It starts with Grantaire finding himself in the musty darkness of a derelict house in one of the less touristy areas of Paris, watching a young hunter hack an unfortunate vampire’s head off.
Naturally, the creature is struggling, and as a result the first slice of the machete only slashes its throat wide open. It lets out a gurgling shriek and there is a spray of blood like a fountain. The blade descends again and again until its neck ends in a gory stump and its severed head stares blankly at the ceiling, fangs still bared.
There is a beat of stillness, and then the hunter – who is hardly more than a boy – gets to his feet. Even in the dark, Grantaire can see the blood splattered across his face and the front of his shirt, and the beads of it caught in his hair. He is breathing hard and looking down at his kill with something like triumph gleaming in his eyes.
Grantaire has a tendency to frequent this area – he feels a certain sense of belonging in the most awful of places – but it was not the sounds of a hunter-vampire death-match that led him into this particular building. His tastes are not so morbid, and it was really something of a nasty surprise to stumble into such a violent scene, especially considering the beauty of what brought him here.
It was the boy’s soul.
He had sensed-seen-felt it from streets away, a human soul burning so bright and pure, and it had drawn him in like an anglerfish’s lure. Even in the midst of the grisly business of decapitation, he had found himself simply staring at it. It shines like a star.
And not like a star as humans understand them – not one of those tiny pinpricks of light. Grantaire has seen stars up-close, blazing and flaring and almost too brilliant even for him to look upon. That is what he is reminded of now. He can’t remember the last time he saw a human who burned quite so brightly.
He thinks it’s unfortunate that this magnificent soul belongs to a hunter.
Still, he is fascinated, and that is a rare thing these days.
The boy does not see him watching – Grantaire is very good at going unnoticed when he wants to. For now, he leaves the blood-stained human to clean up the mess he’s made.
Grantaire takes up his usual place in the dimmest corner of the Musain. It’s an old haunt of his, though he hasn’t visited in a while. It was the closest establishment he could think of that caters almost exclusively to hunters looking for their next job, and he thinks he won’t have to wait long for he-of-the-blazing-soul to appear.
He’s not wrong. The boy – Grantaire supposes he really should consider him a man, but he does look so very young – comes in barely an hour later. He’s nicely cleaned up – no trace of blood in his curling hair or on his crisp white shirt. You’d never guess he was a killer, looking like that. He pauses briefly at the top of the stairs before heading directly for a table where another young man is sitting with his fingers flying over the keys of a laptop. Grantaire knows this one – Combeferre, almost a permanent fixture here, forever monitoring the length and breadth of France (and, indeed, the rest of mainland Europe) for potential cases.
He settles back and drinks deeply from the wineglass in his hand. Even from this distance, he can hear their hushed conversation perfectly. He learns that he-of-the-blazing soul is called Enjolras, and that he suspects that the vampire he just killed had friends in the city. Combeferre agrees – they both think there’s a nest, and they want to track it down.
Grantaire does his best to suppress a smile. They’re right, and they’re wrong. The ill-fated vampire had indeed been part of a small group, but they’re nomadic – arrived in Paris last month, and preparing to leave already. And they’ll clear out double-quick when they realise their comrade has been most rudely beheaded.
In a perfect world, he could simply tell Combeferre and Enjolras this and save them some time, but alas – it doesn’t do well to let on how much you know in the presence of hunters.
He waits until their discussion begins to wind down and they agree to reconvene the next day. Combeferre starts to pack away his laptop, Enjolras stands to go, and Grantaire rises and sets a fresh bottle of wine down on their table.
“We have a new face, I see,” he says with his best smile. Enjolras does not return it, and just regards him with narrow-eyed suspicion. “You haven’t introduced us, Combeferre. How neglectful of you.”
“I didn’t notice you skulking,” Combeferre says, amused. Enjolras shoots him a questioning frown, as if silently asking whether he needs to draw a weapon. “No, don’t worry, Grantaire’s a regular here. Doesn’t do much in the way of monster-killing but he does like to hear everyone else’s exploits.”
“Their tales are my ambrosia and nectar,” Grantaire agrees. He’s been a regular here much longer than Combeferre knows – since long before Combeferre was born, in fact, with periodic breaks to ensure that no one noticed his failure to, say, age.
“This is Enjolras,” Combeferre offers when the man himself does not.
“And I’m not one for telling tales,” Enjolras says shortly. Some added insult along the lines of ‘not to an apparent wine-guzzling layabout such as you’ is unspoken but heavily implied.
