Rumpelstiltskin stood in front of an imposing tower, and no amount of adventuring or falling down holes had prepared him for how spooky a building could be in the middle of a swamp. It was about four stories tall, but Rumpelstiltskin would never have found it intentionally. Even in the twilight, it barely stood out against the dark, gnarled branches of the nearby trees, slick with moss and grime and things Rumpelstiltskin did not want to comprehend. If he had not been chasing a frog—one that had escaped easily once there was a tower to distract him—the imp would have been content to leave this part of the swamp unexplored.
However, now that the tower was looming over him, Rumpelstiltskin could not look away.
“I bet there’s…” he started, losing his place in his own thoughts before remembering he was talking, “I bet there’s plenty of fun things in there.”
“Wait, no,” he interrupted himself, shaking his head and stepping back, trying to think of something but instantly forgetting. Again, the tower drew his gaze, and he was helpless to ignore it. Without control of his own actions, the imp shuffled forward. “One… one peek wouldn’t hurt.”
Something was nagging at the back of his mind, gnawing like an old dog with a bone. Deliberate, drawn-out, but still weak against the tower’s pull. The bricks and mortar, the vines growing up its side, the darkness lying behind the archer’s windows scattered along its decrepit architecture… it whispered hundreds of untold mysteries. It seemed the tower could fall at any moment, but the growth along the bricks stubbornly refused to let it crumble or falter against the mires of the swamp. A reasonable soul would never have ventured further, would not have wanted to encounter the danger of either the tower or whatever evil most certainly dwelled inside.
But as we have witnessed many times already, Rumpelstiltskin was not known for being reasonable.
“Just one peek and I’ll turn around,” he argued, forgetting there was no one to argue against him or steer him to the obvious course. In the absence of any detractors, he almost convinced himself that it was a good idea. However, even Rumpelstiltskin knew the tower’s foreboding nature was no mistake, that there would be plenty of misfortune to come if he should pass the threshold. That did not stop his feet from moving forward, but he knew, deep down, that approaching this tower would be folly.
And once his hand was just about to touch the handle of the door, even then a part of his brain raged against him and tried to get him to return to his naïve, innocent little life. Dark magic and forbidden arts pulsed and beckoned him from beyond the aged, rotting-to-the-point-of-crumbling oak door, tempting him more than anything he had ever encountered. All that reason—that gnawing on his brainstem—none of it meant a thing compared to that temptation; all it did was force Rumpelstiltskin to pause as he looked up at the tower stretching to the clouds above. It was much darker now, in the shade of the ruined fortress, and Rumpelstiltskin knew that the stars, the moon… that nothing would save him.
Yet he still grabbed the brass ring of the door and pulled, the hinges protesting and whining as if to warn him one last time.
Once he stepped through and let the door close behind him, Rumpelstiltskin had to wait for his eyes to adjust. Even at night, the world outside was much lighter than the inside of the tower, and it was a frightening few seconds as the imp stood alone and in the dark. He felt doomed—even more cursed—but then what light there was allowed him to see. There was almost nothing on this first floor; just a hearth and a few bookcases that smelled so badly of mold that Rumpelstiltskin wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the tomes were written on the stuff. As intriguing as it was, the imp was only momentarily interested before seeing the flicker of candlelight coming from the top of the spiral staircase that lined the walls of the tower.
Without thought, intention, or any sort of free will, Rumpelstiltskin approached the stairs and scaled the tower. Through his shoes he could feel the cold of the stone sapping away his warmth and vitality. This was not a place for the living or the happy; this was some sort of crypt for hopes and dreams. Every inch of this tower demanded sacrifice, it seemed, and Rumpelstiltskin was only just barely conscious of what it was taking from him. He didn’t realize that he was supposed to turn around, that the tower and its owner did not want him. It was designed for this, but the imp’s childlike mind only thought this was another misadventure.
“Hello?” he asked against the darkness once he reached the second floor. He had expected there to be someone to greet him, to yell at him—to show that there was more life in this tower than a cursed child—but the candlelight had led him astray. This level was more cluttered; there were tables with open books, glass vials and bowls in copper contraptions and a wooden apparatus that looked like a large, diagonal cross with leather straps at the end of each arm. Rumpelstiltskin wondered what that was for, but then he remembered that not everyone was as nice as him or would ask questions the same way.
