Chronicles of the Night: Chasing Shadows

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A Midsummer Night's Scream

Seelie Court Territory, Scotland, June 21st, Night

“We need to evacuate everyone. Now!”

Morgan kept screaming as Nessa stared dumbly out to the swelling spread of fire.

Lorcan dug his hands into Nessa’s shoulders and shook him until he lost the dazed look. “Snap out of it! If the fires don’t surround us first, the humans will. You can carry people – send as many as you can out through the west mountain pass, safe from the fires, and watch out for ambushes. As many as you can, Nessa. When all of this is over we’ll find them, and I’ll find you. Got it?”

Nessa looked terrified, but he gave a brave nod. “Got it.”

“Go.”

Nessa was gone in a blur, stirring up a cold wind in his wake.

The fires were spreading, and it wouldn’t be long before they formed a ring that would encompass and consume the entire valley and everyone in it, and that was only the start of the problem.

“ – WE’RE DOOOOOMED –”

“Come with me,” Lorcan ordered, slamming his palm over Morgan’s mouth. The fairy looked wildly around, panicked and disoriented as they went towards the noise of the Festival. “What happened to you?”

“I was at the party, then I heard them all climbing the mountain – there has to be thousands of them, Lorcan. I tried to raise the alarm, tried to tell you but then... I can’t remember. I was out like a snuffed candle. Now I’m back and I don’t know how, or why I went down in the first place!”

Because you’re the only one who saw them coming when we had time to stop them, Lorcan thought. There were humans in the company of fairies here – no doubt several of them were traitors and had done something to drug Morgan since last they spoke. Nothing could be done for it now. He drew himself up for action, silencing the musicians. He stood on the king’s empty throne, and curiosity spread as fast as the fires around the valley. Was this some sort of scandal, they wondered? Had to be big, if Lorcan was being so bold.

“Listen up!” Lorcan roared, Morgan standing guard on the ground, stoic to the questioning gazes of her friends.

Ribs were prodded, sleeves were tugged, music stopped playing and in moments all eyes were on him.

“See those fires?” He pointed up to the mountains. The fires were beginning to lose their circle-formation, dipping downhill, the claws of a wild beast. The fairies began to look uncertain, nearly fearful.

“It’s the humans. I want all the warriors to stay where they are, apart from those of you capable of transporting people outside the valley. Help who you can. The rest of you, they’re here to kill us! Grab your loved ones and run for your lives! Escape the humans, escape the fires! You can do it! Move!”

They were already running before he finished speaking, pandemonium spreading through the crowd as fairies vanished into the woods and the maze of tents in their twos and threes after escaping the throng of pushing and shoving bodies.

Lorcan stayed on the throne, watching, waiting – panicked, fleeing targets were better than sitting bulls. The warriors tried to help move the crowd in an orderly fashion to little success, and like him, they kept one eye on the fires.

Some began to flock towards him, begging for help or screaming abuse, or both. Lorcan ignored them, shouting orders to the nearest warriors over the crying and screaming as trapped bodies tried to run against each other for this direction or that, looking for the best chance of escape.

One of the protestors got through the warriors at the foot of the throne, grabbing the end of Lorcan’s cape. What happened then seemed to go in slow motion. One moment she was giving him trouble and the next a flaming arrow was poking up from her neck.

He didn’t have time to duck before an arrow shot through his back, to the left of his heart. The throne toppled over, taking him with it.

He fell face-flat, snapping the arrow in two before he hit the ground. By the time he started fumbling, trying to pull the rest of it out of the bleeding wound, the valley was already filled with screams and howls of pain and terror, the stench of death and terror already in the air. The Festival was no more. The massacre had begun and humans, their faces painted dark, flooded the scene at once in their droves and hordes.

Rolling into a low crouch, Lorcan watched as the only family he’d ever known was destroyed. There was only one thing left to do. One thing he could do.

He whipped out his sword and cut through the humans with the ease of a ship’s bow cutting through the sea, and an unstoppable rage. He would die here, with their blood in his eyes for what they’d done.

The fires rose into the black sky as screams filled the night.

*

Minutes earlier, Maeve sat calmly as the cloaked humans invaded the tent, one of them instantly moving to place sword at her throat. He kicked her own sword across the floor. Six of them in total, four with their blades poised to slit the throats of two queens, a king and Aisling.

“Here lie the kings and queens of devils.” The leader leered as he took his hood down, circling the four, feeling assured of his victory.

Maeve made no reply. No one else did either. She glanced towards Nona. The queen was breathing heavily, ready to snap and twitchy as a caged hare. Maeve held her gaze for a moment and winked. Be still for a moment, she prayed. I want to find out what they think they’ll gain.

“What brand of creatures must you be, if even these barbarians swallowed their tongues to plead help from our garrison?” asked the leader. “We’ve heard stories, and we’ve come to help them put an end to your thieving.”

They were Roman. In an instant, all fairies present recoiled. A grave insult it was, that the soldiers would recognise the tribes around them as fair, if rebellious, citizens without giving the Court half a glance. Proving their fears, he spat at Maeve. A glob of spittle landed on the fairy’s cheek. Her expression did not change, but her intent had darkened severely.

“For such feared creatures, you are pathetic in the face of adversity. And you – a human? Do you not feel shame in the presence of these abominations?”

“No, I don’t,” muttered Aisling, her eyes downcast. “And for the matter, I don’t kill what I’m afraid of, thanks.”

With the leader’s back to her, Maeve’s lips curled into a smile. “Oh boys,” she purred, her smile spreading into a sickening grin as all eyes fell on her. “You’d better pray you manage to kill me. Now, carry on.”

Obediently, the man roared, “KILL THEM!”

Maeve nodded to Aisling, swinging her head back. A sword swung harmlessly over her nose. Placing her palms on the rug underneath her, she flipped backwards onto her hands. Her feet collided with the man behind her and knocked him to the ground, allowing her to land safely in a crouch. Before he could move, she put both her palms to the sides of his head. Electrocuted, his body went limp and the remaining sparkles tumbled to the ground. By then, Maeve was already fighting off the other attackers.

