Nestor Pinkly was not much for regret, nor for thinking ahead, but if he had thought ahead when attempting to save the prisoners trapped in the coffins, he might almost have regretted it, because his instinctual plan involved two spells that he had never used before, and the power involved in casting them might literally kill him.
But when it came to helping others, Nestor Pinkly did not think, he did.
“Oof!” the gnome yelped, magically cushioning his descent as he dived to the stone platform far below. That was the easy part. Drawing on a reserve of power he didn’t know existed, he did the hard part. “Shir! Shir!”
The lava on either side of the platform cooled with a hiss and became stone. The area of stone was just enough to catch each coffin, but Nestor’s muscles grew sore and his eyes grew heavy. “Oof, oof,” he wheezed, sounding not unlike Regibald the automaton, catching each coffin with a magical cushion.
“Integrity is hollow,” Farnsworth narrated as Nestor popped open the first coffin, surprised to find it was empty inside, save for a sound-capturing orb. “And we haven’t got any family. Not anymore,” he added, as Nestor tried the second. “The Merry Minstrels are over. Just the two of us, now. And Toothy.”
Despite his fatigue, Nestor had an instinctively joyous reaction to the name of his pet snake. Toothy the Vegan Tiger Cobra had been an integral part of several Merry Minstrel performances, and Nestor had trained the creature himself, not through discipline, but through positive reinforcement in the form of caramel-filled coconuts – the favorite treat of both gnome and snake alike.
And sure enough, Toothy was here. The tiger-striped behemoth of a reptile was coiled behind a glass wall at the end of the stone platform, his unblinking eyes like smoldering coals in its orange face, demanding to be fed.
“Of course, you abandoned him, too, didn’t you?”
“It was your fault,” Nestor said quietly.
Farnsworth returned the lever to its original position. A padlock clicked open, and the glass wall swung outward. “At last, face the consequences of your – agh!” He was cut off by Karessa lunging at him, pinning him against the wall.
“Let us out of here, you psycho!”
Farnsworth retained enough freedom of movement to draw the dagger at his hip and stab it into Karessa’s arm. It was a shallow wound, but enough for her to recoil. She stepped back nimbly as Farnsworth cut uselessly at the air, giving the gnome an opportunity to retrieve his cane.
He wielded it with unexpected expertise, knocking Karessa to the ground with a single, powerful sweep. She nearly fell to her doom as she rolled to her feet, leaning back just enough to not tumble over the bridge.
While the two traded blows on the bridge, Nestor was in a predicament of his own down below.
“Toothy, it’s me, Nestor!” he cried for the seventh time, but the snake still pursued. The reptile would tower over a tall man, so next to the gnome, it was positively massive. And it was quick, too. Nestor was no athlete, and he lacked the agility of Karessa, so it was all he could do to keep away from his former pet as it lazily circled. If the creature lunged, Nestor was done for.
And perhaps even if it didn’t. The creature began to move faster and faster, and its path became narrower and narrower, and before Nestor realized it was happening, he found himself enclosed within a wall of scales, helpless but to be ensnared by the ever-coiling Toothy.
“Toothy!” the gnome gasped as the snake constricted him. “Toothy, don’t you remember your good buddy? Think of all the times we sat beneath the stars, sharing a nice, warm – wait! Snu!”
The distinct scent of caramel and taste of coconut suddenly filled the space around them. Toothy’s body continued to tighten even as it sniffed and Nestor struggled for air. But as it sniffed again, its muscles loosened. It sniffed again, and began to look about. Nestor wasn’t free, but he took a gasp of air, and he sang.
“When the stars are bright and the moons aglow, and our bellies are full and I play bajo, your eyes grow heavy and you feel the creep of the end of the day cuz it’s time to sleep…”
As Nestor continued his lullaby, Toothy’s body loosened further, and before he made it through the second verse, he had been lulled to sleep. The gnome climbed out from his pet’s embrace and pat it on the head. “Goodnight, Toothy. When we get out of here, you can have real caramelnuts.”
Up above, Karessa had stolen Farnsworth’s knife and cut the ropes suspending the bridge. The two managed to hold on as they swung across the chasm, but Karessa failed to maintain the upper hand as she’d hoped, and wound up pinned as the pair hit the ground painfully.
Farnsworth was surprisingly strong for his size, and he kept Karessa still with ease. “Get off me, you little shit!” she shouted as she flailed, eventually connecting with the gnome’s rear. Farnsworth yelped, and brought his cane down roughly upon her head.
For a second, everything went dark. When her sight came back, it was a blur. Her ears rang. She tugged instinctively at Farnsworth’s arms, and only moments later did she process that they were on her throat, cutting off her air. He was saying something, something vile, but she could not hear.
