The Sistine Chapel - May 6, 1527
The long train of her gown made a faint whispering sound against the floor as she glided the length of the chapel, the heavy gold satin rippling and flowing in waves over the fine marble and intricately laid mosaics. They would have been a showpiece in any other cathedral, but here they paled in comparison to the splendour of a thousand years' worth of papal wealth that surrounded them. A few lanterns were still lit in the niches and alcoves set into the walls but the light was dying, flickering and growing even more dim with each step she took further and further into the shadowed heart of Christendom. It was in this place where a new pope rose upon the death of the old, crowned and gowned and bequeathed the Keys to the Kingdom as he ascended upon Saint Peter's seat.
The ancient throne lay empty and abandoned on this night.
Her hair was a loose spill down her back and she wore no hood or veil to conceal it, normally an unthinkable breach of protocol for a woman entering the sacred site and a grave offence to the Church. But there was no one left to bar her entry, not that any mortal man could actually stop her from passing through any door to any room in this place, where even the holiest of relics, the priceless texts of scripture and verse, the sacred hearts of saints, the swords carried into battle during the Crusades, all paled in comparison to her.
Not a single candle was left burning by the altar where a figure was just visible in the gloom, garbed as a monk in sober dark robes. But he was no more a lowly cleric labouring anonymously in the depths of the Vatican in his humble attire than she was a wealthy Roman noblewoman in her rich gown and while her head might be uncovered, it was far from bare. She wore her own diadem above her brow, it was made not of gold or gems, but of an unbroken circle of Heavenly light. Divine radiance illuminated her path while the astonishing frescos that the Florentine master, Michelangelo, had laboured over for the better part of a decade looked down from the ceiling above, now silent witnesses left behind when everyone else had fled.
"His Holiness has left in the company of the Swiss Guard and the Emperor's army is about to breach the walls. Rome will fall to the wolves and it will fall tonight, it's too late to stop it now."
Emma delivered the news to the figure's back, as still as any of the painted prophets and saints that surrounded them. For several long moments he didn't move and if it was anyone else she would have thought he didn't hear her. But he heard everything, and when he finally turned the hood of his monkish robe fell back to reveal one who was both prophet and saint, known by many names and titles in different languages and traditions. In the chronicles of noble knights seeking the glory of the Holy Grail he was the mysterious and powerful Merlin, possessor of magic and esoteric knowledge beyond that of mortal men. In truth, he was a Prince of Heaven in his own right, an Archangelus, the patron of healers, lovers, and guardian angels and one of the highest ranked of the Blessed Ones along with his brothers Michael and Gabriel.
The Archangel Raphael.
Like all angels he was captivating to look at, with a face that Michelangelo would have given his own soul to capture in marble. Strong brows, full lips, and large, liquid eyes that were fixed firmly at some point in the distance before his attention turned to her. Pleas for salvation were echoing in the back of Emma's mind like a thousand hands all reaching out from the shadows to clutch at her train, while the Pope had been spirited away to safety many innocent souls had been left behind, unarmed and completely defenceless against the rampaging horde of soldiers about to descend upon them.
Raphael spoke in a low voice as his gaze drifted again, to the shadows that veiled the splendor around them and grew more with each passing moment. "Yes," he exhaled, and painted heads turned as his breath gave the little figures miraculous life. "They will come from the north...an army sent to expand an empire and lay waste to all who stand in the way...cities fall one by one and there will be death and destruction and war."
An exasperated huff escaped her lips. "Will be? War is already here!"
He shook his own head, his hair as close-cropped as any monk's in place of the flowing locks usually depicted in the many portrayals of him that adorned chapel walls and illuminated texts. The shapeless robes stirred about his legs, lifted by a cool breeze that swept through the nave and made the lanterns flicker and the frescos cower. The light dimmed even more with it and didn't recover, more faint, misty glow now than illumination.
"No, I don't mean this. What is to happen tonight will fade from history and be all but forgotten within a generation, though the effects will linger. This is not war, this is two mules eyeing each other balefully over the same pile of hay.
Only an angel would openly refer to the two most powerful men in Europe, the Supreme Pontiff Clement VII, who held dominion over all Catholic souls, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled most of the land those souls resided on, as nothing more than humble pack animals fighting over a mouthful of feed. But the description was an apt one, it was their mutual stubbornness and refusal to cede any ground that had led to an army the Emperor could no longer control poised to lay waste to everything in its path and the Pope abandoning Saint Peter's throne to flee like a thief in the night instead.
"Charles and Clement may be nothing more than mules, but even a mule's kick can be fatal," Emma argued back. "And when a Hapsburg aims for a Medici, he doesn't just strike his rival. Tell the people of Rome that this is not war when they're burned from their homes and slaughtered without mercy in the street."
