A/N: Hello everyone! Here is the sixth and final chapter of this little fic. I want to take a minute to thank everyone here for their support. The feedback I've gotten has been incredibly encouraging, and everyone is so positive towards my first try at this type of writing. It means a lot, you guys. It really does. This story is dedicated to every person who ever took a chance on it and decided to read something new.
I expect that a lot of you will be feeling pretty stunned after you read the last few lines. I know I was.
I swear, I didn't intentionally write this story with this ending in mind. I didn't have anything like this planned at all until this morning when this idea popped into my head, already mostly formed and waiting to be written. I'm not sure where this stuff comes from, but I just don't want anybody to think I'm crazy (I'm not I swear).
If anybody likes it, or is disgusted/shocked by it, or hates it totally, go ahead and leave a review if you're inclined to. All opinions are valid, and I know the ending of this story might not be satisfying for some. So let me know!
All mistakes are still mine, this wonderful show is not.
Thank you all.
The sun was just beginning to rise over the hills when the men staggered out of the cave entrance.
Orange light illuminated the land and mountains. Even at this low level, the sun seemed blinding and caused tears of protest to stream down their faces.
Porthos walked while supporting Athos, who looked worse than ever in the light of day.
Aramis stepped slowly along, reveling in the warmth of the sunlight on his face and the wet smell of the fresh air.
In front of the medic, d'Artagnan trudged with Emil still in his arms. Although his knees trembled and he was starting to feel disoriented, he refused to give the boy to Aramis.
They walked through the soft grass of the meadow. The birds were already awake and chirping, bees hummed sleepily around the flowers at their feet.
As they reached the edge of the meadow, something made Athos turn to look back at the cave entrance. The others followed suit.
The crevasse was dark and bathed in shadow as always. And yet even Aramis could tell that something felt different about it. The dark area was less menacing, somehow.
Slowly, they turned back towards the village.
The farmer was carrying a bundle of wood back to his house when they emerged. He dropped his load and gave a shout of fright, backing away from the spectral figures.
His terror could be forgiven; the musketeers looked like ghouls escaped from the underworld. The grime and dirt stood out starkly on their skin in the morning light. Blood was caked on their hands, faces, and clothing along with greyish dust from the rubble. All looked exhausted and something about them seemed surreal in the peaceful surroundings.
A group of men, summoned by their neighbor's cry, ran out to see the commotion then also froze in shock. The women joined them quietly, and even the children were solemn as they took in the sight.
Together, the soldiers limped back through the main path of the village, one man lost but one child found.
The people lined the sides of the road and watched silently as they approached the hovel where the old woman lived.
Aramis went to knock on the door but was stopped by one of the villagers.
"She isn't in there," he said flatly. "Madame de Morel is in her time; Aggie went to help as a midwife early this morning. We don't know when she'll be back, either."
"We found her grandson," Athos said weakly, gesturing towards d'Artagnan.
The man looked startled as if seeing the Gascon for the first time and a genuine flicker of emotion passed across his face.
"We had prayed for so long that he wouldn't end up like the others," the man said in a trembling voice.
Porthos was astonished to see the thin man pull a handkerchief from his pocket and scrub at his eyes with it.
"Go and run, go tell Aggie!" he ordered one of the children, who ran off as fast as he could shouting at the top of his lungs.
Most of the women were crying in relief, and a few men looked as though they were about to join.
After a few minutes, the child came back holding hands with the old woman who hurried as fast as she could.
"Oh, Emil," she whispered, eyes filling with tears as she saw the unconscious child in the Gascon's arms. "Is he...?"
"He's alive," Aramis reassured her immediately.
D'Artagnan stepped forward holding his precious burden, and the old woman ran a gentle hand down the boy's brow. He stirred and opened his eyes.
Several cries of joy were heard from the crowd surrounding them. The men hastily produced a blanket from somewhere and laid it down on a nearby wood pallet.
The Gascon slowly got to his knees to lay the child down, when the boy clung tight and whispered something in his ear.