Air trickled into her with a staggered breath as Farnsworth was thrown from her by an unseen force. The chamber was tinted purple around her. Not from air loss, but from a protective barrier, willed into existence by the remaining shreds of Nestor’s energy.
“Please stop this, Farnsworth,” Nestor said, leaning on his cane. “This is pointless evil.”
Farnsworth recomposed, and pointed his own cane at Nestor. “There is very much a point, Mr. Pinkly. Revenge is an end unto itself, and today, I take revenge on the man who destroyed the Merry Minstrels.”
“That was you!” Nestor sputtered. “I just wanted everything to continue as it was. You wanted to change.”
“I wanted to grow, yes. Is that a crime? I wanted what was best for our family, you just wanted what was best for, what, honor? You left us to starve and freeze and burn because –”
“I did not! You burned the carriages! You stranded everyone in the cold! You said I lost control of my magic and – and – but I didn’t! You turned their mistrust of magic against me.”
“I may have lit the fires, but it was you who lit the match, Nestor. I told you fair and square, you could help the Merry Minstrels grow, or you could watch everything we’d built reduced to ashes, and you chose. You were too weak to see the world for what it is. It’s every man for himself and when you see an opportunity to survive, to protect your family, you take it.
“And now, I teach you that lesson. I won’t stop coming for you, Nestor. You’re going to fight me here and now, or you’re going to die. Once again, the choice is yours.”
Karessa pounded against the bubble, insisting Nestor let her out, but he shook his head. She wasn’t getting hurt in his family drama.
“Go on, set her free,” Farnsworth said. “Put her at risk, too. Or would two against one violate your precious integrity? Your moral code is so confusing, my friend.”
As long as that barrier stood, there was no chance of adrenaline providing him with excess magic, but the sacrifice was worth it. Despite what Farnsworth might think, Nestor Pinkly protects his family.
“I’m not fighting you, Farnsworth,” Nestor said. “I’m sorry if what I did turned you into this person. But violence is never the answer, least of all now.”
“Very well. You know your choices.”
Farnsworth was upon Nestor quickly, bringing his cane down with skull-cracking force. Nestor managed to shuffle backwards, and the cane hit the floor with a terrifying thwack!
Again he swung, and Nestor went to block it with his own cane, but all the magic had left him weak. The cane went flying and clattered against the stone floor, much too far to reach. The next blow hit him square in the ribs, landing him flat on his back. He saw stars as he gasped for breath.
“Fight me,” Farnsworth growled, standing over Nestor. “Use your magic. It’s the only thing that will save you.”
“I could never hurt another person,” Nestor said. “Not even you.”
“Much too late!” Farnsworth cried, bringing his cane down once more.
Nestor rolled out of the way, and the blow chipped at the stone. He rolled into a crouch and rose his makeshift shield above his head just in time to block another blow. For just a moment, the shield’s enchantment was a visible ripple in the air, and it was cracking.
“You stabbed me in the back when you lied about your magic.”
Another blow, and this time Nestor buckled beneath its force, taking a knee. The cracks spiderwebbed across the ripple.
Farnsworth reeled back once more. “And every day you hid the truth, you twisted the knife!”
When the cane collided with the shield, Nestor thrust upward. The field of magic shattered under its force, knocking Nestor once more onto his back, and sending the cane soaring through the air.
Nestor scrambled for his own stick; his fingertips brushed against the warm steel, but a forceful kick sent it spiraling out of his grasp. The gnome cried out as the lava claimed it.
“Use your magic,” Farnsworth barked, brandishing his knife now. “It’s the only thing you have that I don’t. My mind is sharper, my body is stronger, my will is fiercer. You have one advantage over me, and you refuse to use it. When will you learn?”
Nestor trembled as he beheld his own weary reflection in the crisp reflection of a long, serrated blade. And then, as he looked to the frustrated and fearful Karessa, and the sleepy, hungry Toothy, Nestor found his calm. Farnsworth was right about some things, but he was very wrong about one.
Magic wasn’t the only advantage he had. With years of practiced sleight of hand, he waved his hand discreetly, and uttered a syllable.
“What was that?” Farnsworth asked.
“Fight,” Nestor said. “I said I’ll fight you.”
Farnsworth gave a fiendish grin. “For the first time in sixty years, you speak sense, Nestor Pinkly.” He extended a hand, which Nestor took. “But you haven’t been paying attention. In this world, there are no rules.”
The blade whistled as it thrust toward Nestor’s abdomen, and Farnsworth grunted as it was jerked away. Karessa wrapped her arms around him, beneath his armpits, restraining him. “Run! Ngh!”