Raphael sighed and statues wept. "His Majesty and His Holiness are not the only ones possessed of an excess of stubborness. Now is not the time for debate about the constitution of war, it's long past time for you to go home, beata Emma. The army is not the only wolf howling at the gates tonight."
Emma lifted her chin, not giving quarter even to an Archangel. "And the innocents will suffer all the more for it."
His voice was firm and the warning in his tone was clearer than any bell. "The darkness will always seek to snuff out the light, in every form. Always. We can't save them all, Emma, and we are not meant to. He gave them the freedom of their own will be they prince or peasant, and as such they are capable of so much beauty and so much ugliness in equal measure. That potential they all hold within is His gift to mankind and we must allow them to choose their own path. You can not interfere in this mortal quarrel and if you stay, it is inevitable that the darkness will seek to find you."
She knew what would follow the soldiers in once they descended like locusts from the plagues of old and began to pillage the city. Even in the very heart of the Vatican itself she could sense them faintly in the distance, just beyond the seven hills.
The Damned of Hell.
"I do not fear the darkness."
Her voice didn't rouse the frescos or move the carvings to tears as his did, but her voice was steady and her shoulders were squared back in her elegant gown. She carried no sword, no heaven-forged blade like the one that had made it into legend alongside Raphael's tenure as Merlin appeared in her hand with which to repel back a demonic horde, but she couldn't leave, not when so many voices were out there and calling to her with their pleas for salvation.
"You do," the Archangel intoned with a raise of his brow. "Oh, you are brave and your heart is pure, but no one, not even an angel, is immune to fear."
He smiled then, a breathtaking sight that eclipsed even the glory of the grandeur that surrounded them. Emma felt her own lips lift in response and the candles that had been left unattended at the altar all ignited, filling the air around them with the scent of beeswax and sweet oil. Raphael's smile turned melancholy, his pupils twin golden flames from the reflections but also flickering with something else, beyond what Emma herself could see. The Merlin of tale was a prophet and that wasn't the fanciful imaginings of a twelfth-century cleric, Raphael had the divine gift of prophecy as all the Archangels did and in truth, Emma was afraid to ask what he saw when he looked at her now.
Another breath of wind swept through the chapel, cold, and decidedly unnatural. It licked a shiver down her spine and the candles went out again from the force of it, wisps of dark smoke curling up to the ceiling in serpentine ribbons. All save for one long, pale taper that continued to burn alone in defiance of the attempt to snuff it out. Raphael looked at it for a long moment and then he nodded once, as if in acknowledgement.
"A single light remains. If you truly wish to stay through what is to come, I won't forbid it. But Emma, you must keep in mind that the most divine of gifts can also become the heaviest of burdens. To listen and stay silent is not easy, you can find yourself longing not to hear them at all when you can't answer. Perhaps even for eternity."
She couldn't imagine even considering such a notion, one that trod so dangerously close to a path that led away from Heaven and only a few had chosen to follow since He first separated the light from the darkness as painted above.
"Is your gift a burden, beatus Raphael?"
His handsome face shifted, becoming softer and more wistful at the question. "My gift is wonderful. And terrible. I see such marvels to come, each more astonishing than the last as they continue to embrace art and science and learning, even when they stumble along the way. Then there are the horrors that have yet to be as well, when they fall into ignorance and loathing. But that is the future and as pleasant as it might have been to be gifted with visions of only the former and not the latter, without both, I would be blind in one eye."
With that, he made a motion with his hand and the candle that still burned lifted from the altar on unseen wings, crossing the bit of distance to float between his cupped palms. The little flame grew even stronger and for a moment that was an eternity unto itself the whole chapel blazed with light. Frescos acted out their stories in miniature, Passion Plays in pigment and plaster. The First Man reached to his Creator, the waters rose as the Flood washed over the banks and the Serpent hissed in triumph as the Forbidden Fruit was consumed and Man fell from grace.
Raphael offered the taper to her and she accepted it, his hands closing over hers so they both formed the ancient gesture of prayer. When he pulled away the flame returned to nothing more than a tiny spark, the painted figures were still and his eyes no longer reflected that which fate had hidden to all but him.
"They will follow you by this light, beata Emma."
She dipped her chin. "Gratias tibi ago."
The Archangel Raphael stepped back and folded his hands solemnly in his sleeves. A papal audience would conclude with the kissing of the fisherman's ring, but angels wore no jewelry. Her own fingers were bare of any adornment despite the richness of her attire. Still, she recognized she was being dismissed and she turned, satin gown rustling with the movement.
The candle illuminated the path back out of the chapel and no more, saints had retreated into shadows and all that remained of the dazzling splendor was a solitary angel. A glance back revealed what she already knew, Raphael was gone and she was alone.
It had already begun, Emma could hear the hue and cry quickly spreading across the city in advance of the army. She picked up her skirts and started to run, flying not with her wings but on her faith instead, trusting that it would take her where they would find her, whoever *they* were.
