It was a gloriously bright, sunny day in Nineveh. The sky had just enough clouds in it to provide a bit of shade and keep the temperature cool. This far south and west of Lake Ontario, the snow and winter had not been as rough, the city shielded by the Catskills. The flowers had begun to blossom, and a riot of color adorned the planters, matched in brilliance if not organization by the wildflowers growing by the lakeside, on the other side of the road.
Despite this gaudily Spring display, the Half-Faced Man was feeling superb. He enjoyed his excursions, these trips to educate the young about stories. He wore his best mask today, obscuring his true features, which were nobody’s damned business but his own. The fairy stretched his double-jointed limbs in every direction, making the glamor around him twist and contort to almost comical levels to keep him properly hidden. Parents came by, those who wished their children to learn more about the joys of reading, or perhaps just kept out of their hair for a little while. The children ranged in age from around four, all the way up to a sullen young nine-year-old who seemed to resent the idea of being forced to listen to someone read.
“Hello, children,” he said, and noted three of them in particular who stiffened as they looked at him. Good; He liked those who could see through. Even among children, the talent was rare. This land didn’t teach the children the right lessons. People focused on silly, base things, like mathematics, chemistry, biology. All the little lies people told themselves to suggest the world had rules, instead of guidelines. They scoffed at history, at storytelling, at creation.
They didn’t even mention the monsters.
“Please, don’t be nervous. I solemnly swear to allow no harm to come to you while you are under my care in this library.” He smiled warmly as the promise spread out among them. The promise was a small one, but it glowed gently in their hearts, helping them to trust him a little more, to fear him less. A small power for a small promise. But important, nonetheless.
Faeries, by their nature, were childsnatchers. It was an instinct he had seen in every fairy he had ever met. In some, it was a gentle, caring thing; The desire to protect the rejected, the lost, the hurt. In some, it was a dark and foul thing. In most, it was a desire to have children and raise them to become fairies in turn.
For the Half-Faced Man, it was a selfish instinct. He desperately wanted companionship, to see more fairies familiar to him. That would never happen. It could not. So instead, he channeled it towards a productive use. Because there were fairies who loved to hurt children, and if those children were his, if he thought of them as his, it gave him the hunger to punish them.
The sublimation of dark desires into socially acceptable goals. It was the basis for all civilization. Goodness was evil turned inward, a vren beaten and battered until it barked and wagged its mandibles like a slep, hiding the sharpness of its proboscis.
“Today, children, I will tell you the story of The Schatat that Walked as a Man. In a far off kingdom, a very long time ago, the third son of a lightweaver stood by as the inheritances were granted. To his eldest brother were given his father’s mirrors, so he could channel and gather the wan rays of the sun in their cold and snowbound land, to make the land fertile and rich enough to grow crops for the men of their village. To the second brother was given the polishes, in order to keep the mirrors bright, and to keep the voracious ik from swarming across the village in the night. But to the youngest boy was given an old, cloudy Schatat. The schatat-”
“What’s a Schatat?” asked one of the boys, frowning. A good sign. The Half-Faced Man always appreciated curiosity about the words he used.
“An animal, perhaps so tall,” he held a hand a foot off the ground, “domesticated, used to keep mold off of mirrors. It cleans the mirrors, allowing them to be properly polished.”
“I’ve never heard of an animal like that,” said the same boy, his head tilted.
“Well, they only were found in this far off kingdom. Think of it as something like a cat. At any rate, this Schatat walked upright, like a man, which was quite disconcerting, and even as the boy complained about his inheritance, the schatat ran into the woods, and returned with the carcass of an ik, providing the boy with a much-needed meal.”
He continued the story, speaking smoothly, telling them the tale. It was always one of his favorites. The morals were dubious- useful primarily if one was a schatat or frontierlord. As he was telling of the schatat’s prowess, one of the girls piped up. “This is Puss in Boots!”
“A very similar story,” said The Half-Faced Man. “You’ll find, over the years, that many stories are curiously close, even those from distant lands. Nonetheless, this is The Schatat that Walked as a Man. Both share the common theme of a wise domestic animal as a helper, but differ in important details. For example, the princess who the third son marries in this story is much prettier.” He smiled.