“Not even in exchange for a glass of wine after a hard day’s hunting?” Grantaire says, uncorking the bottle. He’s being irritating and he knows it, but he also knows that to back down now would be to lose Enjolras’s attention completely, and that can’t happen. That soul is the brightest and most beautiful thing he’s seen in too many long years, and he can’t allow it out of his sight again.
“I don’t drink,” Enjolras replies. Grantaire can’t help it – he laughs.
“Wow, you really must be new to this game,” he says, ignoring the flash of mute fury in Enjolras’s eyes at his mirth at his expense. “Give it maybe a year. The thought that you once turned down a free drink will horrify you.”
“Enjolras has been hunting for at least three years now,” Combeferre puts in quietly. He looks like he’s fighting down a smile.
“And even that is more information than I’d normally share with a complete stranger in a bar.” Enjolras makes another valiant attempt to extract himself from their company. He makes it to the top of the stairs this time before Grantaire’s next words freeze him in place.
“Let me guess. Your mother?”
Enjolras peers at him over his shoulder. He’s still frowning, suspicious and now halfway puzzled as well, but Grantaire is dismayed to realise that, even so, he’s beautiful. He doesn’t know if it’s the effect of that supernova of a soul, but in any case, it’s hypnotic, and he knows that he is lost.
“My mother?” Enjolras repeats. He clearly thinks this is some sort of insult and looks about five seconds away from punching Grantaire in the jaw.
“It’s your age that makes me assume as much,” Grantaire explains, sitting himself down at Combeferre’s table. “In my experience, it tends to be a parent with people around your age. And, for one reason or another, murdered mothers seem to be a much greater motivator than fathers.”
“What is he talking about?” Enjolras asked, his sharp gaze flicking to Combeferre.
“Your hunting origin story, of course,” Grantaire says with a grin.
“The reason you started hunting,” Combeferre kindly interprets. “A lot of people start after someone close to them gets killed by a monster of some kind.”
“There’s always someone who got killed,” Grantaire corrects. “The plotline is always the same. It’s the details that make or break the story.”
“No one got killed,” Enjolras says. Grantaire raises an eyebrow.
“Family matter, then?” he suggests. “Some great-great-great aunt got eaten by a werewolf and now the job of fighting evil has come down the generations to you?”
“No,” Enjolras says. He’s facing them properly again now, looking torn between anger and sheer incredulity.
For the second time that night, Grantaire tilts his head back and laughs. He can’t remember the last time he laughed so much.
“In that case,” he says finally, “you definitely should not be hunting.”
Enjolras positively scowls at him, and that golden soul flares deep red for a moment. He’s furious, and that’s good. That means he’ll stay, because he now has a point to make.
Sure enough, he strides back to the table, hauls out an empty chair and plants himself in it, his eyes never leaving Grantaire’s face. It’s probably meant to be intimidating, but his attention is more flattering than anything else.
And Enjolras tells his story.
Unsurprisingly, he is different; he is possibly unique. He spoke true: he has no tragic back-story to produce as justification of his decision to hunt. Grantaire has listened to countless hunters passing through the Musain, and various other holes-in-the-wall just like it, and their tales have, after some time, begun to blur into one endless whine about murdered parents or siblings or spouses or friends. Their bitter tears and vows of revenge are such a bore, and vengefulness is such an unpretty trait. Grantaire finds them almost embarrassing, if he ever briefly allows himself the gall to pass judgement on any creature other than himself. They are like mocking reminders that, despite all their modern-day technology and fancy clothes and preoccupation with slips of paper to which they had assigned value, humans are still not so far removed from the wild animals of the earth, which also have a tendency to become savage when threatened by a predator.
Though animals, of course, only act out of self-preservation. They have no concept of grudges or revenge, and they certainly never start to enjoy the act of killing. Those particular vices belong to humankind alone. Sometimes Grantaire despairs with them.
But Enjolras is a revelation; Enjolras is a strange and beautiful anomaly. He discovered the world of monsters and hunters completely by accident.
“There was a cemetery that I cut through sometimes to get home,” he says when Grantaire presses him for details of this chance encounter. After so many years of hearing the same tedious, woeful tales, this is wonderful and fascinating and he wants to know everything. “One night, I saw a man throw a match into an open grave and burn the bones there. I asked him why, and he told me.” He pauses. “He was very drunk. If he hadn’t been, I expect he would have lied.”
“Hunters do that a lot,” Grantaire agrees. He himself is not nearly as drunk as he’d like to be, though tonight it is bearable since he has this captivating human boy to distract him from the gaping vacuum echoing hollowly at his core. It is difficult for him to get drunk when in company, anyway. Even the sullen, uninterested patrons of the Musain were likely to notice that the amount of alcohol it took to make his head feel just pleasantly fuzzy was enough to kill a normal person. Or two.
