"Hungry?" John asked as he dug some bread, cheese and ham out of the Holmes' gigantic kitchen.
He wasn't getting his hopes up, but it never hurt to ask.
"Working!" Sherlock snapped.
John rolled his eyes at Amarisa, and his daemon whuffed softly in amusement.
"You know," John went on in a conversational tone as he fixed himself a ham and cheese sandwich. "I can cite several convincing studies on the detrimental affect hunger has on concentration and memory retention."
"What would be the point?" Raniel snorted. "None of them were studying us."
John laughed – he couldn't help it – and Amarisa gave the polecat a pointed nudge with her muzzle.
"Sometimes I think we've found the borders of your ego, and then you go and remind us that your ego apparently has no limits," she sniffed. "Are you really suggesting you're so unique as to merit entirely new studies?"
"Of course," Raniel said, sounding genuinely surprised she'd ever thought otherwise.
He and Sherlock were in front of a laptop – a different laptop from the one in their room, and John wondered if the whole family was as enamoured of computers as Sherlock was.
"What are you looking at?" Amarisa asked.
It was a mark of how large she was that she didn't need to put her front paws up on the table to be level with Raniel.
"The financial records of Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain," Sherlock answered, his voice clipped.
If that abrupt tone had come from anyone else, John and his daemon would have assumed they'd done something to offend them. But that was just Sherlock – he always got snappy when he was busy. The fact that he'd answered at all meant that he was eager to include them in the investigation.
"Anything interesting?" John asked, taking his plate and sandwich and positioning himself so he could look over Sherlock's shoulder.
"The usual eclectic combination of shares and stocks," Raniel sniffed, resting his chin on Amarisa's muzzle in a rather proprietary gesture. "But there's a common thread – over half of the companies own overseas mines or smelting factories. Largely iron and titanium, but some tungsten, tin, manganese and copper as well."
John was opening his mouth to ask 'why', when Amarisa suddenly moved, her ears pricking and her nose swinging out from underneath Raniel's head to point at the door.
A moment later, Mycroft walked in, with Tehayla on his shoulder.
"Moriarty is gone," he pronounced, not bothering with any kind of greeting or prelude.
John was grateful that years in the army had suppressed his startle reflex until it was only a rapid blink. Amarisa padded to his side, and he reached down to curl his fingers in her fur.
"What?" Sherlock snapped. "He can't be gone."
"'Gone'?" John repeated. "As in, run off?"
"Yes, John," Raniel hissed. "Gone as in 'run off', if that's how you want to put it."
Amarisa cocked her head, staring the polecat and his human. "Seriously?"
"Mycroft is never anything but serious," Raniel snorted.
"But no big dramatic showdown, no final confrontation, not even an attempt to find out how we knew about his spies?" John wondered. "Doesn't seem his style."
"It's not," Sherlock muttered, his eyes getting that hyper-focused look they always wore when he was picking at a case. "Which means that it was a deliberate retreat – we didn't scare him off, he chose to leave. But why?"
Mycroft smiled in a way that always made John wonder if it was deliberately tailored to seem as insincere as possible. "Well, I'll leave that to you – I have some housecleaning to do."
John watched the door shut behind him, and Amarisa wondered aloud, "Is 'housecleaning' some kind of euphemism for interrogating Moriarty's spies?"
"Very likely," Raniel said. "Mycroft always says he's housecleaning whenever he suspects a leak."
Amarisa snickered, and though John shot her a disapproving look he couldn't stop his lip from twitching.
"But why?" Sherlock suddenly burst out.
John frowned. "Why housecleaning?"
"No, not the housecleaning – try to keep up! There was no reason for Moriarty to withdraw at such an early stage, no reason not to try to fight for this organisation that will supposedly hand him the keys to Great Britain when needed…unless, for whatever reason, Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain was not his mainstay, but then what was?"
Sherlock's fingers drummed on the arm of the chair for a moment, and Raniel's tail flicked.
"We need to speak to the Gyptians!" Sherlock declared, leaping to his feet as though his legs were spring-loaded.
"We do?" Amarisa echoed. "Why?"
"Boats!" Sherlock exclaimed, scooping Raniel up and practically running out of the room.
Amarisa growled in exasperation, and John sighed. "Sometimes, I wish they were quite so melodramatic."
At least he'd managed to eat half his sandwich.
Sherlock knew he rarely drove – cabs were so much more efficient, never had to worry about parking – but he still didn't think the sight of him behind the wheel merited the flabbergasted expression on John's face.
"You can drive?" Amarisa said as she clambered into the backseat, disbelief in her voice.
"Of course we can drive," Raniel snorted. "How else would we get out here for the Christmas parties?"
John grinned wryly. "I just figured you teleported."
"Astounding as some of my skills may seem, I have not yet managed to master teleportation," Sherlock drawled, feeling ridiculously charmed.
"Can we get a move on?" Amarisa asked, her ears pricked towards the house and her tail stiff.
Sherlock could feel his eyes narrowing. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's 'wrong', per se," John muttered, looking furtive. "But the alethiometer is still in my pocket, and I think your brother might object when he finds it missing."
Raniel laughed as Sherlock started the car and sped down the driveway. John and Amarisa kept glancing over their shoulders as though worried Mycroft was about to come flying out after them.
"He probably won't notice it's been taken for at least three hours," Sherlock offered. "He and Mummy have been busy."
"Yeah, I noticed Tamsyn and Hasna had kind of disappeared," Amarisa mused. "Witch business?"
"Relocating some artefact that one of Moriarty's spies in the Consul was showing a bit too much interest in," Raniel sniffed.
