mad Watson. “You are under arrest, Consort, and coming with us!”
Watson fought wildly over outraged shouts from Madame Charpentier and her son as he was dragged apart from his Sentinel, struggling to keep him in sight as Anstruther bent over him and Constables got to their feet, bloodied and groaning. His heart felt like it had been torn to useless scraps, his world went blacker and blacker every step he was dragged.
It was worse than the war. Nothing could have prepared him for this kind of torture, nothing at all.
End Part Six
Chapter 7: Part Seven
Interrogations, revelations and conspiracies, oh my....
Impressions only; that was what he saw. After a lifetime of perfect clarity, as much a curse as a gift, all he received now was a series of disjointed images, hazy and without detail or context.
But that just made it all the better. Without the mystery, without the challenge or the obstacles, there would be no interest, none whatsoever. The fact that it would never bore him was a treasure to be relished. So many things before had enraptured him for too short a time, to the point where every new interest held a bitter seed of knowledge that it would never last long....
He had fugued on the sudden, world flooding pain from the strike of the bullet. It had been the worst possible time to be open with his senses when it had glanced across his head. Even the Dark Sentinel, usually unstoppable, had not been able to fight the sudden suffocation of pain. He had emerged into the city, broken, damaged, the Dark Sentinel trapped in the crush of the falling buildings and pain, pain, pain...
But then he had followed his own, his Guide, down into a deep place he had only ever surveyed from a distance before. Curiosity was a compulsion, the need to understand an overwhelming factor in his actions...but still, he was more than bright enough not to venture there. Curiosity was always controlled by reason. Reason was more than adequate to deduce what that bottomless waterfall was. He had never been desperate or depressed or pedestrian enough to give in, and dive down as so many tortured Sentinels had done before. One word from his Guide, that bright, blinding presence and he hadn’t hesitated, hadn’t asked. It was unnecessary to question.
This is what he saw.
Out of the swirling spinning glow, first came colour. Brilliant, rich, twilight colours, the full spectrum of life painted in the sky. Then came the desert, it’s sand a glittering, brilliant sparkle, like crushed diamonds. Then came the field, sand covered, woven in rolling, turning paths twisting out past the field of vision. Above the field, came the glowing lights – fireflies by the thousands, by the millions hovering like stately stars, some dim and small, some vibrant and blazing, sometimes swirling around each other, blown by the wind which sent up the glittering sand, reflecting ever colour in creation from the sky.
And then, as he watched, two orbiting each other wink out, one after the other, their loss a sudden shock even though they were two of many.
And then he saw the blood on the ground, in a splatter – to hazy for him to properly judge rate of drying, shape of drops, direction or origin.
And the five rough clay cups, lined up in a row, filled with clear water.
When he looked at them, he felt it.
Pain. Loss. Rage. Death.
The flood crushed him, tumbled him, washed the colours away...it became a roar...
...of trickling water, subtle and small, but all around him, from every direction, and the wash of noise blocked out all others, which was rather the point.
Holmes opened his eyes. His eyes didn’t flicker left or right, but he instantly knew where he was. It was completely unmistakable.
“It would be of great assistance to me if you all would continue to be silent for now,” his voice started slurred but became clearer and sharper with each word. Holmes closed his eyes for a moment, catalogue ever smell, every touch, every single memory he could about the one who had tended to him. Every fact, every tiny piece of information went into building the complete and total sensory statue being erected within his mental city.
“A he,” came a rich voice, wilfully disregarding his orders, but that was always the way. “Adult. Close to your age. Recently arrived in London, passed through India, a cane of rare African snakewood says a military man as well, a campaigner. Medical scents overlaying say orderly...”
“Ha!” Holmes sat up, crowing in triumph. “Wrong, brother mine! Wrong, wrong, wrong!” Then he took some stock of his surroundings.
Someone, probably Wilikins, had undressed and redressed him – thankfully in clean clothes that Holmes owned that had no doubt been purloined from his residence by one of his brother’s many agents. They had brought his silk lined clothes – silk on the inside but hardy wool on the outside. His brother knew he was going into battle, one way or the other.
Wilikins himself sat cross legged on a dark, mahogany desk-like piece of furniture that was attached to the wall. Behind him, marching out above his tranquil face, was row after row of intricate, polished metal and wood levers and brass wheels, will oiled to prevent any screeching, there to open and close the valves, and control the rate of the water flow in the Mute...
Ah yes, the Royal Mute. This was no wood and metal pitch black interior of the Yard Mute. This was a work of art, some fifteen years in the making, commissioned by Queen Victoria herself at the beginning of her rule, a sumptuous tribute to a similar Royal Mute that had been built especially for Queen Elizabeth in the Palace of Whitehall, sadly destroyed by the second fire there and not rebuilt in the following centuries after the change in Royal residences.
The room was basically a cube and the whole space was made of glass. It was leadlight; thin, exquisitely wrought lines framing a thousand tiny, intricate and hand cut panels of glass. Most of them were clear, or slightly opaque or frosted, with an odd geometric of blues, greens, reds, yellows interspersed here and there. The lines were complex; the entire ceiling was an intricate Celtic winding knot of lines, an exact match to the Glasse of the Synneful Soul which was embroidered by the Sentinel Queen herself in her youth. On the floor, you stepped across the delicate wrought royal coat of arms. The walls were more pragmatic, simple diamond structures with some colour interspersed. The floor was covered in slabs of flat glass, so the surface was utterly smooth.
Beneath the lines of the glass, in every direction, you could see the polished brass pipes. Water gushed and flowed out of them, and that’s when the eye realised that there were actually two layers of the room – one outer shell, wrapped in shining pipework that separated out like open hand fans from every corner of the room, the pipes stretching nearly the whole space of each square. And then the inner glass shell, where you could see the water flowing soothingly up and down the walls and washing the ceiling and floor, underfoot and overhead. The outer shell which held the pipes were interspersed with glass panels too, throughout which lanterns were placed, giving the room a soft, all over glow. It was dim, silent, cool – soothing for a Sentinel, with not too many garish things to catch the senses and cause a fugue.
Holmes himself was in the bed – a huge, hedonistic multi-post affair, veiled in near transparent silk. There was the water control consol tucked in one corner where Wilikins, his brother’s Guide perched unobtrusively. There was a large, round table hemmed with six chairs, where his brother sat. The whole room was like an exquisite miniature boudoir under glass, made life size.
Mycroft frowned at Sherlock as his younger sibling rose, still half wavering on his bare feet. “Wrong how, Sherlock?”
Holmes laughed, which made even the usually imperturbable Wilikins jump. If it hadn’t been coming from Sherlock Holmes, you could almost say it was slightly hysterical. “He is no orderly, oh no,” Holmes ran his fingers through his dishevelled hair and paused to clap one over his nose and mouth. They hadn’t washed him, the scent was still there. He breathed it. “No, no, no, brother mine. You have in the past accused me of seeking out the queerest company in this great cesspool, but now you may do it fairly. I may have, without a single doubt, found the most unique Guide ever to walk the earth. He’s a doctor, Mycroft. A fully trained, certified, practicing doctor.” Holmes ran his hands over his face, simulating the feel of those glorious healing hands. “The calluses were unmistakable.”
Mycroft usually immovable eyebrows rose on his forehead. “I see. An army surgeon.”
“Well obviously,” Holmes replied. “There is simply no other way for it to have happened. Doctor...and a soldier. His feet,” Holmes closed his eyes, fighting for a clear memory. “Had a soldier march in them, his shoulders bore the military posture. He’s a fighter, too.” Holmes let out a sharp bark of laughter. “He carries a gun. A gun, Mycroft! How often have you seen that? A swordstick too – rare African snakewood indeed.” Holmes paced up and down, his feet making hardly a sound.
“Afghanistan,” Mycroft murmured, watching his brother pace.
“Oh yes. How much would it take to have that whole blasted country excised off the map? You are the whole Parliament, no matter what all those idiots who sit there think. Just give me a rough estimate of the time needed to obliterate it.” Holmes turned to his brother.
Mycroft rolled his eyes. “What are you blathering about?”
Holmes eyes darkened. “He was wounded. Recently – within six months, leg wound, Jezail bullet. Maiwand would be the best candidate, and he took fever afterwards in one of those pestilent hospitals. They nearly killed him. That must be answered for. So, really, how much time and resources would it take?”
Mycroft was disconcerted. It was the first time since their childhood that he hadn’t been able to tell that he was actually talking to the Dark Sentinel rather than his infuriating younger sibling. He realized with a sudden chill that he had been talking to the Dark Sentinel the whole time.
It was always quite terrifying for most people to realize that unlike most Sentinels, who were insensible and incoherent when enraged, the Dark Sentinel was calm, controlled, rational. Many a truly perverted and sinister criminal had been talking to what they thought was merely a Sentinel building up to his berserker rage, and never realized that the Dark Sentinel was already there in full, lucid frenzy. And they never had time to realize either. When the Dark Sentinel tired of listening to the meaningless nattering from his prey, he moved so fast he was a blur. Usually the last thing any of those unfortunates knew was a feeling of shock fading rapidly to black on a spray of red.
It was now, Mycroft realized, very hard to tell the two facets of his brother apart.
Suddenly Holmes paused in his pacing, and held up a hand as if stopping a flow of questions. “Interesting...” he looked around him bemusedly, as if really seeing it for the first time. “Mycroft, you do realize I am not staying here to speak to any of your lackeys. I don’t have the time. Where are my shoes? The first article was in the Times, seven weeks, six days ago, brief sixteen line column, page four, and of course the retraction three weeks and four days ago, three lines, page six.”
One did not become omniscient without a serious amount of newspaper reading coupled with a fathomless amount of perfect recall. The articles in question flashed up before his eyes instantly. “Ah yes. The Guide kidnapped off the liner; but of course we all knew long before the retraction that Sentinel Drewitt was out doing more oceanic good works.”
“Well of course he was,” Holmes snorted. “A Guide on a liner with the dullard masses? Small wonder he was in distress.” Holmes face tightened. “Find the captain.”
This time Mycroft snorted. “You know very well he couldn’t stay in the city after he reported the story. Every Sentinel in London wanted blood after they heard he allowed a Guide to be taken off the ship. He certainly wasn’t allowed back after the true story emerged, he was all the more culpable for letting a Guide get into such a state.”
“And the passengers fear the same, so they won’t speak up.” Holmes snarled
“And you know very well they would have struck the name off the manifest by now, which is why it wasn’t reported in the paper,” Mycroft finished cynically.
Holmes shrugged. “No matter. I can find him. I can find him anywhere, at any corner of the world.”
Mycroft shared a glace with the ever-silent Wilikins and replied drily “I can imagine.”
Holmes shot them both a glare while they sniggered – Wilikins was still silent. It should be noted at this point that Wilikins silence was not entirely by choice. His hair was shot through with premature grey and his face, while quite handsome in an angular way, was still careworn. A long, twisted, vicious slash of a scar traced a line down his cheek from just under his eye, and swept in a hideous line across his throat. The wound, grievous when inflicted many years ago, had effectively muted him. Collars and chains weren’t the most demeaning thing that Guides had ever been enslaved to. Most of the worst weren’t practiced in London anymore, at least not in the public eye. But London was a modern place. Walk throughout some rural areas in Britain and except for some quirks of technology you could literally believe you were still in the Dark Ages – Inquisition and all.
Wilikins bonding to Mycroft had occurred while they were both still in their teens and Sherlock was still young. It was one of the first cases Sherlock Holmes had ever been on, and the first he had ever shared with his brother. Wilikins life had been a tragic one, up until Sherlock had decided his brother needed a Guide, and had set out to find one. Because Wilikins, the wound, his brother and the whole dark event were tangled up together, Holmes had always made allowances for Wilikins that he didn’t allow for...say, the rest of the human race. Holmes treated his brother’s Guide as another brother – one far less disapproving than his actual one. It took a lot for Holmes to treat anyone as family, even actual blood relations, but Wilikins had earned it.
Holmes scowled. “Where are my shoes? Or is this some ploy to keep me here? If it is, its childishly easy to outwit and quite, quite beneath you. And that red uniform makes you look hideous, by the way.”
The older sibling fingered his resplendent red and gold trimmed long trench coat, black vest and white, cravat topped shirt irritably. The uniform of the Royal Sentinel clan. “Sherlock...” Mycroft started, and then watched his brother head snap towards the door, annoyed. Mycroft focused also, and then sighed.
The outer door opened – almost silently because the Mute is maintained stringently. But you could hear it nevertheless, because it broke the perfect seal of white noise from the water as the invaders wove their way through the double backed light trap passage to get to the inner door.
Mycroft rose, and Wilikins came over to him, taking up his traditional post one step behind and slightly to the left of his Sentinel. Holmes on the other hand, collapsed back onto the bed, burning with frustrated impatience. The only reason his wasn’t fighting his way out of here to find his Guide was that such a primitive reaction as beneath him. His Guide would be found, but right now there was some value in finding out the exact nature of the city emergency that had occurred; that way he could ensure his Guide’s safety when he went out to put a stop to it. Of course there was an emergency, because why else would he be here?
In entered a tall, lanky Sentinel, hair silvering but otherwise in excellent condition, bearing the black arm band of an Alpha, his Guide entering the proper step behind. They were both uniformed in red, mirrored with Mycroft and Wilikins, though the Guide uniform had no cravat or collar; their necks were bare to show off the Guide collar, the neckline of the shirt was a short V of a peasant shirt. The Royal Sentinel Clan’s Guide collars had a short woven band – a tassel - dropping down the front of the throat, hung with a bell, a bead or a jewel, which varied according to what aristocrat or titled gentry was served and what allegiances were displayed. The Royal Clan had once been the only clan in England and their hierarchy was complicated.
The Sentinel was the Honourable Lord Royal Alpha Sentinel William Barstone, Alpha of the Royal Clan, by statute ranked as a Grand Duke on his becoming Alpha, and personal protector and advisor to the Queen herself. His Guide, Baynes was a shorter, compact and dark haired man and, also by statute, was the Commissioner of Scotland Yard and a titled Duke himself by virtue of being the Royal Guide; one of the few titles of power ever given to any Guide. His throat band was obsidian edged in gold which was also true of the Sentinels armband – armills actually, which was a heavy title of office. On the Guide’s torque at the end of the tassel, made of gold rather than cloth, hung the Royal Sentinel Crest in gold and rubies. The Royal Sentinel’s Armills and the Royal Guide’s throat collar – of which all other armbands and collars were a pale copy - were supposedly the only members of the Crown Jewels not worn by a royal. Both Barstone and Baynes were of aristocratic stock, but one should not be fooled into thinking that made their appointment political. The Lord Royal Alpha was always the finest of the fighters within the Royal Clan, and gaining access to the Royal Clan required to-the-death fighting and training still. Monarchs took their personal protection seriously. Not many could worry Holmes in a fight, but he knew that Barstone could at least give him a respectable run for his money.
“Alpha,” Mycroft nodded to his superior.
“Beta,” Barstone’s nod was for acknowledgement before turning to the Dark Sentinel who was sprawled on the hedonistic bed. “Alpha Sentinel Holmes. A pleasure to see you again.”
Holmes huffed out a breath. “The years are treating you well, Your Grace,” came the sardonic rejoinder. “And I see you’ve recently put on a new valet.”
A wry, faint smile briefly twitched the edges of Barstone’s otherwise stone countenance. “Well, the former was stealing from the maids, as you said.”
“Well of course he was. My brother no doubt told you the same long before I did, but the valet was in a good position for rumour collection and was allowed some leeway. What I took offense at was the fact that he harmed the tribe by his actions, and hence, you duly got rid of him.” Holmes continued to stare at the ceiling. “It’s worrying to see you are quick to brush off your Beta’s concerns.”
“Sherlock,” Mycroft advised warningly.
Barstone waved a hand. “No, he is correct. He did harm the tribe, but his condition was more a mental compulsion rather than a chosen vice. I thought compassion might be better used than punishment. And you can be sure, Sentinel, that I never, ever dismiss your brother’s concerns. Not with such a proven and evident intellect.”
Holmes snorted. “Of course not. You did not rise to your position without some modicum of common sense, small though it might be.”
Mycroft sighed and Barstone just looked on, amused.
“So tell me, Your Grace,” Holmes sat up, so fast and sharp that all heads turned to him abruptly. “Which part of the Sentinel Queen’s armour was stolen, besides the talons?”
Barstone’s mouth dropped open while Mycroft merely rolled his eyes.
“Stolen?” Watson asked again. He sat in a small room as a plain table. Across from him was Sentinel Alpha Ascot, fingertips forming a steeple before him. Lestrade leaned against one side of the open doorway, holding onto Watson’s cane.
“Yes; stolen, Consort,” Ascot repeated. His eyes and senses were intent on Watson, trying to detect any sudden jump in heart rate, dryness in the mouth, sweat – anything that would point to guilt or deception.
“Let me explain it to you again,” Ascot spoke slowly and clearly and it was beginning to grate on Watson. That was no doubt the intention. “Drebber left the Charpentier’s boarding house...”
“After indecently assaulting a young and unbonded Guide,” Watson interjected sharply, which made Lestrade look up intently.
Ascot raised his eyebrows. “All the witnesses report seeing and hearing was one Guide in distress, one Sentinel and you holding him at sword point,” he raised his eyebrows. “The girl could have been assaulted by Drebber, or she could have been overwhelmed by the two of you fighting; and you were the one holding the sword,” his eyes cut to the cane in Lestrade’s hands. “We aren’t making a determination about these events until the Guide as able to give testimony and she is still too fragile.”
Watson gave a huff of disbelief. “But of course, it will look very bad for you if you sent a dangerous an unbonded Sentinel to reside in the same place as a fragile Guide wouldn’t it?”
Ascot’s face twisted sourly. “A determination has yet to be made. You are here to answer questions, Consort, not ask them.”
“Then ask them,” Watson demanded flatly. “Tell me what I am being accused of, aside from acting like a decent human being, which by the way is not forbidden for Sentinel, Guide or any citizen of the empire.”
Ascot sat back slightly, genuinely wrong footed.
Watson rolled his eyes. “I am not some overprotected House Guide, Superintendant. I wasn’t raised there, I wasn’t sheltered and kept ignorant, I didn’t spent my days learning music and cooking and propaganda and nothing else of any value; I am not a child raised to be defenceless, weak and helpless, so that I am pliant and easily lead and controlled. I was trained as a doctor, then as a soldier, and participated in the bloodiest massacre lately seen in the empire and trust me when I say the ghazis did not care one whit what I was when they fell upon us at Maiwand.”
The cane dropped from Lestrade’s nerveless fingers with a clatter. “Maiwand?!” came the startled yell. “You were at Maiwand? How in the hell did you survive?”
The sincere horror in the Sentinel Inspectors voice made Watson turn to him. Unlike Ascot, the compact and thin nosed lesser ranked officer did not feel hostile. In fact, all he felt from the man was a mild curiosity and an open mindedness to the truth, which spoke of both fairness and discipline. He gave the man a gallows grin. “I almost didn’t. Between the bullet in my leg and being captured and the enteric fever, I came close far too many times.”
Lestrade’s mouth dropped open. Ascot’s was still hanging near the floor. “Captured?!”
Watson looked away. “Long story. A very long...long story. And not one I am really comfortable discussing.”
Lestrade swallowed, suddenly sick to his stomach.
“And as such,” Watson continued. “I think after all that I am at least entitled to be treated as an equal.”
Ascot stared at him. “Very well,” he spoke eventually. “This is what we know. Drebber was asked to leave the boarding house. You followed, in direct disobedience to the unbonded Guide curfew. Another Sentinel followed you and Drebber; a foreigner, and by your own admission an American. The as yet unknown Sentinel tracked Drebber to the Battersea Bridge. Another person, also unknown, also came there. There was a fight – Drebber, the unknown Sentinel and another man. Drebber’s blood and coat were found on the bridge, and from the evidence we’re assuming he was slain tossed into the river. The unknown person’s scent trail lead to the Palace, where there was, as I said, a robbery of certain as yet unnamed artefacts. A Royal Sentinel and Guide pair were murdered in the attempt. Scent trails were obliterated by a glass vial of peppermint oil.
“Meanwhile, the unknown Sentinel’s trail goes straight to you, Consort. Straight to you, where we find a wounded Sentinel of my own clan and another glass vial of peppermint oil. I’m sure you know of the attack at the Guide House tonight.”
Watson grimaced. How could he not know? The whole city was ringing with pain and grief. He had only noticed it after....after they had dragged him away from...from him.
“The ledger at the Sanctuary indicates that Drebber visited there. Further reports suggest he planted the explosive that began the assault and covered the kidnapping. So,” Ascot lay his hands flat on the table, his face a careful picture of ice. “Drebber plants the explosive. An unknown Sentinel kills him. An unknown accomplice at the site of Drebbers killing then goes and robs the palace, while the unknown Sentinel goes to you. In the middle, there is you, Consort Watson. You, who supposedly fought with Drebber. You who followed him out onto the street despite the fact it was illegal. You, who somehow found yourself on a street with an injured Sentinel of my clan,” here Ascot’s face twitched in irritation. “A Sentinel whose demise would upset various powerful members of the clan. He was shot and you carry an illegal revolver. He was injured on the same night as a direct, violent assault on the House and an invasion of the palace; and, an as yet unknown Sentinel directly connected with these events not only is following you, but assisted you. Peppermint oil of the exact same composition was found at three different sites – the palace, the House and the street where you claim to have been helping a wounded Sentinel. A coincidence?” Ascot raised a patronizing eyebrow. “Either you are assisting the unknown Sentinel and the palace thief in a robbery, the murder of Drebber and assaulting a Sentinel of my clan as a way of giving yourself an alibi; or, the explosion, the robbery and the injury of the Dar- the Sentinel of my clan was all part of an intricate and well planned attack on British soil against the Pride of London and the Crown itself. And if that is the case, Consort,” Ascot leaned forward. “There will be no place you can run, no haven you can hide within and not a shred of mercy expected from any Sentinel in this city.”
Watson drew himself up. “I served the Crown. I still do,” his voice was ice and steel. “I was not involved in an assault on either the House or the Palace and never, ever on that Sentinel who was wounded. I saw him take injury and I tried to help. I don’t know who the foreign Sentinel was who assisted me back to the boarding house. I had never met him, and he never offered me a name. I certainly would not commit a treasonous act of stealing from the Palace. I would never inflict the kind of pain I feel even now from the House on any Guide or any person. Sentinel,” he asked coldly. “Am I lying?”
Ascot surveyed him minutely. “No,” he begrudged after a moment, to which Lestrade nodded. “But I’ve seen those cunning enough even to fool a Sentinel before. It does not mean you are not involved. Even if you are not, your actions in following Drebber and attacking him at the boarding house were criminal, as well as medically treating the injured Sentinel.”
Watson paled at the mention of him. He had been fighting a desperate struggle with agony and fear since he arrived here, since they had taken him away from his...the Sentinel. The Sentinel; it was sheer anguish in itself. Watson had been so sure and to have that certainty, the last stable thing stripped away, was truly like being in hell.
“The very fact you reacted violently to a Sentinel speaks to the fact that you are either lying or mentally defect. Everyone knows Guides cannot fight – especially not a Sentinel.”
Watson’s mouth dropped open in pure shock. For a minute or more he said nothing, and when he spoke again his voice was nearly a whisper. “Sixteen bullets.”
Ascot blinked. “What?”
“Sixteen bullets,” Watson repeated, still quiet and agonised. “That was how many bullets it took to take down Annie Hay in Maiwand. Bleeding to death, she still fought to the end. Her Guide and husband took the rifle from her body and killed three enemy soldiers with it. Then he took the knife from her and killed seven more. Blood soaked him head to toe. When he lost the knife he clawed at them with his bare hands, ripping their throats out, tearing at them like a wild thing. The whole army charging at us halted in the face of him. They didn’t dare move to strike him.”
You could hear the two officers breathing in the dead silence, while Watson continued. “When there was no one else moving near him, he howled. He howled like a wolf, tearing at his own chest like he wanted to rip his own heart out. Then he picked up her revolver and used the last bullet on himself.” He raised his eyes to Ascot, who was staring at him. “When the enemy attacked again, they flowed around the Hays like water around an island. He was a good man, Sentinel. What he did was the worst and the most courageous thing I have ever seen. It was glorious and horrific and tragic. He was no coward, sir.” Watson lowered his eyes again. “Don’t you ever tell me that Guides cannot fight.” Silence reigned again. Lestrade watched as Watson’s hands, grey as his face, rose up shaking to scrub his face. A subtle trick, but Lestrade could still smell the tears.
“Alpha,” he cut in quietly. “He is in no state to continue. The interview should stop.”
Ascot rosed from his stare, looking uncomfortable but stubborn. “These attacks must be answered for, Sentinel,” he sneered the title. “And this Consort is the only one with any link to the whole affair. He does not move unless we have positive proof that he is in no way involved with fourteen dead children,” the words were a snarl.
“With due respect,” Lestrade returned stonily. “We have no evidence that he was involved; it’s just as likely the unknown foreign Sentinel, the thief and Drebber were in it together and Drebber was double crossed. There is nothing untoward about a Sentinel helping an empath in distress. There are numerous examples of this occurring every day. Unless we can find some evidence to bad character, we can’t arrest him on the evidence he have.”
Ascot rose, outraged. “Are you disrespecting the authority of your Alpha Sentinel? Do you wish to challenge me?”
“No,” Lestrade’s eyes darkened in territorial rage. “But if you want to waste time here accusing a Consort with flimsy evidence and challenging me to a fight when Guide killers are loose in our streets, you will soon have challengers enough. Every Sentinel in the city is foaming at the mouth to find the Guide killers, and if you can’t focus on that and that alone then you are no Sentinel, let alone an Alpha.”
Ascot was flabbergasted; but there was a reason Lestrade had been chosen, even unconsciously, as the Dark Sentinel’s Beta.
“We must either prove criminality or bad character, sir,” Lestrade snapped. “Otherwise you are standing here, wasting time and threatening a Guide.”
“We can prove bad character!” Beatrice stormed in, outraged and insulted. “Guide, control your Sentinel!” she snapped to Lady Lestrade, who followed her in and whose dark eyes glittered with temper.
“He will be as controlled as yours, Matchmaker,” Lady Lestrade bit out. Lestrade reached for her and took her hand, willing her to be calm.
Sidling in after them was Carmichael, bespectacled and covered with soot and bruises. He had been busy assisting at the House. He looked physically ill as he looked at Watson. He clutched a sheaf of telegrams. Watson felt a sudden weight of foreboding.
“I have evidence he may be a deviant character!” Lady Beatrice crowed triumphantly. He turned a smug look on the suddenly stone still Watson. “Straight from his own family.”
“What?” Lestrade shot a puzzled look at his wife, who grimaced.
“John Watson,” Lady Beatrice announced with a flourish. “Lesser scion of the High Edinburgh Clan – the House of Watson!”
Ascots mouth dropped open. “The Watsons? Those Watsons, my own?”
Lestrade was shocked. “The Sentinel bloodline?” He surveyed Watson again, taking in the dead white face. A Guide born into a Sentinel bloodline? It was rare – very rare – to find a pureblood line known for Sentinels to house a Guide too. Sentinels and Guides never bonded within bloodlines.
Watson said nothing. He stared at the table top with unseeing eyes.
Lady Beatrice exulted. “My secretary Carmichael researched his genealogy, as is the duties of the Archivist.” To this Carmichael flinched like he’d been struck. He turned mournful eyes on Watson, who stared at him expressionlessly. Watson hadn’t known they would research his bloodline. If he had, he never would have come here.
“What is the evidence of bad character?” Lady Lestrade broke in archly, watching Watson in concern. How could Lady Beatrice not feel the pain radiating from him?
“They exiled him!” She announced, snatched the sheaf of telegrams from Carmichael’s grip. “A clan of Sentinels exiled one of their own, inner tribe! Do you know how rare that is? Practically unheard of,” she tossed the papers to the table as proof. “He was irrevocably struck from their Pride ledgers on turning twelve,” she turned on Watson, jabbing a thick finger in accusation. “I knew you had some perversion you wanted to keep secret! Why else would you reject the spiritual gaze, why would Guide Bradstreet react the way he did! The only reason a clan of Sentinels rejects one of their own members if for some act or manner which is beyond redemption! They won’t exile you even if you kill someone!” She turned on Lady Lestrade and gave her a haughty glare. “That is evidence, Guide. And by the way, a proper Guide should remain silent unless asked to speak!”
Lady Lestrade looked fit to be tied, and only Lestrade’s hand on her arm kept her from launching a paint stripping verbal attack of the Matchmaker.
“My own is always free to speak, Matchmaker,” Lestrade said quietly, calming the atmosphere down slightly. He turned his eyes to Watson who was still staring at the table, pale.
But support came from an unexpected quarter. Carmichael wetted his lips and spoke. “He wasn’t exiled because of something he did, Matchmaker. I did try to tell you before you came here.”
“What? What?!” Lady Beatrice rounded on him. “What say you, you dunce?”
Carmichael’s voice became a little stronger. “I said he wasn’t exiled for any crime or act or perversion, Matchmaker. People are also exiled from Sentinel clans because an actual Sentinel has done something, and it’s safer to send the other away. Sentinel Clans almost never exile actual Sentinels. They are too rare. When I investigated the circumstances, it became clear why he was exiled.”
“Why then?” Ascot demanded, red faced and frustrated. This was descending into farce.
Carmichael bit his lip, and looked at Watson.
Watson voice was leaden. “Because my brother tried to kill me.”
“Well of course it was obvious,” Holmes replied irritably while he finally gained access to his shoes. “The faint bloodstains the edge of your shoe show you have recently walked across a scene of violence, but you yourself are neat and unruffled. If the Queen herself had been attacked, you would not be in so sanguine a state. So that leaves robbery and, while there is many a valuable trinket within these walls who would be so foolish as to risk the wrath of a Royal Clan? The thief would have to be quick, sharp, unseen - not a Sentinel, because the other Sentinel would sense him walking in their territory and would react viciously. And they certainly could not take anything big or difficult to carry; no paintings or heavy silver or plate. State documents aren’t normally stored here and if they are they would be within the Queen’s vicinity and therefore yours. The same is true of her personal jewellery. So small objects, extremely valuable, unable to be obtained elsewhere because no one would be foolish enough to break in here without absolutely needing to. That leaves out common, everyday valuables like silverware, books or jewellery which could be stolen from any, less well guarded aristocrat, and heads into the realm of Royal regalia – unique and not to be found elsewhere. The Crown Jewels? Totally beyond reach of any but an invading army. The Queens chambers; which are similarly a fools errand. The only option left is the Sentinel Queens Armoury, where the war accoutrements of Queen Elizabeth are kept on display for visiting dignitaries – her armour, weapons and other oddities. It’s not as well guarded. Why does it need to be? They are historical artefacts, not Empire symbols. It is not as if they could be fenced. Every person would recognise what they are.”
“And then,” Holmes continued, rising off the bed and pacing impatiently. “There are disappearing Guides; disappearing from a ‘civilised’ world instead of into one. Why take such Guides, who would be missed rather than stealing them from peoples who can’t fight back? Why? Because some puritanical group is reviled by the idea of tribal heathen, as such groups often are. Why are they required? Why is any Guide required? For a Sentinel; but not just any Sentinel, oh no. It’s not just Britain from whom Guides have been snatched...” here Holmes turned to his brother and raised an eyebrow.
“Guides have been disappearing from across Europe,” Mycroft replied, narrowing his eyes as the facts lined up. “Starting in Russia and working across...”
“Small groups usually,” Holmes continued. “Stolen from monasteries and convents. The continental paper did not report much of it...”
“They come west, picking up small groups...”
“Using unbonded Sentinels as attractor, because Guides – especially young ones – tend to trust them unthinkingly...”
“Then they came here,” Mycroft nodded. “Here where there are the highest number of Sentinels and Guides than any other country; started harvesting all they could from asylums, for they were easy prey.”
“But the real masterpiece, brother, is the House; that’s where the real harvest lay.” Holmes let out a bark of laughter. “That’s why they saved Britain for last, where they could not only steal away the most well trained and talented...”
“But also declare their intentions in the clearest way possible,” Mycroft shook his head. “He’s not a political figure, clearly.”
“No,” Holmes groaned. “Religious. Multiple Guides were always a religious phenomenon. It’s not just the Empire they are challenging; they seek to overthrow their own leaders as well. Revolution!”
“And every good revolution needs a symbol to rally around,” Mycroft snorted.
Barstone held up his hands. “Gentlemen, please! Please explain to the rest of us.”
The Holmes brothers exchanged a long suffering look.
“Guides are being taken, Your Grace,” Holmes held up a finger. “White, civilised, usually Christian Guides. I’m sure you have already heard some of this. The gang has been taking them from the East and slowly moving West. Britain was the first place, however, that they ceased to be secretive. Why? Clearly, it was the last place they sought to raid. And what is the next power west of here?”
“America,” Barstones eyes narrowed. “But we are on good terms with America. And besides, they have their own Sentinel procedures and clans. Why would they need to steal Guides?”
