1703 AD, Lyons
Thomas de Meschains was a man on the edge.
On the edge of a breakthrough, that was. He'd spent years poring over every detail of the Clavis Salomonis and the Clavicula Salomonis and the De praestigiis daemonum; he'd studied the Pseudomonarchia daemonum until he could have reeled off a list of every demonic spirit named therein, and had in fact developed a pronounced tendency to mutter infernal titles and powers in his sleep; and he was running out of space for his collection of ritual rings. He fasted so often that standing up made his head spin; and if there was a less polluted man in France, he'd probably washed himself out to sea in a stream of soapy bubbles. There wasn't a thing Thomas didn't know about demonic seals. He'd drawn so many chalk circles that a groove was developing on his workroom floor and only one thing was still missing...
... a demon.
Any demon. It really didn't matter which.
He'd started small, of course. Furcas and Bifrons had proven frustratingly indifferent to his summons and Thomas hadn't had any luck with any of the other infernal knights either. Once he'd exhausted the list of prelates and presidents, he'd taken a chance on the more powerful spirits. He hadn't got anywhere, but at least it hadn't been much of a surprise this time. In fact, when frustration finally drove him to tug at Baël's metaphysical bellpull, the continued emptiness of the summoning circle came as a bit of a relief. Thomas wasn't sure he wanted to deal with the power of the east and the principal king of hell just yet.
Anyway, Thomas was pretty sure he knew what he'd been doing wrong now. And it had been complete chance that he'd run across that nice young man with the odd eyes selling off his grandfather's grimoires in Marseilles!
Not that the young man had known what he'd got, of course. A couple of convivial drinks in an inn's common room had resulted in an invitation to take a look at the crumbling and unintelligible tomes inherited from a deceased progenitor. Thomas hadn't been expecting anything more interesting than a few battered Roman classics, so he'd had trouble keeping the surprise from his face on recognising a decidedly antiquated version of the Ars Goetia. And then he'd seen it.
The fountainhead. The wellspring of knowledge. Johann Wierus had known of it, and read it, and copied from it – but incompletely. How often Thomas had cursed Wierus's unscholarly scruples! the omissions made 'lest anyone who is mildly curious may dare to rashly imitate this proof of folly'! Any would-be conjuror was obliged to fill the gaps as best he could, in Thomas's case with a marked lack of success.
And here it was. The Liber officiorum spirituum.
He couldn't even begin to guess at how old it was. It had been written on parchment. The script was scrawny and unfamiliar and nothing like the thick black lettering that filled Thomas's own grimoires. Of course he'd told the young man it was a curio of slight interest to a serious collector only; and then he'd paid a fraction of the book's actual value and spent the next few months deciphering the horrible scratchings of some long-dead scribe.
He'd tried the summoning circle again. At last, Thomas was sure, he'd almost broken through. A whiff of brimstone had lingered in his workroom for days. He'd gone back to the Liber officiorum and reread everything and made several dozen corrections and had another go. Brimstone and red light had resulted; but still no infernal spirits. And now he was as sure as he could be that he'd got everything right and it was time to make a third attempt.
This time, Thomas was going to be ambitious. He'd selected his demon and waited for a nice clear morning, just like all the books said. The chalk circle glowed white against the floorboards. His embroidered robes had been cleaned specially and he'd hunted up his finest ritual ring for the occasion. The mirror whispered reassuring things about his appearance. It wouldn't do to meet a duke of hell and not be smart.
By now, the words tripped off his tongue. He gripped the edge of his lectern and peered intently into the circle...
1989 AD, A Certain London Bookshop
"... and Hastur jumped out right behind him," finished Crowley. "Serves the idiot right. I'd say it taught him a lesson, except it was a pretty terminal one. Hastur'd been waiting for him to get the words right for so long that he wasn't in the mood to play along any more."
He reached for the bottle. "Hey," he added, discovering that Aziraphale had polished off the last remaining dribble, "got any more of this?"
Aziraphale produced more wine. "Poor fellow."
"Poor fellow nothing!" said Crowley. "Anyone stupid enough to summon a demon outside the circle deserves a sticky end. And," he went on reflectively, "it was pretty sticky, as I remember. Must've been a hell of a job cleaning up afterwards. Funny thing is, there was rather a rash of stupid conjurors in that area after that. I think the next couple that got hold of that book did exactly the same thing, which is odd, because there wasn't anything wrong with the book, I wrote it myself..."
They drank in contemplative silence for a moment or two. Then Aziraphale set his glass down and said, "When did you write it?"
"Sometime in the tenth century, I think. Why?"
