Rumpelstiltskin had not been in this area for decades, and his surroundings certainly showed the passage of time. Gone were the days of armor-plated knights, replaced by footmen holding pikes and wearing uniforms even the imp thought ridiculous. However, the banter was very much the same, and this time Rumpelstiltskin did his best not to listen. Those men hiding underneath the banners of their feudal lords were always so rude to him—par for the course—but they were just mean to the people they had lived beside throughout their lives. For all of that shared time together, Rumpelstiltskin thought they would at least be cordial to their neighbors, but the guards were still just as off-putting as the knights the imp had marked with mudpies and other, less-sanitary missiles all those years ago.
That memory led to another, and as he walked past a series of verbal jabs that missed the imp’s malformed ears, Rumpelstiltskin wondered just what had happened to Roland and his hatchling. There were not many hunters who would save a dragon, but Rumpelstiltskin had a habit of meeting individuals who went against the grain, and his magic had not failed him then. The woods had closed around their pursuers—thanks to a certain, twisted imp—and Rumpelstiltskin had waved at Roland’s back and left him to the passage of time. Mortals like Roland were rare indeed, and the imp was aware on their parting that he may never see the hunter again.
Although Rumpelstiltskin had felt a kinship from the start, he was not surprised Sir Death’s curse had not made the same connection. There were too many companions Rumpelstiltskin didn’t have a chance to see before their last night, but he wished them good dreams and pleasant journeys just the same. Still, it was a bittersweet feeling, and Rumpelstiltskin’s grin faltered for a moment against the misting of rain on his face, prompting the nearby footmen to think their last round of insults had hit their mark.
“Oh, did that hurt the imp’s feelings?” the man exaggerated the question, adopting the impression of a baby as Rumpelstiltskin broke out of his daze and turned to face the footmen. There were three of them standing in a circle next to a market stall, their pikes planted in the mud and keeping them steady. When the imp turned to look over the soldiers—who would have been short to anyone else—the red-headed one on the left spat out a mouthful of apple.
“He’s a begga’, so of course it hurt his feelins,” he said, saliva squelching from between his lips as he chewed what remained in his mouth. “He’s prolly gon’ to eat that piece I just spit from me mouth.”
“Why would I eat that?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, unaware that his plain tunic was covered in at least three shades of dried mud, currently rehydrating from the smattering of rain.
“Wot, you think it’s too good for ya, imp?” the footman replied, acting offended at Rumpelstiltskin’s refusal and taking the opportunity to stomp at the imp standing his ground. “That apple’s got to still taste good, mebbe bettah now that my spit’s onnit. You really gon’ take my gift and throw it back in my face?”
“Is… is that what you want?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, confused, but after a weary shrug, the imp crouched down and took the dirty mouthful of apple in his hand before offering it back to the footman, disgust making his face even uglier. “I mean, if you want it back, you can have it. It must be hard to not trust your teeth to keep the food in your mouth.”
“Wot the ‘ell…” the footman muttered, giving way to real offense and bristling at the perceived insult.
“Jus’ wot are you playing at, imp?”
“You said it would taste better…” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, looking to his hand and then back to the footman, who was almost snarling. “Did you not want it after all?”
“Don’t know wot you’re gettin’ at, imp, but that apple’s yours now,” the footman replied, nodding at the piece and implying a threat Rumpelstiltskin did not understand. “You best treat it like the gift it is.”
“Oh,” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, shrugging as he dropped the mouthful to the ground and then wiped his hand against his tunic. When he looked back at the enraged footman, a smile was on Rumpelstiltskin’s face. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
“That doesn’ mattah, imp!” the footman roared, but whatever vengeance he intended he was never able to satisfy. Before he could do anything to Rumpelstiltskin, the two soldiers behind him howled with laughter, and the footman whipped around and redirected his rage at his friends. “Just wot are you laughin’ at?”
“Yeh, yeh insufferable git,” his lanky friend replied, tears streaming down his blotchy cheek as he recovered from his laughing fit by holding his knee with his free hand. “Imp like that shows yeh what’s what? It’s a’wonder yeh can even hold that pike o’ yuhs.”
“Just what you talkin’ ‘bout?” the red-headed footman yelled, his pale face blushing in mottled patches along his cheeks. “You gon’ let an imp insult the Lord’s honor like that and laugh ‘bout it?”
“He ain’t insultin’ the Lord’s honor, that’s for sure,” the other, overweight footman commented, holding onto his pike and offering a condescending smile to his comrade. “You can’ control an imp, tha’s your honor dragged through the muck.”