John frowned. "Should we be worried? Granted, Moriarty with a witch artefact doesn't sounding as terrifying as Moriarty with the Maystadt Guillotine, but still."
"Hardly," Sherlock scoffed. "Witch artefacts never have working spells on them – they're far too old. They are valued for the history behind them, not because they do anything of use."
"So why is it a problem if Moriarty's interested in it?" John wondered.
"Wait, wait!" Amarisa broke in. "I think I remember Hasna saying something about this in Afghanistan. Remember, when we were discussing the Crusades and the myth of the Holy Grail?"
"Oh, yeah," John nodded. "Didn't she say something about how a witch clan's status is linked to how many artefacts they hold?"
"Exactly!" Amarisa exclaimed. "So having one stolen would mean losing a lot of face."
Raniel chuffed in irritation. "Pointless game-playing, but it wouldn't surprise me."
"It wouldn't surprise you?" John echoed, looking bewildered. "You mean you don't actually know?"
"Why should I?" Sherlock pointed out.
"The politics of witch clans have very little to do with crime," Raniel added. "And when they do…"
"Mycroft never lets us, and I quote, 'meddle in clan affairs'," Sherlock spat.
It didn't rankle much, given that politics was more about subterfuge and diplomacy than actual crime, but there had been that case five years ago with that Greek translator that had looked so interesting…
"He says we're not diplomatic enough," Raniel grumbled.
John's face contorted, as though he was trying to hide a smile, and Amarisa made the soft, muffled whines that denoted smothered laughter in a wolfdog.
"What's so funny?" Raniel growled.
"You're many things, but diplomatic is certainly not one of them," John grinned.
Sherlock was trying to determine whether that was an insult (and if so, what should be done about it), when Amarisa spoke up.
"We don't blame you – we've never seen much merit in the 'keep your enemies closer' thing."
But in spite of their cheer, the mention of Mycroft had made them edgy again, and it was only when the house vanished around the bend that John dug his hand into his coat pocket and produced the alethiometer.
"Any particular reason you took that?" Raniel asked. "Annoying Mycroft is a perfectly valid reason in and of itself, of course, but was there anything else?"
"I don't really know," John mused, staring at the thirty-six symbols and the ever-moving needle. "It sounds ridiculous – it's just a hunk of metal, it's not like it has feelings – but I feel as though it…likes me, or something. And that I should keep it with me."
It did sound ridiculous, and if anyone else had said that, Sherlock would have sneered at them. But aside from the fact that this was John and Amarisa, he knew that John and his daemon seemed to possess an awareness that other people simply…didn't. As though they existed on some kind of higher plane, separate from the rest of humanity – even from Sherlock and Raniel.
Most of the time, thinking about that produced a strange feeling of mingled excitement and triumph. But sometimes – like now – Sherlock found some wistful part of himself wishing he could see what John saw.
Raniel – previously draped across Sherlock's lap – climbed his human's shirt and jumped into the backseat, landing next to Amarisa. The sound seemed to shake John and the wolfdog out of some sort of reverie.
"So," John said, tucking the alethiometer away again. "Gyptians – why?"
"Moriarty retreated, yes?" Sherlock began. "So clearly, his insipid little organisation wasn't important to him, but we need to find out if it hid anything of importance. He's left the country, but what did he take with him?"
"And if you want big things moved quickly and anonymously, you use the waterways," Raniel piped up from where he was snuggled between Amarisa's forelegs. "He probably wouldn't have hired actual Gyptians, but they make it their business to know everything that happens on the water."
"So if there have been any new boats around, they'll know about it," John finished. "Brilliant."
John had called him 'brilliant' and the various synonyms thereof so many times that even Sherlock had lost count. So it was completely ridiculous that the strange flush of pleasure those compliments gave him had yet to abate. A glance in the rear-view mirror showed him Raniel had turned away in embarrassment to groom his fur.
Sherlock made himself snort. "Hardly. If he's fleeing the country, he won't want to be encumbered with anything not strictly necessary – he's far more likely to have moved money electronically and anonymously."
"Still, it can't hurt to check," Amarisa said philosophically. "Do you want us to ask the alethiometer?"
"Probably not the best idea," her human cut in. "The alethiometer can be very literal, remember? And with only three hands to structure the question, it's difficult to be very specific. We ask it what Moriarty took with him, I bet we'll get what he actually physically carried with him – like, say, a toothbrush and a change of clothes."
Raniel made a noncommittal humming noise, then wriggled into the thick hair that covered Amarisa's chest and rested his head on her paw.
The main problem with driving a car to London was that you then had to find somewhere to park it. Sherlock decided to head to the MET, largely because there were always a few spaces open there and he could easily talk his way in.
"You're sure your brother's not going to have me arrested?" John asked abruptly, his fingers curled over the pocket that contained the alethiometer.
"Doubtful," Raniel replied, gazing out the window with Amarisa. "He hasn't had us arrested yet."
Amarisa looked down at the polecat. "You know, if you were anyone else, we'd probably ask why he'd want to arrest you."
John chuckled; a sign that he was amused, but still worried. When John was truly happy he giggled like a prepubescent child – a high-pitched, breathless sound Sherlock found ridiculously endearing.
"What's wrong?" Raniel asked, fixing his eyes on John.
"It's just…taking the alethiometer was an impulse," John shrugged. "I don't usually listen to impulses about things like that. So now some part of me is wondering if this thing can somehow control people."
Amarisa made a strange, uncertain noise – part growl, part whine.
"On the contrary, I think taking it was a sensible idea," Sherlock cut in. "We are essentially at war with Moriarty, with all the dangers that implies. The alethiometer is a powerful weapon in that war, one that only you can use – what would have been the point of leaving it with my brother?"