"Ah," said Aziraphale brightly, "then I think I can explain your conjuror's little problem. Per. And probably also autem. Yes, most definitely autem, given the nature of the mishap."
Crowley stared at him. "What?"
"Unless I am much mistaken," said Aziraphale, "you were writing in Visigothic script. You spent most of the tenth century in Spain, didn't you, dear boy? Visigothic does have some odd little quirks. The usual abbreviation for pro means per, for example. But I think your conjuror must have been most confused by that nice young Tiro's horned H symbol for autem, which does look so distressingly like an abbreviated hic if you don't know any better. It's quite a common mistake."
"Is it?" said Crowley, blankly. "So?"
Aziraphale, given the opportunity to discourse on a favourite topic, was developing a smug sort of glow. "So when your conjuror said hic, which is to say 'here', instead of autem, which is to say 'however', he must have inadvertently summoned Hastur outside the circle. You see –"
Crowley recognised the signs and reached blindly for the wine. Some things were not meant to be discussed sober.
Chapter 2: A Good Day's Work
Crowley's having a good day.
~ a good day's work ~
Crowley was having a good day.
A very good day, in fact. It was getting embarrassing.
The effort he’d put into buying up grit and road-salt in the summer had gone to waste, because after last winter no one expected their local councils to handle snow competently anyway. He couldn’t claim credit for Heathrow; it was generally accepted that if anything in the human sphere was genuinely ineffable, the reaction of British public transport to adverse weather was top of the list. His sterling efforts on behalf of London’s more aggressive charity muggers had resulted in a truly remarkable number of standing orders being set up for causes of at least minimal moral value, together with an annoying wave of seasonal goodwill as people went about their Christmas shopping with a pleasant sense of having Done Their Bit. In desperation, he’d stood in the middle of a crowded bridge at rush hour and butchered a broken tune on a rusty accordion, until people had given him money. One old lady had hobbled up with a cup of coffee and a hellishly  expensive muffin from the nearest Starbucks, and pressed both items on him with an insufferably sweet smile. He’d almost turned into something maggoty on the spot.
Worst of all, he knew for a fact that Aziraphale was in Exeter for a talk on Tironian shorthand. No one was thwarting his wiles or delivering anyone from temptation. People were being good out of their own free will.
He tossed the accordion into the Thames, where it sank in a swirl of sad bubbles, and slunk off. At least he could still jostle passersby in the street. Anyone humming carols deserved it.
Especially the ones who then insisted on wishing him merry Christmas.
 He’d drawn up the price-list himself.
Chapter 3: The Poet Said
War is, well, war. No guts, no glory?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
This isn’t how it was meant to be.
There isn’t any point in fitting faces to the words. They all thought it. Some of them said it too, cried out despairingly in that final moment. The blood, the mud, the rage and thunder. Glory is a golden word, but it doesn’t shine much when you’re burying your dead in mass graves, or what you can find of them. That old Lie, the poet said, and looked her in the eye when he said it. Pro patria mori...
She was sitting in his trench with her boots on his table, the lamp overhead setting light to her hair and her eyes. He’d thought she was young, but in this light her youth burnt off, was washed away with every splash of blood. He’d seen it dripping from her jacket. She sat in his chair and grinned at him with her fine old face in which all the pitiless years grinned too. He saw her all the time now. Used to be, he’d see her in the distance sometimes or laughing in the windows of the recruitment offices. Then he’d enlisted and now he was here, and so was she, which he’d thought was what he wanted. He’d thought he loved her. He’d thought she’d love him back.
He’d thought a lot of things. This isn’t how it was meant to be...
The poet is Wilfred Owen; the poem is 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.
Chapter 4: World History/Lunch: 58 BC
Lunch and world history collide. This one's all about the lunch, though. Given the diners, what else could it be?
There was a cookshop in the Subura where they made the best pies in Rome. The wine was pretty rough, but then, so was the clientele, other than the odd hapless scion of a worn-out patrician clan or some would-be popular politician looking to shake a horny hoof or two. The neighbourhood got hotter after dark when the wild-oats boys arrived, but right now it was midday and most people were looking for lunch.
“You know how it is, dear boy,” one of the patrons was saying, a rather gaunt blond gentleman with a heavy brow and pronounced eye-sockets. “The rats… the over-crowding… the sewers… the numerous persons of negotiable virtue… did I say rats?”
“Yeah,” said his companion and scratched at his short black beard. “You got the rats.”
