“Now I Iay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
[Trad. child’s prayer, 18th C.]
Athos pushed his glasses up into his hair and rubbed his eyes tiredly. He was sitting on the living room floor of the little terraced cottage he shared with Porthos, surrounded by books and scribbled notes and a familiar feeling of getting nowhere fast.
Almost three years had passed since he’d been inadvertently responsible for condemning the soul of one of his best friends to hell, and despite the fact that nobody blamed him for it, the knowledge still sat heavily. Since then, he’d spent endless hours in research and a lot of money on obscure grimoires of magical practice in an attempt to find a way to force the demon Malphas to relinquish his claim, but so far nothing feasible had suggested itself.
Aramis, the man in possession of said doomed soul, had spent a few months in pious contemplation and clean living then decided that that was much too boring and he might as well enjoy the time he had left to the fullest. Consequently, as soon as his lover d’Artagnan had graduated from university Aramis had spirited him off on an extended round the world trip.
Aramis wrote frequently and in detail about their travels, and Athos was never quite sure if these letters were meant to convince him that Aramis was happy and blithely unconcerned. To him they read as the over-bright and slightly manic protestations of a man desperately ignoring his fate.
He stretched his cramped limbs and leaned back against the settee, smiling slightly as he heard a creak from one of the dining chairs.
When they’d moved into the cottage it had turned out there was already an occupant – what appeared to be the ghost of a cat. It had been slightly unnerving at first, but they’d both got used to it a long time ago. Porthos largely ignored it, but Athos had to admit he’d become rather fond of her, and could usually sense where she was, despite the fact neither of them had ever actually seen her.
He’d told Porthos she was called Jennet, and when Porthos asked where he’d got the name from, Athos had absent-mindedly replied that he hadn’t made it up, it was what she wanted to be called. Porthos had said he was batty and Athos had dropped the matter, but the name had stuck.
Porthos too had now graduated with honours from the Faculty of Law and after a rather soul-crushing search had eventually found a firm willing to take him on in a position where he could train to become a barrister. Despite Athos offering to move wherever they needed to, Porthos had been determined that pursuing his career shouldn’t mean Athos having to give up his own, and to his relief had finally been offered pupillage at one of the city’s smaller and less prestigious firms.
Athos yawned, and glanced at the clock. It was late, and Porthos should have been home ages ago. He’d been putting in long hours, both to show he was keen and simply to keep on top of the work he had to do, but this was unusual even for him.
Athos had taken advantage of the unexpected evening alone to make inroads into the latest book of medieval sorcery he’d acquired, but it was proving to be as useless as all the others. Summoning a demon seemed to be a dangerously simple matter once you knew what you were doing. Making it do what you wanted once you had it was another question entirely, particularly as they knew Malphas was in the habit of demanding a soul as payment for being summoned at all. They didn’t want to end up even worse off than they were now.
The sound of a key in the lock made him look up, and Porthos walked in looking tired and remarkably grumpy.
“You’re late,” Athos said, meaning to be sympathetic, but in his spiky mood Porthos took it as a criticism and glared at him.
“Sorry I’m sure. Didn’t realise I was on the clock here as well.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Athos sighed. “Is everything alright?”
Porthos hung up his coat with a wordless grunt of exasperation, shrugging off the question irritably. The route to the settee was blocked by Athos’ sea of papers so he pulled out the nearest dining chair and started to lower himself onto it.
“Don’t sit there!” Athos yelped.
Porthos hastily straightened up again and looked in bewilderment from the empty cushion to Athos.
“Never mind,” Athos sighed. “She’s gone.”
Porthos glowered at him. “When did my home become all black magic and bloody ghosts?” he demanded. “Is it too much to ask that we live in the real world for a while?”
“Porthos what’s the matter?” Athos stared at him in consternation, realising for the first time that underneath the uncharacteristic anger, Porthos was quite drunk.
