“Why don’t you come spend time with me more often, Sir Death?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, kicking his feet and knocking his heels against the boulder underneath. The words came out garbled because of the two bites of peach the imp had forgotten to swallow, but the reaper on his stump heard him just the same.
Squinting because of the afternoon sun overhead, Sir Death wiped his brow as he tried to think of an excuse the imp might accept.
“My duties carry me throughout the world, child,” Sir Death claimed, as he always claimed. Stifling the sneeze the sun prompted from him, the reaper almost recovered but then sneezed forcefully when he turned to face his ward. Rumpelstiltskin giggled and sent flecks of peach skin into the air upon seeing that moment of weakness, so—as was his custom—Sir Death let the imp have his laughter.
“Sir Death! But you tried so hard!” Rumpelstiltskin screamed, rolling back on his rear and losing his balance. Sir Death almost reached out for the imp out of sheer reaction, but by the time Rumpelstiltskin hit the ground, the reaper knew it was a useless act. Without even a groan, Rumpelstiltskin picked himself up and then hopped back onto his rock.
“You should try half so hard to keep your balance, child.”
“Why?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, his sincerity catching Sir Death off guard. “Falling over myself is my eleventh favorite activity.”
“Eleventh? I had not realized you had put them in order,” Sir Death commented, prompting an excited imp to wriggle and toss his peach to the ground so he could wave around his hands and prepare his fingers.
“Oh, I have plenty of time to do so, Sir Death. Listen,” Rumpelstiltskin said, extending his index finger first and pointing to it with his other hand. “My first activity—my favorite thing? Dreaming.”
“Yes, my good reaper,” Rumpelstiltskin said, grinning ear to ear as he now had a willing audience to hear his lunacy. “When I dream, I get to do even more impossible things than usual, and you know I get up to quite a few impossible things in my free time.”
“You should be,” Rumpelstiltskin said, scoffing at the alternative. “I don’t come by my stories just by sitting around on rocks all day.”
“I seem to recall quite a few stories that begin with you sitting on a rock.”
“Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? They begin that way, but I get off the rock and go do something,” Rumpelstiltskin explained as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
His behavior was loose and carefree today, which made Sir Death smile. There were plenty of days—too many, as of late—where smiles were hard to come by, where Rumpelstiltskin’s cares pierced through his veil of madness and forced him to see the pain of this world. Sir Death preferred to spare his ward such miseries, but Rumpelstiltskin never shirked his duties or avoided the worst aspects of his curse. He embraced them willingly, which only made the reaper more grateful for days like these.
“But when I dream, Sir Death, I don’t have to start my stories by sitting on a rock,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his voice taking on a wistful tone as he stared into the middle distance. “I get to start them in the middle of adventures, sometimes, and I get to see friends I haven’t seen for a long, long time. Of course, I get to adventure with people I just haven’t reunited with yet, but… well, sometimes I dream up the friends who are already dreaming forever. I know… I know it’s probably not them, but I get to pretend—or I don’t even realize I’m pretending that… uhm, you know, that I’m with them again.”
“I know,” Sir Death nodded to show his understanding, lamenting he could not do more for his immortal protégé. However, whatever mist lining the imp’s eyes retreated once Rumpelstiltskin turned back to Sir Death to point at his extended middle finger.
“That’s my favorite thing, but my second favorite thing? That’s walking along the road with you.”
“Walking along with me?” Sir Death was shocked, but Rumpelstiltskin was enthusiastic enough to nod six times before clarifying.
“Of course! Because that’s when I get to tell you all the stories I’ve earned since I last saw you,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, shifting on his rear since he was a restless child. “Usually it’s very bright out, too, so I get to feel warm and… everything is just overall very pleasant.”
“I have to agree with that.”
“Mhmm. And sometimes you even sneeze and that’s always a good time,” Rumpelstiltskin added, earning a furrowed brow from Sir Death.
“I’m sensitive to light, child. It’s not a very kind thing to do, making fun of your friends for things they cannot change.”
“Well, yeah, but you’re always so… prim and proper. So stiff, like a corpse.”
“That goes along with my occupation, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“I know that, but you choose to act all severe sometimes and I know you don’t have to,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his tone dimming by the time he paused and spoke again. “I know your job is pretty dismal, but when you’re with me, I want to make things lighter for you. You have to carry a lot, Sir Death, and since you’re… since you’re so kind to me, I think it’s only right that I’m kind to you in a way most people aren’t. Lots of people see you as bad news, or they cry or scream or get angry, and it’s just… Well, it’s just not fair, Sir Death.”
