John and Amarisa thanked Grayson and Samieyah for their help, and left the library quickly – Sherlock and Aeliana needed to know about this as quickly as possible.
Provided they could find the way back to the entry hall where they'd left them. To find the library, they'd ended up going through the kitchen, a room full of computers and another that looked like a huge version of the lab Sherlock was always trying to establish in their flat.
"Stupid, oversized mansion," John muttered. "No wonder Sherlock can hold that map of London in his head like that – he had plenty of practice growing up."
"Like you're ever lost with me around," Amarisa snorted. "I can always follow our backtrail."
"You only perfected that when we were seventeen," John pointed out. "We got lost plenty of times before then."
"It's difficult to follow a trail when the scent I'm trying to follow is all around me!"
"I'm not criticising," John grinned. "Just making a point."
The moment of levity passed quickly, as their thoughts were inevitably dragged back to what Grayson had told them.
"Well, at the least the 'crossing between worlds theory' has been pretty much confirmed," John commented as they made their way through the kitchen. "I mean, I don't think it's coincidence that Moriarty has two…things…that can be used to open up a doorway to another world."
"How do you think that works?" his daemon wondered. "Crossing over?"
Then – as suddenly as a slap – both she and John were giggling.
"That sounds like some kind of TV show about psychics," John snorted, then pressed his lips together. "And I have no idea how it would work, and given what Grayson said, I don't think he really knows either."
"He said there was a lot of energy involved, like breaking a barrier…" Amarisa mused, leaving her train of thought hanging.
John's fingers brushed the top of her head. "I guess that makes sense, for there to be some kind of barrier – I mean, if the physicists are right and there are an infinite number of parallel universes where everything that can happen does happen somewhere, then there'd have to be something keeping us from bleeding over into all the other universes, right?"
But what kind of barrier needed the energy of an intercision to break it?
"Ask the alethiometer how long Moriarty's had the knife," Amarisa ordered abruptly.
She nipped the edge of his palm in remonstration. "Yes, right now."
John had been planning on asking that question after they told Sherlock and Raniel the information Grayson had offered, but he supposed it couldn't hurt to do it now.
It felt strange to sit down in the middle of the hallway, but it wasn't as though anyone was going to care. Amarisa put her head over his shoulder as he turned the dials, trying to empty his mind of every thought but the question; how long has Moriarty had the knife?
The answer came within moments, as it always did. The theft was recent and the shards were still in transit – they wouldn't reach Moriarty for another two days.
Amarisa snorted at that, nudging her human's chin. "Can you imagine his face when he finds out that the witches weren't lying and the knife's really broken?"
John giggled, and reflected – not for the first time – that it wasn't only Sherlock and Raniel who possessed an inappropriate sense of humour. While he was fairly certain Moriarty knew the knife was in pieces, he doubted he knew it could no longer be used to pass between worlds. And imagining the look of yes, surprise, on his face when he found out was certainly amusing. He was almost tempted to ask the alethiometer what he'd do, but he refrained.
It was strange, but every time he used the alethiometer John felt that he shouldn't ask too many questions. It was like meeting some wise sage – you only asked them things that were really important, and didn't want to bother them trivialities. It wasn't logical, but then neither was his ability to read the alethiometer, so John felt justified in trusting his instincts on this.
Which meant important questions only – no asking about embarrassing stories from Sherlock and Raniel's childhood. More's the pity.
So John asked his next question; where is Moriarty going?
The needle spun, stopping on the helmet, the owl, the crucible, the globe, the garden, the anchor, the apple, the thunderbolt and the baby.
So, Moriarty was going to Svalbard – to where Asriel had first opened the portal to another world through the Aurora borealis. He believed that even though the portal was now sealed, the act of opening it had somehow weakened…whatever it was that kept the worlds from bleeding into each other, which would make it easier to open another there.
John wasn't quite sure it worked like that, and the alethiometer hadn't said it did – just that Moriarty believed that. So he asked another question – can Moriarty repair the knife?
Again, the answer was clear; he couldn't. Only one person could repair the knife…and here, it got a little foggy. It seemed to imply that the knife somehow chose a bearer, and that this person would be the only one capable of repairing it.
"The idea that a lump of metal can choose anything is rather unnerving," John commented, tucking the alethiometer away and putting his hand on Amarisa's back to help himself stand.
Amarisa nosed his fingers companionably. "When held up against someone reading a supposedly inscrutable instrument that always tells the truth and seems to know everything and a way to move between parallel universes, that probably shouldn't be the part that concerns you."
"But the parallel universes make sense," John protested. "Or partly, at least – they've been hypothesised about for years, anyway. But the idea that this god-killer knife-thing can choose its bearer is in the same category as me reading the alethiometer."
"Weird and creepy without anything approaching a rational explanation?"
Amarisa laughed and then shook herself, as though trying to shake away their heavy speculation. "Well, I guess this is the part where we tell Sherlock and Raniel the good news."
When they found Sherlock and Raniel again, Aeliana was gone and had been replaced by Mycroft, who was looking…well, not angry, because Mycroft's expressions were never as extreme as angry – displeased, more like. Tehayla was perched on his shoulder, dark eyes fierce as she glared down at Amarisa.
"I believe you have something that does not belong you," he said, just a hint of warning in his voice as his eyes fixed on John.
Tehayla clacked her beak sharply
Amarisa bristled, her lips peeling back to show her teeth, but she didn't actually growl – Raniel did that for her, the polecat bristling on Sherlock's shoulder.
"Yeah, well done," John sighed, letting his daemon express his irritation. "I took the alethiometer with me – I figured you would have noticed before now, actually."
"Hand it over, please," Mycroft ordered, holding out his hand. "And if this incident is not repeated, we won't have to involve various authorities who possess less of a sense of humour than I do."
This time Amarisa did growl and John felt his eyes narrow. He could understand why Mycroft was angry – they'd stolen it, after all, fair cop – but they hated implied threats. If Mycroft wanted to frighten them, he could damn well say so plainly.
"It's not like you could have made any use of it!" Sherlock snapped.
