Rating: Might be verging into M (15+)
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, and am making no profit from their use, more's the pity.
Warnings: Eventual slash, Sherlock/John.
Summary: HDM AU. John and Amarisa seek employment (and try to get over Sherlock and Raniel) as the investigation into the mysterious cipher continues...
(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
Another example of the graffiti at the National Antiquities Museum lead to a trawl through graffiti hotspots. The graffiti artist accompanied them and John heroically restrained himself from punching the man in the face (though Amarisa had growled rather menacingly at his dæmon, and the snake had darted inside the man's jacket to escape). They found only a few faint traces and Sherlock demanded that they split up to cover more ground.
Which was why John was tramping along the train tracks, feeling cold and a little frustrated, his leg beginning to flare with pain and cramp. Aside from the death-spell, there was also the fatigue of over-exerted muscles – he'd kicked in a door today, no mean feat, and John knew he'd be paying for it tomorrow.
Amarisa suddenly stilled, her nose twitching.
Highly attuned to his dæmon, John knew she'd picked up something. “What do you smell?”
“Fresh paint,” she declared, closing her eyes and scenting the air. “Laid down in the last few days.”
“This way,” Amarisa called, loping into the darkness as John hurried to keep up. Sometimes he thought it was very unfair that he had such short legs while his dæmon was capable of outpacing professional athletes.
It took only one brief flash of his torch on the wall to see that it was covered with the cipher, in a far greater variety of symbols than they'd ever seen before.
“Whoa...” John exclaimed, staring at the yellow paint daubing the dark brick.
“That's a lot more complicated than a simple warning,” Amarisa pointed out, her shoulder nudging his leg.
“I'll call Sherlock,” John said, digging his phone out of his pocket.
He rang Sherlock's number, but of course there was no answer – John was starting to wonder if Sherlock actually owned his own phone or if he just borrowed everyone else's.
“Well, we're going to have to find them,” he muttered. “Honestly, would it kill him to just take a call once in a while?”
“We'd better take a photo first,” Amarisa pointed out. “Just in case we have trouble getting back here.”
John fiddled with his phone until he found the camera setting and snapped a quick photo of the wall, ensuring every part of the graffiti was clearly visible. Then they took off to find Sherlock and Raniel, and John's leg didn't twinge once.
Sherlock, of course, was poking around the train cars and in general not doing anything that would have prevented him from answering his phone.
Which was why it was the first thing out of John's mouth. “Answer your phone, I've been calling you!”
“We found it,” Amarisa declared proudly. “Follow us!”
But when they got back the wall was completely blank. At first John though they'd made a mistake, that they'd taken a wrong turning and this wasn't the wall they'd seen. But that wasn't possible – Amarisa had been leading him and she would have followed their own scents, essentially retracing their steps.
“It's been painted over!” the wolfdog exclaimed indignantly, sniffing at the bricks then sneezing, one forepaw rubbing awkwardly at her nose. “This layer's so fresh it stings!”
John took the edge of his shirt and began absently wiping off his dæmon's nose. “I don't understand...it was here ten minutes ago! We saw it – a whole load of graffiti!”
Raniel jumped from Sherlock's shoulder to the ground – John could never figure out how the polecat kept doing that without breaking one of his ankles – and began to sniff at the gravel around them, as though searching for the trail of whoever had painted the wall.
“Somebody doesn't want me to see it,” Sherlock murmured.
Then, while John was still absorbing the implications of that (the idea that someone was watching them was far from reassuring, after all), Sherlock moved. The detective abruptly spun to face him, both of his hands coming up to grip John's face, the soft leather of Sherlock's gloves cool against his skin.
John thought the fact that he hadn't moved – that his automatic reaction hadn't been to knock Sherlock's hands away and possibly break his wrists – said a lot about how much he trusted this man.
Of course, just because John trusted him didn't mean he wouldn't question him. “Sherlock, what are you-”
“Shhh!” Sherlock snapped. “John, concentrate! I need you to concentrate – close your eyes!”
“Wha-what? Why? Why? What are you doing?” To say John was bewildered was an understatement; Sherlock seemed as intent as a bloodhound on the trail of a fox, and for one wild moment John thought Sherlock was about to kiss him.