D'Artagnan's eyes widened and he looked at the child' face in shock. The boy stared solemnly back at him; wide brown eyes reflecting lost innocence of childhood.
The Gascon stood up suddenly, but the world suddenly felt as though it were rolling under his feet. The sky melted away above his head, and only Aramis' quick reflexes kept him from landing hard on the ground.
"Alright, I've got you," Aramis muttered in his ear, not knowing if the man could hear him or not.
"Is he alright?" Aggie asked sharply, moving towards the injured soldier. Aramis set him down gently, where he looked around with unseeing eyes at the people surrounding them.
"He will be," Porthos told her. She looked them all up and down, her face a cipher.
Athos, who looked somewhat recovered, stepped away from Porthos' careful grip and stood in front of the crowd of people.
"We have been in the caves outside of the village," he began loudly. Aramis was cheered to hear that his voice was just as it always was.
"The boy was found, and the beast that took him has been killed. You should have no further problems with missing children. If you do, send word to Paris for Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan. We will be here within a day."
"But did you find the two girls?" an anxious voice asked from the crowd.
Athos' face reflected the sorrow he felt as he quietly said, "We didn't find them alive."
Weeping erupted in the group of poor women and caused Porthos to blink back a few tears of grief himself.
"Did you find Cuvelier?" another voice asked.
Silence, save for the weeping. Aramis didn't know what to say.
"No," Athos said coldly. "We found no man named Cuvelier, no man at all. Simply a beast in the cave."
Aggie was watching the soldiers closely.
"We did find this," Aramis said, bending down to the old woman and pulling the silver ring from his pocket.
Her eyes widened in recognition as she reached out to take it with trembling hands.
"Thank you," she said, looking up at the soldiers again. "From all of us here, you don't know what it means—" her voice broke and tears rolled freely down her lined face. She made no move to wipe them away.
"May you find peace, all of you," Athos said to the group. "God be with you."
The blessing was repeated back fervently and rolled on the tongues of all those in the crowd. Several men reached out to shake their hands or bowed in respect to the men.
Aramis crouched down beside the Gascon, who was only partly aware of what was happening.
Hoisting him to his feet, they walked slowly to where their horses were still tethered.
Athos had to be assisted onto horseback; his knee was now too swollen to bend on its own and he bit back a scream of pain as it was jostled by the careful hands helping him.
Aramis got into horseback and some of the villagers passed d'Artagnan's mostly unconscious body onto the saddle in front of him. The handsome medic wrapped an arm gently around the young man to ensure he didn't fall.
Porthos took the reigns to d'Artagnan's horse, and they began to ride slowly out of the village.
Everyone watched them go, and a few children followed them until they reached the main road back to Paris.
The soldiers trekked painfully towards their city in silence. The sun rose and stretched high over their backs.
Porthos was steadfastly ignoring the bolts of pain from his very probably broken nose. Every jolt in the horse's gait made it worse, and he suppressed a sigh.
Athos sat astride his horse at the front of the group. The easy rhythm rocked him back and forth, and he began to feel drowsy.
Aramis rode carefully to keep hold of the unconscious Gascon in front of him. Blood from d'Artagnan's wounded shoulder seeped through the makeshift bandage and stained Aramis' leathers. Looking up, he saw the eldest musketeer's head droop and then snap back up, swaying slightly.
"Athos," he called, signaling him to stop. "Do we need to stop?"
"There are not more than three-quarters of an hour to Paris now," the former comte said as the medic pulled up beside him. "I'm fine."
"I'd believe it more if you didn't look as though you were going to fall off your horse," Aramis said dryly, narrowing his eyes.
Indeed, Athos was swaying in his saddle. He turned pale suddenly and closed his eyes, swallowing hard and gripping the pommel to stay on horseback.
"What is it?" Aramis asked him, alarmed.
"My head hurts," the comte admitted quietly.
"We'll get you back to the garrison and you can rest all you want," Aramis replied, giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze.
