Disclaimer: See Part 1.
It was disturbingly easy to make a funeral pyre for Simmons. I was still shaken as I watched the thorn-infested corpse burn, but I took comfort in the fact that however much pain he suffered due to the spell, his suffering had ended quickly (if brutally), and whatever reward awaited him beyond death would be euphoria in comparison. All the same, I found myself scrubbing my hands furiously afterwards, as conscientiously as if I were preparing for surgery, until the sight of my own blood forced me to stop. I took a deep breath to settle my nerves, bandaged my chapped hands, and rejoined my companions.
I learned a number of things over the next few days, both about my new friends and about the organization of which they were members. First, I saw that when Holmes shed the priestly robes he had donned to aid in my escape, the man beneath was very thin, putting me in mind of a scarecrow, albeit one in a well-tailored suit. His complexion was sallow, almost translucent, with what I took to be chronic fatigue or illness; his cheeks were sunken hollows, and his eyes bore deep circles, as though he were sleep-deprived – but his eyes were keen and alert nonetheless, without even a hint of the foreboding I had come to associate with those who knew what lay beneath the surface of London society. He explained to me that the amulets that he and Miss Adler wore were Elder Signs, crafted discs of granite, each with a carved sigil resembling a stylized tree limb, with five branches protruding from a central trunk.
"This will hide you from their eyes while you are with us," he explained, offering me an Elder Sign, which I put on. Immediately I felt a silence in the back of my mind, as though a clamouring, screaming crowd in my head had suddenly hushed. "And regarding that, let me see your right hand." After briefly examining the proffered extremity, he seemed to focus on the signet ring I wore on my little finger, the symbol of my position as a Royal physician. When I started in Lord William's household in that role, I was cautioned never to remove it (for ill-defined but presumably dire reasons), and by this point I had completely forgotten about it. "How many times did you try to escape?" he asked simply, but waved his hand as I sputtered at his continued display of apparent psychic powers. "Just answer the question. I will explain all in due time."
"Twice, without success," I told him, and he nodded.
"It is the nature of intelligent beings to seek to escape adverse circumstances. That, I believe, is how humans have come as far as they have, and how I believe we can drive away our adversaries. However, familiarity also breeds contempt. I imagine you have no idea of the true purpose of this ring. I have seen similar accessories on all the bound servants of the Elder Gods and their kin, and I can tell you with absolute assurance that this ring is meant to be the focus of a tracking spell when its bearer turns up missing. Indeed, so long as you wear this ring, your employer will be able to find you wherever you are."
My heart dropped, and I felt stupid for not having recognised such a simple ploy. "I'll throw it away, then," I said, pulling the ring off my finger, but Holmes shook his head.
"While this ring makes it easier for them to locate you, it will also allow you to gain entry into their more closely guarded locations – for who would question a Royal physician? Here – give it to me, as it will be kept safe until needed." He wrapped the ring in a handkerchief and pocketed it.
The rest of the evening Holmes was largely uncommunicative to either Miss Adler or myself, a state that she informed me was not unusual when he was otherwise unoccupied. He began this strange period by wrapping himself in a shabby overcoat and threadbare cap and heading out for just over half an hour, during which time I attempted to learn a few things about my new companions from Miss Adler.
Miss Adler, I learned, was an American by birth, hailing from New Jersey, and had been an opera singer, a contralto in fact, until relatively recently. While she was serving as a prima donna in the Imperial Opera at Warsaw, she had attracted the attention of the heir to the throne of Bohemia, who had used his political connections to secure her into an arranged marriage. He would not be dissuaded from this union, even though Miss Adler found him loathsome to look upon, and the thought of marriage to the man filled her with horror. She slit his throat while he was drunk with the celebratory beverages that would have killed a normal human, but merely caused intoxication in an Elder. It was not long after, while she was on the run for her crime, that she was found by the Restorationists and recruited as a spy. Her knowledge of the theatrical arts allowed her to move among the Elders with almost complete freedom, collecting documents that revealed diplomatic links and plans, as well as other information that would prove useful for planning covert strikes against the government. However, she had to be very careful during her forays, because if she was caught, a fate worse than death awaited her.