“Then it’s up to us to make sure the imp knows his place,” the ginger footman replied, but both of his friends laughed at the idea.
“Nah, the imp’s had a solid victory heah,” the lanky guard stated as he reclaimed his full height, grinning at his tortured comrade. “I’d rathe’ respec’ it and have the imp on ‘is way.”
“Did I do something wrong?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, earning the attention of the overweight footman.
“No, imp, ya did something very right. Ya gave us quite the good time.”
“Why’s you on ‘is side, you ruddy bastard?” the ginger footman asked, but his friends just smirked at the question.
“Oh, like this the first time yeh had your pride taken from yeh,” the lanky footman sneered, nodding at the tavern a few stalls down and huffing. “Just last week tha’ ol’ codger with a back more crooked ‘anna creek putcha in yeh place.”
“Wot? That’s not a fair point!”
“Inn’it, though?” the overweight footman replied, leaning heavily on the handle of his pike. “That hermit’s been alive four times longer ‘an you and should be rottin’ in the ground, but he still able to put you on ya back and keep ya there?”
“That bastard kicked me legs out from under!”
“And ‘e’s ancient ‘nough that his foot shoulda crumbled into dust as soon as it hit ya heel, but he still jabbed that walkin’ stick right into ya throat and shut you up,” the overweight footman jeered, his lanky friend joining in with a guffaw.
“Wish we had ‘im, ‘gain. Tha’ was a nice few hours we’s couldn’t hear yeh.”
“Oh, the two of ya can rot in Hell for all I care,” the ginger footman spat out before remembering that Rumpelstiltskin was still watching. Immediately, his face soured again, pouting through his blushing and lowering the head of his pike. “I’s still gon’ make this imp pay for the insult.”
“No, you ain’t,” the overweight footman said, frowning as he shoved his friend in the shoulder and forcing him to whip around his arms so he could maintain his balance in the mud. Although he was further frustrated by the interference, the other footmen didn’t have the patience for him.
“Yeh, it’s time we head back to the barracks. Sergeant won’ be pleased we come back aft’ the bell. Las’ time we went on the monsteh hunt, he lashed Feldman ten times just feh laughing durin’ the briefin’,” the lanky footman said as he stepped forward and collected his fuming friend with a long arm.
“Don’t you think—” he tried to protest over his shoulder, but the lanky footman dragged him anyway and their overweight comrade walked along his other side so he could push him further through the street.
“None of us get paid to think. Now let’s get. Ain’t gettin’ whipped just so’s an imp can embarrass you ‘gain,” he said, and Rumpelstiltskin was left alone in the muck and wondering just what had happened. He would have been confused, but he was even more bewildered by the mention of a monster hunt. It had been quite some time since Rumpelstiltskin had witnessed any talk about monsters, as they had all been dying off in this modern age.
Figuring that he did not have nearly enough information, the imp gave up and turned around just to see the tavern that had apparently been the site of the footman’s last embarrassment. That by itself made the imp smile, but then he recalled the details in that story and the old hermit responsible for it. At the least, the man seemed a character, and Rumpelstiltskin would always have his disposition for seeking out persons of interest, especially in a town so mired in the mud.
So the tavern became his next stop along his journey, and Rumpelstiltskin only slipped twice in the mud as he made his way to the threshold. Once he was outside the planks of decrepit wood serving as a door, the imp took the time to pat off his tunic and make himself presentable, but it was an exercise in futility. After he pulled on the rusted handle, he saw the denizens of the village tavern to be just as mud-covered as himself.
“We don’ serve your kind here, imp,” a voice surrounded by phlegm came from the other side of the room, and Rumpelstiltskin had to squint in order to adjust to the dim light. A balding, loose-skinned man with three sallow chins was holding himself up on a bar on the far end, and Rumpelstiltskin smiled at the owner despite his greeting.
“Oh, that’s fine, I don’t need any food,” he said as he scampered toward the man, who stood up awkwardly as the imp rushed forward and plopped his rear onto a stool on his side of the bar. “I just came here looking for a story.”
“I don’t have any stories for you,” the tavern keep replied, regaining his confidence and prejudice in one, fell swoop. “I suggest you get on the road and find ‘em somewhere else.”
