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Lex Talionis

Chapter Text

Lex Talionis

For the fourth time since we joined forces in our mutual goal, our lodgings were compromised. One morning, we went out in search of provisions for my friend's latest plan to destroy the Old Ones, and by midday, we were running for our lives from the same policemen who ought to have been our allies. Lestrade, ever the bumbling fool, looked me straight in the face ere dashing past me to the boarding house, and I nearly cried out. But my friend, his nerves made of steelier stuff than mine, though he'd never been to the war, placed a firm hand at my elbow, even as his own face was turned from the detective's, and we were away at a dignified walk.

"Never run from them," my friend always said. "It attracts their attention."

We strolled, as men do, through the murky Rookery of St. Giles and away from our late home. I lamented only the loss of my few possessions and the locket that was all I still had of my beloved Mary. Holmes held nothing of value save his quest, and no-one could take that from him.

"They are tracking us," he said, leaning into my ear, chatting lightly as if remarking on the foul weather that permeated the London skies. "How is your leg?"

I took a few further steps, testing. My old injury had been bothering me these last days with the chill. "It's fine."


Without a glance or a word, he broke into a quick trot, leaving me no choice but to hurry after him, cane grasped in my hand. I dared look behind me, saw nothing, and ran all the faster. That was the worst: when we could not see them coming.

We hurried past street vendors and passers-by, none of whom watched as we went. Like sheep kept by wolves, Holmes called them, although not always with bitterness. What they did not see now, they could not be eaten alive for later. Only the eyes of a few of the street children, the wretched orphans and urchins whose lives might make the difference for the pence they'd earn by pointing out our way to our pursuers, those were on us as we flew.

A hand grabbed my collar and yanked. I started to shout, but a second hand clamped over my mouth. "Quiet!" my friend breathed into my ear.

Together, we crept down the alley he'd found, doubled back, and made our way at a sedate pace in a different direction from our flight. The grimy little fingers would point, but they would point in error. Even as we walked, I could hear the whistles and pounding feet as the police chased past us, unaware.

"I had secured us new lodgings," said Holmes. "I had hoped we wouldn't need to use them just yet." With this declaration, he went silent again, leading me down road after road, until we came out just off Wigmore Street.

The house slouched between two others just as dark and unkempt, but something about this one struck unease into my heart at the sight of the peeling paint on the once-fine exterior. This house had known grandeur, it and its fellows, but the glory was gone, replaced with a dull, seething bitterness that exuded out into the street where we stood.

My friend smiled and bounded up the stair, which I thought might collapse, as old as the stone seemed. He rapped on the door, an arrhythmic beat speaking of yet another secret code which he had not shared with me. A precaution, I supposed then and suppose now: what I did not know could not hurt him later, or so we both believed.

The man who answered the door was peculiarly-visaged, a scar at his jaw, and his head as bald as an egg. This caught my attention because of his youth, and the lack of even that wisp of hair so many balding men affect to hide the loss of the rest. No, he was as bald as one of the poor unfortunate monks from far India, brought to England for defying Her Majesty and shown as examples for the rest of us. Had my friend made contacts with the Resistance even from the Far East? But no, the man was as pale as any Englishman, and his voice, when he greeted Holmes by one of our many assumed names had the tone and drawl of one from the Americas.

Holmes turned to me. "Dr. Smith, I am pleased to introduce my friend Mr. Luthor."

"Call me Alexander," said the man, shaking my confused hand.

The once-fine house belonged to the Luthor family, one of their holdings in London, and the interior still held traces of the former magnificence. The family had fallen on hard times in the New World, with Luthor's father becoming a known threat to He Who Presides after making one too many covenants with less than reliable associates. A lone manservant and a cook maintained the house within, while keeping the ugly façade intact lest someone notice from outside. The house was not large, three narrow storeys with four tiny, cold bedrooms. My friend and I were used to sharing, and were ensconced in the guest room.

I was to spend many hours in the guest room or in Alexander's small study, alone with one of the many books in the Luthor family library. As companions went, they were educational but unemotional, and given my living conditions of the past two years, I felt quite at home.

What set this house apart from so many others fallen to ruin was the existence of a massive and well-appointed basement. Luthors past had excavated beneath the house into sub-basements that themselves were perhaps once ancient houses upon this same spot. Crumbling but shored-up walls of stone and brick and decrepit plaster marked out room after room filled with Alexander's greatest and most secret treasures. His scientific equipment rivalled even that found at Oxford or Cambridge, and my dear friend, who was rarely given to the passion known as lust, lit up at the sight of Alexander's instruments and inventions like another man given his very first sight of a woman.

