Rumpelstiltskin glanced around the temple, wrinkling his nose at the flowery sweetness that permeated the air. It would be foul with death before long, he thought, muttering at himself as he toed the corpse next to him. It had been centuries since he had taken someone else’s power, and he needed a moment before he could stand upright again.
“Well, well,” he said, poking at the magic with his own. “Come and play, dearie!”
Thousands roared in response.
“Won’t do. Won’t do. Who were you, hm?” he asked the dead warlock, slamming his hands over his ears. The power he had swallowed rattled around in his head, a thousand little needles stab-stab-stabbing into his brain. Some manner of link into the beyond, a clamor of multitudes begging to be heard. “Hush,” he commanded out loud, and when they dared protest, he screamed. A moment of agony, and then he was wielding his dagger. “You wanted this?” he hissed. The voices quieted, terrified by the brunt of the Dark One’s power. The dead, so many, all aware and listening to him. “What a useful trick,” he said, tapping the edge of the dagger against the back of his hand. Just enough to keep him alert. Tap, tap, tap. The silence was welcome, as his newly obtained skill surrendered to him. “Useful, yes.” He tapped his temple in warning. “But don’t forget your place.”
He came to attention as he sensed an accusatory weight closing around him. For all the temple was brimming with memorials to the dead, it was meant as sanctuary for the living.
It blamed him for breaking the rules. As if he’d had a choice.
Rumpelstiltskin snorted. “He started it,” he snapped back.
He hadn’t meant to kill anybody.
Bristling, he resented the dead man with renewed fervor. This bit of peace he had found, this haven where his mourning passed unnoticed among the grief of many others… Here, he’d been challenged.
“He tried to kill me with a pincushion, Belle,” he told the little altar he’d arranged in her name, his voice an affronted whine. He had been puzzling over how to replace the marigolds with the roses Belle had favored in life, and whether he actually wanted to - these little flowers shone in golden hues in the candlelight, he did like that - when the warlock had interrupted him. “Impertinent idiot,” he spat. “Demands my dagger in exchange for his services, and pretends to force my hand. What was I to do?”
Too late, he realized that the woman who’d pled for the life of an swordswoman that had struck him, might have asked for mercy for this new assassin.
He snarled, lips curled into a scowl. “Nothing right.” He waved his dagger around, challenging his own stupidity and already aware that he would lose the encounter. He always did. “Never have my head in the right place,” he admitted, dropping his shoulders at the same time he vanished the dagger back to his vault. “I should have listened to you.”
At the sound of his own words, he started giggling.
“Ah, but I can now, can’t I?”
He bounced on his feet, good mood restored. A flick of his fingers took the corpse outside, and in deference to the lady he granted it a grave rather than the company of carrion birds. He approached the altar with renewed enthusiasm, gripping the edge with both hands.
“Sweetheart,” he dared, as he never had in her life. “Can you hear me?”
He had closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he sobbed at the sight of his chipped cup. He fumbled with the lock he’d imposed on the stream of voices, throwing it wide open, and sobbed again when she wasn’t on the other side.
“No. No, no, no!”
Disappointment became rage. He let the darkness surge and beat back the voices, tearing into them as it would through paper. The dead warlock’s magic hid formidable strength, but much as the seer’s visions, it had no interest in serving other than their original master. It would possess him and use him, much like his curse already did, but once it found no free hold on his soul, its obedience would be spare and reluctant at best.
Fading back into the background, though. That, it was willing to do.
At the last moment, however, he jolted at the brush of a familiar presence. “Bae,” he sighed, holding his breath, but wasn’t surprised when the boy ignored him, always disgusted by the monster in his father’s skin.
Rumpelstiltskin shrugged and let him go, unconcerned at the reopened wound. He deserved to hurt. Bae had told him so. He’d have arranged for his own son’s true love to be banished to another world. He’d have allowed the Evil Queen to cast her curse. There was a little baby who would have never existed, and Rumpelstiltskin had sworn never to go near that boy in exchange of learning his name. “I kept my promise,” he whispered. “You were right, my boy. Those bars didn’t hold me forever. But I kept my promise!”
He didn’t dare peek through the link, afraid that Baelfire would hate him anyway.
His son, he would leave to rest in peace. Bae had died protecting his home, a hero’s death. He had known that he was loved, and he had left his family in the safe hands of Queen Snow White.
There was no unfinished business to haunt Bae in the beyond, and disturbing his peace would be selfish. Rumpelstiltskin might feel his insides twist in protest, but he could be selfless just this once.
Reaching Belle, however, was non negotiable.
There had been no honor for her, no comfort in her last moments. She had died alone. In the darkness. Weak and hopeless. His bright girl, her unending thirst for knowledge and all her strength; reduced to the contents of a little leather pouch.
It was not to be born.
“I’m here, my love,” he whispered, feeding a tickle of power into the words, and unsurprised when there was no response. If Belle dwelled on the other side of this altar, she would come to him, even if only to rail at his stupidity. He bent to kiss the cup, though he now understood it was an illusion, shaped by his grief and his need for Belle, while the original was still shattered on the floor of his great hall. “And wherever you are,” he promised, feeling the void that was his curse, now enhanced with new darkness, and grasping onto sanity for Belle’s sake, “I’ll find you.”
He’d hoped to find her here, where the dead truly rested in peace. But if Belle, stubborn Belle, had not let go of her regrets to the end… There was still another option.
Visiting the Underworld would be no easy feat, but he wouldn’t fail her.