Belle has been changing. After an outburst at Granny's, Rumpelstiltskin, her devoted husband, decides to investigate. What he discovers will change his life forever. Read on!
He had tried for time immemorial to break free of its grip. He wanted the power it provided, but not the Dagger itself. He thought that silly now that it was once again in his hands.
“You’re just an object,” he murmured, examining it. “I haven’t looked at you for five years, or even thought of you. So you’re still with me. What of it? Most people enslave themselves to far less worthy things than you—social media, booze, drugs, fads.”
He turned the blade over.
Dark magic. It suffused every single cell of his immortal being. It defined him in countless ways. But with it he had saved many lives, not to mention this entire town. He had used that magic for good—for light. He had used it to rescue Belle.
Here it was, ready to come to her aid once again.
Here it was, ready to exact long-awaited retribution on that flea infestation should they prove involved in this whole fiasco.
But Belle was gone, either knowingly or not with the theorized assistance of the fleas.
Who else might be involved? Before he acted, he was going to make sure every single doomed duck (or flea) responsible was accounted for and in his or her proper row.
He sat in his favorite cushy chair and let the late afternoon light filtering through the curtains glint off the weapon.
He didn’t expect Belle to return. She was gone, probably not even in Storybrooke. Whoever had done this to her, or with her, was powerful enough to portal her pretty much anywhere. She could be in any of a hundred different realms. Finding her wasn’t possible. At least, not yet.
She wouldn’t be in the Enchanted Forest. It was the obvious place to go, or to be sent, and therefore the stupidest.
He flipped the blade and ran his finger over the ornate etching that spelled out his name:
He needed sleep. He’d healed his self-inflicted wounds, magicked the store back to its original state before he lost his temper, and returned home. But sleep would not come.
He put the blade down and went upstairs, where he went through Belle’s things again. Not to look for clues or hunt for more spells, but to test himself. He wanted to explore his feelings as he did, to see what, deep down, he truly felt for his wife now she was gone.
Truthfully, he felt almost nothing. The fire had long since died. Not the fire of passion, which had never been that strong to begin with, but the much more important fire of friendship. It became clear to him these years that she would be much happier with a different man. She had consistently refused to accept him as he was, even though she had made many pronouncements, both publicly and privately, that she loved “the beast” within him.
He had allowed her to berate him, however gently she might have done so. On occasion, and to her credit always privately, she furiously browbeat him. When that didn’t work, she’d leave. They’d make up—always after he came begging—and the cycle would begin anew. He had promised to put the Dagger up and leave it alone, and he’d made good on that promise. Even so, she never really came to trust him.
Not that she had been wrong. He had manipulated her in every way possible to hold on to and expand his power. As he looked over her clothes, he thought of the time he transformed into the pirate in order to get the Dagger back again. That was pretty low.
There were many more examples. Too many. None he was proud of. His part in their continuing drama was at least half, almost certainly more. Centuries of bad habits were very hard to break. He couldn’t blame her if she’d had enough and finally snapped.
He fingered a black leather mini-skirt and sighed.
Would it be such a bad thing if the marriage were allowed to fail? Would it be such a bad thing if he just ... let her go?
Would the “darkness” inside him, jealous and possessive as it was, allow it?
He sat heavily at the edge of their bed. After a time, he went back downstairs to sit with the Dagger.
When Granny didn’t move, he glanced up at her. She glared down at him over the order pad. She hadn’t written his order down.
“The same lasagna your wife bad-mouthed the other night, and said that you said tasted like shit?”
“I never said that,” he responded. “She lied. I’ve always liked your lasagna. Once again, I’m sorry that exchange took place. And—a bottle of your best red,” he added, closing his menu and handing it up to her.
She threw a significant glance at the empty seat across from him, hesitated, and snatched the menu away. He heard her grumble when she got close enough to the cook to hand him the order: “Lasagna. Make it a little extra.”
The cook chuckled and got to work.