"Luthor is a genius," Holmes told me that first night, as we shivered together under our heavy quilt. "One mind in a million is born to be shaped the way his has grown."

"So there are four of him in London at this very moment." I said it lightly, hoping to make a joke and place him at rare ease. Instead, I could almost sense him mulling my statement over in the darkness.

"Yes," he said slowly. "Although at this time, I know of only myself and the professor working with Lestrade. Perhaps our other counterpart is at this moment in hiding perfecting his own plan to take over."

I lay in thought. "That makes three in London. Alexander is from America. The fourth?"

Holmes rolled over away from me. "Irene has fled England. We will not see her again." It was the last he said to me that night.

The three of us breakfasted together, eating good preserves on fresh bread and drinking strong tea. Given the poor nature of our previous lodgings, this felt like a luxury every morning, and with the newspaper arriving at the crumbling doorstep, I felt practically a gentleman again. After we ate and conversed, nothing of import where the servants could hear lest they be implicated in our plans at a later time -- so much subterfuge! it seems mad in these days but then it was secrecy or death -- Alexander and Holmes made their way below, and I made mine to another book.

The Luthor library contained many eclectic volumes, from dry scientific studies to dark magic, just the mumbling aloud of which might drive a man mad. Alexander warned me against these, and Holmes, ever the curious, opened the most damned and remarked that he had seen worse before snapping the book shut and forbidding me from looking. I took him at his word. I read my own way through histories, and plays, including all of Shakespeare's great comedies. It was a quiet life, myself and the books, and I look back on that time now as an island of peace within the tumultuous seas that made up my more usual life. Even as my mind basked, I knew the storms were brewing beneath my feet.

I was party to the plan they were concocting between them, though my mind was not given to the level of scientific discourse the pair required for the details. Alexander had created machines run on steam and oil. The most important of these created sparks of wild electricity, which he tamed to run other machines. The basements stank of combustion and grease, but spoke of promise.

One of the machines spit an invisible fire that could cut through wood, glass, even stone.

Another machine, not yet completed, could render the mightiest warrior as weak as a baby, or so Alexander claimed.

A third machine, and the one that held my friend's closest attention, acted as a mirror, yet a mirror unlike any other: it peered into another world, all unaware of ours, but closely related as cousins who favoured each other. Alexander set the dials with a great turn of his wheel, and through the smoky glass, we could observe a world where the Old Ones had never come. My friend believed it was only a short step between seeing that world, and walking through to it. Not, he said, to run from the risks and hardships of ours, but to go forth and find warriors who could aid us in our mission here.

I pause in my description of the miraculous machines to mention my friend, who has so often been the hero of these tales I pen. His face and form have oft been described, and even portrayed once by an actor in Mr. Edison's amazing picture show, but I have seldom been able to capture in words the puckish delight that overtook him whenever we found ourselves with another possible weapon in our war. Given as he was to great depressions, seeing his eyes alight with a new chase, a fresh chance, this was enough to move the weight I too found dragging at my own heart as the time passed with still only a few brief wins in the greater battle. When Holmes was excited, his countenance changed dramatically. The years fell away from his face, the pallor from his cheeks. His voice found a new, almost tremulous quality in its timbre, edged with excitement, even joy. Soon, ever, always, something would stand in our way, would seize the full victory even as we made another mark, and he would return to his pensive demeanour. But while we were on the hunt, he was happy, and it gladdened me to see.

One night, after the servants were sent to bed, Holmes led me to the basement. Alexander tinkered on his invisible light machine. (The light was so pure and focused, he said, we couldn't see it, which sounded like nonsense to me but Holmes nodded in understanding.) "We have a plan," Holmes breathed in a voice that in any other would be giddy.

Alexander said, "Victoria will be processing next week to the Palace of Westminster. If we set up the laser in the right place, we should be able to take her out." In his voice was determination, severe and firm. Holmes had shared with me what had become of the senior Luthor, thanks to He Who Presides.

Holmes said, "We will contact our most reliable allies. If we can coordinate simultaneous blows against several of the Old Ones, even if we only succeed in killing the Queen, we will send the signal out before the world that the time of rebellion is at hand."