But then Sherlock's grip slid down to his shoulders and he began to turn them in a circle like some bizarre dance, and John smacked that errant thought to the back of his brain, stuffed it in a dark hole and bolted down the hatch.
Sherlock was still talking. “I need you to maximise your visual memory. Try to picture what you saw. Can you picture it?”
“Yeah...” John said slowly, another spin giving him a glimpse of Amarisa and Raniel.
The wolfdog was sitting on the gravel, Raniel a splash of white against the thick fur on her belly, and both dæmons were watching their humans with interest.
“Can you remember it?” Sherlock demanded, and John suddenly realised where this was going.
He tried to explain about the photograph Amarisa had suggested taking, but Sherlock charged onwards with all the single-mindedness of a rampaging bull. “Can you remember the pattern?”
“How much can you remember of it?”
“Well, don't worry-”
Once again, John tried to tell Sherlock he'd taken a photo, but the infuriating man interrupted him again. “Because the average human memory on visual matters is only sixty-two percent accurate.”
“What about wolfdogs?” John felt the need to ask.
He must have surprised Sherlock, because he stopped spinning them. “What?”
“Risa saw it too, you know. Are you saying her memory's worse than mine?”
John thought he heard both dæmons giggle softly, but it was hard to be sure. Sherlock looked as though he was honestly considering the concept.
“Actually, there's never been a study done on the visual memory of canines. I wonder if-”
“Never mind,” John interrupted, pulling free and reaching into his pocket.
“We took a photograph,” Amarisa said, grinning broadly.
“Oh,” was all Sherlock said, and John couldn't deny he felt a bit triumphant.
This time, John was certain he heard Raniel laugh, but when he glanced at the polecat he was perfectly calm and composed.
They went home and Sherlock printed John's photo of the graffiti many times over in many different magnifications, using the internet to work out what numbers the various symbols represented.
John would probably have felt more chuffed about their discovery if he wasn't so exhausted. Sherlock felt another trip to the museum was necessary, and abruptly proclaimed that Soo Lin was still in the building. Apparently it was all to do with teapots (really? The teapots?).
Soo Lin Yao turned out to be a pretty Chinese woman seemingly in her mid- to late twenties, and her dæmon was some kind of otter. Soon Lin herself seemed calm and collected, but her dæmon looked frazzled, his eyes constantly darting around the room, betraying her fear and dread as clearly as if he'd shouted it.
“You saw the cipher,” she said, her voice quiet. “You know he is coming for me.”
“You've been clever to avoid him so far,” Sherlock said, and John blinked at Sherlock calling someone 'clever' without a sarcastic undertone.
“I had to finish...to finish this work,” Soo Lin explained, and in her voice was something John recognised – the passion for a cause. “It's only a matter of time – I know he will find me.”
Her dæmon made a soft, mournful sound and she rested her hand on his back, curling her fingers in his short fur.
“Who is he?” Sherlock asked. “Have you met him before?”
The otter chittered nervously, and Soo Lin dropped her eyes. “When we were young, living back in China. I recognise his...signature.”
John had a feeling she wasn't telling them the whole story. Her dæmon was becoming agitated, and Amarisa moved closer to the table, coming eye to eye with the otter, whining softly in an effort to be comforting.
“The cipher,” Sherlock assumed.
Soo Lin nodded. “Only he would do this. Zhizhu.”
“Jee-joo?” John echoed.
“The spider,” Sherlock explained.
Soo Lin reached out, gently lifting her dæmon onto his hindlegs as her fingers parted his fur. John caught a glimpse of a mark on the skin of the otter's chest, like a stylised black flower, but it was too obscured by fur to get a good look.
“You know this mark?” she asked.
Sherlock glanced at it. “Yes, it's the mark of a Tong.”
John was feeling more lost by the moment. Was that really a tattoo? On Soo Lin's dæmon? “A what?”
“Ancient crime syndicate, based in China,” Sherlock muttered, almost as an after-thought. “It was supposed to have collapsed around the beginning of the twentieth century, but people believe they simply went underground.”