It was the truth. He really did like Granny’s lasagna. It reminded him of a dish his mothers used to make, one which he couldn’t remember the name. Belle had included him in her outburst for reasons he couldn’t fathom. Was that part of Lacey’s personality? It seemed likely.
Granny returned with the wine; a few minutes later she lowered a plate heaped high with steaming lasagna and garlic bread in front of him. She glanced at the empty seat again, then turned to leave.
“You haven’t seen her, have you?” he asked at her retreating back.
She stopped and turned around. The heat in her eyes cooled a little. She shook her head. “No.”
He picked up his fork. “Thanks.”
She grunted and went back to the kitchen.
One of the lesser known consequences of being the Dark One was that drunkenness was not possible. He could drink all he wanted, but would never become inebriated. Oh, he could get “buzzed” as it was known—that pre-drunk state was possible. But not drunkenness. He looked up from his meal at one point and noticed that half the bottle was gone.
He wouldn’t have minded getting drunk tonight.
He enjoyed the lasagna more than usual. Granny’s batch was particularly satisfying. He wiped his mouth and dropped the napkin back into his lap, then took another sip of wine. The “buzz” felt good as it warmed through his heart and into his extremities.
The restaurant wasn’t busy. Grumpy and three other Dwarves were in the corner drinking and occasionally guffawing, and Doctor Hopper—Jiminy Cricket—had dropped in for take-out. He paid, bags in hand, giving him a courteous nod on his way out the door.
“You wanna talk about it?”
He hadn’t seen Granny approach. She stared sternly down at him.
He completed the motion of bringing fork, heavy with lasagna, to his mouth. He chewed, staring at the bottle, and motioned towards the empty seat.
In all the time he’d been in Storybrooke, he’d never really gotten to know Granny. She’d always seemed too grumpy, too stiff in her ways, too judgmental—especially of him—to bother.
She sat across from him.
“You’ve never once come in here and eaten by yourself,” she said, voicing a fact he was painfully aware of. It had taken plenty of will even to consider it, but he was tired of sitting in his big empty home and brooding. Walking out the door, he had no idea where he might go. Regina? No. She was probably with his grandson or hanging out with the Charmings or her sister. His store? He honestly didn’t know if he even cared if it stayed open from this point on or not. The Savior? No way. She’d be with the pirate. Their detente was enforced by distance, not communication. He had no urge to intrude, let alone be a nuisance.
He ended up here when it occurred to him that he was hungry.
“I’m sorry again for how Belle treated you,” he said after more wine. He picked up the fork and speared more lasagna.
“She seems to be changing,” Granny stated matter-of-factly. “It isn’t any of my business, but have you spoken to her father lately?”
He slowly lowered the fork back to the plate before its burden reached his mouth. He hadn’t even thought of her horrible father! How was that possible?
He knew, of course. The spells those damned fairies were almost certainly at least partly responsible for had seen to it that her father was forgotten!
“It’s really none of my business, but ...” she shrugged. “I wasn’t truthful with you. I have seen her. I saw her walk into his flower shop just the other day.”
“You didn’t happen to see her walk out, did you?”
She shook her head. “I was still quite peeved at her. I did consider confronting her, but then thought, ‘The hell with it!’ ”
He nodded. “That’s still helpful, thank you.”
“I’ve got one more bit of information to give you. I mean, it’s none of my business, your marriage, so ... well, forgive me if this is butting in ...”
“Please. Go ahead.”
“Well ... Belle didn’t ... smell right.”
“She didn’t smell right?” he demanded, and then stopped himself before angrily dismissing her. Granny was, he reminded himself, a werewolf. Or at least a former one. (He was never quite clear on that.) Her sense of smell was therefore well beyond that of an ordinary human’s.
“What did she smell like?”
