Nestor Pinkly, Gwendolyn Bottlehelm, Mayor Gendry Dew, and the elf hiding under his desk were all very upset about the door being open. None of them really knew what to do about the door being open, nor did they feel qualified to do any of the things they guessed might be the correct course of action. The elf had been thinking about it the longest and was the most qualified to think about these things, so he got up and started walking toward it.
“Wait!” Nestor cried. “We should all go together!”
The elf, who had a nametag labeling him “Intern 47B,” did not wait. “Cease your shrill demands, gnome. I’m only going to close the door.”
“Er, is that a good idea,” asked Gwendolyn. “Shouldn’t we try to stop them?”
“Oh, are you going to do that, miss? What are you going to do, yell at some teenagers until they fight the devil for you? They and their bird friend just stormed in here and had everyone accusing each other of betrayal and blasting spells at each other within about three minutes.”
“Don’t call me ‘miss,’” said Gwendolyn, folding her arms defensively. “Why’d they leave you alone.”
Intern 47BB stiffened. “Probably because of my status as an intern.”
“Can we stop having a wounded-pride-off and worry about what’s going on here?” suggested Mayor Dew.
“Right!” said Nestor. “What is going on here, anyway? What’s back there?”
Intern 47B’s mouth went taught for several moments before he shrugged loosely. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. We’re all going to die or have our minds wiped anyway. I only know so much, being an intern, but I do know that the contents of that sector, one vault in particular, is the reason the Cabal exists in the first place. There is an entity or artifact so powerful, so dangerous, that the Cabal has carefully manipulated every event in Skymoore, from our holidays to our disasters to our birthday parties, to make sure that it stays dormant forever.”
Nestor frowned. “And if it doesn’t stay dormant?” Intern 47B shrugged.
“What if it’s good?” Gwendolyn asked. “The Cabal is shady and evil, right? And can I just say how good it feels to say their name? Cabal Cabal Cabal Cabal!”
“They’re our benefactors!” Mayor Dew corrected. “They make sure everything in Skymoore runs clean as a whistle and smooth as a thistle. Wait, no. What’s smooth and rhymes with whistle?”
“There’s a species of spineless hedgehogs in the Sometimes Desert called a Nissel,” Nestor offered.
“Okay I’m going” said Gwendolyn, taking the lead and heading through the open door.
“Have fun being made to kill each other,” Intern 47B deadpanned. “I’ll be in here valuing my life.”
“Why would we have fun doing that?” Nestor asked. “That sounds terrible!”
The room beyond was a checkpoint, a wide room that got narrower as it went along. Halfway through, a green glass screen and some kind of punch-card mechanism restricted progression, but the glass had had a hole punched through it, leaving the way forward unobstructed.
It led to a tall circular chamber with narrow walkways surrounding a wide-open center. Several stories of numbered rooms sealed by thick metal doors of various colors and sizes lined the walls. Above each door were squat, bulky pyramids with the tips facing outward projecting streams of pink magical energy flowing down to the bottom of the pit. Nestor recognized these as magical conductors, siphoning energy from whatever was imprisoned in the rooms and using them to power a spell down below. It was very clever design. Cruel, but clever.
Down below, at the bottom of the pit, the four dozen or so strands of magic wrapped around a colorless cloud of nothing. Not colorless like grey, colorless like an absence where there oughtn’t be one. It stretched and morphed in its confines very much like something, like clay or gelatin trying to break free from its bonds, but it looked very much like nothing at all. Every few seconds it would take the shape of a tall, featureless humanoid and then explode into the angry cloud. The immediate area around it was rendered distorted and gray, as if behind fogged glass.
Standing barely visible before the cloud were Parazoa and Teyla. The little devil was looking up at Nestor as he peered over the edge, wearing their needly smile. “You’re just in time, Nestor Pinkly! Just in time to see the fruits of my labor, fertilized by your failure.” Their voice didn’t seem to come from their mouth, but rather from everywhere in the gray area at once, like there was no particular origin point for the sound. Teyla tried to add to the devil’s comment, but no words came.
No color, no sound, visual distortion. Nestor could hardly believe the thought that came to his mind: The Void Lands. They were always so far from Skymoore, out there on the opposite coast of Penscarop. A worry for other people. But he’d seen them before, in his youth, and there was no mistaking what he saw now.