At the same time Aisling stabbed her would-be murderer in the leg with the arrow she’d hidden up her sleeve before they entered the tent. The man floundered and howled but made to make another strike with his sword. She was fast and pulled her quiver from where she’d hidden it under the rug, slipping her bow from her shoulder. She loosed the arrow and the man fell with it sticking up through his jaw, into his brain.

She saw the life leave his body and felt sure there would be consequences for this. Still, she wasn’t giving up the magic of these past six years without a fight. She wasn’t going to lose Maeve like this.

Oberon moved quicker than both Maeve and Aisling with a simple flourish of his hand. The man before him turned to rotting flesh and bones in mere seconds as the blue mist spread. The stench of decay filled the tent.

Maeve dodged as a human tried to catch her with a dagger. She butted her forehead into his nose, causing the bone to crunch and the human to shriek. Then, spinning, she kicked the assailant who was trying to sneak up behind her between the legs and, as he fell, she kicked him in the jaw. His eyes rolled back in his head as his brain rattled in his skull.

Watching her back, Aisling shot the broken-nosed one down for her while she was busy.

With a tremendous effort, Nona managed to still the tremors wracking her body. As the leader lunged at Oberon, she stepped in front of the king. She threw her arms out at her sides, splaying her fingers before bringing her hands sharply to her heart.

The shadows in the corner of the tent rushed towards her, coiling tightly around her arms, as sharp whips. She flung them up and the black shadows sliced downwards without a sound, but the trace they left was all too real, lashing strips of skin from the human’s arms, cutting through his clothes, flesh and muscle as easily as a knife would through paper. Deep wounds were cut into his stomach and face, more shadows rising up to hold him in place as he screamed and writhed. Wild, Nona stopped only after she over-reached and cut Aisling’s cheek by accident.

Maeve silenced the human as he howled and wept, kicking him to the ground. The shadows dissolved as she placed a foot on his chest. No one stood a chance against a Celt, and it was a repulsively Roman weakness to underestimate a woman.

“Please,” he begged through tears, snot and blood, his eyes white islands in a red sea, “Don’t.”

Maeve put more weight on his chest, stepping down harshly and cutting off his pleas. By then, the screaming from outside was passing by the tent.

Maeve leaned down close to the human so that his eyes were forced to meet the fairy’s. “Worm, I hope you can walk because I want you to go back to wherever you come from, and tell your people this: Beware the Queen. Because this land will always be OURS!”

She lifted her foot from the human’s chest and the man fled from the tent. Nona sank shaking to the floor, head in her hands. “As the cloud of my madness lifts from my mind, it descends upon the world...”

“That’s what we’ll tell the listeners, if we survive. Someone must’ve told them where we were,” Maeve said urgently, slipping into a pair of boots and tearing away the dragging ends of her dress.

Something hit the peak of the tent. It was a burning torch, and the flames spread rapidly. In response, the Seelie Queen stood and flung a shadow, slicing open the back of the tent.

Maeve turned to Oberon. She had a vision of Atlas before her.

“You’ll save who you can?”

“Of course. I came here to fix your mess, didn’t I?”

“Then leave me. Leave me be,” he mumbled, and sat down among his maps. As the three watched, he picked up his brush and began to paint. “I’ll be here, at Court, if you come back one day. You only need look into the Borderland to find me.”

Aisling signalled for them to hurry, beckoning them to the gaping hole as the tent began to fill with smoke.

“Single file!” Maeve ordered, exchanging her sword for Aisling’s bow and quiver as she leapt to the fore of the posse. The bow didn’t fit her, but she could make do. She was faster with it and it’d save Aisling from getting her hands dirty for the moment. “Queen Nona! Are you ready?”

“I’ll try not to panic,” said the Seelie Queen, striding to her side with a vengeance. The shadows swirled around her and Aisling kept a cautious step behind as they navigated through the burning tents like rats in hell. Maeve retreated to the rear, shooting down any human that came at them. Screaming fairies ran by too, all towards the forest, away from the thicker fires, and in the orange light it was nigh impossible to tell friend from foe. Nona’s shadows crested menacingly over any to cross their path as the other three kept a low profile behind her.

The night was chaos. The tents around them were on fire, the heat slamming into them with the force of a brick wall. All the wonders of the Court, gone, and from a distance came an ear-piercing, heart-quickening screaming. In the distance the mountains too were ablaze, and though the bonfires still burned above all other flames they only served to feed the madness.

This was their extermination, and to escape they would have to survive it all.

*

“Lorcan!”

Morgan pulled the arrow from Lorcan’s back and he bit down on a howl, swearing instead. He jumped up and punched one of the humans in the face before she could sink a sword into Morgan’s back. The human fell down, stayed down and in a leap Morgan was a wolf, ripping chunks out of another.

Lorcan unsheathed his sword and set about slicing down anything without narrow pupils, anyone he didn’t recognise. In moments hills of bodies began to form around him.

In the darkness it would have been easy to tell fairy from human. In the light and heat of the fire, the line was blurred. The human attackers wore nothing that would identify them in the blinding light, adding to the confusion and panic. They had no care, striking down anyone they saw as a threat, even cutting their own people to pieces. It was a free for all.

The Court was overrun and vastly outnumbered. They fought back viciously, loyal only to each other to the end, but for every fallen human ten more rose to take their place. Lorcan had lived through terrible battles, but there was none so terrible as this.

He sliced down a human before he could attack Femi and Lorelei, drawing more attention to himself. Another arrow pierced his waist and he hissed, breaking it and tearing it out. In retaliation, he cut down the nearest human, beat another down with his free fist, and brought his sword back up as more joined the fight.

Morgan had been separated from him, lost to the crowd. Fairies were still running this way and that, praying for an escape. He swung his sword, grazing his arm against the flames. There were other fighters just as berserk: one had become invisible, appearing now and then to strike down the enemy, the stick-fighter was teleporting every which way, a boy who could control ice was freezing the humans in their path and for a glimpse, too far away to reach, Morgan was shapeshifting rapidly from lion to eagle to panther to wild dog. But it wasn’t enough. There were too many humans, and this was only the beginning.