Though Sherlock could admit he and Raniel would have been happier if John and Amarisa stayed at the house with three witches on hand to protect them. But they couldn't trust that John and Amarisa's noble impulses wouldn't lead them into ill-advised self-sacrifice if the house was attacked – at least this way, they could keep an eye on them.
Sherlock was broken out of his thoughts by the sound of John's giggle – no chuckle this time, but an actual giggle. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing," John grinned, reaching behind him to rub his daemon's ears. "I was just thinking that you always know how to cheer me up, and wondering what that says about my sanity."
Sherlock had a full second to absorb that before Amarisa – obviously recognising their surroundings – asked, "Hey, are we going to see Lestrade?"
"Wasn't planning on it," Sherlock said shortly, turning the car into the car park.
"Then why are you pulling into the MET carpark?"
"Because I know there's always a space or two available."
John giggled again, and Amarisa whuffed in amusement as Sherlock pulled into the first available space.
"He does still need our statements, though," John pointed out as he opened the door to let Amarisa jump down.
"So?" Sherlock snorted, letting his own daemon take his customary place on his shoulder.
"So I'm not going to make his already difficult job more miserable just because you're impatient," John said, he and Amarisa already making for the entrance.
"Where do you think you're going?" Raniel squeaked indignantly.
"To see Lestrade," Amarisa replied, looking mischievous as she grinned her dog-grin. "You coming?"
As if she and John knew the worry that lurked at the back of Sherlock's and Raniel's mind, the thought that maybe – with their government spies being ferreted out and Moriarty on the run – the witches would be willing to risk striking the wolfdog and her human down, regardless of Mycroft's power and influence.
"That's cheating," Raniel grumbled as he and Sherlock followed them.
"I'll make it up to you," John tossed over his shoulder, with a grin and wink.
Sherlock had never seen the point of innuendo (if you were talking about sex, why not say so outright?) but looking at the teasing, almost daring expression on John's face, like he was sharing a secret, Sherlock thought he could begin to grasp the appeal.
The grin Amarisa was wearing now was closer to a wolf's than a dog's.
Lestrade was surveying the neat pile of paperwork on his desk and wondering if he could somehow procrastinate for another hour or so.
Zarania shot him a sharp glare, and snapped her beak at him. "No you don't – we promised we'd get the desk tidy today."
"Doesn't mean I have to like it," Lestrade grumbled.
Times like these – times of politics and bureaucracy, everyone wondering just how long a self-proclaimed 'master criminal' had been around and why no one had noticed it before – drove him quite close to regretting his promotion.
He glanced up, letting his eyes skim the desks outside his office, hoping for some kind of problem or even an emergency that would need his immediate attention and justify abandoning the desk for another day…
When he saw John and Amarisa step out of the elevator, closely followed by Sherlock and Raniel, Lestrade had to work hard to keep the grin off his face. He allowed himself a little snicker of relief, swiftly followed by a soft sigh of resignation – taking Sherlock's statement was always a nightmare – and was composed by the time John opened his office door.
Usually he sent one of his people to take statements, but dealing with Sherlock was a very cruel and unusual punishment, and none of them had done anything to deserve it. At least, not recently.
"Hi," John greeted, sounding sheepish.
"Hello, Zarania," Amarisa said, looking up at the falcon on her perch and wagging her tail.
Lestrade could admit he'd been curious when he'd learned Amarisa was a wolfdog, curious enough to look into it. He and Zarania had learned about wolf-exclusive behaviours and dog-exclusive behaviours, that wolfdogs could mix and match them, and it had made them wonder if it was natural for Amarisa to wag her tail, or if she did it because people expected her to.
It had also made them wonder why having a wolf daemon was supposed to be a bad thing. Sure, everything they read was filled with words like 'apex predator' and 'specialised hunter', but it was just as liberally sprinkled with 'social', 'pack-oriented' and 'protective'. Wolves were one of the few animals that formed monogamous mating pairs, and were even known to drive away bears when they were defending their den or offspring.
People usually held up the vicious Tartar warriors as an example of why people with wolf daemons were to be feared, along with Genghis Khan and his daemon Kalazhad. And there was certainly something to those stories – both the Tartars and Genghis Khan had committed terrible atrocities. But there were two sides to every story, and people often forgot that the Tartars had been so feared because of the strong sense of community and loyalty that held them together, that drove each man to fight for his friends and brothers rather than himself. Before they set out to found the largest contiguous empire in recorded history, Genghis Khan and Kalazhad rose from starvation and poverty to unite clans that had been warring for centuries. Lestrade wondered idly how the man would have coped with Anderson and Sherlock.
Perhaps people with wolf daemons were fierce and frightening…but only to those they considered enemies.
"How are you two holding up?" Lestrade asked, taking in Sherlock and John with a policeman's eye.
Sherlock looked disgruntled, but that was the expression he usually wore whenever he was in the station. But this time, it had an extra edge of irritation to it, and judging by the way Raniel was frowning at Amarisa, Lestrade was willing to bet Sherlock had never had any intention of coming down and giving his statement. He shared an amused glance with his falcon daemon, and turned his attention to John.
In many ways, John and Amarisa were actually harder to read than Sherlock and Raniel. They were certainly more expressive than the consulting detective and his daemon (you could practically track John's thoughts by the contortions his face made), but that was only superficial – if John and Amarisa actually decided to hide what they were feeling, be it fear or irritation or sorrow, you'd never even suspect something was wrong.
After all, just look at the way Amarisa behaved. She was always polite and welcoming, deliberately down-playing the wolf side of herself so as not to put other daemons on edge, and she let other daemons touch her…but the only daemon Lestrade and Zarania had ever seen her actually reach out to was Raniel. John and Amarisa seemed very personable, very open, but they let you as close as they wanted and no further.
