Why did fairy tales exist?
To delight, to warm, to cheer. And also, to warn.
Why were fairy tales made for children?
Because children were easiest to delight, because children were warmest, because children accepted cheer the most readily. They were trusting, naïve.
Because children were vulnerable to predators.
Aidan’s hand tightened around the hilt of the knife as he walked through the streets. Groups of children ran past, dressed in costumes, smiling, their cheer undisguised, bared. They didn’t think twice about the candy, or the costumes, or the stories, or the affection that they were given. It was treated as normal, and so, they didn’t think of it as anything but. The tiger wore a silly suit and talked like a fussy old man, and so they forgot it was a tiger. They saw the scary woman with the raspy voice, and they thought she must be a monstrous hag, someone who liked to hurt others.
It hadn’t been thrusting the knife that had made Aidan an adult. It was realizing what he’d done. What his innocence had cost him. He knew some adults- Not the Brothers, of course, but some of the parents in the town- thought that innocence was a precious commodity, something to be hoarded. They remembered the time before they had to worry about things, and they wished they could have that time back. The thing was, he’d always been aware of the worries. He’d just never been able to do anything about them.
He wasn’t sorry to lose his innocence. He was sorry about how he’d lost it, he was sorry about what he’d done, but the innocence itself was fine to lose.
He wondered if he’d feel the same when he confronted the faeries he’d loved reading about as he grew up.
Another group of children ran past him, giggling. One of them tripped, and fell, skinning her knee. She began to cry, as the others laughed, and ran on without her. She was dressed in a green dress, roses in her hair, a masquerade mask across her eyes. Aidan realized, with a shock, that he knew her.
“Hey. You’re Johnny’s sister, right? We met earlier today?”
“Oh, yes. You’re the Orphan Boy.” She stood up, smiling, the tears disappearing as quickly as they’d come. “Want to come with us? The Tawny Tiger set up candy in each of the houses, a different kind of candy for each one.” She held up a pillowcase, filled to the bursting. “We’re going to visit every one tonight! Guising!” She smiled shyly. “I’m a nymph. What are you?”
“The Iron Holder,” he said, and looked off in the direction she’d come from. “Do you know where Raggy Stitchems is?”
The girl nodded, smiling brightly, as she pointed back. “She left the costume shop. She’s setting up decorations around the fountain. They’re gorgeous!”
“Thanks.” He looked back at her, and considered, briefly, warning her- But about what, exactly? If she acted strangely, frightened, it would attract the attention of the faeries. He turned back towards the west side of town, and kept walking.
The Fountain was one of the favorite gathering places of children. During the summer, when it got hot, or during the winter, when it was wreathed in decorations from the local shops and restaurants celebrating Christmas. He shivered slightly as he stared up at the great, silent figures of faeries and monsters, looming over the street. And on the fountain, a spiderweb, crowned by a great yarn spider, black and wooly, with great black teeth. All of them caricatured, not quite frightening, remaining a bit too silly to actually be frightening, big round eyes and cartoonish smiles, bright white gloves and oversized shoes, like clowns.
“Hello, Aidan,” said Raggy, as she clung to a street light, near its top, looping the gossamer-thin wool between it and the next. She released it, and fell to the ground, striking bonelessly. She picked herself up, brushed the dirt and dust off of her body, and turned towards him. “You smell of blood.”
“I’ve done something bad,” he said, softly.
“Oh, good. Bad things aren’t so bad. People are at their most together when they have a common enemy. It brings them closer, makes them into friends, a family. A war is best. And a war against the whole wide world, that’s even better. When we commit a crime, when we spill blood, we make ourselves enemies of the world, and how can that help but bring us close?” She smiled softly, and approached him. As she passed the fountain, she sat down on its edge, one floppy leg crossed over the other. “You know, I was a very lonely child, when the Leanan Sidhe found me. Much like you. All alone. My parents didn’t want me. The foster homes didn’t want me. Even the orphanage didn’t want me. Eventually, they all threw me out. And I was alone.”
“You were a human once, then?”
“Was I? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Nobody treated me like a human.” She let out a soft, melancholy sigh, twiddling her fingers before her eyes, staring at them. “I tried to make them love me. I tried to be good, to be of service, to do what they asked. I gave so much, but nobody ever appreciated it. I gave gifts freely, but they never thanked me.”
He looked down at his costume. “That reminds me, Raggy. Did I thank you for this?”
