There was a bright light filling up the windshield – he thought they were headlights, but they couldn't be because they'd be on the wrong side of the road then – and the sound of tires screeching on pavement as his father slammed on the brakes. It was too late because the light was everywhere and Q shot up, eyes wide and with a yell on the tip of his tongue.
But there wasn't a car, and he hadn't been flung through the windshield by the impact. Looking around, he realized that he wasn't anywhere near the narrow road that he recalled. Instead, he could hear the sound of water dripping onto stone and feel a chill sinking into his skin. Everything was blurred around the edges, and he fumbled around near his side for his glasses.
He was more than relieved when his fingers closed around the familiar frames. Q shoved them on and looked around.
Obviously he'd awoken in a dungeon of some sort. There were shackles affixed at specific points on the back wall and the cot he'd woken on was lumpy. Also, the reason he was so cold was because he was naked except for the thin sheet that had been thrown over him; his clothes were nowhere to be found.
Holding the sheet tightly around his waist, Q swung his legs over the side of the cot and stood up. The sudden change made his head spin and he stumbled, sinking to his knees as he pressed the butt of his palm against his forehead. Once the feeling of vertigo had passed, he slowly pushed himself back to his feet and tied the sheet as tightly as he could around his waist. If it was the only cover he was going to be afforded, then he was going to make damn good use of it.
The dungeon hadn't been used in quite some time, judging by the rust on the bars on the cell. Across from his cell was another cell that looked equally derelict; however, the lock on his looked fairly new. Well-cared for, at least.
Reaching through the bars, Q fumbled for the lock. He was surprised and more than a little suspicious when he realized that it was unlocked. He glanced up and down the passage to see if anyone was there, but all he could see was murky darkness and a solitary torch burning in the bracket beside his cell.
After a few seconds of fumbling, the door of the cell opened. It made a loud shriek of protest as it did and Q winced, waiting for several minutes but no one came.
Under his feet, the stone was cold, smooth, and damp. The chill of the air was already settling in; Q shivered, wrapping his arms tightly around himself to try and ward some of it off.
To his left, the passage ended abruptly with another set of cells, both of them as small and derelict as the one he'd awoken in. The way out was to his right, through a barred door that was half open and a set of stone stairs which spiraled upwards. Given his lack of options, Q took the stairs; there was a chance he might be able to escape or find something to defend himself with before whoever had taken him realized he wasn't in his cell.
The stairs were made of the same smooth, cold rock as the floor of the dungeon, but without much illumination, Q took them with caution. He hugged the wall, fingers touching the rough hewn bricks of the wall as he carefully edged forward and slowly took each step.
Slowly, he made his way up the staircase, making out a thin line of light some ways up. He could only hope that the door at the top of the stairs wasn't locked.
When he was a few stairs from the top, he stepped on something. Q inhaled sharply from the shot of dulled pain; whatever it was he'd stepped on, it had edges and was made of metal, although luckily it wasn't sharp. Curiosity getting the better of him, he reached down and slid his fingers along the rough stone until he found what he'd stepped on.
Between his fingers, he felt the shift and slide of metal tags and the smoothness of worn leather. Closing his fingers around the object, he picked it up. The metal tags tinkled together as he picked them up; Q couldn't make out what they said in the dim light, but a couple more steps up and he'd pressed his hand against the heavy wooden door.
It wasn't locked.
Finding the rusted latch keeping it closed, Q pushed the door open and stepped into a small room. He looked around, noting there was a carefully made up cot tucked away in an alcove across from the door and the large, heavy oaken table in the centre of the room. There was a door on one side of the room and a fireplace with a roaring fire on the other; lanterns hung from a few of the columns between the arches, filling the entire room with a warm glow that didn't quite reach the high, vaulted ceiling.
There wasn't anyone there, so Q looked down at what he'd picked up on the staircase. It was a pair of dog tags on a worn leather thong, which had been torn and a little bloodied on one of the torn ends. Turning them over carefully in his hands, he could make out a name.
Are they keeping someone else here? Or... His hand clenched around them. Either way, they could possibly be worth holding onto – just in case.
Feeling vulnerable in nothing but his sheet, Q quickly moved towards the door. Like the one leading down into the dungeon, it wasn't locked and he pushed it open with some effort.
The cold air and dull light of twilight greeted him. Looking around, Q couldn't see anyone, but he realized he was in some kind of enclosed courtyard. Dead trees lined the worn dirt path which led towards a broken fountain. Stepping out into the air, gooseflesh raced up Q's arms and he cautiously made his way along the path. Dirt and loose rocks dug into his feet, and Q winced at the discomfort.
A raised dais of some kind was near the fountain, which was choked with algae, with a large oak tree planted at its centre. Beyond the fountain and dais, the path divided itself in two, one side was blocked by a metal gate, but the other looked clear. There was also a staircase which led up into a large and foreboding stone castle.
The castle was probably where whoever had taken him had gone, and Q was unwilling to venture into it unless he absolutely had to. Instead, he walked towards the fork in the path and the unblocked path. Strewn along one side of it were cages, and it led past a fenced-in enclosure, although there were no animals to be seen except for the crows in the dead trees.
The path resulted in a dead end.
That seemed to be his luck today, Q doubled back and stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up at the castle before he started up them. His feet were sore from the rough ground, and the worn stone of the stairs wasn't much better.
Reaching the top of the staircase, Q realized that he'd not only been kidnapped but he was also completely lost. The castle, it seemed, was built like a maze; paths led everywhere and more staircases arched overhead, with numerous doors leading into the castle and who knew where from there. He could probably wander for days in this castle and never find his way out.
Still, he didn't have much choice. There was another staircase leading up, though Q couldn't see where it led from this level, but there were several glass doors that led into the castle and he tried those. All of them were locked, though he could see light inside.
That there was electricity was a bonus; that meant that there was the chance he could find a phone and call for help. Despite that the grounds looked poorly cared for and that the plants dotting the level he was on were all dead and withering, the interior of the castle – from what he could see – looked relatively well cared for. Clearly, someone did live here.
Another barred gate blocked Q from exploring any further and, although he tried pushing on it, it refused to open.
Guess the only way out of this is up.
Walking up the staircase, Q tried to see if he could see a way out, but he was only able to make out the stone walls of the castle. Beyond the heavy stone walls of the castle he could see a deep forest. There were no signs of civilization anywhere.
The landing of the staircase led to a blue door with a glass inlay in an unfamiliar pattern. Trying the handle, Q was surprised when it opened easily. He was greeted by a blast of warm air and he quickly stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
It looked like a very well-furnished, split-level guest room. There was a sitting area and a television on the lower level, where Q was, and he could see a bed and a blazing fireplace on the upper level – along with another door. Old paintings and pressed plants in frames hung on the walls, giving the place an aged, old feel along with the stone brick walls.
The only sound that Q could hear, apart from his shallow breathing, was the steady ticking of a clock. Stepping further into the room, Q made his way towards the door. Despite the electric lighting, the television was old and the entire room felt incredibly dated.
There was also no phone.
Q quickly made his way up the two steps leading to the upper level, only sparing a quick glance at the painting of the old man hanging on the wall opposite the bed – it gave him the chills. He reached for the doorknob, only to stop when he felt the prickling sensation of eyes on him. But... that wasn't possible – there was no one else in the room and he hadn't heard the door open.
Spinning around, Q kept the door at his back and nearly jumped when he spotted the woman standing beside the bed. He inhaled sharply, though, and stared at her with wide eyes, clutching his sheet tightly around his waist.
The woman stared at him, the smallest of smiles on her face, though it was at odds with the dull look in her eyes. She was dressed in an old maid's outfit with a high collar, and there was a symbol of some kind embroidered in gold on the shoulders. She gestured to the bed.
“I have gathered you some clothes,” she said. Her voice was flat and halting, completely devoid of emotion. “I hope that you find them comfortable.”
“Who are you?!” Q was glad that his voice didn't shake. “Where am I?!”
