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Observations on Sentinels and Guides in Victorian London

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Sherlock Holmes, the great detective of London, surveyed his surroundings dismally, his mood a black cloud that could easily swamp even the haze of tobacco smoke. He lay on his settee completely oblivious to the ills of the world, as he was completely immersed in his own.

What could be loosely termed as the ‘country’ Sentinels were often completely appalled by the ‘city’ Sentinels predilection for tobacco smoke; but then again, they didn’t actually live in the great, bubbling, smoking, fermenting cesspool that was London. The sheer insult of foul odours that seeped into every crack and crevice - the mildew, human waste, mould, rot, refuse, decay - offended even the noses of normal, everyday people. To a person that could scent the faintest trace of perfume and follow it’s trail across the city it was an olfactory hell Dante` could not have conceived of in his worst nightmares. The only thing to do was block out the worst of it with whatever pungent but likeable smell was available. Tobacco smoke was utterly ideal, as it also took care of taste as well. It was amazing how often people, even Sentinels, forgot how interconnected the two were.

His sensory fugues had been steadily increasing for the last few months; to the point where his brother was foisting all manner of Guides upon him. It was an act of kindness that Holmes the junior feverishly plotted to repay in the most diabolical way possible, when he wasn’t driven half mad with sensory chaos or on a case. The former, he noted with mulish displeasure, was happening with far more regularity than the latter these days.

 Guides. The only punishment that came close to boredom in the hellish spectrum of his existence. Sherlock Holmes had become an active Sentinel at the ripe old age of seven, the only significant event where he had surpassed his brother Mycroft; and wasn’t it just typical that it had brought him no joy. Holmes couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t felt sickly, itchy or pained with whatever new reaction his enhanced senses brought. But he had learned iron control quickly, oh yes. He hadn’t had a choice. His mind, brilliant and broad and alight, insisted on making note of everything he saw, tasted, smelt, heard and felt, examining and analysing every tiny thing ad nauseam. The overwhelming flood of sensory input was matched, torrent for torrent, with his deductive talent; to the point where he was nearly insane from the sheer, unceasing flow of information. He could barely sleep, barely eat, barely keep up while his mind burned and crackled like a lightning storm.

But the brilliance worked on both sides; young Sherlock picked things up fast. With some help, he managed to shore up his mind, damming and blocking and routing the input and subsequent analytical processes into a workable system. In his mind it was a vast, complex aqueduct system, twisting and turning the flood into controllable streams that paralleled and crossed and recrossed; but bordered by stone that was under his control.

It had taken long, painful years. He had travelled the knife edge of utter madness and destruction more than once; but he had managed it, and turned it to his advantage in becoming one of the foremost investigators in London. And he had done so without a Guide.

Who wanted another person underfoot, in the way, demanding attention and companionship for what could be the rest of one’s life? Holmes could see no merit in it. Unlike the lesser Sentinels who needed a Guide to enhance whatever faculties they might possess, having a Guide would only diminish him. He had been in total control of his senses for the better part of his life now, which served as compelling evidence of this fact.  He knew that by choosing not to bond with a Guide, he was depriving the London clan of an Alpha Sentinel; he had known for quite some time now that he was not like the other Sentinels. The explorer Richard Burton had, from his latest expedition to Paraguay, discovered a new type of Sentinel which he had called a Dark Sentinel.

Well, Burton thought he had discovered it; but most clans, tribes and prides had known about the Dark Sentinels for hundreds of years, though there were hundreds of different names. Every so often a Sentinel would come into existence that was exceptionally powerful; they practically ruled the clan from the moment they became active. The last recorded one in England before Holmes was a most rare one indeed, for it had also been a female; none other than Queen Elizabeth herself. She had been powerful enough not only rule the largest pride in Europe at the time, but the entire empire as well. She, of course, had a Guide in the Lord Robert Dudley, as she could not have risen to such a height in her clan without one.

That, to Holmes, was simply another reason not to have a Guide. He, for one, was a solitary creature and had no interest whatsoever in dealing with clan politics. Guide-free, he could not come to the attention of whatever mediocre Alphas the city clans had now.

The fact that his whole strategy, so painstakingly built and so stringently maintained, was now failing nettled him. His mind waterways were full of leaks and overflows for no apparent reason, the fugues were happening daily now and the sense chaos, the complete control over his once clockwork perfect senses shrivelling, was overwhelming to the point where he, on top of everything else, now had to drive out a character-less trained dog Guide every few days while his brother continued to press the matter.

Not that the Guides would stay; they had never stayed his entire life. Quite apart from his waterway metaphor, the Guides that had tried to bond with him had been driven out of his mind almost instantly by what one described as ‘being submersed in an ocean of fire and repeatedly struck with lightning’. The huge, horrible, overwhelming ebb and flow of Holmes unstoppable intellect, sharpened and not blunted by his senses, defied any attempt of control, containment or understanding. The empathic Guides who tried to build a wall around this cosmos sized storm of light and noise found themselves so completely out of their depth so quickly that the only thing they could do to avoid madness was to retreat; oft times literally running screaming out of the door. No one could shield or soothe that cataclysm of thought. They might has well have tried to drink the ocean with a teaspoon.

