Underland: The Adventure of the Raven’s Task
4th of May, 1891
(From the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., late of London Above)
I write this not to be published as many of my other works, nor for the sake of any other than myself, save as a record for my own keeping; for nothing else, to document these events as they truly happened, though few may ever read these words. No doubt this record will join many others in my tin dispatch-box1 (no longer kept at Cox & Co. as it is well beyond my reach these days) unpublished and unremarked upon, because it is not something that would be approved of or appreciated by my regular audience.
Perhaps now, however, I might find a new audience to tell of this adventure.
This account is taken from the small journal I keep upon my person; as I do with many of Mr. Sherlock Holmes’ cases, I accumulated short notes and brief passages written over the course of the week, in some meagre attempt to create a semblance of normalcy in the midst of madness. I daresay that without a grounding influence I should not have survived… Perhaps physically yes, but mentally? Well, it is very possible that the events I am about to describe might have been well beyond my ability to comprehend.
I move ahead of myself. In reading this, Holmes no doubt would berate me for my blatant romanticism2, however I have found no place in this tale for clinical language or impersonal cynicism. The genuine events were too far beyond belief for that to ever properly convey what occurred.
I shall begin therefore with the man. I now know his true name or rather his title, which, I think, is very nearly as close as he gets. Truth is relative, especially considering the power of names, but for now I will tell only what I knew at the time. Considering how elaborately convoluted this story is, I shall do my best to represent my thoughts of the moment.
Holmes had been called away to Mansfield3 for some two long weeks working on a peculiar missing person's case involving a stable boy, an horrific bird phobia, a dead prize stallion, and a wailing woman rumored to be wandering the woods. Unfortunately my patients had monopolized my time so sufficiently that I could not attend him, and once my time was my own again, he was caught up in the bumbling attentions of the local police force, and rejected my offer to join him. He sent me several telegrams ordering me to enjoy the freedom, and one insisting I pay no attention to what Inspector Gregson might say about the case. I instead used the time, a little reluctantly I will admit, to further my connections within the medical profession and reacquaint myself of colleagues with whom I had lost contact.
I have regular clients few and far between on account of my propensity to drop everything and race off after Holmes on some adventure or other. To be a medical man outside the medical business makes for a difficult career path, and so I must use the time I have to maintain my position, and keep the clients who are willing to see such an unreliable character as I.
It was the evening of April 24th4, reeking of the ennui without the constant excitement that always revolves around Holmes, and I took the time to indulge in a few of my own vices. Taking the pocket money I had acquired from tending patients in my practise at Baker Street, I moved to one of the less reputable sections of London in search of some small recreation.
While I am ashamed of my shortcomings, gambling being the most detrimental of them, I do not deny that they are present, however rarely I might act on them. Thus, without the distraction of a case, and without Holmes to watch over my cheque-book, I let myself slip into the my weakness for drink and game5.
I started simply at a game of dice, wagering on the cast and roll. I am no good at guess work, nor at relying on pure luck, so I withdrew from this amusement before I lost too much. Luckily, no matter how Holmes laments my inability to prevaricate I have about my person a reasonable poker face and have tendency to fair much more profitably at the card table. While I take no enjoyment in lying, and am horribly transparent when attempting to avoid telling a direct falsehood, within the pure environment of a card game it comes naturally to not betray my hand.
When I was younger my friends would say it was my moustache that made it so, during evenings when we would find entertainment in the deck. I choose to believe rather that it is my cunning wit and cool exterior that throws off my opponents6.
Either way I am no easy mark when it comes to cards.
The proprietor of this establishment was in the process of gathering a private game in the back rooms. While the clamour and shouting that pervaded the air effectively rose my blood, the drink had gone to my head, and I felt in need of quiet. I had no wish to leave so early, so I bought my way into the game for a few shillings as the stakes were still fairly low.
There were three other men already in the room in addition to the dealer, all of them marginally better dressed than the other patrons. One was roughly my age (that is to say, late thirties) while the other two were well into their fifties or sixties. I took my place between the young man and the oldest. He had practised air of dishevelment about him, with artfully arranged scuffs and wear on his jacket and trousers of the kind that Holmes has taught me to observe, leading me to believe that he too was seeking the anonymity of this den of iniquity over higher entertainment and social circles.
Thus, the game began.
It is a thing of note, to differentiate those who gamble for money from those who gamble for the sake of gambling. As for myself, my experience had started well before my time in Afghanistan as a simple entertainment. After, crippled and weak with night terrors keeping me awake and the last ravages of enteric fever exhausting my already shaken nerves, I fell to more desperate gambling; I sought to get away from the world that had left me bereft of life. I am ashamed to say that those months of wasting my army pension on the game rather than my rent left me forever craving the thrill and rush of the bet.
Meeting Holmes and finding new devotions; keeping him safe, recording his cases and adventures, and acting as his liaison to the menial world of the common Londoner, all worked in tandem to distract my mind from the call of the gambling dens. It is not perfect, I have on occasion other than this been drawn into an ill advised bet on a game of dice, but the simple need for the games of chance have diminished in the face of Holmes' friendship.
I will not write extensively of the game, for it was nothing of import or commemoration. I won some, lost more, and maintained my place well until the eventual withdrawal of the third man, sitting across from me. Dejected, he slumped out of the room, not wishing to see the ending conclusion of the game, and I felt the twinge of pity for his plight that I was well experienced with.
Not minutes later, entered the instigator of this whole tale. The man who changed my life sufficiently enough to rival the influence of Sherlock Holmes.
How shall I describe him? He changed even as I grew to know him and I feel I shall never know all, so I will give first impressions only.
He swept into the dingy little room like a peacock, his frock coat billowing about his knees. He was the kind of man who attracted attention wherever he went and revelled in it. He was tall and thin, with night dark skin and eyes shining as though he laughed at some private joke. His waistcoat was well made and ornate, but worn; as were his shirt and trousers, tucked into square-toed leather boots of the like I have never seen before.
He spoke with a deep voice, amused teeth flashing white.
"Good evening gentlemen, I hear you have a vacancy."
It was not a question.
I have not had the opportunity to meet many men of African descent outside the shipyards or servants quarters, and this man, with his remarkable coat and his well bred London accent served to positively fascinate me7. We three men nodded acquiescence, and he slipped into the chair opposite me with the grace of a jungle cat.
His hair was not kinked as I had thought accustomed, but was long, and twisted into a hundred tiny plaits that rained down across his shoulders like a waterfall.
We played. No introductions, for there was no need; none of us wished to know the other men as they are known outside that room.
He never seemed to look down at his cards.
Every time I looked up from my own worn cards (a four and two Jacks to match one on the table) he was watching me with those pool deep black eyes, a secret smile ghosting around the corners of his thick lips.
I raised the ante, and was astonished to find myself throwing my last coins into the centre. So enthralled in the game, was I, that I had not noticed my money leaping from my pocket like an eager schoolboy out of a tedious class.
The young man was the first to fold, sweat beading in a sheen upon his pale forehead, his light hair dark at the temples. The disguised old man followed shortly after, and they left, sullen.
I swallowed and sighed. I hadn't meant to bet so much, but the thrill was so encompassing that I even then I could feel no regret.
The dealer was silent as ever, eyes cast down, barely acknowledging our presence in the room.
"You are a doctor, are you not, sir?"
I admit I jumped at the black man's sudden breaking of the silence that had settled around us.
"Yes, indeed I am. However did you know?"
"I know things." He smiled, and took a new card. His smile was not of triumph, only of satisfaction, as though his greater knowledge than mine was more pleasing to him than the chance of winning all my money.
So used to Holmes' seemingly preternatural deductions from the state of my shoes or shirt cuffs, and frankly, as well into the drink as I was, I did not think to question him further.
I did not wonder for a moment how he knew where to find me.
At this point in the game I hesitated. I had nothing more to bet, but could not bring myself to fold my hand and simply walk away.
"You seem hesitant. Could it be you are out of coin?"
I blushed to be so transparent, and laughed easily. "Indeed. This is quite the game, if you'll pardon my saying so."
He smiled again, closed lipped and secretive. "What do you say to a little deviation from the norm?"
"I will not wager my shoes, sir, if that is what you are implying."
His head tipped back with a full-throated laugh, braids dancing around his jawline with his chuckles. "No such thing, my good man! I merely wish to increase the competition with a little more excitement."
"Well, then. What have you in mind?" For I had exceeding amounts of Dutch courage flowing in my veins, ignited by the wager.
"A favour. Should I win you will grant me some professional services; the same in reverse. Would you find that acceptable?"
"What exactly is your profession?" I inquired, very much interested in his proposal.
"I am a — businessman. I can acquire anything you need: money, men, jewellery, luck. If you win, I will provide you with any material good you feel the need for."
I took very little time to deliberate, and acquiesced.
I replaced my four with a seven, and we finished the hand.
Needless to say, I lost. This tale would be nothing beyond an entertaining anecdote to tell Holmes about one night before the fire at Baker Street if I had won.
The man across from me had a royal flush.
It was like magic8.
He was called the Marquis de Carabas.
I felt I had heard the name before, but without context or frame of reference I had no idea where or why I might have encountered him. I was honoured and a little shocked to realise that I had gambled against nobility in a grimy public house, yet he waved away my words with another of his private chuckles.
When he gave no other name I sought to introduce myself, but got no further than my own title, when he interrupted me.
"I know who you are, Doctor Watson, for your reputation exceeds you. But heed my advice, good sir, and refrain from speaking your name to anyone else you might encounter tonight. Names have power, as you should know." He gave me a look that might have been a cleaving smirk, but the lamp light in the street was too dim to fully make it out.
"How on Earth do you know of me? What sort of a reputation do you mean?”
Oh how late I was to ask this.
"You have quite the impressive reference list. I heard of you through a mutual acquaintance and desire your professional attention and discretion in a personal matter."
I interrupted, as he started walking in the opposite direction of Baker Street. "If you are in need of medical attention, shouldn’t I gather my supplies?"
"Of course not, my dear man,” he said, not turning around, but continuing on as though assured I would follow. “Your mind and kindly disposition are all I require. Now, I beg of you, ask no more questions lest you find yourself immersed too deeply in this affair."
Acknowledging his caveat, I proceeded silently as he led me down the winding streets, the clack of my cane the only sound on the wet pavement.
A low fog drifted in around us, muffling the sounds of London at night until even our footsteps were deadened and mute. The damp crept deep beneath my wool overcoat and I shivered.
I was surprised to see we had been walking down Tottenham Court Road. It should have seen some minor business from the night owls such as myself (even despite the late hour of the night, or perhaps the early hour of the morning) and yet was empty.
We turned off the main road onto a narrow side street, and again onto Hanway Place. The Marquis de Carabas gestured for me to precede him down a tight alley, barely lit by a single street lamp, and shrouded well with shadows. I squinted, unable to see very far down the passage, and looked around briefly. A sign caught my eye, high on the dark brick wall:
ORME PASSAGE W9
I stepped carefully down the alley until I reached a small door, and looked back. The Marquis was two or three inches taller than I, and even though his figure was thin and wiry beneath his coat, he seemed to fill the alley behind me, blocking all exits. I felt a thrill of uneasiness flow through me, the drink wearing off to leave behind the churning regret of alcohol-fuelled decisions.
The Marquis stepped up to the door and inserted a small oddly shaped key into the lock. Though logic seemed to imply it would open into the back of the house we had just passed, the windows were dark black and the room beyond gleamed with light; welcoming warmth seeped out to entice me in.
The room was like the alley, being small and slightly cramped, but comfortable and not too claustrophobic. There was a long high bench to the side, of the kind I keep in my consulting-room, a cushioned chair, and a washstand with clean water and several white cloths. A merry fire crackled in a small stove, and gas lamps around the walls lit the interior with the golden glow.
An ornate silver box sat on one corner of the table. It looked like it might have been a rather large snuff box and was decorated with intricate silver filigree. Red shadows lurked under the shine of the silver10.
"You are familiar, I believe, with a Mister Sherry Vernet?" de Carabas inquired, sitting down on the bench and unbuttoning his waistcoat.
Removing my hat, I shook my head. "No, I'm afraid I have not heard the name before." I shed my coat and jacket, and rolled up my shirtsleeves for easier movement. Still unsure of what it was he needed from me I hoped to be prepared for anything, especially without my medical tools.
He looked shocked, and then disconcerted. "No? Goodness me. I had thought – " He stopped abruptly and looked away, before returning his attention to the fastenings of his clothing.
"Is it a problem? Who is Mr. Vernet?" Once I thought of it, the name seemed vaguely familiar but I could not place it. “Is he an actor?” I asked, searching my memories.
"No, no problem, sir. But no more questions. You’ll get yourself into trouble." He tried to pass off one of his easy smiles, but there was something wrong with it. It wasn't his usual closed lipped, entertained smiles; more of a baring of teeth, as someone trying to restrain an outburst of emotion.
The mention of trouble caused me disquiet. However I owned my debt, and thus placed myself before the Marquis so that he could direct me as he needed.
What he asked of me was astonishingly peculiar.
Stripped to the waist he lay back and placed my hands, cold and dripping from washing them in the basin, on his chest just over his heart. It was similar to the position of attempting to resuscitate a person from drowning, one atop the other. The silver filigree box he opened and placed on the bench above his head, just touching his long braids. It was empty and lined with plush red velvet with a deep impression in the middle as if to hold a large oblong locket or pocket watch.
On his instruction, I counted to three and pressed down as hard and as forcefully as my medical knowledge would let me. Normally my greatest fear in doing such a thing would be broken ribs or a fractured sternum, common with attempted resuscitation of an unresponsive body, and so the loud whump that shook the room, like a great heavy book dropped a good distance to the floor, took me by surprise.
There was an encompassing silence for a moment and then it was as if a gale had started within the little room. My coat and hat were whisked up from where I had laid them out, and were thrown about the room as a howling wind appeared from nowhere and everywhere at once. It swirled and swiped at my shirt and trousers, and I threw my hands up to protect my face, fighting to stay by the side of the table as the crazed storm tried to whirl me away to the opposite wall.
The longer it blew the more it gained power, wailing and screaming as it bashed against the door like a wild animal raging for freedom. It seemed to last for hours; the more I fought the more it beat me down until I was curled into a ball against the table leg, cowering.
It took all my restraint to not yell back or howl with the wind; to not try and overpower it the only way I could think to. The wind did not extinguish the fire, but coaxed it violently into the room, the flames leaping from the mouth of the stove.
Afraid it would set the little room ablaze, I struggled to right myself when suddenly, indeed just as suddenly as it appeared, the wind stopped.
My hat and coat fell with a rustle to a heap in the corner; the fire settled back sedately into the stove, once again crackling with cheerful warmth in place of the vicious thrashing of just moments before.
I started, breathing heavily, and flailed my limbs out about me, grounding myself as though to be sure that the tempest had abated.
A chuckle gained my attention, and I looked up to see the Marquis de Carabas sitting, calm as you please, with an irritating grin splitting his cheeks. He dropped a hand down to me and I stood with his help, still shaking. I was only glad my cane had simply fallen to the floor when the wind started, or we could have both been brained by the heavy African wood.
So shaken I was, I almost forgot what I had been doing prior to the squall until de Carabas twisted his bare body, chest gleaming with sweat, though from what exertion I have no idea, and retrieved the silver box.
Nestled within the deep folds of padded velvet where nothing had been before, was a large duck's egg, pale blue in colour and highlighted by the flickering gold of the gas lamps.
“Ta-da,” purred the Marquis in a self-satisfied sing-song.
De Carabas did not speak again for some time, though he indicated that I should follow him once I had gathered my possessions.
There was something penitent about his attitude on my return to Baker Street. I had no idea at the time what it indicated, although knowing would not have helped, not after I had already slipped into his influences. I appreciated the escort, silent as it was, for the night was drawing to a close and the barest shades of grey were seeping into the velvet sky. My old war wounds were aggrieved by the cold, so we took a hansom, although I was astonished to see de Carabas manage to catch one at that hour.
As strange as my companion was and the events of the night, I knew without a doubt that he would bring me no harm, and therefore found no harm in giving my address. It was perfectly likely of course that he already knew it, as he knew of me, for he seemed to have a knack for knowing things. During the ride, I caught him watching me with those flashing eyes more than once; like their person, they were of a quick nature, constantly moving. It brought to mind again the image of a large cat, dangerous and cunning, both a fierce predator and a valiant protector.
Upon the stoop at my Baker Street residence, he reached out and grabbed my arm, long fingers squeezing my elbow tightly.
"I wish I had not... " he hesitated, tugged, and stepped far closer than appropriate. His grip tightened to the point of pain, but he would not let me go when I attempted to pull from his grasp. "I wish to apologise. I feel my facts regarding your circumstances were – incorrect. Though you proved to be indeed exactly the kind of man I needed, I fear I have brought something upon you that is unmerited to your station. I do hope this is not the case, for you have given me some vital assistance, but should you need it, you'll find me here."
He handed me a small embossed calling card. On the front, stamped with silver was Marquis de Carabas. It had no name beyond the title. On the back, scripted in pencil, was Oxford Circus and 26th April - a date two days thence, at nine p.m.
I looked up at him, alarmed at his tone. "What ever do you mean? What sort of thing? Am I in danger?"
He looked mournful, but shook his head. "Ask for the Floating Market, then ask for me. You'll find me soon enough, and I will be sure to take care of you."
Looking down to where my hand clutched at the head of my cane, I tried to process what he was not telling me. "Take care? What – " but I could speak no more, for I glanced up and he was gone.
I tripped down the front stairs frantically, gazing about in disbelief. I could see no one at all, not even the flash of a coattail. It was as though he had never been on the street with me at all.
I was discomfited as I entered my shared residence, into a silence I felt I would never grow used to in Holmes' absence. With the Marquis' unnerving final words echoing like footsteps behind me, the quiet made me all the more uneasy. I counted the steps as I went up, but the number I reached was… wrong.
The sitting room too was dim and unsettling despite the fact that I had seen it in far worse states than empty and cold. In Holmes' darkest moods the sitting room had the potential to be trashed on a regular basis contrary to our landlady's and my best efforts. The pale grey light of early morning cast strange shadows of Holmes' odd accoutrements across the walls, and the stillness felt as though a haunting. I shuddered down to my bones, feeling like I would never be warm again.
My leg, my body, and my mind ached with weariness, so I continued on up to my personal rooms and stripped to my shirtsleeves before setting down to quickly document this bizarre night in shorthand. Then, without changing into my night clothes, I collapsed without a second thought to sleep like the dead until well into the day.
Mrs. Hudson was speaking to a guest when I awoke; their voices drifted up the stairs, muddled and indistinct. Sunlight filtered in warm and bright through my drawn curtains, telling me I had slept well through breakfast. Stiff and uncomfortable from sleeping in my day clothes, I stretched and attended my toilet.
I was shirtless, trousers unfastened, braces around my hips, and had water dripping from my face when Mrs. Hudson walked in without even pausing to knock.
I made a noise no less than a squawk, of a pitch I had not managed to reach since boyhood, much to my embarrassment. Had it been Holmes I would have thought nothing of it, but I regularly put my best effort toward preventing Mrs. Hudson from suffering the eccentricities of her lodgers, and had become accustomed to either her cautious knock (when I was obviously present) or her fierce pounding (when Holmes was being obstinate in some irritating manner, as was his wont).
Following behind her was a stranger; a man of my own age, with a well-used military bearing about him. His shoulders were twisted slightly, as an old injury improperly treated would do to a man’s skeletal structure11.
Unfortunately that did not change the fact that they had barged into my room without so much as the courtesy of a by-your-leave.