“The current government wouldn’t,” Mycroft shook his head. “They are busy colonizing the new west and forming trade partners. But all counties have malcontents and plotters, Alpha. How many times have we foiled plots against the Queen and the Empire from it’s own self righteous elements? All world powers are much the same. The Guide Registry Act recently passed in America means that all Guides in all states there are kept stringently track of. This group of Guide Hounds couldn’t steal from their own population without drawing attention.”
“Why steal them at all? Revolutionaries should only need weapons and fanatics, Sentinels or not,” Barstone’s gaze swung from one Holmes to the other.
Holmes grinned darkly. “Most revolutionaries have a pack of idealists and bone to pick; they try to collect followers. This group is going to all this trouble because they have a trump card. They have something that all tribes will naturally follow, that will inspire and attract loyalty. Someone who could use the stolen armour talons of the Dark Sentinel Queen with impunity, because they have what might be termed a moral right to them.”
Light dawned as Barstone and Baynes both gaped. “A Dark Sentinel.”
“Unbonded. Religious. One that does not recognise the current ‘tribal elders’ authority, and instead seeks to rule the tribe himself. Once bonded, he will have Prime Alpha status, and others will follow him, Alpha,” Mycroft insisted. “And what better way to assert his authority than to show his prowess and dominion over the country which housed the last, and greatest, Dark Sentinel recorded? By attacking us, by stealing our Guides, they are showing potential followers that they see themselves as greater than all who came before. Using the Talons of the Sentinel Queen’s own armour only reinforces the symbol.”
“Not just the Talons,” Barstone growled, which made Holmes look up in interest.
“Try to hold your impudent tongue, Sentinel, as much as you are able,” was Barstone’s only explanation as he departed abruptly.
Holmes was surprised to see Wilikins suddenly before him, straightening his couture as much as he was able in the brief time they had before Barstone returned.
It was soon apparent why as his footsteps clicked back through the sound trap doorways.
Following him in was the Queen of England herself.
End Part Seven
Chapter 8: Part Eight
The Queen Speaks, Holmes Deducts, Watson Contemplates Hell....and is sort of kidnapped too....
She was a handsome woman; not beautiful, not stunning, but that served her well. Beauty was transient, it faded. The handsomeness was solid, unchanged, it emphasized character and dignity. For a monarch, that was better than gold.
Her air and form had remained so for the last twenty years; swathed in mourning black, and if outside a widow’s bonnet holding the place of the crown. For now, her hair was pressed down neatly, her hand held a silk handkerchief tightly. Her face was smooth and unlined and she was in excellent condition for a woman of sixty years; though a look in her eye revealed a soldiers struggle under heavy burdens of a lifetime.
Holmes straightened and nodded while the others all bowed. The Dark Sentinel may acknowledge the tribal Elders and even heed them, but he was no subservient.
The Queen did not seem at all surprised. She offered him a courtly nod of acknowledgement. “Mister Sentinel Holmes,” she spoke clear and deep. “We are glad to see you in such good health.”
“Your Majesty,” Holmes replied. “I hope your first chambermaid recovers from her illness quickly.”
One did not rule a kingdom for more than forty years without having absolute poise. The only sign of surprise she showed was the rise of one sharp eyebrow. Her lips, usually drawn in a line, twitched slightly. “You are....much like your brother, Sentinel Holmes.”
Holmes rolled his eyes. “You are the regent of all England and the supreme elder for the tribe, your Majesty. You are free to speak whatever insults you please.”
Mycroft rolled his eyes too, in exasperation.
There was rather more twitching lips for a moment. “Will you walk with me, Mister Holmes?”
“You are free to command me at any moment of any day, in any capacity and in any place, your Majesty,” Holmes spoke, his voice unexpectedly fierce. “This tribe and this city are mine. But I cannot stay here. My Guide needs me. Any other day and other moment, I would acquiesce to whatever my elder demands. But not today.”
“Holmes,” Barstone’s voice was a growled warning.
“No, my Sentinel,” the Queen shook her head slightly at Barstone. “I do understand his position. Sentinel Holmes, I ask because it is important. You have my word it will not take long. It may even be of some help to you. Please, I ask again; walk with me.”
Despite the impatience burning through him, Holmes looked away in unspoken capitulation. His Guide needed him, and that tore his insides apart, but there was a reason the Dark Sentinel led all others. The Dark Sentinel was able to strategize and think and plan; he was able to approach threats in more complicated ways, able to recognize that the worst threats to safety weren’t just immediate physical ones. There were enemies in this city, conspirators, plotters and traitors, and they needed to be eliminated entirely to keep his Guide safe. If he ignored that, then his Guide would be at risk in his city, and that was unacceptable.
“Lord Barstone, please take your Beta and meet us in the forward guard room,” the Queen ordered imperiously.
“With due respect, I must stay with you, my Queen,” Barstone replied lowly. “Our perimeter has been breached, and your safety is my only concern.”
“The safety of my tribe is my only concern, my Lord Sentinel,” the Queen retorted magisterially. “I am certain Sentinel Holmes is my ally in this. Do you have any doubt, my Sentinel, any whatsoever, that I am not perfectly safe with the Dark Sentinel at my side?”
Barstone grimaced. “No, my Queen,” he admitted grudgingly. “But I feel as if I should.”
“You do have some sense, Alpha,” Mycroft murmured, impervious to his younger brother’s glare.
“Nevertheless, I am guarded and am safe.” The Queen continued. “Please do as I ask.”
Barstone bowed again. “At once, your Majesty. Forgive me if I have transgressed.”
To this the Queen merely tilted her noble chin. “Your concern over my wellbeing is never a transgression, my guardian. And please have tea prepared and taken to my chambers. You may sit with me all night, if that is your will. We shall talk. Please let Mister Brown know to come also.”
Barstone and his Guide both bowed and departed, Mycroft echoing him and leaving in his wake, but not without a parting shot. “Keep a civil tongue in your head, brother mine, or I swear on our mother’s grave you shall know the hellish depths of humiliation when I reveal all your childhood transgressions to the court.”
“You would conduct business as usual then, Mycroft,” Holmes snorted. “And do keep in mind that is a sword that cuts both ways.”
When they had departed, Holmes offered his arm. “Elder, shall we?”
The Queen led the way through the vaulted hallways of the Palace, now alight with candles and lanterns, shining across the riches of not just wealth, but also history.
“We wish you to know that we are pleased with the fact that you have found a suitable Guide, Sentinel Holmes,” the Queen spoke after a short dint of silence.
“I am sure the reformation of the London Pride after many decades of dissolution will be a boon for the Empire, your Highness,” Holmes spoke in reply, a faint trace of sardonic irony in his voice.
“No doubt,” the Queen replied frankly. “But I, personally, am glad for you. Isolation and loneliness are harsh experiences, and ones which I have never cherished.”
“And betrayal, likewise,” Holmes spoke slowly, not looking at her. “You did not perhaps cherish that either. Though I suppose it is not helpful to cling to old hurts.”
The Queen gave him a long look. “No, I suppose not. You feel perhaps there is some feminine weakness in me that is unbecoming in a tribal Elder?”
Holmes shrugged. “Never, your Highness. I respect you; you personally provided me with private trainers that weren’t complete dullards and incompetents in my childhood. For that alone I at least acknowledge that you are free to command me as the supreme elder in every matter, save one. I do wonder about your capacity to forgive your mother and Conroy for what they tried to do to you. The Sentinel in me would never excuse that kind of behaviour.”
The Queen inclined her head. “High ruler and supreme elder I may be, but I have also lived for three score. And after a lifetime of experience you may take from me the wisdom of an old woman, young man; the passions and angers of youth do not survive long into the autumn years. This I know for a fact. Youth sees the world as simply as the aged know it is complex. And it is not so easy to pass judgement on others once you have had the time to collect a few sins of your own. One day even you, Sentinel, may find it a better thing to forgive.”
To this, Holmes snorted. “That is not the function a Sentinel holds in the tribe, your Majesty.”
“No, it is not. The Sentinel hunts, he protects, he guards and fights,” the Queen intoned. “The Guide heals and stays the bloody hand and shows mercy. My predecessor was very adamant about that. I find her a supremely interesting figure; she was, and still is, my most indulged fascination.”
“I note you have had the portrait of her in battle with the Spanish armada moved to your chambers,” Holmes said blandly.
The Queen blinked. “I am impressed, Sentinel.”
Holmes shrugged. “It was no great feat, given how the paintings have all been recently re-spaced.”
They turned into a small but richly polished wood chamber, filled with ornate glass cases. Shards of glass were scattered on the floor like pebbles. The room was also filled with peppermint aroma.
The plate armour and chainmail were still in evidence, as well as the battle dress, the travel cloak and the steel capped Calvary boots. Pikes, swords, shields and daggers lined on wall, all well maintained but untouched by the intruder. In several cases there were letters and decrees of that age, as well as prizes taken in the conquests, a few assorted skulls of important enemies. Dominating the room was a life size portrait of the Dark Sentinel Queen herself. Her red halo of hair shone out from where she sat within the frame, her face encircled by an elaborate ruff in the fashion of the time, her clothing richly embroidered with primitive swirls and lines. Kneeling at her side was a beared, dark haired man, attired to match; the Lord Royal Guide Robert Dudley. Queen Elizabeth, Prime Alpha, Dark Empress, Supreme Elder. Her intense expression demonstrated her oft noted character; beautiful, powerful, proud, and pitiless on the battlefield.
Flanking the portrait were the two styles of armour she wore, assembled and hung up, so that it seemed she merely needed to step into them again. Beneath the portrait was the smashed case, which had been holding the smaller, ornamental pieces.
“The Talons, as you see, are gone,” the Queen pointed to the empty area. “Obsidian and iron, jointed to fit over the entire finger span of every finger. They say she enjoyed,” here, the Queen grimaced slightly. “Disembowelling the enemy soldiers with them, like a lioness. You can see the likeness of them in the portrait, she wears one pair of them on the two last fingers of her right hand,” The Queen gestured to the area, where the Dark Sentinel’s hand rested upon the globe of the world, the last two fingers sheathed in wickedly long black iron claws, drops of blood forming crimson specks on the globe. An empire won and ruled in battle and blood.
“But what struck me was what else they knew to take,” the Queen continued.
Holmes examined the case briefly. “You no doubt refer to the rings. Oh, it is perfectly clear, Your Highness. You can see where the locked box was secreted in at the back panel of the case, completely hidden from view. No doubt most people believe the rings are held with the rest of the Crown Jewels; but they are not technically part of those treasures.”
“You are correct,” The Queen replied with dignity. “They were secreted here once the Armoury was established. It was fitting; they were the accoutrements of a Sentinel and a Guide, not a Queen and her Consort.”
“May I see the Guide’s ring, which you hold in your hand?”
“How did you know they had only taken the Sentinel’s ring, sir?”
Holmes shrugged. “They are interested only in esteeming their precious Dark Sentinel, your Highness. I’d say their actions towards the House makes their view of Guides perfectly clear.” He held out his hand.
She wryly passed him the silk handkerchief.
Unfolded, it revealed an exquisite but simplistic circlet. The base was bright gold; dark, blood red rubies marched around its entire circumference, sunken within the thick gold band. It seemed a plain thing, until you saw it under Sentinel sight, and how the most delicate filigree of twisting gold wires braided around each stone, and the tiniest imaginable engravings etched into either side. This was a Sentinel made piece, exquisite wrought and would take the superhuman sight levels to reach such minute detail. The inside of the circlet was not gold, however, but a coppery colour shot through with a band of black.
“Commissioned by the Dark Queen and taking years to complete,” Holmes murmured distractedly as he examined it. “Artisans from around the globe were brought. They held off the formal bonding ceremony until they were finished. Seen in every portrait of the two together; often where their hands linked,” he surveyed the portrait, where the hands of the Sentinel and Guide indeed crossed, the rings clearly touching. “Said by the fanciful and the gullible that one ring can always find the other when worn by those in love, no matter how far apart; proof of the spiritual bond strength. Complete nonsense, of course,” with this Holmes derisively threw the ring in a lazy arc toward the portrait, where it was yanked unexpectedly off course, and stuck fast to one suit of armour’s breast plate with a clang. “The metal on the inside, still undefined and supposedly taken from a rock which fell out of the sky is exceptionally magnetic. Both rings have the same cold forged core, and both are pulled together once within range. That is how I knew you held it; your necklace has iron fastenings that were pulled toward your hand slightly.”
“Very good, Sentinel Holmes,” The Queen nodded. “All perfectly correct. The Sentinel ring was indeed stolen and this one left behind. By stealing it, they strike not only at the heart of the Empire but also at our heritage and our history. The ring is to a pride what a crown is to a kingdom. I would task you with ensuring it’s safe return. The reward will be plentiful.”
Holmes gently levered the Guide ring from it’s sticking place. “While I can imagine you could offer more wealth than one person could ever dream of, Your Majesty,” he replied. “I am not sufficiently rewarded by money alone. I will hunt down these men but I will do so because they threaten my city; not on an order, even from you. You have nothing to offer me that holds my interest and my patriotism is not bought or sold.”
“I know of this, Sentinel,” The Queen informed him gravely. “Which is why I do not offer pennies and trinkets. Regain the Dark Sentinel’s bond rings; if you can do so, then they are yours to keep.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow. “An attractive offer, Your Highness. But I sense there is more to this.”
“As the Prime Alpha you are, by statute, to be made a titled noble on bonding; you are to be given properties and tenants. But I know this holds no attraction for you, Sentinel Holmes. You are a free minded person, you reject social status and conventions. You wish to be free to pursue your calling; free from politics and administration. I see merit in that. You have done a great deal of good for a great many of my people – the innocent, the deceived, the downtrodden. The tribe is made better by your efforts, and the tribe is the Empire. So this is what I offer you; find the ring, stop my enemies, and you and your Guide will be considered free agents within the Empire. Go where you like; do as you please, within reason. Even I will not have the authority to order you. You may keep being anonymous to the general public. You may keep doing what you clearly excel at. I will not stop you, or demand a public appearance, or make you an emissary for my interests. That, I believe, may hold some interest for you.”
Ha! Holmes thought to himself. Small wonder she has ruled for so long. “So it does, Your Highness.”
They went next to the forward guard room, outside which Barstone paced impatiently. “Your Majesty,” he scanned her minutely, and glanced at his Guide, who silently inclined his head. “I see he has not completely offended you.”
Holmes rolled his eyes. “Such faith.”
“I would ask you not to venture within,” Barstone ignored this. “The scene is quite evil. Holmes, step this way.”
It was, indeed, quite evil. A Sentinel and Guide pair lay entangled around each other, their blood mingling in a pool on the marble a shade darker than their uniforms.
“Whityre and Thompson,” Barstone’s voice was a snarl. “Ten year veterans, both. Usually they worked from the Palace Tower, but Whityre begged off. Said his Guide had caught a chill. We rotated them to the forward guard room until the Guide had recovered.”
“An assailant used the water drain to gain access, one of the more commonly known hidden exits,” Holmes began as he examined the bodies coolly, blocking out the stench of the blood with every ounce of willpower he had, which was quite a lot. “A small man, he wears spectacles, is most likely American though he must have some British relations. He clerks when he’s not thieving or killing; most likely he works with a Sentinel clan in a high level capacity. Former soldier; a skirmisher, though, and an officer; not a foot soldier. He’s had wealth before, but has fallen on hard times for several years since. He found a calling in some religious sect, though not one, I think, that the Almighty would heartily approve of.”
Barstone’s jaw dropped momentarily. Then he shook his head. “I should be used to that by now after my Beta’s habits. He refused to enter.”
“Of course he did,” Holmes replied levelly. “He won’t take Wilikins into such places. He has seen his quota of bloodshed.”
“And?” Barstone gestured to the fallen men.
Holmes sighed in impatience. “The smell of algae from the cellar drains is hard to avoid. I could scent the trail up to here before it was obliterated by the peppermint. He’s small, because he took the Sentinel first; the Sentinel was the biggest threat, not the Guide who could summon help mentally. Spectacles because the Guide knocked them off as he lunged for the killer; you can see the minute chip off one lens laying there by your feet. Clerking, you see, from the shape of his shoes on the carpet; office shoes, not military boots or work mans footwear. Plus the papers that were thrown over there; he carried them in, looking official and not arousing suspicion. He looks like a clerk, and from the handwriting he also does display some knowledge of clerical wording. In a Sentinel clan because he clearly knows how Sentinels think and operate. He wouldn’t have been able to reach them so efficiently if he didn’t. Skirmisher is evident in the comfortable and decisive ways he kills; he’s used to close combat with small weapons in small groups; and is also unfazed by multiple opponents. Education levels indicate an officer; the shoe impression is clearly a well made patented leather type, but you see the irregularities in the shape and uniformity of the carpet grain as it was shifted under his feet, which mean the soles are in bad repair. He does not smoke or drink; a man intruding on a Royal residence has every reason to sedate himself, but there’s no ash and no scent which would show he indulged. A soldier would usually; unless he’s religious. We’ve already established that a religious group may be behind this.”
“I understand about being an American,” Barstone stated softly. “What makes you think he’s got connections here?”
“He had help getting in here. A lone stranger walking these walls would attract attention. That’s what you train your guards for. Someone known to the palace walked him at least as far as the Grand Staircase. A stranger in the company of one already vouched for would not be automatically questioned. Once he gained access to the forward guard, he slit the Sentinels throat while the Guide watched. When the Guide jumped in to help,” Holmes lifted one stiffening arm. “A single upward thrust. Quick, efficient, merciless. He broke three vials of peppermint to mask the blood. Then it was a simple matter to reach the Armoury display. Once the alarm was raised the guards would have rushed to protect the Royals and the entourages. A swift, cunning and fearless man would be able to slip away in the chaos.”
Barstone cursed virulently, so much so that you could scarcely believe his aristocratic upbringing. “I’ll have the entire staff questioned.”
Holmes gave a distracted grunt, focused on the middle distance while he put his thoughts in order. “Where are they keeping them?” he mused under his breath. “Where can you hide a pack of stolen Guides in this city?”
Suddenly, his whole body jerked as if electrified.
Barstone – an old experienced campaigner – was astonished at what happened next. The Dark Sentinel spun like a top and was out the door before Barstone could even draw breath. Even as he reached the corridor Holmes was a blur, a literal blur, in the far distance while the astonished monarch and the Lord Guide stared after him.
Baynes sagged, clutching his head, and his Sentinel hurried to his side.
“Oh God, Sentinel,” Baynes groaned. “The Guide! Something is happening!”
Queen Victoria frowned with concern, her hand raised in an aborted attempt to reach for the suddenly swaying man. “A Guide?”
“If you will forgive me, Your Majesty,” Barstone murmured as he pulled his Guide into an embrace, before bellowing at the top of his voice. “All Sentinels to arms! All Sentinels! Follow the Dark Sentinel! Assistance required!”
The coach ride was silent, any inclination to put words to voice had been irrevocably slaughtered in the small room in the Yard, after Watson had made his admission.
But honestly, Lestrade mused from his seat in the quietly swaying contraption, what could you say after a statement like that? He shot a surreptitious glace at the silent and pale former army Doctor, currently wedged in between Ascot and himself. The man’s face was blank....no, it was focused elsewhere, somewhere where only private feelings were that were never displayed on the face. Lestrade could see his own wife’s hands knotted primly in her lap, visibly restrained; she wanted to reach out and comfort the obviously grief stricken fellow empath as a Guide’s nature often dictated. She could not, however. Not under the piercing stares of the Ascots who would deride the inappropriateness of it.
They were going back to the House. Even damaged and besieged as it was, it was still the most defensible stronghold for Guides in London. Even more so now, after the great tragedy there. Any Sentinel police officer not scouring the streets would be there in full bristle, determined to protect the Guides from further harm.
The Alpha Ascot and the Matchmaker were at a loss at what to do next. The House was in chaos, the Palace had been breached and the streets were a war zone; despite all of that, the prize for the most astonishing event was spurred by this one man. This one man, whom despite the fact you could call most striking in appearance, was otherwise seemingly ordinary. Holmes may be a madman, but he looked and acted like one; he was erratic, hard to read, impossible to predict and therefore full of unexpected shocks. Watson’s strangeness, on the other hand, was shocking in a different direction. He astounded because his ordinariness cloaked his outrageous story, as much as Holmes eccentricity hid his normal, human feelings.
Lestrade now had a huge problem on his hands. Ascot probably had not cottoned on to it yet, but he would soon enough and then Lestrade burdens would increase exponentially.
Lestrade had heard the full account of the events at the boarding house. He had personally heard statements from the Charpentier’s, and had dipped in to the streams of gossip now flooding the Yard, which was now drowning in awed whispers. Holmes had gone totally feral.
Lestrade had never actually seen it happen before. Oh, he’d seen the Dark Sentinel come out to play, no question at all about that. But the Dark Sentinel had been a rational, cold, logical creature; all speed and incisiveness and precision. What the officers had seen had been closer to the berserker style of feral reaction that plagued Sentinels living in the urban centres. Lestrade could scarcely believe what he’d heard. Holmes had never completely lost his senses, had never relinquished that iron self control of his mental state. His conscience might shift places when his Dark half came to the fore, but never his rationality.
Lestrade glanced at the silent Watson. He did it for you.
Well of course, Lestrade though drily. It’s not as if Holmes, eccentric to the core, could pick a normal, everyday Guide. No, it had to be this man, this shockingly unassuming and extraordinary man, who would earn the Dark Sentinel’s regard.
But therein lay the problem. Lestrade was an officer of the law and therefore had to respect the rules, including hierarchy. Ascot was his Alpha. But equally, Holmes was his Alpha and sitting next to him was his Alpha’s Guide. Consort, Lestrade snorted to himself. Sometimes Lady Beatrice could be uncommonly stupid when she was being petty.
Lestrade had to choose between Alphas now and he knew in his bones that as annoying, as erratic and as arrogant as he could be, Holmes was the Prime Alpha and therefore outranked Ascot. Lestrade had to keep this Guide safe. Even if that meant acting against Ascot.
It gave him a sickly feeling. Lestrade may not like Ascot, but that had nothing to do with it. Sentinels who betrayed their Alphas were counted amongst the lowliest of traitors, no matter the reasoning. Lestrade was going to have to betray one no matter what he did.
But he knew he sided with Holmes. Not just because he grudgingly respected him, but also because he had no doubt whatsoever that once Ascot realized that Holmes reacted to Watson as a Sentinel would in the presence of his Guide, then he would do everything in his power to keep them apart. Ascot was too fond of his own prestige and power to acknowledge any other Sentinel’s authority. Lestrade found that positional to be unacceptable and unconscionable. He may be constantly irritated by Holmes’ antics, but at least Holmes was no hypocrite.
Lestrade looked at Watson again. If Watson belonged to the Dark Sentinel, then it was Lestrade’s duty to keep him safe until the man himself came to claim him. He had no doubt that the infuriating genius would be coming soon, if he wasn’t already on his way. He wished he could reassure the too-pallid Guide of this. The poor man looked beleaguered and battle fatigued, his stooped posture rang with a hopelessness that you needn’t be an empath to see. He wasn’t teetering on the brink of despair, he was head first into the slough, blinded and deafened by defeat. Lestrade had seen that look too many times in people standing on the parapet of many a tall building. Some part of him wished for the respite of death.
But, Lestrade cursed inwardly. He could say nothing; not without tipping his hand to Ascot. He resolved to hold on and keep the Guide close by. Holmes was not a patient man. It wouldn’t take him long.
Watson, for his part, simply stared at his feet. His thoughts were vague, detached. If he started to focus, then all he would see was the past, and that was a dangerous a bloody country, best avoided.
He never should have come here, he thought dismally. He should have stayed with the desert people, or better yet simply died in the battle with his comrades. The future now stretched before him was a bleak one, filled with the ripping, gaping pain in his soul which no amount of jezail bullets could hope to hold a candle to. There would be dreary comings and goings for the rest of his life, while he toiled at some drudgery and his once sharp mind dulled to a useless lump. All the good he had accomplish would wash away like sand in a tide over months and years until all that was left was a tired, grey haired old man who accomplished nothing that lasted, long weary of existence, limping to his grave with no one left to shed a tear. How could they? How could he ever again form any sort of meaningful connection with anyone? How could the one link, formed in an instant, that he had been absolutely and totally sure of be nothing more that some hallucination in his head? But that mesmerizing Sentinel was to be bonded, and Watson didn’t have a chance. There would never be another, Watson was sure of that.
He eyed the swordstick still in Lestrade’s hands. Dare he save Father Time the trouble of sending him to Hell minute by minute? It’s not as if anyone would shed a tear now anyway. They had taken his gun, but as a doctor he would have no trouble finding both carotid and the jugular. At least it would be quick.
He sharply turned those thoughts away, stacking them behind the same walls and his memories. The other Guides in the coach would sense his feelings if they lingered too long. The last thing he needed was to end up in the asylums. He tried to focus on something else, something neutral.
He felt Lestrade’s wife radiating sympathy and support to him, as much as she was able. She was a good woman, Watson could tell, and she had the most extraordinarily effective shielding that Watson had ever felt. She must have had an enormous knack for it even before training. Female Guides did tend to be better at shielding, though. It was one of those things that people often had misconceptions about. Women were generally considered to have less control over their emotions than men; but actually it was more to do with the fact that what they felt was much more complicated and layered than men generally were. As a result, they tended to understand the intricacies of their emotional states better; and the more you understood, the more you could control.
There, that was a safer topic. The giant difference in Watson’s life since his return to home soil had been reacquainting himself was the society of women, particularly female Guides; and of course dealing with a more varied society in general. Their spectrum of reactions to Sentinels and Guides was far more complex and immense than in the army. In the army, the only reaction usually engendered by a Sentinel was one of respect, tinged with envy. Of course, when you were in the middle of some foreign land and surrounded by enemies, it was hard not to like a person who had the best chance of saving your life, regardless of their personal lifestyle.
That attitude was not reflected off the battlefield. The bald fact of the matter was there were more male Sentinels and Guides than female. The actual ratio was about ten to one. Female Sentinels were incredibly rare; about one in a hundred. Female Guides were slightly more prevalent but were still outnumbered by males by a wide margin. Most pairs were completely male.
Society did not like same gender relations; that was indisputable. Where ordinary people were subjected to prison terms for such a relationship, exceptions were made for Sentinels. They had to be, as Sentinels were a valuable resource. But Society still frowned on it, a view exacerbated by a lack of understanding about the necessity of bonding between Sentinels and Guides. For this reason, male pairs were mostly within the army. If it had to occur, then it best occur a long way away.
For those that couldn’t go into the army or had left it, then they were rooted in some rural district where they wandered lonely places and didn’t see much ‘civil’ society who could be offended. Within the city almost all joined Scotland Yard because the instinct to defend was integral to their characters. It was not actually spoken but generally understood that most same-gender pairs within the police were almost always street patrollers, with not much prospect for promotion. A policeman with a female Guide was more likely to reach an Inspector level; they were considered more ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ and therefore more trustworthy when testifying in court.
Watson was more accustomed to the male-male pairs and their way of doing things. Female Guides on the battlefield had been few and far between, and they had been both tragic and exceptional women; brave and steadfast and as tough as nails, but also lonely, almost totally cut off from female company, doing cooking and laundry for battalions of soldiers.
But safe. No female Guide had ever been interfered with by any coarser elements of the British army. Soldiers knew very well what feral Sentinels were capable of.
Watson had never much thought about it. Where he had been raised...ah, but that was the past, a place he dare not go. He emerged from his black study, watching the streetlamps go by dully instead.
The lights flashing by were slowing, however, and Lestrade next to him was frowning in puzzlement. The Inspector reached up and rapped his knuckles against the roof of the cab. “Rance? What’s going on out there?”
An equally puzzled reply floated down from the drivers box. “Not sure, guv. There be a gennelmen a-standin’ in the midst o’ road.”
“Well then move him aside, Constable,” came Ascot’s irritated order. “It’s not as if he’ll stay there with the whole coach bearing down on him.”
“I reckoned he would move as we came closer, guv, but ‘e’s just standin’ there,” Rance replied uncertainly. “’E’s holdin’ a basket, sir. Could be a bairn.”
Watson blinked, and then hammered on the roof of the cab desperately. “Move! Move it now!”
“Consort!” Lady Beatrice snapped, offended by his behaviour. “Restrain yourself!”
“There’s no child! Can’t you sense that?” Watson turned desperately to Lestrade. “This used to be a favourite ambush tactic in Afghanistan. Slow the convoy then-” Watson stopped because Lestrade’s expression had just changed, his eyes going wide.
The Inspectors arms shot out, one for his wife and the other behind Watson. “Down!” he yelled as the bullets shattered the coach windows, yanking his wife down and shoving Watson down as well, though Watson needed no warning.
Lestrade swore, hardly audible over Lady Beatrice’s hysterical screams, pivoted his body and kicked out the door. Ascot already had a revolver in his hands and was removing the other one with a similar kick.
“Sentinel,” Lady Lestrade commanded lowly, her voice dropping into the hypnotic cadence of a working Guide. “Fade your hearing to a whisper. Raise your sight half mast.”
Lestrade responded instinctively to the voice. His hearing dropped so when Ascot shot the explosion of sound barely registered. His eyes scanned the street, zeroing in on three attackers, one with a rifle, moving in on their side. He pulled his own iron out of his pocket, and levelled an expert shot at one, dropping him with a bullet.
No time to do anything further; he dove from the coach head first to avoid an answering volley of fire, rolled and came up firing. He had to scatter them; the Guides were easy targets trapped inside the coach. He heard Ascot firing on the other side of the coach, no doubt doing something similar. Lestrade teeth were bared in a snarl. His Guide. His territory. No one was allowed to threaten either one.
They were Sentinels; half crazed looking men, clearly unbalanced. They rushed at him, and Sentinels were fast. Lestrade was forced to drop the gun, because cocking and squeezing the trigger would take too long and they would be on him. Instead, in darted his free hand into the folds of his trench coat, taking a grip on the strips of steel he found there.
The revolvers were a necessary weapon in this day and age, but most Sentinels he knew preferred a quieter method of protection. The truncheon was still much used, but had a regrettable lack of distance. Lestrade had learned to improvise.
The first man who came at him reeled back with a cry, the throwing knife lodged grip deep in the critical juncture of his shoulder, and a second turning blade just nicked the hamstring of another coming in the side. Sentinel sight and touch combined made for excellent hand eye coordination.
Lestrade tried to keep his back to the coach. Constable Rance could be of no help; the first round of fire has resulted in his wounding and he lay groaning across the box seat. From the other side of the coach there came the meaty sound of fists striking and bodies falling. Clearly Ascot was demonstrating the brutal hand to hand combat skills that had made him an Alpha to begin with. With every assault, however, he was drawn away from his sentry spot at the broken coach door. The horses were spooked and shying, making the carriage roll forward and backwards and the situation hard to control.
The decoy man with the basket was coming forward and making a grab for the reins. Lestrade growled and leapt for him. He could not allow the enemy to take control of the coach. Another man sneaking up from behind managed to gain access to the coach door, but received a nasty surprise in the form of Watson’s heavy cane cudgelling him squarely between the eyes as he tried to get access.
“Ladies, we must leave the coach,” Watson spoke calmly and firmly. Lady Beatrice had her eyes fixed worriedly on her furiously fighting Sentinel, but Lady Lestrade nodded to him. She gripped the larger woman by the arms and bodily shoved her out towards her husband’s side of the fight, moving to follow her.
“My Lady,” Watson unsheathed his sword, and handed her the wooden sheath. “You may have need of it. If any of them get too close, swing as hard you can.”
Lady Lestrade nodded. “You can be sure of it.” She replied tightly, before following Lady Beatrice out.
“Help is coming,” Watson assured her as she gingerly climbed from the jolting vehicle. “We need not hold out for long.”
He then calmly turned around, lifted a foot and planted it squarely in the groin of the next would-be intruder, exiting after him and giving him a further kick in the head from where he lay groaning on the floor.
He thrust at another approaching opponent, piercing his stomach and levelling him with a punch. The immediate concerns taken care of, he then gripped the side of the still dancing, jerking coach with his sword hand and reached up to grab Rance by the sleeve of his coat. He yanked the injured man off the drivers seat and half dropped, half guided him to the cobbles. He hit the road with a harsh thump, but there had been no kinder way.
“Lestrade! Let it go!” he shouted to the still fighting Sentinel doing his best to fend off attackers with a knife in hand while being jerked and pulled by the two panicking horses whose reins he had captured.
The Inspector flashed him a brief look of surprise, before relinquishing the horses, who took off in a wild clatter down the street. How there was just two Sentinels and three Guides against far less opponents than there had been minutes before. The defenders grouped together wordlessly, the Sentinels circling around the Guides and the injured man like moons. Watson directed a white faced and sobbing Lady Beatrice to put pressure on the man’s torso wound while Lady Lestrade gripped her makeshift weapon with white knuckles.
There was the sound of another coach, racing up from behind them. For a moment it seemed like the rescue, much needed because there were still half a dozen attackers approaching from all sides. But Lestrade’s eyes noted a flash of flame in the darkness, followed by a quick sparkle and the smell of burning.
