A Hard Nox Life
The autumn leaves crunched below Martha's feet. She remembered that sound. It was a strange comfort to the old green Cybunny now, but once, it had filled her with such dread.
Something howled, somewhere in the distance. Werelupes, of course there'd be Werelupes. There always were in the Haunted Woods.
Martha swallowed hard, trying to remember the words her mother had spoken to her when she had left her home in Neovia that morning.
"Stick to the path," Martha repeated, hoping the sound of a voice might help her nerves. "Stick to the path and you'll be fine."
She glanced up ahead. The path snaked off through the trees into the dark of the night, skating around the edge of the Deserted Fairground. The young Cybunny took another look at the scrap of paper in her hand, squinting hard to make out the address in the moonlight.
Ahead, she saw her destination loom out of the darkness.
It hadn't changed, even after all those years. Martha paused as Castle Nox came into view. The same untended grounds. The same patchy tiling on the roof. The lights, magically enchanted, still gleamed from every window, inviting beacons in the gloom. False beacons of hope, to many Neopian travellers.
A bolt of lightning coursed across the sky. Martha gave a little smile. Nothing had changed.
Then she noticed the door was ajar, and the reality of the situation hit her.
So much had changed.
Running from the bolt of lightning, Martha darted from the path towards the presumed safety of the castle. A great oak door loomed above her, and she banged once on the silver door knocker.
Only after the echo of the noise had died away did she notice the shape of the knocker – a skull.
The sight sent a shiver down her spine. Was any job worth this?
Too late the thought came, as the door creaked open and Martha was committed to the act. She paused on the threshold only briefly before rushing inside, glad to be free of the dangers of the night.
She wheeled around, expecting to see some sort of butler of the mansion, or whoever had opened the door for her. Instead, she saw no one. How had the door opened itself?
The hall itself was impressive. A vast staircase stretched out at the back of the hall, up to a gallery on the first floor that seemed to stretch around the entire room. Dark corridors traced off the gallery, the shadows giving no hint of their contents. At the top of the staircase, a grand portrait hung. A yellow Chia, stretching towards the morning sky with a golden, gleaming sword. It was an impressive piece of art, by all accounts. Martha was beginning to feel more comfortable about seeking employment in such a place – the owner was sure to be quite rich.
On the ground floor, two doors offered the only routes out, one on either side of the staircase. Both seemed quite resolutely locked. Where was everyone?
The door creaked the same old creak as Martha pushed it open a little more. She paused in the entrance hall to catch her breath. Not as young as she once had been, the trek from Neovia was catching up with her, and she began to wonder just how she had managed it every day for nearly fifty years.
The hall was much the same as it always had been, save for the layer of dust that had accumulated in the two years since Martha had last stepped foot inside.
Her eyes sadly glanced over to the door on the right of the staircase. The green glow coming from within was still just as intense as the day Hubrid had finished the Transfabulator. But the machine had been sullied since those days. Martha had heard the looters had arrived soon after news of Hubrid's death had broken, and the Corridor of Chance, as they called it, had been a popular place for them to visit. Where the black market source of keys to the green hued corridor had come from, Martha could not say. She had certainly kept her keys close to her chest.
Thankfully, the other secrets that Castle Nox held had not been so easily stolen. There were many locks that had yet to be picked. Martha just hoped that the one she was looking for had remained safe.
Her eyes drifted to the staircase, and she smiled as she remembered her first encounter with the creature she would spend her entire life in service to.
"Hello?" Martha called out at last, the silence alarming her far more than the howls of the Werelupes outside had done.
There was the sound of a brief rustling somewhere in the depths of the shadowed corridors of the gallery, and then a bright flash filled the hall. Martha shielded her eyes from the light, and found when it subsided that there was a figure standing at the top of the staircase.
"Mwahaha!" the blue Chia declared.
Martha squinted at the Chia, seeing the family resemblance to the yellow Chia depicted in the portrait behind him.
"Mr. Nox?" she asked.
The Chia gasped a little, recoiling.
"Sorry!" Martha said. "It's probably Lord Nox, isn't it? The advert didn't mention who I would be working for by name."
"You are supposed to be cowering in fear!" the Chia shouted.
"Sorry?" Martha asked.
"I've just made a sudden and intimidating entrance, coupled with an evil maniacal laugh," the Chia explained. "You then cower in fear for a few moments before I demand to know exactly why you have entered my lair."
"Oh," Martha replied slightly nonplussed.