Shivering, Rumpelstiltskin debated on finally leaving and giving up on this adventure, but then he heard a muffled voice from the staircase. Looking at the entrance to the third level, he realized that his only companion was much further than that. The voice was weak—even if it seemed like the person was shouting—and that could only mean that the imp would have to climb two more sets of stairs. The third floor promised darkness, so Rumpelstiltskin gulped down air and a healthy dose of fear. Approaching this candlelit room—which told of horrors the imp would not allow himself to imagine—had already been a trial. To continue further would be to put his immortal soul into very real danger; Rumpelstiltskin knew this without question.
But he still put his tiny foot onto the first step of the staircase, watching the darkness of the third floor with dread.
Keeping his eyes locked on the opening, Rumpelstiltskin started to have trouble breathing normally. He would keep the air in much longer than he should, but he could not let it out all at once. To do so would have made too much noise and given away his position, so he would let out his lungful of air with trepidation, with halting, shallow breaths. It was painful, but the fear bouncing around his head and filling him with adrenaline was more than enough to convince him that it was the right thing to do.
However, by the time he reached the third level, Rumpelstiltskin could only think about holding his breath entirely.
Taking hold of the floor from underneath with his right hand, the imp tried to peek over the edge and see what he was about to encounter before it could notice. There had to be some monster—some frightening thing that would chase him down three flights of stairs and probably to the far edge of the swamp—and Rumpelstiltskin had to be ready to jump down at a moment’s notice. His eyes needed to readjust once more, but that was an ordeal he was willing to face. To be this close to the unknown was exhilarating, a temptation beyond his sense of self-preservation. He almost wanted to encounter a being that would be able to erase him from this world, just to experience something new.
But while there were plenty of new things to see, there was no monster to greet Rumpelstiltskin. The room was bare of all things frightening and sordid; there was a simple straw mattress in a plain, wooden bedframe, a dresser with a tall mirror, and a small basin for water off to the side. Instead of the justification for all his fear, Rumpelstiltskin had found a bedroom. It was enough for the imp to breathe a sigh of relief and wipe the sweat from his wrinkled brow, but then he heard the voice shout again from the entrance to the fourth floor.
“Scatter, you damned clouds! Do not deprive me of this!”
Rumpelstiltskin had almost forgotten there was more than this bedroom to find, for he had not yet met the owner of this tower. Now that he could hear the man’s voice clearly, a pit formed in the imp’s stomach. Whatever foul torture devices and dark magics Rumpelstiltskin had already passed on his ascent, this stranger was likely the most dangerous thing waiting for him. Again, reason tried to pull him away, but Rumpelstiltskin had no choice anymore.
He had to know what was going on in this tower.
Taking in an anxious breath, the imp closed his eyes and thought of his friends. Not the ones he had met along the way or the countless people who had shared his journey. This time he thought of Sir Death, of Circe, those who might be able to save him if this adventure went awry. It was not to call on them—to find some way to summon them through the ether. To think of them was to remember their power, their spirits. In a way, he would channel them and their ability to overcome the eldritch magic and forces of nature that was their daily lives.
So, hoping he could be as strong as his friends, Rumpelstiltskin ventured up the stairs—past the open trapdoor—to meet his fears head-on.
“Hello?” he asked at the top of the stairs, before he even tried to gain his bearings. He did not want the owner of the tower to see him peeking and sneaking around. Now that he was on the fourth level of this swampland fortress, he had already moved beyond his fear, and he did not want this stranger to think him a rude houseguest.
Yet all he could do was gawk at the experiment occurring before his very eyes. In contrast to the bookcases and laboratory and the simple bedroom he had already seen, this fourth level was a masterpiece of the unknown. There was no ceiling to this tower—it had long since crumbled away—but the owner probably liked it that way.
Just from how it opened up to the sky, Rumpelstiltskin knew it was a prime conduit for magic and spells, and that was without considering the different machines whirring nearby. There were contraptions and mechanized instruments of all sorts scattered around the fourth floor, their gears grinding away, moving spheres and mysterious objects around. Once he was able to get a good look at them, Rumpelstiltskin realized that they were planets and stars, even constellations made out of shining orbs he could not explain.