"I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Hudson – " I began, attempting to button my trousers while wiping water from my chin.
"Here we are, now,” she interrupted. “Oh – it seems like the previous tenant's things are still here. Don't you worry, we'll get them cleaned out in a day or two."
I started violently. Previous tenant? Previous? I had not the slightest notion of what she meant by that.
"You'll need to meet Mr. Holmes of course before you move, or it might prove difficult to settle in."
The man, peering about absently at my personal effects strewn about the room as though someone lived there, made an intrigued noise.
"Why? Is there something wrong?" he asked, rifling through my notes from the night before. He picked a page up, gazed blankly at it, and threw it down again carelessly.
"Oh no, not with you. Just – well he's a peculiar fellow to say the least. Never had any friends, but has all manner of people in and out of the sitting room."
Incised, and moderately clothed at last, I strode to stand before them both. Elaborate farce or not, I do not enjoy having my privacy intruded upon in such a manner.
"Now see here," I began again. "Sherlock Holmes and I have rented these rooms for years, Mrs. Hudson, and I would thank you kindly not to make light of our friendship. You know as well as I do that Mr. Holmes is brilliant, yet cannot be trusted to keep himself – do put that down, sir!"
He had picked up my cane and was fiddling with the handle. Churlishly ignoring my warning, he released the catch on the collar and pulled out the narrow sword that was hidden within the shaft of the cane12.
Mrs. Hudson started. "Oh my word!" she exclaimed, putting a hand on her heart and swooning dreadfully. Concerned for her welfare, I forgot my anger for a moment until she continued. "I had no idea that was here! I do hope that's not Mr. Holmes' or I shall have words with him for leaving it lying about the place."
The man apologised, laughing slightly, and replaced the sword-cane, before escorting Mrs. Hudson out of the room with a hand on her back, comforting her from the fright.
I remained frozen in uncomprehending shock, before slowly I resumed my dressing.
I fumed quietly as I packed my medical bag, for I had a house call scheduled on the other side of town. Then I added an extra shirt, as the patient was a sick child whose stomach was not particularly reliable. Of the clients I keep, I pride myself in having a good relationship with them, and providing the best services I possibly can; as such, they always have a good word about me, and more often than not will refer their friends. It is the least I can do, considering my frequent departures with Holmes.
It was only as I was packing my journal and notes that I remembered the Marquis, my queer new acquaintance, and his odd supposition that he had brought some horror upon my head. After a moment's hesitation I searched my trousers from the night before for the calling card he had left me and tucked it into my waistcoat pocket for safe keeping.
I set off, sword-cane in hand, and passed Mrs. Hudson and the stranger laughing over tea in the sitting room. Neither of them appeared keen to notice me, but all the same I made the effort to avoid detection. I had no interest that morning for further jokes at my expense. I took some bread and fruit from Mrs. Hudson's kitchen, hungry after sleeping all morning and distressed by the events prior.
Even with my stick my leg was still sore from the previous nights extensive walking, and I was bound to be late for my appointment if I did not catch a hansom. To my luck, there were several cabs and carriages doing the rounds at that hour.
The first one I flagged down slowed as it passed me, but just as I was heading to climb up, another gentleman jostled me out of the way, shouting an address, and the driver took off.
I refrained from shaking my fist, but it was a struggle, I'll admit.
I attempted to wave a second one into stopping for me, but it trundled past without even slowing, the driver intent on keeping his course. The third I stepped boldly in front of, with significant distance between us so that he would not miss me.
I had to hurl myself to the cobblestones when the space narrowed terrifyingly and the cab made no motion to stop. The horse gave a swift whinny, and shook its head, but the driver only made the barest corrections to its path so that it whipped around me, until a woman in a green dress fluttered a handkerchief at him from a doorway some length down the street.
My palms were scraped raw from the impact in the street, and I cursed under my breath. I had no time to see to them, for I needed to meet my appointment, and it seemed as though I would be walking to Farringdon, which would take me the better part of an hour.
I gathered my things, thrown about in my haste to get out of the way of a speeding carriage. My cane rubbed against the fresh abrasions on my hands, but I leaned on it anyway and set off down the Marylebone Road.
I was nearly sweating through my jacket by the time I reached my patient's house nearly a half an hour later than I had promised to arrive. The day was not hot, but a heavy film of humidity was layered low over the city, making the trip decidedly uncomfortable to say the least. Added to that the incredible rudeness of my fellow pedestrians, pushing and jostling me as though I were not there, and I was not exactly in the best of moods.
I stopped outside 26 Farringdon Road and took a moment to catch my breath and compose myself, before heading up the steps. Back straightened and affecting a look of professionalism as best I could in the circumstances, I rapped smartly on the door knocker.
There was no answer, so I shifted my weight to my good leg, and straightened my waistcoat front.
When there continued to be no response, I knocked again, then gave an experimental tug on the bell pull. The clang was remarkably loud from outside – I had no idea it was so obnoxiously loud, and I made a mental note to speak with Mrs. Hudson about our bell once I returned to Baker Street – and a maid opened the door.
A small smile twitched her lips, her eyes wandering over me quizzically.
"Can I help you, sir?"
“Good morning, miss.” I handed her my card. “Doctor Watson, here to see Miss Veronica for her stomach illness. If you'd be so kind as to alert your mistress to my arrival?"
She blinked slowly at the card, as if she could not read it properly. Then she turned her gaze up and blinked slowly at me.
I blinked back.
"Ah – might I come in? I'm supposed to see Miss Veronica Warner. I told Mr. Warner I would come by today and check on her progress. We were scheduled for 11 o’clock. Please relay my apologies when you inform Mrs. Warner that I’ve arrived."
The maid moved back and I stepped forward quickly, dodging past the closing door with a grunt of irritation. She dropped my card onto the side table absently, and moved away, not offering me another glance, so I proceeded on to the downstairs sitting room on my own, to where I had seen Miss Veronica just three days before.
The door slid open immediately, much to my astonishment as my hand was raised and I had not yet knocked; Mrs. Warner's voice rang out clearly, relief apparent in her tone. "Oh I'm so glad you could make it, Doctor!"
I was about to begin a modest self-recrimination on my tardiness, when another voice answered in my stead.
"Not at all, not at all! I'm just glad you contacted me today, or little Miss Veronica might not be so well off." It was a condescending, chiding voice, one used to the privileges offered to a man of rank, with none of the sense to use it appropriately.
Beneath my confusion, I recognised that statement as a blatant lie. The girl was sick to be sure, but it was barely a stomach bug. Mr. Warner had asked me in to assuage his wife's fears rather than to save his daughter from an untimely death.
I walked in, feeling no little trepidation, and was disturbed to see Wilhelm Scott, a general practitioner and a fraud, standing beside the settee. Not two years ago Holmes and I had defamed him as a fear monger, scamming money out of desperate patients and families with no thought to their livelihood. To see him there, unchecked, was unacceptable.
But Mrs. Warner was continuing her laudatory exaltation. "I was so worried when James told me he hadn't remembered to call a doctor in. You are too good to us, to drop everything and come at such short notice."
At that I could stand no more. I moved between them and faced Mrs. Warner.
"Good day, ma'am. If you'll remember I was here just the other day to see your daughter, and I found her to be at no such great risk. This man is a menace to society, and I will not see you endanger yourself following his poor instructions. Please, madam, I beg of you."
She paused and then clasped her hands together in front of her, and smiled warmly, ever the welcoming hostess.
"Oh! Good day. Did Christina let you in? How can I help you?" There was not a single spark of recognition in her face. Scott did not even register my presence, as Mrs. Hudson and the stranger had failed to that morning. Mrs. Warner continued to smile, and continued to tear my world in shreds. "I'm dreadfully sorry, I have a terrible head for names. I'll get it in a moment, I promise."
I shook my head, disbelief sinking my heart until I felt weighted down and drowning.
Mrs. Warner’s eyes slid off my face a moment later, and she lost all interest in me. Her smile shifted from pleasantly bemused to positively charmed, as she focused her attention back on Scott.
It was as though I was not even there. On a separate plane of existence, not worthy of recognition or the acknowledgement of life that all humans deserve. Like a ghost, but even a ghost has left some mark on this world - someone who would mourn them - and I could feel myself: my marks, my life, slipping out of view.
I wrote briefly earlier of my time just back from Afghanistan. How in attempting to escape from the trials of the real world I let myself fall into vice.
But there was more to that time than avoiding responsibilities, for between horrid flashbacks of blood-stained battle fields and the screams of soldiers as I attempted to keep them on this side of the veil, there was the constant fear that I too would slip from the mortal coil. Sad and broken, the worst fear in my mind was to end up as the transients on the street; abandoned by friends and family, left to suffer through the rest of time just below the sight line of everyday, happy, common folk. A non-person.
And then I had met Holmes.
Neither of them blinked when I backed out of the room, taking my medical bag and my tattered self-worth with me. The maid had disappeared off somewhere so I let myself out into the street once more.
This was where I floundered. Holmes, the only person I could think to turn to in my plight, would not return for two days at least.
If he even recognised me.
My chest grew tight and I forced the panic rising in my throat down under a mask of stoicism, trying to keep my head in this cruel joke. Sherlock Holmes knew me better than anyone else in all of England; in all the world, probably. Of course he would recognise me. No doubt he would come to my aid at the earliest convenience.
All I had to do was get in contact with him.
I took a deep, calming breath, and turned my eyes upward in brief mindless entreaty, then brought my head back down to Earth and reality.
There was a post office just to the south, across from the railway station; and it was upon this that I set my sights and hopes.
I retrieved a cable form and a pencil to jot down my telegram with no difficulties. The message was simple:
: : S H
SOMETHINGS HAPPENED STOP COME QUICKLY NEED HELP STOP
I felt sincerely that it accurately represented my feelings13. I did not wish to cause Holmes any undue stress, especially while on a case, but I could not handle what was happening on my own.
It was all for naught. Try as I might, I could not catch the attention of the desk clerk at the office for long enough to send my message. Had I known more about the function of telegraph machines I surely would have vaulted the desk to send it myself. Instead I could only sink deeper into desperation, fighting my way out of the office through incomers who took no notice of me.
Back on the street my legs would no longer hold me, and I collapsed to the curb, numb to my very soul and lost in a city I thought I knew. I was far enough to the side to not hinder people entering the office, but a few stray boots found themselves impacting with my medical bag or my feet, stuck out in front of me. One man kicked me soundly in the thigh, causing me to gasp and clutch thrice-damned leg for a long and painful moment.
I heard a scrabble against the cobblestones then, and tried to pay attention to something other than my own tragedy.
A large black rat scurried out from a storm gutter just to my right. It turned to and fro, sniffing the air, furry ears twitching, before setting its sights on me.
"Hello, there," I said, feeling as though I was losing my mind. "And how are you today, my good rat?"
The rat crept closer, its nose twitching and rough black fur shivering over lithe rodent muscles. Beady eyes, liquid black, stared at me unblinkingly, and a bitter resentment rose spitting and stinging in my gut; the only creature that bothered to pay me any heed was a sewer-dweller.
I still clutched the cable form in my hand, and in a fit of irrational, useless human petulance, I scrunched it in a ball and hurled it at the rat. It missed. The wadded paper hit the pavement close by, startling the rat into a surprised hiss but not enough to send it fleeing.
Shaking my head at my mindless attempts to take out my anger on an animal less pathetic than myself, I took my medical bag in hand and stood.
The rat sniffed at the paper form and sidled closer to grasp at it with scaly grey claws. It stared up at me, looking almost sympathetic (or so I pretended to myself), before snatching up the ball and scampering back to the grate to the underside of the city.
After that, I wandered. For how long, I do not know, only that I walked until my legs would not carry me on; I was tired and cold and scared and could not bear thinking any more.
Eventually dusk swarmed up from the east and the sun disappeared; the dusty blue sky deepened with a watercolor haze of plum and I found myself in Hyde Park, near the Serpentine. I could not bring myself to return to Baker Street at that time, not to face Mrs. Hudson's blank stare, nor to confront whoever might or might not be living in my rooms.
Sturdy metal benches with swollen wood slats lined the paths, and it was onto one of these that I collapsed that night, feeling the chill settle into the air and prick at my skin.
I bundled my wool overcoat closer about myself, laid my medical bag to one end and folded my spare shirt over it as some minor padding against the stick of cold leather. My hat I hung on the arm rest. I did not wish to crush it.
Laying my head down, I watched the push and pull of the wind skipping and sparking across the water, casting ripples over the last vestiges of reflected light before the night swallowed me whole.
Upon waking, a raven watched me from above. Easily the size of a dog, it sat perched with its head cocked, peering at me through the overhanging branches of the trees. A fluttering of wings and the creaking of the tree branches turned my sight farther up the tree, where several more large black birds had alighted.
I sat up quickly and regretted it immediately as my back and neck seized up in deliberate protest against further movement. My spine cracked loudly. I felt worse than I had the disastrous day before; the cold and the uncomfortable experience of sleeping outside bringing back memories of Afghanistan. It’s cold in the desert at night.
As my thoughts turned decidedly morose a young couple wandered over on an early morning stroll. They were unmarried yet looked to me to be deliriously in love; lost in each others eyes they sat on my bench, and very nearly on top of me. I had to tug the corner of my coat out from under the young lady's hip, but she noticed neither me nor the jostling.
At that point I realised I could have easily marched straight into Buckingham Palace and not a single person would have questioned my presence, if they acknowledged me at all.
I buried my face in my hands and sighed deeply, remaining that way for several minutes until the saccharine cooing of the couple grew tedious and I gave up my bench as no longer mine.
With no small sense of agitation, I made my way back to Baker Street, to find it was entirely warranted.
True to her word, Mrs. Hudson had removed all my things and set them on the curb, packed neatly away in several boxes. I could tell immediately that not everything was there: over the years many of my possessions had migrated from my drawers into the sitting room and often as far as Holmes' rooms, and I could see that those (which apparently took up a greater proportion than I had been previously aware) were not included in my eviction notice.
While I appreciated that I would not be required to face my former housekeeper and landlady, it gave me a horrid feeling to realise that I would not be coming back again; that no one would even remember my having been there at all in the first place.
Holmes would call me foolish.
And foolish I was.
I had not thought of my friend and fellow lodger since the day before when I had still assumed that he, of all people, would not be subject to this madness. That he would receive my call for help through sheer force of will and come dashing to London to sweep in and rescue me from my own bumbling like a damsel in a fairy tale.
But he would not. He could not: not while I was lost in this mad world.
And, consequentially, I could never see him again.
Oh, it brought such pain to my heart to think that the last words I had said to him were some trivial quip about breakfast sausages. I can’t remember what I said, now, but I know it was not particularly witty.
He had become more dear to my soul than my own brother had been. If I could not be there to draw him from his darkest moments, who would take my place? There were plenty of constables for him to perform for, when reciting how he solved a new case, but would they understand what it meant to him? Would that spark of his go out, as people lost sight of his heart for the sake of his stunning mind?
No. Surely he would go on. I was a habit to him, as I well knew: he was used to me, and that was why he confided in me. There were sure to be others who would recognise his brilliance as I did.
It was not as though I could not watch him from a distance; he would never notice me. I was sure it would not be long before I sucumbed to approaching him, though.
And the inevitable lack of recognition in his eyes would break my heart.
I left Baker Street with a few changes of clothes and some small trinkets of personal value – my brother's watch, a set of lockpicks Holmes had gifted to me some years before, a locket with my mothers miniature, and my revolver, hidden away from prying eyes.
Tucking the locket into the pocket of my waistcoat, my fingers touched a slim, stiff piece of pasteboard: I still had the Marquis' calling card.
Thinking of my late night acquaintance I felt a surge of anger overwhelm my senses.
He knew this was going to happen. He must have. The warning he had given meant, whether intentional or no, apologetic or not, he knew this would happen and still he brought me into it, the bastard.
I left the card where it was safe and turned my sights to Hanway Place, and the mysterious little alley off of it.
The world seemed duller and dingier as I moved away from the residence that had been my home for so long. Ill-shaped shadows fell where nothing cast them, strange forms skittered past me before I could see them properly. I could hear the crying of crows and ravens; great birds in great numbers, even so deep into the city as I was. I recall thinking desperately, madly: the collective name for a group of crows was a murder.
Dark wings slipped around the edges of my sight.
The Orme Passage from the other night seemed a hundred years and a hundred miles away from me at that point, but I made the walk in the blink of an eye. I kept my gaze down, not wishing to see the faces of total strangers glance over my presence and walk on past; I took to dodging out of people's way so as to avoid the lack of confrontation that would ensue.
Oxford Street looked different in the light of day: simultaneously more eventful with the swarms of people moving about through the streets, and also more unreal, as though all these people were out of focus, and I was moving through a ghost town.
The sign for Orme Passage W1 was still there, high upon the brick wall, but the shadows were deep and desolate within the narrow alley. I picked my way through, watching carefully behind me for anyone following – though of course not a single person even cast their eyes toward the opening.
But the door was gone.
There was no indication it had ever been there: no window, no chalk markings, nothing, not even scraps of wood. Just a bare stretch of brick wall.
I screamed then. Howled for the sake of howling, knowing that no one would hear me but refusing to believe it; dropping my bag to the ground with a clatter, I flung myself at the bricks, beating and pounding at them, wailing at the top of my lungs for someone to let me in. Just let me in.
Of course there was no response.
I have no notes from this period between my fit of anxiety and my next encounter with this side of London; if I am to be honest I was sunk so deep into depression that I must have been nearly somnambulant.
What finally shook me out of my daze was a surprising collision with a mountain of man, who erupted from a small, squat building directly into my path.
To my astonishment, I realised I had brought myself as far east as the ruins of the London Wall; I was very nearly at the place where Catherine Eddowes had met her grisly end14. The man I had run into was climbing out of the Aldgate Railway station15.
I had never ventured below the city to the Metropolitan Railway, but had heard talk of further expansion to cover all of London in the future; the idea of traversing the city in such confined conditions had never appealed to me, which had kept me to the edges of such discussions16. Although many of the lines were privately owned and did not connect, the use of them had become more commonplace over the years17.
But seeing this man ascend the steps from the depths of the bowels of London, I could not understand why no one paid attention to this giant.
For one thing he was enormous even hunched over; skin so dark I could not tell if he was black like the Marquis, or simply caked in soot. His hair, matted and unkempt with an enormous brown beard to compliment it, fell in great shaggy masses about his burnt brown face.
Then, as I was contemplating him, he said in a voice as deep and dark as the mines beneath the mountains, "Watch where you’re going." His point was punctuated by a raven shrieking overhead.
“Oh I’m terribly sorry,” I started. My mind caught up with me. “You can. You can see me? You can see me!" Ecstatic and completely ignoring the rude tone of his cavernous voice, I was nearly trembling with excitement at being recognised by a fellow human being. He was of this world then; this underworld, beneath the eye of my London. "Oh, my good sir, I do beg your pardon. If you please, can you help me? I fear I am in dire straits; I'm searching for the Marquis de Carabas, I need to see him."
The man eyed me, a little distastefully, and with significantly more suspicion than I felt I warranted. "Looking for the Marquis, what do you need with him? You a spy from the Upworld? What barony do you hail from; what fiefdom?"
"No, no I'm not a spy." I fumbled in my pockets for the delicate calling card I had received. "Here, look." I held it out to him; his eyes widened at the flash of silver. He snatched it from me with grubby hands larger than my head, and examined it keenly: turning it side to side; reading front and back, even sniffing experimentally at the edge.
Nodding satisfied, he handed it back to me and straightened, suddenly much more amiable. With his posture corrected, the hulking man made an imposing figure even in the middle of the street. If I had gotten close enough to measure I am sure I would not have reached his shoulder. "What's your name, then, sir?" he asked.