“Nothing,” Porthos snapped. “Why would there be anything wrong? World works perfectly for everyone else, doesn’t it? All running smoothly on its appointed lines. Go back to your fucking spellbooks, I’m going to bed.” He stamped up the wooden stairs and disappeared.
For a while Athos could hear the floorboards creaking as he moved about, then all went quiet. He felt something nudge his foot and reached out without looking, feeling the fleeting brush of warm fur against his fingers. “What’s eating him?” Athos sighed. He glanced down, but there was nothing to see. There never was.
Steeling himself for further bad temper, after a few minutes Athos followed Porthos upstairs where he was more shocked than he was prepared to admit to find that Porthos had put himself to bed in the back room.
Since moving in together they’d maintained two bedrooms for appearances’ sake, but had only ever used the second bed on the rare occasion that one of them had been ill. Even in the middle of their fiercest rows, they’d never slept apart.
Athos crept in quietly. Porthos was under the covers and the light was off but he was clearly still awake.
Slipping off his shoes, Athos lifted the covers and climbed in behind him. Porthos didn’t acknowledge his presence, but neither did he tell him to fuck off, which Athos had been half-afraid of.
“I’m sorry,” Athos murmured.
“What for?” Porthos asked grudgingly.
“Whatever it is I’ve done to upset you.”
Porthos snorted derisively at this, and Athos sighed.
“Have I been neglecting you? I’m sorry. But I can’t believe that you’d have me simply abandon Aramis to his fate.”
Porthos snorted again, hunching his shoulders defensively against Athos’ attempts to embrace him. “Aramis,” he muttered scornfully. “Aramis and his sodding world tour, and his posh hotels, and his endless bloody sex.”
Athos winced. It was true that Aramis had an unfortunate tendency to be entirely too openly explicit about his relations with d’Artagnan, but Athos hadn’t thought that he and Porthos had been too shabby on that score themselves, even if they preferred to keep the details private.
“What’s he know about struggling, eh? Cursed or not, he’s out there living it up while some of us are trying to do an honest day’s work.”
There was a bitterness behind his words that startled Athos. Porthos had never appeared to be jealous of Aramis before, on the contrary, they were firm friends – which lead him to conclude that whatever Porthos was upset about it was something else entirely.
“Porthos? What’s really wrong?” Athos coaxed quietly. “Tell me?”
Porthos huffed and punched the pillow a few times, trying to get comfortable in the unfamiliar bed. His desire to sulk was warring with the desire to complain, and he hated the fact that both options were likely to make it look as if he was just feeling sorry for himself.
Finally he rolled over onto his back and stared blankly at the ceiling. “We were supposed to get the chance to work for real clients today,” he said. “Supervised, like, but the firm offers discounted legal advice for people willing to be represented by someone in training. Today was the day I should have had my first real client.”
“You didn’t tell me?” Athos murmured. This was a huge deal for Porthos, a major step on the road towards becoming a barrister, and he was faintly surprised that Porthos had kept quiet about it.
“Didn’t want to jinx it, did I?” Porthos said ruefully. “Just as well, as it turns out.”
Porthos was silent for a moment, then swallowed hard. “They didn’t want me, did they? Three blokes there were, all up on petty charges, all in desperate need of help. Not one of ‘em was willing to have me take on his case.”
“But whyever not?” Athos protested, although his heart sank as he guessed the probable answer.
“Wrong colour, aren’t I?” Porthos said bitterly. He finally shifted over to look at Athos. “One of them even laughed at me,” he blurted, the words spilling out before he could stop them. He was desperately humiliated and the last thing he wanted right now was condescending sympathy.
“I went to the pub,” Porthos said tiredly. “After work. Soon as I could get out. Should have been celebrating, shouldn’t I? Not trying to numb my feelings. I know I should have come home after a few, but I couldn’t face telling you what had happened so I just kept drinking until they turned us all out.”
“Oh Porthos.” Athos reached out and pulled Porthos into his arms, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, knowing how wretched Porthos must be feeling and becoming increasingly furious at the world on his behalf.
