“Don’t go that way, imp.”
Rumpelstiltskin turned from the muddy path in front of him—his knobby toes squelching into the muck and letting out a simulation of flatulence—and wondered just why a villager might interrupt him. As it was, the imp was in no rush to leave the town, but the man’s words made him curious.
The unkempt man was shoveling wet leaves away from the mud-covered wall of his house, which, Rumpelstiltskin guessed, was a knowing display of futility. Barely any part of the man was uncovered by dried or drying soil, even his beard had flecks of earth clinging to each uneven strand. However, Rumpelstiltskin was sure he looked more derelict, so he could forgive the man his squalor.
“Why should I not? Is there danger afoot?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, haughty as a mercenary from his memories. The villager peered at the imp for a while, but eventually returned to his shoveling.
“Afoot ain’t the right word. It lives in the thickets in them woods. If’n you go that way, don’t expect to come back.”
“What lives there?” Rumpelstiltskin urged, walking up to a middling pile of leaves and plopping down on them. The villager was at first angry, but the imp waved off his antagonism and beckoned toward the half-filled shovel. “Oh, keep going. It’ll feel nice.”
“Get off m’pile, imp.”
“Well… how about you tell me about what lives in the woods, and then I’ll get off your leaves,” Rumpelstiltskin compromised, hoping his nuisance could be used as leverage. The villager almost seemed to growl before he heaped his shovel’s burden onto Rumpelstiltskin’s lap.
Contrary to annoyance, the imp reveled in the feeling and the villager knew he was out of his depth.
“Fine. There’s creature out there killed a few goats wander too far,” the villager began, and Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes glimmered at the possibilities. He had met a chupacabra before, but the man’s tone made it seem like much more than a goat-sucker. When he continued, Rumpelstiltskin’s wonder was justified.
“Thing is, this is just where the creature ended up. Anybody who’s seen the thing up close… stories have been gon’ round about it for quite a while. For the last twenty-odd years, that thing’s been a menace in the country,” the man explained, setting the point of his shovel against the soil. He was so entrenched in his thoughts that he didn’t realize the imp had stood up and scattered the leaves from his lap into smaller piles around the original.
“What kind of menace…”
“Kind that kills and kills often.” The villager’s voice had gone dark, making the overcast sky above seem even more dismal. “There’s been talk of brigands cut down and left to rot, entire companies of armies left for crows. They get close enough to the creature, he makes sure none can testify to its nature.”
“Wait, so how do people know what it looks like?” Rumpelstiltskin pondered, earning a shrug from the beleaguered peasant.
“Stories always find a way. Cousin of a farmhand who moved away couple years back… said he saw the creature once. Looked like a man, but things… well, what’s been said can’t come from no human. That thing’s an evil, of some sort.”
“What kind of things?” Rumpelstiltskin positively gleamed at the concept, but the villager was done with the imp’s curiosity. At his perverse interest, the man decided that he was speaking to a being of similar nature.
“Things I ain’t talkin’ bout with no imp. You so curious about evil and death, you best find your way over to it and leave me well enough alone,” he spat, mottled saliva landing at the pile of leaves beneath Rumpelstiltskin. The imp thought it uncalled for, but since he had experienced far worse for far less inquisition, Rumpelstiltskin just puffed up his chest and turned on his heel.
“Fine. I will.” He lifted his chin and made a show of pumping his arms as he stomped toward the muddy path out of the village. Once his feet were suctioned into the mud, Rumpelstiltskin forgot his stubborn display and started hopping into each puddle he could find.
With each splash, Rumpelstiltskin forgot more and more of his current task, but once he was at the edge of a briar thicket and the puddles gave way to dirty foliage, he recalled the beast that had earned the villager’s warning. Looking further into the grey swamp, Rumpelstiltskin wondered if the farmhand’s cousin could be trusted, or if there really were fields of dead men laid out by a single creature.
The imp had experienced things like that firsthand over his storied life, but usually the tales were exaggerations, or the creatures themselves had a layer of complexity only an imp could discover. With Rumpelstiltskin’s willingness to make friends, those murder machines—at least the sentient ones—were often confused enough to have a civil conversation with the imp. It didn’t matter if Rumpelstiltskin was sometimes eaten whole; he usually found some common ground with even the most terrifying of beasts.
