When Nestor Pinkly woke up most mornings, there were a number of things he made sure to do.
First, of course, he would get out of bed, for the rest of these things were difficult or impossible to do while in bed. Besides, everyone knows all the best things in life are outside of one’s bed.
Second, he would say “good morning, Dovetail!” to Dovetail and make some kind of improvement or test her mental faculties, but because Dovetail was quite capable now and also several hundred miles from Skymoore, Nestor instead said “good morning, Regibald!” to Regibald and made improvements to the unicamelcorn body into which Regibald’s consciousness would be transferred any day now.
Thirdly, he would make breakfast with Regibald, ideally something with banana, like an omelet. He made enough for two even though Regibald could not eat.
This brought him to the fourth thing, which was to bring the extra food to the Church of Sol on the way to work so that they could feed their less fortunate visitors (he did this even when he did not work in the morning or at all, because Nestor just liked to make sure Odd & Ends was still there and not just a wonderful dream he had every day).
Fifth, and this actually usually took place somewhere between things one and four, he would say hello to the essence of the late Mrs. Grantham, and ask how she’s doing, and thank her for making Skymoore into the wonderful place that it is.
This morning, however, Nestor actually did none of these things except for the first. He hopped out of bed directly into his bookshelf behind which was hidden an elevator which led to his workstation below his home. There, he made the necessary adjustments to the WATCH and prepared a quick Elixir of Good Fortune (which is what he sometimes called garlic licorice smoothies).
As soon as that was done, he ran directly to Linda’s house, giving only a brief acknowledgement to Regibald on his way out. He felt bad for ignoring his friend, but he felt even worse about abandoning Linda before he solved her ghost problem the day before. Giving up on a promise was not something Nestor Pinkly did lightly.
When he arrived at Linda’s home, a humble house on a humble street in a humble part of Skymoore, it dawned on Nestor that Linda had neglected to give him a key, which was certainly going to make housesitting difficult. As would the fact that Nestor had been given no instructions, and, given Linda’s more private nature, he wasn’t even sure whether she had pets or plants. He was sure with a keen eye and his generally nurturing nature, Nestor could put together all of this information on his own, but he wouldn’t even have the chance without the key.
So, for the better part of an hour, Nestor scoured the exterior of Linda’s home. They key wasn’t under her welcome mat, because she didn’t have one. It wasn’t behind a brick or a wood panel, it wasn’t in a tree or bird feeder, it hadn’t been entrusted to any of the small wildlife that lived on her street or painted the same color as the grass and thrown haphazardly in her yard. Nope, none of the usual hiding places. They must do it differently on the surface, Nestor concluded.
As he sat on her front porch, pondering if adding or multiplying or cubing the numbers of Linda’s address might lead to some kind of coordinate containing a treasure chest with a map to the key, Nestor heard the sound of jingling metal coming from within, as if someone was preparing a meal or taunting a pet.
That explained that, then, Linda simply hadn’t left yet.
“Linda!” Nestor called as he knocked frantically on the door. “Linda! Sorry I’m so late, I was just trying to solve your key riddle!”
When the door to Linda’s door opened, it was not Linda standing there at all. Nestor’s expression and heart sank in unison.
“What do you want?” Gwendolyn Bottlehelm asked, a hand on her hips and a scowl on her face. “I’m trying to entertain one of Linda’s friends.”
Nestor clenched his eyes tight and inhaled deeply. “I’m Linda’s house sitter!” he gasped.
Gwendolyn folded her arms. “You most certainly are not,” she said. “I am.”
“Why would she leave you in charge of her house and not me?”
“Because I’m her girlfriend and you’re the weird gnome who signs her paychecks.”
“Donovan signs her paychecks,” Nestor corrected, and Gwen went to close the door in his face. He slipped in before she could. “Now, I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Then you can leave,” Gwen whispered harshly.
“But I did promise I would take care of the ghost – where did all of my equipment go?”
“You mean the trash you left on her floor? I threw it out, had the racoons take it to the dump.” Nestor began to stammer, and Gwendolyn opened the door once more. “Now leave.”