"I must say," she concluded, "That planning these excursions has been a great deal easier since Mr. Holmes joined us. His intellect is very nearly the equal of those horrors."
This surprised me, as I had been under the impression that the Elder Gods were nearly omniscient, even if man could not comprehend their way of thinking. Adler smirked at my protest.
"They wouldn't have made him one of their tacticians if they thought he was stupid," she said.
"How did you come to meet Mr. Holmes, then?" I asked, knowing from personal experience how closely they guarded their human assistants.
"We got in a knife fight," she replied blithely, and at almost that exact instant, there was a pattern of knocks at the door. Adler excused herself and let Holmes in.
"It is begun," Holmes said by way of greeting as he unwound his scarf.
For the rest of the evening Holmes would not be stirred from the makeshift study. He curled up in an old wicker chair (apparently salvaged from somewhere and patched for reuse) in a state of deep meditation, smoking a calabash pipe charged with foul-smelling tobacco and ignoring all attempts at conversation. Adler advised me to leave him be. After a modest repast of toast and a bit of ham from the surprisingly well-stocked larder, I found myself weary from that day's adventures and requested that Adler find a bed for me. Despite the Spartan accommodations and the state of my nerves, I am happy to say that that night I experienced the best night of sleep I'd had in nearly a year, quite restful and free of nightmares.
In the morning, however, I woke late and found signs of activity throughout the night, as though Holmes had not slept at all. The kitchen table was strewn with untidy stacks of paper which, I found, were covered with notes, diagrams, formulae, and in two cases hand-drawn blueprints of various government buildings that later investigation would prove to be perfectly to scale and accurate in every detail. In one case the sheet was covered with a solid block of text from edge to edge with a single sentence scribbled over and over: "I can't make it stop." This particular page disquieted me so much that I hurriedly set it back on its stack. On the floor near the table was a dirty plate bearing only a half-eaten slice of toast.
Moving away from the remains of what must have been a frenetic bout of insomnia, I found my medical bag was disarranged; in particular my notebook of sorcery was in a different position than I'd last put it. Nettled by the invasion of my belongings, I sought out my new companions, intending to question them about it. A rapid ticking noise came to my ears as I searched for them, faster than the tick of a clock or watch, which proved to emanate from behind a closed door, at which I knocked, remembering my manners despite my annoyance.
"One moment," Holmes said from within, the tick-tick-tick sound pausing only briefly. It sounded rather like the operation of a sewing machine.
A few minutes later the ticking sound stopped, and about a minute after that the two calmly emerged, looking for all the world like there was nothing at all amiss about a gentleman locking himself in a room with a woman who was (as far as I knew) not his wife. Miss Adler moved a bit gingerly, as though possessing a recently bandaged wound.
"Were any of you looking for something?" I asked, deciding for now to ignore the implications of the scene.
"I apologise for borrowing your ledger," Holmes said, "I wished to fix in my mind the sigil you showed us before applying it."
"Applying…?" I started to ask, but saw the tattoo machine in the room behind him – clearly the source of the ticking noise.
"You see, Watson," Holmes continued, "While the Sign makes us largely invisible to a casual glance from the Elder Gods, one symbol, even one as powerful as the Elder Sign, cannot be expected to protect against every magical hazard, and wearing multiple pieces of enchanted jewellery can get unwieldy and garish, and attract thieves. I have found tattooing to be an acceptable substitute, as tattoos cannot be lost, dropped, or stolen. However, considerations must be made for the peculiarities of fashion, as a visible tattoo of a known protective sigil would be most inconvenient. Particularly on a lady." He glanced significantly at Adler.
"Couldn't you have a woman apply Miss Adler's tattoo?" I asked, a bit taken aback by the logical conclusion that he had just been tattooing Miss Adler – and, to judge by the particular caution of her bearing, had done so somewhere on her back.
"I know of very few female tattoo artists in London, and I doubt very much that they would be able to scribe the intricate sigil you pointed out, even if we had any among our number. And it is important to reserve such a task only to a trusted and skilled artisan, else all will come to nought."
