I have to admit, one nice thing about Rogue and Wraith types is that they tend to react well in crisis situations--which is hardly surprising since crisis situations are their natural habitat. Wedge organized the search parties before you could say "classic horror movie plot development."
So. There I was, with Kell on one side of me and Runt on the other, all three of us staring down a long, seemingly endless hallway on the top floor. Where have I seen this before? I thought bitterly. Oh yes. Scooby Doo. Hey Shaggy, you and Scooby go look for the ghost while Daphne and I...um...wait in the Mystery Machine.
In the best of all possible worlds, it would be Wedge at my side. But no, Wedge was still in the main ballroom, which had become his impromptu headquarters. He was in comlink contact with all of us and we were to call in reports regularly. He'd thought I looked "too white" and offered to let me just wait at HQ with him, but like an idiot I said no. Sydney was my friend and I was gonna look for her, dammit. I guess he paired me with Kell and Runt for the security value; if we got into trouble, at least I was with two certified ass-kickers.
Although...at the moment, the two certified ass-kickers were making Shaggy and Scooby look positively gallant.
"It is our understanding that etiquette demands a lady go first," Runt said, not looking at me.
"So find a lady in your stack of personalities," I said.
"I'm sure it's quite safe," Kell said, staring into the black vortex of the hallway. "It looks safe to me. Very safe."
A clap of thunder rattled the floorboards, and we all shrank back towards brighter (and more populous) areas of the castle. This was ridiculous.
"I'm going in, guys," I announced, projecting a hell of a lot more bravura than I actually felt. Maybe I could shame the big bad commandos into going first. "We might as well get this over with."
"We are right behind you," Runt said, and Kell nodded vigorously.
Well, that plan backfired. Now I was stuck. Okay, Varg, be brave. You can do this. Think of your best friend. Think of all the concerts you and Syd have been to, think of the roadtrips, think of all the fun you've had over the years. But whatever you do, don't think of all those late night drinking binges/horror film festivals.
Was it my imagination, or did I hear a faint rustling in the darkness down at the other end of the hall?
Mice. Yeah. That was it. Mice. Something normal. It couldn't possibly be a machete wielding maniac.
I listened closer, but no matter how I strained my ears, I couldn't hear the noise. It had stopped--if it had been there at all.
No, I wasn't crazy. I did hear something, it wasn't my mind playing tricks on me. I probably heard some mice scratching around, but I did hear something.
I crept forward, ignoring the lessons of those late night drinking binges/horror film festivals with Sydney. (Lesson One being "never go upstairs to investigate strange noises....")
"We are right behind you," Runt whispered reassuringly. I reached back and grabbed Runt's hairy, muscled arm in my left hand; I felt along the wall panel with my right.
"So far, so good, guys," I whispered back, patting along the wall and feeling only the cool smooth paneling. "How we doing back there, Kell?"
"Why are we whispering?" he whispered.
"I don't know," I whispered back. "But if you feel like singing out loud, go right ahead." For some reason, he didn't take me up on it. We inched along the like this for some time before my hand found something that didn't feel like flat wall.
"I think there's a door here," I said, reaching blindly towards general doorknob vicintity, and finding a cold round knob of metal in my palm. "Yep, it's a door. We'd better check it out."
"Aren't you going to knock first?" Runt murmured.
"Good idea," I said sarcastically. "And if someone answers, 'there's nobody here but us ghosts,' then we run like hell." I gave the knob a good twist and the door opened smoothly, with almost no creakage. My hand went in first, grasping for a light switch.
Instead I touched something hairy.
I'm going to skim over the events of the next few moments, partly because they're all a blur and partly because they're so embarrassing. Suffice to say that by the time the screaming stopped, Kell and Runt had found the light switch and subdued the menacing deer's head that was mounted on the wall. Kell had to get on the comlink to Wedge and tell him no, don't send in the cavalry, that scream was just another one of Varg's hysterical fits.
"Hysterical?" I yelled, grabbing for the comlink. "Wedge, I had to lead the way because your commando was too chickenshit to do it himself!"
"Kell, is this true?" Wedge sounded disconcerted.
"I was watching her back!" Kell squealed.
Even over the distortion of the comlink, Wedge managed to convey the tone of an overwrought kindergarten teacher reaching the end of his rope. "Is it too much to ask for you three to conduct a search with some semblance of cooperation? Because if it is, you can come back here and babysit Gavin. He's vomited three times already, urinated on himself twice, and keeps babbling about pumpkins."
Confronted with this alternate assignment, Kell and I patched things up very quickly.
While Kell had been making his report to Wedge, Runt had started nosing around the room. And although it was obvious Sydney wasn't here, we couldn't help but nose around with him once we ironed out our issues. It was just a room, four walls and a door; not even a window to make it interesting. But it reminded me of the old college theatre prop rooms from my undergrad days. It was a maze of old furniture, dusty books piled in rows, mismatched china sets, glassware, pictures and picture frames of every shape and size, thick old rugs piled along the wall.
"What is this stuff?" Kell asked wonderingly.
"A prop master's wet dream," I said, heaving aside a bearskin rug and finding pieces of armor underneath. Pieces--but not a whole suit, and definitely not animate.
Runt sneezed explosively, scattering rolled maps and loose pieces of paper. "The dust is irritating our sinuses."
"I don't suppose anyone comes up here much," I said.
"Then why did the door not creak when you opened it?" Runt queried. His bony face wasn't as expressive as a human's, but I got the feeling he'd focused on something. He went to the door and sniffed the hinges, rubbing his finger along the top hinge.
"Just as I suspected," he announced. "Recently lubricated...with WD-40, if I have identified the smell correctly." His voice had taken on a rather British inflection, I noticed.
"So the caretaker comes by every week to oil the doors and locks and make sure everything's in good condition," Kell shrugged, pawing over some of the papers Runt had scattered.
"Perhaps..." Runt said archly, rummaging through a box of odds and ends. He came up with a magnifying glass and held it up to one eye. "Or perhaps not! The question is elementary, my dear Kell. Did a caretaker oil the door as a matter of course, as part of his normal duties around the castle? Or have the doors been as negelected as the rest of this room, and only recently they were oiled so they would open silently, perhaps for some nefarious purpose?"
"The question is where did my friend go, and what happened to her," I muttered. Runt ignored me and started examining the hinges under his new magnifying glass. I understood that Runt developed new personalities as he developed new skills, but did he have to develop this particular one? I mean, why couldn't it have been Brother Cadfael, or Miss Marple?
I sidled up to Kell. "Is this a new one for Runt?"
"Sure is new to me, anyway," he said distantly, poring over one of the old maps.
"You might want to remind him that cocaine is illegal in this century." I looked over his shoulder. "What's this?"
"I think this is a map of the area. See the river? And those hills?"
I remembered the river very well. Syd and I had almost ended up in it, on our way here. "Yeah, but this map can't be right. This bit marked Indian burial ground? That's wrong. I studied the latest road maps all the way here and there isn't...any...Indian...burial..."
Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck fuck fuck. "Kell, tell me this castle does not stand on the location marked Indian burial ground."
He looked at me strangely. "Why?"
Another clap of thunder shook the floorboards.
Continued in Part Eleven