"And I actually found out something useful," John offered. "The knife hasn't reached Moriarty yet – he knows it's in pieces, but he doesn't know it can't take him to other worlds anymore. He won't get it for two days, apparently."
"So we have some time at least," Mycroft said quietly, in the kind of tone that implied he was only vocalising his thoughts for the sake of the lesser minds around him.
"And Moriarty's heading to Svalbard," John adds. "We were right about him trying to cross between the worlds – he thinks that Lord Asriel moved between the worlds at Svalbard, and he's hoping he can re-open whatever seam or door or gateway Asriel used."
"We knew he was likely hiring armoured bears," Mycroft observed. "Still, I suppose it's beneficial to have tentative confirmation."
Mycroft glanced at him, and John was struck all over again by how much the other man just didn't trust the alethiometer. The man would believe it about witch prophecies and other nebulous concepts, but as soon as it strayed into the territory of concrete fact, he became painfully suspicious.
John tried to tell himself it was only fair – if some guy claimed to know the answer to everything by twiddling a few dials and staring really hard at a fancy piece of clockwork he'd probably think they were crazy – but it still felt like a deliberate slight against him. And it didn't make him any happier about giving the alethiometer back. It felt like he was handing over his gun when he put it in Mycroft's hand. In fact, it felt worse – when he'd turned in his gun after his discharge, he'd been able to buy another on the black market. But he couldn't get another alethiometer.
Sherlock frowned, clearly picking up on John's disquiet.
"What do you know about Svalbard?" Raniel asked John.
Amarisa whuffed softly in amusement, and John reflected it was very typical of Sherlock and his daemon to attempt to be comforting by interrogating them to take their minds off it.
"We know what we learned in school," John offered. "And some things Ragnvald told us. Svalbard is populated entirely with bears – there used to be some humans, but the bear population eventually got too large. Things were kind of tense for a while, politically speaking, but eventually there was a treaty drawn up that gave them claim to the entire island. It's their homeland, even though there are some bear settlements in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia – basically anywhere that's cold enough for them to be comfortable. They used to be one consolidated group, but they split into clans-"
"Ragnvald lives close to the original fortress," Amarisa cut in. "But that's because he's big royalty; descended from Iorek Brynison."
Sherlock seemed to recognise the name. "The bear you befriended in Afghanistan?"
"He was sent to fight even though he's royalty?"
"Bears have a different view of royalty than we do. You still need to prove you're worthy of the throne and if you can't, it goes to someone else."
"Bears have their own language," Amarisa continued. "With some words in it that are linked to Old Norse. But humans literally can't speak it – don't have the right vocal chords, and some of the sounds are below the average range of human hearing. So most bears speak a second or third language, depending on the humans they're most commonly in contact with."
"Oh, and they're having a problem with a shortage of sky iron," John remembered.
"That's interesting," Sherlock mused quietly. "Especially considering what Moriarty took with him."
John frowned. "All that metal stuff? You think he's going to play on their need for sky iron somehow?"
Raniel wrinkled his nose. "Possibly."
"But surely any metal he got his hands on couldn't have been sky iron?"
"True," Sherlock conceded. "He could have procured some, but certainly not in the quantities the Gyptians reported."
"So why is the metal important?" Raniel wondered, sounding half-irritated, half-pleased that he and his human couldn't immediately figure it out.
Mycroft had tucked the alethiometer away and was leaving – he obviously had no interest in listening to John and Sherlock re-iterate information he probably knew already – but at the doorway to the dining room he paused and glanced back.
"By the way, Hasna returned with news that the enemy clan is withdrawing, and they are heading north."
"Why are they still supporting him?" Sherlock asked, in the kind of tone that said he and Raniel were off in their own little world. "Traditional Values for a Bright New Britain was their goal, their path towards repealing some of the more restrictive laws, so why are they still following him now that he's abandoned that plan?"
"He might be deceiving them on that point," Raniel pointed out. "Or he could have told them it fell through and he's presenting this attempt to breach another world as an alternate plan."
Amarisa wrinkled up her muzzle like she'd smelled something rotten. "So he's telling them they could go to a world where they could follow their own rules the way they used to?"
"Exactly!" Raniel squealed.
He leaned down from Sherlock's shoulder as though trying to touch the wolfdog, tail waving in an attempt to keep his balance. Amarisa obligingly rose to her hind legs so they could touch noses, giving Raniel's chin a swift lick as she did so.
"So everything's heading north," John summarised. "Or at least, it seems that way. So I guess I should pack warm, huh?"
Sherlock avoided his eyes, and Raniel squirmed on his human's shoulder, pretending to be absorbed in straightening Sherlock's collar with his front paws.
Low-grade anger began to simmer in John's gut, and Amarisa growled.
"We are going with you, you realise," John said, in the kind of voice he'd often used on his subordinates in both the army and the operating room. The kind of voice that said this was exactly what was going to happen because the laws of the universe wouldn't allow anything else.
"You'd be safer if you-" Sherlock began, but John cut him off.
"No, you don't get to play that card. You know me, Sherlock, and you know being safe is the last thing I care about."
"That's the problem!" Raniel exploded. "You're never careful, never! You stride into danger like no one would care if you got hurt, you try to save everyone else before yourself and you need to stop that!"
Sherlock wasn't saying anything, but he was tense and staring at the wall over John's shoulder, one hand clenched tightly in his daemon's fur.
John and Amarisa had a good idea where this was coming from.
"This alethiometer thing is really freaking you out, isn't it?" Amarisa remarked.
"We're not 'freaking out'," Sherlock spat, as horrified as if the wofdog had accused them of being boring. "We are merely expressing perfectly legitimate concern over the entirely unique talent you've manifested."
"Sometimes I think we could make a graph," Amarisa commented to John. "How many multi-syllable words they use in relation to how annoyed or worried they are and how desperate they are to hide it."
John didn't look at his daemon, still studying Sherlock and Raniel. "You weren't this bad when we went back to London, so what…oh."