It was a little game he played. Just to see what the children noticed. He always appreciated when they were clever. The clever children were much better at protecting themselves.
“Prettier? That sounds like a mighty thin difference. What kind of lesson are you trying to teach these kids? That a heroine is better if she’s more attractive?”
The Half-Faced Man looked up sharply, and frowned. The girl stood at the back of the room, her arms crossed. She was young, but not nearly young enough for this group. He’d judge her somewhere in her mid teens, undeveloped for her age. Past the age where she could become a fairy. He smiled pleasantly, with needle-sharp teeth that the girl could not see. “I apologize, but this reading group is for children.”
“I always liked to think of myself as a child at heart,” said the girl, and smiled. “Don’t worry. I won’t interrupt too much. Just if your stories get boring.” She took a seat in one of the empty chairs meant for the children, much too small for her, and squatted down. He studied her features, trying to place her. She was a halfbreed, he could tell, though it was often tricky for him to figure out the precise racial background. She wore her dark hair short, spiked up into a punky hairstyle, and had a leather jacket on, and torn jeans that exposed her knees in a way that, to his judgement, totally defeated the purpose of wearing a jacket.
“Well, anyone who has difficulty reading is welcome at my circle.” He smiled, and continued the story, to the very end. The children clapped and cheered as he finished, enthralled by it. It was true that the story was much the same as Puss in Boots- But the key to a good story was in how you told it. Even a familiar story could become new and exciting, if you told it just right. “Have a good day, children. Oh- But before you go.” He pointed. “You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to three of the children. “Before the others leave, you have questions. I’d like to answer them.” He smiled cheerfully.
The children he’d pointed to looked surprised, even a bit nervous. The teenager sat, and watched. He gave her a cheerful smile. He didn’t mind if she heard. She wouldn’t believe a word of it, anyway. The first- the boy who had asked what a schatat was- swallowed. “Mister, why’s your skin blue?”
“Well, because that’s the color I was born with. Different people have different colors of skin. Of course, I am blue because I am very, very different.” He smiled cheerfully.
“Are you an Atlantean?” asked a girl. The one who’d realized the story was Puss in Boots.
“No. I can see where you might suspect that, but I am quite different from the Atlanteans. You needn’t be afraid of them, at any rate; Children are quite sacred to them, since they see so very few of them.” The Half-Faced Man chuckled.
“What does it mean if I see my grandpa?” asked the third child.
“Well, most likely that your parents have taken you to meet him. You should treat him well.”
“Okay,” said the third child. A young boy, perhaps five or six, his expression concerned. “It’s just…” He stopped, looking nervous.
“Do not be afraid to tell me what you believe. You will never be mocked, here.”
“It’s just… My grandpa died before I was born. My parents had a picture of him on the mantle. He shows up, sometimes, and just… stares at me, in the night.” The boy swallowed. “Through the walls, sir.”
“I’m not a Sir,” the Half-Faced Man said, straightening. “Your grandfather is a ghost. Does he speak to you?”
“No. He just… watches, sometimes.”
“A weak ghost, then. Tell me, do your parents speak of your grandfather often?”
“Not so often. My mom said he was a bad man.” The boy looked away, swallowing. “Is he going to hurt me?”
“I doubt it, sincerely.” The Half-Faced Man tented his fingers. “The dead seldom have interest in harming the living. Particularly their own offspring. No, I suspect this is a much different matter. Your grandfather isn’t harming you, and is incapable of communicating with his children. This speaks to regrets.” He rubbed his chin. “Many a ghost finds themselves with great regrets for behavior in life. It may be that with his mind cleared, your grandfather wishes to reconcile. The next time that your grandfather appears to you, bring him a scone with pomegranate seeds. Speak with him, and learn what he desires.”
“What if he hurts me?” said the boy, in a small voice.
“If he threatens you, warn him that you’ll turn your back on him as well. If he tries anything more, bring salt with you, and sprinkle it at his feet. This will drain him of his power. Try not to do it unless he’s genuinely threatening. Most ghosts would be hard-pressed to harm one of their descendants with anything more than hurtful words.” The Half-Faced man smiled. “Ghosts are nothing to fear, children. They are not cruel or prone to violence. What they need most, so often, is just a little sympathy.”