“I noticed it the other night. To be honest, I’ve noticed it more and more for some time now. The other night it was rank. And then the other day, when she was going into her father’s flower shop, it was ...” She waved a hand in front of her nose, as though trying to swat away a pesky gnat. “... it was whew! The thing is, that flower shop pretty much masks anything else I might smell near it or in it. But not Belle. I was across the street and could still smell her! She smelled like ... do you remember Oldnight’s moat?”
“Oldnight? Enchanted Forest Oldnight?”
She nodded with a grimace. “That’s the jerk.”
He allowed a small, companionable, short-lived grin to form on his mouth. “How do you know Oldnight? Of all the denizens in that wood, he may be the nastiest. And why wouldn’t I or others smell that moat on her?”
He held up. “Stupid question. I already know the answer to that. Please—go on.”
“I wasn’t always a lasagna-makin’ granny, Dark One,” she offered. “I too was young once. Back in my wolfin’ days, I used to ... well, let’s just say I liked making trouble.”
“I robbed Oldnight with my fiancé. As you know, he was famous for being a rich miser, richer n’ you, so said some rumors! He had a mistress, just like you had Belle. He imprisoned her, just like you did Belle. What he didn’t do is fall in love with her like you did with your mistress. He kept her in his dungeon. She was a mage—a witch. Somehow he captured her. He got her to make all sorts of potions for him. One was a Willing Potion.”
“A Willing Potion,” he reflected. “Something that restores at least partial control of one’s will over a curse without the need of true love’s kiss.”
“Like the curse of a werewolf bite.”
“That’s right. True love’s kiss doesn’t work on werewolves.”
“I see,” he said. “And yes. That’s true.”
Willing Potions were almost impossible to create and considered even more cruel than the curse they were conjured to partially defeat. Between being totally cursed and being partially free of that curse, most people, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the latter to be as bad, if not worse.
He refocused on her. “How did you know about this mistress? Oldnight was a miser, true. But he was more infamous for his secrecy. Even I couldn’t trick out his many misdeeds. Believe me, I tried.”
“One of Oldnight’s guards was a turncoat and wolf like us,” answered Granny. “We gained his trust over a long time. He eventually opened up. He’d worked for that bastard for decades and knew that castle inside and out. We got in and out with almost no trouble. He helped.”
She nodded sadly. “The mistress was a witch named Gothel. When we stole the Willing Potion, she demanded we release her. We didn’t. She vowed revenge. We didn’t think she’d ever be able to carry it out. She looked completely screwed, from what we could tell. Four years later, free as a bird, she found and killed my husband, and nearly killed Red as well. I don’t know how we managed to survive.”
“Gothel. You mean ‘Mother Nature’? The angry Wood Nymph? That one?”
“Yep,” nodded Granny.
He glanced to the side as he tried piecing together more of the mystery of Belle’s transformation. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. That makes sense.”
He brought his gaze back to her. “You took this Willing Potion?”
“I drank every last drop in the beaker once we were outside the castle.”
“Otherwise you’d still be under the full curse of the full moon every twenty-nine days.”
“Yes. I was in such a hurry to be free of it that I slipped and fell right into Oldnight’s moat. I still managed to have the beaker in my possession. None of the potion spilled out. But boy do I remember that smell! It stuck to me for weeks!”
“A couple of questions have finally been answered,” he murmured. He focused on her as she waited. “Gothel must return to Oldnight once a year. She must do his bidding for the whole of winter. I always wondered why. Now I know. She must have somehow made herself some Willing Potion. Oldnight would have locked the curse before she escaped so that she could never be completely free of it.”
“You can do that—lock a curse?” asked Granny, looking alarmed.
“Rarely, but yes. Sometimes it can be done.” He took a sip of wine as Granny let that sink in. “But as you know,” he went on after swallowing, “no lock, physical or magical, is a hundred percent secure. They can only get close to a hundred percent. The more skilled a sorcerer, the better a magical lock they can put on a curse. True love’s kiss will work, but only if the true love passes various increasingly difficult benchmarks. Gothel is powerful, but apparently not powerful or clever enough to break Oldnight’s lock.”