"How's he?" Athos asked, gesturing towards the unconscious Gascon.
"He's still out," Aramis said, trying not to show how worried he was. "I can't really look at him until we get back to the garrison."
"All the more reason to keep going," Porthos said, riding up beside them.
"How's your face?" Athos asked sympathetically.
"It's not bad."
It was. He could feel sweat gathering on his forehead and the sharp stabbing pains in his nose were starting to take their toll.
Aramis shot him a look that said he understood every unspoken word in his mind.
"We'll take a look at that, too," Aramis said.
They fell into silence again and continued on their way.
"Why didn't you tell them?" Porthos asked, directing the question at Athos' back. "They deserve to know the truth."
"I thought it was better this way," Athos said, not turning to look at him.
"You lied to them," Porthos replied.
At this, Athos stiffened.
"What would you have? To know that someone they cared about, one of their own, became that thing and committed those monstrosities—"
"That 'thing' was a man!" Porthos said, getting angry.
"You think I don't know that?" Athos hissed back. "That revolting, piteous creature was once a man! He had no more compunction than an animal; a man is distinguished from the other beasts by his morals. Cuvelier was stripped entirely of those. I can never forget that! At least this way he dies with dignity; his family will never know how far he fell."
Porthos had nothing to say to that.
Aramis winced as if the words had been directed at him. D'Artagnan shifted and muttered something.
The medic gripped him tighter, then frowned, bringing his hand to the young musketeer's forehead.
"He has a fever," he told Athos.
"We'll get back to Paris," was the implacable reply.
They rode into the garrison at a walk. A few musketeers were training in the yard but stopped to stare at the soldiers.
Treville was talking with one of the stable hands and glanced up as he heard the hoofbeats. He took a double-take and a frown settled on his face.
"What in the name of hell happened to you?" he demanded, catching sight of the Inseparables. "Where's Pierre?"
"It's a long story," Athos said tiredly, slipping off his horse.
Treville caught him as he stumbled.
"I'll give you a full report as soon as we are able, Captain," Aramis said meaningfully, glancing around the garrison.
"Understood," Treville said, catching his drift immediately. "Get to the infirmary. Do you need help with him?" D'Artagnan was semi-coherent, but not in any state to walk by himself.
"We've got him," Porthos said, lifting the young man as if he weighed no more than a child.
The Captain rolled his eyes slightly but let them leave and tried to act nonchalant towards the other musketeers in the yard. There would be time later for explanations.
Porthos set d'Artagnan down on the cot carefully before sitting down wearily on the bed next to him.
Aramis looked down at the Gascon in concern, looking helplessly at the blood covering his friend.
Athos heaved himself to his feet, trying to keep the weight off his bad leg.
"Sit down," Aramis ordered.
The former comte didn't even grace that comment with a reply and went across the room to get a bowl for water.
"I'm not joking, Athos," Aramis warned.
The musketeer was about to make a reply when his vision swam. He tried to tell Aramis what was happening, but the blood in his ears roared. He fell to the floor with a loud thud.
The medic's head snapped over to see Athos struggling weakly to his elbows.
Aramis' temper flared and he stomped over to where his friend was lying. He hoisted the man up and roughly deposited him on the nearest bed.
"Now stay there until I have time to pick the rocks out of your head!" Aramis said sharply, turning back to d'Artagnan.
Porthos wordlessly left and came back a few minutes later with a few bowls full of water.
The Gascon's forehead was covered in a light sheen of sweat, and his shock-induced fever was rising.
Aramis didn't look up as Porthos put down the water and immediately soaked a clean cloth.
D'Artagnan stirred as the medic brushed over the deep cut on his temple and cleaned the accumulated grime off his face.
"It shouldn't have bled this much," Aramis murmured uneasily.
"It didn't," the Gascon croaked in a voice that made Porthos wince. "Not my blood. Pierre's."
Porthos looked over at his young friend, then glanced back over to Aramis.
"You can tell us later," Aramis said, resuming his ministrations. "Porthos, can you put some water to boil, please?"
