Fifty years ago, a dozen gnomes left their homes in the dwarven nation of Barlagtelen, having grown tired of their neighbors disrespecting their careers as entertainers. They made their way to the neighboring woods of the Dol elves, who for a long time hated dwarves and were considered their opposite. The idea of a variety theater troupe was more palatable here, but they were unimpressed by the gnomes’ complete lack of magic in any of their shows.
These gnomes were a statistical impossibility, for it is just as uncommon for gnomes to lack magic as it is for dwarves to possess it, and yet there was not an ounce of magical blood among the twelve. But they didn’t allow this to deter them; what they lacked in arcana they made up for with talent, passion, and showmanship. Whether it be dancing, singing, acting, or acrobatics, these gnomes did it, and they did it well.
Despite their overabundant confidence, the troupe was ready to head back to Barlagtelen, when two gnome children, Nestor Pinkly and Farnsworth Greenly, came up with another way. If they hit the road, and traveled far away from the stuffy dwarves and snobbish elves, surely they would find people in need of the amusement they could bring. So that’s exactly what they did.
They called themselves the Merry Minstrels, and they were performers of legend all across Penscarop. The world could be a harsh place, and a little levity could go a long way. But the Merry Minstrels were anything but little; as the months and years passed by, their troupe grew and grew in size, boasting just over two hundred performers at its peak, each of them impressive and stupendous without the need for magical aid.
Managing all of it was Farnsworth Greenly, once he came of age. The gnome had a mind for organization, resource management, and showbusiness that kept the wagon wheels turning smoothly no matter how disparate and unwieldy the troupe became. Fittingly, Greenly’s star performer was the magician Nestor Pinkly, or “Nestor the Incomparable” as he came to be known. His knack for prestidigitation, pyrotechnics, and theatrics were, well, incomparable. Nestor was most everyone’s favorite act and, much to Greenly’s disappointment, he turned down countless deals to work a lucrative job as some theater’s in-house magician.
This disappointment gradually became annoyance, and later outright animosity as Greenly saw Nestor as a waste of potential profits. It all came to a head one particularly harsh winter, twenty years after setting out on the road, when Farnsworth saw Nestor magically lighting a camp fire. His initial reaction was awe, impressed that his old friend had a gift for magic.
But that awe quickly turned into frustration, and then rage. If Nestor Pinkly could do real magic, why had he been hiding it all those years? Why had he let them be humiliated by the Dol elves? Why had he let them scrounge and hunt for every meal?
“That’s not in the spirit of the show!” Nestor insisted, but Greenly would hear nothing of it.
“Your selfishness is killing this family,” Farnsworth replied. “If you love us, you will add magic to your shows, and tell no one. They will think you an impossibility, an utterly peerless magician, and we will never want for food or comfort again.”
Still, Nestor refused. His work was everything to him, and he would not compromise its purity for profit. So Farnsworth offered Nestor and ultimatum: “We do things my way, or the Merry Minstrels are over.”
“Nestor,” Karessa interrupted. “Are you telling me all of this because you’re afraid to actually confront Farnsworth?”
Nestor had been recounting the tale of the Merry Minstrels for what must have been fifteen minutes, getting so theatrical as to use Farnsworth’s macabre dummies as props.
“No,” he said, “I just didn’t know what else to do, seeing as how we are trapped in this basement with nowhere to go.”
Karessa tapped her foot and gestured to the tunnel behind the stage, leading deeper into their underground prison.
“Huzzah!” Nestor cried. “What an eye you have, Ms. Plunderton!” Karessa wasn’t convinced. “Okay, yes. Farnsworth did something very cruel that hurt me very much, Karessa. And he blames me for it. I presume this is his revenge, revenge against me for a crime committed by he. How do you stop a person who lacks any conscience or reason?”
“I don’t know,” Karessa said. “But I’ve done it before, with your help. I think if anyone can, it’s you. And me. Us.”
At this, Nestor smiled and placed a hand over his heart. “Right you are, Karessa! I won’t let Farnsworth’s games get to me any longer. Onward!”
The tunnel was as haphazardly dug as the preceding room, ending with an overhanging wooden sign which labeled the following chamber “THE FIRST CHALLENGE” in crayon. It occurred to Karessa that whatever their differences, Nestor and Farnsworth could agree on some minor interior decorating points.
The next chamber was smaller and more even than the first, and it appeared a lot less work had gone into it. There was a metal door at the end, and in between them and the door was a dwarf-sized iron golem. Like everything else, it was inelegantly made and looked like the misshapen result of a child working clay.