“He told me I should forget it. That I shouldn’t get involved.”
“He was right about that,” Grantaire says with a half-smile and a nod. “But you didn’t listen.”
“Of course I didn’t.” Enjolras looks startled and revolted by the very idea that he could have simply continued on with his normal life – could have walked away from the crazy drunk in the graveyard, finished his studies, maybe got married and had a few kids. That was unthinkable, apparently.
And here is why: because Enjolras believes in the basic goodness of people – people everywhere, people he will never meet or know – and, by extension, he believes that they don’t deserve to be eaten, eviscerated, mangled or horribly killed in any other fashion by the creatures that lurk in the dark.
It’s obviously all very clear and logical in Enjolras’s head; soon almost everyone in the Musain is listening (with something between amusement and contempt) as he tries to explain himself. Until now, he seemed only irked by Grantaire’s insistence upon conversation; now, suddenly, Grantaire has his full and undivided attention. He gets the impression that Enjolras could speak passionately about the validity of his cause to absolutely anyone. Anything, even. A donkey. A wall.
It seems that it is as simple as this: people are good, and monsters are bad. The moment that he learned the truth about the world’s ugly, secret dangers, Enjolras ceased to truly be either. That knowledge had been given to him, had armed him and turned him into a force, and he had to choose which side he would fight against. To know the truth was to take on the responsibility of protecting others from it. To know the truth and to ignore it would be a crime – Enjolras uses the word ‘sin’, which Grantaire finds interesting. He asks if this is a religious venture. Enjolras says it is not. He is not serving God, he is serving humankind, because that is what he is meant to do.
A moral compulsion, then. Grantaire has always been dubious about human morals. They are so prone to change and, often, complete reversal. Though Enjolras’s bright eyes and steadily shining soul suggest that he will remain steadfast to this belief until it inevitably kills him.
He looks unspeakably frustrated when, even after his sermon is done, Grantaire continues to look at him with the same bemused expression. Enjolras thinks he doesn’t understand. He’s wrong; Grantaire certainly understands what he’s saying, in an objective sort of way. What he can’t do is believe in the (certainly beautiful and certainly wistful) idea that people are worth fighting for. That strangers who have done nothing for Enjolras are worth his life. Grantaire has been around a long time. He has seen horrors. He cannot blindly and wholeheartedly love the human race.
He was supposed to, of course. He chances a closer look at Enjolras, suddenly suspicious, searching for any sign that he is anything more or less than a normal human. He sees nothing except that glorious golden light – that steady beacon of belief and certainty and determination.
But perhaps, he thinks darkly, it was not chance that caused Enjolras to meet that drunken hunter in a cemetery that night. Perhaps there is still a higher force meddling in the lives of humans. Because, to Grantaire, Enjolras seems a lot like the bright-burning, fierce and proud soldier that he himself was always meant to be. A perfect product of Heaven’s factory line.
“I think that you’re mad,” Grantaire says finally, when Enjolras seems quite finished. “You hunt simply because you can. That’s ridiculous.”
“No, it’s the whole point,” Enjolras insists. His cheeks are flushed red. Grantaire can tell he wants to stand up and shout at him but is doing his very best to remain composed. “If it’s within my power to save people and I choose not to, what does that make me?”
“Sensible. Self-preserving. Normal,” Grantaire says bluntly. He downs the rest of his wine, though he knows it won’t help. It isn’t nearly enough. “You were not dragged into this world, you chose it, and that’s ridiculous too because it’s the last thing anyone should choose. Hunters lead miserable lives and then they die in a pool of their own blood. The ones who fight for revenge die for nothing. And you,” he pauses, shakes his head, “you will die for less than nothing.”
Enjolras gets to his feet again. He’s had enough. His soul is a red-black maelstrom of anger and disgust and disappointment.
“And you?” he says bitingly. “When you finally die, sick and old in your bed, what will you be dying for?”
And to that, Grantaire has no reply. Enjolras nods once, decisively, and then he’s marching down the stairs before anyone can stop him.
Grantaire smiles ruefully to himself. The scenario Enjolras described will, of course, never come to fruition. Age is no threat to Grantaire, and there is no sickness on this Earth that could harm him. If he carries on the way he has all this time, he will live forever.
And so, really, the question is: what is he living for?
And the obvious answer is: nothing, at the moment. But he does have a plan to change that.
He follows Enjolras out of the Musain.
