“Sir Death, you’re going to leave soon, aren’t you?” Rumpelstiltskin said just before taking a too-large bite out of an apple. It would stop him from talking for the next few moments, but he would be waiting for his shrouded friend to respond, anyway.
The reaper looked down at him with pale eyes and seemed more gaunt than usual, his high cheekbones even more pronounced, and though he did his best to smile with those thin lips, Rumpelstiltskin could hear the sigh Sir Death was hiding from him.
“Yes, child, soon I will have to depart and take souls from this world. I am sorry our time together has been so short this time.” He used his scythe as a makeshift cane as they walked down the dirt road. “My job requires much of me.”
“I understand,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, his words flavored by his mouthful of apple. Once he swallowed, he pouted at his depressing friend. “Do you know how many people you have to reap this time?”
“I… never know, child,” Sir Death admitted, breaking eye contact and staring ahead wistfully. “I just go where the feelings take me, and bring peace to those in pain.”
“It’s an important job, isn’t it?” the imp asked, trying to jump along the pebbles and rocks scattered along the dirt road. “Without you, there’d be lots of souls everywhere, right?”
“Yes, Rumpelstiltskin, something like that. It would give a normal human quite a fright if they were able to see them. Fortunately, most do not have the ability, but my services are not for them,” the reaper said, his gaze penetrating further than the mountains ahead. “Those who are trapped here, their pain is more than you can understand.”
The older man hesitated, but then set his hand on Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder.
“I misspoke. I have a feeling that you would understand, given the chance,” Sir Death commented before withdrawing his hand. “But it is time for me to go, child. I hope you have many adventures before our next meeting.”
“I will! Well, I’ll try,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he puffed up his chest and then immediately deflated. As the reaper drew a sign in the air with the end of his scythe, Rumpelstiltskin had a peculiar idea. “Sir Death… may I come with you?”
“I…” The reaper halted his scythe in the air before turning back to his cursed ward. “You would come with me to reap souls? That—”
“It’s alright if you don’t want me to come, I just thought it’d be nice to see what you do every day. Maybe I’d… understand better,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he dragged his toes through loose dirt. He felt ashamed for even asking, but then he noticed Sir Death had crouched down to look him in the eye.
“This would not be an adventure, child. You would see people in pain, in anger, in fear. To come with me today would be to open your eyes to another world beyond this; to see behind the veil of happiness I gave you with this curse. Even my magic would not save you from feeling unthinkable sorrow.” He had hoped to dissuade the cursed boy, but Rumpelstiltskin shrugged and dug his hands into his pockets.
“I’ve felt sad before, and I know I’ll feel it again.” He frowned, but then lifted his head to look Death in the eye. “I want to see what you see. I want to feel what you feel. I want to know what it’s like for you when you’re not adventuring with me. If I knew, I might be able to help out more when you come back the next time.”
“Child…” The reaper’s pale eyes shook with emotion, but eventually he smiled and stood to his full height. After stepping to Rumpelstiltskin’s side, Sir Death set a hand on his shoulder and then started drawing the same design from earlier. “Are you sure you wish to join me?”
“No,” Rumpelstiltskin admitted, but he still looked up at his friend with a smile, “but I feel like I need to.”
“You always surprise me,” Sir Death said before turning forward and finishing the design in the air, which crackled into life with blue electricity. Once the energy collapsed into the center, a vertical white tear in existence formed in front of them. As soon as he felt something pulling him forward, Rumpelstiltskin instinctually wrapped his arms around Sir Death’s midsection, but comfort and serenity seemed to flow from the hand that was still on the imp’s shoulder.
When the light became overwhelming and swallowed them whole, Rumpelstiltskin was not afraid.
Once he was able to see, a modest living room lay before them, with only one window at the far end of the room which let in golden light. It took his eyes a moment to adjust, but soon Rumpelstiltskin could see that he and Sir Death were not alone; there were three other people there who did not seem to notice their appearance. Two women—one middle-aged, one in her adolescence—were organizing rags and bandages and squeezing water from those bandages into waiting buckets. Before he looked at the man on the bed, Rumpelstiltskin could see the water dripping from the bandages was tinged with red and yellow.
“Where are we?” Rumpelstiltskin released his arms from Sir Death’s waist and walked forward so he could inspect the bedridden man.
