Rating: M/15+ for this bit
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, and am making no profit from their use, more's the pity.
Warnings: Slash, some violence in this part.
Summary: HDM AU. John and Amarisa find some answers about Moriarty, and prepare to go north with Sherlock and Raniel…
(Title page by birddi )
Part One: The Architecture of Our Lives
Part Two: Stepping Stones
Part Three: Foundations
Part Four: Shadowed Archways
Part Five: Buried Labyrinths
Part Six: Crossing The River
Part Seven: Glimmers in Darkness
Part Eight: Perdition's Bridges
Part Nine: Building The Republic
Part Ten: Lit From Within
Part Eleven: Structural Integrity
Part Twelve: The Reader
Part Thirteen: Spiraling Down
Part Fourteen: God Killer
Part Fifteen: Dark Hands
It had been a long day, so John was glad to go to bed a few hours after dinner, leaving Sherlock and Raniel still in the library, pouring over what was supposedly a copy of Lord Asriel’s notes and muttering to each other. Amarisa curled beside him and he pulled the blankets over them both, idly wondering if Sherlock and Raniel would return for some sleep (or some sex) or if they planned to spend the whole night in the library.
When a sharp nudge woke John in darkness, his first through was that Sherlock had decided to come to bed after all. He blinked and fumbled in the blankets for a moment before his fingers found Amarisa’s muzzle. His dæmon growled softly in warning, laying a heavy paw over his arm.
“Shhh,” Amarisa whispered. “Someone’s coming.”
Sure enough, he could hear soft footsteps in the hallway, approaching the door.
John didn’t bother asking who it was. If the wolfdog had thought it necessary to wake him up, it clearly wasn’t a scent she recognised. At least waking up in the darkness meant his eyes adjusted quickly. Moving as silently as he could, John slid from the bed and grasped the lamp on the bedside table, following the cord to the wall and quietly unplugging it.
It wasn’t his gun, but it would do.
The footsteps stopped outside the door and John held himself poised, the lamp half-raised with Amarisa at his side, ready to attack as soon as they entered.
If this was some new ally that Sherlock had sent to wake them up, they were going to feel really stupid.
The door swung open, and John brought the lamp down.
He ended up hitting a tall woman across the arm she’d raised to defend herself with. Amarisa snarled – the blood-curdling snarl she reserved for when they or the people they loved were in genuine danger – and lunged upward, snapping at the hummingbird dæmon that had launched itself from the woman’s shoulder.
The intruder recovered quickly though. As John stepped in close to press his advantage – shouting in an effort to wake up the rest of the house – she threw some kind of powder into the air, and her dæmon used its wings to gust it into John’s face. It felt like fine ash or soot and smelled like potpourri, but John could feel the spell hanging off it and he automatically shut his eyes.
When he opened them, he couldn’t see a thing. It was like that moment just after the lights shut off in a previously brightly-lit room – the second where you genuinely couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
But John didn’t have time to panic. Give that he hadn’t heard Amarisa whine in pain or yelp in surprise he was going to assume his dæmon was unaffected, so he took another swing with the lamp in the hopes that their attacker hadn’t had enough time to move her head from where he’d last seen it. The crack of impact reverberated up his arm and in his ears, but from the sound John could tell she’d raised her arm again and he hadn’t managed to catch her head.
The fact that the lamp was torn out of his hand almost immediately afterwards was also a big clue that the witch wasn’t incapacitated. At least, John was going to go ahead and assume she was a witch – the bird dæmon wasn’t a tell, not really, but if human women could strike people instantly blind with handfuls of mysterious powder John was sure he’d have heard about it. She’d obviously got him with some kind of spell –the talisman would have helped with that, but John had left it on the bedside table like an idiot.
At least he was wearing boxers. Not that they would be much help, but fighting for your life naked added an extra edge of indignity to the whole thing.
Knowing that he’d be entirely lost as soon as the witch moved away, John stepped forward and tackled blindly. They went down in an uncoordinated heap, the lamp clipping the side of John’s temple as they fell. He grabbed at what he thought was a wrist and yanked, hoping the witch didn’t have a good angle to get him in the groin.
A knee hit him in the thigh and John twisted automatically, hooking his leg around an ankle and hoping entangling the witch’s legs with his would be enough to keep him from getting kicked in any painful areas. Using the grip on his attacker’s wrist as a vague gauge of the location of her other arm, John lashed out but ended up with a handful of what felt like hair.
There was a high, frantic trill of panic that told him Amarisa had grabbed the hummingbird, and in the moment when the witch’s body went momentarily lax with her dæmon’s pain, John used his grip on her hair to drive her head into the floor.