The large musketeer got up and went to do as he was bid.
Athos pulled himself so he was leaned against the wall and turned his head away from Aramis. His head thumped nastily in time with his heart and made him feel sick. He was suddenly exhausted, and his eyes slipped closed.
Slowly, physical sensation faded away. An undetermined amount of time passed.
The next thing he was aware of was a sharp, stinging in his right cheek.
His eyes opened. He blinked to find a very worried looking Aramis bending over him. It took another second for Athos to realize he had been slapped.
"You hit me," Athos said, looking mildly shocked.
"You didn't give me a choice," Aramis said seriously, looking into his eyes. "You should have said something. You've got a fairly severe concussion, so you'll need to stay awake."
"Wonderful," Athos replied, head already starting to hurt again.
"Let's take a look at your knee," Aramis said.
Taking a knife, he slit Athos' pants to relieve some of the pressure. Athos kept silent, even though it was clear how much pain he was in.
"It's twisted, but it doesn't look too bad. The swelling should go down in a few days," Aramis said as he wrapped bandages tightly around the swollen joint.
Athos breathed out evenly in an effort to control the pain.
"How's d'Artagnan?" he said, looking over at his sleeping comrade.
"Honestly, he could be a lot worse. He took a pretty good knock to the head, but not nearly as bad as yours. It's his shoulder I'm most worried about. He lost some blood, but I've cleaned it. Hopefully, it won't get infected; God knows what sorts of disease have festered down there."
"Are you alright, Aramis?" Athos asked, looking at the slumped shoulders of his friend.
"I'm tired, is all," the medic replied, rubbing at his eyes. "It was a long night."
Porthos ducked back into the room carrying some blankets. He had cleaned up some; blood no longer coated his face and clothing.
His face was bruised, but he smiled when he saw Athos.
"How are you feeling?" he asked, laying one of the blankets onto the sleeping d'Artagnan.
"Not bad," Athos answered, feeling his head thump. Spots danced darkly at the edges of his vision.
"Drink this," Porthos replied, holding a cup. "It'll help with the pain somewhat."
Athos took the cup without complaint and found it sweet, albeit with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Shortly after, he began to feel marginally better. His head cleared and it seemed that he could focus more easily. He stripped off his foul-smelling uniform and breathed a sigh of relief when the filthy clothing was no longer touching his skin.
Aramis did the same and returned after a few minutes wearing a fresh shirt and trousers.
It was in that quiet time of the day when they sat together in silence that they had time to reflect on the things that had happened. The sun slowly set and the stars winked in the night sky.
Athos looked up at them, thinking of everything and nothing all at once. Porthos dropped off to sleep first. Aramis valiantly fought the pull of exhaustion for as long as he could but ended up falling asleep a few hours before dawn. The Gascon slept peacefully through the night. When light was appearing in the east, Athos watched the soft light fill the garrison and dropped into a light, dreamless sleep.
The musketeers gave their full report to Treville late the next day. The Captain listened to their tale in silence. After being convinced of its' veracity, he sent a small group to quietly recover Pierre's body.
The young cadet was brought back to Paris and given a musketeer's funeral with every soldier in the garrison attending.
Aramis developed a nasty cough and fever, not unsurprisingly, after nearly drowning in the river. The others stayed with him through most of the time as he healed, nursing their own injuries and just content to be in each others' company.
Their nights were plagued with demons of the past and reaching hands in the darkness. It wasn't infrequently that d'Artagnan found himself being gently shaken awake by one of his brothers with his throat hoarse and burning as it had been in the caverns.
Athos was quieter and more withdrawn than ever for a few days. The others gave him to process what had happened but stayed close. The former comte had his fair share of nightmares.
Gradually, the horrific details faded slightly. It was when Athos looked over two weeks later and saw Aramis smiling unrestrainedly at some joke Porthos had told him that he knew they would be alright.
He walked alongside d'Artagnan through the yard, still limping slightly, when something struck him.