“I know,” Gwendolyn whispered, reading his face. “We’re dead, aren’t we?” After all, nothing survived for long in the Void Lands, unless it belonged there.
Nestor shook his head. “I have an idea,” he murmured.
“No quip, Ms. Bottlehelm? No optimistic babbling, Mr. Pinkly?” asked Parazoa. “Is it sinking in yet, how you’ve doomed the people of Skymoore?” He reached out to a point just above Nestor’s head, and clenched his fist. One of the magic transmission pyramids crunched as force was exerted on it. The devil yanked toward him, and the pyramid ripped off the wall, severing the pink thread. Whatever monster or magic lied beyond the metal door began to trash aimlessly against it, to no avail.
The real threat was below. The empty humors of the Void Lands flowed like water, filling more of the room. Parazoa repeated the action on another pyramid, and the Void Lands spread further. “Be free, Dulcificus!” emanated the devil’s voice, louder than before. “The pitiful remainder of the world will be yours at last!”
Teyla spoke soundlessly again, her face suddenly contorting with anger. As she raised a hand above her head, her talons glowing with distorted light, the avayla suddenly doubled over in pain, as though she’d grown violently ill. She fell to one knee, liquid spilling from her beak. The Void Lands were taking their toll on her.
Nestor quickly began running to the opposite end of the circular walkway, where a ladder led up to the next floor. Gwendolyn followed suit.
“I can’t believe that woman tricked me!” said Mayor Dew as they fumbled up the ladder. “She promised me no harm would come to Skymoore.”
“Can we focus on the fact that –” Gwendolyn began before she was cut off by the sudden rise of the Void as several pyramids ruptured at once. The trio was submerged, now, or rather enveloped. It wasn’t like being underwater, it wasn’t like being anywhere. It was only like the Void. Gravity suddenly had no meaning, and direction was difficult to understand. When Nestor looked down, where Gwendolyn had been, he now saw the celling, and when he looked left, he saw Parazoa. At the top of the ladder was the door they had come from. Nothing about the composition of the room made sense any longer.
“I was only demonstrating your doom to you before,” Parazoa said, their voice rolling through them like a powerful wind. “You have not begun to see the power your fear has given me!”
Another voice followed suit, this one belonging to Teyla. They heard it only in their minds, like they were remembering her voice rather than hearing it. “Can you three –? Yes! It’s working now that you’re in the Void.” Bizarrely, the speed of her words felt incongruous with the speed of the outside world. Nestor let go of the ladder, and before he had even begun to float away, her entire sentence had formed. It was as though his mind and the world were happening on two different timelines. “I’m embarrassed to admit that Parazoa tricked me, too. He made me too paranoid to intervene in your plans. This not only turned you against each other, but it allowed him to have control over his own escape. He never wanted to help Mother. He serves Dulcificus, the entity that controls the Void Lands. Mother’s enemy.”
“Well, shit,” Gwendolyn thought back. “What do we do now?”
“I’m going to see that Parazoa is torn in two, or perhaps twelve, but my body is weak. If you can repress Dulcificus somehow, I can do the rest.”
Nestor looked about for a way to leave, but the room was too dense with visual information now. Walls intersected with pathways which intersected with doors which intersected with ladders. There was a sense that everything was folding in on itself. As he floated there, hopelessly lost with time counting down, Mayor Dew began tapping on his hand repeatedly. He was pointing down at the…wall, ceiling? It was unclear. Nestor released him, and the little mayor kicked and flailed his way onto a surface, where he began walking as if nothing was peculiar. Nestor tugged on Gwendolyn’s dress, as she too looked for a path through the madness, and gestured for her to follow Gendry.
The mayor used his newfound legs to lead them through the winding walkway, over an inscrutable ledge, and into a tunnel barely visible between the rungs of a latter. By focusing on Mayor Dew instead of the visual chaos that had become this room, Nestor found a sense of elucidation. At last he led the pair to a point where the wall curved upward or leftward or inward, and walked up it as through it were a flat surface. At the top, they reached the colored world they knew, suddenly and without warning, for from within the Void Lands even color appeared colorless.