“Greeeeeeeee,” the creature droned gratingly, “teeeeengs.” It coughed a plume of dust and soot. “Greetings, sirs, madams, and or others. Do not take offense at my uncertainty regarding gender. I am not only blind, I also do not like to assume the gender of another, as I myself do not abide by such a binary.”
“That’s considerate,” Karessa said.
“Quite!” Nestor agreed.
“Thank you. I try to be considerate, quite unlike my creator, who has damned me to a life without eyesight or purpose beyond quizzing the first prisoner to find themselves in this room.”
“That’s kind of a stupid command,” Karessa said. “What if the wrong person wandered in here, and you quizzed them instead, and your purpose was complete?”
“That’s what I said,” the golem replied. “But he just told me he’d make a new one because I am entirely replaceable.”
Nestor gasped. “No one is replaceable! Least of all a riddle golem! And you’re so handsome! Have you got a name, sir?”
“Well, Farnsworth didn’t think it worth bestowing me with a title…”
“Forget Farnsworth,” Karessa said. “What do you want to be called?”
“I quite like the sound of Regibald.”
“Well then, Regibald. If we get out of there, we would happily take you with us,” Nestor said.
The golem’s crooked mouth brightened. “That would be…most kind.”
“I don’t suppose you can just let us through?” Karessa asked. “I mean, we’ll take you with us either way. Just asking.”
Regibald sighed a rusty sigh. “Unfortunately not. I think it’s in all of our best interests if I go ahead with my riddle. Is that okay? Okay.
“‘In the darkness, I see the sun. Down on my back, I run. In the right circumstances, I’m fun. What am I?’”
“A Gingorian Hypno Turtle, of course!” Nestor responded immediately. “Their bright noses are the sun, their emergency legs on their shell allows them to run while on their back, and their innate hypnotism can be a blast at parties!”
“That’s correct!” Reginald wheezed. “Well done, Nestor. Now there is…er, there are two riddles. Same format. Okay. Well. Here goes.
“‘On stage, I am a liar. On a winter night, I lit a massive fire. My family hates me, I deserve their ire. Who am I?’”
Nestor crossed his arms and frowned deeply. “Farnsworth Greenly,” he said.
“I am sorry, Nestor. That is incorrect.”
“I am sorry, Nestor. That is incorrect.”
“Farnsworth Greenly!” Nestor shouted, a sudden spray of tears raining down his face.
“I will repeat the question,” Reginald said. “‘On stage, I am a liar. On a winter night, I lit a massive fire. My family hates me, I deserve their ire.’”
“This is cruel,” Karessa interjected. “Just let us through, Regibald.”
“I’m sorry, miss,” the golem replied, “but I cannot do that. The door will only open when my programming is complete.”
Karessa took a deep breath and put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Nestor Pinkly,” she said.
“Thaaaaat is corrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…” Reginald began, before clattering to the floor in an unbound heap of iron scraps.
“This guy seriously sucks,” Karessa said. Across from them, the metal door swung open. Another short tunnel.
“It’s not true,” Nestor muttered, wiping his eyes. “Farnsworth did everything. I just wanted to perform, like I always did. Life wasn’t always easy, but…we were doing fine. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I know, buddy,” Karessa said. “Come on. We’ll set him straight in person.”
The next chamber was more robust than the first. A similar metal door lay at the opposite side, but in the center of the room was a square pit filled with lava. Differently colored stones floated within. Above the pit, a small crystal orb hung from the ceiling.
“Hey, I know that orb!” Nestor said. “It lets him–”
“It lets me talk to you from afar!” a devious voice echoed through the room.
“Don’t we sell that at Odd & Ends?”
“That’s right!” Farnsworth said, laughing mischievously. “I’ve been to your stupid little magic shop. It was there I conceived of my ingenious method of luring you into my lair.”
“Odd & Ends is not stupid,” Nestor protested.
“I mean, it is a little stupid,” Karessa said. “It’s got a spelling error in the name.”
“You know about that?” Nestor asked.
“Everyone knows about it. It’s supposed to be ‘Odds & Ends.’ Like the expression? Means, like, miscellaneous.
“Whatever. Hey Farnsworth, your plan wasn’t ingenious by the way.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What if Donovan decided to visit you instead? What if we found out you were an imposter and sent the city guard? What if Nestor couldn’t figure out where you lived? What if the banker accidentally dissolved the letter in his gross jelly body?”
“I had faith in Nestor’s intelligence and dedication to goodness.”
“Aw, that’s actually nice of you,” Nestor said.
“Silence, traitor!” Farnsworth barked. “Now allow me to explain my lava pit of doom!”
“Seems pretty straightforward,” Karessa said. “There’s a pressure plate on the other side, probably opens that door. Lava kills us, so don’t fall in. Doesn’t take a lot of imagination.”
