When hunting ghosts, there were a few things Nestor Pinkly liked to keep in mind.
First of all, ghosts were people, too, you know, and ‘hunting’ was a rather distasteful term, which is why he preferred to use the phrase ‘removing.’ Though make no mistake, the process did very much kill the ghost and rid the universe of its presence for all of time. No joining Sol, no going to the Infinite Hells, just gone. It was very brutal stuff.
Secondly, most ghosts were nice and just trying to have a conversation. Unfortunately, the ghost word for “hello” was similar to the corporeal action of throwing a vase or a valuable plate across the room, and it was easy to confuse the two. One time a ghost sank one of the great waterborne cities of the ancient minotaur empire of Grothal because it couldn’t remember the ethereal words for “excuse me, sir, which way to the nearest library?”
(Sometimes Nestor worried he may have confused the book “Clearly Communicating” with the book “Ethereally Communicating” since he read them on the same day, but he was pretty sure he had it right.)
Lastly, ghosts were just as afraid of you as you were of them – or did ghosts not know fear? As he stood outside of Linda Arterford’s house, preparing to remove a ghost, Nestor realized he knew very little about ghosts and was almost certainly the wrong man for the job. But he liked trying new things, so when Linda stood in the doorway, looking down at his ghost removal gear skeptically, Nestor flashed her a smile of confident reassurance.
“May I come inside?” Nestor asked.
“Are you a vampire?” Linda joked.
Nestor laughed. “Oh, Linda! Don’t be silly. Everyone knows there’s no such things as vampires.” He pondered this for a moment. “Right?”
Linda shrugged. “Get on in here, little guy. Do you need help with, uh, all this?”
In three wagons behind Nestor were a grandfather clock connected to a glass cube with rubber tubing, a washtub, and an assortment of books and snacks.
“Oh, please,” Nestor said. “I only got it all here through the kindness of strangers. You’d be surprised what a person will do for a friendly smile and a sizable offer of money.”
“Life is beautiful,” Linda agreed.
The inside of her home was as rustic and humble as the woman herself. Wood paneling, unpainted walls, and sparse furniture adorned her unnecessarily spacious abode, in complete contrast to Nestor’s gnome-sized home with all the clutter of a library in a hurricane.
Hanging on her wall was a coat of arms from the O’grofkala Mountains and a blurred photograph – one of the first ever, Nestor had to imagine – of Linda standing beside the Suntouched, a horned individual, and several humanoids in fancy attire. Sometimes Nestor forgot that Linda had lived such an exciting life before she settled in Skymoore; that type of excitement was not only absent in the floating city, it was looked down upon. The Mayor and the church of Sol said that lives of adventure led to selfish, volatile, and dangerous individuals, but Linda wasn’t any of those things. Nestor did not have any of these thoughts at the moment, because he was busy trying to prevent his pile of gizmos and doodads from falling over, but it was something he thought about a lot in the coming days.
“What does this stuff do exactly?” Linda asked. “You sure you know anything about hunting ghosts?”
“Absotively! When I used to work at the Library of Tentatively Permitted Knowledge, we were fairly certain the grandfather clock there was haunted because it would occasionally chime a few minutes early or late. So, ghosts clearly like grandfather clocks! And when your ghost possesses this one, it will be sucked through the ghost-proof tube and into this ghost-proof cube! Wow, I didn’t even realize that rhymed!”
“And the washtub?”
“Sometimes ghost removal results in ectoplasmic discharge, so we might need to wash some of your towels and bedding.”
“I have a bath, Nestor.”
“I don’t like to assume!”
“And the books? And food?”
“Passing the time! It could take a while for the ghost to take the bait, so there could be a sleepover.”
Linda frowned. “A sleepover? Nestor, I need this thing gone tonight, ideally. I’m going on vacation and need a house sitter for my plants, which is why I was desperate enough to ask you in the first place. I suppose I’ve never dealt with ghosts, but I’ve faced all manner of evil in my day and as far as plans to combat the forces of darkness go, this one seems kind of stupid.”
