We Ought Never To Have Done It
The Milford Estate was as empty as they figured it would be. The gate was easy to push open, and it was an uneventful trek across the ground towards the front porch. There, the front door loomed large in front of them, oak planked and banded with iron. Clarissa ran up the door, wrapped herself around the Crokabek doorknocker and slammed it against the wood.
“Hehehe, no one home!” she chittered.
“We’re still professionals, Clarissa, even if there’s no danger of us running into anyone. Come on, see if it’s unlocked.”
Clarissa tugged on the handles, and the door creaked open a quarter of an inch.
“Stand back,” intoned Bruce. He gripped the handle of the door and pulled, barely flexing his arm as he did so. The door swung open with such force that Nora was afraid it would rip right off its hinges. Fortunately, the giant Yurble had disciplined himself to such an extent that the door, though creaking, remained firmly upright. “Let’s go.”
“Alright, Bruce, normally you’re lookout, but I don’t think we have to worry about that here. Come on, let’s get inside, see if there’s any light.”
But there wasn’t any light. Bruce opened up the sack and pulled out several lanterns before lighting them each and handing them to Nora and Clarissa. “I have four left. Should I light them?”
“No, let’s leave them for now. We’ll probably need to use them to light the lab. If it’s anything like that Ixi’s in the Haunted Woods, it’s going to be big. I just wish there were some windows in here.”
Clarissa, having got her lantern, promptly ran over to the giant spiral staircase in the middle of the room and sprinted up it. “Lookit this thing look how huge it is I bet it goes all the way to the to – oh no it ended up here I remember seeing a big tower when we were walking up probably a hundred feet tall this is only thirty I wonder how we get to that tower this place is like a big maze did you bring string so we don’t get lost but do we even know where we’re going where’s the lab? Where’s the lab? Where’s the lab?”
“Papers say there’s two places to look. One is up in Milford’s office at the top of the tall tower-”
“Yessss we’re going up to the tower I bet we can see Neopia Central fr-”
“Where we’ll be able to find the journal and a few other things. The other place is, of course, in the opposite place, some sort of subterranean lab. There’s an elevator on the third floor that goes from the library straight down. Must be an express or else we’d be able to get on here. Or something. Doesn’t really matter. I figure we can all go down to the lab first. No sense splitting up when we don’t all know what we’re looking for.”
It was hard to argue with the logic, and it only took a moment for the three of them to make their way up the spiral staircase and through the only door on the third floor. Fortunately for everyone involved, the ominous creaking sound as Bruce stomped his way up the stairs did not result in the entire thing collapsing, and they filed into the library without any ado.
The library had windows which were actually open, casting pale moonlight on a room that might once have been beautiful, lined from top to bottom on all four walls with books on every subject from astronomy to zoology. Several threadbare armchairs dotted the room, and a few tables still had cobwebbed candles slumbering atop them. Nora coughed the moment she walked in and breathed in the heady scent of rotten books. It smelled of wasted potential.
“I’d say to check the shelves for rarities, but don’t bother. Nothing here is salvageable. It’s strange that Milford wouldn’t have taken these with him when he left. Strange he left any of it here, actually. He must have left in a hurry.”
“Here’s the elevator,” rumbled Bruce, who had no time for sentimentality or what-ifs. “It’s old.”
The elevator was indeed old, closed off by a thin metal gate and operated, presumably, a series of ropes and pulleys. As archaic as it was (Virtupets electronic elevators were now standard in most buildings), it seemed solidly built, and Bruce’s weight was easily held. The other two piled in, Clarissa stuffing a candlestick into her bag as she did so, and Bruce pulled the lever.
Nora watched the library slowly start to move up from her view, still visible in the moonlight. With each passing second, more and more of it disappeared before finally, the last pale-blue sliver of light was gone. They were left alone in a black box with nothing but their lanterns for light. A frailer spirit than hers would have started shivering.
A more imaginative spirit than hers would have shivered, but for different reasons. The elevator was descending to chasms unknown beneath a house eaten by time and inhabited by nothing but the shadows of its former tenants. If the mansion was an empty tomb, what, then, was the shaft below it? And what was the lab, the place of experiments so unwholesome that they had to be buried? What infernal place were they sinking into, colored only by flames which caused every shadow to dance and jump, which set Bruce’s face into a spectacular parody of anything even remotely Neopian? The boards creaking beneath their feet were the wails of the doomed, the ropes shrieking in their pulleys, the inexorable sigh of wind rising up from some putrid hollow beneath them, the-
Nora took a deep breath. Perhaps she was more imaginative than she let on. But the job was the job, and a house was just a house. There were no such things as ghosts. Just eccentric old millionaires who built crazy things and left them for others to marvel at.
“I don’t like this place,” chirped Clarissa. “I don’t like it at all.”