His heart raced. “Dynamite!” he bellowed.
He instinctively dove for his Guide to shield her, Ascot doing precisely the same. Watson threw himself across his patient, but the shockwave from the hellish stick, still high mid air when it blew, knocked them about like skittles.
Dazed, Watson rose to his hands and knees and was insensible to the second coach rolling up behind him. His ears were ringing like bells.
He didn’t have time to prepare for the hands that grabbed him by the scruff and hauled him away with the moving coach, the street now charred and it’s occupants lying ominously still, faded into blackness.
End Part Eight
Chapter 9: Part Nine
Watson defies at every turn, and Holmes prepares to go after him....
All owned by the estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and associated folk. Written for fun and not for profit
There was a blurry moment between unconsciousness and awakening where a half formed desert, all glint and glare, swam glowingly before him.
Why was it always the desert? Everything in his mind was a windswept, barren, rocky place, all jagged edges and boiling heat, where nothing grew. He liked forests and parks with living, green things inside them, but somewhere inside it was always a damn desert.
‘So derisive,’ spoke a soft, low voice, rich honey overlayed with the crystallized crackle of great age. ‘So judgmental. Within this place the strongest life is forged. Within this place there are no lies, no compromises. Only the strong could truly make such a home. Only the wise could make things grow here.’
He stared blearily as the hunched and wizened crone, incongruously cooking over a fire in the middle of the blazing heat of the day. Thoughts arrived slowly in his head, like they had been dragged out of treacle. He vaguely remembered there were important things he had to ask, vital things he had to know, but somehow what emerged from the sticky murk was ‘You never spoke English this well.’
The old woman smiled, a brilliant flash of crooked white teeth briefly visible. ‘Everyone speaks the same language here, child.’
‘Here...’ came the disjointed thought, falling raw and untranslated from his mouth.
‘Child, there is no time to be gentle,’ the woman shook her white head. ‘No time to be cautious. You must fight.’
He shook his head, stuttering words like weak and crippled and broken making wavering lines in the air, too painful to give a voice.
The gnarled hand shot out, catching his face in a strike that was shockingly real in this wavering, swirling between place. ‘Your Sentinel is broken then? He is twisted and useless?’
‘No! He is...’ but his adjectives ran dry at the thought of the beautiful Sentinel.
The woman sniffed. ‘You have just said so, have you not? Everything you are is a reflection of him. If you are broken then he is broken. If you demean yourself then you demean him. If your fear means you fail to act, fail in your duty, then he, ultimately fails. Did you think you were alone, that nothing you thought or did had any consequence for any other?’ she glared at him, like she had done when he was being particularly obtuse. ‘Foolish child! Idiot! You do not merely live! You share a life! No betrayer greater than one whom does not recognise his own strength for those that have need of it! No fool more useless that cuts himself and does not realize the others he hurts! You would kill him that seeks to protect you! No,’ she shook her head. ‘If he is yours, then you must fight for him. If you are not willing to fight, then be prepared to watch him die.’
Watson jerked to wakefulness, the scene before his eyes a blurry mishmash of colours, resolving into crusted brickwork. What....
Pain. Grief. Terror.
Watson tried to bolt upright; tried being the key word, because halfway up something heavy yanked, almost wrenching his neck joint out of its socket. The groan in his throat was cut off by the sudden pressure and Watson fell back on the gritty floor with a thump. Coughing and hacking, Watson lay until he could actually breathe again, though that small victory was pyrrhic. The stench of the place was thickly sickening, so overwhelmingly present that you could almost cut the air with a knife.
Watson became aware of a frantic voice next to him, slowly seeping into his awareness as the pain and shock faded.
“....ster Watson? Sir? Are you alright? Please sir?”
Watson blew out a breath and peeled his eyes open again; waiting for the spots to clear before experimentally turned his head. His neck protested, but it felt more like bruising than pulled muscles. Small favours.
“Sir?” the voice was smaller now. Frightened.
Watson blinked. “Miss Blakely?” Watson’s arms tensed, prepared to lift him to sitting again, but common sense prevailed enough for him to try very slowly. One arm slowly took his weight while another came up to his neck, tracing the uncomfortably heavy weight clamped around it, making every head movement a painful proposition. It was a mirror of one that was similarly locked around the young girl’s neck.
He traced the thick iron collar, suitable for any prisoner in Dartmoor, all the way around. He tracked the heavy hinges at the sides around to the complicated knot of metal shapes sitting at the back of neck. A heavy shackle lock dangled from the two closing loops, fixing the heavy fetter to him. Above the lock a hole where a chain passed though sat, passing though a loop on the inside of the hole and winding around his neck, allowing the chain to tightened with an unwise movement. Good grief, it was like an Iron Age dog collar complete with choke chain, suitable for prisoners, slaves...and Guides, apparently.
Well, he thought with bitter irony, the green silk insignia of the Consort finally has an actual use. If his captors hadn’t left it on his neck, the chain and collar would be scraping his skin to a bloody raw.
He turned to the terrified young Guide who was shackled next to him. It wasn’t just her fear and pain that had led him to nearly break his own neck, though. Looking past her, he could just make out other small, sobbing shapes huddling in the near pitch blackness. Good grief, this was a mess.
“Are you alright, sir?” Jane asked, her voice determined but shaking, and held the plaintive wish of an adult’s help.
Watson blew out a breath. “Well enough, considering.” He tried to cut out the persistent final memory of those still forms of the street, but it stuck with him doggedly. He mentally placed it within the realm of ‘things that cannot be helped’, and focused only here. Surgeons could not wonder or worry about things out of their reach, not when there was enough to do right in front of them. “Are you alright? Are you injured?”
Jane licked her lips. “My heads hurts a little, sir. And my ears ring, and my neck and, and....my,” she dissolved into sobs of anguish, small hands clenched over her chest as if she wanted to dig her fingers though the breast bone.
Watson’s lips thinned. Right. What where minor bumps and bruises compared to the crushing agony of fear and pain radiating from every soul around? He was used to pain – or at least he could act past it. Jane was one of many bright, simple signatures who had no shields and no experience; no defences against the world outside. Watson cursed the House. At least the so called ‘heathens’ thought to teach their children at least some small amount of self protection.
Watson spared a glare for the sturdy loop which affixed his chain to the wall, before slowly shuffling over as much as he was able. It was just far enough for him to stretch and arm to the girl’s shaking shoulder without choking himself. He shushed her gently, drawing on whatever reserves of calm and peace he could dredge up; though after tonight that was in short enough supply.
“It’s alright, little one,” he crooned gently.
“It was so loud! And then they came to take us a-and when the b-boys tried to s-s-stop them,” Jane struggled from breath as the sobs ripped their way up her throat, tears leaving dark spots on the dirty ground. “They were just g-gone! They were there and t-then....”
And wasn’t that just a masterly way of describing it? Watson thought, gently stroking her hair. There and then...gone. Death was different when you could feel it. There was no chance of self delusion; of faint, vain hopes. When one died around you, you could feel the cold empty space where something once was. Maiwand had been like that; a hellish place of too much boiling movement and at the same time far too much emptiness.
And the boys....yes, Watson could now dimly make out that in this fetid and dark corridor, shot through with ribbons of chains hammered into the walls, the huddled shapes were overwhelmingly female. The only notable exception was, in fact, him.
“Miss Blakely,” Watson said gently as the flood of ragged sobs receded from lack of energy and air. “I need you to take a deep breath for me. Just take a very deep breath for me, that’s right...”
The girl drew in a shuddering breath and blew it out sharply.
“And another,” Watson instructed gently trying to find some way to reach the child through her pain and terror. It was hard to think in here with these poor children screaming silently in fear, and he had to think. These children needed him to be decisive.
The old woman’s words (and how had that worked anyway? How was she able to contact him from thousands of miles distance? She had truly been here, he was sure of that. His cheek still stung) came back to him. Amazing how something half a dream could make you feel so stupid and ashamed. He looked back over his behaviour of the previous hours and had never felt more foolish. All of that defiance in the face of authority for weeks, but when it had actually counted he had been nothing more than a coward. Well, not anymore. He would fight to his death for that Sentinel. To his very last breath.
“Jane, I need you to listen to me,” Watson gave her shoulder a squeeze, willing her eyes toward him. “This is very important. Your Sentinel needs you right now.”
Confusion momentarily pierced the fog of emotion surrounding her. “But,” she frowned, her voice cracked with fatigue. “I...I don’t have a Sentinel.”
“Yes you do,” Watson insisted firmly. “You were born having one. He’s out there somewhere, waiting for you. Do you understand? And he needs you, every moment of every day. He needs you now, Miss Blakely. He needs you to fight for him. He needs you to survive. You don’t want to make him look bad do you? You don’t want to leave him to wander all alone because you are gone?” Alright, it was a little manipulative but Watson could feel amazement and concern washing away the agony, sweeping away the discordant and loud bells and leaving slower and harmonious emotions behind.
“No, sir,” Jane spoke up quickly, looked almost affronted at the thought. “I would never...”
“Right, exactly. You must be strong now,” Watson nodded to her encouragingly. “Don’t let the fear overwhelm you. You are strong – you are of the House. You will do your Sentinel proud because you will fight. Always fight for what you want; even if you lose, at least you can say you did right by yourself.”
Jane drew in another breath, this one calmer than the others. She began to recite under her breath and Watson was just able to pick up the cadences of ‘The Lady of Shallot’. Recitation was the first method the young students learned for mental discipline. Watson waited patiently while the emotional pressure eased.
“What happened here?” Watson asked when she had finished, her emotional state was now, if not completely calm, then at least controlled. “Do you know where we are?” Watson had a few ideas considering the stink in the air, but it had been years since he’d been in London.
“There was...an explosion,” Jane said, her hands briefly white knuckled on her night dress. She took a calming breath. “I woke from that noise and there was glass everywhere and...and then they came and took us from our beds. The Sentinels.” Another breath, this one sucked in, desperately needed. “And we were all screaming and they put bags over our heads. I don’t know where they took us; a very small room. Then all the Sentinels left the room and there was this smell...and I don’t remember what happened after that. I woke up here.”
“Was it a sweet smell? Like a church, but sweeter?” Watson asked grimly.
Opium, Watson noted. “And then? You’ve been here with the others the rest of the time, then?”
Jane made a strange face. A momentary thrum of puzzlement briefly segued into her spiritual lullaby. “No-o, not really. There were these men there when we woke up and they started to read from the Bible.”
Watson blinked. “Pardon?”
Jane looked just as confused. “One of the men, he read something from a Bible. Something about raising seeds. Then he said that we were all fortunate. That we had been chosen by God. That we were the chosen wives of the Great Sentinel...but, Sentinels can have only one Guide, right sir?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Watson replied grimly. “Now Miss Jane, I need you to do something for me. Can you reach the next girl, and tell her what I told you? Try to calm her down? This is very important,” he added to her suddenly anxious face. “It’s very important that everyone is calm and strong. You’ve been the bravest one so far; they need your help. Every girl can calm the next; I know you can do this.” And they damn well could do it too. Children were better at this than adults, Watson had seen it. Too bad the House didn’t think so.
Jane drew another breath, and stuck out her chin in fearful but determined grit. “We must help our Sentinels, sir.” Before carefully scooting to the next dim figure in the row of chains.
Watson grinned at her gumption. Outside of the army, he was finding more and more people he itched to salute. For himself, Watson sat back and radiated calm. This was the first thing he had learned from the crotchety old Guide in those dusty plains. Be still, be silent, and send out calm into the world. With Guides like her leading every wandering tribe, it was small wonder that Afghan folk were said to be so fearless. What little he was able to dredge up would only help the children here.
Watsons thoughts, bubbling beneath the glassy veneer of calm, were grimmer than what he showed. From what little Jane had been able to tell him, Watson was able to make a guess about the rest. There was a reason, he thought, that they had taken female Guides from the House. It was the same reason no one ever knew what females Sentinels and Guides names were.
There was a reason that there was statistically less female guides and Sentinels than male, and the scholars said it was down to breeding. A male Sentinel or Guide’s children - assuming they had them, which given the nature of their partnerships was rare - then their offspring only had a one in seven chance of a hereditary traits being passed. Mostly the legacy was carried by male the Sentinel or Guide’s sibling’s children, or cousins, or other relatives; but there was no telling where the traits would surface. It wasn’t enough to just have the blood; some need or event had to trigger the gifts after the child was born. Scholars and scientists had studied it for centuries, but were no closer to finding a formula that would predict it.
The best chance, however, came from the female Sentinels and Guides. A female Sentinel or Guide’s children were likely to be Sentinels or Guides themselves; Watson remembered reading in his medical studies that the chances were nine in ten. The women in the Sentinel and Guide culture were the ones most likely to produce the repeating bloodline.
History had recognised this long ago; mostly in unfortunate ways. Slavery, persecution and being used as breeding ‘heifers’ had dogged these women throughout the centuries. The reign of Elizabeth had at least hindered the abuse suffered, in which the Dark Queen had commanded that all woman Sentinels and Guides be placed under her protection; squirreled away in convents or personally attending on the Queen. She had commanded their names be hidden by law, so there was no official list for traitors and spies to sell to the enemies. Female Sentinels and Guides were considered extremely valuable commodities; to the point where kidnapping and spiriting them away was the most common hazard they faced. The tradition of obscuring them had continued long after the women had been allowed to re-enter ‘public’ life a century before. To this day, female Sentinels and Guides were stripped of their names upon entering the Sanctuary or House; their birth certificates, and family’s household records – even family bibles – scoured of any traces. They only appeared on one register, hidden within the Palace, their names only released after their deaths. They were given a false name for use in the Sanctuary, and once bonded of course took their husband’s name in marriage which they used to introduce themselves from then on. Only their husbands, Sentinel or Guide, would ever know their true name. Watson only knew Annie Hay’s name because she had been a military commander on foreign soil, where military procedures apply.
If these invaders were only taking female Guides, then Watson could guess the main reason. He couldn’t quite see how the ‘wives’ fit into the whole mess though, because Jane had been correct. The world over, one Sentinel bonds to one Guide. In the past there had been instances where a man in a position of power would claim to have multiple Guides; but they were usually just powerful men pretending to be Sentinels, or at best Guardians. Watson could not see the connection.
When Watson looked up from his musings, he realized the din of fear had eased; the children were all much calmer now, and Jane was sliding back in his direction, grinning defiantly. “We’re doing our Sentinel’s proud, sir.”
Watson gave her a warm smile. “Indeed you are.” He checked down the line of chains. He could only see Jane clearly, the rest were cloaked in murk. The corridor was a long, straight stretch of brickwork, arcing low over a dirty floor. The blackness was shot through will a single candle at the far end which cast only a dim light over the captives. The candle had been stuck to the floor just outside their prison, and illuminated another passage running perpendicular to their corridor. The stink told Watson he was in the sewers the faint wash through the walls seemed to indicate near the Thames; but it was not overly useful past that. That was still a lot of places they could potentially be.
There was a quiet, hollow sound suddenly; rather like a large but inharmonious bell being struck just past the wall where Watson leaned. The other children all stiffened at the sound. Minutes later, footsteps crunched through the murk; a group of three that Watson could identify. A murmur of conversation echoed in the tunnels, forming words as the group drew closer.
“...all we were able to get?” the first voice became clear as it rounded the corner into their dim holding place; from what little Watson could make out it looked to be a shorter man holding a sheaf of papers on a board. He was followed by two taller men, both clutching handkerchiefs to their noses; one fell in a step behind him and the other hovered at the candle.
“We were set to take more, sir, but Hope sabotaged the wagons ‘fore we went. We were limited to one,” the following man explained through his handkerchief.
“You are a Sentinel Lox, good grief,” the small man sniffed. “Hope should not be a threat to you.”
At the other end of the corridor, Watson blinked. The small man’s voice was familiar.
“You ain’t ever fought a Sentinel like ‘im, sir. ‘E’s the very devil himself,” the Sentinel called Lox replied.
“In point of fact, I have fought Sentinels; and they are not that hard to kill,” the small man retorted snidely. “And the Devil is in all things. Only by our prophet’s grace can we defeat him. You!” he jabbed a pen toward a terrified, shaking girl nearest the candle. “Your name and age.”
The short man glared. “Name and age, child. Disobedience will not be tolerated.”
“M-my name is Bethel Twenty Two....”
From seemingly nowhere, the shorter man produced a thin cane, which was whipped across the girls hands sharply. “That is the false name that your heretic House gave you. I require your real name. If it is not given then the punishment will be twenty lashes. Our prophet expects us to conform to Gods law; you will be expected to maintain strict discipline and honesty at all times; especially with your elders. Your name!”
The girl was crying, tears dropping down her face. “B-but that name is for my S-Se-Sentinel...” the voice dissolved into a cry as the cane was applied across one shoulder, harder this time.
“Your Sentinel will choose a name for you now, should you be lucky enough to join his household! Kneel, and accept your punishment.”
“You can always tell how strong a man is by how he fights his opponents,” Watson interjected sardonically, not quite concealing his burning rage. “What do you think hitting a little girl in chains says about your level of strength, sir?”
The small man spun around, startled into dropping his papers. “What is this? What are you doing here?”
“It is Strangerson, isn’t it?” Watson peered into the gloom, finally placing the voice. “Yes, I recognise that voice. So are you really so weak that you can only strike children in chains, then?”
Outraged, Strangerson was before Watson in a flash, pressing the steel of a hidden knife up and under the collar to pickle against his Adams Apple. “Oh, no, sir. I have much better tricks up my sleeve. What I’m doing right now is just passing the time.”
Watson raised an unintimidated eyebrow. As he looked into those cold, lizard eyes, he knew that Strangerson probably considered it a pleasurable pastime too. The icy fires of righteousness burned in him. One who truly believed he was showing people ‘the way’. Watson knew that look quite well. “Well you might consider saving yourself some time in beating and instead merely asking,” Watson said around a yawn, deliberately allowing his throat to move so that knife left a little bloody nick.
Strangerson frowned at him. “You know their names?”
“Of course,” Watson replied, sounding offended at a stupid question. “I am the only senior empath here, so they had to give them to me.” There was not an inflection in his voice that changed, not so much as a stutter in his heart. Watson had been here before; he’d been in more danger than this even. He’d learned to ride the storm in calmness and peace.
Strangerson shot a glance at Sentinel Lox, who nodded slowly. Strangerson withdrew the knife, and collected his sheaf of papers. He turned to glare at the other Sentinel still hovering by the candle. “Drebber, what is the meaning of this? Why is this Guide here? He is entirely unsuitable!”
Watson looked around in surprise. But yes, there was the great hulking brute in all his dubious glory. “Drebber,” Watson nodded coldly, burying his shock. “You look awfully well for a dead man.”
Drebber sneered at him as he stepped closer to the group, before ignoring him totally. “The prophet said any who act against the will of the Sentinel will have their punishment determined by the Sentinel wronged. This filthy empath,” he waved a hand at Watson. “Insulted me, and I will demand reparation from the prophet.”
“By insult so you mean when I soundly defeated you in combat? I suppose that must be a difficult thing for a Sentinel to admit; drunken, rude and useless in battle,” Watson snorted.
Lox actually looked surprised but Watson had only half a second to register it before Drebber’s blow knocked him against the wall, the iron collar making a clanging sound that rang in his ears. Drebber followed his stumble, ending up plastered against Watson as he went against the wall.
Jane gave a cry, abruptly halted as Strangerson’s stick left a burning weal on either cheek. She cowered back, clutching her face.
While Strangerson gave a stern lecture in the background about obedience and silence, Drebber’s foul breath blew across Watson’s cheek. “You will learn your place empath,” he snarled it Watson’s ear, nearly rutting up against him while his filthy lust and rage washed over Watson greasily. “When we’re on the ship and you’re in front of the crew completely naked and kneeling like a bitch dog when I take you, we’ll see who is the weaker one.” A tongue rasped a slimy trail over Watson’s cheek, before Watson’s hands could shove him away. He smirked at Watson’s expression before moving a step back. “Not so cocky now, are we soldier boy?”
Drebber’s eyes crossed and he gave a little aborted whimper before folding like an empty suit to the floor.
“Neither are you,” Watson spat, withdrawing a well placed knee and trying to calm himself down.
“Oh for the sake of the prophet,” Strangerson exclaimed, exasperated as he turned back to the tableaux. “We haven’t time for this, the tides will be against us soon. Lox, help Drebber up and prepare the cargo. You,” he jabbed the cane at Watson, who was still willing himself to stop shaking. “The names!”
Watson sighed, pointed to the farthest girl and gave his mother’s name, then the next his aunt’s, the names of several fine nurses he’d once known, his teacher at his dame school, the wives names of some soldier acquaintances of his and ended at Jane Blakely with “And this is Annie Hay.”
Strangerson, scribbling down names, nodded with satisfaction. “You have showed proper obedience before the prophet.”
I’ve shown him all the obedience he deserved, anyway, Watson thought to himself, shooting Jane a quick grin. She grinned back, warping the two red marks across her face. “Where are you taking us?”
Strangerson finished recording. “That is not for you to know. All of you,” he turned to the whole crowd of terrified girls. “Would do well to reflect on the Providence that has delivered you from heresy and ignorance and into the glorious light of our prophet and saviour, favoured by God. You will all have shining destinies awaiting you as long as you abide by the word and law of the prophet. For now be obedient and silent, and do as you are instructed, and no harm will come to you.”
Watson very much doubted that, but held his counsel. Were he alone he would be more focused on escaping but he could not abandon these children. Shackled as they were, all of them escaping would be impossible now, even though they outnumbered their captors. Not when two of them were Sentinels and the other had knives hidden all over. All it would take was one hostage.
Each chain was unbolted from the wall, one by one, and the prisoners lead out past the candle, one hand of each Sentinel braced on the back of the collar, the other wrapped round the chain, prepared to yank if necessary. Like dogs, Watson thought darkly, as the children were lead out by Sentinels one by one.
Drebber, of course, took possession of Watson’s collar; he must have taken great pleasure in marching Watson out, chain tightened to near fatal pressure about his throat, making whispered filthy comments as they marched through fetid darkness.
Eventually, they emerged into the night, out of a small tunnel that branched out over the Thames; from what Watson could tell, they were upstream from the fish markets at Billingsgate. Stars littered the sky, half washed out by the Towers still burning.
A wood ramp had been placed on the lip of the tunnel entrance. When Watson saw what it led down to, he stared.
Drebber gave a chuckle, hand yanking cruelly on the chain. “Did you think that any Sentinel in London would be able to hear you scream for mercy? Is that what you thought?” he purred silkily. “Where you’re going, no one but those I want to hear will hear all. All the better to make it last, don’t you think,” he pulled on the chain until Watson was on his knees, gasping. “Yeees, I think I’ll keep this wonderful device; and you of course,” he ran fingers through Watson’s hair in a parody of stroking like you would a dog. “Pet.”
Lestrade was awake long before he was aware; waking had involved searing hotness and screaming in his ears and the reek of blood – his Guide’s blood.
By the time Lestrade was actually aware, he was in an alley just off where the attack had occurred, his Guide in his arms, a low continuous growl rumbling in his throat, and Sherlock Holmes sitting cross legged in front of him.
It was so utterly surreal that it actually jolted aware the Inspector as well as the Sentinel, and Lestrade blinked. Holmes lips were moving but the ringing in Lestrade’s ears blotted out the sounds.
But not touch, though. Something hypnotic thrummed up his arms and he turned his attention to his wife cradled in his arms, a trickle of blood across her face. The rhythmic vibrations told him she was singing and he felt it in his bones. Entranced he followed her lips moving until he indentified the song. With the identification came the lyrics, matched up to the vibrations travelling from her body to his, linking it with sound. The hideous ringing faded and the sound her voice replaced it.
His Guide’s hand cupped his face. “Focus past it, my Sentinel. Focus on my voice, only on my voice. Lower your touch to a faint brush. Lower your scent to quarter mast. Raise your sight to full night...”
The throbbing pain from where the blast knocked him to the ground faded to nearly nothing and the burning stench retreated to a manageable level. The ringing in his ears washed away slowly. “Guide,” he choked out, curling up around her tighter. She stroked his hair gently while he grounded himself on her fully. His Guide was safe, she was safe; that was all that mattered. His fingers swiped at the bloody trail at her forehead, and she gave him a calm smile.
“Just a scratch,” Lady Lestrade reassured while his fingers mapped her hair, head and throat. “A flying chip of stone, nothing more. I’ve done worse to myself in the kitchen.”
To that Lestrade almost snorted; his wife was supremely careful in the kitchen after one episode very early in their marriage when the knife she was using had slipped. The scent of the blood have driven him completely feral, to the point where it had taken days to calm him.
“Thank you for protecting me, my own.”
Now Lestrade did snort in disbelief. Honestly. “Why thank me for that? It’s like thanking the sky for being blue.”
Lady Lestrade gave him a smile and Lestrade was tempted to send the next hour or so kissing her, but his hyperawareness of the other Sentinels in the area never forgot to remind him that Holmes was waiting for him and very patiently indeed, considering.
Holmes was politely looking in the other direction of the alley, fingers tapping violin notes on the cobblestones. He still sat cross legged and hunched as small as possible. He was well aware that Lestrade had been feral. It took a long time for that rage and protectiveness to fade and he was therefore being civil enough not to loom. Lestrade could never face Holmes in a fight, but to his credit Holmes did not believe in unnecessary violence.
“Sentinel,” Lestrade acknowledged the man’s presence as he rose, his Guide still in his arms. Holmes waited until Lestrade had exited the alley onto the street before rising to follow; it was never a good idea to make a near-feral Sentinel think he was cornered.
It was chaos on the street. People were clustered around Rance, tending to him. Thankfully someone had bought the ambulance, the large wagon taking up one side of the street. Crowding the rest of the space were Sentinels and Guides of all descriptions, some shouting to the Towers, other scouring the streets and being helped or hindered by dozens of street people gathering in to watch the spectacle.
Lestrade lowered his wife to the street, careful to keep his arms around her as he took in the chaos. He was surprised to see how many red uniforms of the Royal Clan were clustered here. In fact, doing a rough headcount, Lestrade was astonished to find that most if not every Sentinel in London was here, save a handful that manned the Towers. He turned to Holmes, who was viewing the hubbub sardonically. “They think they are helping,” was his only comment.
Lestrade was able to see Holmes fully for the first time, and realized he was holding a very familiar cane in his hands, hands so clenched around it that his skin was white.
Lestrade felt and icy hand reach though his chest to squeeze his spine, the last wisps of surreal detachment disappearing in a trice. He felt his wife’s arms tighten around him. “Holmes...” he spoke hoarsely. “Forgive me, Alpha. I failed to protect him.” Because when that hellish thing blew, the only thing in his mind had been getting his wife to safety. There hadn’t been room for anything else.
Holmes huffed out an exasperated breath. “One of many things I find irritating, Lestrade, is the human habit of martyrdom. Please desist wasting unnecessary breath on unasked for apologies.”
Lestrade blinked. “But...”
Holmes stopped him with a glare. “Spare me,” he turned back to scowl at the street. “It is not required. I would have done the same.”
The matter of fact admission of actual conventional thinking shocked Lestrade. He stared at Holmes as he strode out into the mess, apparently looking for something.
No, Lestrade realized as they both hurried after him, someone.
Street Arabs, urchins and other motley assortments were darting into the mess, expertly darting past perimeters and guards to converge on the Dark Sentinel, tongues wagging even before they reached him. Lestrade and his Guide caught up with Holmes just as he waved his hands for silence.
“You have found the man I described, Wiggins?”
“Too roight, sir,” one ragged lads piped up confidently. “Drove a cab, jus’ like yew said.”
“And where is he now?”
“’e’s sitting on Southwark Bridge, guv.”
Holmes distributed thanks in coinage, before taking off down the street, cane still in hand. Lestrade shook his head in exasperation before scooping his Guide up and following doggedly. Thankfully the eccentric man didn’t go far. He went east just as long as it took him to find a cab, and Lestrade was just able to jump in with his Guide before to took off down the street. The driver had been paid to hurry.
For his part Holmes just glared like an auger straight past the horses ears as they were hurried into a rapid trot. Lestrade had to settle his wife on his lap because this was a hansom cab, with only enough room for two. “Holmes,” he panted when everything was as secure as possible. “Would you mind telling me what’s going on?” Both he had his wife were staring at the Sentinel.
“There’s a man who has been hunting the men who have been stealing the Guides, Lestrade; I am going to find him and find out what he knows.”
“You mean we are,” Lady Lestrade added softly.
“You both are as well, I suppose.”
Lestrade exchanged an incredulous glace with his wife.
He has to know, Lestrade thought as he cast his ears back, the sounds of dozens of feet ringing on the pavement still very much audible. He has to know that nearly every Sentinel in London is currently following at his heels. How could he not realize? Their location was being Shouted from Tower to Tower, for Heaven’s sake!
But there was this terrible look of....of focus on the other Sentinel’s face now; one which Lestrade had not encountered before. Lestrade wasn’t entirely sure which Holmes he was looking at – madman genius or lethal Dark Sentinel.
What Holmes just revealed suddenly caught up with him. “Hang on. How can you know about this man? What was this about a cab and how were you able to find him.”
Holmes sighed, still focusing ahead. “A whole pack of foreign Sentinels have been stealing Guides; not just here, but all over the Continent. They made their way here, this is the final assault. Who was the last foreign Sentinel who came into the country? Drebber. He was one of them, as was his secretary Strangerson. The rest of the pack smuggled their way in here, probably on cargo ships; but Drebber came in officially. It was his religious tour that gave them the excuse to pass borders. Once he arrived, he could set up staying places and so on for the others being smuggled in. Then they started hunting Guides; some unfortunates from asylums, but the real prize was the House. Drebber is a registered travelling Sentinel, so he is allowed access to the Sanctuary.”
“He planted the bomb,” Lestrade spoke grimly.
“Oh yes; a simple trick. He probably hid a smaller bag inside a rather larger one. Sentinels of course use many pungent herbs and oils when travelling, so it was easy enough to mask the smell of the dynamite, I expect. He goes in with a large bag, throws out the smaller bag with the bomb, which is timed to go off in a few hours, and then departs carrying the same large bag.
“And that’s when they really prepare themselves. It’s illegal for Drebber to walk the streets after curfew unless he had a valid excuse; which he gave himself by assaulting the boarding house’s Guide. He and his secretary are kicked out and they head towards the Battersea Bridge.”
“And Drebber was attacked and slain there – by this man we’re going to see?”
Holmes shrugged. “Possibly. I don’t tend to jump to the conclusion of murder unless I can verify the crime scene myself. But the man was there. Strangerson parts ways with Drebber on Battersea before going to rob the Palace.”
“What?” Lestrade yelped while his Guide started in surprise. “Strangerson was behind the breach at the Palace?”
Holmes grimaced. “Oh yes. Small man, wearing glasses, skirmisher, educated, shoes in bad repair – all the signs point to him. He had the calluses of a professional pick pocket too, but I was in no mood to point this out to Drebber at his interview. I thought Strangerson was stealing from him, which was Drebber’s concern and not mine.” Holmes extracted the Guide ring from his breast pocket and handed it to the awed Lady Lestrade. “The Sentinel ring was stolen, along with the Talons.”
Lady Lestrade handled the relic with reverence. “But why?”
“We shall see presently,” Holmes said gnomically. “But whatever else happened on that bridge, the man hunting them went elsewhere afterwards.”
“He’s the man who carried you back to the boarding house after you were shot,” Lestrade breathed.
Holmes took back the ring. “Tall, good boots, calluses indicating he holds reins and whips, added to the smell of horses and an oilskin coat indicating he was out in all weathers. Obviously, a cab driver. All I had to do was to tell my Irregulars to find me a cab that had been abandoned near Battersea for over an hour, and who was driving it. That was easy enough for them.”
“Why is he hunting them?” Lady Lestrade asked softly.
Holmes gave a mirthless smile. “Let’s find out.”
He sprang from the cab as they reach the bridge and there, just as advised, a cab stood off to the side, abandoned. Holmes stalked towards a lone figure that was standing in the middle of the bridge, watching the river flow by. The stranger looked up as Holmes strode towards him.
“I ain’t your enemy, Sentinel,” the man spoke softly holding his hands up.
“If I thought you were my enemy, sir, you’d be dead already,” Holmes replied, his voice cutting. “Where are they?”
The stranger held up a finger as Lestrade and his Guide hurried up. “Listen; it should be jest comin’ now.”
Holmes closed his eyes, his whole pulled taut as a violin string. But he listened. It was muffled by the water somewhat but most definitely there.
Lestrade frowned as he suddenly picked up the rumbling sound too. “What is that? A cabin boat?”
He looked over the side and was astonished to see not a vessel in sight. But he could hear it, plain as day!
Holmes and the stranger exchanged mirthless smiles as the sound grew closer and closer. It would probably be very hard for an ordinary person to detect.
With some ceremony, Holmes reached for the Guide ring, and placed it sideways on the road, balancing on it’s band. The....whatever it was....rolled beneath the bridge, unseen. Within moments, the ring started to roll in a straight line, from the road to the parapet, stopping only when the walls stopped it.