“That’s why I’m trying for,” Rumpelstiltskin said, rolling his eyes as his forearms fell onto the surface of the bar to support him. “This town never did seem to like me, and I’m just trying to find somewhere to go rather than just wander around. Don’t get me wrong, I love my wandering, but I heard something from the local guards and I just wanted to hear a bit more before I started putting one foot in front of the other.”
“And if I tell you a story, you’d get out of my establishment?” the owner asked, receiving an enthusiastic nod from Rumpelstiltskin.
“That’s the idea. The footmen said there was an old man that beat them up, which is a fun story by itself, but they also said something about a monster hunt. I haven’t seen a monster hunt in a long time, so I was just wondering what that might be about. If you could tell me about either story, or both, I would most definitely appreciate it.”
“Well, you’re in luck. Good or bad, I don’t know, but luck just the same,” the tavern keep replied, setting a pudgy hand on his bar and supporting himself. “That’s just one story with two parts.”
“Oh! See? That’s interesting enough for you to never see me again, if… that’s what you want,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, hoping that the tavern keep would reconsider his position eventually. However, the relief on his face was enough for Rumpelstiltskin to know that was a trivial possibility.
“Let’s try for that, then, shall we? There’s a hermit who lives far outside of town, along the foot of the mountains. Harmless enough when he comes in here, though everyone knows to keep away if they can help it. We don’t… trust easy.”
“That’s a pretty common thing, these days,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, but it only caused the owner’s eyes to narrow.
“Well-deserved, imp,” he growled before setting his hand on the bar top and sighing. “I trade with him when he has the coin, but that’s only because he only wants stale bread and jerky and that ilk. We ‘aven’t been able to keep livestock for some time, because of the monsters.”
“Aye. For years there’s been talk of mutilated sheep and cows, like some pack of wolves got to them, but wolves don’t eat most of a cow and leave burned remains, now do they?”
“Not always, no,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, the man raising an eyebrow before resuming his tale.
“So there’s a monster in our midst, and eventually some of the local boys followed this hermit back to his cave in the mountains, and that’s when they heard the beast growling at them,” he said before leaning back and crossing his arms. “Unfortunate way of things, them boys were so terrified they forgot the way back, so the Lord has sent out his men every week or so to scout out the caves and find where this hermit lives. They must be gettin’ close, now, and it’s only a matter of time before we flush out this monster and get some peace.”
“That sounds awful,” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, but his mind was on the world and how it was changing on him. There was a time where a monster was just a mystery—a wonder to behold, even if it was terrifying—but humans were so quick to remove anything that was different and interfered with their lives. Even so, the tavern keep could not know the imp’s perspective, and so he huffed before stretching his jaw.
“So it is. Last time the hermit was in here, it attracted the attention of the guards and we almost had him, but the old man slipped away somehow. Not sure what the lord pays these men for if they can’t detain an old hermit, but here we are,” the owner concluded before gripping his bar and sneering down at Rumpelstiltskin. “So there’s your story. I expect you need to get on the road before it ends without you.”
“Really? I only just sat down.”
“And there was no time where I wanted you to do even that.” The tavern keep stopped just short of spitting, and Rumpelstiltskin knew the conversation was over.
With a pout, the imp swung his legs around and slid off the stool, feeling defeated as he trudged back to the threshold. His shoulders were still slumped as he pushed his way into the cold, overcast world on the other side, but then he remembered that he had an adventure to embark upon. Whatever defeat he had felt melted away from his tiny frame, and he bounded off along the street and toward the mountains, promptly losing his footing and squelching headfirst into the mud.
Rumpelstiltskin spat the soil out from between his teeth and pushed himself to his feet, that smile still on his face. The imp attracted stares and whispers from the villagers who saw him depart, but they were grateful for his leaving. By the time he was at the edge of the market and running into the slick grass off the path, there was not a single pair of eyes watching him to see what he did next.
And while his antics must have been entertaining to anyone who might have watched—there were plenty of somersaults and tumbles and tripping and skipping—they were merely a means to an end. It had been a few hours after dawn when Rumpelstiltskin had left the village, and it was getting close to night when he finally reached the foot of the mountains. Rumpelstiltskin should have been tired by all of that running and jumping, but there was something propelling him forward.
Some gut reaction was telling him to continue, even if that meant veering off along a creek or climbing up a boulder just so he could roll down an embankment and thrash into a small pond that rose up past his waist. It was all part of the adventure, or so Rumpelstiltskin justified, and the imp felt vindication when he was before the mouth of an imposing cavern that looked like it might swallow five grown men at a time. Still, he did not think he would be so lucky as to find the right cave on his first venture, but he continued forward anyway.