“I reap human souls, child, and it is only to be expected that some are not ready or willing to travel to the hereafter,” Sir Death stated, weaving his feet through the grass underfoot. With a resolve born through centuries of diligence, the reaper repeated the case he made to himself whenever he doubted. “I provide a service for the world at large, and peace for those who need it most. Souls trapped on this plane cannot travel across the cosmic divide on their own. I am needed, and I am willing to provide my services even to those who do not realize their need.”
“But, it must… I don’t know, it must get to you, sometimes.”
“I… will not deny that, child,” Sir Death admitted, turning to his young companion and seeing the frown waiting for him. Seeing that display, the reaper had no choice but to smile and let out a soft laugh. “I am grateful that you are present when I need you most.”
“Good. That’s part of why walking with you is my second favorite thing. It’s when I’m needed by the person I care about most in the world,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his frown twisting into a grin by the time he extended his ring finger. “So now it’s time to tell you about my third favorite thing.”
“Well, it must be that time. It would be a shame to stop now,” Sir Death said, but something dark caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. Although he was not frightened by any mortal and rarely by anything else, this dark thing gave him an immediate chill. Although he tried to devote his ears to the task of listening to Rumpelstiltskin, Sir Death craned his neck and saw a figure who demanded a grim reaper’s focus.
There, in plain view at the top of a hill, was a shrouded man on top of a white horse, and Sir Death’s formerly high spirits fell through the ground beneath him.
“My third favorite thing, Sir Death, is when I… when I…” Rumpelstiltskin trailed off, noticing his guardian watching the road in the distance. The imp thought that rather rude of Sir Death, but he also knew the reaper would never do something so callous without reason. Following Sir Death’s gaze, Rumpelstiltskin saw a horseman on the horizon, but he could see nothing interesting about him except for the fact that he remained there.
“My third favorite thing is running into my friends when I’m already on an adventure,” Rumpelstiltskin tried again, but when he looked back at Sir Death, the reaper was not paying attention. It might have warranted some physical abuse—a light slap, perhaps a wedgie, which was on Rumpelstiltskin’s specific bucket list for Sir Death and thus would be perpetually appropriate—but the imp saw something unique, perhaps mythical.
Cold beads of sweat had gathered at Sir Death’s brow, and Rumpelstiltskin could not consider what might cause an avatar of death such anxiety.
“Uh… wh—who… who is that?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, his tone higher in a botched attempt at levity, but Sir Death was no longer speaking to him.
“The Wardens need to speak with you, Solomon,” a foreign voice commanded the rest of the afternoon, driving away any sort of peace.
Rumpelstiltskin slowly turned his head and found an alabaster horse standing still just a few feet away from his boulder, a shrouded man resting on a simple, padded saddle. The imp did not hear their impossible approach, he did not see them travel from the horizon, but here they were, just the same. For a moment Rumpelstiltskin thought himself even more a lunatic, but from the way Sir Death stammered out a response, he knew this being was capable of actions beyond his understanding.
“Wh—why should they want to speak with—with me? Am I… am I not far beneath their notice?” Sir Death eventually forced the words out of his mouth, but the horseman was unmoved.
“I don’t see why. You are the only reaper on the surface. Just by holding that position, they have reason to watch.” The horseman’s voice seemingly resonated with the air.
Rumpelstiltskin, despite his madness, knew he could not intrude on this conversation and just gaped at the two of them. When the horseman spoke again, it echoed within the imp’s tiny chest and bounced against his ribcage.
“I should add, Sol, that there is a specific reason. There are souls missing from Hell and Heaven, or it’s better to say that they never made it across the Void,” he claimed, the white horse shaking its head and momentarily looking at Rumpelstiltskin. Sabotaging his best efforts, Rumpelstiltskin could not help but gasp.
The horse had no pupils; they were just blank, white eyes that seemed to bore right through Rumpelstiltskin’s twisted soul.
“Don’t worry, child,” a voice rattled into the air, confusing the imp more than anything. “Neither of us would ever hurt you.”
“Neither…” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, but he quivered once the horseman focused his shrouded gaze on the imp.