They all darted to the opposite side of the bridge; Lestrade could see nothing in the murk as first, but with his Guide’s help, he was able to enhance past the ripples to the vague shape moving below the water, it’s only visible sign the snorkel dragged discretely atop the water.
Lestrade mouth dropped open. But Holmes merely smiled grimly as he retrieved the Guide ring.
“There you are,” he purred, his voice half intellectual satisfaction, half burning, molten predatory intent. “My Guide.”
End Part Nine
Chapter 10: Part Ten
Trains, Boats, Ships, Prophets....and Lady Bradsteet
There were so many things to be doing, and Holmes wasn’t doing any of them.
“Holmes. Sentinel. Wait!” Lestrade felt his wife’s arms tighten around his shoulders as he accelerated to match the taller Sentinel’s pace. It was difficult to do, since he also had to keep one eye on the foreign Sentinel, easily as tall as Holmes and keeping a steady pace with the Dark Sentinel. He was not entirely...no, scratch that, Lestrade was most definitely not happy with the man’s presence. Foreigner and Sentinel titles alone were enough to grate against Lestrade’s more territorial sensibilities, without the added insult was that his presence upset his wife. After the evening Lestrade had gone through, his protective instincts were overflowing and the flood was not likely to subside any time soon. So he kept the man – Jefferson Hope – well under his glaring eye and kept his Guide out of his line of sight.
Oh, she hadn’t said anything; she didn’t need to. Even without the bond between telegraphing her every mood, he’d been married to her too long not to spot the signs. The slight tension in her shoulders, the unconscious curling in her fingers, every swallow, every blink, every breath; it was a very epitome of agitation, carefully controlled. Almost every instinct he possessed told him to remove the threat from his city permanently; almost, because one or two quietly urged him to remember what he’s seen in that Sentinel’s eyes when he first saw them.
Lestrade now knew for a fact there was a Hell. Hope’s eyes burned with the agonising fire of it.
Holmes, on the other hand, did not put that down to such fearful biblical dimensions. What he had seen in Hope’s eyes was far worse.
Holmes had seen himself.
Holmes knew his character was folded inwards. He was often thought to lack sympathy, and to some degree this was true. Holmes had never projected himself onto other people’s faces and circumstances; he did not connect others to his own experiences. When he put himself into other peoples shoes, he acted out what they did and not what they felt; which wasn’t to say he thought what other people felt lacked merit or worthiness, it was just that Holmes had always been... different. He always knew that he saw the world, that he experienced every part of it completely separate than everyone else. It made connecting with people, even other Sentinels, a complicated proposition at best. How could he explain that niceties and small talk and idle questioning – in fact, the entirely of polite and civilized communication - was all redundant in his world? Why ask about the state of another’s health when it was so clearly displayed by stains on cuffs and the buttons on a jacket? Why be discreet with a voice when the calluses of the fingertips and state of the hair declared so boldly? Why, why, why ask about the state of a family or recent events, or past secrets or future plans, when fingertips chattered and mud spatter gossiped and cloth cut shouted and jewellery sang and the sound of a footstep signalled every necessary fact? Holmes knew others thought him mad, but he was the one that thought himself living in an insane asylum, where facts were stated ten times over in a normal conversation but never actually chained together – so easy to do, and where lies were so childishly obvious you wondered if there was yet any adult in the entire world, or if there ever had been. How could Holmes convey this, knowing that all those people could never share his world view, no more that he could understand why they did what they did. Language was a crude and brittle building material to bridge so wide a gap.
But he saw Hope and he saw it so clearly. The space now empty of the person who should have been there, all the signs that wrapped around that invisible hollow; the erratic tick of Hope’s heart and the burning stretch of his taut and abused muscles under too-thin flesh, the stoop of his great shoulders as if he carried the world on them. Holmes was only erratically knowledgeable about literature, but his brain attic opened a rather dusty box when he looked upon Hope, containing the story of the Creature in Frankenstein – a life, made of badly cobbled pieces in a parody of existence, a walking collection of animated flesh held together only by vengeance, the dreadful burning fire of it the only thing now mortaring the gaps between the shards of something now irreversibly broken.
Most Sentinels didn’t last very long after they lost a Guide; most would be gone instantly from the shock of it, of having half of the soul ripped loose and vanished. Some may linger a minute or an hour, and few very unlucky ones could last longer than a day, or a week.... Holmes felt the icy sting of fear when he looked at Hope.
It was an emotion he was not usually given to. Holmes was an artist with an artist’s sensibilities; the world was too full of amazement and interest, too full of masterpieces, even of the most grisly and dark kind, to feel anything but curiosity. Holmes tried not to speculate on it, but that was what he did. He speculated and theorized and questioned; and what he saw in Hope frightened him to his very soul. It could have been him he realized, it so easily could have been him, being forever alone and barely existing, incomplete and crippled. Holmes looked back past the last week and felt disgust at his own obtuseness. How could he, the great professional observer, have missed something so obvious, so very present?
Ah, but that was the problem, wasn’t it? The idea of being able to connect with another person, when all other people seemed so strange and slow, had been ludicrous. But now the idea that he would never do so appeared to be the very height of idiocy. How those hands had felt on his skin, how the voice had called to him; to live without the kind of perfection that he once had only believed existed in the strings of his Stradivarius was abhorrent.
“Holmes, wait!” Lestrade came abreast of his, to his credit not even short of breath. “It will take them hours to reach the sea.”
“It will take hours for us to do the same,” Holmes retorted flatly. “But we may be able to get ahead of them if we hurry.”
Lestrade cast his hearing back; yes, their location was still being Shouted and they were still being followed. They turned off Southwark Bridge Road and hooked a quick left on Union Street. “How, exactly?”
Holmes huffed impatiently as he ran. “Their craft is excellent for use in getting the Guides out of the city, and high tide would give them the water they needed, but it’s too heavy to push against the tides for any distance.”
“They can’t get it out to sea!” Lady Lestrade gasped.
“Correct. I would be impressed if they could make it as far as Erith; certainly not as far as Gravesend,” Holmes nodded. Union Street had segued into Kings Street, which rapidly became Snowfields. The street names were being frantically relayed from Tower to Tower. “They will most likely travel by road until they reach Tilbury or Gravesend, where they will have access to more powerful craft to get them out to sea.”
“We’ll Shout the Sentinels manning the towers there to intercept them,” Lestrade replied grimly.
“Lestrade, start observing!” Holmes’ own shout bounced off the walls and houses as they turned into Bermondsey Street. “The Tilbury and Gravesend Tower have been infiltrated!”
Lestrade nearly skidded to a halt. “Those Towers are twenty miles away if they’re a foot! I refuse to believe even you could see the lights that far.”
“Why would I need to see when all I need to his listen?” Holmes scoffed. “The Towers are sending messages back along the Thames to the Palace. The Shout has been going on about how Gravesend and Tilbury are lit up, but are not responding to the Shout. Inference? That the Tower has been infiltrated by some of these Sentinel’s allies; it’s easy enough to light the magnesium torches but not so simple to disguise a voice or know of the codes. They got in, incapacitated those manning the Towers and lit the torches. The interlopers can now sail out, right under the eyes of the Towers.”
Lestrade cursed under his breath.
“We’re...we goin’... then?” Hope interjected. Unlike the other Sentinels, the American was breathy and winded, which was why he’d been silent until now. His breath had to be saved for running. Lestrade felt a flash of Sentinel triumph at the knowledge that the interloper was not in good shape, but immediately felt ashamed of the thought. You only had to listen to the man’s heartbeat to know he was not well.
“Bricklayers Arms,” Holmes replied curtly.
“The Inn?” Lady Lestrade interjected.
“The goods terminal,” Lestrade corrected.
“Well done, Lestrade, we’ll make an investigator out of you yet!” was Holmes sardonic riposte. “The freight train leaves in precisely two minutes. We can take it all the way to Sheerness, much faster than they can organise transport to Tilbury. But we have to go now!”
“Oh good grief, are you even aware of the clans in London?” Lestrade cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed. “Lestrade two-three-two-four, all Sentinels in the vicinity of the Bricklayers branch line! Stop the train! Throw yourself on the tracks if you have to!”
It was a tight fit inside the submersible. Even with just Strangerson, Drebber, Lox , two engineers, the young Guides and Watson were crammed in like sardines in a tin. The ship was noisy, the oil engines rattled and roared against the metal and wood walls, stinking things that filled the air with smoke despite the best efforts of the air pipes. The ship itself already stank of the damp and mould, the air inside unpleasantly muggy. Sweat dripped off the inmates as they huffed the stale and smoke drenched air. It was, Watson summarised, the worst possible way to travel yet conceived.
It was ironic, he thought later, that this was what ultimately saved him.
Watson managed to find a spare handkerchief and was gently daubing the perspiration off one of the girl’s faces. His throat was raw and bruised, and he could feel swelling making the uncomfortable chafing even more so. The Sentinels crammed in with them were having no easy time of it either, handkerchief pressed over their noses and mouths to block as much of the stench as possible; a fug of sweat and grease and the Thames, which was a nightmare bouquet of odiferous foulness all on it’s own. Even several Sentinel themed Acts passed in parliament failed to stop the dumping of refuse and industrial waste into the much maligned waterway.
Watson was burning hot, and sweating buckets; the hour or so he’d spent in the hellish contraption seemed to have partially broiled him. His clothing was drenched and rubbed against his skin in a particularly irritating way and he literally was dripping everywhere. It was like he was boiling alive; even his mind was roiling and churning despite his best efforts to remain calm. Violent emotions were hammering the inside of his skull, waging from irritation at his physical state, burning defiance at the Sentinels who were threatening his current charges, and sharp, relentless desire to ruthlessly attack and dispatch every man in this awful tube and get back to London. But not fear. Never fear.
Watson stuck out desperately within his own mind, looking for peace from the sudden storm, some respite. The memory of that Sentinel...oh, God, that magnificent Sentinel struck him like a fist. His mind stilled around that image, like an eye in a storm, the other feelings spiralling around the calm, building the pressure.
Watson fought to breathe, it was so unbearable. And the heat seemed to radiate from everywhere, as if we were sitting within arms reach of the sun. Watson blinked to clear glowing spots from his vision and was distantly horrified to realize that they would not vanish.
Hallucinating, Watson thought in disbelief. I’m hallucinating. Around him, fireflies glowed swirling around the young Guides, the capturing Sentinels and the engineers, casting blurry points of light against the dull reflective surfaces of the metal walls and the spluttering engine. The whole interior was a miasma of soft, moving light.
The others in the submarine had become blurred in his vision, and he knew he was not seeing them properly. Why else would some be mere shades and other be almost garish in their clarity, too colourful and vivid to be real? How could Jane Blakely hold a sword – a claymore of almost six feet - across her lap? How could Lox’s face have the pallor of a death mask but he was still alive? How could he now barely see Drebber’s face, as his neck was so malformed in breaking that his head was now quite the wrong way? Why would Strangerson he holding a shaving mirror in front of his chest, it’s face reflecting nothing but a fathomless black? Watson squeezed his eyes shut, willing the delusions away. The boiling heat was making it too hard to even think properly, and Watson shifted on his uncomfortable perch, trying to find some point of reference, something real to anchor him. There was a gritty crunching sound from below.
Watson risked a look down, and found the wood floor once beneath his feet had turned to sand.
Holmes, Lestrade, his wife and Hope arrived at the Bricklayer yard just in time to see a bear of an engineer getting into a full blown argument with Lady Bradstreet – and therefore the clearest example of natural selection to date since Darwin had published.
Inspector Bradsteet merely grinned with deep amusement as the huge man found himself pinned to the side of his locomotive with the stroke of one sinewy arm, and then was the recipient of a sight that would make an army of stout soldiers run screaming in retreat.
Lady Bradstreet smiled.
“Oh, no...she’s smiling,” Lady Lestrade grimaced theatrically.
“All you lads could step back please,” Lestrade added loudly as he gently lowered her to the ground. He made shooing motions as the engineer’s assistants, the firemen, shipping clerks, freight workers and various and sundry who had gathered near the engine to watch the show. “You are currently in a dangerous environment. No, no, further back please.”
“In the next building, perhaps,” Holmes murmured.
“Across the channel would be better,” Bradstreet added cheerfully as the crowd bloomed outwards, leaving Lady Bradstreet a wide berth.
The engineer, who was rapidly forgetting everything of a frivolous nature up to and including his own name, was mesmerized with terror as the burning eyes of this dreaded Amazon turned on him.
“Sir,” she spoke, so politely and so cheerfully that he flinched. “I cannot even express how much your sheer, and may I even say zealous, adherence to the regulations of your honest labours makes an impression on me. It’s so rare these days to find such a man of courageousness and immovability to truly stand for what he does even as the world crumbles and people die around him. Your confidence in your profession and the inflexibility with which you apply your standards means that all superfluous things fall by the wayside, including, it would seem, common courtesy. I have no doubt that it was this overzealousness and not, as some might think, your crude, unconscionable and frankly stunning lack of respectability that lead you, when I ordered the train to be stopped, to call me a...a...” Lady Bradstreet paused for remembrance.
“I believe the term he used, my darling Sentinel,” came the rumble of Inspector Bradstreet, whose face was a waxen and shiny rictus of a grin. “Was ‘a whey-faced haybag one short step from being a Judy’.
“Yes,” Lady Bradsteet nodded. “Thank you. That.” She smiled sweetly at the huge man, who was nearly blubbering as his boots lifted off the ground.
“That is amazing,” Lady Lestrade spoke with awe.
Hope was watching this all with interest. “That she can hold him off the ground?”
Lestrade shook his head curtly, and made sure his Guide was out of the foreign Sentinel’s line of sight. “No. That he’s still alive. Lady Bradstreet!” He waved to her. “Time is of the essence, Lady Sentinel.”
“Right you are, Lestrade,” Lady Bradsteet dropped the engineer unceremoniously to the ground. The big man’s legs gave way and he dropped on his behind like a toddler. “Who is in charge here?”
“Me, madam,” A well suited elderly man stepped forward tentatively. “Erasmus Klein. I am the Yard Supervisor.”
“Mister Klein,” the woman inclined her head to him, and completely ignored the engineer rapidly crawling away from her. Her husband took the opportunity to plant a boot onto his quivering backside as he scuttled past. “By the authority of the Pride of London and with Royal sanction, we are claiming this train and it’s workers temporarily. We must depart immediately. Please uncouple every box from the firebox save the tender and one other.
Klein got as far as “Unc...?” before he was forced to back away from Lady Bradstreet’s deceptively sunny smile.
“Sir,” Inspector Bradstreet broke in. “I do not want there to be any misunderstanding. If those carriages aren’t uncoupled and the driver and fireman ready to go within two minutes,” Bradstreet’s voice was clear and deliberate. “My Sentinel will take up the issue with you personally. Everyone here. One at a time. It may take days, as she has all the patience I lack. Am I clear, sir?”
The entire yard fell over themselves in the scramble to obey.
It was such a relief, such an utter relief, to be free of that loathsome craft. Watson hadn’t even been bothered by Drebber on his way out. The Sentinels had practically climbed over each other to escape the noisome dank and step out into the star lit night.
They were forced up the strange round hatch and onto a long fishing jetty, which jutted out in some desolate bank of the Thames. Watson peered blearily back the way they had come and saw London’s lights glowing in the distance. By his somewhat rough calculations, Watson reckoned them to be about eight miles from the city now. The machine was excellent for stealth, but moved very slowly.
Strangerson shoved at him from behind. “Move.”
Watson shepherded the young Guides down the planks as best he could. He was somewhat wobbly on his feet. Why wasn’t the night air cooling him? He still felt like he was burning alive under a desert sun. He looked longingly at the water as he walked down the jetty with his charges, parts of him wanting nothing more than to dive in.
Swallowing, he shot that thought down. At least the change in scenery had helped him banish those eerie visions dancing in front of his eyes. Unfortunately that was all it did. He was pummelled by lust from Drebber, saturated in righteousness from Strangerson, spun in a whirl of confliction from Lox, pin pricked by the fear and worry of the girls...he always knew these things would be there, he had always been completely bombarded by the people around ever since he had become active. He cursed it, but he’d learned to live with it such as he could.
What had changed now? He knew he could not shield, he had no talent for it, but why were these impression now so much more potent? It was as if even his ability to ignore them was suddenly being stripped away. He wanted to tear at his fevered brain, scream at it to stop.
He was so focused on merely putting one foot in front of the other that he almost didn’t realize the arrival of the carriages.
Two carriages; both pulled by teams of eight horses. A Sentinel carriage, with it’s intricate fretwork and glass panels - practically a glass box on wheels - and a Guide carriage, much more closed in, the windows draped and shuttered. They were from an era before Victoria, where it had been common for Sentinels to be seen, but Guides to be hidden. They were old, creaky things now. Up close half the glass from the Sentinel carriage was missing, the wheels wonky and awry, and the Guide carriage rotting and splintered, luxury and finery long faded or stolen. These kinds of carriages were not much used anymore, but some of the older Sentinel clans kept the traditions. It would be good cover through the countryside. The old bloodlines were fierce about privacy and actively discouraged scrutiny. Many a curious and unwary onlooker had a taste of a whiplash for looking too hard at carriages like these in times past.
Watson and the others were locked into the Guide carriage in hurry, and they were soon off at a run, the road rattling under their feet through the floorboards.
It wouldn’t take them long to reach the port now. And then...
Watson squeezed his eyes shut. And then...
He wanted some opportunity, some moment to rebel and escape. He couldn’t be taken from England. He couldn’t be taken from...him. But now, he was so exhausted from the emotions, so sapped by the fever still burning he could barely lift his head.
“Are you alright sir?” Jane whispered worriedly. The other young Guides were all watching them.
Watson tried to nod reassuringly, tried to straighten as much as he could. “I’ll be alright...I just need...to...rest...”
Watson trailed off as he slumped sideways, completely drained.
It was too bad they hadn’t thought to train him more, and also a shame that the other Guides were so young. Otherwise they would have been able to recognize this for what it was.
The bonding heat.
The train carriage, now emptied of cargo, now had a full shipment of people instead. As many as possible had been crammed in, they had been jumping on even as it drew out of the yard, a chaotic mish-mash of Sentinels, Guides, police officers, Royal guards, even a few soldiers called up by the Palace had managed to get on board. They clung to the sides of the box, and all around the tender, some of them sitting amongst the coal, forming a steady chain of fuel for the firebox.
The fireman usually taking care of that had been dismissed; now a pair of Sentinels shovelled in coal in a blur. The firebox door was cherry red with heat. The locomotive spat steam like a geyser, and rivets creaked ominously as the machine was pushed to it’s very limit. With a red hot fuel supply and a severely lightened load, the countryside was whirring past at speeds most would have thought impossible. Sentinels Shouted ahead, readying points and switches, and clearing any obstacles and what few stations would be on this line.
What was going on in the passenger box was an intense and multi-participant discussions regarding matters like strategy, authority and jurisdiction. In short, a squabble.
Three dozen voices, in increasing levels of volume, argued over plans and intentions, Orders from the Palace crossing blades with Legal Jurisdiction, in turn wrestling with Clan Law. It was a hubbub and a mess, mostly because the man who may have silenced it was sitting with his knees drawn to his chest, smoking a cigarette he had gained from somewhere, and staring at nothing. Lestrade ignored the increasingly raucous debate and sidled over to Holmes, who despite the pressure of space had a wide empty berth around him.
“What will you do, Sentinel?”
Holmes’ expression did not change even as he blew out a trail of smoke. He seemed oblivious to the shouting as well as the violent shudders of the increasingly distressed locomotive was pushed to breaking point. Maybe he truly did not feel the juddering shakes, maybe he was unaware of the argument.
“Shouldn’t you talk to whoever is in charge, provided of course if they can figure out who that is?”
Then again, maybe not. “I’m not asking what they’ll do, I know what they’ll do. A flock of headless chickens couldn’t come close. I’m asking what will you do?”
Holmes shrugged. “Find the Guides. Kill the interlopers. Bring them back.” Holmes shrugged as he took another mouthful of smoke. “Not an original plan, it must be said, but tried and true. There is something to be said for simplicity. Sentinels are, at heart, uncomplicated. Serve. Protect. Destroy. Survive. I owe you an apology.”
The rider came and went so fast, and it’s content to unexpected, that Lestrade almost missed it. “Pardon?”
“An apology, Lestrade. I owe you one.”
Lestrade sat back and blinked for a moment. It wasn’t what he expected. It wasn’t even in the tone he expected, because Sherlock Holmes was immersed in brilliance and brilliance could be blinding when it came to the little things; being forced to acknowledge this tended to make the consulting detective petulant. But Holmes’ voice was as matter of fact as it ever was over any number of crime scenes. Why on earth...
“For dismissing you regarding having a Guide.”
Ah, mind reading still intact, then. Lestrade shrugged as nonchalantly as possible, still in shock. “You had the right to your opinions, Holmes. Is...” he hesitated briefly and felt his wife looking at him from her corner. “Is there anything you would like to know about him?”
Holmes’ whole body tightened into a steel hard knot. “No.”
“No. Do not use your predilections towards sentiment to prolong my torture,” Holmes face was set in a snarl. “I could recount to you the thousands of things I already know, but there is only one fact that is now relevant. He is mine. And I will be bringing him back.”
“You alone?” Lestrade managed in the sudden, shocked silence that had taken over the train car.
“No. Every Sentinel under the Crown will help me. Every Sentinel across the channel will help me. Every Sentinel from every country who have been violated by these thieves will help me.”
Lestrade’s jaw dropped. “You’re not serious!”
“You are aware that I was trained in France by the Vernet Clan?” Holmes said, and his lips quirked in amusement. It was the first expression Lestrade had seen in his face.
“The elders are all still arguing about that, yes.”
“They housed the last Dark Sentinel in Europe. Some of Good Queen Bess’s writing ended up with their clan, as a show of respect for a valiant and cunning rival. Techniques she discovered, among other things.”
Lestrade blinked. “Really?”
“Yes. I have been scouring my brain attic for the right...ah.” Holmes broke off with satisfaction, giving a dark smirk.
Lestrade felt a tremor of unease. That last ah had been a deeper note than the rest of it, and the Sentinel in him was beginning to urgently demand he get as close as possible to his Guide. It was sensing something the Inspector could not.
When Holmes opened his eyes again, it was absolutely clear the Dark Sentinel was present.
Lestrade warily backed towards his wife, whose eyes were opened to the whites.
“My God,” Lady Lestrade breathed.
Holmes presence was unmistakable even at the best of times. Lestrade felt it expand over the whole carriage, dropping like rain across all present, Sentinel or no. It killed the sounds, until all Lestrade could hear were the heartbeats and the screaming of the train. Then....something happened.
Many heartbeats, pulsing and hammering...then less, then less, then less again, until there was but one massive beat, that shook the world with every throb.
Lestrade’s body convulsed in shock.
Silences rippled out as the terrible power flowed out. Not just on the train. Chatter from distant Towers ground to an eerie halt.
What was this? Lestrade’s last remaining scraps of rationality demanded. They were fading fast, crumbling to ash beneath the fire of the presence that was swamping him. It was a molten lake of fire which Hell could never have conceived, because you could never belong in Hell.
Lestrade felt fierce, he felt powerful, he felt alive. This had always been a part of him, always, but he had never actually known it before now. It had been hidden beneath other, normal things; his territory, his city, his Guide. He had never once realized how every connected he was to the living world, from corner to corner of it, from edge to edge.
He was standing on the edge now; he felt all the love – yes, love, all the way down to his bones, because that was built into Sentinels too. They protected without ever asking for gratitude, without expectations of rewards – they loved their home, they loved their tribe, all of which could only be represented in their Guide, because their Guides were what turned hard struggles against indifferent forces into something amazing, something beautiful and unique, something worth protecting. Lestrade couldn’t even look at his wife, couldn’t even look at her because if he did, he knew he would be overwhelmed.
It was like being feral, almost. Sights were sharpened to the point of painful ecstasy, smells were a symphony of expressions and meanings mere words could not match, the music of the whole world poured into him, as his own range expanded with Holmes. Some last particle of rational comprehension wondered with awe if this was how the Dark Sentinel saw the world all the time.
Holmes was not just announcing his presence. He was Calling. He was Calling them all. And they could no more resist than a stone could resist falling.
Watson jerked awake. The sudden jolt was like a knife in his heart. He was seized by the need to go back the way he came, so sharp and powerful it was physically painful.
I want to go. I need to go. I’m coming. Watson feel the words force their way up his throat, but it was barren, too dry to speak.
“Sir?” Came Jane Blakely’s whisper. “Something is very wrong with him!” she hissed to the other girls.
Watson’s hands shook as he ran them over his face. “Where...?” he croaked, but got no further.
The door snapped open, and there was Strangerson, all controlled righteousness and fervour. He burned in the fires of it, blinded and deafened. “Out. Single file. God’s wrath on you if any of you make a sound.”
Watson staggered out last and he had an overwhelming impression of masts and rigging; like a forest without a leaf or a branch to it’s name. Water lapped at any number of hulls lined up along the docks and vessel large and small all crammed into place there. Waves sucked at the pylons beneath Watson’s feet as his boots wavered on the pier.
The ship was already buzzing with activity as the captured Guides were shepherded towards it. The anchor was winched up, the sails unfurled. It was a large vessel; not a modern steamship but an old fashioned wooden cruiser. It must have been once military, judging by the squares wood now covering what used to be gun turrets and it had the shape of a Frigate, a serious people mover.
They were hustled up and gangplanks with speed. Watson did not even have a moment to protest, as the walkways were disposed of as soon as the last person was aboard, the tethering lines cut and the ship moving. There was some sort of raucous argument going on at the stern, where the raised deck showed a small group of people, one presumably the captain, arguing loudly about tides and currents. Everyone was in a hurry to leave.
Watson staggered when his feet hit the deck. A presence swept across his skin, his fever briefly spiked to breathlessness.
There weren’t many Sentinels actually running the ships. Sentinels, with a few notable exceptions, tended to be land-bound. Watson could spot the normal, everyday sailors as they scurried about the deck. They were a good deal cleaner than most sailors were. Working around Sentinels for months on end necessitated excellent hygiene. No one wants to be incarcerated in a small space with an irritated and homesick Sentinel who was further insulted by your stink.
A Frigate, Watson thought muzzily. Ancient or not, it could hold hundreds of people.
That’s when he blinked in shock. He could barely feel them. He knew they were there, there was a sea of...something beneath the decking, that was clearly there, but the instant his feet had been on the deck the sensations had...blurred in some strange way. And he knew that it wasn’t him, despite his burning fever. He could sense the crews and the Sentinels with painful clarity still. But the Guides, even the girls standing next to him, were muffled and out of focus.
Watson tried to force his beleaguered and exhausted mind to think. If Watson could not sense them, then the Sentinels who had kidnapped definitely could not sense them. Their presences were so damped and there was so many conflicting scents and sounds on this crowded boat that they could not draw the Guides to them, could not sense any bonding heat. A Sentinel wouldn’t force himself of a Guide unless that heat was present. It was against their nature otherwise.
Was someone actually protecting these Guides from that fate? Maybe it was that huge signature that drowned out everything else?
There were people – mostly very young, dressed in white shifts of cotton that were plain and shapeless. They were mostly young women, but there were a few young men and boys there, who approached the forlorn and bedraggled group of Guides from the House, still shackled around the neck and in their night gowns.
Guides, Watson realized as one of them, a young and pale faced girl approached Sentinel Lox, her hand outstretched to almost but not quite touch him. Even in his current state and even with the strange suppression of signals, he could sense the bond shimmering between them.
Watson turned sharply as his charges were herded away from him. “Wait. Wait! Where are you taking them?” he demanded, but got no further because no one was protecting him.
The chain left loose to dangle to his hip was abruptly seized and yanked, and Watson was jerked backwards, tripping over his heels and landing on his back. He was dragged ignominiously across the planks, unable to break free pulling weight, and forced instead to half crawl, half swim across the deck to ease the agonizing pressure of the chain and keep his neck from being wrenched.
He was thrown like an old carpet onto the main deck near to where the mainsail mast creaked with the slowly billowing sails. Watson felt a surge of panic that had nothing to do with Drebber, who was leering over him, and everything to do with the fact that they were moving. Watson was being taken away from him.
“Get away from me,” the words came out louder than he intended.
Drebber just grinned at him obscenely. “And where will you go, pet? Will you swim?”
The man was just filthy – totally filthy inside and out. He was barely a Sentinel. Any claim he had to actually being one had rotted away long ago, corrupted and decayed by gluttony and greed. Watson wondered if he even realized how much his sensory abilities had dwindled. There was barely anything there now. Watson wondered if Drebber had ever realized that his powers had been a gift, and a gift that could be taken back.
Drebber’s eyes roved too-familiarly over Watson’s form. “Strip,” he ordered, his eyes alight with anticipation. “We don’t want to deny the others their entertainment, do we?”
Watson spat in his face. It wasn’t the action of a civilized and educated doctor, but it was pure army soldier – defiant and slightly stupid in the face of death. “That should be entertainment enough for them, don’t you think?” His heart was hammering in his chest. Watson was getting angry.
Indeed, there were muffled sniggers all around as Drebber sputtered in shock, but humiliation was not the means to get him to stop. His foot caught Watson’s jaw in hard jab. “You whoring son of a bitch! I’ll make you scream for death, you filthy bastard!” His hands were on the chain again, and Watson’s vision greyed as he struggled for air. He tried to jab behind with his elbows, but couldn’t land a strike from his sitting position.
Watson tried to get inside Drebber’s head, and it was no happy task. Drebber’s mind was a miasma of wants and fears. Here was a little boy, abused and denied from childhood from a puritanical and devout father, and then granted the leeway and authority of a Sentinel; which lead him to grasping frantically at everything once denied to him and filling his hollows with quick and easily obtainable luxuries. These hollow joys never lasted long, and he was constantly harried to find bigger and more powerful ecstasies once the effects faded. He needed to have power over others, he needed to devour others lives to feed his own. That was his pleasure in life, because that was his power; a power once never in his hands and now fisted too tightly there to ever learn or change. His mind was like an old family house, withering and rotting as insects and vermin ate it from the inside.
It would be so easy, too easy, to open the shuttered and locked doors of that mind. In his fevered and rapidly darkening mind Watson even stood before it, at the pitted and splintered door. If he opened it, all the things that Drebber buried there, under his sense of power and entitlement, would come gushing out. Watson could see the way so clearly. Cracks were even forming in the door as he watched...
No! Never that! Never ever that!
The five rough cups stood at his feet, and Watson remembered the suffocating pain of the torture they had inflicted on him and the few others left. He thanked providence, he thanked it every damn day, that the wanderer who had stumbled in on them had been a Sentinel, unbonded, hired for the money and not actually his enemy, who had taken him away from that hellish place, away from that cold and evil Guide, who had done something so much more violating and wicked that torture, rape or death could ever hope to be...
Watson pulled out of Drebber’s mind, knowing he would die and God he was sorry, he was so very, very sorry, my Sentinel, but Watson could not do that even to Drebber.
The pressure was suddenly gone and so was Drebber’s wandering hand, where it had been loosening clothing. It was Lox, shoving Drebber away from Watson, who keeled onto the deck, coughing and wheezing air desperately.
“...ll are you doing?” the yell came from above him.
“Don’t interfere, Lox!” Drabber bawled back at him. “I am taking what is owed to me, as allowed by our great Prophet!”
“Lashing is allowed! Labour is allowed! Cutting of food or blankets is allowed! You’re not allowed to touch a Guide and you’re not allowed to kill them!” Lox snapped back, pushing him back. “What is the matter with you? The Prophet has already warned you about your actions towards the Guides!”
“The Prophet has already warned you as well, Lox,” Strangerson’s cold voice cut through the boiling tempers. “For your willful disobedience in bonding with that slattern,” he gestured to the wide-eyed young woman watching silently with wide eyes next to him. “Who was not intended for you. ‘The LORD did say that those who feel the heart of the LORD, the Guide, shall bow their heads in obedience and penitence in all things. And yea, any Guide who doth act in disobedience to the word of the LORD, that Guide shall be punished.’ This miserable sinner defied Sentinel Drebber and attacked him physically. His defiance must be punished!”
“The Prophet says that, does he?” Lox retorted, his hands fisting beside him. Lox was conflicted and sleepless, and far from home. Sentinel’s were not supposed to be monsters. “Well, I should like to hear that from the Prophet, Strangerson, and not some inadequate and mundane mouthpiece!”
Strangerson went white with fury. For a moment his whole body froze with the power of it. Watson, becoming more aware as he took in more air, realized this was first time he had ever felt a pure, visceral reaction from the man.
“Are you,” Strangerson hissed in disbelief. “Questioning the word of the Prophet?”
“I’ll question it when I actually hear the words of the Prophet. Right now all I hear is you!”
Watson felt something strange happen within Strangerson. All that white hot anger and indignation was suddenly snuffed like a candle flame. It was so abrupt it felt surreal, like a flash flood suddenly sucked backwards.