The children exchanged looks. The teenager was watching him with very sharp eyes. Shockingly sharp, in fact. He had a small thought, and felt a smile quirk his lips.
“What about cats?” asked the boy.
“Very fuzzy, often cute,” said The Half-Faced Man, nodding sagely. The teenaged girl suppressed a snicker.
“I mean… There’s one I’ve seen around a lot. It visits the back of my house, and it hangs out there. My dog doesn’t like it, and barks at it a lot. I…” The boy paused, but seemed heartened by the advice that the other boy had been given. “I thought I saw it change, last night. Into a person.”
“Aaaah.” The Half-Faced Man tented his fingers. “Tricky. Tricky. First, you must determine whether it is a cat pretending to be a human, or someone else pretending to be a cat. The latter can be very dangerous. Leave out a saucer of milk; If you find it tipped over, the milk spilled, then the creature is not a cat, and it means you harm. Such creatures are often paranoid to the extreme; a saucer of milk left out for them is taken as an attempt to poison them, and treated as a terrible threat. If it continues to appear after that… Does your family own any iron chains?”
“I think we have a cooking pot?”
The Half-Faced Man tutted, and reached into his belt, withdrawing an iron chain very carefully, grasping it in his sleeve to avoid touching it directly. “Wrap this three times around your window latch. If the creature is a fairy, it will know you have its measure, and flee.”
“What if it is a cat?”
“If it is a cat, then your dog is simply afraid of cats. You need never fear a true cat, children. The Goddess of Cats is deeply fond of humans, and all of her kin respect her desires. If it is a true cat, welcome it into your home, for it can protect you. Just make sure your dog doesn’t chase it around. That would be very poor hostmanship.” He chuckled, and smiled. “Now. You, child.” He pointed towards the third. A boy who had seen him, but who hadn’t spoken up. The boy looked up, very nervous.
“What does it mean when I see my reflection moving in the mirror?” The boy asked, softly.
The Half-Faced Man stiffened. And he saw the teenaged girl do the same. That was very interesting, and pointed ever more to his growing hypothesis. “That is a terribly dark omen, child. The reflection is a Fetch. They are omens of death, appearing only to the dying. Your life is threatened.”
The boy’s eyes went wide. The girl stared at him. “I’m going to die?” The boy asked, his voice low, tears beginning to glisten in them.
“No. They are an omen of death.” The Half-Faced Man smiled. “Children, fairy tales are an instruction manual. A survival guide. The world is full of monsters, and all too often you must face them on your own. You are blessed with stories which tell you how you can face them, and when you have that knowledge, the monsters flee in fear. But sometimes, you need more than that. You need someone to help.” He nodded. “Never be afraid to ask for help facing the monsters. Now, be about your way. Remember the lessons. And don’t worry, young man. You will be safe.” He looked up at the teenaged girl. “Cassandra, do you mind if I have a word?”
The girl, to her credit, did not show any surprise that he knew her name. That was good, because it had been a wild shot in the dark. He often used such things while exploring in areas that he didn’t know. As the children streamed out, she stepped towards him, studying him. “You’re a weird one. What kind of fairy are you?”
“Weird,” he said, and smiled. “You are a prophetess. You see the future.”
“That is a supremely dangerous gift.”
“Gift, huh?” She shook her head. “I found your calling card. Why did you call me?”
“Not you, necessarily. I knew that someone would find it, and that person would be… important. Powerful.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“Disappoint?” He raised an eyebrow. “How on earth could I be disappointed? I was expecting a mere god.”
She paused at that, and she couldn’t hide the way his words had touched her. He knew how to inspire confidence in others. He’d lived a very long time, gotten very good at manipulating others. It was amazing how easy it could be, particularly when you were genuine. She was better than he could have hoped for.
“Listen,” said Cassandra. “Before we discuss why I came here, and why the heck you wanted me to come here, I need to ask. What was all that about?”
“The story, the advice, or the warning about the Fetch?”
“All of them.”
“The story was to entertain them, and keep something important alive.”
“What, child-like wonder and imagination?”