*

Without a cover to keep to the fairies ran, dashing through the blazing tents towards the fighting and screaming. Aisling, Maeve and Nona planned as they ran that anyone who stayed behind would have to keep close to the burning tents and the smoke on the edges or risk being spotted. Before they could reach the outskirts of the massacre, however, Maeve was knocked off her feet.

“Nessa!” she hissed, winded. “What are you doing?”

“There are so many of them,” Nessa whispered, a faraway look in his eyes, just like Queen Nona’s. “Can’t even move in that forest without ploughing one of them down... got blood all over my clothes.” An arrow was lodged deep into his shin. He couldn’t walk, let alone run on that, and they couldn’t risk removing it.

Aisling detangled them and helped them to their feet.

“What to do?” Nona panted, motioning for Maeve to come join her. They edged as far as they could onto the grounds of the slaughter without bringing a gang of humans upon them. It was worse than Maeve had imagined. The tents created a barrier of fire, humans always available to guard the free paths in between, preventing the fairies from escaping easily into the forest. Most of them wouldn’t even make it this far, as the grounds were littered with humans plentiful, and more continued to rush into the fight from all directions, overwhelming the fairies. The ground was red with blood, and it was impossible to make out individual faces against the backlight of the fires.

“If I get startled I’m liable to hurt one of us by accident and if we’re to save anyone –”

“That’s presuming anyone is still alive,” Maeve hissed. “We need stronger fighters to help the injured.”

Her mind raced. “I saw Lorcan in there only a moment ago, I’m sure. He’s the strongest… Oh, even I would find it difficult to tell human from fairy in this fray. Lookit!”

Maeve forced herself to watch. The fairies took advantage of their enemies’ confusion while their enemies took advantage of the fairies’ confusion. There was no order to this fight. It was nothing but a massacre. A slaughterground.

So this is how it ends.

“You could leave with your friend. There’ll be no one to hold it against you,” murmured Nona in her ear.

“But I will. He did things he didn’t have to do for me, and we’re not even friends. And that’s just the way he is, and I want to be selfish and save that. I’ll leave you to gather what survivors you can. Keep out of sight, only kill when you are attacked, and stay along the borders of the fight. We must escape before the next wave of humans arrives – leave without me if you must.” She turned around, returning to the other three. “Aisling, help Nona protect Nessa and anyone she finds.”

Nona spoke again as she handed Aisling the bow, her voice low and barely audible above the flames. “You may find him, but he won’t want to leave.”

Maeve pulled her hood up. “We’ll see about that.” She threw her arms around Aisling, only for a moment. “Protect them if you stay. If I don’t return, thank you for everything, dear friend. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Before she could stop her she sprinted from their cover, leaping over dead bodies and stabbing a human in the jugular mid-air. Landing, she rolled between someone’s legs and came up onto her feet again. She thrust her dagger out behind her and felt it sink into that someone’s chest.

Withdrawing, she ran onwards, details of the scene before her flashing by and sinking in seconds later. Dead bodies were burning and the air rotted with the stench of burning flesh. Overturned food tables offered brief cover, but there were archers everywhere and it wouldn’t be wise to stop for long.

All around her were the sounds of clashing swords and someone was always screaming. The grass was slippery, wet with blood and vomit and it wasn’t long before she almost tripped over a gruesomely mauled body missing its lower half. Butchered children, all around her.

The smoke thickened the closer she came to the bonfires. It made her choke and sent tears running from her eyes as she scanned the massacre for Lorcan. She knew he’d be here, using the smoke as a cover while he cut down all humans in his path. And he would be on the move too, so they wouldn’t have the time to organise themselves to fight against him as a group.

Maeve swallowed, tasting ash and blood. She narrowed her eyes, analysing the shadowy figures fighting here, there and everywhere.

Miraculously she found him, moving about in front of a bonfire, using the blinding light and stinging smoke to his advantage, as she had predicted. Maeve couldn’t make out any of his features but that brute, impassable strength was unmistakable.

Locking onto his position, she ploughed through anyone in her way, stabbing all the humans as she went. She was small and quick, and before they could follow her she was gone, ducking and weaving madly through the warzone. She took her sword from its scabbard somewhere along the way. Her memory was already hazy on the details.

Ducking and rolling to get through the crowd that had gathered, Maeve landed on her feet, back-to-back with her friend. “Lorcan!”

Lorcan had experienced the uncontrollable berserk of battle madness before, but never to this degree. It surged through his body, scoured through his soul. Everyone he had fought to protect for more than a hundred years, gone in this one night. The children he had yelled at, the warriors he had lived with, the friends he had made, all gone. Their home was destroyed.

He was going to get himself killed and he knew it.

Maeve electrocuted the nearest human with a wave of her hand and lunged forwards as Lorcan’s sword went over her head to helpfully stab a fairy killer on her side of the fight. “I don’t suppose – you would consider – saving yourself?”

He thrust his sword deep into a human’s chest, pulling it out just as easily. They were fighting on top of bodies and, as most would think, they did not make the safest, most stable surface to fight upon, requiring artful footwork every second. The two fought their way around the bonfire, leaving a similar trail of corpses as they went.

“I gave as many people as I could the chance to get out of here alive.” Lorcan stopped talking, engaging in a momentary duel with the opposition. It was over as quickly as it had begun, and Lorcan slit his throat. The blood spattered Maeve’s face as she turned to cut down another. The world spun. A face of a friend, weapon of the enemy. They collided under the untouched black sky.

The more they killed, the more humans flocked towards them, even though they were constantly moving through the smoke. They would surely die if they stuck around much longer.

“Lorcan, please! Queen Nona’s waiting for us!” she screamed. Something sliced across her hip, parried on a reflex. The adrenaline and disorientation cancelled out the pain, and she deflected, lunged, stabbed – again, again. They were living on luck, on the time it took the enemy to slaughter another fairy somewhere else.

Lorcan pressed his back closer to hers as she flung a circle of sparks around them both, preventing any of the humans from getting too close for the moment. They took the chance to face each other, their eyes wild.

If they had anything to say they forgot it, appalled at what they saw in the other’s visage.

The sparks faded and they went back-to-back again. Maeve flipped a human over her shoulder and dropped him on his neck. Lorcan parried a sword as it made to chop off his head. He kicked the human in the chest, cracking ribs, and as he crumpled in pain Lorcan pushed him aside, turning to Maeve.