“Wha—who are you? What are you doing here?” a man shouted, and Rumpelstiltskin looked away from the miniature solar system to see what could only be a sorcerer.
While there was a hood attached to his dark blue robes, it was pulled back and Rumpelstiltskin could see the man’s black hair, the scars running down the left side of his face, how his right nostril had been cut away and scarred over. However, none of that was particularly new to someone as well-seasoned as Rumpelstiltskin.
It was his black eyes that disturbed the imp. They seemed like pits leading straight to Hell.
“Why are you here?” The sorcerer stomped forward, malice leaking from every pore. At once Rumpelstiltskin was afraid, but he knew he could not just stand there. A man like this clearly had a temper, and the other floors of the tower spoke of just what he might do with it.
“I just—I don’t know.” Rumpelstiltskin grabbed his left arm tight with his right hand and tried to stop himself from shaking. Sniffing back the tears that threatened to betray him, the imp tried to look at the floor to avoid further intimidation. “I always find myself at these kinds of places. I just—I couldn’t stay away.”
“You find yourself… explain what you’re talking about, creature,” the sorcerer demanded, crossing his arms and waiting for the imp’s answer. Looking up from the floor, Rumpelstiltskin tried to be brave, but fear took over once he made eye contact. Those dark eyes were nothing like the imp’s.
That abyss could swallow a man whole.
“I—I am…” Rumpelstiltskin tried to force out the words. They clung to his throat, pulled themselves back from his teeth and his lips; they were being so stubborn that the imp even struck his own temple to jar them loose. Once he did, he was able to break away from the man’s stare, and he instead focused on the spheres drifting about the open tower. In the face of such terrible beauty against the backdrop of what could only be evil, Rumpelstiltskin found clarity, and he knew what the sorcerer needed to hear.
“I am not here to get in your way,” he said, softly, in a voice that he would not have recognized if he had not heard it come from his own mouth. Looking back at the sorcerer, Rumpelstiltskin felt numb to the danger surrounding him. “I don’t even know why I’m here.”
“Then you should leave before I find a way to deal with you. What I’m doing is very—” the sorcerer tried to say—much more merciful than either of them had expected—but there was a loud chime that broke through the air and the sorcerer’s thoughts. Immediately, he turned around and rushed over to where he had been standing prior to the imp’s interruption. Leaning down to look at something on a strange podium covered with levers and assorted machinery, the man cursed and slammed his hand against it.
“No! Damn it, not now! The sky isn’t clear!” he shouted, sweat forming at his maimed brow. Even with the way he was acting and the nature of his previous threats, Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t leave the sorcerer to his own devices. He had to know what the man intended.
“Why does the sky need to be clear?” he asked, his little legs bringing him ever closer to the monstrous magician. This man was clearly dangerous—could possibly remove Rumpelstiltskin’s immortal curse—but the imp continued to put one foot in front of the other. Even though reason was now clawing at his brainstem, grabbing hold as much as it could, the imp could not abandon this temptation. This contraption whirring to life and rotating faster and faster held him in a trance, no matter how deadly and malicious this tower had become.
For some reason, he wasn’t even surprised when the sorcerer answered him.
“Because I need a direct line of sight to the eclipse, you foul thing,” the sorcerer said, mostly in frustration and to himself, but then he realized he was talking to his intruder. “Didn’t I tell you to leave?”
“Most people find out pretty soon that I don’t do what I’m told,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his voice still very much not his own. He didn’t know why he was being so serious, why his lunacy did not seem to have its familiar hold on him. In a rare display of rationality, Rumpelstiltskin thought that this magician’s spell and incantation was responsible. After looking back at the spheres moving about the tower, Rumpelstiltskin realized he was probably right. “What does the eclipse have to do with your spell?”
“More than enough. Are you one of Hazel’s lackeys? Why are you here? Why are you stopping me?” the sorcerer said, violence permeating through his tone and gaze. Still, Rumpelstiltskin did not retreat or give into his admittedly-lacking judgment. Instead, he stared back at the man.