So, with his successes remembered and his failures banished to the hazy corners of his mind, Rumpelstiltskin walked through the briars and the brambles and forgot the scratches as soon as they healed. At most, the imp felt an itch where the thorns tore through leathery skin, only for the tissue to reform by the time of Rumpelstiltskin’s next step. It was more bothersome than the mosquitoes buzzing by the imp’s ear, but the insects were only an auditory nuisance. His curse had taken from him the smell that might seduce the bloodsuckers, even if they were still attracted by his movement. For a time, Rumpelstiltskin considered naming each and every mote of his cloud of insect companions, but he was soon distracted by the terrain.
There was no feasible path through the beast’s domain, just quagmires interrupted by patches of peat and decaying branches. More than once, Rumpelstiltskin stepped onto a hefty branch that might have supported him had it still been attached to a tree, but the bark crumbled and gave way to the water underneath. The shifting soil was enough to frustrate even the imp, so Rumpelstiltskin’s mood soured as he made his way forward. It wasn’t long before he lost complete sense of direction, but as it always tended to be, it only improved Rumpelstiltskin’s bearing on the world. By instinct, Rumpelstiltskin climbed over stumps and roots and waded through leech-infested murk, pulling himself out by the trunks of trees that had yet to fall, and he couldn’t even be bothered to sing along the way.
However, once Rumpelstiltskin reached a bastion of solid ground, he was grateful for his quiet approach.
A massive, dead tree rose above him—the top, leafless branches the spokes of a ruined umbrella above the sparse canopy of the swamp—and its network of giant roots held up a giant hill of dirt. The closest edge of that hill had fallen away—likely because of the water lapping at Rumpelstiltskin’s feet—but the frame of the tree was sturdy and probably petrified. New trees had attempted to colonize the rich soil above the tree’s grave, but they had all failed, leaving the dried roots of aborted life hanging like drapes above the closest edge of the eroded earth.
What was most interesting was the door wedged between an arch made from the dead roots, its planks covered in dull, red paint. From the weak trail of smoke emerging from a small cone of bricks to the right of the tree, Rumpelstiltskin knew that this was someone’s home, and the imp could think of no better retreat for a beast known for slaughtering men and absconding with wayward goats.
“I wonder…” Rumpelstiltskin murmured as he walked out of the murk and onto the stagnant shore. The putrefied stench of the bog followed him, but he assumed it was not poor manners to harbor any sort of body odor in such a habitat. He only noticed because now he was going to be some creature’s company and most beasts had sensitive olfactory senses, but to willingly live in such a place demanded compromise.
Of this, the imp was sure, so when he reached the dull, red planks standing in for a door, he only slid his hands along his muddy clothes to relieve himself of the fresh layer of muck, trying to be only somewhat presentable before he reached forward and knocked knobby knuckles against the creature’s door.
“Hello! Is anyone home?” Rumpelstiltskin called, taking a step back and holding his hands in front of his belly. Manners were important—someone had told him so—and he didn’t want this creature to view him as a threat. While Rumpelstiltskin was certain of his relative invulnerability, intended physical harm was usually uncomfortable, and he was much more inclined to skip that step entirely. The imp was about to knock again when he heard noise coming from within the earthen hovel. While footsteps approached, Rumpelstiltskin regained his posture and smiled so artificially wide it hurt his face.
It was a surefire way to make a good first impression, Rumpelstiltskin was certain, but when the door swung open and he saw the creature’s face, the smile became genuine.
“Janus?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, knowing just from the shape of the man’s eyes and the curve of his mouth and even his cheekbones that this man was the same wanderer he had met by a cold, dying fire.
Although Rumpelstiltskin had not bothered to count the years between—he knew it should have numbered in the decades—he realized quickly that Janus had not aged appropriately. Some things had changed, certainly—his skin tone, his pale, scraggly hair, the lack of a beard, even the number of teeth in his mouth had somehow increased—but otherwise, he seemed very much like a man in his thirtieth year.
The math did not add up, but Rumpelstiltskin was not the only one confused.
“Mischief-maker?” Janus muttered, and at the old nickname, Rumpelstiltskin whined in glee and then rushed forward, wrapping his arms around the man’s midsection. The imp had been prepared for his usual handshake—his paw almost vibrating in anticipation—but a reunion like this deserved a hug. The imp’s eyes closed as he gave into the warmth of a welcome sight, but then he realized there was no true warmth coming from Janus’ body, which seemed hard and unwelcoming. At the curiosity, Rumpelstiltskin backed away and took in the sight of his old friend.
The issue of time presented itself once more, as Janus looked very much the same age as when they had last met. Ancient pieces of armor were scattered along his body, even chain link underneath, and black rags covered the rest of him. It was a curious decision for pajamas or even everyday wear, and Rumpelstiltskin cocked his head at Janus before realizing the man’s eyes had gone almost entirely black. The imp had thought it just a trick of the light beforehand, but now he realized the implication of that transformation.