“You did, Aidan.” She smiled. “You are a good ch…” She was quiet for a moment, and her expression grew bereft. “No. Not a child anymore, are you. She stole you from us. She stole you away, she made you mortal, forever mortal, and someday you’ll die, Aidan, and you’ll leave us!” She sobbed softly.
“You were going to give me to the Teind,” murmured Aidan.
“The Teind?! No! I swear seven times, and seven times more, and seven times upon that, we would have kept you with us, forever! These children, all of them, we would give to the Teind, all so that we might preserve you, Aidan!”
The fairies don’t break their oaths. It was as bad as iron, to break an oath. It’d kill them. The words rocked him as he slowly approached her. “You cared about me.”
“We still do, Aidan,” she whispered. “We wanted to play together forever. Any cost was worth paying.” He stood in front of her now, as she looked up at him. “Please. Come with us. Maybe- Maybe we can make it right again. Maybe the Leanan Sidhe can fix you, can take away all that ugly pain in your soul. Make you forget. Make you a child again.”
“She doesn’t want me anymore. She rejected me.”
“Oh, Aidan…” She lowered her head. “Does it really have to be like this?”
He saw her hands twitching. Saw the threads glittering in the air, flashing briefly as they were caught in the street lights. “You really want to bring them into this? Every gift comes with a string attached, does it?”
“I’m helpless alone. I can’t just let you kill me, Aidan.” Her eyes flicked to his pockets, to his back. “All that iron. I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Please, Raggy. Please, I know you’re a story, but be a happy story. Be the story of the one who knew how to give up, who didn’t use children to try to buy herself a little more time. You may have to be a story, but you don’t have to be a tragedy.”
“I’m sorry, Aidan,” she whispered. Her wrists twisted, drawing the strings tight around them, and children cried out in the night. He felt the collar of his outfit begin to press in, tightening, tightening unbearably, cutting off his air.
That made it all surprisingly easy. The iron knife flicked out of his pocket, and back in. Two smooth cuts. Raggy let out a high shriek as her wrists were slashed, the thick felt parting easily under pressure, left hanging on only by a thread. Then the children must have begun to run, as the pressure on her hands from the strings grew, pulling them away. The thread holding her arm to her hand did not snap. Instead, it began to unravel. Her eyes widened as they began to pull away.
“Aidan- Please- I’ll unravel! They’re all pulling away, they’ll pull me all to shreds and scraps!” Her voice was high, shrieking, panicked, the terror flashing in her button eyes.
“You shouldn’t give too much of yourself away, Raggy,” he said, his voice hoarse, soft.
“Please! Please, Aidan! Please don’t let me come apart! I don’t want to die, I don’t want to be ripped to shreds! Please, I’m sorry!”
Aidan walked through the streets, his head still pounding from the encounter with Raggy. He tried not to think about it as he walked through the streets, searching for Sweet Jill Harears.
She was the one who tried to fit in most with the children. Dressing like them, acting like them. Like a lonely big sister, who wants so much to be included in the games of her siblings. He just had to find her where she was playing.
As he walked past a bush, it rustled. He turned towards it, frowning. And she moved like lightning, seizing him, and yanking him into the rough branches. The world tumbled for a moment.
When things came to a rest, he was on his back, the scabbard trapped against the ground, Jill on top of him. She leaned in close, her eyes glittering, and said, “Caught you.”
Then she giggled softly, and shifted her hips slightly, sitting on top of him, legs folded to either side of him, looking down at him with a smile.
“I knew you could do it, Aidan. Knew you could kill that awful old woman, and save us from the Teind. I always knew you were such a kind boy. And- I don’t care if you’re a human, now, for good.” She smiled. “We can still have fun. We can still play games. And even better ones, now.” She rested both of her smooth, lithe hands on his shoulders, her lips shining, wet, her eyes hungry. “You can still be with us forever. I’ll make a pact with you, share my power with you. We’ll have fun and dance and play and eat all we need. No more Cailleach, trying to stop our fun. No more adults, trying to tell us what to do.” She shifted her hips a little bit more, and watched him, as though looking for a reaction. “Let’s do it.”
She leaned in close, her lips shining, her eyes closing.
He turned his head away. Her lips met his cheek, and she made a confused noise in the back of her throat. Her eyes opened, shock evident on her expression, as she stayed perched on top of him. She moved her lips to try to kiss him again, and he turned his head to the other side, her growl filling the air. “Stop that!”