“But what about this guest? Where are they? No offense, Gwendolyn, you can take it from a friend that you can be a little…er, harsh, to strangers.”
“We’re not friends, Nestor,” Gwendolyn said.
“Everyone’s my friend!” Nestor said, taking out the WATCH. and heading toward the study. Gwen placed herself between him and the door.
“Just go, Nestor,” she said. “Before you embarrass Linda.”
“Oh, come on,” Nestor said. “I have to take care of the ghost. Who’s visiting? I didn’t think Linda knew many people from around here.”
“If I tell you, will you leave?”
Nestor looked down at the WATCH, which was stagnant, and looked up at Gwen slowly. “I suppose.”
She sighed in relief. “Just a friend from the surface. Someone named Teyla Eastwind who – hey!” Nestor ran between Gwen’s legs and reached for the door to the study, but Gwen grabbed him by the back of the coat and yanked him back. “What in the world do you think you’re doing you braindead fiend? You’re not welcome –”
“You don’t understand! Teyla Eastwind is not Linda’s friend! At least, at least I certainly hope not!”
“What are you talking about? She had a key to the front door,” Gwendolyn said.
“She probably found it in the grass! But Teyla Eastwind is a villainous person. She nearly destroyed the whole Mish Mash a few weeks ago!”
Gwendolyn stomped her feet and pointed toward the front door. “Take your nonsense and go!”
A sound like the cracking of stone followed by the shattering of glass echoed throughout the house, and stillness struck the pair.
Nestor ran past Gwen, through the study, and into Linda’s bedroom. Like most of her home, it was plain and comfortable, the most prominent feature being a weapon rack on the wall adorned with all manner of gleaming, sharpened means of chopping trees and severing limbs. At least, that was normally the most notable thing.
Today it was the large bed – lumpy pillow, firm mattress, single blanket, and four perfectly square pegs on each corner – which had been pressed up against the back wall, so that all four of the pegs pressed against four concealed pressure plates in the wall, causing the bottom of the bed to swing outward as the wall swung inward, revealing the location of Linda’s government-mandated secret room which all homes must contain.
Actually, being government-mandated, the secret passage was rather rote, and the most notable thing in the room was probably the treacherous avayla woman struggling to move Linda’s cumbersome mattress out of the entrance of the passage.
“Teyla!” Nestor cried, pointing dramatically.
“Gnome!” Teyla grunted, turning back to the task at hand.
“Frosty damnation!” Gwendolyn shouted, shoving past Nestor and grabbing the back of the red and black robe Teyla was wearing. “What are you doing here?”
“She must be after Parazoa,” Nestor suggested.
“What in the hells do you want with some cheese?” Gwen asked, or started to ask, when an eruption of purplish flame was released from both of her hands, scorching Gwendolyn and incinerating the mattress.
Now the trio could see what lay beyond; a small, dim room, containing a single hand-crafted shelf, beneath which stood a statue of a gnome sized, one-eyed creature. A statue that was beginning to crack, and chip, and flake.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Teyla sighed. “You’re too late.”
Nestor looked on in horror and Gwen looked on in confusion as the statue finished shedding its skin, revealing scaly blue skin, not unlike that of a dragonkin, and a bright orange eye. They blinked once and opened their disproportionately large mouth, revealing an impossible number of teeth in a menacing grin.
“Hello,” they chirped. “How’s everyone doing?”
“Pretty damn poorly,” Gwen growled.
Parazoa put their hands together and swept their gaze from face to face. “I’m awfully sorry to hear that. It looks to me like you’re bothered by the presence of intruders in this abode. If you’d only release me from this magic circle, I’m certain I could do something to remove them.”
Indeed, at the feet of Parazoa, the debris of its stone shell glittered lightly, and arranged themselves in a runic pattern around the devil. A clever counterspell weaved into his imprisonment to thwart attempts at freeing him.
Gwendolyn crossed her arms. “You’re counted among them, cyclops.”
“If you’ll allow me some pedantry, Ms. Bottlehelm,” said Parazoa, in such a way that none questioned how they knew her name, “I should say that I have occupied Lofgun’t’gundrmgr’s closet far longer than you have occupied her bed. All the same, with your assistance, I would be more than happy to vacate the premises.”