“It’s just an elevator. We’ve seen underground bunkers before, this is nothing new. Can’t be worse than sneaking into Skarl’s secret treasure trove.”
“Clarissa is right. This is not a good place. We should leave quickly.”
Despite their misgivings about the elevator, when it finally reached the lab several minutes later, all of them spilled out into the new room. It was pitch black, and the only light came from their lanterns which suddenly seemed terribly tiny. The lab extended away from them in all directions, and only the barest hint of a wall could be seen. In between the elevator and the walls, however, plenty of things were visible. The lantern light glittered off thousands of beakers and vials and caught the panes of several cabinets, uncomfortably crushed against each other along the walls. A strong smell of acid burned Nora’s nostrils even though it had to have been dozens of years since anyone was down here. To cap it all off, a massive steel door was set into the stonework directly in front of the elevator. It was at least ten feet wide and ran from floor to ceiling. It felt unholy.
“Alright, let’s light some lanterns and get started looking for this stuff. Bruce, if you could put a lantern by each wall, that should be good for light. I would have thought a place like this would have some early electric wiring hooked up, or at the very least a whole mess of candles, but I guess they liked it dark.”
The next half hour went by relatively quickly as the majority of the items were found and quickly disposed of in the sack. Beakers, vials, strangely-labeled pots and samples. Bruce opened up one drawer and found at least a hundred tin boxes and dumped the lot into the sack. As per usual, Clarissa dashed around the room, finding things in seconds that would have taken the other two a whole hour to uncover. Before long, Bruce had the sack cinched and ready to load onto his back.
“Hold on.” Nora stopped him with a touch of her paw. “There’s still things down here that we haven’t found. I doubt we’d find something like ‘Paw of Specimen’ in the office. These will probably be behind that door there. Bruce, think you could open it?”
Bruce dropped the sack and walked over the door. He rapped on it with his knuckles, looked around for a handle, rapped again. “Solid steel, no handle.” He checked the edges of the door. “Set off from the wall by an inch, enough to wrap my fingers around. Stone mortar seems flaky, could probably rip some out.” He turned to face Nora. “Give me forty-five minutes. The door will be open.”
Nora breathed a sigh of relief. She didn’t want to leave semi-empty-handed. “Alright, you stay here and deal with that. Clarissa and I will go up to the office to try and find this journal and some of the other papers. Meet us in the foyer when you’re done?”
Bruce grunted and started scratching at the stones without another word.
“Let’s get outta here Nora I don’t like it here I don’t wanna be here when he opens that door.”
“Same. Let’s go.”
The trek to the tower was stranger than Nora would have liked. After returning to the library, she and Clarissa had to wind their way through several hallways with locked doors and dead ends, suddenly rising to the fourth floor or dipping down to the second. At one point, they ended up in a room that looked like a small kitchen and had to descend through a trapdoor to keep moving on.
After a particularly harrowing stretch that involved an open-air walkway leading from one room that extended out from the mansion like a spindly arm to another constructed in the same way, Nora felt like they were on a fool’s errand. “There’s no way someone would do all this just to get to their office every day. There’s clearly something we’re missing. Some other elevator that we missed. I’m only hoping that once we get to Milford’s office, we find the shaft ready and waiting for us to descend.”
There was another ten minutes of scrambling through abandoned storage rooms, strangely well-kept bedrooms, and one pitch black corridor that seemed to exist only to disturb the pedestrian with its narrowness and darkness. Clarissa and Nora found themselves without warning in a small octagonal office. There was a desk, a bookshelf, and windows in every wall, letting in more moonlight than they’d seen in an hour. There was also, to Nora’s great relief, a small elevator situated near the shelf. Without realizing it, they’d completely ascended the tower and now sat above the entirety of the Barrens.
Nora gazed in awe out the nearest window. The inky blackness of the pine trees stretched away from the estate in all directions, cleared here and there where roads and villages were located. On the horizon, a red glow suffused the midnight sky where Neopia Central was located. It was dozens of miles away and looked as alien now as though it was on Kreludor. It was nice, however, to see a familiar sight after being closeted in the bizarre mansion for so long.
Her thoughts drifted to the other night, quietly sleeping in her bedroom with the glow of downtown quietly peeping in through her thin curtains. Neopia Central never really slept, which suited her fine; she needed noise to fall asleep, a comforting blanket to envelop her as she drifted off. It was a nice memory, certainly a nicer night than the one she now found herself in. But in less than twenty-four hours, she could be back in that same bed, sleeping that same sleep, except ten million points richer.