Porthos clung to him, discovering that actually, being comforted by someone who loved him didn’t make him feel smaller after all.
“It’s all been a massive waste, hasn’t it?” he said miserably. “All that work, all that money. I’ll never make it. They’ll never let me in. All this time, I’ve been fooling myself.”
“You’ll get there,” Athos soothed, sensing that Porthos was close to shedding tears of sheer frustration. “We always knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
“It shouldn’t have to be this hard,” Porthos mumbled, his face now buried in Athos’ neck.
“If I could change the world for you, I would,” Athos said, holding him close. “But if anyone can change it, it’s going to be you. I know it.”
He lay there with Porthos in his arms until his lover’s snuffly breathing gradually deepened into erratic drunken snores, then Athos slid carefully back out of bed. Without bothering to put his shoes back on he padded quietly downstairs and tidied away all the books he’d been using, then shut his research notes away in the bureau. Aramis was still a problem in need of a solution, but right now Porthos needed him more.
Preparing for bed, Athos finished in the bathroom and turned down all the lights, undressing in the dark before finally climbing back in with Porthos in the narrow second bed.
When he woke the next morning it took Athos a second to work out where he was, and why. Porthos was already awake, and to his relief looked a little more positive.
“Morning.” Athos stretched, shading his eyes from the sunlight pouring in through the small window. He sat up and looked out over the roofscape beyond the backyard with interest. “Different view,” he said conversationally, and Porthos gave him an embarrassed smile.
“I’m sorry I shouted at you last night,” Porthos said contritely. “Thanks for coming after me. I didn’t deserve it.”
Athos kissed him fondly. “You can run, but you can’t hide,” he smiled.
Aramis and d’Artagnan had reached Paris on their grand tour. Aramis had been before, and had consequently wanted to visit other places first, but it was d’Artagnan’s first time in the city and he was loving it.
They’d been up the Eiffel Tower already that morning, and as they relaxed with coffee afterwards, d’Artagnan spotted a poster advertising tours of the Paris Catacombs. Originally old mine workings under the city, they had been converted into an extensive ossuary when nearby graveyards began to overflow.
“We’ve been to the top of the world, now how about the bottom?” d’Artagnan laughed.
Aramis made a face. “Really? It sounds gruesome.”
“Says the man who hacks off legs for a living.”
“It’s a little more involved that that, dearheart,” Aramis complained, but let himself be talked into it anyway. He found it hard to refuse d’Artagnan anything, and besides, it might be fun.
An hour or so later he was regretting his decision somewhat. The tunnels were dark and creepy and the bizarre arrangements of skulls and bones struck him as unnecessarily ghoulish. Porthos would have hated it down here, he thought, remembering the man’s hearty dislike of dark confined spaces, and his panic when they’d been trapped in a tunnel once before.
D’Artagnan seemed to be enjoying it though he had to admit, taking it all in with an expression somewhere between awe and glee. For Aramis, it all reminded him a bit too sharply of his own mortality.
Blithely unaware of Aramis’ discomfort, d’Artagnan pressed on deeper into the tunnels. His eye had been caught, not just by the gothically elaborate displays but by a woman on the fringes of the group who seemed in turn to be watching him. Her hooded cloak made it difficult for him to see her face, but he got the distinct impression she was more interested in him than the contents of the tour.
Ordinarily he would have been flattered by the attention, but there was something in her manner that suggested her interest was not one of flirtation.
“Have you noticed we’re being watched?” he murmured to Aramis, inclining his head discreetly in the direction of the lady in question.
Aramis immediately looked round with a lamentable lack of discretion, and stared into the shadows, frowning. “Who by?”
“Her over there,” d’Artagnan hissed. “Long black dress, cloak with a hood.”
“I don’t see anyone?”
D’Artagnan gave in and turned round himself, finding to his surprise that she’d gone. He looked around, peering at each of the members of their group in turn but he didn’t spot her again until they were on their way out. Then he caught sight of her watching him from a side passage, and gripped Aramis arm.