She went limp, but John wasn’t about to trust that.
“Is she out?” he asked Amarisa.
There was a sound like a cough and a soft thump that John took to mean Amarisa had dealt with the witch’s dæmon. Then, “Yeah, she’s down. Are you-”
“Yes, I’m blind,” John confirmed, carefully freeing his limbs from the tangle and scrambling to his feet. “Which I’m really hoping is temporary. We need-”
“To get out of here, right!”
He felt Amarisa’s shoulder bump pointedly against his legs, and John wound his fingers tightly in the wolfdog’s ruff, right where the fur was the thickest. The fingers of his right hand, so his dominant hand was free. He’d learned to shoot right-handed, of course (it was a requirement, unless you wanted spent shell casings flying across your face), but everything else – punching, blocking, writing and the like – was done left-handed.
Amarisa led him back to the bed and he felt the muscles in her neck and back bunch and coil as she picked something off the bedside table. John held out his left hand and felt cool metal drop into it, round and heavy – the talisman Hasna had made for him. He traced his fingers along the chain until he found the larger ring at the end and pulled the links through it to make a loop. John lifted his hand from Amarisa’s neck – fighting back an instinctive flash of fear as he was left disoriented and truly feeling his lack of sight for the first time – and slid his fingers and wrist through the loop so the watch dangled from his wrist like a bracelet. At least this way, it would stop or at least mediate any other spells that might be cast on him.
He put his hand back on Amarisa with relief, clenching his fingers in her fur again.
He’d like to get dressed, but John knew they couldn’t spare the time. At least one enemy had already infiltrated the house – there could be others. And they could be going after Sherlock even now.
He felt Amarisa’s chest expand as she inhaled deeply.
“There’s someone in the hall,” she whispered.
“Think they heard us yelling?”
“Don’t know – I didn’t smell them before, so they weren’t waiting outside.”
The door was still open, so Amarisa led John behind it, tucking them both out of the immediate line of sight to the hallway.
There was a crash from what he thought was downstairs – it was hard to pinpoint – and it sounded like glass and wood, like some heavy cabinet had fallen over. There was a shout that John identified as Aeliana, and he quelled the urge to run recklessly out into the house; it was almost physically painful, but if there was one thing the army had taught him it was that rushing in without a plan did much more damage than sitting back and waiting for the right moment.
It took thirty seconds before John began to hear footsteps. They were soft but hurried, like someone was trying to stay quiet but had a schedule to keep. He pressed his left hand against the door, readying himself to shove it forward if they tried to enter his room.
He was completely still, concentrating on keeping his breathing as silent as possible when he felt it; the tell-tale aura of magic that never felt like anything else. It was like a temperature change or a shift in air pressure, but somehow entirely unique.
The footsteps hesitated outside his open door, then – probably as they spotted the unconscious witch on the floor – turned sharply and hurried into the room.
He felt Amarisa rear up on her hind legs, obviously putting her front paws on the door and shoving it forward. There was a sharp crack of impact, and John didn’t hesitate. Letting his dæmon lead, they ducked around the door and made for the open hallway.
“Arm up!” Amarisa yelled.
John obeyed, his hand automatically making a fist to ensure it would be more difficult to break his fingers. Something hit his arm – wood, or something like wood – and slid off his elbow. The spell was clearly imbued in whatever the weapon was – it was a strong one, his skin was practically tingling with it – and John twisted his arm, trying to snatch it.
His fingers closed around what felt like a club. It was definitely wood and vaguely cylindrical, with a diameter that fit comfortably in his palm. John pulled, and was rather surprised when the weapon was surrendered. It was much easier than he thought it would be, like they weren’t prepared, and they hadn’t hit him nearly as hard as they could have. So maybe whatever spell was on the wood was meant to incapacitate him somehow and the talisman had protected him?
Either way, John wasn’t waiting around to find out. He shoved hard with the end of the club, and caught what might have been a shoulder or part of an arm – there was an accompanying cry, anyway, and a thud that suggested his attacker had been driven back against the wall. He kept his fingers clenched in Amarisa’s fur as the wolfdog bounded onwards, out into the hallway and turning a sharp left.
Before, John had real difficulty remembering the layout of the house, but now he could feel the map unfolding in his mind, with details of furniture and window orientation he hadn’t even known he’d registered. Danger always cleared John’s head, made him eliminate the extraneous details and focus like a laser.
There was a shout from behind him but John wasn’t going to risk engaging again and only quickened his pace.