And remembering the Marquis' warning, my tongue tripped me up. Names have power.
Before I could make any move in any direction (to retract my statement or continue), the man took me at face value; he hummed and scratched his mangy beard.
"Doctor. Interesting name: Doctor. Never heard the like. Well, Doctor, you'll be needing to go to the Circus. On Oxford Street. That's where the Market's at tonight."
"Market? The – the floating market? And do you mean Oxford Circus?" That was the rest of the Marquis' note. Ask for the market and I would find him soon enough. The raven took off with a great beating of its wings and a large black feather fluttered down to rest between us; the man stooped, picked it up and tucked it in his pocket.
"Aye, that's the one. With the clowns and the beasts and the fancy ladies. I saw a strong man last time I was there; figured I could probably beat him if I had a mind to. Well come along, Doctor."
"There is no circus at Oxford Circus," I said, quite bewildered. "I've been there before, circus comes from the Latin for 'circle', it's merely a convergence of streets..."
The man ducked back to the entrance of the Railway, and lumbered down onto the gas-lit platform beneath the city.
"Didn’t you just come from here? Is there some place you needed to be?" I asked, trailing after him; I needed this man, I did not wish to aggravate him by interfering with his schedule. We passed a ticket machine and a guarded turnstile without purchasing a ticket or being stopped, though there were a few people who might have attempted it. He said nothing as he led me across the platform to a large, dirty door, ignoring the tracks and the passengers alike, and opened it into a pit of black. Pulling a lantern out, he lit it and held it high enough to see that the walls of the passage were damp and rough, not the polished masonry of the city works system. He moved in, motioning me to follow, and walked steadily into the darkness. I followed, my cane clacking on the stonework.
The door closed behind us with a whisper and a click, and the man spoke at last. "Nah. The Rat-Speakers that told me to go up. 'Look for the man with the mark of the Marquis,' they said, on order of the Golden no less, so I did and I found you. Lucky for me you were so close." He twisted his head around to give me a sideways grin, and added "Hope you weren't offended by my questions, sir. We don't much like outsiders."
It was too much to process, and I was already too overwhelmed to even think of debating the reason of his words. This world was not built on reason.
“What are Rat-Speakers?"
"Who, you mean. They're the ones who speak for the rats. Of course, plenty of people can speak to rats, but the Rat-Speakers do more: complete tasks for them and the like. Fancy themselves above the rest of us, 'cause they got the direct connection, but they're just tools. The Lord Rat-Speaker is growing old though, and his apprentice is young and headstrong; thinks he's got more influence than he really does, but the other Rat-Speakers, they can't speak up, or the Lord Rat-Speaker will kill 'em: he holds his apprentice in high regard."
The man continued gossiping about the politics of rats, a concept I decided I might as well accept with little else to do, and walked forward with no hesitation, twisting and turning through forks and hidden entrances, never once losing pace.
And all I could do was follow.
The tunnels seemed to continue on to New York, so vast and infinite they were. Constantly expanding under the light of the great man's lantern, branching and twisting around each other until I felt like nothing more than a rat in a maze18.
A smell of dank, mildewed, darkness filled my nostrils; cold and moist, clinging to the inside of my nose in a cloying manner. The walls seemed endless and unchanging, and it was perfectly inconceivable that someone could navigate through the tunnels without some guide; had Holmes found his way down there, however, I was sure he would have figured out the differences between this type of mould on the wall and that, or this pattern of cracks in the stone.
Finally, after what might have been minutes or hours or days, the tunnel widened until it less resembled the dark passage and more the wide open sewer access tunnels Holmes had dragged me down before. We turned a corner and my strange companion, whose name I still did not know, led me down a gentle slope to a grated opening in the floor.
"We're just stopping here before the Market. I need to gather my wares before we head off: I'd be the laughing-stock without any things to barter, see." He lifted the grate, and the screech of metal on metal pierced through the tunnels, echoing off the stone walls.
He lowered himself into the hole. Standing on the ground beneath me his shoulders stuck out of the opening like bulges of rock. He reached for me, enormous hands wrapped themselves around my waist, hoisting me up as easily as if I were a doll. My inevitable floundering in mid-air did nothing to throw off his grip, and he shuffled and squirmed and let me down, before he crouched beside me and dropped the grating over our heads.
I peered at him in the darkness, worried for the health of his back and head, hunched as he was. He gave me a rueful grin, teeth flashing sharply in the weak light.
"It's only for a little while. This is the easiest way of getting there, I promise. Plus we're more unlikely to run across any other folk; could find their company less than pleasing."
"Are they dangerous? What about at the market?"
He scoffed, and likely would have thrown his head back in guffaws had it not been pressed against the rough ceiling so firmly as it was. "All folk are dangerous, Doctor, you must know that. But no, not at the Market. There's a truce there: anyone that gets it in his head to fight another without set rules – competitions and such– will have all of London Below on their tail."
London Below. That was where I was. It was not simply below London, but an entirely different plane of existence; where rats were to be obeyed and people avoided, low and deep in the darkness.
This time we walked no more than a quarter of an hour before we came to a solid iron door firmly set into the rock. My companion unlocked it with a queerly small key on a delicate chain. The top of the door scraped harshly against the low ceiling, and the red glow of a furnace fire greeted us.
The room we entered was inconceivably large, though I suppose it suited my enormous guide well enough. A forge smoldered at one end, and the rest of the room was fitted as a blacksmiths: with iron tools, larger and more massive than any others I've seen before, and probably made to be wielded solely by my companion. An anvil roughly the size of myself from the knees up was positioned in the centre of the room; various kinds of sheet metal, and lumps of the same, were scattered in the same kind of organised chaos I was used to.
"Excuse me, sir," I called out, as the man started puttering about, picking up hunks of iron and coal as if they were loaves of bread. "What should I call you?"
He dropped what looked like an enormous double-handed great sword with a horrid clang and whirled about to stare at me in disbelief.
I felt horribly as though I had offered some grievous insult, until he came thundering over and snatched up my hand in his, bellowing, "Of course, Doctor I'm terribly sorry! I go by Hammersmith, and I do beg your pardon sir for not telling you of it right away, you must think me awfully rude!"
His handshake nearly took my arm off. I made some noise of protest as his enthusiastic vigour, so different from his initial greeting up on the streets, shook me until my teeth rattled.
Hammersmith gave a start, peered at me in concern; he was clearly a kind-hearted fellow with very little opportunity to practice social norms like the shaking of a hand. I lowered my bag, placed my other hand atop his, and tried as politely as possible to pry his crushing hold from my numb fingers.
I attempted to smile, and relaxed as soon as his grasp slackened. Then, putting on my best professional face, I looked him straight in the eye – several feet above my head – and said, "Do not grip so tightly next time, yes?"19
He nodded, shamefaced. When I made to withdraw his gaze grew reluctantly pleading, though I could see he would not voice his request for the sake of his dignity.
"Ah – the best handshake is a firm one," I said, trying to remember the specifics that I had been taught in primary school. It was more difficult than I remembered, describing something now so intuitive. "However, since many of the people you greet might prove less – enthusiastic, the proper way to compensate for that is to return the grip with as much force as you receive."
Hammersmith allowed me the return of my hand; shaking it out slightly, I presented him a hand as limp as a dead fish (and about as polite in my personal opinion). He reached for me uncertainly and pinched my fingers between his own as though he were attempting to catch a butterfly on the wing.
My shoulders shook with silent chortles and a laugh stretched my cheeks. Hammersmith looked at his own hand, and shook his head, breaking out into a grin to match my own.
“And again.” I stiffened my hand, holding it as I would normally. Hammersmith shook himself out, a look of mock determination on his face and laughter shining in his fire-lit eyes.
He placed his hand in mine as gently as the last time, and slowly firmed his grip until I could feel the tension in my fingers. I nodded to him and he stopped squeezing, eyeing me closely.
"Feel that? That's a good handshake."
I pumped his hand hard three times, looking him in the eye as I was taught, and ended with a grin and a nod.
It was a ridiculous exchange and we both knew it.
"It's good to meet you Mr. Hammersmith. I cannot express my gratitude for your guidance down here."
His smile softened and a look of sadness entered his expressive eyes, the kind of pitiable mien given to the most pathetic transients on the street. He opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a sudden chitter of noise from the far corner of the room.
Hammersmith's face lit up and he barrelled away to crouch down in the corner. He lay his hand out flat on the floor; a rat (a large rat by London's standards, although I have seen larger in my adventures with Holmes) stepped out from a nook between stones and onto Hammersmith's great palm.
My massive new acquaintance stood, holding the rat reverently, and walked carefully over, making sure not to jostle the rodent. When he reached me, the rat chittered again, completing its statement with an emphatic squeak, and ventured out to the very tips of Hammersmith's fingers, standing on its hind paws to move itself to my level of my eyes.
Hammersmith made an encouraging motion with the rat; it wobbled and cast what might have been an irritated glance over its shoulder, if a rat could possibly look irritated. "Hold out your hand. This is Master Furredears, of Clan Grey: he wishes to know you better." I raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "Rat doesn't always translate well," he said20.
I looked at the rat again. It did have remarkably furry ears. They stuck out large and tufted from its narrow, pointed head.
I raised my hands to let the rat scramble across the gap. Its claws were sharp, scraping over the skin of my palms, still raw from the day before’s encounter with the pavement. The gashes in the heels of my hands had scabbed over, but were tight and sore as I had forgotten to see to them in the midst of my angst.
The rat, seeming to notice my discomfort, stepped more carefully around the cuts to a more convenient position and then peered up at me keenly. It was a warm and solid weight in my hands, substantial enough that it was some effort to hold it up in that manner.
Its dark fur stirred something in my memory, and when it blinked clear black eyes and cocked its head to the side I felt a jolt of recognition. This was the same poor rodent I had abused the other day in my fit of rage.
I opened my mouth to apologise – apologise, to a rat – when it leaned down and promptly bit me sharply on the soft flesh of my left middle finger. I cursed and yanked the hand away, managing to keep the rat balanced on my right, and shook out the pain.
"He bit me!" I exclaimed, doing (as Holmes would tell me) an excellent job of stating the obvious.
Hammersmith laughed. “He accepts your apology, he says.”
Then the rat chittered again, looking insufferably pleased with itself21.
“You are to be a guest of the Underground,” translated Hammersmith. “Do not abuse your gift, and good fortune in your trials.”
“My trials… Thank you,” I said to the rat, inclining my head. Furredears rose up on his back legs again, and reached out with long paws toward my face. Hammersmith gave me an encouraging nod, like it was perfectly reasonable to being my eyes within scratching distance of a rat. Nevertheless I lifted him to my face; his little claws tickled my cheeks and his whiskers snuffled across my nose delicately.
With that, the rat was finished. I lowered him to the ground and he scampered off without a glance back.
Hammersmith would not explain to me the full significance of what had just happened (I could feel there was more to it than I could comprehend), merely packed what he needed for the market in silence. I took the time to place a small sticking plaster on the small gouge the infernal rodent had left me – never repeat that phrase anywhere the presence of a rat – and we left his underground forge via a different route22.
This walk was much shorter, and it ended on a narrow platform above a single track. There were even fewer people at this station. We waited not ten minutes before the clatter and clank of the underground train came careening toward us from the dark tunnel. It rattled itself to a stop before us: wooden-sided carriages drawn by a miniature steam engine. Smoke filled the underground platform and sent me coughing, horribly. Hammersmith patted me on the back, trying to help, and nearly knocked me to the floor.
The carriage was claustrophobic at best. The long sides held a high-backed bench each, mirrored opposite the other, padded with leather and with a narrow foot-well between23. Hammersmith opted not to sit, but loomed instead against the gate and took up the remaining open space as the train shook and rattled away from the platform. I was exhausted and sat down gratefully: two days of heightened stress and extensive walking was catching up to me with a vengeance. My leg ached and trembled, as did my head and my heart, and I could see no end to the pain.
Among the other passengers in our carriage was a young man, shaped like a tent and covered in feathers from the neck down; and an assembly of dark-skinned men wearing cowled robes of heavy black wool, like those of Dominican monks. They looked at us as we entered with solemn faces, then away, as though they did not wish to observe our presence.
It felt like an invasion of privacy, to occupy so much space in the small train; my giant companion took up more room than seemed possible given the dimensions of the car, but we rode in silence until we jostled to a shuddering stop and a disembodied voice declared:
"Oxford Circus: Floating Market. Floating Market, Oxford Circus. Mind The Gap."
“There’s no station at Oxford Circus,” I said, walking out onto the station at Oxford Circus24.
The platform seemed dingy and underutilized. It had no lamps to speak of, and was illuminated solely by the passengers, who each held a lantern, or a candle, or a flare of some sort. None of them looked to me to be proper denizens of London like I knew it; they were all under-Londoners, and it showed in their dress and their mannerisms.
"Mind the Gap," repeated Hammersmith, giving the space between the lip of the train car and the side of the platform exaggerated care in stepping over it. A line of bright cadmium yellow paint was thick and eye-catching on the edge of the platform, carefully marking the boundaries of the safe zone, out of the way of the passing cars.
One of the young black monks, skin the colour of rich mahogany wood, his head shaved smooth, took too long in passing over the yellow line, and paid for it.
I had heard before of dark things that live beneath the surface of the Earth, especially while in the military; old beings and old gods, if you can excuse the blasphemy. Most of them were inconsequential: made up stories to keep the men occupied on long nights with nothing to distract from the smell of blood and the moans of injured men. But some of them (like the tales of superstitious sailors, of the Jonah, cursed to spill the wind and heavy the air with heat and sun) are told with conviction, the type that comes not with entertainment in mind, but with a warning to take to heart: of demons and monsters that lurk in the shadows of the world and seek to drag men in with them.
What I saw then: it was one of those things from the stories.
It came with a whisper as insubstantial as smoke over glass. Billowing up from the space between the train car and the ledge of the platform, it rose as a swarm of gnats would take flight, in great twining waves of darkness. It was diaphanous and looked as if it were the shadow of silk through the mystery of a dream.
The cloud of thing wrapped itself around the unfortunate young man's lower legs, clenching and clawing; how it could do so without substance was more terrifying to me than the idea of a solid creature doing the same. The young man cried out in fear and agony and kicked as best he could at the lethal smog but to no avail.
I could see the warm black, impressed into the very fibres of his woollen robe, leach away, seeping down to the grip of the dark, massless thing. Sick, dead-pink tendrils of colourless space moved up higher upon his garments the longer the thing held on.
While he fought the thing from the gap, his companions were beside themselves with terror almost surpassing his own. They drew away in horror, only to charge in with staffs to attempt to beat the thing off his legs, though they had little effect on the insubstantial form.
A high pitched whistle, like the wail of an approaching train, rose from the din of shouting, barely a hiss and increasing to a piercing shriek, until the cloud gave a triumphant surge and consumed the man's writhing figure, wrestling him down and over the edge of the platform to disappear beneath the carriage of the underground train.
There was silence in the tiled station, the echo of the thing's parting screech ringing in our ears.
I was brought back to my senses by Hammersmith's insistent tugging on my shoulder. I had not noticed, but while I was enthralled in the horrific scene he had pulled us as far away from edge as possible, using his broad arm to shield my body from any sort of attack.
The other people, spectators to an appalling event, were also withdrawing from the platform, eyes averted from where the remaining monks had drawn together into a tight knot, pressed against the furthest wall.
I wished to help, to be of some assistance in some way; but not only could I not think of any way that I of all people could possibly help their plight, Hammersmith would not let me. He all but dragged me up the stairs until the wretched friars were no longer within my sight.
"What was that?" I could barely hear my own words, wrecked as my voice was through grief for that poor young man.
Hammersmith did not look at me.
"I don't know if they have names. They came when the trains came, living between the spaces of darkness. Maybe they were there before and had no way to reach us. People know by now, mostly. So remember Doctor, mind the Gap."
We ascended the stairs and exited into the open square of Oxford Circus.
The high, plinking sound of a toy piano was the first thing that registered in my mind, over even the bright flare of coloured lights on strings and lanterns. High globes of brilliant white light floated overhead and burst, like soap bubbles, scattering showers of warm sparks that did not burn, only to reform beneath people’s feet and take to the skies again.
Holmes would have been delighted.
There must have been hundreds, thousands of people all packed together in the open market; I heard raucous laughter and wild applause; a full orchestra playing one tune while cymbals and drums rolled out a procession; the trumpet of an elephant and the squawking of exotic birds.
I have no words for what I felt but sheer and absolute awe.
There, precisely in the centre of the junction of Regent Street and Oxford Street, was a full fledged circus.
It was no travelling side-show, come from out the rain, but a masterfully grand thing that expanded from the pavement of Oxford Street like the pop-up in a music box.
I had not seen the like since my mother had taken my brother and I to see the nomadic performers when they had passed through Northumberland, where I spent my childhood. I had forgotten much of the presentations and performances, but with the influx of lights and sounds I could clearly recall the total wonderment that had encompassed me at such a young age.
The lights flickered and flared in time with the music, and dancers upon horseback paraded around the edges of the intersection. The horses, decked out in dressage accoutrements, tossed their heads, their magnificent manes gleaming with oil and sweat, and bells chimed on their tack. The performers, slim and lithe, acrobats in every way, ced upon the saddles of the moving horses, waving ribbons and wands, trailing light and colour behind them, and the remnants of fresh young laughter.
It looked just like Seurat’s painting; bright and pointilated, flashes of color that overlapped and blended to make up an exhaustingly beautiful whole25.
Across the square there had been erected a circus tent, sporting broad and sweeping red and white stripes. The notes of a harpsichord and the cheer of a crowd exploded from the open curtains, and I longed to go and see the show, until a hand on my arm reminded me that shows and spectacle were not what I had gone there for.
I wanted to be away; away from the caustic glare of the gas lights and the incessant noise of angry jostling people and the neigh and whinny of horses combined with the roar and snarl of trapped lions.
This magical land, of ravens and giants and intangible monsters lurking just beyond my vision was no dream, but a living, breathing nightmare.
What I truly wanted was to go home.
And to do that I needed to find the Marquis. I turned to Hammersmith and met his beaten copper eyes, nodding with renewed conviction and a stricter control on my focus.
"We're late," said Hammersmith, and he looked apologetic. Nodding toward the series of stalls and covered tables that checker-boarded the cobblestones, he continued. "I need to set up my stand, or I won't have any business."
A strange look crossed his large, lined features, and it was with a jolt that I realised he meant to leave me. I knew that we would not continue our association beyond that night, and I felt tragedy clench down upon my limbs.
I could not lose the one man I knew in this world. And though I had known him but a matter of hours, my reliance on his compassion made me more attached to his great heart, and willing enough to call him the only friend I had.
I knew though, that I had to leave, and with a rueful smile I stuck out my hand for him to shake.
A grin split his blackened cheeks and he met me with a cautious, but reasonable, type of handshake, slightly on the weak side for the lack of conviction driving the farewell.
"Remember to practice," I said.
And then I turned away, because I could not bear to see another friend walk out of my life so soon after my recent deprivations.
It was with a heavy heart that I patrolled the stalls. I took out the Marquis' calling card, showing it to people as I went.
I passed a cart that sold nothing but music boxes and broken glass; one that sold all different kinds of items, but only of a particular shade of blue. A man in a surgeon’s uniform shouted that he was selling body-part removal, and cheaply; another offered fresh body-parts.
There were food stalls, sending currents of spices and cooking meats into the air to entice customers; a hundred different kinds, curry and goulash and fried everything; and from every corner of the world.
