This death march was not all it was cracked up to be, and Rumpelstiltskin had already thought it was not going to crack up to much. However, with Janus’ heavy steps beside him, the imp knew he had a duty to uphold and a promise to keep. This wicked knight—his heroic heart tempered by a demonic soul—deserved a better end to his story than the one he would give himself.
Rumpelstiltskin had dragged Janus out of his swamp hovel to give him that better end, but each step—from swamp peat to muddy road to slick cobblestones and back to the mud—had felt heavier with each transition. Each moment was affected more by gravity, and the sky had given them no sun to warm their backs, just more and more rain to soak through their clothing and to their bones.
“We will be abandoned by the moon itself this night, mischief-maker,” Janus grumbled, forcing Rumpelstiltskin’s gaze away from the puddles ahead and up into the man’s scowling, pale face. His cheeks were distended by demonic fangs that had grown through his crowded teeth, looking to Rumpelstiltskin as if he had never recovered from some medieval oral surgery.
To others, it was a frightening display underneath his silver hair, completing the look of a knight abandoned by god and left to the shadows of the underworld, but Rumpelstiltskin had known the man when he looked considerably more human. Instead of fear, the imp looked on in pity, and the knight’s lifelong fatigue took its toll on Rumpelstiltskin as he turned his gaze to the dimming blanket of clouds above them.
“Then it’s a good thing we can see without the moon’s light,” the imp replied, looking at the clouds for a moment before deflating his lungs and dropping his eyes back to the muddy road ahead. Skirting the tides of muck were the hovels of a small village, their doors closed to the supernatural travelers, but their windows filled with angry, suspicious eyes just barely peeking from the shadows. Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t blame them for being scared, but removing the chance of a welcome conversation had soured the imp’s usual spritely disposition.
“What’s the point of this?” Janus shocked the imp with the earnest question, and they stopped in the middle of the road with the climate sprinkling down on them. “Everywhere we go, we are looked on as monsters, and they are right to look that way. I have killed too many, and you look like a hell-spawned minion I claimed from the underworld. What kind of good end to my story do you expect us to encounter, Rumpelstiltskin? What kind of people would seek help from the likes of us?”
“There is always someone too desperate to judge the source of their help, Janus,” Rumpelstiltskin said plainly, shrugging as he dove his thumbs into the twine band acting as his belt. Looking at an open window in time to see the shutters slam shut, Rumpelstiltskin let out a fatigued sigh as he looked around the small village. “They might look at us this way now, but if we travel to the right place at the right time… I’m sure we can find some cause for you.”
“You put too much stock into chance.” Janus spat, creating ripples in the puddle to his left. “I’ve never encountered such good fortune.”
“I don’t doubt your luck.” Rumpelstiltskin looked at the end of the village to see a solitary figure
approaching, and from that distance, her long hair was the only recognizable suggestion to her gender. “But I trust my own. As frustrating as it can be, sometimes.”
“Then I should expect this to be the usual gauntlet of exasperation?”
“In point of fact, you must,” the imp replied, walking toward the figure staggering past the threshold of the village gate. His movement drew Janus’ eye, and the wicked knight groaned at the new development and how it undermined his argument. He followed behind Rumpelstiltskin, each one of his steps counting for two of the imp’s.
They were not the only ones to notice the girl’s approach, as heads started to peek from beyond the windows with each new development. Surely, they had thought Janus and Rumpelstiltskin to be harbingers of some unexpected doom, but the appearance of the girl beyond the village was the first welcome sight they had seen in quite some time. Just as Rumpelstiltskin was about to reach the muck-covered girl, villagers started to pile out of their hovels.
“Hello, my name is Rumpelstiltskin the Third. It’s nice to meet you,” the imp said, his fatigue forgotten as he raised his hand toward the poor girl, who would have been two heads taller than the imp if she had been standing at her full height.
However, whatever trials she had undergone had stolen her strength, and she was only one head taller than the imp before collapsing onto her knees in front of Rumpelstiltskin. Although surprised, the imp forgave her the splash of mud onto his weathered feet. As he had lost his shoes some weeks ago, his feet were already covered with soil and, more importantly, the girl clearly had more important matters in her life.
Even as the earthen tones of her dress physically dragged her down, there was plenty of red interspersed between the muck. Her black hair hung damp and limp, flecks of soil also trying to claim those strands along with her entire body, but Rumpelstiltskin could see where patches of skin had been pulled away with absent follicles. When the rest of her body fell forward and her hands squelched into the mud to Rumpelstiltskin’s sides, the imp immediately kneeled and tried to console her.
“Shh, you’re safe now,” Rumpelstiltskin promised, and the girl was so distraught that she leaned into the imp’s embrace. Whether or not she believed him, she had been without hope so long that his promises were more trustworthy than the road behind her.