And just like that, John understood. London was Sherlock and Raniel's domain – in London, they had contacts and knowledge and could face anything. Subconsciously, London was their security blanket, and in spite of what happened at the pool, they believed that they could protect John and Amarisa there, or at least keep the alethiometer reading a secret. But there was no map of Svalbard in Sherlock's head, the bears didn't owe him any favours, and there was no safety net.
The fact that it was Moriarty they were dealing with probably wasn't helping either. John had a feeling Sherlock and Raniel weren't good at coping with the people they loved being in danger. They'd tried to send him and Amarisa away before confronting Moriarty, after all – which John was still feeling a little insulted about – but it showed that Sherlock and his daemon really didn't like putting John and Amarisa in risky situations.
It was different with incidental danger during a case; Sherlock was so confident in his home turf and had such trust in his and John's abilities that he rarely became truly worried. But Moriarty was clever the way Sherlock was clever, which meant Sherlock and Raniel were worried and unsure, at least a little. That was probably why they'd tried to get John and Amarisa out of the way in the first place.
"We can look after ourselves," John said quietly. "I'm not going to lie and tell you we'll be fine, because we really don't know that, but I can promise you that Amarisa and I don't die easy."
Sherlock's gaze flicked to John's shoulder and hip, obviously picturing the scars beneath his clothes, the remnants of the death spells that Aeliana had saved him from, and Raniel made a soft sound of distress.
John moved close, sliding an arm around Sherlock's waist as Amarisa leaned in against the detective's legs, letting him feel her body heat through his clothing. With a quick glance around to ensure no one was watching, John dared to reach up and run his fingers over Raniel's head, scratching through the white fur in reassurance.
Raniel melted, mewling and pushing his head against John's fingers. Sherlock's stiff spine suddenly bowed, leaning into John and Amarisa, one of his hands fisting in John's jacket like a child trying to prevent his favourite teddy bear being taken away.
John gave Raniel one last caress behind the ear, then lifted his hand away and down to Sherlock's arm.
"Besides, look on the bright side," Amarisa said. "As long as we've got this dangerous talent, we'll be using it as much as we can. And we're pretty sure it's something Moriarty doesn't have on his side because if he did…"
"If he did, his 'game' would have ended in victory long ago," Sherlock finished wryly.
John grinned. "Exactly. And now I'm going to see a witch about a battle plan."
He kissed the corner of Sherlock's jaw, soft and fond and – in spite of their previous discussion – feeling almost painfully optimistic. Amarisa nudged Sherlock's hip affectionately, and then followed him out the door.
As soon as it closed behind them, John paused, looking at the long hallway and the dozens of doors that led off it.
As often happened, his daemon said exactly what he was thinking. "Do you think we can find Hasna in this house without directions?"
Sherlock and Raniel knew that idea of leaving John and Amarisa behind was foolish. Even leaving aside their various useful skills, they were so determinedly loyal they'd simply follow Sherlock and Raniel to the north on their own if they had to. At this point, even an attempt to break ties wouldn't make them stay – to get them to remain in England, Sherlock and Raniel would have to do something stupidly drastic like fake their own death or…actually, Sherlock couldn't think of any other way. John and his daemon were simply just that stubborn; the immovable object and unstoppable force by turns, whatever was needed at the time.
People who called Sherlock impossible had clearly never seen John when he was set on a course of action.
"At least the clan will probably be too busy trying to go to another world to bother about him," Raniel offered as they made their way to the library.
Sherlock sneered. "Probably isn't good enough."
"I know that," his daemon huffed. "But if Moriarty's still convinced the prophecy refers to us alone-"
"Assuming his own alethiometer hasn't told him otherwise."
"He never felt the need to consult it about the prophecy before. He was confident it was us."
"That could have changed," Sherlock pointed out.
Raniel fell silent, and Sherlock knew what the polecat was thinking – not just because Raniel was his daemon, but because it had been on their mind since John had first read the alethiometer.
John had used the device to uncover Moriarty's motives, the position and purpose of the so-called god killer and the identity of his spies. The first two might pass unnoticed, but Moriarty had to be wondering why and how so many of his network were being apprehended so quickly. And he'd undoubtedly use his own alethiometer.
It was only a matter of time before Moriarty learned that John could read the alethiometer. He might know already.
Which was why they were seeking out Mummy.
They found Aeliana in the library with Grayson – as they'd expected – bent over a book and talking.
"We're heading north," Sherlock informed them. Because why would anyone waste time when they had news to impart?
"I know." Grayson didn't blink, but Samieyah shifted on the back of his chair, bating nervously.
That was news to Sherlock. "You do?"
"John came to talk to me," Grayson shrugged. "He wanted to clarify certain points."
The tone of his voice was approving – Grayson appreciated curiosity and inquisitiveness.
Aeliana was frowning. "Are you sure?"
Sherlock knew she wasn't asking if she was sure they needed to go north, but if they were sure whatever needed to be done couldn't be done from here.
So he settled for saying, "We have to."
Granted, he'd prefer it not be 'we' – Sherlock and Raniel would prefer John and Amarisa were never within fifty miles of Moriarty ever again – but they would bow to necessity.
He knew his parents would understand he meant it. Sherlock was a scientist, as his father was, and they never committed to an uncompromising statement unless they were without doubt.
Now to address his second purpose in locating them. "Can you arrange a talisman for John?"
Sherlock knew many people believed he and his daemon were socially tone-deaf, but he was aware of the usual conventions and boundaries – they just didn't see the point in bothering with them. There were some things he respected, however: not touching other people's daemons, and not asking witches about talismans.
Talismans were only made for someone the witch cared deeply about, and Sherlock had never heard of one being made on request. They were spontaneous gestures, prompted by the depth of affection a witch felt for a human, and to ask for one was…well, not good.
But this was John and Amarisa, and they needed to be protected.
Sherlock's own talisman was still at Baker Street, a simple silver watch tucked into a drawer in his bedroom (silver being one of the few metals witches could successfully enchant). He rarely felt the need to draw on its protection, though admittedly John and Amarisa's presence had a hand in its complete absence from his person since he moved into Baker Street – it was amazing what having someone willing to kill for you could do to your sense of safety.
