Parazoa wasn’t all that bad, the more Nestor got to know them. Their form was scary, but some people said that about Dovetail, and they wouldn’t hurt a fly! As they passed the evenings talking about their lives, Nestor realized that the pair of them had much in common. They both grew up in Barlagtelen, for example, and they both spent a lot of their time on the road.
But while Nestor had the pleasure of dedicating his life to entertainment, Parazoa’s family committed themselves to the art of carpentry, traveling Penscarop and making coin where they could. When Parazoa was about forty, still quite young for a gnome, they had made a favorable reputation for themselves, and were tasked with building a firewatch tower in the woods to the east of Castle Belmov. It was a matter of great importance, because fire season was just starting, and the old tower had been destroyed by brigands. Parazoa thought the job was too risky, as they were already tired from a long time on the road, and they might get caught in a fire themselves if they weren’t careful.
But Parazoa was assured that no such thing would happen, and they built anyway. One night, there was a storm, and Parazoa insisted that everyone stay out of the woods that evening, just to be safe. Their family told them that there was nothing to be afraid of, and that they couldn’t afford the time spent worrying. They needed to build. During the night, Parazoa saw a bolt of lightning strike, and voiced their urgent concern. Their father yelled at them for their fear, and urged them to keep building. After all, the rainfall would protect them from the fire.
But that wasn’t the only bolt of lightning that evening, and they didn’t call it fire season for nothing. The trees in the woods were highly absorbent, and the heavy rainfall in the area did nothing to decrease the risk of fire. In fact, the increased mass on each of the trees brought them closer together, making them more dangerous when they caught fire.
When Parazoa swore up and down that they saw fire in the distance, and his family built anyway, they quickly learned the hard way that the gnome was correct. Parazoa and their mother survived the inferno, but their father and siblings couldn’t say the same. Even the survivors were horribly burned, and Parazoa could still distinctly remember the way each of their family members’ skin smelled, and how they differed from each other. They saw the fire every time they closed their eyes.
And that’s all being a devil was, Parazoa explained. It was devoting yourself a memory until you live inside it, literally, as that recollection becomes a new domain in the Infinite Hells. Parazoa liked the way they looked more now than when they were burned, and they liked to use their powers to warn people of legitimate danger. They had done wrong in the past, they confessed, but being a devil is a constant battle against your darker nature.
With Nestor’s help, they believed they could be better, and it was to this end that the pair spent their evenings learning more about each other. Nestor explained to Parazoa the many kind deeds he had done for others, and why. The way Nestor saw it, everyone had an option to do the right thing or the wrong thing every moment of every day. Sometimes doing the bad things helps you more, and it can be easy to convince yourself to do the bad thing because someone else is just going to do it If you don’t. But mostly everybody agreed that if every person just chose kindness, the world would be a better place. So Nestor chose kindness every time, even when another option was more appealing. Lead by example, and all that.
And that’s how Nestor Pinkly and the devil Parazoa became friends.
One evening, over a month and a half after Parazoa was unpetrified, Nestor was working on Regibald’s body in Linda’s bedroom, and Parazoa was giving advice. Parazoa had built the pen for a man who bred Unicamelcorns once upon a time, so they had a pretty good grasp on what a good one was supposed to look like. It could be gross work, assembling a golem made out of organic materials, but working on the body with Parazoa was actually a lot of fun. Nestor made more progress than he had before his time watching Parazoa, and he had a functioning body, as far as Nestor could tell. All that was really left was to get the hump right.
“Too…lumpy,” Parazoa said when Nestor asked. “I mean, it’s just a little to the left, you know? It should be right in the center, to make the torso symmetrical.”
Nestor nodded and peeled back the skin of the hump to adjust the water sac beneath. Just as he was re-adhering the skin to the organ, Gwendolyn knocked on the door to announce the end of Nestor’s shift. This was highly unusual, as it was still dark out. She was wearing an earthy green dress with a bright pink wig that she often wore for a night on the town.
“I’ve been selfish with my time,” she admitted as she settled into Linda’s bedroom. Very much unlike herself, she did not make a face at Regibald’s future body as she stepped in. “I figured I’d let you get some extra rest before work, and take over a little early. I had a fun night out with Donovan and Malleus, and I’m just feeling awake, you know?”
“Yeah!” Nestor said. “Friendship always wakes me up, too!”
“Right, yeah,” Gwen said. She sat delicately down in her rocking chair. “I’ve been meaning to say, Nestor…I’m sorry I made everything so terrible these last few weeks. We’ve been under enough stress tending to…your new friend over there.”