“I don’t want to kiss you, Jill.”
“Why not!?” She asked, sitting up straight, her tone petulant, her fists on her hips. “Look at me!”
“Jill… How do you kill humans?”
She turned her head sharply away. “I’ve never killed anyone.”
“It’s not my fault what happens to them.”
“They got boring!” she shrieked. “Are you happy now?! We’d play games and the boys would have fun and we’d have a while where things were alright but then they’d all get boring! They stopped being fresh, and exciting, and new, and I couldn’t stand that! And then they acted like it was all my fault that they weren’t fun anymore, that I was just supposed to pretend to keep liking them when they weren’t any fun anymore, and then they’d kill themselves just to try to get my attention and could anything be more pathetic?!”
His fingers slipped into his pocket as she grabbed his cheeks, pressing her fingers roughly against his ears, pinning his head against the dirt. “Jill, you’re a jerk.”
“It’ll be different with you,” she whispered. “The Leanan Sidhe told me. You’ve got imagination. You know how to keep things fresh.” She smiled. “We can have fun forever. No one would get hurt because I wouldn’t have to deal with those boring idiots.” She leaned forward towards him.
“You’d get tired of me, too, Jill,” he said, softly, his lips almost brushing hers. “Sooner or later. You’d get bored. You’re the kind of person who always runs away. You can’t stick with anything. I don’t hate you for that, but I have to accept it.”
Her eyes widened with shock. It must have hurt, what he just said. Not as much, however, as the iron cross, hidden up his sleeve, when it collided with the side of her head. A simple swing of his arm, but enhanced by the heavy weight and unyielding surface of the iron. It made his wrist ache, and knocked Jill head over heels, tossing her across the ground. She rolled, and tried to push herself to her feet, but the blow had stunned her. She looked up at him, her eyes full of tears, shaking like a rabbit, her hands drawn up defensively. “You wouldn’t hurt me, would you? You wouldn’t really do this to me, right? Sweet Jill Harears? I never hurt a soul, you know that.”
His arm shook slightly as she quavered on the floor. It would be easier if she lunged at him. If she tried to draw her rapier. If she acted like a villain in a story, who couldn’t resist attacking, even when it was obvious they couldn’t win, who gave the hero a good reason to kill them, who made it clear that they would never, ever surrender. She was just shaking on the floor, terrified out of her mind, her ears flopped over. He reached into his other pocket, and drew out the iron knife.
“This isn’t fun anymore, Aidan,” she said, her eyes flashing as she stared at the knife. “I’m not having any fun.”
“I know, Jill,” he said, softly. “Me neither.”
“I promise- I promise I’ll go away, I’ll leave the Leanan Sidhe, I’ll never come back, I’ll never touch another person, Aidan, I promise. Okay? I swear. Cross my heart, hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye”
He was quiet, as he lifted the knife.
Aidan walked through the streets, feeling dazed. Like he’d been struck in the face. In the stories, heroes had such a simple time. Such easy decisions. Life disappointed, constantly.
He looked up, slowly. Golden eyes flashed in the night.
“Good evening, Aidan,” growled the Tawny Tiger.
“Good evening, Tawny Tiger,” whispered Aidan, as he drew the sword. “Tell me. Did you kill Mister O’Toole? Or any of the children?”
“What does it matter, Aidan? I have murdered many over the course of my life.” He chuckled. “Oh, Raggy Stitchems and Sweet Jill Harears, they were always reluctant monsters. But me?” He smiled, and it revealed a host of ivory daggers, and four great sabers. They flashed. “Homo homini lupus est. Do you know what that means, my dear boy?”
“I have a feeling you’re going to tell me,” Aidan said, carefully setting his grip. The sword seemed lighter, now. Light as a feather. It pulled gently at his hands, until he had them in just the right stance, like a living thing.
“A man is a wolf to other men. We fairies are humans. No different from any other. I am like the banker who steals the bread out of children’s mouths, in the form of interest. I am the conman who bilks the foolish. I am the politician who starves the people to feed an empire. Does it matter whether I murdered Mister O’Toole, Aidan? Would it buy some mercy if I had held back my urges? The moment I killed one man, so long ago, I was condemned forever.” He smiled. “That is the nature of justice. Damned for a penny, damned for a pound. When one has been bad, all the chains… break.”
“So why did you kill the first man?”