The woman said nothing, instead staring at him blankly before slowly, her movements robotic, like a wind-up toy, walking towards the door. Her frame was thin, and Q took an involuntary step back as she came closer. Something about her wasn't quite right and it scared him, more so than waking up in the dungeon had.
“Answer me!” Q snapped as the woman's hand touched the doorknob.
She halted, tilting her head to the side in a jerky movement. Instead of looking at Q, she looked past him and over his shoulder to the picture of the old man.
“Yes, master, I will keep him here for you,” she said, again in that flat, halting voice. “I will ensure he remains... whole.”
“I'm not staying here,” Q said sharply. “You can't keep me here.”
The woman didn't meet his eyes. She kept staring at the painting.
Nervously, Q glanced over his shoulder at the painting. He hadn't realized before, but there was something... familiar about it.
He remembered lying in the back of the car, dazed, the world blurred at the edges and swaying as though he was on a boat. There was a figure at the window though, silhouetted in light from the headlights, leaning towards him and reaching Q opened his eyes. He was sprawled on the floor. The woman was gone.
Pushing himself to his feet, Q looked around. The room was unchanged from how it had been when he'd first entered, with the exception of the clothes lying on the bed and that the sheets had been turned down. Obviously, someone was expecting that he would be staying here.
“Like hell am I staying here,” Q grumbled, getting to his feet and securing his sheet about his waist. The dog tags he'd picked up were lying a small distance away and Q picked them up, turning them over in his hands. The leather felt warm and comforting in his hands, as did the sound the tags made as they clinked against each other.
He looked over at the clothes that the woman – the maid? – had laid out. Slowly, he walked over to them. They seemed harmless enough and it was certainly better than wandering around in a sheet. There was even a pair of sturdy leather boots sitting beside the bed.
The boots made the decision for him.
Q dropped the dog tags and their accompanying leather thong on the bed beside the clothes. He untied his sheet and let it drop next, reaching for the clothes. The clothes were simple; merely a pair of dark green leggings with a cream-coloured tunic and a dark brown belt. Despite how simple they looked, the fabric was soft and obviously expensive when Q picked them up.
He pulled the leggings on, surprised by their snug fit. The belt was etched with designs and thick, more ornamental than anything else, but the tunic was incredibly loose when he pulled it over his head and billowed when he moved. He ended up belting it around his waist to keep it closed; the end of it fell to mid-thigh and the sleeves, luckily, were fitted from the elbow down.
Sitting down on the bed, Q pulled the boots on, pleasantly surprised when he found a pair of socks tucked into one. Well, at least he didn't need to worry about blisters.
Fully dressed, Q sat on the bed for several moments, gathering himself. He still didn't know where he was or who had brought him here or why he'd found himself naked in a dungeon. The woman hadn't seemed too keen on returning him to that cell and she'd given him clothes, which contradicted the state he'd woken up in. She also didn't look like she'd have been able to drag or carry him here from wherever... wherever the car was.
There was the issue of this 'master' she'd mentioned. It was entirely possible that he was the one who had brought Q here, and the woman was simply an accomplice. That seemed most likely, and that left him having to deal with two people who wanted something from him.
He still needed to escape. That was his immediate priority.
As he made to push himself onto his feet, his fingers brushed against the leather thong of the dog tags. Q looked down at them and frowned.
For whatever reason, they offered him some measure of comfort, even though there was the possibility that they belonged to his kidnapper. But the torn leather and blood contradicted that. He couldn't remember putting up a fight, but everything before he woke up in the dungeon was something of a blur. He remembered his parents, that they had been coming back from vacation and forced to use a mostly-abandoned narrow road... but not much else.
He didn't know how he'd been brought here, or why.
Q shook his head. The reasons for the how and why weren't important. He needed to focus, and he needed to find a way out of this castle – or a way to call for help. And he wasn't going to find any of that unless he left this room.
Holding up the dog tags, Q watched as the light reflected off the metal, throwing shadows from the raised surface of the lettering. James Bond. They felt warm, a comfortable weight in his hands.
With a sigh, Q reached up and tied the leather thong around his neck. The dog tags bumped against the bare skin and Q felt comforted by the weight and presence of them. He pressed his fingers against them once before he stood up and walked towards the door, giving the painting of the old man one more look before he opened the door and left.
The guest room led out into a hall, one side of the hall was taken up by open arches that overlooked another courtyard; ivy climbed up the columns of the arches. There was no one around. Closing the door behind him, Q headed down the hall.
His footsteps were the only sound and Q was reminded just how alone he was. He touched the dog tags again.
Splash! Q blinked and glanced down.
His eyes widened and he jumped back. He'd just stepped into a puddle of blood.
He covered his mouth and stared. The blood streamed down from where it was splattered against one of the columns. Some distant part of his brain supplied that it was a considerable amount of blood and it was fresh too, not dried.
Just what sort of nightmare had he stepped into?
Carefully, Q edged around the blood, unable to tear his eyes away from it. Pressing his back against the wall, Q took a deep breath to steady himself. He definitely needed to get out of here before he became a splat of blood on the wall too.
Taking a couple deep breaths, Q steadied himself and kept walking. A door set in a recess in the wall opened and led into a small study and library. All of the books were bound in leather and looked aged, though there wasn't an inch of dust to be seen.
Browsing the titles, Q noticed that they were written in a wide variety of languages – he recognized English, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Russian among the titles. Trailing his fingers along the spines, Q tried to pick up a pattern to their titles, but if there was one, he couldn't find it. The smell, though, was comforting.
Leaning against a bookshelf in the corner was a chalkboard, upon which something had been written. Crouching down, Q leaned in to investigate.
Luminessants are tiny creatures that respond to the ethereal energies given off by Azoth. They can be used to help track down nearby Azoth. However, several precautions must be taken while handling them:
• When Luminessants come into direct contact with an Azoth infused item or being, they send forth a small charge which shocks the carrier. The higher the concentration of Azoth in said carrier, the greater and more powerful the shock.
• Luminessants' life span is dramatically decreased whenever they come into direct contact with the open air. This time differs from specimen to specimen, but is never much longer than a few minutes.
Q frowned, rocking back on his heels. Luminessants. Azoth. Neither word held any real meaning for him. He'd thought that it was just a misspelling at first, but the insistence of it said otherwise. Still, he filed away the information for future use – just in case.
Standing up again, Q resumed his examination of the titles in the library. A fair number of the ones that he could identify had some relation to fairy tales or alchemy, though none were in-depth. There was a locked desk in an alcove, but nothing else of any interest or use.
Leaving the library, Q continued down the hall, leaving behind the courtyard and entering an enclosed hallway. He tried the doors he found, but all of them were locked.
Nearing a corner, Q could make out a shuffling noise and something that sounded like someone plucking the strings of an instrument. He froze, listening carefully as he edged closer. The shuffling was quickly joined by a whimpering noise that sounded like... sobbing?
Something flew past where Q was standing, pressed up against the corner, and he fell backwards with a startled noise. The thing hit the ground with a dull clatter and Q realized that it was a lyre of some kind, made of a burnished, dull silver.
Following the lyre was a woman. She threw herself on the ground by it, making muffled whimpering noises as she did. Her long dark hair fell over her shoulders like a tangled veil and she was wearing a tattered dress that clung to her; the filthy folds looked as though they'd been white at one point, and edged in gold trim. Her bare arms were covered with criss-crossing scars and – Q blinked and felt the pit of his stomach drop out. Bandages had been wrapped around her arms in places, and there were long, damaged feathers poking out from between them.
As she carefully pulled the lyre close to her and cradled it against her chest, Q realized that the tips of her fingers were stained with blood.
Shaking slightly from the fright, Q slowly shuffled backwards. The movement and sound drew the woman's attention and her head snapped towards Q and he found himself frozen.
Her lips had been sewn shut.
There was a mass of scarred tissue surrounding the stitches, and they were stained a dark black from blood. The corners of her mouth were stained with dried blood. Her lips were a dark purple from blood and bruising, though they didn't look horribly swollen. The stitches must have been old.
She stared at Q with deep, dark eyes ringed with a fine down of lashes. At her temples were an upsweep of feathers, drawing attention to her eyes.