Aramis turned, but again he was too slow and the lady had vanished. “Are you sure you’re not seeing things?” he asked with a laugh. “Overactive imagination, that’s your trouble.”
D’Artagnan let it drop, but as they emerged back into the sunshine he carefully watched everybody walk out and satisfied himself that she wasn’t amongst the group, who were otherwise all men.
“Excuse me Monsieur,” he asked the elderly gentleman who’d escorted them round. “Who was the lady in the tunnels? Does she work here?”
“What lady?” he asked brusquely, rolling a cigarette and wanting to be rid of this party so he could prepare for the next one.
“The lady in the black dress and hood,” d’Artagnan persisted, offering him a light. “She didn’t come up with the rest.”
The tour guide had accepted the light with a nod of thanks, but now stepped backwards in sudden recoil and to d’Artagnan’s astonishment, crossed himself.
“There was no lady, m’sieur, you are mistaken. The catacombs, they are no place for a lady. Excuse me.” Head down, he shuffled off hurriedly, leaving d’Artagnan staring after him in puzzlement.
“Well. What do you make of that?” he asked Aramis. “She was definitely there.”
“I think you’re probably hallucinating due to hunger,” Aramis told him cheerfully. “What do you say we find somewhere for lunch?”
Twenty minutes later they were walking down the side of a bustling thoroughfare looking for a suitable café and dodging the various delivery vans and bicycles that seemed to think nothing of running up over the pavement in utter disregard of the throng of pedestrians.
“That one looks nice?” d’Artagnan suggested, pointing across the street. “We could sit outside?”
“Yes, alright – ugh!” Aramis swiped a hand in front of his face as if to ward off an attack.
“Bloody wasp or something.” Aramis ducked sharply sideways as he heard a loud buzzing right next to his ear, ruffling his hair in revulsion in case it had got caught.
“A wasp? At this time of year?” d’Artagnan asked sceptically, but Aramis wasn’t listening, being too busy trying to drive off his tormentor.
“Here, careful!” d’Artagnan warned, seeing Aramis was off balance and teetering dangerously close to the kerb. The pavement was slightly raised above the cobbles here to allow for a roadside drain, and Aramis’ flapping had taken him steadily towards the edge.
Aramis looked round warily, listening out for any tell-tale buzzing and wondering if he’d finally driven it off. “Bloody thing,” he muttered, feeling embarrassed at the spectacle he’d just made of himself. “No business to be out in this weather.”
As he made to take a step forwards he saw it coming, a black shape in the corner of his vision making straight for him. It neatly zig-zagged around his outstretched hand and to his mounting horror, landed on his face.
Trying to escape and not thinking at all, Aramis took a step backwards into empty air.
The short drop to the road wasn’t so far that he fell over, but he landed off-balance with an awkward jarring thump. Everything might yet have been alright, if only he hadn’t fallen directly into the path of a delivery lorry.
Aramis just had time to see a huge metal grille speeding towards his face, to hear the frantic squealing of brakes and d’Artagnan’s frightened yell from somewhere above, and then everything went black.
Athos and Porthos had spent a quietly contented Saturday together, venturing out for lunch and walking slowly back along the river, simply enjoying each other’s company and staying off the thorny topics of work and magic. Athos was glad to note that Porthos seemed a little happier than he’d done the night before, particularly once his hangover wore off, and conceded that they should probably spend more days like this just being together and doing nothing in particular.
They were settled back indoors and preparing for a comfortable evening by the fire with a bottle of wine and the possibility of an early night, when an unexpected knock on the door heralded the arrival of a telegram.
“It’s for you.” Porthos handed it to Athos, looking inquisitive. “Who’s sending you telegrams at home?”
“I have no idea.” Athos opened it, and stared.
Athos – please telephone me as soon as you can in Paris on Salpêtrière 65 – d’Artagnan.
Athos read it out and looked at Porthos in mild alarm. “Whatever can be the matter?”