Right now, John looked a little embarrassed, his eyes somehow managing to convey the fact that he was very sorry for the delay in taking their statements and making Lestrade's job that much more complicated without saying a word…but that was all Lestrade could read. If John and his daemon were shaken after being strapped to a bomb or nervous at the prospect of being hunted by a witch clan, there was no sign.
"We're doing alright," John grinned. "I think."
"Well, I'm not sure how you're meant to 'hold up' when you find out you're the subject of a prophecy. Whenever someone mentions it I still get the urge to tell them to pull the other one."
Lestrade couldn't deny he was curious. "What is the prophecy, can I ask?"
"He will walk the fringes and his daemon will set him apart," Sherlock said, the first time he'd spoken. "He will find a home with the outcasts and his soul will be unique. A witch will raise him and the witches will protect him. He will forge his own path and he will answer his country's call. Loneliness will know him, death will touch him, he will see what others are blind to and he will know what others cannot see. And he will be our destruction. And he will be our downfall."
Some parts sounded almost nonsensical, but it sent a small wave of goosebumps up Lestrade's arms, nevertheless. Zarania ruffled her feathers and shifted on her perch, a sure sign she was agitated.
"You know," Lestrade said slowly. "If it was anyone else, I'd laugh, but knowing you two are the subject of a witch prophecy makes a disturbing amount of sense."
John chuckled. "Is that a compliment or a criticism?"
"It can't be both?"
Amarisa made a chortling sound of amusement, and John ruffled her fur with the backs of his fingers. Lestrade was fairly certain he even heard Raniel muffle a snigger in Sherlock's collar.
"So…" Lestrade announced, trying to get them back on track. "Statements?"
"I am complying under protest-" Sherlock began, and Lestrade snorted as Zarania screeched in laughter.
"Not any different from the usual, then."
"It's a ridiculous rigmarole," Sherlock snapped. "You already know what happened-"
"They don't know everything that happened, Sherlock," John interrupted. "But hey – points for the alliteration of 'ridiculous rigmarole'."
Sherlock scowled, but the effect was rather ruined by the way Raniel was making little squeaky giggles through his teeth.
In the end, John and Amarisa had given their statement first, hoping to lead by example. Which they doubted would work on Sherlock and Raniel, but they could at least try.
They had debated over whether or not to tell Lestrade about Moriarty touching Amarisa. John could admit their first impulse had been to keep it a secret – being violated like that was deeply personal, and it wasn't easy to talk about – but if Lestrade and his people had even the slightest chance of encountering Moriarty, they needed to know what he was capable of.
Mycroft had said Moriarty had fled Britain, but John could admit he was rather disinclined to trust that. Wouldn't it be in Moriarty's best interests to let them think that he'd gone, but keep working behind the scenes and just try to keep a much lower profile?
Granted, since no one had even known he'd existed before he started playing this game with Sherlock, John and Amarisa weren't sure how it was possible for him to keep a lower profile, but they weren't letting their lack of imagination deter their theory. Sherlock and Raniel seemed to agree that Moriarty had left the country, but John and his daemon couldn't shake the fear that Moriarty was playing with them, that he was watching them, that they'd turn around and he'd just be there.
When they were finished, they waited outside the office while Sherlock gave his statement (one they were both sure would include far too many references to the supposed incompetence of the police), and every time a short, dark-haired man in a suit walked by John couldn't stop himself from tensing. Amarisa was leaning against his legs, and the fur on her neck bristled every time she caught a whiff of strong cologne.
John and the wolfdog were aware they were being paranoid, but felt they had good reason to be.
The door clicked open, producing a disgruntled Sherlock and Raniel and an exasperated Lestrade.
"We're done," Lestrade announced, with the long-suffering sigh possessed by all policemen who had to work with Sherlock. "Now for Christ's sake, take him back to wherever you two were hiding."
John laughed, not surprised that Sherlock had managed to sour Lestrade's mood within twenty minutes. Moriarty had scared him, and Sherlock got snippy and vicious when he was scared.
"You were the one pestering us to further your foolish bureaucracy," Sherlock sniffed as Raniel's nose wrinkled, as though in disgust.
With that last cut delivered, Sherlock strode away, making a beeline for the elevator.
But John and Amarisa lingered.
"Sorry about…" John waved an arm in Sherlock's general direction, hoping it would convey his meaning. "It's just that-"
"I know, Moriarty scared the shit out of him," Lestrade interrupted bluntly. He was looking at John, but Zarania was focused intently on the retreating forms of Sherlock and Raniel.
John shrugged. "Wasn't quite how I was going to put it, but you're right."
"Come on, John!" Sherlock called, sounding as frustrated as if John and Amarisa were holding up a particularly spectacular chase.
John rolled his eyes, and Amarisa made a soft, chortling sound of amusement.
"Sorry, got to go save the world," John quipped.
"Or Sherlock, which is a probably a lot more difficult," Lestrade snorted, before suddenly sobering. "Be careful, all right?"
John nodded, refraining from mentioning that he and Amarisa were nervous enough – they didn't need Lestrade's warning – then jogged to catch up with Sherlock and Raniel.
"What were you talking about?" the polecat asked as soon as the elevator doors closed.
"Just a friendly warning to watch our backs," John replied. "This prophecy business has him worried."
"And it doesn't have you worried?" Sherlock snapped.
"Of course it does," Amarisa huffed. "But we're used to being in danger – it's different when you're safe, and someone else is in the firing line."