Despite the mangled horror that were her lips, Q found himself transfixed by her alien beauty. He wanted to move but his limbs felt like lead and he couldn't look away from those dark eyes of hers. He trembled violently.
The woman twitched and moved towards Q in a jerky movement, reaching one bloodied and long-nailed hand towards him.
Her movement broke the spell on Q, and he shot backwards, dragging himself backwards from her to put as much space between them as possible. His legs shook when tried to get to his feet and he collapsed again.
She blinked, still reaching towards him and her nails were like a bird's talons – hooked and viciously sharp. Her wide eyes stared at him, taking him all in and then she slowly crawled towards him, lyre forgotten. As she moved forward, her hair fell over her shoulders and framed her face.
Fresh blood welled from the wounds of the stitches as she came closer and Q jerked away, finally getting his feet under him. He stumbled back a couple of steps, then turned and ran. He had to put as much space between them as possible.
The castle was built like a maze, all winding halls with multiple forks and corridors to take, but Q remembered the path he'd taken from the guest room and fled towards it. He could hear the light footsteps of the woman behind him and he pushed himself to run faster.
Reaching the guest room, Q wrenched the door open and slammed it closed. His fingers fumbled with the lock for a few seconds, but it didn't take long for him to slide it into place. He leaned against the door, breath coming in shuddering gasps as he slid to the floor.
The woman slammed into the door with a loud thud. Q could hear her clawing at it, could hear the sounds of her shuffling and whimpering as she did. The door shook as she hammered and clawed at it, but it held. She kept making pathetic sounds deep in her throat as she clawed in the door, and Q felt his heart pounding in his throat.
He found himself praying to a God he didn't believe in that she'd give up and leave. His breath stuttered and he gasped for breath, trying to catch it.
The minutes dragged by, marked by the tick of the clock and the sound of the woman scratching at the door.
Q counted ten minutes in his head until the scratching died away. His heart slowly stopped its rapid staccato against his throat and he inhaled deeply, fighting back a feeling of light-headedness. The sound of the woman's shuffling and whimpering faded into the distance until he couldn't hear it at all.
Drawing his knees tightly to his chest, Q dropped his head to rest on his knees and took several deep, steading breaths. He counted the minutes until another twenty had passed before he pushed himself shakily back onto his feet.
With no small amount of trepidation, Q unlocked the door and eased it open, peering around the heavy wood to the hall beyond. The woman was gone and he couldn't hear her shuffling or whimpering. Shaken, he stepped out and into the hall again, retracing his steps cautiously and carefully to where he'd met her.
The lyre remained where the woman had dropped it; stained with blood from her fingers. Q carefully stepped around it and glanced down the hall from where she'd come from. It ended in another dead end, although Q could make out the outline of a door in the dim light. There was also a door to his left, right behind a crate full of... something.
Wandering down the hall, Q opened the door and carefully glanced inside. The room was empty, except for an empty birdcage in one corner, the fallen chandelier in the middle of the room, and what looked like a typewriter in the opposite corner.
Upon closer inspection, Q realized that the typewriter wasn't a typewriter at all. It had the keys of one and certainly looked old, but there was no place to put paper and the various mechanisms attached to it didn't make much sense. Beside it, there were a number of small metal plates. With a trembling finger, Q reached out and pushed down on one of the keys. It made a loud noise that made Q jump.
Pressing a few more keys, Q hit the enter key. The machine made a loud whining noise before one of the plates popped out from the slot. Q stared at it for several long seconds, before realizing that what he'd typed out appeared on the plate.
“Well, that's certainly... something, but not helpful at all.” Q sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He hadn't found anything useful yet, except one terrifying bird-woman and a machine that made inscribed metal plates. Hardly the phone or escape route he was looking for and needed.
He still had that other door to check out and he might as well. There possibly could be a way out through it.
Returning to the door, Q stared at the crate and prayed that it wouldn't be so heavy that it would throw out his shoulder or exhaust him. Bracing himself against it, Q pushed and it slowly moved out of the way with a loud creaking sound. It was definitely heavy, though, and Q took a few deep breaths as he leaned against it.
The door was unlocked when he tried the handle and Q pushed it open, emerging into a lab of some kind. It looked a little like an old-fashioned chemist's lab, though some of the equipment was unfamiliar. A fire burned in the fireplace and there was another door, this time blocked by a large golem.
Q stared. A golem. Really.
“What is this, World of Warcraft?” Q asked in a low voice. He crossed his arms and glared at the golem blocking his way. There had to be a way around it.
Upon closer examination, Q realized that there was a slot in the golem's chest. A quick glance behind him at the papers and journals stacked on the table drew his eye and Q moved over, scanning through them quickly. One of them mentioned a golem – one that its creator had dubbed 'Emeth'.
Q rubbed his temples and sighed, “Honestly, I don't have time for these stupid puzzles...”
Still, it was something and that slot probably was meant for those plate keys the machine in that other room made. Q backtracked to it, typing out the word 'emeth' and obtaining the plate key. He returned to the golem, weighing the key in his hands before pressing it into the slot.
For a couple of seconds, nothing happened. Then, the golem straightened, joints cracking and shedding gravel and dust as it did. It stepped away from the door, moving until it came to rest in a corner of the room.
The door was unlocked and Q smiled just a little. Well, hopefully his luck held out for a little while longer; just until he got out of here.
The door led outside onto another exterior stone walkway. Q investigated the nearby staircase, but it ended abruptly as half of the stairs had collapsed. However, there was a ladder which led to the small courtyard area below. Testing the rungs, they seemed to hold and Q carefully made his way down it.
A path led past a door framed by statues of half-dressed women and the collapsed stairs lay in the corner. Trying the door was useless because, as Q found, it was locked. The dead silence outside was unnerving, because there wasn't even the sound of birds or owls. It was silent except for the quiet rustle of the wind and the crunch of Q's boots in the dirt.
The only light came from several lanterns hanging on the wall and the dim light of the moon and stars. Night had fallen while he'd been trapped in the castle.
Q wrapped his arms around himself tightly, trying to ward off the chill of the night that he could feel through the thin fabric of his tunic. The leggings were thick enough that he couldn't feel the chill through them, but the light fabric of the tunic only covered his skin and offered minimal warmth.
As he walked, Q wondered where he was and just what sort of person would sew a woman's mouth closed. But then again, what sort of woman had feathers growing out of her skin? He shuddered and shook off the feeling; clearly he'd ended up in some sort of nightmare world. Clearly the comfortable reality that he'd known was a thing of the past.
The path ahead was blocked by a portcullis with no visible means of opening it. The last door he tried opened easily under his hand. The room beyond was lit by lamps and a flickering candelabra on table beside a large old-fashioned key; the sounds of someone playing the cello filled the room. Q halted, the door half-open. Someone was in there.
Carefully easing the door open, Q poked his head around the door and tried to see if he could spot whoever was in the room. It was a music room, judging by the piano set up in the corner, but there was no one to be seen. Q squeezed into the room and quietly shut the door behind him. The key might be useful. If he was lucky, he'd be able to sneak in and grab it and get out without alerting the unseen musician to his presence.
A balcony ringed the room and Q edged along the wall, trying to get close enough to the key to grab it without coming into sight out of the balcony. Unfortunately, that didn't work too well, as there was no way to grab it without stepping out into the open.
Taking a deep breath, Q hurried over to the table, reaching out for the key.
The music came to a screeching halt; the bow skittering across the strings in a cacophony of notes.
Jerking around, Q tried to catch sight of whoever was in the room with him, but all he could see were the marble carvings of the balcony's railing. He backed up against the table, the candelabra and key rattling as he did.
“Q, my darling! How wonderful to finally meet you!” A man's voice echoed from somewhere overhead, sounding like it was coming from everywhere at once.
Fumbling behind him, Q found the heavy candelabra and slid it forward. The rough slide of the metal on wood was almost grating in the heavy silence in the room. Still, Q felt a little better once he was armed.
“Oh, you won't be needing that, my dear,” the voice said. It was silky smooth and low, laying heavy emphasis on the endearment. “Q, oh Q, you have no idea how long I've waited for you to come to me.”
