Rumpelstiltskin knew before Sir Death arrived what was hiding behind the impenetrable haze of smoke in the valley in front of him. Legions of crackling trees gave ambient light to those plumes of smoke, making the middle of the night seem like the dwindling remnants of a setting sun, dull crimson and vermillion patches through the dark blanket separating the valley from the rest of the world. If the imp had need of breath, he could not approach, but Rumpelstiltskin knew his destination was in the center of that calamity, the source of all the pops and sizzles of blue electricity crawling between the torrential flames smothering this forsaken trench. His lungs were barely vestigial through his curse, and he would need that invulnerability just to reach his dear friend.
And he knew, no matter the fear rampaging through his childlike brain, that his friend had need of him.
“This is no place for you, child,” Sir Death’s voice came unbeckoned, though Rumpelstiltskin was glad to hear it. He barely looked over his shoulder at the man beneath the shrouds, the reflection of his scythe against the far-off blaze the only thing separating him from the night. Instead of trying to guess at the man’s features beneath the hood, Rumpelstiltskin turned back to the valley and sighed, his resolve worth more than his fear.
“This is no place for her,” he replied, wondering if he would take his first steps forward in just a few seconds. He had options when it came to the when of this painful reunion. The imp could stand here for a few more minutes, maybe an hour, but it wouldn’t make the next act of this story any less difficult. In point of fact, it could only become more difficult, as Sir Death would do his best to persuade him to pursue another path. Rumpelstiltskin truly did not know if he could stay strong and plod forward, but he could not yet witness this tragedy.
“She chose this, Rumpelstiltskin,” Sir Death stated, his voice clearer as he approached. When he wrapped slender fingers against the imp’s shoulder, Rumpelstiltskin leaned into the sympathetic touch.
“She didn’t truly know what it was.”
“You know little of Circe, child. Before your intervention, she was a sorceress feared throughout history,” Sir Death reiterated, squeezing his ward’s shoulder to stress the point. “Entire mythologies have been affected by her existence, and there are few tales of her kindness.”
“But she is kind to me, Sir Death,” Rumpelstiltskin added, shrugging off the reaper’s hand and turning to point at his hooded face. “I forget often what kind of hatred flows my way, the disgust, the distinct lack of kindness, but she saved me within moments of seeing my face. She makes me forget, makes me see the world the way I’m supposed to. She always has. She is always considerate and warm and… she is family to me, Sir Death. Just like you.”
“She is not just like me, child.” Sir Death bristled at the claim, but Rumpelstiltskin had no intention of backing down.
“Maybe not just,” he murmured, turning back to the firestorm raging through the valley. “But that is why I need both of you.”
“She turned away from you, Rumpelstiltskin. She will not be the same witch you traveled with all those years ago,” Sir Death said, and only this time did the imp concede.
“Which is why it’s time I remind her,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his resolve stronger than it was before the reaper had arrived. Puffing up his chest, the imp took a few steps down the dirt road, descending into the valley that would have killed any other traveler. He thought it would be a lonely journey, a scorned and scorched path leading to his favorite witch, but after tumbling over his feet and sliding down a few yards, Sir Death’s hand beckoned for his grip.
“I thought you would stay behind,” Rumpelstiltskin ventured, but the reaper grabbed his hand and hauled the imp to his feet, patting off Rumpelstiltskin’s tunic before lifting his sleeve to his own mouth and coughing.
“I would not let you face this alone.”
“She might attack you.”
Sir Death shrugged at the possibility, instead weaving his fingers through the imp’s left hand and squeezing it firm.
“I am prepared for that. I am not prepared for her to take any sort of recourse against you,” Sir Death emphasized, making Rumpelstiltskin feel once more like a child looking up to his father. “In case she is too far gone, I will not allow her to harm you.”
“She wouldn’t hurt me, Sir Death.”
“The Circe you knew would not hurt you, child. Depending on the influence of the Ifrit’s Eye, we may encounter a woman who will see you as a stranger.”