Sherlock made the kind of noise that indicated he was mulling that statement over, but John caught the way Raniel shifted his grip on Sherlock's collar, as though uncomfortable. They might like to pretend they didn't know what it was like to worry about someone else, but he and Amarisa knew better.
"So, is Lestrade going to investigate those mines?" John asked as they made their way out of New Scotland Yard and into clouded daylight.
Sherlock didn't say anything.
"We didn't tell him about the mines," Raniel admitted.
"What?" Amarisa barked. "Why?"
John rubbed his forehead, and took a moment to reflect that he should have mentioned them in his own statement. But Sherlock had known more about them, and he and Amarisa had just assumed Sherlock would be the one to tell Lestrade…
John supposed they should have known better than to assume anything with regards to Sherlock and Raniel.
"He doesn't need to know," Sherlock said in the kind of lofty tone that seemed to imply mere mortals could not understand his thought processes.
"Sherlock…" Amarisa growled softly, giving him a stern look.
"Well, think about it!" Raniel protested, sounding indignant. "If he wants to investigate, he has to tell the rest of his team, doesn't he? And police are the worst gossips."
John felt like protesting on Lestrade's behalf, but he knew the polecat was right – police investigation depended upon a lot of people knowing exactly what was going on. And considering the vast network of spies Moriarty had possessed in the government, it wasn't exactly a stretch to assume he had police working for him as well. So perhaps it was a good idea to keep what little information they had to themselves, for a while at least.
"Fair point," John said at last. "So where are we going to find the Gyptians at this time of day?"
It turned out that at this time of the day, most Gyptians not at work would be found moored at a nice waterfront pub. As usual, Sherlock seemed to know where every single one was, and chose the ones his contacts frequented.
They didn't find Marge Costa this time (which was a little disappointing – she and her husband had been very friendly) but instead a tall, well-built man with tattoos, red hair, and a goat daemon. Sherlock and Raniel went to greet him but John and Amarisa hung back, unable to quell the need to keep their eyes on the door, to keep track of the various exits.
"This isn't healthy," Amarisa muttered. "This is twice now we've been obsessed with checking people's faces and I can't seem to stop sniffing the air, trying to pick up the scent of his goons."
"I don't think we'll enjoy public places for the next week or so," John sighed, reaching down to rub the wolfdog's ears. "Though I suppose it could have been worse."
Amarisa's giggle was strained and nervous, but it was a giggle nevertheless. "Really, if all we take away from…that…is a bit of anxiety around strangers, we're getting off very lightly."
John put his hand in his pocket, feeling the weight of the alethiometer. The metal was warm against his fingers, but then, it had never truly felt cold. Perhaps because the first time he'd touched it had been in a large, heated room, and now it had been tucked in his pocket for hours and was undoubtedly warmed by his body heat…but he couldn't help but think it was something more. He felt that same, dim stirring that he did the first time he touched the alethiometer, the feel of something acknowledging him, waiting for a request.
Amarisa knew what he was doing of course – her golden eyes were fixed on the pocket containing the alethiometer, and the hair along her back was beginning to prickle.
"It feels strange, doesn't it?" she whispered. "Almost like it's alive."
John nodded absently, still running his fingers over the warm gold. It was actually a rather unsettling concept – John and his daemon were the practical sort, used to dealing with what they could see or feel, and this was a bit more mystical than they were used to.
Later, John and Amarisa were never entirely sure what drove them to do it. Maybe the alethiometer was alive and wanted to be asked questions. Maybe pocketing it had made them feel bold. Or maybe, with Sherlock and Raniel putting the pieces together and getting important information, they just wanted to be useful.
A glance at his daemon showed she was thinking the same thing he did. John slowly sank to the ground, like a drunk who'd lost his coordination, and Amarisa moved in front of him, laying across his legs to block the alethiometer from view as John pulled it from his pocket.
He turned the three dials, barely even needing to glance at the alethiometer – it was like he could feel where each symbol was – holding the question in his mind as clearly as he could.
What does Moriarty want?
The constantly-spinning needle began to whirl more purposefully, stopping at the symbols for power, control, and…
And John had no idea what the last symbols referred to. Well, he knew what they were saying, but he'd never heard of…whatever that was before.
Sherlock and Raniel abruptly reappeared, and John hastily stowed the alethiometer away before rising to his feet.
"Anything useful?" he asked as they stepped out onto the street.
"We'll see," Sherlock said, with the preoccupied look that meant he'd been given a new fact and was wondering how it fit with the rest of the case.
Usually, John would be pestering him for details right now, but there was a more important question on his mind.
"Sherlock, have you ever heard of something called a 'god killer'?"
Sherlock and Raniel prided themselves on knowing everything they needed to know to solve crimes. The solar system wasn't important to crime solving, so they didn't care about it. Witch artefacts had never been important to crime solving, so they'd never learned anything about them.
In the car on the way back, they came to the conclusion that they were beginning to regret the latter.
"And you're sure that's what it was saying?" Raniel asked, his claws tense and tight in Amarisa's fur as Sherlock heroically refrained from cursing at the slow-moving traffic in front of them.
"Of course I'm sure," John said, one hand in his pocket and undoubtedly curled around the alethiometer. "I'm pretty definite on the 'god killer' part, I just have no idea what that is."
"Neither do we," Raniel admitted. "But we're pretty sure it's a witch artefact, possibly the very one they were so worried about this morning."
Amarisa cocked her head. "Really? Any particular reason for this theory?"
"Oh, come on!" Sherlock snapped. "Moriarty wants something called 'god killer' and at least one of his spies made an effort to discover the location of an artefact? Seems a bit coincidental, doesn't it?"
John and his daemon said nothing, but his lips thinned and Amarisa's ears flattened.