It was impossible to tell who reached for whom, but they did, and then they were running hand-in-hand, praying for life. The sky was still above as hell flew by around them in the orange of fires, the red of blood and the acrid taste of smoke. Their ears rang with screams.

When they managed to return by the luck of the draw, there were a few dead bodies littered across the ground, their bodies sliced, bloodied and withered, indicating that Nona and Nessa had done their part.

Aisling had her bow at the ready, but relaxed when she saw them coming. There were twenty survivors gathered in total, most of them injured. Morgan was among them, and kept her eye on the fight as she let them pass. The stick-fighting teleporter clung to her arm to prevent her returning to the bloody grounds to die a forgotten martyr. Lorcan recognised the other faces, but he didn’t know them well, and he regarded each one as they stood or sat, nursing wounds, some weeping silently. They all looked to Lorcan and Queen Maeve as they arrived.

“Time to leave,” said Maeve hoarsely, taking the arm Aisling offered.

Lorcan slung Nessa’s arm around his neck, motioning for the others to follow as they crept stealthily through the flaming tents. In mouse form, Morgan scuttled onto Lorcan’s shoulder, holding his collar to steady herself. Her head was bleeding.

Nessa groaned, his leg dragging along the ground. “There are more humans waiting in the forest.”

“How many did you save?”

“’Bout thirty. They shot me when I was trying to save another.”

Behind them, Aisling whispered to Maeve, “Are you alright?”

“Of course.” She glanced at her. “You’re bleeding.”

“So are you.”

Maeve blinked and touched her face. Her cheek was scraped, her knees hurt and her hip was beginning to burn. Her dress was torn and drenched in blood, only some of which was her own, and all the while images of gored flesh and mauled limbs were imprinted onto the insides of her eyelids. Whenever she blinked, she was in the centre of the massacre. Aisling squeezed her shaking hand.

The group scuttled in a tight band away through the flaming tents, hand-in-hand like children. On the mountainsides the ring of fire encircling them had grown in size, closing in on what was left of the valley below. Those fires weren’t likely to stop until they’d eaten everything on offer.

The trees surrounding the ruined Seelie Court were on fire too, but there was no formation to the idle flames yet and they found a gap easily. They walked into the forest.

For now, this in-between region was safe, and the bubbling of the river was the only sound. It brought the survivors no peace, the quiet disturbing rather than calming after all they’d seen. It seemed unbelievable that any spot of the mountainside was left untouched, and save for the occasional scent of ash and smoke that blew their way they could pretend the massacre hadn’t happened. Eventually, even the screams faded from hearing.

Lorcan led them at a fast pace. He was quick to react to anything he thought out of place, but few sounds or sights proved worth stopping for. Aisling was supporting Nessa now, Maeve walking swiftly beside them. Queen Nona and the others laboured onwards behind them.

Each sleepy, glazed face became a reflection of all others in the group, apart from Lorcan, who moved without pause, his eyes burning with the ferocious fires of determination. It was this unstoppable drive to continue and cut down anything that came between them and their path that kept them going.

Despite this, a suspicion blossomed and began to crawl its way up along his spine the further they went. If this is one of few escape paths, it said, why had the fire-starters left it clear? Why had they not stumbled into a fight or an ambush?

This took root. As the deafening crash of the waterfall neared, thundering less than thirty feet away, Lorcan brought the group to a halt.

Past this copse of trees was a small open area at the sides of the river, before the waterfall. There would be no brambles to tangle their clothes and prick at bare skin, but the stink of smoke was heavy on the air. The fires were gaining on them, and he feared that humans were waiting.

“Morgan?” he whispered to his shoulder. “You hear anything?”

Morgan nodded her head.

“You know where they are?”

Morgan stood and pointed to the cliff-face with her paw, magic rippling under her fur.

“Anything else?”

She shook her head and woozily hunkered down on Lorcan’s shoulder, nursing her head wound. If there were humans on the rocks they had to have long range weapons. Lorcan peeked through the trees to look for signs of a struggle.

They’re waiting for you.

They all jumped, weapons raised for the kill. Kasumi glared as she stepped out from behind her tree.

“What?” she hissed in a whisper. “Don’t look at me like that. I just saved all of your lives. There are ten men waiting out there with pointy arrows. If you want to die, be my guest.”

“This is the only way out,” Lorcan snapped, keeping his tone low. “Shut them down.”

“I can’t. My shoulder’s broken or something. I can’t concentrate.”

Weak as he looked, Lorcan summoned enough energy to snarl. “You’d better start concentrating or I swear I’ll –”

“I can’t. I swear on my life, I can’t.”

Maeve cleared her throat. “Then we should fight them rather than each other. Where are they?”

Kasumi shrugged and winced, grinding her teeth. “I don’t know. I’d have to get closer to see exactly where they are.”

“Well, hurry, then,” Maeve snapped. “Soon everyone in the valley will be dead. Perhaps some humans will stay in the valley, but most will come this way to escape the flames. And we’ll have to beat that smoke, won’t we?”

They all looked up. Thin wisps of smoke had made it this far, and the thick clouds and flames would be quick behind them.

“We’ve no other options, then,” Lorcan muttered. Kasumi said nothing. “Nessa, can you shoot as fast as you can run?”

Nessa nodded, his clothes drenched in sweat. “Depends whether I can see them or not. The moon is bright, but if they’ve hidden themselves well they’ll shoot me before I shoot them.”

Again, that left only one option, with Morgan without the full abilities of her power. Lorcan clamped his jaw tightly and stared at Kasumi.

“What?” she asked innocently. “Do you need someone’s help?”

“I’ll go out there with you and Nessa,” Lorcan growled, reaching his hand out for Aisling to pass him her bow and quiver. “You’ll put their locations into his head, or I swear by God I’ll kill you before the archers get the chance.”

Kasumi glared back. “Relax. What good would it do me to go out there without having some way of getting rid of the humans?”

Without caring to hear another word, Lorcan supported Nessa against his shoulder and the three walked – or hobbled, in Nessa’s case – directly into line of fire. Towering above them, the waterfall took up his sight and vision momentarily, Nessa the same, but faster than the eye could see the fairy whipped Aisling’s bow and arrow to the ready.