His hand on my shoulder trembled with emotion stilled yet excited. That energy was put to good use first by our shared work, shifting the heavy machines out of the house and to another location closer to our planned hiding place, and after in our shared bed, until he fell asleep at last, exhausted, while I lay awake and worried.

After only a few brief hours of sleep, Holmes went out to meet with his contacts, the list of which I could not know, while I pored over the maps in the Luthor library. I performed calculations of simple geometry based on building height, and considered what we had learned of alien physiology from my inspection of the German prince's emerald innards. We might have more than one shot, but we could not guarantee it, and so must make the perfect blow the first time.

"Here," I said when Holmes returned and Alexander joined him to peer at the maps. "This house is the right height, and within range."

"It's a tight angle," said Alexander, but he agreed. Holmes himself neither accepted nor argued, but slipped away again, returning an hour later to say there were too many trees.

I cursed, but only to myself. I had selected three locations, and the second would have to suffice. We waited until nightfall, then moved the electricity machine and the laser into place, covering them with oilcloth to protect them from the weather and any possible prying eyes.

Now we waited. Holmes at least had his daily liaisons to make with our contacts, sending out encrypted letters and paying sums to others he knew to send coded telegraphs. His greatest fear, I knew, was that the professor would find one of his missives and crack his code, for in Moriarty, Holmes believed he had found a near equal, as he had in Luthor.

I should say that I was not jealous of Alexander Luthor in any way. His wealth, though on the decline, was still considerable, and his mind was as keen as my friend's, and they spent long hours together. Were I a different man, a lesser man, I am certain the seeds of envy would have grown in my heart, nurtured by their quick closeness. I could have thought myself replaced in Holmes's esteem. However, being his closest friend, and more, I knew already how both his mind and heart worked, though I dared not guess what either truly thought, and I knew his affections remained the same towards me, and his love stayed where it had always and would always be: ever on our work.

"I should speak to Moriarty," Holmes said one night, speaking in a low tone into my bared shoulder. "If I could only get him to see reason, he would make a perfect ally. The three of us would be unstoppable in our quest."

I knew that he meant Alexander to be the third in that triangle of genius, but again, I felt no sting. "Could he be turned?"

"I have no idea."

He tried the very next day. He went out at first light, while Alexander and I ate our breakfast, and left me to worry as the day passed. I tried to read, but failed, the words on the page mocking my attempts as I wondered if he had made contact, if he had been captured or killed.

"Tell me about him," Alexander said, too wound up with nervous energy given the nearness of our project's completion to occupy himself otherwise.

But what was there to say? "He is the most brilliant man I have ever known," I said at last. "His brother died fighting. I think he will die fighting." I did not add that I believed Holmes would consider this a fine end, if not as fine an end as taking one or more of the Old Ones and their willing associates with him.

"You'd do anything for him, wouldn't you?"

I nodded. Holmes was as much a law of my world as gravity, and could be just as easily avoided or ignored. And at the end of things, I would not choose to do so regardless.

Sunset came, and then true night, and still he had not returned. I went from concern to outright terror. Had he been captured, I knew he would never give us up nor our plan, but he may have been followed, some of his recent movements tracked, and then it was merely a matter of time.

"Go," I said at last, in an ecstasy of fear. "Get into position. If he is taken, you may still have the chance."

Alexander's face turned, and he grasped my arm like a brother. He went to the servants, and paid them, and told them to find relatives in the country, and hurry. Then he descended into one of the sub-basements and returned with a rucksack. "Good luck," he said, and I wished him the same, and then he left in the night.

I waited. It has ever been my job to wait, either at the bedside of a dying patient or, as then, in the night for Holmes to return and give me instructions for flight or my gun.

After midnight, the door to the old house creaked open, and my heart leapt into my mouth before Holmes muttered, "He will not join us."

"Have you been followed?"

"No. I made certain." There would be blood on his hands. I readied the basin and helped him wash. Our possessions -- the spare clothes Alexander had provided, two books he had pressed into my hands as gifts after I'd praised them, small items he had gifted to Holmes, some food -- these I had already packed into a valise. When he was clean, we donned our coats and went forth into the night, away from the House of Luthor.

The morning dawned cold and crisp on the day of our plan, a breath in the air of an early frost which Holmes chose to call precipitous rather than foreboding. We had slept these past two nights under the shelter of a bridge, not daring to risk any more of our associates (or risk their sudden change of heart) this close to our plan's fruition, and I was cold and stiff and afraid.

"We should join our friend," I said, picking at the last loaf of bread.