Gravity re-centered itself and the trio fell in a heap from their position on the wall.
“How the blazes did you do that?” Gwendolyn asked the mayor.
He smiled widely, even for him, and pointed to his eyes. “Magic eyes!” he said. “I think whatever druid created me who-knows-when wanted me to be a seeing-eye plant, because magical effects don’t seem to mess with my eyes. Or maybe it’s a mayor thing, hard to say.”
It seemed unlikely to Nestor that it was a mayor thing, but he had to admit, he’d never been a mayor.
The group sorted themselves out and found that they were on the uppermost level of the room, with the void rapidly approaching. Inside the blurred field, they saw…themselves. Back by the ladder, flailing confusedly about. “That must be us from the other timeline,” Nestor pondered aloud, “still trying to escape. That could buy us some time.”
Gwendolyn shook her head slowly. “I’m not even going to ponder the implications.” Nestor gave an approving nod.
Apart from elevation, there was one other thing separating this level from the others: a metal table with a few charts and clipboards on it. Gwendolyn began pouring over them while Nestor began feeling along the wall. “Wow, I can probably be executed for looking at this,” she said, “it’s a list of everything contained here, and why. There’s a wizard named Lilith Kaktan in one of these cells for being ‘too good at hackey sack.’ Wow and a pencil sharpener that grants its pencils with temporary sentience.”
As Nestor ran his hand along the smooth metal walls, he sent out tiny pulses of magic, feeling the material composition of the space beyond his reach. It was an artificer trick used to learn the layering of more complicated creations before enchanting, but it could also reveal hidden rooms or complex magical circuitry if you knew what you were doing, and Nestor Pinkly certainly knew what he was doing. As he suspected, the system of redirecting magic was clever, using copious amounts of Majicite to guide the energy where they wanted, but it could be more efficient. Given enough time and enough access to what lie beyond their walls, Nestor could create enough energy to restrain that evil blob with probably two or three doors. For now, though, he could use the dozen or so on this floor.
He pulled out the tinkering tools he had in his pocket, using his precision knife carved from a dragon’s tooth to cut open a small square panel and gain access to the Majicite circuitry behind the wall. By cutting and re-wiring in key places, he could redirect the flow and magnify the power. It was going to take eight or nine different panels, at least, and it would have to be precise work. Could he do it before time caught up, and Parazoa realized that they were gone?
In a word: no.
As he worked on his seventh panel, slicing two wires and reconnecting the proper ends with his Sludge Giant sweat, a jagged piece of one of the pyramids flew up out of the void and sliced Nestor’s arm. When he turned to anticipate the next attack, another piece hit him in the sleeve, pinning him into the wall and ruining the circuit he was working on.
“A noble try, Nestor Pinkly,” Parazoa sneered, levitating outside of the Void now, on their level. “I have to admit I never thought you’d be so resourceful. But you can’t defeat me on your own.”
Fortunately, he wasn’t on his own. While Nestor had been doing his thing, Gwendolyn and Mayor Dew had been on a mission of their own. Haphazardly placed beneath one of the clipboards was a strange, clockwork cube with a dial to change the five numbers on its front. There was a slot for this cube on each of the doors blocking off the dangerous items and people. Digging through the papers on the desk, Gwen puzzled out that it was a code; by multiplying the numbers on the door, you got a product that should be put in the cube and. When the cube was placed in the door, it unlocked. Using this method, Gwen obtained the only thing that she thought might be of any use: a black crossbow made from the branches of Old King Dundermoat, which bore the soul of Purvus Redtooth, a notorious crime lord from the Mish Mash.
When Parazoa saw her leaning over the railing of the walkway, aiming it down at him, he grinned his creepy, long-toothed grin. “And what do you propose to do with that, Gwendolyn Bottlehelm? I know who you are. You may be bedding a hero, but you are no such –”
Parazoa was interrupted by a crossbow bolt hitting him directly in the stomach, sending him plummeting back down to the bottom, with Dulicificus and Teyla.
“When I played the famous outlaw Jane Westonsmith in The Riders of the Frozen Prairie, I went method,” Gwendolyn explained as she helped Nestor down from his predicament. “But I don’t think that is going to hold him forever. If you could just kill a devil with a crossbow, everyone would do it. We need to save that girl, anyway.”