Hidden from sight behind boulders and overhangs on the rocks the fairies had been making to climb, archers leaned forward, taking a split second aim.

True to her word, Kasumi guided Nessa’s shot and in a fraction of that second ten arrows flew through the air, zinging by the waterfall to meet their targets. The archers they could see fell, and even marksmen disguised by fabric as grey as the rock face could not escape Kasumi giving away their positions to Nessa. With the archers dead, the survivors, unable to help themselves, ran and limped from the forest, some even cheering in delight.

But it wasn’t over yet. As Nessa shot down the archers, Lorcan had been devouring every detail of their surroundings, and it took only a moment to see the loosely masked horrors around them. The ground was kicked up and scuffed. There had been struggles here, between the fairies that had come to escape before them and the humans. Worse, the grass not far to his right was flattened in a trail that led towards the riverbed...

The river was red with blood, the bodies of the freshly killed fairies still leaking red fluids downstream. As he spun to yell a warning to the others, he saw a grey hand poking up from the water, a body caught between the rocks.

“RUN!” was all Lorcan could yell as the murderers surged from the trees behind them. A dozen, at least. They must have been waiting for the archers to shoot down the fairies, ready to throw away the fallen bodies, or, in this case, the failsafe in case the archers were disposed of.

The fairies broke into a mad scramble to reach the waterfall before the attackers caught up, but the humans were already too close, springing from the trees around them.

Maeve’s path was blocked first, but she skidded underneath the legs of an awaiting human as he sank into a fighting stance before her. She leapt up and stabbed him in the back of his neck. He toppled to the ground, but there were more to take his place, and in moments she was surrounded. The teleporter appeared beside her to help, swinging her staff down onto the crown of a human’s head. She jumped her own height and disappeared to reappear at Maeve’s other side, kicking another human in the chin, sending his brain crashing into the back of his skull. Careful not to electrocute her partner, Maeve’s free hand zapped the humans’ brains as she danced with her sword to avoid the slice of their blades.

As the rest of the group made the futile run for the rocks, Lorcan pumped his legs, his sword arcing over his head as he plunged into battle.

What these ones lacked in numbers they made up for with skill. Lorcan had be aware of every little move to parry high kicks, rapid punches and ruthless swordplay. They were forcing him back towards the forest.

He manoeuvred into a turn, to face the waterfall once more. What he saw made his blood boil. Four fairies had reached the rocks and had begun the climb, but far above them Kasumi was watching the fight over her shoulder as she scrambled for a handhold.

“What good would it do me to go out there without having some way of getting rid of the humans?” she’d asked.

She had known the humans were waiting to spring an ambush, and had used the fairies to take down the archers. After that, they became her distraction, her means of escape. Their lives for hers.

“Coward!” Lorcan roared, but his voice didn’t carry. Kasumi returned her attention to climbing and he rapidly blocked another sword.

There were three against him now. He batted a spear aside and seized the opportunity to cross the distance between him and his attacker, thrusting his sword into the man’s chest. He spun to block the fatal swing of another opponent’s sword. Their swords met and threw sparks. Lorcan edged forwards until his blade scraped down to the hilt of the human’s sword. He kicked the human’s legs from under him, and as he fell the fairy stabbed down, skewering his sword through his opponent’s ribs. He spun and cut the arm off the last one standing, following through with a slice across her chest.

For a moment he just stood there, struggling to breathe as smoke descended upon them. The fires had reached the river.

Last he’d seen her, Nona had been trapped on the edge of the forest. Her shadows had writhed in a great blackness around her, ensnaring, strangling and crushing any human who dared fight her. He couldn’t see them anymore.

Aisling, Nessa and Morgan had been fighting together. He couldn’t see them either.

*

Maeve and the teleporter were free to run. The teleporter disappeared to search for survivors as Maeve looked blindly through the smoke.

“Aisling?” she shouted, the name hoarse and strangled as she screamed it out. Instead, Lorcan and Nessa ran into her, catching her by the elbows and dragging her towards the rock face.

The smoke cleared, and they all wheezed and sputtered on their knees, free from the fight. They had won. The humans were dead. They were free to leave.

“Help... Nessa,” Lorcan coughed, lurching onto his feet. “Going... to find the others.” He dived back into the smoke before Maeve could protest.

Behind and above, the waterfall crashed into the river and splashed the two with jets of the water as they slumped side by side. Slippery stones and protruding rocks were the only way up, but were treacherous even for the most sure-footed.

Maeve cast her gaze back to the smoke, searching for movement, for Aisling.

“She’s with Morgan,” Nessa panted, grabbing Maeve as she made to run back into the smoke and the flaming trees that were beginning to topple to the ground. “The humans are dead! She’ll be fine. Don’t throw your life away like this – or mine. I need your help.”

Without another word, Maeve hoisted the man onto her shoulders, gritting her teeth against the pain in her side. Nessa hooked his arms around a pointed rock, swinging himself up onto the rough, cold surface with the last of his strength. When he reached out his hand to help her, Maeve was gone.

*

Lorcan found Nona after a short time of searching, lying dead on the ground. Blood loss, by the looks of it. Her smile was gentle, and if her glassy eyes hadn’t stared, unblinking at the sky, she could’ve been sleeping.

The queen is dead, tried Lorcan. It didn’t sound right.

The Court is dead.

Ah... It brought reality home. The Court was gone, save for a handful of survivors, and now that the queen and king were dead everything it had stood for was gone with them.

“I’m sorry. I failed you,” he told her, but the words failed to reach his mouth. What came out instead was a retched cough as the acrid smoke tore into his lungs.

“Lorcan!” someone shouted amidst the carnage, “Lorcan!”

Lorcan looked at the queen a moment longer, brushing her eyes closed when he couldn’t bear it anymore. He came to a shaky stand, raising his sword.

Maeve ran through the smoke, skidding to a halt and blanching at the sight of the body. Her eyes were rimmed with red from the smoke, and she held her cloak over her mouth. She beckoned for him to follow with one hand, her dagger under the tight grip in the other.

“Have you seen Aisling?”