Yet Rumpelstiltskin trusted his own promise for a different reason. He knew Janus would be the one to keep her safe.
“Keep away from her, devil!” someone shouted upon approach, and Rumpelstiltskin looked over his shoulder to see a small gathering of men from the village.
Two of them were able-bodied, one holding a pitchfork and the other a blacksmith’s hammer, but the other two could not have looked less threatening. One was an older man holding a hoe, his breath coming out in ragged puffs in the overcast air, but the one in the center was the speaker. The hair had abandoned the middle of his head and the sides had grown down to his jawline without much grooming, but from the quivering of the loose skin around his neck and the concern in his eyes, Rumpelstiltskin gave up further analysis of the man’s appearance.
In some very real manner, he was bonded to the girl behind Rumpelstiltskin.
“She fell, sir.” Rumpelstiltskin had been trying to excuse his apparent misstep, but he saw Janus turn and sweep his arm above him. Each man quaked in fear, certain the devilish knight could take on every one of them even if they were appropriately armed, but Rumpelstiltskin did not let Janus do much more than growl.
“Janus, stop!” the imp urged, earning a glare from the corner of the man’s eye. However, Janus dropped his arm and stepped to the side as Rumpelstiltskin climbed to his feet, doing his best to lift the girl back to her knees. “They’re just worried about her.”
“That’s… that’s right,” the leader of the villagers agreed, confused as to the nature of the imp’s relationship with Janus. Taking a step forward, the man offered a palm and shifted his weight to a chorus of squelches and pops from the murk underneath him. “She’s my daughter, Margaret.”
“What happened to her?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, looking down at the girl wracked with silent sobs.
Although the girl’s father winced when the imp raised a hand and caressed Margaret’s tear-covered face, the poor girl leaned into his touch and clasped a muddy hand onto Rumpelstiltskin’s leathery skin.
“Margaret, what happened to you?”
“Portunus,” her father replied for her, and both travelers looked to the villager for enlightenment. After saying the name, the villager bristled and anger drove the words out of his mouth. “The devil living in the castle to the east. His minions stole her away a week ago, and we—I thought her long dead.”
“Why did you not go after her?” Janus inquired, the gravel of his condemnation earning the villager’s fury.
“And die myself?” he asked, stepping forward so he was within striking distance of the knight. “You might be fine running into a magician’s lair, but I would be cut down before passing through the gate. We all would,” he said, waving at the men behind him but maintaining contact with Janus’ black eyes. “I love my daughter, but my love would not save me.”
“How fortunate it is for your daughter that you are so pragmatic.” Janus sneered, his fangs making the act more menacing. Lesser men—even greater men—would have flinched at the sight, but Margaret’s father did not balk. He shrugged and then walked past the knight so he could join his daughter in the mud.
“The only fortune is that she has returned,” the villager said, using his weathered hand to lift the girl’s face and find her eyes trying to avoid him. “Margaret. My Margaret, how have you returned?”
“F—father,” Margaret squeaked, but when Rumpelstiltskin rubbed her back, her eyes became braver and she looked her father in the face. “Father, I was so—so frightened.”
“I know, my dear,” he commented, and his voice finally broke through the girl’s trauma. She leapt away from Rumpelstiltskin’s touch and into her father’s arms, her muffled sobs vibrating through his shoulder.
“It’s over, now.”
“But it’s not!” Margaret exclaimed, falling back enough so she could seize the man by his shoulders, her eyes shaking in fear.
“I escaped while he was distracted with one of the other girls, but he watched me leave! I—I k—kept running, but I saw his eyes—I felt his gaze!” she cried, sobbing once more and burying her face in mud-slick hands. “He’ll come for me… he’ll come for me, I know it…”
“Margaret…” Her father reached forward to hold her close again, but she slapped away his hands and retreated, shocking him once she fell into Rumpelstiltskin’s embrace. Finally, she recognized his unearthly appearance, but she only cringed for a moment before looking into the imp’s dark eyes.
Through his ghastly visage, Margaret saw the innocence and kindness beneath, and she was comforted just as Rumpelstiltskin’s new acquaintances always were.
“We can help.” Rumpelstiltskin gave support to that comfort, and he looked beyond the girl to the knight scowling from a few feet away. “Janus and I will go to this Portunus and make sure he doesn’t come after you.”
“Says you,” Janus commented, but the tilt of Rumpelstiltskin’s head was enough to show he had lost that argument in its infancy.
“Why would you help us? Aren’t you in league with the sorcerer?” one of the villagers asked, prompting a laugh from the twisted knight as he walked toward Rumpelstiltskin and then past him.