“Circe wouldn’t forget me,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, but as they reached the barrier of almost-solidified smoke, the imp had his doubts. He had seen the Circe from the time of Odysseus, and he had seen the witch in her fading seasons, but he had no idea what version of his witch was at the center of this calamity. If any one person could reach her, it was Rumpelstiltskin, but there was no guarantee that there was any one person.
“I sincerely hope that is the case, child. Truly,” Sir Death murmured, and then they were through the first inches of that smoke wall.
Once they were within the haze, Rumpelstiltskin felt the heat against his leathery skin, felt sweat forming between the folds and wrinkles of his prematurely-wizened brow. Immediately, Rumpelstiltskin felt like he was being cooked alive, but he knew he was incapable of being cooked to death, and so pressed on. From time to time he was tempted to breathe, but air was unnecessary to a cursed child like him and he knew it would only result in coughing fits.
Still, every dozen trees they passed, Rumpelstiltskin forgot and sucked in air that scorched the linings of his lungs and forced him to hack up whatever toxins they did not absorb. Whenever those coughing fits overtook him, Sir Death waited patiently, rubbing Rumpelstiltskin’s knobby back. Tears would fill the imp’s eyes and it seemed as if he was dying, but eventually the curse would make itself known, Rumpelstiltskin would regain his composure, and he would look up into the eyes of the man who had protected him all these years. Rumpelstiltskin would be forever grateful for this former king, this living reaper, but every time he caught sight of Sir Death’s sympathetic gaze, he saw Circe’s smile; saw it fade and again realized that maybe he could not bring her back from the edge and see it one more time.
And so, after every convulsive break in their journey, Rumpelstiltskin again set off to save his friend from herself, ever more resolute even as he was plagued by his doubts.
After forty-five minutes of trudging through a blazing, impossible forest, Rumpelstiltskin and Sir Death stopped at the edge of a clearing. In the center of the circle was a small fortification, a waystation for some king’s loyal troops. It was evident that the trees around the building had been cut away for some logical, tactful reason, but it only served now to transform the tiny outpost into an eerie display.
Which was only made more unnerving by the funnel of flames reaching up into the sky, obscuring whatever stars and clouds were overhead. The sky itself seemed devoured up in the maw of that living flame, electricity lancing between the firestorm and any particulate that was funneled into the thermal gusts. No living soul could have survived to witness such an event, and when he finally lowered his gaze back to the outpost, Rumpelstiltskin saw the bodies of men who had tried.
“You still have the option to turn back, child.” Sir Death’s voice barely broke above the din of the storm, even though the man was shouting. “I can take you far from her and deal with Circe, myself.”
“And how would you deal with her, Solomon?” Rumpelstiltskin shouted back, using the man’s real name to drive the point home. “Would you deal with her as a magician? A king? As Sir Death? What would you do that I would not?”
“Child, I am trying not to tell you.”
With a nod, Rumpelstiltskin conceded the logical outcome, but he was not an imp devoted to the pursuit of logic. Squeezing the reaper’s hand and feeling Sir Death squeeze in kind, Rumpelstiltskin pushed forward and braced himself against the tide of the maelstrom.
The wind itself was almost too much, somehow not devoured by the flames, and even Rumpelstiltskin knew that was impossible. Not impossible for a stone imbued with the soul of a furious, demon king, but the imp knew that he was fighting against pure, unrestrained chaos. For a moment, he was forced to close his eyes, but even then, Rumpelstiltskin fought against Circe’s unintentional assault, placing one tiny foot in front of the other and then repeating the process. He would make it, he had promised her before and every day since they had parted, and he would not allow a simple thing like otherworldly, celestial flames to stop him.
When he was able to open his eyes again, Rumpelstiltskin was shocked to see a wall of flame rushing to greet him. He panicked, the lizard part of his brain screaming at him from his forgotten, past mortality, but he had encountered something like this before. When he had first encountered the Ifrit’s Eye, he had chased down a serrated sun and been overwhelmed by a tidal flame. Still, this was more impressive, was much taller than him, and it was beyond judgment when he gave into fear, flinched and cried out for rescue.
