In the early days of Rumpelstiltskin’s life, he had come across a village plagued by fires which would be unexplainable to a rational, sane individual. Every night, just as the sun would start to fall below the horizon, it would transform into a child’s mockery of a star, complete with serrated edges along the red and orange and yellow flames that spread out from the sun like rough parchment. Those absurd flares would ignite the world around them, burning the village and its inhabitants with the end of each day, and the village elder had lost a son to those very flames. This was all due to the cursed gem that had been found by his son, who had thought the treasure would bring with it good fortune.
However, it had only brought misfortune, and the village elder had asked Rumpelstiltskin to take the gem, to save them from the fires that had claimed so many of their lives. With his apparent mysticism, it seemed like the imp had a much better chance of surviving another serrated sunset.
So he took it without complaint, since Rumpelstiltskin would always help out if he could.
“It is a pretty thing,” he said to himself, marveling at the red bauble cradled in both of his hands.
However, it was only a momentary marvel, as the sun had already started to set and Rumpelstiltskin prepared himself for a show only an immortal being could enjoy.
Flames poured across the landscape as he walked toward the blazing star, the paper solar flares stretching far from the source. Just off Rumpelstiltskin’s path, streaks of fire lanced into the ground, melting the underlying sand into glass. Once in a while, even this far from the aggressive sun, a shrub or small clearing of grass would start smoking, the green curling in on itself before turning to ashes. Rarely would they ember for more than a half-second, and so most of the imp’s walking was beside dying cinders and scorched earth.
“I wonder how long this will last,” the imp mused to himself, noticing that the false star seemed to be growing beyond the horizon instead of slinking below it. The heat was bearable for now, but it seemed to be getting hotter by the second.
Rumpelstiltskin was just about to start panting when a foot-high wave of fire rolled across the ground and, subsequently, over the imp’s poor, sandal-shod feet. The cheap leather crackled and burnt away before the wave rolled past, and even though it did not hurt Rumpelstiltskin, pain licked at his soles and he jumped from one foot to the other instinctively, trying to minimize the burning sensation.
“Ow, ow, ow!” he yelped, gingerly setting his feet down before jumping to the other, but it did not seem to matter. If he had been a normal person, the crest of the burning wave would have destroyed his legs, but the imp was, fortunately, quite cursed, himself. Once the flames had traveled forward and left Rumpelstiltskin alone, he was left standing with a singed tunic; the cremated remains of his sandals at his feet, but otherwise intact.
“That’s just mean.”
He bent down to touch his feet, which were still hot to the touch.
“Who would make something like this on purpose?” he demanded from the universe, looking to the sky with a spiteful glare. He knew Sir Death would likely be keeping tabs on him—ready to help if things got really bad—but the imp did not think it was that serious. A magician or witch was clearly responsible, and usually Rumpelstiltskin just needed to give them a stern talking-to and these situations would resolve themselves.
Well, that’s what the imp thought, in any case. All his evidence may have been fabricated in his twisted imagination. A memory of one wizard from his recent travels was quite possibly the product of falling asleep in a church.
“Replacing the sun is pretty hard…” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, hoping to convince himself that he was smart enough to tackle this problem. He only partially succeeded, but the imp started to analyze the burning, childish star that had so rudely washed him in flames. It did not seem to hurt his eyes, and so he stared at the sun for a few moments, hoping to find some clue as to how he could rein in the sun’s poor behavior.
“Aha! There you are!” Rumpelstiltskin stomped forward with a more determined gait once he found his precious clue.
From further back, the star had just been a solid yellow orb surrounded by serrated extensions, but now that Rumpelstiltskin was closer, he could see that there was the outline of a simple door at the base of the sun. As he marched forward, swinging his arms like he was somebody important, the imp noticed the star grew ever larger with each step. This was no true Sun—not a celestial body, at all—and so Rumpelstiltskin abandoned his fear. Since the flames would not hurt him, the imp could explore to his heart’s content.
The village elder had been fortunate it had been Rumpelstiltskin who had taken the gem.
“Hey, stop that!” he commanded the papercraft star as it let loose another torrent of flames that could have destroyed an entire army. It reached midway up the imp’s tunic, and so by the end of the assault, Rumpelstiltskin looked like he was wearing a skirt. It only made him look more ridiculous as he pointed at the giant construct promising death.
“You’re being very rude, you know that?” He even went so far as to put his hands on his hips, but the star only responded by growing brighter and then sending a fireball into the ground a few yards away.
“Fine! Be pouty, then! I was going to knock, but now I’m not even going to!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted before setting off into a sprint toward his final destination.