The drive back to the Holmes house was almost silent, Sherlock processing what he'd learned and exploring the ramifications.
They had assumed Moriarty's goal was the same as the witch clan that had birthed him, the same as Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain – foolish; he of all people should have known better.
Raymond Coram had told him some Gyptians had been tasked with moving stores of metal – actual, physical stores of metal, not stashes of drugs or smuggled humans. It wasn't what Sherlock and Raniel had been expecting, because taking metal over the more obvious black market trades suggested either that Moriarty was building an armoury, or that he was attempting to hire armoured bears.
The bears seemed more likely, but they were reluctant to assume anything after this little revelation.
So, metal supplies (possibly to recruit armoured bears), and a desire for something called a 'god killer' which was possibly a witch artefact. And the theft of the Maystadt Guillotine as well. But what did they add up to?
Raniel hissed and squirmed, sharing Sherlock's frustration – it was absolutely infuriating to have all the pieces, yet be unsure what kind of pattern they made. Something told them that all the threads were right there in front of them, they just needed to tug them in the right way…
And they didn't know which way to pull them without knowing what Moriarty hoped to achieve by acquiring the 'god killer'.
"Did you ask the alethiometer what a 'god killer' was?" Raniel suddenly piped up.
John nodded. "It just kept giving us circular answers – 'the god killer is the god killer' and variations thereof. We must not be asking the right questions."
"We even tried asking what the god killer does, as opposed to what it is," Amarisa offered. "But we didn't really understand the answer – the alethiometer seemed to be telling us that it was something used to 'move through worlds'. But that's the most sense we could get out of it."
"Move through worlds," Sherlock repeated. "So is it some kind of universal passport among witches? The equivalent of an all-access keycard?"
"Do witches have passports?" John mused.
The question was apparently addressed solely to his daemon, but Raniel chittered in surprised amusement.
"It's a valid question!" Amarisa protested, indignant enough to nip at the polecat's ear. "I mean, we know that they move between countries, so do they have passports to get through airports and across borders? Is there some kind of witch equivalent that identifies their clan, the way passports identify your country?"
"And I bet if it's magical, it's probably hard to fake," John went on, clearly warming to the subject. "So maybe whatever Moriarty wants is like psychic paper, or something."
"Just what is psychic paper?" Sherlock asked, feeling a bit snappish – he never liked feeling ignorant.
John grinned, seemingly amused by Sherlock's frustration. "Just something from the telly."
Well, that was acceptable, then – Sherlock and Raniel refused to pollute their hard drive with 'popular culture' unless strictly necessary, as in the Connie Prince murder.
"But then why would they call it a 'god killer'?" Raniel pointed out.
"The most lethal thing a passport could give you would be a really bad papercut," agreed Amarisa, wrinkling her nose.
John went back to looking out the window, but not before Sherlock saw a frown beginning to etch itself in his face.
John and Amarisa had been feeling uncomfortable ever since they'd read the alethiometer – the same prickling, anxious/afraid feeling that gnawed in their gut while they waited for an enemy attack in Afghanistan. The sense that this was the calm before the storm, and that said storm promised to be big.
At least Aeliana was still home – John and Amarisa had been worried that she would have left with the others.
They'd been half-expecting Mycroft to rain holy hell (well, maybe more like frosty disapproval) on them for taking the alethiometer, but it didn't look like anyone had missed it. Probably too busy 'cleaning house', as Mycroft had said.
They'd been planning to ask what a god killer was as soon as they walked in the door, but Aeliana spoke first.
"The artefact Moriarty's spy knew about? It was determined to be a fake half an hour ago," she said bluntly.
Sherlock's eyes narrowed, and John stifled a resigned sigh.
"Of course it was," Amarisa muttered, low enough for only John to hear.
"And now we have no idea how long ago it was stolen," John replied. Then, frowning as a sudden thought struck him, raised his voice, "It hasn't been a fake all along, has it? I mean, the artefact was authentic at one point, right? And how do they tell?"
"It was originally authentic, yes," Aeliana sighed.
For a moment her hand seemed to twitch, the way John had seen nervous patients do when they wanted to reach for their daemon but didn't want to show how nervous they were. But of course Nostrepheus was nowhere near – he had gone with Hasna and Tamsyn.
For the first time, John wondered if those people who separated from their daemons ever regretted that they had. Of course it gave them extra mobility, it meant they didn't have to worry about any limitations their daemons might have…but did they ever get lonely? Did they ever miss the constant companionship, the knowledge that wherever you went, your daemon went with you? What did they feel when they instinctively reached for support in times of stress or crisis and their daemon wasn't there?
"It used to be different, you know," Aeliana said, her voice distant. "Witches never used to bother about artefacts – they were communal property, and one clan couldn't be said to 'own' anything. But there was a…war many years ago, and the witch clans started to become divided. And then when humans rose in power and technology, when they used that technology to scour the cliff-ghasts from the face of the Earth, some witches didn't mind, and others…did. Suddenly witches from different clans could be as remote as humans from different countries, and possession of artefacts took on new importance."
"So what was this artefact supposed to do?" Sherlock asked, sounding impatient. "And does it have any connection with something called a 'god killer'?"
Aeliana went very still. "Where did you hear that word?"
"I asked the alethiometer what Moriarty wanted," John explained. "And it said he wanted the god killer, which is supposed to help him move between worlds."
John had the very strong impression that if Aeliana had been anyone else, she would have sat down very abruptly. As it was, she only squared her shoulder and titled her chin, but that sign of shock in a centuries-old witch had John reaching down to twist his fingers in Amarisa's ruff and relieve his anxiety.