“If you like. The advice was because what I said was true. The world is full of dangerous things. Fairy tales are the way that we keep those dangerous things from becoming deadly things. They need to be kept alive. The knowledge must be shared.” He smiled. “What have you learned of the Courts of Fairies?”
“Courts?” She asked, frowning. “I didn’t know they had laws.”
“Hah! You’re funny. Reminds me of a friend of mine.” He smiled warmly. “There are four great Courts of Fairy, four seasons, four approaches to life. Mine is the Court of Fall, currently. The Court of Secrets. There are two kinds of secrets. One is the kind that grows less powerful as more people know about it. The other is the kind that grows more powerful.”
“I don’t think that second kind counts as a secret.”
“Semantics,” he said, and winked. “Another important part of this world, isn’t it? So I spread the secrets of how to fight monsters, because when monsters cannot kill humans, they befriend them instead.” His smile faded slightly. “Usually.”
“So why did you tell the boy. He can’t do anything to stop it, and you’re going to try to stop him from dying. Why let him know?”
“Why do you foretell? You know that people won’t believe you. You know that your words are ignored. But still, you try to warn people of what’s coming. Why?” He smiled. “Maybe your reasons are different. But mine… Well. Let’s just say, I have hope. Perhaps the boy can do nothing. Almost certainly, he can do nothing. But there is the slimmest of chances that the foreknowledge will protect him. That in the moment, it will give him the strength, the wisdom, the spirit, to fight on.”
“Or maybe the anxiety will give him a heart attack, and that’s what will kill him.” The Half-Faced Man went quiet for a moment, his face drawn. “I’m sorry. That was really shitty of me-”
“No. It is a possibility.” He smiled again, covering his teeth with his lips to avoid looking too threatening. “I suppose I would rather intervene, and be responsible, than leave it to others.”
“That’s interesting. I talked with someone who said that immortals are put off by caring. It hurts too much to care about mortals. That kind of thing. What makes you different?”
“Well, that one is easy.” He chuckled. “I have no one else.” He stood up. “Now. Something is hunting that boy. The Fetch is simply a guide, a scout, a harbinger of something worse. I would do something about that. Would you care to watch me work?”
She looked at him for a long few seconds, her expression contemplative. Finally, she grinned. “The way you know things. It’s not because you get it magically, is it. You like people to think that, but really, it’s just experience. You got that way by paying attention.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“Well, then it’d be very hypocritical of me to not learn that lesson. Sure. Let’s see how you hunt down a killer.” Her eyes hardened. “But don’t call them monsters. I know monsters. Monster is just a word for something people don’t understand, and want to kill. Monster’s a label we put on because it’s quick and easy. And those kinds of labels are terrible.”
“You’ve met soft monsters,” said the Half-Faced Man, his voice gentle. “You have met them after they faced the blades of heroes and learned to show their belly. Domesticated. Don’t mistake pragmatism for goodness.”
“Really? How are you so sure?”
“Because I’m a monster, too,” he said, softly. He stood up, closing the book, and walked towards the door out into the sunny day.
“You are very young to be a hero,” said The Half-Faced Man as the two of them studied the house. “That speaks of tragedy.”
“Near-tragedy. I got through with everyone I care about intact.”
The Half-Faced Man’s expression shifted, raising the mask slightly in an expression of disbelief. “Really? Cassandra’s talents were incredible, but they were also rather self-defeating. You must be quite the formidable young woman to have saved those around you from the destruction that arrived.”
“I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I was pretty useless, really, aside from guiding around the person who did save everyone.” She stared at the house. “No one died while he was there. All that pain, confusion, chaos… And no one died.”
“That’s very strange. Very strange indeed. Heroes- Their stories are often tragic. People die. Their enemies, at the very least.”
“Well, he wasn’t a hero,” she said, a statement enigmatic enough to impress even the Half-Faced Man.
“God? Monster, perhaps?”
“Probably a lot of people would call him that. But no. He was just a guy.” Cassandra frowned at the house. “So what are we looking for?”