“She’s with Morgan, they’re fine. Let’s go – we can’t search for anyone else.” He could hardly breathe. Maeve supported him and they laboured through the smoke.

They made it back to the waterfall but the fires had ravaged the trees around them. As they tried to get by, the trees began to collapse on top of their path, and they had to jump over the slippery stones of the river to get to the rocks, and got soaked to the skin in the process. With the fires cleared, they bypassed a bleeding and broken human body and scrambled upwards. Nessa was sitting, waiting for them.

In the clearing, Aisling averted her eyes as Morgan knelt by the body, her shoulders trembling. The teleporter’s stomach was torn open, gruesomely mauled. Morgan stroked her cheek with her scarred hand, ending the touch by brushing her lifeless eyes closed and placing a last tender kiss on her lips.

Hatred rolled Morgan’s gut into a knot, and she wouldn’t say a word to the human for fear of slitting her throat out of rage. She turned into a barn owl and flew to the waterfall, perching on Nessa’s shoulder. She let its small brain take her over so all she’d know was a drive for survival and a narrow view of the world that would take days to shake.

Aisling stumbled along the stones in the river, smoke clouding her immediate vision until she found the rock face and stepped onto the grass. Her eyes were burning and her chest ached.

“Aisling!” Maeve called, climbing back down to greet her. “We made it,” she panted, her eyes alight with adrenaline.

“Maeve?”

“Yes?”

“I love you, as you know.”

“I know.” Maeve swept her into her arms and lifted her off the ground. Aisling hugged her tighter as Maeve put her back down, and glanced up in time to see Lorcan swearing, clambering back down towards them.

“Look out!” he shouted, too late. Aisling pushed Maeve out of the way. The pain came, swift and sharp in the centre of her chest, three times. It spread through her body so fast it killed the scream in her throat.

Maeve flinched and pushed the human away – he was dying anyway – and lunged to catch Aisling as she crumpled to her knees. She caught her around the waist, and her friend collapsed over her shoulder, convulsing in her arms before she went limp. With trembling hands, Maeve removed the knife, and almost immediately Aisling lost consciousness.

Killed by one of her own. Gone.

The smoke crowded Maeve’s lungs as the fires drew closer still. Shocked, she could only sit and cradle her friend’s body in her arms as coughs shook her to pieces. She was shaking so much she couldn’t tell if Aisling was still breathing, and it took a moment to realise that Lorcan was pulling her away, carrying her up the rocks.

“NO!” Maeve howled, lunging after Aisling again, feeling the roasting heat stroke her cheek, a tease, a taunt. She was burning, burning, burning with the rest of the world. It was the last she saw.

Lorcan grabbed her by the collar, pulling her into his arms, steadfast as she kicked and yelled and swung her fists for what felt like hours. “She’s gone, Maeve. She’s gone.”

After what felt like an eternity, she breathed in, all her rage and hate and joy slipping away from her, all at once, crushed in her heart at its own expense. She stopped trying to push away, burying her head in Lorcan’s chest as she collapsed.

“She can’t be dead,” she sobbed. “She can’t! Sh-sh-she can’t be gone, not without me! SHE’S MY FRIEND!” She screamed until her voice was gone, cried until her eyes were sore to blink and red as the blood spilt that night.

She felt Lorcan’s arms settle around her. “I’m sorry,” he said, over and over again. There was nothing else he could say. She felt his own tears falling onto her forehead, dripping from his chin.

*

From the mountain’s summit they watched the flames eat away what was left of the valley, their faces aglow with the orange light, the faint smell of ash swept around them on a gentle breeze.

“Let’s go,” said Lorcan as sunlight crept across the distant horizon. It was a welcome replacement for the fires, even though they didn’t belong in the day anymore.

Morgan stood with the four other survivors, helping them tend to their wounds. Nessa watched them and asked of Lorcan, “Do you think many others got out?”

“We’ll see,” said Lorcan, which wasn’t really an answer at all. A pain had wrapped around his heart. That night and the loss he suffered tore something from his soul he could never name or find again. The pain took its place and there would be no escaping it.

Maeve lingered as the other two left. In the valley below she thought she saw a small white flame burn out. She wanted to disappear with it, and would for many years. For a long time the emptiness in her was filled only by memories, and hatred for the ones who’d dispossessed her of her home and all her love. It was the anger of a dying star, but over time she’d rise up more like a phoenix.

“I won’t forget you. I won’t let you go,” she promised. It was a promise that would shape her life and the world around her, but she didn’t know that there and then as she finally turned to walk silently away from it all.

“Don’t forget, Aimee; History repeats itself in small ways.”

Laragh, Wicklow Mountains, Wicklow, Ireland, 30th April, 9:30pm

Aimee woke up gasping, tears streaming down her cheeks. She bolted upright, spinning in her seat, her heartbeat thundering in her ears. She touched her arms, her shoulders, her face. She was herself.

“Oh God,” Aimee whispered through shuddering breaths.

She was in the car still. Someone had laid her out across the three seats in the back. The door was open, letting a cool breeze in. It was sunny outside, almost sunset – not sunrise. They were up in the mountains somewhere, but there was a road underneath the car, and there was a hotel in the distance, across a stone bridge flanked by hills and trees. This was her world, the real world. Not that nightmare.

She caught her breath and got angry.

Furious, she charged past Lorcan, Cairid and Conn, who were sitting on the curb and sharing out sandwiches between themselves. They stared at her as she stomped by into the small shop poking out from the leafy roadside.

“Jam biscuits or chocolate biscuits? I do like jam...” Maeve was at a loss, struggling to choose between the two as she stared at the shelves of food before her. She cradled a tub of ice-cream as she tried to make the decision. “Hello, Aimee.”

“What the hell was that?”

“I was talking to myself. I have an impossible decision to make.”

Aimee glared. “You know what I mean, Maeve.”

“And you know what you saw, girlie,” Maeve said, suddenly serious as the shopkeeper looked at them strangely. “Lorcan sent Della away for what she did. She gave you a copy of our memories. I’m sorry. The massacre wasn’t a pleasant experience, even though I remember little of it.”