“Hey Nora,” Clarissa’s non-stop rambling broke her concentration, “stop starin’ out that window I know Neopia Central is cool’n’all but we gotta get that journal and get back downstairs Bruce should have that door open and I wanna get outta here I like this tower better than that lab because we can see the air up here it’s so clear tonight and so quiet this whole tower has been quiet I’ve never heard anything so quiet before it’s like everything’s trying hard not to wake someone up but Milford’s gone and we should be too so let’s get this journal, Nora. Let’s get this-”
“Yes, yes, the journal. Probably in the desk. You take a look on the shelves for these portfolios.” Nora tossed the list at Clarissa, who grabbed it with ease and scampered over to the shelf. Nora busied herself with the desk which should have been locked but wasn’t, probably because no one but Milford had ever gone up there.
The journal rested politely in the middle of the desk’s main drawer, clasped in silver as the list had expected. Not locked, simply clasped. Nora resisted the urge to read inside; she hadn’t gotten as far as she had by peeking at the secrets of others, especially those who were paying her.
“Got ‘em let’s get outta here can we take the elevator I don’t wanna walk through this house again.”
The elevator ride down took them straight through the tall tower down to…the library. At first, they couldn’t figure how they had missed it, but as they left the cramped box, they noticed that a bookshelf had swung aside to let them pass.
“Hidden elevator,” Nora said as she inspected the bookshelf, “Probably activated by pulling the right book. Impressive. Milford was a man with many secrets.”
“I’m gonna go down to the foyer wait for you there don’t feel like being in this house anymore might wait on the porch see you out there. See you out there.”
Nora followed Clarissa back out to the foyer and peered over the railing. No sign of Bruce at the bottom -- he was still down in the lab. It was probably just getting on towards forty-five minutes, and Bruce was never wrong with his estimates of how long his strength would take to get something done. He’d be a few minutes yet.
As the seconds crawled by, Nora felt her skin begin to do the same. She was starting to come around to Clarissa’s way of thinking…she didn’t like this house. A minute ago, a dull roar had echoed through her, and she couldn’t tell if it was real or imaginary. Much like the journey to Milford’s office, it had a bizarre dream-like quality to it. Standing around in the dark counting the seconds wasn’t helping this mindset. She needed something to take her mind off things for a little while. Her thoughts stole to the journal resting quietly in her backpack.
Can’t hurt to take a peek, she reasoned, It’s just words on a page. And old ones at that. Not politically sensitive. She dropped the backpack to the ground, rummaged around in it, and pulled out the journal. Carefully, she opened the stiff leather cover.
“Hey Nora!” Clarissa’s tinny voice rose up from the bottom of the staircase. “I’m starting to write the notes for this job got a new communication device thing with the money from the last job says it’s more permanent than paper I think that sounds pretty good don’t have to worry about getting ink all over your hands either all you do is press the buttons and it makes them on the screen do you have anything you wanna say? Wanna say anything? Anything?”
“No thanks, Clarissa!” Nora called back. “Just that it’s a good thing we took this job!”
Nora returned her attention to the book. The first pages were filled with incoherent scribbles, dates and numbers, clearly some sort of scientific jargon that would be meaningful to the right eyes. She flipped through the book and stopped at the middle. These pages were filled with schematic drawings of various pets, detailed anatomical drawings of arms and legs, wings and beaks. It was seemingly innocent, but Nora still shuddered.
Nora’s ears picked up a noise ahead of her. It was some sort of rumbling din, as though many pets were shouting at a great distance. She shook her head and cleared her ears out with a paw. The noise was still there, louder now. She thought she could even distinguish the cadences of different species.
“Bruce?” she called out. “Is that you?”
She was greeted with a low roar that sounded much like the one she had heard a few minutes ago. Perhaps there had been stranger things behind that door than she had expected?
With a growing knot in her stomach, Nora returned to the book, flipping quickly to the end. She wanted to see the last thing Milford had written in his journal before he left it behind for good. The clamoring in the rooms ahead of her grew louder and louder until she was sure there was an entire mob of pets just behind the library door.
She found the last marked page in the journal and read the short entry.
As the poet Gabranth once wrote, “Now we are fallen by our own hands. Now we are made wrecks by our own vanity.” Though he spoke of Faerieland, I think it applies here as well. I sit in my office but will descend. It is better to be done with it quickly, though how done it shall be…perhaps I should bring my journal with me to record the experience.
To whoever comes across this tome, I urge you only one thing. Leave this profane place. Do not entertain your foul curiosity as I have. Live a good life. Live any life so long as it is away from here. I thought that I could ascend my station, that I alone could concur the immutable laws of our world.
I see now that such ideas are nonsense, though I could not have known.
I should never have come here. I should never have come here.
R. J. Milford
As her eyes glazed over the signature at the bottom, Nora’s ears nearly split open with the deafening cries that now seemed to be battering down the library door with sound alone. She looked up in time to see the door splinter before her eyes, and her mouth fell open in a silent scream.
To be continued…