“On another day, perhaps,” Janus said. “Get the directions, mischief-maker, and we will be on our way.”
“Janus…” After squeezing Margaret’s shoulders, Rumpelstiltskin gave her a smile and then turned to her father. “Trust us, sir. We’ll make sure Portunus won’t bother you anymore.”
“But why? Why would you help us?” the villager urged, Margaret crawling over to him and his embrace. As father collected daughter, Rumpelstiltskin felt better than he had in days, his whimsical spirit returning to him.
“Because helping is what I do, and I’m showing Janus the ropes before his fire burns out.”
“His fire burns out…” the villager muttered, trying to understand the wicked knight walking out of their town. Knowing his ignorance was overwhelming, the villager surrendered and then nodded into the distance beyond the dark warrior’s path. “Continue on that road and take a left onto the higher path. It’s treacherous and overgrown with dead roots—it wasn’t maintained even before Portunus took up living in the castle—but as long as you follow that road, you’ll be at the gates before midnight.”
“Thank you,” Rumpelstiltskin said, bowing to the small family and catching Margaret’s eye. “We’ll make sure you stay safe.”
“What… w—what was your name, again, imp?” Margaret asked, and the cursed boy made sure to give her his warmest smile before departing.
“I’m Rumpelstiltskin the Third, Margaret, and that,” he said before turning and pointing at the knight disappearing in the fading twilight, “is Janus, the hero of your story.”
“Janus, like the two-faced god?”
“Just like that,” Rumpelstiltskin said, enjoying his next idea already as he set off on the knight’s last journey. “Except he has two hearts.”
It didn’t take long for the imp to catch up, even with the difference between their strides. Even if Janus did not die this night, the warrior felt the weight of his end bearing down on him, something the imp could not possibly feel. Whatever attachment he had to the forsaken knight, Rumpelstiltskin’s life would continue and he would see the moon fall and the sun rise once more. Each step Janus took would be one closer to the last, and before this night, he had expected to fear each successive stride.
But as night claimed the sky and forced the world to the darkness familiar to Janus, he felt peace he had thought would never return. Here, on this overgrown-road leading into the hills with a strange, immortal imp as his companion, Janus felt like things were developing toward some grand climax. He was no longer rotting in a swamp waiting for a righteous man to claim his heart; he was striding forward into whatever fate his demonic curse had set out for him, and deep inside the ember of his heart, ashes crumbled away to reveal the bright twinkle of unused potential.
While the subconscious of his impish companion noticed that transition, the core innocence of Rumpelstiltskin allowed them to walk forward without an excess of motivational speaking. The grim nature of their march fell more heavily on the imp, who knew he would have to say goodbye and goodnight during the metaphorical tucking-in. Although he had an appreciation for the role he played in the lives of his mortal friends, he knew there would soon be a time for crying and sniffling and those were usually the hardest times in the imp’s life. It did not matter that Janus would appreciate the final twist to his tale or that he was barely a footnote in Rumpelstiltskin’s storied life; the pain of his loss would echo in the centuries beyond this shrouded night.
But the time for dwelling on the immediate future was over by midnight, for the villager was correct in his estimate. In front of the twisted travelers was a stone wall standing twenty feet tall, its silhouette more imposing than the dim clouds overhead. A fortress this size should have been better defended—and probably was in some fashion—but the gate was open to Janus and Rumpelstiltskin. Whatever portcullis remained was rotten away or stacked to the side, and the courtyard of the castle was dull with mud and ancient hay that had yet to decompose. The inner keep warned them to halt their approach from a hundred feet away, but these travelers were intrepid, trusting their respective strength and immortality.
They stepped through the gate and walked straight to the double doors barring their way inside, but they stopped at the threshold. Rumpelstiltskin looked up at his companion and waited, knowing this was Janus’ journey and how he needed to be the one to make that choice. While he was expecting a moment of trepidation and a deep breath and maybe a knock on the door, Janus defied those expectations.
After letting out a huff, the knight yanked the sword from his scabbard and then launched his boot into the center of the doors. The force of the blow was enough to splinter both ancient doors and chunks fell away from where Janus’ foot had met the surface, and the knight had removed whatever clasp or lock had kept the doors in place.
With a wretched whine, the right door swung open and revealed the shadows of the keep.
“That’s… a way to do that,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, but Janus had already pushed forward and threw the left door back along its path until it thudded against the wall behind it.
“Come, mischief-maker. Let’s see what end you’ve devised for me,” Janus urged, and for the first few moments of exploration, Rumpelstiltskin thought he was in trouble. The castle was in disrepair, the carpets and tapestries were torn, moldy, or both, but the imp was more concerned with Janus’ tone. Rumpelstiltskin had thought him frustrated by the imp’s plans, but after a few minutes of watching the knight as they proceeded to the end of the hall, he realized this wicked, walking abomination was merely nervous.