“Who's there?!” Q held the candelabra in front of himself defensively, hot wax spilling out over his hands as the candles flickered out.
“That's unimportant. What matters is that you're here now, Q, and that since you are... you will be mine.” The man broke out into wild, uncontrolled laughter, which was cut off by the sound of a door slamming shut.
Clutching the candelabra tightly in shaking hands, Q willed his heart to come out of his throat and for it to stop racing. He took several deep breaths to calm himself down, waiting to be sure that the man had left. After several long minutes spent with his blood racing in his ears, he slowly lowered the candelabra back onto the table and grabbed the key. Q would have preferred to take it with him, but it was too heavy to carry with him with any ease.
Q weighed the heavy key in his hands, noting that there was something etched onto the shaft of the key. Holding it up to the light and closer to his face, Q realized that it read 'garden'. Maybe it was for that door he'd passed on his way? The one by the ladder?
There wasn't anything else of use in the room, and the only thing in the drawers of the chest in the corner was slightly molded sheet music. Q looked around the room one more time, skin prickling with the sensation that he was being watched and hurriedly left.
Retracing his steps, Q walked back along the path through the castle until he came to the door flanked by the statues of woman. The door was locked, but it matched the key he had so he slid it into the lock and turned it. The door opened with a quiet click.
A bright light at the corner of Q's vision caught his attention, and he turned to see what it was.
The first thing Q thought was that it was a firefly, but the glow was too bright and unnatural – there was a faint purple tint to it. It floated slowly around the corner and bobbed in place for a few seconds before making its way towards Q. As it grew closer, Q realized that it was simply a ball of light – there was nothing inside of it.
Not wanting to find out what it was or what it might do, Q pulled the door open and hurried inside, slamming it closed behind him. He winced at the loud noise and hoped that it wouldn't attract any attention. Q leaned against the door, breathing shallow as he listened carefully. After several long minutes passed with no noise, he moved away from the door and further into the hallway.
The hall curved around a door to a flight of shallow stairs. Investigating the door was pointless because, not only was it locked, but there wasn't a handle to open it. There was a hook of some kind on the door that Q thought he might be able to use as a handle if he could find something to attach to it since pulling on it didn't have any result.
Giving up on the mysterious door which wouldn't open, Q continued on down the hallway and towards the stairs. It was a short flight of stairs down into another level. The only things of interest were a locked storage room down a narrow set of stairs and another door that led into a kitchen.
Q wrinkled his nose at the strong scent of herbs and cured meat as he stepped inside. There was a pot on the stove full of water, but the stove wasn't turned on. He was once again presented with two choices: a narrow passage led one way while a door was set on the other side of the kitchen.
The passage led down into the kitchen's basement store rooms. Here, Q could smell the scent of rot and mould and he gagged – doubling over and covering his nose and mouth with his hand. He quickly withdrew from the room, shutting the door as he did. He gasped for breath, taking in the clean air of the kitchen free from the stench of rotting meat.
Trying the other door, Q was relieved when it led out into a dining room. The table was set for service, and there was a raging fire in the fireplace, while all the candles had been lit. A large picture window offered what had probably once been a stunning view of the castle grounds. The heavy red velvet curtains with their golden fringe were clogged with dust that flaked off when Q touched them.
There wasn't anything of any real interest in the room and the door which led from it, only to find that it led to a sitting room decorated in bright reds and dull golds. Much like the curtains in the dining room, the furniture was covered with a thick layer of dust.
Given that there wasn't anything of interest there either, Q left and headed back towards the kitchen. As he entered, he noticed that the stove had been turned on and that there was suddenly someone in the kitchen with him.
The bird-woman was staring at the pot on the stove, her fingers spread like deadly talons at her sides. She was staring so intently at the pot that she hadn't noticed Q enter the kitchen.
Pressing his back against the wall, Q slowly began to inch his way along. He hoped that the woman didn't notice him and that he could sneak past her without being spotted. But given how his luck had been, it didn't hold. The toe of Q's boot caught on a loose stone in the floor and he stumbled, scraping his palm on the wall.
The bird-woman spun around, dark eyes wide and wild. Her hair swung around her like a curtain and she stared at Q with eyes framed with dark feathers. With her taloned hands, she reached towards him, stretching them over the counter separating them. Blood welled from around the stitches holding her lips closed as the flesh tore.
Jerking back against the wall, Q stared in horror before his flight instinct kicked in and he raced for the door. The woman had already launched herself over the counter and if Q hadn't been in such a panic, he might have stopped when he realized that the woman had sprouted wings for a brief moment. Instead, that just made him run faster.
The uneven flagstone of the stairs made him stumble, and Q ended up emerging from the stairway with a good collection of shallow scrapes on his palms. Emerging into the hall, Q continued to run down the hall until he tripped over something and nearly slammed his head into the ground. Q caught himself on his hands, adding to his collection of scrapes and bruises.
He heard the familiar shuffle and whimper of the bird-woman and hastened to get back on his feet, which were unsteady under him and he tripped again. Adrenaline was coursing wild and freely in his veins and he managed to get up just as a deceptively slender but strong hand grabbed his ankle and pulled his legs out from under him.
Q crashed to the ground in a tangle of limbs, lashing out as best he could. He managed to land one good solid kick in, forcing the woman to let him go and he scrambled back along the ground. He needed space, he needed to get up, he needed to run.
“Vesper! Leave him be!”
It was the same male voice as before, the one that made Q's blood run cold. The bird-woman – Vesper – froze in place, one clawed hand reaching towards Q. Her dark eyes were wide and there was a touch of fear in them; she recoiled back from Q and the voice, feathered and bandaged arms wrapping themselves tightly around her torso as though they'd protect her.
“You've got places to be, Vesper. I suggest you follow your orders and leave our dear Q alone. You wouldn't want to displease the master now, would you?”
Vesper drew back, eyes impossibly huge like dinner plates. The feathers on her arms multiplied and she drew back, head shaking back and forth. She scrambled to her feet, backing away slowly and retreating back towards the kitchen.
Watching her go, Q felt a strange feeling of pity and fear curdling in his stomach. He swallowed, hard, and scrambled back to his feet.
“I must apologize for Vesper, Q.” A man dressed in a drab set of black clothes stepped out from where he'd been lurking beside the door. “Please, allow me to introduce myself – I am the keeper of this castle, Dominic.”
He bowed and Q saw the smallest of smirks on his lips as he straightened; he still couldn't make out the man's face, given that it was hidden under the darkness of his hood. He held out his hands, gesturing at the castle walls, “Given that M and your father are dead, you are the sole heir of Quantum Castle and its generous grounds.”
Dominic took a step towards Q and Q took one backwards. He looked Q over from his feet to his head, eyes lingering in some places and Q felt chills run up and down his spine.
Tilting his head to the side, Dominic continued, “Shame about the accident, really... but it's a pleasure to see that M chose to continue with the... unusual naming conventions of the family.”
Q took another step back. He remembered that there was light, bright light. There was a car that appeared, speeding past them and swerving suddenly, forcing his father to swerve and then there was a wall approaching coming towards them – it was too fast there was no avoiding it. Everything exploded into bright light.
A feeling of light-headedness seized Q and he grabbed his head, knees shaking as he tried to keep standing. There was a rush of emotions – fear, panic, worry, what would happen? Was he going to die? Were they all going to die?
That was his last thought as consciousness abandoned him.
Behind his eyes, there were several quick flashes of images and impressions. A man. A man in a dark brown cloak leaned in, reaching towards him. His lips pulled up in a sinister smile but his eyes were in shadow from the hood. There was blood. So much blood... dripping onto his hand. His father was–
Q's eyes flew open and he took a shuddering breath. That was...
He fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand beside the bed, putting them on and throwing the covers aside to climb out of bed. His boots were neatly lined up on the floor and Q tried not to think about the fact that someone had stopped to take the time to take them off and tuck him in.
Whoever that man had been, Q desperately hoped that he wouldn't run into him again. Something about him was just... off.