Their progress down the stairs was more tripping then running, and John was quite sure he would have broken his neck if not for Amarisa’s guidance. He heard the loud twang of a bowstring and he ducked on instinct, surprised when he felt a rush of air past his shins – who tried to shoot someone in the leg?
Obviously, someone who was trying to cripple him, not kill him. Coupled with the fact that the powder had blinded him instead of suffocating him or burning his face off or something equally unpleasant, John thought it safe to assume the purpose of this excursion was to capture, not kill. But why?
Amarisa turned sharply, dragging John into a room (he thought it was that big place that had all the china) and then left through another door into the dining room.
“Think we lost them?” he whispered.
“For a while, at least,” Amarisa panted.
Then John took a deep breath and did something he’d never tried before – he tried to consciously feel for other spells.
It was like waiting for the slight shift in air pressure that signalled the breath or movement of an enemy soldier. He held himself completely still, barely breathing, and tried to somehow feel his way through the darkness surrounding him.
John was never sure if it was the fact that he was blind and his other senses were trying to compensate, or that this was the first time he was actively trying to use his sensitivity, but he began to feel something. The most over-powering ‘signal’ came from the wood clenched in his hand, but as soon as looked past that…
It was like the spark of a match in darkness, or the blast of chill air from a fridge. He could feel the magic clinging to the witch he’d just evaded (or maybe that was spells clinging to something she was holding or wearing), and he could tell she was still stalking through the hallway – she hadn’t seen him duck into the room. But there was another pinpoint of magic, what felt like two or three rooms over, and another above his head, at a slight angle, like the magic was several rooms over from his bedroom.
Well, he and Amarisa couldn’t afford to wait around until someone stumbled across them.
“Ready?” his dæmon whispered.
Then they moved.
Sherlock knew something was wrong as soon as he heard the library door open.
Raniel sniffed the air, and Sherlock felt him bristle, the polecat’s white fur rising against his neck and chin.
Really, the flicker at the corner of his eye wasn’t a warning – it was redundant.
Sherlock ducked away, feeling Raniel’s claws dig into his shirt as an arrow flew over his head and slammed into a bookshelf at the level of his throat.
The witch – brunette, less than one hundred years old, no dæmon in sight but it was obviously a songbird of some kind – realised she wouldn’t have time to nock another arrow and cast her bow aside as Sherlock lunged. His right hand folded into a fist, planning to catch her across the jaw and hopefully put her into a headlock.
She was stronger than he’d suspected. Faster too. The witch raised her arm to block the blow and grabbed Sherlock’s wrist, yanking him forward. He broke her grip and twisted away – never close with someone who wanted you to close – and he felt Raniel let go of his collar and jump free of the scuffle.
That was when John entered the library in only his boxers, one hand holding a short cylinder of wood that bore a passing resemblance to a nightstick, the other resting on Amarisa’s neck, the wolfdog bristling and snarling at his side.
Dæmons tended to stay out of fights, except when they were personal enough to drive the dæmons themselves to attack each other. Dæmons had often fought on the battlefield, true, but that was before war became the purview of guns and grenades and tanks rather than close and personal attacks with maces and swords. Yet Amarisa always stood beside John when they felt they were in danger, braced as if preparing for an attack, and Sherlock and Raniel often wondered if it was a hold-over from their schoolyard days.
Dæmons often fought as children – it was a common sight in a playground to see dæmons scuffling, flickering through shapes as quickly as they could. Victory often went to the most imaginative child, the quickest-thinker, the one whose dæmon could shift the fastest, the one with the quickest mind and reflexes (Raniel had been undefeated). But after they settled, it became a different story. They still felt the need to compete, but in different ways – bird dæmons swiped and dive-bombed others, rodents nipped and bit, lizards and amphibians used tongues and claws, snakes hissed and danced, flying insects tried to out-manoeuvre others, induce them to slam into walls or doors or windows.
Fish and worms and the like were at something of a disadvantage, but people with predator dæmons liked to fight, liked them clawing and biting at each other in tired dominance rituals that after high school they deemed too childish. How many boys and girls with a leopard dæmon or a coyote or a bear wanted to fight Amarisa? How many took on the small, shy boy and his enormous black shadow?
And how many walked away with a bruised and beaten dæmon?
“Five eleven, standing!” Amarisa yelled.
Sherlock had a moment in which to wonder why she’d said that before John swung, tapping the witch over the head with his weapon. And it was a tap, compared to the kind of blow John was capable of delivering. It shouldn’t have knocked her unconscious – dazed her, maybe, if they were lucky – but she dropped to the ground as if she’d been shot.