Nestor put his hands on his hips and examined his gear carefully, mostly to hide his intense feelings of hurt at this accusation. He knew Linda could be a little abrasive at times, but “stupid?” Even among friends, that one stung.
“We could try putting some of the snacks in the clock?”
“Do ghosts even eat?”
“Okay, let’s back up,” Nestor said. “Why do you think there’s a ghost here?”
“There’s something moving around my house at night,” Linda said. “Not a mouse, something big, maybe human sized. There are footsteps in my closet and clattering in the kitchen and when I go to take a look, one of my windows is always open. They’re locked, and I know I’m locking my door, and the only person with a key is me. I never even had a second key made.”
Nestor rubbed his beard and stroked his mustache and fiddled with his hat. “That does sound like a ghost,” he agreed. “Or…or…a shapeshifting cat burglar, like a druid turning into something that can fit through your keyhole.”
Linda raised an eyebrow. “Which of those seems more likely?”
“Could go either way. Just a moment.” Nestor reached into one of his pockets with both hands, leaning awkwardly so that he could look inside, and dug around for a minute, maybe two, before pulling out a pink pocket watch accompanied by a spray of loose paper. “Huzzah! Linda, this is my Wizardly Arcane Tachyon Compass and Harvester, also known as WATCH. Whatever kind of magic is being used here, this little guy will figure out where it’s been used and what type of spell it was.”
The minotaur looked impressed. “Maybe you’re not so bad, Nestor.”
He adamantly refused to consider the implications of the statement, and opted instead to smile at the compliment.
The face of the watch was adorned not with numbers, but with a number of Eldritch symbols denoting various schools of magic. The second and hour hand spun around wildly when Nestor clicked in the button on the side of the WATCH, the former calculating the direction of the nearest magical phenomenon and the latter determining the type. The minute hand stayed mostly stationary while it continued to tell time as usual, as Nestor couldn’t think of a good use for it and couldn’t stand to waste a well-made minute hand.
The second hand took quite some time picking a direction, indicating that there were quite a few magical items in Linda’s home, something Nestor would have to enquire about another time. He stepped into another room – a half-furnished study with a single hand-crafted chair, a quarter-filled ceruleanwood bookshelf, and a desk with a missing leg and one empty sheet of paper upon it.
To speed up the process, Nestor turned the dial on the side from “nearest” to “strongest,” as ghosts are an exceptionally powerful spell, cast not by a mortal being but the forces of the universe themselves.
Now the hand stopped its whirring almost immediately, pointing west, to the back of Linda’s home. “Ah ha!” Nestor cried. And then the hour hand settled on a symbol that looked sort of like a house that was on fire but with wings, the eldritch rune for transmutation magic – that is, any kind of magic associated with alchemy or otherwise reshaping an object or person’s form, and most certainly not associated with the creation of ghosts. “Oh,” Nestor said.
When Linda looked at him quizzically, Nestor went on. “See this little symbol here? That’s for transformation magic. What you want is the little symbol here, the duck laying an egg on a dragon’s tail –”
“Nestor, I know basic eldritch and – where do you see the duck?”
“That’s the eldritch symbol for, well, eldritch! Ghost stuff! It says that the most powerful source of magic in your home isn’t a ghost, which leads me to believe that there are no ghosts, because ghosts are very powerful.”
Linda ran a hand through her hair and contemplated her next sentence apprehensively. “But if there was something more powerful than a ghost, it would throw off your readings?” Nestor nodded. “Well, I er. I do have a devil locked in my vault.”
Nestor’s eyes bulged. “Linda! I! I never, I – how could you, why would you!”