Three women in grey spoke to me in unison, and offered me my fortune in exchange for one of my eyes26. One terrifyingly tall man, his limbs stretched beyond human proportions, had a stall filled with a thousand different types of wild flowers; small, brightly coloured, and deliriously sweet to the senses.
Most people would not listen to me, but a tall woman, with a wasp waist and a face painted white, gave me the information I sought for my jacket, leaving me with a waistcoat and my ulster overcoat. The barter system threw me off slightly, but since Holmes had been stealing my clothes for so many years I did not feel any significant attachment to any single garment I had on.
With a cool voice as low and soft as velvet the woman directed me around the corner to the front of a shoemaker's store, windows dark and abandoned at that hour of night.
Standing, cocky and arrogant as only he could, with the grace and the lingering menace of a panther, was the Marquis de Carabas; he was casually inspecting a small animal figurine from a shabby old man with an eye patch and several missing teeth, who huddled under a rose-coloured ladies parasol adorned with shards of broken glass on strings.
The Marquis seemed to notice my presence before I even made a move toward him; his back stiffened and his long braids rattled against his remarkable coat, and he put down the figurine without a word.
He turned to me in a jerky, aborted motion, plaits flying about his face and liquid black eyes.
His breath seemed to stutter, before he took on a casual air, leaning one hip on the old man's table with his legs crossed before him, as if seeing the man he condemned to live in torment was an every-day occurrence.
For all I knew at the time, it might well have been; and to think that I had trusted him.
"Hello, Doctor," he said, in his richly deep voice and polished London accent. It infuriated me that even while under his curse I would find him to intriguing.
"You son of a whore."
I took two steps and raised my fist to strike him soundly across the jaw.
Before I could make contact, one smooth hand caught my wrist as easily as if he were swatting a fly.
"Ah, ah, ah, Doctor,” he chided me. “The Floating Market operates under a truce. Instigating violence beyond the confines of a tournament, and there will be hell to pay," he said. It was meant to be taken lightly, I could tell, for the lilt in his voice implied a joke, but the steel beneath told me that it was a sincere warning, and that he was not so apathetic as he affected to be.
“I am already in hell,” I hissed at him. “I have already paid.” I pulled my fist from his grip and straightened my waistcoat over my shirt, finally feeling vulnerable without the extra layer of my thick tweed jacket.
I would instigate no violence.
But when the Market was over? Well, I would not be held responsible for my actions.
The Marquis de Carabas would not look at me as we walked.
"I have business to conduct," he had said, and then turned to march away. It is likely that he hoped I would not follow, but in myself-righteous anger and bitter resentment I would allow him no such reprieve from his mistakes.
I followed at a distance of some feet for a while, simply watching his affected swagger.
Any time his flitting eyes were caught by some vendor or stand he would sway in that direction, like a horse without blinders; the intensity of his focus too strong for his feet to keep him on track. He would always stifle his curiosity though, and veer back to his main path, a portion of his attention ever aware of my presence behind him and the possible consequences of his stopping for too long.
He moved like Holmes did while on a case, I thought: entirely confident, with an elegance to his sweeping stride and a quick way of looking at things that spoke of an active body and a relentless mind. They were of a similar build, tall and lithe; and from what I knew of the Marquis, I imagined that it would be a wonder to see them pitted against each other in a battle of wits.
Such trains of thought brought a sour feeling to my stomach though, so I did my best to remove my attention from his similarities to Holmes and the remembrance that he and I would never again share the same world, and look instead to the incredible circus I had attempted to ignore since my initial amazement.
The trilling pomp of the toy piano still echoed, haunting and child-like, over the other general sounds of vendors shouting their wares and the oft-hollered response of interested customers. Intermingled amongst the human voices was the thunderous pound of a hammer striking an anvil which I knew must have been Hammersmith, and animalistic cries.
I heard one such growl, deep and throbbing, to my left and was horrified to turn into the sight of a thousand-teethed leer of a being who was more crocodile than man. He seemed to be selling vast quantities of bloody sand; in bottles, in tins, in enormous glass vases, all stained deep red. I stumbled away and my bag caught between my legs; I would have fallen if not for the iron grip of hands suddenly grabbing my upper arms.
The Marquis eased me back to my feet; he tried to pull me away from the reptile monster, but I was caught, sunk into its gleaming, golden snake eyes that followed me with a predatory hunger. I could not help myself, mesmerised by the creature's awful slit of a mouth, filled with layers of razor sharp teeth, and the dry, broken skin, cracked like the scales on Sobek's hide27.
I heard a rushing in my ears like the surge and tide of a river, and smelled the silt of the earth. The air I breathed grew damp and salted, the taste of sand reminding me of the deserts in Afghanistan.
"Doctor, Doctor. Look at me, focus on me. There’s a good man."
Abandoning propriety, the Marquis hauled me about to face him, shocking me out of my trance. His eyes were painfully sharp, and I could read urgency in the whites of his eyes. Once he saw my attentions were focused back on the reality of the present situation and not four thousand years in the past, he patted my shoulder with a long thin hand and turned away to the market once more.
I avoided making eye contact with any of the other vendors from that point on, and took to watching them from the corner of my eye. There were large groups of people meandering through the stalls, some that seemed like they had just stepped off the battlefield of Napoleonic France; others who suffered from that strangeness of albinism, wearing dark clothing and shaded glasses even at night, and a hundred more in their own categories.
There was a congregation of people – men, women, and children – almost unrecognisable beneath the muddy coating on their filthy clothes. They were given a wide berth by those around them, and looked to be communicating through wild and emphatic hand gestures. I do not know sign language but I can recognise it; their was more of a pantomime than an organised language, everything declared with general intent over specific details. A pair of circus performers, decked in sequinned, skin-tight clothing stood several feet back from the table, attempting to barter and gesture around the hands they to their noses to block out the smell. The people looked as though they lived in the sewers, and despite my curiosity for the Market, I truly had absolutely no desire to observe their stall from any closer, no matter what variety of items they were hawking.
From that angle I could see inside the extravagant circus tent, where the lights moved and flashed, and illuminated the flying tumbles and catches of the trapeze artists; high-flying and splendidly talented in their showmanship. As much as I wanted to watch, I would not let myself lose sight of the Marquis though, and passed on without delay.
When the Marquis finally stopped moving it was outside a small tent cloaked in long decadent strips of lace, finely detailed and extravagantly intricate. They were held together with pins in long strips and draped across a metal frame. Inside it was startlingly cold, as though something had leached the heat, but the pleasing smell of lily of the valley hung light and fine in the air.
The woman attending the stall was a magnificent specimen of feminine beauty, thin and queenly, with a tilt to her jaw that testified to her remarkable character. Her raven black hair was piled high and elegantly upon the crown of her head and her pale, foxglove eyes shone from behind dark, sultry lashes. Her mouth was a perfect bow, painted deep plum-red and delicate. She so out of place, this radiant woman in a long purple gown so dark it was almost black, that I confess I heard nothing of the interaction between the Marquis and the lady, so caught up in staring that I paid no heed to anything else.
In the end, it was when the Marquis stepped close, ungentlemanly close (that same level of indecent closeness that he had afforded me just two nights before) that I refocused my attention on the exchange.
"And you, Madame Sybaris, recall the terms of our agreement, yes?" The Marquis de Carabas was saying. He ran the fingers of one black hand down the silk of her evening glove, a soft caress of incredible insinuation that made me extremely uncomfortable.
Madame Sybaris' eyelids drooped low, shadowing her brilliant, gem-like irises, and she gazed at the Marquis with a lascivious smile curling her painted lips28. The sinuous sway of her graceful body recalled to my mind the talents of snake-charmers, using the entrancing movement of their dance to hypnotise the deaf snakes. She too leaned in, her mouth almost touching the Marquis' thick, dark lips, and whispered in a low musical voice, "I do, indeed remember, my dear. I owe you a favour, for your aid."
I am no naïve school-boy when it comes to matters of the flesh (I may have boasted before of my veritable experience across the continents in my youth) but I must admit that I felt a flush rise in my face and needed to look away from this remarkably sensuous scene. They were both incredibly handsome figures, and while the temperature of the tent never rose, I felt stifled by my stiff collar, still fastened through the events of the day.
I looked back when the Marquis' soft touch turned hard on the woman's wrist, and he pulled back. "Good, I shall see you once more when I am in need of your services."
A bell rang out, twice.
He offered her a close-lipped smile, a keen cruelty dancing in his eyes, before he turned to me and indicated that we were to leave.
"Good night, sir," I heard behind me, and turned to see Sybaris watching me with a hooded, cheerful smile. The Marquis' arm slipped into mine in a possessive manner, and he pulled me along as Holmes had so often on our occasional walks down Baker Street.
"What is she?"
The Marquis gave a disgusted snort.
"A Velvet Child. One of many, though their numbers are dwindling. They are a vile sort: ever cold and craving the attentions and lives of mortal men, who do not need such troubles." He peered at me from the corner of his eye, and pulled me closer to his side by my elbow. "You'd do well to stay away. Sybaris in particular is a vulgar one – my business with her was in the nature of vengeance and while it pleases me to have her in my services, I can do without being in her presence for quite some time, I think."
The bell tolled again, loud and fierce over the chaos of the Market. People everywhere began to break down their stalls and pack their possessions in bags, hauling things over their shoulders and dragging them behind. The alacrity of the deconstruction of this entire festival (of sorts) was remarkable to me; I let myself rely on the Marquis to keep me moving as I turned my head this way and that to try and observe all that I could.
"Do they always break down the Market?" I asked.
"Of course. It is the 'Floating' Market, after all. The next one will be somewhere else, at some other time."
"But what about the circus?" I could not restrain my fascination at Oxford Circus being the home of a real circus, but far outside the narrow focus of my London. "Where do they go?"
"They go where we all go, when we go into the night: Below. Now, come Doctor, for the Market's over and we have places to be."
As soon as we stepped outside the edges of the Market (delineated by a scribbled chalk line, at that moment being washed away by a small child with a scrub brush) onto Regent Street, I pulled away from the Marquis' hold and delivered a swift blow to his solar plexus. He crumpled around my fist and coughed as the breath left his lungs.
Never once did I entertain the fallacy that I had surprised him. He allowed me to hit him, just as he had allowed me to follow.
Still, the action granted me some measure of satisfaction and I stepped back to let him recover, regaining my composure and straightening my hat.
"Now, take me home, de Carabas," I said, and though my throat was clenched tight and my hands were shaking, my voice was remarkable steady.
The Marquis straightened and ran a dark hand over his face to smooth back his braided hair. He opened his hands, to show they were empty; like a showman. Nothing up my sleeve.
I could not move. I could not even think. "Take me home."
He said nothing, but made to approach me; I flinched back and he stopped, hands raised in supplication.
"You have to take me home – you brought me here, now let me go." I was grateful for the apparently infectious indifference that pervaded London Below, as I was admittedly growing hysterical, and had people stopped to watch as they would have in my London I fear I may have lost the fragile remains of my control.
The Marquis made no more effort to come closer, but I could see from the ready shift of his stance he was prepared to lunge forward if I either took off running or fainted dead away. Though I have never fainted before, I knew clinically that my quickened breathing and high anxiety were causing my head to reel and a grey mist crept in at the edges of my sight.
"Doctor Watson," the Marquis said. "John – "
"No!" I shouted, holding up my hand to further stop him. I did not look at him, but I could feel the air thicken with regret when I continued, "Do not say my name – you have no right to my name!"
The loud cry of a bird just overhead made my heart jump to my throat, and I spun to see three enormous ravens watching us from a tree branch. The one in the middle opened its beak to cry again, and the other two joined in canon, until the cacophony of sound pounding through my agitated mind tripped me backward into the Marquis' arms.
"Control yourself, Doctor," he said in a deep rumble I could feel vibrate through my back, clutched as I was to his torso.
The solidity of his presence was so real, so firm, so easy to understand, that my breath began to slow and my heart to calm despite myself, until I collapsed against him with a single sob of grief.
"I just want to go home," I told his arms, clasped across my chest.
"I know, Doctor. And I am truly sorry."
His breath was hot and damp against the back of my neck. I pulled away to face him, uncomfortable in my skin.
"What of my work? My friends, my home? My life?"
The Marquis shook his head. "All gone. This London is not like the one where you lived. London Below – the Underside – is inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world. Now you are one of us; you cannot go back to your old life, because it does not exist." He closed his eyes in what was no more than a slow blink. "You don't exist."
He turned as though to leave, keeping his eyes averted. "I am sorry, Doctor, but now you'll have to live like us; in the sewers and the magic and the dark."
He set off at a brisk pace, and was several feet ahead before he called back, "Are you coming? Don't want to be caught in the storm, now."
The skies had been beautifully clear all day from what I had seen, before traversing the underground with Hammersmith; I looked up and saw more crisp, glittering stars in the sky than I had ever seen before whilst inside the city limits. I had no notion, then, of what he was referring to, but on consideration also had no wish to know, so I simply jogged to catch up and followed behind him, nursing my distress in the silence of my mind.
The Marquis de Carabas led me down a sewer access tunnel, using his strange little key. As always, the smell of rotten vegetables and effluvia was overpowering, though to my surprise as we climbed farther down, the scent tapered off until I could only smell damp stone and rusting iron.
"Cover your eyes for a moment, if you would, Doctor."
The Marquis pulled a single tapered candle from a pocket of his coat and lit it with a match. The smell of sulphur flared briefly with the sudden blaze, and the wavering light cast huge and grotesque shadows across the Marquis and the walls.
There was a shallow current at the base of the tunnel, rushing south to empty into the Thames. My boots were sturdy enough, so I did not hesitate to tramp through after the Marquis, though I could not see a thing past the candle's shivering flame.
He led me through twists and turns – even more confidently than Hammersmith had navigated – through tunnels of different sizes, some large enough to fit a hansom, some so low I needed to remove my hat if I wished to keep it.
After some time I began to see images painted low on the walls, by my hips. Done in tones of russet, ochre and sienna, they recalled to mind the time I had travelled to the continent in my youth and had seen the cave of Niaux in southern France29. The same stylistic drawings of animals decorated the walls of the tunnel; bison, gazelles, horses and pigs, none higher than my waist. It was as if an entire race of pygmies (perhaps not quite the vicious savage that had accompanied Jonathan Small in the case of the Agra Treasure) had roamed the tunnels centuries before. A moment later though, I saw what was obviously a horse drawn buggy, and a hansom, as well as a rough sketch of an underground train of the like I had ridden on earlier.
I laughed aloud in delight. Marquis to look back at me with some scepticism at my sanity, but I was too amused by the wonderful paintings, and I did not much care what he thought.
All of a sudden I thought I had heard something in the passage behind us, a rustle of fabric or the flutter of wings. Afraid that I had roused something from its sleep by my burst of noise, I rushed as silently as I could to the still-moving Marquis, and gripped the sleeve of his magnificent coat between my fingers. It was smooth and leathery under my touch, so worn it was as soft as butter. I felt like a child, clinging to his coat sleeves like that, but I knew that I had little more defences, and had to defer to his protection.
This time he did not turn to look at me, but murmured low and rumbling, "Keep moving, Doctor. Fear not."
But even he jumped in alarm when the not-quite-human shriek of a crow echoed through the tunnel. The sound reverberated: it was impossible to tell where it had originated from, or how many birds had found their way into the passage with us.
The Marquis drew me closer, once again linking his arm around mine, and I appreciated the solid reassurance.
If we walked faster through the sloshing water, then there was no one to comment on it.
We reached a ladder heading back into the streets after several more minutes of walking, and the Marquis stepped aside to allow me up first. It was somewhat difficult to handle my bag, my cane, and the rungs of the ladder, but I would have refused de Carabas' help if he had offered it; so while my progress was slow, I made it up unaided. And up, and up.
I could not see the end, so long was the vertical climb. It had only been some twenty feet that we had descended earlier, so either there had been a more severe incline in the tunnels than I had been aware of, or we were heading up into some entirely different place.
The Marquis, who had procured a small wire cage and a clip of sorts to hold the candle to his lapel, coughed beneath me, and I realised I had stopped.
"Keep climbing, Doctor. This is perfectly safe, I assure you." There was a pause, and I heard a tinge of sardonic amusement in his voice, "provided you don't fall at any point."
I was tempted to drop my bag on his head, so conveniently located below my feet. I shifted my grip, making sure my cane was still secure, and continued up; each rung eight inches from the next, all perfectly smooth and straight.
Holmes had taught me that there was much to be told about a man by the state of his stairs. There were grooves worn down in the stone by the constant passing of feet, each one stepping in the most accessible place. How deep the grooves were determined how often visitors appeared, and the angles of the grooves showed the directions they came from by indicating which foot was placed upon the lowest step.
All thoughts of Holmes caused me pain, but those thoughts seemed relevant at the time, because there were no such markings on the rungs of the ladder; it was as if no one had ever passed up that way since their making, which admittedly gave strength to the Marquis' assertion.
My musings were cut short when my head encountered something very hard, very abruptly. I lost my hat, but the Marquis' quick hand snatched it out of the air as it fell, and placed it soundly on his head with a white flash of teeth in the candlelight.
I pushed open a wooden trapdoor, and climbed on to an odd little platform. At one end was the ladder, which the Marquis was following me up perfunctorily, and at the other was a small door.
There was no room on the platform for the Marquis to shuffle past me, barely enough for two grown men to stand upon it, so he leaned against my body for support and used his little key to unlock the door.
To my great astonishment it opened onto a roof, lit by moonlight and looking out over the city of London.
The Marquis pulled some blankets out of nowhere, it seemed to me, and spread them across one part of the roof30. The flat apex was a desperate relief, as I finally got the chance to sit and rest.
My stomach growled loudly, and it was with a start that I realised I had not eaten since the day before. That I had not even noticed was even more of a shock, for I am usually very aware of my own body; especially considering Holmes' lack of attention toward his, forcing me to remember for the both of us.
The Marquis gave me an indulgent smile and procured some cheese and fruit from whatever place he had got the blankets. I fell ravenous upon the food, and ate until the gnawing in my belly was satiated.
There are wonders that good food – or any food, given the circumstances – could do for a man's temperament. I reclined against the cushioned roof with a sigh and stared in wonder at the sheer number of star. I could see them even better up there than I had in Oxford Circus, and it was astonishing how calm I was when I contemplated my own insignificance in the world. The dark silhouettes of ravens stood out starkly against the backdrop of the sky, perched on the roof ledge.
The Marquis extinguished the candle, and lay back beside me, heat seeping through from where our shoulders pressed together. I could hear his breathing in the quiet of the night.
"I thought you said there was to be a storm."
"Not up here," he said. "Just down there."
It made no sense to me, but I was beginning to accept that that was going to be the way of the world.
"Now you sleep. We have things to do in the morning."
"What will you do?"
For the first time since we had parted ways that night that seemed so long ago, I saw his secretive little smile flash across his lips, his own little joke at the world's expense. It was reassuring to see it again, and I took a deep sigh of a breath.
I sat up, and made swift work of my collar, tie, and shirt cuffs. My braces, I slipped from my shoulders and let them gather at my waist, before laying back again.
There was no need for propriety in this world, and I relished the feeling of the cool night air against my throat.
I knew well the Marquis' thoughts, for they had also crossed my mind.
I have never believed in the limitations that society puts on love. At University, and somewhat during my time in Afghanistan I loved as many men as I had women. It was not something I indulged in often, for the comforts of a woman's curves and soft, supple skin were equally pleasing to my senses; more than that I have been disinclined for several years to take part in any sort of affair with anyone.