Sure enough, in the void below, the small, pointy shape of Parazoa could be seen rising slowly once again. Gwendolyn loaded another bolt in the crossbow. “Hurry it up, Pinkly. I’ve only got a few more.”
“Wait,” Nestor said. He swallowed hard. “I have an idea. I don’t much like it, but I have it. Parazoa had been manipulating us to hate each other and fear each other this whole time in order to make themselves stronger. Linda told me that back in the day they turned factions against each other to increase their power. I think they feed not just on fear, but animosity.”
Gwendolyn looked down at the rising devil, then back to Nestor. “So what?” she asked. “We’re going to bury the hatchet, right here and now? That’s not how it works, Nestor. Besides, you wouldn’t even know how to start.”
Nestor shuddered nervously. “I can try,” he said softly. “When the Luminous Company started to break up, after Desdemona left, and we started drawing smaller crowds, I wanted to do everything I could to save us. You know how hard I tried. I started writing my own plays, doing some acting of my own, upping the magic and the flare of our shows. Then when Paddick left to support his new children, I just.” Nestor’s voice squeaked a little. “I felt like I was losing my family again. And there was nothing I could do. Then when you wanted to start Luminous, I panicked. I knew a theater like the one you imagined wasn’t where I belonged, but I had no idea where else to go. I just wanted to be with you, you know? To do anything I could to keep the family together.”
Gwendolyn sighed, training her crossbow on Parazoa in preparation. “This isn’t apologizing, Nestor. This is explaining.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t respect your decision to part ways, too, Gwendolyn. I thought if I just tried my hardest, I could make you want to be my friend. I didn’t fully understand that the choice wasn’t up to me. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you the space that you needed. Sorry I did not respect you.”
Gwendolyn took a deep breath, and let it go. “I’ll be honest, Nestor, until this moment I wasn’t sure that you even knew what you did wrong. Thank you for saying that. I don’t…I never wanted you to think that I hated you. You were there for me on the lowest day of my life. You saved me, and you helped give me purpose. That’s what made it all the more frustrating when I grew to resent you. It hurt me, too, that the Luminous Company split up. The last thing I needed was a constant, vocal reminder that it was over. I’m sorry I sorted things out with harsh words rather than respectful discussion.”
Nestor’s eyes brightened and his mustache twitched with joy. “Alright,” Gwendolyn added, “don’t get all weepy on me. We’ve got a devil to stop.”
“Did you really think you could stop me with a simple crossbow bolt?” Parazoa growled as they breached the surface, exiting the void. “I am Parazoa. I am your fear, I live in your heart! I –” They staggered slightly in the air, descending an inch or two. “I live in your…” Again, they wavered. “Okay, this is embarrassing. Hold on.”
And then Parazoa dropped like a stone.
Gwendolyn and Nestor shared a smile. “That’s how you stop a devil,” Nestor said, “friendship and teamwork!”
“Ugh, I hate that I didn’t cringe at that.”
“I’m here, too!” Gendry reminded everyone.
“You sure are, Mayor Dew. Nestor, do your genius thing. I’ll make sure our little cyclops friend doesn’t intervene.”
And so the gnome set about finishing his restructuring of the wiring. When it was complete, the thin pink strands of energy became thick waves of magic, rippling noisily and warmly through the air. It wasn’t the most stable spell in the world, but it held together enough to reach the undulating mass of nothing below. It appeared from this distance that the cloud wanted to reach some simpler, more solid state, but the spell destabilized its form, once again creating the writhing creature the group saw when they entered. More importantly, the void receded entirely.
As the trio made their way down, Teyla Eastwind pulled herself to her feet, gasping for air. Parazoa was struggling to get upright, muttering curses under their breath. “Listen, Teyla, you have to understand…it was nothing personal. It sounds like you understand what it’s like to serve a master. I would do anything to serve Dulcificus.”
“You’re right,” Teyla said, towering over the devil, “I do. And I know that when you fail your master, there are consequences. I’ll be providing yours today.” She reached into her sleeve and produced a bundle of blackened hide. “Mother said to use this only if Linda Arterford started causing me trouble, but I don’t think she’ll mind if I use it to send her a present.”