And Rumpelstiltskin could help with that.
“This doesn’t have to be the end, you know?” Rumpelstiltskin said as they walked over to a door at the end of the hall, the bottom hinge the only thing keeping it upright. When Janus applied the slightest amount of pressure to the top of the wood, it folded and fell to the slick stone of the floor. Although Janus sighed, Rumpelstiltskin tried to continue. “This could just be the first good deed you accomplish at the end of your life.”
“That’s not what I want, Rumpelstiltskin,” Janus said as he hunched over to proceed into the next hall.
The imp followed, oblivious to danger and the spiders crawling just out of the corner of his eye. There were creepy, crawly, icky things all about, but they were less important than the dismal knight’s admission. “You know that. That’s the only reason you convinced me out of my swamp.”
“I know, it’s just…” Rumpelstiltskin said, the pair pausing at the beginning of a spiral stairwell. Leaving the decision to go up or down to his friend, he turned and watched the contemplative knight. “This doesn’t necessarily have to be the end, if you’re not ready.”
“No one’s ever truly ready,” Janus said, laboring on his decision all the while. “You can approach death with all the serenity and devout determination of a monk, but when you’re face to face with the reaper, the fear will filter in and with it the doubt. Piety has its limits, conviction can and will falter, and even the most doomed and deserving souls will think of second chances.”
“You’re… not wrong,” Rumpelstiltskin surrendered, reliving his experiences with Sir Death on his rounds. That non-metaphorical reaper was often greeted by panic and souls desperate to barter. Pursing his lips, Rumpelstiltskin shrugged and accepted his defeat on that particular subject. “But the question becomes: are you past second chances?”
“This is my second chance. The real question is up,” Janus said, turning from one staircase to the other, “or down.”
“That’s your choice, Janus.”
“I guess that’s how it should be,” the knight agreed before deciding on the staircase leading down. Rumpelstiltskin could tell it was a decision born from sentimentality, but it was just as likely the sorcerer was in the deep cells of this wretched keep. A man like Portunus—a man who absconded with village girls and tore out hair or inflicted any of the miseries Rumpelstiltskin did not want to imagine—would likely keep to the deep, dark places of his own domain.
It made a certain sense to check the basements and dungeons before looking to any of the living quarters upstairs.
While they were rewarded with labyrinthine tunnels and rooms designated for atrocious experimentation, Janus and Rumpelstiltskin did not find anything living for the first few minutes. Every time they reached a jail cell, there was no occupant; just the rags and grime and evidence of past residents. Each torchlit room filled with glassware and tables and notes was cluttered by the frenzied labors of some mad scientist and inundated with the sweet rot of dried blood. Rumpelstiltskin did not care for the odors and sights of these rooms, but when he looked at Janus, he saw something curious.
Looking at the twitches in his face, it was obvious that Janus’ demonic traits gave him enhanced senses—so the smell alone should have bothered the wicked knight—but from tales of the man’s past, Rumpelstiltskin knew outright cruelty and blood should not have affected Janus. While there was a physical reaction to the smells of Portunus’ endeavors, Rumpelstiltskin saw anger bubbling through the man’s darkness. And not the rage and fury of a man seeking vengeance, but of the righteous indignation of a knight who saw cruelty and felt the need to rectify the universe.
In that place of horror and tragedy, Rumpelstiltskin saw the glimmer of a forsaken knight’s redemption.
“Who—who are you?”
When that weak voice rose up just as they were about to leave, they turned back to see something moving in a cage about as tall as the imp. As Rumpelstiltskin drew closer, he could see the outline of something human in that darkness. Kneeling down, he saw what used to be a girl.
Now, she was barely recognizable beneath a layer of dirt and dried blood, hunched over in a cage meant for a dog or something even smaller. Patches of her hair had been pulled out, and what remained was barely more than a few inches of the ruins of what used to be beautiful. Crisscrossing her limbs were scratches and tears—some self-inflicted—but there were deep, dark holes above the veins above her elbow, as well.
Certain now that Portunus was an advocate for blood magic, even Rumpelstiltskin’s blood started to boil, but he would not let the girl feel that anger.
“We’ve come to stop Portunus,” Rumpelstiltskin answered in a soothing tone that did not betray the confidence of that statement. “Which means we’ve come to help you, as well. What’s your name?”
“I… I—I don’t…” the girl tried to say, but then she shook her head violently and slapped her temple with a too-skinny wrist. Rumpelstiltskin would have stopped her, but the gaps of the cage were not big enough for his tiny hands. He just waited until the girl’s frenzy halted and she could make panicked eye contact with him, the whites of her eyes interrupted with jagged, broken blood vessels. “I don—don’t remem—member.”