When she reached the closest set of doors that led outside they opened into the darkness of the night, the sky above indistinguishable from the ground below even with the candle in her hand burning bright. The space between the ornately carved wood gaped like a maw, and she could smell the smoke in the distance as her own prophecy came true and the fires were lit.
Rome had fallen.
When she reached the threshold the finely laid mosaics abruptly stopped, giving way to the drop where the Pope would slowly descend to the cheers of the waiting masses come to pay him homage in His name. Adoration had turned to debasement, cheers to screams, and as the floor fell away from beneath her feet Emma didn't ascend.
She leapt straight into the storm instead.
Lower Saxony, Germany, 1943
Bright sunshine shone down on the tall stone walls of the medieval Schloss, an imposing structure that dominated both the surrounding countryside of forests and fields and the picture postcard village nestled in the valley below, all nearly unchanged from how it must have looked centuries ago when the Hapsburgs still ruled this part of the world with absolute power not as mere kings like in France and England, but as emperors anointed by Rome.
Killian stepped out of his car and tilted his head back to take it all in, squinting into the light. It really was like stepping back in time, his was the only vehicle he'd seen on the winding road that connected castle and village and, unlike in every other city and town across Germany, there was no hint of the current turmoil to be seen or heard. No armed checkpoints on the roads, no soldiers posted at the town hall, not even the distant roar of the Luftwaffe in the sky overhead that was ever present now in even the most remote provinces far from the hive of furious activity that was Berlin. It would be curious, if Killian didn't already know exactly who was currently residing behind the ancient walls, someone who was far older and had the power to keep everything that was going on at bay.
For now, at least.
Inside, heavy damask curtains were drawn tight across every window and he was plunged directly into the darkness upon entering what was almost certainly enemy territory. It would have been disconcerting to anyone else, but Killian could see perfectly in the dark and his eyes adjusted at once with a flash of crimson to take in the artwork that crammed every inch of the walls in ornate frames. Far from an unusual sight in a castle, but these weren't the expected solemn-faced portraits of family scions or middling landscapes by unimportant artists like the one Emma had been so enamoured with before the French decided to give their entire aristocracy the same treatment as Herod gave to John the Baptist. Killian recognized the unmistakable hand of Titian in a red-haired siren and Caravaggio's signature chiaroscuro in the depiction of a saint, there was a Rembrandt that, as far as he knew, belonged to the Dutch royal family, currently exiled in Canada, and a half-finished sketch that he would wager a literal king's ransom was a Da Vinci. It was a veritable Aladdin's cave of priceless treasures, and none of it was owned by the noble family who had given their name to both the Schloss and the village and were now conspicuous by their absence. War had redrawn the European borders once again and, like the sacking of Rome by another German army four centuries prior, spoils had been taken and even more innocent blood was spilled. As Damnate Infernum, a Demon of Hell and corruptor of human souls Killian had seen it all before, he'd been standing on the hill when the city gates were finally breached on that May eve long ago and the holy city itself started to burn, but this conflagration was the closest he'd ever felt to the End of Days and the war destined to eclipse all others.
The Final Battle.
The artistic splendor was marred by the presence of an imp, lounging on an antique chaise in an insolent sprawl with one leg slung over the back and a grin that revealed a mouth packed with too many teeth.
Killian detested imps.
"Corruptor," the lesser demon practically purred, drawing the title out like it was a juicy treat. "What business have you with the illustrious Dark One? Have you come to make a deal?"
He would sooner be tortured by the Inquisition again than make a deal with Rumpelstiltskin and he bared his own teeth at the imp, white and far sharper than they looked.
"Tell your master that I'm here to speak with him, and that he needs to keep his pets on a tighter leash. I've heard what you've been up to when he lets you run loose. Bad form, even for an imp."
The rebuke in his voice made the imp's head snap back hard against the padded velvet, but instead of being chastised, it let out a high-pitched giggle that quickly melted into an obscene moan.
"Do it again!"
Killian grit his teeth, trying to keep his hellish temper in check. As much as he would have liked to teach the imp a painful lesson in the proper amount of deference owed to a higher demon, he was here for something far more important and anything else was a distraction.
Besides, the infernal creature would probably enjoy it.
"Fetch. Your. Master," he repeated, each word snapping in the air like the crack of a whip.
The imp stood and gave a mocking salute, clicking its heels together and bending its knees like a ballerina doing a plié. Killian didn't return the gesture, despite the uniform he was currently wearing.
"Aye, aye, Kapitän."
He felt his eyes narrow at that as the imp disappeared down the hall, dancing and whistling a jaunty tune through those piranha teeth as it went. The sound seemed to echo long after the imp was gone until Killian realized he was hearing someone else instead, his head turning in the direction it was coming from and following on silent feet until he found the source.