And was rewarded by a long growl once he had stepped within a foot of the cave’s opening. Fear filtered through his lunatic mind, but he tried to rid himself of it with a shake of his head. Sir Death’s curse was still in full effect and Rumpelstiltskin would come to no harm, but the reasonable part of his head tried to convince the imp that he might still come to inconvenience. Rumpelstiltskin pondered on that nature for just a moment, but then he remembered that he had come here specifically to interact with the monster of this cave.
There were so few of them left, and he felt a kinship with them that a distrustful village populace most certainly would not.
“I’m coming in, whether you like it or not!” Rumpelstiltskin declared to the inhabitant, going so far as to cup his hands around his mouth. It was unnecessary, as his statement echoed along the walls and certainly reached its audience, but the imp did not regret the action. He continued forward with his hands acting like a natural megaphone. “My name is Rumpelstiltskin the Third, and I’m just saying hello!”
A roar deafened him in response, but he was expecting that.
“If you tell me your name, maybe we can be friends,” Rumpelstiltskin shouted as he continued forward, but a low snarl reverberated through the cavern and made the imp think that friendship might have been a foreign concept to this mysterious creature.
“Oh, stop it. If you haven’t scared him off with those first two, you’re not… going to stop him now,” another voice joined the conversation, and Rumpelstiltskin realized it must have been the hermit.
He wondered why a man would spend all his time with a monster in a cave, but there was something about the voice that seemed familiar. By the time the light from outside became just a bright lantern behind him, Rumpelstiltskin’s brainstem was tugging at him, and it wasn’t from fear.
“I’m sorry, but it’s becoming hard to see. Are there torches you can light? Or something like that? If I keep going like this, I’ll probably fall all over myself and you wouldn’t even be able to see it happen, so there just wouldn’t be any good to come from it,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, hearing something shudder through the cave. When a fountain of flame scorched his surroundings and set twin braziers ablaze, Rumpelstiltskin realized that shudder must have been laughter.
There was a monster in front of him, just like the tavern keep had promised, but it seemed much too large to ever leave the cave. Dark blue and green scales reflected the flames, but Rumpelstiltskin was more distracted by the creature’s reptilian eyes. They were almost as big as the imp, himself, and they were wide in the scant light of this patch of hollow earth. However, they did not seem hungry and Rumpelstiltskin was grateful for that. The giant lizard was merely curious about this twisted intruder, but he only maintained eye contact with Rumpelstiltskin for a moment before a cough interrupted their staring contest.
Both of them looked down to see a man curled up on a straw mattress, his elbow barely enough to prop him up to look at their guest.
“Rumpelstiltskin…” the man said with a hushed tone before his coughing fit got worse, and the imp did not think before rushing forward to the hermit’s side. Even as he ran, Rumpelstiltskin could feel the monster’s scales clattering as it bristled, but the imp did not care. This man, whoever he was, recognized the imp, and that was more than enough cause for Rumpelstiltskin to comfort him in whatever sickness had taken over.
“Is there anything I can do?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but the man only sputtered for a moment before his lungs gave him a reprieve. Sinking into his mattress for a moment, the hermit looked back at Rumpelstiltskin through tear-rimmed eyes.
“No, there isn’t much to be done about old age, imp,” he replied, turning on his side so he could look over Rumpelstiltskin’s small frame. “Gods, you look just the same.”
“I wish I could say the same for you,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he knelt down and sat on the backs of his feet. “I bet you wish it, too, but I don’t recognize you like this and that’s a little frustrating.”
“Oh, it’s frustrating for everyone, I can… I can tell you that,” the hermit commented, laughing and risking another coughing fit. He sputtered and the monster above them took notice, but the man raised a weak hand and waved away the creature’s concern. “Oh, stop that, Soren. We knew this day was coming, and Rumpelstiltskin isn’t the reason for it.”
“He may not be the reason for it, but he is here because of it,” the monster replied, his deep voice thundering through the cavern and giving Rumpelstiltskin the impression of a sneer. Confused by how much both man and monster knew about him, Rumpelstiltskin wondered just who they were and why he could not remember them.
“Don’t be, it’s been decades since you’ve seen us,” the hermit interrupted, and Rumpelstiltskin looked back at the man and saw his grim smile. “You helped me and Soren escape, turning the woods on our intruders. Do you remember that?”