"Do you remember when we got back to the village?" Athos asked suddenly.
"Sort of," the Gascon admitted. "I remember what Aggie said, and how the people in the village were. Not much else though, until I woke up here."
"The boy whispered something to you when you put him down," Athos said, remembering the odd exchange. "What was it?"
D'Artagnan stopped with an odd expression on his face. "I don't quite recall," he said slowly, tugging at a half-formed memory.
"It was something to do with his grandmother, I think. Aggie."
"Probably just thanking you for bringing him back," Athos said, letting the concern go.
The younger musketeer nodded in agreement, although he still looked slightly uneasy, and fell into step beside his friend.
Sunset stole over the small village again. The children were called back to their homes. Everyone settled down for the night, and the houses were quiet.
Aggie slipped out of her house, holding a small bundle in her arms and humming contentedly.
Madame de Morel had been very weak since giving birth but seemed to be recovering somewhat in the two weeks that had followed. Her baby was also healthy: a beautiful girl.
A successful delivery combined with the return of her grandson was almost more good news than she had dared to hope for two weeks ago.
The old crone closed the door quietly and wrapped her shawl more securely around herself to ward off the chilly night.
Silent as the shadows themselves, she slipped across the village and into the forest to emerge in the clearing.
She walked through the firefly-filled clearing towards the cave entrance. Aggie set down the bundle, then struck flint and steel to light the small torch she had made and left there earlier that day.
The sparks burst into a flame, and she resumed her journey, bundle safely in her arms once more.
The old woman navigated the tunnels easily as one who has walked a path a thousand times. Her soft footsteps echoed through the porous caverns as she unerringly reached the main chamber which contained the underground river.
She held the torch aloft and gasped when she saw the thin, pale form of Cuvelier's corpse.
Creeping softly over, she saw the decomposition of his body and the damage from the final, fatal blow Athos had dealt.
She dropped to her knees with a soft whimper, feeling her heart flutter in her chest.
"My son," she whispered brokenly. "Oh, my beautiful boy."
Aggie pulled the corpse near her so that the gory mess of his head was resting onto her lap and stained her apron.
The old woman's face stretched in a mask of grief as she wept quietly. Her thin white hair was gently tousled in ethereal wisps around her head by the draft.
The river flowed quietly nearby, and she gazed at the running water for a few moments before speaking.
"I'm so sorry that this happened to you, my dear," she whispered to the body. "It's not right, after all that time, to find you like this."
She crooned to the dead thing in her arms as if it could still hear her soft words.
"You did so well, staying down here all these long years. I know it wasn't easy for you, but you were perfect. The children were so willing to do anything to help an old woman; it was just so easy to send them here for you, my perfect baby boy. In the end, it was even easy to take care of Emil. I waited until he was sleeping tonight, then smothered him with a pillow on your bed. For you, all for you, my dear."
The old woman giggled then, a grotesquely high sound more suited to a young girl.
Suddenly, she sobered.
"But you don't have to worry anymore," she whispered, stroking the mutilated mess of flesh and bone beneath her gentle fingers. "Because I have a new idea."
Her blood-smeared hands reached towards the small bundle she had brought with her.
Parting the cloth gently, she unwrapped the outside layer partially to expose her new masterpiece.
A small baby, hardly two weeks old was lying soundly asleep swaddled in the cloth.
"Isn't she beautiful?" Aggie said quietly, tracing a bloody finger around the delicate curve of the child's head.
"It was different for you because you had grown up in the outside world first. This child has seen the sun scarcely a dozen times; she will not remember it as she grows here. But I will tell her about you. And we will both remember you, my sweet. Always and forever."
The crone lowered her mouth to what was left of the corpse's forehead and kissed it sweetly, with all the love and affection she felt for her son. Her mouth was stained with the blood of a long-dead corpse as she rose to her feet.
The baby never stirred as the old woman doused her torch in the river and left them in total darkness. Slowly, solemnly, Aggie went into the depths of the neverending cavern holding the child close.