He was sweating profusely—moaning without sound—and half of his skin was covered in bandages. When one fell loose, Rumpelstiltskin saw pockmarks and raised patches of skin. Yellow and red spots bloomed underneath some of the fresh bandages, and the imp had to assume he was very sick.
“I am not sure, child. We are in Europe, but it’s hard to tell more than that,” Sir Death said as he walked up to Rumpelstiltskin’s side. He narrowly avoided one of the women trying to do her job, and the imp wondered why they were being so reasonable and quiet about these strangers in their living room. “My guess is one of the eastern territories of the Holy Roman Empire.”
“Why are they…”
“Ignoring us?” A wry smile was on Sir Death’s face. “They cannot see or hear us. If they were to touch us, it would feel like air, and they would move around us without knowing we were ever here. Unfortunately, the spell makes it so that we cannot hear them, either, but that will change once I undertake my duty.”
“Is he… dying?” Rumpelstiltskin’s voice was too weak to tremble, and he watched as Sir Death sat down next to the writhing man.
“In a way. If left to his own devices, he surely would, but these nurses are taking very good care of him, so there’s no real way to tell. However, Rumpelstiltskin, I am not here to kill him.” The entire time, Sir Death had watched in sympathy, as the man had gasped for air and then sent himself into a coughing fit.
“He is in very great pain, and by some miracle, if he were to survive, it would be as a leper. This man, this occasion… I am here to give him a choice.”
“What kind of choice?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, though he already knew the answer.
“If he wishes to stay here, or go in peace.”
Sir Death set his hand on the man’s bandaged forehead, and the man’s body went slack, his veins stopped pulsing out of his skin, his fingers uncurled. Though still affected by his illness, he turned to look at the reaper sitting on his bed. He was at first relieved, but then he saw the scythe in Sir Death’s hand.
“No… You come for me, specter?” The man was terrified, but he did not have the strength to crawl away. Instead of taking offense, Sir Death simply rubbed the side of his thumb along the man’s forehead and offered a sympathetic smile.
“Only if you wish for it. You may have more days in front of you, if that is your choice. It will quite literally be the fight of your life to survive this pox, and you will not emerge unharmed. The disease has already taken hold on your skin, and the people you meet will fear and mock you for the rest of your days. I do not say this to be cruel, but to educate you.” The reaper paused, and Rumpelstiltskin could tell he had repeated this sentiment too many times.
“So you come here to mock me as well?” the man asked before turning to his nurses. They ignored these strangers who had come to his living room, and he tried to scream at them. “Why do you do nothing?”
“They cannot hear us, and once I am gone, you will not remember my visit,” Sir Death explained, earning the man’s attention. “I am here to give you the option to leave without pain—to go in peace. Whether to the hereafter or to oblivion, I could end your pain now. No one would blame you if you choose to surrender.”
“Surrender! You… you…” the man started, his face twisting as he gave into anger, frustration, indignation, the absurdity of it all, but then something changed. Something dark and lonely haunted his gaze, and he looked at Sir Death in a different light. “You could take this from me? Will I go to Heaven?”
“With certainty, I only know that I can take this pain. To reach Heaven… there is no guarantee for anyone. The afterlife has laws and rules I cannot hope to understand,” the reaper admitted, setting his palm against the side of the man’s face. “The only aid I can give you is this mercy. If you are weary, I can lay you to rest.”
“Will they… will they be alright without me?” the man asked after a second, and Rumpelstiltskin turned to watch his grim reaper. Though he hesitated, Sir Death eventually lowered his head.
“I cannot know. Most assuredly, they would suffer for your passing, but—”
“No further. I… understand,” the man replied, putting out a hand to stop the reaper before he became too far removed from decency. In a quiet moment—almost serene—the man looked to the women trying to clean the bandages from his sores. “They do not deserve this.”
“I would not make this decision lightly—”
“No,” the man interrupted with a fierce shake of his head, and he settled his gaze on the family that meant so much to him. “It is a mercy for both of us. Just… make it quick.”
“If nothing else, I can promise you that,” Sir Death said, and he whispered a few more words into the man’s ear, too faint for Rumpelstiltskin to hear. Once the man nodded, Sir Death set his hand onto the man’s heart and let it glow with blue light. The man filled his lungs with air one last time, seemingly at peace, but that was the end of it. When he let go of that breath, Sir Death took his soul with it.