Well what did the Guild of Sentinels expect? These days, while Guides were no longer considered the human shaped pets they had been a few centuries ago, they were still sheltered and contained from a very young age. They were trained, much like young ladies were groomed for marriage, to be useful and dutiful and unobtrusive and quiet. They were similar to highly trained servants; everything they were taught was for the sake of the Sentinel they would bond with, which made them ignorant of most of the rest of the world. They were dull, without opinion and without personality. Holmes loathed the very idea of sharing a life with someone who was, to put it mildly, a companion who knew nothing and could add nothing.

Holmes glared dully at the drawer which held his supply of morphine. It was tempting; he had used it before for the drugs ability to detach his mind from the searing discomfort of his body, and allow him to process matters away from his sensory input for a time. But now it was a danger. His senses were, for the first time since adolescence, spiralling out of his control and the risk of hallucination was far too great. The last time he had been immersed in a drug induced fantasy, he had ended up in an asylum for something he couldn’t even remember and it was just lucky that someone had been able to identify him and summon Mycroft, a humiliation he had yet to live down.

So he lay here in a black mood, his body now an enemy. His mind yearned for something to do.

At times like this he would try to stretch out with his senses, as far and as wide as London, gently coasting the hustle and bustle, listening, learning, observing. Such a thing was always an education in human nature, if nothing else.

Aware he was taking a foolish risk with his sudden daily fugues, Holmes reached out.

He stretched past Mrs Hudson, bustling around in her kitchen, past the street urchins fighting on the street while a constable tried to restore order, past the argument one block over Camden House, past the nest of starlings in the tree near the park, past the religious service halfway finished, spittle flying from the preacher’s mouth in sharp stacco  drops, past the carriage wheels and the footsteps, the infants crying, the yelling, the moaning or both love and hate, the mundane conversations, the anger, the joy, the despair, the hatred, the passion, the laughter, travelling down the slick wash of the Thames until the clank of construction on the....

The docks!

Holmes was up as if he’d been struck by lightning, his shoes and coat on before his brain even registered, down the stairs and out the door with less strides than there were steps. He didn’t bother with a cab, his long legs fell into a sprinting stride and he sped off, heedless of people jumping out of his way.

He didn’t even know why he was going. All he knew was that it was impossible not to go.

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John H Watson, MD, gratefully took the help offered to him by the fisherman to get off the small boat; his wounded leg had been healing nicely but he was still shaky on it, and not nearly stable enough to travel the short hop from the portside to the wharf jetty. It ached in the cold anyway. It might have damaged his pride slightly to be half lifted down, but Watson’s pride had sustained worse blows.

The fisherman, Drewitt, was a Sentinel; and was quite abnormal as Sentinel’s go. He and his Guide, Pendley, eschewed the usual wolf pack approach to life of most Sentinels; the sea was their territory. They barely ever set foot on land and spent sometimes years at a time with only themselves for company; trading for food variety using the fish they caught with other ships passing in the trade lanes. They were quite well known to most captains and crews cruising the Channel, the North and the Atlantic seas.

Watson had been astonished when they had drawn alongside the vessel that had been taking him home from the war, demanding from the captain that he send down the Guide who was in distress, as they would take him the rest of the way. It was true he had been becoming overwhelmed with the emotions bombarding him from the other passengers but he’s had no clue any other empath had been able sense his pain.

It hadn’t been so bad when first setting out from Bombay. Watson had still been quite sickly, even a month after being released from the hospital, and had spent the majority of his time curled in his cabin, too exhausted, emotionally and physically, to do anything else but lay there. The enteric fever had sapped the last grains of fortitude that the war, Maiwand and subsequent events had ripped from him. He had needed the rest.

But then someone, somehow, had found out he was a Guide. He would never know how anyone had discovered the fact; he bore none of the marks, crests or other indicators that would have spoken of his status. He hadn’t been given them yet; he had barely been active for six months and most of that time had been spent recovering from one thing or another, away from any Sentinel authority.  

The whispers had started; then the wariness, the fear, the resentment, the affront, the disgust. A Guide could feel the most intimate and private emotions from those around them, that was an antithesis to Victorian sense of privacy and properness. Ignorance of how a Guide’s spiritual and emotional awareness of others worked lead to fearful assumptions of perversion, promiscuity and sin. The falsehoods people were willing to accept about Guides were inbuilt, based on years of superstitions, misunderstandings and misconceptions, exaggerated by fanatical Puritanism in the past and cultural tendencies towards such things as proper restraint and deportment at present; and the fear of having these things stripped away.  Even the popular reign of Elizabeth had done little to shift these prejudices; and modern day scientific thought was hard pressed to override the deeply held beliefs of the centuries. They did make some headway, but it was slow going and a hard struggle.