“Rol… Roland?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, a tear forcing its way out of his eye as he smiled and hopped on his knees. Turning quickly to look at the dragon above him and then back to the hermit, Rumpelstiltskin could not believe his luck. “Roland! And Soren! I didn’t think I’d see you again!”
“I find it hard to believe that,” Soren replied, the dragon’s open mouth coming within two feet of Rumpelstiltskin’s face. “Your magic brought you here, imp.”
“What? My magic?” the imp replied, confused by the dragon’s statement before another coughing fit from Roland redirected the conversation. Turning slowly, Rumpelstiltskin finally understood why Soren might be upset at his arrival. “Oh… I see.”
“What do you see, imp?” Roland asked once the cough abated, and the imp could not keep eye contact with the poor man.
“Part of my curse… part of my curse makes it so I see my friends…” Rumpelstiltskin struggled to give life to the words, but he could not summon them when he was close to death.
“His curse brings him to death’s door, and Rumpelstiltskin helps guide his friends through,” Soren answered for him, and the imp shrugged at the truth of it.
“I don’t know how Soren knows all that, but he’s… he’s right,” Rumpelstiltskin admitted, waiting for Roland to hate him for it. After a few moments of wheezing made worse by the imp’s anxiety, a weak chuckle broke through air.
“Isn’t that nice? I have two friends to send me on my way, now,” Roland said, and Rumpelstiltskin lifted his gaze and saw the smile on the hermit’s face.
“You’re not mad?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, even more shocked when the man rolled his head along the end of his mattress, the closest thing to shaking his head Roland could accomplish.
“Why should I be? I’ve lived much longer than a man really should, and I’m surprised the reaper hasn’t already made his visit,” Roland explained, looking up at his reptilian companion and sighing. “We both knew this day was coming, even if a fair amount of dread was in the expectation.”
“You thought I would let you go with grace, old man?” Soren replied with a touch of disdain, but the hermit just smiled at his friend.
“No, and I did not want to leave you alone, either. In this day and age… magic seems to be fading, as it is,” Roland surrendered, but then he looked back at Rumpelstiltskin and smiled. “But seeing our friend again makes me believe there is still a life out there for you, Soren. Not all the magic is gone.”
“And what should I do after you’re gone, Roland? I’m too large to leave the cave. Should I allow these villagers to send me on after you?” Soren asked, earning a frown from his hermit companion.
“Of course not,” he replied, snide until his body did not have the energy for it. With a heavy breath and a series of weak coughs, Roland looked back at Rumpelstiltskin. “And now… now I think we can ask the imp for his suggestion.”
“My… suggestion?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, Roland raising an ancient brow at him before curling his lips into a frown.
“Oh, come on, Rumpelstiltskin. An imp like you has to have friends in high places.”
“I… I guess I do,” Rumpelstiltskin said, feeling as awful as Soren wanted. “At the very least, when Sir Death gets here, he’ll be able to send us in the right direction.”
“Sir Death? Just what kind of friends do you have, Rumpelstiltskin?” Soren asked, the imp turning to shrug at the dragon looming over him. “How should we summon him?”
“Oh, that was enough,” Rumpelstiltskin said, shifting so he could cross his legs beneath him. “Just saying his name will let Sir Death know we need him.”
“Your friends with the Grim Reaper himself, imp?” Roland asked, but something deep and dark leaked through the air and he did not need Rumpelstiltskin’s answer to know the truth of it.
“We are more than friends, Roland,” Sir Death replied, and Soren’s growl reverberated throughout the cavern.
“You finally come to take him, reaper?” the dragon asked, but Sir Death was unperturbed. He merely looked up at the gigantic creature and nodded.
“That is the idea. You knew that as soon as Rumpelstiltskin arrived.”
“Why…” Rumpelstiltskin began, earning their undivided attention. “Why does Soren know all of that?”
“Dragons are beings of magic, some of the last living creatures who are so naturally attuned,” Sir Death explained, gazing at the oversized lizard before turning back to his ward. “And when he imprinted on you in infancy, Soren gained an understanding for your nature that rivals my own. Instinctively, he knows you as a harbinger of death, even if you are only its companion.”
“Says Death himself,” Soren muttered, but due to his size, it rumbled through the air.
“So says one of its avatars,” Sir Death replied before kneeling down and setting a comforting hand on Roland’s scalp, his fever warming the reaper’s bones. “You’ve lasted quite a long time past your intended expiration. Just how did you manage?”