Soo Lin shrugged. “They only started becoming prominent in the past ten years or so. Every foot-soldier bears this mark...”
“Always on the dæmon?” Sherlock asked suddenly.
Soo Lin shook her head. “Not always. Some have it tattooed on the sole of their foot. But everyone has it – everyone who hauls for them.”
“Hauls?” John repeated. “You mean you were a smuggler?”
The bleak look Soo Lin gave him suggested smuggling wasn't all she'd been used for. She pulled her dæmon close, tucking him against her chest, instinctively seeking comfort.
“I was fifteen. My parents were dead. I had no livelihood. No way of surviving day to day, except to work for the bosses.”
Amarisa made a sympathetic noise and John felt a little guilty for asking what, in retrospect, had been a rather obvious question.
Sherlock, of course, didn't seem to have much of a sense for the delicacy of the situation and went right on with the interrogation. “Who are they?”
“They are called the Black Lotus.”
John couldn't help but think this whole scenario was sounding more and more like a James Bond film every minute – did smuggling rings really give themselves names like that? It sounded more like some sort of teenage gang than a crime syndicate.
“By the time I was sixteen, I was taking thousands of pounds of drugs across the border into Hong Kong,” Soo Lin continued. “But occasionally, I would be called upon to carry something else, something in a round metal case, a case that was always locked shut.”
John thought of the metallic scent Raniel had detected in Van Coon's suitcase, and when he caught Sherlock's eye, he knew the detective was thinking along the same lines. Granted, Sherlock was probably several steps in front of John, but at least they were on the same page.
“Do you have any idea of what was in this case?” Sherlock asked, his voice mild but his eyes feverish.
Soo Lin's dæmon was quaking in her arms and John could tell that something had happened with that case, something that had badly frightened them.
“I saw it,” she admitted quietly. “My bag was thrown to the ground, the hinges were old...they broke open.”
She swallowed harshly. “It was like a golden clock, but instead of numbers it had symbols, dozens of them. There were four hands-”
“Three were thick, weren't they?” Sherlock said, and John suddenly realised Raniel was practically quivering on his shoulder. “Like the minute or hour hands of a clock. But the fourth one was thinner, wasn't it? And it moved; spinning around at a constant pace?”
Soo Lin nodded, and and uncomfortable crawling sensation began to march along John's spine. What Sherlock had described sounded suspiciously like an alethiometer...
“I put the case back together and delivered it just as I'd been told,” Soo Lin went on. “But I was afraid they'd see the broken hinges, that they'd know it had opened. And if they'd tried so hard to hide it, what would they do to me when they knew I'd seen it?”
She shook her head. “I ran as soon as I could. I came to England. They gave me a job here – for a while, everything was good...”
“And he came looking for you,” Sherlock finished.
“Yes. I'd hoped, after five years, maybe they would have forgotten about me.” Soo Lin paused, swallowing and wiping at tears as her dæmon crooned to her.
“Did you know him well?” John asked. “When you were living back in China?”
“Oh, yes.” Soo Lin whispered, her voice hoarse. “He's my brother.”
John hadn't been expecting that.
Soo Lin told them that she and her brother had been orphaned at a young age and – with no other way of putting food on the table – had worked for the Black Lotus. Unlike her, her brother was fully committed to the cause, and worked under a Black Lotus general known as Shan.
Sherlock asked her about the code, and Soo Lin managed to tell them it was based on a book before all the lights in the building abruptly cut out.
“He's here,” Soo Lin whispered into the darkness, terror in every syllable.
John's eyes were still adjusting to the sudden gloom, but he could hear the door opening and Sherlock's distinctive footsteps hurrying away.
“Sherlock!” he hissed. “Sherlock, wait!”
“Raniel, what did we discuss not six hours ago?” Amarisa growled.
But there was no reply. Once again, Sherlock and Raniel had decided to leave them behind.
John set his teeth against both the sudden spike of pain in his leg and the urge to swear, and directed Soo Lin to crouch under the table. They already knew that Zhizhu had a gun, but John was going to rely on the darkness the man himself had provided – when shooting in poor visibility, most people tended to aim at about chest height, so it was better to crouch close to the floor.