Pulling his boots back on, Q stood up and glanced at the clock. It was a little past six. Had he really been out that long? It hadn't felt like it.
The guest room looked exactly the same as it had hours ago when he'd first stumbled in, except the sheet he'd been wearing then had disappeared. The maid probably had something to do with that, although Q hadn't seen any sign of her for some time. Which was good, because everything about this castle and its inhabitants were really creeping him out.
A high whining noise broke through the static ticking of the clock and Q shot up, looking around to try and find the source of it. He heard it again, only this time he realized it sounded somewhat muffled – was it coming from outside?
Approaching the large bay window on the lower level of the guest room, Q looked out at the gardens of the castle. That was when he noticed the large grey-white shape at the base of the tree.
He blinked and stared, realizing that the shape was actually a dog. It was hunched over, neck twisted at an odd angle and shaking its head back and forth. Q watched it for a few moments before it collapsed to the ground, making the same high pitched whine as before.
The first question that popped into Q's head was to wonder what a dog was doing here, because the only signs he'd seen of animals so far had been the crows overhead and the skeletal remains of several small mammals. The second question was wondering why the dog was there now when it hadn't been there before. Still, it was hard to ignore those loud whines it was making; the least he could do was check to make sure that it was alright. No one here was clearly up to the task of taking care of it.
The door leading outside was unlocked, much to Q's relief. He'd been slightly anxious about whether or not the doors would be locked when he tried them. The guest room might have been a marked improvement from the dungeon he'd first woke up in, but it was still a cell nonetheless. Any amount of freedom, small as it might be, was appreciated.
He took the stairs a little quicker than was natural. With each step, the whining seemed to get louder; sounding more and more like pained whimpers the closer he got. He was almost running when he reached the last couple steps and jogged over towards the dais where the dog was.
This close, Q realized that it was most definitely not a dog. It was far larger than any dog he'd ever seen and the muzzle was too long, making it look far more predatory. It's fur was a grey that faded to white over the face and the dark red of blood around its neck was a stark contrast.
The dog was no dog, Q realized; it was a wolf. And a very large one at that.
As Q edged a little closer, the wolf's eyes snapped open and bared its fangs in a growl. Its eyes were unusual – a deep icy blue – and it glared at Q, though it didn't raise its head or move to take him down.
The reason for that was the length of knotted barbed wire looped around its neck in the cruel mockery of a collar. A glint of silver chain ran the length from the collar to a stake driven into the ground near the base of the tree.
The wolf gave another growl, shifting almost involuntarily and making a sharp noise when the wire dug further into its neck. Blood splashed to the ground, dripping from the numerous punctures in the animal's neck. It eyed Q warily, keeping its fangs bared.
Holding his hands up in a pacifying gesture, Q slowly stepped forward. He really hoped that he'd live to not regret this.
“I'm not going to hurt you,” Q said, trying for the most reassuring voice he could manage. Really, this was probably the stupidest thing he'd done in the past several hours – or even in his entire life – because approaching a trapped wild animal was just asking to be clawed to death.
Still, it would be even crueler to leave it here, especially in the state it was in. The dark collar of blood around its neck was a testament to that. Whoever could sew a woman's mouth shut wasn't going to give much thought to wrapping a length of barbed wire around an animal's neck for their own amusement.
Slowly, Q took a few carefully measured steps forward, keeping his hands up and in front of him. The wolf didn't growl, but followed his movements with shadowed eyes – there was an intelligence there that felt almost human.
“I'm only going to remove the collar.” Folding his legs under him once he was close enough, Q very gently laid a hand on the wolf's head. It growled once, looking at him as though daring him to hurt it; Q smiled.
“Try not to move or you're only going to make this worse.”
He had to part the bloodied fur in order to get a better sight of the wire wrapped around the wolf's neck. It hadn't dug in too much, but he could make out lacerations in the skin below which were caked with dried and fresh blood. The wolf had put up quite a struggle to free itself.
The knot holding the wire together was a crude one, but it took Q several long minutes of pricking his own fingers and fiddling with it before he managed to loosen it. Unfortunately, the end of the wire had embedded itself into the wolf's skin and Q was wary of pulling it out.
He ran his hand absently through the wolf's fur, trying to comfort it before what he knew would happen.
“The wire's stuck in the skin, I'm going to have to pull it out.”
Why was he even talking to the wolf? It wasn't like it was going to answer him. He was obviously slowly losing his mind.
One of the wolf's ears twitched, and it growled shortly. Its claws dug into the ground as though it was bracing itself for the pain, but that was probably just the work of Q's overactive imagination.
Bracing one hand on the wolf's back, Q took hold of the wire and pulled. It came out easily and more blood splattered to the ground. The scent of it was so strong that Q wrinkled his nose and shook his head. His fingers were slick and sticky from it as he fumbled to pull it through the knot and undo it.
Under his hand, Q could feel the wolf shuddering, but it made no sound. He stroked the fur, an almost unconscious gesture as he pulled the wire free. He looped his arm under the wolf's neck in order to pull it free. He tossed the wire aside and let out a deep sigh.
The wolf shot up onto its feet once it was free and Q froze. He'd been so caught up in helping it that he hadn't thought of what would happen after. Shit. He was going to–
Cocking its head to the side, the wolf licked his cheek. The rough tongue dragged against his skin and left it wet. Despite the fangs, it almost looked like it was smiling.
Q stared at the wolf for several seconds, then reached up and wiped the saliva off his cheek. “Stop acting like a dog.”
The wolf barked quietly, licking Q again.
Mindful of its wounds, Q grabbed at the fur behind its shoulders and tried to hold it off. He couldn't stop the flutter of laughter rising in his chest, “Stop that!”
Almost as though it was a dog and not a wolf that could easily tear Q apart, the wolf nuzzled under his chin in a gesture of affection and rumbled softly. The sound was rather soothing and Q relaxed, smiling just a little. His arms remained around the wolf's shoulders in a loose hug.
Q wasn't too sure how long the two of them stayed there like that, but he was just grateful to be in the warm presence of something that, refreshingly, didn't want to kill him. Eventually, though, he pulled back and ruffled the wolf's fur behind its ears.
“I'll take that as a thank you.” Q looked over the wolf; something would need to be done about the blood. He was sure he'd spotted a wash basin of water in the guest room. There was a small amount of relief when Q realized that, somehow, he'd managed to avoid getting any blood on his tunic.
“Are you going to be coming with me then?”
He was talking to a wolf. He'd lost his mind. Or he'd somehow found himself in a Disney movie. A really, really twisted one.
The wolf's ears twitched forward and it dipped its head.
Definitely a Disney movie; he was communicating with animals and they were communicating right back.
“You need a name, though,” Q said.
Tilting its head to the side, the wolf studied him for several seconds and Q felt suddenly naked under its gaze. It felt as though it was looking right through him.
Then, the wolf leaned forward, nudging at the dog tags around his neck with its nose. Q shivered at the damp press of it against his bare skin. He glanced down then back up at the wolf.
“What? That's your name?”
Maybe it was someone's pet? That would explain things. It could probably smell the dog tags. Maybe its owner had a strange sense of humour about pet collars or something.
The wolf – James – perked up immediately. Despite the wounds and the obvious pain he must be in, he seemed excited. He nuzzled up to Q against and licked his cheek before letting his large head rest in Q's lap, eyes closed as Q ran his fingers through the fur.
Despite the strangeness of the situation, Q smiled. He finally had an ally in this twisted place.
Eventually, though, Q's legs started to go numb from the cold and how they were uncomfortably folded underneath him. Brushing his fingers one last time through James's fur, he carefully pushed himself to his feet.
“You wouldn't know a way out of this place, would you?” Q asked, staring at the drying blood on his hands. He thought about wiping them on his leggings, but if they did manage to escape there and found help, he didn't really want to explain the blood.
He frowned. “Better clean this up first...”
James growled softly in response, nudging Q's leg. He automatically moved in front of Q as they began to make their way back towards the guest room. Once inside, Q made sure that he locked both doors before heading to the wash basin laid out on the table alongside a neatly folded pile of cloths.