Empathically, Strangerson vanished from sight. It was like nothing had ever been there.
Before Watson could yell out, Strangerson’s hands moved. You could barely process the metallic flash before the line of red gaped across the throat of Lox’s Guide. With a near silent gurgle, she collapsed.
Watson curled in a ball as the sensation of the breaking bond hit him. For an instant, the whole world shattered and Watson along with it, and once the pieces had broken apart they snapped back together not quite as well as before. Everything was wrong with the world, everything.
His vision cleared after an eternity of pain and loss, and he saw Lox convulsing on the ground next to him, his body convulsed and contorted, his breath ragged with screams. He screamed, and screamed...and stopped.
Watson squeezed his eyes shut. Someday he would get used to that feeling, that emptiness. Probably on the same turned his revolver on himself, though.
Watson drew himself to his knees. The world was a sordid and insane place, and he was in desperate need of some quietude.
Strangerson pushed his spectacles up his nose. “Clean up this mess,” he ordered the sailors staring in horror.
Watson stared at the thin, phlegmatic man in front of him, looking for all the world as offensive as the more fastidious sort of clerk.
Strangerson felt his stare and turned to him. He wasn’t smirking, he wasn’t gleeful, he wasn’t even proud. “All those who defy the word shall be cast down. No one can consider themselves above that word. The Guide was guilty because the Sentinel was guilty. They were judged, and then punished. That is all.”
Watson slowly closed his eyes, and then opened them again. “Strangerson. No matter how long it takes, no matter what happens next,” he spoke slowly and deliberately. “I will kill you for what you just did.” Doctor Watson was no longer present, and all that was left was a Guide, forged in a desert, who had seen violation and wasn’t about to let anyone pretend that any God ordered it.
Drebber had his hand on the chain again. “Oh yes,” came the filthy rejoinder. “But we’ve some business first, pet.”
Watson found some reserves somewhere. His foot crushed Drebber’s instep and his hands found the end of the chain that choked him. He forced Drebber backwards he spun out of his grip, and used the moment of confusion to loop the chain around Drebber’s neck even as the shackle tightened around his own. He jabbed a fist into Drebber solar plexus, just enough to force the air from his diaphragm. And then, with every ounce of strength he still possessed in a body shaking with fever and exhaustion, Watson pulled on his makeshift garrotte.
Drabber choked, his eyes bulging in an already unpleasant face.
“Go on,” Watson rasped into the man’s face. “Pull.” He dragged harder, with the advantage of position and size.
A thin point of metal somehow found an exposed bit of flash right at his neck junction. “I think not.” Strangerson spoke calmly.
The tableau froze as the interlopers voice cut through the tension.
The crowd all staring on the deck parted as the figure came through; trailed by an entourage of white clad followers and...were they tied to him with ribbon? Drebber and Strangerson both backed away from his and knelt.
Watson turned his eyes, his whole body drowning in spiritual power. He could barely draw air.
It was the Prophet.
It takes some time for it to gain enough momentum, because while Holmes was ridiculously talented, he was not all powerful. He had certainly never tried anything on this scale before. But they have some time while the train roars towards Sheerness, and Holmes has nothing better to do than to put his whole self into it. This, as some would accurately deduct, would be the cause of no little alarm.
Mycroft’s ludicrously expensive tea cup smashed into irreparable pieces as he jerked to his feet, mirroring Barstone, who was doing the same. The Queen stared at them both from where she sat.
The Calais Clan – the Factionnaires de Calais – were the first to feel it, but not for long. They froze in their tracks and rushed then toward the Clan Houses – the Forteresse – to send word inland. Even as they were doing so, the Head Clan – currently the Loups de Paris – were sending messages to them, asking them what the hell this was, this wash of a presence currently swamping the Continent.
Fairly soon, messages, Shouts, telegraphs and runners were boiling across nations, from the Wächter in Hamburg, to the Beschermers in Amsterdam, the Familias de Guarda in Madrid, the Spade di Dio in Rome. The wave swept in; the Calling was heard. Across the lands, Sentinels stopped what they were doing, turned around and headed for the shores.
Watson was brought sharply back into focus. He pressed a hand to his heart. What was that? What was that...thing which could reach him, even drowning as he was? It had jolted in his chest, like a second heart.
The Prophet was tall and well built, like most Sentinels; but there was as much difference between him and them and him as a stick figure to a masterpiece.
It really was like looking at a living, breathing Greek statue come walking over. Light blonde curls as perfect as Botticelli’s glinted in the dim light from the ship lanterns, framing a clear brow; a nose straight off a Roman coin apexed a cupid bow mouth and firm angular chin Michelangelo’s David would have envied. He dressed in flowing robes of what had to be white silk, lines of dark velvet crossing the breadth of his shoulders and bifurcating his chest all the way to the hems at his feet making a stylised crucifix and highlighting his broadness and height.
White ribbons, stretching from the wide sleeves of the robe trailed back in both directions, three Guides on either side forming a V behind him. They all looked towards the deck, their heads bowed, a ribbon trailing from the Prophets arms to loop around their necks. One was drawing back from the Prophet’s side, having evidently been supporting him across the deck.
“My Prophet,” Strangerson was speaking from his kneel before the Sentinel. “I apologize for disturbing your convalescence. We were disciplining an empath who defied your word.”
“I seek reparations, my lord,” Drebber added. “We must obey the word of the Father in these matters.”
But the Prophet did not even look at them, and did not seem to even notice their existence. His gaze was riveted on Watson as if hypnotised.
Watson was staring back equally hard. The empath in him was immersed in the presence before him, but the doctor in him was aware enough to note the hollow in those golden cheeks and the shadows under those blue eyes. This Sentinel was not in the healthiest state.
But he was unmistakable, all the same.
The hallucinations had picked the worst possible moment to re-emerge. The fireflies swirled around the man in a glowing storm of light. It was no wonder that people invoked divinity with this Sentinel nearby; unconsciously they must have been able to sense the power Watson was swamped in.
The Prophet, still gazing at Watson, opened his mouth to speak. “Beautiful.”
Watson blinked. What?
In Sheerness, a much abused train was clinking and creaking at it cooled at the station. Across the fields dozens of figures of all shapes and sizes ran, heading for the smell of the sea.
A fishing boat marked Farsight was waiting for them there.
End Part Ten
Chapter 11: Part Eleven
Holmes and Watson...was there ever any doubt?
Mycroft hated breaking his routine. He adhered to it like other people adhered to their religions. In fact, it was not even an equal metaphor; after all, Gods could be capricious whereas Mycroft’s gargantuan intellect was not. Were it not for one very specific thing, you could track every step Mycroft ever made by finding the grooves and scuffs made by feet walking the same routes, down to the very footprints, for year after year after year.
Everyone knew what the one thing was. Sherlock Holmes had that effect to everybody. Ripples of chaos seemed to flow out from his whipcord body, and had ever since the day he was born.
Mycroft sighed in a vexed way as he reached the final winding staircase to the Palace Tower, and opened the door. He didn’t bother to knock. If the Sentinel inside couldn’t hear a person coming up, then he didn’t deserve to be up there.
The Sentinel and Guide pair rose to their feet from where they had been sitting next to the burning torch for warmth, and saluted.
“Go down and assist the ground guards with incoming messages. We will watch for now,” he told them.
They bowed, and the Sentinel murmured “Yes, sir” before heading for the door. There was a brief, almost invisible hesitation as the Sentinel reached the threshold.
“Sentinel Thompson and his Guide have been moved to the Yellow Drawing Room for the vigil,” Mycroft told them, his voice level.
Some of the faint tension in the Tower Sentinel’s shoulders relaxed. “Yes, sir.” They departed down the stairs.
The air, despite the Tower being exposed to the weather on all sides save the flue-holed roof, was still quite warm. The signal torch smouldered in it’s iron bowl pit, ringed with hand-sized trapdoors containing various compounds to send various signals – magnesium, coppers, sodium, lithium, barium, caesium, potassium, – to change the colours of the flames. The lithium door, painted red, was still open. Mycroft toed it closed on his way past, and did the same for the rather larger trapdoor that sat in the circle like a pendant on a necklace, holding an accompanying ladle and full to the brim with paraffin oil. The retinue all muttered about switching to gas one of these days, but burning the scented woods stacked up near the door and perfumed oils was one of the few pleasures in an otherwise dreary and often uncomfortable duty, so they were in no hurry to change.
Mycroft found the heavy iron and leather padded seats sitting on the Eastern side of the Tower overlooking the quadrangle and the East facade and the Mall beyond. The Sentinel chair was more a perch, a high chair which put the Sentinel’s head at optimum height for the rows of convex brass and glass shapes hemming the top of the Tower roof, some fanned outwards and some inwards, to augment the sending and receiving of the Shout. Not many Towers had sound catchers, but the Royal Tower was a jewel in the Tower system.
Welded to the side of the Sentinel chair was the Guide chair, so that the pair was one piece of furniture. The Guide chair was at an ordinary height, allowing the Guide to reach up and grasp the Sentinel’s shoulder when the Guide’s anchoring was required.
Mycroft sat in the Guide’s chair. Clambering up onto that towering perch was ridiculous and he refused to do it.
That was it for the furniture, unless you included the clip board, paper and pencil, dangling from a string from the Guide’s backrest, which acted as both the duty docket and the Tower logs. They were not allowed to bring tables or kettles up here, in the view that this may encourage laxness in their duties. The Sentinel came here to listen, not to play cards or dice. Tea was brought up by a servant at strictly enforced intervals during shifts, to keep privies from being necessary, and the servant waited while they drank and took the used cups and pots back on leaving. Food was not allowed; one bad reaction to a taste or a spice would leave the Tower unmanned, which had not occurred for more than a minute in well over two hundred years.
Mycroft surveyed London from across the Quadrangle, torches in the Towers all still lit. London was a mosaic of bright, jewel-like fires, interconnected by the delicate filigree of gas lamps marching along the main roads – a treasure box no pirate or thief would steal, because they didn’t understand the value of the city, they couldn’t see how it generated money and ideas and technology, all that mass of people - a good fraction of which was destitute, but nevertheless churning out wealth and worth like the rains brought water.
To those who could see it, understand it – ah, there was nothing to steal. You only need to immerse yourself in it, to listen to it’s voice and it’s erratic heart, flow across it’s shifting, pulsing populace and it’s sudden, strange tides. The city was easy, once you knew how to bow to it and let it lead to waltz. People often thought Mycroft the ultimate maestro of this dance, and often failed to realize that the younger Holmes did the same, just from a different direction.
But then, people were quite dense at times, Sherlock did have a point there.
Mycroft sighed. It was really very vexing. Even when Sherlock did exactly what was asked of him, lived up to every expectation within a hair’s breadth, he still managed to make Mycroft’s life difficult. Mycroft shared an ironic little grin with the dark night over London.
Wilikin’s near-silent tread on the final steps to the Tower did not rouse Mycroft from his study of London, though he was glad to collect the hot cup of tea his Guide poured for him from the sturdy iron kettle he had lugged up into the Tower with him. He took a scalding mouthful and then handed the cup back, his gaze never wavering from London. Most would have found his body language dismissive of Wilikins. Dense indeed.
Wilikins took the cup and downed his own mouthful, almost absently handing the cup back to his Sentinel whose gaze still did not waver but whose hand moved into precisely the right spot to take the cup back without even seeing it.
“Oh, do not start, I am only mildly annoyed,” Mycroft murmured, seemingly out of nowhere. “And I do not subscribe to the view that I am over-coddling him.”
Wilikin’s set the kettle down with a slight clink.
“Yes, I do have half a dozen eyes on him at all times, but that is not coddling – that is a perfectly sensible response to a perfectly plausible fear,” Mycroft snorted to the apparently unspoken statement. “Good grief, do you not remember him in childhood? Never was there a babe more inclined to dangerous curiosities. He overturned his bassinet at three months, for heaven’s sake.”
Wilikin’s straightened, his hands pressed behind his back and into the small of it, shoulders a straight line, chin tilted slightly down and to the right. His posture was a textbook perfect Guide awaiting instructions from his Sentinel.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I am aware he is no longer a child,” Mycroft rolled his eyes. “Despite all evidence to the contrary. Children would have at least enough sense not to go looking for that much trouble. We must only hope that his Guide will be a soothing influence on him.”
As Mycroft looked back over London he felt his Guide crouch next to the chair, the merest brush of soft fingers ghosting across the back of his hand. Any members of a Royal Clan witnessing that would have been properly astonished. The Royal Beta and his Guide almost never touched in public.
Mycroft sighed. “As usual, you are right in the end,” His eyes flicked momentarily to see the soft quirk of one side of Wilikin’s mouth that he was expecting to see. “His Guide’s only influence will be to make him shine brighter than he has ever done. Genius is never made by soothing and lassitude, it is fed by excitement and energy. Sherlock would never a pick a Guide that would offer anything less. And if his Guide truly understands him, then that would be all he ever wants to offer.”
Silence bloomed out from beside him as Wilikin’s simply tented his fingers and joined his Sentinel in viewing.
“Yes, I have no doubt - not one whit of a doubt - that his Guide truly does, either,” Mycroft’s lips turned upwards in a slight smile. “What a terrible force they shall make together. Our headaches, my dear, look to increase exponentially.” Mycroft paused, then added. “That is uncalled for. I certainly do not enjoy it. Much, anyway.”
People were often astonished at the way Mycroft and Wilikins communicated. It must be that they were sitting in each other’s minds. How else could Mycroft answer questions that Wilikins could not voice? It was the kind of idiotic theory that made the elder roll his eyes and the younger burst into derisive laughter. People never truly observed, Sherlock was right about that too.
Wilikin’s abruptly rose and went to the Tower’s edge, reaching the parapet just as Royal Alpha Barstone’s boots turned the final curve of the spiral staircase.
Barstone stepped around the torch and headed for him. Wilikin’s gave a brief, respectful bow, flicked his eyes lightning fast at his Sentinel, and then pushed open one side of the short half-wall that almost made the Tower a room. The stone slab swung out near-silently, revealing a winding staircase embracing the outside walls of the tower. Wilikin’s disappeared down the staircase, evidently wanting to walk the Guard’s Path that stretched and wound it’s way in a mazelike full circuit around the Palace roofs. Most aristocratic abodes had such a walkway; a final defence against invaders at the doors.
“I fail to see why it is a problem, Alpha,” Mycroft said smoothly.
Barstone had had Mycroft for a Beta for well over ten years now, so to his credit he didn’t waste time with awe or confusion. He accepted the cup silently and drained it, before leaping into the Sentinel chair with the fitness of a man half his age.
“I often wonder why your Guide makes himself so scarce when we speak, Mycroft,” Barstone commented mildly as he adjusted the angles of the sound catchers. “It’s not as if you do not share everything anyway.”
Mycroft refilled the cup. “Politics bores him when it doesn’t amuse him. Besides, he knows when I need to be focused, and calming the London Clan’s hysteria will take some concentration.”
Barstone scowled. “There’s not many a Beta that would compare their Alpha to a neurasthenic young lady, Holmes. But then, you and you brother are cut of the same cloth.”
Mycroft smiled thinly. “My, my, Alpha, such a thing has never troubled you in the past. You’ve been positively impressed with my brand of intellect. But of course, you were allowed to be impressed because I am far too listless to care much for positioning within the Clan. Public duty and leadership squabbles are just so tiresome, I simply did not have the energy to deal with them. And thus, happy compromise rules in the Royal Clan, for you are a man of great energy – great energy indeed. You are happy to keep fighting your way to the top and staying at the top, whereas I was happy to simply go about my routine and memorize my little facts. But now you are facing my sibling, and while I am rendered safe by lassitude he,” Mycroft smirked. “Is not.”
Barstone glared at him, though more in exasperation than anger. “Good grief Mycroft, we are not in the Parliament and there’s no need to draw this out. Forget politics. I just need to know what you think he’ll do once he gets back. We’ve had our share of upheavals tonight without having to worry about the shape of future ones.”
Mycroft took a sip of tea. “As I said, Alpha, I fail to see why my brother’s imminent bonding is a problem. And one thing you should never do is forget politics. They lay at the heart of it.”
Barstone ran fingers through his hair in an uncommon show of frustration. “This is about the Prime Alpha. There’s nothing political about how that happens.”
“I disagree,” Mycroft retorted. “Because I, Alpha, refuse to fall into the trap of believing that ‘Prime Alpha’ is the same as saying ‘ruler’. The Prime Alpha may control the clans, but he does not lead them, they and their laws do not dissolve as he walks by. He has their loyalty. He has no need to constantly dictate their actions.”
Barstone’s jaw dropped open. “What? You are not in earnest, surely! Queen Elizabeth...”
“Was Queen because she was born into the house of Tudor, not because she was a Sentinel,” Mycroft cut in. “If she had been the lowest of the fishwives, she still would have been a magnificent Sentinel but it was the crown, that human thing, which spurred her to Empire. People started confusing ‘Dark Sentinel’ with ‘ruler’ because the last Dark Sentinel happened to be born into the ruling house. A common but foolish mistake; everyone knows Sentinels don’t rule the tribe. That is not their destiny.”
Barstone let the ‘foolish mistake’ pass him by with practised ease. “True enough, I suppose. But there’s more than leadership to consider here. Your brother was trained by the Vernet Clan. Most high-ranking Sentinels in London feel that the Vernet clan lands are as much his territory as this city. They felt that by being sent there his loyalties would be divided. What if he decides to defect to them?”
To this Mycroft gave a disdainful snort. “You and they are as blind and deaf as a stone if you believe he would ever choose any other place than London, Alpha.”
Barstone sighed, and let that pass too.
“The Queen has already recognized what you seem to have missed, Alpha. It’s a very poor lookout for the Royal Clan when Her Majesty can spot something our supernatural eyes cannot. She will allow him to be a free agent in London, which is wise. My brother is at his best and most brilliant when he is face to face with his foes, dealing with his puzzles and problems one person at a time. He is far more use to the tribe – to us – by being a protector right at the ground level. He is not now, nor will he ever be, a figurehead,” Mycroft summarized firmly.
Barstone huffed a breath, almost sly. “And we need not discuss who may have advised her on these matters, need we? Most Beta’s would not think to go behind their Alpha’s back, after all.”
Mycroft have a slight smile. “Is that what you think? We are modern men, Alpha, in a modern world. The Sentinel of the past would scarcely recognize London and it’s clans today; it would certainly bewilder them that there was more than one clan for a start. Never be sorry that politics now plays a role in Clan life, Alpha. We learned our lessons about that; even Queen Bess understood that the role of the single, territorial and barbaric guardian would no longer give the world the protection the Sentinel sought to gift. Now we are hundreds strong, whereas before a dozen or so of the strongest would have prevailed, and killed any interlopers. It was because we cultivated Sentinels that we became the reigning force in an increasingly international world. It is because the colonists formed such strong roots with the natives in the Americas that they were able to soundly split with us, because they recognised the power those relationships brought with them. Even now the Americans are learning that; the Southern states realized, too late, subjugating the African population was a fatal error, because the African nations generate powerful Sentinels like clouds generate rain. I don’t doubt that the Dark Sentinel phenomenon is no rare occurrence in those wilds. And when those powerful people turned on their masters, there was no hope for them. Do not fight progress, Alpha, because events will move with or without you. Make the most of it. The ones who can recognize change are the ones who hold mastery over it. And if I’m not very much mistaken, the world it going to be looking to us for answers shortly enough.” This came with a smirk.
“Hmm?” Barstone turned at the sound of running footsteps. “Guide?” he called out, recognising the thudding heartbeat.
Baynes burst through the door in a most un-Baynes-like flurry, shedding paper missives like feathers. Barstone jumped from his perch and strode to him, determined to destroy the cause of his Guide’s agitation.
“Forgive me, Sentinel, but this could not wait,” Baynes cried, breathing hard. “They are coming from everywhere!”
“What is, my own?”
“Messages. Telegraphs, Shouts, carrier pigeons – from all over the Continent! Germany, France, Spain, Prussia, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Norway – and more besides!” Paper of all sizes and shapes fanned out in Baynes’ hands. “Droves of Sentinels are heading our way! All the ships, in the Channel with a Sentinel or Guardian on board are being diverted towards the Thames mouth. Some ships will be there within hours; some were close enough or in port to already be there. There may be up to a thousand Sentinels travelling inland from the North and Ireland and the Continent as we speak, the first wave will reach us within a week!”
“What?” Barstone was thunderstruck as he scanned message after message.
“Governments the world over are protesting, Sentinel. They want to know what we are doing to cause it.”
They both turned as Mycroft let out a booming wave of laughter.
Watson was taken below, still completely baffled. The Prophet had turned to his...well, retinue, for lack of a better term, and gave an unheard order. The Guide who took the order had gently removed the ribbon attaching him to the Prophet’s wrist and had gestured for two sailors to flank Watson and prod him along. His feverish mind was still trying to examine this event in a proper worry as he was hustled down steep steps and long, low corridors, before he was shoved into a small chamber with a second door on the other side. The floor was damp.
The sailors escorting him retreated at a glare from the leading, white-clad Guide just as the opposite door opened. Watson let out a breath of relief when he saw Jane Blakely and the others emerging. They were dressed in long, impractical shifts and pinafores, their skin pink from scrubbing and their hair sodden and tangled, but otherwise looked to be unharmed.
“Are you all alright?” Watson demanded as they were lead by a dark haired woman, dressed much the same, from the room beyond.
“We’re all fine, sir,” Jane piped up bravely, but was cut off rather sharply by a hard slap from the Prophet’s retinue Guide, who performed the blow with a kind of perfunctory superiority.
“You will speak when invited to, chattel, and not before,” the Guide snapped. “Obedience is your duty in all things. Such is the word of the Prophet.”
Jane Blakely just glared at him, stuck out her chin and looked him in the eye. Then, with an arrogant sniff that would impress a Peer, she stuck her nose in the air and loftily marched after the matron escorting them as if the Guide were not worth her notice, even though Watson could feel her shaking apart inside. Watson just had to smile.
The Guide was a young man, blonde haired and brown eyed and was short and narrow, his face handsome in a somewhat angular way. His back was ramrod straight in leading Watson here, and you certainly needed no empathic ability to sense the resentment pouring off him.
“I am Gabriel, the First of the Chosen,” the capitals snapped sharply off the young man’s tongue and through the jealous twist of his mouth. “The Prophet has commanded you wash. You will do so, quickly.” He jabbed a stiff finger at the opposite door.
Watson shrugged to himself; time to think and plan was never to be sneezed at. He obeyed silently, and slipped inside a long, damp room, lined with iron rods stretched down either side near the low ceiling. Attached to the rods on hinges was what looked to be misshapen watering cans with chains dangling from them almost to the floor. Watson realized he was looking at a cruder version of the Regency Shower device which was slowly gaining much popularity since it anonymous invention earlier in the century, especially among the Sentinel population.
He experimentally pulled on one can, and the spout tipped downwards, sending a cold deluge to the wet wooden floor. It smelled of salt, so the pump handle in the corner must have a length of pipe in the ocean, to pump up through the pipes and fill the cans. It all had a very haphazard and hastily rigged look about it. The connecting rods all leaked and there was not much adequate drainage on the floor. Cobbled together for the Sentinels and sailors too, maybe?
Watson did wash his face and hands, because while it didn’t kill his fever it at least refreshed him slightly and helped alleviate some of the increasing light headedness that was causing him to sway as the ship swayed.
He staggered back towards the door where things were relatively drier, and managed to get his back to the wall before sliding down it, his vision blurring in panic. He was moving, he was going away....it was too much, it was all too overwhelming and he was too exhausted to deal with it properly. He tried to force himself to think, not just go through the motions, but all his burning mind could bring up from the chaos was the wonderful Sentinel suddenly getting further away, and the Prophet swirling in a mass of lights. Watson scrubbed his hands through his damp hair, trying to will away his delirium with little success. Every so often, another swarm of dancing lights would buzz past, whirling and zipping. All he could do was huddle here, trying to breathe.
The door opened and thankfully it was the matron and not Gabriel who re-entered. She was just a blurred figure, and try as he might Watson could not clear her in his vision. Every so often, fireflies would swirl around her, and then vanish.
She was saying something in a low, musical voice, but the images of those vanishing lights riveted Watson. Something prodded and shouted at the back of his mind; he was momentarily lost in the sound of her voice and the hypnotic wash of lights vanishing in the mist around her.
“It you,” the words fell out of him, slurred thickly. “You’re the one hiding them.”
She froze, and there was nothing blurred about the brief spike of panic. “What is zis hiding you speak of?” Her eyes were dark, like her hair, which fell in a river to the backs of her knees. Her accent was a graceful French-like affair.
Watson, dazed, reached out a touched her forehead. “You...you’re blurred...you’re shielding them as you touch them.”
Her long, elegant fingers wrapped around his hand, her shock like a deep peal of a bell, muffled by water. “Mon Dieu, you can feel it? ‘Ow is zis possible, that you can do zis? Le Bon Dieu, it is a miracle.”
He felt the mist curl around him, wrapping his mind in soothing coolness. It wasn’t enough to alleviate the burning inside, but it offered a brief reprieve from the delirium. “Who are you?” Watson blinked up at her.
She was an exceptionally tall woman, statuesque with the right kind of well defined chin and brow to indicate imperial dignity. She was more alluring than conventionally beautiful, but whereas beauty was subject to a time limit, her face promised to look the same a hundred years from now.
“I am Sister Maria Augusta of the Convent of St. John, in Müstair,” she spoke softly, her voice low and tranquil.
“A nun?” Watson asked back, equally soft. “How does a Guide like you end up in a remote convent in the Alps, Sister?”
A soft, sad smile. “What iz it you English say? A meeting in ze middle, yes? My family vere wealthy, noble born in Paris. Zey could not live with ze shame of a daughter, stuck with zis terrible affliction, no? Unmarriagable, zey say. Zey do not allow ze dogs to run round inside, zey do not let ze wolf in ze door. A Loup, counted as blood? Non, zey could not do zis thing. So I said I vould place myself in ze hands of ze good Farzer, Le Bon Dieu. Far away from...temptation, yes? Far away from everyone. Ah, you suffer so.” Her fingers tightened on his, passing comfort. “You burn with ze terrible fire, ze holy calling.”
“How do you do that?” Watson asked in a whisper. “Muffle their presences, all those Guides? I have never heard of such a talent.”
“After spending so long, ‘iding from my family while I was with zem, I found zat I could mist zere minds, become invisible. Sometime, zey come to ze convent, oui? Ze En Attente Guides. Zey run many, many miles to hide, for Sanctuary. The Loup and the Factionnaires, zey are aggressive in ze farmlands. I found a vay to do the same for ze ozzers who came. Keep zem hidden, keep zem safe.” Her face twisted with sudden anger. “Still, zey came. Zey had heard the rumours, and zey came, stealing in ze night. Zey say zey are doing ze Farzer’s work – pah! Zey may put my body on ze wheel, like Bon Sainte Catherine, but I still do not believe in zere God.”
“So you protect the others from the unbonded Sentinels, and from the Prophet,” Watson shuddered as he remembered.
She pressed her hands to her chest, feeling for a crucifix no longer there. “I trust Mon Dieu. ‘E intended me to be here. ‘E ‘as called upon me to protect ze children and ze stolen from being chained to these false pretre and their false ways, to be dragged away from zere homes. Zat is why I am here. But,” here she pressed a cool hand to his forehead. “Pardonnez-moi, I do not zink I can hide you from ‘im. Already now ze sacre ardent burns inside you. You burn so brightly, I ‘ave not yet felt anyzing so powerful in my life. I am not so powerful zat I may block ze sun.”
Watson blinked at her slowly, uncomprehending. Then the penny dropped a hole straight through him. “The bonding heat?!”
The Farsight was not a huge ship, for which Lestrade was grateful in a totally inappropriate way. It meant that the majority of the squabbling mass had been forced to wait for the steamer chugging towards Sheerness with grim determination, leaving only a handful of Sentinels that could fit to make their escape aboard the smaller vessel. Odds were better with numbers and all that, but Lestrade was far happier to take his chances without all the ego and noise.
The Farsight was an odd, dual purpose ship. It had a steam engine and the steam pipe, but also a mast, currently un-stepped and laying on the deck. Steam for when speed was necessary, but most of the time Drewitt and Pendley sailed for the sound of the wind and the dance of the currents.
The pipe coughed steam now as they sped towards their destination. The passengers stayed out of the way of Drewitt and Pendley as they worked tirelessly and efficiently as only sailors who know every splinter of their ships by heart. They had thrown most of the fishing gear, buoys, foodstuffs, water stores and any other weight off the boat with nary a care, making room for the weight of the passengers. Even now Pendley worked steadily to dismantle benches and tableware, chairs and other detritus bolted to the ship to make more room while Drewitt handled the rudder.
Holmes was cross legged like an Indian fakir on the bow, hunched down with his fists on his chin, swordstick across his lap, his unwavering thousand yard stare focused dead ahead. The Bradstreets, the Lestrades and half a dozen others that had secured passage were arranged as best they could on the upper deck space.
“I am not going to argue with you about this, my darling,” Lestrade tried to keep their quarrel to a low murmur. As if it would do any good on this boat.
Lady Lestrade gave a spirited toss of her head. “That’s as well, my dear, for your only other recourse is total agreement.”
Oh, how Lestrade could feel the Bradstreets silently sniggering at him. He sighed. “I need you to stay on this boat once we reach them.”
“And I need to be with my husband when he is already frail from the nights events and may require my assistance,” she retorted stubbornly.
Lestrade’s fists clenched in helpless anger. “Do you know how close I came to losing you tonight?!”
He didn’t yell, because he never raised his voice or his hands to his wife; that was unthinkable to him. But the words cut through the air anyway, slicing any other conversations in two. Everyone froze.
“More to the point, Lady Lestrade, I need you to stay on board,” Holmes’ voice drifted from the bow, breaking the tension.
Lady Lestrade turned her dark head to frown at him even as her hands moved to grip her Sentinel’s hard. “Sentinel Holmes?”
“You know about the Laws of Territory. Sentinels should always bond where their territory is. I must get my Guide back to London before the bonding. London is mine, not some anonymous stretch of water in the Channel. You are exceptionally talented at shielding. My Guide will be in no state to defend himself by time we have reached him; he’s halfway gone even now. You are the one best suited to assist him. I ask you...I beg of you to do everything in your power to do so.”
“I...I see,” Lady Lestrade nodded slowly. “As you wish, Sentinel.”
Lestrade put an arm around her, public morality be damned, and looked out over the ocean. Using her warm presence as his anchor, he was able to pick out distant, bobbing lights in the murk, like a stream of fireflies. “There are a lot of ships closing in.” He murmured, half to himself. Suddenly he scowled in surprise, his head snapping around to Holmes. “What do you mean, he’s halfway gone?” A terrible suspicion bloomed. Lestrade rose, voice getting louder with every word. “You can’t mean the bonding heat?!”
Watson and Sister Augusta jumped apart as the door opened sharply.
Gabriel gave the nun a dark glare. “What are you doing in here? Were you not specifically ordered to stay with the children? Does your wilful disobedience of the Word know no bounds?” He held up a sharp hand when she opened her mouth. “No, I’ll hear no perverted lies from your filthy mouth. I certainly will not lower myself to listening to the mooing of a difficult heifer.”
“Watch your tongue, sir,” Watson snapped, if not completely revitalised then at least a little clearer in the head. “She is a woman of the cloth.”
“She,” Gabriel sneered, lips curling. “Is nothing more than a breeding bitch. And rest assured, chattel, you will be lashed again for you impudence. Away!” he shouted at her, and she darted away with one apologetic look at Watson. Now able to see her from behind, Watson could see the poorly washed bloodstains across the back of her white shift. Again, huh?
“Has anyone ever told you that you are charming, Gabriel?” Watson muttered sarcastically as he rose from the floor, swaying a moment but able to maintain.
Gabriel was almost snarling at him. The jealously and anger raining off him was like a third person in the room. “I am the First of the Chosen, you ignorant peasant. You would do well to remember I can order your punishment at any time. I can have them whip you until you are begging for death!” He ground out.
Watson drew himself up. “You would do well to remember that I am not some frightened and defenceless child you can bully and intimidate. You are not even close to the worst foe I have faced, I could break you like a twig if I had to!”
Shocked affront rang out. Gabriel was not like Strangerson; he was not all closed up, his rage was never turned completely inwards. He felt and projected all over the place, with no thought to self control. The young man stepped backwards, crossing his arms defensively. “I am expected to bring you before the Prophet and do not have time to waste with meaningless prattle from one of his fancies. Follow.”
Watson followed, knowing he would just be forced is he didn’t. He was lead through the long, low corridors, listening to the bang of footsteps above him on the upper deck. The few sailors they passed on their way hastily ducked into side doors or plastered themselves flat against walls at the sight of Gabriel approaching. They did not feel happy. Beneath Watson’s feet, he could hear muffled sobbing and soft voices, a faint but noticeable tang of despair was in the air. There was nowhere else to go from here but America.
Watson rubbed his temples. His headache was coming back, and his skin already felt too hot.