“I am no one’s lackey. And now that I can think, I believe I am here to witness whatever you are doing,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, using words and a dialect that he would have normally found boring and tedious. However, it seemed to make the sorcerer trust him. “So what are you doing?”
“It does not concern you,” the man said as he looked at the sky, gritting his teeth as the weather fought against him. Once he looked back down, he found Rumpelstiltskin staring and, shockingly, his resolve broke. “I am trying to enter a portal to the Void.”
“The Void?” the imp asked, crossing his arms and dwelling on his thoughts, instead of just pretending to think like usual. Once he recognized that the term was unfamiliar, Rumpelstiltskin turned back to the magician. “What is there for you in the Void, whatever that is?”
“Nothing, at least that’s what they say,” the sorcerer said, propping up his elbows on his podium and holding up his head with tattooed hands. As his marked fingers ran through his hair, the sorcerer let out an exasperated sigh, but he looked back at the imp soon afterward. “But I think they’re wrong.”
“What do you think is in there?” Rumpelstiltskin was trying to lead the man into laying out his entire plan, and he almost did not succeed. Upon hearing the imp’s question, the sorcerer eyed him suspiciously, but he eventually relented. With a look back at the clouds against the darkened sky, he spoke loud enough for Rumpelstiltskin to hear him.
“Infinity. The unknown. Humanity, at least the best of its kind, has already explored the vast reaches of this world—even dabbled in the world beyond. I know magic that could turn a man inside out, rip his soul from his body, or doom him to become some monstrosity that would level a village,” he explained, lifting his hands and curling his fingers as if he was holding the world in his clutch. “I can already do so much.”
“But you want to do more.” Rumpelstiltskin glared at the sorcerer, but his disdain was nothing to a man like that. The foul magician laughed and smiled, dropping his hands back to the podium and seeming satisfied by the imp’s truth.
“Oh, of course, I do. There is so much we don’t know—that the academics refuse to learn. We could own not just this world, but the next, the others—everything and anything. And I believe that power does not dwell here, creature. I believe it is out there in the Void.”
“But it’s called the Void. Wouldn’t that mean there isn’t anything for you to claim?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, and he was surprised when the sorcerer slammed a fist into a nearby table.
“No one knows that!” he shouted, stomping over to the imp and pointing at the machine that dominated his tower. “They just assume that there’s nothing—that since it doesn’t have structure or physics like Earth, Heaven, Hell or all the others that it’s just empty space. But I know better…”
“You know better? How? What makes you think—” Rumpelstiltskin was about to rattle off questions, but the sorcerer swept his arm around—his cloak whipping about like a living shadow—and it took the words from him.
“I’ve been there, creature. Once, on the cusp of death, I saw what lies beyond. It is calamity—chaos—but there is power there. There are forgotten and abandoned gods; there are horrors and twisted nightmares living outside of mankind’s imagination. I know there is something for me to harness,” the sorcerer explained, turning his back on Rumpelstiltskin as he continued. “I felt it coursing through my veins, I just could not seize it in my astral state.”
“But this spell would let you?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, causing the man to slap his hand against one of the planets that had migrated toward them. It rattled, but the strike did not seem to affect its orbit.
“It would if the damned clouds got out of the way. In the face of the eclipse, when the music of these spheres reaches a fevered pitch, I just have to say the right words and express the right powers,” he said, turning back to the imp with a scowl. “Then the nexus point will open, allowing me to truly see the Void for what it is.”
“And if it’s not what you think it is?”
“Then I’ll find some other path to power and destruction. Unfortunately, imp, that path lies far beyond your own,” he said, darkness leaking away from his body. “Now that I’ve explained my plans, I cannot risk your tattling.”
“Oh?” the imp replied, crossing his arms as if the sorcerer did not intimidate him. “And if I were to help you with this eclipse, what then?”
“Are you—how could you possibly help, creature? What makes you think you can do what I cannot?” the sorcerer asked, scoffing as the darkness returned to his body. He did not expect Rumpelstiltskin to look at the sky and raise a scrawny hand.
