Just so you guys know... you were right. I skipped an entire chapter (which has now been fixed) because I'm apparently completely bonkers and can't keep up with posting stories on more than one site.


She didn't leave the library for three days.

Rather than let herself wallow in rejection and confusion, Belle threw all of her efforts into translating the mysterious journal… and got absolutely nowhere for all that time. She'd scrapped all of her initial notes, made new ones, and then scrapped those. There were too many inconsistencies, and so much of the text didn't seem to have a proper form.

Slumping against the desk in defeat, Belle shook her head, thinking very seriously about throwing the little book across the room.

"Erm… Belle?" Troubadour's soft voice intruded on her thoughts. It was the first time he'd spoken to her since Rum left the library. She supposed he simply didn't know what to say.

"Yes?"

"If I wasn't stuck to the wall, I think I'd hug you."

Despite herself, Belle laughed a little, sitting up again and shutting the diary. She would not throw this book against the wall… though that was a determination based more on hope than truth.

"Thank you," she said quietly, more out of respect for Troubadour than anything.

"Might I suggest… the book you're translating. Have you ever thought that it might not be another language at all?" he asked. Belle looked around until she found his image on the wall to her left, raising her eyebrows.

"Are you saying the entire book is gibberish?" It didn't seem likely to her, no matter how hard it was to crack.

"I am merely stating that it looks incredibly like a cipher to me."

A code.

Belle groaned resting her head on the desk. The book could have been in code the whole time, and she'd been so focused on trying to figure out a language that she hadn't even thought about it!

She grabbed a clean sheet of paper and sighed, rubbing her forehead in frustration. Time to go back to the drawing board.

X

Hours later, Belle had a decent start on the translation. She'd managed to narrow the book down to three possible languages , judging by region of origin. The ink had a strange purple tint to it, which meant it came from the north. The pages and cover provided a little more information simply from the ornate style of binding, but the region was still very large, and she couldn't narrow anything down without a more specific reference.

Now came the hard part- figuring out the code.

The simplest thing would be a letter for letter swap, which Belle had already tried with two of the three languages without any results. Any attempt to decode the book just resulted in… gibberish.

However, the last language was getting her somewhere.

It was an old language- dead, actually, which was why she hadn't thought to try it first. Belle had automatically assumed that whatever language the diarist was writing in would also be the language that they spoke, but apparently that wasn't the case. It was easiest to place the vowels first, and a few of the more common consonants, until finally she had translated a page coherently.

Five hours for one page.

Five days if you counted all the time she'd spent before Troubador gave his advice.

The completed page read:

Dear Reader,

Assuming that you've managed to crack my code, bravo. I'm writing this in the hopes that one day someone will glean some helpful information from it.

So, to start off, the first thing that you should know about me is that I am eighteen years old, and that I come from a little town by the north sea- a tiny, peaceful place.

The second thing you should know about me is that I am running from the clerics.

I travel by night to avoid detection, looking for sanctuary with anyone, anywhere, living off the mercy of people who are kind to lonely travelers. I'm learning to use my magic bit by bit, but my hope is to find refuge in the abandoned Western stronghold. It's said that magic still haunts those halls, and that is takes to visitors of its own kind.

Perhaps it will be kind to me, but if it is not, then I don't know what I am going to do.

The date was from 250 years ago.

Belle sat back against the shelves, unsure of what to make of this. The journal had obviously belonged to the last person who had run from the clerics- perhaps the one who made it away safely. Magic had preserved the book well.

She wanted to run upstairs, to talk to Rum about it and get his opinion, to find out what on earth she should do, but she couldn't find the will to move. He didn't want to see her, and she wasn't ready to talk to him yet, but she thought she was done translating for the day. Her neck was sore, her eyes were watering, and her fingers ached from writing. It was time for a break… and possibly a cup of tea.

So, rather than go anywhere, she curled up on one of the small couches in the library and went to sleep, surrounded by papers and hugging the little leather-bound book.