Fire blazed around him, blazing typhoons spinning to life off to the side, but the imp would not be deterred. The only reason he bothered to avoid the flames was because he did not want to show up to this sun without clothes, and he did not want to be as rude or inconsiderate as the owners of this inhospitable star.
It was only a matter of time before Rumpelstiltskin was standing right next to the yellow sphere, feeling the heat pulsing from it as if it was a celestial heart beating and pumping away. Once he was past his frustration, Rumpelstiltskin took a moment to feel the gravity of the situation—to realize that he was about to enter the sun—but then he remembered why he was here and what the cursed gem in his hand had done to those villagers. He grabbed hold of the golden handle that almost blended into the door, and then he pulled.
At once, Rumpelstiltskin was no longer standing in front of a sun made of vicious parchment. An entire world opened up before him, a blue sky above, with green fields of sharp, bright grass spread out for a hundred feet before ending at a cliff. Buildings seemed to line the coast below in almost every color imaginable. There were houses with salmon pink walls, houses with roofs shingled with fuchsia tiles, boats on the water that were neon green; vermillions and blues and yellows and anything warm and vibrant and exciting filled every inch of the imp’s view.
It was already a fantastic place—more magical than anything Rumpelstiltskin had seen within his first century, which was saying something—but there was something that set it apart from anything he would ever see.
It was made of paper.
Before Rumpelstiltskin could even start to reconcile the fact that he had just opened a door into the sun, he had been transported to a world that looked like a messy—though charming—arts and crafts table. At once, the imp wanted to explore and jump and play around with everything, to the point where he distracted himself before he could even start on one particular activity. All he could do was turn and look, stammer, and then find the next, new thing which stole any hope of forward progress. It was a wonderland, and Rumpelstiltskin had been deprived of wonder for much longer than he preferred.
Of course, his tolerance for being without wonder was very low, but that was the nature of our favorite imp.
“Just who are you to appear in our lord’s chambers out of nowhere!” a strong voice yelled, and Rumpelstiltskin was so surprised that he immediately fell to his bottom.
After landing hard, he looked from left to right—anywhere to find this apparently very angry man.
Straining his eyes to the point of almost closing them, Rumpelstiltskin was having far too much difficulty trying to find this invisible guard. All he could see were black lines, but they didn’t seem to mean very much at all. At first, he assumed that they were just as natural as the paper village below the cliff.
“I’m sorry, sir. I did not know I was intruding,” Rumpelstiltskin apologized as he pushed himself to his feet. After looking around again and patting his singed tunic, he took a few steps forward and then stretched stubby arms into the air. His shoulders popped—probably from the heat he had just encountered—and he yawned as he turned back so he could wait for the invisible man’s next cry.
He stopped mid-yawn when he found at least ten very angry, very rude-looking men in armor pointing spears at him. Though they were only inches away from Rumpelstiltskin, the soldiers seemed to have no depth to them. In addition, it seemed like Rumpelstiltskin had stumbled into a castle, somehow.
“Holy—Where did you come from?” the imp asked, quite shocked at the sudden appearance of a dozen or so people where had had just been standing. Beyond the guards were two men; one who looked somewhat stuffy with the slightest hint of a regal nature and a man who seemed downtrodden beside him. The chains were a rather obvious clue as to his station, as well. However, it was hard for the imp to take any of them seriously.
This was because—just like the houses below and the clouds above Rumpelstiltskin—these people seemed to also be entirely made of paper. If the imp walked forward and took hold of the spear closest to his throat, he was positive he could tear it in an instant. However sharp the paper could be, it was still just paper.
Or, at least, that’s how Rumpelstiltskin decided to proceed.
“I’m asking the questions here, monster!” the closest guard asked, and Rumpelstiltskin assumed he was the ringleader. He even had a dull, gold helmet on top of his scruffy face. “Who are you? And how did you get in the royal chambers?”
“I don’t know, I just walked in!” Rumpelstiltskin protested, turning away from the spears and walking to the side in thought. Even if they could stab him, it would only be a mild inconvenience, since the imp almost liked the sting that would come with papercuts. That was why Rumpelstiltskin walked away from the apparent danger, stroking his chin as if he had a beard and looking at the ground. “I opened the door to a sun and then I was just here…”
“What kind of demon is this, Reginald? His shape is so strange!”
“Keep your voice down! Be wary,” the ringleader’s voice came again, and Rumpelstiltskin turned around to roll his eyes at the guards. However, when he did, all he could see were numerous black lines. Stupefied, even more than usual, Rumpelstiltskin dropped his jaw and then walked back to where he had been standing when he had first found the guards. As if it was a magic trick, the angry men and the castle seemed to rotate and tilt into existence.