"No," Holmes said. "We shall provide the slow movement of the procession he requires." His eyes were alight once again: the merry elf, then, to dance us to our doom.

We made our way through the crowding streets to the parade route. Humans lined the streets in throngs, each one large and small craning necks and bumping past hats to find a view of where Her Majesty would ride past in Her great carriage drawn by the Sharks That Walk On Land.

Against any good judgment, I kept turning my gaze towards the building on which we'd placed the wonderful machine. Was Alexander readying himself? Did he have us in his spyglass even now, mounted as it was atop the great brass device? He would soon have to ignite the steam engine, but that at least would be disguised by the smoke rising from the factory roofs surrounding him. I fancied that I could see it, a whiter plume than the rest, rising up like a prayer into the cold October sky.

She came.

I have previously described the fascinating horror of the Queen's visage in these annals, and will not turn your heart aside, gentle reader, to do so once more. Suffice it to say that as always, I steeled myself to look upon Her face, as always it struck ice into my veins, and as always, once viewed, I could not look away easily. Thus was her glamour.

Holmes himself did not look, busying himself with the crowd, and the commotion he was beginning -- the madman -- with a pocketful of firecrackers he'd concocted in the dank sub-basement with simple black gunpowder. "Hoorah for the Queen!" he shouted in his playactor's voice, "Hoorah!"

He got the crowd to shout with him, and the firecrackers frightened them out, even in front of the Great Sharks and the soldiers on horseback.

I prodded from where I stood, pushing tall men using my cane with a "Hoorah!" of my own.

The explosion could be heard over the crackle of the fireworks and the shouts and screams of the crowd, and suddenly every head was turned towards the building, the plume of black smoke rising upwards.

Holmes went pale.

One of the soldiers gave a shout, and I thought we were done for, and then he turned and stabbed his sharp sword into Her side. She let out a bellow of rage, and with one great tentacle, smashed into the traitor, her green ichor dripping and splashing everyone with giant jade drops. Two other soldiers killed the brave man in front of me, and red matched green.

"Come," said Holmes, his voice as calm as rain. His hand was at my elbow again, and he walked me away from the screams, from the enraged Queen.

Reader, you already know of the Bloody October, how the people rose up for the first time together against the Old Ones beginning that cold day. Surely we were beaten back, and yes, many of the names you know who died as martyrs on that day and the ones that followed were among our dearest allies. My friend and I had our place during that first rebellion, and we took our injuries and our triumphs long before our final victory, and that is how you came to know his great name, and my lesser one. (Oh, Mr. Edison, and his romantic notions of how that victory came to pass!) But you will not know the name of Alexander Luthor, and that is a great sin of omission from the history books.

"We had to ensure the laser would not fall into our enemies' hands," Holmes said in a choked voice, when we were far away. "He was to take enough dynamite to … "

"Yes," I replied, thinking of the rucksack.

"We were compromised. It was the only way he could have been found. I fear one of our friends is no longer loyal." And again, as you already know, we did have a traitor in our loose ranks, but the story of how we dealt with him must wait for another tale.

"He died well." It was all I could think of to say in comfort, for indeed I could see by Holmes's discomfit that he had lost a greater friend than I had believed.

Holmes stared at me, wearing still the same shock that had covered his features and made me fear that he must need a warm blanket and hot tea soon, and to worry that neither would be forthcoming while we ran for our lives.

"My dear Watson," he said. "What on Earth makes you think he is dead?"

We made our way back into hiding, another plan to hatch, or so we thought. As the rebellion gained hold, Holmes and I served as quiet Captains, he guiding the strategies, I patching up the poor wounded who managed to survive. Holmes even perused the enchanted books Alexander had given me, and although his personal abilities with magic were unimpressive, he made sure the shielding spells made their way to those with Talent, and so we also fought the Old Ones on their own ground.

At times there were reports, whispered news passed from unbelieving mouth to ear regarding unseen helpers, not merely gutter mages and disgruntled citizens, but machines run with steam and coal that always fought for us. Too, we heard stories of warriors unlike any seen on our world, strong in body and graced with power, who clashed with our overlords and vanished only to rise again as battles needed them.

Holmes smiled each time.

I tell you this, though it sound strange: as soon as Holmes said that he thought Alexander survived, I believed it as well, and given the events that followed, and the great machines that helped us turn the tide of the war, I still believe he set the explosion and lived on to avenge his father to help us win the war, and that his final gift to himself was to leave our world and find another to save.

I do.