“You’re not going anywhere!” cried Nestor.
“He is,” stated Teyla. “He’s coming with me.”
“Like hell he is!” said Gwen.
Teyla’s feathers on her arms ignited with that same purple fire, bedecking her with flaming pauldrons. Nestor placed himself between the two women. “Teyla, stop! Fighting is senseless. Besides, last time you tried anything, Karessa and I stopped you!”
This only made the fire burn a more menacing shade. She took a step forward, brushing Nestor aside, singeing his sleeve.
Gwendolyn folded her arms. “Even if you did manage to do as you wish, do you really want to make an enemy of Linda Arterford? She’ll rend your beak from your gaunt excuse for a face.”
Teyla faltered, her fire sputtering briefly. “I won’t fail mother again,” she said. “I’ll please her, and she’ll protect me.”
“Then Linda will pay her a visit, too, and we can bury you and your mother side by side. It’ll be quaint, really.”
“I’d love to see her try,” hissed Teyla.
“On that, we agree.”
They stood there for a spell, staring each other down. Gwen silently smoldered while Teyla crackled softly. Nestor looked on in dread as Parazoa watched in curious delight.
Teyla took a step back, and the fire went out. “I’ll be back,” she muttered.
“Be sure to bring this mother with you next time,” Gwen cooed mockingly as she left, “so you can show her how big and strong you are in person.”
With that resolved for the moment, the attention in the room shifted to Parazoa. They waved.
“What is…he?” Gwendolyn asked. “It?”
“Linda never told you about Parazoa?” Nestor asked. The devil waved again.
Gwen frowned. “Linda doesn’t like to talk about this part of her life.”
“He’s a devil,” Nestor explained. “He inspires paranoia.”
“Oh, but I’ve changed,” claimed Parazoa. “Being stone for so long really gave me a chance to reflect. And stiffen. I’d save a hundred drowning orphans for a chance to stretch my legs!”
Gwendolyn made a move to close the door to the secret room. “And you’ll have plenty of time to consider more charitable deeds here in this closest.”
“Wait!” Nestor said. “What if he means it? Of course, rescuing orphans should be its own reward, but it’s a start! We can’t just ignore a creature turning over a new leaf.”
Gwen was incredulous. “Does your interminable optimism have no end? Ignore that, I just answered my own question. Fine, Pinkly, I know what a waste of time arguing with you is.”
“Thank you!” he said.
She suppressed a growl. “But! We keep him here in this closet until Linda returns, okay? For safety purposes.”
Nestor looked at Parazoa’s smiling, innocuous expression, and back to Gwen’s frustrated scowl, as he pondered the situation. “Sorry, Parazoa, but I think Ms. Bottlehelm has a point.”
Parazoa put up his hands. “I completely understand,” they assured. “I’d do the same if I were in your position.”
“We should keep the door open, though,” Gwen suggested. “We’ve got to keep an eye on them. You never know what manner of…deviltry…they’ll get up to.”
“Absolutely,” Nestor agreed, “we’ll take turns keeping watch! Oh, what’s this?” He picked up a small vial on the floor just outside the closet, filled with a thick red liquid. “I see…”
“What is it?”
“Blood. Teyla must have left it behind. Blood of the caster can be used to undo a magic circle. I don’t know how she would have got her hands on Asylum’s blood, but if we washed it down the drain…”
Gwen held out her hand. “Give it here, I’ll get rid of it…what?”
“Maybe we should hang onto it, just in case. Could be that we need to set Parazoa free for some reason, or maybe there’s something I can do to strengthen the binding.”
She shrugged. “You’re the expert.”
As Gwendolyn left the room to grab a chair, she found herself doubting the very premise of their plan. Why would they leave the door open? And why hadn’t they washed the blood down the drain? What would Parazoa possibly do in that magic circle, and why would they want him out? And what would he do in that tiny room if he escaped?
When she returned to the room to point this out, she had second thoughts. After all, you could never be too sure. Just to be safe, they ought to keep an eye on the devil. Across the room, Parazoa’s great orange eye blinked innocently, and his sharp, needly teeth smiled in agreement.
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