X

Dear Reader,

My name isn't important. It doesn't matter, so don't worry about it. All that matters is this account, and that you will know what I know now.

Most assume that those who escape the clerics escape through exile, and if that is true then we may never know, but I did not. I was captured, and brought back in chains to the original monastery to be broken and converted to their order. They starved me and beat me, they whipped me until my skin cracked and bled, and did all in their power to make me submit.

I did.

What was I to do? I was small and weak, and one can only hold out for so long against the clerics' methods. When they decide you should be broken, you will be broken. The clerics do not serve a religious order, as so many think, but were named by their monk's robes and the way they shut themselves off from the world in their monasteries. They serve one thing, and one thing alone: magic. And, occasionally, those who can wield it to best suit their purposes. They break you, they train you enough that you can be initiated, and then they absorb you into the order before you can learn too much.

The clerics have the potential to be an extremely powerful order, powerful enough to control the world as we know it, if they weren't held in check by long, bloody traditions of which I shan't go into detail about. It would probably make you sick to hear- even after escape it makes me nauseous to think about, and the clerics haunt my dreams. If I live to be a thousand I don't think I'll ever forget… The point is that they adhere to strict, archaic, and bloody rules, and that they broke me down and almost converted me to one of them. Almost.

The final ritual, the initiation order, involves spilling blood. Specifically, magical blood. Each member of the order in the monastery where the initiation takes place (and they have many monasteries, Reader, never doubt that) puts a drop of their blood into a cup. Then, the new member slices their palm with a special dagger and lets their own blood spill into the cup.

The blood turns to wine, and you drink it.

It sickens me to think that I even made it far enough through initiation to get to that room. Blood for blood, they chanted. The phrase means spilling blood to gain a new member, referencing cutting your palm with the dagger, but something about "blood for blood" made me think "life for life" somewhere down in the recesses of my mind. When you are broken everything that makes you who you are, your very soul, is slowly squeezed out of you until the clerics build you back up into what they want you to be. Why was I there, I wondered? The clerics wanted me. How did I even come to be there? How long had it been? Who did I know before?

That's when I remembered the blood. The real blood for blood, the reason that I hadn't tried to run any farther or fight them any harder. They took away my hope. They killed my family.

My mama, my papa, and my three sisters were all dead, murdered at their hands. And I was about to become one of them- a ruthless killer and magician who would stop at nothing to achieve their goals, not even the lives of children.

When the dagger was in my hand, I stole it from the monastery and used it to fight my way out. After that, I ran. I believe that the only reason I was able to make it out alive was because I took them by surprise. Never before has anyone refused initiation so far in- I've read the texts and I've heard the rumors. The location of the dagger is recorded on a map tucked in the pages of this book, should anyone ever need to find it. I don't know why you would want to.

X

Dear Reader,

I made it to the Western fortress, but I may only be safe for a short while. I can feel the protection spells on this place, but they are old and weak, and need to be reinforced by someone with more power than I possess.

Well, that isn't technically true. A better term would be more skill than I possess.

Warding spells take time and patience, and I am both pressed for time and have never been a very patient person. The magic that the clerics taught me was Dark Magic- black and vile, but it is the only magic that I know, and so I will use it rather than abandon all my training to learn a path that might be a little less bloody.

I have seen plenty of blood in my time, dear reader. I hope you never are subjected to torture and training from the clerics, for your hands will forever be red from the stains.

X

Dear Reader,

Two days ago I met the Black Forest Witch.

She said that she sensed my predicament, but I've heard tales of her. It is more likely that she saw the future and realized that she might have something to gain by keeping me alive. He revived the warding spells with the magic familiar to me, in return for a favor… the location of the cleric's dagger.

I was reluctant to disclose the location to anyone, considering the amount of magical potential an item like that would have in the wrong hands, but she assured me that wherever I'd hidden it was useless. She would eventually sniff the thing out anyways, and best save her some time and keep myself owing her another boon. I spent all of yesterday and the day before questioning if my decision to tell her the location was wise.