The Tawny Tiger’s eyes drifted aside. “No reason worth mentioning.”
“You don’t want sympathy.”
“Pity is a terrible thing, Aidan. You know how it feels. When the townsfolk looked at you, the orphan boy whose parents didn’t love him enough, the ones who hated you were better than the ones who pitied you. Do you know why?” His saber teeth flashed again. “Because humans are empathic beings. You experience the emotions of those around you. You feel the pain of others. And so, when a person cannot help you, they watch you, and they hurt with you.” He stepped closer, looming, the shadows closing over his face, running and blending with the black stripes. “It is bad enough to suffer. To know that by doing so, you are making others suffer… Death would be preferable, wouldn’t it? To being nothing but a source of agony to those who care about you most.”
“You have a story, Tawny. You sure you don’t want to share it?” He lifted Aislingbane slowly. “You might not get another chance.”
“The others- They hurt, they kill, because that’s the only way they know how. That’s the only way their story can go.” The Tawny Tiger raised a paw, and the black knives slipped out without a sound. “I claim no such trauma. I am not interested in begging for mercy, or trying to claim that my acts were anything other than what they were, a hungry beast that did not care for the prey’s needs.”
“I didn’t want to hurt them,” said Aidan. “Or you. Or anyone, really. Why does it have to go like this?”
“Because what is a story, Aidan, without conflict?”
The Tawny Tiger rushed forward. On all fours, sudden, and more powerful than he could have expected. Aislingbane leapt, and so did the tiger. The two slipped through the air around one another, and Aidan felt as though the earth had just risen up and punched him in the gut. The Tawny Tiger leapt away, even as Aidan collapsed to his knees, clutching his stomach, gagging and gasping for air.
“Mercy, Aidan? A blow that is anything less than killing? You can’t afford to show mercy. You’re not strong enough. You’re a man now, Aidan. An adult. You have to fight.” The Tawny Tiger padded around him, eyes luminous and unblinking, teeth sharp. His nails clicked against the floor, fully extended. Click. Clack. Click. Clack.
“Is that really what an adult is, Tawny? Someone who solves all of their problems by killing?”
“We do what is in our power,” said Tawny. “The power to make a predator refuse to eat its prey, to keep a victimizer from striking at victims, without killing them… That’s the kind of power that a god wields, and few others. So often, in this world, it’s kill, or be killed.”
“You could just run away, Tawny!”
“I could not,” said The Tawny Tiger, standing up straight, his back stiff as a rod. “I can not surrender. That is in my nature. I can’t give up. I can only win, or die. That weapon there, it kills faeries. Which will you choose, Aidan? Life, or innocence?”
Aidan’s arms shook, and the tip of the blade wove. Suddenly heavy, it fell, striking the ground.
“A shame,” said the Tawny Tiger, taking four steps towards him.
Click. Clack. Clack. Click.
The Tawny Tiger stopped, but it was already too late. The Widdershins Knight surged out of the darkness like a sudden wind, racing towards the Tawny Tiger. The Tawny Tiger raised his claws, but the knight bowled him over. Striking him down to the ground, and pinning him with one gigantic fist around the tiger’s neck. The Widdershins Knight’s blade rested gently against the tiger’s jaw. He whispered very softly, “A knight cannot defeat a beast.”
“I will not beg,” growled the Tawny Tiger. “I will not surrender. I am a beast, and a beast will always kill again. There is only one thing you can do with a mad dog, Aidan.”
The Widdershins Knight looked up at Aidan, the long blade posed.
The two of them walked, side-by-side, through the night.
“You look well, Aidan,” murmured the knight.
“I’m wondering if I did the right thing,” said Aidan, his head down. Aislingbane on his back, the knife in one pocket, the cross in the other.
“I am a master of sympathy, and my tongue is silver. I know precisely what to say to you to relieve your doubts.” The Widdershins Knight went quiet. “Sympathy is a waste, mercy a curse. Waste no tears for the Unseelie, for they are nothing like us.”
“Yeah,” said Aidan, softly, his hands in his pockets.
If he’d just understood. If he’d realized. If he’d known what was happening, if he could have done something to stop it before it even got started… If he’d been able to be there since the beginning. How much better would things be, if he knew then what he knew now? He looked up, as they approached the bookstore. Punk Dougal was still crouched by his mother. His expression did not look very happy. The man’s eyes flickered up to Aidan, and to his credit, he didn’t look away. “I’m sorry, lad.”