I had for some time wondered if my affections for Holmes were returned in any way; as far as I knew, his feelings toward the softer emotions were more along the lines of a distraction than a defining characteristic. It has always been perfectly satisfying to simply be in his presence, for his presence is a wondrous thing, all consuming, and miraculously overwhelming, and I have never needed anything more.
Wanted, is a different matter. But I would not let my wants get in the way of our friendship.
The Marquis, with his liquid black eyes reflecting the diamond-bright sparks of the stars, was the only thing I knew in this world. He reminded me so much of my friend and companion, in addition to having his own remarkable and incredible character that I had never seen in anyone before.
He leaned over me, his face solemn and intense, and I could feel his breath whisper against my cheeks.
I would have kissed him, I am sure of it; though even today I do not know it I would have regretted it or not, if it hadn't been for the clearing of someone's throat, and a well-remembered voice ringing out across the rooftop.
"I would thank you, de Carabas, if you would refrain from touching that which does not belong to you."
There are no words to describe the rush and swoop of simultaneous joy and terror in my stomach.
Sherlock Holmes stood on the roof across from us.
He was there.
It was like every time he had arrived in our rooms in costume, playing up the lie for his own amusement, only to reveal himself when the timing was right. It was just like that, only a hundred times worse and a thousand times better.
But there he stood, thin and tall; a shadow in the moonlight.
"Holmes!" I cried, clambering to my feet and very nearly throwing myself at him. "Is it really you?"
He smiled his indulgent smile, the one he wears when I state the obvious and all he feels is affection for my simple mind.
It had been two weeks but it felt like a lifetime since I had last seen him. I found myself hovering near him, fluttering uselessly in my uncontrollable excitement, until he took my hands in his and clasped them to his chest.
"I owe you a thousand apologies, my dear Watson," he said and pulled me forward into an iron embrace. I flung my arms around his waist and clung to him like a barnacle, burying my face in his shoulder. "I was late in receiving your message, and rushed back as soon as I was able." He drew back and cupped my cheeks in his long hands, thumbs smoothing over my cheekbones. "You seem to have got yourself into quite the mess, now haven't you, dear boy?"
"But how…how are you here? What message? I don't understand, Holmes!"
He shushed me with a soft tutting noise and I struggled to regain my composure. With gentle motions he coaxed me back to the nest of blankets and sat me down, for I was so overwhelmed I had not even realised my knees were shaking.
"Now," said Holmes, settling cross-legged in front of me and retaking my hands in his. "Let us begin with a single question at a time. I am sure you have learned of the rats and the Rat-Speakers. It was they who brought me your message, yesterday morning, for I am on good terms with them, and have aided the Golden in the past. I could not leave Mansfield immediately; the constabulary had me under guard for protection against the murderer. Why they did not believe I could handle things myself is unthinkable," he muttered under his breath, and I felt what was nothing less than exaltation to hear him reiterate his low opinion of local police forces. "Luckily I was able to send my spies to look after you and make sure you came to no harm. Do know, dear Watson, that I have watched you these two days and it brought me pain to know you suffered alone."
He released one of my hands to reach up and brush the hair away from my temple. I pressed my face into his palm. His fingers smelled sour and astringent, like tobacco and chemicals, his pale skin was stained and he had small plasters on the tips of his fingers; he had been doing experiments recently, mostly likely in the solving of his Mansfield case. I heard the soft breath of his laughter as my moustache tickled his skin, and he smoothed it back into its proper order, before drawing my eyes back to his intently.
"I am sorry that this happened to you. I have given my best effort these many years to keep you from this side of London, and I am greatly distressed to know it was all for naught."
In my state of shock, it is understandable that it took me so long to recognise the insinuations beneath his words.
"But, Holmes!" I pulled my hands away. "I don’t understand; have you slipped as well? Why did you come: you should have stayed away. It’s all my fault, if I hadn’t sent the message you would be safe."
His features darkened and I feared the worst. If he blamed me, if he abandoned me so soon after I got him back, I did not know what would become of me.
"No, he said. "Watson, no. I must confess that I have misled you, my boy. I told you my family were country squires, and while it was not a complete falsehood, it was a distinct exaggeration of the truth: I was born here. In London Below." He looked away, out across the rooftops of London. To me he seemed farther away than ever. "I call myself by my grandmother's name, here. Vernet, I believe I told you: Sherringford Vernet31. My brother Mycroft has no place here. Our family is one of few who straddle the border over the cracks, belonging in neither world but functioning well enough in both, and Mycroft despises this side. He carved himself a place in your London as soon as he could, and settled in. Even now he can merely operate behind the scenes, but that suits him well enough."
He gave me a smile so sad and hopeless that I brought my hands to his face and pulled his gaze back to mine. His pale eyes, piercing and achingly deep, shone with a despair I had not seen except in the very depth of his darkest moods.
"It is something of a half-life, dear Watson," he said. "You've noticed how very few friends I have, how few acquaintances I keep. The effort it takes to make a place in the world is exhausting, even for a man of my fortitude. When young Stamford introduced me to you, it was…" he took a deep, gasping breath and it was like a revelation.
"You are a singular companion, you know, my boy? It's like you are a conduit, a catalyst for me; for any one of us from the Underside. Something about you makes us more human." He laughed his silent laugh, and closed his eyes, shaking his head with an air of disbelief. "You are a wonder, dear boy."
It was fortunate that he arrived so late in my forage into London Below; by that point I was willing to believe anything. Had he come to me the day before with such a mad tale I would have feared that his seven percent solution had damaged his mind irreparably.
But that was no longer the case, and I accepted his words as I accepted everything else eccentric about my bohemian friend.
"Spies, you said? I saw no one, none that would have seen me save for Hammersmith, and he told me that the… the Rat-Speakers had sent him."
He laughed again, dragged me across the blankets to press me against his side, and directed my gaze out over the rooftops to the line of ravens adorning a nearby gambrel roof. They were mere shadows against the backdrop of the sky, but I could see their eyes flash in the reflected light of the moon.
"They are my spies."
I stared. "How?"
"Inheritance. We are not the only ones to have the Knack for communicating with animals; there are quite a number of different families with a similar trait, and I have heard young Bailey has taken to keeping company with the starlings more often than not; but for me they are more than that32." He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, pulling me into his warmth, and leaned his thin cheek against the top of my head. "They are my thoughts and my memory; my eyes and ears in the skies and in the sewers, for they go where my Irregulars cannot33. To know the mind of a raven, Watson, is like to know life itself. It is a miraculous thing, beyond the comprehension of mere mortals; I feel kinship to them beyond anything else I have ever felt." He paused and I could feel him smile into my hair. "Save you, perhaps."
He jerked his head up sharply, keen eyes glimmering with a dark, far away sheen; akin to the drug haze that I had seen several times before in his most mercurial moods.
"The Marquis has left," he informed me, and it was with a start that I realised he was looking through the eyes of a crow at that very moment. It passed in a matter of moments and he turned his face back to me with a small smile, barely a curling of his lips at the corners. "I am ashamed not to have noticed his departure myself, but I believe I am excused for extenuating circumstances."
"Do you know where he went? Will I see him again?" I could not explain my need to know his whereabouts, especially considering that I had forgotten him entirely when Holmes had arrived.
"Oh, I believe you will. As a matter of fact, I believe he owes me a favour."
I could not retain control of my thoughts to select individual questions I wished heartily to ask Holmes, so great was my weariness after the day.
And so, it was with a lighter heart and a calmer mind that I finally succumbed to exhaustion and fell into a deep sleep with my head in Holmes' lap.
I woke alone and in silence.
If not for the cool brush of air against my exposed throat I would have easily believed that the past several days had been a dream. There was nothing though, to convince me that the night before had not been as such.
I sat up with a bolt of horror to find myself abandoned on the rooftop; no trace of either Holmes or the Marquis apparent, though the blankets were still bundled beneath me, and my bag and accoutrements were where I had left them the night before.
I was nearly prepared to give myself over to despair and hopelessness, when I heard an inquisitive squawk behind me, and turned in bewilderment to see a small rook flutter silently to the roof. It hopped, twice, picking around the edges of the blanket like a fussy child, before delicately leaning forward to drop something that it held in its beak.
It was Holmes’ pocket watch; the sovereign on his watch chain glinted in the morning light.
And he had left it for me. I shall come back for you, dear Watson.
Whatever rush of adrenaline had launched me so abruptly into the waking world slipped off me as easily as water off a duck; I rubbed the bleariness from my face with tired hands and grimaced when I encountered at least two days worth of stubble on my cheeks.
I had no mirror with me, though my razor and shaving kit were packed away in my medical bag, so I stripped to my undershirt and worked as carefully and meticulously as I could, smoothing my fingers over the newly-shaven skin to make sure there were no overlooked patches.
My moustache was not something I wished to attempt without the ability to see what I was doing; odd though it may seem, I would rather nick myself shaving than venture into the day lopsided. My limp does that well enough on its own; I could wait a few more days before attending to my moustache.
The rook alighted on a ledge in front of me and cocked its head to the side.
"Well? Does it meet your approval?" I called to it, laughingly.
And then I saw, within the bead of the rook's black eye, a silver glint; much to my amazement, the bird gave what was distinctly a very human nod, and cawed in approbation.
I was suddenly self-conscious as I had not been before; indecently dressed on top of the roof for all the world (and Holmes, apparently) to see. The twist of scar tissue on my shoulder was not something I generally wished to display, even knowing that Holmes must have witnessed it at some time before.
Even though he was not there in the flesh, I felt the weight of his stare on my figure, and it brought with it a fluttering sensation, as of moths caught in my ribcage. I stood, holding my old shirt in front of me like a shield, and contemplated the power that he commanded over my emotions.
When I moved to redress myself I saw that the rook had turned its back on me; an obvious display of granting me privacy from the only prying eyes I truly wished to gaze upon my body.
But while I might be in love, I was not a love-sick fool; I dismissed the feeling. I pulled on a new shirt, cuffs, collar and tie, and fastened the fob of Holmes’ watch chain to my waistcoat; slid the watch into my pocket with my own, feeling daringly bejewled. I had decided the night before that precisely no one would mind what I wore in this world, yet I am a gentleman, and it is my prerogative to dress as I pleased.
I was running my hands over my hair, trying to recreate order from chaos, when I heard Holmes' step on the rooftop.
The thing that struck me as odd was that, when I turned to look, he was standing on the far side of the roof: away from the door. I would most certainly have noticed his moving past me. The night before, as well, he had simply appeared in the darkness, without even a breath of wind to announce his presence.
"Well, you certainly look dashing this morning, Watson," he said.
We ate the food Holmes had brought, and I repacked my bag. I moved to return his watch, but he waved me off, saying, "Keep it for now, and be assured I'll always come for you." He laid a hand on my shoulder with a tight, reassuring grip, and squeezed. "It's only temporary though," he clarified loftily, sticking his long nose into the air, "I cannot allow just anyone to parade about wearing the fruits of my labour."
“Is that not the one Irene Norton gave this to you, for showing up at her wedding in disguise? That was merely good timing!” I laughed, referring to the sovereign threaded onto the chain34.
Holmes nodded. “And what is good timing, but the rewards of hard work?”
I was still chuckling when he led the way, a small smile lingering at the corners of his lips, to the door that would take us back to the sewers.
We had no candle to light the way, and I was admittedly not looking forward to gallivanting about the sewers again; so it was with some trepidation that I followed Holmes onto the narrow platform, until he stepped over the trapdoor and stood before another small door that I had not seen previously. It was barely lit from the opening behind me, but it was there none-the-less.
He gave me an impish smile, and motioned me to close the door behind me. It was pitch black, so dark that I could not see my hand in front of my face, and I dared not move in case I stepped wrongly.
Then there was light streaming in as Holmes opened the second door directly into a small and dingy room that I was certain I had seen before.
"What on Earth –?" I exclaimed, almost jostling my friend out the door so I could look closer. Upon turning back to the tunnel entrance I saw only a small closet, empty save a dirty set of clothes and a mass of what seemed to be human hair. I was horrified until I realised that it was a wig; the room was one of Holmes’ many little hide-outs scattered across London, and furnished with some of his disguises.
"Come, now, Watson. There's little time for idle delays," Holmes said, pulling me (still gaping) out of the room.
We exited the small house onto Cromwell Road and headed east. I asked, astounded, how we had managed to get such a distance in such little time; Holmes assured me that I had previously taken the long way ‘round the city, and said nothing more of it. He took my arm as we strolled down the pavement.
"And where are we going, Holmes?"
"We are going to see the Earl, my dear boy. I have a question to ask him: there is someone I need to find. As he is the lord of the Underground (the trains at least) he will undoubtedly have knowledge that is useful to me. Come! The District Railway is the most direct way of catching him."
We turned the corner and I put his words together with what I had learned of London Below. “There’s actually an Earl at Earl’s Court? How can that be? Is it like the circus?"
He shook his head and patted my hand condescendingly. I was quite tempted to take it back and whack him about the knees with my cane, though I knew that would get me no more answers. The fact that he had told me anything beforehand was unusual in and of itself.
We entered Earl’s Court Station to find several other patrons waiting on the mirrored platforms, mingling at the newsstand in silence, as befits public transportation. They were all fashionably dressed, and I felt very slovenly in my day-old trousers and my hat set precariously on my head, until I remembered that none of them would notice me.
A constable looked up and gave Holmes a cursory nod, though his eyes flitted past me without even a jot of interest, and I recalled as well that Holmes still existed in the real London; here was the proof of it. There was no real interaction, but the men who needed to know Holmes obviously knew him; and those who had no business knowing him paid no attention to his very existence.
Holmes repaid the officer a slight acknowledgement and pulled me closer to the platform's edge.
"Watson, our train is arriving soon, whatever are you doing?" He asked, when he could tug me no closer; for I was drawing back, resisting his inexorable pull, my eyes fixed on the gap and what I knew to live down there.
"Mind the Gap," I said, putting myself between Holmes and the tracks. I did not know if the terribly gap-beasts would come without a train to hide them, but I did not wish to risk it.
His posture at once stiffened, and he stared at me in abject horror. "Watson, tell me they did not harm you?"
I shook my head. "A young black man, in monk's robes; they took him right in front of his peers. It was awful to watch."
"The Black Friars," said Holmes, nodding sadly. "They are righteous men, ancient protectors of an unholy secret. I am sorry you had to see that."
"Friars; they all real? All the stations and such?"
There was a gust of warm wind that heralded the approach of a train.
"My dear boy," said Holmes, "you are in the Underground."
The train came rattling to a halt in place before the platform, but the carriage that pulled up to us seemed to me to be out of service. The lights were extinguished and it appeared empty, full only of shadows. Other passengers moved on and off the other train cars; the one Holmes was aiming for remained closed. Holmes knocked at the closed gate with a rhythmic rap, and it opened silently, pushed from the inside.
A young man wearing spectacles and a surcoat stood before us. He was holding a bugel.
"Sherry Vernet, and his companion," announced Holmes.
I could see warm light and several people behind the man, but a glance at the outer windows still displayed a dark and empty carriage; clearly a spell or some magic kept a barrier between the inside and the outer shell.
The herald backed away and bowed deeply to admit us entrance into the car. It was indeed a full court: complete with courtiers directly out of a medieval manuscript. There were rushes layered on the floor and an Irish wolfhound sprawled decadently across them before an open log fire; rich tapestries hung from the walls of the carriage and swung as the train jerked and lurched away from the station. All the passengers were decked out in period costumes like actors in 2-penny Shakespearean play; or the nearest they could manage to scrounge up from scraps and tin and the tailor’s cast-offs.
The Earl himself, I assumed by process of elimination, was seated in a carved wooden chair that made a good pretense at being a throne. He was roughly sixty, red haired and red bearded, both sprinkled with grey, and enormously large; he wore an immense fur-lined dressing gown and large quilted slippers. His eyes watered with the smoke as he peered at us myopically; he blinked when he saw my companion.
The herald squawked a note on his bugle. "Lord Sherringford Vernet, of the Raven’s Court35," he proclaimed, entirely too loudly for such close quarters, "and companion."
"Raven's Court?" I hissed in Holmes' ear, and he batted me away, looking amused.
"It had to come from somewhere, did it not?" he murmured in return, before focusing the intensity of his attention to the bemused Earl.
"A raven, eh?" rumbled the Earl. His face darkened in consternation, and a few of the courtiers rustled uneasily in their makeshift ensembles.
"Yes. We seek audience with Your Grace," he said, and gave a little deferential bow.
"A raven," repeated the Earl. He sat up straighter and said in a booming voice that cracked, ever so slightly, "And who's that one, Finvard?"36
Finvard, the herald, turned to me specifically and relayed in a tone that barely stifled a yawn, "He wants to know who you are. Keep it short though; not too long."
I hesitated, but stepped forward, leaning heavily on my cane. "Ah... I am the Doctor," I announced, keeping to what Hammersmith had called me. I could hear Holmes snort under his breath.
All the courtiers were staring at us; a small gangly jester leapt awkwardly forward.
"The Limping Doctor, I should say! How can ye be a man of medicine when ye cannot walk? Physician, heal thyself!" He cackled, high and nasally, and pranced about for a moment before tumbling to the ground in an ungainly heap with a loud "Oomph!"
Holmes was apparently even less amused by his poor jokes than I was.
Holmes called out over the jester scrambling to get out of the way, "In light of our recent truce, I have come to encourage the active exchange of information. I ask for your aid, Your Grace."
The Earl perked up. "And what exactly do you need from me, that you cannot find yourself? I have heard many things about you, Lord Vernet. You do not strike me as the kind of man who seeks help."
Holmes bowed again. "I thank Your Grace, for your confidence in me; but I believe you have garnered information regarding the whereabouts of the Professor. Have you not?"
The court flew into a veritable frenzy at these words; one damsel swooned immediately into the grasp of a man-at-arms, who looked around bewildered, and promptly dropped her to the floor, apparently for lack of anything better to do with her.
The Earl erupted from his throne and howled in fury.
"Do not take that man on, Vernet! You shall bring ruin to the Underground and unending torment upon yourself, for he is a dark and dangerous creature. I shall not let a word pass my lips about such an abominable man as that!"
Holmes stepped forward, and his presence seemed to grow within the small compartment. I could have sworn I heard a thunderous, malevolent noise, like a flock of birds taking flight; and I was almost afraid of my friend.
"The Marquis has facilitated our peace treaty on your behest and I should hate to ruin such good work so soon37. You know of my name; you know of my duty. You are compelled and required, by the laws of London Below, to aid me in my obligation. Now I ask you again, Your Grace: what do you know of the Professor?"
"He lives Above," squeaked the Earl. I rushed to Holmes’ side and placed a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back and away from the man; the Earl was large and muscular, a warrior lord, and he was not one to cower lightly. The wrath of Sherlock Holmes was not something I saw often and rarely in such blatant displays, especially when it came so unexpected; I was thankful when I felt my friend calm beneath my touch.
"I am aware of that. What else do you know?" he said in a much more subdued tone, though a thread of warning leaked through.
"He has acquired the allegiance of the Old Firm; I have heard they plan to make an attempt on Above, are working to recruit more followers."
It was apparently all Holmes had come for.
I bowed as well, without a single ounce of Holmes' unconscious grace, when Finvard trumpeted for the train to stop, which was awful, scraping squeal of a noise; and we exited out onto the platform of Notting Hill Gate station.
Holmes waited long enough for the train to leave again and then he hopped down, off the platform and directly onto the tracks. He lifted his hands to me, and helped me down as well.
“Is this not dangerous? What of the electric rail?” I asked, nervously.