“He’s not a devil anymore!” she hastily clarified. “Or, I suppose he is, but he’s not a problem anymore. Turned to stone, you see. “
“Sounds like there’s quite a story there,” Nestor said. “I don’t mean to say that I don’t trust you, but er, when you go around telling people about devils in vaults…”
“Yes, uh. Have a seat.”
Nestor settled into a rocking chair that was far too big for him, with a pillow so large could practically sink into it. Linda leaned against the bookshelf and looked up at the ceiling as she collected her thoughts. She took a deep breath.
“This was not too long before I retired from adventuring, maybe five or six years ago. I was back home, in Castiron, hosting Donovan and Asylum while they were in town for some meeting with one of the town Directors. Staying with any one of those aristocrats was a nightmare, so they were at my place, in the Smokestacks, the factory district of Castiron. As things tend to be in the way of heroes and legends, this was an awfully convenient move, because our night of sleepwas cut short by the sounds of fighting, and we found ourselves thrust into unexpected chaos, and a city under attack.
“Or so we thought, based on the sheer volume of violence and the number of forces mobilizing on my street, heading north through the Smokestacks. What we soon learned instead was that tensions between Grandia of Old – a human supremacy group from the surface – and their dwarven rivals, the Ancient Rites, had come to a head, and a small scale war had broken out in the region, which quickly found itself blocked off by the city guard.
“The fighting lasted days, but I won’t bore you with the details. The key here was the source, a small devil who had once been a gnome, now called Parazoa. It had been bound to a magic circle by the owner of a factory that produced SS Tastyum, a popular brand of salty chocolate bar, because Parazoa naturally incited paranoia and fear into those in close proximity to it, and fear of losing their job or being punished pushed the factory workers to work harder.”
“Great Sol!” Nestor gasped, covering his mouth in embarrassment. “Sorry, it’s just – that’s so dreadful! This is why I’m glad to be so far from the surface these days.”
Linda shrugged. “It had its downsides, sure, but it’s like that everywhere.”
She pressed on in her tale. “Eventually, Parazoa enticed a follower. That’s how devils work; they increase their influence by converting others to their way of thinking, offering them power, and turning them into devils themselves – it was an elven woman who, thanks to Parazoa’s magic, became positively convinced that her husband was with her sister, and that they planned to steal her fortune and run away.
“Parazoa reached out to the woman and offered her power to fill in that hole left by her presumably adulterous husband, but in exchange she would have to set him free. Saltwater mixed with the blood of the caster will undo most magic circles, so this woman waited, and planned, and finally killed her employer so that she could get some of his blood. Seemed excessive, but, well, maybe the guy had it coming.
“Anyhow once Parazoa got free, he and this elf, they started instilling paranoia in both sides – she in the Ancient Rites, he in GOO, and together they increased their following by starting a pointless war, with both parties ultimately working for the same goal – increasing Parazoa’s power.” Linda got sheepish as she recounted this next part. “His power even grew such that, well, he even got to me, I regret to admit. I had never much cared for the Suntouched’s insistence on galivanting about with a devil of his own, and my frustration came to a head when Asylum suggested that she conduct a ritual that would allow her to steal Parazoa’s power and add it to her own.
“We fought, and we probably would have killed each other if the Suntouched hadn’t been the sensible one for once in his life. He had the innate ability to dispel magic because of course he did, and Parazoa’s effects were repressed.
“In the end, Asylum even saved my life – she was in the midst of conducting her Eldritch ritual and Parazoa had me bound by reshaped steel. Well, Asylum was the most powerful mage since Emelthea Crimsonfir, and with a single snap of her fingers, Parazoa turned to stone, ruining her chance to siphon his power.”
“See, Linda?” Nestor asked excitedly, nearly tumbling out of the chair with a forceful rocking motion. “Everyone’s got good in them!”
The minotaur crossed her arms and shook her head. “If she could have just done that in the first place, she could have avoided a lot of bloodshed. And later, when the Suntouched and I asked her what had happened to his elven servant, Asylum dodged the question. I think she went for her magic instead.”