“Yes, but what could the colored stones mean?” Farnsworth asked.
Nestor said, “Well, according to the most recent issue of Weaver’s Digest, the currently accepted standard for imbuing stones with abjuration runes states that lime green stones repel, light blue stones electrocute or freeze, dark blue stones cause paralysis or otherwise impede movement, purple stones are to be red herrings, and orange stones set people on fire, which is a little redundant in a lava pit, but I would never judge another person’s artificery.”
“Okay, fine, but can you cross it?!”
“It’s okay, Nestor, I’m good at this stuff,” Karessa said. “Just let me –”
Nestor walked around the pit and stood on the pressure plate. The door unlocked with an audible click.
A loud screech and crackle played through the orb as the pair approached the door. “Wait!” Farnsworth called. “Wait wait wait wait wait. Don’t come in yet. Gotta fix something real quick, lickety-split.”
Karessa reached for the door, but Nestor stayed her hand. “Not yet. We must’nt be disrespectful or else we sink to his level.”
“He’s actually trying to kill us. I think.”
Nestor simply shook his head and waited. Loud scraping and creaking could be heard on the other side, the sounds of friction.
“Okay, I’m going in – holy!” Karessa slammed the door as soon as she opened it, and a cascade of thumps and whumps and cracks followed. She facepalmed. “There’s a bunch of little machines that shoot arrows in the next room, and he just put up these makeshift wooden barriers on either side so we can’t walk around it.”
Nestor gestured for Karessa to stand aside and stepped into the room. The back wall was lined with a number of wooden boxes with openings on the front. The floor was covered in a seemingly impossible number of arrows. He didn’t have time to contemplate where they were stored before another salvo was headed his way.
“Nid!” A wall of solid wind whooshed to life between Nestor and the arrows. The barrier did its job, knocking the arrows aside and splintering them against the wooden walls, but for each arrow that made contact, Nestor had to put a little more energy into the spell. As they pattered away, the gnome quickly found himself standing on shaky legs, and retreated behind the door.
“No matter,” he said breathlessly, to himself, “I’ve got a plan,” and he darted, briefly, back into the room with the arrows.
“What are you doing?” Karessa asked. Nestor was tying together the shafts of broken arrows using some yarn and adhesive he’d pulled from his coat pockets.
“I’m no wizard, so magic makes me a little woozy if I go overboard. But building and enchanting something? Easy as one, two, cake! Piece of three!” He produced a makeshift shield that looked as though it would crumble beneath a child’s fist, and strapped it to his arm.
“Stay behind me,” he said. Noting Karessa’s uncertainty, he smiled reassuringly. “It’s safe! Nestor’s promise! And a Nestor promise is a promise you can trust!”
Nestor led the way, with Karessa ducking apprehensively behind, into the hail of arrows. His shield was enchanted to project a field of magic that effectively tripled its size. He could feel the magic crack and fizzle beneath the barrage, but it held firm, and they crossed the room safely.
“That was amazing, Nestor!” Karessa said. “You’re like a real hero. Like Linda, or the Suntouched.”
“How many of these things do you think he has planned?” Karessa asked.
Nestor stroked his goatee. “Hard to say. Farnsworth is clever, but he was never much for hard work. Whenever we had to forage for food or pull a wagon out of a tar pit, he would rather bark orders than lend a helping hand.” He wiped his sweaty brow. “Hopefully not too much more. That wind spell was a bad idea.”
“But nowhere near your worst,” Farnsworth said, as Nestor and Karessa passed into the next chamber.
The room was considerably larger than those that came before. They stood on a narrow wooden bridge, overlooking a larger stone platform with lava on either side. On either side of the bridge, suspended over the lava by hempen rope, were two coffins, one labeled “FAMILY” and the other labeled “INTEGRITY.” Cries for help could be heard within.
On the opposite end of the bridge stood a gnome in a tuxedo and trilby. He wore his facial hair clean and his mullet greasy, and completed his outfit with a cane identical to Nestor’s, right down to the gryphon headpiece. He had his hand on a switch built into the rock wall.
“Your worst was choosing your honesty over your family,” Farnsworth went on.
“I can have both!” Nestor exclaimed. “And I would, if it wasn’t for you.”
“Oh, can you? In each of these coffins, a citizen of your precious Skymoore is held prisoner. Sometimes in life, when our chips are down, when the winter is harshest and you freeze yourself to sleep every night, you have to make a choice. Do I value those close to me? Do I value my self image? It was so easy for you to choose before.
“What will you choose now, I wonder?”
He threw the switch, and the coffins fell.