He uncovered his small pocket lantern, and its sudden flare illuminated the curved walls and the long lines of tracks heading off into infinity. Although I could not see his face, I heard him make that stifled, long-suffering noise high in his aquiline nose; the very same noise he tends to make whenever I am being particularly slow-witted. “Watson,” he said, in that dreadful tone of voice, “If you need my help to know that to avoid the dangers of the third rail, you must merely avoid touching the third rail, I really do fear for your continued existence. Besides, the District isn't electrified; nor will it be, I think, for another 10 years.”38
He turned back to see I was not following him. “Oh, come now. It’s perfectly safe: just one stop to Bayswater. We’ll not be here long, but there’s no other way to reach our destination than by walking; the trains don’t go the way we need them to go. Just don't go wandering down any side tunnels or you might be in danger of encountering some of the Deeper.”
He paused for a beat, and said in a tone of contrition, "I’m sorry, my boy. All these years acquaintance, and so quickly do I forget that you are new to this world." Then, because he is an irritating, stubborn soul, he continued, "Hopefully you will learn quicker than your meagre deductive skills and unique grasp of the concept of misinformation."
The loyalty and love I hold for Sherlock Holmes is deep and boundless; yet he is in fact the most irritating creature this world has ever known. As unequaled as he is in his brilliance, so too is he unequalled in his ability to drive a man to drink.
I felt absolutely dreadful when I accidentally crushed his foot beneath my cane. It was really quite dark in that tunnel.
Holmes and I walked in silence. It was not an ill silence, however, nor was it uncomfortable. With Holmes' great mind brooding over vaster concepts that I am privy to, it gave me time to think over what was happening; and perhaps afforded me a greater comprehension of where I had come from, and where I might be heading.
Even as I write this, it seems an elaborate dream; a nightmarish fancy concocted by a drink-sodden mind after a singular, but harmless, encounter with a remarkable stranger.
More than that, it was a wonder it all happened in such a short time span, yet it feels as though I have already lived two lives or more: in this world, the next, and all the ones between.
I thought of the Marquis and his self-congratulatory grin; the sharply dangerous twinkle in his black eyes and the way his dark skin had gleamed in the moonlight the night before. I thought of his wit and his wisdom, and his apparent lack of regard for those people who did not owe him favours. Perhaps he considered himself to owe me a favor, after his mishap; and that was why he endeavoured to aid me, as he did not have to, despite the fit I pitched.
Bayswater Station was the next stop north on the District Railway line, which did not mean much to me in terms of practical distance. As we continued however, the tunnel seemed to slant deeper into the earth and I began to hear the soft sounds of water trickling down the walls.
Soon after, we were sloshing through several inches of bitterly cold water, and Holmes began to hum; a deep and sonorous sound like the vibrations of a violin's strings, and not much like those of human vocal chords. It was a haunting waltz that seemed to grow and magnify in the dark of the underground, as if low in the centre of the Earth a chorus of preternatural beings had joined in the hymn to summon the gods from their sleep. The notes rose and fell as the ebb and flow of the tide, and a shiver traced tingling fingers up my spine as our feet led us inexorably further into the depths of darkness.
The water was rising steadily the farther we walked, bone-chilling and with a strong current that nearly dragged my boots off my feet. My trousers hung heavy with the weight and though I was beginning to lose feeling in my legs below the knee, my hip ached with my old wound, aggravated by the tiring slog and additional resistance on my movement.
I was surprised to note, however, that the water smelled not of salt as from the sea, nor of stomach-churning waste as from the Thames, but sweetly clean and fresh beneath the scent of damp earth and silt.
And then without warning, the tunnel opened up before the shine of the lantern into a great tiled cave; the walls rose high like a cathedral, stretching far and out of sight.
Holmes' lantern was nothing in comparison to the eerie pale glow from beneath the surface of the water. I could not see how deep it went, but there was a distinct line of darkness that illustrated a sharp drop off from where we stood; the light came from beyond the lip to radiate up and cast gleaming, shimmering shapes upon the arching roof of the cave.
The humming rose to a crescendo and just before it reached its peak, bordering on unbearable, maddening, it cut off and silence rang through the cavern in its place.
"What are we doing here?" I asked, and though my voice rose no higher than a whisper, it rustled across the waves of the underground sea, filling the cave with a low, reverberating hiss.
"Waiting," replied my companion. He pale, gaunt, and ghostly in the light, a study of sharp contrasts. His grey eyes shone like glass marbles and he gave me a small, secretive smile; not unlike that of the Marquis.
I was about to question him further, when an indistinct shadow passed over the source of the light, immense and forbidding. Holmes' eyes twinkled with mischief.
I almost dared not ask.
"What is that?"
I could see something moving beneath the surface of the water, something pulsing and heaving, and moving up higher and higher from the depths of the underground sea.
"Do you mean to catch that?" I was incredulous.
"Don't be foolish, Watson: we are here to entice a being of an entirely different nature out into the open. No less deadly, to be sure, but potentially far more helpful; provided we can convince her to aid us in our cause."
The thing that came into sight at Holmes' words was an enormous medusa, with a massively gelatinous body and a shimmering web of silver spider-silk tentacles; the shortest of which must have reached thirty feet in length. From beneath its umbrella-shaped body emerged a wafting curtain of older tentacles; the colours of which ranged from tawny brown to old, bloody red.
"A lion's mane," I said, in awe. I had never seen one in person before, but as far as I knew they were less than a third the size of the one that presented itself to us.
"Exactly so," Holmes crowed in praise, his eyes never leaving the jellyfish.
There was abrupt movement as a figure leapt from a tunnel on the far side of the cavern to perch like a jungle cat; it looked like a woman, but also like a beast, so primal and predatory were its movements.
The woman was dressed in leather and skins, and carried a wooden staff, its end burnt and sharpened. She spared us no attention, her gaze fixed on the lion’s mane with eyes as fierce as a bird of prey. Silent and deadly, she reared back and launched her spear at the monstrous jellyfish. The weapon entered the water with nothing even resembling a splash, and struck true into the heart of the creature's bell-like body. I do not know much of the anatomy of cnidarians, but the unnatural eerie wailing that erupted from beneath the water sounded like a whalesong, and was positively unique to this eldritch creature39.
When the howl died down and the jelly floated bulbously to the very surface, its heavy mass buoyant in the rippling water, the woman across the gulf straightened to her full height, and gazed at us with stoic, amber eyes. She was very beautiful. Her hair bore its own resemblance to the ruff on a lion's neck, thick and curled and framing her cat-like features with a wild beauty rarely found on the streets of London#.
"I do not know you," she called back to my companion, and sounded very much like she did not particularly care to.
"I did not presume to think you would," Sherlock Holmes replied, but there was a note of reverence in his tone of voice that did not seem derogatory, as he has often sounded before while encountering the fairer sex; the implication seemed to be that he was not worthy of her attention, and was suitably humbled by it. "I have brought you this offering as an opening bargain. The Medusa would not have come for you; you know that, and yet you waited in futile persistence." I would have stopped him from continuing if I had the voice to, but when her eyes narrowed, Holmes luckily seemed to recognise his own train of thought enough to smother it.
"What do you want of me?" Her voice was like the deep purr of a cat, dark and smooth as Indian silk. Her accent I could not place, but thought it was perhaps American.
"I wish for your aid and your skills; I am about to start a war in the Underground against the Professor. Whether you have heard of him or not, all of London Below knows your name and it would be incalculably beneficial to my cause if you were to lend your fist in assistance."
Hunter blinked her eyes at us slowly, yellow orbs assessing us with a predator's gaze. I saw rejection in her face before she even deigned to speak.
"I have no interest in your petty wars. I thank you for your oblation, and will add the stinging tentacles of the Medusa to my trophies, but you are done here. Leave."
And we left.
When we emerged from the dark of the tunnels it was to the dark of the open night sky; either we had been down for much longer than I had thought, or time flowed differently in this realm than I was used to; both options were equally likely. I chose not to linger on the subject for very long, for fear of overwhelming my admittedly harried mind.
I made Holmes wait as I emptied a great deal of water from my boots, and rung out the hems of my trousers. Holmes merely sniffed and walked on, boots squelching and leaving sloppy puddled footprints in his wake.
Of course, I thought to myself at the time, the man would take fastidious care of his appearance; up until the point that he goes traipsing through the sewers to use a monstrous jellyfish that could have killed us both as bait for an even more deadly woman who probably would have killed us both.
My trousers and socks were still wet though, so I believe I was allowed an internal diatribe at the very least.
I became quite caught up with the contemplation of how very much I wished I had thought to bring my rubber-soled tennis shoe; with thinking how pleasing it would have been to spend the evening lounging in front of a roaring fire with a cigarette and the British Medical Journal, perhaps a brandy to finish the evening.
All along the street the lights inside the houses were lit; some with the hot glow of a gas lamp, others with the starker glare of an electrical light, but the one we stopped in front of looked dark and uninhabited. Holmes bounded up the stairs and knocked loudly at the door, twice with the knocker and once with his gloved knuckles.
The door creaked open into darkness and nobody beckoned us inside. The door slid shut behind us, and from nowhere, Holmes' lantern was illuminated once more, casting light on the small entrance hall.
The absence of anybody was apparent in the dust, thick and heavy over polished floors. Holmes and I left footprints where nobody had walked, the wood glinting where it was uncovered.
I could hear no one upstairs; somewhere, someone was smoking a pipe. The thick smell of shag tobacco was diluted through the floor; no one had closed the door to the upstairs sitting room.
Nobody guided us through the halls and down a flight of stairs into a cement-lined, unfinished basement. The small gate that signified an entrance to another series of tunnels opened with a squeak and we passed on from that house with no one to see and nobody to care40.
Sufficient years of gallivanting after Holmes had made me more comfortable with long, convoluted adventures than was generally acceptable in a proper gentleman; yet even I was growing tired of the unending shafts and deadly dark passages.
Still, it was a surprise when Holmes came to an abrupt halt.
He extinguished the lantern with spit-slicked fingers and hushed me. I dared not ask what had stopped him, but instead focused my attentions on listening to the echoing hollow that encased us. Finally I caught a hint of what had brought him to a stop: footsteps. There was someone following us; and they were not being subtle about it. I could not tell how many there were (Holmes no doubt could tell not only their number, but their respective weights, drinking habits, and possibly their shoe size) and was slightly startled when Holmes slipped his hand over mine, grasping in the darkness to squeeze my fingers. His kidskin gloves were cool and smooth against my wide, bare hands, and lent me the same steady reassurance that had been a keystone to our relationship since it had moved past flatmates and on to friends. I could not offer a reciprocal grasp, but leaned myself closer to him, letting my shoulder press against his briefly, before stepping back and shifting my grip on my cane in preparation.
Our pursuers came upon us faster than I would have thought possible, for when the leader spoke, it rang as if we were surrounded.
"Good evening, good sirs, on this fine and most beautiful evening."
If I had not already felt threatened by their strange presence, I would have shuddered at that man's voice: his affected charm was what might have been cordial if someone had never met a polite person in their life, thick and oily and leaving the taste of ash bitter and rancid on my tongue.
"If I might beg a moment of your time, we wish to make our very best acquaintance; don’t we, Mister Vandemar? Get to know each other a little better."
The other spoke in a deep monotone: “We do.”
And then one of them was within a hair's-breadth of my face. I could smell his teeth rotting in his mouth and the vile odour of his skin and the grease of his unwashed hair and I felt like I was going to gag, weak though it might have seemed; Holmes grabbed my hand once more and we ran.
I heard a low and dirty chuckle behind us. They moved to follow at more than a saunter, for they knew in their wretched, evil minds: they would catch up to us eventually.
Blind and breathless from the exhilaration, we flew through the tunnels, turning at random; no matter how many times we changed course, nor how hard we ran, every time I strained my ears I could hear the unceasing drumbeat of their boots, never far enough behind.
Holmes hauled me up a flight of rickety metal stairs, down a set of stone steps; then across a bridge, wide and barren, without any railings, just a sheer drop over despair. The gloom of the tunnels was abating slightly; not enough for comfort, but enough to understand the threats that surrounded us and make them all the more real.
We stumbled around a corner, gasping, and my leg gave out beneath me, no longer holding up under the stress. I collapsed into Holmes' startled arms, and bit my lip near bloody to keep a groan of pain from escaping.
He sucked a deep breath in, filling his lungs to capacity and held it, listening. The sound of his heartbeat against my ear, his chest rising and falling in harsh pants, was all I could hear.
"They're still coming. Hurry, Watson. We have to get to the upside."
I coughed horribly, air rattling about in my lungs. "Who are they, Holmes?"
"The Old Firm; Moriarty's henchmen. They freelance violence, selling their trade to the highest bidder." As he spoke, he removed one of his gloves and smoothed my sweat-damp hair from my forehead, though I could tell that most of his mind was still focused on our pursuers.
"Moriarty – do I know him?" The name did not ring any bells, but I assumed he was 'the Professor' that Holmes had spoke of earlier.
"Professor Moriarty. I may not have mentioned him to you before; he is one of the greatest criminal mastermind to grace England or the continent, and the most dangerous man loose in London, Above or Below." He began to guide me along blindly the newest tunnel. "The Napoleon of Crime, I like to call him, for his reach is expansive enough to bridge the gap between the worlds as I myself do. He works through others, like those two we just narrowly escaped," here his tone was sceptical, for we were not yet out of the woods, "as the puppet master controls his marionettes. Never is a crime directly linked to him, but he has terrorised London for long enough that it has fallen to me to rid the world of him once and for all."
He laughed, breathlessly. I could barely see him shake his head.
"Because, dear boy: I am Lord Sherringford Vernet, of the Raven's Court, and Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street! It is my calling, as it always has been, to solve what others cannot and take on the greatest minds with my own."
He pushed open a door I could not see, and manoeuvred me in the darkness to the foot of a stairwell, which headed up, back to the surface.
We came out of Charing Cross station onto the Victoria Embankment, on the north shore of the Thames41.
Vuillamy’s dolphin lamps repeated endlessly down the embankment, spilling warm white light over the stones, and reflecting off the water. There were lights across the bridges and in the buildings. I did not feel safe, though: the lights, though beautiful, cast too many shadows to feel safe. The sensation of being watched crept unpleasantly under my skin; the repulsive slide of a predator's eyes. I could not pinpoint its origin. Holmes felt it too, I saw, by the tense line of his narrow shoulders.
"We'll go to Temple Station; we’ll be safe there," Holmes said. The gardens were dark as we passed. “Watson, quickly!”
I saw dark, winged shapes alight along the rooftops.
We had passed Waterloo Bridge, Somerset House; we were almost to Temple station when two figures appeared as though from a fog in the middle of our path.
The two men looked nothing alike in any aspect. Hair, teeth, eyes, build, coloring; they might as well have been two different species for all their similarities on the outside. One was short and round; the other was built very much like a brick wall. The first had a cruel, fox-like smile; the second had a large nose, and large jaw, and very little facial expression save a general dislike. But their outward differences seemed to be hollow casings for beasts of a singular nature.
Something that writhed, perhaps. Or squirmed. Or howled silently, in the void. It was behind their eyes and in the shadows of their grinning mouths.
It rippled under their skin; perhaps it was just smoke, oily and black, seething through puppet limbs. Perhaps it was something that is not for someone like myself to know.
I was wrong then: they were not men, not by any consideration of the word.
"Our employer sends his most gracious regards, my fine, good sirs," the smaller one said, in his voice slick and poisonous. "Mister Vandemar will now convey His Lordship's message."
The taller one stepped up and cracked his knuckles. Holmes inhaled sharply through his nose upon observing that the rings he wore were fashioned from the skulls of ravens.
Mr. Vandemar smiled slowly and raised one decorated fist in preparation for a blow that was sure to be deadly if it fell with any accuracy.
Holmes was not armed, not that I could see; but I had my cane and my old service revolver, and I stepped into my role as his protector as easily as I always had. I let my cane slide through my fist for better torque, and parried with a ferocity that I only manage to achieve when fighting for my life, connecting with Mr. Vandemar’s solid forearm, and then whipped it back into his throat.
It would have crushed the average man’s windpipe, and knocked him out of commission; Mr. Vandemar did not even wobble.
Nevertheless I was well prepared for such a possibility and did not falter in my attack, beating him as viciously as I could. Many of the blows merely glanced off his dense mass, but still I drove him back until he was at an acceptable distance from Holmes and I could draw my revolver without the risk of him regaining ground.
I shot him once, in the heart.
He did not bleed, nor did he stop; I shot him three times again in the head. The impact rocked him backwards and off-balance. I slipped my foot behind his, kicked his leg out from beneath him; and since he was so tall, his centre of gravity was high enough that he tumbled, head-over-heels, over the embankment wall and into the Thames. There was a splash, and a stoic voice muttering something I could not hear.
His companion's smug face deepened into a contorted, gruesome veneer of magnanimity.
"I would not have done that, had I the gracious good fortune to be you, sweet gentleman." He shook his head, closed his eyes, and clasped his hands before as if he were praying for our eternal souls. "My name is Mister Croup. It is my considerable pleasure in making myself known to you, as a representative of the Old Firm. Murder is our specialty." He said this last line very slowly, drawing out the words as though they were sweet and succulent on his tongue.
From an inside pocket of his coat he drew a long, wicked knife. It was still bloody. Then he moved faster than I could blink and I felt a blot of wetness along the sleeve of my shirt.
The pain took several moments to follow. I had thrown up my forearm to protect my throat; Mr. Croup had opened it with his knife so swiftly that my nerves were left behind. Blood was running down my hand.
Before I could close my eyes against my inevitable death, I heard a low rustle and an echoing chitter; an army of rats rose up from a storm drain. They swarmed across Mr Croup's legs; climbed up and under and over his trousers, biting and squeaking and screeching and clawing.
Mr Croup howled in fury and pain, batting them off as one swats away flies, but the tidal wave of rats kept coming, driving him back to the embankment wall. I raised my revolver and sent my final bullets into his throat; one-two.
He fell back as Mr. Vandemar did, but he would not go over the wall so easily. The rats grabbed him, pulling, still swarming, and Holmes raced up at my side and together we overwhelmed Mr. Croup over the ledge. He snarled and gnashed his teeth as he fell, struggling to speak around the bullets lodged in his windpipe.
As soon as he was out of sight, Holmes took me by the wrist and dragged me away. The rats were swarming around us now, herding us along the embankment, through shadows and light to the Temple station.
Holmes breathed a loud, exhausted sigh of relief once under cover of the station building. Most of the rats (there must have been hundreds of them) scattered off into different corners, vanishing into unseen holes in the stonework.
"Watson, show me your arm," said Holmes, pulling at my overcoat; very nearly attempting to wrestle it from me.
I waved him off; one of the rats that stayed was limping purposefully toward me. It was Master Furredears: the rat that had helped me before, with his black eyes and tufted ears and his silly name.
I crouched to pick him up in my hands. My left hand was streaked red and sticky, but Furredears stepped onto it all the same. He was carrying his right forepaw delicately, as though it was broken.
I had not ventured to provide medical aid to such a small creature since my boyhood, (when I bound the broken wing of a bird to nurse it back to health, and made an ill-advised attempt to resuscitate a sleeping tomcat) but I felt like I should do something for my tiny hero; what, I had no idea.
I held him up to Holmes. "This is Master Furredears," I announced. "We're old friends. Master Furredears; this is Sherlock Holmes, my very dear companion."
Holmes laughed at me. "Ah, yes! I know him. He was the one who sent along your message," he said with a white, tremulous smile. Then he made a chittering noise at the rat, squeaking and hissing, and sounding very much like a rat himself. The rat nodded and lay down in my hand as if settling in.
"Come along, Watson. The rats have offered us a safe place to spend the night. Good Master Furredears will be our guide."
Furredears squeaked authoritatively.