“Apologies, Rumpelstiltskin. Mercy and I sometimes forget how to make a first impression,” the horseman said before raising his left hand and drawing back his hood, revealing a weathered face with strong features below stark, white hair, a thin beard covering his jawline and surrounding his mouth.
Although whispers of electricity crackled along his hair and around ethereal eyes that were brimming with blue light, Rumpelstiltskin forgot how to be afraid in that moment.
“Rumpelstiltskin,” Sir Death started as he rose to his feet, clearing his throat so he could maintain some sense of composure. “This is Cadmus, the True Reaper, and Mercy, his horse, and, well, he has a personality all his own.”
“You flatter, Solomon. You know as well as any of us that personality stems from the Pale Rider.”
“No one believes that, Mercy,” Cadmus said, lowering his left hand and offering it to the imp stuck to his boulder. “I heard you like to shake hands when you first meet someone.”
“I… someone once told me that’s… that’s how you become friends,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, unable to work through the shock coursing through his small frame. Still, this stranger was more than patient and waved his extended arm in another offering.
“Then let’s become friends,” he said, smiling beneath all of that power coursing over his face.
Rumpelstiltskin looked at Sir Death, who nodded at the horseman, and realized he must follow through despite his fear. Gulping down whatever was stopping him, Rumpelstiltskin stood up on his boulder and then took Cadmus’ hand in his own, tentatively wrapping his fingers around aged flesh. Cadmus gave a firm grip and then gently shook Rumpelstiltskin’s hand before letting go and resuming his posture on the saddle.
“There we are. We’re friends, Rumpelstiltskin. Now, if you’ll excuse us, I must speak with your guardian.”
“You said… missing souls?” Sir Death asked, confusion evident.
“I did,” Cadmus repeated, sighing at the situation. “The Wardens think that the souls of vanquished Fallen have started to… They think some of the energy from those souls has found their way into newborns, or maybe they even have their own bodies, now.”
“Are they… They are seriously considering reincarnation?”
“It’s a possibility, though I think they lean toward… cohabitation, like a certain fallen angel did a couple centuries ago,” Cadmus explained, exhaustion laboring every word. Although he had just met him, Rumpelstiltskin could tell there was a lot on this horseman’s plate.
“Well, alright, but why should the Wardens wish to speak to me?” Sir Death asked, using both hands to grasp his scythe at the top of the handle. “Is this not under your purview?”
“They have a theory that the souls never make it off of Earth, stuck in an endless loop.”
“I… well, I understand why they might be interested in my perspective, but I assure you, I have had no contact with any reincarnated angels,” Sir Death stated for the record, but Cadmus did not change his stance.
“Then you should tell that to the Wardens.”
“Can you not go in my stead? I am a simple reaper, Cadmus. Your presence would mean so much more.”
“They are very familiar with me already, Sol. Most of them have known me since I fell, and to be frank, they aren’t inclined to believe me. I inherited part of the Fallen they are most interested in, and not all of them trust I would not keep it to myself.”
“They do not…” Sir Death seemed horrified by the idea, but Cadmus was simply resigned.
“I don’t blame them. No one person should have all of my power, and that person definitely should not know the future at the same time.”
“I would trust you with that knowledge. I assumed you already had that capability…”
“Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, but no. Even I have grey areas,” Cadmus clarified, shifting in his saddle and wincing at some pain hidden beneath his cloak. “In any case, it doesn’t change anything. The Wardens want to see you, and they don’t want me around to… influence your testimony.”
“I… to be honest, Cadmus, I would rather not travel to Hell. I am still human, and it is not the most hospitable of places,” Sir Death attempted one last appeal, but Cadmus just shrugged.
“Your magic will be enough. And don’t forget, Sol, I used to be human, too.”
“Forgive me, Cadmus, but while I appreciate the sentiment, you know how empty those words are,” Sir Death said, but as bitter as he was about the situation, Rumpelstiltskin could tell that he had already been persuaded. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Sir Death mustered his nerve before he made eye contact with the imp still standing on his rock. At once, that nerve faltered, and Rumpelstiltskin felt shame for being the cause of that weakness.
“What? Is there something wrong?” Cadmus asked, following the reaper’s gaze.
“I… it is just that I was spending the day with Rumpelstiltskin and… well, I don’t feel comfortable leaving him so soon. Our reunions are beneficial to both of us,” Sir Death explained, thinking that would be the end of it, but Cadmus did not comprehend the issue.