For several moments, there was nothing but eerie silence, but then the sound of gunfire hammered against John's ears.
Amarisa yelped as though she'd been struck, and before John could catch her, she was running across the room and out the door.
John clenched his jaw against the pain of separation; that hideous pull in the chest everyone suffered when their dæmon was too far from them. It was partly physical pain – as though someone was trying to pull his heart out through his ribs – but mostly it was sheer emotional anguish, loss and grief and loneliness the likes of which he knew he couldn't survive.
John tried to hold his ground. He kept telling himself that Amarisa couldn't go far, that she was feeling the same thing, that she'd come running back any moment...
But she didn't. And eventually, inevitably, John's will broke.
He managed to retain enough presence of mind to tell Soo Lin to bolt the door after him, and then he ran after his dæmon.
With each step, the sickening stretch of their bond eased, the loneliness and pain ebbing away, but as soon as he was in the open gunshots rang out again. John dropped to the floor instinctively, crouching behind a pillar, his body thrumming with the need to get to Amarisa. He was still being tugged forward, undoubtedly in the direction Sherlock and Raniel had fled to (he could vaguely hear Sherlock bellowing something about skulls), and he risked sticking his head out from behind the pillar in an effort to locate the wolfdog.
A dark shape streaked up the stairs, and desperation lent speed to John's legs as he caught up and seized his dæmon by the scruff of her neck.
“Down!” he hissed, dragging her behind the wall that framed the staircase.
While there hadn't been any shots in the past minute or so, that was no guarantee the gunman was gone; they needed to stay under some kind of cover.
“Whoever's shooting obviously isn't a very good shot,” John whispered urgently to Amarisa. “But you never rush into a gunfight unprepared – just calm down and think about it for a bit!”
Amarisa's eyes were wild, but she nodded and took several deep breaths, obviously trying to bring herself under control. John couldn't blame her; when he'd heard the gun, some part of him had wanted to run after Sherlock as well.
John was preparing to stick his head out in an effort to see where Sherlock and Raniel were when a single gunshot rang out, but it wasn't from in front of them.
It had come from behind them – from the restoration room.
“Oh, no,” Amarisa whimpered.
John didn't even need to step inside to know what had just happened. Sure enough, Soo Lin was sprawled on the floor, a bloody gunshot wound straight through her chest and a black origami flower resting in her upturned palm.
Her dæmon had completely vanished, so John didn't both performing CPR; you could always tell when a person could be revived, because their dæmon lingered as translucent golden smoke. If there was no dæmon, there was no point.
Amarisa looked stricken, and she stepped forward as if to nose at the body but John dropped an arm around her neck to hold her back.
“I'm sorry,” she choked, turning to look at him with glassy eyes.
“It's all right.”
“If I hadn't run-”
“If you hadn't run, we'd have died, too.”
Amarisa shook her head violently. “We might have been able to stop him.”
John snorted. “Oh yeah, we'd have stopped him for all of the two seconds it would have taken him to shoot us as well.”
Amarisa was silent, and John knew he'd made his point; there was nothing they could have done. John's gun was back at the flat, and Zhizhu wouldn't have hesitated to gun them down. All their presence would have achieved was one more body on the floor.
And in many ways, Soo Lin had accepted her death. John had treated and lived with soldiers long enough to recognise when someone had resigned themselves to the end, sometimes to the extent of ignoring any paths that could have saved them.
He might only have a vague idea of how things like that worked, but John was pretty sure Soo Lin could have gone to the police and been granted protection and immunity in return for whatever evidence she could have given them. She could have left the country – if they'd waited five years before threatening her, he didn't think it likely the Black Lotus would have bothered to chase her to Norway. Even just bolting the door when he told her to might have saved her life, but in some ways, John suspected she'd welcomed death.
He couldn't imagine the kind of strain you'd live under when you knew, every second of every day, that an entire organisation (including your own brother) was after you. If Aeliana's suspicions about the witch-clan that shot him were true then John had come close to it, but it was no real basis for comparison; he'd been attacked once, then shipped back to England and left entirely in peace. It couldn't compare to being recruited into virtual slavery, just barely escaping, and living the rest of his life in fear that they'd come after him.