A pair of narrow doors stood ajar with a sliver of light peeking out and through the gap he saw that it was the castle's library, tall stacks rising right to the ceiling and filled cheek by jowl with leather-bound books. He gave the door the tiniest of nudges and it swung open fully, revealing that the curtains were tied back in heavy swags unlike in the other rooms he had passed, letting in the sun. The reason why quickly became obvious, there was a ladder attached to the bookcases to allow access to the higher shelves and perched on it was a soman, her back to him as she dusted along a row of books and hummed to herself in a sweet voice. Unlike the imp she was mortal, entirely human, her petite figure clad in a modest blue dress and her chestnut hair falling down her back in thick curls. Killian supposed she was Rumpelstiltskin's chambermaid, but strangely for someone in a demon's employ there wasn't a whiff of corruption about her. As one whose entire purpose was to corrupt and defile he could always detect it, to him it was like the scent of overripe fruit about to spoil. It clung indelibly to those falling away from the Light as their souls blackened and shrivelled like the half-eaten apple left behind in the Garden, so perfect and unblemished on the Tree until temptation proved too much for Mankind to resist. Whoever the woman was, she was still innocent, and curiosity had time taking a step closer because he was never one to resist temptation in any form.
The doors both slammed shut in his face before he could cross the threshold, with enough force to make his teeth rattle and the sweet humming was abruptly cut off, replaced by the harsh scrape of a lock being turned.
His demonic title was spoken from behind him in an oily voice and Killian turned smoothly on his booted heel, away from the library and the woman now locked within.
"Dealmaker," he acknowledged.
Rumpelstiltskin's thin lips went even thinner, but he couldn't fault Killian for addressing him in kind and not by his preferred moniker. He was attired in current fashion from the knife's-edge part in his hair down to his two-tone loafers, but he still carried the silver-tipped cane that Killian remembered from Paris, in the midst of another time and another war. The handle was shaped like a reptile's head, fitting for an ancient demon with such a cold-blooded disposition. The ebony tip rapped sharply against the floor when he turned and started to walk back down the hall without another word, not bothering to check if Killian followed. The dealmaker was more arrogant than any king in his newly acquired castle, and Killian rolled his eyes behind the self-styled Dark One's back before falling reluctantly into step to the metronome of the cane against the polished stone, each strike echoing loudly in the silence.
More incredible art adorned the walls on either side of them, one long corridor was completely lined in fourteenth-century tapestries that were somewhat faded with age but remarkably intact, depicting a typical medieval hunt. Killian had participated in his fair share of them under his many different noble aliases, he immediately recognized the scenes. The elusive quarry managed to evade the hunting party for several panels, leaping through glens and peeping defiantely at them through a copse of trees just beyond their reach. It almost slipped away, but the pursuers were determined and the freedom of the forest was fleeting, as the tiny woven arrows landed straight and true at the end.
Rumpelstiltskin came to a halt by another pair of doors where the imp was waiting, bowing like a well-trained footmen when he approached, fawning and obsequious now in the master's direct presence instead of mocking and impertinent. Rumpelstiltskin lifted the tip of the cane off the floor and used it to raise the imp's chin, forcing the creature's head back at what on anyone else would be an unnatural angle.
"Wait for me outside the library. It's currently locked, and it stays that way."
The order was clear and the imp ran off again, not bothering with any theatrics this time to scuttle away like a cockroach instead. Killian watched it scurry down the hall, his interest piqued even more while Rumpelstiltskin entered what looked like an ordinary sitting room. Tufted chairs, a wireless in a walnut case, and a china tea set left on a side table, nothing unexpected at first glance. A closer look told a slightly different story, there was a copy of the current evening edition of the London Telegraph folded next to the flowered cups, even though it wouldn't be out for another two hours across the Channel. There was no picture of Der Führer hung in place of pride or copy of his odious book on display as there were in every patriotic German household, and even ensconced as he was deep within the dark heart of the Glorious Reich, Killian suspected that Rumpelstiltskin had his long, grasping fingers stuck in all sorts of pies.
"Did the local count bargain away both his Schloss and das Mädchen?"
Killian sat down in the tallest chair without waiting for an invitation, pulling out a silver cigarette case engraved with his monogram and flicking it open. He lit one without a match, inhaling deep and blowing out not a mere smoke ring, but a smoke serpent that rose in the air and hissed right in the other demon's face until it dissipated from an equal flick of Rumpelstiltskin's finger, his expression clearly unimpressed by the showy display.
"She made her own deal with me and is therefore off limits to you, Corruptor," he said. "Don't think I've forgotten the last time you interfered in my affairs."