“Here are the rules for meeting with our Lord, the Prophet,” Gabriel’s voice noticeably changed when speaking about him. Pure, unadulterated worship exuded from every pore. “You shall speak only when given permission. You shall never look the Prophet in the face, but keep your head bowed in proper obeisance and humility. You shall never deign to touch him or seek to defile his purity. All of his orders to you will be given to me. All of your answers for questions shall go through me. Any breaking of these rules will result in severe and immediate punishment. Now,” he opened a rough hewn door and entered an antechamber ringed with racks of white shifts and robes. The only break in the walls of white was the large, heavy door on the other side. The plate on the door presumably once said ‘CAPTAIN’, but a white cross painted across the length and breadth of the door had obliterated it. “You shall be dressed as befitting a Chosen. Take a robe and change into it. You cannot meet our Lord Prophet dressed in those filthy rags.
Watson looked down at his suit, that had indeed seen better days – most of them before today. Nevertheless – “I refuse.”
Gabriel turned slowly, his whole body taut. “You defy the ways of the Chosen?” he hissed in disbelief.
“Every minute of every day,” Watson replied flatly. “I will not undress before you, put on one of your costumes and strut on your farcical stage. If the so-called Prophet does not like it, then he can damn well say so himself.” The headache was more than just fever now, it seemed to be an actual manifestation of his anger. All the things he had witnessed these people do, all the pain and fear he could feel – he was not going to stand quietly before this kind of abomination.
“You dare to...you actually dare...” Gabriel’s pupils were pinpricked with utter rage. “You will be a victim of his wrath, you shall see!” he shouted, spittle flying. “You will share the same fate as all the others who defy him, all other who have provoked his rage! And when you beg for help all the faithful shall laugh at your pitiful pleading with scorn! But hear this – I am the First of the Chosen and I will be obeyed, and I will not see him upset by the likes of you, you pitiful interloper for the Prophet is my Sentinel.”
“But you are not his Guide,” the words came out before prudence could stifle them. “You are not bonded.”
If what Watson felt before was rage, then this was something beyond, so incoherent it could even be called madness. Gabriel flew at him, face white with it, teeth bared. His fists stuck two hard blows to Watson’s chest, knocking Watson back against the racks of white linen. “I am his Guide, the First of the Chosen!” Watson was surprised the foaming spittle sprayed onto his didn’t evaporate in the sheer molten heat of Gabriel’s mad rage. As it was, Watson could barely hold his knees straight under the onslaught as the devout man continued. “I was with him from the very beginning! The very fact that he needs so many around him is only proof of his magnificence! But I was the First, I was the one he Chose, I am the one who cares for him and speaks in his voice and am his block when he sleeps, I am the one who nurses him when his terrible powers weight down his poor mortal shell! I am the one he turns to, always, me! What are you? A pretty distraction, a fancy, a toy for his amusement, nothing more! Unworthy and unimportant! You will outlive your usefulness, just like all the others, and you will end up dead like them, and he will always turn back to me!” Gabriel’s hands had found their way around Watson’s throat, and Watson was trying to prise the crazed grip loose.
The white-cross door opened. “First, what are you doing?” called the Guide who emerged.
Gabriel stepped back and away, breathing hard. “Nothing that concerns you, Fifth. Is the Prophet ready?”
“Yes, but he is upset.”
It was like she had flipped a switch in Gabriel with those words. He instantly radiated concern and purpose, pushing past her to get into the chamber beyond, practically running in his haste.
Watson, shaken and not a little wrong footed by the abrupt mood swing, followed as the Fifth motioned for him to entered. She gave a slightly puzzled look at his clothing, but it seemed to neither worry nor offend her. Watson stepped inside.
When the French ship loomed out of the gloom, Holmes already over sensitized abilities could instantly sense the unbonded Sentinel aboard. His temper flared, but he buried it. The Dark Sentinel saw no Sentinel as a true threat. He would fight and kill every other Sentinel on the planet, if he had to.
He could feel the other man, the Guide, close by now; tantalisingly so. The Sentinel whispered from the corners of the Dark city, saying how easy it would be to dive off, to swim, to eliminate all those who dared take him...
Oh yes, Holmes nostrils flared, he could smell the other Dark Sentinel as easily as if he were standing before him. If so much as one fingertip so much as brushed his Guide’s skin, well, his fate was sealed – as if it hadn’t been already for his invasion into Holmes territory.
He had a brief, quiet conversation in French with the Sentinel on the other ship, and a stratagem was agreed upon. Drewitt killed the engine, and tossed a rope to the ship looming above them. All the lights aboard the Farsight were extinguished, and they drifted as an invisible shadow in the wake of the larger vessel.
It did not take long to intercept the frigate; it was weighted down and heavy with people, and the French corvette was lighter and sleeker, powered by both steam and sails like the Farsight.
On the command of the Captain, on the stern advice of the on-board Sentinel, the corvette turned on all forward lights and sounded a horn to the other vessel; under the cover of the din of shouting voices that followed, Farsight detached and circled under black sails outside the pool of lantern light and around the other side.
Drewitt silently took a length of rope, one end tied to the Farsight, nodded to Holmes, and dove into the inky black water. The Sentinel on board held their breath in sympathy as the fisherman moved silently under the water, towards the frigate. He did not emerge once for air once, as seconds turned to minutes. As almost every Sentinel aboard the Farsight was convinced Drewitt must have drowned, the merest ripple where the frigate’s starboard side met the water became Drewitts silent head, popping up.
Silently, a few Sentinels dropped off the side of the boat and, while Drewitt heaved and they pushed, the Farsight drifted silently toward the enemy ship.
Sentinel quiet, Lestrade sidled up to Holmes as his wife and Pendley lay out medical supplies behind him. “Well, here we are,” he murmured, Sentinel soft. “Now what?”
Holmes flicked him a glance and, pure Dark Sentinel, smirked.
Sometimes mind reading wasn’t that hard. And sometimes – just occasionally – Lestrade could read Holmes like a book. “Thought so.”
The chamber was simple – big, yes, with a utterly enormous bed on one side, lined with windows currently shuttered and soft light from stained glass lanterns Thick swathes of fabric hung from the ceiling and draped like curtains or hung like loose hammocks, cushions lined the floor in high piles giving it an almost Arabic air, somewhat assisted by the smoking pot of incense wafting up from one small table near the bed. There was little other furniture, though, and nothing else in the clutter but the softness of the pillows.
Watson’s eyes were drawn like magnets to the figure half propped on the giant among beds, figures kneeling or crouched around him, ribbons attached to his arms all tangled about it other. Even now Gabriel was glaring at them, detaching them in an annoyed fashion and shooing them away from the Prophet, fussing and hovering over the taller man.
Watson swallowed as the signature the Prophet gave off seemed to gain even more power.
The Prophet’s head shot up at the sound, and he hastily shoved and pushed the others away, now unencumbered by silken ties. The robe was gone and the Prophet was wearing a kind of front-open, sleeveless jacket, closer to a jerkin than a vest, and loose white pants; all of which looked to be silk. Well defined torso and arm muscles peeked and displayed under tanned skin, though there was some clear unhealthy leanness there as well.
“It’s you,” he breathed, and Watson had to swallow again because there was a worrying amount of rapture in that Grecian profile.
“It’s me,” Watson agreed warily, not stepping closer. All that power focused on him. He felt his mind unravelling at the edges. “I want to release the British Guides you’ve taken. You must take them back; you cannot have them.”
Gabriel hissed in fury while the other Chosen gasped in shock. “Do not speak unless you are directed, chattel!” He bawled, advancing. His tone moderated and softened and his body language instantly changed as he came to the Prophet’s side. “My Lord, forgive me; I did instruct him in our ways but he is defiant and wilful. If you will permit me, Lord, I do not believe he will be adequate for the Chosen. He is dangerous, Lord, you must trust this. I have seen his heretic and foul ways. He had not even dressed as he should.” Gabriel’s hand gently carded through the Prophets blonde curls as he crooned. “You should not be privy to such impurity, my Prophet.”
Something about Gabriel’s cooing and petting attention irked Watson on some level. The Sentinel was clearly powerful and knew his own mind, and the sickly sweet coddling did not suit him. Watson had seen Sentinels fight – they needed help only to protect to the best of their abilities, to use their powers to the fullest. They did not need help to think.
Watson shook his head to clear it; he knew nothing of the bonding heat and how it affected Guides, but he knew a dangerous observation when he had one. Alright – remember, he told himself sternly, the Sentinel in front of you is an enemy. Watson called to mind Lox and his Guide, and it was all the cold focus he could need.
The Prophet was ignoring Gabriel, however – in fact, the room had seemed to stop existing outside of Watson. “You’re...have you any idea...how beautiful you are?” The Prophet breathed, and Watson felt uneasiness churn harder in his stomach.
Gabriel jerked as if slapped. “My...My Lord?” he asked plaintively.
“You are mesmerising,” the Prophet’s eyes were dark as he advanced. “The blood rushing through you is like a song. Come to me.” He held out his hands.
Watson swallowed. His vision was blurring. “No,” he rasped.
“Do not dare disobey the Prophet!” Gabriel snapped. “You must obey the Word.” He darted forward to force Watson to move, but was intercepted before he reached his target.
The Prophet grabbed the blonde Chosen and tossed him to the ground like a ragdoll. “Never touch him! Never! He is my Guide, Gabriel, and you would do well to treat him as a Prophet’s Guide whom the Prophet loves and esteems.”
Gabriel was white faced and shaking apart on the ground as the words rained on him like fists. “My..my Lord...f-forgive me...forgive...we are the ones who love you, my Lord! I...we esteem you above all else!” Gabriel was on his knees now, shaking hands raised palms up and pleading. “He cannot love you one fraction of what we...I...do.”
The Prophet looked down coldly and without sympathy. “You’re actions are undignified and not worthy of the First of the Chosen. If you wish to remain First, then discipline your words and actions in future. Now go from my sight until you are in a better humour.”
Gabriel sobbed and he scuttled back and away. Watson put a hand of his chest, where Gabriel’s pain radiated from. He may be devout to the point of frenzy, but his love for the Prophet was sincere. It was painful to feel the man’s heart practically torn from his chest.
“You should be kinder, Sentinel,” Watson murmured. “That was a cruel answer to his loyalty to you.”
Gabriel’s eyes locked with his, and Watson felt a wave of pure hatred wash over him. Watson pity had grated against the First’s total humiliation, especially since Watson had ‘won’ some contest for the Prophet’s favour that Gabriel had jealously waged with every Guide who ever caught the Prophet’s eyes. The insult added to the fatal final blow of his beloved Prophet turning on him now meant that Gabriel hated him with almost every cell of his heart.
The Prophet turned to him. “He must esteem and respect you, my Chosen Guide,” a hideous, shuddering sob came from behind Gabriel muffling hands at that. “For God has delivered you into my hands and it’s is His will that we be made one. All as He had planned.”
Watson remembered Sister Augusta, and the shock of fury gave him momentary clarity. “He planned? He Planned?!” the volume was not as shocking as the sheer anger. Even the Prophet jerked backwards slightly. “What bloody plan? All those children that were killed? That poor Guide murdered to punish her Sentinel? Those Guide whom you snatched from their homes without respect or care for their happiness or wellbeing, imprisoned with a bunch of ruffians and lashed and beaten besides? The House? All of that, a plan from above?” Watson spat on the ground. “If that is the will you follow sir, then you may follow it – alone! I do not forgive any man who commits such crimes claiming they are right and just!”
“The the Lord showed it to me!” The Prophet retorted, knocked off balance by the vehement doctor. “All the things He said to me came true! He said he must build a new nation, under God, with the Dark Sentinel leading the way to the light! I had the vision when I was a child in the commune, and my father and the Elders interpreted it for me! It is the reason for my divine abilities, beyond that of other Sentinels. They have no reason to lie.”
“If it brings them wealth and power, they have every reason!” Watson retorted, exasperated. The Prophet was like a sullen child, all foot stomping and temper tantrums.
“They are learned men, they are beyond such things.”
“No one is beyond such things,” Watson snorted. “You aren’t some celestial being. Sentinels aren’t all powerful gods, they are just people. They bleed like everyone else, believe me – I’ve seen it.”
“It is Gods will!” The Prophet bellowed, and strode back to the bed, scooping up something that clinked as he held it. There was a moment when his hands moved, and the other Guides in the room all looked on, wide eyed. “You see, there is proof! How could such things have come into my hands if not by His will?” He held out his hand, each of them now tipped with a wicked, obsidian and iron claw.
Watson glared; he knew what they were, every British schoolboy did. “Because you stole them,” he growled, wiping a hand across his sweating forehead. He was boiling alive, anger bouncing inside his skull like a mad swarm of bees. “You didn’t even do it yourself.”
“They are rightfully mine! I saw myself wearing them! It was prophesised!” The Prophet strode towards him. “And only once I had them was I worthy of a Guide and here, you have come. He has brought you to me! It is fate, you are mine; you must come to me now, Guide. It hurts. The world, it hurts, the air scrapes my skin raw, the lights dazzle my eyes, the sounds drives knives into my ears! You must help me! You are the one who will make it all better.”
The plea was so plaintive and childlike that for moment Watson’s hammering heart skipped a beat. His brain was swamped with the Prophet, all the Sentinel’s agonies were laid like a massacre before him. He was so obviously in agony, his heart was so obviously crying out with sincere need and Watson responded to that in people.
Watson sucked in a breath. It was too hot and too, too close in here. He had to get out of here. “No. I can’t. I can’t and I won’t. No.”
He turned and strode out, shutting the door behind him. His actions were so unexpected that he was able to get halfway down the corridor, the door to the upper deck open in front of him and that lovely fresh air beckoning. The door beyond the anteroom opened and the Prophet strode out still half dressed. “Wait! Guide!”
Watson ran for the deck, stumbling and bouncing of walls as he did; his mind was coming apart. He broke into the night, sucking in huge lungfuls of air, mind spinning out of control.
A Taloned hand grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around violently. The fabric of his jacket parted like tissue paper where the wickedly sharp claws grasped. The Prophet’s skin met Watson’s through the tears, and Watson’s mind whited out; sheer agony and lust and power and need washed his mind away in a flood as other Sentinels gathered around.
“Strangerson, the ring!” was the first order, distant and tinny in Watson’s ears. “You are mine!” The Prophet bellowed in his face, shaking him. “Mine!”
In the nothing left by the flood of emotions in Watson’s mind, something, some tiny light flickered and fought the scouring wind.
The beautiful Sentinel laying on the bed, soft in the light of the candles, his jaw nuzzled against my hand.
“Never,” Watson choked out, bringing up shaking hand to try to shove the taller man away, though it was like trying to shove a boulder. “Never without my permission.”
There was something happening behind him – distant cries of alarm, tiny echoes of pain, but it didn’t become real to him until a very familiar tzing sounded just behind him and the cool brush of metal slid across his cheek. The point of the sword jabbed a hairsbreadth from the Prophet’s Adams Apple, and the flat brushed Watson cheek. But instead of the clench of fear, it was a spicy thrill of adventure that the press of the cool metal gave to Watson. He breathed out, and leaned back into the chest lined up perfectly with his shoulder blades.
Warm breath coiled deliciously next to his ear. “And me?” a soft voice purred. “Do I have permission?”
Watson let out a huff of laughter, half hysterical with relief. “You, Sentinel?” he rasped as his vision blurred with tears. “Always.”
End Part Eleven
Chapter 12: Part Twelve
Holmes and Watson, kicking ass. We all like to see that.
It was a strange thing to see – that any face so beautiful could somehow twist into something so ugly. But the Prophet’s face did just that, twisting in unflattering ways, heedless of the blade jabbed at his throat.
“No! Mine!” But the Prophet wasn’t actually a fool, because he clawed at Watson and not Holmes, knowing the Sentinel would move to protect the Guide.
Holmes swivelled expertly, lightning fast, swinging said Guide out of the line of fire and almost but not quite avoiding the clawed strike himself. Cloth parted soundlessly as did flesh, and blood left a Morse code arc of red dots through the air briefly. Lines of red seeped into what was left of Holmes coat sleeve, descending down the lines of his arms and dropping from his fingertips. The Talons were sharper than steel.
Holmes did not cry out though; he did not even seem to realize blood had been drawn. He felt his Guide start in his firm grip from where he’d been swung out of harm’s way, but it was more concern than shock or fear. He knew his Sentinel had been injured and he was a Guide and doctor both.
Holmes didn’t look the Guide in the eye – he didn’t dare. He didn’t dare linger his senses on his Guide’s form, because he knew he would not be able to stop at one brush. Instead, he spun back around, releasing his Guide and bringing the wooden sword sheath around with him, sliding it neatly between two Talons of the five raised for the second strike to jab the Prophet in the cartilage of the neck with incisive precision. The blonde Sentinel backpedalled, choking.
All of this happened in the blink of an eye.
Holmes could sense the two dozen Sentinels on board, scurrying from below like wet ants, soldiers and sailors both pouring onto the deck in a confused mass, as the lights of the French ship loomed ever closer. There was a din of yelling, criss-crossing orders and panic. Amidships around the main mast and main hatch was already a writhing mass, and gunshots rang out from the bow platform above their tableaux, with sailors and Sentinels both pouring up and down the ladders and stairs to reach the wheel platform. Theirs was but one small drama in an increasing amount of catastrophe; though it was getting bigger by the second.
There was a tearing sound, and pressure was expertly applied to the long slashes across the top and back of Holmes’ shoulder, neatly and quickly staunched with a makeshift bandage made from the entirely of one shirtsleeve, torn from under the Guide’s jacket. It smelled of him.
Then Holmes felt a pair of shoulder blades line up with his own as the Guide pressed against him, back to back. The very fact that his Guide took it upon himself to cover his Sentinel’s back – well, Holmes just had to smile. He gripped the blade beneath the handle and slid it grip first across his new bandage so the Guide could take it.
“This is yours, I believe,” Holmes said lowly as he did so. “It is my honour to return it.”
The Guide did not move. “You may use it, Sentinel. Your foes blades are much sharper than mine, but I have nothing else to offer.”
Holmes snorted. “You give much just by breathing; by being here, with me and alive,” Holmes felt the Guides breath hitch. “Take it. Keep yourself safe. I have need of only that, and of the sheath.”
A huff of breath, and the Guide took the blade, his fingers brushed Holmes hand as he did, which made the Sentinels breath twist in his throat. “The wounded, the cornered, and the mad,” the Guide said softly. “I do not know which the Prophet is. Be careful.”
“Drebber,” the Prophet rasped, swaying back to full height. Holmes’ strike had not been hard enough to crush the larynx, only enough to cause the airway to temporarily close due to trauma. “Hold my Guide from me.”
Drebber, who had been staring open mouthed at the spectacle while Strangerson vanished into the melee, started forward.
“Ah, Mister Drebber,” Holmes broke in, his cheerful voice belying sudden fury tightening across his shoulders. “I did warn you, didn’t I, about harming my tribe? Well, my schedule is busy, but I have found someone with even more reason to kill you. Sentinel Hope, if you would?”
Drebber felt a heavy finger tap his shoulder and turned into the face of death. Drebber’s ruddy cheeks went fish belly white as Hope slowly smiled at him, eyes dark as the pit of hell.
“Howdy Enoch,” he drawled, his voice calm only with supreme self control. “Remember me? D’you remember what you stole from me? We have unfinished business now, don’t we?”
Drebber gasped out pleas. “It was the Elders...my father...they made me! The Elders! Please, please, I’m sorry, please...” the man started to blubber. “I never intended her to die, please believe that! I couldn’t control...I was feral...please, don’t kill me!”
Hope bared his teeth like a rabid mountain lion. “You dare beg for your life? You dare plead for it – from me?!”
Drebber threw the first punch – anger and nerves and sheer fear rocketed his fist. “It was the word of God, you heathen bastard!”
And then they were on each other, heaving and grunting and screaming, a tangle of blurred fists and bodies, knocking and tearing at each other like wild dogs.
“Go, my Guide,” Holmes asked of him softly. “Away from here, somewhere safer.”
He felt unexpected fingers tangle in his hair, as the Guide reach back and behind, pulling his head back so the back of their two skulls rested against each other. “My heart says I’m safest with you. But I will do as you wish.”
“Guide,” The Prophet snarled at them. “You will not touch him!”
Holmes gently nudged the Guide with his shoulders. The other man gave a soft sigh, and then the wonderful seeping warmth across Holmes back was gone.
“I will kill you,” the Prophet growled. “He is mine, and I will kill you for interfering. I will bathe in your blood.”
“The amount of blood in the human body does not make for an adequate bath,” Holmes replied in a bored tone. “Riskan the Cannibal tried it, and said he found the lack of volume quite irritating. He had to use a hip bath, he told me. Right before I slit is throat.” Behind the Prophet, the white-clad Chosen had emerged from the open door, Gabriel white-faced among them. Holmes raised the wooden sheath as the Prophet blinked in shock. “I face monsters every day, Sentinel. I fight them, and stamp them into the cobblestones, I sacrifice them to the gods of my city. If you think you’re the worst I’ve faced then you are sadly mistaken. I do not allow such creatures to walk the streets of my tribe; I do not allow them to walk under the living sky. Not with my tribe needing me. I bleed to keep them safe, I’ve fought to very nearly the last breath in my body against superior numbers, against torture and assassination, until I’ve nearly starved to death and am insane from exhaustion. And that,” Holmes smiled darkly. “Was when I had nothing to lose. Come at me, Sentinel. Come at me, if you dare.”
The Prophet charged.
Watson gritted his teeth as he walked away from his Sentinel; oh God, he hadn’t been prepared for that voice. But he knew why it had been asked of him, and it was the same reason Watson himself could not adequately fight with the Sentinel near. The bonding heat made them both far too distracting and distracted.
It was total chaos on the deck now. Someone had shot the captain for trying to surrender and now sailors piled on Sentinels, Sentinels clawed at other Sentinels, Guides were being dragged up from the depths to be used as shields.
That was being taken care of; he saw a flash of gold and Lady Bradstreet was there, wielding a truncheon like a knight wielding a sword, dispatching enemy after enemy, freeing what Guides she could. Her husband shielded her blind spot, armed with a revolver, picking of targets expertly if they aimed at her. He herded the Guides towards on the stern of the ship along the rail, away from the fighting. Watson went towards them but pulled up short as he nearly tripped over a body; a body with a precisely cut throat.
Watson’s eyes narrowed.
Someone grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and yanked him off balance. “This is the one! This is the one the Chosen said f-“ the rest ended in a wet gurgle which Watson knew to be fatal.
The would-be capturer collapsed in a heap, a thin metal blade expertly pinned deep in his ear. His companion, who had also been reaching for Watson, folded up in a choking red mess, an identical blade piercing his neck with a damp thwack. Whether they were sailors or Sentinels it was impossible to tell.
“Watson!” Lestrade bellowed from his fighting space amidships. “Get to the bow! Get to the Farsight!” the Inspector then spun like a whirling dervish, slicing two would be attackers but getting gripped from behind and lifted off the ground by a third. The Inspector was no stranger to street fighting though and crushed a booted foot into a handy kneecap. He was dropped as his restrainer bellowed and was swamped in a scrum of other men. Watson moved to help him, slashing away two men who had advanced on the Inspector from Watson’s side of the fight, but the Inspector cut in as Watson made to move closer.
“Don’t you dare! Get to the bow, now!” Lestrade thrust an elbow straight up, breaking the jaw of a huge sailor coming in from behind. “Go! Now!”
Watson hesitated, but other Yarders were moving in. Besides, he saw a flicker out of the corner of his eye that made his blood run cold.
Strangerson was there, lurking in the doorway under the raised platform of the bow; Strangerson, who had cut his way from the stern to the bow like a bloodthirsty ghost and was now sitting there like a spider, waiting for one of the Guides to reach his web. Strangerson, who was intelligent and cunning and knew his chances of survival would increase with a hostage, especially if there were no Sentinels actually guarding the Farsight.
The Guides would go right past him to reach the bow deck and the rail of the ship where the Farsight must be tethered. It would only take one.
Watson strode up the deck like an officer about to reprimand a subordinate, ignoring the cries and chaos around him. Strangerson must have felt his steely glare, because his eyes flickered up to Watson and narrowed when they saw him emerging from the chaos like a battleship from the mist. He vanished into the stern hold.
Watson went after him. There were still more Guides below.
No one had noticed yet, that the dark horizon all around the embattled frigate was being slowly ringed by glowing lights. Somewhere quite small, but they were drifting nearer with every minute that passed.
The fight itself was hard to witness – both fighters were blurs of motion, action and reaction, more like dancers than mortal enemies. The Prophet’s face was set in a twisted scowl and Holmes face was dark with sheer focus. They were both bloodied and bruised within the first few blows. Sentinels had no concept of holding back.
Holmes gripped his modified weapon hard; the rare snakewood was actually holding up very well against the Talons. Holmes used it for defence only, knocking askew claws that slashed too close or thrust too hard; offense was fists, elbows, knees, feet. Holmes had been educated in a gentleman’s way of fighting, but deep in his soul he knew the rough, rule-less, ruthless street fighting was where his talents found their shining apex. The Prophet was getting frustrated as his magnificent weapons cut only air while Holmes iron fists and stone hard joints landed on nerve clusters and weak points.
Not that the Prophet was a bad fighter, by any means. He had clearly been taught how to use his breadth and height to his advantage, how to negate any slowness they caused with his own hyperbolic reflexes, using his hearing to identify pulse points and arteries for slashing. But he had walked into a fight with weapons he had no experience using and that had thrown him slightly off centre. And when you were off centre before Sherlock Holmes, he made damn sure you stayed that way.
The Prophet hissed as Holmes successfully feinted his way to a painful jab to the kidneys, the sheath knocking the thrusting Talons precisely off their tangent. They left a scratch across Holmes’ cheek and temple, as they flew past his face, but by the time the Prophet could rake them back across the man’s throat, Holmes had swayed out of range. The Prophet thrust his other hand forward, hoping to use Holmes sway to overbalance him and sink the Talons into his chest, but instead of rolling his weight forward like a man trying to stay on his feet after bending backward would do, Holmes simply went further back, past the point of balance, so the Talons thrust harmlessly into the air above Holmes now horizontal chest. One of Holmes iron hand grips fastened mercilessly to the Prophet’s wrist, and he used the Prophets arm to hold on to while his foot swung high, catching the Prophet under the chin. Holmes was yanked back into a standing position as the Prophet was thrown back, white hot pain twisting through his jaw and his mouth suddenly full of copper and salt.
The Prophet spat in Holmes face as the man followed his backpedal, aiming another punch. The red spray momentarily blinded Holmes, but all Sentinels learned to fight with all their senses and he was able to dodge the deadly slash of claws across his midsection.
The pair both stepped back, circling warily.
The Prophet wiped the blood spilling from his mouth with the back of one hand. White fire was burning in his already tortured mind, screaming and demanding that the intruder be eliminated. Just seeing the interloper dare to touch that beautiful Guide, to sully him, was driving the Prophet mad. And to see the Guide respond....his whole being screamed denial of that. The Guide was his! That most divine creature, sent to him as prophesised...it simply could not be anything else.
“You are thinking of the Guide,” said his opponent in a low, dark voice, somehow much more dangerous than a growl. “I would thank you to stop. Now.”
The Prophet scowled. “He was sent to me by the Lord Himself; who are you to argue with that? You will be sent to Hell for daring to interfere with His plans. Are you so arrogant that you think you can defy Gods will?”
Holmes snorted. “I do not believe in such things. Anything beyond my ability to sense can take care of itself and would hardly require anything of me. If any God requires my belief, then He can ask for it personally and prove it. But if there is any such being, yes, I would fight him; I would fight a hundred of them, if they tried to keep my Guide from me. Any God who would try it is not worth a prayer. I give my loyalty to the things that I know must exist; my Guide, and my tribe. And you, great Prophet?” Holmes sneered. “You stand on this rotting hulk with these rabid hunting dogs, fancying yourself a deity in mortal clothing? I may not believe, but I am not so arrogant as to put words in a creator’s mouth. What of your tribe, Sentinel?” Holmes lips curled over the title. “You left them alone and unprotected? What kind of Sentinel can still call himself one after that?”
The Prophet bristled. “I did as I was commanded by the Holy Father!”
“Left your tribe vulnerable?”
“Took all the Sentinels in your Clan with you, chasing some madman’s dream of conquest?”
“I was commanded by God! I saw Him and spoke to Him when I was a child!”
“And you did not question? You did not think to question, even though that is your great advantage?”
“Of course not! He who questions the Word is committing blasphemy! There is no greater sin! He commanded and I am His obedient servant!”
“And if your God told you to kill the Guide? For choosing me over you?”
“He will never choose you!” The Prophet roared. “But if he did – if he disobeyed the Word, I would save him! No other but the one Chosen by God will have him. He would be like the sacrificial lamb, killed before his innocence would be tainted by evil. God commands this and I obey. That is my duty.”
“And for that alone,” Holmes said, advancing, his eyes like pools blacker than space. “You deserve no mercy at all.”
Watson checked every corner, every blind spot. He knew a down and dirty fighter when we saw one. Strangerson wouldn’t announce himself or his intentions. He would simply creep up at a vulnerable moment and do his level best to kill any way he could.
Tense and wary, Watson crept further down into the bowels of the ship, finding the storeroom loaded with all manner of bales and crates. Provisions for the long trip home.
Watson’s empathic senses were ragged at the edges, ballooning out and then shrinking in, trying desperately to latch onto his Sentinel and then being repelled by everything else that was happening. But still he tried to stretch out, to get a fix on Strangerson’s signature.
Too late, he remembered; Strangerson had a way of disappearing.
The knife lift a gouge on his shoulder where soldier instincts had managed what his empathy couldn’t, and had thrown Watson out of the path of the fatal thrust. Watson turned, his sword crossing his body defensively, as Strangerson stepped out from his invisible spot between two crates into the mercifully empty gap which Watson had stumbled into. He gaze was level and his face was blank. He felt nothing – utterly nothing.
Watson glared at him. “For a man of such strong convictions of righteousness, you are quick enough to run away.”
A diffident shrug. “The Prophet will die. Or the other. Who cares? There will be more Prophets. There will be more Guides. Eventually we will have enough power to do anything we want. You will wish you had joined us freely, then. God is on our side. We will prevail. There is no other possible outcome.”
Watson nearly gaped at the man. “You have no feeling for your comrades? For your own leader?”
“Only the strong will survive, because only the strong should. In a way, this is a means to remove the weak and uncertain from the equation. They do say God moves in mysterious ways, after all. And as for the Prophet?” Stranger’s phlegmatic shoulders rose and fell again. “He was no leader. He could not organise a tea party for one. He was a big and strong and rather stupid boy who was so weak in the face of his senses as a child that he thought he actually saw God in one of his fever deliriums. His father was an equally credulous and devout man who believed him, and the Elders of our Church much the same. Their thoughts turned to conquest.”
“And naturally, they needed someone like you to help them,” Watson sneered.
“Naturally,” Strangerson replied, matter of factly. “They lived in a world inside their own heads. How could they hope to fathom how big and complicated the world was? But I could,” an unexpectedly dark emotion flashed in his eyes, but was then gone. “I know exactly how hellish it really is. But with enough power we could turn it into whatever we wanted.”
“What you wanted,” Watson snapped.
“And it was all going fine,” Strangerson continued, ignoring this. “Except for those wretched Talons. The Prophet was annoyingly insistent about having them, because of his alleged prophetic vision. It forced us to step out of the shadows, where we had succeeded so far. But enough people could see the light of God in our work, Mister Watson. Enough people to help us gain access, enough to help us escape...ah, but for you, and your ignorant interference in our work. I could have had London’s Dark Sentinel quietly murdered so as not to be a threat. I had not anticipated his so fast a reaction to our presence, all because of you.”
Watson was having trouble seeing past the red mist in his eyes. “I can’t say I hate to disappoint you, Strangerson. Drebber is a mass of uncontrolled gluttony and the Prophet is half mad and confused and deceived, but you,” Watson shook his head. “You know just what you’re doing. You know what kind of pain you inflict. You make me far sicker than they ever could.”
“The Prophet is puffed on his own self importance, Mister Watson,” Strangerston replied levelly. “But I am the one who really hears God. I know that He does not issue lofty commands or enlightened missions. He stands beside you in everything you do, allowing you to triumph. Allowing you to live. And I am the one who has always survived.”
Watson thrust and parried, knocking the shorter knife blade aside from its upwards trajectory toward his ribcage, using his free hand to deliver a very satisfying punch across the thin man’s face. “Not this time.”
Strangerson frowned, more vexed than angry, before twisting his knee upwards. Watson pivoted his lower half to avoid the obvious target, one leg askew to the ground which gave Strangerson the opportunity to crunch his foot down hard, striking sideways onto the knee joint.
It hit the shrapnel still embedded there.
White hot agony flashed upward throughout Watsons entire being, and he couldn’t stop the moan of pain from slipping out through his clenched teeth. Strangerson noticed, so he moved to kick the joint again while they grappled and Watson only saved himself by thrusting down with his sword and slicing though the leather of one of those clerk-like shoes.