For five years, Soo Lin had known they were out there. The constant paranoia was probably the reason she'd been almost obsessively dedicated to her work, the reason she'd shied away from forming emotional attachments...
This was exactly what Soo Lin had been expecting, and in many ways what she wanted – an end to the fear.
Still, it didn't mean John didn't feel an aching mix of regret and grief as he gazed down at Soo Lin's motionless body.
Armed with the information Soo Lin had given them about the tattoos before she was murdered, Sherlock took Dimmock to examine the bodies currently stored away in the morgue at St. Bart's. Knowing that Van Coon's dæmon had been a beetle and Lukis' a snake – neither of them animals easily tattooed – he'd hoped to find the mark of the Black Lotus on their feet.
The tattoos had been there, of course, and Sherlock was feeling vindicated when he and John got back to the flat.
“It's more than an organisation, John,” Sherlock said, hanging up his coat on the rack. “It does some true smuggling, yes, but its primary purpose is to serve as a front for something much more concerning.”
“What do you mean?” John asked, lowering himself into his chair, Amarisa springing onto his lap and stretching herself over him like a particularly large and heavy blanket.
“What was your first reaction upon seeing their calling card?”
“Well, apart from the feeling that it was rather on the dramatic side-”
“Exactly!” Sherlock said. “Why? Why make themselves so obvious via tattoos and origami flowers? So that if at any point the organisation is exposed, people focus on the smuggling and obviously criminal aspects rather than probing deeper.”
He could see John and Amarisa consider it. After a few moments, the wolfdog spoke, “Does it have anything to do with what Soo Lin described? It sounded like...well, almost like...”
“An alethiometer,” Raniel finished. “Precisely.”
“I thought all the alethiometers were accounted for,” John pointed out. “There were never that many made, to begin with...”
“Six alethiometers were made,” Sherlock's dæmon went on. “Three are currently accounted for – one in the Louvre, one with a very wealthy collector, and the last with Mycroft.”
“Your brother has an alethiometer?” John reiterated, then rolled his eyes. “Stupid question – of course he does. Of course he has an alethiometer...”
“One was destroyed in World War One,” Raniel continued. “And the other two were lost hundreds of years ago.”
“And you think this is one of those lost alethiometers?” Amarisa assumed.
Sherlock nodded. “Soo Lin said they only became prominent ten years ago, so it's likely whoever's behind this only found it ten years ago. About that time there were rumours one of the lost alethiometers had been found in Afghanistan, but when it was investigated it turned out to be just a replica. A very convincing one, but a replica nonetheless.”
Then John had one of those moments of understanding Sherlock honestly marvelled at. “You think someone nicked it and put the replica in its place?”
Sherlock nodded again. “And the name Soo Lin mentioned – Shan, remember?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“A blind Chinese woman named Shan was once employed to read the alethiometer at the Louvre. Now I'm sure there are many 'Shans' in China, but it all seems a bit too coincidental.”
“Who can create a fake smuggling ring just to traffic an alethiometer around the world?” John asked, absently scratching at his dæmon's ears. “Seems a bit extreme, really.”
Sherlock couldn't help but wonder if it this was at all related to Moriarty, whoever he, she or they were. He shook the thought away – it was pointless speculation at this point, and wouldn't help them here.
“And why kill Soo Lin now?” John went on. “I mean, if they'd left her alone for five years...”
Amarisa finished her human's thought. “Did they find her only recently, or is there another reason they wanted her dead now instead of five years ago?”
“I don't know,” Sherlock admitted, crossing the room to the laptop resting on the desk.
He needed to look at the antiquities auctions. While it was true they still had no clear idea what these people were smuggling, antiquities were their best bet. Soo Lin had mentioned drugs, but they were a dead lead – the entire load would have been absorbed by the black market by now, and would be impossible to trace. Antiquities, on the other hand, would leave a trail.
It would also be much easier to cover up the alethiometer. After all, if a drug mule was suddenly asked to carrying an object sealed in a metal case, they might become suspicious or curious and take a look. But give it to someone smuggling antiquities, and it would seem like just another haul.