“You don’t remember?” Rumpelstiltskin asked in alarm, but seeing her reaction to that alarm, he tried to resume his soothing tone. “That’s okay! That’s fine! Sometimes I forget my name for weeks at a time and you still see me smiling.”
“She’s been here for more than a few weeks, mischief-maker,” Janus added, and his interruption caused a new wave of fear in the poor girl. After hunching down on his knees, it did not take long for Janus to arrive at a conclusion. “The girl’s been broken for a long while, now.”
“What makes you say that?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, breaking eye contact with the girl for just a moment.
“Too many scars have healed over. And not just the physical ones,” Janus said, nodding at the woman now flinching at his attention. “Portunus broke this one a long time ago and is…
“He’s keeping her as a pet.” Janus growled as he looked away, rising to his feet and then pacing back to the entrance of the room. Rumpelstiltskin felt that righteous indignation yet again, watching as the wicked knight’s lungs made him grow larger with each furious intake of breath. Yet again Rumpelstiltskin felt glad for this internal transformation, but it was tempered with his sorrow for the wretched creature in the cage. Turning back to the girl, Rumpelstiltskin tried to make his impish face as warm and welcoming as possible.
“Well that’s gonna be over soon, alright? We’re gonna get you out of here and we’re going to stop Portunus.” Rumpelstiltskin reached for the latch, but the girl scurried back and contorted into herself so she could be further from the cage.
“Don’t! If you op—open my l—lock, he’ll punish me!”
“We’re going to stop hi—”
“Don’t do it. P—please! I don’t I don’t please don’t…” the girl whined, throwing her face into the scarred and bruised fold of her elbow. Rumpelstiltskin leaned back on his knees in despair, seeing the effect a man like Portunus could have, but Janus would not let the conversation end like that.
“Where is Portunus? Can you at least tell us that?” Janus asked, and it was a long moment before the girl stopped shaking and she looked over the scarred skin of her forearm. “I will take him to Hell, myself, but I need to know where he is.”
“You’ll… take—take him to H—Hell?”
“I’m already on my way. Won’t be too much trouble to take him with me,” Janus replied, and Rumpelstiltskin watched the girl calm down at the prospect of a cruel man’s reward. Withdrawing her face from her elbow, the girl leaned forward and gripped bony fingers around the wire links of her cage.
“Por—Portunus spends most of his time in the library, on the sec—second floor,” the girl said, drool collecting and then dripping from the corner of her mouth. “You’ll—you’ll kill him?”
“Yes,” Janus said, abruptly reaching forward and grabbing hold of the lock holding the girl captive. With a swift yank, the metal sheared away and the door of the cage fell forward with the girl’s weight. However, her swift release had not been desired and she screamed and fell back to the other end of the cage. Rumpelstiltskin was shocked by the event, standing up and pointing at the whimpering girl trying to hide herself from existence.
“Why? Why did you do that?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but Janus shrugged before turning and heading to the entrance of the room.
“If she wants to live, she’ll leave,” Janus said. his final words on the matter before departing from the room.
Rumpelstiltskin stammered in place, so angry and confused and hurt by the truth of that statement that he could not move. After a moment of anger, he looked back at the cringing girl and felt defeated, knowing that he did not have the time to console her or give her the therapy she needed. Janus needed Rumpelstiltskin’s companionship or he would likely make some error, and he felt torn between his compassion and his promise.
“Just… either stay here for me, or… or… leave when you’re ready,” Rumpelstiltskin said, backing toward the doorway and cursing himself for not being able to be in two places at once. “I’ll come back either way, but don’t think you’re alone. My name’s Rumpelstiltskin the Third! I’ll… I’ll come back and we’ll shake hands and be friends and everything, okay?”
Rumpelstiltskin then hurried after Janus and found the knight already disappearing around the bend. The man had his purpose now—which was the intention of this entire journey—but Rumpelstiltskin found himself wishing the man was not so twisted by his demonic curse. It was making being Rumpelstiltskin the Third much more difficult, and he would have given Janus a piece of his mind if the knight had just stayed still long enough for the imp to catch up.
However, Rumpelstiltskin did not reach the man’s side until he was brandishing his sword in a well-lit library on the second floor. Heaving in air he did not necessarily need, Rumpelstiltskin was not surprised to see that Portunus did not look like some menacing figure, but rather a corpulent, weak-wristed little man with hair retreating from his scalp. While there was certainly the gleam of evil in beady eyes that were almost swallowed up by the surrounding fat, Portunus seemed like the kind of man who would steal girls just for fun.