“You did your best,” Aidan said, and it felt like it was true. Punk Dougal stood up. “I… finished it. Finished them. They won’t hurt anyone anymore.”
“Really?” Said Punk Dougal, his eyes flickering to Aidan. “Blood isn’t easy to clean off, you know. It’s mighty hard to wash away.” He stood up, and drew the blade from the scabbard on Aidan’s back. He examined it closely, his eyes flickering to the Widdershins Knight’s sword. “Damned near impossible, in fact. Especially on the walk back from a fight.” He sheathed it at his side again. “No matter. I trust you to keep to your word.” He turned towards the door. “Now, with her little helpers no longer holding the children hostage, let’s-”
The door exploded open, showering splinters. A doorknob struck Punk Dougal in the forehead, and the man fell to the ground, knocked senseless. The May Queen stood there, standing tall, her eyes brilliant teal, flashing like the seashore. “Now, let’s beat the wicked fairy queen and win the happy ending?” She asked, softly, purring, smiling, as her eyes drifted across the group.
The Widdershins Knight let out a shriek of deepest terror as he rushed at her. With a wave of her hand, he fell to the ground, suddenly stiff, caricatured, his arms and legs moving back and forth like a clockwork soldier knocked on its sides, eyes staring blankly forward, a gentle tockticktocktick filling the air.
Lord Martin drew a brace of iron knives, and they flickered from his hand with surprising speed and grace. The Leanan Sidhe leaned aside, moving faster than the blades, and they thudded home against something out of sight inside of the building. More blades appeared between his fingers as he moved. The Leanan Sidhe threw her hands forward, and where Martin had been now stood a smiling, stuffed clown. Its eyes were glass beads, staring at nothing, felt body standing straight for a moment before gravity took hold again, and it slumped to the ground, water staining it.
“Aidan,” sighed the May Queen. He stared at the people as she walked past Punk Dougal’s unconscious body. She carefully circumnavigated a pool of meltwater, and stood before him. “Hello again, godson.”
Jenny Greenteeth rose from the pool without a single sound, teeth flashing, scales whipping. She loomed behind the blonde woman, as Aidan’s godmother sighed and snapped her fingers. A glass fishbowl appeared in her hands, and within was Jenny Greenteeth, shrunk down to the size of a guppy. The May Queen held out the fish bowl to one side, balanced on her hand. Then she turned it, and the sound of shattering glass filled the air.
As Jenny flopped on the ground, chest heaving as she tried to breathe, the May Queen sighed. “Why is it, do you suppose, that humans are so terrified by losing their forms? This is little different from if I had simply cut their throats. They’ll still die. But the fear, I can smell it on all of them, rising in waves. The terror. Why do you think that is, Aidan?”
“Because there’s nothing they can do about it. You can stitch up a cut throat, you can stop your throat from being cut in the first place,” murmured Aidan, his shoulders shaking. “But this isn’t… like any of that.”
“Good boy. So clever,” she cooed softly. “There’s another important lesson here, Aidan. Power. The only way to have a happy ending is to have power. The more power, the happier your ending.” She smiled pleasantly. “What will you do? Hope Punk Dougal comes at me with that sword? Charge me with your iron knife that will break when you need it most? What can you do, Aidan?” She sighed softly.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked, one hand in his pocket. Not the one that held the knife. Wishing, praying, that someone would hear him. That someone would save them.
“To you? Nothing. I owe you that much, I suppose. I’m going to become a goddess, and it’s all thanks to you. How many stories did you tell me, how many did you give me, little brother? A thousand?” She smiled warmly. “At least. All of those stories, and now, all the creativity in you is used up, wrung out, all mine. My mother is no longer hunting me. The Teind shall be paid in children, when the sun rises. And all you can do is pray that something changes. And nothing will.” She smiled, as a red light blossomed. “Look there. Sunrise. Scores of new faeries, corrupted by my power, to buy my freedom. Look on it, and des-” She paused for a moment, frowning.
Probably because she’d realized the sun didn’t usually rise in the West, and it rarely smelled of tobacco.
“Hello, Leanan Sidhe,” said the young man. He was pretty, and it was very hard to tell he was a man. Golden hair, and shining blue eyes. He was whip-thin, but his muscles stuck out along his arms like steel cables. A cigarette hung between his lips, the tip flaring, providing the light.