Killian hadn't forgotten it either, and he couldn't say he felt any remorse for assisting the courtesan Maleficent settle her affairs behind Rumpelstilskin's back. The letter she had written had been delivered safe to her daughter while the daughter's husband was away from the house and unable to confiscate it, Killian had made sure of that. It hadn't been a deal, not exactly, just an offer made to give the woman a bit of comfort with none of his usual strings attached because he felt like being magnanimous. Besides, he'd always enjoyed Maleficent's elegant salons. He took another drag on his cigarette and did his best to look contrite, even though they both knew it was completely insincere.
"Speaking of which," Rumpelstiltskin continued, as if the thought had just occurred to him, "what happened to that angel you were so damn adamant about? I heard rumours that an angel finally smited that irritating succubus Zelena in Paris and yet by some miracle you appear to have walked away from that encounter completely unscathed. How curious."
Killian hadn't forgotten the Dark One's interest in his angel either, an interest he had no intention of encouraging. Emma hadn't fallen, not yet, and until she did and he could claim her openly for his own, she was fair game to any demon that crossed her path. He was certain that he was the only one who could seduce her, but the others would be all too eager to attack a Blessed One and try to destroy her. Including the demon who sat across from him now.
He needed to tread very carefully.
"She flew beyond my grasp," he said, blowing out another lungful of smoke that turned into an image of Zelena's face, rendered as delicately as any of the paintings on display. Her mouth split open in a silent pantomime of her final, agonized scream when another breath of smoke spilled over it just as the holy water had in life. "Zelena thought she could take an angel on herself, if she had stayed on her back where she belonged and out of my way, then maybe she wouldn't have ended up as nothing more than effluent in the Paris sewers alongside the contents of every royal bowel loosened by the steel kiss of Madame Guillotine. But I can't say I mourned her untimely passing, not after she spoiled my plans and let the angel escape."
Zelena's image finally melted away just like the succubus herself when he stubbed the cigarette out into a crystal ashtray, leaving behind a smear of ash as dark and thick as her infernal blood had been when it spilled over the blade of his iron knife. Rumpelstiltskin's gaze followed the movement, unblinking even through the eye-watering haze of smoke that now filled the room.
"Indeed. Perhaps you'll have another bite at that particular apple, one day. Although it's already been what, a hundred and fifty years? Taking the definition of eternity rather literally, aren't we now?"
Killian knew it was a jab at his apparent failure and he let his expression twist into a scowl. Little did the Dark One know of all the nights since then when he'd succeeded in "capturing" Emma, her wrists pinned fast by his grasp that could so easily become shackles from which she'd never escape, caging her with his body while she was wound in his sheets, close, so close to surrendering to him fully and not just to his carnal temptation. He'd savour his other victories privately until then, how he'd coaxed out her name the night they met, worked to gain her trust over the centuries, her confession that she could hear him, each far more valuable and rarer than any painting or tapestry Rumpelstiltskin could acquire.
He'd get what he wanted, in the end. Patience might be a virtue, but he was willing to be virtuous for this, and he'd rub Rumpelstiltskin's nose right in his success whether it took ten years or a hundred. Losing a little face now was a small price to pay.
Turn the other cheek, as it were.
"I'm sure it didn't take you nearly as long to accumulate your little treasure trove, did it, Dark One? And all strictly for the glory of the new German empire, I'm sure."
There was a flash of amusement on Rumpelstiltskin's face at the sarcasm in Killian's tone.
"I've held up my end of all the bargains I've made on behalf of the empire. What you see here are merely a few trinkets kept for my private collection."
Killian thought that "looted" was probably a more apt description than "kept" for the fortune crammed onto the walls, but he didn't say it out loud. And he was the one who'd once been called a pirate. Still, the dealmaker's penchant for trinkets was the whole reason why he'd come and he made a photograph appear, held delicately between his fingers like the cigarette before he set it on the table and slid it over.
"Is this one of your new acquisitions like the artwork and the decorative young girl, perhaps?"
The image was grainy, a faded sepia and foxed at the edges from age. Rumpelstiltskin looked down at it and while his expression didn't change the blue haze in the air from the cigarette smoke rippled around him, like a stone dropped in a still pond.
"It's called the White Hilt," Killian began, watching the other demon carefully as he spoke, "among other names, and was said to have been made from a remnant of the sword wielded by the angel who drove the First Man and First Woman from the Garden, where it was cleaved in two by their sin."
While the photograph was badly faded, the object pictured was still recognizable and had even retained a bit of gloss, forever reflecting the flash that had gone off when the image was captured for posterity. It was a blade, long and narrow and oddly shaped. Both sides were curved several times along the edge, so that it resembled less of a knife and more like a lick of flame made metal. Despite the name the actual hilt wasn't white, it was so dark in the picture that it was probably black or nearly to it, and was studded with what looked like a large jewel at the top.
"There was legends about it, like those about the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny, but they fell out of fashion and out of history and only a few scholars have even heard of the White Hilt now, including those that Der Führer has combing every pilfered record he can get his hands on thanks to his new obsession, the occult sciences."