The flames never poured over his body. His eyes were clenched shut for a time, but when Rumpelstiltskin opened them, he saw Sir Death standing above, his hand held straight out and his palm pressed against some sort of blue, translucent barrier. Once Rumpelstiltskin lifted his head, he felt a fool for not thinking the reaper would protect him. He always protected the imp, and it was incredibly silly to think he wouldn’t in the middle of a magical apocalypse.
“We’re almost there, child,” Sir Death whispered, and once Rumpelstiltskin stood up straight, he saw the truth of it. It seemed like that wall of flame was the last line of defense, for the outpost was just a few yards away. Rumpelstiltskin was at once nervous, finally this close to confronting the friend he had lost so many years ago, but he knew he had no option but to persevere. He owed it to Circe, to the woman who had protected him and laughed with him and danced in the sun with him.
When they reached the door and Sir Death placed his hand against it, Rumpelstiltskin made sure he would keep that Circe in his mind and try to make sure it was the Circe he would see after all of this was over.
They did not have to creep through the outpost and explore to find the former Grand Sorceress. The woman was in the main hall, sitting in a simple, wooden chair that had likely been part of a set. Now there were no other chairs, no other pieces of furniture. Now it was just a raven-haired sorceress sitting in gossamer fabrics, looking toward the immortal travelers who had interrupted a perfectly good firestorm.
“I should have known you’d eventually come for me, Solomon,” Circe growled, her voice echoed by something much deeper.
This far away from the woman, Rumpelstiltskin could not quite tell what had changed in her face, what lines had been erased, what had been created, but her eyes had been completely overcome. Before they had been a vibrant green, mischievous and full of life, but they had been turned to embers, crackling red and black and seemingly dying and living through the wisps flowing through the outpost.
“I did not come for you, Circe,” Sir Death replied on his way through the hall, pulling the imp along. Once they were halfway through, the reaper let go of Rumpelstiltskin’s hand and then propped himself up on his scythe. “I am simply here for support.”
“Please,” Circe spat, a flame plunging to the floor with the word before bouncing into oblivion. “Support,
my ass. You only brought the imp along to exploit him.”
“I would never.” Sir Death wasn’t angry at the sleight. “That child has me wrapped around his little finger.”
“I’m sure it feels that way to you, Sol,” Circe said, rolling her eyes before glaring right through Rumpelstiltskin. “Your precious little monster gets away with everything just so you can say you don’t control him.”
“I could not control him even if I wished.”
“Hah!” Circe barked, sitting up straight while gripping the armrest of her chair with blazing fingernails.
“You don’t get to play that game with me, Wise King Solomon. I know the kinds of games you play. I know how you truly feel about that imp.”
“How does he feel about me, Circe?” Rumpelstiltskin finally entered the conversation, his voice weak. All his strength and resolve had abandoned him once he had seen how far Circe had fallen, and he was not prepared for the witch’s answer.
“He cursed you, Rumpelstiltskin. He could have just let you die, but he let you take the curse? Why? Why would he do that, you might be thinking,” Circe said, leaning back in her chair and lifting her arm so she could flourish with a limp wrist. “So he could have an immortal child. Reaping’s a lonely hobby, Rumpelstiltskin, and he let you suffer just so he could always have a little boy to look up to him and make him feel like a goodie-two-shoes who’s doing the right thing.”
“You don’t understand,” Sir Death attempted, but Circe’s hair erupted into an inferno as she pointed a finger at the reaper.
“Absurd! You and I have been in this world a long time, Solomon, and I have the exact, same humanity lurking beneath the surface. Unlike you, I have completely denied mine and became stronger for it. Every day, every year, every century, I was inching closer to this, and now I don’t have need for such… human attachment.” Circe rose to her feet and became a living avatar of flame, only her face exposed and recognizable. “I understand, Solomon, and I admit that I used that imp as a crutch just like you still do.”