Despite the dire tone of this advice, Holmes appeared to my relief to be in a more communicative mood today and willing to answer my numerous questions regarding the Restorationists. After some discussion, I learned that the group's members were widely scattered throughout London, using safe-houses to meet in secret, and a tightly-held system of sigils and code-words to communicate through the agony columns via innocuous-sounding advertisements that hid in plain sight amid similar-looking requests, pleas, and solicitations.
"For example," he said from his armchair, holding up the morning paper, which was delivered by a ginger-haired street urchin for a shilling. "I have noticed a handful of messages in this morning's edition. This one, 'To M: Have received your gift. Intend to keep it. Will prove useful. See you at 9,' tells them of your escape and recruitment, and indicates that I wish to meet them at a particular location today – that event should give you a better idea of the numbers of our allies. On the other hand, this one, 'To S: FD watches the shadows for distractions. Fortune, misfortune, spectacle, 6m' refers to Prince Franz Drago, third in the line of succession to the throne of Bohemia."
"Second," I interjected, recalling Miss Adler's tale.
"No, Watson, he was fourth, until the untimely death of his eldest brother Gunther at the hands of an unknown murderer." The slight smirk that played at the corner of his mouth suggested he knew exactly who the culprit was. "In any case, our agents in the Continent have been watching him, and here provide a wealth of information that will come in handy when we meet with him."
"Do you plan on receiving him as a guest?" I asked in confusion.
"Of course, but not in a manner he anticipates. He enjoys travelling, and visits Albion often. In fact, he is due for a visit in six months. When he nibbles at the bait we offer him, he will do so as a guest of Her Majesty the Queen while staying in London. Imagine if such a Royal guest should suffer an untimely misfortune whilst in our glorious city – I estimate that a blow so close to the core of one of the Royal families will certainly get their attention, to judge by their reaction to Prince Gunther's demise. My own research into the man (confirmed here) indicates that his vices lie in gambling-houses and brothels, and he also enjoys theatre. Naturally, it would be difficult or undesirable for us to infiltrate any example of the first two categories, but a travelling theatre troupe is simple enough to impersonate, and enough time will have passed that security around Drago will either be slacking or starting to chafe. If we provide a sufficiently compelling tale for his enjoyment, there is a ninety-five percent chance that he will come here to see it."
I frowned, considering the extraordinary powers he had displayed thus far. Clearly, thought I, this man was making things harder than they needed to be.
"Yes, Watson?" he prompted.
"Could you not use your sorcery to draw him out and guarantee success?" I asked.
His head snapped up so sharply that I knew instantly I had caused offence.
"You think me a sorcerer?" he snapped.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean—" I started, but he waved me off and slumped back into the depths of the chair.
"If I had any command at all of the magickal arts, compelling his presence anywhere in the city would certainly be a lot easier, but I would be quite a bit less sane as a result, resulting in a net gain of precisely zero. I have no use for sorcery, save for those sigils that protect against those who have immersed themselves in its maddening ways. In comparison, those are harmless. Certainly you must have witnessed the consequences of practicing magic in Lord William's sorcerers." He shook his head. "My abilities are no more magical than striking a match. I observe and make inferences based on my observations – nothing more." He glanced at me. "Although I can tell that my initial deductions upon our first meeting clearly flabbergasted you."
"They did," I admitted, "And now I am forced to conclude that you must have been watching me for some time before you confronted me."
"I was, but only to determine your schedule and movements. The conclusions I related to you were made within the first five minutes of my observations."
"Well, if it wasn't magic, then how were you able to discover all that?" I asked.
There was a quiet, knowing chuckle by the kitchen table, and I glanced over to see Miss Adler sorting through the stacks of the previous night's work. Presently I saw her toss one sheet into the fire, and in the split second it was visible I saw that it was the block of repeated text that had so disquieted me.