“What are you after?” John asked, leaning to the side in an attempt to peer at the screen.
“We think they were smuggling antiquities,” Raniel said.
Sherlock couldn't be certain, but Amarisa seemed to be frowning when she spoke. “But why kill Lukis and Van Coon? If the smuggling is just a front, wouldn't murder draw unnecessary attention?”
Sherlock answered that himself. “Even if you're not a true smuggling ring, you still don't let people steal from you.”
He found a painting, sold for half a million pounds, that matched the dates inscribed in Lukis' diary and Van Coon's schedule. The metallic smell in Van Coon's suitcase indicated it had likely been he who'd carried the alethiometer...but what had been stolen, and which one of them had been carrying it? Van Coon seemed more likely – the alethiometer was far smaller than a painting, so it stood to reason he'd been given something else to carry as well – but what exactly was it, and what had he done with it?
Sherlock also found a statue and a pair of vases that corresponded to either Van Coon's or Lukis' trips to Hong Kong – whoever had set this up was making a tidy profit on the side. Then Dimmock arrived with the books Sherlock had asked for, and an evidence bag with the photographs of the cipher they'd asked Soo Lin to examine.
The policeman actually offered to help them, as if Sherlock would agree to work with anyone besides John. Everyone else was just far too...irritating...for him to be around them for any length of time.
Then John had to go to work in the morning, which was distasteful but the man seemed to think it somehow necessary, and then...and then John went and got a date, of all things. With that woman at the surgery.
Still, at least John took his suggestion about the circus and Sherlock could get a good look at her.
He supposed Sarah was what people called a 'good catch', but really, she was far too dull and ordinary for John. It was true that her dæmon – a rock pigeon (Columba livia livia) named Vassilian – was a colour variant, but it wasn't much of one. He wasn't pure white, more like his feathers were partly white and then speckled with brown on the ends.
“He looks like an egg,” Raniel muttered resentfully when they saw Sarah and Vassilian for the first time. “A stupid, spotty egg.”
Sherlock agreed. Unlike Raniel (whose pure white fur lent him a sense of elegance), Vassilian just looked foolish, and both he and Sarah were...well, they just weren't right for John and Amarisa.
So he and Raniel largely ignored them in favour of watching the circus perform, alert for the presence of anyone with a water vole dæmon. While it was far from certain that Zhizhu and his associates had used the old 'performing artists' trick to get into the country, the fact that this particular circus was performing for one night only was rather suspicious.
Yet there was no sign of the water vole dæmon. The woman who seemed to be in charge had a Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis), and the man who played the part of an escape artist had an Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster), but Sherlock had yet to see a mammal. He spared a brief moment to regret that the article on the alethiometerist Shan had never mentioned what kind of dæmon she had – the woman's deliberate movements, the way she never truly made eye contact with anyone and the fact that the alligator was subtly guiding her at times led Sherlock to suspect that she was blind. But as the article hadn't even included a picture, there was no way to be sure that this was Shan.
He and Raniel slipped away as soon as they could, going backstage in the hopes of finding proof that either this collection of performers were innocent, or that they were working for the Black Lotus.
Proof was indeed found in the form of cans of yellow spray-pain and being attacked by one of the performers. Within minutes, the circus degenerated into a panicked mob (and all right, Sarah proved herself marginally useful when she dealt with Sherlock's attacker) which provided the perfect cover for the rest of the smugglers to escape. By the time Inspector Dimmock showed up, the hall had been cleared out and scrubbed with something that smelled strongly of eucalyptus and tea-tree, which Sherlock suspected had been done purely to prevent Kitra from picking up on the assassin's scent.
Sherlock knew he wasn't the only one displeased at the fact that Sarah and Vassilian accompanied them back to the flat – Raniel was bristling, pointedly ignoring Amarisa and occasionally muttering darkly into Sherlock's collar. Even the interest she and Vassilian took in his work didn't endear them to Sherlock at all, only set his teeth on edge and made Raniel hiss to himself.