What was surprising was the pulsing, red orb in his hand, which Rumpelstiltskin had already encountered three times too many. That destructive treasure had been the cause of too much pain, and Rumpelstiltskin had been glad every time he had lost it and felt fortunate that no one like Portunus had ever acquired it. Now that Portunus had the Ifrit’s Eye in his grasp, Rumpelstiltskin should have been the one to wonder if Janus really could slay the human-shaped monster.
That said, what stole Rumpelstiltskin’s entire focus was the raven-haired sorceress whose outstretched hand was covered in the spiral projection of an ethereal, purple snake.
“Rumple—what are you doing here?” Circe shot back, looking from the imp to the twisted knight he had brought with him and back to Portunus for just a moment. “What the hell is going on…”
“You’re the Grand Sorceress here, Circe,” Portunus replied, lazily holding the Ifrit’s Eye in his pudgy, right hand. “Why on Earth is your imp in my castle?”
“Trust me, if I knew why, he wouldn’t be.” Circe snapped at her opponent, turning her focus on Rumpelstiltskin but still holding her arm toward the sorcerer. “Kiddo, you need to get out of here. This is grown-up time.”
“No buts, Rumpelstiltskin. This is a dangerous place.”
“That’s exactly why we’re here,” Janus interrupted, advancing toward the magicians with his bastard sword held to his right side. Realizing that she would have to deal with this stranger, Circe jerked her gaze to the knight with a puzzled expression.
“Okay, seriously, who are you? Actually, we’ll talk later,” Circe stopped herself, instead nodding after the imp on the other side of the room. “Take Rumpelstiltskin out of here, now.”
“Although I have an appreciation for the mischief-maker, I’m not here to keep him safe,” Janus replied before squaring up to the amused magician, who was lightly playing with his overly-powerful toy. “I’m here to take Portunus to Hell.”
“Oh, how convenient,” the magician replied with a haughty chuckle before brandishing the Ifrit’s Eye and letting the inner fire pulse against the glassy surface. “Would you like to go on ahead?”
No sooner had Portunus made his offer did flames burst from the eye and pour into the air surrounding Janus. Rumpelstiltskin gasped at the sight and thought Janus would be swallowed whole, but the man’s silhouette never disappeared within the flames. While the blaze roared about him, the knight stood strong and kept his footing. After a moment, Portunus was confident the man was naught but ashes, but he was surprised to see what was left after he stopped the fiery assault.
There—panting but still whole—was a man with sallow, white skin, too many teeth in his mouth and white hair falling to his shoulders, but completely naked otherwise. His armor had melted into a puddle at his feet and whatever cloth he had been wearing had stood less of a chance. Silver dripped from his hand, and from Janus’ frustration, Rumpelstiltskin could tell it used to be the knight’s sword.
“My God…” Portunus leaked out, but it only drew a laugh from Janus.
“Oh, he had nothing to do with this.” Almost apathetic, he flicked his wrist and removed most of the melted sword from his palm.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Circe muttered under her breath, which allowed Portunus to remember the greatest foe in the room.
Before she could do much more than look at the man, Portunus thrust forward the hand holding the Eye, and Circe was just barely able to lift the arm covered in the purple snake and warp its shape into a shield reaching from the floor and to the top of her head.
When the volcanic eruption of flame slammed against that shield, it was redirected up into the ceiling, which—unlike every occupant of that room—did not stand a chance against such magical fury. The flames poured upward like a tidal wave and crashed through the stones and melted the mortar holding them together. While the blazing assault continued, it was hard to realize the danger, but Rumpelstiltskin looked up just in time to see the roof shifting above him and realize it was about to crush his tiny body.
Although the rest of Rumpelstiltskin knew he would eventually be fine, it didn’t stop the core of the imp from crying out and covering his head, frightened as any child should be. However, while he was banged up from the side and felt bruises form and immediately dissipate, he was spared the brunt of the world falling down around him.
When he looked up, he found the pale chest of Janus heaving above him, and it was not long before the knight stood up, lifting hundreds of pounds of stone off his back in the process.
The library looked like a much different battlefield now, open to the night sky and filled with rubble, but it was still very much a battlefield. Circe and Portunus had protected themselves with magical barriers after the infernal calamity, and even as Janus and Rumpelstiltskin climbed out of the rubble, they were slinging spells and ephemeral familiars at each other.
Rumpelstiltskin had seen Circe fight on very few occasions, but now he saw how she had become the Grand Sorceress. There were tales of the witch reaching back to the ancient Greeks—the reality of which Rumpelstiltskin had been privy to because of a magical stump he had stumbled upon—but now he saw the adept nature of the sorceress. Portunus was keeping up with the woman and sometimes throwing her off guard, but that was only because he had the Ifrit’s Eye in his grasp.