It was obvious now. The black lines Rumpelstiltskin had seen were the guards and the king and even the castle. This entire world was made of two-dimensional figures and settings, and the imp was simply lacking the right perspective. Now that he knew the issue, Rumpelstiltskin was far more willing to take his new friends seriously.
“First off, I’m not a demon,” he said, raising his index finger in indignation. The guards had backed away from him—the spears were at least a few feet away—and Rumpelstiltskin was thankful for the personal space. As he continued, he looked at his paper companions as if he was in control of the situation.
“Least I don’t think so. I’m just from a different world.”
“And what kind of world does a monster like you come from?” The king had entered the conversation, still hiding behind his guards, but his voice was weak and small despite his apparent royalty. “You said you entered the sun?”
“Yes, that’s right.” Rumpelstiltskin crossed his arms and nodded his head, which he realized must have looked so strange to people who had no concept of a third dimension. “Someone had been very mean and cursed a red gem to make it so the Sun was burning everybody in a village. They were nice people—at least to me—so I thought I should talk to whoever is in charge.”
“Well, that person is I, Lord Zerok, and you must bow before me,” the paper king demanded, and something in the way he said it—maybe the words, maybe it was the tone—caused an overwhelming urge to be stubborn within the imp’s heart.
“No, I don’t have to.” A slight grimace was on his face, enhanced by his ugliness, and Rumpelstiltskin turned very carefully so he could see everyone in the chamber. “So does anybody know who cursed the gem?”
“What gem are you talking about?” the head guard said, and Rumpelstiltskin remembered someone calling him Reginald earlier. Looking down, the imp tried to find the cursed bauble before remembering that it was still in his hand. Holding it out in both palms, Rumpelstiltskin shrugged at his audience.
“This one! It’s very pretty, but it’s been hurting a lot of people,” he said. The imp had intended to go further—to explain how the elder’s son had originally found it—but the guards gasped and interrupted him.
However, the imp was willing to forgive them their rudeness.
“The Red Death,” some of them whispered.
“The Orb of Desolation,” others said.
“The Ifrit’s Eye.”
That voice silenced the rest. Rumpelstiltskin watched as every paper soldier seemed to flip around, and they carried his gaze to the broken man in chains. When the prisoner lifted his blocky, paper face, the imp could see dignity and pride where there should have been none. Rumpelstiltskin briefly made eye contact with him, but then Lord Zerok bashed his scepter into the man’s head.
“N—none of that!” the paper lord demanded, and Rumpelstiltskin immediately realized that Lord Zerok was neither honest nor respectable.
“Why does he know what it is?” Rumpelstiltskin asked abruptly, age and wisdom filtering into his childlike brain. It was a rarity, but sometimes the lunacy would depart and the old boy’s soul would shine through Rumpelstiltskin’s beady, black eyes. It was enough to shock Lord Zerok, but eventually he waved his scepter in the air and shook with anger.
“He is a political prisoner! He is responsible for the Red Death!” he claimed as the prisoner climbed back
to his knees, but Rumpelstiltskin already knew Zerok was throwing around falsehoods. The imp looked back at Reginald and narrowed his gaze.
“Why does that man know about the Ifrit’s Eye?” he asked, and even though he was a little boy in a twisted body, Rumpelstiltskin was intimidating enough that the paper soldier could not refuse him.
“That is Lord Cray, the previous king. The Ifrit’s Eye was his greatest treasure, but it was also his downfall. Because of the cursed gem, most of our kingdom was swarmed in flames. Half of our city was burnt before we could banish the Eye into the nether. Lord Zerok saved us all,” he explained, but he could not look Rumpelstiltskin in the eye.
“Lies…” the prisoner muttered, and Rumpelstiltskin knew that was far more likely.
He walked forward, through the mass of soldiers, and that was when Lord Zerok realized what was happening.
“Stop him!” He waved around his paper scepter, but it didn’t matter very much. One of the most loyal soldiers advanced on Rumpelstiltskin with a spear, but the imp just grabbed the handle of the weapon with his free hand. He looked at the soldier with disappointment before jerking back, and the paper spear tore with only the smallest amount of effort.
“Keep that in mind,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his voice much lower and darker than usual, and that was more than enough for the paper soldiers to back away in fright. Undeterred, the imp continued until he was standing next to the fallen lord. “What is the truth, Lord Cray?”
“The gem is cursed, monster. In more ways than one,” he admitted, but then he looked up at Rumpelstiltskin with that same, unwavering dignity. “However, it was safe in our kingdom until Zerok realized he wanted to rule.”