“You didn’t use me as a crutch, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin said even though tears flowed freely from the corner of his eye and down his freckled, leathery cheek. Circe watched him as he took slow steps forward, laughing at the imp’s foolhardy confidence.
“Oh, I did, kiddo.” She sneered out the nickname, and Rumpelstiltskin could not pretend it didn’t hurt. “I saw through that façade and the soul beneath, and I felt the need to be a better person than I was, but I was misguided. By giving into that human desire, I was undermining my lifelong goal. I should never have tried to be a better person. I didn’t want to be a person at all, and trading you for the Ifrit’s Eye was the best decision I ever made.”
“You’re lying to yourself,” Rumpelstiltskin claimed, desperate to believe his own words. As he approached the witch consumed by demonic fire, fear filtered in, but it was Circe’s laughter that made Rumpelstiltskin clench his fists just so he could hide their trembling.
“No, kiddo, I was just lying to both of us. But now I’m telling the truth,” Circe said, placing her hands on her hips and grinning through the flames that now covered her face. “And I’m much happier now than I ever was with you.”
“You might believe that. You might know that,” Rumpelstiltskin said, the heat coming from his friend almost more than his immortal soul could bear. Still, he kept placing one foot in front of the other, and soon he was just within a few feet of the ancient sorceress and looking up into what should have been certain death. “But that doesn’t mean it’s true.”
“I can show you just how true it is, imp,” Circe stated, her tone so frigid it almost cooled her flames. “I can kill you right now and feel good about it.”
“And I’m telling you that’s a lie.” Rumpelstiltskin looked up at the woman’s face and wondered if he was right. Even if he wasn’t, these were the words he would like to say, and he thought briefly if this was finally how he reached his own good night. If so, Circe would not be the worst person to tuck him in, but as she smiled and lifted her palm—the Ifrit’s Eye rising out of her skin and brimming with hellborn power—Rumpelstiltskin tried not to be afraid.
“Well, kiddo, let’s see,” Circe said, almost laughing through the threat, but she would not get the chance to follow through. Sir Death had not been idle, and while Rumpelstiltskin had made his earnest attempt to bring Circe back from the edge, the reaper had been prepared for this very moment. The handle of Sir Death’s scythe hit the ground and let out a shockwave which forced the flames surrounding Circe into oblivion. The witch immediately snarled at the old king’s intervention, but Sir Death’s magic had not been intended as a counter to the woman’s flames.
Another creature had entered this forsaken outpost, summoned here by Sir Death’s magic. There was something holy about his presence, but he looked like he belonged anywhere but Heaven. His feet ended in powerful, reptilian claws and he was covered in emerald, piece-meal armor that must have been pristine once upon a time, but now showed huge gaps in coverage along his torso. The armor on his arms ended at his elbows, but it didn’t seem like any armor could have survived what had scorched his forearms permanently, leaving blackened scales that must have been brilliant at some point. There was dull, green hair close cropped to his skull, but it was impossible to look at his head without immediately being drawn into his gaze.
Cold, reptilian eyes were reduced to slits, and they looked like they had been molded into permanent rage long ago.
“I am not used to being summoned, Solomon.” The creature barely turned to look at the reaper, but still made the ancient king tremble on his feet. “I hope you know the risks of stealing my attention.”
“I do, King Asmodeus.” Sir Death averted his eyes for a moment before reclaiming his posture. “I assure you, I would not have used such a method if I had a choice.”
“You have the ability to speak to the True Reaper, monkey king. I assure you, pulling me through the dimensions was the wrong method to reach me when you could have just talked to that man.” Flames ebbed through the scorched scales on the fallen angel’s arms as he squared up to Rumpelstiltskin’s guardian. “You have mere seconds to reclaim your life.”
“That woman is Circe,” Sir Death said quickly, pointing at the woman whose personal flames had started to reclaim her skin. Once Asmodeus turned to look at her, Circe prepared herself for some celestial confrontation and let the blaze claim her, but Sir Death destroyed the ground she was standing on.