“You can say that again,” said Aimee, frowning as she stared at the fairy. She wondered if it was the massacre that had turned Maeve into a raving lunatic or if it had been a gradual decision, because this fairy was not the person she had been two thousand years ago. It gave Aimee a headache.

“It was so weird, so sick. It was like I was everyone at once, and it feels like I haven’t been myself for years and months and seconds all at the same time.”

Maeve tilted her head quizzically. “You’ve been asleep for a few hours. We’re in the Wicklow Mountains now, close to home. What do you mean, you were ‘everyone’ at once?”

“Well, it felt like I was you, Lorcan and Aisling and the rest of them all at the same time, and it was like watching a movie –”

“Aisling?” Maeve said sharply, her eyes widening. The name sounded strange coming from her mouth, rusty and old. Yes, she certainly was not the woman from those memories anymore. She even spoke differently. Then again, they’d all been speaking a language that Aimee had somehow understood...

“But that isn’t possible. Even if Della had copied her memories at the time, they wouldn’t have survived this far along –”

“I’ll be closing up in a few minutes,” the shopkeeper called.

Maeve said nothing more to Aimee, paying for the food and chatting with the woman at the counter. She chuckled as they left. Aimee had a mind full of questions to ask but of all of them she chose, “How do you even get money?”

“By selling skills and avoiding taxes; the same way everyone else does.”

That was the most satisfying answer she’d gotten all day.

“Ooh, a rainbow!” Maeve ran across the road for a closer look. Aimee followed her, ignoring Conn and Cairid. By the time she crossed the road, Maeve was already eating ice-cream with a small plastic spoon she pulled from her pocket. “A double rainbow,” she added as Aimee joined her.

“This must be the end of the rainbow, then. I’m already forgetting.”

“Your brain is rejecting the memories. In a few months you won’t be able to recall anything that isn’t relevant to you. As for Della, she’s not so bad all the time… That night was the turning point for us – after that, the fire spread to others and they come after us with it time and time again. They never stop. Wherever we go, they always find us, eventually. And they always expect us to stand still as they burn small worlds we’ve made for ourselves.” Maeve shook her head and winked. “Want some?”

Aimee looked at the ice-cream, took the spoon and nibbled some. Then, realising how hungry she was, she dug in.

“I said some, not all.”

“So,” Aimee said through a mouthful of ice-cream, “what if I don’t become a fairy? Is there any chance of that happening?”

“It’s this or die, girlie.”

“Oh God,” Aimee wailed, shovelling some more ice-cream into her mouth. It numbed the mental agony with sugary, strawberry goodness. “I never wanted this, you know? There’s a party on this week, I was supposed to visit my granny in hospital tomorrow, next week I was gonna go shopping with my cousins, Mum was gonna see if she could contact her birth mum – and, anyway, I was meant to talk to the guidance counsellor about what college I wanted to go to – I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to college!” She stopped to catch her breath. “Can’t you use magic to fix it?”

Maeve laughed awkwardly.

Aimee stopped complaining immediately, cold in an instant. That was not a good laugh. “Wha’?”

“When I said you become a fairy or die, I am not talking about the Magic Hunters killing you. They can be defeated. Either you Change into a fairy or the Change kills you.”

Aimee stopped eating, stomping her foot in frustrated disbelief.

“The Change is life-threatening. It’s not just physical features undergoing a transformation. Your cellular structure remodels itself to support this energy we call magic. If anything can change, everything can change. Tissues, muscles, organs – it’s dangerous.” She looked from Aimee out over the wall that separated them from the steep drop into fields and forests below. A cool breeze teased the skin and birds chirped merrily as a car drove by. “We are the last real fairies left, Aimee. We’re left to guard the land and watch time pass, grain by grain of sand. One of these days we’ll outlive the hills we call home. Decide for yourself whether that’s a blessing or a curse.”

Tearing her eyes from the scenery, she caught sight of Aimee’s expression. “You look like you need a hug.”

Aimee nodded absently.

Promptly, Maeve lifted her into a bear hug that squished the air from the girl’s lungs and, bringing her back to earth, stole the ice-cream back while she was at it. “You’ll grow up to be a good banana.”

Aimee smiled. Whatever that means. She took a steadying breath and stood beside Maeve, gazing into the distance. She’d never been to the Wicklow Mountains, but they were beautiful in the golden sunset.

She thought of her mum, who’d left behind everything she knew at seventeen, hopping from airline to airline until she ended up in Turkey. She’d learnt the language after less than a year in Ankara, in the days where the Kurds had gone about their daily business, in the years before they were made the underdogs of the country again, before they had to fight to the bone for their culture. She’d promised they’d go together, someday, if it ever died down and if there was money to spare.

“Why don’t you look people in the eye?” she’d asked when she was younger, after school where her teacher had delivered a speech about why you always had to do just that when you spoke to anyone.

“I do sometimes. It’s just a habit I picked up from living in Turkey, Aimee.” At her daughter’s questioning gaze, she sighed and elaborated. “You need a completely different skillset for living in the desert than you do for living in rainy Ireland, so that makes things different from the get-go. When I first arrived, I stayed in the hotel Agatha Christie wrote a story in, you know. Anyway, when I went outside the doorman looked at me like I was mad. He wanted to call a taxi for me, but I just waved and told him I was perfect on foot. So I walked out a few streets, and I soon discovered why he offered. This street was full of taxis and the drivers started shouting out the window in no words I knew, but I understood well enough that they thought I was a prostitute.”

“What’s that?”

“Never-you-mind. It was enough to make me pick up the pace to get away from all those cars, I’ll tell you that much. Then I came to a mosque, and from behind the gate a group of women spotted me with a cigarette held loosely in my hand, wearing a skirt shorter than anything they’d ever seen and they started throwing rocks at me. The translator rushed over, though he kept a very firm distance between himself and myself and he wouldn’t look at me directly. ‘You need to cover up’ was what he warned me. I learned later on that men there were afraid the gaze of a woman is evil and that it’ll curse them. But you can’t come in to someone’s home and fight against their culture, so I went along with it, and it’s taken me years to break the habit.”

She’d lost Aimee at ‘curse’. “I’m going to look everybody in the eye,” she whispered in awe.

In the present, Maeve shook her head, licking away what was left in the tub. “You really are brilliant, though. It’s plain to see.”