Every time he let out a torrent of flame, Circe would create some barrier or yank herself out of the target zone with some spell, appearing behind the man to launch a cascade of icicles or launch a spear through the shadows at his feet. Portunus was no slouch by any means, evading each of her strikes and throwing deadly weapons from the ether just to distract her from the true weapon in his hand, but it was clear that Circe was simply more powerful.
Janus and Rumpelstiltskin had no choice but to watch as the two magicians exchanged blows, but once the cursed travelers had finally extracted themselves from the collapsed ceiling and were within twenty feet of the pair, Circe and Portunus paused their violence.
“You deserve your title, Circe,” Portunus conceded, shrugging as his lungs struggled to take in air. “In comparison, Hazel, your predecessor, was no Grand Sorceress.”
“I will take that compliment, Portunus.” Circe stood straighter and let energy coil around her arms once more. “But it’s an obvious one. I only let her have the title until she interfered with my life, and then it was time to take it from her.”
“Just as you are interfering in my work?”
“I struggle to see the similarities. Blood magic is, at best, distasteful, and you’re basically a monster. And this thing you have here?” she said while pointing at the red bauble in Portunus’ hand, which Rumpelstiltskin took as his cue to butt in.
“Circe, be careful!” he shouted, earning the confused attention of the combatants. “That’s the Ifrit’s Eye! It’s… it’s really bad. I’ve seen a lot of people… die for it…”
“You know what this is?” Portunus asked, so shocked at the revelation that he dropped the bauble to his hip and turned back to Circe. “How does your imp know about the Eye?”
“Don’t underestimate Rumpelstiltskin,” she replied, shaking her head and fondly looking back at the imp.
“He’s much smarter than anybody gives him credit.”
“That’s the truth,” Janus said abruptly, and everybody watched the naked, cursed man as he approached the fat sorcerer still heaving on top of his ruined keep. Portunus was confused at first, but eventually he became wary and lifted the Eye toward the knight once more.
“Stop! I’m warning you! The first time, I thought you were a simple man, but I will turn the full might of the Eye on you!” Portunus shouted, but fear quaked through his words, and Janus was already ten feet away from the man by the time he replied.
“Well, I’m waiting,” Janus said, his advance enough to spur Portunus into action. Concentrated flames
tore out of the Eye and swarmed around Janus’ naked body, but it did not stop the knight’s approach. Ever the juggernaut, he took one step, then another, his dark shadow moving through a blaze that should have killed him.
“Why? What kind of sorcery is this?” Portunus was unable to consider running away or using another spell, as Janus’ efforts had practically hypnotized him. Once the man was a foot away, Portunus stopped the assault for fear of endangering himself, but the sight of a scorched man brought a whole different kind of fear, especially once Janus lifted a blackened hand and wrapped his fingers around the man’s swollen throat.
“I was a man of nobility, but my soul was bound to a demon,” Janus explained, his outer layer of flesh crackling as he lifted the man into the air. “And that part of me has no fear of flames. It only wishes to return to them.”
“Then you shall,” Portunus said, still arrogant within the twisted knight’s grip, and he lifted the Eye in order to accomplish something Rumpelstiltskin and Circe would never discover. As soon as Portunus lifted the Eye, Janus used his other hand to hold onto the gem as well.
“We will return together,” Janus promised, a dark smoke rising from where his fingers contacted the gem. Fear completely overtook Portunus in that moment, and he struggled and writhed as a low, blue flame ran from the surface of the eye and covered both of their bodies. Portunus whined at first, but it became a scream as the blue turned to orange, as flames positively poured out of the Eye and swallowed them up and rose higher and higher.
Circe and Rumpelstiltskin could only watch as the flames overtook them, yet they could see both of them plainly. Patches of Portunus’ skin flaked away, blackened, sizzled, but Janus was calm as the flames poured upward, some wind tunnel taking them further into the atmosphere. There was more than just the Eye’s magic at work in that moment, and Rumpelstiltskin could see the serenity on each and every line of Janus’ face. It was a sorrowful moment as they burned away, but once the flames reached the sky, something wondrous happened.
The flames ate away at the clouds above them, taking from them their moisture and removing that skyward ceiling. Above them was a brilliant moon, previously obscured by too many days of poor weather, and when the flames dissipated, they could see each and every vivid detail of their battlefield.
Once he realized the flames had died away, Rumpelstiltskin turned back to his friend to find a monument made of ashes. Portunus was long dead, his last visage one of torture and pain, but Janus’ blackened face was still that vision of serenity within the flames.
And when the wind took them both and there was nothing left of Janus, Rumpelstiltskin let out a stream of tears to celebrate the life and death he had witnessed, and wished the man a pleasant journey into the skies.
“Someday, kiddo, you’re going to have to tell me how you meet these people.”