“Whether or not you know who she is, she has a relic you will want. We call it the Ifrit’s Eye, but if you look at it—”
“That’s where it’s been?” Asmodeus asked, breathing hard as he recognized the orb that was drifting into Circe’s palm. As it was absorbed into her skin, the demonic figure laughed at his fortune. “I watched as it was thrown into the Void.”
“It seems the Void threw it back,” Sir Death commented, earning a chuckle as Asmodeus advanced on the woman wreathed in flames.
“I thank you, Solomon,” Asmodeus said over his shoulder, unbothered by any of Circe’s frenetic displays of fiery power. “You will keep your life today.”
“I’ve killed demons before,” Circe snarled, but when Asmodeus turned back to look at her, only six feet away, he scoffed at her claims.
“You will not kill me, little girl.”
“Wanna bet?” Circe asked, and suddenly a torrent of flames poured out of the witch’s mouth and enveloped the demonic figure. Rumpelstiltskin was almost caught in the inferno, but he warded his face with an arm and backed away.
The clothing on his arm crisped and sizzled away, but as soon as the assault began, it was over. One second Circe was screaming flames at her opponent, and in the next, Asmodeus was standing over her, his blackened, left hand gripping her wrist above her head.
“You thought to kill me with my own power? I’m immune, you child,” Asmodeus explained. Then he squeezed his hand and forced the Ifrit’s Eye out of Circe’s palm.
Once it fell out of her skin, Asmodeus let go of the woman’s wrist and caught the orb, looking at it with a satisfied smile. With almost no effort, he squeezed his hand and the jewel cracked, imploding and somehow evaporating in an instant. The demon’s eyes grew brighter in that moment, the space between his scorched scales becoming embers once more, and Rumpelstiltskin wondered what catastrophe they had traded for Circe’s salvation.
But after a deep breath, Asmodeus only looked over at Sir Death and nodded.
“It’s… good to be whole again, Solomon,” Asmodeus said, nodding again before looking at the witch who had crumpled into unconsciousness beneath him. “I haven’t felt that anger in… quite some time, and it’s odd to feel it again.”
“Will you go on the warpath once more?” Sir Death asked, but Asmodeus shook his head.
“No. No, I don’t think so. Seeing it now, from the outside, it makes me realize how that rage doesn’t have a place in me anymore. Truthfully, the grudge I carry… I’m almost thinking about abandoning that, as well. Perhaps it is just as misplaced as the anger I have now reclaimed,” Asmodeus mused, staring down at Circe in pity. “It certainly didn’t help this woman.”
“Are you going to kill her?” Rumpelstiltskin asked abruptly, his concern for the witch overcoming his own
survival instincts. It was at this moment that Asmodeus finally noticed the imp, and he was shocked to see another creature in his presence.
“I don’t think I will, child,” Asmodeus said, crouching down until he could look Rumpelstiltskin in his beady, black eyes. Although he was a demon king, although he was clearly full of malice, Rumpelstiltskin did not feel anything negative directed at him. Even at first meeting, Asmodeus seemed to know of the imp’s innocence.
“It doesn’t bother you that she stole your power?” Rumpelstiltskin followed, unsure why he did so, and something flashed across the demon king’s eyes. Asmodeus recognized something in that moment, even if Rumpelstiltskin did not.
“I don’t think it does. Who would have thought?” Asmodeus lingered. “You’re a strange creature, you know that?”
“Enough people tell me so,” Rumpelstiltskin shrugged off the repeated claim. “You’re pretty strange for a demon king, too. You’re not what I would have expected.”
“Hmm,” Asmodeus murmured, narrowing his eyes at the imp’s words. “You really don’t have any fear of me.”
“Should I?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, and that’s when he saw something he would have thought impossible just an hour ago.
The demon king smiled.
“I’m glad you don’t. You remind me of a certain someone.”
“Was he a friend of yours?” Rumpelstiltskin brightened up a bit, and that amused Asmodeus more than it should have.