“The demon took over, didn’t it?” Rumpelstiltskin could tell from the man’s shame that he had guessed right. With a weary groan, Janus turned from the imp and trudged back to a hide-covered chair that complained once the man eased his weight onto its frame.
“You have a keen sense of insight, mischief-maker.” Janus breathed out, taking his time staring at the fire crackling to death in the mud-fashioned hearth in the corner of the room. Seeing the man’s fatigue, Rumpelstiltskin walked around to stand off to the side of the flames. He wanted to get a good look at the man those villagers had termed a beast.
“My name’s Rumpelstiltskin the Third,” the imp said, catching Janus’ black-eyed attention. Their colors matched, now, but Rumpelstiltskin felt unintentional malice leaking from the darkness behind those pale eyelids. “I liked mischief-¬maker back then, but since I know your name, it’s only fair I tell you mine. Good manners and all that.”
“Can’t argue with that, even if you forgot the nature of Janus.” He turned so he could stare directly at the imp. “You gave me that name, Rumpelstiltskin. You still don’t know the name I had as a man.”
“Does that matter?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, his insight catching both of them off-guard. “Have you used it at all since you stopped being a man?”
“A… fair point. Even more fair when I consider the only name I’ve given since then has been the one you gave me. Tell me, mischief-maker, how did you know to name me after a two-faced god?”
“I didn’t,” Rumpelstiltskin admitted, looking beneath him before squatting down on the floor and crossing his legs. The dying fire warmed his back, even now struggling against its demise underneath this petrified tree. Rumpelstiltskin felt himself surrounded by decay, and when he looked back to the armored, twisted soul who lived here, he wondered just what a change in surroundings might do for the man.
“And yet it was perfect for a soul like me,” Janus mused, lifting his right gauntlet and seeing the glimmers of flame reflected off its weathered surface. “The destiny of a knight, but cursed with the heart of a demon. I was crippled by my inability to make a choice, to be torn between two extremes, but you gave me perspective.”
“I told you to make a choice, is all. To choose to do good, or evil.”
“And now you see what that choice has wrought.” Janus waved his hand around his hovel. “I live on the outskirts of society, exiled and hated by every person within. They fear me, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“In fact, they should,” Janus admitted, shrugging heavy armor that clanked against itself once his shoulders fell. “I attempted good on a number of occasions—it was always the intention—but my demonic heart always got the better of me. For every person I saved, I killed… so many more. Sometimes—”
“But you saved them,” Rumpelstiltskin interrupted, shocking the twisted man from his self-pity for just a moment. After a breath to reorganize his thoughts, Janus leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees.
“I saved the ones who hired me, or begged me, but mischief-maker…” he hesitated, scoffing at Rumpelstiltskin’s—and his former—naivete. “Saving is just a matter of perspective, too. I might have saved the shepherd and his flock from brigands, but those men were trying to feed a village that had suffered from a drought that had taken their fields. When I slaughtered every last one of them, that village was left without its able-bodied men, and their women and children were left to starve.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I was the one to leave them,” Janus stressed, pushing off his elbows and creaking back into his chair. “I can’t count how many times I completed a job for one people just for their enemies to come crawling up to me for revenge. Blood begets blood, Rumpelstiltskin, and my heart wants to drink it all.”
“So that’s all you’ve done?” Rumpelstiltskin held up his chin with his right hand, his elbow wedged into the space behind his knee. “You’ve killed people for other people?”
“Sometimes entire armies,” Janus answered, looking back to the fire barely rising above the coals. His attention pulled Rumpelstiltskin’s focus along with it, and they watched as the fire barely sputtered above the exhausted kindling.
“I killed a hundred men in just a few minutes, the darkness of my heart made manifest as I swept through the bodies of men with families and dreams and ambitions far beyond the field where they were cut down. I told myself that it was for the greater good, protecting those who could not protect themselves. I repeated that lie as I chased the cowards into the tree line and refused to hear their prayers, or how they wanted to see their children again.
“Some escaped, and news of my… powers spread,” Janus said, his gaze going cold as the fire finally died. “The same people who hired me now thought me a monster, and they chased me from their homes and villages and their sight. The more foolish of them tried to hunt me, but…
“Well… Their villages have less hunters now.” Janus pushed himself to his feet and then walked over to a wall neighboring a tunnel leading into the next room. Rumpelstiltskin wondered over the reach of the subterranean complex, but only briefly. Taking his cue from Janus and climbing to his feet, Rumpelstiltskin was ready to engage whatever defeatism was about to come from the man.