Strangerson grunted as his foot was jabbed, but managed to moved it sideways to keep it from being impaled and twisting his body and arm that was locked around Watsons, trying to wrench the sword from his grasp.
Watson let it go. Strangerson was then suddenly off balance by the lack of opposing force and tried to counterbalance, but not before he received a punch to the solar plexus that knocked the wind out of him. As he doubled, he took a knee to the nose.
But Strangerson was used to fighting from all angles. As he went down he grabbed at Watsons bad knee, sword sliding away from them both, and viciously dug his fingers into the scar tissue there, dragging a yell from Watson, who collapsed as his knee joint gave.
They wrestled on the ground but Strangerson hadn’t gone all the way down, and he was able to grip Watson’s hair and slam his head against the wooden floor. Dazed, Watson gasped and then realized Strangerson’s cold, phlegmatic hands had clamped like a vice around his throat and he was squeezing hard, with all the easy confidence of experience.
And still, no emotion. Perhaps a faint flicker of interest to see how hard he needed to press. One of Watson’s hands was trapped under Strangerson’s straddling knees and the other clawed desperately at Strangerson’s face, trying to gouge his eyes. But Strangerson was no amateur, to be distracted by that. He knew all he had to do was hold on until Watson was too weak to fight from lack of air.
Watson futilely gasped for it; the world greyed as he fought but there were no mistakes in Strangerson’s grasp, no gap or weakness through which to draw air. His lungs screamed as the grey became darker, and darker, and darker.
Some order had been restored on the deck now. The Yarder Sentinels had subdued most of the deck crew. Those that were left had lost heart; the ring of lights was turning into a ring of ships of every make and model; drawn or ordered to the renegade frigate. Even now the Sentinels on board heard the ships yelling to one another in half a dozen languages.
The Chosen still huddled at the back, by the aft door. Hope was on the other side, watchful and anxious, and bloodied from head to toe. The mess that was barely recognizable as human, let alone the late Drebber, had been left face down on the deck, unmourned.
The Prophet was tiring. Mind you, so was Holmes; but the Prophet’s exhaustion was easier to see – bathed in sweat, Grecian profile varnished in red, breath coming in quick, if measured, gasps. Holmes had caught him a blow across one temple and now one of his eyes was swelling shut. His clothing was torn and wet. Two of his fingers were malformed on one hand beneath the Talon fittings and the way his breath came in shallow gasps revealed something to be very wrong with his ribs. A shoulder looked the wrong shape and he was covered in bruises.
Holmes looked no better. Tiny drops of red were literally everywhere on the deck, from a hundred tiny scratches and cuts. His clothing was a ragged and patchwork mess of slices, stained dark and red.
The Prophet was frustrated. The other man simply would not stop. The Prophet had drawn more blood, that was true, but Holmes had accepted those hits with calculated precision, never getting too badly hurt and inflicting maximum damage to his opponent as he slipped and slid under his guard time and again. It was infuriating.
Suddenly, Holmes twitched. His whole body twitched, as if he had just been slapped. And then he was on the Prophet, fists driving in mercilessly, pounding with a sheer determination that hadn’t been fully revealed before. The Prophet blocked and slashed, suddenly on the defensive, but Holmes was almost invisible as he moved, he moved so fast. Pain blossomed in a dozen sites on the Prophet’s body before he had time to adequately defend.
That’s when he heard it; that wonderful heartbeat he had unconsciously tracked...slowing....
The Prophet roared his rage, be bellowed it to the world, but Holmes’ rage was not like that. It was silent; deadly and merciless. There was no glee, no triumph, no anger in his blank face. The Prophet was an obstacle to be removed, and nothing more.
The wooden sheath forced the Talons on both hands up and out, and three quick blows hit his chest, so fast they were almost one.
The Prophet’s heart stuttered. Enough trauma in the right place could do it. A shot of adrenaline made him draw one set of claws back for thrusting.
The wooden sheath rocketed towards him; this time the angle was dead straight and his windpipe would be crushed utterly.
“My Lord!” Came the scream of terror, just as a white clad shape came in between the two fighters.
It was a testament to Holmes supreme self control that he was able to wrench the sheath off target before it could land a fatal blow on Gabriel. Enemy or not, this was a Guide in front of him, and some instincts simply could not be ignored.
The Prophet, however, burning with mad fury, had no such altruistic impulse. Seeing the opening he suddenly had, the Talons were thrust hard into Holmes ribs, just above his hip. But not deep, not enough to eviscerate.
They had to go through Gabriel first. The Chosen stared in bewilderment at the red coated Talons protruding from his stomach, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly. He turned in shock to face his Prophet as they were withdrawn, his face a wordless plea.
Unheeded. The Prophets other hand raked across Gabriels face, shoving him aside and onto the deck. “Stop interfering!” The Prophet screamed. “Stop interfering or I’ll kill you all!”
Gabriel let out a strangled cry, one hand pressing the neat holes left in his midriff, and another clutching his disfigured face, slashes gaping from hairline to jaw line. If Holmes was any judge, the Guide had just been blinded in one eye.
The wounded, the cornered and the mad, Holmes thought. The three opponents who were the most singularly dangerous. Clever, clever Guide. He had spotted it. The Prophet had always been at least two of the three, and now...
If the Prophet could do that to a Guide, then he was too far gone to ever be saved. Not that Holmes had ever had any intention of doing so.
“Be honoured, your death serves a higher purpose,” The Prophet turned his back on Gabriel, who wailed.
Holmes gave him a cold stare before saying. “I’m not sorry to say,” he drew himself up. “That you death will serve absolutely no purpose at all. You just deserve to die.”
And then the world evaporated into utter carnage. Holmes was suddenly just there, feral and unstoppable, sheath thrown from his hands because it was in the way. Bones cracked and shattered, organs were ruptured, muscles were tenderized bloody messes, tendons were snapped. In the space of about five seconds, Holmes’ split knuckles were doing the work of three men with steel clubs.
The Prophet howled, frothing at the mouth as he tried to defend. But there was no defence against this; not against something this fast and this intent. In two blows his face was completely unrecognizable and in other few hits his legs gave out under the sheer pressure of Holmes advance.
Holmes followed him down, his face sprayed with red, teeth bared. In desperation, the Prophet thrust both hands forward, trying to impale the demonic visage before him. Two iron hands and steel grips arrested the movement, like Holmes was stopping a toddlers tantrum.
Holmes the Dark Sentinel looked down at his battered opponent, gave his Dark side a moment to enjoy the mortal terror in his opponents eyes before forcing his hands fold inward, breaking wrists in the process.
Holmes didn’t give the other Sentinel time to cry out before he thrust the Talons home.
Find a way. Find a way! Move! But Watson’s grey world had faded to black and when he tried to open his eyes again all he could see was the desert.
Sand whipped around in blinding storm, but the world itself was silent. The sun was blotted out; a faded, dim light somewhere above, but there was other light – oh, so much light. The fireflies flocked around them.
Strangerson was there too. He stood, blank faced and still in the storm, facing Watson. There was a hole where his heart should be.
No, Watson realized, not a hole. As he stepped closer. It was a mirror; small and round like his own shaving mirror. It was embedded there.
How can he speak to God, when nothing can enter his heart? Watson wondered. Who does he talk to? What gives him answers?
Watson was dimly aware he was dying. As he stepped closer, the sun dimmed further, and further.
The mirror really was quite disturbing. It reflected nothing. Every so often a firefly would bump against it, but no light would appear in that dark mirror. Nothing went in. Nothing came out. No wonder he had no signature that could be felt. He gave nothing to the world.
Above him, the sun was dimming rapidly. A desert night was falling, frigid and lonely.
Suddenly, there was sound; a crashing thunder of falling water, falling off one of the high cliffs that spearing the sky here. So much water, so much in this arid place. The sandstorm cleared enough for Watson to see the water was falling into a deep, dark sinkhole in the desert floor, surrounded by jagged rocks, and...yes, there, just faintly, the mist being thrown off the roaring falls filled up five rough clay cups. Watson shuddered, feeling sick at the memory of his torture.
He turned back to the blank faced Strangerson, and knew what he had to do. But he was repelled by the thought, disgusted. Become like that awful, evil Guide, who had slipped inside his undefended mind and forced such terrible, painful things on him? No. He listened to the souls around him because he had no choice, but he never, ever interfered with them, he never forced them. He couldn’t do that to another.
“Then you must be prepared to watch him fall,” said the voice of the old woman behind him. He could not see her even when he turned, but he knew she was there.
He looked to the cliffs where the torrents rushed and raged from, and saw the figure there, outlined in lights of the fireflies and the dying sun, standing on the edge, waters parting around him.
No. Even at the cost of everything. Never.
Watson reached deep as the last of the sun’s rays began to recede, placed his hand on Strangerson’s cold chest.
And turned the mirror around, so that it faced inward.
Lestrade had finally managed to reach the stern deck, listing off what he’d found so far. Dead Captain, check. Dead or subdued soldiers, check. Guides pouring up from below and being rapidly loaded onto boats of every nationality (and good grief, what an international tangle that would turn into), check.
There, in the shadow of the stern deck, one dead Sentinel clad in white, check. Lestrade grimaced as he looked at the man. His hands had been bent unnaturally and the famed Talons, still attached to his fingers had all been thrust through his own chest. He was laid out, an unfunny parody of a knights crypt with his hands folded over his chest, his own weapon turned on him.
One bloody, white clad Guide who was sobbing breathlessly over the body, hands cupping the battered face, check. Lestrade thought it best to just leave him be. Some levels of grief couldn’t be touched with a fathom measure. Besides, by the smell of that blood mixed with stomach acid, the Guide was not long for this world. If that had been his Sentinel, then it was kinder to let him go. Even the Catholics didn’t consider that suicide.
One bunch of white clad, shocked and pallid Guides huddled wordlessly on the deck, check. A thoroughly soiled but alive Sentinel Hope watched over them solemnly while their colleague grieved.
“Sentinel,” Lestrade muttered quietly to the foreign Sentinel and waited until Hope nodded to him. “Take them to the boats. We’ll...deal with everything back in port. Where’s Holmes?”
“Went after his Guide,” Hope whispered as he herded the white clad group past. The Sentinel did not look well. He was grey faced and his heart was as erratic as ever.
Lestrade felt a curl of unease. “He’s on the Farsight. Isn’t he?”
Hope shrugged. “Not judging by the way Holmes dove under the bow deck.”
Sound came back. Colour came back and was glaring, even in the bland timbers of a ship. Watson gasped and gasped and gasped sweet air, his throat making it like swallowing knives, but he sucked it in dizzily all the same. It took a minute before he could form a coherent thought and another before he found the strength to sit up.
Strangerson had scrabbled backwards across the floor and was now propped up against a crate. His face was dead white even in the poor light of the lanterns, and his mouth was moving silently while sweat poured down his face.
And he felt, oh yes – agony, pain and remorse maybe, but he definitely had a signature now. He turned white, wide eyes on Watson and gave a pleading whimper.
“Every...” Watson rasped, his throat on fire. “Every nudge of conscience you silenced. Every pang of compassion you ignored. Every cruelty and indignity and evil you told yourself was the voice of God. Did you think they were gone when you ceased to feel them? Did you think you were talking to God when you looked down into that deep well inside you, listening to your own voice echo back up?” Watson was snarling now, because some of the things he had seen and felt were...abominations. “There’s no God in there, Mister Strangerson. There never was. All there was, was you. Everything you are. Everything you’re not.”
Watson got his feet under him and, clawing at one bale, rose almost exclusively on the power of one leg. His bad knee was currently a furnace of exquisite agony. He doubted he could even hobble far.
Pained, animal noises were clawing up from Strangerson’s throat, turning to moans and cries, tears falling down his face. “Please...please....kill me.”
“I don’t owe you anything. Certainly not a kindness.” Watson muttered, turning with difficulty. God. He was so very, very tired.
There was a metallic scraping behind him, followed by a wild, animal cry. Watson turned just in time meet Strangerson’s charge and grasped the weapon he held in a feeble attempt to defend himself from the thrust.
But Strangerson had thrust handle first. Watson’s own sword was now in his hand, pointing toward a spreading patch of red under Strangersons arm, where he had thrown himself. The tear soaked smile on the man’s thin face was beautific as he crumpled over the sword. Watson, horrified, shoved him aside as he felt the man die.
Selfish bastard, Watson thought.
Watson looked down. Something small, silver and black had dropped from Strangerson’s hand as his body fell. It bounced along the wooden floor, glinting different colours as it began to roll.
Was that, Watson thought in disbelief, Queen Elizabeth’s Sentinel ring? He’d heard it described, of course. Silver sky-metal band within, obsidian without, ringed with gems of the five cardinal colours of the senses.
It began to roll into the gloom of the hold and Watson gamely followed it, hobbling and hopping with his bad leg, bracing himself against crates and boxes.
The ring executed an impossible seeming curve into another aisle while Watson cursed his way out of immediate lantern light. At least it was heading for a wall.
Using the point of his sword, Watson was able to stop it going further, but was forced to drop his sword as he bent to collect it. He levered off the metal off his sword point, and forced himself to rise up again, breathing hard.
The ring nearly shot out of his hand. In fact, it almost did, but as his hand shot to follow it...
The ring had stuck fast to another ring. Which was held in another hand. Which now held Watson’s hand in his own, the two rings between their palms.
Watson looked up into the face of his Sentinel.
It hurt. Everything, down to bone, blood and soul hurt. No one in the world should be capable of feeling such enormous pain. There was so much of it that it couldn’t really be comprehended. Like trying to comprehend a drop of water while you floated in an ocean.
The last shreds of Gabriel’s conscious mind contemplated this dimly while his body moved mechanically into the holds of the ship. He ignored the last stragglers traitors escaping onto the deck and the safety of the ships enemies around. He was floating – there was no more fear here, no more anger, just pain, pain, pain, too big to be really understood.
Gabriel knew how to stop the pain.
He had to join his Sentinel.
How odd. Wet trails were still cascading down his cheeks. Gabriel dimly wondered why.
He staggered into one very specific hold.
How beautiful his Sentinel had looked. How princely, even in death; noble and strong. He deserved a finest burial, to be entombed in an immortal grave, like the kings of old.
Dripping red, Gabriel raised his lantern over the lines of barrels. The rifle racks were elsewhere, but these were stored nearer to the surface, where the wet couldn’t get to them.
This stuff was useless when it was wet. His Lord had taught him that.
Watson was pushed up against one wooden wall, but he scarcely knew it. His Sentinel was pressed up against him, arms around him like they were built to be there, his grip fierce and his breath warm on Watson neck.
“Oh God,” Watson breathed. “Oh God.” Watson’s mind was just gone, he couldn’t form a thought to save himself, not with his Sentinel wrapped around him like this, nuzzling his neck, hand sliding gently over minor injuries, pressing over the slice Strangerson had left him with.
Watson heard a pained whimper, and was surprised to find that it came from him. But his hand had found the sticky wounds crisscrossing his Sentinel’s body, and they were agonising to see. “You’re hurt!” he accused. Bandages, Watson though, feeling a stirring of panic. Silk in light of his skin, of course, and antiseptic because be damned if after all this he lost this magnificent Sentinel to an infection.
The Sentinel hushed him, the breath of his blowing past his ear. “Shhh. No speaking. You have no idea how very close to the edge I am, Guide. Very, very close. No speaking,” he hissed fiercely as Watson opened his mouth. “Please, please, do not speak. I can scarcely stand the smell of you and the sound of your heart beat and the sight of your eyes as it is. I am not bonding with you on this godforsaken wreck in the middle of an ocean while the entire world listens in.”
The voice was like torture – sweet, ruthless torture. Adrenaline had quenched the heat temporarily but now Watson burned, he felt the flames of it eating his defences away, leaving him exposed and naked. And he didn’t care. He couldn’t stand it, though, not being able to do anything about it. Not being able to wrap himself in the presence of the one now so tantalisingly close. His hands clenched in the material of the Sentinel’s chest.
“I know,” the Sentinel whispered, carding a hand through Watson’s hair. “I know. I’m sorry. I know.” He pressed his forehead against Watson’s.
They stayed like that, breathing together for what felt like forever. The Sentinel then levered the rings still pressed into their clutched hands apart, and with some ceremony slid the Guide ring onto Watson’s middle finger, bringing the hand up to he could press dry lips against the gold and red band.
Watson, mesmerized, fumbled the other ring into his hand with shaking fingers, and managed to just slip it over the knuckle of his Sentinel’s smallest finger.
“Good grief but that woman had little fingers,” the Sentinel muttered as the ring slid into place.
That did it; the tension drained out of Watson like water in a sieve and he collapsed into a fit of hysterical laughter. His Sentinel was laughing with him as he guided the Guide down onto the floor, achingly gentle with his wounded leg. Watson was able to press a kiss to the brilliant, bejewelled band, though, followed up with a sweet kiss to the underside of the Sentinels wrist.
Still fighting small giggles Watson was smiling at the Sentinel reluctantly withdrew his hand. The laughter sobered as the Sentinel drew the very points of his fingertips feather light over the planes of Watson’s face, like a man seeing for the first time. Watson reached up to grip his hands with his own.
They shared a moment of perfect, knowing silence.
“Stay here. Someone will come.” He cupped Watson’s face with his hands and added fiercely. “I will come for you in London.”
“I know,” Watson whispered.
The Sentinel sheathed Watson’s sword and left him with the cane before vanishing with speed.
Watson looked at his hands. They were shaking.
The fire lit, Gabriel dragged his body back up to the deck where his Lord lay. It was still night time. Maybe that’s why it was so cold.
“My Lord,” Gabriel whispered, red drops dripping from his mouth. He brushed them off the Sentinels comely visage. “My Lord, I will be there soon. They will all be there soon. And you shall rule the heavens, just as you should.”
He lay, his head on his Lord’s shoulder, feeling peaceful and happy now it was all done.
Watson was dimly aware of someone, not his Sentinel, shaking him.
“Watson? Guide?” Lestrade’s worried face coalesced in front of him. “Whoever gave you those bruises had better bloody well be dead.” He added in a growl.
“He is,” Watson whispered. “We need to get off the ship.”
“I said that to you earlier!” Lestrade replied, exasperated. “Why does no one listen to me? Come on, we’d best be off.”
The short Sentinel was nevertheless as strong as an ox. He lifted Watson like he weighed a pound and half carried, half supported him out of the hold, bore him up stairs and out into the night. The deck was cluttered and chaotic, sailors kneeling or crouched on the deck while other sailors of a dozen nations watched over them. Bosun’s chairs, gang planks and rope ladders were being used to get Guides over the rails and onto ships and boats tethered to them at all sides. Voices and orders criss-crossed overhead.
Watson staggered and stumbled so badly that Lestrade simply heaved him onto his back and carried him towards the bow rail. The heat coming off Watson seeping through his clothing was worrying.
At the rail, Drewitt waiting patiently. He gently relieved Lestrade of his burden, and was able to clamber one-handed down the rope. Lestrade waved to the Bradstreets as they ferried the last of the stolen Guides onto a waiting ship. “Is that the last of them?” he said in his normal voice.
Lady Bradstreet nodded from across the deck. “No more heart beats below. Just on deck.”
“Get on that ship then, and make sure no one gets spirited to France,” Lestrade ordered softly.
Lady Bradstreet gave him an amused salute.
Well, that seemed to be it. The impromptu international council had agreed that the frigate would stay here under guard until America could be contacted. The Guides would be taken to London, simply because it was closest.
So why did he feel so damn twitchy? His eyes instinctively sought Holmes, from where he stood on the deck.
Holmes, blissfully content as he strode back to the stern, had one last think to take care of. You did keep promises to Queens, after all.
He stopped near the body of his foe. The Guide he had eviscerated was there, lying with him, head on his shoulder. The Guide watched indifferently as Holmes removed the Talons from the dead man’s stiffening fingers, and then from his chest. The only reaction this seemed to provoke was the Guide reaching up to re-interlock the Prophets fingers over the bloody mess of his chest.
Holmes secreted the Talons away before surveying the Guide. The Sentinel in him found the sight of a dying Guide deeply upsetting, but Holmes knew he could not offer any comfort the Guide would accept. Dull though those dying eyes were, the spark of hatred lit them still.
“I am sorry for you,” Holmes said sincerely, standing to leave.
“I am not sorry for you,” the Guide Gabriel rasped wetly. “For he will enact his revenge when we are under his rule in Heaven, and cast you into the fiery Pit. You and that chattel.”
Holmes eyes narrowed, and then darted to the Guide’s red stained hands. There, under the glut, was a telltale blackness under the nails.
“Lestrade! Everyone off the ship! Now!” He waved a furious arm, hustling the sailors towards the rails. “Gunpowder fire!”
He saw the Inspector’s eyes widen. There was a mass rush to escape. Holmes made sure Lestrade had gone over the rail and the sailors, enemy or not, jumping for whatever safety there was to be had.
Holmes breathed in, and could smell the acrid smoke.
Lestrade hit the deck of the Farsight yelling “Move, move, move!”
He scarcely needed to have bothered. Drewitt had heard and he and his Guide and anyone they could grab to help were stoking or piling coal or hacking at the tether. The ship moved with agonizing slowness at first but picked up speed as they went. Other ships were turning or steaming frantically, trying to avoid one another even in their rush to escape.
Watson, now half insensible with his head in Lady Lestrade’s lap rasped. “What is it?”
Lady Lestrade smoothed a hand over his forehead. “Hush. Nothing anything can be done about.” She glanced at her husband, and one look told him how bad a way Watson was in.
The frigate was receding into the night as the ship lights all around bloomed away from it.
Just in time, too. The ship billowed apart in a hellish orange and yellow halo of fire. The noise rang in ears, Sentinel or not, and they ducked as shrapnel and debris scythed overhead.
Lady Lestrade was white as she watched the horror unfold. She sent a terrified, questioning glance at her husband, but Watson’s hand gripped her own momentarily.
“It’s alright,” he whispered to her. “He survived.”
For the life on him, Watson could not remember the journey back to London. He had a hazy memory, perhaps, of the false dawn peeking at the horizon of the window of the ornate carriage that sped him to London at lightning speeds after they had reached the shore. It wasn’t until much later he learned that Mycroft Holmes had been in the carriage with him, though Watson could never recall it. The Lestrades had been there too, and Lady Lestrade was a treasure among Guides. Her shield had locked around his mind like a bank vault, keeping his raw, exposed empathic soul from being torn to pieces. It didn’t falter for a second. Watson knew there were others around her, lending their support. Pendley, crooning sea songs in his ear. A silent, solid presence beside Lady Lestrade, brushing soothing things across the raw edges of the shield. Wilikins, Watson learned later. Others, once they reached London. So many; so many merely brushing against his soul, gently holding him up, adding their support. The Guides of London.
His first conscious thought was blinking awake in a dim, cavernous room, where he was sitting in a chair wrapped in soft wool, facing a warm fire. A click of knitting needles reminded him of the presence he had been dimly aware of for some time.
Mrs Hudson looked up from her work. “Doctor Watson?” she asked, very gently. “It’s alright, sir. You’re right here, in his rooms. I shouldn’t think he’ll be too long now.” The last was delivered with a kind of wry certainty.
Watson smiled faintly at her. “Thank you,” he rasped.
She disappeared from view, reappearing with a steaming cup. “Tea and honey, for your poor throat.” She didn’t seem at all inconvenienced by Watson’s shaking, exhausted hands, and helped him drink with a simple competence that quite removed embarrassment. Watson was grateful for the soothing warmth sliding down his raw throat.
Mrs Hudson cocked her head, then smiled gently at him. “I’ll be going now. But if you need anything, anything at all, just whisper,” she tapped an ear. “I’ll hear it.”
Watson nodded faintly, and she departed silently. Then, taking a deep breath, Watson levered himself out of the warm woollen cocoon and the chair. He needed to see where his Sentinel lived.
It was...nothing like he could have imagined. The neat, dust free necessities of the Sentinel home collided with what was clearly a brilliant and eclectic mind. Beakers and test tubes lined one table, files and newspapers took up space on one wall. There was a stack of mail pinned like a butterfly to the mantelpiece with a jack knife. It was interesting and unique, just like his Sentinel.
Hobbling over to the chemical table, Watson simply surveyed it. His delirium had reached a plateau, and he coasted along it in a sort of daze, enjoying just the simple act of observation of this place where his Sentinel lived, reflecting his personality like a suit of clothes.
It was like a trick picture. One moment, he was surveying his Sentinels rooms, tracking the shape of his personality though all the items he collected and kept, and the next his Sentinel was standing there on the tiger skin rug, slightly sooty, as if the room had somehow conjured him.
But the rest of it ceased to be important because Watson’s back was suddenly against a wall, his hips pressed to sit upon the table and his legs and armed tight around his Sentinel as their mouths met, nothing like he expected and everything they could have asked for.
An eternity of heat and air later and the sweetness of the Sentinels mouth travelled to his ear, lapping wetly down his neck, teeth scraping deliciously at the collar. After one electric, sucking kiss there, the Sentinel drew back. “You fascinate me.”
Watson fisted his hands into the Sentinels hair as the fire burned. “You make me feel safe.” He dragged the Sentinel’s head toward his mouth again.
Afterward, the Sentinel looked him in the eye, and Watson didn’t get lost in there. He found his way home. “Sherlock Holmes. A pleasure to meet you.”
Watson smiled at him, never anywhere but exactly where he wanted to be. “John Watson. At your service.”
The Sent- Sherlock smiled at him, and it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. His eyes turned to dark pools, he opened Watson shirt enough to gain full access to his neck, and with one last heated kiss on his Guide’s mouth, kissed his way down to the shoulder juncture and bit down hard.
Thought vanished, and only feeling remained.
And over London, the sun rose.
End Part Twelve
Chapter 13: Epilogue
And it’s...the end.
The closest Tower to Baker Street was the Regents Park Tower, placed dead centre in the Botanical Gardens. It tended to be a sought after Tower for two reasons: one, the Gardens were a haven of foliage and solitude from the sensory hell of London and when the Sanctuary was too far, the Gardens were an ideal substitute; and two, any criminal foolhardy or ignorant enough to try anything in the Dark Sentinel Holmes’ backyard had a death wish, whether they actually knew it or not. As a result, the Regents Tower saw very little actual business. Bakers Street’s surrounds, Londoners knew, were the safest in the city; young maidens and the elderly stepped confidently across the cobblestones with nary a single thought towards potential molestation, and the criminal classes obeyed their primal instincts and eschewed the area entirely. Only the Sentinels of the city – and the members of Scotland Yard – actually knew why, though.
Regents Tower was seeing business now though.
Sentinel Voltz shrugged his Germanic shoulders and exchanged a rueful, resigned look with Guide Lane as he heard the tinkle of silver bells of a very special carriage pulling up to the Tower door.
“We all knew this was coming,” his Guide shrugged. He was already blushing bright red which his Sentinel secretly found adorable.
Voltz turned one of his Guides hands palm up to press a kiss into the wrist joint by way of commiseration before turning to greet their guests.
They were soberly dressed. They were extremely soberly dressed – no man could manage to be that drab without special effort. Voltz suspected it was their way of combating the sheer awkward embarrassment engendered by their role within the clans and the duties therein.
The Record Keepers, Voltz sighed internally. Like muckrakers, undertakers and nightsoil carters. Respected as hell, but preferably not thought of much and best viewed from a distance.
It was perhaps a little unfair to think of these two sober, blank expressioned men in such a light. They did a necessary and vital job for the Clans. They traced every partnership in the city, archived their actions and injuries, their service to the nation, births, marriages, deaths, children. It was important and useful information, and affected things like legalities in criminal cases, seniority, pay scales, pensions, mandatory service...the entirety of the life-long partnership, in a nutshell.
Unfortunately, the legal ramifications started from the bonding....ahem, from the first moment of bonding. Which meant this pair was here to well....record it.
Voltz face remained stoic but inside he cringed. This was an era of moral prurience; you didn’t talk about intimacy, you didn’t show affection in public or profess yearning to any but the ear it was intended for – and yes, alright, Victorian models of behaviour had never actually claimed victory over the intensity of the Sentinel Guide bond, that was true; but still, even in a city of pin drop sharp ears, it was considered the height of vulgarity to listen in let alone write it down. The only reason Voltz had no trouble with idea that men just like these – maybe even these two very men, argh, argh – had pretty much been in the room when he had claimed his own precious Guide was that he never, ever allowed himself to think of it.
“You’re just in time,” Voltz greeted them, desperately trying to be jovial in the face of the rising tide of hot pink embarrassment that automatically followed these men wherever they went. “The Sentinel is coming up Baker Street at a dead run.”
Every step he’d taken had been bounced throughout the system; only when he reached his territory did the Towers fall silent. London was breathless with anticipation. Except for us, Voltz thought, breathless with humiliation.
“Sentinel Watt,” one murmured. “My Guide, Huxley. May we...” he gestured to the Sentinel Guide chair.
They were remarkably matter of fact about the whole business. Voltz supposed they’d rather have to be. He took his Guide’s hand and retreated to the signal fire, taking refuge in the crackling wood and rumble of the fire to drown out other sounds.
Lane squeezed his hand. He was still red as a Royal uniform, staring at the fire, but Voltz could feel undeniable curiosity running the length of their bond. Voltz silently raised an eyebrow at him, and Lane went redder still. His Guide wanted to know too? Well that was....charming actually. In a spicy way, which was just how Voltz liked it.
Voltz couldn’t exactly fault him for wanting to know. After all, this was no ordinary bonding. Even under all the uncomfortable vulgarity, Voltz couldn’t deny he was also somewhat interested....
Voltz closed his eyes and concentrated, feeling Lane ‘s silent assistance as he did so. He was nearly jolted out of his trace from shock when he finally locked onto them. He felt rather than heard Watt murmur in surprise. Surely the duel heartbeat phenomenon was supposed to develop after bonding? But there it was; two hearts, in duet, sometimes one would jolt faster, but then the other would match it within a beat, then one would skip, slow down and the other would follow it down...music, Voltz thought in awe. Already, their hearts make music. Usually that beat-echo-beat effect would only occur in old pair bonds, after a lifetime living one life.
Then the words came through and Voltz was recalled to task. While the pen of the Keepers scratched on the paper, Voltz took his Guide’s hand and traced the letters discreetly on the palm. He felt his Guide’s breath hitch and his heart flutter gently as the words became clear, and Voltz found himself clutching the hand when the words ended, lost in the beautiful, transcendent joy that his Guide projected.
“I think that’s it,” Lane whispered to him. “I can feel....I think that’s it.”
“That can’t be right!” Watt exclaimed from the chair. The others turned to him. “The bonding ceremony is very clear and remains unchanged from the centuries. Every pair recites the ‘Claimed and Marked’ oath.”
Voltz and Lane exchanged glances. “You have never actually met Sherlock Holmes, have you?” Voltz asked, not unkindly.
Watt and Huxley both answered in the negative.
“Holmes is not very...traditional. And judging by that tearing sound...” Voltz hastily reeled in his ears. “There won’t be...uh....anymore speaking tonight.”
“But that is the official...how are we to record the official moment of bonding without the ritu-?”
Whatever else Watt meant to say was long gone in the cataclysm that followed.
Voltz was just able to Shout a warning to the next Tower before curling around his Guide on one side of the Tower, whispering love sonnets in German in order to keep from actually tearing his clothes off.
When they woke up hours later, none of the four ever spoke of what happened again; at least, not to anyone else.
This was a common phenomenon throughout the city, it turned out.
This is what happened to the Dark city.
The stones and pipes were still slightly damaged and twisted from before, but that didn’t matter. Over the horizon, where the dark river met the endless fall, light was rising....
It was like a lightning storm, raining down, earthing strikes into any and every receptive mind available. Pain wound around pleasure winding around pain wound around pleasure – each end of the spectrum pushing the other higher, and higher, and higher.
None could ignore it, any more than they would ignore a flood, sweeping them off their feet.
Watson never did have any talent for shielding. How could he? How could any power that big be contained?
And yet, there was something that could.
The light spilled out from cracks between cobblestones, from drain covers and Underground entrances, from parks and palaces and pathways, until all the roads were a glowing filigree of light.
The stones started to turn cherry red, molten, until the whole city gave off hellish red light....
It wasn’t always a welcome sensation. Untrained Guides, those being returned on ships and carriages, clutched their heads and hearts. It wasn’t bad exactly, but it was overwhelming.
Untrained Sentinels clawed at their ears and noses and skins. There couldn’t possibly be this much in the world, could there? This much to sense, this much to know...
Sister Augusta, in one of the train of mismatched wagons currently being led through inner London, laughed and laughed and laughed until she cried. “Oh Holy Father,” she gasped between great, heaving sobs of laughter. “You work in such wondrous ways.”
Unbonded Sentinels had pretty much abandoned the Charpentiers boarding house. It was either that, or be hit with a ten pound breakfast skillet. Madame Charpentier was not about to let anything interrupt her sons bonding.
In the corner of his office, Carmichael was curled in a ball, weeping.