“Something too urgent to put in a letter,” Porthos said, and Athos nodded.
“Not only that, but something too urgent to wait until Monday, when he could have put his own call through to me at the university.” Athos looked at the clock. “There should still be someone in the office, I’d better go now.”
“I’ll come with you,” Porthos said, equally concerned about what the terse message might herald.
They hurried through the darkening streets together, reaching the warm sanctuary of the college gatehouse with considerable relief, as the weather was sharp and promised a hard frost.
“Professor.” The woman in the office was just putting on her coat as they walked in, and looked up in surprise.
“Hallo Ruth, sorry, I need to put a trunk call through to Paris, it’s quite urgent, do you mind?”
“I was about to lock up.” She sighed. “Go on then, I’ll go and have a cuppa with Mr Gregory in the lodge. Bang on the window when you’re done.”
“You’re an angel.” Athos hastily closed the door behind her and went to the telephone, explaining to the operator what he needed. He listened for a while then covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Porthos, “It’s a hospital.”
Porthos looked more alarmed than ever, and they exchanged muted speculation until the operator came back on the line to say that Athos’ call could be put through.
“Hallo, yes, my name is Athos, could I speak to Monsieur d’Artagnan please?” he asked in French, unsure if d’Artagnan was a patient or a visitor or even if the receptionist who’d taken his call would know who he was talking about. It appeared that she’d been primed to expect him though, and simply asked him to hold the line.
After a couple of minutes during which Athos anxiously watched the clock and wondered how he was going to explain away the expense of this call to the university, there was a crackle on the line and then d’Artagnan’s tense voice in his ear.
“Yes, yes it’s me, what’s wrong, what’s happened?”
“Oh thank God.” D’Artagnan sounded flustered and out of breath, and Athos supposed he’d just run from wherever he’d been to the telephone. He bit back his impatience and let d’Artagnan explain in his own time.
“It’s Aramis,” d’Artagnan told him, finally calming down a little at the sound of Athos’ voice. Athos had always been someone he’d been able to turn to, Athos would know what to do. “He’s been in an accident.”
“An accident? What happened? Is he alright?” Athos asked in alarm, mouthing ‘Aramis’ for Porthos’ benefit. If d’Artagnan was in a hospital it sounded serious, but by inference Aramis was presumably at least still alive.
“He was hit by a lorry,” d’Artagnan told him shakily. “Earlier today. He – they can’t wake him up.”
“It was that bad?” Athos listened to d’Artagnan gulping for breath on the other end of the line, and forced himself not to press too quickly for more information. “Alright, calm down. First, tell me, are you hurt? Were you both involved?”
“No, just Aramis.” D’Artagnan mastered himself and took a deep breath. “The doctors are saying that his injuries aren’t that severe, he didn’t even break anything. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t have come round by now, they can’t explain it. They think – maybe there was undetected head trauma,” he said anxiously. “They’re doing more tests.”
“But you think there might be another reason?” Athos guessed.
“Is it possible?”
“You think that Malphas is somehow behind it? How can I say? You’re the one there, do you think it’s likely?”
D’Artagnan hesitated. “Before he fell – he kept saying there was a bee or a wasp or something attacking him. But I couldn’t see anything. He was trying to wave it away when he fell off the pavement. He shouldn’t have been in the road in the first place. But now I think back, the truck wasn’t going that fast – I was horrified at the time, but when the tests showed there was nothing wrong I thought he’d just been knocked out. But now – I don’t know what to think. Yes, alright, yes, I’m scared this isn’t natural. The doctors all seem baffled.”
“What do you want us to do?” Athos asked. “Should we come to you?”
“I don’t think you could do anything if you did,” d’Artagnan admitted, as much as he desperately wanted company right now. “Just – keep trying to find a way to help him?” he begged. “Before – before it’s too late. Even if Malphas isn’t behind it, if Aramis dies – you know?”
“I know,” said Athos heavily. “Believe me, I know. And I’ll do all I can, I promise. Let me know if anything changes.”