The hollowness of the blond gentleman’s cheeks gave his smile an oddly mournful quality. “Such misunderstood creatures,” he remarked. “I must say, the pies are rather small today. I thought we agreed -“
A sudden uproar interrupted him, thanks to the unexpected (if not particularly unusual) appearance of a twitching pink nose in the pie preparation area. Under normal circumstances, this would not have been cause for any particular concern, but in this instance the cook’s boy made the unwise decision to chase after the misunderstood creature with a carving knife and thus erupted, weapon raised, into the cookshop. Hard on his heels followed the furious cook.
“You were saying?” said the dark man, raising his eyebrows, while the resultant chaos calmed down and various bits of nasty-looking kitchen or work-related implements were returned to their hiding places.
The blond gentleman had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well,” he said. “Let’s say no more about it, shall we?”
His companion grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
They began on the pies. “I’m definitely liking the area,” said the dark man, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of gristle. “‘s got potential -“
This time, the interruption came from outside in the street. Some sort of procession seemed to be going past, complete with shouted slogans and the sort of bronze cymbals the Great Mother’s priests normally used to make a racket. A woman sitting by the door got up to look. “It’s Clodius’s lot at it again,” she called back. “Here, did you hear what they were saying about Pompeius in the Forum the other day?”
Someone had. The political discussion that resulted was heated, to say the least. In the middle of a loud argument about whether Clodius was the best thing that had ever happened since the Gracchi themselves, was he not, and anyone who said otherwise would receive the beating of a lifetime, the door banged open. A Clodian henchman, one Sextus Clodius, swung on the doorframe. “Hey, you lot, get out of here!” He was flushed from the marching and the shouting; his eyes seemed almost yellow, but that might have been just the dazzle from the midday sun. “Clodius needs you! He’s shut the shops! There’s going to be a vote!”
Amid a certain amount of grumbling, the cookshop’s patrons filed out, blinking, onto the crowded street. Off bounced Sextus, looking for more supporters to drum up, while back in the deserted cookshop, the dark gentleman finished off his pie and looked around at the remnants of everyone else’s lunch in satisfaction.
“It’ll do,” he said. “It’ll do just fine until Red gets back.”
Chapter 5: Quartet
A drabble for each Horseperson, prompted in order by Malkhos, Wormwood_7, Curiouswombat and Gogollescent.
Why humans ever write on bronze, she doesn’t know. They used to hammer it into weapons and armour, back in the day. Sure, bronze is out of fashion now, but it still seems a waste not to give it sharp edges.
He died for freedom and honour. Four hundred and fifty tonnes to send a pretty coin to every grieving family. It makes her think of poets writing bitter things, but not on bronze.
The things poets say. They think their words will last forever. Her latest monument comprises three words only. Let them write on this:
The Great War.
I thought the past would last me
but the darkness got there too...
Here’s the thing.
It’s not that Famine misses Pestilence. Famine spreads hunger, he doesn’t dabble himself. What do they say, these humans, a dealer shouldn’t sample his own wares? There’s as many kinds of hunger as sentient beings and Famine knows them all. So no, it’s not hunger he’s feeling. (Anyway, the old guy’s only retired. He’s not gone.)
But the new boy’s got a head full of oil-slick rainbows. Nice enough, but how do you work with that? And working alone’s just not the same.
Time to branch out, then. (After all, he can always come back to visit.)
Seasons surprised Pollution, when he was new. Perhaps that should be ‘young’, but young’s a word that belongs to mortals, who live and age and die. Pollution wasn’t born. He isn’t alive. He just... exists. It must be strange, he thinks sometimes, to change with the changing seasons, as humans do. He said as much to Famine once. “I like summer best,” he added. “Things rot faster.”
It was summer then. Foam bubbled up round Pollution, sprawled out dreamily in a rock pool. He thought summer might last forever this time. Why not?
But winter fell anyway. It always did.
Here and Now
This is the desert. The stars stretch out from end to end, not that you can see ends here, but you can see the blurred horizons where sand meets sky and the midnight glitter mixes with the glittering dunes. There is no wind. The air hangs still and warm and very dry. A hundred thousand ghosts are passing through, each of them walking alone, together. In the middle of the desert, there is a table where Adam Young sits playing chess with Death.
Nearby lies Dog, dreaming of summer afternoons. Sometimes he chases the ghosts heading home over the sand.
Chapter 6: War and Peace
War wasn’t there the third time they closed the Gates of Janus. She hadn’t been there the first time, either; there were more interesting places to be back then. The second time, though... she’d arrived with Pyrrhus’s elephants forty-five years earlier, she’d got to know the place. Peace, huh? She’d grinned as the Gates ground shut. Titus Manlius Torquatus, that was his name. She liked that family. They really got military discipline.
The third time, she was still in Egypt. Alexandria had sentimental value, admittedly embalmed, and she was thinking of going east. Why should Rome have all the fun?