The Half-Faced Man decided to leave this particular mystery to prod at later. You had to know when to pursue a secret, and when to let it slip out. People felt much less guilty about giving up secrets when they thought it was an accident. “Fetch rarely join the ranks of Fae nobility. It is a problem of independence, you see; They are very accustomed to imitating others, and as such, they have little in the way of activity. It is possible this Fetch is an exception, but very unlikely. If it is, it will be relatively easy to deal with.”
“What else could it be?”
“Quite a few things. Most of them, I am qualified to stop.”
“And if you’re not?”
The Half-Faced Man didn’t answer, as he frowned up at the house. “It’s coming.”
He sprang up, unfolding like a grasshopper, leaping to the second floor, and throwing open the window while tossing a rope from his belt down to the ground floor, giving Cassandra a way to reach the room. He watched to make sure she could climb. When he saw her hook her feet into a trellis and begin to ascend, he turned to the room.
The boy’s room was bereft of many possessions. His family was not well off. Not much sign of friends or visitors. A boy prone to introspection and loneliness. That was not unusual. He could feel something else, though. Something cold, and bitter.
“Oh, no,” whispered The Half-Faced Man. “Oh, no, no, no.”
“What?” said Cassandra, even as a shiver ran through her. Whatever prescience she possessed, giving her a hint of what was to come.
“The Palace of Mirrors.” The Half-Faced Man threw open the bathroom door.
The bathroom was empty. A small toothbrush lay on the ground, covered in frost. The mirror stood there, obscured by the thick whorls of frost covering it. The sink had been running, but was now stopped, a column of ice extending from the faucet to the drain, delicate loops and curliques showing where the water had frozen in mid air, rebounding from porcelain. And beyond it…
“Okay, what the hell is that?” asked Cassandra, frowning. “It doesn’t feel like an Underworld. It’s… cold.” She shivered, standing in the doorway. “Really fucking cold.”
“It is the Palace of Mirrors. One of the Hearts of Winter. The birthplace of Fetches.”
“What? I thought fairies reproduced through stories?”
“They do,” he said, staring at the frost. He could feel the cold from here. The loneliness. The utter, mindless isolation. How long had it been since he’d not been alone? “But stories have to live somewhere. I don’t know why. That place is loneliness, isolation, at its most absolute. Where even your shadow, where even your reflection, abandons you.” He swallowed. “I promised. I promised.”
He took a step forward, and sagged, one of his knee joints folding unexpectedly. The sensation was terrifying. The sheer loneliness.
Cassandra took his hand. “Is this place going to make me start thinking I know everything?” She asked, shivering slightly, but far less affected than him. She was young, she was human, she had those she loved and was connected with.
“No. It is not a place close to the Gods. It is much closer to humans, to their emotions. It calls to the lonely. It-” He paused. “Oh. We need to hurry.” He stepped forward, reluctantly, but the touch seemed to banish the cold, at least a little. It was still bone-chilling, mind-numbing, murderous. But he could stand it, for a little while. “We won’t have light.”
“Not my first time dealing with that,” she said. She was quite good at those enigmatic statements, for someone so young.
“We need to find the boy. If the Palace of Mirrors is stirring, it will move quickly. We-”
He stepped through, into the icy cold. The auroras glittered faintly above them, bright red and shining. They shone down on the ice and the mirrors, and they could have been frozen out of tiny drops of blood. The two stood in a vast landscape of gore, blood dripping from every surface. Particularly her hair.
The boy stood, shaking, in her arms, burying his face against her stomach. Eyes that still stared at him in his nightmares glittered green. An ocean of red strands fluttered around her head. And that mouth, full of sharp teeth made of iron, the teeth that bit into fae and turned them into ashes, the end of hope and dreams and stories and love.
A kingdom long, long ago. A blade in his hands. His foe, finally met, finally confronted, as he triumphed over all she’d set in front of him. A child, bleeding to death on the ground, because he’d been too slow to save her. Her laugh, high and cruel, as he raised the blade. The blood, pouring across his hands, so much of it, and it never washed away-
“I killed you,” said the Half-Faced Man, his voice horribly weak.
“War! You found the kid?” asked Cassandra, smiling. “Is he okay?”
“He is,” said War, her eyes turned to the Half-Faced Man with a frown. “Do I know you, fairy?”