Nestor blinked and rubbed his eyes, convinced suddenly that he’d fallen asleep on Parazoa duty. But no, it appeared Gwendolyn was there, in the flesh, apologizing to him.
“Look, nobody was happy that the Luminous Company fell apart, Nestor, least of all me. When I said the things I said to you…like now, I was just under a lot stress. I said I get nasty when I’m jealous, but really, I’m at my nastiest when I’m scared. I’ve just been wondering if Linda even likes me, and now I’ve been stuck sitting in this room with a remnant of the past and it hasn’t left me in a good place. So yes, I’m sorry, Nestor. For the old me, and the new me.”
Nestor could hardly believe the situation at hand. He just started crying without knowing for certain which emotion was pushing the tears from his eyes. Unsure what to do with his face, he just smiled. “Of course I forgive you, Gwendolyn!” he exclaimed. “We all make mistakes. Especially when we’re not at our best. I blew up Odd & Ends last month because I got sleepy!”
Gwen looked like she might cry herself. “I’m so glad you forgive me.” She stood, and took a knee, outstretching her arms. “Let’s bury the hatchet once and for all.”
Nestor hugged Gwendolyn, and his heart soared. He had imagined this reconciliation for years, and for it to happen under these circumstances was beyond even his wildest dreams. When she released him, she pat him on the head, and said, “Now, while we’re on a friendship and second chances kick, let’s set this little guy free, shall we?”
Nestor looked back from Gwen to Parazoa and then at Gwen again, uncertainly. “Really?”
She nodded. “I can see that the two of you have been bonding these past few weeks, and honestly, I think it’s time that I put some stock in your ideas for once. If you think Parazoa is trying to do better, let’s give them a chance. Better we oversee their freedom than that wretched avayla girl. Go fetch some saltwater, I’ll barricade the door.”
Bouncing on his heels, Nestor made his way to Linda’s appropriately spartan kitchen and set about mixing the table salt with the sink water until he was confident he had a solution appropriate for conducting magic. Parazoa was clapping to himself when Nestor returned.
“I’m so glad you guys are giving me a chance,” he chirped. “I won’t let you two down, I promise! I’m going to do the right thing at every turn, just like you, Nestor.”
As Nestor was mixing the vial of blood with the saltwater, he caught a glimpse of movement in the adjacent room. “Did you change, Gwendolyn?” asked Nestor. Sure enough, Gwen, who did a double take, was standing in the threshold with her hands on her hips, wearing a sleek blue dress and her favorite golden curls. “There you are, you damnable gnome, wait – what are you doing with that?!”
“You told me to get it!” Nestor cried, taking a step back. “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is that someone is tricking you, Nestor!”
Nestor took another step back, crossing the threshold of the magic circle.
“How do I know you’re not the trick?” he asked.
“Because I’m not, you absolute moron. Be careful before you get us all –”
“I’m not a moron!” Nestor shouted, raising up the glass of salt water.
“Beg to differ,” said Parazoa, who reached up and took Nestor’s arm, yanking it toward him and spilling saltwater all over the circle. The light emanating from the runes flickered as the solution melted away at them, until finally they dissolved and faded completely. The small devil clenched his fist closed and the door to the closet crumpled like paper. They made a gesture with their hands and it contorted into a tube shape, and wrapped around Nestor.
The formerly invisible Teyla Eastwind made her presence in the room known, dramatically flaring her dark robes with the flick of her wrist. “I can’t believe that worked, Parazoa,” she said, changing her voice to sound like Gwendolyn’s.
The devil grinned gleefully at their companion. “I can!” They turned their attention on Gwendolyn. “Do you intend to stop us, human?” She shook her head. “I knew at least one of you was smart.”
“Come, Teyla, let us go.” The little devil practically skipped out of Linda’s home, with the avayla following dutifully in tow. “The Cabal won’t stand a chance against us. These morons have been feeding me animosity and fear for months. I could take on Arterford and her companions with ease, if given the chance!”
Nestor watched helplessly from within the wooden restraints as the pair left, and he looked at Gwendolyn in despair. She kneeled beside the gnome, and set about wresting him from the tube-door. “I cannot believe you, Nestor,” she said, and then took a deep breath. “But I can’t believe me either. That thing only played you like a fiddle because it read me like sheet music. We’ve both been suckered.” Nestor nodded somberly. “Damn it all, I wish Linda was here.”
Nestor shook his head. “We don’t need her,” he said as Gwen pulled him out with a pop. “We’re gonna save Skymoore together!”