Rumpelstiltskin gave him a contemptuous look. "Spare me the lesson, I'm far more versed in these tales than you, Corruptor. More than one soul has tried to barter with me for holy relics, thinking it will bring them power and glory. A blade forged from Heavenly light is an attractive idea, especially to one who has styled himself a Saviour of the people."
"While he exterminates those who don't fit his definition of the term," Killian added.
It wasn't spoken of openly, but people knew where their absent neighbours had gone. Yellow stars were left behind on the lintels of empty houses, paint flaking away in the elements and the sin cut deeper than any knife.
The other demon lifted one shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "Sieg Heil."
As before, Killian didn't return the sentiment. He gestured to the photograph instead. "This was taken sometime before the Great War, in this very castle."
He flipped it over and revealed the writing on the back, done in an old, copperplate hand. There were only three lines, the name of the Schloss they were currently sitting in, an illegible signature, and below them both was a word written first in German, and then, perhaps more tellingly, in Latin.
Rumpelstiltskin eyed his uniform, one that gave him near absolute authority in the name of the would-be king. "I suppose you've come here as the knight on a noble quest?" he asked, tone still laced with contempt. "Shall I address you as Sir Killian instead of Corruptor then, collecting shiny tribute for your new master?"
Killian ignored that jab as well and focused on what the dealmaker might have just accidently let slip instead.
"So it is here?"
He met Rumpelstiltskin's gaze head on across the table. It was like staring into a well, his eyes were fathomless black depths that seemed to ripple from deep within. A mortal soul would fear what lurked unseen at the bottom and glance away from it, as Damnate Infernum in his own right, with power far beyond what the rank on his collar granted him, Killian didn't blink.
When Rumpelstiltskin spoke again it was through teeth gone serrated as a crocodile's. "I don't answer to you. Or to Der Führer. You think I'm somehow unaware of his more esoteric interests and attempts to collect such objects? Napoleon went to Egypt in search of Biblical treasures to strengthen his laughable claim, Charles V sent his troops to Rome to seize Saint Peter's throne, and now Adolf Hitler seeks a broken sword with which to rule the world. An emperor in all but name, and like those who came before him, doomed to inevitable failure. Just as you've failed in your pathetic attempt to intimidate me."
He started to rise from his seat then, cane in one hand and clear dismissal in his voice. "You can see yourself out now, Corruptor."
Killian remained where he was, idly examining his rings. The large, square cut ruby that he'd owned for centuries sat on his finger and winked up at him, he refused to don the honours that went with the uniform and wore his favourite pieces in their place instead. He rubbed his thumb over it and admired the fire within before rolling his wrist and snapping his fingers without looking up.
"Even in this modern world, I find that some still cling rather stubbornly to the old ways, don't you, Dealmaker? Especially those who used to hold power. They still style themselves with the titles they lost in the last war in the hope they'll regain them one day, prince, duke, count, and they still arrange marriages for their children. Marriage is a sacrament, and there is nothing more sacred to these people than money."
Rumpelstiltskin snatched up the papers that had appeared on the desk at Killian's command, his face a mask of utter fury as he scanned them and obviously realized his error. The marriage contract was clear, the bride's wealthy family had provided a considerable dowry to the impoverished but noble groom, on the condition that she be granted sole ownership of his ancestral seat and all the contents within upon the wedding, a hedge against a future divorce. Furnishings, carpets, silverware, there was a complete inventory right down to the number of teaspoons.
Including; "an antique jewelled dagger of unknown provenance."
"I confess I may lack your level of expertise," Killian continued, acting as innocent as a virgin at Mass, "but I do know that you can't put up what doesn't belong to you as collateral. Your contract was only with the husband. Mine is with the wife."
Her signature was next to Killian's own on the document the Dark One now held, granting him possession of the castle and surrounding estate. Marriage was a sacrament, and adultery was his favourite sin. He lit another cigarette from his silver case, filled as much with smug satisfaction at having pulled the rug out from under Rumpelstiltskin as the smoke he drew into his lungs. Another demon couldn't interfere directly once a bargain was struck and they both knew it. But Killian hadn't, since the deal was never valid to begin with. "Good faith" was not a doctrine demons followed, and Rumpelstiltskin had no choice but to accept that his own carefully wrought deal was now completely null and void.
"You don't answer to me, that's true. But you do answer to the Fallen One, so if you care to argue this further we can always take this little disagreement to him for a final ruling, if you desire."
The papers fluttered back down and spread across the table in an untidy heap while Rumpelstiltskin's dark gaze went sharper than any dagger. Despite his easy posture with the cigarette dangling loosely between his fingers, Killian was inwardly as tense as a bowstring. They were both bound by the same rules that called for the other demon to acquiesce, however unwilling he was to do so, but he looked to be on the verge of breaking those rules completely and refusing to relinquish his claim. If he did it would come at a considerable cost, and Killian's entire plan hinged on the Dark One being unwilling to pay it.