Athos rang off and turned to Porthos with a grim expression. Before he could elaborate, Ruth stuck her head back in the door and wanted to know if they’d finished, so they thanked her profusely and hastily took their leave.
It was dark outside now and Porthos slid his hand into Athos’ as they walked, while Athos recounted the gist of the conversation. He kept his tone neutral but when they reached home Porthos could see that he’d gone deathly pale, and guessed it wasn’t just from the cold.
“Are you alright?” he asked quietly, stopping Athos in his tracks. He looked up, slightly wild-eyed.
“You,” Porthos confirmed, coming over to slip his arms around Athos’ waist. “I know how you want to blame yourself for what happened.”
“I thought we’d have more time,” Athos said distractedly, pulling at his hair. “It was my fault,” he added under his breath, and Porthos resisted the urge to shake him.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he insisted. “You did nothing, said nothing, agreed to nothing. We’ve still only got that bastard’s word for it that it’s at all binding in the first place.”
“Everything I’ve read suggests it is,” Athos said tiredly. “Ignorance of a demon’s price is no defence.”
“You were saving d’Artagnan - ”
“And in doing so I damned Aramis,” Athos finished for him. “And my only single spark of relief in the whole affair is that I wasn’t thinking of you at the crucial moment.”
Porthos groaned and pulled Athos into his arms. He’d known the guilt was eating away at Athos over this, but he hadn’t appreciated quite how much. “We’ll fix it,” he promised quietly. “We’ve beaten this thing before, twice. We can do it again. Somehow.”
“I might have a way,” Athos admitted, pulling back slightly to look at him. Porthos gave him narrowed eyes, guessing that if he hadn’t mentioned it before it was probably going to be something unpalatable.
“I’ve been told there’s a group of magical practitioners operating in the city. That they are performing the kind of ceremonial and structured rituals that are required for this kind of work. And – they are looking to recruit a new member to their circle.”
“You’re talking about using them to raise a demon.”
“Yes. I didn’t want to bring others into it, but we’re out of time, and they would offer the level of control that we’d need.”
“Assuming you manage it, what are you going to do then?” Porthos demanded. “Have you even thought that far? How’s it going to go any different from last time?” He gripped Athos by the shoulders and glared at him. “You’re not going to do something bloody stupid like offer your own soul in exchange are you?” he asked suspiciously. Athos looked away and Porthos growled in frustration. “Don’t you bloody dare! Anyway, you already tried that and he wasn’t interested.”
“Then I’ll offer something else,” Athos said tiredly.
“Like what? What kind’ve thing is a demon going to ask for in place of a soul?” Porthos asked incredulously. “It’s not going to be a nice thing, is it? It’s going to be like – murdering children or something. Or worse. Would you really do that to save Aramis? ‘Cause he wouldn’t want you to.”
Despite the atmosphere, Athos almost smiled. “Worse than murdering children?”
“Yeah.” Porthos sounded shaken. “Like – personally worse. He could ask you to – I don’t know – break my heart or something.” He stared at Athos, feeling tears prickling at the corner of his eyes. “Would you do that for Aramis? Would you destroy both of us to save him?”
Athos looked shocked. “No,” he said finally, under his breath. “No. I couldn’t do that. Not even knowing the price.”
Porthos let out the breath he’d been holding in a rush and pulled Athos into his arms. They clung to each other, both blinking away tears.
“You’d make a good demon,” Athos murmured, half-laughing and half-sniffing. “Coming up with awful things like that.”
Porthos kissed him. “No I wouldn’t. I’d be too soft to ever make anyone unhappy. I’d be kicked out of Hell for being the world’s soppiest fiend.”
“No, they’d all secretly like you,” Athos smiled. “You’d be going round making sure their fires were all stoked and polishing their pitchforks.” Porthos gave a cackle of laughter at this, and Athos elbowed him indignantly. “I did not mean that in a dirty - ”
The rest of his sentence was lost because Porthos was kissing him.