“I had something to live for, reaper,” Roland said, nodding past Sir Death at the dragon looming over them. “I did not want to leave Soren alone, if I could manage.”
“And so you did. You’re a surprising man, Roland. A hunter who saved a legendary quarry, a man who lived so a monster would not be alone,” Sir Death mused, offering a smile to the dying man. “I am sure Rumpelstiltskin will keep that memory close to his heart.”
“That is kind of him, but—” Roland began, but a coughing fit took the words from him. Sir Death, however, allowed the fit to run its course, as he knew the hermit intended more. Once his lungs allowed him, Roland continued. “I need to request something of you, reaper.”
“Ask it. I will aid you if I can.”
“The locals… they are coming to kill Soren. If not today… soon,” Roland started, but his mouth dried up on him and he had to swallow before he could make his request. “I need to find some way to save him, to take him away from this place.”
“You think a handful of footmen could kill a dragon?” Sir Death asked, the cave shuddering as Soren laughed at the idea.
“That’s what I said.”
“Maybe not,” Roland said, acknowledging the humor of it. “But maybe so, and I don’t want to consider that fate. It’s… not appropriate for a creature like him. He might be the last one left and… to me, that means he’s worth saving. Do you… do you think you could save him, reaper? Can you take Soren away from here?”
“I…” Sir Death hesitated, dropping his head and looking back at Rumpelstiltskin. The imp wondered why that was, but then he realized that Sir Death was considering a mutual acquaintance, someone who might preserve magic at any cost.
“Can you, reaper?” Soren asked, and Sir Death picked up his head and stood tall, sighing as he gave in.
“I cannot. Where I can go, I would only doom a creature like Soren,” Sir Death said before taking something from within his robes. When he withdrew his hand, Rumpelstiltskin saw the bone of some bird, but he only had a moment to wonder what it was before the reaper cracked it between his fingers and dropped it to the ground, only for the bone to smolder and burn away before it reached the surface.
“What was that, reaper?” Roland asked, but they were interrupted by a purple disc of energy ripping into existence closer to the entrance of the cave. Before long, a woman stepped through that veil and stood with her hands folded by her waist, a sneer almost ruining Rumpelstiltskin’s chances to recognize her.
“Indeed, Solomon. What was that?” the witch asked, but Rumpelstiltskin jumped to his feet and gaped at the woman he had met so long ago, back when she was barely more than a girl.
“Margaret?” the imp exclaimed, but Sir Death turned to him with a correction.
“Grand Sorceress Margaret, child,” Sir Death said before turning back to the new arrival. “You seem in good health, Madame. I’m glad to see it.”
“While it’s ever so fortunate to please a reaper, why am I here, Solomon?” Margaret asked, looking at the final scene of Roland’s life and trying to reconcile the presence of a dragon. “I know Rumpelstiltskin leads a charmed life, but this seems quite ludicrous.”
“I feel like that is to be expected,” Roland commented, pushing himself onto his elbow and nodding at Soren above them. “Simply put, I am trying to find a home for this dragon once I die.”
“At least someone has enough sense to cut to the quick,” Margaret commented, judging the scenario and crossing her arms before looking back at Sir Death. “So I’m to believe you want me to take this creature back to the Hollow? What incentive do I have to do so?”
“It’s a mystical creature, attuned to Rumpelstiltskin’s energies from birth,” Sir Death explained as he waved back at the disgruntled lizard. “As such, it has a unique perspective and—”
“Not the right approach, Solomon. Rumpelstiltskin was Circe’s creature, not mine. Why should I care?”
“When did you stop caring?” Rumpelstiltskin interrupted the magical banter, stunning Margaret into submission.
“He was there to save you from Portunus, Margaret.” Sir Death took his opportunity, wrapping both of his hands around his scythe and seeming more formidable for it. “He was there to see your introduction into the Hollow, and he was there to see Circe’s last moments. Rumpelstiltskin is there to see the final moments of so many interesting and engaging characters, and it would be foolish to think that the magic of his curse does not incorporate that into itself.”
“Just… what are you saying, Solomon?” Margaret asked, dropping her crossed arms so she could set a hand on her hip and wave at Rumpelstiltskin with the other. “You are the one responsible for this curse, so speak plainly.”
“It has grown without my influence,” Sir Death concluded, Margaret’s eyes narrowing at the claim.
“Maybe it is the nature of his soul, maybe it is the connections he has made throughout his life, but there is more power within that boy than was ever intended. It is… quite honestly, it is impossible to tell what potential lies within him.”