Perhaps to a dangerous extent, considering it hadn't even crossed his mind to bring the talisman to the pool.
Aeliana tilted her head to the side in a manner Sherlock suspected she'd picked up from her daemon, and he hoped his mother wasn't about to become angry or embarrassed at his line of questioning.
He felt Raniel huff softly in relief when Aeliana smiled. "There's a talisman ready for John – Hasna made one."
Jealousy was irrational and foolish, Sherlock and Raniel knew that. So why did they feel it? John and Amarisa wasn't the type to be unfaithful, and judging by the behaviour of herself and her daemon Hasna would never pursue him, so then why did they feel this prickling resentment that the witch could do something for John that they couldn't?
Grayson's face was drawn and pinched, and Samieyah hopped from her perch on the back of the chair to the arm of it, unfurling one large golden wing to curve around her human's neck and head. Grayson's fingers curled in the thick feathers of her chest, and Sherlock wondered if his father wanted to go with them.
Grayson obviously knew that he'd be no use there, but did that make it any easier to remain behind? This was the second time Sherlock's father had watched his family go into danger, and Sherlock doubted he and Raniel would have had the strength to do the same. They couldn't contemplate letting John and Amarisa go into danger alone.
Aeliana slid her fingers into his husband's hand with a strange expression of resignation. But then, she would be resigned, at least to the idea of being left behind – barring accident or catastrophe, witches outlived their husbands and sons for hundreds of years.
Raniel made a soft, chirruping sound that mixed sympathy and regret, and curled himself tighter into Sherlock's neck.
Sometimes Sherlock could almost convince himself that there was no point in pursuing Moriarty, that they should leave it to Mycroft and the police of the country he was fleeing to. But he and Raniel knew better – Moriarty would run rings around any ordinary policeman, and even extraordinary ones. Mycroft needed to look after his own arena, sweep out Moriarty's spies and the lingering remnants of the web; it couldn't catch and suck the life out of anyone anymore, but a web without the spider could still entangle. And when Moriarty learned the god killer was broken, he'd be desperate; Sherlock and Raniel had to go, to be able to see the immediate consequences of Moriarty's actions and have a chance of outmanoeuvring him.
"You…you will be careful, won't you?" Grayson said quietly.
Sherlock was tempted to say that he was always careful – and he was, no matter what John and Amarisa said, he never did anything without considering the consequences – but this was his father, so he only nodded, and Raniel actually bobbed his head along with his human.
Then they went in search of John and Amarisa, locating them in one of the many drawing rooms. Hasna was with them – likely she'd decided to return since the god killer she had Tamsyn had been charged with relocating had been replaced with a fake.
For a moment Sherlock thought John was reading the alethiometer again, until he realised it was an antique gold pocket watch cupped in the doctor's hand. Amarisa was nosing at it, and John was ghosting his fingers over the surface, raising and lowering his hand over it like he was testing the consistency of the air.
John was grinning. "I can feel it. The spell," he clarified, like there'd been some confusion.
Hasna was sitting across from him, smiling in a fondly indulgent way at John's child-like glee. An albatross daemon was also present, perched on the side table – as Hasna's daemon was a swan, this must have been some other witch's daemon, come to relay news.
John glanced up and met Sherlock's eyes, and his smile turned soft and fond in a way that made Raniel shiver on his human's shoulder.
"Raniel," Amarisa said, going to the door to greet them.
Raniel leapt from Sherlock's shoulder and landed neatly on the wolfdog's back, nipping playfully at her ear. Amarisa trotted back to her human with her passenger and Sherlock followed.
"Look at this," John enthused. "Hasna made me a talisman – this'll protect me as long as I'm carrying it. Pretty amazing, isn't it?"
The albatross daemon laughed softly, and though Sherlock didn't possess John's talent for reading daemons, he thought it sounded affectionate.
"Oh, by the way Sherlock, this is Percila," John said, gesturing to the albatross. "She's Tamsyn's daemon."
"The one you said came to visit you in Baker Street," Raniel nodded, resting his chin between Amarisa's ears even as she placed her head on John's leg.
"Our enemies are retreating into the north," Percila pronounced, sounding pleased. "It was foolish of them to attack a clan that hadn't wronged them – no one will support them now."
"Though I don't suppose that will matter, if they intend to go to another world," Hasna pointed out.
"Remember when everything was just scouting patrols or retrieval missions?" John asked, apparently addressing the remark to his daemon.
"Everything was so much simpler back then," Amarisa sighed.
Percila laughed, and Hasna smiled. "Back when you served with armoured bears and were getting shot by death-spells?"
"I do miss Ragnvald," John said, as if that were the only part of her sentence worth commenting on.
Sherlock felt distinctly put-out – he hated not being informed about things John had done. "I thought you were medical personnel."
John nodded. "Usually. But we did scouting patrols as well, because of Amarisa."
"Not to boast, but I've got a very good nose," the wolfdog finished. "I could sniff out IEDs, enemy scouts, other kinds of traps…I was very good at it, too."
"Didn't you see those military recruitment ads?" John added. "They started a couple of years ago, asking for people who had daemons with a good sense of smell?"
Raniel sniffed contemptuously, burrowing his face into the dense fur of Amarisa's ruff. "Boring."
"I suppose that went the way of the solar system, did it?" John sighed. "But I guess I can understand this one – who the army was recruiting doesn't have much relevance to being a consulting detective."
Amarisa giggled softly, and John tucked the talisman away. "And on that note, I think it's time for some afternoon tea."
Raniel's back arched as if he was about to jump from Amarisa's back, but John glared at him in a way that had probably frozen an entire squad in their tracks. "And the two of you are coming with us – you haven't eaten at all today."
Sherlock knew better than to admit to that, at least outright. "How do you know? We could have just had lunch."
"Could have, but you didn't," Amarisa practically chirped.
"I know you don't want to have an actual meal because you think it'll slow your brain down, but it's just not healthy to go an entire day without eating," John was saying as they made their way to the kitchen. "Could you just…I don't know, have a piece of bread? I'll be happy with a piece of bread. Or some biscuits. "
"We're actually planning on eating dinner tonight," Raniel muttered, nipping Amarisa's ear again.