It only took a minute or two for Q to wash and dry his hands. He dampened one of the cloths and turned to James, “Come here, I'd better clean that blood out of your fur before it dries.”
Walking over, James settled down beside Q as he began the slow process of washing the dried blood out of James fur. It was a painstaking process, and a very slow one too, since Q was trying very hard to make sure that he didn't pull out any of James's fur or cause him any discomfort. When he got down to the skin, he was surprised that the wounds weren't as serious as he'd assumed that they were. All that remained were thin, angry red lines that ran around his neck.
As he tossed the bloodied cloth back into the bowl and ran his fingers through James's damp fur, he murmured, “Just what are you...?”
Obviously, James heard him, tilting back his head as his ears twitched. He stared at Q with those too blue eyes that looked oddly human despite his wolf's face. As though he could read Q's thoughts, he leaned forward and bumped his damp nose against Q's.
Q smiled, “Thanks. Now, let's get out of here.”
James barked, hopping back up to his feet and loping over to the door to wait for Q. Unlocking the door, the two of them wandered back out into the castle grounds. The creak of a metal gate caught Q's attention and he looked down, realizing that the gate which had been locked before was now hanging open.
“You know how to get out of here?” Q asked.
Nudging Q's leg, James started down the staircase. Q easily kept pace with him, but James remained half a body ahead of Q, like he was a bodyguard of some kind. Well, at least he didn't have to worry about what might happen if he ran into Vesper again...
James led him down a winding path along the exterior of a castle and over a bridge that stretched over a dried up moat which led to the castle gate. He loped over to the gate, sniffed at it, and growled. Jogging over, heart swelling in hopeful anticipation, Q grabbed the handle and pulled.
The gate did not budge.
“Damn it!” Q slammed his fist against the heavy wooden gate, which only made his hand throb dully from pain. He knew that this was too good to be true. Pressing his head against the gate, he made an angry noise, punching it again.
James whined and nuzzled at his hand, licking his fingers. Q brushed his fingers through James's fur, scratching at the wolf's ears.
“Sorry. I just... don't want to be here anymore.” He cast a rueful, angry look at the gate and kicked it for good measure. “Guess we'll have to find another way out of here then.”
As they returned to the castle, James stopped by a heap of rubble. He sniffed the ground and then lifted his head, sniffing the air. He barked, racing up the pile of rubble to the top.
Q ran up to the base of it, “James, what are you–”
Jumping from the top of the rubble heap to the ground, James dropped a wooden marionette on the ground at Q's feet. Q stared at the marionette and then at James, confused. James nudged it towards him further, so he bent over to pick it up. Once it was in his hands, James gently nipped at his leg and headed off. Unsure of what was going on, Q trailed after him with the puppet in hand.
James seemed to have no problem navigating his way through the twisting halls and paths of the castle. He growled at one or two doors, nudging Q away from them as he led him towards the door with the hook that Q had seen earlier.
Looking from the puppet to the hook on the door, Q resisted the urge to slam his face into his palm, “Since when was life ruled by video game logic?”
Still, there wasn't much else that could be done except hang the puppet on the door. Much to his surprise – well, not really – the door unlocked with a soft click. Pushing it open, Q looked around and winced. There were dolls nailed to the walls with large iron spikes. Most of the spikes were rusted almost all the way through.
James butted his head against the back of Q's knees, urging him into the room. Q glared at him.
If James had been a human, Q swore he would've been laughing and rolling his eyes. Instead, he made an amused huffing noise that sounded very much like laughter. Q ignored it and took a closer look at the room.
“What is it with this place and multiple paths?”
Again, the room was divided. One of the paths was blocked by a large wooden gate while there was a metal plate of some sort carved with intricate designs and patterns. The wall beside it was covered with clay eyes that stared unseeingly at the opposite wall. Across from the eyes, the wall was embedded with jagged iron stakes that gleamed in the dim light.
James was sniffing along the floor, skirting along the edge of the metal plate. Q walked towards him, wondering if he'd found anything. Before he could get any closer, though, James growled and pushed Q back, away from it.
He got the wolf equivalent of a hard look. James turned back and deliberately pressed one paw down on the metal plate. There was a loud grinding noise and, with loud thuds, iron spikes were embedded in the walls – still quivering with momentum.
If wolves could look smug, James certainly did.
Q shot him a sharp look; he was not taking lip from a wolf. “Smartass. I don't suppose you know a way around this?”
James simply stared at him, sitting down on his hindquarters as he did as though to say 'I have no bloody idea'. It was entirely unhelpful, in Q's opinion. He sighed and turned back to the situation at hand.
The pressure plate extended all the way from one side of the hall to the other, leaving no way around it. Given that the eyes were dotted along the wall from the ceiling to the floor and all the way to where the wall turned, there was no safe blind spot to exploit. Not even James would’ve been able to slip past. But this was the only way forward that Q had found…
He backtracked towards the door, looking at the wooden bars which blocked the path. On the other side, he could see a lever and what looked like an old control mechanism.
“James, stay here,” Q said.
James looked up at him, head tilted to the side and bemused blue eyes looking up at Q. He sat down on his hindquarters, tail wrapping around his paws.
Turning back to the bars, Q turned sideways and slowly slid through them. It was an incredibly tight fit that required more than a little wiggling for Q to get through, but he managed. The hem of his tunic caught on the rough wood and tore, the sound loud in the near silence of the room. Once he was through, Q looked down and sighed, ripping the rest of the snagged fabric off.
The control panel was old and almost completely rusted over, covered in a thick layer of dust that was many years old. Beside it, the lever was glowing a dull silver in the faint light of the lamps. Wrapping his fingers around it, Q felt the cool metal and pulled it down with some effort. It made a sharp shriek of protest as he did, which made Q wince. How could anyone not hear that? But that was followed by the rumble of gears and a soft click.
He looked over his shoulder at James, “It should be safe now. Unless you think otherwise.”
James was rather hesitant, pressing a paw down on the pressure plate. It didn’t move. It was only after that little test did he cross the plate to join Q.
The door out of the room led out into what Q would’ve thought was the main foyer of the castle. A grand staircase dominated the room, winding up from a central staircase, splitting in two and ringing the room. The door they’d exited was tucked under the staircase. Despite the aged grandeur of the room, it looked cold and unused; the banisters were clean and polished, but the carpet was old and worn with more than a few holes at its edges.
However, what caught Q’s attention was the old phone sitting on a table on the other side of the room. It was under a large painting of a strangely familiar man clothed in centuries old dress. Q didn’t linger on his face for long. The phone was more important.
His fingers closed around the cool, ivory handle of the phone as he raised it, hands falling automatically to dial the familiar emergency number, but there was no dial tone. The line was completely dead. Cursing, Q dropped the phone back onto the receiver. He crossed his arms and glared at it, as though it was responsible for him being trapped in this hell in the first place.
“I’m afraid no help is coming for you… Q.”
Q jumped, spinning around and backing up against the table. He looked around, frantically trying to find the source of the voice. He couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from. It sounded as though it was coming from everywhere at once and like it was whispering into his ear. The voice brought with it a crushing presence, Q broke out into a cold sweat and pushed his glasses back up his nose with shaking fingers
James had jumped in front of him, fur bristling as he snarled. His ears stood straight up as he crouched low, ready to pounce on this unseen foe.
“I see you found a pet. Very good… very good. I shall not harm you, Q, I simply bring you a warning: Do not trust Dominic.”
The presence faded just as suddenly as it appeared. Q heaved a deep breath, grabbing the edges of the table in a tight-knuckled grip as he fought to keep his shaking legs from giving out on him. His heart was racing wildly in his chest, a chill setting in as the adrenalin faded. James nudged at his knee with his wet nose and Q let his legs give out, wrapping his arms around James’s thick, furry neck and breathing in deeply.
The smell of James’s fur was familiar. It reminded him of the forest his parents had taken him to once when he was very young. He hadn’t really enjoyed it, but his father loved the outdoors and his mother always demonstrated a fond exasperation towards that particular interest of his father’s. There was also something else there, something sharp and unique to James; it was certainly not the smell of wolf.