He finds him easily, despite the speed he’s stomping along at. Finding any ordinary person in Paris would be like looking for a specific piece of hay in a haystack. Finding Enjolras is like looking for the part of the haystack that’s on fire.
“I can help you,” Grantaire calls down the street to him. He sees Enjolras jump and then turn to face him with a glare, all the more angry for being startled.
“What could you help me with?” he snaps.
“With your quest to cleanse the world of all evil, of course,” Grantaire replies, trying to keep his smile from looking too sardonic. “With your grand cause.”
“The cause that you think is stupid and pointless and not my responsibility at all?” Enjolras says.
“That one, yes.”
“Leave me alone,” Enjolras says irritably, resuming his stride.
“I have a weapon that would be immensely useful to you,” Grantaire goes on, following him step for step. “A weapon that can kill anything.”
“There’s no such thing.”
“But there is.” Grantaire’s blade appears in his hand, and Enjolras will surely wonder where he was hiding it all this time, but at least he didn’t see him produce it from nowhere. Enjolras turns quickly, his well-honed hunter’s danger-senses obviously perceiving that a weapon was drawn. His eyes find the blade, glinting in the orange glow of the streetlights.
“What is it?” he asks, looking curious despite himself.
“I’ve picked up many interesting things on my travels,” Grantaire says with a small shrug. “I don’t know where it comes from, or who made it. But I do know that it works.”
Ah, the lies. How he hates all the lying. But there is truth there, too – it will kill anything, and that is the part that Enjolras has to believe.
It seems that it would wound Enjolras’s pride to give in and walk back to him, so Grantaire goes to him instead. He offers him the blade and he takes it gingerly. Grantaire sees the small, blue-white starbursts of surprise in his soul at the feel of it in his hand – its weight and balance and the way that its surface feels warm and oddly charged.
“What is it made from?” he asks. “Silver?”
“No. No one knows exactly what it’s made from.” Grantaire knows, of course, but no human language has the words to describe the raw material that makes a blade like his.
“Then how does it work?”
“Easy. You stab things with it.”
Enjolras shoots him a withering glance.
“I mean,” he says, “how does it work?”
“Does it matter? What’s important is that it does work,” Grantaire says.
“I only have your word for that.”
“You expect that to be enough?”
“Hardly,” Grantaire says dryly.
“Take it,” Grantaire says simply, taking a step back. “Give it a try. See if you can find anything it won’t kill. Give it, say, a month. Then we’ll have a talk.”
“About you keeping it.”
Enjolras turns the three-sided, tapering blade over in his hands, looking sorely tempted despite his spoken misgivings. He can feel it, Grantaire thinks. Consciously or otherwise, he can feel how powerful that sword is.
“Why would you give me this?” he asks finally. Grantaire chuckles.
“Because I can,” he says, because he’s quickly discovering that teasing Enjolras is fun, and he can’t resist.
When Enjolras next looks up, he’s gone.
His name, of course, is not really Grantaire.
Grantaire isn’t even the name of the human man who once owned this body. That man had been good and brave and his soul had happily gone to Heaven when given the chance. He would not sully that good man’s name by using it as his alias while he hides down here like a rat in a sewer.
‘Grantaire’ is an invention; it is almost a joke. Because he has not forgotten his true name; the name that the entire Host sang glory to on the day of his creation. A name of great power that means ‘God is my comforter’; ‘God is my mercy’.
He isn’t sure whether he feels he has become unworthy of that name, or if he simply wants nothing to do with it any more.
In any case, it will always be a part of him, and so he thought he might as well keep the first letter.
And so he is just ‘R’.
And so he is Grantaire.
A month to the day later, Enjolras returns to the Musain, and doesn’t look entirely surprised to see Grantaire waiting for him in his habitual corner. He bypasses Combeferre’s table and heads straight for Grantaire’s, and Grantaire has to try not to smile.
“Happy hunting?” he enquires as Enjolras reaches him. He doesn’t sit down, but presses both his hands flat on the table and leans over it, his eyes (blue, Grantaire notes distantly) boring into Grantaire’s.
“What is this weapon?” he hisses. “It kills vampires without decapitation, it banishes ghosts better than iron, it kills werewolves even though it isn’t silver.”
“Goodness, you have been busy,” Grantaire says with raised eyebrows. “I did tell you. You’ll find it kills demons, too.”
“Demons,” Enjolras repeats, sounding a little faint.
“Nothing kills demons.”
“The blade does,” Grantaire says with a shrug. He has another bottle of wine and two glasses waiting on the table. He pours one for Enjolras and slides it across to him. He makes no protest this time; just sinks slowly into a chair and curls his fingers around the glass’s stem.