“Well, he’ll be here when you get back.”
“I… well, that is if I get back,” Sir Death said, nervously twitching his fingers along his scythe handle as he prepared for his infernal journey. “Who knows what the Wardens will ask of me?”
“He… he’s immortal, isn’t he?” Cadmus asked, pointing at the imp with his thumb. “It’s no real harm to leave him alone, right?”
“Well… no. It just seems a shame. I have no real excuses, Cadmus, I was just experiencing an awkward thought process,” Sir Death explained, breathing in deep and letting it out slow to calm his nerves. Already, he knew it was not enough, so Sir Death closed his eyes and tried again to shake the anxiety out of the fingertips of his left hand.
“Are you really this nervous?” Cadmus asked, this time earning a frown from his earthly counterpart.
“In your divinity, I believe you have forgotten how intimidating a King of Hell can be in their own domain. Forgive me for taking my time,” Sir Death argued, feeling vindicated by his own words. Cadmus looked to and back from Rumpelstiltskin, realizing he did not want to follow through on the offer he was about to make.
“Look, if I watch after Rumpelstiltskin while you speak with them, will that ease your mind?” Cadmus asked, shocking Sir Death into standing straight and then looking off into the distance. After attempting a few replies and never getting past opening his mouth, Sir Death shrugged and looked back to the horseman.
“I… I would be much more comfortable, yes,” Sir Death replied, and within seconds Cadmus had swung his right leg over the saddle and then slid to the ground. Yawning, the horseman walked over to Sir Death’s stump and then claimed his seat. After nodding at his horse, who scattered into a pile of dust to be blown about on the breeze, Cadmus craned his neck to look at his compatriot.
“Well, get going, Sol. I don’t have that much time to babysit, but I will just so this gets done,” he said, and Sir Death nodded back at him after a moment. Dropping the blade of his scythe through the air, Sir Death ripped a hole into the space between, revealing a dark cavern colored by flickering red light. The reaper took one last breath, smiled at Rumpelstiltskin on his rock, and then walked into the darkness with the cleft in reality closing behind him.
As he gingerly sat back down on his boulder, Rumpelstiltskin realized he was alone with an entity Sir Death had treated like a god. That alone had been cause for concern, but now this Cadmus was watching him. Rumpelstiltskin felt like if he made one wrong step, he could be written out of existence, and it did not matter if a god had shaken his hand. A god could change the rules on a whim, as they so often did.
However, despite Rumpelstiltskin’s unease, Cadmus turned his head, propped his chin up on his elbow, and smiled at him.
“I’ve heard quite a bit about you, Rumpelstiltskin. Tiny package, but you seem to have it where it counts,” Cadmus ventured, but instead of making the imp comfortable, it just made Rumpelstiltskin wonder what this package was and if he could find it if Cadmus wanted proof.
“I… uh, well, I might have misplaced it at the moment, even though I’m tiny, it’s just that I have all these pockets and sometimes I don’t remember where I put things or if I put them back at all and it’s just… well, sometimes I forget how to count, too, which I know is silly for someone my age, but I’ve always tended to use my fingers and toes as an abacus and they aren’t that good of one.”
“Uh… what?” Cadmus asked, and Rumpelstiltskin promptly knew that he was going to end up with some awful, eternal punishment.
“I don’t—I don’t know.” Rumpelstiltskin broke eye contact and pulled his left elbow into his side with his right hand, hoping his end would be merciful.
“You… really don’t need to be so scared,” Cadmus said, earning a flicker of eye contact with Rumpelstiltskin before the imp gave into shyness. “I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but I’m not so bad. Generally, I just keep the world going.”
“Does it stop if you… don’t?” Rumpelstiltskin ventured, tilting his head enough to look out of the corner of his eye and watch the reaper’s reaction. Contrary to his expectations, Cadmus was the one looking away this time.
“It keeps spinning, but sometimes it feels like I’m responsible for that, too,” Cadmus said, setting his forearms on his knees. “It’s tiring work, being the True Reaper. If anything remotely suggesting a cataclysm rears its head, it’s on me to intercept it. If there’s a soul to be reaped above or below, it’s on me. If it looks like fallen angels are coming back from the dead to tell us about a second Apocalypse, it’s apparently up to me to get to the bottom of it.”
