One cold windy morning in 1947, as a mild summer ended, as the first chill winds blew in from the North Sea whispering of a icy winter to come, a man who had once darkened the world was being hung.
He stood upon a gallows, in the small cobbled courtyard of a prison in a small town in Germany. He stood alone, but for the attendants who would kill him, and he stood all but forgotten, too.
High on a rooftop above him, those last few who cared were watching. High on the impossibly steep-sided, slippery, tiled roof, perched precariously but also securely,
the devil and the council of fallen angels stood and looked down into the courtyard, waiting for the end. They had watched as the man was placed upon the scaffold, and words were spoken to and for him, and now they watched as a trapdoor swung open and the man fell, and died, and with him his schemes and plans.
“Well then,” the devil said. “That is that. It is a shame, but it is done.”
“A shame indeed,” the council murmured agreeably. It was prudent to agree when the master of darkness spoke. “It had seemed a good plan, master,” one of the more senior added.
“It was a good plan,” the devil said, disinterestedly. “For a time it was. But all things end, and so did this, and now we shall move on.”
The council watched a little longer, as the body beneath them swung on its rope, watched as doctors and attendants made sure the man was dead and then began to get ready to take him down. The council was in no hurry. They felt neither the cold nor boredom. They could take the time to watch the end of this thing they had started so many years before, and to reflect on what could have been.
All but the youngest of the council watched.
The youngest was looking elsewhere. The youngest was thinking, brooding, plotting again in that way it had which so unsettled some of its peers. The youngest had come very late to this side of the great conflict and had a temperament which was sometimes a little too clever. It thought too much, and plotted a little too ruthlessly, and even now, as the rest of the council looked down into the courtyard where the execution was taking place, the youngest was looking the other way, outside of the prison, beyond its walls, down to a small cleared space where the children of the town sometimes played.
Children were playing there now. Their shouts carried faintly up to the prison roof where the council stood, as did creak of the rope as the hanged man swung.
The youngest looked, and thought, and had an idea.
It had an idea it felt obliged to share.
“It is a shame,” the devil was saying, watching the hanged man swing. “But never mind. The law is the law, and we obey. We remain unnoticed. We do not reveal ourselves with certainty. We do all we are permitted, and we do no more, and that is the way it has always been.”
The council murmured agreement once again.
The council murmured, and then fell silent, and then the youngest among them, still looking the other way, carefully cleared its throat.
The council was surprised. All looked over, a little shocked at the youngest’s presumption and recklessness. All looked except the devil, who still watched the courtyard, as the hanged man was taken from the gallows.
The youngest of the council cleared its throat again, seeking attention. Seeking it a little desperately, some of the older council members thought. As desperately as a mortal would, a mortal who had no awareness that time was nothing and patience could endure forever.
“Speak,” the devil said, after a moment. To the council’s relief, the tone did not seem annoyed.
“Do we wish to continue what we began,” the youngest said. “Do we wish to bring down our enemy’s church, and accomplish what we failed to do here?”
“Of course,” the devil said.
“Then there is a way,” the youngest said. “Not a pleasant way, but there is a way.”
A pause. A hesitation. A bird flew past, and looked at them all, and then flew away again, unsettled. It saw them, as all animals did. They were only hidden from humans eyes.
“Speak,” the devil said. “But be wary.”
“The children,” the youngest said, and pointed outside the prison, to where the town’s children played.
“What of the children?” the devil said impatiently.
“To bring down our enemy, we must bring down our enemy’s church, that is what you have told us, master.”
“So I did,” the devil said. “Oh my.”
The youngest ignored the tone. “Yes master,” it said. “And you have also said that if we attack our enemy’s church, and only the church, not our enemy itself, then our enemy cannot interfere and stop us, for that is the covenant we all have made.”
“Indeed,” the devil said.
“Which is why this, all of this, this war, and the suffering it caused. It was to corrupt our enemy’s church and show it for what it is.”
The devil nodded disinterestedly. “Of course. But it did not succeed. At the last moment the weak grew strong, and stood up for what was right. So it was all a waste.”
“Yes master,” the youngest said. “But why not try again? Try the same plan again, but this time with children?”
“Corrupt the children?” the devil said. “How would that…”
“No, master, corrupt the church by way of the children.”
The devil thought. “How?”
“Find those among the church who lust for children…”
“No,” the devil said, and the council shuddered, too, all together, all at once, for even the council of darkness found some things repugnant. All felt distaste, and some hissed disapprovingly. The youngest among them was a little too clever, at times. This was not their way.
The devil sighed. “Speak, but be wary.”
“We find those who may stray,” the youngest said quickly, ignoring the continuing hisses. “Who would be tempted to stray. And we inflame their lust, and give them protections, give them concealment, and let them do as they will to the innocents.”
The devil was reluctant. That reluctance was clear to all the council. “It is wrong,” the devil said. “We ought not go that far…”
“We ought,” the youngest said. “We must. If we are to win.”
The devil looked up, thoughtfully. The rest of the council drew back a little from the youngest, drew back warily, creating a cautious space.
“Master,” the youngest said quickly, knowing its peril. “I beg you, hear me out…”
“This is wrong,” the devil said again.
“Indeed,” the youngest said. “Indeed it is, master, but it will succeed all the same. Not for the suffering of the children, but for the corruption of the church as it tries to hide what has been done in its name.”
The devil thought. “That assumes they hide it. That they do not admit to wrongdoing, and punish the one responsible, and then humbly move on.”
“They will hide it. I am sure.”
“How are you sure?”
“They will try and hide the wrongdoing that happens within their walls,” the youngest said. “They will try. It is humans’ way, especially humans with power. And most especially these humans. They are weak, and old, and afraid of all that is in the world, and terribly afraid of losing their own exalted positions. They are greedy for their own careers, greedy for their robes and palaces, and greedy to keep the privileged of counselling kings. We can use that greed, and we can make their fear worse, as well. We can do these things as we always have, by whispering in their ears at night and by changing the world around them. We can prod at their fears and at those of their followers, and manipulate their ranks until only the weakest among them rise to positions of leadership. And then, once that is done, then we can use the children, use the defilers of children, and the old, weak ones in charge will lack the courage to condemn their own, and then their church will be corrupted.”
“Perhaps,” the devil said thoughtfully. “Perhaps.”
“They will, master,” the youngest said. “Think how humans are. Think of pride and stubbornness. Think of how quickly the world changes. From one small crack a wall tumbles. From a raindrop a flood begins. If we do this, in two generations the church will be discredited, their buildings emptied, and they will be unable to preach a word without crowds laughing in their face. In three generations, the priest’s collar will be little more than the mark of a monster, a molester of children, and then our enemy’s church will be no more.”
The devil thought. “This almost seems possible.”
“It is possible, master.”
“But also very wrong.”
“It is a war, and what we must do.”
“In war the disagreeable must be done to win.”
The devil thought, and then nodded slowly. “Very well,” it said. “But you will pay for all the suffering you cause if this is not successful. If all that pain is wasted and comes to nought.”
“I understand,” the youngest said.
“You will pay,” the devil said again. “You. For all eternity. So be sure this plan of yours succeeds.”
The youngest nodded, and bowed its head politely, and then went to begin its work.