“You can’t listen to him!” the paper king argued, but one look from Rumpelstiltskin stopped him. He was so scared that he retreated from the imp’s perspective and became just another black line. Once he retreated, Rumpelstiltskin turned back to hear Cray’s explanation.
“The fire is because of him,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, and the prisoner nodded again.
“Yes, though only the fire. The Ifrit’s Eye is a weapon in more than one sense; a danger in all of them,” Cray said while pushing himself to his feet with a grunt. “It came to me as if in a dream, a treasure from some other dimension that we could not possibly understand. I hid it away, hoping that no one would find out, but the rumors spread… the legend grew. My subjects all believed the Eye to be my greatest treasure, a stupendous relic. Not the danger I had buried in my vault.”
“How did Zerok kn—” the imp started, but Cray had already anticipated the question.
“He is a magician in his own right. He was once my trusted advisor, but apparently he had a taste for more.” Cray spat at his feet before turning to look at Zerok, who had returned to being visible. “That scepter I gave him was not enough, it seems. One night, he placed a spell on the Eye, framed me, and then placed me in chains.”
“You deserved it!” Zerok pointed his scepter at them, and Rumpelstiltskin could see the fire that was already building at the end of the weapon. Deciding that he was done with fire and foolishness for the day, Rumpelstiltskin gave the red gem to Lord Cray, who was surprised by the action, and then walked over to the usurper. Before Zerok’s eyes, Rumpelstiltskin grabbed the burning scepter with both hands and then tore it in half.
“What have you done?” Zerok screamed as fire burned away from the torn staff. It wasn’t long before the flames consumed the entire weapon, leaving Zerok defenseless if not for the guards cowering on the other side of the imp.
“You’re a bad man, and I made sure you can’t hurt anyone anymore,” Rumpelstiltskin said before Lord Cray shuffled back into his perspective. Almost immediately, he handed the red gem back to Rumpelstiltskin and then grabbed the imp’s shoulders.
“Thank you for helping, creature, though I wish I could help you in turn,” he said with urgency, and that forced Rumpelstiltskin to focus on the paper prisoner. “Now that you have destroyed Zerok’s staff, the Eye will bring you back to your own world, and I fear I will not be able to educate you further.”
“Why… what’s going to…” Rumpelstiltskin said, but he could already feel something pulling at his body. As the guards walked forward and back into his perspective, Rumpelstiltskin could see Zerok’s robes were on fire and that the guards were advancing with their spears.
“The scepter is the reason the Eye was tied to this place, why it was tied to the flames and how you were able to travel here in the first place. Now that the connection is lost, you cannot remain,” Cray said quickly, swallowing back all the important details that were less necessary. “The Eye is cursed, creature, and if you were wise, you would abandon it as soon as you can. I would explain further, but… there are only seconds.”
“What’s going to happen?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, doing his best to keep focusing on Lord Cray, but he had to cover his mouth when he saw Reginald use a seemingly childlike sword to slice through Zerok’s papery neck. There was no blood, but life had been destroyed in that instant.
“I… don’t know,” Lord Cray admitted. Rumpelstiltskin could tell that the paper man was truly sympathetic, but he did not have time to discuss the red gem further. As soon as Zerok’s head fluttered to the ground, Rumpelstiltskin was shunted back to reality—through the shining lights of the Void—and he hit the ground hard.
Once he was able to gain his bearings, Rumpelstiltskin realized that he was in the middle of the desert once more. The papercraft sun was gone, but a crescent moon filled his surroundings with pale, white light. As cold as it was, Rumpelstiltskin almost thought the sand dunes were the high crests of snowfall, but he knew that was a ridiculous idea.
Looking down at the gem still in his hands, Rumpelstiltskin knew that he was far out of his depth. Even though the stone would no longer bring fire, Cray’s warnings still weighed on his mind. The Eye of Ifrit, the Orb of Desolation, the Red Death; whatever its real name was, this bauble was no treasure. A cursed gem like this could change the world, and Rumpelstiltskin knew that it could only be for the worse.
“I wonder…” he muttered, and immediately agreed with himself. A gem like this needed to be kept safe, destroyed—something needed to be done—and until Sir Death decided to show up or some kind wizard would explain the curses, Rumpelstiltskin knew he had a responsibility to keep. Since he was cursed, immortal and invulnerable, there was no better person suited for the job.
And so, though he knew it would only bring him and others pain, Rumpelstiltskin held onto the red gem.
He would not have been able to live with himself if he had not.