John blinked, his muted version of a double-take. "Really?"
"Surely you haven't failed to notice I've eaten dinner every night we've been here."
"Well, yeah, but if there's one thing I've learned about living with you it's that you're unpredictable."
"I suppose it makes sense, though," Amarisa mused. "If the dinner on offer here is the same quality every night-" the wolfdog made a low, throaty noise that Sherlock had previously only heard when Raniel was licking at her muzzle, "-it's no surprise you'd want to eat it."
Daemons didn't need to eat, of course, but they could if they wanted to, and they could gain pleasure from it. Hot or exhausted daemons wouldn't feel thirsty, but a few swallows of cool water would give them some relief. Daemons didn't feel hungry, but some of them ate particularly tasty morsels anyway, just to experience it.
Raniel had never bothered with eating – Sherlock had to, but his daemon didn't want to be subjected to it – but John and Amarisa were different. If John was trying something new for the first time, or something that tasted particularly good, he'd offer some to Amarisa. The wolfdog seemed to prefer savoury flavours over sweet, and she usually didn't want anything more than a little taste, but Sherlock had once seen John and his daemon split a sorbet almost completely equally between them. It had been in Angelo's, and Amarisa and her human had taken alternate bites of the lemon-lime ice until it was entirely gone.
Even now, as John dug custard creams out of the pantry, he held one biscuit between his thumb and forefinger and held it out to his daemon with the unconscious ease of ingrained habit. Amarisa huffed in refusal, and John didn't pause, didn't even blink as he raised the biscuit an inch or so to offer it to the polecat perched her back.
He did it all without even a glance at Sherlock for permission, as if offering Sherlock's daemon food was as natural as offering it to Amarisa.
Raniel, of course, had no interest in eating and wrinkled up his nose at it. So, without a trace of offence or self-consciousness, John took a bite out of the biscuit himself while he waited for the kettle to boil.
"You offered Raniel food," Sherlock stated.
John nodded. "Yeah, I know you don't like proper meals, but you always seem up for sweets, so I thought…is it alright?"
"It's fine," Raniel said quickly.
John stared at Raniel with a small furrow between his brow, the way he did when he suspected something had slipped by him and he wanted to work it out. Amarisa couldn't stare at the daemon on top of her head, so she settled for staring at Sherlock, golden eyes sharp and biting.
Sherlock wondered vaguely if this was what other people felt when he and Raniel stared at them. Was this why they objected? Because they felt as if he was peeling back the layers of skin and bone and seeing the chemical signals and neural patterning that constructed every thought?
If so, they were idiots because this was marvellous!
John and Amarisa blinked in complete unison, then smiled as though they understood it had been a stupid question.
Treating Raniel like he treated Amarisa, behaving as if Sherlock were merely an extension of John and vice versa, would always be alright.
It had been a long day, so John was glad to go to bed a few hours after dinner, leaving Sherlock and Raniel still in the library, pouring over what was supposedly a copy of Lord Asriel's notes and muttering to each other. Amarisa curled beside him and he pulled the blankets over them both, idly wondering if Sherlock and Raniel would return for some sleep (or some sex) or if they planned to spend the whole night in the library.
When a sharp nudge woke John in darkness, his first through was that Sherlock had decided to come to bed after all. He blinked and fumbled in the blankets for a moment before his fingers found Amarisa's muzzle. His daemon growled softly in warning, laying a heavy paw over his arm.
"Shhh," Amarisa whispered. "Someone's coming."
Sure enough, he could hear soft footsteps in the hallway, approaching the door.
John didn't bother asking who it was. If the wolfdog had thought it necessary to wake him up, it clearly wasn't a scent she recognised. At least waking up in the darkness meant his eyes adjusted quickly. Moving as silently as he could, John slid from the bed and grasped the lamp on the bedside table, following the cord to the wall and quietly unplugging it.
It wasn't his gun, but it would do.
The footsteps stopped outside the door and John held himself poised, the lamp half-raised with Amarisa at his side, ready to attack as soon as they entered.
If this was some new ally that Sherlock had sent to wake them up, they were going to feel really stupid.
The door swung open, and John brought the lamp down.
He ended up hitting a tall woman across the arm she'd raised to defend herself with. Amarisa snarled – the blood-curdling snarl she reserved for when they or the people they loved were in genuine danger – and lunged upward, snapping at the hummingbird daemon that had launched itself from the woman's shoulder.
The intruder recovered quickly though. As John stepped in close to press his advantage – shouting in an effort to wake up the rest of the house – she threw some kind of powder into the air, and her daemon used its wings to gust it into John's face. It felt like fine ash or soot and smelled like potpourri, but John could feel the spell hanging off it and he automatically shut his eyes.
When he opened them, he couldn't see a thing. It was like that moment just after the lights shut off in a previously brightly-lit room – the second where you genuinely couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
But John didn't have time to panic. Give that he hadn't heard Amarisa whine in pain or yelp in surprise he was going to assume his daemon was unaffected, so he took another swing with the lamp in the hopes that their attacker hadn't had enough time to move her head from where he'd last seen it. The crack of impact reverberated up his arm and in his ears, but from the sound John could tell she'd raised her arm again and he hadn't managed to catch her head.
The fact that the lamp was torn out of his hand almost immediately afterwards was also a big clue that the witch wasn't incapacitated. At least, John was going to go ahead and assume she was a witch – the bird daemon wasn't a tell, not really, but if human women could strike people instantly blind with handfuls of mysterious powder John was sure he'd have heard about it. She'd obviously got him with some kind of spell –the talisman would have helped with that, but John had left it on the bedside table like an idiot.
At least he was wearing boxers. Not that they would be much help, but fighting for your life naked added an extra edge of indignity to the whole thing.
Knowing that he'd be entirely lost as soon as the witch moved away, John stepped forward and tackled blindly. They went down in an uncoordinated heap, the lamp clipping the side of John's temple as they fell. He grabbed at what he thought was a wrist and yanked, hoping the witch didn't have a good angle to get him in the groin.