“What was the other question you got answered?” she asked, fascinated.
“You said Belle smelled like Oldnight’s moat.”
“What I know now is that Gothel, Oldnight, her father, or all three are also involved in her disappearance.”
He paid at the register.
“I may require more of your help,” he said. “Would you be willing?”
Granny cocked a critical eyebrow at him as she handed him his change. “And what would be the price? Nothing comes free with you, Dark One.”
“Indeed. But the obligation would be mine to pay. Judging by what you just said, it seems you’d be eager to be of service.”
“I have always wanted justice against Gothel,” she said with an angry glare. “That bitch killed Rolf, and came within inches of taking Red’s life. No good mother—no good person—would ever forget something like that. So yeah, I’m eager to help. Count me in.”
“Tell you what,” he said, handing her thirty dollars for the tip—almost triple the expected amount. “Think about how you’d like to be compensated. I’d like to move on this sooner than later. Do we have a deal?”
She stared at him for a long moment. Cautiously, she nodded. “We do. And I will.”
He walked out into the drizzly night.
Gothel was a very dangerous witch, no doubt about it. She would be a formidable foe. She had for the most part avoided him. The few times they clashed she always disappeared before the magic got really interesting.
As for Oldnight ...
There was the true danger. Massively secretive, reclusive, and, if rumors were true, even more violent than him at his worst. He had never directly clashed with Oldnight, who had no interest in political power or extending his magical influence. But the Dark Magic the man possessed was unmistakable and almost certainly his match, or very close to it.
There were spells known as “Testing Spells.” They were launched remotely towards a suspected witch or wizard in an attempt to plumb the depth, quality, vibrancy, and reach of that witch or wizard’s magic.
Testing Spells were problematic—at best. They were, to begin with, unreliable. Or, better put, they were entirely reliant on the strength of the caster. The weaker the caster, the more unreliable the Testing Spell. Being the Dark One, arguably the most powerful Dark Wizard anywhere, the Testing Spell he cast from his castle towards Oldnight’s years ago was probably as reliable as any ever conjured.
The second problem with Testing Spells concerned physical distance. The farther from one’s target, the more unreliable the results. Rumpel’s and Oldnight’s castles were separated by a hundred miles of dense forest (the “Infinite Forest”) before reaching Oldnight’s keep. Which led to the third problem.
Testing Spells always revealed the caster to the target. There was no way to get around that.
For those reasons, Testing Spells had long since fallen out of favor with practitioners of either Light or Dark Magic.
But Rumpelstiltskin in those days was unencumbered by humility or restraint. So one night not long before Regina cast the Dark Curse, he cast a carefully crafted Testing Spell at Oldnight. The prospect of learning more about him was too powerful a temptation.
The results came back within half a minute, as expected. What wasn’t expected was the curse riding them, one he managed to avoid by milliseconds, and one he wouldn’t have been able to avoid were he not actually gripping the Dagger. The Dagger’s raw power drew the curse away into its blade. The curse, purple-black as it appeared in the apparent realm, screamed his name in Oldnight’s voice:
“Die, Dark One, die!”
The curse tried to compel him to harm himself frantically and uncontrollably, and in the most awful ways imaginable. As the curse disintegrated into the blade, he got the involuntary and weakening desire to take a dull butter knife and yank it across his neck.
He studied the results of the Testing Spell once he was sure they were curse-free. Even plus or minus ten percent, Oldnight was indeed a formidable match.
He woke to someone pounding on his door. He turned over to glance at the clock, which read: 5:48.
“Who the hell—”
He blinked sleep out of his eyes, sat up, and completed the sentence:
“—wants to die a horrible death this morning?”
It couldn’t have been Granny. He knew from long experience living in this town that she was opening the diner.
Robe secured, slippers on, he made his way down the stairs. As he did he again thought of Belle.