She unfurled the hide to reveal a small, brass pendant depicting an arcane circle. She held it up to Parazoa. Teyla muttered an eldritch incantation under breath; as she did, a dark purple flame started at her fingertip and expanded along the brass, filling the symbol like liquid light. When both the spell and the flame were complete, she thrust her arm forward, and the pendant dissolved as the flaming symbol grew larger and launched toward Parazoa, overtaking the devil. When the flame cleared, only the intricate scorch marks left by the rune remained. Parazoa was elsewhere.
“And that takes care of our devil problem, as promised,” Teyla said as the others joined her.
“I’m too relieved to lecture you on the dangers of dark magic,” Nestor said.
“Don’t be too relieved just yet,” Gwendolyn said. “Does anyone else hear those footsteps?” Sure enough, the hurried patter of boots and sensible work shoes could be heard in the direction of the Cabal office.
Teyla produced a necklace from beneath the collar of her robe. Hanging from the center was yet another magic circle. “Luckily Mother provides for us all,” she said. “Let us be gone.”
“Wait!” interjected Gendry Dew who was back on Gwen’s shoulder. “I need to stay behind. I can spin a convincing yarn, I’m sure; if I don’t, they’ll hunt for whoever was here and you’ll be in danger. They’ll probably wipe my memories of the last few days, but it’s my fault we’re all in this situation.”
(Nestor wanted to point out that it was actually Teyla’s, but she had the way out of here, so maybe that wasn’t in anyone’s best interest.)
“They’re really going to wipe your memory?” Gwendolyn asked. “Don’t you have some kind of power around here?”
Gendry smiled so tightly that spindly veins were visible beneath his greenish neck. “Of course! That’s why they’ll only mind wipe me. Now hurry before I change my mind!”
Gwendolyn set the mayor down, and he stood bravely with his hands on his hips. She nodded to Teyla, who gripped her necklace and whispered an eldritch rhyme. Her necklace evaporated in a wisp of flame, and they were all enveloped by a dark smoke that smelled of cranberry. Nestor felt the unpleasant and vaguely familiar stomach-dropping sensation of teleportation as his inner-ear went ballistic for a few moments, before the smoke cleared and they found themselves on solid ground.
Nestor recognized the square in which they now found themselves as the center of the government labyrinth, home to Kasey Refn’s Rusty Rock Refinery, and a mysterious black building from which he suspected they all came. Before either Nestor or Gwendolyn had really collected their bearings, Teyla was flying away over the walls of the labyrinth, out of their reach.
“That’s one way to show gratitude,” Gwendolyn spat.
“Should we send someone after her?” Nestor asked.
Gwen shrugged. “She’s bad news, but she did help us twice just now. And she’s ultimately pretty ineffectual. I have a feeling her Mother is going to do more to punish her than the city guard would.”
The thought did not comfort Nestor.
They were both quiet for a while as Nestor led Gwendolyn out of the government district, only turning them down the wrong corridor once or twice. It was Gwen who eventually broke the silence. “I’ve been spending my free evenings with Donovan and Malleus Silverscale. Or, I did when I wasn’t watching a devil. You should come next time, now that our schedules have opened up.”
Nestor’s cheeks reddened and he smiled involuntarily. “Really? You’re inviting me to do something? Is this another illusion?”
Gwen grinned. “Did Nestor Pinkly just make a cynical joke? Wow, maybe we failed and the world really did end. Yes, Nestor, I’m inviting you to spend time with me. Don’t get your mustache all twisted, there will be other people as a buffer for your overwhelming…charm.”
“Gwendolyn likes me!” Nestor cried, skipping ahead. “Gwendolyn and Nestor are best friends forever; when danger arrives, they’ll stop it together!”
“No singing, Nestor. If you sing another line I’m taking it all back.”
“Nestor’s got the brains and she’s got the wit, when Parazoa struck they popped ‘em like a zit!”
“Okay, no, I take it back. Where’s the Cabal? I’ll have them wipe both our minds.”
The gnome continued to sing, despite Gwen’s protests, all the way back to Linda’s home.
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