“This is not fair,” she whispered. “I won. What gives you the right to interfere, to snatch away my victory?”
“Power,” said the man. “Power, and compassion.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth, holding it between two fingers in a way that, if Aidan were honest with himself, was pretty girly. “So. Will you be making this hard, or easy?”
The Leanan Sidhe sank down to her knees, the light in her eyes out.
“You’re not the devil,” said Aidan, his voice slightly stunned.
“How do you know that?” asked the man. “The devil can be anything.”
“Brother Sean always said the devil was dead butch, not a sissy.”
The man almost choked, snorting through his nose, and grinned. “Yes, well, you should see him after he’s had a cup of applejack.” The man puffed on the cigarette once, illuminating his attractive features. “The devil tempts people into Hell. He doesn’t throw them there.”
“Michael,” I said, softly.
“No one,” he answered, softly.
“You couldn’t have done this before? Couldn’t have- stopped this, before- Before people got hurt?”
“Tell me. Have you ever heard of the word Eucatastrophe?”
“Isn’t that what koalas eat?”
“Funny kid.” Michael smiled, and puffed on the cigarette again. “It was a word by Tolkien. A beautiful word. When all is lost, and the heroes have no chance, when darkness seems prepared to win… Evil is dealt a sharp reminder that no matter how strong it may become, Good is stronger.” He chuckled. “You fought, you earned your happy ending, and Evil contrived to steal it from you. You grew, and found that the threats facing you did not care. You prayed for the happy ending to come nonetheless. And I responded. You are an adult to the fae, but from where I stand, you are still a child.” He blew out a cloud of smoke, slowly, sighing. “And children are meant to be protected by those more powerful than them.”
“You’re going to take her to hell,” whispered Aidan, softly.
“Do you have to?”
“Yes. The Teind. The wicked fairies, the malevolent undead, the demons who cannot be human. They must be punished.” He took another hard drag on the cigarette. “I can’t usually do this on my own. Can’t get involved. But some things are worth being censured for.”
“Cheater,” whispered the Leanan Sidhe. “Cheater, cheater, cheater.”
Aidan looked over at his mother, cold and still. “I wish you could have interfered a little bit sooner.”
“You know… In almost every language, the ‘Happily Ever After’ thing has a caveat.” Michael looked down at the woman. “They lived happily ever after, until they died.” He sighed softly. “Why did you save the Unseelie?”
Aidan flinched, and looked away, into the night, where three sets of Unseelie eyes were watching them. “They promised to be better.”
“And you believed them?”
“They’re fairies. They have to keep their promises.”
“No. They can break their word,” said Michael. “It would be safer if they were in Hell.”
“No,” whispered Aidan, his fingers tightening around the iron knife.
“Even if you stood a chance against me, Aidan, which you don’t, that weapon has no power against me.”
He drew out the knife, holding it in front of him, his arms shaking. Michael stared at him for several long seconds, and drew out a flaming sword from his side, the flames licking at the air. Aidan didn’t lower his hands.
Michael laughed. A soft, bell-like sound, gentle, and good-humored. “Grant you, a fairy can’t break their word without making themselves terribly, awfully vulnerable. They promised to change? I can’t say I believe they will, but they’ll certainly be punished brutally if they don’t.” He sheathed the flaming sword, and smiled. “Are we our brother’s keepers, Aidan?”
“I have to believe they can change.”
“Yes. Me too.” Michael smiled. “Power is a glorious thing, Aidan. The thing is, you never seem to have enough power to make your own happy endings. No matter how strong you get, your problems become even greater.” He snapped his fingers, and the enchantments were gone. Jenny, the Widdershins Knight, the Lord, and the Punk, all returned to normal in the blink of an eye, gasping as they sat up. The Leanan Sidhe let out a whispered gasp. “So giving a happy ending, that has to be an unselfish thing. And if you secretly hope that in giving, someday, you get a happy ending in return… Well. That’s not so bad a sin.” He looked over at Aidan’s mother. “I’m not the patron of doctors, or healers, or sages, or even healing from wounds, but- Ah, yes.” He smiled. “Punk Dougal.”
“Oh my god,” murmured the Punk, his eyes wide.
“No. Never that. Only a messenger. But- You, healing in the midst of great danger. Setting aside your weapon to try to save a life. A paramedic, if you will.” Michael nodded. “That I can work with.”