Holmes glanced over at her and sighed quietly. "The technique is simplicity itself," he said, "Your bearing marks you as military, indicating recent service. Currently Albion has just finished with a military campaign in Afghanistan, where the sun is so strong that it would burn anyone the same brown colour you currently display, even after a year. Your limp indicates that while there you were wounded in the leg; you do not appear to suffer any pain in the limb, merely a weakness that indicates long-lasting numbness in the muscle. Combined with the state of your nerves this tells me that you encountered something quite foul in Afghanistan – likely a Shoggoth, for those frequently inhabit the caves and other dark places there. Few people are able to withstand the touch of one of those creatures without going instantly mad, so it is very likely that you were honourably discharged from further military service.
"Your subsequent position as a Royal physician necessitates knowledge in both human and Elder medicine, as evidenced by your books, and it is also quite common for someone in your position to oversee, if not be part of, sorcerous rituals, keeping the sacrifice alive until he ritual is completed. Your suicide attempts were evident by the hesitation marks on the inside of your left wrist, likely from a scalpel as you contemplated slicing open your arm. The fact that you did not follow through indicates you still value your life, even if you don't find it worth living. Your insomnia and nightmares are obvious as one of the effects of close proximity to an Elder – and quite likely his Tindalos Hounds only made it worse, as I am aware that their hunting bays frequently are heard in even the subconscious mind. During my infiltration of the manor I had occasion to see evidence of Lord William's dalliances, which would turn the stomach of any sane man of sound moral fortitude. Your choice of drink is as obvious as the smell of alcohol that clings to you, and of course you would not have tried so many methods of escape if you were satisfied with your current circumstances and employer."
I digested his words, matching up the evidence with his conclusions. He made it seem so simple!
"Yes, it does," he said suddenly.
"It does what?" I asked.
"Seem simple. By your expression you have mentally followed the trail of evidence that I have put before you and subsequently felt foolish at how obvious it is."
"Holmes, stop making fun of the man," Adler chided gently as she finished organizing Holmes' nocturnal work, "We have preparations to make for a Royal guest."
"Indeed," Holmes agreed, "Preparations to make and people to meet." He glanced at me. "Watson, it's high time you met more of our allies." He unfolded himself from the chair.
After packing up Holmes' notes and securing the previous safe-house, the three of us set out by a circuitous route through side-streets and back alleys towards the river. As we drew nearer to this once-great concourse, the smell of corruption only increased, until I felt very queasy indeed, but Holmes assured me that I would become acclimated to the stench before long. From time to time we startled a juvenile Deep One from its meal of debris and refuse, and it would scramble away from us with a screech of annoyance; to these Holmes paid absolutely no mind. As we entered the maze of warehouses that lined the Thames, I was at first wary of the roaming Adams, those hulking artificial men (invented by a German scientist whose name I do not recall nearly a hundred years ago) that served as manual labour in fields such as freight transport, in those cases when either one heavy item is to be taken to a location, or for wagonloads of goods that spook common horses when night-steeds are unavailable. Each of them was over eight feet tall, their limbs wrapped with ropes of muscle that made each one easily strong enough to lift a large horse completely off the ground; the obvious danger inherent in the possibility of one of these golems going berserk was mitigated by the collars they wore. One of them turned to watch us with pale, watery eyes as we made our way to a side entrance, his lank black hair loose around his shoulders. After a few seconds of inactivity, though, he twitched and growled as the metal collar around his neck reminded him of his current purpose with a small jolt of electricity, and he moved on; only then did Holmes give the pattern of knocks that would become so familiar to me. As before, a slot in the door opened at eye level as one of its inhabitants identified us (or at least my companions).
"I bring a new ally," Holmes said, indicating me, and the door opened to admit us.
Within the warehouse was a small gathering of perhaps two dozen men and women. Holmes introduced me to the assembled anarchists, giving a brief summary of the knowledge I brought to the table and indicating to me the role played by many of my new friends. The women were often seamstresses, nurses, and spies, generally staying out of direct combat (with the obvious exception of Miss Adler, if her tales were to be believed), while the men were saboteurs, assassins, and craftsmen of various types, both defending the safe areas while assaulting key Elder strongholds. In addition to these, Holmes explained that their cause was aided by a group of street urchins who, he suspected, first joined up in order to cause trouble but soon came to value the cause; because they could not definitively be called Restorationists, Holmes referred to them as Irregulars. Their informal leader was a clever youth of about fifteen who went by the name Wiggins, who frequently doled out to his followers the tasks that otherwise could not be done. Holmes claimed not to know the means by which Wiggins managed to pull off minor tactical miracles, but I suspected my new friend had taught the youth everything the latter knew on the subject.