James’s tongue flicked out, licking the edge of Q’s ear as though to say ‘don’t worry, I’m here’. It worked wonders at calming Q’s tremouring nerves.
Even once he’d calmed himself down, Q felt cold as the sweat dried and he shivered. Still, remaining where he was wasn’t safe. He could hear a familiar shuffling noise coming from one of the halls. Vesper was still on the prowl, looking for him. He pushed himself back up onto slightly shaking feet and stumbled the first few steps until he caught himself enough to make it up the stairs without falling over.
Three doors greeted him, two leading off to what he guessed were opposite wings of the castle and the last was a huge arched door decorated with some kind of symbol. His shoulder lit up with a flare of burning pain that faded the moment he looked away from the symbol, hand pressed over it.
There was no blood on his hand when he pulled it away from his shoulder, which didn’t surprise him at all. James nudged him, nuzzling against his hand. Q sighed, pushing his glasses up as he rubbed a hand over his face. He was tired. He just wanted this too end, it was much more than he could ever say he could handle.
He looked down at James, “I’m beginning to really wish that you could talk.”
James made that huffing sound that resembled a chuckle, tail wagging. He trotted ahead of Q, tail high and swishing back and forth.
The loud sound of a body hitting a door jerked Q back into awareness. This was no time to be standing around, he hurried after james and towards one of the doors that, hopefully, would lead them somewhere away from the castle’s murderous and strange inhabitants. If they were lucky, they might even find an exit.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this castle had over a dozen secret passages leading out of it,” Q remarked almost absently, pulling open the door. It led out onto a balcony that ringed the castle, creating a winding path that turned a sharp corner some distance ahead.
James tilted his head and then promptly nodded his head. Q made another tick on his mental tally sheet of “I must secretly be a Disney princess,” and continued on the path after closing the door carefully behind him.
The path led towards a wooden door painted a bright red. The metal plate on the door read ‘Nursery’ and there was a doll suspended above it in a cage. The cage was almost completely rusted through, and the doll wasn’t in great shape either. It’s clothes were tattered and caked in dust, the colours having faded; it’s head was lolling to one side at an extremely awkward angle - Q guessed that the only thing holding the head in place was the doll’s ragged clothes.
Q really didn’t want to open the door, but going back wasn’t an option. Vesper was there, possibly waiting for them, leaving forward as the only way to go. He took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
What he noticed first was the smell. It was a sickeningly sweet smell that had Q’s eyes watering as he doubled over, clasping a hand over his mouth. It was so strong that he could actually taste the odour.
Beside him, James hadn’t fared much better. He recoiled as though something had struck him. He was growling and his ears were folded back flat against his head while he growled from deep in his throat. He actually backed up and out of the room and back onto the walkway, trying to find air that wasn’t tainted by the horrible smell.
Knowing that there was no way back, Q sucked in one deep breath. He kept his hand firmly over his nose and mouth, cautiously taking one sliding step into the room. There was a rhythmic creaking sound coming from the room and Q looked towards it and froze. He had to choke back the urge to vomit.
Slumped over in the nursery’s rocking chair was a corpse.
The flesh had almost completely rotted away, but the clothes that still clung to the skeleton were obviously those of a woman. Her body sat slumped over in the chair, skeletal hands laying in her lap. The creaking was the sound of the chair, rocking back in forth from the light breeze coming through the cracked window.
Everything in the nursery, including the skeleton, were coated in a thick layer of dust. No one had been in here in a very long time. Q didn’t dare approach the crib which lay against the far wall under the window; he was afraid of what he might find within.
The door on the other side of the room looked promising, though, so Q ran across the room, nearly slamming himself against the door as he did. He wrenched it open and stumbled out into the hall beyond, gasping and taking in huge gulps of air untainted by the scent of decay. James joined him shortly after and Q closed the heavy wooden door behind them.
Leaning against the door, Q sagged to the floor. Just how many more dead bodies were they going to find? Were they all going to be in that state?
James patiently waited for him, laying his large, furry head in Q's lap. Stroking the coarse fur steadied Q's nerves and he tried to put what he'd seen behind the walls he'd had to erect since he got here. Now was not the time to panic; he needed to find a way out – for the both of them. Pulling himself together, Q pushed himself to his feet and dusted off his legs, straightening his tunic as he did.
The hallway was a long, winding one that seemed to snake through the entirety of the castle for how long it took them to come to its end. There was just one door at the very end. The handle was old, rusted, and looked as though it would fall off at the lightest touch.
Q wrapped his hand around it and turned it, the door opened easily even as the handle shrieked in protest. The room beyond was lit by moonlight that filtered in through the long, glass windows set into the stone walls of the tower. The doorknob snapped off in Q's hands.
“How useful.” Q dropped the broken off knob onto the floor, noting that his hand was now covered in a thick coating of rust. He sighed and wiped it off as best he could. “This just keeps getting better...”
A long staircase led down from where they were, close to the top of the tower. It was hard keeping his bearings, but Q guessed that they were somewhere near the castle's walls.
The sounds of Q's footsteps echoed loudly in the silence of the room, as did the sound of James's claws clicking on the stone stairs. The wind whistled in through the cracks in the damaged glass of the windows. It was a long way down.
At the bottom, there was an array of beautiful, old instruments set up as though waiting for an orchestra to come and perform. Several of them were covered in thick layers of dust, but the grand piano at the centre shone faintly in the moonlight and the keys looked worn, but well-cared for.
There were also two more doors: one set deep into the stone just under the base of the stairs; the other was set into the opposite wall, just past the arrangement of instruments at the centre of the room. Q looked down at James.
“Which one leads outside...?”
James made a soft, sort of growling noise in the back of his throat, tilting his head up and sniffing. He turned his nose closer to the ground, sniffing, before he relaxed and trotted over to the far door, nudging the handle with his muzzle. He barked quietly.
It made Q smile, just a little, “Sometimes, you know, I think you actually understand what I'm saying.”
Looking up at him with those too blue eyes, James cocked his head to the side, making a soft, almost inquisitive noise. He bumped his nose against Q's hand and then pointed it towards the door.
“Guess that means to hurry up,” Q sighed, reaching for the doorknob and twisting it.
Outside turned out to be some kind of, well, grotto. The stars above peeked through a large crack in the ceiling, while the sound of rushing water echoed loudly within its walls. Water gushed out through holes in the walls, splashing into pools on either side of the narrow walkway which led towards a shadowed door on the other side. Statues decorated the alcoves, each one of a beautiful nude woman with feathered wings, arms upraised as though to welcome a shower of water; several of them were missing their heads or arms.
Carefully, Q made his way along the walkway, trying to go in as straight a line as possible as the water threw off a mist that obscured much of it. It was also rather slippery, as he learned when he stepped on a loose stone coated in water and moss, nearly losing his balance and breaking his neck.
James steadied him, moving ahead of Q to lead the way. Q followed him as closely as was possible; he didn't want to know what might be lurking in those pools.
A ratty old curtain hung over the door, swaying slightly in an unseen breeze. Q brushed it aside and stepped into the room beyond.
The room was carved into the stone, rough hewn walls with a small cot set on one side. There were flickering candles set in small dishes and placed in the walls, throwing all much of the room into sharp and flickering relief. Some kind of altar had been set up along one wall, decorated with feathers and sheet music which was tacked the walls.
The feathers were the same shade of black as Vesper's.
At the centre of the altar was a statue of a winged woman, hands raised before her as though she was making an offering to some unseen divine entity. Hanging from the centre of the cave, towards which the statue's arms stretched there were a pair of disembodied arms stretching down, as though to accept its offering.
On closer examination, Q realized that there were words carved along the base of the statue and that a large, brass key lay at the base.
The words carved into the base read 'All that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all'.
“Is she a seer or something?” Q wondered. He didn't dwell on it for too long. The key seemed to be the only thing of any use in the room; the cot was nearly bare and the sheet music was ink stained and nonsensical to him.
