Laughing, Blue and Imbolc ran hand-in-hand through the ruined castle. Behind them, Tango sat on a flight of stairs that led to nowhere, hands over her eyes.
"Seven... eight... nine..."
The pair ducked under the nearest archway, through to the dim interior. There they separated, Imbolc taking the time to plant a kiss on her boyfriend's cheek before they ran, he up a staircase, she into the next room.
"Fourteen... fifteen... sixteen..."
Imbolc raced through the corridor, heading for the spot she had discovered the week before, but was not even halfway there when she stopped, puzzled. True, she had been chasing her little brother Narto when she came down before, but surely she would have noticed a door, an actual wooden door, set into the wall. It wasn't even properly closed.
"Nineteen... twenty! Ready or not, here I come!"
And, ready or not, Imbolc opened the door and stepped through.
The hallway beyond was not spectacularly well lit, but it was certainly brighter than the ruins should have been. And, although Imbolc had to touch one to be sure of this, the grey walls were not stone. In fact they didn't seem to be anything in particular, just some sort of generic surface. It was very strange.
Imbolc walked slowly down the wide corridor, unnerved by the silence. That was silly, of course – the entire castle was silent, except for the occasional bird, and the three friends. But this was different – it clearly wasn't an original part of the castle, and because of that, the soundlessness was oppressive.
From the door it seemed as though the hall ended in a few dozen yards, but as Imbolc approached she found that it in fact turned through a sharp ninety degree corner. Standing at the intersection, the young woman stared at something quite impossible.
The castle was fairly small, perched on a hill and overlooking the river valley. The corridor, in contrast, stretched off into the distance, far beyond possibility even if it was underground. Imbolc stared, and then turned and walked briskly back to the door.
Blue was never any good at hiding, and always went upstairs, so Tango found him easily. After making sure that Imbolc wasn't also on the upper floor of the castle – not hard, as it only had three rooms – she started back down. Then Imbolc appeared at the foot of the stairs. "Found you!" Tango called.
Imbolc looked up at her blankly. "Great," she said. "I've found something, too. Come here." She turned and walked back into the hallway to one side.
Tango looked over her shoulder, back at Blue. "Your girlfriend's not playing properly," she said with a mock pout.
"Well, you know Immy," Blue replied with a shrug. "Come on, let's see what she wants."
Tango shook her head. "Well, indeed. Government installation?"
"In our castle?" Blue snorted. "Don't be silly."
"Well, what else can it be?"
"It's impossible," Imbolc put in. "You can see that, right?"
"It can't be impossible," Tango said gently. "There has to be some... I don't know, some slope we didn't notice."
"I didn't notice any slope," Blue said, and then laughed softly at himself. Imbolc shook her head.
"I still don't like it. Maybe we should go back to town, get someone up here."
"Who?" Tango asked. "Your father the schoolteacher? My mother the vet?"
"We could try," Imbolc insisted. "Come on, I'm leaving." And she turned and walked back down the corridor.
Blue exchanged a glance with Tango. "You're being a little harsh," he said.
"I'm being a little freaked out," Tango corrected. "I think she's right. Let's-"
"Where's the door?!"
There was no door any more. The hall simply ended in a grey wall, and though Tango kept pushing against where it should be, there was no response.
"Of course I didn't tell you not to close it, I didn't know!"
"Then why are you yelling at me for it?"
"Because you closed it!"
Tango sighed, turned, and stepped between the pair. "All right, enough. Arguing won't get us anywhere."
"But the door is gone!" Imbolc exclaimed, on the verge of tears. "We can't get anywhere anyway!"
"There's bound to be another door somewhere," Tango said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. "Come on, let's go and look. We might even find out what it is we've wandered into."
The three looked very hard for anything useful – an exit, a map, or even just a room that would help them know where they were – but although there were occasional doors, they just opened onto broom cupboards and empty rooms. They wandered for what seemed like hours, and might well have been, but finally, they found someone. Or were found.
The footsteps seemed to go from nothing to full volume in only a few seconds, and then a young man walked around the next corner. He was dressed in black, with a silver sash running from shoulder to hip, and looked faintly frazzled. Nonetheless, Tango exchanged a quick glance with the others, and then stepped in front of him. "Excuse me..."
The young man stopped, blinking. "Yes? Can I help you?"
"I hope so," Tango said. "You see, we're a bit lost, so if you could point us to the exit, we'd be much obliged."
The man stared blankly. "Exit?"
"Uh, the way out?" Blue put in. "The front door, you know?"
The young man shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure... look, what department are you from?"
"Oh, we don't work here," Tango assured him, "we just, well, we sort of wandered in by accident, which is why we're-"
"Looking for the exit, right." He shook his head. "Wow. Outsiders. Wow. Okay, I think you should come with me."
"To the exit?" Imbolc asked nervously. The way he was talking..."
He frowned. "I'm not sure... I think I need to take you to my boss. He should know what to do with you."
"'Do with us'?" Tango inquired, glancing at the others. "All we want is to leave..."
"You've apparently just 'wandered into' PPC HQ," the man said, "and things are unsettled enough right now that I don't want the BF to call me into his office to explain why I just let you. No, I have to take you to see him. He'll know what to do."
He held out a hand to Tango, who shied away. Blue reached over and put his hand on her shoulder, wrapping his other arm protectively around Imbolc. "Look," he said, "I don't know who you are, but we can't just go off with you. You could be, well, anyone."
The young man shook his head slightly. "I'm Agent Hyrax – Dassie, if you prefer – of the Department of Internal Security. It's my job to stop people getting into HQ, and to sort things out if they do. I don't want to arrest you when you seem to be perfectly innocent, but I will, if I have to. Now please come with me."
Blue bit his lip, looked at Tango, and then at Imbolc, who gave a microscopic nod despite her terrified expression. He sighed. "All right, then, Agent. We'll come. But we'd better be let out once we've seen your boss."
"Thank you," Dassie Hyrax said. "You don't know how grateful... yes. Come along, then. It's this way, probably."
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