“Where did you get that blade?” he asks at length.
“Very far from here,” Grantaire replies. It’s not an answer, but he suspects that Enjolras has a more pressing question for him. He’s right.
“And how long have you had it?” Enjolras asks.
“A very long time.”
“And you just kept it? Never did anything with it?”
“Oh, it’s seen battle aplenty,” Grantaire says. He’s not sure if he should be proud or horribly ashamed of how much blood has been spilled by his blade, but either way he isn’t willing to lie about it.
“Combeferre said you don’t hunt.”
“You could say I’m retired, I suppose,” Grantaire says, and that much certainly is true.
“A little young to be retired, aren’t you?” Enjolras says with clear disapproval, and Grantaire has to fight down a laugh because good God, if you only knew.
“Maybe,” he agrees. “So. Do you want it?”
“The blade?” he asks.
“I- of course. Any hunter would want it.”
“I’m inclined to let you keep it,” Grantaire says after a casual sip of his wine – as if he isn’t literally giving away a part of himself. “On one condition.”
Enjolras’s eyes narrow, and Grantaire just has time to see his soul blossom bright orange with sudden panic before he finds himself with water sloshing over his face and soaking the collar of his shirt. He sees the small flask that Enjolras has produced, cobra-fast, from his pocket, and he laughs. Holy water.
“No, no. I’m not a demon. This is not that kind of deal,” he says, wiping his face with his sleeve. Enjolras doesn’t apologise for drenching him; just recaps the flask and stows it away somewhere in his coat.
“I had to be sure,” he says shortly. “You have to admit, it’s more than a little suspicious. A stranger showing up and offering me something so powerful.”
“You don’t know what I’m asking for in return yet,” Grantaire reminds him with a grin. “Maybe you won’t consider it such a bargain once I say.”
“What is your condition, then?” Enjolras asks.
“Let me come with you,” Grantaire says simply. Enjolras just blinks at him again.
“What?” he says.
“You travel around, don’t you?” Grantaire prompts. “If you only hunted in Paris, I’d have seen you in here before now.”
“Yes. Combeferre finds most of the cases and tells me where to go next.”
“So let me come with you,” Grantaire says again. “It’s not smart to go around fighting monsters on your own.”
“Almost all hunters work alone,” Enjolras says, confused.
“Doesn’t make it any smarter.”
“Why do you want to come with me?”
“I’m bored. And it seems like it could be...an adventure.” Grantaire is still smiling, and he can tell that Enjolras thinks he is simultaneously avoiding the question and making fun of him, and he’s not wrong.
“You think what I do is stupid,” Enjolras points out.
“Not stupid, ridiculous,” Grantaire corrects. “In a sort of...‘no human being should be that selfless and idealistic and self-sacrificing’ way. You’re crazy, but it’s sort of amazing.”
Enjolras looks slightly stunned by that.
“What do you care what I think, anyway?” Grantaire goes on. “You get the sword, and you get the pleasure of my company as a bonus. Win-win.”
Enjolras looks horribly torn, but Grantaire knows he’ll agree. He wants the blade, needs it – he’s probably already started imagining all the good he can do with it, all those precious human lives he can save with such a weapon.
“You’re not allowed to slow me down,” Enjolras says finally, with an air of defeat.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Grantaire replies.
“And don’t think I won’t be watching you,” Enjolras says coldly. “I don’t trust you. And if this is some bizarre trick or trap, believe me: I’ll end you.”
“Understood,” Grantaire says, doing his very best to disguise his glee. Enjolras nods curtly and leaves to talk to Combeferre – probably to plan his (their) next move.
Grantaire settles back, drinks some more wine. He’d been planning to open a bottle of something stronger, but now maybe he won’t need to. Not tonight, at least.
He knows what he is; he knows this is part of his programming. He was built to worship, to follow and obey. And those things still come easily to him, even if he is just a broken wreck of what he used to be, and even if nothing he once believed in holds true anymore. Enjolras has belief enough for them both. Grantaire has drifted in the dark too long, watching humanity putrefy around him and drinking his human vessel into a perpetual numb stupor. Always hoping, deep down, for some reason to continue existing, some purpose he could give himself over to.
He thinks he’s found it now.
Enjolras, he-of-the-blazing-soul, thinks that he can save this slowly rotting world. He is elbow-deep in the blood of monsters because he loves, because he believes with such intensity that it turned his soul into a star.
And Grantaire will follow him to the ends of the earth.
He has no faith left in God, and so he will believe in Enjolras instead. And he will follow him and protect him until Enjolras, ever the proficient hunter, realises what he really is, and kills him with his own blade.