Watson hadn’t been trained from a young age. The art of shielding himself from the constant projections of emotions around him was not an automatic reflex. He hadn’t been taught the method for blocking them out, for ignoring them, or blunting them. All his military training in defending his body, all his medical training in fighting death did him no good against these weapons. All he could do is retreat, never emerge from his cabin, and do his best to ignore the shouted epithets and pounding on his door. The scratched libel and foul things smeared on his door and the hateful notes shoved underneath had eventually driven the captain to post a man outside his door. Food and water were brought to him, but he was barely coherent enough to eat or drink, he could barely even sleep. Half crazed from fatigue and hunger, Watson knew he must have looked a sight when Drewitt had forced his way aboard, using a Sentinel’s superior strength and speed which was helped greatly by a fitness borne of a life of hard labour. He had removed the obstacle of the door in one blow and had half carried Watson off the ship and onto the small fishing boat that he and his Guide called home. Watson had nearly cried with relief when Pendley’s spiritual shield had closed around his own mind, finally granting him respite. He had slept for two days; Drewitt and Pendley had apparently forced him to consciousness periodically to get broth into his stomach, but he had no recollection of it.

Watson had enjoyed his weeks aboard the Farsight, as the boat was appropriately named; even in spite of the fact he had never been a great admirer of the ocean. Watson was definitely happier with solid earth beneath his feet than near bottomless depths of water. But Drewitt and Pendley were both excellent if quiet companions and a vast improvement over that hellish ship.

He had watched Drewitt and Pendley with fascination. He had known many Sentinels and Guides in the army as many of them were attracted to military service. He had, somewhat without choosing, become something of an expert in Sentinel medicine. He had had close contact with a Sentinel bloodline when growing up in Edinburgh, so he already had intimate knowledge of dealing personally with Sentinels. Because he had this experience, the Sentinels and Guides in the army had sought him out for medical help when they could. But Drewitt and Pendley were completely different from what he had experienced previously.

For one thing, they were both older men; most Sentinels fighting on the front lines were young, brash, adventurous; not tied to a territory or a clan strongly, which made them ideal for foreign deployments. The pair of fishermen had been bonded for forty years. They had reached a point where they barely needed to talk to one another anymore; they could read each other’s moods and intentions long before they needed to put it into words. It was riveting to watch them work, wordlessly assisting and anticipating each other, looking almost like one person inhabiting two bodies. It was unfathomable that they should tire of each other’s company; it would be like tiring of your own arm or leg.

Drewitt barely spoke at all anyway; he was one of those quiet, reticent characters, who would offer only a word or two in explanation or reply and fill the rest of the communication in with silent nods or gestures. Pendley was more loquacious, but not by much; he was the one who brokered the trading deals with the ships, but while on the boat he seemed to be content with the silence his Sentinel produced.

It was Pendley who had explained to him how he had felt Watson’s distress; how he had frantically had Drewitt turn the boat and make a beeline for the ship. Watson felt a flush of embarrassment when he realised he had been projecting so much, but Pendley reassured him calmly that Watson had obviously been in no shape to stop it, and shouldn’t have even if he was. No Guide should have to suffer like he had suffered.

Watson made himself useful on the boat, because being useless was not his nature; helping with what hand chores there were to do, daubing ointment onto rope burn on Drewitt’s hands from pulling in the netting. He’d been able to help a seriously ill man on another sailing ship they passed on their way, cleaning an infectious wound and having medicines on hand for the fever. The fishermen had gotten a fairly good deal on fresh fruit from Watson’s assistance.

Finally, they had arrived in London. Drewitt and Pendley wished him well on his voyage, and told him to send letters via ships leaving from the harbour; eventually, one would reach them. He left them with as many medicines and bandages as they would accept, and even hid a few when they weren’t looking. He could think of no other way to repay their kindness.

Drewitt and Pendley watched the still wounded man silently as they travelled back out towards the sea. Pendley turned to his Sentinel and they shared a moment of profound communication, completely silent. Pendley hadn’t been able to tell Watson; hadn’t been able to find the words to explain that after he had felt the distress, it had taken them five days and well over a hundred miles to reach the ship to find him. Pendley had never felt a signal so strongly; he’d never heard of any Guide being able to project that far, even at full strength; and the doctor had been half dead when they had arrived. John Watson was immensely powerful.

Watson paused for a moment on the docks, taking in the intimidating skyline of the city of London. The Farsight had been small enough to gently slip into the mouth of the Thames, so Watson didn’t have to go through a lot of paperwork with any officials. He took a deep breath (regretting it slightly, as he was on the rather pungent docks), his cane in one hand and his medical bag in the other and walked into the city. Every step he took almost physically hurt and not because of his leg. It was like a weight was dragging his back to the docks. Watson thought maybe a part of him wanted to remain with the Farsight, because it had been the first time in a very long time he had felt truly safe. But he knew he could not linger there. He had to face this. So he forced himself to move onwards. After so many hardships, one more burden to carry barely registered. 

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Mere minutes later a dishevelled and scruffy dark haired man surged onto the docks, breathing hard, his eyes darting fiercely left and right. He was so unbalanced by what he had felt that he made a critical error, and stretched out with his senses. This was a mistake in the putrescent air of the Thames mouth. He slipped into fugue.

By the time he was brought out of it, and much to his chagrin, whatever had pulled him here was long gone.

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End Part One