The House on the Hill: Part One
The sun had already set by the time Alabaster Chesterdrawers finished setting up his Halloween window display — but wait a minute, this is the Haunted Woods; it's not like anyone can actually tell the difference between day and night with all those spooky trees blocking out the sunshine. We've established this before. Indeed, Chesterdrawers only realized that the sun had set when he looked at the grandfather clock inside his antique furniture shop and saw that it was eight o'clock. Some might consider this unusual, but Chesterdrawers was very devoted to his business, and often stayed late to fix up the shop.
Appraising his handiwork, the red Nimmo nodded, satisfied, and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. "That ought to do it," he said to himself. The front window of the shop was strung with decorative black and orange streamers, and little paper Korbats dangled from the ceiling. Neovia was situated deep in the Haunted Woods, true, but somehow the inhabitants never seemed to tire of the Halloween atmosphere. The holiday was just a couple weeks away, and one could feel the excitement in the air.
Chesterdrawers took a final look around the store, checking to make sure everything was in its proper position before he closed up for the night. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't get too much business after six or so in the evening; he pitied the poor shopkeepers in other areas of the Woods, who sometimes had to put up with more... nocturnal clientele than the citizens of Neovia. Ah, well, he thought, best be heading home.
Whistling cheerfully as he locked the shop door behind him, Chesterdrawers set off down the cobblestone street toward his home, completely unperturbed by the fog that lingered throughout the town and made it even more difficult to see anything. There were still townspeople awake, after all, and after a lifetime of living in the Haunted Woods, one became accustomed to finding one's way using only the lights in the windows of the houses. In fact, Chesterdrawers found that he was really most at ease in the shadows of wizened trees and unwelcoming buildings. Neopets from other lands may have found the place strange and eerie, but to those who spent their lives there, the Haunted Woods was home.
All of the shops in town were closed by now; the streets were deserted. Though the Woods' inhabitants had a great love for the unconventional place, they couldn't ignore the very real danger that lurked among those trees and in alleyways. Neovia in particular had learned this lesson through harsh experience. While excessive paranoia wasn't viewed positively in the Haunted Woods, parents weren't exactly eager to let their children play outside after dark, and even adults tended to avoid going outside after the sun had sunk beneath the horizon. Most of the stories of Werelupes and wicked faeries roaming the forest were just that — stories — but every once in a while, they turned out to be true, and even the most fearless denizens of the Woods weren't willing to take such a risk.
Chesterdrawers knew that he probably shouldn't be walking outside so late, especially by himself, but Neovia was a rather isolated town, and thus considered somewhat less dangerous than the land surrounding it. The lights in the windows were a comforting sight as he made his way back home.
To his left, there suddenly loomed the old Craven house, abandoned decades ago and left to watch over the town as a decomposing guardian. He'd heard some of the neighborhood kids used to play hide-and-seek there before the curse struck. (Even now, it made him shake a little to think that — before the curse struck. Every Neovian with an ounce of self-respect was still overwhelmingly grateful that there was an after the curse struck.)
The Craven house was as dark and lonely as always, fading into the fog and shadows. With every passing day, it became less and less likely that it would ever be lived in again. Chesterdrawers paused in front of the iron gates that enclosed the empty manor, a contemplative mood settling over him. Even in its ramshackle state, the house was oddly dignified, its dirty second-story windows peering out over the town like two eyes glazed with fatigue, never to see again...
And at that moment a small, faint light came into view.
Chesterdrawers' eyes narrowed in bewilderment. I must be seeing things, he thought, or the fog is playing tricks on me. Nobody lived in the Craven house; nobody had for years!
The statues on either side of the stoop suddenly looked more menacing than before, with mist swirling around their faces and occasionally exposing a pair of emotionless granite eyes. Chesterdrawers backed slowly away from the gate, his eyes fixed on the second-story window behind which that terrible light, like the flame of a lone candle, still gleamed. The Nimmo had lived in Neovia for all his life, and he was certain that there couldn't be any living creature in the old, abandoned mansion... but what about something else?
A deep feeling of dread began to seep under his skin, like the chilling Haunted Woods winds that bit at his coat. Even when the candlelight disappeared from view, the instinctual horror that pounded in his chest refused to disappear along with it. After what seemed to him an infinite stretch of time, Chesterdrawers finally managed to tear his gaze away from the window of the Craven manor; his pace quickened as he continued his now hurried journey back to the safety of his home.
For the first time in his life, seeing a light in the window had given him no comfort.
Victor Thumburt, mayor of Neovia, awoke one morning a week before Halloween to the sounds of shouting downstairs and knocking on his door. The green Bruce groaned, blinking sleep from his eyes and slowly pulling himself out of bed. There were days when he wondered if running for mayor had been a good idea after all. The townspeople were pushy, the paperwork was constantly piling up, and Thumburt was lucky that Reginald, the sensible lad, had convinced that lunatic sister of his not to leave him a Moquot.
Sighing heavily, Mayor Thumburt made himself reasonably presentable and went into the hallway, where he was accosted by one of his assistants. "Sir," the blue Lenny said, sounding profoundly flustered, "I'm very sorry to wake you, but there are a number of townspeople wishing to speak to you, and they are becoming uncontrollable. The Crumpetmonger even got into a physical altercation with Jeeves!"
"Don't fret, Harvey, I'll speak with them and find out what the problem is," Mayor Thumburt assured the anxious Lenny, descending the grand staircase into the parlor.
The scene before him was one of utter chaos. The room was filled with Neovians whose expressions ranged from disgruntled to outright terrified. Jeeves, the butler, was sitting in a chair in the corner; the green Shoyru was pressing ice against a large bump on his head. Next to the chair he occupied, Emily Maycott, the maid, swept shards of broken glass into a dustpan. Mayor Thumburt spent a brief moment hoping that nothing too valuable had been broken, but his train of thought was soon interrupted.