“That sounds… exhausting,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, relaxing enough to twist his body around and face this very human god. Cadmus scoffed, but it didn’t come off as bitter.
“That’s just my day-to-day, Rumpelstiltskin. I haven’t slept in… centuries. I don’t know if I actually remember what it’s like to be feel rested,” he said, laughing at his own discomfort. At that, Rumpelstiltskin was appalled and sympathetic to this entity who could wipe him from existence.
“That’s awful! How do you dream?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, shocking Cadmus into looking at him and tilting his head.
“How do I dream?”
“Yeah! I was just telling Sir Death that it’s my favorite thing to do. If I wasn’t able to dream, I don’t know what I would do with myself. That’s how I get to have what I wouldn’t normally have and it’s how… well, that’s how I see friends I don’t get to see anymore,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, making himself momentarily sad again. As always, the imp convinced himself that his departed friends were at peace, but his recovery stalled when he saw how Cadmus had been affected.
“Friends I don’t get to see anymore…” Cadmus muttered, shaking his head and pinching the bridge of his nose before returning his attention to the imp. “I got a lot of those, Rumpelstiltskin, but I’ve… I’ve had enough time to mourn in my own way. Some… some still hurt. Some I feel like I lose them every day, but the longer you live—especially when you have my job—you start to get used to that bittersweet pain. At some point, the pain itself almost… almost becomes a whole friend all by itself.”
“But if you don’t get to dream, what kind of relief do you get?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, watching as Cadmus stifled a scoff.
“Relief is… relief isn’t exactly for me, Rumpelstiltskin,” he said, sitting back and drawing up his leg so he could wrap his arms around his knee. The imp thought it oddly youthful for a man with white hair and a wrinkled face, but Cadmus had not once acted like his aged appearance might suggest. When he looked back at Rumpelstiltskin, the only old manner about him was his fatigue.
“I get duty, Rumpelstiltskin.” Cadmus’ resolve greatly reminded the imp of Sir Death’s usual behavior. “I don’t get much pleasure out of my afterlife, but I do have the knowledge that I am a positive force in this world. Not too many people actually get to have that, Rumpelstiltskin, before or after they’re dead, and I feel fortunate that I get to know that about myself. It makes… it makes a lot of the negative parts of my life more manageable.”
“I think I understand,” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, but he was surprised by Cadmus’ knowing laughter.
“After all I’ve heard, I think you do.” He hesitated once he saw the imp looking at him with confused, beady black eyes. “There’s quite a few souls above and below who have tales of Rumpelstiltskin the Third.”
“There… there are?”
“Oh, yeah, are you kidding?” Cadmus said, scooting forward on the stump so he could be more engaged. “You’ve touched a lot of lives since you inherited that curse, and I haven’t heard a single bad thing. Truth be told, I didn’t know anything about you until Sol let me know you were running around, but I’ve overheard some fun conversations about an imp with the mindset of a child. You’ve made quite the impression.”
“That’s… thank you for telling me that,” Rumpelstiltskin said, trying to force back the grin threatening to make his face even more unseemly. Cadmus noticed, but he allowed the imp his misplaced modesty. “Do you know who… who was telling the stories?”
“Ah, well, not by name for most of them, honestly,” Cadmus admitted, looking off to his right in thought. “Most of the people mentioning you were just swapping stories. There was… one man who called himself Janus, of all things.”
“I know Janus! I was there when he redeemed himself!”
“Yeah, that was the story I overheard that really made me pay attention,” Cadmus replied. “He was talking to a man who apparently spent some time on the ocean with you? That guy had a lot of fun talking about you and how you hassled your captain.”
“Was his name Merry?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, getting very excited about the prospect of seeing the sailor again, but Cadmus admitted defeat on that one.
“I’m not sure. It could have been, but Hell is full of all kinds of sailors. I wouldn’t be surprised,” Cadmus mentioned, absent-mindedly popping his jaw before looking back at Rumpelstiltskin, who had become noticeably dismayed. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“You said… you said he ended up in Hell. I didn’t think he deserved that,” the imp replied, mourning his friend a second time. The first time he hadn’t even had the chance to tuck Merry in for his last good night, and now he was doomed to hellfire and brimstone.