However, I used the Sight charm and watched the clerics coming over the hill this morning. They were unable to pass any closer than ten miles from the castle. If it weren't for the Witch's protection, I would be dead now.

But now, as I dwell upon the power that all the blood magic residing in the dagger has, and what the world might make of it if they ever found it, I wonder if death might be the better option.

Frau Totenkinder. She'd met Frau Totenkinder.

Belle was well aware that the Black Forest Witch was very old, and it didn't surprise her as much as it might have to learn that Totenkinder had been around (and very powerful) 250 years ago. She did wonder about the dagger, though.

Where did it go? Who got their hands on it? She highly doubted that Frau Totenkinder would have used it for evil, but this new development demanded research. She flipped through the pages of the diary, looking for anything that might give her a clue about the blood magic, but found the text impossible to decode at a glance.

There was, however, a folded piece of parchment that dropped out.

Belle unfolded it slowly, delicately, revealing that what appeared to be one sheet was actually two. The larger one was a map, detailing this land with a few markers pertinent to the diary's story, such as the cleric's monastery, the diarist's hometown, and a tiny star marking the location of the dagger along a road. A notation to the side said "Under tree root."

The smaller piece of paper was an ink drawing, very old and slightly smudged in places, of the dagger itself. It was long and thin, and the blade sort of… waved. There were notes scrawled all around it in the same code.

The dagger draws magic from the blood it comes into contact with. It was originally only a ceremonial initiation rite, but I've heard whispers of the power it holds. More so, I've felt it. Traveling with it takes its toll on you- the magic it holds is born of pain and blood and black hearts, and staying around it for too long is dangerous to your very soul. That is why I hid it in the first place.

The clerics talked once of using the dagger as a means to harness magic, so whoever possessed it could control the powers of the thousands of meager magicians that went into it, creating a sorcerer beyond belief. It would take time and practice, but eventually it would be worth the effort.

There was also a theory that possession of the dagger, since it had been stained with the blood of so many who would live indeterminately long lives, would grant virtual immortality.

I never cut my palm with the dagger. I have never been more relieved.

I did not want power. That is never what I dreamed of, for myself or for my family. I only expected to live a simple life, to find a husband and grow old with the people I loved, but that has been ripped away from me. I will never have that chance, but I swear that someday, some other little girl in my place will. She will have all the hope that I never had, because I will give it to her. I will protect her from the fate that befell me, and I will not stop until every last cleric on this earth knows the reality of what they have done, all the lives they have destroyed, and all the darkness they have spread.

Some things are worth sacrificing your life for.

But what of your soul?

Two hundred and fifty years…

The last girl to be taken by the clerics. The last person who might be able to give any indication of what her powers were or where to go, or even how to handle them.

The last person who understood what was happening to her.

And she had magic… so there was every possibility that she could still be alive.

Belle couldn't be sure how the diarist got away, and she most definitely didn't know how this diary came to be in Rumpelstiltskin's library, but it had to have gotten here somehow. She hadn't read much, but it didn't seem like the book's original owner would be one to give her diary to just anyone. Perhaps she put it here for safekeeping? But then… why leave it with the Dark One? Couldn't he use all the information about the dagger for his own interests?

She should go up and ask him about it.

She really should…

But she was stubborn and hurt, and she refused.

Her feet refused to move her out of the library and up the tower stairs. Her mind refused to admit that she needed his help. Her heart refused to stop its incessant aching every time she thought of him.

Perhaps it was alright to be cowardly sometimes, just for a little while, to curl into the safety of what you knew and stay there until the storm passed… but almost as soon as the notion crossed her mind, she dismissed it. Sooner or later she would have to face him, and as much as she would prefer later (much, much later), it might be better to just get it over with.

After all, she would be asking him for permission to leave.