As Holmes led me down the steps to the underground, his hand stole into the crook of my elbow, warm and reassuring and he left it there as we encountered a tribe of strange, derelict people: pale and dirty and dressed in rags. They all appeared to be transients; homeless and hopeless, thin and hollow-eyed. Many of them were men; some of them were children.
They met us with the utmost courtesy, bowing deeply and reverently in a wave, as we passed and as they guided us. Or, as I took another look, they bowed to the rat I held in my hands; going down so low that they were nearly prostrate on the platform floor.
A tall young woman, who might have been very lovely indeed if she had not been so horribly thin and dirty, her hair a mess of tangled curls, crept up to us, twitching nervously.
"The Lord Rat-Speaker wishes to… speak with you. And your Doctor. The Golden have called for sanctuary."
Holmes cleared his throat and said politely, "We are most gracious, thank you.Kindly lead the way; we shall follow."
A middle-aged man opened a door in the wall, then a metal grate immediately behind, and gestured us into a tunnel.
The low tunnel opened up soon after to a series of rooms; store rooms and basements and catacombs; then back to sewer maintenance tunnels, long and endless.
All as we walked, we were swept along in an inexorable tide of filthy, scurrying people. The Rat-Speakers shuffled around us, jostling each other out of the way to get closer to the rat; although some broke off to dart down this branch of the tunnel or another.
The underground chamber that the rat-followers ushered us into had a huge, vaulted ceiling; it was lit by multiple fires which produced a light so queerly red that it leeched the colour from the rest of the world. Holmes in particular, with his pale skin and dark hair, was reduced to near monochrome; all harsh shadows and over-exposed highlights. The smoke from the fires was thick enough to burn my eyes and my throat; I was already feeling achingly tired and worn down, and all I desired was to stop moving and rest for a moment.
The Rat-Speakers lived in something like a boarding house colony; they worked and lived together as a unit, though not without its own irregularities. As I watched, a fight broke out across the room, revolving around, from what I could tell, who got the better cut of the small animals roasting on a spit over the fires.
The man who was introduced to us as Lord Rat-Speaker was extremely old and wrinkled; he sat regally in an invalid's chair and exuded arrogance and hubris enough to anger the gods. He wore a long tattered robe trimmed in mottled orange-and-white-and-black fur, like the fur of a calico cat, and a sneer on his gaunt face. His eyes were narrow and red-lined, his brow protrudent, and his teeth had the prominence that recalled to mind a rat itself, as though he had filed back all but the front incisors.
Master Furredears had for all intents and purposes fallen asleep whilst we walked. He sat up with a yawn and a tiny rat-stretch. His bald tail was wrapped around my wrist, and newly spotted with dried blood; for I had yet to see to the wound Croup had given me, although I needed to.
I moved to place the rat gently on the floor, for fear of his little broken leg. Instead he leapt from my hands and trotted toward the Lord Rat-Speaker with nary a limp or a slip in his step. I made a noise of extreme surprise, and turned to tell Holmes of Furredears miraculous recovery; Holmes was watching me instead, with a darkly intent look upon his face.
As Furredears proceeded through the crowd, the people all around us threw themselves to the ground kneeling. The Lord Rat-Speaker gave an awkward jerk in his seat and crumpled forwards in as close to a kowtow as he was physically able.
The rat stood on up on his hind legs and began a long order of squeaking and chittering that abruptly sent several people into fits of barely-restrained hysteria.
The Lord Rat-speaker responded in the same manner, teeth bared and nose twitching, hissing and squealing until some sort of conclusion was finally reached.
One of the younger boys started to try and crawl away while the argument reached a high point, still bowed before the rat, but was stopped by an older man, who jolted him down and shhhed him loudly.
As soon as Master Furredears finished with a decisive squeak, a young man in his early teens leapt up and scurried over to us, guiding us to a small room off the main hall. He left us there, without a word of explanation, and was back in a moment with straw and blankets for bedding. He hovered and fretted for a moment, rearranging the layers of cloth, and then dashed off again. Once more he returned with a pair of rickety wooden chairs, which he set haphazardly on the floor, before he vanished for good.
Holmes took up a sentry position as I stripped my ulster and peeled the sopping red wetness of my sleeve away from the raw cut on my arm. It was not terribly deep; indeed it had stopped burning with as much pain as it had earlier, and had settled down to a dull ache. For the first time in my wild whirlwind adventures I made proper use of my medical bag, and was thankful to have brought it along. I cleaned and dressed the cut and wrapped it about with gauze, and remarked to Holmes aloud that "It was not so bad, really," for he seemed disconsolate and perturbed.
A knock at the door brought Holmes back to his feet. There was a large, stoutly built middle-aged man, with a florid nose and cheeks, and a beard that had long grown out of control.
"The Golden says there's to be a war council in the morning," he said in a low mutter, avoiding eye-contact. "The Golden will join your cause."
He left, without saying another word.
Holmes sighed in relief, before arching his back in a long and bone-cracking stretch, not unlike that of a cat just waking. "That's one matter settled for good. With the Rat-Speakers on our side, we will have some backing in our fight at least."
I stretched my leg out in front of me and began to massage my sore thigh with my fingers, where the Jezail bullet had left scar tissue in knots within the meat of the muscle. “What must we do for tomorrow?”
"We will think on that tomorrow; tonight, you must rest. Now. Are you very well, Watson?" said Holmes to me. He was fretting quietly, wringing his long hands and cracking his knuckles surreptitiously, as though he did not wish to impose his concern upon me. "Do you need anything else?"
"I could do with a cigarette, if you have one on you," I said lightly; although I was endeavoring to lift Holmes' curiously agitated mood, I was only partially joking.
He leapt immediately to his coat, which he had thrown over the back of one of the rickety chairs and fetched his silver cigarette case with enthusiasm. He brought it to me, offering one of his hand-rolled cigarettes. I took one, lit it with the matches I kept in my own pocket, and breathed in smoke with delight, for the influence was soothing to my well-rattled nerves.
Holmes folded himself up beside me, contorting his long limbs into one of his odd shapes that he so usually partook of in his armchairs, back home in Baker Street. He touched the clean white bandage with his nervous white fingers; gnawed his lip, looking up at me from beneath his dark brows, and his grey eyes glinted silver.
"Watson," he hesitated. "You do me such honor; protecting me. I do wish you wouldn't."
I scoffed loudly, before I saw how serious was the look in his eyes. "What ever do you mean, Holmes? I could never leave you alone to fight such things as Misters Croup and Vandemar; I would rather die."
Holmes shook his head, and fingered the bandage again. "If you were to die, my boy, you would leave me alone. And then where would I be? It puts me into a dreadful state; I would much prefer to keep you away from such ugly business as this, ugly dangerous business, and I do not like to see you involved in it. I would be lost, after all, without my Boswell."
"Oh, Holmes." I sighed.
He kissed me then, on the forehead, very gently. Then on one eyebrow; my eyelid, which I closed obligingly; and my cheek, just at the corner of my mouth.
Then he drew away and stared at me intently; he was observing me, deducing.
I kept my face as blank as possible, and leaned in to return the gesture. Forehead, eyebrow; he would not close his eyes, so I kissed him high on his sharp cheekbone instead; the corner of his thin pink lips.
At the last moment Holmes turned his head, and caught my mouth with his own. It was sweet and chaste and smelled like tobacco.
It was the last time I felt I would ever kiss anyone, for the first time. There would be no one after Holmes; how could there be?
I kissed him again, later that night after we had eaten, and it was nothing so innocent. He let me push him down into the soft blankets of our bedding, and bruise his soft lips until we were both hot and aching.
I left him gasping, cheeks pink and mouth swollen, his eyes glassy, and rolled away. There are moments in this world that are meant to be savored, to be drawn out; I intended to draw out every single moment with Holmes. I slept soundly, Holmes curled against my back, his hand pressed to my stomach and holding me close.
The so-called "war council" the next morning was held in a large pile of rubble, in a partially-completed tunnel. It involved quite the multitude of rats; one enormously large and dark yellow in colour, which I could only see in brief glimpses through the shadows; the Lord Rat-Speaker and his chosen disciples; a fine woman with fiercely dark red hair and opalescent eyes, who called herself Lady Tür of the House of the Arch, in apparent command of a regiment of Roman soldiers; and the Marquis, who arrived at the last moment with a cavalier swish of his coattails, and guiding the Earl of the Underground, sour faced and grumbling. The Earl seemed even larger than he had in his small court; the very image of a warrior-chieftain, that spoke of Beowulf and Grendel, and the ancient sagas. He had gone, a little, to seed; but not too far to be anything but impressive.
The Earl sat himself on a large broken boulder, and began the council by grunting, "Well? I'm here, what do you want of me?"
The Golden, hidden behind its barricade of iron rebar and loose bricks, began a low, senseless chatter of squeaks and squeals and hisses. The Lord Rat-Speaker followed on its heels, translating in a deep intonations; he paused every few moments to listen closer to what the rat was saying.
"The Rats of Below do hereby offer their fealty to the first defense of London Below…"
They were swearing an oath of obedience; and to Holmes!
"…Until such a time as the threat is passed, and the war is won; this we do promise."
It was such a strange, archaic thing; it recalled to me a time more primal and brutally vicious than the gentrified streets of London that I had come to know. Yet it suited this Under-London, where the demons of nightmares hunted through the tunnels, and the darkness was as dangerous as the light. This was a place that encouraged, required even, the savagery to fight for your life; and for all that, it was loved dearly by its inhabitants. Why else would they fight so hard to protect it?
"So sworn by the Arch," murmured the others around the circle. The red-haired woman took up the oath next, and the Romans swore something that my basic Latin struggled to translate, until I realized that they had an accent I'd never heard before.
I studied the woman with more attention; her hair was as red as wine, in tight natural ringlets, and piled loosely upon her head. She was pale and elfin and very beautiful; her cheeks a delicate shade of rose, and her gown fitting her superbly. The full skirts of her dress were layered with different fabrics that seemed incongruous: lace and moiré, wool and chiffon; like it had been made out of whatever material had been found in a scrap bin.
The Romans did not pay much attention to the proceedings; probably because the majority of them could not understand modern English. Instead they chatted with each other amiably in an undertone, and peered around with blatant curiosity.
When the Earl swore his oath, it was with a great deal of grumbling and blustering; yet swear he did, and offered the use of forty men. I hesitated to get my hopes up with regards to the quality of those men, considering his sleepy, placid court.
After each oath the company murmured “So sworn by the Arch,” in somewhat ragged unison.
When the Marquis was looked on to swear, he said, “Your wish is my command. I owe you a favor, after all.”
This he said to me, with shuttered eyes and a cat-toothed grin. I could not bring myself to look away, and muttered “...by the Arch,” a little later than I should have; thankfully no one seemed to notice.
Attention turned then to Holmes; generals awaiting their orders.
"It appears to me as though recent events have escalated as a result of some trigger; a catalyst, that began the reaction, which will come to its ultimate and final conclusion tonight," said Holmes, his voice low and contemplative. "The Professor - Moriarty - has been taking steps to eliminate the threat against his empire, as you've no doubt noticed. My conjecture is that this is because he feels I have gained an advantage; and that he wishes to terminate it at the soonest possibility. If he cannot, he will lose his grasp on the Old Firm, and thus: lose his best influence upon London herself." He looked at me.
"Why yes, of course," I said, enthusiastically, delighted to see him take such a well-fitting role of command. "Whatever do you think this catalyst could be?"
Everyone else turned to look at me as well.
It was an extremely pointed look.
"Me?" I asked, in surprise, highly discomfited to find myself at the centre of such focused scrutiny. I laughed at the absurdity of it. "Ha! You think I might be an advantage?"
Holmes inclined forward and rested his chin on his curled fists. He did not blink, but stared at me intently, with his hawk-like face unnervingly grave. "Do you understand what happened yesterday? With your rat friend?"
"He must have… Well. I believe he…" I could not continue, for I could not think of an explanation; not a single one.
"That was you, Watson. I had my doubts at first that I understood what I observed, although I should have realized that my instincts were correct; the evidence of your own injury sealed the matter entirely -" for that morning I had redressed my knife wound to find it merely a scratch; I had thought I had been overreacting the night before, though I had bled freely enough. "Your being a doctor is not a mistake; nor is it family tradition, no matter what erroneous Upside misconceptions you might have believed. It is in your very nature, as I have come to understand it."
After a moment waiting for my baffled confusion to abate (which it did not), he relented, and clarified his cryptic statement for my poor, slow-witted mind.
"For those of us born into London Below, magic is inherent in our makeup. All around us the impossible exists; anything you or anyone could conceivably imagine is not only possible, but probable. Legends and myths are as common beneath the city as drops of water in the Thames. The people who fall through the cracks; meaning, those that come from London Above and slip out of ordinary human perception: they generally remain as they were, or sometimes… slightly less. A rare few of them, however, are receptive to the magic that this world is built upon: they not only adapt to it, but they absorb it; the magic thrives and flourishes inside them and becomes indistinguishable from their very souls. Many of these people move beyond… well, beyond mere mortality; on to something greater, depending on the shape of their spirit. People like you."
To my extreme bewilderment, the denizens of London Below were nodding, all around us, in concordance. The Marquis de Carabas had a strange expression on his face, he too inclined his head in agreement, eyeing me with queer intensity.
I closed my eyes. I could scarcely think; my mind seemed to stutter to a halt, and I could not keep up with the conversation. Holmes' hand crept into my own and squeezed tight when I did not respond. I blinked my eyes back open, and again to wipe away the fog that was encroaching, and Holmes' face was deeply concerned.
He was afraid for me, afraid that what he had said would be too much.
"Watson," he insisted, "You are still yourself. As you ever were, you will always be. This is not a curse, it is a gift; one that you have gained merely by being the man you are. Do not fear it, Watson. I know you, indeed perhaps better than you know yourself, and I know that it will bring no harm."
I shook my head, resigned to the insanity that had befallen my life. "Very well. What are we to do, then, about Moriarty?"
"I had wished to recruit Hunter, who is yet the greatest warrior in the Underworld; but even with the offering of the Old Medusa it was a long shot. I have been weaving my net around the Professor for the past several months, and was near concluding my trap when your entrance to the playing field brought events to a crescendo faster than I had anticipated. We will meet him and his forces in good old, traditional battle. I have always liked the idea of a shield wall, but could never find the proper way to implement it.
"The Professor has a mind of intellect to match my own; whatever we do, he will have considered the probability of it and will meet us in return. It is my advice that we hide from him no longer; it will lead to nothing but greater fear, for fear of harm causes greater devastation than actual physical injury. We shall find a neutral ground, and we shall fight to the death."
With a sudden excitement to his voice, he squeezed my fingers fiercely and continued, "I tell you, Watson, in all seriousness, if I could beat that man, my career would have reached its pinnacle point; why I might even consider retiring, or at the very least a less excitable line of work. Indeed, should it be necessary, I will give my life to take down such a dangerous and powerful criminal."
He said this matter-of-factly, with his eyes focused off into the distance as if watching some far off ideal; or gazing through the eyes of his birds, I remembered. It gave me a shock of cold that turned my stomach.
It appeared as though he had forgotten entirely my devotion to him; did he not realise how very much my existence, especially since my arrival in London Below, relied on him? I was as devastated as if he had already gone through with the act of self-sacrifice.
"Holmes," I hissed, conscious all the while of our company, "Surely you cannot mean to attempt such a thing? At such a cost!"
"It is my greatest hope that I should not have to resort to such drastic measures; I know how it would bring pain to you, my dear Watson." He loosened his knuckle-whitening grip, the chilling look gone from his face. "But this is an ugly business, far uglier than any other case we have taken on together before. And if I need to: I will do anything to bring him down. I need you to know this, Watson, I need you to understand; and understand that I will not go into this fight intending to die, but if I do in the course of events, I mean it not to be in vain."
I looked down at our clasped hands, and swallowed the thickness lodged in my throat.
"I will make sure of it," I assured him, pulling his white knuckles to my lips.
"So," announced Holmes, with a solemn mien that could not hide the sparks of fervour in his eyes, "After breakfast, we go to war."
The Earl's men were running about the place, waving swords and handkerchiefs; trading weapons and armour. The Rat-Speakers watched them in considerable bemusement.
They were as ragtag as expected: many of them old, many of them young, few of them proper soldiers. The Earl's place in the hierarchy of London Below was cemented for many years; and he'd not had to fight for his rule in ages, or so it seemed to me. His soldiers were disused and dusty, though committed to their cause, and I could not help but feel major misgivings deep in my gut, of what would happen in the coming fight.
My attention kept wandering back to the Romans, who appeared to be sparring in preparatory warm-ups; "Where did they come from?" I said aloud, albeit to myself.
The Marquis appeared behind me like a sudden gust of wind, a glint of familiar sardonic amusement in his voice. "Banks of the Kilburn river; I heard they got caught up in a time bubble and looped their way through the last few centuries. They are either from the Ninth or the Nineteenth Legion42; either way they haven't got the Eagle with them, which is a shame. I'd have liked to see what all the fuss was about. Disappointing. Do you speak much Latin?"
"Mostly medical Latin," I admitted. "I've quite forgotten the majority of my lessons. I'd have to say I'm a bit rusty."
“Never read Catullus, then?”
He said it with such a sly, straight face that my own seemed all the more flustered when I blushed bright red, to think that I had. Indeed, as schoolboys, that had been our greatest motivation in completing our lessons; that we might translate the poems for ourselves, and entertain each other with the best, and most inappropriate, reciting43.
“Well...” I started and then could not continue. The Marquis burst into a great roaring laughter, and I found myself helpless not to join him.
“Shall we go, Doctor?” Holmes asked, approaching from across the cavern, where he had been conferring with the commanders of the various troops. “Do you need anything more?”
“I have my cane,” I said, lifting my stick and demonstrating the heavy wood and the hidden sword, “and plenty of cartridges for my revolver.”
“Good.” Holmes smiled thinly, the delight of a case twinkling through his eyes. I could feel that same thrill that had always enticed me into following Holmes through the most bizarre and dangerous of mysteries; breaking the law, burglary, traipsing through the thug-ridden alleys of lower London. My smile matched his own, and he took my arm in his, so that we could walk through the tunnels side-by-side, as we were always meant to be. I bid the Marquis good luck, and wished him well in the upcoming battle.
The Marquis bowed, deeply and elaborately, and I could not for the life of me tell if he was worried or not.
The Earl's train was waiting for us; several other cars commandeered from London above, much to the disinterest of the average passenger. The carriages, packed full of silent, fearful men and women, were a singularly disconcerting sight.
The Rat-Speakers had supplied us with anyone who had volunteered, and both sexes were represented very nearly equally. Holmes was, unsurprisingly, less than impressed at the narrow frames and pale faces of many of the women, highly doubtful of their possible contribution, but I found myself intrigued by the confident carriage of their shoulders and chins. They were afraid, yes, we all were; but they were as strong-willed and ready to fight as any man present.
The train creaked and rattled on its rails, swaying and jostling us together and apart. Holmes was pressed against my side, his shoulders knocking against mine in warm reassurance of his presence.
It was only, perhaps, twenty minutes before the train shuddered to a halt and we all lurched sideways. The doors opened into a blaze of white hot magic.
The woman called Hunter was waiting for us on the other side.
She stood out like the first mark of black ink on a blank page; a blemish that is the first step to a masterpiece, which could spell our triumph or our ruin.
The station we arrived at was a singular wooden ledge, which overlooked a vast expanse of white.
It could have been snow, if I did not think about it too carefully; fields of snow as far as the eye could see and the milk-white sky that comes after a storm, as the sun shines through clouds empty of their heavy crystal burdens.