“And this creature is… attached to that potential?”
“That is my hypothesis. There is, of course, the natural argument that you might be saving the last specimen of a glorious, magical race, but I believe there is more at stake than just preservation.”
“I am glad you think so highly of me, reaper.” Soren’s scales bristled once more, but Margaret turned to the creature and scolded him.
“He does, dragon, but Solomon knows I won’t care for sentimentality when it comes to adopting a creature and taking him to the Hollow,” she clarified, and eventually she let out a disdainful breath. “I had one act of sentimentality in me, and that was in a prior age.”
“I believe you have one more,” Sir Death suggested, and Rumpelstiltskin could tell from the scowl on Margaret’s face that he had guessed correctly.
He was about to rush forward and hug the woman he had saved from a sorcerer’s dungeon, but he felt weak fingers wrap around his heel. Without a word, Rumpelstiltskin knew what was happening and fell to his knees, rushing to Roland’s side and earning the attention of a certain, terrible lizard.
“Thank you, imp,” Roland leaked out, and Rumpelstiltskin made sure to place his hand on the hermit’s cheek and nod even as tears streamed out of his eyes.
“I’m glad the magic thought we were good enough friends, Roland,” he said, the hermit’s eyes drifting to a close as the breath left his body. “I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tuck you in.”
“Child,” Sir Death said quickly, realizing from Rumpelstiltskin’s words what was happening, but he was not fast enough to witness the last moment. By the time the magicians were able to pay attention, Roland’s body was already going cold, his eyelids just barely open and showing the unfocused pupils behind them.
“It’s alright, Sir Death,” Rumpelstiltskin sniffed, rubbing Roland’s ancient cheek with his thumb before patting the man’s shoulder and turning back to Soren. “It’s alright, because no matter what happens, Roland’s last moment was peaceful, and he’ll have very sweet dreams because of it.
“Even if Margaret doesn’t take Soren, Roland thought she would,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, turning briefly to gaze down at the hunter who had refused his calling. Pleased by the thought, the imp looked back at Soren and saw the monster’s head shaking almost imperceptibly. With a sad smile, Rumpelstiltskin stood up and approached the lizard, who did not recoil once the imp placed a hand on his snout.
“He thought you’d be safe, and that’s what matters,” he said, and placed his forehead against Soren’s face as the dragon closed his eyes and shuddered. However tough the dragon had been acting, Rumpelstiltskin knew there was no way to avoid that grief. He allowed Soren to give in for a long moment, but their reprieve came from an unexpected source.
“He will be safe. As long as I am in charge of the Hollow, Soren has a home,” Margaret declared, claiming their surprised attention. “Oh, come now. I would be a fool to let one of the last dragons die to a mob of ignorant villagers.”
“You mean it?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but Margaret didn’t have a chance to reply before the imp launched himself at her waist and wrapped his arms around her.
“I—yes, now—come on,” Margaret attempted to rid herself of the imp, but Rumpelstiltskin grinned up at her and she forgot about being the Grand Sorceress.
“Thank you, Margaret. I was beginning to worry you weren’t in there after… well,” Rumpelstiltskin mentioned before stopping himself and backing away. He didn’t want to ruin that moment with bitter memories, and so he nodded at the woman with as much respect as he could muster. “I’m sure Roland would have thanked you, too, if he had more time.”
“I don’t need a hunter’s thanks, Rumpelstiltskin,” Margaret said, almost giving into a sneer before realizing it would be a mistake. Instead, the witch breathed in and decided to be generous. “But… you are welcome, and so is Roland.”
“You have mine, as well,” Soren stated, his attitude much more subdued after the tragedy he had been
expecting had concluded. Shifting in his cavern, the dragon sighed and lifted a claw in a lazy gesture.
“When would we depart?”
“Whenever you are ready. I assume you want to take a moment with your master.”
“He was not my master. Roland was my friend,” Soren declared, looking at the corpse briefly before swallowing his grief and turning back to the sorceress. “And that is merely a body. My friend has already departed, and watching his corpse rot is not something I’m inclined to do.”
“You have a way about you that I might just respect, dragon,” Margaret said, appreciating Soren’s tone before waving at Sir Death and Rumpelstiltskin between them. “And do you want to say your goodbyes to these two?”
“I… don’t believe he has any attachment to me, Grand Sorceress,” Sir Death replied, the dragon laughing at the remark.