“Something like that.”
“Then we’ll be friends, too. My name’s Rumpelstiltskin the Third,” the imp followed through, being much braver than even he expected and extending his hand. He wondered if the demon king would try to burn him, but after a moment of confusion, Asmodeus let out another chuckle before grabbing Rumpelstiltskin’s hand and giving it a soft shake.
“Nice to meet you, Rumpelstiltskin.” Asmodeus shook his head once he let go of the imp’s hand and rose to his feet. “If you’re ever in Hell, you can tell them you’re a friend of Asmodeus.”
“Okay, then,” Rumpelstiltskin said, standing up along with the demon king. “Sir Death never takes me there, but if Cadmus ever does, I’ll be sure to look for you.”
“First name basis with the True Reaper, huh?” Asmodeus asked before looking back at Sir Death. “You have a curious friend here, Solomon.”
“Apparently, you have a curious friend, as well.”
“So I do. Farewell, and my thanks,” Asmodeus said before snapping his fingers and immolating himself. Once the fire flickered away and there was nothing left of the demon king, Sir Death let out a noticeable sigh of relief. Rumpelstiltskin would have done so as well, but he was so disoriented that he never had a chance. By the time he turned around and looked back at Circe, it was too late.
Green eyes full of fear, the witch was disappearing into a swirling portal she had formed beneath her. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t have even a split-second to reach for her; her body was through the Void and the portal flickered away before he even realized what was going on.
Immediately, Rumpelstiltskin fell to the ground anyway, some belated pursuit forcing its way through his brain and into his limbs. At once he struck the ground and slammed his fists against it, and he had no way to know how many tears had already fallen by the time Sir Death held his hand against the imp’s shoulder.
“Why? Why!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted out the question, begging the universe to answer him. He didn’t care for Sir Death’s answers, he did not want to know Circe’s reasons for running from him; Rumpelstiltskin wanted the powers that be to tell him just why he had to watch Circe fall and watch her leave him again and why they wanted him to feel this way.
“We saved her! We saved her from herself! Why did she run!”
“We walked through the fires for her, Sir Death! We walked through all of it, put our faces right up against her rage and the lies she told herself and we took them from her and she’s still gone!” Rumpelstiltskin cried out the words, pressing his balled-up fists against the ground because he didn’t have the strength to lift his hand and strike it once more. “I came… I came here to save her… I came here to get my friend back.”
“She wasn’t… she’s not ready to face you.”
“Why?” Rumpelstiltskin whined, finally turning his face so he could watch the reaper’s face for some understanding he did not have. “I’m her friend and I’ll—I’ll take her any way I can get.”
“She doesn’t know that, child,” Sir Death said, his own strength leaving him. The ancient king sat on the ground near Rumpelstiltskin and looked into the middle distance, clearly mired in his own rationalizations. “She may not even realize what she’s lost, yet. She may still… think the same way she thought when we tried to argue her out of that… madness.”
“But the Ifrit’s Eye is gone.”
“That does not mean the feeling is gone,” Sir Death explained. “Right now, she might even resent you for taking the Eye from her. It may be some time… some years before she realizes what she’s done and what she gave up for that power.”
“I don’t want it to be years, Sir Death. She needs me,” Rumpelstiltskin said, uncurling himself so he could kneel next to his guardian.
“I know that, child, but it will take time. She opened that portal on her own. I… hope it was because she was ashamed, but from what I know of that woman, I would not be surprised if this feels like her destiny was… stolen from her.”
“That wasn’t her destiny, Sir Death,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his thoughts returning to his time on that magical stump where he saw the seasons of Circe’s timeline. It was a sobering realization, and when he looked at the reaper, Rumpelstiltskin wondered at the part he had played. He had witnessed the first leaves to fall in the autumn of her life—was possibly responsible for them—and with her gone, there was no way for Rumpelstiltskin to stop that onslaught of time. All he could do was whisper into the wind and hope the Void carried it to the woman he loved most.
“I’ll be there in the end. I promise.”