“You’re here for me, aren’t you,” he said, softly.
“Technically, we’re here for the child.”
“You can’t have him. He’s under my protection.”
“What?” said War, and Cassandra, at the same time. War peered at him curiously. “I am here to help this child. Let’s get him out of here. The Palace of Mirrors has withdrawn its attention,” she nodded to a wall, where a machete had pinned a Fetch in place in a mirror, “but I would rather not stay longer than necessary. This place can wear on anyone.” She smiled, and a glitter of iron was visible.
Right. Not his land. This wasn’t the same. Those memories belonged to the past, and they were the kind of secret you never shared, not with anyone. He swallowed, hard. “You are here alongside Cassandra, then?”
“Good.” He breathed in, and then out. “We must pool our information. Come, young man. Let’s get you somewhere warm.”
The four of them stepped out of the bathroom. The ice was already melting away, and the cold fled him. The Half-Faced Man reached into his belt, sought for a moment, and then took out a small plush toy. A schatat. He held it to the boy. “Here. You are lonely. That is what called the Palace of Mirrors to you. Loneliness is difficult to banish, because it depends on others. But this is Histist. He is lonely too, and he could use a good owner.” He placed the ancient, quiescent tsukumogami in the boy’s hands. The boy looked at it warily for a moment, but then squeezes it gently. “No need to worry. Histist is old, but very well made. He will not break under your affections.”
He straightened up as the three of them left through the window, closing it behind them. Well, he and Cassandra did. War was gone, and then back again on the sidewalk, a blatant cheat. He’d used to engage in such tricks, when he had been younger, more powerful, and less artful. But it was mostly laziness or impatience to do such things. It was far more impressive to simply slip away when no one was looking.
Finally, the three of them stood on the street corner. The sun was growing lower, but the weather was still warm and cheerful. Each of them seemed reluctant to speak.
“Why did you leave the note?” Cassandra asked, finally. The Half-Faced Man crossed his arms elaborately, fingers intertwining as he tried to calm himself.
“I was once… more than I am now. Much, much more.”
“A god?” asked War, her head tilted, expression curious.
“No. Never that. But I had power, once. I had a path forward. Now, I have only… regrets. The knowledge of what is wrong, because I did what was wrong. I see the mistakes that I have made, that others might. I need power. And I need… a path.”
“Why?” asked Cassandra, but she had an expression that told him she already knew.
“To avoid having it all happen again.” He looked at Cassandra. “Why did you follow the note? What were you seeking in Hell?”
“I’ve got the foresight. Like you said, I know what’s coming. To a degree. I needed someone to help me. Someone who cares.” She looked to the side. “Someone who didn’t already have a lot on his plate.”
“Well, I have nothing but time, as we can see,” said the Half-Faced Man, smiling wanly. “I suppose that a few children will go unprotected.” His eyes turned towards War, and then briefly away.
“You say you were once much stronger. Did you protect children then, too, fae?” asked the woman. She sounded just as she once had.
“It was the child I failed to protect that inspired me,” he said, and smiled lightly, exposing so many teeth. “And how about you, War?”
“My name is not War any more. It is Bella.”
He blinked at that. “That is impossible. You are a Horseman. You are a constant. You cannot give up your name without giving up your being. Your power. You should be nothing more than a human, leaving someone else bearing the name of War.”
“Well,” said War, and she shrugged softly. “I experienced something I never had before. Love can change a person, deeply.”
“Many men love War. It does not change that thing. Men can love gods, and countries, and ideas. It doesn’t change them.”
“It wasn’t his love that changed me. It was mine. But the forgiveness helped.”
That hit the Half-Faced Man like a blow to his midsection, the wind ripped out of him. Had that been what had gone wrong, all those years ago? He didn’t show any of it, not even in his soul. Cassandra’s expression never changed. Instead, she rubbed her chin, and looked at him.
“There are three categories of issues. Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. What we know, what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know. That’s why we need to work together. So we need to share stories.” Cassandra frowned at the sky. “But we’re going to need the right tools, first. There’s a grocery store near here.”
“Oh?” asked the Half-Faced Man, intrigued despite himself.
“Yeah. We need marshmallows.”