“That is true enough, reaper,” he said, nodding at the magician before squaring up to the imp he could eat whole. “Thank you, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“For what?” the imp replied, earning a smile from the dragon he had brought into the world decades ago.
“You eased Roland’s passing. I had assumed you brought death with you, but… now, it seems that you brought mercy.” Soren stood just a little straighter and almost reached the top of the cavern. “I wanted to apologize for my earlier behavior.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” Rumpelstiltskin said, waving off the whole ordeal. “I wasn’t offended or anything.”
“That’s good to hear,” Soren commented, his scales scratching against the roof and bringing down a cloud of dust. It was enough to make Rumpelstiltskin tilt his head.
“This place just isn’t big enough for you, you know that?”
“Oh, I know.” Soren turned to look at the Grand Sorceress standing next to the shimmering, purple disc promising something more. “Perhaps I’ll have more space to stretch my legs in this Hollow.”
“Don’t be surprised if you never stop growing, Soren,” Margaret said before snapping her fingers and allowing that purple disc to grow larger than the entrance to the cavern. “There won’t be any limits where you are going.”
“Then I leave with lighter spirits,” Soren commented, climbing to his feet and pushing himself toward the unknown. When he was at the wavering surface, the dragon turned back to Rumpelstiltskin and nodded one last time, but he had said everything that was needed. It was only seconds before even his tail was beyond the veil, and Margaret only stayed behind another moment to say her own goodbyes.
“I hope I do not regret this, Solomon,” she said, but the reaper merely shrugged at her.
“I cannot anticipate your moods or your thoughts, Margaret, but I will remind you of the unique nature of this opportunity,” Sir Death replied, earning the slightest of smiles from the Grand Sorceress.
“Unique, it is,” she said before turning to the imp and nodding. “It was good to see you again, Rumpelstiltskin, despite how I speak to you. I will always be grateful for you and Circe.”
“I’m always grateful for her, too,” Rumpelstiltskin took the turn Margaret did not expect, but he smiled at her anyway. “Maybe I’ll see you again, before the end?”
“I don’t expect I will ever truly be rid of Rumpelstiltskin the Third, if that’s what you’re saying,” Margaret commented, giving him a true smile before turning away and heading through the portal that closed behind her.
Rumpelstiltskin and Sir Death were left alone in that cavern with only two dying torches to keep them company, but they did not feel alone. Before the reaper could say another word, Rumpelstiltskin wrapped gnarled fingers around his hand and looked up at him with beady, black, earnest eyes that could not hide the golden soul behind them. That look always made the reaper feel like he could never truly be grim, even in the face of all that death.
“We’ll give Roland a decent burial, won’t we, Sir Death?” he asked, forcing the reaper to remember the hermit behind them.
“We will, child, but where would you like to take him?”
Sir Death watched as the imp raised a knuckle to his teeth and gnawed on it for a moment, and laughed when he realized Rumpelstiltskin thought that was what he was supposed to do when he was thinking. Some idea flashed across his ludicrous brain, and the imp soon looked up at him with childish glee.
“I know just the place, Sir Death! I know where Roland would like to sleep forever.”
“Oh, and where is that, child?”
“His brother’s grave,” Rumpelstiltskin suggested, proud of himself for remembering after most of a century. “Roland had a brother and he named Soren after him back when I met them the first time.”
“I…” Sir Death hesitated, realizing this was going to be quite a bit of work, if the imp had his way. “Do you have any idea where his brother is buried?”
“Well, no,” Rumpelstiltskin faltered, biting his lip before turning to the reaper and shrugging. “But we could find the grave and then bring Roland, right?”
“I… we could do so, Rumpelstiltskin, but—”
“It would be an adventure, Sir Death,” the imp interrupted, his anxious smile enough to break right through the reaper’s meager defenses. “And you know I’m always up for an adventure.”
“I…” Sir Death attempted, but another look at the imp was enough for him to realize it was futile. Letting out a sigh, the reaper lifted his scythe and dragged the blade through the air in front of him, ripping a hole through the fabric between. Once the portal was established, Sir Death put out his hand and waited for tiny fingers to grab hold.
“Thank you, Sir Death. I know it’s a pain sometimes to be my friend, but… well, thank you,” Rumpelstiltskin said sheepishly, but the reaper only squeezed his hand tighter.
“We’re more than just friends, child. Never forget that,” Sir Death said before stepping through the Void on an adventure that might end this story, but would likely start another.
However, that was always the case whenever Sir Death had the privilege of traveling with Rumpelstiltskin the Third.