He bent down, and flicked the Cailleach’s forehead, once, very softly. She opened her eyes, and gasped, letting out a beautiful cry like a dove, grabbing at her leg, and her chest, wincing with pain.
“I could have made that painless,” said Michael, glaring at the Cailleach. “I did not, to teach you a lesson about drama. You could have avoided all of this.” He sighed softly. “But, I suppose, it would not have been as good a story, that way.”
Aidan stared at his mother, breathing again, the shock on her expression. Then he looked at the Leanan Sidhe. “Do you have to take her? She’s my sister.”
Michael tilted his head. “After all the people she’s hurt, the people she’s killed? Is there any justice in letting a murderer go free?”
“I didn’t say free.”
“Good point.” Michael looked down at the Leanan Sidhe. “Do you swear to give up harm, to never again lay a finger on a human, to forsake cruelty and power and venality?”
She spat at him. Tried to, anyway- He tilted his head out of the way without apparent effort.
“Sorry, Aidan. A person has to want to change.” He stood up straight, and opened his arms wide. The smell of sulfur and brimstone filled the air, and chains burst from the ground. The Leanan Sidhe shrieked in rage as they wound around her, and cursed with her last breath. The curse didn’t do anything. She had already lost.
Aidan felt himself sway. He fell down, and was caught by his mother. Her hands were cold, but very gentle, as she folded them around him, holding him to her chest, her eyes closed. She looked up to Michael. “Thank you.”
“It was an unselfish request you made. Maybe it even changed a little something inside that demon you made it with, though I doubt it.” Michael puffed on the cigarette, looking contemplatively at the eastern sky, where the first rosy fingers of dawn were visible. “There was one variant I really liked, though, of the happily ever after variety. They all lived happily ever after, and died on the same day.” He dragged hard on the cigarette, until it was nothing but ash, and then flicked the butt into the darkness, the ember disappearing. When Aidan’s eyes adjusted to the low light, the archangel was gone.
That wasn’t the end of his story. Not close to it. There were faeries to socialize, an education to be had, threats, terrible days, great ones, losses, gains.
But he lived happily ever after.
I sighed, as I climbed out of the limo. Samhain beckoned, and the new year promised to be a rousing one. Between the Americans, the damned wretched Atlantean situation, the gradual breakdown of the Cities, and of course, the second Harrowing of Hell, the world was taking a delight in complexity. The fae couldn’t get enough of it, naturally. Punk Dougal stood by the entrance to the social club, his arms crossed behind his back, beard white as Father Christmas. “Lord Cailleach.”
“Aidan, for gods sakes man, Aidan. Dougal, I’ve known you for forty-six years. I abolished the bloody lord and punk stratification specifically thinking of you. You’re my equal.”
“Not in thumb-wrestling or drinking, Lord Cailleach, which is why I remind you you’re a fancy high-born Lord.” He smiled. “I was worried you might not be able to open the door, weak and frail as you are.”
I laughed, and grabbed the door, opening it for him. He bowed his head, and I followed him in as the two of us entered the club. The Halloween decorations were all set out, and the air was rich with the smell of good food. The fae members of the Exquisition were in their true shapes, as was only appropriate.
My eyes flickered as we passed the wall of the former members. Small trinkets and flowers, remembrances of those we had lost, as we prepared for a new year. The dark times always got to people, after all. I stopped briefly before two, among at least a dozen others I had known. A small epitaph was placed beneath each one with their name. Sweet Jill Harears, devoted wife, loyal till the end, and the Tawny Tiger, more than a beast.
I reached into my jacket, and withdrew a rose and a thistle, placing one before each picture. My eyes flickered briefly to the unbroken iron knife sitting on the shelf between the two. Happy endings didn’t last forever, and it was rare that you were lucky enough to die together. I was expected to make a pact again, some day, and maybe I would. A man had to keep living, even if love would never return.
That was horror. More than a whisper in the darkness, more than all the fearsome monsters. Life passed by in a blink, and suddenly, the things you loved vanished. That was the most terrible horror of all.
But life didn’t take everything. I sat down at the table with the others, for the feast of the winter. Mother sat at one end of the table, distant as always. Brother, sister, and children crowded around, and I smiled brightly at them, as the newer Lords and Punks crowded around. The time, every year, for the annual story. The Cailleach stood, gently ringing a fork against her glass, as the food was served. In a voice as sweet as the glass’, she began to speak.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy…”