“Oh,” Nestor said. He knew that to deprive someone of their magic, even someone who had done bad things, was an unspeakably wicked act. It was more than cutting off someone’s limbs. It was like, it was like cutting out their heart. Like a piece of them that was vital to live had gone missing.
The air in the room had gone sour, which made Nestor naturally wish to change the subject, but he had gotten too curious at this point. “Can I…see it?”
Linda frowned. “Sorry, Nestor, but I made a promise that I would never let anyone know the way into my vault. I don’t doubt your honesty, but there are all sorts of magics that could make even a sweet little gnome like you act against his better nature, and the types of people who seek out petrified devils are precisely the types of people in possession of such magics.”
“Is it magics?”
“You just kept saying ‘magics’ and I’ve been saying ‘magic’ my whole life and that would be awfully embarrassing if an artificer like myself didn’t know the plural of ‘magic.’”
Linda blinked. “Oh. I, I don’t really know. Or care. But I do have a book here that might –”
“Linda!” Gwendolyn Bottlehelm called from Linda’s living room. “Linda are you home? It looks like someone broke in and left a bunch of trash on the floor.”
“No,” Linda called out. “It’s –”
“If there are Reverse Raccoons in the neighborhood, we might have to call in a professional.”
“-Nestor what are you doing?”
“There’s no ghost,” Nestor explained frantically as he jumped up on Linda’s desk. Without a fourth leg, it wobbled even underneath his lightweight form, and nearly gave out completely from his pushing and heaving to get the window open. “I’m pretty confident there’s no ghost. I’ll come back tomorrow and recalibrate my device to ignore transmutation magic and –”
“Nestor I’m leaving first thing tomorrow morning!” Linda whispered harshly.
“I’ll still check!” Nestor said, now halfway out the window, judging how much he was going to regret this fall that would have been nothing to a human but actually a small something to a gnome. I’m your house sitter after all. Have a great vacation!”
“Nestor!” Linda said. “You’re not my house sitter!” But the window had been closed behind him. Linda then realized the window hadn’t been locked, and became all the more certain she was being haunted. She sighed.
“Everything okay, teddy bear?” Gwendolyn said as she stepped into the study.
“That nickname isn’t really working for me,” Linda admitted.
“But you’re big and soft and I like to hold you,” Gwendolyn said, wrapping her arms around the minotaur’s waist. Then she added, in the same sweet tone, “so are you going to tell me what in the hells that trash is about?”
“I think I’m being haunted.”
“By a trash-leaving ghost? No, that’s probably a Reverse Raccoon, like I was saying. Happens around this time of year in the shi – sorry, in these neighborhoods.”
“I was having Nestor look into it.”
Gwen pulled away and made a face. “What, why? You know they have, like, shamans for that kind of thing. He’s not still here, is he?”
“He’s a friend, Gwendolyn or, a coworker anyway. What is the deal with you two?”
“It’s a one-way deal. Nestor hates me.”
“Nestor doesn’t hate anyone.”
“Why would Nestor hate you?”
Gwen threw her hands up in the air. “I don’t know! I – it’s complicated. And I don’t want to talk about it. You’re leaving tomorrow, and I’m going to miss you, and we’re going to do something fun that I want to do because I’m selfish and you can’t say no to me.”
Linda chuckled. “That is all true, yes.”
Gwendolyn grabbed Linda by the arm and tugged her back toward the living room. “So let’s not think about unpleasant things and turn our minds instead to delightful things, like dancing.”
“Dancing? Whoa, why would I do that?”
“Because you’re leaving tomorrow, and you’re going to miss me, and I’m beautiful and you can’t say no to me.”
Linda sighed. “That is all true, yes.”
After the pair left the house, Teyla Eastwind ended her invisibility spell, exhausted by the length of it, crawled out from beneath the desk in Linda Arterford’s study, opened her vault, and continued her ritual.