It was true that he missed her. But it was also true that he didn’t miss her nearly to the degree he thought he would. His freedom, in fact, was a nascent and growing guilty pleasure that he wasn’t quite ready to fully acknowledge, but was most definitely there nonetheless.
Growling, he made his way through the living room to the foyer, which he crossed, his temper ramping up with each step. The pounder was at it again.
He pressed the intercom button. “Whoever you are, you better come bearing news of catastrophic importance. Otherwise, this is your one chance to leave without doing so shaped like a cockroach.”
A long, tense, silent ten seconds passed. The pounder answered via the intercom. “Let me in, Rumpelstiltskin. I want to talk to you.”
There was no mistaking that voice. It belong to Grumpy.
He opened the door. Grumpy glared up at him, obviously fearful as evidenced by his fidgety stance. “I want to talk to you about Granny.”
“Our dealings aren’t your concern, Dwarf.”
He went to shut the door.
Credit Grumpy: he was suicidally brave—or still drunk from partying last night. He jammed a muddy steel-toed boot in the doorjamb just before the door slammed. “She’s one of my closest friends! I’m not done with what I have to say to you!”
For a moment he considered turning the Dwarf’s leg into ash. With gritted teeth, he reluctantly lowered his hand before casting the curse. He jerked the door open.
Grumpy stared up at him.
“You better hope that what you’ve got to say I find well worth my time.”
Grumpy held up. He took a deep breath, reached up and removed his black ski cap, licked his lips, and stepped fully into the house. “If you’re gonna curse me, Dark One, then do it because I failed you in a larger purpose. I can be of service to you on your quest.”
“As you can see,” said Rumpel, motioning down at himself, berobed as he was, “I am not on a quest except perhaps for some coffee and scrambled eggs.”
“Everyone knows what happened with Belle,” said Grumpy incautiously. “It’s all over town.”
“Of that I have no doubts,” growled Rumpel. “One cannot wiz on the bushes in this quaint little hamlet without it making the evening news. Again, as you can see, I’m not at present on a quest. I will be investigating what happened to her, yes, with Granny’s help. I do not at present have any intentions of leaving Storybrooke, or carrying the investigation beyond the city’s limits. My concern is simply that she is well, and that she is finding happiness.”
Grumpy’s face hardened in blank confusion. It held that way for a moment, then dissolved into sympathy. That was something Rumpel did not want to see. “Get out,” he ordered.
Grumpy didn’t immediately move, as common sense should have prompted him to. He held his cap tightly with both fists and stared down at the floor.
“You know something about what happened to her—to Belle.”
He advanced on him.
Grumpy, backing up against the wall next to the door, nodded fitfully. “Yes. I’m sorry—I’m sorry! I’m not interested in getting in other people’s private business, so I didn’t say anything to you. I did it out of respect to you and your marriage, not because I was trying to hurt you—or her. Please. That’s the truth!”
That cooled him off a little. He had to admit that Grumpy’s bravery, as foolish as it was, was admirable.
Grumpy looked up at him. “You wanna know what it is?”
He nodded after a time. “Yes. Go ahead.”
“I didn’t mean to,” began Grumpy, shrugging and shaking his head. “But I saw your wife with ... someone. In the woods. They were kind of ... well, involved with each other.”
“When was this?” he demanded, instantly visualizing the curse he was going to lay on Will Scarlet. It had to be him!
Grumpy shrugged again. “I don’t know ... a couple of ... months ago?”
“Months?” he snarled. “Months?”
“Yeah,” nodded Grumpy sadly. “Yeah. I’m sorry, man. Seriously.”
He took a deep breath, steeling himself to hear the inevitable name, and said, “Go ahead. Who was it?”
The Dwarf hesitated. “If I tell you, will you let me out of here alive and in the same shape and form and health as I had coming in?”
“That’s the only way you will walk out of here in that condition.”
“All right,” said Grumpy. “All right. It was ... Mulan. She was with Mulan.”