“He let you kill him…” Rumpelstiltskin said after a moment of silence, and the reaper took that as his cue to heave himself off the bed and return to his living ward.
Once Sir Death was by his side, the two women seemed to notice that the poor man had stopped breathing. They frantically started trying to gain his attention, push on his chest, open his eyes, but it was not long before they realized they had lost their husband and father.
“He let me end his pain, child. Sometimes, that is all I can offer.” Sir Death lowered a hand to Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder and took hold with a firm grip. “Their pain now is sharp—overwhelming—but eventually it will become dull—an ache that comes with a familiar scent or a sudden breeze. It will be a pain borne from love and affection, and however tragic, it will be one they wish to remember.”
“Will he go to Heaven?” Rumpelstiltskin asked just as a dimensional rift formed ahead of them, but Sir Death had enough time to answer.
“I do not know, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say no. It is very rare for a soul to make it to the afterlife, and Hell is just as likely a destination.” The light from the rift grew and reached for them, warm tendrils of energy grasping hold of their clothes and skin. “Traveling between the two is possible, but still difficult.”
“But it’s possible?” Rumpelstiltskin looked up at his cloaked friend, but Sir Death kept staring into the light.
“It is, but unlikely. Those who struggle to live—who are defiant against the odds—have a much better chance of reaching the next world. Those who choose peace and serenity, who surrender to the pain…” he started, but the light took hold of them and he could not finish before they were hurled to their next destination.
When they arrived, they found themselves in a windy, miserable field. The grey clouds overhead spoke of storms to come, the wind tore comfort from them, and even the spots and patches of greenery on the ground nearby seemed almost sinister.
Then Rumpelstiltskin saw that there were dozens of grey stone slabs scattered around the field.
“This is a graveyard…” Rumpelstiltskin was so distracted that he almost didn’t notice the woman in the blue dress, who was standing over one of the smaller stones.
Then he realized it was not a dress, at all. Every inch of her was colored in that pale shade of blue.
“In a manner of speaking, child,” Sir Death said, already walking toward his next responsibility. Even though he was afraid, Rumpelstiltskin was pulled along by the firm grip on his shoulder. “This place has been a battlefield for centuries, and each of those markers represents a different slaughter. Mankind never fails to give into its animalistic nature, eventually.”
“And who is this woman?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, grabbing hold of Sir Death’s cloak as if it was his mother’s skirt. They were only a few yards away from the woman now, and she had turned to notice their approach.
“A victim of that nature.” Sir Death planted the blunt end of his scythe into the ground, just in time for the woman to regard them with contempt.
I will not leave, reaper. My love lies under this soil, and he would not leave without me. A woman’s voice had come from the ether, and Rumpelstiltskin was too scared to find out why her voice sounded like that.
“I do not doubt that. Many times, I have seen love conquer the laws concerning death.” Sir Death replied, but Rumpelstiltskin could tell that it was only a small concession. Compassion was evident in his tone, but he did not waver. “When your love left this world, I doubt it was willingly.”
Did you take him? the woman asked without moving her mouth, her ethereal words rising on the wind in anger. The imp huddled even closer to his shrouded friend, but Sir Death stood resolute even as he shook his head.
“No, I did not, but he is not here. You are the only spirit present today, and I’m here to help you to the next step of your journey.”
The blue shade shook her head and then flickered out of existence, reappearing a few feet closer.
I do not want a next step! Not without him! I need to be here for him! He is my light—my stars—and I will not let you take him from me! she screamed, flickering between a dozen furious expressions along the way.
Rumpelstiltskin had to cower behind the reaper, and he flinched with each erratic change. When he looked back at Sir Death, he did not understand why the reaper was unaffected.
“Your light is not here, fool girl. You do not trust me to know the dead?” he asked, but the woman merely pointed a wisp of a finger at the reaper.
I am staying.
“No, you are not.”
Before Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes, Sir Death lifted his scythe and cut through the spirit, her energy dispersing with an agonizing scream. When the echoes of her spirit disappeared into the ether, Sir Death and Rumpelstiltskin were left alone with those dozens of grave stones.
Disheartened, Rumpelstiltskin let go of the reaper’s cloak and then walked forward to place his hand against the closest marker. It was rough, aged and eroded, and whatever they had written on that stone had faded centuries ago. After a moment, Rumpelstiltskin turned to his friend in sorrow.