Holmes indicated that I should make the formal acquaintance of our new allies, for he had a few details to iron out (though he did not specify details of what). I soon was well on my way to making friends, though I was grateful that they did not question me too closely about my previous experiences. It seemed that many of them had seen or experienced similar events, tragedies, or horrors, to judge by the expressions they wore ranging from horror to weariness to determination. They all wore the Elder Sign in some form or another; one enterprising gentleman had had a set of silver cufflinks made, while I spied a lady with a similarly decorated brooch-pin.
Strangely, while the Restorationists seemed friendly enough once Holmes and Adler had vouched for me, they seemed to know little about their chief tactician. They all agreed that Holmes hated the Elders, but nobody knew what his specific reason was. If he had any living family, he never spoke on the topic to anyone – not even Miss Adler, with whom he'd worked the most closely since joining the Restorationists. Furthermore, after some comparing of notes I noticed that he was never observed to sleep, even by people assigned to guard the place in the darkest hours, and he ate little, hardly enough for survival, or so it seemed. In apparent defiance of these sparse habits, though, he was apparently possessed of uncommon strength and agility, and was skilled in hand-to-hand combat when pressed. One such instance related to me described how Holmes disabled an opponent with three precise blows to carefully chosen areas, all executed with the speed of a snake.
However, everyone I spoke to agreed that his mental faculties were the true wonder. The last five successful attacks on Elder-held sites had been planned by him, and he had also been the one to identify me as a potential ally when I came home from Afghanistan, despite (or because of) my mental and physical state. He was able to build plans that relied on multiple factors working together in perfect harmony, and have them go off without a hitch. For his part, Holmes seemed unimpressed by his own string of successes, and when I asked him about them later, he waved them off impatiently, stating that they were "simplicity itself". It seemed, however, that the man's mind was in constant motion, and several times during that afternoon I found him in that curious state of torpor that I had witnessed the previous evening, occasionally stirring to make a note in a ledger he kept close at hand. I wondered if he was about to regurgitate another pile of frantic scribblings that night, until at last over dinner he shared with the community what had occupied his mind so completely.
As everyone was just finishing up with a modest repast of meat and fish, Holmes stood and cleared his throat, a sound that, while not loud, appeared to command the attention of those assembled almost immediately.
"As those of you who follow the Times already know," he said, "in half a year Albion will be expecting a royal visitor from Bohemia, one Franz Drago. I will not call him a prince, because he has no rightful claim to that title." This last earned him a few noises of approval. "He will not be leaving Albion at the end of his stay, because by the time his visit is concluded he will have stumbled into a trap, woven from his own vices. Drawing him in will require close cooperation and careful planning – this last, of course, I have already done.
"To ensure that he has a reason to stay in London during his visit, we will play on his love of the musical theatre and put on a sweeping drama to entertain him – something with drama, excitement, hm, romance if we must. I have already selected the most tactically sound people for the various roles in our faux theatrical troupe. We must make this look genuine for at least three performances. Therefore – Mr. Archer, composer and musical arrangement. You have a good ear and I trust that you can write a song about anything. Miss Adler, leading lady. You started in opera, and have kept your voice in good condition. Miss Morstan, costumes. You have a closely-knit covey of seamstresses at your disposal. Myself, leading man. I need to keep an eye on things from a key vantage point. Dr. Watson, playwright and acting manager. Those are the crucial roles; the rest will be filled in as needed."
I spoke up. "If I'm to act as playwright," I said, "Surely you have a play in mind already?"
"Not at all," he replied smoothly, "Because you have not yet written it."
I nearly choked on my fish.
End Part 2.