"That's twice," he said at last. "Believe me, there won't be a third time."
With that, Rumpelstiltskin lifted his cane and slammed it back down on the floor. The sound was like the strike of a match flaring to life, only magnified a thousandfold and everything in the room rattled from the force of it. For a split second Killian could see what lay beneath the unassuming countenance that had slithered unnoticed and forgotten throughout history for so long, the Beast without his human form to conceal him. He braced himself for the attack that was sure to follow, fingers tightening on the arm of the chair and ready to leap up and fling the lit cigarette right into the demon's face.
It never came. The Dark One was gone instead.
His boots made no sound when he stood up from the chair and walked around the table, the tip of the cigarette flaring crimson as he took another deep inhale. A chasm had opened in the floor like a sinkhole, right where the cane had struck. Killian crouched down to examine it, taking a final drag before flicking the cigarette into the hole and watching it fall end over end until it was swallowed up by the darkness. The chasm was deep, impossibly so, and for a moment he wondered if Rumpelstiltskin had decided to appeal to Lucifer after all and returned to Infernum itself to do so, as the Fallen One rarely left his kingdom below. He waited a few moments, but there was no summons under his skin that compelled him to follow and a check of the castle revealed that most of the treasures had been removed as well. The walls where the tapestries had hung were bare, the exquisite paintings were gone, furniture was draped in dusty cloths and there was an air of disuse and neglect as if everything had been shut away and left untouched for months. A check of the hall outside the library revealed the imp was nowhere to be found, and now that he'd established himself as master the door opened as soon as Killian touched the knob.
It was empty.
Not just the maid, a lot of the books had vanished alongside her. There were holes on the shelves that hadn't been there before and a few of the ones left behind had toppled over completely without the others to hold them in place. Rumpelstiltskin had withdrawn in silent acknowledgement that he'd been outmaneuvered, but he'd obviously taken everything from his other deals along with him. Using that much power at once could nearly cripple a demon, even one as powerful as the dealmaker.
When he returned to the sitting room he saw the rent in the floor had sealed itself back up and all that remained where it had been was a small black mark, perfectly round, left by the tip of the cane. His shoulders dropped with relief under the tailored wool of his jacket that his gamble had paid off, in truth, Killian hadn't wanted to involve the Fallen One either and the invocation of his authority had been a bluff.
The edge of the photograph peeked out from underneath a page of dry German legalese, Killian picked it up and read the words on the back again. If the White Hilt truly existed, then it was a holy relic of the highest order and one he would not allow to fall into Nazi hands. That madman in Berlin could make do with the ramblings of false prophets and the bones of apocryphal saints to fuel his insane crusade, anything genuine was exceedingly rare and he had his own reasons for searching such objects out, reasons he didn't share with those who only thought the commanded him. Just as it had the last time he'd been part of a German army, it was to serve his own purposes and not the other way around.
He didn't have any imps at his disposal so he sent his shadow to begin the search instead. The dark shape moved along the wall of its own volition and sank into the stone like water sinking into the sand, if the dagger was secreted somewhere within the Schloss then he'd find it no matter how well it was hidden. If it turned out to be a medieval copy then he'd return with it to the capital and graciously accept the Reich's accolades, but if it was real, then his coded dispatch would report that the legend of a blade forged from a sword once wielded by a holy angel was just that, a legend, and nothing more.
Night had fallen by the time Killian went outside for some air, frustrated by what appeared to be a fruitless search. There was no jewelled dagger anywhere to be found and he couldn't sense the presence of anything holy. He'd known the odds were exceedingly slim to begin with, and yet for some reason a part of him had believed that not only did the White Hilt exist, he would find it here. Learning that Rumpelstiltskin had chosen this of all the estates he could have had for a wartime headquarters had only increased that belief, it was too much of a coincidence that the demon who coveted power above all else could be sitting unawares on such a prize.
A single line in an inventory that had been prepared years prior and a photograph even older still. It could be real, or it could be nothing more than a wild goose chase and there was no way to tell without the dagger itself. He'd know immediately, just as he'd known that Emma was an angel. The damned always recognized the divine.
A light appeared high in the sky above and drew his attention up. It wasn't the holy light that had drawn him closer on that night in Rome when war had raged unchecked and the city burned, it was the Luftwaffe, flying on steel wings to rain fire in the form of the bombs dropped nightly across the Channel. A falling star streaking across the heavens with a deafening roar, and as it passed overhead he felt the disturbance in the air even from the ground.
The feeling didn't go away after the plane was gone, if anything it increased, hairs on the back of his neck rising and a prickling under his skin that usually meant one thing. Something else caught his eye, a tiny bit of movement that was nothing but a pale smudge against the deep indigo at first. As it grew closer Killian saw that it was a bird, a dove, with something held in its beak.