“You are not the only magic here,” he muttered, focusing on the clouds above and trying to grab hold of them with his hand. It was not any sort of magic he knew—he didn’t know any magic he could use—but something about this dark night and this ancient tower made him think there was more. Without realizing it, Rumpelstiltskin visualized a crack in the middle of the tower, pulsing with some ethereal power. There was a connection there, to this crack in his mind’s eye, and Rumpelstiltskin reached for it. He did not seek to open it further—it already seemed to be at the point of breaking—but he did try to pull something through. It was hard work and gave Rumpelstiltskin a headache, but the sorcerer’s gasp in the real world made him think he had succeeded.
When he opened his eyes, Rumpelstiltskin found his hand surrounded by golden light; a living, cold flame which only made his skin tingle. As soon as he recognized it, the energy dispersed, but not before accomplishing their goal.
High above them, the clouds had scattered to reveal the moon and something dark moving across it, promising to cover it completely.
“Whatever you are, creature, I thank you,” the sorcerer said as he looked up at the sky. Rumpelstiltskin was about to respond, but then the man burst into activity and made sure his contraption was ready to go. Once he finished his last double and triple-checks, the sorcerer flew over to his podium and yanked back on one of the many levers.
“So what happens now?”
Rumpelstiltskin saw from the sorcerer’s surprise that he had forgotten the imp’s existence. With a flick of his wrist, the man sent out a tendril of darkness which wrapped around Rumpelstiltskin’s midsection. It would have been terrifying in other circumstances—the darkness was cold and made his skin writhe—but the experience was over too quickly for him to think about it.
The sorcerer yanked him back from the machine just in time; the machine had reached an incredible speed and one of the spheres had almost smashed into Rumpelstiltskin.
Immediately after saving him and depositing him a few feet away from the podium, the sorcerer’s darkness faded from existence, but the imp knew that was only because he wanted to focus on his current task. He paid no further attention to Rumpelstiltskin—who assumed he had only been saved because he was in the way—and had become a flurry of activity. It seemed impossible to Rumpelstiltskin, who was watching him move his arms and whip them about in sort of mad trance.
Then he realized that it actually was a trance. Black energy swarmed around the sorcerer’s robes, dark blue electricity lanced through the air and coiled around his wrists. Soon, his hands were covered in the living mass of shadows, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as the electricity grew brighter and then manifested into two giant ethereal hands that seemed to hover over the swirling solar system on the tower’s roof.
“What’s supposed to happ—” Rumpelstiltskin started to ask, but then he saw that the sorcerer’s black eyes had been replaced by glowing, blue orbs. The energy poured out of the man as he muttered in some otherworldly language, his voice much lower and darker than before. To interrupt him now would be a mistake, so Rumpelstiltskin turned back to watch the contraption rotate faster and faster, the small planets and constellations becoming blurs of light and metal as they went past him. Everything was so loud in that moment and fear crept back into the imp’s brain as he realized this was an entirely unnatural and dangerous act. No amount of lucidity or magic could stop Rumpelstiltskin from seeing that obvious truth.
“You should stop, sir,” Rumpelstiltskin tried to protest, but then he turned to face the sorcerer. The man was hovering five feet off the ground, dark magic enveloped him, and from the look on his face, there was no potential for argument or conversation.
The sorcerer’s eyes had been burnt away, his ears were crumbling, and when his mouth opened to scream, light poured out of his hollowed body.
Rumpelstiltskin was frightened—especially now that it was clear that the sorcerer had been toying with powers beyond his comprehension—but there wasn’t anything he could do. Although the man had been consumed, energy still coursed through this ancient place, the gears of the machine kept turning, faster, deadlier, and Rumpelstiltskin’s only choice was to stand there. Since the dark magic barred his path to the trap door, all he could do was watch as the spell completed itself. Seeking some refuge, he looked to the dark sky and the moon, and he found it just before the full eclipse.
But then, once the moon was completely covered, something incredible happened.
Hearing a high-pitched whine from the machine in the tower, Rumpelstiltskin looked away from the eclipse to find that the central column of the contraption had opened up. Apparently, it had always been hollow, and the imp watched as it opened up like some sort of artificial egg, four equal sides falling to the side as the planets and stars continued to whirl around like impossible satellites. The energy surrounding the imp started to flow into that center, and Rumpelstiltskin’s jaw went slack as that empty space demanded everything. Even the magic that had burned the sorcerer alive flowed into that dense, packed, almost solidified sphere of energy where the center column used to be.
Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes watered as that miniature blue star devoured everything in his world. Something was pulling at him—asking him a question and already knowing the answer—and it took him way too long to realize what was happening. The same thing that had destroyed the sorcerer—the same reason all the magic flowed into the center—it was the same thing haunting his thoughts. Whatever the spell was, it demanded sacrifice, and it now wanted the imp’s fair share. With all the magic flowing through Rumpelstiltskin, it was only natural, but the imp fought hard against it. He gritted his teeth and held onto the podium even as its owner lay hollowed-out beside him.
He held on and fought for his life, but the energy continued to pull at him, begging for his sacrifice.
Eventually it stopped asking nicely, and it pulled at him in the physical world. Before he could fully realize it, Rumpelstiltskin was hanging onto the podium for his life as the energy had turned into a cosmic singularity. His feet were off the ground, and Rumpelstiltskin almost thought he could feel the sorcerer’s dark tendril wrapped around his leg. It was an absurd thought, but then the imp looked back at the far-too-bright energy and realized his mistake.
There was something wrapped around his foot, but it was the bright, blue energy of the small star pulling him toward almost certain doom.
“No! I don’t want to die like this!” he shouted, almost losing his grip on the podium as he readjusted his fingers. He wasn’t strong enough for this—he knew it—but Rumpelstiltskin would not give up without a fight. For a long moment he held on, the energy pulling his ankle to the point where he thought it might break. He could feel the sweat on his fingers ruining his chances, and Rumpelstiltskin considered that this might be his last moment. The image of Sir Death entered his brain, and the imp briefly considered calling out to him.
But then his body abruptly hit the ground.
Momentarily stunned, the imp tried to think about what happened—why the spell stopped—but when he turned to look back at the energy, he saw something entirely unexpected. The machine seemed frozen in time, a blur accompanied each metal sphere as it twitched back and forth like a paused frame in one of our modern-day movies, and the blue orb that had previously been so demanding had now completely disappeared. In its place was a golden crack about six feet tall, emitting pleasant light that seemed to beckon the imp closer.
It was the exact same thing Rumpelstiltskin had seen in his mind.
“Is that… the Void?” he asked, but then he remembered the sorcerer could not answer his question. He hesitated then—thinking that he should turn and pay his respects—but even Rumpelstiltskin knew that the sorcerer was not deserving of final respects. Instead, the imp looked to the sky to see if that had been the reason the spell had stopped so suddenly. However, he found that the eclipse was still fully underway, that the magic had not stopped.
When he turned back to face the crack of light, Rumpelstiltskin knew that this was what the sorcerer had been trying to find; he had just not lasted long enough to see the fruits of his labor. While it was a sad story to tell—how the man had chased nothingness only to become nothing—it was of no real concern to Rumpelstiltskin. The imp had witnessed his own tragedies, his own failed dreams, and he had known too many friends to suffer the same.
Right now, the only thing that mattered to Rumpelstiltskin was this golden rift from his mind’s eye. There were too many questions on his mind and no one to ask for answers. When he had harnessed the power of that rift earlier, he had been able to disperse the clouds above. Here, at the top of this tower during this lunar eclipse, something had called out to Rumpelstiltskin and had replied once he had revealed himself.
Even if the sorcerer had died in the attempt, it was clear that Rumpelstiltskin was always meant to stand at the top of this tower, always meant to see the results of this spell. Something was responsible for this twist in fate, and to ignore that would be to ignore the truth of the universe.
“Just… just one peek wouldn’t hurt,” he said, knowing full well that he was lying to himself. As he moved forward and past the machine frozen in time, Rumpelstiltskin knew this might be the end. To touch this crack in the world would be to disturb the fabric of reality, but it was just far too tempting. The mental pull of this rift was far more than the tendrils of magic from either the sorcerer or that blue orb of energy. This one Rumpelstiltskin had no hope of escaping. He didn’t even pause once he reached the crack in reality.
Without another thought, Rumpelstiltskin the Third stepped into that golden light and left his world behind.