A knee hit him in the thigh and John twisted automatically, hooking his leg around an ankle and hoping entangling the witch's legs with his would be enough to keep him from getting kicked in any painful areas. Using the grip on his attacker's wrist as a vague gauge of the location of her other arm, John lashed out but ended up with a handful of what felt like hair.
There was a high, frantic trill of panic that told him Amarisa had grabbed the hummingbird, and in the moment when the witch's body went momentarily lax with her daemon's pain, John used his grip on her hair to drive her head into the floor.
She went limp, but John wasn't about to trust that.
"Is she out?" he asked Amarisa.
There was a sound like a cough and a soft thump that John took to mean Amarisa had dealt with the witch's daemon. Then, "Yeah, she's down. Are you-"
"Yes, I'm blind," John confirmed, carefully freeing his limbs from the tangle and scrambling to his feet. "Which I'm really hoping is temporary. We need-"
"To get out of here, right!"
He felt Amarisa's shoulder bump pointedly against his legs, and John wound his fingers tightly in the wolfdog's ruff, right where the fur was the thickest. The fingers of his right hand, so his dominant hand was free. He'd learned to shoot right-handed, of course (it was a requirement, unless you wanted spent shell casings flying across your face), but everything else – punching, blocking, writing and the like – was done left-handed.
Amarisa led him back to the bed and he felt the muscles in her neck and back bunch and coil as she picked something off the bedside table. John held out his left hand and felt cool metal drop into it, round and heavy – the talisman Hasna had made for him. He traced his fingers along the chain until he found the larger ring at the end and pulled the links through it to make a loop. John lifted his hand from Amarisa's neck – fighting back an instinctive flash of fear as he was left disoriented and truly feeling his lack of sight for the first time – and slid his fingers and wrist through the loop so the watch dangled from his wrist like a bracelet. At least this way, it would stop or at least mediate any other spells that might be cast on him.
He put his hand back on Amarisa with relief, clenching his fingers in her fur again.
He'd like to get dressed, but John knew they couldn't spare the time. At least one enemy had already infiltrated the house – there could be others. And they could be going after Sherlock even now.
He felt Amarisa's chest expand as she inhaled deeply.
"There's someone in the hall," she whispered.
"Think they heard us yelling?"
"Don't know – I didn't smell them before, so they weren't waiting outside."
The door was still open, so Amarisa led John behind it, tucking them both out of the immediate line of sight to the hallway.
There was a crash from what he thought was downstairs – it was hard to pinpoint – and it sounded like glass and wood, like some heavy cabinet had fallen over. There was a shout that John identified as Aeliana, and he quelled the urge to run recklessly out into the house; it was almost physically painful, but if there was one thing the army had taught him it was that rushing in without a plan did much more damage than sitting back and waiting for the right moment.
It took thirty seconds before John began to hear footsteps. They were soft but hurried, like someone was trying to stay quiet but had a schedule to keep. He pressed his left hand against the door, readying himself to shove it forward if they tried to enter his room.
He was completely still, concentrating on keeping his breathing as silent as possible when he felt it; the tell-tale aura of magic that never felt like anything else. It was like a temperature change or a shift in air pressure, but somehow entirely unique.
The footsteps hesitated outside his open door, then – probably as they spotted the unconscious witch on the floor – turned sharply and hurried into the room.
He felt Amarisa rear up on her hind legs, obviously putting her front paws on the door and shoving it forward. There was a sharp crack of impact, and John didn't hesitate. Letting his daemon lead, they ducked around the door and made for the open hallway.
"Arm up!" Amarisa yelled.
John obeyed, his hand automatically making a fist to ensure it would be more difficult to break his fingers. Something hit his arm – wood, or something like wood – and slid off his elbow. The spell was clearly imbued in whatever the weapon was – it was a strong one, his skin was practically tingling with it – and John twisted his arm, trying to snatch it.
His fingers closed around what felt like a club. It was definitely wood and vaguely cylindrical, with a diameter that fit comfortably in his palm. John pulled, and was rather surprised when the weapon was surrendered. It was much easier than he thought it would be, like they weren't prepared, and they hadn't hit him nearly as hard as they could have. So maybe whatever spell was on the wood was meant to incapacitate him somehow and the talisman had protected him?
Either way, John wasn't waiting around to find out. He shoved hard with the end of the club, and caught what might have been a shoulder or part of an arm – there was an accompanying cry, anyway, and a thud that suggested his attacker had been driven back against the wall. He kept his fingers clenched in Amarisa's fur as the wolfdog bounded onwards, out into the hallway and turning a sharp left.
Before, John had real difficulty remembering the layout of the house, but now he could feel the map unfolding in his mind, with details of furniture and window orientation he hadn't even known he'd registered. Danger always cleared John's head, made him eliminate the extraneous details and focus like a laser.
There was a shout from behind him but John wasn't going to risk engaging again and only quickened his pace.
Their progress down the stairs was more tripping then running, and John was quite sure he would have broken his neck if not for Amarisa's guidance. He heard the loud twang of a bowstring and he ducked on instinct, surprised when he felt a rush of air past his shins – who tried to shoot someone in the leg?
Obviously, someone who was trying to cripple him, not kill him. Coupled with the fact that the powder had blinded him instead of suffocating him or burning his face off or something equally unpleasant, John thought it safe to assume the purpose of this excursion was to capture, not kill. But why?
Amarisa turned sharply, dragging John into a room (he thought it was that big place that had all the china) and then left through another door into the dining room.
"Think we lost them?" he whispered.
"For a while, at least," Amarisa panted.
Then John took a deep breath and did something he'd never tried before – he tried to consciously feel for other spells.
It was like waiting for the slight shift in air pressure that signalled the breath or movement of an enemy soldier. He held himself completely still, barely breathing, and tried to somehow feel his way through the darkness surrounding him.