“She didn’t want to go, Sir Death.” He had hoped that the reaper would give him some nice and surprising answer, but hope stood no chance against this arbiter of fate.
“Most spirits who remain on Earth want nothing more than to stay. They have fooled themselves into thinking that this shade of life is worth the effort. Eventually they give into loneliness and madness, deny everything—even the obvious—in order to keep their last remnant of life,” he explained, looking at the ground once he was done. “While I sympathize, they must be removed in order to maintain the balance.”
“The balance? That poor woman had to go because you needed to maintain a quota?” Rumpelstiltskin had been more indignant than intended, and from Sir Death’s body language, he clearly resented the claim.
“That is my job, child. The more souls who wander, the more chaos I invite to this world. Their existence on this plane affects more than haunted houses,” he snapped, but once he noticed the despair on Rumpelstiltskin’s face, he abandoned his severity. “This was not the first time I spoke to this woman, Rumpelstiltskin. This is the third time the magic has brought me to this same scene.”
“But she didn’t recognize you…”
“She wouldn’t. This one gave into madness years ago, and she did not have the capability to remember me. I had left her to her devices because I could not help but feel sympathetic, but this was her last chance.” Sir Death sighed as he worried his palm against the handle of his scythe. “Eventually, Rumpelstiltskin, I am required to use force.”
“She was just waiting for her lover, wasn’t she?”
“She was, but he had disappeared long before. She did not trust me when I said that I had taken all the souls from this field. The truth, Rumpelstiltskin, was that nothing became of him,” he admitted while yet another white tear in reality manifested in front of them, but he would not try to escape this explanation.
“That is the cruelty of the afterlife. Those who make it to the other side often have no one to greet them, to join them. The ones who adjust best are those who treat it as an entirely different life. Their first lives are destined to become distant memories.”
“And this is what you have to deal with every day?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, and Sir Death could only stare at his young friend. As the light reached out for them, he crouched next to Rumpelstiltskin so they were the same height.
“Not every day, but often enough,” he replied, and the imp could not hold himself back.
Before Sir Death knew it, Rumpelstiltskin’s arms were wrapped around him, stronger than they should have been. Leaning down to rest his chin against the imp’s shoulder, Sir Death closed his eyes and set his free hand around Rumpelstiltskin’s back. He was grateful that his cursed ward did not see the stoic mask slip away.
“I’ll make sure our adventures make up for it,” the imp whispered before letting go of his friend, but the reaper still held him close. That moment was over soon enough, and Rumpelstiltskin stepped back just as the light was about to take them. “I think I’m done for today, though.”
“I know, child. This light will take us back to that dirt road. I knew you would not want to be with me for long,” Sir Death said as he stood back up, but Rumpelstiltskin shook his head and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“It’s not like that, Sir Death. I’ll always come with you on these trips if it’ll make you feel better. It’s just that… I like to focus on the good parts. The living parts. The dreaming parts. The magic parts. I know you have to do what you have to do—and I’ll help you when I can—but the best parts of adventures are the middles, not the ends,” he said, looking into the light swarming around them and feeling that otherworldly warmth. “Even if I do make it to the other side, I don’t want to miss anything on this one.”
“I… would not want that for you, either,” Sir Death said just as the light overtook them, but he was still smiling when they arrived at the dirt road where their journey had started. “I promise I will only ask if I need you with me. How about that?”
“Alright! But you better!” Rumpelstiltskin put his hands on his hips and tried to look imposing, even if his spectral friend was two feet taller. “I know how lonely you get, and everybody needs a traveling companion.”
“I…” Sir Death was flustered as he considered the imp’s nature, but eventually he shook his head and drew another sign in the air with his scythe. The dimensional rift formed once more, but he turned back to Rumpelstiltskin before it swallowed him whole. “I will let you know, Rumpelstiltskin. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Sir Death!”
Rumpelstiltskin waved both arms ecstatically and kept up the display until the rift disappeared, as if it was never there. For the moment, he was alone, but Rumpelstiltskin knew he was better off than the reaper who took such good care of him. Until today, he had no idea what Sir Death went through, but it was knowledge he had needed. To ignore his pain would have been disrespectful; to let him keep that sorrow to himself would have been cruel. Though Rumpelstiltskin now shared some of the reaper’s burden, it was a burden he was willing to carry.
After all, with an immortal friendship like theirs, he would never let Sir Death suffer if he could do something about it.