Then she hit upon the idea that it may have been an unconventional interview technique, so she did her best attempt at a cower. The Chia seemed pleased by her efforts and straightened himself back up.
"Who dares to enter the lair of the great Hubrid Nox!?" he demanded theatrically.
"Martha," she introduced herself. "Martha Hogbottom. I'm here about the job advertisement in the Neovian Press. Cleaner?"
Hubrid seemed to consider this.
"The hours will be long. The tasks I set you, difficult. There will be secrets you learn that must never be spoken," he announced. "I expect full and unquestioned loyalty from my minions. You answer to me and only me."
"Of course," Martha said with a little curtsey.
Hubrid smiled, revealing fangs in his teeth.
Hubrid had not been lying. The job was difficult. Castle Nox was of considerable size, and contained a myriad of secret passages and side chambers that needed cleaning. She also had to clear up Hubrid's failed experiments, though thankfully as he became a more skilled warlock, such occasions became rarer.
Martha climbed the great staircase slowly. The old portrait of the yellow Chia had been replaced soon after she had started work. Now there was a portrait of Hubrid, in much the same pose, reaching out a sword in a night sky.
Martha had never learned who the old yellow Chia had been. She considered at first that it had been Hubrid's father, and the job advert had come as Hubrid had inherited the estate. But then, as the years passed, she began to consider a new alternative. Perhaps the yellow Chia had been Hubrid himself, and Martha had arrived after... well, after whatever had turned him into the vampiric creature she came to know so well.
Either way, Martha had never dared asked the man himself. And even if she had, she doubted Hubrid would have consented to answer.
Martha continued on her way along the gallery, picking one of the corridors leading off. The room she was looking for was in deeper, in the very heart of the castle. She found herself rushing, though she didn't know why. If what she was looking for was still here, it would not be stolen in the next few minutes.
She passed another door, left ajar. The old study. The bookcases were always hard to clean, and had seemed to be magnets for dust. Memories assaulted Martha, but one seemed clearer than the others. Her second day on the job.
Voices coming from the study.
The mansion had seemed deserted on Martha's first day, and there didn't seem to be any other staff to speak of. The prospect of company was too much for Martha to resist.
One voice was clearly marked as Nox's as Martha drew closer, his distinctive theatrical tone echoing through the halls.
She poked her head round the door to see two figures sat in the armchairs near the fireplace. Hubrid was sat with his back to the door, but Martha had a clear view of the other occupant. A green Wocky.
"Hello there, sir." She nodded to him.
Hubrid was up immediately, sweeping towards the door with unnatural speed and a fire in his eyes.
"You do not speak unless spoken to!" he hissed, slamming the door in her face.
That was how it had been from that moment forwards. Martha had never again made conversation with anyone in the castle unless spoken to first. But she did listen. Oh how she listened.
She learned pretty quickly that the Wocky had been named MAGAX, though she didn't learn until later that his name was spelt in capitals. He and Hubrid had spent many nights in the study, plotting and scheming the world away. Then, MAGAX was gone. Hubrid never spoke of him again, though the symbolic removal of his armchair by the fire told Martha that the Chia had been hurt deeply by his absence.
Now the study was strangely vacant, the hidden passage in the bookcase open – the last relic of Hubrid's escape to his fatal encounter with Xandra in the woods.
Martha continued on, her destination clear.
At last she found the right door. There were still spyderwebs on the door frame. The room had not been raided. Martha sighed with relief as she fumbled for her keys.
Locating the right one, she felt the lock open with a satisfying clunk. She swung the door open – the laboratory.
To call it that wasn't accurate. Hubrid was no scientist. He had been a necromancer. But that had been the name he had used for where he worked his magic, and the name had stuck in Martha's mind.
It may have once been a store room, as the shelves that lined the walls were thick and sturdy. But cookery with the objects contained within would have been inadvisable.
Orbs, staves, magic books, talismans and trinkets the variety and colours of which few Neopians had ever seen were gathered within. The room's only other furniture was a stone work table in the centre, where Hubrid would work his evils.
This room had been Martha's favourite. A joy to clean. Each of the little trinkets, Hubrid had warned, had enough power to transform and mutate her in ways that would give her nightmares for the rest of her life. So she had been careful with the duster, all the while her eyes taking in every last glint of Hubrid's finest collection.
She had wasted away the years cleaning this room. The young girl had become an old woman, while Hubrid had remained exactly as the day she had met him. But there was one item in particular she was looking for now.
Martha's dusting slowed subconsciously as she reached the blood red gem.