Gwendolyn put up her hands. “Oh no, Pinkly. I’m not the zany adventure type. Go fetch Karessa or Donovan or Findledorf or whoever it is who you do this type of thing with. I’ll go grab a drink and hope everything goes well.”
“Nope!” said Nestor. “This is our adventure, Gwendolyn. You don’t get to choose this sort of thing, it just happens. Now come on, I know exactly where to start.”
“That’s what worries me,” said Gwen.
There is a rarely-enforced but perfectly enforceable law in Skymoore’s Legal Almanac, which both explains current laws and predicts laws that might be put in place (all of which are considered valid legislation), stating that two unplanned visits with a city official in the same forty-day period is a punishable offense. This is to prevent citizens from wasting their leaders’ time, and to prevent anyone from stumbling onto a conspiracy best left unstumbled, by giving the government adequate time to cover it up and frame another citizen or entity for their wrongdoing. There is, however, a loophole for most laws in Skymoore if you looked hard enough or squinted at the right passage or splashed the Alamanc with a Elucidating Elixir.
By bringing Gwendolyn along with him, Nestor now technically could not be punished, as he was accompanying another citizen who had not yet seen Gendry Dew in this forty-day period. The mayor was practicing ice-skating on a tiny indoor ice rink when the pair stepped into an office. The small humanoid plant messed up his double axel when they entered, landing on his rear and sliding across the ice with an embarrassed pout.
“Can I help you, Mr. Pinkly? Ms. Bottlehelm? Loooved your work in Miss Appointment the other day, by the way.”
“That was a decade ago,” Gwen said. “I haven’t performed that play since.”
Gendry reached into his breast pocket and shuffled some tiny index cards. “Right, right. I was thinking of something else. You know how it is, running a city.”
“Mr. Dew, you said if Teyla caused me any trouble, I could ask for any favor I wanted, right?” Mayor Dew nodded. “Because Teyla set a devil free that turned my friend’s door into a kind of tube that gave me a painful hug. I think you might owe me a favor.”
“It sounds like Teyla’s devil friend might be the one causing the trouble here, my friend,” said Mayor Dew. Gwendolyn stepped between the two and crossed her arms, towering over the mayor. “Ah, but it can’t hurt to listen to your request.”
“I think we need to find The Cabal,” said Gwendolyn fearlessly as she could muster. “I know we’re not supposed to talk about them, but Teyla and Parazoa said they’re going to stop The Cabal. If they really run the show around here, that sounds like bad news.”
Gendry turned his regular smile up to eleven. “Whatever do you mean, Gwendolyn? The only person running the show in these parts is Mayor Gendry Dew!” Nestor and Gwendolyn just stared at him, entirely nonplussed. Gendry cleared his throat. “Very well, very well. Follow me.” He giggled a bit at that. “Wow, I’m leading the way somewhere! I’m leading the way somewhere! Can you imagine? This is just delightful.”
“Not with those legs you’re not,” said Gwendolyn, picking up Mayor Dew by the scruff of his neck and placing him on her shoulder. “You can point.”
“Oh, Polly?” Mayor Dew said before they made their way out the door. His ancient elven clerk looked up at him. “Can you incinerate the notes from the last hour? When you’re finished, you can collect your final paycheck, which includes a severance and a mind erasure. It’s been a pleasure working with you, Polly!” The elf just nodded their bones creaking, and rolled up the scroll.
Quickly, or as quickly as anyone could navigate a dense and winding labyrinth when one of your traveling companions was a gnome and your navigator was an unmotivated bureaucrat, the trio made their way through the government district of Skymoore until Mayor Dew told them they’d reached their destination. Smushed between a gated fortress called the Accounant’s Keep and a spiked building called the Wreck Relations Center was a cozy, halfling-run pasta place called Parmageddon.
The greeter was a mustachioed halfling on stilts who shook everyone’s hand as they entered. “Hello, government employees or not! My name is Lustagan Kalford, and I’ll be seating you today. Would you like a seat by the bar, or the window?
Nestor was surprised to observe that every seat in the restaurant was in fact either by the bar or a window, which seemed to him a flagrant misuse of the entire center of the building, which was covered by a carpet with a map of the Spiral City, a place of halfling myth where all the world’s most delicious spices and most valuable treasure had been lost to time. It was a nice map, at least.
“The bar,” said Mayor Dew, and they were seated promptly.