John was never sure if it was the fact that he was blind and his other senses were trying to compensate, or that this was the first time he was actively trying to use his sensitivity, but he began to feel something. The most over-powering 'signal' came from the wood clenched in his hand, but as soon as looked past that…
It was like the spark of a match in darkness, or the blast of chill air from a fridge. He could feel the magic clinging to the witch he'd just evaded (or maybe that was spells clinging to something she was holding or wearing), and he could tell she was still stalking through the hallway – she hadn't seen him duck into the room. But there was another pinpoint of magic, what felt like two or three rooms over, and another above his head, at a slight angle, like the magic was several rooms over from his bedroom.
Well, he and Amarisa couldn't afford to wait around until someone stumbled across them.
"Ready?" his daemon whispered.
Then they moved.
Sherlock knew something was wrong as soon as he heard the library door open.
Raniel sniffed the air, and Sherlock felt him bristle, the polecat's white fur rising against his neck and chin.
Really, the flicker at the corner of his eye wasn't a warning – it was redundant.
Sherlock ducked away, feeling Raniel's claws dig into his shirt as an arrow flew over his head and slammed into a bookshelf at the level of his throat.
The witch – brunette, less than one hundred years old, no daemon in sight but it was obviously a songbird of some kind – realised she wouldn't have time to nock another arrow and cast her bow aside as Sherlock lunged. His right hand folded into a fist, planning to catch her across the jaw and hopefully put her into a headlock.
She was stronger than he'd suspected. Faster too. The witch raised her arm to block the blow and grabbed Sherlock's wrist, yanking him forward. He broke her grip and twisted away – never close with someone who wanted you to close – and he felt Raniel let go of his collar and jump free of the scuffle.
That was when John entered the library in only his boxers, one hand holding a short cylinder of wood that bore a passing resemblance to a nightstick, the other resting on Amarisa's neck, the wolfdog bristling and snarling at his side.
Daemons tended to stay out of fights, except when they were personal enough to drive the daemons themselves to attack each other. Daemons had often fought on the battlefield, true, but that was before war became the purview of guns and grenades and tanks rather than close and personal attacks with maces and swords. Yet Amarisa always stood beside John when they felt they were in danger, braced as if preparing for an attack, and Sherlock and Raniel often wondered if it was a hold-over from their schoolyard days.
Daemons often fought as children – it was a common sight in a playground to see daemons scuffling, flickering through shapes as quickly as they could. Victory often went to the most imaginative child, the quickest-thinker, the one whose daemon could shift the fastest, the one with the quickest mind and reflexes (Raniel had been undefeated). But after they settled, it became a different story. They still felt the need to compete, but in different ways – bird daemons swiped and dive-bombed others, rodents nipped and bit, lizards and amphibians used tongues and claws, snakes hissed and danced, flying insects tried to out-manoeuvre others, induce them to slam into walls or doors or windows.
Fish and worms and the like were at something of a disadvantage, but people with predator daemons liked to fight, liked them clawing and biting at each other in tired dominance rituals that after high school they deemed too childish. How many boys and girls with a leopard daemon or a coyote or a bear wanted to fight Amarisa? How many took on the small, shy boy and his enormous black shadow?
And how many walked away with a bruised and beaten daemon?
"Five eleven, standing!" Amarisa yelled.
Sherlock had a moment in which to wonder why she'd said that before John swung, tapping the witch over the head with his weapon. And it was a tap, compared to the kind of blow John was capable of delivering. It shouldn't have knocked her unconscious – dazed her, maybe, if they were lucky – but she dropped to the ground as if she'd been shot.
"I don't know what spell that is, but this is really handy," John commented, swinging his club. "Sherlock, Raniel, are you-"
"Fine," the polecat interrupted, hurrying over to rise up on his hind legs and push his face against Amarisa's chin.
Amarisa ducked her head to fuss over him, nudging and licking his face and neck, but Sherlock noticed she didn't step away from John. John had clearly been roused from sleep, judging by his state of undress, but at least he'd remembered to take the talisman (it glinted comfortingly from his wrist). There was a red mark on his arm, the type that would turn into a bruise in twenty-four hours, but he didn't seem to have any serious injuries…
Then Sherlock realised John's eyes weren't focused on him. They weren't focused on anything; they were roving aimlessly, the way people did when they were trying to locate something important in a clutter of useless detail…
Or when they were trying to locate a light source in darkness. He remembered what Amarisa had said, calling out the witch's approximate height and position…
It wasn't fear that shot up Sherlock's spine – he was calm and in control, and he was most certainly not frightened. "You're-"
John nodded. "Yeah, blind as a bat. Except not really, because bats can see."
"Blind as a mole, maybe?" Amarisa offered. "The witch that attacked us – the first one – threw something in his face."
They both sounded far too unconcerned for Sherlock's liking.
"The first one?" Raniel echoed. "Explain, now!"
At least his daemon could be trusted to get to the heart of the matter.
"We woke up when we heard someone in the hallway," John said. "Turned out to be a witch, and we unfortunately gave her the opportunity to throw a handful of powder that clearly had a spell on it. Next thing we know, I'm blind and relying on Risa to find my way around. Got attacked by another witch, and managed to take this off her-" John waved the stick, as if it wasn't perfectly obvious that was what he was referring to. "And it's really handy; knocks people out pretty much instantly – we've got three others down already. Your Mum was having a spot of trouble in…okay, I have no idea what room that was, but she's gone to find everyone else."
Blinded? Temporary, it had to be, but how could it penetrate the talisman? Effectiveness of talismans worked via the strength of the maker's feelings, and if Hasna had made it…
Sherlock glared. Which would be lost on John, but Amarisa's eyes worked perfectly well. "You didn't pick it up, did you? The talisman was right there, and you didn't think to pick it up until you'd already been blinded."
"Well, I'm sorry," John huffed. "But when we're under attack, we naturally think of being shot instead of having a spell cast on us!"
Raniel snorted. "If you're blind, what are you doing here?"
"I followed your scent," Amarisa said, grinning her dog-grin. "We wanted to be sure you two were okay." She looked down at Raniel with a mock-severe expression. "You know, normal people call for help when they're being attacked."