"There you are, sir!" The yellow Cybunny put down her dustpan and made her way up to him, concern evident in her features. "The entire town is in a state of terror!" Indeed, now that he was closer to the crowd, Mayor Thumburt could feel the anxiety emanating from his visitors. While certain Neovians were inclined to lodge complaints at the town hall on a regular basis, he hadn't felt this sort of terrified atmosphere in the town in over a decade.
"What could possibly be wrong?" Mayor Thumburt asked incredulously, unable to think of what could cause this sort of mass panic amongst the stalwart citizens of Neovia. Well, alright, so that was a bit of a lie — the citizens of Neovia were a little too easily alarmed sometimes, especially given the fact that the town was located right in the middle of the Haunted Woods.
"Hear for yourself, sir," Emily said, motioning towards the group of visitors who'd gathered in the parlor, murmuring to each other in a rather disconcerting manner. Sighing once more, Mayor Thumburt prepared himself for the worst and stepped into the crowd.
"Haunted, you say?"
The mayor's voice had taken on the tone of a frustrated Neoschool teacher trying to give a lecture to an unreceptive class. "That's absurd!" he went on, sounding less surprised and more scandalized by the moment. Neovia had a reputation for being the only non-haunted spot in the Haunted Woods, and by Fyora, Mayor Thumburt was going to uphold that reputation. A haunted house in his town? The very idea! "You can't honestly expect me to believe this!"
None of the townspeople's arguments could convince Mayor Thumburt that a ghost had moved into the old Craven house. The Crumpetmonger had reported a string of thefts (the yellow Meerca said Honey Crumpets had been consistently disappearing from her shop over the past week), Prigpants and Swolthy complained of missing some material from their storeroom, and Alabaster Chesterdrawers even claimed to have seen a light in the window of the abandoned mansion. At this point, several other citizens had chimed in with their own anecdotes; there were lights in the house, the sound of footsteps, shadows passing by the windows.
"Sir, please," Jeeves interjected, still rubbing the bump on his head. "Everyone in town has similar stories to tell. Is it really fair to dismiss them?"
"That is my final answer! I won't hear another word — good day to you all!" Mayor Thumburt snapped, throwing both his flippers into the air and stalking back upstairs despite the townspeople angrily calling after him. There will be no further paranormal activity in this neck of the Haunted Woods, he assured himself. Not with Halloween approaching and old memories fresh in everyone's minds...
When Edmund opened his newspaper the next morning, he was greeted by large, eye-catching letters that spelled out "THE CURSE RETURNS?"
The sight of these words alone gave him a severe jolt. Leave it to those journalists to try to get your attention by referencing the town's decade-long ordeal that had ended only recently. Edmund took a long drink from his glass of orange juice and heaved a sigh, curious in spite of himself. Recovering from his initial shock, the yellow Skeith glanced back to the paper. The article, written by Penelope Pemberley of the Neovian Printing Press, read:
The town of Neovia knows a great deal about the supernatural — some might say too much. Despite the dark blot on the town's past, the citizens of Neovia have proved to be quite resilient, as befits a town in the heart of the Haunted Woods. In the past week, however, the arrival of an unconventional new neighbor has had townspeople in a panic.
Reports of a ghost living in the abandoned Craven mansion on Spyder Lane have flooded in from pets all across town. Lights and sinister shadows have allegedly been seen in the windows, and residents of the nearby houses claim that the creaking noises emanating from the old manor are worse than usual as of late. These experiences, along with a series of thefts from shops throughout the town, have put many on high alert.
It recently has been suggested by several Neovians that the sudden appearance of this phantom is meant as a warning to the town; but a warning about what? And the timing of this incident has raised even further questions — with Halloween less than a week away, could the terrible curse that held Neovia for ten years have returned once again...?
While Edmund read the morning paper, his son Reginald was upstairs with his nose in a book. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unusual occurrence, but what was unusual was the title of the book he clutched in his paws. Portrait of the Spirit, read the cover; beneath the curly script, a pair of ghostly eyes stared forth.
Ordinarily, Reginald was not the type to care very much about the paranormal. Recent events in Neovia, however, had caught his interest — as one of the neighborhood youths who used to play hide-and-seek in the Craven manor (during which time he had never experienced anything particularly supernatural), the brown Lupe had a special interest in the claims that a ghost now lived in the deserted house. And when Reginald was interested in something, of course, he read every book on the topic that he could find.
It was for that reason that he was intently perusing Portrait of the Spirit, which, while not the most well-written book Reginald had ever read, was the Neovian Library's oldest and, hopefully, most reliable volume on ghosts. Reginald always considered himself the boldest member of his family (though it could be argued that his little sister Sophie was better at speaking her mind), and so, with the entire town in a fluttering panic, he had taken it upon himself to investigate the Craven mansion for the good of all.
For the past few days, Reginald had spent most of his time locked away in his study. Again, that wasn't really unusual for him, but in this case, it was to research ghosts instead of mathematics or the history of Neopia. He read chapter after chapter, learning about the many theories of why ghosts originate, what they do, and how to get rid of them. "Fascinating!" he'd occasionally pause to murmur. (Reginald could get enthused about any book in the world if he tried hard enough.)
Now, as the clock downstairs chimed three times, Reginald glanced up from the last pages of the book, staring out the wide window in his room. His gaze swept over shops and houses, finally lingering on the roof of the old Craven manor, which peeked out from behind a row of homes. Even from so far away, the place was unmistakably eerie.
Reginald nodded to himself, determined. Tonight he'd go into the Craven house in search of answers, a solution to the town's fears. Tonight he would discover the truth.
To be continued...