“I don’t know what spell that is, but this is really handy,” John commented, swinging his club. “Sherlock, Raniel, are you-”
“Fine,” the polecat interrupted, hurrying over to rise up on his hind legs and push his face against Amarisa’s chin.
Amarisa ducked her head to fuss over him, nudging and licking his face and neck, but Sherlock noticed she didn’t step away from John. John had clearly been roused from sleep, judging by his state of undress, but at least he’d remembered to take the talisman (it glinted comfortingly from his wrist). There was a red mark on his arm, the type that would turn into a bruise in twenty-four hours, but he didn’t seem to have any serious injuries…
Then Sherlock realised John’s eyes weren’t focused on him. They weren’t focused on anything; they were roving aimlessly, the way people did when they were trying to locate something important in a clutter of useless detail…
Or when they were trying to locate a light source in darkness. He remembered what Amarisa had said, calling out the witch’s approximate height and position…
It wasn’t fear that shot up Sherlock’s spine – he was calm and in control, and he was most certainly not frightened. “You’re-”
John nodded. “Yeah, blind as a bat. Except not really, because bats can see.”
“Blind as a mole, maybe?” Amarisa offered. “The witch that attacked us – the first one – threw something in his face.”
They both sounded far too unconcerned for Sherlock’s liking.
“The first one?” Raniel echoed. “Explain, now!”
At least his dæmon could be trusted to get to the heart of the matter.
“We woke up when we heard someone in the hallway,” John said. “Turned out to be a witch, and we unfortunately gave her the opportunity to throw a handful of powder that clearly had a spell on it. Next thing we know, I’m blind and relying on Risa to find my way around. Got attacked by another witch, and managed to take this off her-” John waved the stick, as if it wasn’t perfectly obvious that was what he was referring to. “And it’s really handy; knocks people out pretty much instantly – we’ve got three others down already. Your Mum was having a spot of trouble in…okay, I have no idea what room that was, but she’s gone to find everyone else.”
Blinded? Temporary, it had to be, but how could it penetrate the talisman? Effectiveness of talismans worked via the strength of the maker’s feelings, and if Hasna had made it…
Sherlock glared. Which would be lost on John, but Amarisa’s eyes worked perfectly well. “You didn’t pick it up, did you? The talisman was right there, and you didn’t think to pick it up until you’d already been blinded.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” John huffed. “But when we’re under attack, we naturally think of being shot instead of having a spell cast on us!”
Raniel snorted. “If you’re blind, what are you doing here?”
“I followed your scent,” Amarisa said, grinning her dog-grin. “We wanted to be sure you two were okay.” She looked down at Raniel with a mock-severe expression. “You know, normal people call for help when they’re being attacked.”
“That’s not what I meant,” the polecat grumped (though he submitted to Amarisa nuzzling his ears). “Why did you rush out waving your little stick instead of raising the alarm?”
“Hey, I yelled!” John offered.
Raniel snorted. “From the other side of the house?”
Amarisa swatted him gently. “We came to help.”
“Of course you did,” Sherlock sighed. Because of course they did. Blinded and already assaulted, of course they came to help.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. God forbid you show a sense of self-preservation.”
“Well, they couldn’t hide from me, could they?” John pointed out. “Witches tend to have spelled objects on them, and we found out that when I’m actually trying to sense those things my range is about…ten metres? Maybe fifteen? Not very impressive, really, but-”
“Oh yes,” Raniel scoffed. “Terribly unimpressive from a skill that’s not meant to have range in the first place.”
Sherlock made sure his footsteps were loud and clear, so John didn’t flinch or startle when he put his hand on his shoulder.
John grinned – still looking far too calm for someone who was blind (temporarily!) – and slowly extended his arm until his fingers bumped Sherlock’s chest. He trailed them up over Sherlock’s shirt and neck, cupping his jaw before leaning and kissing him. It wasn’t deep, but it wasn’t exactly chaste, either; close-mouthed but hard and with a tiny flicker of tongue. Sherlock had the feeling this was the sort of kiss John would deliver when the danger was over and he was feeling affectionate.
“We thought Mycroft could stop attacks like this,” Amarisa remarked. “Or at least be warned about them? Though come to think of it, Aeliana never said exactly how he’d prevent attacks-”
Sherlock interrupted. “Moriarty has proven we’re dealing with someone Mycroft’s unprepared for.”