"That's not what I meant," the polecat grumped (though he submitted to Amarisa nuzzling his ears). "Why did you rush out waving your little stick instead of raising the alarm?"
"Hey, I yelled!" John offered.
Raniel snorted. "From the other side of the house?"
Amarisa swatted him gently. "We came to help."
"Of course you did," Sherlock sighed. Because of course they did. Blinded and already assaulted, of course they came to help.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. God forbid you show a sense of self-preservation."
"Well, they couldn't hide from me, could they?" John pointed out. "Witches tend to have spelled objects on them, and we found out that when I'm actually trying to sense those things my range is about…ten metres? Maybe fifteen? Not very impressive, really, but-"
"Oh yes," Raniel scoffed. "Terribly unimpressive from a skill that's not meant to have range in the first place."
Sherlock made sure his footsteps were loud and clear, so John didn't flinch or startle when he put his hand on his shoulder.
John grinned – still looking far too calm for someone who was blind (temporarily!) – and slowly extended his arm until his fingers bumped Sherlock's chest. He trailed them up over Sherlock's shirt and neck, cupping his jaw before leaning and kissing him. It wasn't deep, but it wasn't exactly chaste, either; close-mouthed but hard and with a tiny flicker of tongue. Sherlock had the feeling this was the sort of kiss John would deliver when the danger was over and he was feeling affectionate.
"We thought Mycroft could stop attacks like this," Amarisa remarked. "Or at least be warned about them? Though come to think of it, Aeliana never said exactly how he'd prevent attacks-"
Sherlock interrupted. "Moriarty has proven we're dealing with someone Mycroft's unprepared for."
Usually he'd be feeling smug about that. But Moriarty was different – he wasn't another point scored in the endless duel with his brother, he was a genuine threat to John and Amarisa. And other people as well, obviously, but Sherlock and Raniel found that less concerning.
Though this incident had showed them that Moriarty might also be a genuine threat to their parents, which wouldn't be tolerated either.
"But why attack now?" John went on. "Moriarty's been working with them all along, and I thought he was having far too much fun to kill you. And even if he wanted to get rid of us, the witches weren't actually trying to kill us, were they, Risa?"
"Those arrows were never aimed above the knee," the wolfdog confirmed.
She obviously hadn't noticed the one lodged in the bookcase, well above knee-height – probably too preoccupied looking out for her temporarily-blind human. So they'd shot to kill with Sherlock and Raniel, but not John and Amarisa?
"And this stick knocks people out but doesn't actually hurt them," John added. "Well, besides the whole 'hitting people with a stick' bit. I mean, Aeliana said death spells were pretty much once in a lifetime deals, but still-"
"Maybe they needed to take us alive? Except that other witch was certainly trying to kill Aeliana, so maybe they don't want other witches alive?"
"Probably too much trouble."
Raniel leaned against Amarisa's legs as she debated with her human, staring into Sherlock's eyes. They could only think of one explanation for why witches would try to take John alive, but no one else.
They'd always known it was only a matter of time…but somehow, they'd still expected it to be longer. They'd thought they had more time to anticipate Moriarty's move, more time to plan, to persuade John and Amarisa to put their safety above the cause for what must be the first time in their lives.
They'd probably never know exactly how Moriarty had found out, what questions he'd asked, how long until he'd believed the interpretation…but they knew what he'd discovered.
Moriarty knew John could read the alethiometer.
It was the only explanation. Moriarty had been so dismissive of John at the pool; even though his clan knew about the prophecy, he'd been so utterly convinced John was nothing remarkable he wouldn't mention him at all to a raiding party, let alone instruct them not to kill him. And the witches had tried to kill him once before – they wouldn't stay their hands for any reason of their own.
But at the same time, Sherlock knew that wasn't all of it, not quite. If Moriarty feared John's ability to read the alethiometer, killing him was a guarantee that threat would be removed. But instead, the witches had tried to subdue John – blinding him to make him easier to overcome, carrying a spelled object that would force him into unconsciousness, trying to put an arrow through his leg so he couldn't run.
Moriarty had told them to bring John and Amarisa alive. Which meant that he had a use for them.
Sherlock hadn't been the type to develop fidgets or nervous affectations (no matter what John claimed) but now he could see the appeal of them, some mindless repetitive task to settle his nerves before he informed John and Amarisa that Moriarty knew what they could do and wanted it for his own use.
But then Hasna entered, blinking a little at the sight of John in his boxers (Raniel bristled and wrapped himself possessively around Amarisa's foreleg) and announced, "The house is clear, and there are no more sentries waiting outside."
"Looks like you missed most of the excitement," John grinned in Sherlock's general direction.
He turned his head towards Hasna's voice even though he didn't quite manage to face her, as though he was trying to acknowledge her presence as best he could without his eyesight and without actually touching her.
Of course, Sherlock and Raniel knew 'the excitement', as John had put it, was only beginning. This raid might have been unsuccessful but there would be others – if Moriarty wanted John and Amarisa, he wouldn't rest until he had them.
It seemed Hasna had finally noticed there was a problem. "John, you're-"
"Yeah, one of the witches blinded me with some kind of spell. I'll probably need your help with that."
"Of course." Hasna's expression changed, suddenly turning serious. "Do you have the alethiometer?"
There was an urgency in her voice that arrested Sherlock's attention instantly. John had clearly noticed as well, because he frowned and his hand tightened in Amarisa's fur.
"No, Mycroft took it somewhere, why?"
But Hasna had gone pale, and Sherlock knew what she was about to say.
"It's not where it should be – it's gone missing."
Amarisa made a strange sound, half-growl and half-sigh. Raniel turned his head into her chest, rubbing the side of his face against her sternum, glancing at Sherlock from the corner of his eye.
Apparently the raid wasn't as unsuccessful as they'd first assumed.
Hasna looked nervous – understandably so, if Moriarty's clan could attempt a kidnapping in this house, could sneak in and snatch an alethiometer from under their noses – but John, accustomed to take every blow life could throw at him, only sighed and pinched his eyes shut.
"Well, we'll have to deal with that, then," he said. "But first I need to get dressed – I'm freezing."