“Hey… hey! Rumpelstiltskin, look at me,” Cadmus said, but the imp didn’t look at the reaper until he felt the man shake his knee. Those bright blue eyes were staring right at him, consoling Rumpelstiltskin just enough for him to listen. “It’s… not what they say, down there. Hell’s actually just a decent place where certain kinds of people go. I’m sure Merry’s having a good time down there.”
“Decent?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, confused as he pointed at the empty air where Sir Death had been standing a few minutes ago. “Then why was Sir Death so nervous?”
“He’s just…” Cadmus was about to downplay his counterpart’s reaction, but he let out a heavy breath before explaining. “Solomon is basically the only… living person who has ever been to Hell. As powerful as he is, going down there is always going to be a bit nerve-wracking, and that’s without talking to the Wardens.”
“Who are the Wardens? I heard you mention them a bunch.”
“They’re… they’re the people in charge,” Cadmus started, sitting back on his stump and crossing his legs so he could tap his foot against his shin. “Influential people from Heaven, Hell and even Earth. Mostly angels, fallen or otherwise, but there’s a few former humans in there as well. They’re responsible for guiding the world now that… well, now that we have a choice in the matter.”
“What do they want with Sir Death?” Rumpelstiltskin almost whimpered, but he had to know. Cadmus rubbed the back of his neck on that one, but an unexpected voice entered the conversation.
“There are prophecies that cannot be translated by any living creature,” Mercy’s voice rasped into the air, and Rumpelstiltskin would have been unnerved if a swarm of dust had not swirled into the solid shape of a horse lying down next to them. Somehow, its sudden appearance was enough to please the imp and so he took the creature’s words as a natural addition to the conversation. When Mercy looked at Rumpelstiltskin this time, those blank eyes seemed much more sympathetic.
“I had it, Mercy,” Cadmus interjected, but the horse flicked his mane at his horseman.
“Our burdens are shared, master, and you have already had to explain much to this young soul,” Mercy whispered into the air, and for the moment Rumpelstiltskin played at indignation.
“Hey! I’m much older than I look!” He sneered as he hopped off his rock and set his hands on his hips, but Mercy’s rattle gave the impression of laughter.
“I’m well aware of this, Rumpelstiltskin, but you have no concept of the elders resting before you,” he explained. “Besides, your youth is not a matter of ridicule. Any being who has lived as we have would be envious of a creature such as yourself. It makes our sacrifices more… palatable.”
“How old are you?” Rumpelstiltskin looked down his nose while narrowing his eyes, but again the air filled with a rattle of laughter.
“Much more than you can count on your fingers and toes, Rumpelstiltskin.” Mercy reared back his head so he could look down his considerable nose at the imp. “Now, would you like to hear why the Wardens need to hear the account of your Sir Death?”
“Then sit back on your rock,” Mercy suggested, and once Rumpelstiltskin had retreated back to his perch and crossed his legs beneath him, the horse continued. “In the Infernal Archives are prophecies relating to the events after the Apocalypse. Furthering your education, the Apocalypse has already occurred and the history of the world has continued, so if you see any man thumping his Bible about a Book of Revelation, you may continue on your way and miss nothing of merit.”
“Oh, but the stories are so interesting,” Rumpelstiltskin whined, but the horse only seemed to smile at him.
“The reality is much more engaging. In any case, in these other prophecies there are… disconcerting events to come. Some of these passages have been translated through mortals, of all things, and it has come to the attention of the Wardens that… a fallen soul may have resurfaced from oblivion. This possibility is still very much unfounded, but in their pursuit of this truth, they seek your Sir Death for whatever he might have gleaned from this earthly realm.”
“But he doesn’t know anything. He would say so if he did,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, but Mercy was not in a mood to fight.
“That may very well be true, and my master might have believed him, but the Wardens have a way of getting what they want. It is much easier to go along with their designs, even if it might be momentarily inconvenient.”
“They sound very rude,” Rumpelstiltskin huffed, crossing his arms as he looked away from the horse. When he was about to look back, he noticed that Cadmus had found a gleaming scythe somewhere and had used it to prop up his upper half. His eyes were just barely open, and Rumpelstiltskin wondered why that was.
“Some of them are very rude.”
“Why is Cadmus leaning like that?” Rumpelstiltskin quickly asked, stunning Mercy for a long second.