"The artefact I am talking about, the one that we must assume Moriarty stole, is known among the witches as Aesahaettr – the translation of which is god killer – and among humans as the Subtle Knife. We don't know how the knife was made, but one side is sharp enough to slice through any material presented to it, even a bear's sky-armour. And the other side can open holes in whatever it is that binds and separates realities – parallel universes, as you would call them."
To say John was surprised would have been something of an understatement. The thought of something like that in Moriarty's hands brought 'horrifying' to whole new levels. Amarisa bristled, a low growl rumbling through her chest and John rubbed at her ears as Raniel made low, crooning chitter of reassurance.
"And Moriarty probably has it…" Sherlock said slowly, articulating his thoughts the way he did when he and Raniel were thinking in a hundred different directions at once and needed to focus themselves.
"How did your clan end up with that?" John couldn't help asking. "I mean, it sounds like something that's far too dangerous for anyone to have, if you don't mind me saying so."
"Some might say the same about a man who can read the alethiometer," Aeliana quipped. "But you're probably right – I think every clan would have fought us for the knife…if it had still worked."
"So it's broken?" John tried to clarify. "Moriarty won't be able to use it?"
Aeliana nodded, and John wondered if the relief he suspected everyone could see on his face was half as strong as what he was actually feeling.
"I won't bore you with the details," Aeliana continued. "But the last bearer of the knife came to the same conclusion you did, John, and shattered it. While the shards are probably still unnervingly sharp, the knife cannot cut between the worlds unless it is whole."
John nodded – it made about as much sense as anything else.
Aeliana cocked her head, for a moment looking very much like her owl daemon. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at this point, but you seem to be absorbing the news about the knife very well. I expected a bit of disbelief, at the very least."
"Well, don't most physicists agree parallel worlds exist?" John shrugged. "And besides, I'm the object of an ancient prophecy and apparently have a magical ability to read a device that always tells the truth – I think my bar for 'unbelieveable' has been raised several notches in the last few days."
Aeliana smiled. "I suppose so. As for how the knife came to us…originally, the bearer took it back to his home, for he wasn't born of this world. But the holes it made between the worlds were still open, thousands upon thousands on them. While some…people…agreed to journey across the worlds and close them, it was to be a very lengthy process, and I'm sure many are still open to this day."
Aeliana had put a curious emphasis to the word 'people', but John filed that away as something to think about later. "So the bearer came back."
The witch shook her head. "His granddaughter did, with the shards of the knife. She entrusted the shards to my clan, and asked us to keep them safe."
"And then she went home?"
"Unfortunately, no. She never managed to find the hole through which she'd entered – those kinds of openings can be temperamental. You can know where it is to within five feet, and still not manage to go through it. And people rarely last more than ten years in a world not their own; she died when was thirty-five. We never learned why she came, but some of the things she said, the fact that she was carrying the knife shards with her…I've always believed that her crossing into this world was unintentional, an accidental sidestep as she was fleeing from something in her world."
"How do you know this?" John couldn't help asking. "I mean, it doesn't sound like most of this is common knowledge, even among witches. Or is your clan just really good at keeping secrets?"
"My aunt, the previous clan queen, told me," Aeliana related with a fond smile. "Serafina Pekkala was said to have witnessed these events herself."
"I just can't understand why!" Sherlock suddenly burst out.
John and Amarisa didn't so much as twitch – they were used to these sorts of outbursts after Raniel and his human had spent some time wandering off in their own mind. Aeliana only smiled and shook her head with the fond exasperation only a mother was capable of.
"Why what?" John asked.
"Why does he want the knife? Not for its cutting ability, surely – nowadays, lasers can take care of what simple blades can't. So does he want to move between worlds? But to what purpose?"
John shrugged, and even Amarisa rolled her shoulders.
"We'll leave that to you," he said to Sherlock. "I think my psyche's disturbed enough without trying to get into Moriarty's head."
Sherlock made a dismissive, sweeping gesture that over their relationship John had learned to translate as 'I'm busy thinking, go do whatever you have to'.
John nodded even though he knew neither Sherlock or Raniel would see it, and he and Amarisa made their way down the hall, trying to remember how to get to the library.
They had a hunch. It was a very vague hunch, true, but strong enough that they wanted to talk to Grayson and Samieyah rather than dismiss it out of hand. And the library was where they thought Sherlock's father was most likely to be found.
Sure enough, as soon as they entered the library they saw the golden osprey daemon perched on one of those high-back leather chairs that probably cost a full year of John's salary. Usually, that kind of casually displayed wealth would make John wary and self-conscious, but Aelina and Grayson were just so unconcerned and nice about it that he and his daemon had never felt the need to stand on ceremony.
John couldn't help but smile when he came around the chair and saw Grayson engrossed in a Nature journal. Samieyah's head rose from where it had been leaning over her human's shoulder to look at them, and Grayson glanced up as his daemon did.
"John," he greeted, smiling with every appearance of welcome. "How did it go?"
John shrugged. "We got some information that apparently means something to Sherlock, but I can't figure it out."
Grayson nodded, and Samieyah sighed, as though in resignation. "I understand completely – I only barely understand Aeliana when she starts talking about her clan. Witch politics go completely over my head."
Then he sobered abruptly. "But I'm not entirely blind to the troubles of this…" he made a frustrated gesture, "…situation. My son and my wife are in real danger, aren't they?"
John's first instinct was to lie, to mouth some empty reassurance, but he was stopped by the hard light in Grayson's eyes, the tension in Samieyah's claws where they gripped the chair. They weren't stupid, and they were telling him not to treat them as such.
"Yes, they are," John admitted.
Grayson made a humming sound, the sort of noise Sherlock made when he was thinking; he even steepled his fingers in the same way. In spite of the rather grim line of conversation, John felt his lips twitch as Amarisa's tail wagged.