Circe forced Rumpelstiltskin out of the moment, and he would have wiped the tears away from his cheek but thought it was too soon for that. Taking the witch’s hand, he waited for her to look down at him before speaking.
“The same way I met you,” he said, too aware that the end of his time with the witch was drawing ever closer. He wrapped his tiny arm around her hips and hugged her close, feeling grateful for her touch on the back of his head. It was a sweet moment, tempered by the loss of a man too similar. Both Janus and Circe thought themselves monsters, but Rumpelstiltskin would never let either of them leave without some chance for redemption.
The moment was over soon, the witch withdrawing from his embrace and walking over to where the ashes had been. In their place was the Ifrit’s Eye, and Rumpelstiltskin thought about warning the witch further. However, the words abandoned him once she picked up the treasure and smiled into its reflected light.
Suddenly, Rumpelstiltskin thought their goodbye might come much sooner.
“Interesting little thing, isn’t it?” she asked, walking back to the imp who knew too much.
“It’s dangerous, Circe,” he warned, but she just laughed at Rumpelstiltskin before patting his head and walking past him.
“Which is exactly why someone like me should have it.”
Rumpelstiltskin would have cautioned her further, but a shifting block of stone distracted him and then reminded the imp of something more urgent.
“The girl!” he squeaked, rushing past Circe and to the hallway leading to the stairs.
It was a frantic few minutes as he tore through the ruined keep without its master, most of the torches having gone out due to the magical battle on the upper floors. Rumpelstiltskin even lost his way a few times, only barely hearing Circe call out for him, but eventually he was in the basement where they had encountered the girl earlier.
But all he found was an empty cage.
“No,” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, but he didn’t have the room to himself for too long. With an audible pop, Circe appeared behind him and then grabbed hold of his neck before kneeling down.
“Kiddo, you can't go running off on your own like that. You had me worried,” she said, shaking him once before looking at the cage that had stolen his focus. “What’s this, then?”
“There was a girl here.” Rumpelstiltskin sniffed back tears and mucus he did not want to interrupt him.
“Janus and I found her and Portunus had done… he did a lot of things to her.”
“That is one of his hobbies... So you left her here?”
“Janus ripped off the lock, but she didn’t want to come out.” Rumpelstiltskin turned back to look at the witch, who was much more patient than he had expected. Circe’s face was understanding, her eyes soft and conciliatory. “He said that if she wanted to live, she’d come out eventually.”
“Then she must have.”
“Maybe,” Rumpelstiltskin said, wrapping his arms around the kneeling woman. “I hope so.”
“What makes you think she didn’t?” Circe asked, patting Rumpelstiltskin’s back with a delicate hand.
“She seemed… she seemed just like Janus. She seemed like she didn’t want to be here anymore. The end of Portunus… that was the only thing that even got her to lean forward in the cage,” Rumpelstiltskin explained into Circe’s shoulder, drowning her shirt in his misery. After stepping back, Rumpelstiltskin looked at the cage and seemingly deflated. “She needed help, but I ran up after Janus instead.”
“Oh. Well…” Circe paused, and Rumpelstiltskin looked back at the woman weighing her options. “That’s what you came here for, so you shouldn’t feel bad about that. And who knows, she might be fine and on her way back to her village.”
“I don’t… know if she would remember where it is.” Rumpelstiltskin dropped his gaze, but when he lifted it again, he saw bony fingers wrapped around the corner of the doorway and frightened, bloodshot eyes.
“Oh?” Circe asked, turning around and seeing the girl’s face disappear beyond the corner. “Oh! Well, here we are. Come in, dear.”
“Please,” Rumpelstiltskin asked, walking forward and then waiting on the close side of the door.
“Portunus is gone, and we’re trying to help.”
“He’s… P—Portunus is gone?” she asked from beyond the doorway, but the edge of her face appeared after the question. With an enthusiastic nod, Rumpelstiltskin pointed at the witch climbing to her feet behind him.
“Uh-huh! My friend Janus got rid of him. This is my friend, Circe, and if you don’t remember, I’m—”
“Rumpelstiltskin,” she said, making the imp feel a whole lot better. Satisfied that the girl could make new memories, Rumpelstiltskin offered his hand forward.
“That’s right. Pleased to meet you,” he said, and it was almost too long of a moment before the girl wrapped her boney fingers around his gnarled paw. Her skin was cold, but Rumpelstiltskin knew he would warm it up somehow. “Do you know your name, yet?”
“I’m…” the girl paused, but the flicker of a smile crossed her face before she answered.
“I’m Margaret. Do you… do you mind helping me go home?”
And to his immense confusion, the imp finally realized this girl looked exactly like the girl they had left behind in that village.