Even when Vassilian noticed that two words of the cipher had been translated by Soo Lin, Raniel didn't so much as glance at the bird. But if Soo Lin had managed to translate part of it, that meant the book she'd spoken of would be in the restoration room.
Sherlock and Raniel left as quickly as they could, almost flattening a German couple in their haste to hail a cab. They exclaimed in anger as their dæmons hissed and spat, and Sherlock bent down to pick up the book he'd knocked out of the man's grasp, handing it back with an automatic, hurried apology.
But that had made them miss the cab, and Sherlock clenched his jaw in annoyance as he glanced around for another one.
“That was the London A to Z,” Raniel suddenly whispered.
“Yes, what of it?” Sherlock snapped, wondering if he should run to the corner and try his luck there.
“The London A to Z,” Raniel repeated. “Everyone has the London A to Z – everyone!”
Realisation unfolded in Sherlock's head in one crystal-clear moment of understanding. He searched his memory – yes, that book had been in Van Coon's apartment, in Lukis' as well, and in the restoration room where Soo Lin died.
They were using the London A to Z.
Sherlock ran to catch up with the German couple, practically tearing the book from their hands, and within moments had translated the cipher in the bank and the one John and Amarisa had found by the train tracks.
The symbols left in the bank, the library and the museum were indeed a threat. Deadman – simplistic, but it certainly got the point across.
The ones found at the train yard, however, were instructions.
Nine mill for jade pin dragon den black tramway
Elated, he and Raniel rushed back up the street to 221b, already calling out as they climbed the stairs.
“John!” Sherlock bellowed, eager to share his discovery. “John, I've got it!”
Then he saw the empty kitchen, and the yellow paint on the windows.
For a moment, Sherlock felt sickeningly disoriented, as though the floor had shifted under his feet. Raniel gave a thin, high scream of shock and horror.
Even an imbecile could see what had happened. The Black Lotus had been here, and they'd taken John and Amarisa. Sarah and Vassilian too, but Sherlock and his dæmon were much less concerned about that. It was the sort of thing John would scold him for, but it was the truth.
He was an idiot. A blind, stupid, naive, idiot. Ever since the cipher had been painted over at the train yard he'd suspected someone was watching them – he should have seen this coming! He should have taken precautions, should have insisted John have his gun on him at all times, should have refused to let John and Amarisa out of his sight for even a moment, but he hadn't – he'd been complacent and unforgivably slow-witted and now...
Now they'd taken John, and Sherlock had been mere feet away when it happened – why hadn't he realised?
More disturbingly, why hadn't John (and Amarisa come to that) put up enough of a fight to make it nigh-impossible not to realise? If John and his dæmon had shouted even once, Sherlock was certain Raniel at least would have heard them, but instead the abduction had been executed quietly enough that they'd been completely unaware of it.
Which meant either John and Amarisa had been caught by surprise, or something had been done to prevent them from fighting back or crying out.
Raniel was twisting in awkward circles on the table as Sherlock dug out a map and desperately tried to determine what 'dragon den black tramway' referred to.
“It will be all right,” Sherlock muttered to his dæmon, hoping to convince himself at the same time. “If they wanted to kill John, they would have done it. Instead, they just abducted him – he's still alive, and they'll keep him that way.”
“Only because they want the pin!” Raniel shrilled. “They probably think John and Amarisa know where it is – they could be torturing them!”
Anyone else would have told their dæmon to stop being hysterical, but Sherlock couldn't, because he knew how horrifyingly likely that scenario was. These people clearly didn't baulk at murder in the name of their organisation, and so were unlikely to shrink from torture.
It might been easier to bear if John and Amarisa were the sort who folded under pressure, if they would give up everything they knew quickly. But they weren't. If they thought their information might put Sherlock and Raniel in danger, they wouldn't say a word.
And he doubted the Black Lotus employed professional torturers – it would be easy for one of them to make a mistake, to go too far...
To accidentally kill John and Amarisa while trying to extract information from them.
Sherlock had never prayed in his life, but now he thought he understood why people felt the need.
AN: Thanks to my marvellous beta, ginbitch , who helped me tweak several parts of this chapter!
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: Structrual Integrity
Part Twelve: The Reader