The Western fortress where the diarist supposedly went was marked on the map. It would be a fortnight's journey from here on foot, but she could travel through the woods and cut her path by a day or two. (Magical transportation was something Belle was still wary of). If this woman had been hunted by the clerics as a child, and Rumpelstiltskin said that the power she possessed was the same as Belle's… The diarist, whoever she was, could provide answers. Assuming she was still alive, but wasn't that a risk worth taking to find someone who knew what you'd been through? To find the last person ever to escape the clerics?

Maybe she could help her. Maybe there was a way to find a balance between the light and the dark. Maybe there was a way to control the power without letting it warp her, twist her into something she was not. The longer she trained, the more she felt like the magic was a part of her, but it also scared her.

Look at what magic had done to so many people.

It hurt the diarist, drove her away from her home and drove others to murder her family. It prompted centuries' worth of bloodshed by the clerics. It corrupted Rumplestiltskin's last apprentice and twisted her into something unnatural and inhuman. It created a streak of darkness running through the land. It created the murderous Queen Regina (no one was quite sure of her beginnings), and it transformed Rumpelstiltskin into something that was no longer human.

But not a monster, she thought. Never a monster.

Cruel. Distant. Manipulative. Heartless, at times, but never a monster. She could never look back at the kiss they shared, however fleeting and dreamlike the moment, and call him a monster. She could never look back on the nights she fell asleep with her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat, and call him a monster.

No matter how hurt and dejected she might feel, she couldn't overlook that.

But she could avoid him for just a little longer.

X

As it turned out, she only managed to use the diary as an excuse for another few hours, and was halfway through translating it when she realized that there wasn't time to waste.

She could translate as she traveled- perhaps hire a buggy or a hitch a ride with a farmer- but she couldn't hide behind her cowardice any longer. By hiding, Belle only prolonged the inevitable. She finally convinced herself to pick up the diary, and go looking for Rumpelstiltskin.

He wasn't in the tower.

He wasn't in the dining room.

He wasn't in the dungeons, or the garden.

Finally, Belle walked back up to her own rooms, defeated and thinking of bathing (she didn't feel clean after days in the same clothes in the mildly dusty library). When she opened the door, however, she heard a strange sliding noise. She looked down to see a plain piece of folded paper, no doubt tucked half in and half out of the door.

Belle-

I'm sorry to leave you like this, but I'm afraid I have no other new developments to our… relationship put both of us at great risk. You may stay in the castle if you like and continue your studies. Our oath is binding- you needn't leave until you feel it is necessary. There are wards here that should keep the clerics away.

I do not know when I will return. If I return.

-Rum

Belle calmly folded the paper once more and tucked it into the pages of the diary. She had to force herself not to cry or scream, not to let her anger or sorrow wash over her rational mind. Rumpelstiltskin might give into his cowardice, but she would not.

And someday she would come back and pry the answers she wanted- nay, needed- from his lips, either with kisses or curses.

If Rum wasn't going to give her answers, she would bloody well find out on her own. She could pack food from the kichens, and no doubt the wardrobe would supply appropriate clothing with a single word from her. She had the diary. She had the map. She had the defensive magic that Rumpelstiltskin had taught her over the past three and a half months.

Everything would be just fine.

It would be fine.

She chanted that over and over in her mind as she prepared to leave, as she walked out of the castle and followed the western road on the map. She chanted it to the rhythm of her footsteps on the dusty road, to the beating of her heart on dark nights in the forest, to the thrumming of horses' hooves as they passed her by. She chanted it against the cooling, soothing sound of the spring rain. She chanted it as the first glimpses of her destination, the gloomy, gray, crumbling castle, appeared through the dense forest…

And she was still chanting it when arms wrapped around her waist in a viselike hold, her wrists and ankles were bound with rope, a blindfold tied over her eyes and a gag shoved into her mouth, and a dizzying wave of dark magic washed over her senses.

She stopped chanting it just before her world went black.