“That’s not your fault,” the imp began, but Janus’ chuckle made him realize the misstep. After turning around, Janus walked up to his chair and gripped the backrest with both gauntlets.
“Never said it was, mischief-maker.” He looked down for a moment before resuming eye contact.
“Sometimes, I think normal people are just as wicked as me, but they just don’t have the demonic excuse. Gives me a sense of peace, to know that I can fall back on that reality. I was never going to be good. My destiny was destroyed as soon as I was cursed, and I can live with that.”
“You’re still here, Janus. You don’t have to be evil.”
“Oh, you still think there’s an argument, here?” Janus said, his sarcasm reeking of despair. “I’m as dead as that fire, Rumpelstiltskin. My potential got used up before we ever had that first conversation. We just didn’t know it, yet. I’ve been ashes for most of my life, and I really shouldn’t have been surprised when people didn’t want to have a monster living among them.”
“You’re not a monster,” Rumpelstiltskin attempted, but Janus threw his chair against the wall, where it’s brittle frame could not compensate. Wood splintered and cracked and flew about the room, but the shadows growing behind Janus’ already-imposing frame were not born from the embers still smoking within the hearth. They were real, and Rumpelstiltskin now knew why Janus had such a hard time believing he wasn’t entirely evil.
“Why did you ever think I wasn’t a monster, mischief-maker?” Janus asked, sweeping his hand toward the entrance. The door gave way to whatever ethereal hand Janus had sent to meet it, and their conversation continued with the reflected light from an overcast sky. “In fact, I never thought you did until this moment. When we spoke, you told me to choose. You did not tell me to be good, you just told me that was one of my options, and I believed the implication was that it was the better one.
“In the decades past, I thought you wise, Rumpelstiltskin.” After that implied condemnation, Janus stomped over to the door and then over the threshold, taking in the swamp air with powerful lungs. The imp followed if only to see the man in the face, and when they were standing on the sand before the swamp, Janus chuckled and sneered down at Rumpelstiltskin.
“I thought, after the villagers had rejected me, after my failed attempts at valor—after every little glimmer of hope that I could be more was swallowed up in my personal abyss—that, my God, the mischief-maker was on to something. He may have told me what I wanted to hear, but his words were steeped in truth.
“Before today, Rumpelstiltskin, I thought you were some twisted prophet from some secret world, beyond the Veil, who was sent to me so I could realize the truth. That I was broken from the first. That I should accept my true, monstrous ways, so that some other, valorous knight heavy with destiny could kill me.” Janus almost snarled, breaking eye contact with the imp so he could oversee his murky domain. “And I waited for that man, Rumpelstiltskin, because I trusted that the world had given me the truth so I could claim my true destiny.
“And now I know you were some clueless, bumbling imp who should have kept to sleeping in his tree instead of meddling in my affairs,” Janus concluded, clearly confident that he was correct and that the imp would give up on his pursuit.
However, he had only met the imp once, and Rumpelstiltskin was only going to let him have a few self-pitying lungfuls of swamp air before persuading his friend out of this malaise. That was the conclusion the imp had come to.
“I mean, clueless and bumbling are most definitely traits to describe me from time to time,” Rumpelstiltskin admitted, holding his hands behind his head as he looked out on the swamp, but his light tone was what earned Janus’ curiosity. The twisted knight crossed his arms in consternation, even if he soon returned his gaze to the swamp. “I won’t even say that I’m never wrong or that I may have been right about you when we first spoke, because that would be too outlandish a claim for even Rumpelstiltskin the Third.
“But I do know this,” he said, taking wretched air in through his nostrils and trying to find some way to appreciate the smell. “I rarely meet anyone more than once unless they’re my friend. That’s how the magic works.”
“My curse,” Rumpelstiltskin said, peering at Janus out of the corner of his eye and seeing the reaction he wanted. “You’re not the only one who had their destiny changed. And everybody… everybody always likes to be mean to imps. I’ve heard from Sir Death and others along the way that the other Rumpelstiltskins… people didn’t like them. They weren’t supposed to.”
“I told you, Janus,” Rumpelstiltskin said with some derision, squaring up to the monstrous knight and jabbing his own chest with the thumb of his right hand. “I’m the third. I got this curse from the second—even if I don’t remember it—but I’m the first Rumpelstiltskin to live like I do. The other two were greedy and played tricks on people, but I don’t do that. I make friends.”