It was beautiful, the way her reflection caught the ruby so mesmerised her that she often found herself staring at it. The stone was the size of her fist, but as a girl, she had often dreamed of wearing it as a ring – the talk of Neovia.
Now, in her middle age, she knew such dreams were folly. She stopped these days just to marvel at it, before moving along with her work.
"You like it, don't you?" Hubrid's voice came from behind her.
Martha jumped. Hubrid rarely spoke when he worked his magic at the table, and his tone seemed to be lacking in its usual theatricality.
"I'm sorry, sir," she apologised, taking up the duster and flustering along the shelf.
Hubrid had moved swiftly to the shelf and scooped up the ruby.
"It's not magical, you know?" he said in the same, almost wistful tone. "Not like everything else in here."
It was rare for Hubrid to talk about himself or his possessions in such a frank manner, so Martha leapt on the chance.
"Then why keep it?"
"It is from... before," Hubrid answered.
Martha did not ask what Nox meant by that. She knew already. Before whatever had turned him into what he was.
"You have been here many years now, Martha," Hubrid added.
"Thirty, sir," she told him.
"Many years," Hubrid repeated. "Like part of the furniture. Like family."
There was an odd way he said the final word, as if it had been a desire long since stripped from him. He placed the ruby back on the shelf.
"If anything should ever happen to me, Martha, you may have this," he instructed.
He gave one final glance to the ruby, and then his face hardened slightly.
"Now be gone!" he shouted, his familiar tone resurfacing as he darted back to his work table.
Whatever moment of melancholy had claimed Nox, it had ended.
That had been twenty-two years ago. After Nox died, Martha hadn't plucked up the courage to return to the castle until now, two years later. Too many memories, and more than that, she didn't want to face the fact that he was really gone.
She traced her hand along the dusty shelf until she reached the spot the ruby held.
It was gone.
Martha's heart sank. The looters had reached this place, too. But why just the ruby? The rest of Hubrid's treasures were untouched.
At once, the temperature in the room seemed to dip, and Martha found herself shivering. Sensing a presence behind her, she wheeled round, coming face to face with a very familiar figure.
The shade was pale, translucent to the point of almost not being there at all, but she could clearly make out the cape and the moustache. It floated silently in front of her, nodding slowly to answer her question.
"I..." Martha didn't know what to say.
A million thoughts raced through her mind. Had he planned this? Was he planning on returning? Where was the ruby? Was he angry she hadn't come to work in two years?
Hubrid's ghost merely raised a hand, pointing to the end of the room and drifting off in that direction.
Martha followed obediently, coming to a stop when the ghost gestured to a book on the shelf. Martha picked it up, but felt a familiar jerk as the book remained in place – just like the one in the study that opened a secret passage.
The mechanism of the book operated in a similar way, and a doorway opened up in the wall nearby.
"A secret passage?" Martha asked the ghost.
She had been tasked with cleaning them all. But this one? She had never known about it.
The ghost merely nodded and drifted inside, Martha following in its wake.
She was greeted by the sight of the old yellow Chia, the portrait hanging on the far wall of this new chamber. But there were others, Chias in fashions that hadn't been seen in centuries, children, women, even one that looked something like a young Hubrid.
"Family? Ancestors?" Martha asked.
The ghost nodded.
And now, as she looked at the pictures, she noticed something new. The ruby was present in each one. Sometimes held as a gem, sometimes as an amulet.
"It was an heirloom?" she gasped. "Yet, you were willing to give it to me?"
The ghost nodded again, drifting over to a small table under the yellow Chia's portrait. The ruby was there, glinting innocently.
The ghost seem to take considerable effort in scooping up the gemstone, as if touching things now required energy. It drifted back over and presented the stone.
"I can't possibly," Martha protested. "Not now I know this."
The ghost shook his head and proffered the ruby again. This time, Martha got the flash of something in her mind, as if the ghost was trying to speak to her.
Nox had never had children. No family had ever visited the castle. Was he trying to pass on his legacy? Without MAGAX, was Martha the closest thing he had?
She relented, taking the ruby with thanks. Almost immediately, the ghost faded from view, leaving Martha alone again.
She lingered for a few moments only. The room, it didn't feel right for her to stay.
She remembered to lock the door behind her, keeping Nox's treasures safe, and made her way back out into the night and to the Neovia path.
Martha kept the ruby until her dying day, but she never wore it.
Some things shouldn't be paraded around.
Some things, they are only for family.