Aimee hardly heard her. She had never needed to want for company. Up until now, the most she’d known was the exhausting loneliness that crept up out of the blue sometimes even when she was surrounded by friends. Now she was without a home and she’d never felt more lost, like a punishment for all she’d taken for granted.

Still, Maeve wasn’t unpleasant, and so far she and Lorcan had been as supportive as it looked like they could possibly be. As strange as they were, their generosity was uplifting. The situation, on the other hand, was too mind-boggling to dwell on for the moment. It was best to keep the worries for another day, put on a smile and let it be.

“Have you seen anything about me in the future?” Aimee chanced.

“No. But I know that you are a great change in small quantities, the lone voice in the rain who’ll shout out against a hurricane of ignorance.”

Startled, Aimee turned and realised Maeve had already skipped away. She sighed, followed and called, “Where’s the house?”

Lorcan was the one to answer, nodding to the mountains. “I hope you’re ready for a hike, Grace.”

With grouchiness to rival Aimee pulled a face at him as she walked by, stealing a sandwich. “Who died and made you king?”

He gave her a dry look that made her rethink the question. Everyone, was the answer.

Fairy Cottage

To the casual observer the house was long-forgotten and falling into dismal ruin. Bricks were missing from the greyed walls, slates fallen from the roof were gathering moss on the ground. The windows were dark and boarded up, their glass old and clouded. Ivy had worked its way up the front wall and overgrown shrubs almost obscured the side window. The front door was an old two-part, and in front of the house there was a well that looked better maintained, though not by much.

Tired after the long walk through the valley and up the mountain, Aimee had little care when Lorcan motioned for her not to follow as Maeve led Cairid and Conn into the house.

“You’ve seen the past now. Once you understand it, take only what lessons you need from it and leave the rest in peace. That world is long dead, and anyone who’s looking to bring it back is only chasing shadows.”

Finished the short aside, Lorcan led her through the door now flooded with light. The next surprise was pleasant.

Perfectly painted with care, cream walls cast the warm glow from the light above around the kitchen. The floorboards were loose, but Maeve nodded to Lorcan and said, “He’s getting around to that. Saving it for a rainy day.”

As she said so, Lorcan went to the window at the side wall. The boards were not nailed up to keep out intruders, but placed there to ward off curious by-passers. He took the square of wood from the window and put it in the cupboard under the sink. At the sides of the sink and the window were an oven and a counter, and a cupboard suspended above on the wall. Parallel to the front door was a cluttered book shelf, a point of chaos in an otherwise orderly room.

In the middle of the room a table sat between the bookshelf and the door, four empty chairs huddled around it. At the other end of the room, a few beanbags were piled on top of each other.

Maeve looked up and gave Lorcan an amused grin, folding her arms in silent glee as she took in the children’s bemused expressions.

“Goodnight,” said Lorcan, walking to the door. He’d said all he had to say for the day and saw no point in staying.

“Sleep tight, Lorcan!” Maeve chirped, her attention now directed at their guests. “Come on! Let’s do the tour.”

Maeve dragged the teenagers through the kitchen and into a narrow corridor. “That’s Lorcan’s room.” She nodded directly to the left as they left the kitchen. They were just in time for him to slam the door in their faces.

“And this is the bathroom!” She led them further down the hallway to the next door on the left. Inside a bath, a toilet and a sink were crammed into the small square of a room. A window was above the toilet, its removable boarding propped on the sill. Maeve drew their attention to the bathtub, pointing at the yellow blob sitting on the side. “That’s my duck. Her name is Roger.”

She pushed by them to get back into the hallway. Roger’s black eyes regarded them with cold disdain before the room was plunged into darkness and Maeve led them further down the corridor, halting at a single door that blocked out a mechanical whirring noise.

“This is the generator!” she announced, spreading her arms wide as the door swung open. The electricity generator was large and noisy, so she closed the door and they trouped back the way they had come. “It’s why the lights aren’t so strong. We use it for storage, too,” she added as she squished past them all once again to the head of the line.

It took them some time to notice what was missing, but the strange thing about the house was that there were no clocks, save for the battered old watch on Lorcan’s wrist.

The tour was over and Maeve ushered them into the room opposite Lorcan’s. It was smaller than both the kitchen and the generator room, but it was spacious enough to fit two beds and a wardrobe. It was obvious whose side was whose – to the left was a made bed. The wall beside it had been drawn and scribbled on, mathematical equations, whimsical little thoughts and stick people scrawled all the way up to the ceiling. The mattress sat atop a row of drawers, one of them stuffed so full it wouldn’t close properly. The onlookers took a moment to be surprised that Maeve kept her area tidy.

On the right side the colours were darker and more co-ordinated, but it was messy and unkempt, clothes vomiting out of the wardrobe and sprawling across the room as if the whole body was a territorial cat. The red quilt was in a bundle at the end of the bed, a shelf on the wall beside it. A few books, magazines, lots of make-up, loose coins and other paraphernalia sat on it in a jumble, the books stacked in a slant. The wall on that side was adorned with gruesome art pieces.

Cairid made a beeline for Maeve’s side of the room before Conn or Aimee could make a claim. Aimee sighed and went to collapse on Della’s bed. Though she’d technically slept for some hours she felt exhausted.

“You really are the only ones left,” she murmured, remembering Morgan and Nessa from earlier. They must have lost other people over the years too.

“You’d prefer a welcoming committee?” Maeve teased, taking a sleeping bag from the wardrobe and throwing it at Conn.

“Where are you going to sleep?” Cairid asked, cross-legged on Maeve’s bed as Conn settled on the floor.

“In two thousand years I’ve found that beanbags come in useful in all sorts of situations,” she said wisely, turning the light off and closing the door for them as she made her way to the kitchen. “Have a nice sleep!”

No one returned the goodnight and Maeve didn’t wait for it. Despite aching muscles and bones, Aimee couldn’t help but notice that her eyes adjusted to the dark almost instantly. She quickly convinced herself it was all in her head.

“Love you, guys,” she sighed.

An ‘I love me too’ and a ‘you too’ were returned wholeheartedly. No conversation was made after that as they sank into sleep. They all had too much on their minds.

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