"You're a soldier, John," Grayson said, apropos of nothing. "I'd wager you have good instincts for danger. And you've been in the thick of this from the very beginning. Tell me truly – how bad do you think this is going to get?"
John glanced down at Amarisa, seeing in the wolfdog's yellow eyes the same dread and determination he was feeling. "If these kinds of actions had been perpetuated by a foreign government, not a single man, we'd probably be gearing up for World War Three."
Samieyah made a low noise of distress, her feathers ruffling and shivering. Grayson raised his hand and ran the backs of his fingers over her chest in a soothing gesture.
Even if honesty was what he'd been asked for, John couldn't help feeling guilty that he'd made them so worried.
"I promise you, I'll do everything I can to protect Sherlock," he assured them.
It was a promise easily given because frankly, John and Amarisa had been planning on doing exactly that.
Grayson's lips twitched, as though he wanted to smile but didn't think the mood was right for it. "I don't think my son would appreciate that sentiment."
John shrugged. "Tough."
At that Grayson did smile, though it was only for a moment. He dropped his eyes back to the journal in his lap, but Samieyah pinned them with a gaze so intent that John had to take a moment to assure himself that ospreys did not have X-ray vision.
At least now he knew where Mycroft had learned that disturbingly penetrating gaze.
"I'm given to understand you may be in just as much danger as Sherlock and Aeliana," Grayson said slowly. "Perhaps more, given your…talents."
It was John's turn to drop his eyes as Amarisa's hackles rose. He hated that they still felt the need to hide whenever someone said anything about them being 'special' or 'different', but a lifetime of caution couldn't be unlearned in a few weeks. And John and his daemon's previous experience told them that being branded as unique made people back away, not come closer.
It was different with witches and bears in Afghanistan because there was a strange kind of comradeship in all of them being regarded as unusual by the rest of the humans. It had let John feel comfortable with them, allowed him to ask questions about their lives and cultures without worrying about being intrusive, or feeling defensive when they turned that same scrutiny on him.
But when other humans did it? It left John and Amarisa feeling marked.
Grayson seemed to realise John was uncomfortable. "But you haven't come here to listen to depressing reiterations of facts you're already aware of, have you?"
"What do you know about the Maystadt Guillotine?" John asked.
Grayson blinked, but otherwise didn't react, though Samieyah bated nervously. "Nothing pleasant."
"You know we think Moriarty might have stolen one. I want to know if you can think of any reason why."
Grayson extended his arm to his daemon, and Samieyah gripped it, careful not to scratch him with her claws as he lowered her to rest on the arm of the chair, rather than the back. He left his hand on the golden feathers of her back, and John felt Amarisa press herself against his legs as his fingers tightened in her dark fur.
It was almost reflexive to clutch at your daemon when you were discussing intercision, like when an actor was bloodily disfigured on the telly and you found yourself clutching at the site of the injury. You needed reassurance that you were still whole – that your own daemon was there and that no one would ever part you.
"Everything we know about intercision comes from the notes maintained by those scientists and doctors that worked in the concentration camps," Grayson began. "It's true that the Magesterium experimented with severing children in a place the witches refer to as Bolvangar, but almost none of that so-called 'research' survived its destruction."
"But what can you gain by intercision?" John asked, feeling vaguely ill even as he spoke. "I mean, from what I know and what I've seen, intercision just seems to result in an…empty person and daemon. They have no interest in anything, like mindless automatons-"
"Exactly," Grayson broke in. "Mindless. A severed person will agree to anything, perform any task set to them without question or complaint. We do not know what changes at the moment of intercision, but we do know that severed people have no will of their own, so they seem to adopt the will of whoever is around them, accept the directions of whoever commands them."
So if Moriarty wanted to create an army of mindless slaves, intercision was the way to do it. But the thought didn't sit right with John – Moriarty didn't seem to have any problem manipulating people into doing his own bidding without them even knowing it, so why would he need slaves?
"Is there anything else?" he asked. "I mean, Moriarty doesn't seem the type to need slaves."
Grayson shrugged but Samieyah twisted her head to peer into her human's face, yellow eyes intent and prodding, as if urging him to remember something.
"Although…" he said slowly. "This was never proved or confirmed, but…are you aware of the mysterious circumstances regarding Lord Asriel's disappearance?"
John shook his head, but the name jogged something in his memory. "Asriel…any relation to the Asriel procedure?"
Grayson nodded once. "He invented the method of treating film so Stanislaus particles would show on the photograph. He disappeared around the time the Magesterium established the General Oblation Board and first became a little shaky in their position. He wasn't the only one, to be sure, but…as I said, this was never proved…"
Amarisa gave an exasperated growl, expressing her and John's frustration and Grayson cut himself off.
"There was always a theory floated around that Asriel had crossed into another world," he said eventually. "He'd been discussing research into such before he disappeared, claiming that the Aurora borealis was a place where the divide between the worlds was thin. Aeliana told me that this much was true, but she doesn't know about the last part."
"What last part?" John wondered.
"The part where it was suggested that he broke the barrier between the worlds with the energy released when the bond between human and daemon is severed. He believed that intercision results in an enormous outpouring of energy at the moment of severing which, if harnessed, can potentially create a gateway between the worlds."
Something told John this was more likely than the slave-army. If Moriarty had stolen that artefact – what had Aeliana called it, the Subtle Knife? – to try to cross between the worlds, it made sense that he'd explore other means of opening up those gateways as well. But to what purpose?
What did Moriarty want that he couldn't find in this world?
AN: Thanks so much to ginbitch, who caught several inconsistencies in this part for me.