Not an olive branch, it was a note, falling straight into his hands while the dove flew away. There was only one who correspond with him in such a fashion, and it wasn't another demon. When he unfolded the square of paper letters appeared as if by magic in gold script, addressed at the top in a familiar hand to, "Damnate."
Killian quickly scanned the lines, his brow creasing with a frown. Once he'd secured control of the castle his plan had been to keep following the trail of the White Hilt if it wasn't there, he had some other leads and records that pointed to where it might have gone and the war was the perfect cover for his pursuit. Now that the Dark One knew of his interest, it was even more important that he maintained his cover and moved as quickly as possible. He wasn't bound to answer the summons he held in his hands, the promise he'd made could easily be broken.
"...as you once agreed to give me safe passage I ask that assistance again of you now…"
"...I need you…"
It was signed at the bottom with a single initial in lieu of a name, E, and he brushed his thumb over it.
His answer was silent to all but her.
Belgian Countryside, 1943
The whispered announcement made everyone freeze for a moment before they hurried to the dusty windows in a flurry of palpable dread, dousing the old gas lamp they'd been using for light and pulling the tattered curtains back to peer out into the gloom on the other side of the glass. Outside it was pitch-black for miles around and silent as a tomb across the barren fields and empty roads that made up the ancient Flemish countryside, with not a soul to be seen nor heard from in days. Or it had been, at least. Now there was a distinctly mechanical hum in the air, quiet and barely audible at first, but growing louder and louder and a collective gasp echoed around the room when the long drive to the abandoned farmhouse where they'd taken refuge suddenly lit up with twin oblong lights. As yellow as the predatory eyes of a serpent poised to strike and moving even more quickly, they were unmistakably headlamps, from a large vehicle that was making its way directly towards them at breakneck speed.
It was a single cry of alarm that was taken up at once by the rest of the ragged group, white-faced and trembling with both exhaustion and fear. In the shadows Philippe and Richard shared that kind of unguarded embrace that would send them straight to the camps as sexual deviants alongside Isaac and the other Jews who sought shelter under her wings, while the Mother Superior had her arms wrapped comfortingly around little Gretel, as thin and delicate as a baby bird fallen from the nest.
Emma forced herself to her feet despite her own utter fatigue and lurched towards the door, tossing a hurried, "Stay here," over her shoulder as she went.
"Emma, Emma come back!"
"Emma, wait, no, it's too dangerous, you don't know who's out there-"
She heard them, but there was another voice that was even louder and she didn't heed their warnings, already on the sagging porch with her shoes scarcely touching the ground as she practically flew down the steps and flung herself headlong into the path of the oncoming car. The light found her immediately and there was an ear-splitting squeal of metal as the unseen driver behind the wheel slammed on the brakes. Gravel flew from under the tires like shrapnel and the car skidded to a halt scant inches from where she stood, so close that Emma could feel the searing heat from the engine, a shocking contrast against the cooler night air. A door opened and a tall figure emerged, standing just beyond the pool of light with his face hidden under the brim of his hat. His appearance elicited another shriek of fright from behind her when they caught a glimpse of his uniform, the glint of silver on his collar and the armband red as blood. Her little flock hadn't listened and had followed her outside, staying close to their shepherd and bleating in fear like orphaned lambs in the dark. Their presence pulled at her to return while his pushed her back, his damnation attempting to repel away her divinity and she swayed back and forth where she stood, caught between warring instincts until he stepped into the light and there was nothing except him.
"Engel," Killian murmured when she threw herself at him, straight into his arms and burying her face in his shoulder. His voice rumbled through her, equal parts amused and concerned. "Oh blessed one. What have you done now?"
There was a shuffle of footsteps behind her and she felt him stiffen, his attention shifting to the small group she'd guided from the Dutch border and across half of occupied Belgium. Emma knew she should pull herself away and try to come up with an explanation as to why she was embracing what appeared to be a Nazi officer who'd just appeared out of nowhere in a car more suited to a film star than a soldier. It must look like their shepherd had delivered them straight to the wolves instead of the safety she promised and she should step back, reassure them, ease their worry...but her head was too heavy, weighed down with innumerable unanswered prayers that flickered behind her eyes in an endless loop. People were suffering, starving, dying, and it was too much for even her wings to carry. Her fingers curled into the dark wool of his jacket and when they called her name again it seemed to come from very far away. His voice was among them but she couldn't answer, her hold loosening and her knees giving out, buckling like an ancient tree gone hollow with age and unable to withstand the force of the wind any longer.
His name fell from her lips in a whisper and she was falling with it, the hard earth below rushing up to meet her and the heavens above, dark, and devoid of stars.
The demon caught her before she hit the ground.