James was sniffing around the cot and the walls, tense, tail straight. He seemed to be searching for something, but there was no sign that there was anything hidden within the room. It had no secrets to reveal to them.
“Find anything?” Q asked.
James shook his head, coming over to Q's side and already moving towards the exit. Q picked the key up, feeling the heavy weight of it in his hand, and followed. They ended up returning to the music room and the door there that they hadn't tried. It opened easily under Q's hand.
Beyond the door was another sitting room, this time with a theme of blue and silver. Dead flowers sat in a vase on one of the end tables, filling the room with a cloyingly sick scent. The vase sat beside a large, conic-shaped reflector. Another door was tucked away in the back, half-hidden behind a heavy blue velvet curtain. When Q got closer, he realized that the fittings on the door were brass, much like the key he had taken from the cave room, and the key more or less matched the lock.
He weighed the key in his hand before inserting it into the lock and turning it. The door unlocked with a soft click and Q pulled it open to reveal another long hallway.
“This place really is not lacking for its long, creepy corridors,” Q remarked, rolling his eyes. “They could sell it for a premium; the creepy corridors and dead bodies would be a great selling point.”
James looked at him. He had an expression of thorough exasperation on his face. Or at least he would if he was human and not a wolf.
The hallway led out to another tower, decorated with some strange objects that resembled telescopes – although it was obvious to Q that they were not at all telescopes – built on a swiveling base. There was a door decorated with the painting of a moon that was obviously locked, but had no place for a key. In the ceiling of the room, there was a hole above one of the objects, which let in a concentrated column of moonlight.
Upon a closer examination of the objects, Q realized that they were reflectors of some kind, except that the one which was directly under the column of moonlight was missing its reflector. That was what the reflector on the table in the previous room had been for.
Q pinched the bridge of his nose. Puzzles to move forward. Perfect, just perfect. Looking down at James, he sighed, “James, I need you to go back to the room we just came from and get the reflector off the table. Can you do that?”
James barked once, trotting off back towards the room they had come from. He returned a few moments later, the reflector grasped tightly in his mouth. He dropped it into Q's open hand.
Wiping off the drool off, Q set it into place. The beam of moonlight that resulted didn't line up with the others, but after several minutes of straining to swivel them all into place – Q would readily admit that he wasn't particularly gifted in the muscle department – but once they were all in place, the light fell upon the door.
There was a loud noise, like a gong being struck, and then the door slowly began to slide apart. It opened, revealing a long, dark path beyond. Most importantly, though, it led outside.
Outside wasn't much better than inside. The path was lined with dead trees, their blackened limbs reaching up towards the star-strewn sky. Along one side of the path, just beyond one line of trees, was the ivy covered wall of the castle; on the other, there was a rusted iron fence, then the high walls blocking off the castle grounds from the world beyond.
The path itself ended in front of the heavy wooden doors of a church. Above the huge oaken doors was a large stain glass window. Vines crawled up the walls of the cathedral, many of them having withered and died from lack of care. The church itself was old, imposing, and promised no sanctuary.
“We've come this far...” Q strode up to the doors with a confidence he wished he actually felt and pushed them open.
The church's interior was practically empty; the pews had almost completely rotted away, leaving nothing but piles of mostly-rotted wood where they had once stood. Above, there was a large and ornate crystal chandelier, anchored in place by a large chain. Where the altar should have been, there was instead a large statue of a goddess.
Her statue was carved out in black stone and, upon her head, there was a wreath of gemstone flowers that had the illusion of being braided into her dark hair. In her upraised hand, she held an unlit torch and in the other, lowered and fingers curled, there was another key.
To reach the key, Q had to scramble on top of the large, stone slab at the base of the statue. James remained on the ground, watching. His fingers curled around the key, pulling it from the goddess's grasp. He grinned. Success at last.
The doors of the church slammed closed. Q stumbled, nearly tumbling backwards off the slab and only catching his balance at the last moment. He whirled around and felt all the blood drain from his face.
Standing there, blocking the only way out, was Vesper.
Her dark eyes were wide, breathing heavy, and she was slightly hunched over. Arched up from her back were a large pair of black-feathered wings, which stretched up above her towards the vaulted ceiling. Her fingers ended in long, black talons – like those of a raven. She stretched them and Q could hear the bones popping; she reached up to claw at her neck and chin, then stretching out her bloodied hands towards Q.
Falling back, Q landed on his butt, narrowly missing impaling himself on the sharp ends of the iron fence that surrounded the statue of the goddess. The sudden movement startled Vesper, who withdrew sharply for a second before she flew at Q.
There was absolutely no way for him to avoid it. She was going to sink those long talons of hers into his neck and strangle him. Or she was going to tear his head off. Either way, he was going to die.
Except he'd forgotten about James.
James launched himself at Vesper with a snarl that made Q's blood run cold. His momentum, instead of being crushed against the ground himself, sent Vesper flying back and against the ground. His fangs sank into her shoulder and she let out a near soundless shriek of pain, her lips straining at the stitches; fresh blood welled up from the wounds.
She flung James off of her with a burst of strength that sent him flying. James hit one of the columns along the wall, falling to the ground with a pained whine, but pulled himself back to his feet. He stalked around Vesper, staying low to the ground, ears straight up as he growled, circling her.
Vesper made herself look huge, wings flaring up and out, arms at either side with claws bared. Her hands were like pale hooks, tipped in black talons and stained with blood. She looked as though she'd been feasting upon blood, for it had welled forth from her mouth so much as to hide the stitches. Still, she made no sound.
Although James had recovered, there was blood dripping from a wound on his side. Vesper much have caught him with her claws when she threw him.
Sliding off the slab and to the floor, Q crawled away from the confrontation and backed up agains the wall. He knew he had to do something, but what? He was unarmed and up against a supernatural being that could easily tear him limb from limb. James couldn't last long against her.
James acted first, lunging forward and sinking his teeth deep into Vesper's arm, pulling with all his strength. She stumbled, but didn't go down, and lashed out at him with her claws. James made a whimpering sound as they dug into the thick fur behind his neck, but he didn't let go.
Stumbling to his feet, Q knew that he could run, but he couldn't bring himself to leave James behind. He couldn't possibly leave his only ally – and dare he say friend – beyond while he attempted to save himself. Besides, there was no guarantee that Vesper would be the last challenge that would need to be overcome. There was still that creepy maid and that hooded man; Q didn't know what their intentions were, but he knew they couldn't be good.
His hand hit a length of chain. Q snapped his head around and his jaw dropped open. The chandelier!
The length of chain holding it up was looped around a pulley, the rest of it coiled around a wheel, held in place by a large length of pipe that was shoved through it. Wrapping his hands around it, Q pulled. It budged a little, but not enough.
“Bloody hell,” Q grumbled, throwing all of his weight against it. It gave with a mighty creak. He was almost there!
“Fucking. Piece. Of. Balls.” Q pulled, planting one foot against the wall, and the pipe came out with a mighty sounding shriek. The chain almost immediately began to unwind, shooting upwards towards the ceiling.
James had Vesper pinned in place, directly below the chandelier. It gave with a might sounding crack and dropped about a foot, before it jerked to a halt. That only lasted for a few seconds before the entire crystal and iron contraption fell right on where James and Vesper were standing.
James leaped back before it could hit, but Vesper was not so lucky. She took the full brunt of the chandelier, collapsing to the ground underneath it.
She didn't move.
Breathing heavily, Q circled around towards James, ending up near the stone slab once more as his shaking knees finally gave out. James stumbled over, bleeding badly from a number of gashes along his neck and shoulders; there was a particularly nasty one where Vesper had managed to sink her claws in on his side. He was panting heavily, bloodied saliva dripping from his mouth.
He collapsed into Q's lap, who sank his fingers into the warm fur and stroked. Q wasn't sure who was trying to reassure more: himself or James.
All he could do was stare at Vesper, crumpled underneath the chandelier. Her hands had returned to normal, though the nails were still tainted black, and her wings were broken and bent on top of her. She didn't look as though she was breathing.
He didn't quite feel like moving right then. He just wanted to rest. If only for a little while, they could enjoy some peace.