“Well, yeah, but everybody likes mischief eventually,” Rumpelstiltskin said with a smile, dropping his other hand to rest on his hip like the other as he turned back to look over the swamp. “Even the people on the receiving end have a story by the end of it, and that’s what life is supposed to be.”
“So many of them,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his smile growing wider as he recalled the memories that chose to flit through his skull in the moment. “That’s how I remember people, and how I try to live my life. I try to make as many stories as possible, with as many friends as possible, and that way… that way I can keep them around even after they’re gone. It’s a little sad once that happens—when I tuck them in for their last goodnight—but after it all, I’m glad I got to meet them and make stories with them. And you’re one of them, Janus.”
“I’m one of the stories?” the knight asked, and Rumpelstiltskin turned back to him as if he was talking to a simpleton.
“Are you kidding? You’re a knight with the soul of a demon. The story practically writes itself.” Rumpelstiltskin waved off Janus’ misgivings with his off hand, his claims coming out of his mouth and into the cold air as a fog. “But the best version of that story does have you becoming good by the end of it.”
“And now you’ve become a fool again. It’s too late for that.”
“Except it’s not, Janus,” Rumpelstiltskin urged, nudging the man’s upper leg with his elbow. “That’s what
I’m saying. The story isn’t over. Your fire isn’t dead yet.”
“Rumpelstiltskin, you watched it die,” Janus said, waving back to the smoking embers within his hovel.
“Just by meeting me again, you were practically responsible for it.”
“And how is that?” Rumpelstiltskin gave way to frustration as potent as his friend’s despair. “I was happy to see you again.”
“Happy?” Janus almost roared, waving an armored hand up and down his body. “Happy to see a man reduced to barbarity? To see a man’s mouth filled with the fangs of a demon, to see his skin sallow and wretched as he commits more and more sins against his fellow man? I transformed into this, Rumpelstiltskin, because of my choice. To kill in the name of good. Except there is no true and real good. Taking life from the world is a sin in of itself, and my demonic heart relished in it, and it changed my appearance to reward me for my service.”
“I believe there’s more out there, Janus. There’s some cause out there that can use a man like you.”
“You believe much, little mischief-maker, but have little proof to show for those beliefs.” Janus jabbed a finger into Rumpelstiltskin’s tiny chest before walking past him and looking in the direction of the mud-covered village. “Tell me, Rumpelstiltskin. Why do you believe? Have you ever met a man more wretched than me?”
“There’s a man and a woman who come immediately to mind.” That earned shock from Janus once he looked over his shoulder. “What, you think you’re the only morally-grey person I know? That’s presumptuous of you.”
“Still…” Janus murmured, but Rumpelstiltskin saw the chink in his mental armor.
“I believe, Janus, because you despair,” he argued. “If you were actually too far gone—if your fire was out—you would not despair. It would be a foregone conclusion. You might be close to the end, but this conversation with an imp in the middle of your swamp is not the end of your story.”
“I will be killed by a righteous knight, Rumpelstiltskin. That’s the end of my story.”
“Maybe. If you really want that,” the imp replied, his will to fight going out with a lungful of swamp breath. However, from the unease on Janus’ withered face, Rumpelstiltskin knew the battle was almost over.
“But you can be so much better than that.”
“And how would I find this better option, mischief-maker?” Janus asked, and he was surprised when Rumpelstiltskin sidled up to him and wrapped gnarled fingers around his dark gauntlet, smiling all the while.
“Well, your first act should be to get out of this swamp, and we can work something out from there,” Rumpelstiltskin said, pulling his friend into the murky waters in front of them. Janus gave only the smallest amount of resistance before walking after the imp, but his mind still rebelled.
“And you’re just going to get me to a new destiny? How can you be so confident that you’ll find me a better story?”
Rumpelstiltskin had to laugh, and he shook his head while ignoring the leeches trying to latch onto his leg.
“Janus. That’s what I do,” Rumpelstiltskin said, trying to keep his sadness at bay as he turned back to look at the fog obscuring the horizon.
Janus had no knowledge of the other facet of the imp’s curse—to tuck his friends in for their last good night—but that didn’t mean Rumpelstiltskin would not meet that duty head-on. That was the promise he had made so long ago, when he helped Mr. Prince with his last, dying breaths, and the promise he kept every time another friend found the end of their journey. With a heavy, too-knowledgeable sigh for a perpetually six-year-old boy, Rumpelstiltskin tried to smile at the sun hiding above the grey clouds.
“It’s what I do, Janus,” Rumpelstiltskin repeated, almost as if in prayer. “I help people find their better story.”