Farnsworth kicked her roughly in the shin. She grabbed at him again, but succeeded only in removing his hat. He lunged with his knife, which Karessa caught in the trilby and cast aside. Without a moment’s pause, he drew a smaller knife from his coat and sliced the air.
“Farnsworth!” Nestor called. He was standing in Toothy’s enclosure. “I dropped the barrier to preserve my strength, but this isn’t Karessa’s fight. This is between family.”
“How right you are,” Farnsworth said. “For once that bond means something to you.”
Farnsworth gathered his cane and slotted the knife into the bottom with a mechanical click, making a spear. “Are you ready, Nestor? To settle this at last. To put your strength behind your words.”
“It’s about time, if I’m being honest.”
“Then let us begin!”
Farnsworth charged Nestor with abandon, leaping off the ground as he neared the gnome and bringing his spear down upon him. To Farnsworth’s surprise and disappointment, Nestor did nothing to defend himself. Also to Farnsworth’s surprise and disappointment, Nestor vanished as soon as the spear made contact.
“What?” Farnsworth barked, as the glass door to Toothy’s enclosure shut behind him. “What is this?”
“Magic, dummy,” Karessa said as she inserted a pick-pocketed key into the door’s padlock. “You asked for it.”
“No need for name calling, Karessa,” Nestor said as he emerged from behind the sleeping Toothy. He hobbled over to the furious Farnsworth with a certain sense of satisfaction. But when he looked into his old friend’s eyes, and saw the flame burning there – the very flame he set so many years ago – satisfaction gave way to sorrow. “Things could have been so different, Farnsworth.”
“They could have,” agreed Farnsworth, “if you had chosen fortune and family over…whatever it is you chose. Your simplicity and selfishness are…incomparable.”
“Can you shut up?” Karessa asked. “Nestor beat you without hurting you and stooping to your level. Even though his magic left him barely able to stand, he stuck to his guns. He’s incomparable, all right. And he’s better than you’ll ever be.
“Er, I do have a question though, Nestor. How are we getting out of here?”
Nestor suppressed a yawn. “On that wall, there. See the stone on the fifth row up, sixth over? Higher. Yep, that one. Press it for me.” Karessa did, and the wall slid open, revealing a tunnel. She stared at him, impressed. “If you convert his birth date into numbers, and count the stones right to left, bottom to top, as gnomish is written, that’s the corresponding stone. Surprisingly simple code.
“Now, Farnsworth. We’re going to go get the town guard, and you’re going to go to jail. Gnomes live for a long time, so you will be free with plenty of years to spare. I will be there the day you are released, as your brother and your friend. I hope you will do the same.”
Farnsworth only stared, hatefully, stewing in the knowledge that he had failed completely.
“Come on then, Karessa. I owe a snake some coconuts.”
“Lead the way, Nestor the Incomparable.”
Despite it all, Nestor smiled.
The next evening, Nestor set about restoring Regibald during his down time at Odd & Ends. Dovetail had not yet returned (Nestor wasn’t too worried – he would sense if they were in danger), so Karessa was acting as his assistant. The body, made from cardboard, iron, clay, and yarn in the backroom, was shaping up nicely.
“Nestor,” Karessa said. “I have a…not really a question.”
“Ask – or not – away!”
“You never mentioned any of that stuff before yesterday. About your family, I mean. I just…I never would have guessed – do they really all hate you?”
“Last I checked.” He could see Karessa thinking of what to say next, so he gave her a hand. “I know what people think of me. I’m a fool, I’m a child, I’m naïve. But I’m really not. I know what the world is like. I know it can be awful, and I know people can make it that way.
“But I also know that it can be wonderful, and I know people can make it that way, too. So, I choose wonderful, every time.”
“You’re doing a great job,” Karessa said.
“All thanks to my wonderful best friend,” he said.
Now it was Karessa’s turn to smile. “That reminds me, after work, let’s go pick you out a wonderful new cane. Donovan’s paying, he just doesn’t know it yet.”
“Okay, can we stop saying wonderful now? It’s starting to not sound like a real word.”
“Hm. Splendid? Fantastic? Incredible? Extraordinary? Oh, that reminds me! I was filling out the bi-daily crossword in the quad-daily newspaper, and one of the clues was about my favorite tundra-dwelling primate, Tim Getson’s Extraordinary Dunderoo, named by notorious prankster zoologist Tim Getson, and…”
By the end of the evening, Regibald had a new body, Nestor had a new cane, and Karessa had a newfound wealth of knowledge about strangely-named subspecies of primates. It was, all things considered, wonderful.