Usually he’d be feeling smug about that. But Moriarty was different – he wasn’t another point scored in the endless duel with his brother, he was a genuine threat to John and Amarisa. And other people as well, obviously, but Sherlock and Raniel found that less concerning.
Though this incident had showed them that Moriarty might also be a genuine threat to their parents, which wouldn’t be tolerated either.
“But why attack now?” John went on. “Moriarty’s been working with them all along, and I thought he was having far too much fun to kill you. And even if he wanted to get rid of us, the witches weren’t actually trying to kill us, were they, Risa?”
“Those arrows were never aimed above the knee,” the wolfdog confirmed.
She obviously hadn’t noticed the one lodged in the bookcase, well above knee-height – probably too preoccupied looking out for her temporarily-blind human. So they’d shot to kill with Sherlock and Raniel, but not John and Amarisa?
“And this stick knocks people out but doesn’t actually hurt them,” John added. “Well, besides the whole ‘hitting people with a stick’ bit. I mean, Aeliana said death spells were pretty much once in a lifetime deals, but still-”
“Maybe they needed to take us alive? Except that other witch was certainly trying to kill Aeliana, so maybe they don’t want other witches alive?”
“Probably too much trouble.”
Raniel leaned against Amarisa’s legs as she debated with her human, staring into Sherlock’s eyes. They could only think of one explanation for why witches would try to take John alive, but no one else.
They’d always known it was only a matter of time…but somehow, they’d still expected it to be longer. They’d thought they had more time to anticipate Moriarty’s move, more time to plan, to persuade John and Amarisa to put their safety above the cause for what must be the first time in their lives.
They’d probably never know exactly how Moriarty had found out, what questions he’d asked, how long until he’d believed the interpretation…but they knew what he’d discovered.
Moriarty knew John could read the alethiometer.
It was the only explanation. Moriarty had been so dismissive of John at the pool; even though his clan knew about the prophecy, he’d been so utterly convinced John was nothing remarkable he wouldn’t mention him at all to a raiding party, let alone instruct them not to kill him. And the witches had tried to kill him once before – they wouldn’t stay their hands for any reason of their own.
But at the same time, Sherlock knew that wasn’t all of it, not quite. If Moriarty feared John’s ability to read the alethiometer, killing him was a guarantee that threat would be removed. But instead, the witches had tried to subdue John – blinding him to make him easier to overcome, carrying a spelled object that would force him into unconsciousness, trying to put an arrow through his leg so he couldn’t run.
Moriarty had told them to bring John and Amarisa alive. Which meant that he had a use for them.
Sherlock hadn’t been the type to develop fidgets or nervous affectations (no matter what John claimed) but now he could see the appeal of them, some mindless repetitive task to settle his nerves before he informed John and Amarisa that Moriarty knew what they could do and wanted it for his own use.
But then Hasna entered, blinking a little at the sight of John in his boxers (Raniel bristled and wrapped himself possessively around Amarisa’s foreleg) and announced, “The house is clear, and there are no more sentries waiting outside.”
“Looks like you missed most of the excitement,” John grinned in Sherlock’s general direction.
He turned his head towards Hasna’s voice even though he didn’t quite manage to face her, as though he was trying to acknowledge her presence as best he could without his eyesight and without actually touching her.
Of course, Sherlock and Raniel knew ‘the excitement’, as John had put it, was only beginning. This raid might have been unsuccessful but there would be others – if Moriarty wanted John and Amarisa, he wouldn’t rest until he had them.
It seemed Hasna had finally noticed there was a problem. “John, you’re-”
“Yeah, one of the witches blinded me with some kind of spell. I’ll probably need your help with that.”
“Of course.” Hasna’s expression changed, suddenly turning serious. “Do you have the alethiometer?”
There was an urgency in her voice that arrested Sherlock’s attention instantly. John had clearly noticed as well, because he frowned and his hand tightened in Amarisa’s fur.
“No, Mycroft took it somewhere, why?”
But Hasna had gone pale, and Sherlock knew what she was about to say.
“It’s not where it should be – it’s gone missing.”
Amarisa made a strange sound, half-growl and half-sigh. Raniel turned his head into her chest, rubbing the side of his face against her sternum, glancing at Sherlock from the corner of his eye.
Apparently the raid wasn’t as unsuccessful as they’d first assumed.
Hasna looked nervous – understandably so, if Moriarty’s clan could attempt a kidnapping in this house, could sneak in and snatch an alethiometer from under their noses – but John, accustomed to take every blow life could throw at him, only sighed and pinched his eyes shut.
“Well, we’ll have to deal with that, then,” he said. “But first I need to get dressed – I’m freezing.”