“It seems your manners may need some consideration,” he started, cowing Rumpelstiltskin for a moment. “At times, my master’s fatigue catches up with him. In those moments, he enters a sort of… daze, where he is neither completely awake nor entirely asleep. I can summon him back whenever there is a need, but that man needs whatever rest he can find.”
“Why doesn’t he sleep like everyone else?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, and he could tell from the way Mercy looked at Cadmus that it was a sore subject.
“My master does not have that luxury. His consciousness is… necessary for the stability of this world. It is just one of his many sacrifices.”
“Wow,” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, feeling a mountain of sympathy for the man. “I guess he’s been doing this much longer than Sir Death, then.”
“The opposite,” Mercy replied quickly, throwing Rumpelstiltskin for yet another loop. “Your Sir Death is
more than a thousand years older than my master.”
“What? But Cadmus looks…”
“His youth was another sacrifice. He chose them all, but I would never say he deserved them.”
“You’ve been talking too much, Mercy.”
Cadmus had reentered the conversation, and Rumpelstiltskin felt like he had been caught stealing from the family storehouse. He thought up four separate excuses that sounded perfectly reasonable to an insane child, but, fortunately, Mercy was willing to take responsibility for the exchange.
“I speak when I wish to speak. If you care for a silent horse, there are many to choose from,” Mercy suggested, earning a grunt from his master. Wiping the half-sleep from his eyes, Cadmus settled his gaze on the imp and sighed.
“Don’t you worry about me, Rumpelstiltskin. I’ve made peace with my many afflictions. Just don’t blame me for nodding off every once in a while,” he said, but before Rumpelstiltskin could agree or say anything or even nod, a rift appeared a few feet from their circle and widened until they could see red light playing off the rocks of a foreboding cavern. Seconds later something stepped through, but they could not see Sir Death until the rift closed behind him.
“Productive?” Cadmus asked, but when Sir Death turned around and patted his cloak, setting off a cloud of blackened dust, his scowl did not give off the impression of a productive meeting.
“I am to keep my ear to the ground and my eyes peeled, as they say,” Sir Death said as he walked up to Mercy’s side. The horse stood without complaint, closing his eyes in gratitude when Sir Death ran fingers along his mane. Groaning softly, Cadmus took his cue and pushed himself to his feet, something along his back popping just to spite him.
“I can imagine which one of them said that. They did believe you, though?” Cadmus asked as he stood on Mercy’s other side, prompting a quick nod from Sir Death.
“They didn’t have much option. They have seen little evidence of it themselves, but that evidence is… compelling. You consumed the other one completely, but the crow… there have been individuals who know far too much about his history. Men and women who could not have learned such things.”
“That’s what they told me, too.”
“There are always going to be mysteries, Cadmus, as I’m sure the two of you are very much aware,” Sir Death added while turning to Mercy, who did not seem pleased.
“There is an art to subtlety, Solomon. I suggest you refine your craft,” Mercy commented, but he was already done with the conversation by the time Sir Death smiled and turned back to their master.
“It’s possible, Cadmus. They are not wrong to think so.”
“Then we’ll work on it,” Cadmus replied, mulling over the foreboding information. “Thank you for meeting with them.”
“Well, I did not have much of a choice, did I?” Sir Death commented, turning to see Rumpelstiltskin and remembering what Cadmus had done for them. “Thank you for minding the boy. I understand that it is far beneath your duties.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Cadmus waved off the inconvenience, turning to give a slight smile to the imp. “I’m sure you know how charming he can be.”
“I… can. Still, my thanks.”
“It was no problem at all,” Cadmus said, clapping Sir Death on the shoulder before walking along Mercy’s side and then throwing himself up into the saddle. Once he was settled, Cadmus looked at Rumpelstiltskin and waved at the imp.
“It was nice to meet you, Rumpelstiltskin. I feel like this has been a long time coming.”
“It was nice to meet you, too, Cadmus,” the imp replied. Although he felt like he should have regarded this reaper as a god or royalty or something more, as the horseman disappeared as if blinking out of existence, Rumpelstiltskin could only think of him as a friend he needed to know better.
However, the control of their day given back to them, Rumpelstiltskin turned to Sir Death, raised three fingers, and resumed the important task that had been interrupted by a certain divine human. It simply could not wait any longer.
“Alright, Sir Death, now that Cadmus is gone, we can continue. Want to guess my fourth favorite thing to do?”