Gwendolyn looked around suspiciously at the other patrons as they were seated. Many of them were laughing too hard at jokes, or smiling for too long at comments, or enjoying their meals just a little too much. “Is it me, or does everyone here look like actors being told to have a conversation rather than actual people having conversations?”
“What do you mean?” the greeter asked, exactly the way an actor being told to act surprised might act. “Everyone here is a genuine customer, and we’d never pay for reviews! Our food speaks for itself.”
“I actually think I recognize those guys from an improv class I took a few years back,” Gwendolyn said.
“I guarantee you it’s a coincidence. Even improv comedians need to eat, madam.”
“But how many of them can afford to eat at fancy restaurants in the government district?”
“Excuse my friend,” said Mayor Dew through a gritted smile, “she just has a peculiar sense of humor.” He pinched her hard on the shoulder.
“Right! Yes, I’m sorry. I’m not used to such high-class dining; must be the nerves!” As they took their place at the bar, she added quietly, “see, that’s real acting.”
“Can I get you started with anything?” the greeter asked.
“You’re also the server?” Gwendolyn started to ask before the mayor hit the back of her head.
“I’ll take a dry turkey alfredo martini on the rocks,” said Mayor Dew, “with a side of sparkling garlic bread.”
A flash of recognition registered in the greeter’s eyes as a spark of horror crept across Gwen’s. The greeter reached behind the counter and there was a sharp click! followed by the sudden shuttering of all the windows. The halfling ripped off his moustache and stepped off the stilts and onto the counter. “Apologies, Mayor Dew, I did not realize we were in trusted company.” All of the patrons stood to their feet and greeted the mayor.
“No problem, friends, that’s what secret codes are there for! You all did an excellent job!”
“We miss you at improv, Gwendolyn,” a dwarf said. She waved.
A handful of false patrons set about moving the large carpet on the floor, revealing a stone door built into the ground as though it were a wall. The halfling tossed a key across the room to a humanoid squid, who unlocked the door with one of his many arms. “We’ll let them know you’re coming,” the halfling said. “Don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to.”
“That means don’t touch anything at all, in your guys’ case,” Mayor Dew said, urging Gwendolyn onward.
At Dew’s instruction, Gwendolyn kneeled down and opened the door. Beyond was a long hallway, stretching downward, with a long green carpet running along the wall. “It’s fine,” he encouraged. “Just step right in.” Gwen dipped her toe in like she was entering a cold pool, and her foot made contact with the side of the wall seamlessly. It was a nauseatingly peculiar feeling.
As she scooted into the hole, her perspective warped and tilted until she was sitting on the carpet, and the door to the restaurant lay behind her as naturally as any door she had ever seen. Nestor just hopped on in after her, stumbling a moment as gravity shifted, but ultimately catching himself gracefully. “Show off,” Gwendolyn scowled, placing Mayor Dew in Nestor’s hands and pulling herself to her feet.
Halfway through the hall was a potted fern, but it was otherwise empty. At the end was another door, identical to the first. “Huh,” Nestor said, “this is an extradimensional space, isn’t it?”
“Sort of,” said Mayor Dew. “It doesn’t exist outside of conventional space, like a demidimension, but rather within conventional space. In the gaps between all the subatomic whoozawheresits that make up the universe, or so I understand it. It’s a kind of shortcut!”
“Well this shortcut is making me sick,” said Gwendolyn, stabilizing herself against the fern table.
“Focus, friend,” said Gendry. “There are likely all manner of dangerous things where we’re going, and it’s bound to be heavily guarded. Whatever tomfoolery Teyla is getting up to can jeopardize all of Skymoore.”
“That isn’t settling my stomach,” she said.
When at last they crept through the other door, the trio found themselves in a perfectly ordinary-looking office setting. Short-walled cubicles divided a number of desks obscured by mountains of paperwork and locked boxes carved of precious stone. Beneath one of the desks, an elf hid with his eyes closed, breathing deeply.
Most individuals, however, were standing in the walkways, pointing at one another accusingly. They were also immobilized in a variety of ways: petrified, frozen, fossilized, coated in amber, tied with duct tape, transformed into a squirrel and trapped in a glass box with a heavy book on top of it, and so forth.
There were probably a dozen doors in the room, placed on the floor and the wall and ceiling and against cubicles. One was attached to nothing at all. But in the back of the room was a large steel circular door with a tinted glass center, reading DO NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. THE FUTURE OF SKYMOORE DEMANDS YOUR COOPERATION IN MAINTAINING THE SECURITY OF THE ROOMS BEYOND.
The door was open.
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