The city burned; it burned so hot that it melted and boiled, metal dripping molten yellow in pools of orange, liquid stone. Water in pipes and aqueduct boiled and whistled into vapour.
And over the horizon, a great glittering cloud plumed miles high in the twilit sky, reaching higher and higher, before collapsing toward the city like a tidal wave, pushed in a speeding torrent by a killing wind.
The sandstorm hit the city, exploding in magnesium white flames....
At some point in the bonding, it doesn’t matter when really, Watson felt beloved, callused fingertips trace speculatively across the three parallel scars on his back. “My brother....” Watson faltered after that, and lips replaced the mapping fingers.
“He wasn’t feral,” Holmes stated between kisses.
“When he slashed? No.” Watson whispered. “But he still wasn’t in his right mind.”
Well of course Holmes couldn’t argue with that. No one who touched his Guide to harm him was in their right mind.
It seemed as if the city would be turned to ash and smoke, that it was being wiped away....but then the river began to rise, spiralling up into the streets on great gouts of steam....
“They crucified you?”
Watson pulled gently on the old white scars near the ankle joints with his lips and teeth, as if he wanted to excise them.
“They are quite dead, my own.”
“Pity. I wanted to do that.”
It was hard to see past the fog; the steam so thick the city was engulfed in a low lying cloud.
But slowly, surely, points of light emerged....
Sherlock Holmes mapped the life of his Guide. He read the history of his skin, the politic of his preferences, the geography of his soul. His Guide was a complicated and mysterious puzzle, and one Holmes himself would be happy to spend a lifetime never actually solving.
“...Let’s see, what else? You can’t swim.....you don’t fear the water but you like land under your feet...you went into medicine early in your college career, probably for the sake of the elderly aunt who raised you...you are an exceptional surgeon, that much is clear enough...” he made and interrogative noise in his throat while Watson whimpered and whatever his mouth was doing. “Hmmm...allergic to walnuts....”
“Oh come on,” Watson huffed breathlessly. He laughed helplessly as talented fingers traced the ridges of his ribs. “This is.... how....how do you do that? How? How could you know any of that without ah-ah-asking someone?”
Holmes laughed, his torso rattling against Watson’s spine. “Whom could I ask, except you? Why would I share any part of you with another?” Teeth scraped deliciously against one earlobe. “You are mine.”
“Yes,” Watson moaned. “You are amazing...”
He murmured it against his Sentinels skin for hours. “Amazing, amazing, amazing....”
It was hard to really understand what it looked like when first seen. The surfaces played tricks, the fireflies darting this way and that fooled the eye, twisted perception.
But slowly, as the eye drew back, perception came and filled the world with awe.....
“The five cups?”
“Ah, Sentinel...” Watson sighed.
“I just want to know how many people I have to kill over them.”
What could Watson say to that? “When the enemy captured us, there was this Guide and he....well. He amused himself with the survivors. Do you understand thirst, Sentinel? Of course, you must. Do you understand what it would feel like to have the water put in front of you, within your reach, no restraints, no obstacles....but reaching for it to drink causing torturous agony? Because the Guide had gone into your head and...” Watson broke off.
Holmes arms were like iron bands around him.
“They wept, Sentinel. Those strong, brave men, they didn’t blink when the army flooded us, didn’t flinch when all around them died...but faced with those cups lined up in front of them, every attempt to drink like being stabbed with a thousand knives, they...”
“You didn’t.” A statement of fact.
“It...didn’t work on me. But watching the others in pain and despair was just as much torture to me. It was all so new and I had no control. The enemy only realized what I was at the very end. By then the wandering Sentinel came and began killing them all.”
“They left you there.” Came the growl.
“They were frightened. And Murray didn’t. Murray stayed, begged the Sentinel for help...I was in no state to do anything but curl up and die. And the tribe helped me...helped us. Got us back to the regiment.” Watson shifted uneasily even as soothing hands ran up his back. “I hated that Guide for what he did. For taking away their own minds, destroying their humanity like that.” He thought of Strangerson and winced.
Fingers curled around his jaw, forced him to face his Sentinel. “You are not now, nor could you ever be anything remotely like him, my own.”
“Because you would never let me,” Watson smiled weakly.
“Immaterial,” Holmes insisted. “It would never be an issue. There has never been a person in your life to whom you haven’t brought dignity and humanity to.”
Watson asked a wordless question while his fingers combed sable hair, but Holmes just smiled and proceeded to make his Guides world fly apart with ecstasy.
It had been an interesting week, Lestrade mused wryly.
Interesting – which meant unpredictable, strange and mildly stressful.
There was the House to rebuild. The Sanctuary to re-secure. People to arrest and charge for treasonous acts.
Of course, none of this was being done, because a lot of voices were bellowing at the tops of their volume in Parliament. Guides. Sentinels. International kidnappings; good grief a blame storm of apocalyptic size had been brewing ever since the news broke.
It didn’t help that retinues of Sentinel Guide pairs were travelling from as far as Russia to collect Guides who had been stolen. Some complete idiot in the Parliament had started to argue in favour of the Guides being claimed by the Commonwealth, which had triggered heated responses from half the globe. Some very, very fast talking diplomacy by the Royal Clan and personal assurances made by the Queen herself were the only thing keeping a world war at bay.
Mostly, the Yard Sentinels just...handled things. Found refuge for displaced Guides from the House, temporary lodgings for the kidnapped Guides, prison cells for everyone else. God only knows how, but it was being sorted out. Groups of foreign national Guides had been escorted back to their country’s ships to be taken home as soon as they were declared well enough to travel. Those who needed recuperation were guarded fiercely by an international retinue of Sentinels and sailors both, broken down into country groups. There was a Little France in one building, a Mini Spain in another, a Pocket Germany, a Minor Italy, a New Prussia....a lot of sovereign nations were setting up shop.
It may take months to sort everything out. American diplomats looked to be getting very little sleep these days as they communicated with superiors across the pond, scouring out and shutting down what was left of the insane church that fostered the whole mad plan. News of the Prophet’s death certainly demoralized them.
And where was Holmes during all this mess?
Well, despite the most vulgar speculation by the base and the crude, Holmes had spent most of the week sleeping – just sleeping – with his Guide. Lestrade knows this for a fact, because every Sentinel in the city had found some reason to wander briefly past Baker Street, keeping sharp ears open for the Alpha Prime.
The shocks had started coming when Lestrade learned that Holmes had started taking his Guide out. Usually a new pair would be in confinement for at least a month or more; Sentinels were fiercely territorial with new Guides. But Holmes, once again, ran roughshod over all the usual expectations. There were flurries of rumours spreading about the pair being seen at the opera, whisked up to the Royal box, or merely walking the streets, here there and everywhere, surveying the city. They dined at the Royale and Marcini’s, and there even some whispers that Holmes had taken his Guide down into some of the seedier boxing clubs – and Lestrade wished he couldn’t believe that! It was very Holmesian if it was true, though.
Outraged murmurs from Clan Elders followed them. The Guide didn’t wear a collar. Holmes didn’t wear the armband – not that he ever had. They walked together, shoulder to shoulder, like friends or brothers, not like Sentinel and Guide. Nothing they did was usual or normal for new pairings.
Lestrade didn’t know why all the other Clans were so shocked at Holmes’ behaviour. Holmes had never acted like a typical Sentinel. He couldn’t imagine why they thought bonding would change it.
He felt his Guide look up from the report she was writing and turned to face her. Her face was set in a frown, and her eyes flicked towards the door.
Lestrade rose just before Ascot entered. He hadn’t seen the man much this week. Oh, he’d been as busy as the rest of them, but he had somehow always been most emphatically where Lestrade... wasn’t.
“Ascot.” You could have used Lestrade’s voice as a plank.
There was a long, awkward silence before Ascot spoke again. “My Guide needs the Alpha Guide’s assistance with a House matter.”
Lestrade scowled. “Good God, man, they haven’t had a week yet.”
“It is a matter of some urgency. And Anstruther agrees,” Ascot added. “The law is clear. The Prime Alpha pair is the ultimate authority.
Which is why they were now at the House, waiting for Holmes and his Guide to show up.
The House wasn’t quite the wreck it had been. Glass had been cleaned from the quadrangle, the structure had been propped up, the char was being scrubbed off; the building may still be usable, but it was down to the engineers and Sentinels to do a survey yet. Lestrade felt his heart crimp when he saw it. Fourteen children, not coming back.
There was no hole deep enough for the Sentinels who had done it.
Lady Beatrice was pacing fretfully in the corridor when they arrived. Lady Lestrade scowled past her to the door. “How long has he been like this?”
“I don’t answer to you, Guide,” Lady Beatrice snapped back.
Lady Lestrade drew herself up. “No, you answer to the Alpha Prime Guide, and I am the Alpha Prime’s Beta.”
Lady Beatrice’s mouth worked furiously, but no sound came out. She was saved from having to answer by running footsteps.
Advancing at a respectable clip from the entrance was Holmes and his now infamous Guide.
“I could feel it from the street,” Watson said as he drew up to them. “Lady Lestrade if you would...” he gestured her ahead of him as they opened the inner chamber.
Lady Beatrice was left in the dust, mouth open.
“Congratulations on your bonding, Prime Alpha,” Ascot muttered to the Sentinel who was peering in the door, but not actually entering.
“If you are going to lie, Ascot, at least lie with passion,” was the dismissive response.
Within the room, Lady Lestrade and Watson both slowed in horror at what they saw.
“Carmichael,” Watson put his cane down and slowly crawled toward the stricken man. “Carmichael, can you hear me?”
The huddled little figure simply curled tighter, a near soundless whimper issuing from the rocking, tangled ball of limbs.
Watson sighed and yanked the man toward him. There was a brief struggle while Carmichael yelped and fought, but he was too weak to put up much of a fight.
“There, it’s alright now,” Watson rocked the man gently in his arms. “It’s alright.”
Lady Lestrade joined the embrace. “He’s in a bad way.”
It took half an hour for coherence to come back. There were scratches all over the poor man’s face from where he clawed, desperately seeking respite.
“How long has he been like this?” Watson demanded sharply of Lady Beatrice, who had finally been allowed to enter.
“I found him like that this morning,” Lady Beatrice stammered. “I tried to bring him out of it, but when he didn’t respond I sent for you all.”
“He’s been suffering a bit longer than that, Guide Ascot,” Lady Lestrade replied archly.
Lady Beatrice bristled. “Some of us have been busy with repairs.”
“To busy to keep track of your empathic staff?”
“Ladies,” Watson’s quiet voice broke into their snarls. Someone had furnished him with a medical bag, and he was daubing Carmichaels injuries one handed. The archivist refused to relinquish the other.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” Carmichael whispered.
“Silly, silly man,” Lady Lestrade admonished gently. “How long have you been hiding like this?”
“A long time, I think,” Watson said gently, before the man could respond. “Guide shouldn’t touch, isn’t that right? But Guides touch all the time, they need it. Unless they are trying desperately not to show they are affected.” He pressed a hand to the wounded man’s cheek. “To not show that they are a Guide, not a Consort.”
“I’m so, so sorry,” was the hoarse reply.
“Why?” Lady Lestrade gently brushed his shoulder. “All that hideous pain and isolation. To what end?”
“My sisters,” Carmichael replied bleakly. “If I’m a Guide I can’t inherit. Our parents left us a trust – it’s a tiny thing, but it’s all the income they have aside from my stipend. If I’m named as a Guide the trust goes to my uncle. He’ll squander it; and he’ll sell off my sisters to the highest bidder. I can’t let that happen. Please, Prime Alpha please,” he grabbed at Watson with both hands. “You can’t let that happen. Who will protect them? They’ve only got me, please, please...” he trailed off, sobbing.
“We will protect them, Carmichael,” Watson answered firmly, squeezing his hands. “As far as I’m concerned, they are Clan too. You need not torture yourself to save anyone. We are Clan, and we do things together.”
“If I can change the law, then it will be changed,” Watson said flatly. “Because that inheritance rule is just ridiculous. And if not, forget the trust. I’ll get you a raise instead. Enough to compensate for all the grief the stupid law put you through in the first place. I’ll pay it myself if I have to.”
“But...why?” Carmichael asked.
“Because you did me a good turn when I needed it,” Watson responded promptly. “You didn’t tell Lady Beatrice why I’d been exiled, did you? Because you knew she’d never pass that along when I was in custody. Instead, you risked your position to follow her, and make sure the record was set straight. Right?”
Carmichael nodded, even as Lady Beatrice sputtered in the background.
“And for that, Guide Carmichael, you get a pass for life from me,” Holmes appeared in the doorway, toting a tea laden tray. “You can have anything within my considerable power to give.”
“Just the tea for now, Holmes,” Watson grinned at him, extricating a cup. “Drink,” he told Carmichael. “You’re dehydrated. Underweight too, but one thing at a time.”
Carmichael drank, too overwhelmed for words. “I don’t...I don’t know what to say...”
“I’d be satisfied if you never tried to hide yourself again, Guide Carmichael,” Holmes replied. “I do not like my Guide to worry.”
“Futile,” Watson said cheerfully. “Look who I got for a Sentinel.”
Carmichael and Lady Lestrade stared at him, then burst out laughing.
“Guide Watson!” Lady Beatrice gasped, shocked.
“Doctor Watson, Lady Beatrice,” Holmes corrected her.
Their next stop, Ascots, Lestrades and Carmichael in tow, was to the Charpentiers.
“Madam Charpentier has rather a Guide boarding house than a Sentinel one at the moment,” Watson mused to Carmichael. He kept a firm grip on Carmichaels arm – the archivist was still terribly fragile. “So she’ll be pleased to have you.”
There was an uneasy air about the place, exacerbated by yelling voices once they got close to the kitchen.
“I don’t care what your orders are! The doctor said she’s not to be moved so if the head of her order came with Pope himself, she still wouldn’t be moved until she is well!” Madam Charpentier’s voice rattled windows.
“Madam! I am the Lord Ambassador of Switzerland!”
“And I am the owner of this house!” came the answering bellow. “So as far as you are concerned, I am landlord, squire, baroness, duchess, high priestess, queen and God Herself within these walls!
Watson, shaking with laughter, knocked on the door. “Your holiness, may we enter?”
The door swung open. “You, of course, are always welcome lad,” she smiled past the flushed face. “Your Sentinel too. And you all,” she glared at the Ascots. “You, not so much.” But she let them past.
A purple faced man, richly dressed, was scowling at them as they trooped in. “Madam, you have no authority. You will release the woman into my care...”
“Are you still here?” Madam Charpentier sniffed.
The man flushed deeper. “I carry the authority of your Queen!”
“Then you may take it up with her!” Madam Charpentier retorted archly, and then proceeded to ignore him entirely, settling her guests around the table.
Holmes took the opportunity to sidle up to the man, and mutter a few choice things in his ear. The Lord Ambassador went from purple, to white, to red, to grey, and suddenly couldn’t get away fast enough.
Ascot’s mouth was open as he watched the man retreat. Lestrade pressed a hand into his face. “Really, Holmes?”
“What?” Watson asked, looking from one to the other.
“I’ll...tell you later,” Holmes smirked at him.
Madam Charpentier was viewing a nervous Carmichael speculatively. “You,” she said slowly, with the air of one coming to a long-drawn conclusion. “Need to eat something.”
“He also needs a place to stay, Madam. Just temporarily until we can bring his sisters down from the country,” Watson asked politely. “He is a Guide...”
“A particularly powerful one, to hide for so long,” Holmes added
“And he is fragile at the moment,” Watson nodded, agreeing.
Carmichael looked at them both in surprise.
“Well of course he’ll stay here,” Madam Charpentier snorted. “I’m now something of an expert on fragile Guides.” With this she glared at Lady Beatrice, who at least had the grace to look embarrassed.
“How are your son and his Guide?” Watson asked.
“In heaven, they are so happy. Especially after being made to wait. But of course,” she gave him a wink. “I scarce need tell you what that feels like, eh?” she laughed as Watson blushed.
“And uh,” he glared at Holmes, who was laughing silently. “Sister Augusta?”
“Come and see for yourself.”
Someone, probably Madam Charpentier herself, had taken considerable effort to brush the Guide’s hair. Knee length, glossy black tresses fanned across white linen, framing a face still too thin and too pale, but as least had been improved with proper rest.
“Ah Guide,” she murmured, fixing dark eyes on him as her entered. “You look so beautiful.”
“You as well,” Watson replied as he took a seat next to the bed. Holmes took it upon himself to perch near her feet, lean forward and press his fingertips to her forehead.
She shuddered. “Merci. You’re strength is magnificent Sentinel. You will be very good for ‘im.”
“I thought so too,” Watson grinned at her. “May I?”
“Of course you may.”
Lestrade’s jaw dropped open as he felt Watson’s presence expand like blooming flower. “I can feel that.”
“My Guide,” Holmes said with no little smugness. “Is particularly memorable.”
“My God,” Lady Lestrade breathed, eyes wide. “He’s...”
Sister Augusta started to weep with relief. “Merci, merci, it iz so much better now.”
Carmichael breathed out. “She feels so much clearer now.”
“As well she might,” Holmes snorted. “But my Guide however,” here he shot a quiet smile at Watson. “Is a healer of the most excellent sort. You take on burdens like others take on days, Sister.”
She laughed sadly. “Mon Dieu, He does not give me veight vhich cannot be borne, Sentinel.”
Watson flicked eyes at his Sentinel, who nodded. “Alright, everybody, the lady is about to have her wounds checked. Carmichael, you stay.” Holmes added as he hustled the Lestrades and Ascots out the door.
“Hold her hands for me, will you?” Watson asked Carmichael, as he gently helped Sister Augusta to turn on her side, sweeping her hair out of the way. Startled, Carmichael did as he was told.
As Watson surveyed the healing wounds across the nun’s back, Carmichael cast around for something to distract her with. “They’re calling you a heroine, you know Miss Augusta. For keeping the Guides safe.”
She smiled at him. “A British one, or a Sviss one?”
Carmichael chuckled while Watson smiled silently over rebandaging. “I think it is an international agreement.”
She laughed too. “Vell, at least zey agree on somezing, oui?”
Carmichael smiled at her. “They should. You’re amazing. You have so much strength.”
“Ah, but you do as vell, Mister Carmichael,” she squeezed his hands. “Only one vith strength could stand, day after day, watching as ozzers paired off, helping them, giving of yourself, putting them togetzer and asking nozing in return...”
Carmichael jerked, startled. “I didn’t...”
“Oh, you did,” Watson snorted. “The Matchmaker may have assessed them but she wasn’t researching or matching the paperwork. You put pairs together wherever you could, I expect.”
Carmichael flushed. “They paired off anyway...I just...I just made them look good on paper. How did you...?”
“My Sentinel,” Watson said pointedly. “Is not a stupid man. Knowledge is power; knowing who really put Sentinels and Guides together was invaluable to him as an Alpha. He spoke of it to me as we came to help you. The more he explained, the more sense it made. You, Carmichael, have been solely responsible for most of the pairings in the city for years.”
“You see?” Sister Augusta laughed. “You are hero too, I zink. And one day, a Sentinel vill come and they vill not care about your background or your rank. They vill love you for exactly who you are.”
Carmichael flushed and ducked. “Well, one day a Sentinel won’t wait for you either, Sister. They won’t care about distance or churches, or vows or your foolish relatives. They will come for you no matter where you are.”
She smiled. “They it iz Gods will, and who am I to argue?”
“Aren’t we a pair?” Carmichael said, and laughed with her.
“Well hopefully,” Watson broke in, relacing the nightdress Sister Augusta had been dressed in as he finished. “You will both have the chance to find out how much of a pair you are. My Sentinel tells me that the French government is suddenly very interested in you, Sister.”
She grimaced as she rolled onto her back again. “Yes.” Was the flat reply. “They are...very interested in vhat I did. Zey say I could help the Loup.”
Carmichael gaped. “They won’t let you return to the order?” he gasped, thunderstruck.
“Unless you would prefer to take a new job with Carmichael here,” Watson suggested looking at both of them.
“To do what?”
“To do vhat?”
Outside the room, Lady Beatrice was fidgeting uncomfortably at the Charpentier’s table while her Sentinel tried to soothe her. Lady Lestrade worked off her tension helping Madam Charpentier make tea and scones while her Sentinel watched over her. Holmes leaned idly on the door which held the Guides, staring at nothing in particular.
Finally, Lady Beatrice broke and shot a pleading look at her Sentinel, who cleared his throat and turned to Holmes. “May my Guide speak to you, Alpha?”
Holmes turned his eyes on them, and shrugged. “She may.”
“I just want to know what is to be done regarding the House,” Lady Beatrice burst out, before hastily adding. “Sentinel.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow at her. “I’m afraid the organisation on Guides does not fall under my purview, Lady Beatrice, as I am certain you know. Whatever my Guide’s plans are, you shall know them...”
A thunderstruck, double voiced “What?!” came from within the room, which made everyone except Holmes turn towards it.
Holmes smirked. “Very shortly,” he finished.
It took another twenty minutes filled with increasingly rapid murmurs and chatter from within the room before Watson emerged, Carmichael having opted to stay with Sister Augusta.
“I see your proposal has borne fruit, my dear Watson,” Holmes grinned at his Guide.
Watson looked rueful. “It took some serious propagation, let me tell you.” He dropped into a chair, rubbing his eyes as his Sentinel took the chair next to him, taking a cup of tea proffered by Lady Lestrade as he did. Holmes took a contemplative sip before handing the cup to his Guide.
Lestrade was echoing the ritual across from, but Lady Beatrice silently shook her head when her husband offered. Madam Charpentier merely kept arranging scones from the kitchen.
“Will her plea of sanctuary be a problem, Holmes?” Watson asked after he’s downed half a cup.
Holmes snorted. “None whatsoever; even if it wasn’t an internationally recognized practice we are duty bound to answer, Mycroft finds international arguments a stimulating hobby. This would give him about an hour’s work.”
Watson smiled over his cup. “I really must meet this brother of yours.”
“Cherish your time without, Watson. Cherish it,” Holmes muttered.
“Really,” Lestrade added fervently. “I met him once. Good grief, your family doesn’t breed them friendly, Holmes.”
Holmes gave him a disdainful look. “The Prime Beta has a uniform, Lestrade; last changed when a ruff was the height of fashion. I think, under the circumstances, you need not wear it.”
And just like that, the Alpha recognized the Beta.
Holmes hadn’t stopped being infuriating. It was an odd sort of comfort.
“What proposition?’ Lady Beatrice burst out, unable to remain silent any longer. “What are you talking about? You intend to induct a foreign Guide to our ranks?” She was quivering with outrage.
“Guides know no borders, madam,” Holmes turned on her, his voice turned stern. “Her family sent her to a remote cell in the mountains, and she went and suffered because it was impossible for her not to love them, despite everything. Now her government is looking to turn on her much like they did, in a different direction. If she is in need then it is the duty if any Clan, let alone ours, to help her.”
“And besides,” Watson broke in calmly. “A Guide of her grace and sensitivity will be a valuable ally. A welcome addition, especially as a Matchmaker.”
Lady Beatrice’s eyes bulged, her mouth uttered a shrill, strangled shriek.
Ascot was bristling on her behalf. “My wife was chosen by the Royal Clan themselves to be the Matchmaker!”
He met Holmes’ gaze and saw the Dark Sentinel there, daring him to so much as raise his voice to Watson. Ascot visibly reined his temper in.
“The Matchmaker’s job is to enhance the Clan,” Watson answered flatly. “To protect the Guides and to foster strong bonds as they occur – naturally. Not to treat bonding rites as their own personal marriage market.”
Lady Beatrice flushed and bristled simultaneously. “I did what I thought best....”
“And despite your attempts to control Nature itself,” Watson continued smoothly. “You didn’t actually succeed; which is just as well. Had you enough talent with your gifts you could have formed some very weak bonds indeed – politically strong, but weak where it truly counted. I’ve seen Guides who could force it, and they are vile creatures indeed...but you are not one of these. You didn’t actually try to stop the Charpentier’s from bonding, despite the fact that you wanted to. You did right by most, even unintentionally. But Guide,” Watson’s voice took on a cadence of true power, that made even Madam Charpentier step back, and Holmes lean forward, mesmerized. “Carmichael worked next to you all day, every day, and you failed to see him for what he was. To him you did irreparable harm. And it cannot be allowed to continue. Many things, I think, cannot be allowed to continue.”
Lady Beatrice was dead white, and her Sentinel was shifting, fighting his instinct to get in front of her.
“For a start,” Watson leaned across to Lady Lestrade, and nodding gently to Lestrade (who nodded back mutely), pulled the ribbon from around her throat. “Guides don’t wear these anymore. They are the remnants of an age long gone; we are modern people and modern people do not endorse slavery, however subtly.” He stood to lean over the table, and unwrap the intricate leather collar from Lady Beatrice throat as well.
“Second,” Watson stated, glanced at his Sentinel, who merely stared back, his eyes a perfect show of support and acknowledgement. “There will not be just one Matchmaker anymore. There will be Matchmakers, plural. Sister Augusta and Carmichael have accepted the roles; as, I hope, will Alice once out of confinement.”
Only Holmes’s reflexes were able to keep the trace of scones from hitting the floor as Madam Charpentier came over.
“My Alice?” came the astonished reply from the older woman.
“She does instinctively what other Guides train for years to do,” Watson nodded. “I think having a bonded Guide there will be useful too. Different Matchmakers for different types of Guides. Treating them as all the same is just...”
“Stupid,” Holmes supplied helpfully.
“Yes,” Watson nodded. “And hopefully with more than one Matchmaker we can keep from having anything happen to a Guide like what happened to Carmichael. I don’t ever want to feel a mind as ravaged as his again, thank you. There will be other things, too. Inheritance laws, for a start. But...that may take some time.” He acknowledged sheepishly.
Holmes hid a grin behind his tea while the rest of the room picked up their jaws.
Lady Beatrice was in tears, half clinging to her Sentinel. “But...but...what will happen to me?”
Watson sighed. “I think....I think perhaps the mistakes you made stemmed from the fact that you spent all day apart from your Sentinel, never leaving the House, and never assisting him when he dealt with all walks of people. You never dealt with anyone but Guides and that rather...blinkered you to the needs of the tribe. I think sharing your husband’s role in Scotland Yard like other Yard Guides will be immensely helpful. I think you can learn what is needed to be a Matchmaker.”
“But I was chosen!” Lady Beatrice protested, turning on Holmes. “Sentinel, please tell your Guide...”
“Madam,” Holmes voice stopped her cold. “My Guides words are mine; no force on Earth will induce me to speak against him. You may abide by them, or you and your Sentinel may depart the Clan with honour and our blessing.”
There was one last errand they had to complete. The Ascots left them as they departed the boarding house, Ascot still consoling his wife. The demotion had been a bitter pill for her.
“I thought I would feel better about having her gone,” Lady Lestrade murmured as they travelled. “And it is for the best...but I just feel sorry for her now.”
Watson shrugged. “She’s a Guide, whatever else she is. She sincerely believed she was doing what was best. It’s not her attitude that angered me, simply her inability to recognize and acknowledge her mistakes. It happens to the best of us.”
“And the worst,” was Lady Lestrade’s wry rejoinder.
“Why the cells, Lestrade?” Watson asked, puzzled.
A shrug answered him. “The Yarders wanted to...keep him safe, given the circumstances.”
In a cell, alone and deep in the basement of the Yard, Sentinel Hope lay dying.
Cell was a bit of a misnomer; the door was wide open and some pains had been take to scrub it clean and scent it nicely. A proper bed has been granted to the dying man, silk sheets and all.
Anstruther was waiting on them when they arrived. “Won’t be long now. Please, Doctor, do not connect with him. If he goes while you’re within his mind...” Anstruther was a Sentinel, whatever else he was. The Guide was his first concern.
Watson smiled grimly. “Unfortunately, connecting is what I do.”
Hope’s face was a sunken, grey mask and he rested flat on his back, already half laid out. Holmes approached him first, keeping one hand on Watson’s arm as the Doctor perched upon the bed. Holmes was the one who shook him awake.
“I see...it all...worked out for...you,” Hope rasped eventually as he became aware.
Watson squeezed his Sentinel’s hand. “It certainly did.”
“Good,” was the soft assessment. “Don’t...let him go, Sentinel. Don’t take...your eyes from him. I did for...just...a minute and....” Hope trailed off, sobbing.
His heart stuttered feebly, failing and faltering.
Watson looked at his Sentinel, but Holmes was already taking Watson’s hand and guiding it to Hope’s chest in silent permission. Watson concentrated.
Anstruther burst through the open door. “How did you do that?!”
Hope’s heart had slowed and strengthened, matching Watson’s beat for beat.
“I’m letting him...borrow my heart for a moment,” Watson said slowly, while his face drained of colour. Holmes put his spare arm around him, holding him tight. “I can’t do it for long. I was waiting to see how this was taught at the House, so I could practice more.”
Holmes burst out laughing while Lestrade and Anstruther stared, open mouthed.
It was Lady Lestrade who answered Watson’s confused look. “They don’t teach anything like that at the House.”
Watson was bewildered. “But empathy is...this is the first thing Guides are taught in Afghanistan! Matching your body to your mind...” he trailed off in the face of their looks.
Holmes was nearly crying, he was laughing so hard.“Oh my Guide, my Guide,” he choked out. “You are endearing blind to how magnificent you are.”
Anstruther looked speculative. “Could you teach others to do that?”
Watson shrugged a yes, and turned back to Hope. “Where would you like to go, Jefferson? After...”
Hope smiled at him. “He’s right...you...are magnificent....just...like...Lucy. Never...let anyone tell....you different. Bury or burn...me. It doesn’t...matter...Guide. I will find...her....wherever...she is.”
“We just need to know,” Holmes half-asked, still embracing his Guide.
The sad story poured out of the dying man, in rasping fits and starts. The saga of John and Lucy Ferrier, the church that saved them to eventually kill them, how Guides in that church were even more subjugated than others, how females were claimed like cattle. How males were castrated and turned to eunuchs.
How they were killed for bonding with outsiders.
How Jefferson Hope had failed, failed, failed, and been left to die by Drebber and the church after Lucy was slain.
Watson face grew whiter and whiter. Holmes was tense, ready to yank him all the way back to Baker Street in a heartbeat.
Eventually, Hope pushed the Guide away. “I need...I need this...agony to end. Let...me...go. It’s over...all over. Lucy...my Guide....”
Hope faded and died as Holmes dragged Watson away.
Watson lay, fully clothed, in his Sentinel’s arms back at Baker Street, a hand soothingly stroking his back.
“I hated the Prophet,” Holmes spoke softly. “I hated him with all my soul. I don’t hate my opponents; there is no emotion involved, usually. They’re just a problem to be solved. But him, I could hate.”
“Why?” Watson whispered.
“Because he made you feel for him. Hurt for him,” Holmes murmured. “I could never forgive him for that. He had no right to burden you with his pain, because when the world hurts then your heart bleeds with it. My only goal – my only destiny now, is to ensure there is no more pain.” Holmes dark eyes were locked with his Guides.
Watson was surprised to feel wetness trailing down his face. Because he couldn’t feel it anymore. The burden and the agony of all those souls pressing on his unguarded mind. The desert was contained, shielded by the fall of water from his Sentinel’s mind.
“You have my word, John Watson. From this day forth, no more pain.” Holmes pressed their foreheads together. “Do you know why?”
They stood in the mist of city as it cleared.
“For this. For this priceless, immeasurable gift, which I can never repay. Do you see now, Guide, what you have given me?”
Watson realized what he was seeing and his mouth dropped open.
The stone and metal had burned away. After the onslaught of the desert fire and sand and the waters flooding, the city still stood, the same but irrevocably altered.
The city wasn’t stone and brass and steel anymore. It reflected the dark of the starry sky overhead and the rainbow of colours at the sunset horizon. It magnified them, broke the light into every possible shade.
It was now a city made of glass.
Water flowed through see-through pipes and gold-edged aqueducts casting a million watery echoes. Fireflies turned the surfaces into a billion glinting points of moving light. Glossy, crystalline surfaces reflected the stars in the sky and the glowing motes of swirling fireflies. Gaslights were magnesium bright, casting stark light and shadow where they haloed the city. Ghostly images, input overlayed from the real city to this place via his Sentinel’s senses, walked and trotted and wheeled the glittering streets, but now a firefly would alight on them briefly, and for an instant they would have colour and expression – a heart, a soul, that only a Guide could feel.
Clicking, ratcheting devices, their parts exquisitely wrought leadlight, hummed and ticked, connecting buildings and bridges, roads and towers. Clear notes sang from water drawn across glassy edges, a symphony of the most delicate, fragile kind.
There were still dark, stony foundations; gaping black holes to the Underground framed in spun glass, black shadows and a black river. The Dark Sentinel was at the heart of it, hidden as much by the light as by the shadows. But the shadows just made the light brighter.
It was an impossible, heart rending beauty. It would take years to fully understand and comprehend how amazing it was.
“You, my Guide,” Holmes had their foreheads pressed together, his face more alight than even the city could manage. “You are the conductor of light. You are the lens, through which all things become clear.”
They sealed all the wordless promises with a wordless kiss.