But even snow has light and depth. The shadows are periwinkle blue and the sun shines warm and butter-yellow upon drifts and hills. The air has a damp crispness, and a smell of dust and earth.
This place had none of that. It did not even echo.
The ground felt real enough under my feet; upon observing it closer, I saw that our troops cast no shadows. My boots clicked upon something that was, with a considerable amount of disbelief, not actually there.
For miles and miles, there was nothing at all. An empty plane of whiteness: no walls, no floors, no ceilings; no ground, no trees, no sky.
“Where are we?”
"The Great White City,” said Holmes. He stood at my side, blinking about curiously.
"White-where? I've never heard of White City before."
The Marquis cut in. "Oh, we’re just north of Shepherd's Bush. We are still in London though, I assure you." He peered into the distance, shading his eyes with his dark hand. "Well, more or less, give or take an alternative mystical dimension, and a few suburbs."
"North of Shepherd’s Bush, that is… But there's nothing there! That's just farm land, I'm quite sure of it; nothing but country. And it's certainly not called White City." Even I was growing tired of my repetitive denials, for I had seen a great many things in the past week that I had before thought perfectly impossible; I could not repress, however, the instinctive thought at the back of my head, protesting that they were wrong.
"Well it's not been built yet, now has it? That's why there's nothing here. Just because something's not there yet doesn't mean it doesn't exist, Doctor." The Marquis was smiling at me, amused and superior, once again pleased with his own cleverness; Holmes, the irritating scoundrel that he is, was chuckling along.
Hunter approached us.
“It is an honor, greatest Hunter,” murmured the Marquis, with not the slightest hint of sarcasm; I had no idea he could speak like that without hurting himself.
I bowed my head, removing my hat. "I thought you had no interest in our cause,” I said.
"I didn’t," she replied, her long mane of sandy hair tumbling about her bare shoulders as she shook her head. "But my circumstances have changed. I have lost something dear to me; I cannot kill the men who took it because they are not men. I have been informed they are compatriots to your enemy. I wish to take back what they stole." She jerked her chin at Holmes and said, a little contemptuously, "Because of your gift I am willing to follow your command. You are not a warrior, but a mind, this is what I have heard, so I will be your fist."
"I am glad to have your help, Hunter," said Holmes, inclining his head as well.
Weapons were checked one last time, armour tightened; frightened faces packed away and facades of bravery pasted on like masks. We stood in ranks, facing out so that we could see as far into the vastness of White City as our feeble eyes would let us; as we could not know where the attack would come from.
It felt like forever, that we were waiting; but it was not long before the Professor's troops stepped up to battle.
Many of my memories from this battle are a blur. It was nothing like the Battle of Maiwand, and yet that was my only reference; the desert scorching deadly all about me, the thunder of gunfire deafening, and the slice of cutlasses screeching across my mind.
On this plane there was no heat, no moisture, no sand. In this world there were no rules.
It was more primal than anything I had ever seen. Darker and more animalistic: with the shouts of the Roman soldiers and the high-pitched shrieking of the Rat-Speakers on our side, and the harsh bellows of enormous, leather-clad Vikings and the horrible screams of shadowy beasts on theirs.
Moriarty's army was not as large as ours, and I felt hope soar in my heart.
The Romans formed a shield wall, against the Vikings. It was a bloody thing, shield pressed to shield and spears and knives and swords stuck through every available space between. The ones at the edges jostled the ones at the centre, fighting to gain footing and press an advantage to force the other side to their knees.
I spent my bullets quickly, and drew my sword to continue the fight.
Holmes had been targeted by a man dressed entirely in black, and I had lost sight of him early in the battle. I have always considered Holmes to be one of the strongest men I knew, especially for someone of his build and stature; surely he would be able to defend himself without me. Either way, I was in no position to help him, having been besieged by one of the shadow creatures.
It burbled and wheezed, vaguely reminiscent of the gap-beast. Where it touched me, my skin froze; sharp pinpricks of cold pain shooting through my arms and hands. It was difficult to fight, for I could not look directly at it, for it would dance out of perception like a half-formed thought. It took the steel of my sword as well as any man though.
I used all the skills I knew, of war and of street brawls, to aid me in my fighting. I was not as good as many of the Rat-Speakers, even, for they had grown up in this tribal world of wars and magic, and they knew their strengths as a unit. Still I fought, and well enough; spurts of burning green ooze, shining like emeralds and stinging like wasps, coated my hands and blade, as the shadow-creatures squealed their way to the afterlife.
I turned once, and collided directly with the Marquis; his dark face was shining with sweat and his black eyes smouldering with heat for the fight. He glowed with excitement, his braided hair tied behind him in a long tail, slick slides of blood staining his decorative waistcoat. He had taken off his frockcoat and left it somewhere so as to not have it ruined in battle. He grabbed my waist and spun us around once, leaving trails of red on my waistcoat as well, and then twirled off with a delighted cackle of laughter.
The Marquis fought with a long, razor-sharp blade as if it were an extension of himself. He had never before struck me as someone who would fight dirtying his polished finger nails when there were plenty of other people to delegate that to but the sheer relish with which he slaughtered the thick-bodied Vikings reminded me of the danger beneath his flippant facade.
Hunter, as expected, lived up to her name, taking down her prey as a lioness tackles and rends a wildebeest limb from limb. She was death in motion, graceful and horrifying. The Lady Tür swirled across the battlefield as if she were dancing a waltz. The Marquis had told me in an undertone that she was an Opener, and a person of some import on the underside. If she danced, then her opponents were her partners; regal and poised, even as she used her Talent to open the chests of fighters, leaving bloody, pulpy messes, almost unrecognisable even as human in her wake.
The Rat-Speakers darted and snuck between the lumbering swings of their larger opponents, slashing and cutting with their blades. They fought with surprising dexterity and ferociousness, concentrating their attentions on a tribe of fighters, ghostly pale under films of scum, with lank, white hair twisted around their faces like snakes. They wore pale grey sack-shaped uniforms, and wielded bows and spears with vicious delight.
Of the Earl’s men I had been mistaken. While not as organised as the Romans, or as widespread as the Rat-Speakers, the Earl himself led them, and they fought with bravery and strength. As I watched, I saw them move from one cluster of fighting to another: swarming the opponent to distraction, and then backing away as the main force gained the advantage and took them down.
We were winning. I could feel it.
I turned suddenly to see a pale ghost warrior inches from my face. I could not restrain a shout of horror, for it was as a skull come to life, out of my very nightmares. Hollow eye sockets around glowing, bulbous eyes, and a black mouth lined with shark-like teeth opened to bite into the muscle of my shoulder.
There was a thunderclap of gunfire, and the thing fell away from me, spattering blood on my neck and cheek. I saw Holmes beyond, having stopped dead in his fight; his revolver was still smoking when he threw it away and resumed his struggle against the black-clad man, useless now. He punched and jabbed, using fists and elbows and knees and feet to strike his opponent in the most vital areas.
Then there was a piercing scream; the kind that bores through your skull like a drill, ringing out over the roar and clamour of the fight. It was the scream of a terrified woman.
Lady Tür was overwhelmed, surrounded by almost a dozen of the pallid creatures; filthy clawing hands snagged in her skirts and in her russet hair, dragging red welts across her ivory skin. She struggled: her arms were captured and held wide and helpless by her attackers, as they ripped her bodice and tore her flesh.
It was as though a switch had been flipped.
All around me men were falling.
The Earl received a devastating blow across the face from a Viking blade and collapsed with a cry of agony.
Rat-Speakers were trampled and broken beneath boots and knives and arrows.
Romans, sweaty and bloodstained, grew haggard and exhausted from the constant onslaught.
The Marquis was no longer laughing through his bloody teeth, but limping badly and holding his right side in pain.
So many of the Earl's men lay scattered and limp, torn to shreds.
The black-clad man rushed Holmes like a rugby player; shoulder down and aimed for Holmes' stomach. They collided in a whirlwind of limbs, too much for me to follow, and fumbled back and –
It is difficult for me to write this. Even now my hand shakes.
With a scream of terror, Lady Tür wrenched the fabric of reality open; there was a noise as of a vacuum, followed by the pounding and rushing sound of an enormous body of water. In the middle of space, all around her, the air ripped and her attackers tumbled through, drawn in by irresistible forces. It was dark, so dark within that gaping hole; a nightmare realm so different from the white-washed world we stood in.
The tear was mending, now that her assailants were gone, and it was at this time that Holmes took a wrong step, or perhaps Moriarty took a right one, and they fel44l.
They fell through the door and I could do nothing to stop it.
I threw myself across the battlefield, and grabbed Lady Tür by the shoulders. She hit me across the face with her closed fist, but it did not matter: the door was closed, the crack was sealed, and I had no idea if Holmes was dead or not.
"Open it! Open it again! I need you to open it!"
She could barely breathe, her lustrous curls spilling loose over her bloody shoulders and tears running tracks down pale cheeks. I could spare her no thoughts, for Holmes was gone; he was gone and if she didn't reopen the rip, I have no notion of what I would have done.
It seemed an eternity before the world shifted around me; we moved through space and time and came out on a dark rocky outcropping over a deafening waterfall.
"Holmes!" I cried, stumbling over the cold, slippery rocks. "Holmes!"
Was it my imagination? Perhaps I did hear him over the roar of water; but something rang in my ears and in my mind and I nearly threw myself over the cliff in my haste to reach the edge. A heavy, full moon hung in the sky; the only source of light to see by, but it was enough.
Holmes was alive. He was still alive. All I could see of him were long, pale fingers clutching the rock for dear life. I flung out my hand and grabbed his wrist, wet and slippery. His head jolted back and through a trail of blood from a long wound at his hairline, he smiled in elation at me.
But he shook his head, and his smile turned down. Leave me, he said, but I could hear no words. You can't save me, leave me.
"No, Holmes, I won't! I won't leave you! Come now, grasp my hand, I can – I can pull you up!" His hands were wet and cold, and I could not maintain my grip for long. "Holmes, take my hands!"
No, Watson, he shouted, and desperation took his eyes. They shone silver in the cold light, and he seemed ethereal like he never had before. John, he said, John you must go.
There was such panic growing in my chest that I did not notice the tears on my face until I had to gasp for breath and it burst from me in a sob.
If I had not come, could he have managed to climb up himself? Moriarty was nowhere to be seen; I could only assume he had fallen into the depths of the waterfall, but Holmes had always tried to shield me from the most hopeless situations. It was possible that he did not wish me to see him try and struggle to scale the sheer rock face; especially if he were to fail, for the hope and possibility of it would surely shatter my heart far more than if I had come and he were gone.
His eyes, so beautiful, so loved, were so determined that he needed no words. He would not let me pull him up. Already my weak arm was beginning to protest the weight.
I was almost given over to despair and defeat, when a solid form landed beside me and reached out as well. Never stopping, the Marquis gripped Holmes' hands and began to haul him up, hand over hand, not even considering slowing to let Holmes try and resist.
I began to pull as well, and together the Marquis and I dragged Holmes up and over the edge of the cliff, until we collapsed into a panting heap, breathless from exertion and exhilaration.
Holmes' cheeks were wet and cold and his hair was dripping water, but still I kissed him, to know for sure that he was still alive and still with me. His mouth was hot, burning almost, and he kissed me back with the ferocity that comes with surviving. I kissed him again, deeply, and again, because I could not help myself.
I clutched his head to my chest and ran my fingers through his hair.
The Marquis lay flat on his back, wheezing through undoubtedly broken ribs, and watching me from the corner of his eye. I leaned forwards, cupping his smooth cheek, kissed him lightly, just once on the mouth.
It was a thank you, for everything; for saving Holmes, for saving me, and for letting me go.
We would have no other kisses, so I allowed myself to linger.
He blinked at me with raised eyebrows, and I laughed.
I laughed because we were alive.
Lady Tür was waiting for us, crouched in the cold; her pale arms were wrapped around her knees and her skin glowed in the moonlight.
She looked up, her opalescent eyes flashing and enormous, and stood as we approached again. I pressed my hand to her head, smoothing back her curls, and realised for the first time that she was barely in her twenties; so young, and yet so fierce.
She awarded me with a shaking smile, but had regained her centre in the time we spent in this alternate place, and opened the door back to White City with ease.
There was silence on the other side, and I felt terror in my gut that everyone had been killed.
But no such thing had occurred. When Moriarty had vanished, his forces had fallen beneath us; our troops, our rag tag group of urchins, stood in uneasy triumph as if waiting for the second shoe to fall.
Hunter, drenched head to heel in blood gave a shrieking war cry upon seeing us, returned triumphant, that carried throughout the empty space of White City, until every man and woman had picked it up, throwing their heads back and baying our victory to the heavens.
We had won.
I could not linger over Holmes, much as I wished to, for there were many injured to be seen to. The Marquis directed several of the Roman soldiers to begin moving the wounded back to the Earl's train; Holmes and Hunter led the Rat-Speakers to gather the dead.
Thirteen of the Earl's men, almost half their force, twenty-six Rat-Speakers, and nine Romans were counted among the dead. Their bodies were laid in rows to honour their bravery and sacrifice.
There was only so much I could do with the resources at hand. Stretchers and gurneys had been procured from somewhere, and the able-bodied men began carting the immobile casualties to the train, setting them up with stabilizers so their injuries would not worsen on the voyage.
Even as we rode the train back to the safe, cavernous halls of the Rat-Speakers, I saw to the most grievously wounded, with Lady Tür at my side.
The Earl himself was mindless in pain from a ghastly wound, permanently marring his left eye. I did the best I could, strange magics beyond my comprehension, and stitched the laceration closed. The blood, I wiped away with my shirtsleeves, until the cloth was soaked and I could do no more. He would never have use of the eye again, and the scar would no doubt be awful despite my best efforts45.
Then I moved on.
The wounds varied in severity from the gruesome to look upon yet not deadly, to the life-threatening and almost invisible, and I was nearly blind with exhaustion by the time I saw to the last one.
Lady Tür came up to me as I fitted a plaster over a man's bleeding leg, and touched me hesitantly on the shoulder.
"My father wishes to welcome you to his house.”
I gave her my thanks. She knelt beside me to hold the end of the gauze down so that the wrapping was easier. I remember thinking at the time that her delicate hands were much better suited to medicine than killing.
Lord Foris of the House of the Arch welcomed us himself, into the House Without Doors.
An associative house is what they called it, every room in which was located somewhere else. Lord Foris himself had built it, taking old and abandoned rooms and places and using his talents to weave them into the fabric of the house; each picture in the foyer led to a different place46.
Lord Foris’ youngest boy Portico, a child of barely three, watched us keenly from a picture on the wall, his thumb secure in his mouth and his chin upon his hand.
Lady Tür led us through the entrance hall, and stopped before a painting of a quiet room filled with yellow light from a merry fire. She took my hand in hers, gesturing for Holmes to take my other, and touched her fingertips to the canvas.
I made Holmes sit on the bed, so that I could see to the cut on his scalp. The skin had been ripped partially away, like a flap, and the area around it was bruised deep red and hot to the touch. I cleaned it, folding the skin back into place and bandaged it.
Holmes' waistcoat and shirt were damp and sticky with blood; my fingers trembled as I opened the buttons. His cravat I untied and folded, laying it on a chair beside the bed, leaving his sharp, pale collarbones exposed in the firelight. He slipped the braces from his shoulders as I worked the fastenings of his shirt, and winced when I pulled it from his trousers.
Moving slowly, so as to not aggravate his wounds, I slid the sleeves from his long arms, and eased it over his head, leaving his hair ruffled and untidy.
He took my head in his hands, interrupting my work, and he kissed me, deep and sweetly thorough. My fingers were sticky with blood and I could only open my mouth and breathe in his scent. His long pale hands slid into my hair to tug me closer, tilting my head back and to the side as though he wished to consume me entirely between our panting breaths. As though he had not already.
I broke the kiss and knelt on the floor between his legs, and pushed his knees apart to spread him wide.
The skin over his ribs was cut shallowly and blossoming in dark plum bruises, but they proved to be superficial, nothing broken or cracked. This too I bandaged, and he kissed me again.
“Are you not tired, Holmes,” I asked, breaking away that I might look at him fully. “This ends your latest case.”
“With such a prize as this?” He countered, laughing. “I have plenty before me to keep my attention.” He turned the tides upon me then, and wasted no time in wrestling my clothes from by aching body. The whole of my shirt was stiff with dried blood, and needed much effort to unfasten and remove.
“I would have you,” I whispered into his ear, and licked at his earlobe, which made him shudder and groan.
“You have always had me, Watson. It is I who would make you mine.”
Holmes a fascination to me in everything; with his eyes and his hands and his long, lithe body. He is unconsciously sensual, my Holmes; the way he speaks, the smooth roll of vowels and consonants across his lips, and the crisp delivery of his words, have all too often had me lost in tortuous thoughts at the most inconvenient times.
That night I learned his choked gasps were just as appealing to my ears, and his form, so thin and sinewy, fell to a perfect arch when he was overwhelmed with pleasure.
I took him with an enthusiasm I had not guessed I would be capable of, after such long battles, but the blood in my veins burned with a fire that would not be quenched. With hands and mouths and pricks and skin, we claimed the other as our own. I pressed him back to take him, kiss him, sweet and long and slick, and open him to me in ways I had never let myself dream of.
Holmes, my dear Holmes, is not of a type to lay back and accept things as they come, and he pulled me to him, wrapped himself around me, and rode me until I could neither speak nor think. He was magnificent, stretched on the simple bed; glorious, pale, and crowned like a raven king.
I made him wait to climax. A man with such control over his body is a wonder to see undone, and such a goal I put my mind to as wholeheartedly as I have ever taken on a task in my life. He did not shout, but groaned deep and deliriously in his narrow chest; so I made my work of coaxing every sound from him, rocking deep until he was frantic, the path I forged hot and slick between us.
I kissed him deeply, at the last. His long white hands, still cold despite my best efforts, grasped me about the head as he arched and shuddered and encouraged me on. Between his thighs, between his hands, and somewhere deep in his heart, I found my completion, dragging him along as he did so often to me on our adventures.
Holmes’ wounds were sickly yellow and healing well by morning; his skin had scabbed and scarred easily.
Whatever magics I have within me are not unlimited; they heal, but they do not restore. I have a long scar across the length of my forearm from Mr. Coup’s knife, and the Earl will never regain his lost eye, but the flesh is knit without infection or complication.
Holmes has not retired, thankfully, but once more took his brilliant mind to the aid of the Upworld, answering and showing up Scotland Yard whenever they need him.
We have taken up our old residence in Baker Street, but in the most peculiar manner: upon further encounters, Lady Tür had persuaded her father, Lord Foris, to allow us residence in the House Without Doors. She and I have since become fast friends, and we often speak of music and medicine and the arts.
The original arrangement had been short-term, which had extended to temporary, to semi-permanent, until Lord Foris asked whether we had any preferences as to a particular room we wished to add on to the House.
I had always had good memories of Baker Street, and was attached to the sentimentality of it. Holmes, though he muttered some nonsense about there being plenty of better flats in London that we could choose, was just as enthusiastic to see our old rooms on the wall of the entrance hall. We were fashioned keys that would allow us in and out of the House; more magic that I still do not fully understand, and we live together in London Below.
I have again taken up my practise. People come to me now for healing, and I have begun to master the magic gifted to me by this world. It is very much like my old practise, except that not all my patients are, shall we say, entirely human.
The Marquis I have seen once or twice at the Floating Market; he winks and me and smiles his toothy grin, and then flits off into his own world, as is his nature.
This adventure has been nothing like the ones I’d been on with Holmes prior to my descent, but I must say:
I would not change it for the world.